Editor’s Choice Award December 2020, Fantasy

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Broken Roots (Mahohma I) Chapter 1: The Siege of BRAY’ZAK’YENI by Joseph Ahn

There’s so much to love in this chapter. The depth and breadth of the worldbuilding. The well-drawn characters who play off each other in interesting ways. The prose that, with a few stumbles here and there, is remarkably strong and will be stronger with polish. And that twist in the end—lovely.

The overall structure makes sense to me, with the heir coming in person to confront his Empress with hard facts. I do however have questions about the details—and I mean this literally. There is so much backstory here, so much intricate politics, and so many names and places and events to keep track of. In many ways this feels like a chapter from the middle of the book rather than an opener.

At the beginning of a novel, the reader isn’t invested yet. They don’t know the characters or their world. In secondary-world fantasy especially, everything is strange. They have to be won over; they need reasons to learn the new vocabulary and history and culture.

For the author, it can be a challenge to introduce their world to someone who is completely new to it. Complex worldbuilders especially have to figure out how much information is enough, and how much is too much. Here, there’s a complicated backstory, and an epic tangle of politics both within and outside the empire. It all comes together in this meeting between Vyxlis and the Empress.

There’s a rule of thumb that Harry Turtledove often cites—and Harry knows all about complicated politics. “In every scene, the writer knows at least five hundred details about that scene, the world, the characters, the history. Their job is figure out which three of those details to pick, that will contain all the rest.”

That’s especially germane to an opening chapter. Later on the novel, characters can sit down and talk over the complicated stuff. The reader is invested by then, and has enough grounding in the world and its peoples to follow along with the discussion. At the beginning, it’s all new, and the writer hasn’t earned the reader’s patience—their goodwill, their willingness (and ability) to absorb a lot of details all at once.

The key elements of this chapter are Vixlis’ arrival at the siege, his meeting with the Empress, and the break point near the end when everything changes. The decision to make here is which three (or so) details of the backstory are absolutely essential for the reader’s comprehension, and which of the rest can either be implied in context or left for later scenes. The in-depth discussion of satyr dynastic politics might be concentrated into its simplest form: the chief/king/supreme ruler is dead and his heirs are fighting over who gets to rule. We don’t need all the names or the specifics right at this point. We just need the bare facts. The same goes for internal politics. As wonderful as the depth of detail is, it clogs the works here. One or two essential details, with as few names and terms as are strictly needed for clarity, will give the reader a sense of the issues and the stakes. The names and terms can come in later as they’re relevant.

Some of what’s discussed might be shown as a scene or flashback either here or in a later chapter—probably the latter, since there’s plenty going on this chapter without additional action. We get that there’s a siege, that it’s been going on for months, and that the bean-counters back home are trying to slam on the brakes. We also get that the satyrs are in a political mess of their own, and that might be turned to advantage if the Empress will just listen to her advisors.

In short: Big general details here, while the reader is still finding their footing in this world. More names and specifics later, as they become relevant to the progression of the story. The interaction between the prince and the Empress is what really matters in this chapter, and that shines through beautifully. The rest is pruning and paring and polish, and picking just the right set of details to bring it all together.

–Judith Tarr

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