Editor’s Choice Award May 2021, Science Fiction

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.

Cageborn by Jamie Boyd

I love ravens. I follow the RavenMaster of London on Twitter. It was a pleasure to find a submission that takes the raven’s point of view and turns it into a lovely and affecting story.

The title strikes to the core of who Corax is, both psychologically and socially. I think it might work even better if the fact of his being born in a cage were woven more clearly through the story. Maybe a bit more from his son about his refusal to leave his sanctuary, and a bit more about the ways in which the Cageborn are regarded by the rest of the world.

I have a few questions about the worldbuilding. The detail about Corax’s beak tearing the pages of the book is a nice touch, but would it make more sense for him to use his feet and claws? Are his eyes suited to reading on a flat page? Does he need some sort of accommodation—lenses, a mirror, something to make raven eyesight work in a human context? Would his eyes have been altered as well as his brain?

Thinking about that detail made me wonder about the setup of Dr. Enota’s experiment. The disappearance of humans would probably also mean the disappearance of electronic and digital devices, not to mention the internet. Would the ravens have initially been taught to read on screen? Is Corax’s difficulty is not so much with reading as with reading hardcopy? Were his mate’s alterations more extensive or effective, so that it was easier for her to make the transition?

Unmodified ravens are very vocal. They’re good mimics and can be taught human speech. Would these enhanced ravens have learned to speak a human language? Would Corax have taught his son? Zephyr may not be enhanced, but normal raven intelligence is pretty far up there. Would that be another reason for him to be rejected by the gang?

Does Dr. Enota need to be male, or even binary? Would it matter to a raven?

Since Corax despite his modifications is still very much a raven, I appreciate that he’s at ease with living with the dead Doctor. Would he have cleaned the bones, or would he have left the body to decompose naturally out of respect for human sensibilities?

(In a similar context, my impression is that vultures aren’t so much garbage eaters as eaters of the dead. I’m not sure they would see the dump as a longterm source of groceries. Rather, they might be feeding on corpses of actual garbage eaters. Vultures are Nature’s undertakers, after all.)

The story does a pretty good job of inhabiting the raven’s skin, but it slips in a few places. The references to Corax’s face, to his blush of embarrassment, like the reference to Zephyr’s expression, would work if they were human, or if they had faces, like mammals. Ravens don’t have what we might consider a face. It’s mostly beak. Corax might feel a rush of heat over his body, but not necessarily around his beak.

Ravens are very expressive, but they do it through body language and movement, as well as through vocalization. Corax’s feather-pulling is a great detail, and a good illustration of avian stress. How might he show embarrassment? Ducking his head? Hiding it under a wing? Making himself small? Maybe instead of his face heating, he catches himself flattening down or turning his head away. Likewise he’ll read Zephyr’s emotions in how he stands and moves, whether he ruffles his feathers or flattens them out, what he does with his wings or tail, how he blinks or clacks his beak, and so on.

I don’t think any of these revisions need to add a lot of word count. Mostly it’s a matter of thinking through the concept of the story, clarifying its main themes, and sorting out a bit more of the worldbuilding. Best of luck in revision, and thank you for the opportunity to be a raven for an afternoon.

–Judith Tarr

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