Editor’s Choice Award September 2021, Science 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.

Bee Houe Rising – CHAPTER 1 by Keby Boyer

I was drawn to this submission by its title (even with the typo on the website) and by the author’s voice in the introductory note. It’s concise and confident, with a distinct edge of humor, and it says precisely as much as it needs to say about the novel and the chapter. I’m impressed. It’s not easy to make it look that effortless.

The chapter, for me, met the expectations set by title and note. It’s tightly written, sharp and focused with a distinctive, wryly funny, yet lyrical style. It knows just how fast the story needs to move, and just how much the reader needs to know in order to ride along with the shaman and her companions.

If the rest of the novel keeps up the pacing I see here, and the overall structure of plot and development of character is as solid as it is in this first chapter, I think it’s just about ready to go to line edits. Characters, setting, and story are strong and sure of themselves. The minutiae of the prose are where the ms. needs work.

That’s especially important when the rest of the writer’s craft is as accomplished as what I see here. The structure is beautiful. Cleaning up the prose will apply the last layer of polish.

The first question I would ask is, why is the main character persistently referred to as “the old shaman woman”? A shaman can be any gender or none. Is there a plot-related reason why we have to be told, repeatedly, that the shaman is a woman? If so, maybe a phrase or a line could clarify this, or point toward a later explanation?

I think too that I would have liked to know how much taller and broader she is than Joe Ironhorse, right at the point when we first see them together, rather than toward the end of the chapter. There’s a hint of it when she teases him about his height, but we don’t see the full contrast between them. It seems as if that detail might be more apposite there than later on in the scene. Then when he performs his feat of strength, we’ll be even more impressed by it, because we’ve been getting the visual all along.

The writing in general, the imagery, the vividness of description and phrasing, is very, very good. There is however a particular habit that might bear rethinking, and that is the tendency to dangle phrases. For example:

All scraped knees and missing her two front teeth, the intensity of the girl’s aura crackled like lightning through the desert heat. 

This is a wonderful image, but the structure of the sentence is broken in the middle. The knees and teeth belong to the aura rather than the girl.

The same applies to

A stoic, stooped-shouldered old man dressed in a red plaid shirt and worn Levis, his long white hair fell straight down

Syntactically, the sentence says that the hair is a man dressed in a shirt and Levis. It’s inside out: hair contains the man, rather than the other way around.

In a subtler way, a similar thing is happening here:

Joe pulled a handkerchief that smelled of wind and spice and magic from his back pocket,

Gorgeous imagery, inside-out phrasing. Wind and spice, and magic from his back pocket. Which is actually a lovely image, but I don’t think it’s what the sentence wants to mean.

One last thing that struck me as I read was that when Joe and the shaman are talking, they seem to be completely alone. The chanting and drumming disappear. It’s summed up pretty clearly here:

The sounds of drums, bells, and chanting continued as they drank the scotch, smoked the weed, and enjoyed the comfortable silence that often happens between two very old friends.

On the one hand I love the juxtaposition of noise and silence. On the other, I feel as if I want just a little more. Another phrase or two layered through the scene, that establishes how they can be alone together no matter how tumultuous their surroundings are.

I think what I may be missing is the sense that the other people in the scene are real; that they have independent existence. Eddie and the little girl and the dog vanish once Joe and the shaman meet. It feels as if they, and the rest of the people gathered there, need to be more perceptibly present, even if they’re far in the background. The writer’s craft that I see here is strong enough to do that, without losing the tight connection between Joe and the shaman.

Overall, this is a beautiful piece, and promises some strong, witty, deft writing as the story unwinds itself. It just a needs a little shining up here and there.

–Judith Tarr

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