Editor’s Choice Award November 2021, Short Story

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 Shearing by Jamie Boyd

“The Shearing” caught my attention this month with its clear, accessible handling of complex relationships, an evolving Galician ranch community, and a character arc that transcends binary ideas of the world. It puts forward a nuanced set of questions to tackle, handles them with grace, and keeps the entire read thoroughly satisfying—mostly by how it deploys its most complex elements. So this month, I’d like to dig into interpersonal dynamics as worldbuilding—the worldbuilding that’s not about unicorns and mountains, but relationships—and how we can think about what readers expect to make it really work.

The best thing about “The Shearing” is, surprisingly, not the wild, spotted unicorns in the Spanish hills; it’s how the community around them lives in an interrelated web of choices and relations with those herds, each other, and the land. It’s a story about the consequences of unicorns, both personal and far-reaching—and because of that, one of the more unique and thoughtful unicorn stories I’ve read.

It’s also a story that employs a kind of worldbuilding seen more consistently in character-driven literary fiction: one that has no reason not to show up in genre fiction (see: Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Rivers Solomon), and which can give genre fiction a gut-deep emotional realism that creates lasting impact. Most of the worldbuilding in “The Shearing” is done between people, and it’s the textures of their relationships that we explore for plot, conflict, and resolution.

Technically speaking, everything we understand about worldbuilding on a more geological or magical scale applies to the universes of our fictional relationships. Readers learn a lot about what kind of worlds to expect from the facts everyone in those worlds takes for granted and the way those facts telegraph the underlying systems of our stories. For example, “people need The Spice to travel in space” gives readers a whole lot of information about what logic Dune runs on.

One of the core systems of “The Shearing” is that everyone in this story is a messy human being, no questions asked; that complex motivations, competing priorities, and different relationships with others are how people normally exist. It’s an important system and assumption to establish, because it’s where the core conflict of the story comes from: Maruxa’s struggles with that complexity, rooted in her yearning and resentment for the father she loves deeply to “for once really [see] all of me”.

“The Shearing” sets up this expectation in the first paragraphs by handing readers a balance of little contradictions: details that look like basic character and worldbuilding introduction but carry a lot more, because of the pattern they repeat. Maruxa hates how her body is treated, but is proud of it and insists she can do anything a boy can; her father is stern and emotionally distant, but devoted to stewardship of his land, traditions, and children; the rapa is dangerous, but draws necessary tourist money and prevents financial dangers; sacrificing colts prevents more loss through overgrazing and overpopulation. Maruxa’s brothers are having entirely different complicated relationships with their father just out of view, and every time one of them makes a major choice, it inflects how she and her father interact—just like in real life. There are unicorns—and everything readers bring to that word!—in a world where they’re ordinary animals; where there is no unique bond that grows just by being a unicorn and a girl, and then one grows anyways.

People are sensitive to patterns, whether we know it or not, and by consistently showing that each character is living in a space of contradictions—two things which are both at least a little true sitting together—”The Shearing” establishes the rules of its world, and shows readers what to look for: the space where those complexities develop.

As the pattern of complexity’s introduced, “The Shearing” grounds—and counterbalances—it with another classic worldbuilding strategy: supporting something newer or stranger with something quite familiar.

At its heart, “The Shearing” shows a clear, simple conflict familiar to genre readers: duty, tradition, and community versus individual needs, difference, and exploration. It’s basically the Spider-man question, just leading to a different answer, down different roads. While that world of people-are-complex is being established, beside it this very familiar conflict is built as Maruxa’s urge to warn the unicorns collides with her duty to her family. Genre readers are left with one very familiar thing to treat as a narrative “home base”, from which it’s possible to solidly explore what might be an unfamiliar setting and unfamiliar community needs.

The most crucial thing “The Shearing” does, though, is use that familiar conflict as a stepping-stone—and start to work it and the complexity of its world together. Once readers are in familiar territory and primed to look out for complexity, it’s quick to establish that the path of individual needs, fleeing, and freedom has consequences. Maruxa’s pressed into the rapa because her oldest brother has left “without a backward glance”—and there’s a world of her own hurt embedded in that phrase. And likewise, the world of tradition and duty isn’t even close to static: the rapa’s evolved from quasi-mystic stock breeding ritual to almost a public health measure. Both paths are real, vibrant, and potential positive choices.

As the piece slowly layers considerations and consequences—habitat protection, and then gentrification and Maruxa’s generation’s flight to the cities—at a pace that lets readers digest the last one before adding another aspect of the problem, all those questions continue to develop and evolve together. Having Demo changes Maruxa’s feelings toward her body; her changed sense of self affects the fate of the ranch; the ranch’s fate affects Demo and the family; Demo’s plight changes Maruxa’s reading of what her father’s chosen. By establishing needs and consequences on all sides, “The Shearing” remakes this fairly traditional binary conflict into something more like a real choice—and a much more compelling read. And it’s all because information’s managed at a digestible, sensitive pace for the audience—and because the story’s grounded in those endless interactions.

As always, other layers of craft have a real role to play in making that approach work. The organic complexity of the thematics and plot is supported by the sentence-level prose: a style that’s on the whole clean, transparent, and factual, but sprinkled here and there with phrases like “a wild blessing” and precise sensory details which act as the verbal unicorns in this space—a touch of wildness and grace.

The images and ideas “The Shearing” puts forward are also ones that work with the question it’s asking, rather than against it. How Maruxa thinks about her own tall, strong—indelicate—body (echoed in the wild unicorns’ less-valued colorings) inflects her choices when it comes to her family, her career, and the land around her: she thinks back to her own physicality and draws from that lesson to make the choices that come next. And ultimately, her relationship with her father explicitly parallels with Demo testing his limits and her realization that Demo’s discontent.

But what keeps it from being didactic is something important to point out: it’s Maruxa’s authentic experience with these questions. As readers, we see Maruxa reflecting, considering these similarities, and learning her own way. “The Shearing” doesn’t feel heavy-handed because readers aren’t being asked to consider the moral of the story; we are being asked to watch this one person struggle, think, and learn something a little larger than she had before—something that’s satisfying to watch because she earns it through active struggle. Letting Demo free and hoping the herd will have him isn’t the answer, but it’s an answer, and in a world where questions proliferate, an answer can definitely be enough.

There’s a lot to like here—and a lot of great, thoughtful craft being used to convey it. I think with just minor polishing, it’ll have little trouble finding a home.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

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