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.
This is a powerful and, especially at the beginning, harrowing pair of scenes. There’s some strong writing here, though I would recommend a thorough copyedit and line edit before submitting for publication. In the meantime, there are a couple of things that may benefit from rethinking or deeper thinking as the story moves forward.
Muizi is a strong character. I personally like it that she’s unsympathetic. Her character type—the coldhearted and conniving senior wife—is often framed as the antagonist; readers don’t get to see the story through her eyes. It seems she’ll be the protagonist here, which is a nice variation on the usual theme.
The direction she appears to be going in is a sharp reversal of fortune, and a steep drop in status. I would guess that her arc will continue to plummet, but she will, through sheer toughness and dogged determination, claw her way back to the top. It’s possible she may find a form of redemption at the bottom and find something else to live for, but there’s not enough here to suggest where or how that might happen.
Definitely the Muizi we see here would aim to get her old status back. What may happen to her later could change her, possibly profoundly. But we’re still in the early stages of her story.
I would suggest making a clearer connection between the Muizi in the first scene and the Muizi in the second. In the second scene, a major theme is the pain in her feet. It pervades her entire experience. And yet in the first scene, the child feels all of that pain with many of the same details (the putrefaction, the broken bones), but Muizi does not.
We don’t get a sense of her physical being. She is essentially a pair of eyes and coldly calculating mind. I think Muizi should either share the child’s pain or explicitly shut off her own. If she does the latter, we need to know she’s doing it. We should understand that this is an experience she shares in full.
When she hears that the Grand Duke is dead, I think she should react more strongly. Is she expecting it? Did she help to cause it? Is it part of a plot she’s involved in? What are her feelings about him personally, as well as politically? A bit of that appears here, but I think it needs more.
I have similar questions about Muizi’s thoughts and reactions in the second scene, when her grand plan is abruptly and catastrophically shut down. On the one hand, she does suffer from hubris, from overestimating her own brilliance. On the other, if she has spent years of her life as first wife, presiding over the complex maneuverings of a grand-ducal court, would she be as unaware of the plots against her as she is here? Would she be truly caught off guard? Would she be as alone as she seems to be, with only her one servant as an ally?
There are numerous ways to play this. She might have been taking measures against one or more palace intrigues, only to be blindsided by the one she didn’t expect. The co-regent seems to have presented himself as an ally. Could the heir’s birth mother have also pretended, convincingly, to be a friend? Might Muizi have promised her some great prize or compensation in return for the alliance, that would make the betrayal even more crushing?
What the draft needs, I think, is more complexity. More complicated relationships between Muizi and the rest of the court. More wariness on her part, and more sense that it won’t be as easy as she might hope. She’s built this, she’s fought for it, she’s crushed (she thinks) all possible opposition. Then the betrayal will be all the more shocking.
I wonder too if the potential consequences might be more dire. Might she expect to be killed if she fails? Or buried alive with her late husband? Is it a deeper shock or a worse punishment to be allowed to live, but condemned to whatever fate she’s being carted off to at the end of the chapter?
There is plenty to work with here. I’ll be interested to see where Muizi’s story takes her, and how she gets there.