Editor’s Choice Award March 2022, 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 Sea Above by V.R. Collins

The simple, exquisite mourning of “The Sea Above” stood out for me this month: a journey made because its protagonist isn’t yet ready to let go, in a world where the gods are dead and the vast beasts of the deep grieving. It’s also touching on something I think is very important right now: how we mourn together, or parallel to each other, without ripping everything apart. So this month, I’d like to talk about how emotion makes our worlds real, and how we balance storystuff with the stuff of the world.

First and foremost, the world of “The Sea Above” is a fundamentally gentle one, despite its wreckage. It’s positing a high fantasy universe where gods aren’t creatures of control (a world where chaos breaks loose when they die, because authority’s gone) but of love; where the lake not being the sea is still close enough to appreciate, and difference isn’t a threat. Where sea monsters raging can be reasoned with if you send a diplomat, and there is such thing as a ball of lightning gently carried up in giant jaws.

It’s also avoiding one of the pitfalls of epic fantasy by subtly showing deep domestic consequences to the high-register, earthshaking acts happening around Inah. The gods die—and that means the sea is weird and wild, and concrete pieces of Inah’s personal world have evaporated with them. People have moved on as well as died; relationships have subtly but fundamentally changed. It’s a personal apocalypse that hasn’t neglected the big picture, and having both interworked with each other gives Inah’s loss weight and substance.

More importantly, though, there’s beautiful work being done here with the sound of language: the choices of language and sentence structure are what make “The Sea Above” work. From the first line—picked up like a dropped thread—”The Sea Above” puts readers into a mythic cadence, offset with a plain, clean poetic voice (“that moment between frail mortal flesh and the vast mysteries of the ocean” was a favourite). The ways before and after echo through its structure actively set up Inah’s realization at the end: reclaiming the vast expanse of now. By the time I knew Marden was lightning in a jar, “The Sea Above” had me completely—and the language is why.

Starting in the rhythms of oral storytelling—symbolic, abstract, rules-of-three—and setting against that Inah’s uncertainty and emotional precarity is a powerful choice. This is one of the ways narrative tropes can really work for us as writers (especially tropes that are about structure, not content): readers know how a world told in mythic language is supposed to go. We know what a quest structure is, and what dead gods mean. But when we work that deliberately into a new direction, it can heighten the feeling of what we’re talking about: this is true, but. The known story truth makes the new one also feel more true: verisimilitude can be catching.

In “The Sea Above”, juxtaposing the emotional state and shattering world against forms and formalisms that readers know in our bones are about stability makes the feeling of worlds breaking that much more real.

So while lightning in a bottle is an obvious play on words—and a nicely thematic one, given Inah’s journey—it’s also a great example of how that sense of what’s real spreads in “The Sea Above”. It’s a familiar enough metaphor (stable trope) for many readers to easily think about as a literalized speculative element; making metaphors literal is one of the basic tools of SFF. But when placed against Inah’s loss and the emotion that the story has already set up, that metaphor becomes more than a tickbox, and more than clever. It becomes a manifestation of the love and grief I’ve already been told about, and the whole world of this story unscrolls for me as real—because the emotions are real.

Where “The Sea Above” tangles a little for me, and loses that tight grip on my attention is Inah’s conversation with the lake serpent. Departing from the very direct, simple handling of emotion we’ve seen previous, it mires a touch in circuitousness and ritualized language—and it feels like the story never quite comes back to baseline. “The Sea Above” feels most effective to me as a reader when it’s walking the balance of a plain, clean life in a formalized setting: real people doing real emotional things—that sense of realism again!—in a world built of ritual, gods, monsters, and cataclysms. The pieces of “The Sea Above” that are genre tropes and storystuff, in other words, overtake the life stuff, the feeling of complexity and grief and unpreparedness and motion. With the realism of this piece so rooted in that emotion—with what it’s offered me so far being storystuff as a box to hold life stuff well—as a reader, I lose my tight connection to what’s happening here.

Case in point: The author’s asked in notes whether there are places that past events need to be better foregrounded to understand what’s going on. I had no instances where I needed that, because what caught and carried me through was the feeling, the life stuff. And the feeling? I understand just fine. The rest are places I can suspend my disbelief when the feeling makes sense.

So, I’d suggest revising with an eye to maintaining that balance that works so well in the first half of the piece: keeping real emotion, simple hands, and Inah’s humanity at the centre of “The Sea Above”. Fundamentally, this would be a question of finding ways to hold the energy of the first half of the story through the second half: simplifying ritual, foregrounding emotion and reaction, looking at the balance of poetic to plain language, and tightening up the pacing until the frequency of the second half the story matches.

This is on its way to being absolutely magnificent. I think with some careful calibrating, it will be.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

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