Editor’s Choice Award November 2022, 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.

By Way Of Madness Chapter One by A.S. Walker

There’s an interesting story taking shape here. The body in the wagon, the hints of complicated politics, the sense that this world is probably more drimdark than noblebright, all come through in this opening chapter. There’s also a sense that we’re settling in for the length and depth of an epic fantasy. The pacing is leisurely, with frequent pauses for description, backstory, ruminations on this subject or that.

Not every novel needs to begin with a bang, literal or otherwise. Epic fantasy in particular takes its time, travels down sometimes lengthy byways, explores the world in detail. The reader knows they’re settling in for a long read. It’s an immersive experience.

With that in mind, I’m going to comment not so much on the pacing as on the ways in which the prose tends to slow it down. Some of what we see here may work later in the narrative, when the reader knows the characters better and is more invested in the minutiae of the story. At the beginning, the prose may want to be a little more economical, with fewer repeated facts and phrases.

We may for example want to move more quickly from road to city, and then from gatekeeper to magistrate. Shorter conversations with less repetition. More concise descriptions, and less backstory—retaining details that are directly relevant to the context, but saving the rest for later.

One thing that may help with this is to note how often we’re tagged with Ryndal’s viewpoint. We’re constantly reminded that he’s thinking, reflecting, noticing, seeing, feeling, reacting. Each reminder sets up a barrier between the reader and the protagonist, distancing the reader from Ryndal’s experience.

It might be worth removing the tags and seeing how the narrative works without them. We may need some of them, but the story may come through more clearly without the rest. We’ll be right there with Ryndal, rather than standing apart from the action and being told what he’s thinking and seeing and feeling.

We don’t want to gallop madly from scene to scene. That’s not how epic fantasy works. But the scenes can move ahead more smoothly, and the pacing can be less leisurely, without losing the essential character of the genre.

My other observation about this chapter is more logistical. Ryndal has a horse and a wagon. The connection between the two isn’t as clear as it might be. Ryndal appears to be riding the horse, which is possible when a horse is hitched to a vehicle, but I’m not getting a clear sense that the vehicle is hitched to the horse. In places it reads as if Ryndal is riding the horse and pulling the wagon himself.

Presumably that’s an issue of clarity in the prose. I’m supposing that in fact the wagon is hitched to the horse and Ryndal is riding the horse. If that’s the case, is he not sitting in the wagon and driving the horse because it’s too close to the stench of the corpse?

A few notes here. Horses and corpses don’t mix well—horses get spooky around dead things, which means it can be very hard to get them to go near a corpse, let alone be harnessed to a vehicle containing one. The horse must be very well trained to drive, or Ryndal may have found some way to deaden its sense of smell, an ointment or herb or similar. Or both, since even well-trained horses don’t always manage to overcome instinct.

If the horse is Ryndal’s riding horse and has been drafted to pull the wagon, it’s worth noting that horses have to be trained separately to ride or drive. Riding horses can freak completely out when hitched to a wagon. Add a corpse and you’ve got a pretty conclusive No Go. Or, more precisely, Go Very Very Fast Very Very Far Away From Rattly Reeky Chasey Thing. And Never Come Back.

Conversely, if the horse is trained to drive, it may not necessarily be trained to carry a rider. Pulling a cart is a different skill than carrying a live weight. The equipment is also different, with different attachments, locations, and purposes. Driving in particular requires a fairly complex harness, and the wagon is attached to this by means of a shaft or shafts. You can’t simply tie the wagon to the horse’s saddle or bridle.

Horses can be trained to both ride and drive, and often are, but it’s something to keep in mind. Contrary to what we see in movies, if a horse isn’t trained to do a particular thing, it’s not as simple as hitching it up to the cart or jumping on its back. There’s a process, and the horse has definite opinions as to how it will go.

As long as we’re on horses, don’t forget: A horse is not a motor vehicle. It’s a live animal. It needs frequent stops, considerable and regular amounts of feed and water, and rest, which in a city will mean a stable of some kind. It can’t be left standing for hours or days without consequences to its fitness or soundness. It also has a mind of its own, and may wander off if left unattended. And, as I noted above, if it takes sufficient exception to its surroundings, it will leave at speed. Often going through and possibly obliterating anything in its way, including people, other animals, walls, doors, fences, market stalls…

Best of luck with the novel, and happy writing!

— Judith Tarr


Leave a Reply