Editor’s Choice Award May 2023, 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.

The Shade Behind My Head Chapter 1 by Shlomik Silbiger

This chapter hits hard. I think I would label it horror or (very) dark fantasy. It checks a lot of those boxes. Dystopian setting, physical and emotional violence, tormented characters, dark themes. It’s unlikely we’ll get a happy ending. The question rather is how much damage Ven will take, and how much she’ll do, before the end.

When it’s time for revision, I’d recommend a close line edit, paying particular attention to the meanings of words and the construction of phrases. Keep an eye on the verb tenses, too, especially the past perfect. Horror or dark fantasy relies on the choice of words, the style, the tone, as much as on the structure and movement of the plot.

The chapter makes a good start in that direction, pending the line edit. The setting comes through clearly, with vivid visuals and strong sensory details. Bathmaster Ballan is appropriately horrible. She seems to relish her job, and she has a distinct edge of sadism. Dr. Ashenford is subtler, but that works, too: she’s more educated, with smoother manners. She comes across as just as cruel underneath, and even more powerful in Ven’s universe.

By the time Lily manifests, we’re ready for things to get really dark. It seems she’s been sabotaging Ven’s attempts to escape, and she’s about to do it again. But because we’re at the start of the story, I’m expecting something different to happen this time. Something will change—probably something even worse than what’s happened to Ven so far.

I notice that all the characters onstage are female. It’s a little subversive—so often in fiction, males tend to outnumber females; if there’s a female main character, she may be the only one. Just out of curiosity, will the rest of the story also feature a female cast? Will this be a world of women, carrying out a fundamentally cruel patriarchal agenda, in which Ven’s only viable options are to be a wife or a prostitute?

It’s good that I’m asking these questions. It means the chapter is doing its job. It’s making me wonder what comes next. I want to know more about Lily. I want to find out whether Ven makes it to the board, and if so, whether she can suppress Lily long enough to get out. Of if she can’t, what happens after that.

That’s what an introductory chapter needs to do. There’s plenty of time later to polish the prose. For now, just keep going. Let us see where it takes us.

— Judith Tarr

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