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.
I like the concept of this submission. Animals with human-level intelligence and apparently opposable thumbs have appeared in fantasy and science fiction before, but this version does a nice job of depicting them on their own terms. They’re not patronized or infantilized, and they retain key aspects of their original species.
I am curious as to how and why they have human Christian names with a German flavor; this may be explained later. There’s an air of the fairy tale about it, a hint of the Grimm Brothers. It will be interesting to see how that develops through the longer narrative.
The prose has somewhat of the same effect, partly through constructions that seem not to originate in English—notably the insertion of now and then in a manner almost like Greek particles, in contexts that don’t, in standard English usage, really require them. There are long run-on phrases as well, such as
The fragrance of the oiled muttons coated in buttery garlic seasoned with salt and pepper had become so strong that I grasped at the air as though reaching for rolls preparing to stuff the meat into the bread.
The plural of “mutton” is “mutton,” though that may be a typo (but meats appears later in a similar context). I’m not sure oiled means what it wants to mean here. Did the cooks oil the meat and then baste it in butter and garlic? Or did they sear it in oil and then add the other ingredients? My mouth is watering at the thought, but I’m not sure I get what’s going on.
The rest of the sentence would be hard to read aloud—the reader has to take a couple of breaths to get through it. Breaking it up into a couple of sentences will help the prose, and the reader, breathe more efficiently.
Do you take for granted the roof over your head, the meals you eat, and the time we took to take care of you to insult the founder of your very home?
The meaning is a little hard to parse here. The insult seems to belong to another sentence. As with the previous example, dividing the sentence in two would help make its meaning clearer.
The imagery throughout is vivid, with lots of sensory detail. Once the prose is polished and the meaning clarified, both the characters and the story will come through even more strongly.
In the meantime, I have a couple of more general suggestions. First, although there are bits of stage business around the blocks of dialogue, the interchanges mostly seem to hang in space. A little more framing, a line here and a line there of tone, expression, body language, how the speaker feels, would help to anchor the conversations more firmly in the story.
Second, first-person narrative is tricky. It’s amazing how it seems to be the most intimate and direct form, but it can actually separate the reader from the direct experience of the story. The narrator’s “I,” rather than becoming the reader’s point of view, sets them apart from it.
One way this can happen is through the rhetorical question. It’s common in third-person narration for the viewpoint character to present thoughts and reflections as “What do I do? Is this true? Am I making the right decision?” This is called an internal monologue. If it goes on for a while, it may be called “murbling”—circling around and around a series of thoughts and ideas without moving the story forward.
Vilhelm murbles a fair amount in the opening of the chapter. He reflects, he remembers, he asks rhetorical questions. It takes a while for the chapter to get going. The question I would ask is, Does he need to ask himself questions? Is there a way to convey the concepts more directly and actively? Could we move in closer to how he feels, live in his body, experiencing his emotions, rather than skimming the surface of his thoughts?
That doesn’t mean all the exposition and the reflections have to go. Not at all. He is a reflective person; he talks to himself quite a bit. That’s part of who he is. But the chapter might move more quickly, especially at the beginning, with some paring and pruning of the internal monologue.
Overall this is a good start, with some good things going on. I like the characters so far, and the setting is nicely established. Best of luck with the rest of the novel, and happy revising!
— Judith Tarr