Editor’s Choice Award November 2023, 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 Mongoose Can’t Open The Lock On Its Cage by Kate Orman

I loved the eerie, vaguely Ancient Sumerian world of “The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage”: a strange, sweet, multidimensional archipelago of three-dimensional towns scattered through a four-dimensional wilderness, and the complications it puts into people’s relationships as they rely on each other. It’s a piece with tons of potential, and a lot already going right on the sentence level, but not yet developed fully in terms of characterization and plot. So this month, I’d like to talk about how we can use poetic tools—assonance, the unexpected word—to worldbuild a genre story, or solve the places it’s not working yet.

First off, “The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage” starts with what any story envies: a killer first line. “The troupe walked out of hell tied together with rope” is a remarkably effective opening sentence: a combination of simple, direct sentence structure, poetic assonance (three T-sounds that shape the cadence of the words), and a set of words I would never expect in combination—except not in a showy or flashy way. The counterbalance between the simplicity of the structure and the novelty of the words in it, balanced on a stable rhythm to the ear (which is also a good choice for a story about storytelling!) is absolutely perfect. It’s instantly compelling, and instantly sets a tricksterish, surrealist, off-kilter tone.

While it’s a tool that’s more mentioned in the context of poetry—not so much prose!—that use of assonance really does add a great deal, very subtly. “Gunu the guide” reinforces that folkloric feeling in the first paragraph. The implied weirdness and exhaustion in “under a simple sun” is massive, and builds Gunu’s characterization early while feeling—in itself!—like a simple sentence. Ma-az’s almost incantory, odelike “holy Gunu” and “magical Gunu” bring back the sense of an ancient epic—while also making it clear that he’s absolutely sucking up.

All this creates a comfortable unreality that absolutely mirrors the sense of towns scattered through a wilderness-esque expanse of hell that only some neurologies can see. It’s picking up counterbalances in the broader worldbuilding: the normalcy of keeping bees, dealing with workaday corruption and hard-to-get news while the mathematicians watch hell through telescopes. Again, that sense of balance—the odd, fantastical, and the pedestrian—keeps me engaged in Lunizuh Town as a place. It’s neither too strange to emotionally invest in or too routine to pay attention to.

That sense of combined strangeness and the everyday are the major strength of “The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage”—a poetry strength. It’s evoking the act of seeing wonder in the everyday, like contemporary poets, or finding the emotion in the strange, like speculative ones. So I’m being nudged into reading this piece through poetry-logic, and it’s through poetry-logic that I can see spaces for improvement in the next drafts.

The major suggestions I have for “The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage” are about the places—both in the plot and in its overall structure—where that sense of balance between the mundane and the strange falters. While the sentence-level balance between big, counterfactual concepts and minimalist prose is fundamentally a good one, there’s places where I think it’s tipping a little too far into minimalism, and the flow of the piece devolves for a while into anecdotes and sketches—and pieces of this story get lost.

On the most basic sentence level, there are missing textures, tastes, and details within this whole world. Once we hit the third scene—Jot seeing Ma-az’s arm—the space they’re inhabiting is becoming more and more sparse on the page. While it’s functional to have Lunizuh Town be a town like any other when compared to hell, where they’ve just been? The spectacle of that missing arm needs something grounding to counterbalance it: a wall texture, the kind of floor, the level of light, the feeling in Gunu or Jot’s own bodies. What is normal about the space in which this scene takes place?

Likewise, there’s missing balance when Ma-az and Gunu are walking through hell. They’re explaining the theory of the worldbuilding, but the world they’re walking through is not rendered in any sensory way—and Gunu can see it. The scene needs grounding, and we have a POV character who can ground us; I think there’s value in fleshing that out.

On a word-choice level, there’s a slightly smaller suggestion: the question of the droplet. In a story full of extremely evocative images and words, it’s not a very defined or concrete term—the word tells me nothing about either the neurological or magical aspects of this ability to traverse hell in the ways that “a simple sun” does. I’d normally not get this micro, but given the way poetry techniques are working in this story, I want to suggest finding a finer word for this idea: something that throws a little light or shadow on what it is, how it works, how Gunu feels about it.

Taken up to the plotting level, the sense of minimalism has most revelations in the story introduced later, as an afterthought, rather than played straight with readers—and the consequences of that knowledge allowed to play out. Things like the theft and the plan to abandon Ma-az don’t quite work as action described in media res, because they don’t have the context built up to make those decisions make sense in retrospect. There’s little prefiguring for the idea that Ma-az’s theft has been discovered and the town doesn’t trust the troupe anymore; they seem to treat them absolutely neutrally, with pretty much standard hospitality. Reading back, I can’t find any signs otherwise that would have tipped off a problem, or shown me the pieces of the problem I didn’t have eyes to see before. There’s too much minimalism, not enough straightforward strangeness, and my faith in the plot suffers for it.

I don’t normally do this, but I would go so far as to suggest rethinking what kind of ending would suit a world that’s built to these specifications. Ultimately, the current draft of “The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage” is falling into one of the templates described best on Strange Horizons’s “Stories We’ve Seen Too Often” list: a variant of people breaking the rules and getting punished. It’s a fairly standard arc, where the story’s primed me to look for something rich, weird, wild. To abuse the metaphor: it’s the expected word; it doesn’t rhyme with what’s come before. So I will go so far as to say that I think there is a much more interesting story in this place, these characters, these language structures, and these interactions—one that matches closer to what the story itself is telling me to look for here.

“The Mongoose Can’t Open the Lock On Its Cage” is telling me, through its techniques, its structures, the way its people talk, that this is a piece made half of myth and poetry. All the things that work for me as a reader here lean into that sense of the odd and wild, framed by simplicity. I think if the places where the story isn’t quite clicking yet also make that lean—bring themselves into alignment, into rhyme with the rest, as if this was a poem!—something wonderful will happen here.

Best of luck with the piece!

— Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

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