Editor’s Choice Award January 2024, Fantasy 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.

Moon Jelly Madness by J. Deery Wary

There’s a keen eye for plotting showing through the lines of “Moon Jelly Madness”: gentle without being slight, and rather sweet without sacrificing a page-turning sense of action or depth in its fantasy world. It caught my eye this month with that very deft balance: how much it’s getting on the page in how little space. But there’s room for a little more worldbuilding here, and this month, I’d like to discuss where simplicity works for us and how to find the spaces where it doesn’t.

There’s a lot being done with juxtaposition and tone in the world of “Moon Jelly Madness”: the slightly goofy domestic gentleness of arcane jams and jellies stacked up against the fact that they were burned and banned, and the powerful imagery of its opening paragraphs: a little brother’s hand slipping from Rima’s own at the train station as they fled a war. By implication, this world’s complicated: how Rima lives and her quest is her response to an awfully complicated life.

“Moon Jelly Madness” doesn’t really get too close to the skin in terms of the emotions Rima describes: panic, abandonment, near-obsession. And while that can be a drawback in some pieces, it’s not a bad choice here. “Moon Jelly Madness” is pulling off a skillful effect by saying its most painful, intense things through simplicity and understatement. There’s some very real—and occasionally tangled—dilemmas here for Rima to face (“She’d always thought it would be easy to know if it was the time of direst need” is a wonderful theme as a recurring choice to be made, and a way to chart character growth).

As a technique, this can be quite powerful: it lets the bald facts of an event shine through, without ornamentation that might lessen or dilute the emotions those events can bring up in readers. But I wanted to point out another upside: it lets readers bring their own emotions in instead of telling them how they should feel about the story’s events or characters.

Especially when we’re working with younger protagonists—and maybe aiming for younger readers—there’s a lot to be said for pieces that let readers dictate what kind of emotional involvement they’re capable of and ready for. This is usually considered in terms of age accessibility, but it’s also a very considerate way to proof a story against hard times. The emotions that go along with Rima’s multiple, shattering losses are being invited here, not dictated: readers can bring shock and desolation to that experience if they’re in a place to, or consider it as a loss she’s grieved and put into perspective if that’s where they are. It’s not always the right choice; I think here it’s a good one, which keeps the focus of “Moon Jelly Madness” on how Rima’s moving to solve her unknowns and tragedies—and what might lie ahead for her.

It’s also a way to keep a strong sense of pace, as Rima’s losses segue swiftly from an ocean childhood to her lost brother to the immediate problem of the knapsack. As readers, we’ve already learned a lot about this protagonist in a very few lines—and we’re instantly in the immediate problem, knowing something about its stakes. It introduces the larger problem (Roe and the recipe) rather seamlessly—the delight I felt when she’d realized she memorized the recipe was genuine, and the spur to action from it tangible.

My major suggestion for this story would be to think about the sense of place. Space is really important in “Moon Jelly Madness”: the smells of the market, the breadth of this world, the fact that Rima is a displaced refugee, and that the conflict centers around her brother’s missingness. How her travel has taken her away from Lira, and her chosen family—all of these orbit the idea of being in the right space. Making the piece’s sense of place stronger, more vivid, and more sensory does the trick of making all those themes, ideas, and conflicts more and more real with it.

Orelpi and Lantere are, as it stands, mostly names right now; the hints of food like pineapple ice suggest a season, a climate, a hint of culture, but they’re currently only suggestions in what feels like a world that’s not yet been meaningfully defined on the page. A lot of the story’s physical space is taken up by general stores, peddlers, and innkeepers—all fantasy staples—and historical clues like the presence of art supplies and textile factories don’t offer much in the way of a century-analogue.

This isn’t the kind of story that, I think, needs a world invented from absolute scratch with explanations of everything—the sense of familiarity and comfort here is a tangible plus, and a little timelessness isn’t a bad thing—but this is the place where I’m not sure the understatement serves “Moon Jelly Madness” anymore. There’s a lot of benefit from specificity in what these places feel, smell, and are like—in the same way Lira’s glimpsed personality does. That she’s a sucker for ghost stories—the fantasy equivalent of a true crime podcast fan—is one of those small, delightful details that makes something or someone feel real and alive.

So in the next draft, I’d suggest thinking of specificities for this world: specifically for the differences between Crossberry Town, Orelpi, and Rima’s home village. This is an empire, yes, but it’s not a monoculture: What’s regional? What’s different? As a refugee from one regional culture to another, touring a third, what would Rima notice as different, odd, or familiar? Choosing those details correctly can provide a great foundation for both deepening readers’ access to her as a character and building a more solid sense of place.

I’d also suggest finding ways to incorporate dimensions into the narrative description that aren’t there yet – the one that stands out to me most is colour. It’s tangibly absent in “Moon Jelly Madness” when Rima’s discussing anything but blackberries, and filling out that missing piece is another way to add concreteness to her world. But beyond that suggestion: It’s worth looking at what senses haven’t been covered well in the descriptive work here, and start salting them in to create a place that’s round and alive.

That said, this has the makings of a great, kind light fantasy piece that isn’t skimping on the emotional depth. I’m really looking forward to potential future drafts.

Best of luck with the piece!

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

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