Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
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  • Tuesday, August 16, 2005

    The City of Seasons

    OK, I lied, but this is the last one for tonight. Mistri’s fantasy The City of Seasons here. I’m guessing YA, but it’s 100,000 words long, so some editing to do, methinks.

    The City of Seasons

    Part One -- Summer

    The City of Seasons lay like a splendid blot upon the landscape of Thacar. It looked beautiful, from afar (and many claimed the same up close), yet it reminded all Thacarites that their beloved country was in decay. For the city was all that remained of the glorious past, and some wanted it buried forever.

    Can I just break in here? Mistri calls this the mini-prologue, and says she’s not sure if she will include it or not. Mistri, please don’t! It does nothing besides vaguely allude to some of the conflicts of the book you’re about to read, and contains the phrase ‘splendid blot on the landscape’, which is just horrid. I don’t think she will use it; Mistri said she partly included it because it amused her I was getting so much prologue-d material. I’m quite surprised myself, because they rarely add anything. This reads like something cooked up for the back cover.

    Anyway, on to…

    Chapter One

    They were calling me a fraud? I looked up at the clerk behind the Academy's front desk, but couldn't begin to express my confusion. I stared at him blankly.

    “We're sorry Miss Ardent, but we simply cannot accept your application at this time. Not until you supply us with the proper documentation.”

    “But I've already given it to you. My application to the scholars, my maja-essay, and my birth information.”

    He shook his head. “Not quite.” He pulled something out from under a towering stack of work. Yellowed and torn around the edges, it could only be my birth papers. He pointed at the first few lines of writing. “See here. The registrars in this quarter have never phrased this segment of the birth document in this way. Also, this word is misspelled: very sloppy. Finally, we cannot trace the name of this registrar to anyone in this city.”

    What he was saying began to sink in. I'd dreamed of joining Summer's Scholar Academy since the earliest days I remembered.

    “Maybe,” I said, my voice strained, “maybe they used a registrar from outside of the city.”

    He snorted, and his disapproval came at me in waves. “We at the City of Seasons do not look Outside for skilled workers. There is no need.”

    “What does this mean?” Holding the birth document up to my eyes, my hands shook so much I could barely read the lettering. I put it down on the desk again and willed my eyes to keep any tears at bay.

    “It means your birth document is a fake. We cannot include fraudulent material in any application to the Academy, and consequently, your application will have to be delayed until you can provide verifiable documentation.”

    He stood still and folded his arms. What was I to do now?

    “Miss Ardent,” he started.

    “Espe, my name is Espe,” I said.

    “Espe. I have to see other potential students now.”

    I grabbed my fake document and turned around, legs trembling with both anger and sadness all the while. I stumbled towards the door and headed out into the blistering heat.

    It was a long walk from the one side of the quarter to the other, but I didn't have the coin to hail a cart to take me home and in any case, carts rarely moved far from the city centre. I winced at the smell lingering on the hot air. Much of the city stank during my most favourite of seasons. Despite being an overwhelmingly prosperous community (so my father always said), the Council of Firsts and Seconds had never figured out quite how to staunch the all-pervading and usually indescribable stench.

    I strode towards home, wrapped up in my own thoughts. I barely noticed the parents telling their children to be quiet, or the lovers who walked so close together they might as well be one. Instead, I saw my dreams dying, and didn't understand why. Perhaps the Academy clerk had made a mistake. But that was unlikely, especially after everything he had pointed out to me.

    In the district where my parents lived the pathways were dry, dusty and empty; my hair stuck to my head and sweat trickled down the back of my neck. As much as I enjoyed the warmer weather, summer had its downsides, not that I'd ever admit them to anyone from Spring, Autumn or Winter. Of course, if I got into the Scholar Academy, I'd get to learn more about its upsides. More about the magic a season could hold.

    It sounds arrogant perhaps, but I really did love Summer above all the other quarters. Winter had its towers, Spring its gardens and Autumn its festivals, but Summer was mine and nothing else mattered. I couldn't help but smile whenever I was in my home quarter, even at my lowest. And the opportunity to learn advanced Summer maja had been my only goal for the longest of times.

    I'd had a basic magical grounding throughout my early schooling, of course, but I wanted to specialise in academic maja, and I could only do that at the Scholar's Academy. I couldn't bear the thought of not being able to go. Even having to defer for a year would near kill me.

    Why did I have a forged birth document? It didn't make any kind of sense. My parents lived a fairly mundane life. Nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened to them, as far as I knew. Did they know about this? I shook my head. Something was very definitely wrong here, and that scared me.

    I stopped when I reached home. There was movement through the windows: my parents had guests. A moment later, someone exited the house. As the figure came into focus, I recognised Maura, my godmother and relaxed a little. We'd never been close, but she'd known my parents for almost forever. She didn't see me until she came onto the pathway, and jerked roughly before giving a weak smile.

    “It is a pleasure to see you,” she said.

    “And you,” I replied.

    She shrugged slightly and started to walk past me. “Goodbye, dear.”

    I didn't say goodbye back.

    So what’s going to happen? Luckily I have a synopsis. Here’s the City of Seasons, a city-cum-magical university divided into four specialist areas. I can’t quite tell from the synopsis if there are complicated Jack-Vanceish differences of custom and temperament between them. (The synopsis was dashed off by Mistri for my benefit – thanks Mistri – so no criticism is intended of her synopsising skills.) The King of the surrounding area wants to destroy the City, as it represents a threat, and so has formed a long-range plan; he’ll plant a child in each quarter, enhancing their magical powers by ancient and forbidden ‘birth magic’, and manipulate them into destroying it from within at adulthood.

    The kids (now teens, I’m guessing) discover each other and then find themselves threatened by the King, who now sees them as a threat (not sure why), and then they band together with the King’s army to save the City from raiders, after which the King’s changed his mind again and wants two of the children to set up a second magical school.

    The plot needs to be stronger and clearer. At a couple of points the survival of the protagonists is just down to the whim of the King – and he does seem a whimsical fellow. It’s a fifteen-odd-year plan he’s put into effect, and that would have to be shown to be the only possible course of action open to him. When he gets to the end of it he changes his mind twice. There also appears to be a lack of action.

    The latter won’t be too much of a problem for Mistri if she is really giving us a great sense of place, full of colour and detail. If I can namecheck Jack Vance for the third time today, look at how he creates a fantasy world in Lyonesse or The Eyes of the Overworld, or look at Gene Wolfe in The Shadow of the Torturer showing us his marvellous cities. Astonishing travelogues can take a fantasy novel a long way. I can’t tell from this excerpt if it’s going to be a strength of the book, but it would be criminal to waste a fertile idea like a City of Seasons.

    Mistri has maybe missed opportunities here and there, going by this excerpt. She needs to make us feel the amazing City all around us. What sort of place is it? What sort of people inhabit it, and what are their idiosyncrasies? What’s the clerk’s office like here?

    You’re right at the start of a novel and you want to get a sense of place. It’s a fantasy, so Mistri can go hog-wild with it if she wants to. But here there are only a few images. There’s a stack of papers, a cart, a smell (‘staunch the stench’, incidentally, is an unhappy phrase), some allusions to gardens and towers and festivals. Let’s see some more cool stuff.

    Where would a clerk be plying his trade? In a little dusty candle-lit office full of papers? Well, kind of predictable, and we could see that any day in our real lives, no need to have it in fantasy fiction too. Why not have them in a grand sort of Gothic cathedral, seated on carved thrones. The clerk’s dry and by-the-book, anything but outlandish, so let’s set up some contrast to heighten that characterisation. Have them draped in weird robes or wearing a strange hat. You only need one image to do the job here. Maybe sunlight through stained glass windows makes a patchwork quilt of his bald scalp. Whatever the setting, it just needs something to make it vivid.

    What are the mannerisms of the people in the story? Mistri could try acting out the clerk’s lines, improvising a bit, trying to get something – a gesture, a look – that adds some flavour to the scene. Or, what does the narrator see when she first steps out onto the street? Is it some sort of boringly generic middle-ages fantasy city, or are we going to see towers so tall there’s snow on the top of them, a huge statue covered in flowers on the sunny side and casting permanent shadow on the street below, a monorail powered by magic beans, I dunno. It doesn’t have to be massive or even really dwelt on; even a throwaway image is better than nothing. The best kind thwarts genre expectations – I expect that there are no guns in the world of this novel, hence maybe the city watch carry matched duelling pistols. Or maybe they have electricity, but not the wheel. It’s a fantasy! Have extraordinary kinds of fun!

    That’s what the prose is crying out for – vivid imagination, the spice and sunshine and cloth of gold that will make each paragraph come to life. Not endless descriptive chunks, of course, but detail woven into the story so that it is a part of it. It’ll keep the interest of the reader for much longer than this version.

    As it is, I'd pass on this. It's an exotic and abstract idea for a setting, which is the story's strongest suit, and Mistri is underplaying it.
    Torgo, 12:33 am

    2 Comments:

    Eeek! It's not a YA, hence the length.

    Thank you for your comments - it's always useful to see a story through someone else's eyes. I clearly need to make the synopsis and description stronger. Unfortunately, I'm not much of a descriptive writer, it's one of my weak points, so that will take a bit of work.

    I think the story's worth persevering with, but I've no idea if I can actually make it work.

    Thanks again :)
    Anonymous mistri, at 9:23 am  
    Oops. Sorry. I just kind of assumed from the teenage protagonists. Probably should have asked you.

    I think you probably need to sit down and try to imagine as much detail about the city as you can. Just write down what you want everything to look like. Then, you can work on getting those great images in to the main text.
    Blogger Torgo, at 12:54 pm  

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