Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Laws of Night and Silk, by Seth Dickinson

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(High Fantasy) To defeat the armies of the Efficate, the Cteri train some of their children to be weapons of mass destruction. (7,399 words; Time: 24m)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ Not Recommended
Recommended By: RHorton:5 JStrahan

"," by (edited by Scott H. Andrews), appeared in issue 200, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

The narration and dialogue are a little unnatural, but the biggest problem is the concept that an infant confined in isolation for fifteen years could emerge as anything but a vegetable, nor that the parents who confined their children would have any feelings for the things that emerged after all that time.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 200)
Seth Dickinson Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB

9 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I liked this one a great deal. I was able to accept the abnarchs being other than vegetables on the basis of hints that the Cteri nobles were somewhat transhuman - in some ways, they fit the archetypes of fair folk or perhaps Melniboneans. The use of language also fits the archetype. Maybe I'm less demanding of plausibility in fantasy than you are, but once past that issue, the story packs a hell of an emotional punch.

    Jonathan Edelstein

  2. Thanks for the comment. Obviously if it worked for you, then it worked for you, and that's the most anyone can ask of a story. But in the spirit of analysis, let's see if I can respond to your points.

    First, I like the analogy to the MelnibonΓ©ans--it would be consistent with their casual cruelty too. It's not enough to fix the story for me, I don't think, but it's good food for thought.

    My biggest problem was the quality of the writing, not the believability. Narration that "explains" emotions always reads badly, as does dialogue that sounds like the speakers are giving speeches to a crowd even when it's just the two of them talking in private. There are quite a few simple editorial errors as well. E.g missing words. Fantasy stories do use a different flavor of the English language, but (I claim) this isn't it.

    As for believability, I don't really expect scientific or technical plausibility from fantasy, but I do expect a certain amount of consistency. Transhuman or not, the story itself encourages us to view Irasht as a person with zero understanding. Look at this passage:

    "Irasht is at the peak of her power as an abnarch. All the logic she learns will confine her. When she sees the difference between sunrise and sunset she will diminish. When she understands that the chattering shapes around her are people like herself, she will be a lesser weapon. So Kavian keeps to the strict discipline of the handler. No language. Simple food. Strict isolation, when possible"

    It ticked me off, then, when, just four paragraphs later, it says, "When Irasht finds doors she goes to them and waits patiently, hoping, Kavian imagines, that someone will invite her in." But from what we just read, she shouldn't know what a door was nor what it was for, and she certainly wouldn't understand an invitation. Not if she doesn't understand what other people are (or that they live in houses).

    Likewise, I didn't buy it when the story claimed that Irasht feared the dark and isolation. It was what she grew up with. She should be comfortable with it. Heck, the story told us earlier that Kavian had feared she'd respond to all the stimulus by becoming catatonic. The story just can't have it both ways.

    Therefore, the ending had zero emotional punch for me because I purely didn't believe that Irasht would have any idea how to invite the children to leave their isolation, nor did I believe that she (or they) would want that in the first place. I could see her wanting to go back in, but definitely not letting anyone else out.

    If these were just things I thought of after I'd finished the story, then I wouldn't weigh them so heavily, but these were things that popped me out of the story over and over. Perhaps I'm being too picky (it clearly didn't bother you at all), but I don't see this kind of problem in more than about 5% of the stories I read.

    1. Hmmm, fair points. I generally rationalized those passages by assuming that Irasht had been out for some time and had learned things despite Kavian's best efforts (which the story conceded was inevitable), and that the dark room in which she was raised, despite comparison to the womb, might inspire fear as she became more accustomed to the world outside. But I can see how you would find those things jarring.

      I've been reading RSR for a whole and finding it very useful - most of the time, your ratings don't differ by more than a point (or rarely two) from what I'd assign. I commented here because this is one of the rare occasions where we're far apart, and I notice that when we disagree, it's usually over continuity issues like the ones you cited. Maybe you read as a programmer while I read as a lawyer who's comfortable with loopholes. :P

      Jonathan Edelstein

    2. I should add that I'll forgive a lot of technical flaws when presented with sympathetic characters and a premise as fascinating as the abnarchs. When the story's boring, the technical issues stand out much more, but if I get absorbed in the world, the fault lines simply become part of the landscape. Maybe that's strange given the attention I pay to world-building and continuity in my writing (see, e.g.), but writing and reading are two different acts.

      Again, it's entirely reasonable that the continuity issues would stand out more to you.

    3. Thanks for being a regular reader! I think it's unavoidable that different people respond different ways to the same works. That's why it's helpful to have a variety of different reviewers. It's a shame that the field has lost two or three really good short SFF reviewers in the past year.

      You might be right that programmers want continuity more than lawyers do. :-) For this story, though, I think the key problem for me was that I was so horrified by the likely consequences of raising deliberately-sensorially-deprived children that I couldn't look past it when the story seemed to minimize those.

    4. Hi Greg! Just as a point of curiosity, Irasht's behavior and condition is based on the case of the feral child Genie, who was confined in sensory deprivation from age 2 to 13. You can check it out here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genie_(feral_child)

      The abnarchs get some stimulation during critical phases from the magic of the encasquement, but otherwise I tried to keep as closely as possible to the horrible reality.

    5. A very famous, very sad case. Your abnarchs had it much worse, though. Genie's isolation didn't start until age 2, and she wasn't deprived of light at all. She had some contact with people too. Abnarchs went into isolation in infancy and were kept in utter darkness with no human contact.

  3. I rate this story ★★★★, three more than RSR. I might misuse the term, but I call this "grand fantasy" done well in short form with big battles featuring powerful wizards fighting large armies. I'm not a fan of writing that has a lot of dialog and many weird names in the first few hundred words, but this author's style with short sentences and dialog somehow works for me.

    As a software developer, the difference between the writing in this story and many others I've read is like reading clean object-oriented C++ or C# code that follows a spare coding style and consistent naming convention with good forward declarations, versus reading verbose spaghetti code written in COBOL or FORTRAN with little thought given to naming convention and coding style. :-)

    1. After rereading it (and rereading the comments), I've revised this one up to two stars. The writing style doesn't work for me, but I'll withdraw the claim that it's actually wrong. My real problem with this story is that I cannot suspend disbelief for it, and that's two-stars, not one.

      That's as far as I can go, though.