This month's Fantasy Review is going to be a little bit different. The chosen book is Shadows Beneath, a short story anthology written by the four members of the Writing Excuses podcast: Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, and Brandon Sanderson. Each week, a different story of the anthology will be featured. This week's will be Mary Robinette Kowal's story "A Fire in the Heavens."
But first, a quick explanation of this book. The Writing Excuses team put this anthology together as a tool for new and emerging writers. The book includes the initial brainstorming session that took place on Writing Excuses for each novella. The podcasters all share their ideas and work out the overall plot for their story. The book also includes the first draft of the story, allowing the readers to get a feel for what was added to and what was cut from the final version. And finally, each story has a second podcast where the first draft is discussed and improved. The bonus material in this story is overwhelming! For the podcast episodes, there's also a link (in the eBook version) to listen to it online, rather than read the transcript in the book.
Without further ado, I bring you:
"A Fire in the Heavens"
By Mary Robinette Kowal
This review will contain spoilers.
Katin is a follower of the Five Sisters—a religious group that believes their people came to the current continent from Selen, their homeland across the ocean. Katin has been sent, along with a hired ship and crew, to search for the ancestral homeland.
As they sail, they spy a moon on the horizon, which gets bigger and higher in the sky the further they sail. The crew and Katin are apprehensive about the moon's appearance, but they press on. Finally, they spy land, and they sail into port. The people's complexion is similar to Katin's, and those who follow the Five Sisters. She is convinced they have found their homeland.
But, once in port, there is a communication barrier. Katin's religious texts use an old dialect, which is similar to the one spoken on this continent, but not quite the same. And worse, she discovers that the people here don't worship the Fives Sisters. They worship the moon, and anyone who does not worship the moon is sentenced to death.
Katin must fight for her life—and the crew of the ship—with a bare minimum of cultural and linguistic knowledge of this unknown land.
This concept is so fascinating. I love the idea of two worlds, on complete opposite ends of the world, having no knowledge of each other. Katin is a well-developed character, one who is easy to relate to as she searches for the roots of her heritage. There are times when the things she believes are completely shattered—like the existence of the moon—but she presses on. She doesn't let all the stumbling blocks deter her from her faith or her path.
The language barrier on the new continent is well done. It seems like in movies or books, we fall into that tendency of having everyone speak the same language. Having that be one of the main conflicts was very refreshing. Katin could communicate a little, but the language had evolved from the ancient texts the Five Sisters worshippers study. The lack of reliable communication really added to the reality of the story and to the overall plotlines.
The idea, though interesting, felt a little too grand to be condensed into a short story length. I feel this tale would have done better at twice the length, or even as a full novel. There were so many aspects that could have been explored that weren't, due to the size. I would have loved to see more of Katin's current continent—it's mentioned, but never shown—and the way of life there. I would have loved to see more of the new continent—much of the time there is spent in jail. Short stories have been expanded into novels before; I hope Mary Robinette Kowal will eventually expand this one.
This was a solid story. The action, the conflicts, the characters were all well done, and interesting. The story kept me hooked. The ending, too, had another hook, which begs for an extended version, or perhaps a sequel. Like Kowal's other works, its language is beautiful, like poetry; she does an excellent job of illustrating the wonders of a new world with only words as her medium.
4 our of 5
If you are interested in buying this book, it is available here, at the Dragonmount eBook store. You can listen to the first and second Writing Excuses brainstorming sessions on this story by clicking the links below.
Next week's story will be Dan Wells' "I.E.Demon."