REVIEW: “A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley

Review of Charlotte Ashley, “A Fine Balance”, Podcastle: 517 — Listen Online. Reviewed by Heather Rose Jones

In an early-modern secondary world setting that gave me an Ottoman Empire feel, the social and political balance between two ethnic groups is maintained in part by an elaborate system of ritual dueling and economic forfeiture. But the power differentials that underlie the superficially “fair” system come to a head when one side is willing to cheat to claim permanent advantage. The story is told from the point of view of an apprentice duelist who witnesses and participates in the crucial confrontations.

I really enjoyed the worldbuilding in this story and how the listener’s understanding of the social conflicts and function of the dueling rituals builds gradually to support the main conflict. The one flaw for me was that the play-by-play of some of the duels themselves got tedious, but I know this is a feature that people with more direct familiarity with martial arts may instead find a plus.

I particularly enjoyed how women were given pride of place in the narrative without needing to erase the underlying patriarchal nature of the cultural setting.

Originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction

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