The story has many echoes of the traditional Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” which puts me in mind of Edith Pattou’s East, one of my favorite books. So I really enjoyed reading this. I also enjoyed it for the optimistic view it paints of happiness at the end of life, after the death of a spouse. It is a sweet story of how love transcends boundaries, both literal and physical, and Hagey needs only a few words to paint neat pictures of each of the characters.
It’s hard to know whether to describe this story as SF or dystopian, though the unhappy future presented in it makes me lean towards the latter. Sometimes, future-oriented SF can just be so damn depressing.
Reading this, it feels like the tenses and temporal points are not mapped out correctly. There is a lot of past perfect, and a lot of present, and the “once, years ago, Alice could read Lenore’s moods by her eyes” – shouldn’t that really be “once, years ago, Alice had been able to…”? Because surely we are not talking about a single moment in time but rather an extended period. These shifts in tenses and the oblique way with which Grygotis approaches her story combine to make many aspects of the story unclear and uncertain. Both Lenore and Alice know why their insurance premiums are too high, but unfortunately, by the end of the story, I don’t, and the power that the ending might have had is lost on me.
The story opens with quite a bit of scene and history setting: We are told much about the geography, and about physical aspects of Spur herself, but what is most interesting are the references to “What Came Before”. It is clear that this is intended to be what we are familiar with today in our ordinary world and lives — oceans, cities, etc. — but what is intriguing is the question that is left unanswered at the start: Before what?
This question is never answered.
There are other aspects of the logic of the story that I find perplexing. “Hunting was not a sport or game,” we are told, but when Spur kills her first quarry, she does so to obtain favor from the Green Lady, not from any need. Though she eats the heart and the liver, she then leaves the rest to be despoiled. As we are told her purpose in searching for her true quarry, we find it is not for any bodily need but a social one — unless she kills her quarry on this, her third attempt, Spur will “spend her life in perpetual childhood and servitude while her magic remained asleep and caged until it shriveled and died inside her”. It is hard to see how this doesn’t make the hunting a game or sport, albeit one with important social consequences; even with these, it is still a game to be played, to be won or lost.
In the end, I felt like I was never quite as invested in Spur and her hunt as I should have been; nor was there any final twist at the end to surprise me in the climax. It was a solid story, but not sparkling.
The telling of this story has a fairy-tale like quality. No one is named. It is the man, and the woman, and his mother, and her grandfather, and the baker, and the other people of the town. But the story does not involve any of the standard fairy tale tropes; it is, instead, entirely of itself.
The title of the story is not especially explanatory, and even 3/4 of the way in, it is not at all clear who the watchers are. Sometimes, though, reading Jones’s detailed and precise prose — such as the following:
The single bee squatted there, its wings pressed back taut against its body. He could feel each of its legs, thin wisps of muscle, begin to give way as the bee slowly crawled up his leg. It moved methodically, each leg stepping in syncopated intervals, up his thigh and past his waist to his belly.
— one feels like it is the reader themself who is watching.
From start to finish, I had no idea where this story was going or where it would end up. I would love to hear it told aloud, around a flickering campfire on a dark night.
I often find short stories a frustrating length to read, because they are over so quickly. The really good ones I want to last forever, so that I can lose myself in them for hours. It is true that “All tales must end”, as Muenzler and her storytelling narrator tell us, but this one ended far too quickly. It was so good. Can I have another like it, please? Or an entire novel built around this world and these characters? Because — as Muenzler and the narrator also tell us — “every story has a beginning. And a middle”, and I want to hear all of it, the entire story, not just the end, which is all we get in this tale, but the middle and the beginning too.
There are many reasons why we began this website. But finding and reading stories like this one is by far the best reason to do what we do.
One way in which short stories are trickier than longer media is that the author has very little time to catch the reader’s attention and get them involved in the characters. By the end of the fourth paragraph of “The Red Tree”, I am already involved. I do not know why Alder is hiding in a tree, I do not know why the man at the foot of the tree is crying, but Suri paints his anguish and fear so clearly and strongly that one cannot help but want to know the reason for it, and what one can do to comfort him.
But this story is the story of Alder, not of the boy. Alder’s name is, from the very start, a hint to her identity, and I hope it is not too much of a spoiler to say how much I enjoy a dryad story; for whatever reason, of all the well-known creatures in the ordinary human mythological repertoire, dryads (and naiads) feature very infrequently in fantasy and speculative stories. One benefit of this is that there are fewer preconceived notions of who they are and what their relationship to their trees, and thus authors have more freedom to play with these myths. Suri’s take is both poignant and beautifully written. It is a story of hope and vitality — and just a touch of revenge. I think I would’ve liked the story if it had ended up the note of hope, but I can see how the ending Suri wrote is fitting and meet.
The short story is a hard length to pull off sometimes. The author has to give the characters enough life and depth for them to be worth the reader investing in them. There has to be enough background to give the illusion of an entire world sprawling out in front of the reader, but not so much that the story is bogged down by information rather than story. There has to something that answers the question “Why this story? Why this narrator?” — there are so many stories that can be told, why was this one chosen? And there has to be some sort of resolution, something that makes the reader feel it was worth their while to have read the story. It’s tough to pull all of these off in one and the same piece.
What this story does well is the characters. Both Nerys and Seika are rounded characters with distinct personalities, and any SFF story where the central characters are women will always get a thumbs up from me. There is also a lot of details about the geography, both natural and artificial, which helps to set the story. However, at times I was left with a desire to have more setting; the little hints that are dropped here and there provide a sketch of the scene but leave more questions than they answer. Where is home? What is the ancient city? Why is it frozen? Is home also frozen? Why are they in the ancient city? Why is it there? None of the answers to these questions is necessary to understand the story, but they do linger and niggle.
Another niggle comes from the resolution. So many short stories end in or involve death, in part because death provides a good resolution; it is, in many ways, easy. It is easier to die than to live. It is easier to tell a story of death than a story of life, because death is neat and simple and final, and life is messy and complex and unbounded. This observation should not be taken as a criticism of this story; but it is perhaps a criticism of the genre and length in general: Why aren’t there more happy endings?