Review of Sarah E. Donnelly, “In the Frozen, Ancient City”, Luna Station Quarterly 31: Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.
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?