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Monthly Archives: July 2010

(Contains spoilers: see link to story in the first line)

Samantha Henderson’s “The Red Bride” is an admirable example of concise world building. In a less than 1800 words, Henderson introduces the world of the Var, an alien race that has been enslaved by humanity in what is implied to be a merciless campaign of colonization.

The sense of perspective in “The Red Bride” is brilliantly executed. The story is told from the point of view of a human child—a character who is never described and who doesn’t utter a single word. It doesn’t matter; the child isn’t important. The child is there to lend a pair of ears to the reader; The child is there to hear the voice of an elderly Var woman as she tells the story of the Red Bride.

The Var woman, enslaved by a human family to be the equivalent of a nanny, speaks with a voice bristling with emotion and conflicting feelings. She has not led an easy life; her people have been humiliated, their cities occupied, and their bodies beaten. Events have finally come to a crux, and a manner of rebellion is underway. The nanny finds herself in an unfamiliar position of power, and takes pleasure being the one to giving orders, even if it is to a child.

The nanny’s tale is more than just a list of grievances or a declaration of independance. Her words hint at a cultural grating between Var and humans, with the former having a number of truly alien qualities. The Var language is more fractured than ours, their perceptions of beauty are vastly different, and their attitude toward death cannot be more foreign. But while Henderson does well in creating a believably alien Var culture, her attempts to incorporate Var mythology and legends into the story fall flat.

All together, there are four mysterious figures in the story–the Red Bride, Vallhan, the hound, and the bird–and are all obfuscated by a vague descriptions and a lack of information. Even after re-readings, I still can’t say who Vallhan is, or what the hound is. If the point was to pass off these figures as Var cultural icons incomprehensible by humans, then I found myself annoyed rather than mystified. If the point was to demonstrate the difficulty of translating between the Var language and the human tongue (“all chopped up nicely for your eager birdlike gape”), then I believe the delivery could be improved. The clearest explanations only raise further questions.

“You understand that because this is not a story of your time, or race, or planet, that the hound is not a hound as the Bride is not a Bride as the rubies are not rubies, but the Bride is certainly red, because both Var and human blood are red.”

Regardless of the intention, so many unknowns in such a short story were too many for me to keep track of; it came off as overambitious. Did I miss a key or cipher somewhere?

This isn’t to say that all the story’s mysteries were unwelcome. For example, I loved the nickname for the human child—Twigling—and imagining its potential roots in the household. The hints at humans and Var both being “Seeded Races” was a fun element, too. It added another layer of complexity to the uprising, a sense of brother fighting against brother. I also saw it weighing into the Var decision to spare the humans from total extermination. Finally, the “seeded races” motif implies the existence of another, older race than both the Var and humans alike. After all, if there are seeds, there must be a gardener.

The pacing of the story is excellent, the use of suspense in particular. Just as I acclimatized to the colonial world, just as I was beginning to wonder about what was physically going on in the one-sided conversation between the Var nanny and the human child—the speaker drops this little nugget.

“No, Twigling, you can’t move. I put stillweed in your tea tonight. You can hear, and see and breathe, but you limbs will not obey you. Let me finish the story.”

Yes ma’am, I thought after reading those lines. And finish the story she does. The revolution commences, thick with the imagery of birth and rebirth (another motif prevelant throughout the tale). I was left breathing heavily at the Var’s last words; I wanted more. Yet other than my qualms about the “mysterious four”, I found the story to be a tight unity, no longer than it had to be.

Historically, the story evokes periods of colonialization and the clash between unequal cultures and cilvilizations. In particular, it reminded me of tales that came out of the Congo Free State between 1870-1908, when the African colony was under the control of Leopold II, king of Belgium. Fittingly for comparison, the period is often identified by the image of “Red Rubber,” after the rubber trees that the Congolese were forced to harvest. I wonder if this was an influence for Henderson’s story, but I think it unlikely. Sadly, there are too many events of our past that echo the themes of “The Red Bride”.

Before signing off, I wouldn’t dream of  not mentioning something about the author. Samantha Henderson works out of Southern California and has been published in Realms of Fantasy, Fantasy Magazine, Chizine, Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit and Abyss & Apex. Her work has been podcast at Escape Pod, PodCastle and Drabblecast.

Samantha was once asked, during an Author Spotlight at Fantasy Magazine, “Where do all your ideas come from?” A routine question for authors.

Samantha’s answer, however, was delightful and anything but routine:

At the third dark moon of every year I go to a nameless island, where cliffs rear their lowering countenances over a churning black sea. We gather on the narrow shore. We are not allowed to speak each others’ names, although there are some I recognize there; our eyes meet and we quickly turn away. Each time we fear we cannot find the gaping mouth of the cave, each time one or two of the suppliants makes a false step on the slippery black rocks and is seized by the hungry waves.

The cave’s walls are slippery with moss, and we enter one by one. Inside there is a maze of tunnels, dimly lit by the phosphorescent, eldritch growths on the walls and I follow the pattern I was given so long before: left, right, two passages over, left. I enter the chamber of the Thing Without a Face; I am given a small plain wood box, the size of a Bible; I wince away from the sight of the preternaturally long fingers; I nod in acknowledgment and make my way back — right, two passages over, left, right. Perhaps all who go there have a different path to take, perhaps it makes no difference. I’ve never dared to ask.

Home safe again, I sit on the floor of the bathroom, the only room whose door I can lock. I light a single candle, grasp my rosary in my left hand, and open the box with my right.

That’s called staying in character. At least, I hope so–I’ve read too much C’thulu Mythos to know the dangers of nameless islands in the middle of the ocean.

-Adam

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I’m Adam.

I enjoy reading, writing, and thinking about science fiction. I enjoy it enough that I created Critical SF to share my interest with fellow fans and future fans alike.

Critical SF is a place where I write about the science fiction that inspires me, tickles me, and opens my eyes to new possibilities. For each post I pick a science fiction story—it can be the work of an avant-garde author, an old master or a hidden talent—then I chew it, digest it, extract its juicy essence, and write about it. What I write changes from story to story—there’s no fixed format. Sometimes I’ll write a review; other times I’ll just ooh and ahh over a single clever phrase. I’ll always devote a few comments to the authors, creative titans that they are. For some reason most authors insist that they lead boring lives unworthy of attention. Liars, each one of them.

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