“A Serpent in the Gears” by Margaret RonaldSeptember 12, 2010 at 12:55 am | Posted in Short Stories | 2 Comments
It appears the Short Story Club story list is taking a tour through the different reasons I don’t like short stories. Last week we had a story that had some interesting things to say but little in the way of plot or characters. This week’s story, “A Serpent in the Gears” by Margaret Ronald from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, has some interesting characters and a lot of action and excitement but only started to say interesting things. A fun story, in other words, but a tease.
In one sense, I liked the story a lot, as evidenced by the fact that after I finished it I looked up the author to see if she’d written a novel in this setting. Had one been available, it would have gone on my to-read list. However, this reaction is also reflective of how unsatisfied I felt by the story itself. Yes, there is a basic crisis that is set up and then resolved, but the basic crisis wasn’t itself too interesting. Meanwhile the narrative sets up several much more interesting issues and leaves them hanging, like the nature of the changes to the narrator’s homeland, the conflicted feelings of the narrator about his homeland and the society in which he lives, and the details of the nature of magic and its effects on society. Not to mention, while I didn’t find this as immediately compelling, the discussion at the end of a future invasion makes the story seem more like a prologue to a novel than a standalone story.
Is this just a matter of taste? To some extent, it must be…in the past I’ve noted I expect more out of short stories than a lot of people seem to. But I think in this case, at least, I can point to story-specific reasons for my reaction. The story provides closure on two issues: the Regina‘s mission and the nature and origin of the narrator. The narrator’s unique circumstances are strongly hinted at all the way up to where it is confirmed about halfway through, so it wasn’t really a twist. I think my ambivalence about the Regina‘s mission comes straight from the narrator, who summarizes it in a paragraph or two and then goes back to the stuff I came away from the story interested in. If the narrator doesn’t care whether the mission succeeds or fails, why should I?
It doesn’t help that “Aaris Valley” was the thinnest part of the world building. We’re told it’s an insignificant backwater, but then it turns out that multiple countries have spies aboard the Regina with objectives we assume (for they are not actually given) are sinister. And then at the end, a militant and expansionist Aaris is a thought to be a grave threat. Just how big is this valley? None of this is clear, so neither are the stakes of the mission.
I should mention that although this type of setup with no payoff is most common in short stories, there are a fair number of novels that suffer from this as well. One of my major complaints with Steph Swainston’s series of novels beginning with The Year of Our War was how parsimonious the books were (at least the ones I read) with developing the fascinating world. I actually think having a short story function as a sort of gateway drug for a novel in the same setting is a good idea (I think Ken Scholes’ “A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon” from last year’s Short Story Club had this relationship with Lamentation) but it works best if the novel actually exists.