Litain the Thief by A. J. Lumaren

This short story follows garden mage who is infatuated with a noblewoman. She, on the other hand, holds him in slightly less esteem than her chamber pot. Being the man that he is, he decides to aid her and her lover by stealing a bit of a holy flame from its temple. The one thing this story has going for it, the subversion of the usual formula of courtly love, doesn’t make up for the problems with the content and format of the story.

I’ll start with the good. In most tales of medieval chivalry, you have knights doing ridiculous things to impress a woman whom they’ve chosen as their lady. The relationship is in most instances a chaste one, rendering the love purer (in the medieval mindset). The knights were usually upstanding individuals by the standards of the day. The author of this novella does a good job playing with and twisting this formula.

In this instance, the knight and his lady are petty, she focused on herself and the knight on his debts. The lady’s garden mage, Litain, occupies the role typically held by the knight in this kind of story. Due to his station his imagined relationship with his lady will always remain chaste. He embarks on a perilous journey on her behalf with the understanding she won’t even acknowledge his existence if he succeeds.

Litain succeeds, bit the sacred flame curses both the lady and her knight so that their appearances reflect the people they really are. The result isn’t pretty. Litain suffers no ill effects besides his own guilt, but he returns to the temple to confess his crimes. He is forgiven, although lady and her knight are left to their fates. It’s an interesting spin on stories involving courtly love.

Now, onto the content. A good short story has one point, a lone message it delivers to the reader. Anything in the story that doesn’t efficiently work towards this goal is wasted space. In this instance, meandering and unnecessary descriptions as well a tedious monologue in which the knight lays out a dilemma the reader already knows drag out what is a simple story at its heart. Worse, the characters lack personality and there’s no sense of urgency driving the narrative forward. The author not only wastes a lot of space, but also creates something as interesting as a prescription for antibiotics with what’s left.

Additionally, the author uses too much flowery language. Although the descriptions of Litain’s gardening, the appearance of the various characters, and the environs they occupy are decently written, they do absolutely nothing to move the story forward or set the tone. Descriptiveness is only useful if it helps set the mood. If it’s doing nothing more than telling the reader what something looks like at length, it has no place in a short story. The best writing in the world won’t save a three paragraph description of biscuits.

On top of these issues, the story never finds its stride, a problem made worse by the fact that it is divided into seven chapters with multiple breaks in most of them. There wasn’t enough relevant content to format it as a novella. Any time you’re writing a story that is essentially one thought and find yourself constantly breaking up the text with formatting divisions such as chapters, odds are you need to trim down the content and refocus on the one thought you’re trying to communicate to the reader.

Ultimately, this could have been a somewhat interesting story that played with the traditional formulas of courtly love. Instead, it amounted to little more than a pleasant description of gardening followed by a clumsy morality tale. I give it a 2/5.

If you want to give it a gander, you can pick up a copy from Amazon here.

ApartFrom by Constance A. Dunn

Ms. Dunn’s book follows three people struggling with their regrets. They rapidly lose touch with reality, and the results are predictably tragic. The author does a good job of setting the mood, but the balance between the philosophical and narrative elements of the novella is uneven. The supernatural elements only serve to confuse things, and too many long sentences of questionable grammatical merit don’t help. What could have been a fascinating study of one aspect of human emotion is instead a vaguely disturbing series of inexplicable events that aren’t particularly gripping.

First, the novella is more concerned with presenting the philosophical angst of the characters than it is with telling a story. What matters here is how they feel, the hints the reader is given as to why they feel that way, and the submission to their own despair that is the ultimate result. I enjoyed how writer gave just enough information to communicate what was wrong with these individuals, but otherwise the narrative was weak. There was no natural progression between events, and the characters had little or no agency. They felt more like pawns on a chessboard the author was using to make a point than actual people.

Second, there are too many strange things going on in the book that have absolutely no explanation. Now, this sort of thing certainly appeals to some readers, but I quickly lose interest when I realize it’s going to be impossible for me to determine why things are happening in any given scenario. It’s why I just trust physicists when they say that I’m not going to fly off the face of the Earth rather than enquiring into the matter myself. The supernatural elements in this book are just forces of nature shoving the characters towards their inevitable dooms, but they’re so amorphous that it’s impossible to develop a sense of dread or anticipation. Because of that, the strange happenings only serve to confuse things and dilute the point the author was trying to make.

Finally, there are issues with the writing itself, one that every single author bumps into at some point in their careers. The first is that there are too many run on or otherwise grammatically incorrect sentences. The second is that the author focuses so much on describing things that I got a great picture of the tiny details but could never get the gist of the characters or the world as a whole. Periodic tunnel vision can be a great way to set a scene and illuminate one detail that really brings the scene home to the reader, but done too much it becomes tedious. Third (and this is a sin I’m particularly guilty of myself), the author uses too many commas, which aid and abet her in constructing ungainly sentences.

The theme of the story is a good one: sometimes, bad things happen and the regret from those is more than any single person can handle. It marks them for life. Unfortunately, a supernatural muddle, uninteresting characters, and technical issues undermine what the author sought to accomplish. It’s a shame, because she does a good job of describing the small details and setting the mood. This one is a 2/5.

If you’re interesting in giving it a read (and it’s a short one) you can pick up a copy here.