Who was the winner?
Let’s see what the judges have to say.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is our guest judge this week (we thought Ellie might be the slightest bit biased as a judge). Donaldstrives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).
We all knew it would be a good competition this week, but wow. Wow. Two different visions of steampunk. Two different types of revenge. Two stellar competitors. I’m going to give a few comments on the stories before I move on to my verdict.
“The Aether Mine” — This is the sort of story that made me fall in love with steampunk as a genre. I love Michael Morecock’s (ur)steampunk novels, and Ellie Ann’s story definitely had a strong The Warlord of the Air vibe for me. And I’m a big fan of the Fool as an archetype, so I loved that part of Empress Vaas’s plan. I love the seasonal structure of the story, though the thought did cross my mind that if the Empress’s clothing represents the national dress, did the Nesian culture experience seasons the way that the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere does?
I love the way that the political intrigue is portrayed. As Vaas planted and nourished her harvest I felt strong resonances of the fantasy novel Kushiel’s Dart. The story makes me think of baklava, a layered pastry that combines familiar flavors in an exotic way. If I have a complaint about “The Aether Mine” at all, it would be that the story is too short. There’s such a rich world here. It really deserves a novel, or at least a novella. I think a greater length would give even more impact to the ending.
“The Weight and the Balance” — Al’s story stands more at the Weird Western end of the steampunk genre, with many of the traditional Western motifs: the greenhorn heading west, the straight-laced school marm, the Indian Wars of the Great Plains. I love how Al has tweaked American geography in his story. Heck, if the New Madrid fault line ever goes, we really could have a Great Fissure instead of a Mississippi River.
As the crawler pulls up on the fort, I feel echoes of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with a smaller vendetta playing out against the U. S. Civil War. In the end, “The Weight and the Balance” is a paean to the ultimate emptiness of such quests. Can human action ever balance the scales of life and death? Does revenge always beget revenge ad infinitum? Did Jonathan win or lose?
Political intrigue versus Weird Western. The loss of a brother versus the loss of a nation and way of life. Two very different stories, but both excellent. In the end, I have to vote for the story which had the greatest emotional impact on me, and this week that story is:
“The Aether Mine”
Rich Alix is our second judge. He is a patron of The Human Echoes Podcast, and an all-around awesome guy. He is the voice of the common man in this contest, and here is his judgment:
Steamy Revenge. Possibly the most anticipated challenge in the arena yet. Let’s begin.
“The Aether Mine” — Wow. The depth of this story is astounding. There is so much backstory here that we don’t know, and we don’t need to. To me, just knowing that it exists makes the whole world that much more real, that much easier to accept. I feel that if I were to ask Ellie questions about this world, she would already have all the answers. That feeling goes so far in a story like this where we are asked to accept some very fantastic ideas: automatons that operate for centuries, flying cities, steam powered dirigibles, weaponized Tesla coils, nevermind the mysterious Aether for which this story is named.
The best crafted world is no good without characters to inhabit it. Our main character here is wonderful. Showing such devotion to her land and her people that she would willingly endure the mantle and mannerisms of the fool and play the “long game” to win is such a great idea. I thought that the seasonal statements at the beginning of each paragraph were a nice way to show the passage of time.
I loved the villain here also. Powerful but with a weakness. Well done.
The only real issue I have with this story is the end. I understand that Juliet’s entire world revolved around her son, I just found it a little hard to believe that she would give up on her entire empire so quickly. I would have expected her to fight a little harder at first.
“The Weight and the Balance” — First off, I love the title. Catchy before I read it, meaningful afterwards.
Our protagonist Jonathan is an interesting character. Accountant turned pioneer/gunslinger, we aren’t sure if he is going to be a reluctant hero or is just another dead cowboy but I wanted to find out.
I enjoyed the way the story was told in flashbacks and I liked the twists on the standard western tropes. Covered wagons become transport mechs, Indians get spider mounts, etc.
Jonathan’s doubt and introspection work well to add tension to the story without much actual confrontation. Riding along with him we are left to wonder if he will be able to avenge his brother, whether he really has it in him.
Where the story really shines for me is at the end. The tension that has been building the whole trip doesn’t pan out, his brother’s killer is already dead, the attack on the fort is over, Jonathan is left frustrated. Even when he tries to “prove himself” on a dying kid, he is foiled. I got the feeling that single misfire saved Jonathan in ways he might not even realize.
Freed from the shackles of revenge and unencumbered by the remorse of having killed a man he can go on and live the life he wanted or go back to what he was doing before. What started out as a trip of inconvenience and necessity became a kind of spiritual journey for him.
This story does have its downside too, however. I wish more was done with the schoolteacher, maybe more of a hint of another possible life for Jonathan out there. She seems like an extra to the story as it is, she’s there when she’s needed and then just fades away between her scenes. I’m not sure that you couldn’t have had the same effect if Jonathan made the journey by himself.
This week my vote goes to:
“The Aether Mine”
And there you have it! Ellie Ann is the first person to dethrone the titan that is Albert Berg! She is also the first woman to take home a win in The Writer’s Arena. Great work Ellie! Now, everyone go buy her book!
Real quick, let’s take a look at what the audience had to say about this challenge:
Looks like this is a unanimous victory for Ellie! What a great competitor and story. Thank you all for joining us in The Writer’s Arena. We will see you next for TWA #12!
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