This week’s story is Comes the Huntsman by Rachael Acks, originally published by Strange Horizons in July of last year. This story won the Strange Horizons Reader’s Choice poll, and as you know if you pay attention to me on Mondays, Strange Horizons readers are creatures with excellent taste. Also, Tanget were not fans, and that’s always a good sign.
I bring up the Tanget review because I was genuinely conflicted about how I wanted to approach this story for this. There are about seven different angles I could see taking, all which focus on a different aspect of what I really like about this story, but the “story is hard to find” comment makes it pretty clear what I need to do. Because the story here is lovely, and if the reader is having difficulty finding it I’m forced to question whether they’re actually paying attention. This story is non-linear and told twice, once with the what actually happened in the world rendering, and once with the emotional, internal story. Both versions of the story are broken into small vignettes that are then put together to show us how they interact; Acks trusts her readers to be smart enough to figure out the chronology without her stringing out out for us.
What this story is focusing on instead of the chronological arc is the way the two renderings interact with each other and themselves. The first two vignettes belong to the internal arc of the story, and introduce us to three of the four major symbols: apples, the huntsman, the remove heart. All of the symbols in this story are working multiple angles, but the apples gloss mostly as love, the huntsman as the recipient and wielder of love, the removed heart as the consequence of and response to love.
I should never have been mad enough to eat that apple.
This is the “hook” line of the story, the magic line that convinces the reader that yes, they are going to read the whole thing. It’s a fantastic hook line, too, because it works on first reading and holds up with extra meaning on the second reading. On first read it tells the reader “Hey, something is up here, you want to find out what it is.” On second read you realize it’s the narrator, full in the knowledge of what’s happened, equating the acceptance of love with madness, an expression of regret over the acceptance. And that right there, done. I love this story and want to cuddle up with it in our mutual love-is-poison thematic blankets. But that’s just me.
The first vignette introduces us to the apple, tells us the narrator accepts it. The second vignette shows us the consequences of that – the Huntsman gets in, and he cuts out her heart. This is the internal arc, remember, but it’s setting up our symbols and their relationship to each other which is important because they’re going to bleed into the external arc, and they’re going to morph as we move across the story.
The third section is the first to focus on the external arc. This is where we get the foundation for our tale, the back story. Girl is in love with gay best friend, so in love she doesn’t realize he’s gay until she forces him into an awkward rejection. This is where the conflict of the story comes in. It’s not narrator vs world, or narrator vs loss; it’s narrator destroyed by the conflation of romantic and platonic love. The best friend loves her, unquestionably. We know this because Acks sneaks in the fourth major symbol, the blushing yellow.
We’ll learn later about the narrator’s relationship with yellow, but what we see on the first read through is a bouquet of roses that are not red, though they’re touched by it. Red roses would be romantic love and we’d have no conflict, Tanget would be right and there’d be no story. But blushing yellow roses? It’s love, but it’s the wrong kind, and our narrator doesn’t know how to read the symbol. Thus the rejection, painful for both of them, we learn.
Like the first vignettes paired to show us a piece of the internal arc, the third is followed by the fourth which covers a chronology that includes but extends beyond the time frame of the third vignette, but illuminates the image introduced, and shows us the consequences. The roses were yellow because they were meant to be her. We don’t know how long after the rejection the suicide was, and we don’t know that the suicide was actually a result of the rejection.
But we know the events were close enough together that our narrator hadn’t recovered yet, and whatever the best friend’s motives were, as far as she’s concerned, they were related. He’s dead because of the rejection. Because he wanted to be in love with her and could be? Because he did love her and consequently hurting her was more than he could take? The story doesn’t tell us – his internal arc isn’t here – but the questions are right there, pulling the reader into the emotional arc of the story even as we’re being presented with the external arc.
The fifth section ties the two tellings together. It’s presented as a fairly straightforward fleshing out of the details in the external plotline, but she’s hidden the images from the internal arc there.
I calculated the value of everything I ate. I learned safety statistics by heart.
There’s our love, and its consequences. This is how we know that the two arcs are related, that we’re seeing the same story twice. If they never interacted, never related to each other, we’d have something else and need to figure out what that was instead. But no, instead we have a narrator who in the past is being very careful about what she eats, evaluating it closely, which makes her decision to eat the apple in the first vignette more meaningful because it’s an even bigger departure. And we have a heart, filled with safety statistics, and we know that it’s going to be cut out.
The sixth vignette is my favorite. It’s pure internal arc, covering the time between the suicide and the night she eats the apple. The imagery alone is gorgeous enough to justify fondness, but in the context of the story it’s carrying so much emotional weight that it’s spectacular. She’s fleeing the object of love, constantly surrounded by the temptation of love itself, freezing and starving because she can’t accept either, because love has been poisoned by its incompatibilities, and so the passion and nurturing she ought to have become a torment. It’s fraught and lovely.
And the seventh vignette gives us the same segment, except from the external story. She doesn’t go to parties, she doesn’t meet people, she sticks to studying. She’s haunted by the dead friend because she’s afraid of finding out “that the real ghost was me.”
Eight stays in the external timeline, and gives us the external telling of the first two vignettes, but doesn’t manage to stay in the external. The key here is the call back to the roses – the roses were her, remember? And now:
He laughed and kissed her blush away with lips that tasted of apples and absolution.
She’s blushing, like the roses, and that blush is kissed away by love and forgiveness. The intrusion of the romantic onto the platonic, banished by the huntsman who, it’s very clear at this point, is not the dead best friend at this point in the story.
We’re going to come back to nine, because it matters where in the chronology it happens, and there’s an argument to be made.
Ten is our explanation vignette. The narrator has had a breakthrough, finally understands what’s going on, and she shares it with the reader. She’s been haunted by love and a love-object because she hasn’t been heartless all this time; she’s been caught in the same struggle of love seeking an object and failing to connect. It’s also another affirmation that the best friend did love her, did care intensely for her.
And in eleven we have our denouement, our assurance that the narrator won’t be starving herself anymore. She’s whole, and what I particularly like about it is that she’s whole without the huntsman at her side. What she needed wasn’t necessarily to fulfill the cycle, but to stop running from it, to stop being damaged by it. Her problem wasn’t that she didn’t have a Huntsman, but that she was starving herself for fear of the wrong Huntsman.
Which is why we’re coming to nine now. Because there are two Huntsmen in this story, the best friend and the lover. Which one is the one in nine? It could be either, and I’m going to argue that nine actually happens twice, once with each. The kiss is different depending on who it is, the meaning is different depending on who it is, but the prose on the page holds up to both readings. If you assign the vignettes to the two tellings, the external one has more, so counting nine twice helps balance them. Also, with the story doubling up everything else, and all the transforming going on, I think there’s a really good case to be made for reading nine twice.
So take that, Tangent, there’s your story.
Now please, somebody please, analyze the transformation of the symbols across the story, especially the Huntsman and the roses. Also, I’d love to see somebody digging into the cycles and conflicts between the two kinds of love and how the story presents and resolves them.