This week we’re doing the fabulous Christie Yant’s The Three Feats of Agani. This story got a lot of praise when it came out, was selected for Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, was re-podcast by PodCastle even though BCS podcast it when they originally published it, and its failure to get nominated for a Hugo this year is really all the proof you need that the short fiction category for the Hugos this year was completely whack. But then, I would say that.
There’s a lot to love about this story, but the thing that I think sets it apart is the ending. Endings are hard. Lots of brilliant things completely fall apart once they get to the ending. This story nails its dismount, then blithely saunters off because it couldn’t care less whether the judges noticed it was perfect. But this ending is more than fan service to my villainous predilections, or I’d be the only one running all over the internet telling people how awesome it is. This ending works so well because of the work put into earning it by the earlier parts of the story.
A girl sits cross-legged in the dirt before the unlit pyre, her face dotted with yellow clay and her dark hair unbound. The girl has just seen her ninth summer. The man on the pyre is her father. The old woman at her side, bent and gray, is no relation.
The story starts off simple, straight forward, and immediately building up a sense of the girl’s isolation. We don’t get a name for her. We don’t get a name for any character in the story except Agani. No name means the reader can’t quite get a hold of her, and our small bit of isolation from the protagonist gets translated into our feeling her isolation. (Amateur writers withhold names from characters all the time because it’s something the grownups do. It ends badly. This is a trick for the grownups)
We get a brief physical description of the girl, then her age. It’s a passive construction used for the age. “She has just seen her ninth summer,” not “She is nine.” Don’t believe the anti-passive voice hype. This is a perfect example of doing it and doing it well. There’s more distance between reader and protagonist this way, and the bigger that gulf gets, the more we understand what the girl is going through.
And then we end with corpsified dad and no-relation old woman. It’s really hard for a reader to stay emotionally detached from a protagonist sitting a few feet from daddy-corpse, with an unrelated old lady as her only companion. This is the information that lets us turn our isolation into her isolation. Shoot, kid, I’d be nameless and passively nine, too.
This isolation is important because it’s what gives her the space to break from the traditional interpretations of the stories. The interpretations the old woman gives are perfectly credible – we get fed those interpretations for our cultural narratives all the time, and recent trends toward turning things on their head to check out the other perspective notwithstanding (and frequently imperfectly executed) we swallow the interpretation without questioning. But our protagonist is safe from that because she’s too young, getting the stories rushed together, and emotionally cut off from the world around her. Cultural brainwashing hasn’t gotten to her yet, and her anger protects her against the old woman’s attempts to cram it in.
She sits in silence with her rage in her throat and waits for the old woman to speak.
This is the other really important line from the opening. Part of that is because she doesn’t stay silent. She asks her questions. She challenges the approved interpretation. And she gets slapped for it. Good job old lady! You’ve now taught our protagonist to keep her villainous thoughts to herself, setting you up to be completely surprised when she goes all Agani on you. Excellent parenting!
Unheard in the crackle of the fire, she whispers a prayer to the only god who matters.
This is why you want to train your would-be villains into chattiness. The girl is still functionally silent at the end. The first word of this sentence which gets a paragraph all to itself is “Unheard.” But here’s the transformation in the story. At the beginning, the girl was silent and passive. She didn’t even have the words for her feelings. At the end her silence isn’t helplessness or passivity anymore, it’s cover for her very active choices.
This is a coming-of-age plot arc, with our girl claiming agency and making the alliances she needs to cope with an unjust world. If Yant had just slapped three folk tales together, nobody would care. This transition in the frame story is what we need to make it worthwhile and interesting. And she does it so well, so economically (this isn’t a very long story and the frame is a relatively small portion of it) that there’s nothing to get in the way of the utter badassery of the last line.
There are lots of other neat things going on in this story – the negative space of what isn’t said could get poked at quite a bit – so y’all should go to town and take a look at some of that, too.
Next week: The Things by Peter Watts.
Then: Victimless Crimes by Charlie Jane Anders
And in keeping with my “Best dealt with by pretending it isn’t happening” sensibilities, the week after is: Chop Shop by J.B. Park. Okay, maybe that’s not ignoring the significance of the day so much as actively trying to traumatize my blog audience into sharing my sensibilities. Tough. We’ll explore trauma.