Short Story Club: “Thieves of Silence”

This week’s story is by Holly Phillips, and can be found at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, here. Rich Horton liked it:

Holly Phillips goes from strength to strength. “Thieves of Silence”, at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, is the lovely tale of Zel, a thief who, as the story opens, invades a rich man’s house to steal enough to keep ehr and her lover from ruin. But the rich man’s daughters are witches, and Zel is captured — in more ways than one. Zel’s lover Gannet, meanwhile, schemes to land a rich husband, and so we have a rich net of betrayal and maneuvering, shifting loyalties, unexpected emotional responses.

Lois Tilton, also likes it:

A tale of some complexity. While the witches suggests it was their spell that changed everything, the real driver of this story is Gannet’s selfishness–which is a lot more clear than the working of the spell. Readers should find themselves in sympathy with Zel.


It’s not James’ cup of tea, however:

The story is about a thief who stumbles upon some witches. The writing is nice with some evocative description, but I just don’t get on with this style of Fantasy story. It does nothing for me. I’m reminded of one-off bespoke RPGs that I played many (many) years ago, with thieves and masters and servants. Nothing ever seems to surprise me in this style of story, nothing ever keeps me hooked. I miss the ideas and invention and provocation that a great SF story can deliver.

Did it work for you?

19 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “Thieves of Silence”

  1. This felt to me like a story told at novel density, but cut short to fit into a shorter frame. The issue there being that we simply don’t get enough of the setting to make it feel anything but generic. In a novel, there would be room enough perhaps for lengthy asides to give us some historical backstory or telling moments from the character’s pasts to illuminate where they come from and how that has created them. Instead, what we have here is a story that leans too much on traditional fantasy furniture, and too much on the standard-fantasy definition of ‘thief’ as profession rather than something you become in a moment of desperation.

    So it all feels a bit rootless, I guess, somehow unmoored from anything other than fantasy I’ve read (and, as per James, played) before now. There are some nice writerly moments, but the author should be careful, as many of them don’t work as well as they should. The most compressed and impressionistic moments (the first paragraph, the second spellcasting) require a bit more labor to pass unnoticed among the less ornamental prose.

    The characters are good. It’s clear that the author has a clear conception of each of them, but again we suffer from the ‘novel density’ issue. At this pace, we just don’t have enough interaction time to fully sell each motivation and decision, which leads to more floatiness. There’s promise here, but I think that the author could benefit quite a lot from getting good feedback from someone who isn’t quite so immersed in the genre, so it could be pointed out where the author is expecting the reader to know something that they may not know, or know differently than the author.

  2. Didn’t work for me. Everyone is deeply unsympathetic, especially the witches, since the spend most of their screen time, when they aren’t casually tossing out death threats, curses, and mind-subverting spells, complaining that they are hated. The association, I suppose, is with historical “witches”, persecuted minorities, and women in male-dominated societies.

    Yet all those historical groups were the victims of stereotypes, and the fear based on gross distortions of reality. As portrayed, these witches are indeed something to be feared. Their desire to just “be left alone” doesn’t square with their power over the life and minds of other people. Why do they study and cultivate such power if not to use it? I can think of many possible answers to that question, but the story presents none.

  3. Have to join with the negative voices on this one. I found this a long, slow work to slog through, and it didn’t deliver enough originality or interesting themes to make it worth the while. The authors clearly isn’t void of talent and there’s a lot in here that could be compelling, but as is there seems to be either too much or too little for a good narrative.

  4. Interesting. I’m much closer to Rich and Lois’ take on the story: good, interesting work that I’m glad to have read. I didn’t think it too long or too short, and I thought almost all the transitionary, impressionistic scenes worked very nicely. This is a story that shifts emphasis and manages its pace very well.

    I wonder whether the difference in reaction has any correlation with familiarity with Phillips’ work, because part of what I find interesting about it is where it matches up to and diverges from earlier stories.

    Phillips for me is a writer whose great strengths are tone and atmosphere, often achieved through the use of contrast. So the contrast of setting and content here felt characteristic, and effective — not in a straightforward “hot emotion” vs “cold setting” way, because the hot-ness or cold-ness of Zel’s emotions is a point of debate, after all; but in the way that the setting constrains and limits the action, forces it to all take place in closed-off environments, upping the intensity.

    And of course it ties in to the big thematic argument running through the story — “Existence, freedom, fearlessness: these were not trivial desires” — which is also something Phillips returns to quite often, almost always as it applies to (young) women. This is the obvious rejoinder to James’ critique, and I think the story does contain ideas about gender and sexuality that are worth thinking about. Still, Matt’s point is accurate, and the strongest criticism of the story that I can see; the emphasis on wildness, both of Zel and of the witches, makes me cautious about reading the witches as entirely justified and sympathetic, but I do agree it leans a little too heavily on preconceptions raised by the title “witch”.

    Which leads on to Evan’s point about the nature of the setting. The first thing to say is that the detail of the setting strikes me as very much beside the point; what matters is the atmosphere invoked, which doesn’t in this instance reside in detailed history or culture, but rather detail about weather and experience. I’d go so far as to argue that the sketchiness of anything beyond the immediate is to the story’s advantage, since it reinforces the claustrophobia I was talking about earlier. I don’t find this makes the setting generic, which for me would mean precisely the sort of overdetermined setting this isn’t. But I do think “unmoored” is right; it’s a little dreamlike, and this again tends to be characteristic of Phillips’ secondary worlds. (In fact this is the closest thing I’ve read from her to a traditional secondary world — note that I haven’t read The Engine’s Child, though.)

  5. I am unfamilar with Phillips’s previous work and I find myself in agreement with the earlier commenters. It was a story I found very hard to get into, right from the opening sentence. Quite often I found myself tripping over sentences and having to re-read. Perhaps this is because I’m an in attentive reader but I think it was at least partially because a lot of the word choices were slightly off.

    Because of this, the strengths of tone and atmosphere that Niall refers to where lost on me. I’m not sure that the detail of the setting and the atmosphere it creates can be so easily seperated. The lack of any sense of place to the story again militates against being drawn into the atmosphere. I don’t find it claustrophobic because I can’t imagine these contraining rooms.

    I think the story does contain ideas about gender and sexuality that are worth thinking about.

    Could you expand on this?

  6. I’d agree that the first sentence perhaps isn’t quite there; I went back and forth over “hot pain like copper wires”, trying to decide whether I thought “copper” added much, and in the end concluded it probably didn’t. But I like this sentence, from later in the opening section:

    One moment on the peak, in the heart of the gale, snow for flesh and ice for bones and a black heart borrowed from the storm — and then down, sliding through the snow on the leeward roof until her boots jarred on the gutter.

    That’s a sentence that really has rhythm, it seems to me: those opening clauses keeping you hanging in the first half, that dash sending you tumbling through the second half.

    And what I was clumsily trying to express last time around, I think, was the difference between the sort of contextualising worldbuilding I think Evan was talking about, and the sort of local detail there is quite a lot of. Zel’s first thoughts about the Bodil place, for instance:

    Just from the look of the place she knew there would be jewels so famous they had names lying on the cold daughters’ dressing tables, golden goblets gathering dust in the cupboard, a portrait by a great master tucked in a back bedroom because it was only someone’s unmarried aunt.

    The alliteration in the middle of that might be a bit much, but I do get a clear sense of what sort of a house we’re talking about — that notion of jewels with names is particularly effective, I think. We don’t get those sorts of images of the outside in this story — it’s all “windswept blackness” and so forth — but we do get them of the interiors. (Although more than either, we get descriptions of feeling, it’s true.)

    As for gender and sexuality: I just think it’s worth tracking power and agency through the story, really. It feels to me in part like a response to the sort of story in which a heterosexual protagonist is drawn into, or liberated by, contact with a witches’ circle, and the subtextual queerness that implies. Here, although the bond between the witches and Zel does have an element of erotic charge, Zel’s queerness is already explicit; the fact that the witches themselves are family also works to throw the emphasis back on to Zel, and consequently her relationship with Gannet. And the arc is ultimately inverted: rather than a heterosexual character becoming (subtextually) queer, we have a queer character entering a heterosexual relationship. But I don’t think there’s a sense of horror in this, as there might be in the original stories (the point about the witches’ power notwithstanding, it’s noticeable that what their magic is actually used to do is to correct an injury caused by Zel earlier in the story); rather the story strikes me as a good example of writing that takes sexuality to be fluid and personal, without prejudice. “I loved her, but I never hated him” is well put.

    (I might also like to unpick the various appearance of hearts in the story, thinking about it.)

  7. Niall: I understand what you mean about the music, and there is certainly some nice language there, but the passage you cite, while it has rhythm, doesn’t marry the music to the sense particularly well. It’s evocative of something, for sure, but not truly evocative of the tearing cold of a wet winter storm. There are similar mismatches in many of the impressionistic sections (also I don’t think that the title is very good).

    I agree with you that there are a lot of good, telling details, at least in terms of interiors, but for some reason, it all never manages to stitch together for me. There are too few (micro-)transitions, I suppose. She is one place then another place, then another place doing some thing.

    My world-building complaint is really less about the setting, I guess, and more about the use of the ‘thief class’ as something that the characters are, rather than what they do. Zel’s stealing of random bits seems game-y to me, like she went off and did side-quests until she had enough money to buy into the next stage or something. There’s no real sense of infrastructure there. In the Lynch Gentleman Bastard books, the underworld in unrealistically large, colorful, and interesting, but at least there’s the sense of the infrastructure involved in it. Here it seems a sandy foundation for the development of the characters and plot. I’ll have to think about this more, as my objection isn’t clear in my mind yet, but that’s what I have on it so far.

    I’d like to see what you think of the hearts business. There’s clearly a continuing motif there, stealing from the storm, etc., but honestly I’m a bit lost there.

  8. I have to side with Niall, Lois and Rich. The story is well written, sometimes wonderfully so, and the intricate gender and sexuality issues that Niall details are a large part of the enjoyment.

    Evan and James both comment on the “game-y” and “RPG” nature of the story. Where are the indications of game fiction?
    1. Plot-coupon structure?
    2. Magic presented as ordinary?
    3. Characterizations are thin or standard issue?
    None of that is present. Is the argument that any fantasy story with a thief is “game-y?” I think we are all able to list examples that pre-date gaming to refute that. James says he’s disappointed that it isn’t a science fiction story. Perhaps we can agree that it’s not trying to be a science fiction story?

    Matt H. says of the characters: “everyone is deeply unsympathetic, especially the witches.” I found the characters of Zel, Gannet, and Audey to be complex and humanized by their connections and relationships with each other. On the surface they are a thief, a black widow, and a witch. As the story progresses we learn that there are shades of grey. As for the unsympathetic witches, Niall points out, “what their magic is actually used to do is to correct an injury.”

  9. It is an atmospheric story, but I feel that it’s smothered by its atmosphere. The emotional register is so very narrow (except in the last exchange between Zel and Gannet, which comes rather late in the story) that it feels imposed on the characters rather than organic to them – as if Phillips first came up with the tone of the story, then with the people and situations with which to express it. And honestly, I’ve gotten a little tired of this particular tone, which seems to occur in genre short fiction more than any other.

  10. It’s evocative of something, for sure, but not truly evocative of the tearing cold of a wet winter storm

    Hmm. To the extent that that’s true, I’d say it’s partly because Phillips tends to the obvious sometimes — “Zel sliced through the air the way the wind sliced through her sweater”? — and partly because most of the time I don’t think Phillips is trying to evoke the storm; she’s trying to evoke Zel’s specific experience of being in the storm, which is shaped by her interior emotional state as much as the exterior conditions. I thought this paragraph worked well at that:

    Zel had thought the snowstorm terrible, but this dry gale pouring like a river of ice from the north was crueler. The stars raged above the veils of snow torn from rich men’s roofs. Like wasps of light they stung her eyes. There was no cold, no shivering. She became transparent to the wind.

    Unlike the “copper wire” line, here I do think the pseudo-contradiction of “dry gale” and “like a river of ice” works; and I like the clear sense that it is cold, but that Zel has passed beyond that to numbness. Which sections did you find particularly mismatched?

    I’d also argue that to an extent there’s no sense of infrastructure because Zel is outside any infrasctructure — legitimate or illegitimate — and that the story is in part about her finding such a structure to be a part of. I do take your point about “thief class” — but again, since to me the story is about containment in various senses, being niched into a particular role seems to fit. And beyond that, as Strangelove says, the story doesn’t seem to be particularly game-like.


    I’ve gotten a little tired of this particular tone

    How would you characterise the tone? I can agree that it’s as much about the tonal effect as about character or story, but I don’t think I could say it’s one thing all the way through — there is excitement and peace and anger and sadness.

    On hearts: on reflection, I think this is probably fairly straightforward: Zel’s heart is the heart of the story, whether it’s a heart in love, a heart numbed by cold (or by the need to be a thief), or a source of normal human emotion that the witches seem to lack. The key uses of the term seem to be the references to hearts “stolen” — from the storm, from the owl — which I take to indicate Zel trying to make herself into the person she thinks she needs to be; and Audrey’s references to Zel as “my heart”, suggesting she already is the person she needs to be.

  11. I found the motif of hearts a bit grating. The repetition in the example you quote – “One moment on the peak, in the heart of the gale, snow for flesh and ice for bones and a black heart borrowed from the storm” – doesn’t work for me, both in the repetition itself and in the image.

    One thing I’m a bit surprised that no-one has mentioned (maybe it is just me) was that it seems a lot like a Young Adult story. I don’t think we are explicitly told either way but Zel reads more like a teenager than an adult to me. Now, I don’t think having a teen protagonist is enough to make something YA but I did think it had that tone.

  12. This is a story I didn’t believe in much.

    Based on the first scene, I didn’t believe Zel was any kind of thief, though later, I guess we are supposed to be convinced given how much we are told she has stolen.

    I don’t believe in this world, with its vague North and South and completely generic setting.

    But mostly I didn’t believe Zel was in love with Gannet, so of course I didn’t care what happened.

  13. I will say that I didn’t find the story to be a “game” story in the least. It’s true that thieves are overused in video game fantasy, but they’re just as overused in written fantasy.

    As for the magic bringing about healing, well, subversion of will is an awfully big hammer for the nail involved. What’s going to happen to this guy if Gannet, who probably has never been in a long-term heterosexual relationship, gets tired of him? Audey has to shove aside the dubious morality of it by saying he’s not an “innocent man”. Why is he not innocent? Because he persecutes witches.

    OK. Like Niall said, it depends on what you take “witch” to imply. If you are born a witch and you’re still fundamentally human, it’s just something different about you that scares the ignorant…in other words, if it’s like being Jewish or homosexual…then that’s pretty villainous. But witchcraft is just an occult skill, a magical art that anyone with a desire for power can learn, it doesn’t seem at all ethical to practice witchcraft when you have to kill anyone who accidentally find out. Unlike witch hunts in our world, presumably the easiest way to protect yourself is not to lash out against the inquisitors but to stop practicing witchcraft. But I admit I’m rummaging around in the blurry backdrop of the story, which gives us just the witches’ side of this story.

    My problems with the world-building aside, I didn’t like the speed with which the characters switched emotional allegiances. Zel and Gannet have been together for a long time, but in a matter of weeks at most (I think, I haven’t gone back to figure out precisely), Gannet has fallen for Torrend, Torrend has fallen for Gannet, and Zel has found she prefers Audey and her sisters to Gannet. That by itself isn’t unrealistic, but it seems like we’re meant to interpret these sudden changes as Right. That is to say, Gannet and Torrend are somehow Meant For Each Other. If that’s so, coercing Torrend into the relationship with a love charm is indeed a form of healing. And Zel has apparently upgraded when she took up with Audey et al., who as far as I can tell she barely knows and has almost nothing in common with. There’s a kind of fantasy story where we expect that relationships are Destined, but this doesn’t seem like one of those. This story wants to be grounded in the realities of human relationships, and in those relationships people make mistakes of judgment, have second thoughts, and so forth.

    As far as the sympathy of the characters, what are we left with at the end of the story? If we believe Audey, then Zel has just foisted her longtime friend and lover off on a black-hearted villain who out of ignorance at best or some sort of misogyny at worst persecutes innocent witches. If we believe Gannet, then her longtime friend and lover has betrayed her for a set of grim, thuggish sorcerers with “cold hearts and bloody hands”. The story offers us reasons to believe them both. It’s true that there’s a lot of shades of gray here, but for my taste they are very dark shades indeed, hence my lack of sympathy with any of the characters.

  14. I don’t know why I post and then read over what I wrote when it’s too late to edit it in place, but when I said “But witchcraft is just an occult skill” I was trying to say “But IF witchcraft is just an occult skill”…the story doesn’t really say what it is, so I’m tossing out possibilities.

  15. I very much disagree that the union of Gannet and Torrend is in any way Right or desirable. I think it is meant as mutual punishment, just deserts for them both.

    To me, the heart of the story is the relationship between Gannet and Zel, and Gannet’s abuse and betrayal.

  16. Zel and Gannet have been together for years, yes, but as I read it Gannet was always using Zel — her real emotional attachment to anyone, Torrend most certainly included, seems very much in doubt.

  17. I was at first quite sure that this story must be a sequel to some other featuring the earlier lives of these characters, but this is apparently not the case.

  18. Niall:

    You’re right that there are different emotions at plat over the course of the story, but they all feel uniformly muted, overpowered by the melancholy narrative voice. It’s a style that I see too often in genre short fiction, trying to achieve significance through gloom, and I’ve gotten a bit tired of it.

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