Short Story Club: “A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon”

I’m not going to type the whole title out again, but the story is here. Not much pre-comment; it wasn’t James’ cup of tea, and Martin thinks it doesn’t hang together:

‘A Weeping Czar’ is another one from the Torque Control short story club. It was published online by Tor who also published his first novel, Lamentations, which appears to be set it the same universe. I had been interested in that novel. I am less so now. As I was reading the story I passed through several different understandings of its genre, each of which affected my enjoyment of it.

However, to judge by the comments on the story itself this may be a minority view. Or not … what did you think?

22 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon”

  1. I don’t think the comments on a story site can be given much credit – much like the opinions of the author’s relatives.

  2. I enjoyed the story, but ultimately I agree with Martin’s comments: it keeps swapping focus, jumping away from whatever I’d just found interesting and engaging. By the time I reached the end, the story seemed to have nothing to do with what had originally drawn me in.

    I liked the unusual setting. I’m fond of court intrigue, and the suicide wives and the weeping curse worked well for me, provoking my interest. I was also looking forward to a callous, merciless protagonist, at least to begin with (alas, Fredrico’s reformation was nigh instantaneous).

    Communicating with an innocent, far-off girl isn’t quite the height of originality, but the method and context were interesting, and I very much liked the way Amal kept insisting on Fredrico’s being a ghost (frankly, that was a plot twist I might have enjoyed seeing executed). I particularly liked how obvious it was that the search for Amal was futile – I had no interest in them actually getting together; what I liked was observing how the entire situation affected Fredrico himself.

    That’s just about where it begins falling apart. The idea of clandestine trips to the moon was nice – I liked how clearly fantastical the very thought was, in the context of the story – but at this point, the story plummets into convenient prophecy, pointless ancient grudges, an over-the-top “romance” I found unconvincing and of no interest, and in general, great big gobs of melodrama. I had enough momentum to reach the finish, and I don’t think this is by any means a bad story, but it doesn’t hold together, and I was disappointed by where it chose to go.

  3. I quite enjoyed the story until I started actually thinking about it. This is, in essence, my concern with most fantasy.

    It was well written – “a story in which the narrative was apparently made from real sentences”, as MKS said of a recent Short Story Club entry. The recognisable character types were not used purely as archetypes but developed some individuality. The story took a while to get going but accelerated nicely – though it did take a rather sideways turn and collapse on itself. The unknown shape of the world allowed that the conversation between Federico and Amal could be across the planet, or across time itself, as well as the answer supplied in the title. The suppressed prophecy and the jackboot-authoritarian society also hung together, particularly the idea that the Lunarists were about to be blamed for anything too complicated. The story also wrapped up neatly with the idea that one sister created a curse and the other cured it.

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand why the Blood/Moon Magician has done nothing for a thousand years except to enchant his younger daughter so that she has “all the innocence of maidenhood”. Nor could I grasp quite how everyone in the Czar’s society seems so polite, to the extent that the usurper is returned to the key role of Minister of War after relinquishing the throne on the realisation that his coup was based on a false premise. Or even that the Czar could, effectively, semi-retire in the face of vast war.

    All this can be simply forgiven by assuming that there is some magical/fantastical explanation. Such a dispensation, though, is at the heart of why I find so little to respect for so much fantasy.

  4. I wanted to like this one. It’s made up of bits that could have come together in an interesting way. Even the dissonance between whether it should be interpreted as fantasy or science fiction was interesting for a while.

    I was never convinced that Frederico was smart enough or had the skills to rule a large empire. It wasn’t believable that Pyrus would seize power or surrender power with so little fuss or muss.

    The romance between Frederico and Amal was too sketchy to work for me. How exactly would the strong trust and bonds of love required later in the story actually develop? Their shared music is intended to bridge that gap, at least symbolically, and it almost succeeds.

  5. Unaccustomed as I am to taking the affirmative position, I thought this one worked quite well and had unity.

    In essence, it’s a love story. Frederico is cursed by the first moon daughter, redeemed by the second. His curse causes him to lose the women he loves, but his love for Amal lifts the curse.

    I was sufficiently involved in the love story that I didn’t get too annoyed by the inexplicable elements, but it did seem to me that time must pass at a different rate on the moon.

    If there were something that might annoy me if I worried on it longer, it would be why Ameera was tortured in the first place, setting the entire thing off.

    It’s undoubtedly because I recently finished a Stalinist novel, but I kept trying to make this a metaphor for Stalinism until it finally just didn’t fit.

  6. I liked this the first time I read it, but less so the second time. The writing was pretty, the setting intriguing, the characters well-characterized… but things didn’t shape up as I hoped. Unlike Duncan Lawie above (I think – let me know if I’m mischaracterizing your position), I thought it was pretty obvious right away that Amal was on the moon. The unknown shape of the world didn’t heighten the mystery – rather, it made every clue in the narrative much more salient than it would have been in a more particularized setting. The description of the communicator as “like a piece of the moon” not only clinched it but also bugged the hell out of me. The moon in this world is blue and green! Why would the characters describe a silver artifact as moon-like… unless the author was using that line to drop a hint?

    Still, the characters were well done, and consequently the story was quite emotionally satisfying. That is, until the last few paragraphs, when Amal’s soul (I think?) billows out of the water to greet him. The ending seemed like a sort of “Tuesdays with Morrie”-ish attempt to put a positive (dare I say Christian?) spin on Amal’s death. Not only did it feel a bit pandering, but it made me reflect on what had really happened in the story: a woman died so that a man could learn A Valuable Lesson; a terrible sacrifice to be sure, but totally worth it, right? Or was it? As an observer of several short story clubs, I’m kind of surprised this hasn’t come up yet.

  7. I liked the story. I didn’t really believe in the characters but at this length I’m a very tough sell (just not enough space to flesh people out) and used to it. I was vaguely irked by the same implausibilities that SF Strangelove notes, but it didn’t seem like the story was aiming at a very realistic tone, so that didn’t bother me much either.

    The exuberant setting, which seemed like Princess of Mars meets alternate history Russia, was the star of the show for me. Pulp SF is out of style these days, and I’d probably get pretty sick of it if it wasn’t, but a little bit now and then is a fun. I can’t promise I’ll read the associated novel but I’m much more likely to now.

    It’s interesting to compare this story to “The Shangri-La Affair” as both of them feature outlandish settings. I think “Weeping Czar” works better because it spends more time on its characters and, honest about its own nature, doesn’t make an unearned grab for Significance at the end. More superficially, the title is, in my view, a thousand times better.

  8. I found this story to be pleasant, but it never totally grabbed me. I found my attention wandering during the reading. After I’d finished, it didn’t seem like many details stuck with me–just the tone.

    I recognized it as part of the “Lamentation” universe (I’ve read the first book in the series) but it had so little connection with the time in which the book is set I found it easier to treat it as a stand-alone universe.

    I liked the long-distance relationship pretty well, having had that sort of experience myself. And I thought that the two main characters came across very well there. But towards the end when the politics/magic/history/curses came to the fore, I got a bit lost. I’m still not sure that the ending made much sense.

  9. Such a dispensation, though, is at the heart of why I find so little to respect for so much fantasy.

    I think this story can simply be explained away by saying it was just magic. I don’t think it is fair to apply this to fantasy as a whole though. This story clearly feeds into the mythic, fairy tale tradition but that is hardly the bulk of fantasy.

    Although I have some sympathy for Matt’s position that this is actually Pulp SF. But for me Pulp SF is just a euphemism for bad, outdated and implausible.

  10. I didn’t go into this one with a lot of hope, because I’d read _Lamentation_ and had disliked it (or rather been aggressively unimpressed with it). Scholes’ world-building is always vivid and interesting, I find, and he turns a reasonable sentence and plots well. But _Lamentation_ had a cast of superheroes and magical ninjas whose extreme and unlikely competence sapped the book of any real resonance or tension, not to mention making everything a little over-determined.

    There’s less of the superhero problem here, but still the characters seem to have little in the way of emotional depth, responding instantly and relentlessly to the demands of plot without giving much of a sense of their actions arising organically from their character.

  11. Giving this a quick re-read, I notice a few things that seem out of place.

    -Why mention the 50 year war with a neighbor? Never gets mentioned again.
    -Why did the prison wards (“Ministry of Social Behavior”) give the Lunarist priestess such nice treatment? Her own room, garden, etc. She doesn’t appear to have been tortured, either?
    -The back story says that a guy went to the moon and brought back the older daughter; then both of them were tortured to death. Why? What was the reason behind the torturing?
    -Finally, it feels like the story ends before it resolves. OK, Amal’s spirit finds Frederico, yay, but what about the looming threat posed by her father? What will be the consequence to the Czar’s empire for this romance? Or is the father’s threat just bluster? Ending before that’s played out doesn’t seem right.

    Now I understand a little better what up-thread folks meant when they talked about changing focus throughout the story. I agree.

  12. Tristan – I actually also think it was blindingly obvious that Amal would have to be on the moon, but a little suspension of disbelief allowed me to think that this could have been a red herring, that we might have been about to learn about the shape of the world. I was more convinced that there could have been a time effect in the device.

    Martin – Fair point. I don’t read much fantasy and could perhaps be accused of the “if it’s that good, it’s not really fantasy” line. However, this particular piece started out as if it was going to provide rigour and then collapsed into a fairytale. This is very different from, say A Tiny Feast which clearly sets out its stall and sticks to it.

  13. Unrelated to this particular story, what other venues are publishing interesting short genre fiction these days? At this point I’ve mostly given up on the big three magazines.

    I need to check out the recent back catalog at Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless skies, but is there anything else crucial that I am missing?

  14., of course.

    Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show is inconsistent, but worth a look.

    Jim Baen’s Universe is closing with next April’s issue, but coming in December is a brilliant story, probably the best they’ve ever published, “Things Undone”, by John Barnes.

    Those last two are subscription sites, mind you.

    Abyss and Apex has done some nice work. I’ve been disappointed with Ideomancer of late, but they also have done good stuff in the past. Apex Magazine (not to be confused with Abyss and Apex) has also done some good stuff (and one story from there has been covered here, Theodora Goss’s “The Puma”.) Maybe Reflection’s Edge is worth a look, too, though again they are often a bit disappointing. Hub magazine is even MORE inconsistent, but on occasion quite interesting.

    I confess I’m puzzled at “giving up on the big three”. One might complain about stodginess of physical design, or argue that they’ve been better in the past, but on balance, they still publish more first rate short fiction than anywhere else.

  15. Evan: I would also suggest Interzone and Postscripts, if you live in the UK (or have extra cash to throw around). I recently had to choose between keeping up my subscription to Interzone and a Big Three market, and I stuck with Interzone. Closer to home, I think Electric Velocipede and Weird Tales are excellent :)

  16. I misread Evan’s post to be asking only about online magazines … so, certainly I should have mentioned Interzone and Postscripts. Interzone was better this year, in my opinion.

    And yes, Electric Velocipede and Weird Tales have been good too. Also Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.

    And Zahir (but they are going online). And Not One of Us. Both of those quieter sort of venues.

  17. Hmm. OK, let’s start here: like Karen, I recognised that the story was part of the Psalms of Isaak universe; however, since what triggered my recognition was the existence of mechanical men at Amal’s end, and they were unrecognized by Frederico, I gave the timeslip idea slightly more credence than Duncan and Tristan. Actually, I’m still not absolutely certain there isn’t a timeslip effect; it could explain why Amal doesn’t see Earth in the sky, for instance. At the very least, like Lois, I’m suspicious that there may be some differential time-rate involved.

    Probably as a function of the link, the story itself felt incomplete to me. Had it been a standalone, the unresolved aspects at the end wouldn’t have bothered me — you don’t have to tie up every loose end — but as it is, I just assume Scholes is going to come back and fill in more detail later. Since I’m picky about investing in long series, it felt a little cynical to me: taste now, buy the novel later.

    Tristan’s point about the gender dynamics of the story is spot on, of course; and in that regard this story is much of a piece with the other short fiction by Scholes that I’ve read.

    On the pulp/fantasy/sf question: one of my general reservations about Scholes is that his work always feels a little too … simplified? He’s invoking the ornate, the opulent, the epic, but his language seems awfully mundane — or, less charitably, unthreatening. I wonder if this isn’t part of a more general aesthetic, linked to the politeness that Duncan mentioned, and the sense of melodrama; the language doesn’t reflect the intensity that it’s purporting to describe.

    And on short fiction venues: most of the bases have been covered, I think; of those mentioned I find EV, Clarkesworld and SH have the highest strike rates; Interzone has some good stuff but can be very variable; and I’m not generally a fan of PostScripts, though I would like to be. And of course there are lots of good anthologies out there these days.

  18. No one has mentioned Fanasty Magazine. They seem to be publishing a new story twice a week now, most weeks, and have some interesting offerings. There’s a lot of overlap of authors, a lot of the Usual Suspects favored by “literary fantasy” sites, and they tend to have a weakness for “style” over storyish substance, but they’re worth checking out.

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