Short Story Club: “Unrest”

Little beyond basic reactions for this week’s story; Rich Horton thought it “an excellent dark tale of the ravages of war, told effectively from sequential points of view of the participants/victims”; Lois Tilton says it is “An intriguing series of glimpses into a world we can not see quite clearly enough to fully understand”; James wasn’t convinced:

Each story is bleak and grim, and the overall tone is depressing. Presumably that’s intentional to show the horrors of war, but the result is a rather dark read which I didn’t really enjoy. The fragment of hope thrown out to the reader at the end of the story wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more hope; from somewhere.

And Paul Jenkins, reviewing the audio version for The Fix, said:

… a curious folk tale with serial narrators, each telling of the demise of the one before—or that’s how the plot seemed to progress. But with any fantasy setting the author needs to establish the world of the story in a transparent and subtle manner, to avoid resorting to the dreaded infodump. If in addition there are multiple characters who are dispatched in turn, the reader/listener is likely to have trouble identifying with them before they’re no longer around, while at the same time trying to make sense of the setting with its magic, trolls and spirits. For those familiar with the conventions of the genre, or better still with that particular world of this particular author, it isn’t likely to be a problem. For others, it can be a bit hard-going. Nevertheless the story is well-produced and would probably reward repeated listening.

Your thoughts?

13 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “Unrest”

  1. I certainly didn’t find the story hard-going – in fact it may be one of the most readable pieces we’ve had here. It’s a good story all, around, in fact, though perhaps a little too caught up in the novelty of its structure, and in its first segment, at least, I found myself quickly tiring of the deliberately naive voice of the narrator. He’s immediately replaced by another, much more knowing, protagonist, however, which not only alleviated my complaint but also served as a startling introduction to the story’s central conceit. Given its subject matter, “Unrest” is perhaps a little more delicate and playful than it ought to be, but its technique of, one by one, dismantling the stories we tend to tell about war by rushing them to an unhappy ending is ultimately effective.

  2. I really liked it. It is beholden to its structure but it is short enough to carry this. So yeah, probably my favourite story of the season: fun, has some ambition, doesn’t outstay its welcome.

  3. Excellent, easily the best of the short story group. I started out sure that I wasn’t going to like this one, partly since I don’t generally take to short story fantasy, but this one seized me early, carried momentum through to the end, and left with enough meat on its frame to be worth the reading.

  4. One problem I had with the story: Tekel is conscripted by the Kuloseppae and taken to a camp with other conscripts. A Suhado squad sneaks in and kills them all at night. Why then does Tekel’s ghost appear in the magician’s lair? The implication is that Tekel was killed by the magician (“We are his dead”), but I don’t see how that could have happened.

    Also, while I thought the writing in the magician’s POV section was quite fine — especially the use of uncommonly gendered terms to indicate foreignness — some of his daughter’s section was rather confusing. On the magician, for example: “No-one knows where he came from, though he has been coming to Kulosep for as long as anyone remembers, and for the last few years he has stayed here.” That’s hard to parse when it becomes apparent that “here” isn’t Kulosep, it’s Hado-home. An editorial mistake, or am I missing something? The daughter’s whole first paragraph doesn’t make much sense, either. Who has called her a traitor before, and why? The only thing I can think of is that she’s imagining what her reception will be upon her return to the city after informing Tekel’s family. But the sequence of the wording — “I will hold my head up in the streets and at the gate” — makes it sound like she is describing her exit.

    I did think the story handled gender well, and I did enjoy the ending — it wasn’t surprising, but did what it needed to with style and economy. It just feels like the story as a whole needed a bit more editing to get the continuity cleared up.

  5. Re: my post above, let me add that Tekel is probably the “blood-smell-man,” but my point is that the Suhado bringing him back to Hado-home doesn’t make any sense in the context of the story. The magician’s helper is a watchman, not a soldier; and anyway you couldn’t hide bringing a prisoner back to the city. And the mission wasn’t to take prisoners, it was to wipe out the recruits.

  6. I rather suspect people who want all details explained, down to the currency exchange rates, and ‘more hope from somewhere’ are in the majority. But I thought it was a nice read. I like the realistic tone of mortality, and the lack of detailed explication of the society.

  7. Huh. Just for once, I find myself without anything to say. I don’t think it’s a bad story — I tend to agree with Matt that the various components don’t mesh quite as neatly as they really need to, but even allowing for that it pulls off the structural conceit pretty well, and the ending is very well judged. But there’s nothing in it that’s exciting me. It’s just sort of sitting there, in my head, in a lump.

  8. I thought that each individual bit was well executed, but that it kind of stumbles for lack of anything substantive and non-obvious to say. My feeling about some of the more awkward transitions is that they would be easier to swallow if the whole were going somewhere more profound than, ‘war is a pretty bad deal for the people on the ground experiencing it’ (which, in addition to being obvious is undermined continuously by people dying in essentially random ways, largely unrelated to anything that’s going on other than the world being largely indifferent to personal welfare).

  9. The point I took from this one was not the banal “war is bad” but a look at the way the juggernaut of history grinds weaker or less fortunate societies beneath its wheels, and what they leave behind.

  10. I liked this one, particularly the opening shifting viewpoints. I’ll try to avoid repeating what’s been said above me, and raise new points.

    1. The thing about this story which I didn’t like about the story was the boundary magician. The first 4 viewpoints all seemed to come from factions and “everyday” people in the war, characters who represented something general and common. The magician, on the other hand, seemed disconnected – the focus on him is something like the UN Assembly suddenly campaigning against a random serial killer.

    Also, this bit felt very different than the others – you could practically take the magician’s POV and his daughter’s POV, the parts that describe the magician’s cruelty and his downfall, and you’d have a pretty solid (and fairly generic) story in its own right. Ghosts of victims plotting revenge, the hunted daughter of an evil wizard, defeating the boundary mage by defining a solid – it feels very out of place with the quieter, more brutal world of the war.

    Can any of those who enjoyed share some thoughts about why this arc worked/didn’t work for them?

    2. One of the things I really liked about the structure is that while it’s far from subtle, it isn’t explicit. We assume the death in POV #i refers to POV #(i-1), but except for the troll-poisoner, that’s really far from certain. It only works because the structure is so compelling – in a way, every reader forges that chain for himself, because A is killed by B is killed by C is an instinctively meaningful way for us to think about war, regardless of that’s precisely, factually what happened.

    (BTW, I think that’s part of what let me slide past finding Tekel’s spirit in the magician’s tower – so Tekel wasn’t one of the slain, so she got here somehow, OK, that makes perfect sense too…)

  11. At first I wasn’t sure about this story and its structure, but it won me over. There’s a small joy at the beginning of any genre story of working out, quickly or slowly, what kind of world and what kind of story you’re in. In this piece you got that with every change of scene. It’s a pleasure more intellectual than visceral, but I liked it. Certainly the prose and characters were intriguing enough for it to be interesting rather than annoying.

    There were a couple places where the voices didn’t feel sufficiently differentiated–a couple times I thought we’d gone back to an earlier character when we hadn’t, and I had to get that from context instead of voice. Also, I thought that the repeated “We are Esh” in the first POV was almost a parody of perceptions of American Indians, and it almost lost me there. But simply the fact that the farm boy got killed instead of becoming The Hero was refreshing enough to get me to engage with the story on its own terms.

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