Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Finalist Notes - Slow Stampede by Sara Genge

I decided to save the winner's notes for last. Instead, I'll begin at the top of the list, with "Slow Stampede" by Sara Genge.

"Slow Stampede" was published in Asimov's Science Fiction. When this story was first nominated, I thought, no way Asimov's published a S&S story. I was only partially right. "Slow Stampede" is best qualified as Sword and Planet. There are a couple of technological mentions in this story - a pair of binoculars, and a scientist whom a mer-woman once ate (he was delicious), and the world setting is clearly not earth-like (Eldora's low gravity) - otherwise, the overall technology is primitive. The characters fight with blades and crossbows, and caravans of behemoths stride through an enormous swamp filled with barbarian raiders, as well as muddy merpeople who dwell below the muck. The setting is well-described and thoroughly believable, from the village to the caravan, to the way the swamp elephants move and the swamp flowers bloom.

The story hook begins with a moment of tension - Raj is watching the caravan, picking out his target. The adventure hook flows from that - he is also plotting to knock off his chieftain during the raid.

The character of Raj is well drawn. He is an ambitious young man with designs upon the throne of his clan, but his mother is trying to marry him off. The merwoman he meets is sly and sultry, with plans of her own. The weakest character in the story is the hapless caravan driver, who remains nameless throughout.

The monsters are the swamp elephants, who are huge, reminding me of the Oliphaunts from Lord of the Rings. There are also merpeople, who live below the muck and pick off the weak and injured, including Raj when he is shot by one of the caravan drivers. There is plenty of exciting mayhem during the raid on the caravan.

Sara provides us with a satisfying, belieavable ending, which I won't ruin here by describing it. Suffice to say that not everything goes the way Raj had expected, yet he is able to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. Her storytelling voice is quite good, and the story does not lack for entertainment value.

What's missing? Magic. I give it some points for magic because of the nature of the world itself. There are magical creatures in the form of the merpeople. Whether or not they use actual magic is never stated, but they certainly seem magical. For that reason, and because it is such a good story, I included it in the finalists. However, without more overt magic, I couldn't award it The Harper's Pen.

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