Thursday, April 1, 2010

Finalist Notes - Where Virtue Lives by Saladin Ahmed

The set-up for this story is rather traditional, but Saladin handles it quite nicely. Basically, you have a jaded, older warrior in the form a ghul hunter, who takes on an eager, idealistic young apprentice, in the form of a bad-ass swordsman. They set out to rescue the wife of some villager, who was taken by a ghul.

The setting has a strong Middle Eastern flavor, described with excellent detail, firmly setting the reader down in a believable world almost from the first line. Saladin's storytelling voice is authoritative and compelling.
The jaded ghul hunter is wonderfully jaded, in that he's not some grouchy Nick Nolte character who can barely drag himself out of bed to solve another case. His "clients" still believe him to be a pious doctor of monsterology.

As does the young ascetic swordsman who comes to join him and learn to slay ghuls, at the behest of his temple. He is a pious killer in the finest paladinic tradition, seeing the world around him through a veil that only admits black and white. When they meet their first ghuls, he strikes without fear in a scene of whirling mayhem dotted with sorcerous flourishes. More magic ensues when a girl appears and attacks them with knot-blowing magic, a sort of sympathetic magic on steroids. This was, I thought, the best part of the tale. The resolution was satisfying, though I felt it came a bit too quickly, and the magic of the evil sorcerer at the center of the plot seemed weaker than the knot-blowing magic of his magically compelled accomplice.

There were, however, a few weaknesses which kept the story out of the top spot. Though the story hook is good, the adventure hook is weaker - the good doctor is asked to rescue a woman. He has no compelling reason to do so other than duty, which he secretly resents. The lack of a strong adventure hook subsequently robs the story of some of its emotional impact. This is mitigated by the relationship that builds between master and apprentice, as both learn and grow from the experience.

Also, the only monsters in the story are the ghuls, which appear briefly in the middle of the story and are quickly dispatched. As the doctor is a ghul hunter and ghul hunting is the adventure hook, I hoped the ghuls would prove to be more central to the resolution of the plot.


  1. Thanks, Jeff, for the thoughtful analysis of the story. In my own defense there is a 'cyklop' at the end of the story, too (thus upping the monster count). But yeah, he's dispatched a bit too easily. "Virtue" was my first published story and if there is one plot lesson I've been trying to hammer into my own skull since then, it's 'obstacles obstacles obstacles.' My natural tendency is to make things too easy for my characters, and that doesn't work in heroic fantasy.

    In any case, I'm glad you liked other elemtns enough to make "Virtue" a finalist. I look forward to a long, thriving life for The Harper's Pen Award!

  2. Thanks, Saladin. I had forgotten about the cyklop.

    The strongest thing about this story was your narrative voice. It has the rhythms of a natural storyteller. And the doctor was really quite a compelling character. Altogether an entertaining read.