When short is too short

In this last period I’m finding it hard to focus on reading and writing, and so I’ve been picking up more short fiction than usual. I usually end up really liking it – do we want to talk about the satisfaction of finishing something in one sitting? – but sadly I found both of these reads very underwhelming. I mean, the ideas were there, the settings were interestings, but the stories themselves just fell flat. So this is a double-review post, in which I’ll try to explain the reason why I felt this way.

Freedom is Space for the Spirit by Glen Hirshberg (2016)

This story is really short – my ebook shows a little over 50 pages – and this is also its biggest problem. The protagonist, Thomas, is a middle-aged German man who receives an invitation from his old friend Vasily to go to St. Petersburg. When he gets there, Thomas starts looking for him, but he soon realises that the city has changed in ways he could have never imagined: bears without mouths roam the streets, and the citizen walk around them as if nothing is amiss.

The story then follows Thomas as he tries to find his old friend and unravels the mystery surrounding the bears with the help of Ana, his friend’s niece. Doesn’t that sound incredibly interesting? And what about that beautiful cover? I knew the story was fairly short, but I went in expecting to find so much wonder! What I got instead was a story that wastes too much time in the beginning to introduce the protagonist, and doesn’t spend nearly enough to explain the actual mystery.

Almost a third of the story goes by while we meet Thomas, who lives with his pregnant wife, and then follow him in his train journey to St. Petersburg after receiving the telegram from Vasily. None of these things add anything to the story: the wife disappears from view – and thought – until the very end; and during his stay on the train, the protagonist participates in some kind of student party, whose only purpose is to remind him he’s not a young man anymore. During the scene there are a few hints at some of his past, but nothing is really explained and thus it could have been taken out of the story to leave more space for important stuff.

Even when he’s finally in St. Petersburg, aside from introducing the bears and the character of Ana, very little happens and he just wanders around looking for clues about his friend’s whereabouts. It felt like the story didn’t have a direction, but was only trying to waste some time before getting to the point, so that it could be called “story” and not just “idea”. Because that’s what it was: the beginning of an idea, a beautiful scenery, but nothing more. Even when we find out where the bears come from, the explanation is vague and unsatisfying. I would have loved for the story to start in St. Petersburg, maybe with Thomas glancing at the telegram that brought him there just to give some context, and then explore the consequences of the bears living in the middle of the city and expand on the research Vasily has conducted to get the result he has. Instead we get a quick report of Vasily’s past, a pretty ending scene, and that’s it. All in all, if felt like a wasted occasion. So much more could have been done with this premise.

And that brings me to the other story I want to talk about today, which is three of four times as long and it still felt like it needed more time.

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg (2020)

The Four Profound Weaves is another instance of wasted potential. Before starting, the author explains that the story is set in a universe shared with a few of their earlier writings, mostly short stories. Reading them is not necessary to understand or enjoy this short novel, but they still recommend a few in particular if the reader wants to know more about the world. Which is the most interesting part of the novel, and I’ll get to it in a moment.

The four weaves of the title are used to create the following items: the carpet of change, made of wind; the carpet of wanderlust, made of sand; the carpet of hope, made of song; and the carpet of death, made of bones. Uiziya, the protagonist, lives in the desert with her people and has only ever woven the first two carpets; she has been waiting forty years for the return of her exiled aunt Benesret to complete her training.

The nameless man is living in exile. He joined the desert people after the death of his beloved, when he finally used his carpet of change to obtain from the Bird goddess the body he feels comfortable with; but he feels like he doesn’t belong, even though his daughter and granddaughter are fully integrated. He is waiting for Benesret to come back so that she can give him his new name, since she was the one who wove his carpet of change. He finally decides to go look for her together with Uiziya, and they leave the encampment behind them.

My first problem with this story is that the chapters are short and told in alternating point of views, both of which are in first person. It was very confusing in the beginning and it took some time to adjust to the idea that I was switching perspective every few pages. It was even more baffling since the characters were together most of the time and keeping only one point of view would have given the story a little bit more coesion and mystery, and maybe made the dialogues more interesting. This way, you’re bouncing from one character to the other and you don’t have time to get comfortable in their heads before you’re rushed out to get to the other one. The result of this was that the characters were pretty bland and their motivations bled together and lost focus.

The nameless man’s past should have been touching: he lost two lovers, one of which he tried to save only to discover that it was already too late, the other one which couldn’t accept his desire to change his body; even though he’s still grieving and thinks about them very often, for some reason it still fell flat.

There is also magic in this world, not only in the weaving, but in something called “deepnames”. You can have up to three, and they can be made of one, two, or three syllables, and each of the possible combinations is a configuration with its proper name that describes what they are good for… and that’s it. The nameless man uses his deepnames different times during the story, but it’s never clear how they work, nor how people around him can see them. Are they hovering over his head? Written on a tag on his clothes? Who knows! But everyone he meets apparently sees them, and I’m confused.

I think this story would have benefited from a hundred pages more. Even as I say this, I keep thinking about the fact that some of the informations were repeated to the death, while so much was left untold. Moreover, the reason for the two protagonists to continue their journey after finding Benesret just feels like an excuse to bring them to the Collector. The story in itself was interesting, but it always felt like it was rushing to its end. I would have liked more time to explore the nameless men’s past, Uiziya’s craft, the Collector’s motivations, even Benesret herself. I’m just so sad that I didn’t like it more.

I enjoy short fiction for the same reason I think a lot of people do: it’s easy and quick to digest, and it’s gratifying when you can read something in one sitting. I personally love to be totally immersed in a story without interruption from start to finish. The problem is that, as in this case, it might feel like the stories are just a blueprint of a longer project. I’ve read short things in the past that I really enjoyed. The first titles that come to mind, to pick something that I read this year, are The Test by Sylvain Neuvel, Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker, The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo. They are all really good stories, and I could name a lot more, but what these books had that were missing from my last reads are: compelling story arcs, incredible characterisation and well written dialogue. They had a story to tell and they told it in as many pages as were needed, be it fifty or two hundred. In this case, sadly, I feel like a lot was left out just to save on the page count.

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