Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Critique by Adam Heine: Flying Ships and Shadows Sweep

TITLE: Flying Ships and Shadows Sweep
GENRE: MG Fantasy (steampunk)
ENTRY: #25

Shumisha is the Izan’s chimney sweep. She helps the mates gather shadows to fuel the magical engine driving their flying ship.

When Shumisha realizes that the captain traps human shadows, she decides to do everything in her power to free them. People without their shadows vanish into thin air. The problem is she can’t touch tangible things or talk to people. In fact, she’s a shadow herself.

The sailors had gathered around on the upper deck of the Izan, Morocco’s most feared airship. They sorted the shadows they had stolen. The yawing of the ship, tilted by a new cargo [YAW IS HORIZONTAL ROTATION AROUND A VERTICAL AXIS, NOT TILTING. I THINK YOU MEAN ROLL. IN AN AIRSHIP-BASED NOVEL, YOU’VE GOT TO GET THAT KIND OF DETAIL RIGHT.], warned Shumisha of their arrival. The commotion meant only one thing: sailors getting ready to drag the shadows to the furnace and start the magical engine. Argh, no one had come to fetch her. She shook her head. How could they trap shadows without her magical powers? The men’s boots clanked on the turtle shell shaped roof covering the third deck with much force than necessary. Still, they dragged something heavy above her head [THIS IS THE FIRST STRONG CLUE THAT SHUMISHA IS NOT WITH THE SAILORS, BUT THE SECOND SENTENCE IMPLIES THAT SHE IS THERE (BECAUSE SHE “SEES” WHAT THEY’RE DOING. CONSEQUENTLY, IT’S CONFUSING WHERE THE PROTAGONIST IS IN RELATION TO EVERYTHING ELSE.], something unusually heavy. What for all the sailing seas were they up to? [I LIKE THIS BIT OF SLANG (I MEAN, I WOULD). NOTE THAT IT IMPLIES SAILING ON THE SEAS, NOT IN THE SKIES. HOPEFULLY, THAT’S INTENTIONAL.] Their curses reached her ears as the words spiraled down the three decks.

“Too scrawny,” said Captain Hasraban. “Throw it overboard.”

A dark shape passed in front of the first deck’s porthole, near Shumisha. These shadows were more trouble than they had signed up for.

Thankfully, the poor shadow would survive the few hundred feet drop that separated the Izan from the desert town beneath. Unfortunately, it would wander endlessly in the desert with only a slight chance of finding its owner.

Shumisha shook her head. The captain has gone mad!

She crouched in the semi-darkness of the staircase, wishing Moroccans would take more naps and keep their shadows tucked inside their homes during the hot parts of the day. That way, Captain Hasraban’s sailors wouldn’t steal from them.


There are intriguing bits of the world presented here. “What for all the sailing seas,” for example, or the brief explanation of what happens to the shadow that had been dropped. And the second-to-last sentence is a GREAT example of how to drop world-building hints without infodumping.

That said, there are some issues I see. As implied by one my comments above, there are confusing grounding issues. It’s difficult for the reader to tell where the protagonist is in relation to everything else, and the second sentence feels like a point-of-view error along with sentences like “These shadows were more trouble than they had signed up for.” (Is she thinking this on behalf of the sailors or is this meant to be an omniscient POV?) The end result is unfortunate confusion for the reader.

It also feels to me like there is sometimes TOO much dropped about the world. Most of it is fine—great even!—but world-building is a tricky balance. You have to treat it with a light hand and trust that your reader, even a middle-grade reader, will put the pieces together. (Putting the pieces together is one of the great joys of fantasy/sci-fi readers, in fact!)

For example, I feel the last sentence is telling a bit too much. The reader can figure this out (and most readers want to). On the opposite side, the line “How could they trap shadows without her magical powers?” feels like not enough information to me—it adds confusion that is not cleared up quickly enough (though it might be cleared up on the next page and isn’t so bad). In this case, I would say something like “How did they manage to trap shadows without her?” without mentioning magical powers, and then the magical powers can come up later. I’d also probably call them something less generic than “magical powers.”

See? Tricky balance. (And I’m sure other readers would even disagree with me!) But hopefully some of this is helpful. Good luck!

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