That was quite thoroughly pleasant. Which is way, way more than I feel I have any right to expect of a self-published novella. (Complete with perfectly competent anime-esque illustrations from the author!)
Page 27, Game 3: I Signed Up To Be The Substitute Familiar Of A Struggling Witch To Pay My Bills And I’m Just Now Realizing What I Got Myself Into by Alex Zandra Van Chestein
This is the story of M, a young adult largely adrift in life who stumbles upon a strange opportunity: let a witch transform them into a demon, and then spend three months living with a different witch. See, in this world, witches and magic are totally a thing and it’s no big deal. M tried magic a while back and really sucked at it, but they’re not torn up about it or anything. Witches often have demon (think made-of-magic demons, not hellfire demons) familiars who are a BIG help in doing magic stuff, particularly when it comes to artificing work.
Penelope is a witch who really knows her shit, and her kid sister Amanda is getting her magic feet under her. Problem is, Amanda kinda sucks at magic too, and can’t hack even a simple familiar-binding spell. (Why? I don’t think the story really explains that; she seems perfectly capable-ish. Maybe demons just think she has lousy taste in footwear and get all snobbish about that stuff?) So, Penelope’s solution: demonic ringer. Pay-off a regular ol’ mortal human to get transformed into a demon critter, and let Amanda summon a beastie that is getting paid to do whatever it takes to help her out. What could possibly go wrong?
Whatever complications you think might arise from that scenario, you probably don’t need to worry about it, because it’s not an issue. Yes, even that one. And that one.
I’ve mentioned it before, but since I have no reason to believe anyone other than me reads these in chronological order (or, like, at all), I’ll mention it again: I’ve read a LOT of unpublished/self-published fiction. Writing stories of any length that don’t suck is HARD, much harder than than anyone who’s never dipped their toes in those waters would believe. Most of the un-/self-published fiction in the world is hidden behind impenetrable gates for a very, very good reason.
So, yeah, when I say that this novella doesn’t suck, no bullshit: I mean that as praise. When I say it was actually pleasant and enjoyable to read, please recognize that as very, VERY high praise indeed.
It’s enjoyable. The prose flows smoothly, the characters are sympathetic and engaging. It’s all very pleasant.
Overbearingly, suffocatingly pleasant.
Ruthlessly stripped of conflict to the point where the characters occasionally don’t even register as recognizably human pleasant.
Yeah. When I call this motherfucker “pleasant,” that is actually far and away my biggest beef with the whole thing.
The story’s big hook is that it’s actually trans allegory. Our protagonist M is … is there a word for someone who really needs to dump their current gender identity but has yet to truly grapple with that reality so is just grudgingly going by their assigned-at-birth gender as an awkward default? What pronouns are appropriate for that person? Whatever. M is male-ish, neither happy about it nor willing to confront it; but when they find themselves in the body of a female demon-mouse (who gets named Emilynn by pure coincidence), it’s liberating in a way they — she — has never experienced before. This is a story about discovering and creating a new identity for yourself, about cannonballing into a completely new world and finding love and acceptance within it. Those are the parts of the story that work. Those are the parts that charmed me.
The problem is, as mentioned, that this process of discovery feels shockingly devoid of any sort of risk or stakes, and it’s taking place within a world that’s only barely sketched with the broadest of outlines. I mean, there’s some really hefty ethical shit going down here, but most of it barely gets mentioned let alone explored. Setting your sister up with a faux-demon familiar without her consent? That feels like one hell of a violation of trust! To say nothing of learning that your adorable new familiar is actually a male-bodied human in demon-mouse drag!
And all of that is, from a storytelling standpoint, good. VERY good! This feels like the sort of thing someone with big-time magic power might do, overstepping boundaries to act in (what they perceive as) the best interests of someone they love. That’s interesting. That’s a rich vein of drama just waiting to be mined.
But, no. Conflict of any sort just doesn’t fit the novella’s oppressively wholesome tone. So everything that might be worrisome, that might make someone question their actions or choices, will at best be mentioned and glossed over. It’s fine. Everything is fine. Very, very, very fine. So fine.
And that’s honestly a damned shame.
The novella is also very, very light on the sort of details it needs to truly come alive. For instance, in one scene, Amanda is preparing breakfast. What kind of breakfast? Can Emilynn smell sausage cooking in a pan? Is Amanda chopping up veggies for an omelet? Is she a Cap’n Crunch kinda witch? No idea. It’s Breakfast. Just some perfectly ordinary Breakfast. Don’t worry about it.
This lack of detail permeates the novella, to its detriment. More problematically: Amanda wants to be an artificer, to craft magic objects. WHY is she so intent on being an artificer, even though prior to Emilynn’s help she was quite rubbish at it? No idea. WHAT sort of magic devices does she want to create? Well, erm, bolts that glow, I guess. Oh! And a hairbrush that can make your hair different colors! That’s one’s really dope, actually! That was a really compelling, interesting detail!
As far as I know, Amanda’s goal is to open a magic shop that exclusively sells light-up hardware and brushes that make your hair different colors. I’m really feeling like she needs to stay on Magic Etsy until she diversifies her stock a bit. But that’s just a detail, and this novella doesn’t really bother with nearly as many of those as it needs to. (Yes, it’s possible to go way too far the other direction and get bogged in superfluous details. At this stage in the author’s career, that is emphatically not a worry.)
If I were in a critique group with this author, this is someone whose work I’d genuinely look forward to reading while completely understanding why she keeps getting form rejections from all but the semi-est of semi-pro markets. There’s a lot to like here; reading this novella is not a chore, and “Not A Chore” is a mountain all too few amateur writers ever manage to conquer. But to be really compelling, to write stories that I’d want to seek out, this author has some growing of her own she yet needs to do.
I hope she manages it. The best version of Alex Zandra Van Chestein is absolutely an author I’d want to read.
And, hey, it’s self-illustrated! I’m not an Art Guy, but the anime-inspired illustrations all helped to solidify and ground the world in a way that the prose sometimes struggled to accomplish, and were a welcome addition. This lady has some chops.
Will this next entry in the list feature a surprise subplot with a polyamorous demon-cat?
Page 27, Game 18: One Page Lore: Fantasy Folk by Jesse Galena – RexiconJesse
“The details that make folk in fantasy TTRPGs unique & fun to play without racist undertones condensed into one page each”
Hmm. Fantasy races stripped of racism? As a middle-aged nerd who now holds some small degree of embarrassment at having been attracted to chicks cosplaying in Drow-face (oh, yes, sacrifice me to your dark spider god, baby), you may consider my interest piqued.