Wednesday, 10 September 2014 00:00

Mentor's Critique - Quantum Cannibals

Nathan, I chose to display the very first pages of Quantum Cannibals here because I think readers will agree that you really know how to start an action-packed yarn! To begin at the beginning myself, I must commend your choice of title –the most apposite that's come to FLM so far. 'Quantum' hints at the structure of your book (the narrative switches about in time and place) and 'Cannibals' introduces a guaranteed terror factor. It's very appropriate to your purpose that your first character is full of fear—and this opening passage is even more effective because we don't know what Saima is running from. One of his own people? An animal? A cannibal?!! Our own unease becomes a companion to his panic.


Who is Saima? A simple first assumption is that he's Inuit, but his dialogue with himself reveals that he belongs to a people called the Eber, who were exiled to this frozen region after a banishment, generations ago, known as The Trail of Tears. So we don't know yet who really he is – he's just a man running for his life across ice, through a storm, in an era called Modern Age. And Saima questions himself. His relationship with his harsh environment is ambiguous. His people have learned to live in it: 'He knew the way home.' And to die in it: 'Freezing to death was a well-followed tradition amongst the Eber people.' But suddenly it's unfamiliar: 'It wasn't a landscape he could feel in his bones.' He's at the mercy of a force far greater than himself: 'As if Saima's life was a big joke ...'

Your purpose here is to put the wind up the reader, and you succeed. You do so by creating an inescapable sensual reality. The sting of the wind, the cold of the ice, burst upon Saima and the reader with dreadful hostility. Everything is literally in the face, immediate, tactile, with the 'wrong smell', a frigid feel. Your language is excellently suited to your purpose. Even light becomes so concrete it can shatter: 'the few bits of light broke against the icy water'. At the same time, Saima credits that this wild reality may be animate: the 'screaming gusts of sleet' speak to him, and he addresses the storm and tries to appease it. The immediacy of your writing means that it's a real shock when Saima kills the dog. Here's an animate creature that he welcomes – but he takes its life for the sake of very brief warmth and nourishment.

Saima's is a dog-eat-dog world: existence at the extreme edge of survival, a situation you've conveyed with drama and exactitude.

You give the same sharpness to the next scene, in which a city dweller, also called Saima, comes into the safety of an apartment after ... a confrontation in a snowstorm ... and hears about the killing of a dog – incidents that freak him out and leave him fearful. Seeing into this guy's mind is like stepping into another landscape as 'alien, alive, twisting and threatening' as the first. It turns out that Saima has been flown in from the land of exile to help fix appliances and equipment in city people's homes – as temporary slave labour. So this is a leap in location but not time – or is it?

Your synopsis reveals another layer of time and place in Quantum Cannibals – a Bronze Age, in which figures from the Modern Age, such as Saima, have an alter ego. There is also a place called Edge of the World, and you explain that 'SIMON/SAIMA is son in the Bronze Age, husband in the Edge of The World, and father in the Modern Age'. I confess I found it hard to get the head around three Saimas when I've only been introduced to two so far. BUT I'm confident that someone with your skills will guide the reader through the intricacies of these tenuously linked worlds. No cosy narrative security here, Nathan! Especially if all the time the reader worries that there's a cannibal around the next corner :)

Quantum Cannibals is the first in a series called (with rather nice irony) American Folktales. Manipulating such complexity of time and place will be a huge challenge for volume after volume, but if this first effort is truly representative of your work, I believe you can pull it off. You've drawn up an original cast of characters: Prime Minister Jackson (and his ruthless Bronze Age doppelgänger) and Finer sound particularly promising. My only piece of advice would be to ensure that the reader stays with your characters all the way. As yet, we have no emotional attachment to them – we are not so much drawn to them as drawn into their lives in a very disturbing way. We also get into their minds – they contemplate their existence, and that inner debate becomes an important part of your narrative drive. Just make absolutely sure your characters don't lose their grip on the reader and leave him/her behind. You may find that a flicker of emotion here and there will help us keep up.


© Cheryl Hingley

Additional Info

  • Written by: Nathan Elberg
  • Country: Canada
Read 3882 times