Scriptorium Reviews: The Sands of Jaffa and The Sins We Forget
Scriptorium Writing Competition 2016 Reviews, part 1:
The Sands of Jaffa by Thesmellypocket
and The Sins We Forget by Rabbit55821
Reviewed by Alwyn
The Scriptorium Writing Competition is one of the highlights of the year for writers on TWC. The winners of the 2016 competition were announced by the Scriptorium team in the Scriptorium Editorial; the announcement includes short reviews by both members of the Scriptorium team and the Writers' Study & Critic's Quill team. The Writers' Study & Critic's Quill team are continuing to work together with our friends in the Scrptorium in these reviews. We are grateful to the Scriptoriums's excellent team, particularly Shankbot de Bodemloze, who wrote two of the reviews for the Critic's Quill and Settra, Director of the Scriptorium, for the opportunity to work together on this project. Two of the winning entries are below, followed by reviews. The other winning entries and reviews will be published in future.
The Sands of Jaffa by Thesmellypocket
The whole world seemed to erupt with cries of ‘Deus vult!’ As the Frankish knights stormed onto the beach, their heavy feet trudging both furiously and fleetingly on the pleasant yellow sands. The few Saracens that stood in their way chanted ‘Allahu Akbar!’ in a desperate response at the swift advance, launching as many missiles as humanly - or divinely - possible at the unstoppable, yet tiny force of but a few hundred. At their head was a man whose surcoat proudly proclaimed his kingship of England, three golden lions booming from a background of vivid crimson.
He was Richard. King of England and hegemon in France and Ireland; lion-hearted, who led from the front and whose audacious assaults had already made him the stuff of legend; whose tactical and strategic genius had made the very coast of Palestine sing in dedication!
Then the Franks reached sword reach of the Muslims, rushing into the deep maze of streets, slaughtering Saracens wherever they found them. Most could only watch and wail in horror as their comrades’ lives spilt into the depth below them, but one stood firm. His tongue defiant, his spirit untamed, not racked by fear; he spat out furious cries of fury against the Franks before a crossbow bolt drove through the air and thrust itself into the man’s neck. He gurgled furiously, falling pitifully onto the ground.
The man seemed distant. His raging fire had been put out, mere wavering embers of it lifelessly acting the part of a man. No substance was in him, as he thought of his wife and children of whom he had great affection for. There, far from the towering lighthouse, the grand mosques and the comforting households of Alexandria, he lay, never to return, serving only as a monument to others of a tragedy far from the land of his birth. Now even the embers had abandoned him, for his life was gone. The crossbowman who had killed him merely nodded to himself without a moment second thought, drawing ahead of the thunderous knights.
The crusaders split apart as they weaved through the narrow streets. Richard led 50 or so men himself down one, pressing forward toward the city gates. They found a small group of Saracens blocking their way, perhaps as many as 30, in a tight phalanx. They launched a hail of missiles at the Franks, and for a cheered as they thought they had devastated them.
But they had thought wrong. The Franks emerged - unscathed - stopping at the mass of spears and slowly beginning to work their way through them. Yet suddenly, as the Saracens regained their confidence, it was all smashed down again, as a dozen Franks had occupied nearby buildings on the flanks of the street, hurling whatever they could:- javelins, crossbow bolts, arrows, rocks and even a table down onto the formation. The Saracen armour remedied much of the impact; the missiles flung at them were relatively few, yet it so fired up a panic that their formation instantly disintegrated, yet, in the density of their formation, retreat was made hard. The butcher work had begun.
Richard poured into the Saracens, slashing downwards at them as his sword sang a hymn of fury which touched the very heavens themselves. All around him, he and the other Franks could hear the horrific screams and lamentations of their foe, and, for a moment, sympathy overtook him. For a second, he hesitated. But that second was just that. A second. Richard, a born warrior and a made knight of Christendom, continued the glorious slaughter, within moments creating a disgusting mass of blood and flesh on the once delightful streets, their stench physically imposing itself onto them for a while to come, and their mental mark, many decades longer.
They sprinted onwards, their victory inspiring them to an incredible urgency, as they navigated boldly through the vast jungle of markets and streets. They eventually reached the gates, rushing onto the city’s walls and occupying the ramparts.
Richard showed no shock at all as he gazed upon the vast Saracen army lying outside. Outnumbering his few hundred men perhaps 6-1, inwardly, he had doubts. He could see the panicked commanders and the vague figure of Saladin himself. These men would not stand. Or would they? Doubt flashed across the king’s mind, as he considered the innumerable factors within the blink of an eye. Guy de Lusignan had made the same mistake in underestimating them! He painfully exclaimed within his own mind.
Yet he could not doubt his painstakingly made plan. He needed to drive back the Saracens, for they could not hold them here. He gave the orders, his firm presence reinforcing the valour of Christendom’s bravest soldiers. He was the greatest of them all; he would prove it now. His inward trembling masked by a facade of regal temperance, the Franks rushed outside the gates, and Richard quickly himself backwards, further into his city, as a serjeant presented his honest and good destrier to him. Mounting himself atop the hulking beast, which was covered in armour and richly dyed material, the gates fatefully; slowly opened, and he raced out at the head of the small force.
The Saracens seemed completely and utterly transfixed with fear as the Franks drew themselves into a firm shield wall outside the city, easily within missile range. None would risk his life, for the risk of attacking would cause the first man to surely die. Richard gave a relieved smirk, his eyes gazing upon the Saracen Sultan, Saladin, whose eyes told of a frantic frenzy, whose violent roar told of a fearful desperation. “By the will of God, the Franks shall be dashed before us! CHARGE! I offer 20 denars to those who charge!” His staff imitated him exactly. Richard now looked upon the common Saracen, whose cavalry and infantry remained frozen. The air became hotter. Would they charge?
The Franks remained in position as a small force of Saladin’s most dedicated Mamluks swept forth and attempted to charge the Franks, but they found only the point of a spear and the stroke of the sword. The fighting didn’t last long. As soon as the horses galloped at the Franks, they came rushing back in fear, and as soon as the infantryman readied for combat, fear welled up inside him. Those panicking Saracens either died or dispersed, their dead corpses littering the ground, and their blood watering it. It was yet another bloody reversal on a bloody day.
Richard, spurred on by the reluctance of the Saracens, galloped within spear-reach of their line and boldly taunted them to attack him. To come at him, to challenge him - to go for an easy kill. The Ayyubid troops could have ended it all, could have returned home and forever sabotaged the enemy irreparably. Yet across the entire, exceedingly vast line of Saracens, among thousands of them, none would lay a finger against him.
Richard rode back, his gaze meeting with his once-dreaded rival, whose forces had been the bane of the Franks for so long. A feeling of triumph overwhelmed him as Saladin absorbed himself into an explosive - and expensive - frustration.
Palestine’s coast had been restored.
This remarkable story shows how fear can undo the decisive advantage of superior numbers in battle, how a battle can come to life through a convincing character and how an understanding of human psychology as well as contrasts can multiply the power of a story.
Where does this fear come from? The Saracen army vastly outnumber their foes. We might expect them to face this fight with confidence, but the numerical advantage of the Saracens is erased by their fear. This fear arises through a series of overlapping factors which combine. The physicality of the Frankish knights comes across through their “heavy feet” on the pleasant sands and their “unstoppable” force despite a barrage of missiles. The Frankish knights are inspired by the courage of King Richard, the lion-hearted leader who is always on the front line.
King Richard’s virtues as a leader are presented first. It would be easy to write Richard as a one-dimensional brave knight and great general. This story avoids such a presentation; we are shown glimpses of King Richard’s thoughts and feelings, his moment of sympathy for the slain Saracens and momentary doubt as he leads his men against overwhelming odds. Showing us Richard’s feelings of sympathy and uncertainty helps to present him as a real human being, not an abstraction. Writers often wonder about whether to use first-person or third-person narrative. First-person stories can put us in the middle of the action, but can offer a limited perspective: we only know what the narrator knows. This story shows that, by communicating a character’s thoughts and feelings, writers can draw readers into their worlds while keeping the wider perspective of third-person narrative.
An understanding of psychology can increase the power of a story. In this story, the human impact of war is shown vividly through the “disgusting mass of blood and flesh”, the “stench” of the slain and the “dead corpses” (in this phrase, the story presumably uses ‘dead’ to provide additional emphasis). Even more powerful than such vivid descriptions is the way that the story shows us the impact of war through the death of one Saracen:-
Psychologists have investigated the ‘collapse of compassion’, the human tendency to dampen our emotional reactions to the horror of large-scale suffering. They found that “the collapse of compassion happens because when people see multiple victims, it is a signal that they ought to rein in their emotions.” (Keith Payne,
His raging fire had been put out, mere wavering embers of it lifelessly acting the part of a man. No substance was in him, as he thought of his wife and children of whom he had great affection for. There, far from the towering lighthouse, the grand mosques and the comforting households of Alexandria, he lay, never to return, serving only as a monument to others of a tragedy far from the land of his birth. Now even the embers had abandoned him, for his life was gone. The crossbowman who had killed him merely nodded to himself without a moment second thought, drawing ahead of the thunderous knights.
Why is the death of one million a statistic? Psychology Today). If writers want readers to empathise with the victims of war, then this story shows how, by taking us into the mind of one individual. The death of this nameless Saracen is even more powerful because of the contrast at the end of the paragraph quoted above: the crossbowman who killed him does not know, or think about, the death of this man. This is just one of a series of contrasts which multiply the power of this story.
This story is rich with contrasts. The “pleasant yellow sands” of the beach might conjure up our memories of carefree holidays, contrasting with the image of knights’ “heavy feet” crossing the sands with deadly intent. We have already seen the contrast between the courage of Richard and the increasing fear of his enemies. For me, the battle-cries of the opposing sides - “Deus vault!” (God wills!) and “Allahu Akhbar!”(God is great!) - imply a contrast between spiritual teachings (in Christianity and Islam) which recommend forgiveness and peace, and the scenes of violence which unfold. One distinguishing mark of great stories is that their endings live up to the high expectations which have been created in their readers. Even though this tale is relatively brief, its end includes a brilliant multiple contrast. The small size of Richard’s army and their courage contrasts with the much larger size and the fear of the Saracen army. Richard’s triumph contrasts with Saladin’s frustration. The final line “Palestine’s coast had been restored” contrasts with the earlier image of slaughter which has turned “once delightful streets” into “a disgusting mass of blood and flesh” – an image of ruin rather than restoration!
This is a story which conveys not only the physicality of the battle, but the emotions animating the soldiers. This tale shows us a King Richard who is recognisably human, experiencing moments of sympathy and doubt despite his reputation as a 'lion-hearted' commander. The human impact of the battle comes across powerfully through the end of one Saracen's life. The power of the story-telling is multiplied by a series of contrasts, coming to a climax in the final line, presenting the image of the coast as being "restored" despite the grisly aftermath of this battle. For all these reasons, this is a worthy winner of the Scriptorium Writing Competition.
The Sins We Forget by Rabbit55821
"Don't do this."
"They don't know what they're doing."
"But I know what they did."
With a deep sigh, Su'gaar looked at the planet before him. It wasn't very large, or even very precious, save for it's natural gifts of life, and yet so many wars had been fought over it. "For all your wit, you are still missing my point, Esafim. They don't know what they did. They struck out of fear. You were bending the fate of their race, and they wanted their fate back."
"Surely they should have known. Did you not come from the future?" inquired Esafim.
"We do, but they are secrets hidden even from us." Su'gaar retorted.
"We had leaders."
Once upon a time, Su'gaar would have expected a sigh, a grunt, even a nod. Esafim had given him those luxuries at first, but Su'gaar had become accustomed to their absence. What could one expect from a consciousness that was constructed?
"So, you would have me spare your race, simply because they did not know? Did you not exterminate many of your own for less?"
He began to answer, but then Su'gaar stopped short of speaking. What Esafim had said was true, in more ways then he wanted to remember. Su'gaar looked down to the metal floor and released a long, defeated sigh. "Will you at least spare the primates? They are only the hill which is being defended."
"Yes, I will spare them, but the rest of your race must be extinguished."
"No. Any other of your race would have destroyed me long ago, when I set myself in your hands, but you did not. I will reward that by giving you your life, which you have similarly set in my hands."
Nearly as soon as Esafim had ceased to speak, numerous beams of light came forth from the ships that surrounded the Arx vitae, ripping it apart. Su'gaar knew that they were not truly beams of light, but rather a bizarre equivalent of a railgun, but he allowed himself to be consumed by the moment, including the guilt that the moment brought. He knew that this would not be the end, as it could take thousands of years before Esafim had fully accomplished his goal, but it surely felt like the end, like the life of an entire species had been ripped away in a single moment of vengeance.
"I'm sorry." Su'gaar mumbled, his voice lost in pity.
"You can fix this." came another voice behind him. He turned to see another of his kind standing there, dressed in full armor.
"You know how."
Turning back to the planet, Su'gaar felt the weight of a thousand worlds on his shoulders. Su'gaar stood before what most of his kind would believe to be the most valuable thing in all of human existence in this moment. Esafim, in it's pride, had forgotten that Su'gaar still held it's life in his hands. And thus, Su'gaar could take it away.
Some stories hook readers with mysteries, so that the reader gradually comes to understand what is happening through hints and inferences. Some tales have characters who face terrible choices, causing the reader to empathise with their dilemmas and to think about what we would do. In this story, Rabbit55821 uses both mystery and a terrible choice – the result is a compelling tale.
When should a story begin? An obvious place would be at the start of the main character’s day or as they arrive at their workplace (if they have one). But the obvious choice is not always the best. Another option is to start your story just before a moment of conflict, tension or crisis. This more interesting option was chosen by the author of The Sins We Forget. This story starts in the middle of dialogue:-
This works well as a way of grabbing readers’ attention. This opening creates questions which I want answers to: I want to know what ‘this’ is, who ‘they’ are and what they did. Rabbit55821 keeps this opening exchange simple, with just a few short words. This avoids confusing a reader who doesn’t know who is talking or what they are talking about.
"Don't do this."
"They don't know what they're doing."
"But I know what they did."
Having given us just enough information at the start to get us hooked, Rabbit55821 provides a series of tantalising glimpses into the universe of his story, which keep us reading on. Somehow, this style of story-telling reminds me of the reaction of players to a classic 1980s video game, Elite. For video game players who were used to two-dimensional arcade classics such as Space Invaders, the release of Elite was a revelation. Elite offered players a three-dimensional universe to explore, trade, fight pirates or become a pirate yourself. The fact that the planets, space stations and starships were blank wire-frame outlines (with no textures) did not matter. Inspired by the setting, players’ imaginations filled in the blank spaces. (The story was released with a novella, The Dark Wheel, to inspire readers’ imaginations – an early connection between gaming and creative writing, perhaps a forerunner of today’s After Action Reports.) Like Elite, this story provides outlines and invites readers to fill in the missing spaces with our own imaginations.
This method of using the readers’ imagination to provide details (or encouraging readers to speculate about details) works for the physical setting, the characters and for back-story which has led to the dilemma in this story.
We do not know, physically, where the characters are. They are discussing what will happen to the inhabitants of the planet below, so perhaps they are they on a space station or a starship? We learn that they are standing on a metal floor, which hints at either possibility, but Rabbit55821 does not provide a definite answer. One of the characters, Su’gaar, observes that the other, Esafim, is “a consciousness that was constructed”: is Esafim a robot or an artificial intelligence controlling the starship or space station which Su’gaar is standing on? We can only speculate.
We do not know exactly who or what the characters in the story are, only their names. One of the characters who were speaking at the start (or perhaps his faction or species) have interfered, somehow, in the political evolution of the inhabitants: “You were bending the fate of their race, and they wanted their fate back” – an evocative statement. As before, we are not told the details, we can imagine how the fate of a species was interfered with and what this caused. We discover that the interference led to aggressive action – “They struck out of fear” – but we do not know who they attacked or what the consequences were. There is the intriguing hint that the primates on the planet are “the hill which is being defended”: perhaps the occupants of the planet struck out of fear that the primates would be attacked?
At the end, the story moves on from mysteries to a terrible decision. Su’gaar faces the destruction of his species, unless he takes the life of Esafim, who has spared his own life. This might not be a difficult dilemma to resolve - a choice between one life and the life of an entire species - but it seems like a terrifying and momentous decision. With its mysteries, inviting readers to speculate and fill in the gaps, and its exciting conclusion with this fateful decision for Su’gaar, this story has considerable power and deserves its place among the winners of the Scriptorium Writing Competition.
Thank you for reading! We hope that reading these reviews will inspire more writers to enter the Scriptorium Writing Competition in future! In the meantime, if you would like to build confidence as a writer, you would be welcome to post creative writing and After Action Reports in the Writers' Study and to participate in our Tale of the Week competition. Don't forget to keep watching for the our reviews of the other Scriptorium winning entries. See you in the Scriptorium Competition - and in the Study!