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The Thief of Broken Toys cover

At the heart of this novella is a question: how do we come to terms with grief so overwhelming it strips us of the means to function at even a most basic level? Or, to use a repeating metaphor in the story, grief so overwhelming it is like a never-ending storm, rain pouring down constantly, the sky too dark to see clearly. This is the experience of Ray, whose only child, Toby, has inexplicably died in his sleep, some months prior to the story's opening. The immensity of Ray's grief and his inability to control it has already caused his wife to leave him; while she attempts to move on, and make a new life for herself with Ray's one-time best friend, Ray remains in his house at the top of the village, withdrawn, watching, unable to fully articulate his loss.

Ray's grief and consequent stasis is represented in a number of ways in the first section of the novella, most particularly in the geography of the Cornish village where he lives, Skentipple. The village turns in on itself physically—a labyrinth of narrow lanes which deny access to cars, houses are built up the steep sides of the hill—leaving nowhere else to go. Everyone knows everyone else, everyone knows about Toby, and Ray feels the shame of his grief as acutely as he feels the grief itself, without really understanding why; he takes the back lanes through the village, hoping to avoid people, rarely lifting his eyes from the ground.

The pace of the writing is slow, deliberate, reflecting Ray's struggle to contain his feelings, yet I have to say that at moments it seems to teeter on the edge of being just a little too studied. Every sentence is carefully constructed, each word carefully weighed and chosen for its impact in the narrative. It is either a masterclass in control or, and I incline slightly to this latter view, it is rather more oppressive than the story itself demands, not least because there are already small signs that Lebbon is perhaps not quite as in control of the text as he might like us to suppose.

The smallest sign is the name of the village itself. Cornwall is a county with many strange and unusual placenames, but they tend to begin with Tre, Pol or Pen, or to be associated with a saint: Skentipple really doesn't ring true. Nonetheless, when we encounter this name it's a small stutter in a text that has so far been very polished. I hesitate rather more over the narrative voices. There seem to be two: one is a straightforward third-person narrator who recounts Ray's thoughts and movements; the other is a first-person plural narrator, an invisible, unidentifiable chorus that drifts in and out of the text like strands of mist, setting the scene, drawing the reader's attention to significant objects and incidents, stage-managing affairs in a way that is intrusive, and actually rather annoying. It is as though the reader cannot be trusted to make up her own mind about what is going on, and yet the presence of these mysterious beings is not, so far as I can tell, ever satisfactorily justified within the terms of the story.

Ironically, this over-attentiveness on the part of 'we' and the author critically weakens the tension he has worked so hard to generate in the first place. When 'we' introduces us to the mysterious old man on the cliff-top, mending toys, returning them to their owners, it heavy-handedly signals what is to come, namely Ray's hope that he can assuage his own grief through having the old man repair Toby's broken toys and, by extension, Ray's life. Ray's initial encounters with the toy-mender seem to be relatively benign, and the mending of the toys bring him some relief. It is, of course, in the nature of fiction that this will not be enough, but what started out as an account of one man's grief is suddenly transformed into a story of revenge, the reasons for which seem to make little sense within the terms of the narrative. It is not so much the fact that Ray refuses the offer that is made to him as that it is made in the first place. Something has come adrift in this story and however polished the writing might be, it is no longer enough to conceal this inconsistency.

The problem, I think, is that Lebbon's story has temporarily overwhelmed both form and style. We have moved from the sustained creation of atmosphere and emotions to the demands of actual plotting, and the story Lebbon wants to tell just won't fit into the space he gives it. In the end, the narrative takes an easier but intellectually less satisfying route, sacrificing the work put in at the beginning of the novella for the sake of just getting to the end. Consequently, the reader is required to make creatively untenable leaps of faith in order to get to a point where Lebbon can return to the story he was originally telling and resolve it appropriately. Except that the novella has, by now, entirely lost its momentum and the excitement of possibility has been replaced by grim inevitability. 'We' can float away and find another story. For the reader, it is left to wonder why a good idea took a wrong turn.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and freelance copyeditor. She is currently completing an MA in Postcolonial Studies. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and is now an Assistant Editor of Foundation.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was a critic and freelance copyeditor. She reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and was assistant editor of Foundation. She was senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons when she died in September of 2022. You can read a 30 January 2023 special issue devoted to Maureen.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
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By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
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