The Stable Master’s Tale by Rachel Swirsky is a modern parable, with echos of the bite found in the works of The Brothers Grimm. Though there’re no animals in sight, Swirsky has a point to make, a moral to bring to light, and she does so in a grim, honest way that reveals both the light and the dark in humanity. We’re neither good, nor bad. Rather, we’re both at once.
It’s painful to remember them–my brothers, my sisters, my parents, my cousins. When I do, a single memory dominates. It was summer and I was six summers old, standing in the corral with my eldest brother. The day was hot and golden, the air strong with the reek of flowers and horse droppings. My brother sat beside me, stealing a moment to practice the flute he’d wheedled from our nurse.
A great wind began to blow. My brother jumped to his feet. At first, I thought he was scared; my brother was as lazy as a housecat, and ordinarily nothing but a swat on the rear could make him move quickly. The horses panicked, tossing their heads, eyes wild. The rushing wind gained speed. Yet my brother laughed. He spread his arms to the sky.
“What? What is it?” I demanded.
He picked me up. I saw nothing. “Look toward the mountains,” he shouted.
Suddenly, I saw them: great, golden bodies extending enormous gossamer wings. There were half a dozen flying in a circle, chasing each other’s tails. Sunlight sparkled off their bodies. They were glorious and terrifying.
I whimpered and hid my eyes.
“Don’t worry,” my brother said. “They’re too far away to hurt you.”
The great golden bodies circled in the darkness behind my eyelids. They were terrifying. They were beautiful. By the time I opened my eyes, the dragons were gone.
I did not see a dragon again for many years.
Swirsky’s prose is suitable to the tone of the story, and the voice of her nameless narrator is lively, but never so overwhelming that it takes the focus away from the themes and plot of the novel. It’s a novel about both the relationship between a girl and a dragon, and the parallels in their respective imprisonments (her’s through choices she’s made, its through mutilation and literal captivity), and also explores the limits of the human propensity to allow greed and narrow-mindedness to lead to self-destruction. Swirsky never forgets the ultimate strength of the classic fables: though they’ve a lesson to tell, but they never forget that they’re supposed to be fun. Like the best stories, The Stable Master’s Tale could potentially be read, and enjoyed, by young and old alike, It’s never bogged down by overwrought prose or too heavy moralism. Even with the themes removed, it’s a classic bed time tale.
In recent years, Rachel Swirsky’s short fiction has shown up on ballots for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards (among other honours). Though The Stable Master’s Tale is not one of her nominated works (and likely won’t be, given that it treads very familiar ground, unlike works such as The Memory of Wind and Eros, Philia, Agape), it’s more than enough to convince me that Swirsky is more than capable of sitting alongside writers like Caitlin R. Kiernan and Saladin Ahmed atop my list of exciting young authors to keep an eye on.