Nebula Shorts: Sarah Pinsker – The Court Magician (Lightspeed)

We’ve already had a science-fiction story wearing the trappings of a haunted house, now we have a horror story disguised in classic fantasy garb. We all know the magician’s bildungsroman story arc: the boy in poverty (or relative poverty) whether they be Ged or Kvothe who gets their “Your a wizard Harry!” moment and is recruited to learn about the ways of real magic. Pinsker knows the story well and knows how to use one story arc to tell another. We naturally start at the beginning with a poor kid trying to survive on the streets with nothing but their wits and some special talents:

“He watches the street magicians every day, with a hunger in his eyes that says he knows he could do what they do. He contemplates the tawdry illusions of the market square with more intensity than most, until he is marked for us by his own curiosity. Even then, even when he wanders booth to booth and corner to corner every day for a month, begging to learn, we don’t take him.”

The Court Magician by Sarah Pinsker Published in Lightspeed Jan. 2018 (Issue 92)

You know the rest of the story by this point. The boy becomes a young man eager to learn but frustrated that his early lessons are not the real magic he craves. The young man grows in knowledge and skill and advances in power. He becomes part of great events and his career continues but learns that true magic comes with a cost. Then, in later life, he must step away from the life of wonders.

Ah but…that is and isn’t that story.

Instead, this is a story about being morally compromised. It’s a story of only obeying orders. It is a story of how the powerful exploit the talented. It’s also a story of literal sacrifice and loss. It’s also a story about being trapped in your career and how even though you can literally leave your place of employment at any time, somehow you can’t.

I don’t know if everybody will like this story but you can’t help but admire the craftmanship. Pinsker fits a lifetime and another world into a few thousand words an does so without looking like it took any effort.

What’s not to like about it? Well, it is both creepy and deeply bleak. The horror and the helplessness of the situation seeps into you and the cynical exploitation of the young man is unremitting. If the current situation of the world is already getting you down and you need some extra light and hope in your soul you might want to skip over this tale for the time being.

Award-worthy? Good grief, yes. If you want to write well, read stuff like this even if you want to write something quite different. Read it and figure out how the author managed to write this.

[Next time: summing up the finalists]


11 thoughts on “Nebula Shorts: Sarah Pinsker – The Court Magician (Lightspeed)

      1. It seems pretty clear to me that the narrator is also a past court magician.

        I do have to admire the skill with which the author inserts random unimportant details (the crippled, elderly magicians in the marketplace, a woman wailing a list of grievances under the Regent’s window every night so that he can’t sleep) which later turn out to have a horrifying significance.

        Camestros Felapton: Instead, this is a story about being morally compromised. It’s a story of only obeying orders. It is a story of how the powerful exploit the talented. It’s also a story of literal sacrifice and loss. It’s also a story about being trapped in your career and how even though you can literally leave your place of employment at any time, somehow you can’t.

        This captures the theme so well. It’s also about how people who are essentially kind and good can still find themselves doing cruel and bad things — and rationalizing those harmful acts in order to be able to live with themselves.

        I absolutely agree that there’s a huge amount of skill demonstrated in this story, and that it makes the reader think about how easy and innocuous it can be to take that first step toward what eventually becomes a long slide into being a person who does terrible things.That doesn’t mean I enjoyed reading it.

        But then, it is a horror story, after all.

        I would probably rank it third, because I think that the Harrow and Clark stories also show great skill, but the other two stories didn’t remind me so much of the real world right now or make me feel such despair.

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  1. I thought that this was the best of the four stories I read. The Harrow and the Clark were both easily good enough to deserve a win. I could see the Greenblatt making it into a “Best of the Year” anthology. But this is ahead of them all.

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    1. Completly agreement with Paul, for me the Pinsker was also the strongest. A victory for Harrow or Clark yeah different tastes, but still great story. The Greenblatt not my cup of tea and would be (for me) a bit disapointing winner, but I would love to hear poster, who loved that story.
      I said it before happy to have read all 4 of those (and the Bruno I don’t mind, was okay)
      I am looking forward to the reveal of the winner und it will be interesting, if the Hugo shares nominees with the Nebula.

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  2. I tend not to go for horrific undertones, and this story has them in spades, so my main reaction was to admire it from afar, for much the same reasons as you’ve given. Undoubtedly a story of craft and skill though, and a deserving finalist.

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