Indie Review: Leah Cutter

As I mentioned yesterday, over the holiday I used a gift certificate to pick up a book I’ve been wanting to read for some time: Clockwork Angels, by Kevin J Anderson. I went to the Kobo store and searched for the book–but mistyped something and instead came across a book called Clockwork Kingdom by Leah Cutter. The story (about a brewing war between the fairies and their human oppressors) looked intriguing, so I picked it up–and because I’m always on the lookout for new (to me) indie authors, I got a few of her short stories as well. Cutter has a very interesting way with words–she’s one to keep an eye on, and I’ll likely be reviewing more of her work here. For today, I’ll look at two of her short stories.

The Tortoise and the Maiden

by Leah Cutter

This quick literary jaunt was my introduction to Cutter, and it was…interesting, to say the least. Cutter has written some historical fiction set in various locales, including Ancient China, where this is placed. I’ve always been interested in Chinese philosophy/culture, so I was excited to read this. And in most areas, it didn’t disappoint.

The story is about a young woman, Bing Yu, who finds herself and her family in dire straits. Her father has embarrassed the family, her mother has been overcome by a strange illness, and she’s left to tend the family store and take care of anyone. She can’t see a way out of the situation–until she discovers the tortoise. This magical (and sly) creature offers her an answer: he’ll solve all her problems if she gives him her maidenhead.

The story has a delightful “fairy tale” quality to it, and Cutter does a good job of writing it in the voice of a traditional Chinese folk story. It feels genuine, and it’s obvious that Cutter has done the research necessary to pull it off. The whole story has a magical tone about it, giving it a certain intangible quality I can’t quite put my finger on, but which serves it very well. It’s quite well written, and without knowing how much editing was done to accomplish the tone, I’d say Cutter is a natural at spinning this kind of yarn.

On the other hand, some of the subject matter felt a bit out of place. The revelation that the tortoise is a lecher came as a surprise to me, as up until that point the story seemed like something you could read to kids before bedtime. Like the original versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, this is certainly not meant for children. But once that’s accepted, the subject matter is less jarring. That’s not to say that there’s anything inappropriate in this story; the tortoise is simply treated as a magical animal. In Ancient China, animals had their own personalities and motives, and in that context, the story works well.

The only real criticism I have about this story is the rather abrupt ending. I won’t spoil it–but suffice it to say that a plan is put into motion and resolved in the space of a few paragraphs. This is followed by a short paragraph explaining the consequence of that plan, and that’s it. It felt very sudden, perhaps even a tad rushed, and I don’t think it served the rest of the story as well as it could have. That said, it didn’t leave any loose ends and everything is resolved; perhaps it didn’t need to be longer.

The Secrets of 9s

This short story is found separately on the Kobo store (and others), and is included in the collection Baker’s Dozen. Baker’s Dozen was born out

by Leah Cutter

of an intriguing idea: to write 13 stories in 13 weeks. It’s a great challenge for a writer (one that I’m tempted to try myself) and I’ll look forward to reading the result of Cutter’s task–but for now, we’ll concentrate on this one story.

A lot of Cutter’s work involves fairies in one way or another. I don’t know much about fairies, but the folklore around them in interesting–I’ve always loved myths and cultural folk stories. I thought this would be a good introduction to what Cutter, at least, thinks of the creature.

I found the result intriguing, to say the least. I have to admit that at points I was a bit lost–while the story is interjected with little snippets describing what the Secrets of 9s are, just what 9s are is never really explained. Neither, for that mater, are 8s, 4s, or 1s, all mentioned in the story. This might simply be a lack of knowledge of the lore on my part, but it made the story a bit lose for me. I wasn’t sure why the events in the plot were happening–until the end, where everything is tied up a bit.

That’s not to say it’s not a good story. I quite enjoyed it, actually, and this is one I’ll re-read. It’s written in a wonderfully poetic way, very evocative and somehow ornate. Though I’ve read only a couple of Cutter’s stories so far, I can say that she’s got style, and a wonderful voice in her writing. What’s more, this story is in a very different tone than the one above–one of the signs of a good writer is the ability to transcend genre and write in many different voices. Cutter seems to have that quality, and that alone puts her on my “to read” list.

But back to the story. If you look past the question of what 9s are, you’re left with a sort of mystery. Someone is setting fires and bombs, and their motive isn’t clear–if there even is one. For me, the story was an exploration of someone who causes destruction for the sake of destruction, and that makes for some interesting exploration of Bridget, the main character. This is mostly done through the POV of others (in an author’s note, Cutter explains that she wanted to experiment with technique, and it works well), giving what amounts to a series of profiles of our main character, outside Bridget’s own view. This causes her character to gradually unfold as the story progresses, and I thought it was quite effective; there’s an air of mystery around her that lingers even after the story finishes, and that’s part of what will draw me back to it.

I liked this story better than Tortoise and the Maiden, if only because it’s so interesting. There’s a few things that are left unexplained, but–apart from just what 9s are–that’s okay; it leaves the reader with questions, the types of questions one should be asking when one finishes a good book. It’s definitely worth a read.

Leah Cutter can be found on Twitter, and she keeps her own blog. She’s got an impressive body of work available online, so I won’t post all the links–but you can find The Tortoise and the Maiden and Baker’s Dozen both on Kobo and Amazon.

Tomorrow, a new release by J. M. Ney-Grimm!