The story for consideration is called “The Quack“ by Ross Kitson. I couldn’t find much about Dr. Kitson from the internet, so all I know of him is what’s in his author bio. I’m assuming that “The Quack” is his first published story since his bio doesn’t list any other publication credits.
The story concerns a young man, probably not much more than a boy, named Anase who ends up working for what would be called a snake oil salesman named Deradin. Only this is a pseudo-medieval world, so the term snake oil salesman probably wouldn’t have been in use. I’m not sure when the term “quack” entered the English language, but I suspect it was later than medieval times. But that really doesn’t matter much since this is a fantasy, and unlike some titles, this one tells you something about the story.
Anase is a troubled lad, whose mother died in a tragic fire. He’s terrified of fire now. Of course this is going to be significant before the story is over.
Anase intervenes when two ruffians try to take their pound of flesh (literally) from Deradin. He takes Deradin to his house, where his sister lies dying. In order to work off the debt for the tonic his father purchases from Deradin, Anase goes with him.
Things take a turn when, reacting to fire, Anase runs out into the road and is hit by a carriage. He suffers a compound fracture. A woman heals him with a potion from a vial she carries into which she adds some of her blood. Anase’s leg is as good as new.
Of course Deradin has to have the potion. In obtaining it, he and Anase discover that everything has a price and sometimes the price is high.
I’ll not spoil the ending for you. Instead allow me, if you will, to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the story.
First, the quality of the writing is a little rough, especially at the beginning of the story. Initially Anase seems to be older than he is. He is in a theater, giving advice to a drunken actor when events are set in motion. I got the impression from the first couple of paragraphs that he had bought the theater. It’s only during his meeting with Deradin that it was obvious he was a boy or young man without the means to purchase much of anything. I’m not entirely certain this part of the story is necessary.
His naivete was a little hard to buy in a couple of spots. The hints about the fire that killed his mother and the continuing consequences took me a little while to piece together. While I acknowledge the possibility that I was more tired than I realized when I read the story, I felt these tidbits of information could have been made a little more prominent.
Now, as to the strengths of the story. This is in many ways a coming of age tale or more accurately a rite of passage, since Deradin is changed by events as well as Anase. The themes of loyalty, integrity, sacrifice, and friendship are central. The story was most effective when Anase and Deradin have a falling out and part ways. From that point, I was hooked; up until then I was rather ambivalent about the story. Deradin proves to have more courage and loyalty than he appears to have initially. The confrontations near the end deepen his character. The concluding scene shows how much Anase and Deradin have matured by what they give up.
I debated how to classify this tale in the quality count I’ve been keeping. On the one hand, the writing was bit rough and there were places, especially in the beginning, where I felt the writing could go more smoothly. Although I’m not sure I’m astute enough to say just how. The story is told in first person, and perhaps it took Dr. Kitson a few pages to find the correct voice.
Despite its initial roughness, I felt the story did improve as it went. The writing became more polished as the prose fell into a rhythm. The narrative and descriptive passages mixed well with the dialogue, with no type of writing dominating to the detriment of the others. The characters grew, although I would have liked to have seen more of Anase’s family. And the woman who healed Anase, when he tries to steal her potion, clearly had paid a price to use the stuff. That was an effective scene, but it made me I wonder why Deradin didn’t try to get the formula from her or make a deal with her instead of merely resorting to theft. When you read the scene, pay attention to what she says and see if you don’t wonder the same thing. In some ways she was the most fascinating character in the whole tale.
With the criteria I’ve used all along in this series, I now have to ask the question: Assuming I’d never read this particular online publication before (and I haven’t), was this story good enough to make me want to try some of the other stories on this site? The answer is yes. “The Quack” probably won’t make the short list for any awards, but it provided me with an entertaining read. I think the author has potential and will continue to improve. The other stories in the May edition sound interesting. There’s another fantasy, a science fiction, and an alternative which the blurb makes to sound like science fiction.
Total quality count (high, low), Day 7: 8-2