Fiction Friday is a series where I talk about what I’ve been reading. Short Stories (and sometimes Novellas) are featured as in-between posts and the first friday of the month will feature a new novel review. Today, I review Red Bark and Ambergris by Kate Marshall.
Red Bark and Ambergris
Today’s short story review is Red Bark and Ambergris from Beneath Ceaseless Skies #232. You can find it here. It’s not everyday I read assassination stories, but this one was entertaining in its own right and had a satisfying end to it.
Roughly, it’s about a woman named Sarai who learns to be a poison-tamer, someone who is familiar with the dangers and can live through them. They can also identify and mix poisons themselves. The story is an assassination attempt on a queen, so she’s sent to an island where her mentor, Jarad, teaches her by making her endure poisoning. This way, she can feel the poison and create a resistance to it. She has to learn a mastery, the final test for a student. Her mastery involves the assassination of a queen, who happens to be the sister of Nissa, an ally of Jarad and someone who explains the mission to her.
For the most part she’s on an island learning about poisons and different kinds of ingredients. Two of which are in the title, Red Bark and Ambergris, and play a huge role in the story. I won’t give too much away, but the ending is very satisfying, with a creative way to end the story.
As far as pacing goes, I felt it was reasonable enough. Half of the short story takes place on the island and the other in the city where her target resides. I felt a sense of urgency and Sarai was put through so much torture dealing with the poisons that I felt connected to her. The story was long, somewhere around 7000 words. I’m a slow reader, so I red this in short bursts. I was rather busy this week.
Anyway, let’s talk about the cast:
The main character is Sarai, who learns how to craft poisons for her mission. She’s sent to an island to train before giving her mastery test. She’s a character who suffers a lot through the story just dealing with the poisons, maintaining a resistance to them and identifying them. She is on the verge of dying at one point, having absorbed numerous poisons, around 100 of them. It’s an incredible endurance that makes sense for someone mastering in the art of poisons.
She seems controlled, and by that I mean she understands what she’s going through. I felt a sort of stern, yet focused vibe from her towards the end. Especially when she accepted her mission despite a high chance of failure. She changes so much in the story, going from a girl who wants to go back home, to a woman accepting her mission.
Jarad is her mentor, the one who sets her on the path. His intent is for her to succeed in her mission. He was cruel, but caring, especially in regards to Sarai’s training. He gave her different scents that reminded her of home, which even though he’s shoving poison down her throat to endure it, he means well and only wants her to succeed, and wants nothing more than that.
Nissa is Jarad’s ally and the queen’s sister. She becomes somewhat of a friend for Sarai and guides her on the path. We learn a lot about the city as well as the queen through her and the two women develop a bond in such a short timeframe.
I felt the characters were great and gave Sarai a purpose throughout the story. None of them felt out of place and all of them guided Sarai to her goal, supporting her throughout.
The writing is great, especially the scenes which Sarai was sensing the different poison materials. One of the rarest uses in description is smell, aroma. This is where the story shines, as each scent triggered some sort of memory for Sarai. The aforementioned objects were key in this story. I imagined what each thing smelled like and how it was incorporated with the poisons.
It’s what makes this story interesting for me that scent is the biggest focus here. I almost imagine the author, when thinking about this story, is what element to hone in on. No doubt, the idea of smells and scents was a big factor.
The writing is very good. I followed along and understood everything.
Overall, this is a great story that gives that sense of nostalgia for the main character tied in with an assassination plot. I would recommend it for anyone looking for a great story in a secondary world.
That’s all for today. Take care, and remember, the inn is always open.