|Art by Autumn Evelyn|
“Timshala” by Leah Cypess (17596 words)
No Spoilers: Siara is the daughter of the Emperor and Empress. The late Empress. The late Empress who can, as part of her death, choose five people to accompany her into the afterlife by having them buried alive with her body. To take them into the afterlife with her. And it turns out that she’s chosen Siara as one of her five. In a culture where fate is seen as a boulder rolling downhill, crushing everything in its path to make room for the future, the idea of choice is a strange one. In the setting, each person is born with a certain amount of Choices, moments when their decisions will end up making a difference in the path of that boulder. Making one of those Choices, though, is something like sin, though not quite. It all works to strengthen the Emperor’s claim to rulership, and it’s what Siara eventually has to struggle with in order to make sense of what she’s supposed to be. What she’s supposed to chose or Chose. And it’s a story that’s heavy with danger and with inevitability, with harms done in the name of fate and of feelings of being trapped and empowered all at once. And ultimately for me it’s a triumphant story about seeing through an illusion, and deciding that if some rules can be broken, others can be as well.
Keywords: Choices, Death, Politics, Fate, Emperors, Family
Review: The setting here is fascinating in part because it’s terrifying. The culture believes in a version of fate that strips most people of agency. Instead, people are puppets flowing with the currents of time and fate. Most of the things they think are choices are actually predestined. They are the only things they they could have done. Only some things are truly Choices, and those things are impossible to tell from any others. The result of which is that people are supposed to accept what happens without question. The system cannot be fought against unless it’s destined, and because it’s not happening then it can’t be destined. It’s meant to reinforce the status quo and the rule of force, because as long as the strong can hold power, it must be the will of fate.
And Siara enters into this as mostly a believer. Mostly because while she never had cause to doubt or argue with it while she was a privileged princess, as a condemned young woman she can see some of the injustice of it. And as she allows herself to be talked into larger and larger insurrections, all aiming her for power of her own, her view of the system changes. At first it’s all that makes sense, and she lets her prejudices show at times. She relates how the system gives her comfort. She knows her place and as long as nothing really happens to change that, she’s safe and happy. And if bad things happen around her, so what? It’s the will of fate, and there’s no point in getting angry about it. It’s only when it becomes personal, when she has to face that this allows injustice to flourish, that she can start to see that there’s something very wrong about this way of seeing the world.
And I feel that the critical moment comes when she finds out that she doesn’t have any Choices. That maybe she’s meant to be emperor. Because emperors don’t get Choices, are entirely tools of fate, so that none of their actions can be questions. They are beyond reproach, and even when they do terrible things, like annihilating a whole group of people, people might grumble, but not too much. The story slowly brings Siara to where she has to face the prospect that she doesn’t actually have Choices. That she is a tool of fate. And yet it doesn’t really give her any added power. People still die around her. She is still forced into situations she doesn’t like. It’s no guarantee that things will work out, and it sort of pushes her to a breaking point.
And what I love about the story is that it allows Siara to get out. To realize that it doesn’t matter if she has Choices, because she has choices. Because if she decides to try and do what makes her happy, regardless of what fate wants, then even if fate has plans, she’ll be happier. And that it’s possible that there is no plan. No fate. Just people and their petty schemes and their corruptions and their ambitions. And Siara, who never really wanted to be in charge, who has lost almost everything because of a fate she doesn’t want, is able to jump free. To make a choice, regardless of if it’s a Choice, and in so doing refuses to be a part of the story of her own rise to emperor. Instead, she embraces the unknown, knowing at the very least that her decisions will be her own, and that whatever else, she’ll have agency. And it’s a vivid and entertaining story, tragic at turns but, in the end, a fantastic read!