Unsung Signals, 69 pages
Review by Iain Maloney
The publication of Winter marks the arrival of both a strong, new voice in Dan Grace and an important new outlet for writers in the Unsung imprint.
Writers and editors have long lived by the mantra that a story is as long as it needs to be, and I’ve never met a reader who tallies words as they go, but large parts of the industry are still ruled by the tyranny of the word count. In the era of digital publishing, this makes no sense. Long short stories, short novels and the much maligned novella all fall foul of this hangover from days of print to categorise words by number. At the low end of things, Twitter fiction and flash fiction are reshaping the landscape while writers like David Mitchell have embraced the novella, albeit by stitching five or six together to make a longer book. But the long short story, so beloved of science fiction and fantasy writers, has yet to make elbow room in the publishing world. In Short Publishing in Australia and Unsung Stories in Britain are leading a welcome revolution.
Dan Grace’s Winter is a perfect example of why publishers should be minding this gap. If edited down to traditional short story length, this thrilling symphony of snow and suffocation would lose its cinematic atmosphere and widescreen beauty. Stretched out to novel length it would be robbed of tension, claustrophobia and pace. This is a story that is exactly the length is should be and top marks to Unsung for adapting their format to the tale rather than the other way around.
Winter is set in a dystopian future where Scotland has won independence and England is under attack from ‘Green Man’ terrorists, a group who arose from environmental and anti-capitalist movements and turned paramilitary. Adam, Leila and May are on the run for their part in the uprising, fleeing London for Adam’s childhood home, a solitary cottage in the Scottish borders. After a battle at a checkpoint they are forced to hike through the forest braving intense weather. When they arrive at the cottage they find Mikhail and Ingold, immigrants of dubious legality, squatting there.
In some ways it is a classic ‘cabin fever’ thriller, as horrors from the past and the pressures of the present turn allies into enemies. Grace complicates and renews the trope by endowing Mikhail with spiritual pagan powers, an ability to commune with nature and summon its spirits at will.
Their world is smothered by blizzards and thick forests. Grace evokes the snowstorm brilliantly, allowing space and silence to suffocate the characters and the prose. The writing is sparse but evocative. Information, for them and for us, is kept to a minimum, allowing Grace to echo their confusion with our own. We get only enough details to understand the moment, deftly avoiding the trap many sf/f world-builders trip of over-explaining.
This book is as much an experience as a story, one that reaches inside the reader, as unsettling and chilling as that epic Scottish winter. It is a wonderful debut on a fine new imprint and I, for one, will be following both.
This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 4.