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Getting to Yes: "Master of the Elements" by Alice Gaines

by Red Sage Publishing

Short fiction carries many structural pitfalls and traps for the unwary writer. There’s little room for secondary characters or subplots. The openings of stories must be concise and clear and must get the premise established as soon as possible. Endings have to wrap up fairly quickly, and must create satisfying emotional resonance without a lot of denouement. (Denouement — that’s a fancypants writing school term for “all the stuff that happens after the problems are solved.” I’ll save for another day the rant about why denouements in shorter forms are so frequently problematic.)

Against this need for focus and speed, the writer must balance the even more important needs to build a world and create compelling characters. It’s a tightrope walk, and it’s a difficult one to master.

But Alice Gaines makes it look easy.

What was the first thing I noticed when reading the first draft of Master of the Elements? I’d like to say it was the characters or the plot, but honestly, it was the world-building. Don’t get me wrong. Elsbeth felt like a very real heroine: bookish, a little stubborn, imbued with a sense of destiny. Lord Raelen was a little scary without ever sliding into creepiness, and his almost tender concern for Elsbeth made me like him in an instant.

And then the sex … OMG, the sex! This is one story where, quite literally, the sex evolves as the story develops. You might even say that the way the sex changes *is* the story, for the middle part of the plot, anyway. Lord Raelen doesn’t want to reveal himself to Elsbeth in the beginning, and he has excellent reasons for doing so. As things change, his reluctance vanishes, and the ever-more-adventurous sex reflects his growing confidence and their growing intimacy.

It’s about as good a sex-based story line as we ever see, really.

But as good as all that stuff was–and it’s really, really good–what first drew me into this manuscript was the way Alice built the world of the story. Within the first pages, I already knew this world. I could see the peaceful hamlet spread along the shore and the townspeople with their simple but pressing concerns. Looming over this almost idyllic setting, I could see the Forbidden Mountain crowned by Lord Raelen’s castle, a place of mystery and superstition and even fear, a place best ignored until the end of the century when another virgin would have to be sacrificed for the good of the town.

What happens to the virgins when they go up the mountain? Nobody knows. The sacrificed ladies are never seen or heard from again. Where do they go? Why does the Master need them? By the time the reader knows the answers to these questions, an even bigger question has been raised. How will Elsbeth and Raelen avoid past patterns and find a way to live and love, together forever, despite her mortality and his immortality?

In other words, there’s a neat turning point about two-thirds of the way through the story. In structural terms, this kind of turning point changes the nature of the conflict and sends the story in a different direction so that it can reach its ultimate conclusion. Good turning points make for interesting stories. They surprise the reader, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in subtle ways. They keep you guessing, and in this case, I couldn’t predict the ending. That’s a pretty rare thing when you read as much as I do!

So it was the world-building I noticed first, but it was the neat structure and un-guess-able plot that, in the end, made me buy this manuscript.

Theresa Stevens
Managing Editor

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