Close Reading 5 of 12 (Setting the Scene in Scott Lynch’s “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane”)


Hi anyone who reads this! Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written anything up here. I have been busy busy. I thought I’d break the ice again with another of my close reading analysis pieces. I actually have 5 – 10 to post, but I’m not going to put them all up at once. This entry analyzes one of my favorite short stories ever, Scott Lynch’s “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane,” which was published in the Rogues anthology. It’s my favorite thing that he has ever written, so he should expand this world and give me more! It beats the pants off Locke Lamora for me. Anyway, without further dillydallying, here it is…

“A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” is a short story written by novelist Scott Lynch and published in the anthology Rogues, edited by George R.R. Martin, a collection of stories that focuses on thieves, tricksters and other villains as protagonists. The choice for Lynch to participate in such an anthology is not surprising, since he is widely known for his Gentlemen Bastards series of novels, which follows a band of thieves through several novels and is ongoing. What is of particular interest in this story is that Lynch is able to condense his expansive world building and scene-setting into a short, fully realized story. Short, in this context, refers to approximately forty hardback pages. While not short compared to many short stories, “Theradane” is impressive in how well-conceived are the world and city of Theradane and the characters within it given the relative dearth of time spent in description and exposition.

Lynch is able to condense into a few short sentences the information that immerses the reader into a new world rather than either spending a bunch of time giving the reader background or relying on a previously developed world to guide the reader through the complexities of a fantasy short story. Consider the opening lines of the story.

It was raining when Amarelle Parathis went out just after sunset to find a drink, and there was strange magic in the rain. It came down in pale lavenders and coppers and reds, soft lines like liquid dusk that turned to luminescent mist on warm pavement. The air itself felt like champagne bubbles breaking against the skin. Over the dark shapes of distant rooftops, blue-white lightning blazed, and stuttering thunder chased it. Amarelle would have sworn she heard screams mixed in with the thunder.

The gods-damned wizards were at it again.

Lynch, Rogues, page 238.

In a brief paragraph and extra sentence, the reader learns a lot about Theradane. The first sentence informs us that this is a city with magic. The multi-colored and luminescent rain is not an every day experience. It is beautiful but violent in both the weather and Amarelle’s sensory perception that she thinks she hears screams. There is an immediate tension between the idea of champagne bubbles against the skin and lightning blazing. These images one after another tell the reader that Theradane is both wondrous and dangerous. Finally, the single sentence second paragraph tells the reader that both the beauty and the danger come directly from the wizards and that the wizards are fighting.

For such a brief introduction to the world, these few sentences pack a lot of practical information, as well as a lot of beautiful imagery. Each word does double duty in orienting the reader to Theradane and the political reality that the wizards control the city. It also provides insight into Amarelle’s opinion of the power structure that favors the wizards.

In this story, Lynch links a multiple short scenes together, broken by up by numbering and subtitles, like miniature chapters to a miniature novel. Each scene begins with an orienting paragraph similar to the one used in the first scene, and each one speaks to the general world where Amarelle lives and more specifically to the city of Theradane.

The Sign of the Fallen Fire lay on the west side of Tanglewing Street. Was, more accurately, the entire west side of Tanglewing Street. No room for anything else beside the cathedral of coiled bones knocked down fifteen centuries before, back when wild dragons occasionally took offense at the growing size of Theradane and paid it a visit. This one had settled so artistically in death, some long-forgotten entrepreneur had scraped out the flesh and scales and roofed the steel-hard bones right where they lay.

Lynch, Rogues, page 240.

Again, a lot of information is packed into this relatively short description of the outside of a tavern, including information about the scale of dragons, the scale of the city, the importance of taverns to the city (a tavern the size of a city block is impressively large), the city’s attitude towards business, and even the fact that there people out there taming dragons in this world. All of these political, economic and social points are paired with the stunning visual description of a dragon being killed in a city and the carcass being carved up to make the foundation for a building, a both entertaining and awesome mental image.

Lynch does this throughout the entire story, making it richly complex while at the same time accessible and not confusing for the reader. One final example of his economy of phrasing

Sophara and Brandwin lived in a narrow, crooked house on Shankvile Street, a house they’d secured at an excellent price due to the fact that it sometimes had five stories and sometimes six. Where the sixth occasionally wandered off to was unknown, but while it politely declined their questions about its business it also had the courtesy to ask none concerning theirs. Amarelle had the mechanavipede heave her off into a certain third-floor window that served as a friends-only portal for urgent business.

Lynch, Rogues, page 257.

From this brief description of the crooked house, the reader learns that Brandwin and Sophara (described earlier in the story as wives) are very private individuals and value this privacy highly. They are more concerned with finances than with the oddity of having a home that is unreliable in size. They leave un-trapped one window on the third floor for friends, which indicates that they have tight security elsewhere in their home but that they are loyal and value their friends highly and want to make sure such friends have immediate access in emergencies.

Not only does this paragraph describe a physical house, an interesting house at that, but it also describes the people who live in the house. The reader begins to learn more about their underlying personalities and qualities. They aren’t just friends of Amarelle; they are very important friends who are loyal and care deeply for her. They aren’t just private people; they are intensely concerned with personal security. These characteristics are further explored in the story through interactions with Amarelle, but Lynch is able to paint a very clear introductory picture of these women’s lives together in a few sentences as Amarelle is flung through the window into their home.

“A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” is successful on many levels, but the depth in which the reader is thrust into this new world is significantly enhanced by Lynch’s ability to make each sentence function on multiple levels at once. A description of the weather gives the reader political insight into the city. A description of a building provides historical, cultural and economic perspectives. A description of someone’s house provides insight into characters within it. These double-duty descriptions are not present to the same degree in his longer works, but it is a technique that really makes Theradane, Amarelle and her friends come to life on the page quickly for the reader.

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