This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.
Bee is a telepath in her own personal Hell. Locked into a constantly evolving set of caves, filled with rushing water, hungry insects and constant danger, Bee’s only companions are Chela, her love and fellow telepath and her guilt. Bee knows one thing; they deserve to be here, their powers locked behind a wall, their bodies trapped in eternal darkness. Bee is a war criminal, a bomb you bury but can never diffuse. At least, that’s what she’s been told.
Kaftan’s novella moves as fast as it’s leads. It starts on the run and with a sweaty palmed approach to both the incarceration and the claustrophobia. This is exertion as punishment, location as incarceration and it’s viscerally well presented. I’ve not seen this sort of scenario this well done since I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream and the novella plays several of the same notes, albeit in a darker key and on more up to date instruments.
But as it goes on, what comes to the fore is not the situation but Bee herself. Kaftan has an extraordinary eye for character and there isn’t a page here where the central relationship doesn’t feel real and grounded. Bee is brave, determined, heartbroken. Chela is cheerful, tough and the light that Bee sees by in more ways than one. Their romance has the tired, bruised intimacy of people in difficult situations finding victory, happiness, safety where they can. Their interactions have a pace and snap to them that’s up there with the best dialogue you’ve heard. You like these people. You believe them. You worry about them.
And then Kaftan shifts focus and you can see that while Bee and Chela have been making their way through the labyrinth they’ve also been solving a puzzle, one they have very different attitudes to. The second half of the novella explores not only this but the different ways they use their abilities and the cost of that usage, both personal and societal. Kaftan uses language with surgical precision, giving shape and form to the unknowable and invisible powers the women have but are terrified to use. Then, we’re shown why they’re terrified to use them and we understand everything. The world building, the characters, the prose, all of it never breaks eye contact. Even as Kaftan systematically challenges everything the characters, and you, know
Her Silhouette, Drawn In Water is a love story, a horror story, a thriller and a puzzle. It’s deceptively clever and always has a card up its sleeve. It’s final act, for Bee and for the reader, is one of trust and both earn that trust completely. A quiet, immensely confident work from one of the strongest writers publishing today and yet another strong entry in Tor’s Novella line. It’s available now.