The Sistine Chapel with crayons
The moment they ask you to write a fantasy short, roughly 6000-words, taking inspiration from Italo Calvino, you sort of feel like you’re looking up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while holding a pack of eight crayons.
And you go, oh, shucks!
But let’s make it a little more interesting – not just any story, inspired by Calvino, but a sword & sorcery number, with action, wit and swordplay.
Inside a shared world.
Do you feel lucky, punk?
I did, and then, I needed the money.
So I went and wrote The Queen of Spades.
I always loved Calvino not just for his imagination and his staggering culture, but for his willingness to play with structure. While he could produce the most straightforward and clear prose imaginable, he would also take risks. Write recursive fiction, use the Tarot to build plots, re-imagine classic tropes, play infinite variations on a given theme.
Musically speaking, Calvino was Bach and Glenn Gould and Dave Brubeck, rolled into one.
He was probably the best fantasist of his generation in Italian fiction – and he hated to be called a fantasy writer.
So, going about my job, I settled for the Tarot for starters.
I took out my Smith-Waite tarot and dealt twelve cards – one for each scene.
Calculating 500 words per scene, that made a round 6000.
Nice and smooth.
I wrote down the standard meanings for the cards in the order I had dealt them – and that would be the sequence of scenes, the themes in a very primitive outline.
There were a lot of cups and swords – that seems good for sword & sorcery.
And there was the Queen of Spades.
I like the Queen of Spades – and if its trite and overdone as a story title, well, it’s serviceable nonetheless.
So, a story about a cold, sharp-witted woman who handles blades.
My sort of thing.
I had to settle into the shared world, and that limited my options.
In my previous tale for this shared universe, a thing I had called Three Devils in Faustus, I had nodded and winked at Fritz Leiber and Mary Gentle, and Elizabethan theatre, but most of all I had tried to write a crowd-pleasing story about the dangers of crowd-pleasing, and about selling one’s soul to please a certain sector of the audience.
So this time I decided to take a look at fantasy stories – how fantasy adventure stories make us what we are, how we dream to live into them, and how they’d be nightmares in real life. This seemed in line with Calvino’s distaste for the “fantasy” label.
Once again, not an overly original overarching theme, but functional.
It took me a while, but I did it.
The Queen of Spades is 5400 words, it follows the cards as it zigzags between past and present, and the first line and the last line are the same. It is book-ended by two quotes from Italo Calvino, and there’s a third, embedded in the mid-point of the story, that nobody will see (the editor did not), because it’s masquerading as dialogue. AND it features a call-back, quite subtle, to Three Devils in Faustus, so yes, this is a second in a very loose series.
It opens with a swordfight between an adventuress and a nun, inside a burning convent. Because I am worth it.
And they bought it!
So I’m feeling well-pleased and cleverer-than-thou, because I did a good enough job with my eight crayons, if only on a post-stamp sized bit of the chapel’s ceiling.
Now I can move on to the next story. That happens to take place somewhere in the province of Qinghai , North-Western China, in the winter of the year 1936.
In an old roadside inn, where an Italian mechanic meets a Korean mechanic on a sidecar bike, and they are both on their way to Shanghai.
It’s going to be… interesting.