The notion of being sealed up in a tomb, buried alive as part of the funeral of a powerful person, is rarely done as well as it’s done here. That Matthew Bright also adds a steampunk lens, puts the tomb in question in space, and places it all on an empress-and-her-concubines world building foundation is where the story really garners its shine.
We meet Qiaolian when the finality of things is already underway: she and her fellow concubines are already on the spaceship-tomb, aimed at a star, tasked with praying at the side of the Empress’s tomb until they fly into the star, or, more likely, dehydrate or starve to death first. They hear the death of the engineers, and then settle in to pray and die.
Or, the others do. Qiaolian has a slightly different agenda, by virtue of having had a different path than the others—a fault in her heart left her unsuited to the full role of concubine, and the Empress instead allowed her to learn from others, and so Qiaolian has something none of the rest have: an understanding of the ship-tomb.
And a fighting chance.
What follows is often dark (there is no food, after all, and the solution is, well… yeah) and certainly Bright doesn’t shy away from the cruelty and harsh reality of their situation, but ultimately there’s something in “The Concubine’s Heart”‘s destination that has one last reveal, and one last little stab at hope.
Also, Matthew was kind enough to stop by and let me in on where this particular tale came from, too.
From the Author:
Oddly enough, after Croak Toad, this is the other story of mine that adheres to the strict pattern of 200 words per section. The extra complication was absolutely necessary you see, because the call for submissions I wrote it for was looking for steampunk, with marginalised characters, in a non-western setting, with ‘differently abled’ characters and that didn’t seem like enough caveats. Restriction breeds ingenuity, and my surefire way to get around writers block is to impose some difficult stylistic flourish to write around. As for the actual idea of the cannibal handmaidens, I can no longer recall where the idea came from, but no doubt from some useful titbit of historical info that was circulating the internet that month.
You can read “Concubine’s Heart” in its entirety at Lightspeed Magazine.
You can find Matthew Bright online at his website.