Birthday Reviews: Jay Lake’s “The Water Castle”

Birthday Reviews: Jay Lake’s “The Water Castle”

Realms of Fantasy, 8/04
Realms of Fantasy, 8/04

Jay Lake was born on June 6, 1964 and died from cancer on June 1, 2014. He openly blogged about his battle with cancer and about a year before his death hosted a wake for himself. His fight with cancer was also the subject of the documentary Lakeside—A Year with Jay Lake.

From 2002-2006 Lake, along with Deborah Layne, edited the six volume anthology series Polyphony. Lake went on to edit several additional anthologies, including All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, with David Moles, Other Earths, with Nick Gevers, and TEL: Stories.

Lake won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2004 and decided the award needed some paraphernalia. He arranged to have pins made up for future nominees. Later winners added to the collection by creating a tiara and scepter to go along with the prize, both of which are passed along from winner to winner. Although he was nominated for a Nebula Award, two Hugo Awards, and three World Fantasy Awards, he didn’t win any of them. He did receive a posthumous Worldcon Special Convention Award in 2015, presented at Sasquan, a well as the Endeavour Award for his collection Last Plane to Heaven.

“The Water Castle” appeared in the August 2004 issue of Realms of Fantasy, edited by Shawna McCarthy. The issue contained a second Lake story, “The Angel’s Daughter,” as well. While “The Angel’s Daughter” was reprinted the following year in Jonathan Strahan and Karen Haber’s Fantasy: The Best of 2004, “The Water Castle” has never been reprinted.

Lake’s story of Arcadia follows the girl from her father’s death by drowning through a dangerous, tribal world trying to set itself right after an unnamed cataclysm in “The Water Castle.” Told with a series of time jumps, Arcadia finds herself in a market where, shortly after a man accosts Arcadia to try to sell her into slavery downcountry, she becomes involved in an incident in which a woman is accused of belonging to the “Poison People.” Arcadia’s involvement in this case, and her quick-witted thinking to resolve the issue, thrusts her into the spotlight and makes her the leader of a movement.

Over time, Arcadia not only gathers followers, like Robert, who had originally wanted to sell her, but also the bartender Sherk. At the same time she begins to draw attention from other tribes, who see her as a threat as her reputation grows. Eventually, Arcadia must decide that a prophecy made by her father at the time of his death must come true.

“The Water Castle” seems to demonstrate that the author had a much clearer understanding of the way his world works that he actually shows in the text. Lake knows the relationship between the Poison People, the Strangers, the Pleasant People, and so on, but because his characters also know, he never spells it out, trusting that the reader will go along for the ride to learn how Arcadia moves through this strange world. Unfortunately, this makes it more difficult for the reader to care.

Reviewed in its original publication in the magazine Realms of Fantasy, edited by Shawna McCarthy, August 2004.

Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Doing Business at Hodputt’s Emporium” in Galaxy’s Edge. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

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Rich Horton

I wondered whether you’d pick Jay or Tom Godwin.

I was absolutely certain you had copies of stories by both! If you don’t have a copy of a certain Tom Godwin story … that would be weird.

John Hocking

Hey Rich, you cryptic character, you speak, I trust, of The Cold Equations?
I need to know.

Rich Horton

Of course — as “The Cold Equations” is in the SF HALL OF FAME anthology, I’m pretty darn confident Steven has it.

John ONeill

> “The Water Castle” seems to demonstrate that the author had a much clearer understanding of the way his world works that he actually shows in the text.

A very astute observation, Steven.

I bought a fairly early story from Jay Lake, “Fat Jack and the Spider Clown.” It appeared two years later in BLACK GATE 8, in 2005. As I was doing my edits I shot off a couple questions to Jay, asking about the climax in Day Cart Junction.

The response I got back was very illuminating. “Fat Jack and the Spider Clown” is a generation starship story, so late in the journey that the passengers and crew have regressed to near barbarism. “Day Cart Junction” was a corruption of “Descartes Junction,” the navigation hub, and countless little details in the story had been worked out to exactly reflect the painstaking backstory — including the navigation instructions that flashed on screen.

BUT YOU COULDN’T TELL ANY OF THAT FROM THE STORY. All that wonderful backstory was almost entirely hidden from the reader. It was the first time I realized just how much work Jay put into crafting his fiction, even if only a fraction of it ended up on the page. I learned that, when you’re reading a Jay Lake tale, ALL the little details mean something.

Rich Horton

I figured you would have chosen a less well known story (“The Gulf Between”, maybe? Famous at least for the Freas cover.) And, of course, I chose to link to a Black Gate review of a magazine with a lesser known (but pretty good) Godwin story.


Months before his passing , I got tuned in to Jay Lake, primarily through books Rocket Science and Pinion. Your bio was very nice. Even in that Short time,as I was aware he was struggling, I knew I’d miss him, and I do.

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