Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan
Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water is a 2019 novella by Vylar Kaftan. The story opens with two characters, Bee, our narrator, and Chela, in jeopardy in a very unusual setting, and takes us places we did not expect.
Bee is trapped in a unique and horrifying prison: a cave complex on a planet far from Earth. She has one companion, Chela, and they have banded together to brave the dangers of the caves: the risk of drowning, narrow tunnels that could trap and suffocate a prisoner, deep shafts and large predatory insects. They have never seen another prisoner. The wardens leave boxes of goods with a guiding beacon for them to find. The boxes contain food and other necessary supplies, and sometimes a whimsical item like a postcard. It’s often a race to get to the boxes before the insects find them, and the boxes, their arbitrary placement and the strange items inside seem more like a sadistic game than any dedicated regimen designed to keep the prisoners alive. Between the box deliveries, they explore. Bee is convinced that the random drawings and shapes she finds on the walls are some kind of language, and, furthermore, that many parts of the cave complex are manufactured, not natural, but Chela scoffs at all of this, and Bee’s love for Chela is mainly what has kept her alive, for what Chela says has been nearly a year.
Bee has no memory of when she came to the prison, or why, and only vague scraps of memory of her family. Chela tells her that she is a powerful telepath, who, while fighting for telepath rights, caused the deaths of thousands of people. Bee has believed this, but now, in the darkness, she starts to hear a voice in her head. And the voice is telling her something very different. Chela warns her not to listen, that it’s a trick, but the voice draws Bee back. When Bee impulsively makes a move to escape, the story changes dramatically.
Marion: I found the cave section which opens Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water to be convincing, compelling and scary. This would truly be a terrifying prison. Other settings, later in the story, are described well, but never quite came up to the same level of persuasion for me. Terry, what did you think about the opening?
Terry: The cave setting made me think of video games, somehow; it was very visual, despite the fact — or maybe because of the fact — that the caves are drenched in darkness, and Bee and Chela can only see what falls within the scope of their headlamps. The descriptions of always feeling damp and dodging bugs were enough to make me shudder. As Bee puts it, it’s life as a never-ending panic attack, and Kaftan makes us feel that. I thought this was the best part of the story.
I did find myself feeling annoyed with Bee, who is mostly passive, leaving everything up to Chela, who is a better spelunker but who also emotionally dominates Bee in a way that made me uneasy right from the beginning. If you had a companion in a horrible place like this, the guilt of having killed four thousand people in a moment, and no memory of that happening, wouldn’t you be asking questions? Or if this person constantly told you there was no hope? I wouldn’t be able to love a person who withheld important information from me. Marion, were you troubled early on by this relationship the way I was?
I’m trying to think about how to discuss my reaction without giving spoilers, but basically I found Chela’s evasiveness suspicious. I was especially concerned about her constant efforts to direct Bee away from the drawings and the anomalies of the cave system, and her insistence that escape is impossible. (Later in the novella, the reasons for that become clear).
And it gets more complicated when Jasmine shows up. I’m not sure I completely understood Jasmine’s motivations — she’s a freedom-fighter, obviously — and I was not convinced of the depth of emotion between Bee and Jasmine. Jasmine is clearly trying to help her, but it also seems as if she is using Bee for her own purposes, just as Chela is (though obviously for different purposes). If Bee is the powerful telepath everyone says she is, that would only make sense, but it seems like Bee should be able to intuit that.
Terry, what did you think of Bee’s struggle to come to grips with Chela, particularly in the second half of the book?
Frankly, I wondered what took her so long! And I didn’t have the trouble with Jasmine that you did, though that may be a shallow reaction to Jasmine providing information that Chela chose to withhold.
Yes, at least Jasmine gave Bee some answers!
I thought Bee’s reaction to the revelations about Chela would be more complex. She seems to switch from love to hate like someone flipping a switch. I think a big part of betrayal is the sense of anger you have, but also that sense of grief over losing someone you loved, because they weren’t the person you thought they were. I didn’t see that grief portrayed here.
I agree. Bee went suddenly from a passive little mouse to a full-fledged lioness. One can do this with a character, to be sure, but shouldn’t there also be some indication, no matter how subtle, that the lion exists? Kaftan doesn’t give us that.
I do think part of that might be the fact that this is a novella and not a full-length novel, but it certainly could have been foreshadowed earlier in the story.
Later in the story, Bee struggles with physical mobility issues because of things that were done to her in the prison. Those issues became a big part of the story, even with an exoskeleton that she wears. I thought Kaftan addressed those issues well and they were believable in context.
What did you think of the world-building?
The world-building was pretty good. I can feel the damp darkness of those caves, the cold of the river. And the medical facility and all Bee’s condition entails were well-drawn. But the last half of the story, once we’re out of the cave, doesn’t work as well as the claustrophobic darkness of the first half. I have a lot more trouble with the relationships than I do with the world.
That said, the story seems like a bit of a throw-back to the fifties and sixties, when we read a lot more about telepathy. I can’t remember the last story I’ve read about this theme. Shades of Theodore Sturgeon!
It does have an early New Wave/Ted Sturgeon vibe! I’ve noticed new writers are rediscovering those old elements and revisiting them, so I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more of that ongoing.
Ultimately, I wasn’t much of a fan of Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water. Kaftan has a lot of potential, and I’ll want to read whatever she comes up with next, but this story strikes me as an interesting and well-written failure. It’s a 2-1/2 star book for me.
It’s a 3-star book for me, mainly because of that cave world. Like you, I’ll be interested to see what Kaftan writes next.