Wow. I can see why this won the ‘So Wrong It’s Right’ award at the Cotillion challenge! This certainly wasn’t a pairing I would have expected, but it was so convincing that I forgot any reservations I may have had and was drawn straight into the heart of the story. The judges described the writing as ‘darkly beautiful’, and I have to agree. It was sensual and vivid throughout, and conjured such luscious images of clothes and characters and settings, like your description of the bedroom with the ‘billowing white curtains’. It was visual, but not overly so - there wasn’t too much description, and this allowed it to stay focused on the characters.
I thought a lot of the language was very original - especially when you described the ‘physical assault’ Fleur’s appearance produced on Sesen Zabini. When you went on to say that ‘my heart literally stopped’, I did feel that it could have been phrased a little differently, but then again it did illustrate the physical attraction well. I adored that paragraph in which Sesen waits for Fleur. When you wrote, ‘I wait because it provokes a squirming sensation in the pit of my stomach’, you made the mere notion of waiting so sensual, and it was such a fantastic piece of writing.
That paragraph in particular also added a great deal to the character of Sesen. It was interesting, because obviously we know next to nothing about her in the books, so I had few preconceptions of her as a character when I came to read this. Yet, you so quickly sketch out a sense of what she’s like that by the time I read that she hadn’t ‘waited for anyone in years’, I could tell that this was perfectly in character. This was sustained throughout the story and not for a moment did she act unconvincingly. I thought the line about her smiling at her son only when he was looking away was particularly poignant: it exemplifies her distance from fellow humans, and therefore highlights by contrast the abnormality of this tryst with Fleur.
Fleur also seemed very in-character. She was mysterious and I loved the amount of power she had over Sesen. The most interesting thing about her was her dominance - Sesen mentions that she expects Fleur to be shy and passive, but I loved that she knew what she was getting into and accepted it. The fact that she actually appeared to understand Sesen more deeply than anyone else was really quite poignant.
Having all the speech set in italics with no quotation marks created an almost dreamlike atmosphere, emphasising the fact that this is now confined to Sesen’s memory. It’s evasive and intangible and can never be got back, and that was incredibly effective. There were a couple of points when I was unsure about who was speaking which brought me out of the narrative for a moment - perhaps by adding some paragraph breaks this might be made clearer.
The way you delayed the explicit revelation of which pairing this is was very clever: it set up a lot of questions which made me keep reading to find out who I was actually hearing from. The use of dramatic irony when Sesen sees Fleur and doesn’t know who she is, despite the fact that readers do, was very effective. It subtly included us in the story and enabled us to engage more readily in the events unfolding. We may have expected to see Fleur behave in a different way, but I’d bet that you managed to surprise us all by her willingness to go along with this strange, mysterious character.
Author's Response: What a review! :) It catches so many of the little things I used in the fic in order to convey all that I wanted to be covered within such a short space: the setting, the language, the use of italics for writing dialogues, etc. Mrs Zabini is more or less a skeleton character, and I am glad to know you found this version believable. Thank you so much for picking my story and leaving such a detailed and encouraging response!~Natalie
Natalie, I think I told you at the time how much I loved this story, and that I would (eventually) be reviewing it (and may or may not have featured it...). This is one of my favourite stories of yours. Not only is it completely plausible in JK’s universe, but it’s also beautifully written, and such an amazing character study of an intriguing and thought provoking character who is only briefly mentioned in the books. Likewise, with Fleur, I think you capture her between GOF and HBP, as well as between teenagehood and adulthood, being single and being with Bill, excellently.
Firstly, I loved the sense of retrospect that imbued this whole story. The way that Sesen is looking over events, always conscious at how things played out, and the warning signs that, in this relationship, the balance of power was not in her favour, was beautifully written. You immediately establish an interesting contrast between the relationship between Sesen and her husband, with whom she chooses exactly what information he needs/ doesn’t feel obliged to expand, and with Fleur and Sesen. The way you switch back and forth between Fleur and Sesen and Sesen once Fleur has left, never feels forced or confusing, but always makes sense.
I love the descriptions of the room. In another review response I think you mention Irene Adler as some inspiration for this--and the way the very bareness acts as her armour, but in this, once it’s imbued with Fleur’s presence, becomes powerless. “The stage is set just as I like it.” is such a simple, but evocative line, as is this piece of beautiful description: “Dusk flows in through the windows and paints the white walls in pink and orange.” Perhaps it is the descriptions of the room which contribute to the very theatrical sense within the story. Not that it’s melodramatic, far from it, but with Sesen you show the control of someone whose used to having it, slowly breaking down. But it’s not just that--at the end when she fills her room again in order to hide Fleur’s presence, and describes it as “My little kingdom. And now, my prison.” it shows that not only is she definitely feeling something more for Fleur than by her own standards, she ought to, but that desire and her relationship with it, has changed completely. One of the things that most interests me is the intent--Sesen is used to getting what she wants, wants Fleur, knows she can get what Fleur’s wants, and therefore barters it in a simple exchange of goods. Fleur I think is different--she wants something as well, but I don’t think she would have slept with Sesen had she not been attracted to her as well. It’s interesting the way she sees desire in a much more mature, and emotional way than Sesen. Sesen, possibly because she’s always viewed herself and judged herself in her control over men through sex, sees it as about power, whereas Fleur sees it so differently, saying that desire is not enough all the time” and that “I think, perhaps, she says, her accent adorably marked and thick, the bigger concern is that you do not know how to truly desire someone.”
The dialogue, and the way the two women interacted, was so beautifully written, like verbal sparring, with both surprised and intrigued by things the other said. I loved the way you had the dialogue in italics, and without speech marks. It made it sound--sublimated into Sesen’s thoughts, much more powerfully. The contrast between the rather baring and revealing dialogue between Fleur and Sesen, and that between Sesen and her husband, is also interesting. I also liked the way Bill was mentioned--peripheral as far as Sesen was concerned, but then feels as though she’s been played in some way. I don’t think this is actually the case. Like I said before, Fleur wanted something, and that something was in order to be with Bill, but she never lies to Sesen about her intentions, and has little control over Sesen’s reaction to her. She can certainly not have predicted the violent end to Sesen’s husband (her scorn of him is so amusingly and then terrifyingly written), which I think was coming anyway, but was certainly brought forward by the vast difference between her relationship with him, and her relationship with Fleur. The fact that Sesen had to include sex in the way she killed him, in order to amuse her, or prove that she had some control over him, shows how central it is to the way she’s lead her life, but she’s never been able to truly give herself over to someone, trust someone I suppose, until Fleur. And now feels so stunned by it, that possibly will never have the courage (or, perhaps as she would term it, foolishness) to do so again, which is incredibly sad.
Having just looked at Fleur’s dialogue carefully, for a story of mine, I do think you could change just a couple of the words to fit in with JK’s canon speech patterns for her, particularly since you have Sesen mention it as not being as good as her own, and later, when they are about to sleep together, “her accent adorably marked and thick”. Little things like “theenk” instead of “think” and “ze” instead of “the” “z” for “th” sounds (so zan and zat for than and than” as well as a tendency to elongate an “i” into an “ee” (so theenk and weesh instead of think and wish). In a story which contains such fascinating characterisations, differing views of sex and desire and love, that it is incredibly minor point.
I loved this story so much, and am again sorry it’s taken me so long to review. I hope there is something vaguely constructive in this review, but if there isn’t, it’s because this story is stunning already. If it doesn’t win something I may come after the judges with a small bat. Best of luck with the competition--Alex.
Oooooh, Natalie, this was fab :) I've been meaning to read your Flabini for a while (though I think Zleur sounds better :P) and I definitely think it's one of the challenge's strongest entries. You got into Mrs Zabini's head so, so well, and the use of first person really helped in establishing her voice.
Well done, Natalieeeeee. I never thought I would be convinced of this pairing, so yay to that.
Author's Response: A REVIEW FOR FLABINI! Of course, that made my day. :) Glad you liked it!
I had to open your story in two windows so that I could give you a proper "as I go along" review... because I feel like my mind is going to be blown too much to remember everything by the time I finish reading.
"I am, in all honesty, a peddler of carnal longing, not a sampler, never a victim." - I love LOVE this line, and everything it expresses about her character!
And then how she meets Fleur ... I was wondering how you'd actually get them to cross paths. It could have happened at the Triwizard final, but then you'd have had the student/grownup thing going on, and that would obviously have changed the whole dynamic. They still aren't equal -- Mrs Zabini is rich, only checking just exactly how rich she is, though she actually already knows that; Fleur is being refused a work position. And the whole Gringotts setting reinforces the idea of buying/selling, and THEN you bring in the mirror, that ultimate symbol of a person's appearance! aaaaaaaeeeee! I've merely dipped my toes into your story and am already so much in awe.
OH and then there is the Goblin, who is all about money, and doesn't put anything into Fleur's good looks... so many money/body-things!
oooh Fleur obviously isn't very polite, right... Because she would have had anything handed to her in life, and people would have overlooked a lot of character flaws. She never really was polite before she got engaged to Bill. And woah what a reversal of roles...the young, beautiful witch, and the older, rich, influential one...
The inspection of Fleur is a bit like Sesen pruning her as an apprentice of some sort. Or comparing her to herself. I don't know. But it's beautiful. No dialogue required.
And oh, the tiny foreshadowings! You genius woman.
Hmm on to the dinner now... So intriguing. And also interesting that she's staying over night... Hm, I wonder where Fleur usually stayed at that time. And also whether she was already aiming at getting Bill when she applied for the job, and that is why she "needs" this one?
"I’m possessed by an impulsive yearning to kill her, to not let another human being have her this way" --- OH I love this line. wow. This is oozing with feelings tugging them this way and that. That whole para is so so intriguing.
Ah, Sesen has daddy issues... which now reenter her bedroom life. Oooh and her daddy issues contain her whole true self. I see... Why does she have a second wand? OH I see. That would be very useful, yes...
That murder scene is just brilliant. Really really really brilliant. I'd love to read more about her because she seriously has a burning rage inside of her that comes out very... noticeably. Like a second personality.
I wonder if she remarries now...
This somehow gave me a very Dorian Gray vibe... She finds Fleur, who resembles her so much, but is a younger version of her, and a whole version, one that hasn't been mistreated by any men, not her father, not any husbands or boyfriends (at least not that we know of). Fleur draws strength from love -- not from rage. And when Sesen realises that Fleur is NOT like her, and will never be, she also realises that she won't ever really be with her. And then everything that makes her life unlike that of Fleur (and the way she saw herself in the mirror that night) reenters her private chambers -- including the husband that she married as a result of all these issues in her life. And then she loses it. Woah.
Sorry for the incoherent review. It really probably doesn't make a lot of sense... I loved the story a lot. And you.
Author's Response: Stream of Consciousness review! Oh, how I love thee. :D The money/body dichotomy, and the act of buying/selling is something I wanted to play around with in the fic. It's how Sesen got this far, and I liked to see her on the other side, because this sort of proposition would be so natural for her. And mirrors! Mirrors feature prominently in most of my fics. I find them fascinating, the meanings they imply. Also, in a fic that toys with narcissism, how could I not include them? Your Dorian Gray comparison is really apt. Sesen's love for Fleur is not simple; I think she sees in her what she missed out on, which triggers the final murder. She has been mistreated by a lot of men in her life, becoming hardened and unfeeling in the procees, and Fleur is like ... all the chances she lost. Youth. Innocence. Thank you for this beautiful review, K-Vitamin! :) I love you like ten thousand ice-creams.
Okay, so I've slept on this now in the hope of leaving a coherent review. But ... uh ... no, that's not going to happen.
This story is mind-melting in its execution. Sesen is so cold and yet she drips with unconsumed passion. Fleur is so not the innocent victim. She is manipulative, and yet, she stays for four days and nights. She has what she wants from Sesen so could leave ... and yet she stays. Of course, my feeling here is that it;s partly that she's intrigued by Sesen, desires her and also loves to be desired. Being wanted has to be the biggest aphrodisiac of all, and wow is she wanted, and by one of the most beautiful and desirable women in her orbit. How could they resist each other?
What disturbed me the most in this story was the application of make up. In my mind, Sesen was trying to cheapen Fleur, turn her into a beautiful artificial object, like the others she collects at the end. It felt shocking to me, painting her like a whore. I smiled so much when Fleur melted the make up away - HA!
The husband seems superfluous in the story. I say 'seems' because he's not. The end (which I have read and reread and reread and reread) is so NECESSARY to your portrayal of Sesen. He is superfluous to her, but necessary to the story because through his death we're shown her true nature - again. Is it falling for Fleur that has made her kill again? Or has she reverted because she cannot give up this way of life.
I don't usually pay much heed to descriptions of rooms, but her 'stage' stayed with me long after I clicked away from this story. (and I am totally seeing some form of Irene Adler as I read this story - that is very probably me because I'm a tad obsessed with Lara Pulver as you may have realised).
You pulled this off brilliantly, Natalie. And now, I must read again. Oh, and this fic deserves reviews and a lot of them.
I must go and wibble in a corner now. Gods, you're brilliNAT. ~Croll~
Author's Response: First, this review makes me squee so hard with its gorgeousness. Second, I must kiss Teh Julia's feet. Third, I immediately Googled Lara Pulver to ogle at her Irene some more. And now, let me be a bit more dignified heehee. While I knew what was happening/would happen in the overall story, so much wasn't present in the first finished draft. For e.g., Fleur's motive was absent, and while I knew Sesen would be driven to kill her last husband because of Fleur, I hadn't included that either. The first was vaguely implied, and I felt the second was superflous. HOW WRONG I WAS. This is why I need to kiss Julia's feet, because in her beta notes, she told me neither character was humanised enough. And so, I re-wrote and added the entirety of the last section, and also made Fleur's pursuit of Bill a little clearer. You're right about Fleur. She's still quite young, and no matter what how cunning/brave/skilled she was, I always detected something naive in her. I think, more than anything, she was curious because it was a woman who had propositioned her. If a man had done that, she wouldn't have accepted. She wouldn't have even needed to go that far. She was intrigued, apart from wanting the job, which is what led her to Sesen. And once Sesen starts adoring her, Fleur also thawed a little, and perhaps, felt a little sad. She's a very romantic person, Fleur, and Sesen's cold approach towards that side of human relationship could only have failed to impress her. Sesen, on her part, was bewitched by Fleur's beauty. She saw her as an object of desire, and yet she was threatened by Fleur's growing power over her. Hence, the make-up scene. You hit that right on point. As for the final murder, I feel that Sesen was devastated by her loss, her one chance at something resembling love. The seventh husband didn't help at all, and neither did the others. She was only ever desired and perhaps, the hollowness of that was at last taking its toll on her. >.> To me, she wanted to get out of the charade because she finally understood things could be different. Also, yes, Irene Adler's influence cannot be denied. The staging was definitely inspired by her, although, of course, Mrs Z is far more vicious and vindictive. WOW. This is the one of the longest review responses I've ever typed. Look what you did to me, CON.