Matt Wallace’s story, available on Kindle, does three extremely clever things, the first of which is imply a vast world just outside the confines of the story’s universe. It opens with an old lady making a teddy bear and telling the bear in serious, gentle tones that he will be a warrior, designed to defend the children who will own him from the darkness. There’s no hint of how the old woman can bring toys to life, no hint of how long the war Sundae (for that is the bear’s name) is built to fight has gone on – it just is. This is a story about life during wartime and the reasons for the war have long since been forgotten. Instantly, this approach gives the story a huge canvas to play out on, at the same time as focusing our attention on the quiet, desperate battles Sundae fights.
The second extremely clever thing about the piece is how Matt marries the “toys defend us” idea with a rock solid martial world view. Sundae is a pragmatic, battered old soldier, a gunslinger who knows he doesn’t have much left in the tank but knows exactly how much he does have and finds absolute peace in that. Some of the story’s best moments come from Sundae reminiscing about his past charges and it’s most striking moment comes when he prepares for war one last time. The image of a battered old teddy bear hefting the broadsword he made for himself isn’t one that will soon leave you.
The third extraordinary thing Matt does is makes you care. For a character with almost no dialogue and a remarkably brutal viewpoint, Sundae is an incredibly likable protagonist. He’s a battered, grizzled old soldier who loves his work and loves moments of peace more, and his memories of his past owners, and the friendship he shared with their dog, Silver, are all the more wrenching because they’re framed so pragmatically. This is a bear who is long-lived but not immortal, a soldier made of fur who carries every wound with pride and absolute knowledge of what they’ll one day cost him. As the story progresses, and you get an idea of how the world is, and the effect Sundae and his kind have had on it, you begin to understand just what he’s done and how much he’s capable of, as well as what he’s lost. Matt deftly weaves all this into a real world context which is pragmatic, horrifying and only raises the stakes higher, showing us what Sundae can’t do as well as what he can. This is a dark world, and that darkness isn’t entirely supernatural in nature.
Despite that, it’s the light that stays with you. There’s real wonder here, right next to the horror and crucially, absolute heart. Sundae is the very best sort of hero, a quiet, unassuming one and his actions are all the more poignant for that. Sweetness and light, darkness and pain, a war torn past and a hopeful future all come together in a deeply moving story that will stay with you long after you finish it. This is extraordinary work, and it deserves your attention.