2017 Hugo Reading: Novellas
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Written by Natalie Luhrs

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July 6, 2017

Hugo Award LogoThis year, the finalists for Best Novella are:

Like the other short fiction categories, this is a generally strong group of finalists and it’s going to be a real challenge to put them in an order which feels correct (to me).

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Aqib is the youngest son and heir to his father’s position as master of beasts; he is also a minor member of the royal family and, as such, has his material comforts taken care of. As Aqib is walking back to the palace after exercising the royal cheetah, he meets a young man who is part of the delegation from a neighboring country. Aqib doesn’t really want to have anything to do with him, but Lucrio is incredibly charming—and quite attractive.

The narrative is non-linear; the ten days that Lucrio and Aqib have together are interspersed with scenes from later in Aqib’s life, after Lucrio has left. Aqib marries a woman of higher rank than himself and has a daughter. His wife is a brilliant mathematician (in this world, it is the women who are the scientists and scholars—Aqib, for all his privileges, is illiterate) and ultimately ends up going across the bayou to live with beings her culture believe to be gods. There is a lot of sufficiently advanced technology posing as magic here, but there is also actual magic, too. It’s a wonderful combination.

There is a lot going on in this relatively short tale: two very different cultures, incredibly deep and intricate worldbuilding, wonderful characterization, and a protagonist who I found notable for his gentleness and sensitivity.

This novella is really something special and, in many ways, breathtaking in its audacity. If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for?

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire

I’d heard so many good things about this novella from so many people whose opinions I respect—so my expectations were quite high for this book and I’m sorry to say that it simply didn’t live up to the hype.

“Every Heart A Doorway” is a portal fantasy, but it’s not about what happens before or during the time in the portal, but what happens after. Nancy is the newest student at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children and the common thread between Nancy and her new classmates is their longing to return to the portal universes they’ve been expelled from or chose to leave in order to prove themselves worthy of return.

There is a flimsily obvious murder mystery which drives the plot, but this is really an extended character study of Nancy, who is ever so still and ever so monochromatic—her portal universe was an underworld, one where stillness is greatly valued and which, in some mysterious way, speaks to Nancy’s soul.

This isn’t a badly written story—on the contrary, it’s beautifully written and while the characterizations are done in broad strokes, they’re mostly not stereotypical. This simply is not a story for me.

Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my favorite writers—we named our kittens after two of her characters, after all. And while I love the Vorkosigan books tremendously, it’s the Chalion books that truly have my heart. So when Bujold began publishing Chalion novellas, I was all for it.

Penric and the Shaman is the second novella in this series-within-a-series and I don’t think reading the first is a requirement, but it’s probably helpful.

It’s four years since Penric and Desdemona joined forces (as it were) and Penric’s now a divine of the Bastard’s Order and a scholar besides. His studies are interrupted when he’s sent along with what amounts to a police officer to find a man accused of murdering his best friend. As in most of Bujold’s work, things aren’t as straight forward as they seem.

I really enjoyed Bujold’s return to the shamanic magic from The Hallowed Hunt and Penric’s relationship with Desdemona is a continual delight. I generally feel like this particular series is a bit lightweight which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind if you haven’t read any of the others.

I’m pretty sure it’s not possible for Bujold to write a bad book, but I am not convinced that this one is Hugo-worthy—it’s certainly no Barrayar or Paladin of Souls.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this—the only other story I’ve ready by Kij Johnson is “Ponies” and to call it disturbing would be an understatement. So between “Ponies” and what I’ve heard about “Spar”, I was concerned that this novella would be more nightmare fuel and very much not my sort of thing.

I’m glad to say that it wasn’t, despite being inspired by a novella by H.P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Johnson is reacting to the racism and lack of women in Lovecraft’s work (what a surprise!), but even without knowing that there is a connection to Lovecraft, I could see that she was pushing against normative fantasy tropes about women.

Vellitt Boe is a professor of Mathematics at Ulthar Women’s College and one of her students, Clarie Jurat, has run away with a man. And not just any man, but a man from the waking world. Vellitt undertakes a journey to retrieve Clarie, for Clarie is the granddaughter of a sleeping god and the gods are capricious and prone to smiting cities for lesser reasons–Vellitt and her colleagues are truly worried about the consequences.

I really enjoyed this a lot, on multiple levels: I loved that Vellitt is an older woman and one who looks and feels older—and who goes on an adventure anyway; I loved the really weird setting with the shifting landscapes and dangerous semi-sentient creatures; and I loved the small black cat who ends up being Vellitt’s truest companion.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle

I think it’s interesting that two of the novellas on the Hugo ballot were inspired by—and are in conversation with—H.P. Lovecraft. As Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe addresses the lack of women in Lovecraft’s stories, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom riffs on “The Horror at Red Hook” and in deeply concerned with racism—both systemic and individual and how they feed each other.

Tommy Tester is a young black man charged with the delivery of an occult book to a woman named Ma Att; after his delivery, he encounters first a shabby-appearing white man named Robert Suydam and then two men who are investigating Suydam, a police officer named Malone and a private detective named Howard.

This is a novella not only about Elder Gods and Suydam’s quest to wake them, but also police brutality and the ways in which young black men are required to constrain their persons and their lives so that they may survive. Tommy—who becomes Black Tom—is a wholly sympathetic and engaging protagonist and what he goes through over the course of the book it heartbreaking.

That said, the first half of the novella is the stronger half; at the halfway mark, there’s a point of view shift from Tommy to Malone that I am not convinced works. It felt rushed and I really wanted to know more about Tommy’s transformation into Black Tom. There’s some body horror at the end that felt gratuitously symbolic and I am not sure it was necessary with all the other gore that was happening at the same time.

“The Ballad of Black Tom” is certainly an ambitious story, but I am not sure it’s a completely successful one.

This Census-Taker by China Miéville

I tried to read this one. I ended up only being able to read the first few chapters because of the way the publisher chose to format the file they provided for the packet.

They only provided a PDF, which meant that I knew it was going to be hard to read on my Kindle (I can’t read fiction on a computer screen—when I read short stories for review, I convert them to mobi and sideload them on the Kindle). What I wasn’t expecting was an enormous watermark that obscured a significant portion of the text.

Now, back when I was a professional reviewer, I’d occasionally get an ARC that had this going on with it. Once, the giant watermark was my name. Each time, I had to contact the publicist and ask if they could get me another file with the watermark moved into the margin so I could read it.

Do you know what this sort of watermark tells the reader? It tells the reader that the publisher thinks they have no integrity and that people who want to pirate books are buying Worldcon memberships so they can get the file for “free”. That’s bullshit nonsense. Putting a watermark on a file—a file that is already in a less-accessible format—that obscures the text to the point where it is very difficult, if not impossible to read, is nothing short of contempt for the reader.

So. What little I read of the story was good—well-written, engaging voice, and a sense of weirdness. Everything you’d expect from Miéville.. The narrator seems to be talking about his childhood from a slightly dissociated point of view, and I really did want to read more. But I couldn’t because the watermark kept getting between me and the narrative.

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