I’ve now finished reading all the written fiction nominated for the 2017 Hugos. And I did it all before the voting deadline this time. Yay! This year was full of really strong stories, and the novellas were some of the best I think. Most I have read, or have been intending to read for a while, so I’m really glad to have finally read and reviewed them all.
Penric and the Shaman – Lois McMaster Bujold
Penric and the Shaman is the sequel to Penric’s Demon. I read this last year and loved it, but since then I’ve read the sequel, Penric’s Mission, and every time I try to think of Penric and the Shaman, I end up thinking about Penric’s Mission instead. Shaman explores a different type of magic to the chaos demon magic we were introduced to in Penric’s Demon. Shaman magic is based on nature and animals, and there is some mistrust between Shamans and Sorcerers.
This story not only explores the magic and theology of a really well developed fantasy world, but is also a murder mystery with no actual antagonist. I found out that this story references a lot of things from Bujold’s novel The Hallowed Hunt, which I am now eager to read.
It’s hard to say how well this story stands on its own. It’s a sequel, but it doesn’t follow straight on from Penric’s Demon. Compared to Penric’s Demon and Penric’s Mission, I don’t think it’s as good, but it is still a fun read. I’m just going to say that the entire series is amazing, with a fascinating magic system and compelling characters.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe – Kij Johnson
This is a retelling of H.P Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Johnson wrote this story as a way to revisit something she loved in childhood but contained things she found problematic. I have to say, mission successful. This Dream-Quest has everything great about the original, but the writing feels modern, and not racist or sexist at all. Johnson’s Dream-Quest is an adventure story in a strange, fantasy world full of strange creatures, fantastic areas, and insane gods. The protagonist is the titular Vellitt Boe, a teacher at Ulthar’s Women’s Collage. I really enjoyed reading an adventure story about an older woman; Vellitt isn’t the type of heroine I would expect to find in a story like this, but she was such a fun character.
As well as great characters, this story has an amazing world. Of course, the credit for the Dreamlands has to go to Lovecraft, but Johnson has done an excellent job of bringing this world to life once again. Her descriptions of all the locations Vellitt visits are wonderfully evocative. Lovecraft’s worlds and mythos are wonderful, but Kij Johnson is a much better writer, adding more depth to the Dreamworlds and crafting an amazing plot. With dialog! Lovecraft was never that good at writing dialog. If you are interested in Lovecraftian stories but don’t like the man’s views or some of the themes he put in his stories, then I cannot recommend this re-telling enough.
The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle
Another Lovecraft retelling from Tor.com. I am loving all these modern takes on Lovecraft. Like Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, The Ballad of Black Tom explores the horrors of racism through Lovecraftian themes. This is a re-imagining of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, which I haven’t read yet. I was intending to read The Horror at Red Hook before I read Black Tom, but at the end of the day, I didn’t want to delay reading a really good story in order to slug away at what is considered to be one of Lovecraft’s most poorly written works. Especially since it supposedly relies on the reader being xenophobic in order to be frightening. Maybe I’ll go back and read it if I get all these novellas read before voting closes. Whilst I don’t have any desire to read The Horror at Red Hook, I loved The Ballad of Black Tom enough to be interested in that extra context.
This is the story of Tommy Tester, and Detective Malone. But mostly of Tommy Tester, aka Black Tom. Tom hustles to make a living, and ends up crossing the path of a man who wants to wake the Sleeping King, bringing about the end of the world as we know it. You’d think Tom would want to get the hell away from that level of evil, but being black in the 1920s means Tom actually does get to face great evils from other places too. It’s quite scary seeing just what can happen when you push someone too far.
Then the second half of the novella focuses on Detective Malone, and more on the gory, traditional Lovecraft horror. Some of the things Malone encounters are quite horrific, and the descriptions of these horrors would make Lovecraft proud.
This is another must read for anyone interested in Lovecraft’s mythos but unwilling to read the originals. Actually no, this is a must read for any horror fan out there.
Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire
This novella has received so much hype. I’ve been wanting to read it for ages, but the price in the kindle store was more than I was willing to pay for a novella. I’m glad I didn’t go out and buy this story straight away; this story is amazing, but I feel it falls short of the hype.
Every Heart a Doorway is about what happens to children that travel to magical worlds after the adventure ends and they return home. These children come home to parents that are worried sick about them, and who don’t believe that they have been on magical adventures. The kids have changed during their time in their magical world, and have come to view the other world as home. The story features a secluded boarding school where these wayward children get sent to so they can ‘recover from their delusions’. However, the headmistress has actually been to her own magical world, and helps her students in ways the parents wouldn’t approve of.
It’s a wonderful story, with really engaging characters, diverse magical worlds, and a great fantasy vibe even as the plot began to get really dark. The writing is top notch, and it features transgender and asexual characters. But when you hear a story being praised for a year, and see that story win tons of awards, the bar gets set extremely high, and Every Heart a Doorway fell short of my expectations.
The big problem for me was with the pacing; the plot rushes forward before we’re really finished getting introduced to all the characters and the setting. This causes problems with the character’s reactions to the action. For example, the main character – Nancy – discovers the mutilated body of another student. A few minutes later, she is asking one of the other students about the world they went to. I don’t think these are problems with the plot itself or the characterisation. I just feel that there wasn’t enough space for both the character’s backstories and the plot to be fully explored, and by cramming both together everything was thrown off. Every Heart a Doorway needed to be longer.
That being said, I can’t wait to read the next novella in the series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. I feel that since it focuses on what I thought was the best part of Every Heart a Doorway (going to a magical world) I’ll probably like it even better.
This Census-Taker – China Miéville
I’m not really sure what to make of this one. It’s been on my to-read list for a while, but I just had a lot of trouble getting into it. It was confusing at first, but slowly the world building and the story started falling in place. It had a lot of details I really liked, and I also liked the writing style.
This story is about a little boy who lives on an isolated hill with no-one else around except his parents. One day, he witnesses his father kill his mother, but none of the townspeople downhill believe him, so he is forced to continue living on the hill alone with his father. It’s creepy, but I’m not sure I’d consider this horror.
I really liked the characters. Only two of them actually get names, but I never noticed until after I was done. As for the worldbuilding, I would have liked a bit more, but what we got gave us a nice, subtle look at a world falling apart, with hints of past wars. I suppose more information would have ruined the effect, but I feel that there was a bit too much left unexplained.
That being said, I still had trouble with this story. It ended abruptly, and whilst the writing and characters and worldbuilding were all really good, I had trouble getting into it. I think it was that slow start; by the time I had the story figured out and was getting interested, it was starting to draw to a close.
A Taste of Honey – Kai Ashante Wilson
Every other novella on this list I had heard about before reading. A Taste of Honey was the only one that I hadn’t heard of before, and I had no idea what to expect going in.
And damn, this story blew me away. Which is weird, because it is mostly a romance in a high fantasy setting; not the sort of thing I usually go for. It’s the story of Aqib, master of the menagerie in the kingdom of Olorum. One night while walking the prince’s cheetah, he meets Lucrio, a visiting Centurion from the Empire of Daluça. The two hit it off and begin a whirlwind romance. There are some problems though; firstly, Olorum is a very homophobic place, so Aqib and Lucrio must keep their relationship a secret. Secondly, Lucrio and the other Daluçans are returning home in a few days, meaning Aqib must choose between young love and his family obligations.
The story is written in an interesting style, which jumps between different times in Aqib’s life. Aqib is a wonderful, multi-dimensional character who I really came to care about, and this style and the pacing helps bring Aqib’s world and challenges to life. His relationship with Lucrio, as well as all the members of his family, all felt real. Though I would have liked to see more of his father and brother after Aqib made his decision. And I suppose the idea of such a strong romantic relationship forming in such a short time is a bit silly, but the way Wilson writes make it feel real.
The worldbuilding was good. Daluça is Fantasy Rome, and I feel Olorum might be an expy of North Africa, or the Moors, but it felt like a fantasy world. A fantasy world that runs on Clarke’s Law; everything the ‘gods’ say is extreme technobabble that makes no sense to Aqib or the reader, but it made the magic and the religion of the world seem real and unique.
I loved the ending of this story. I feel that deserves special mention, because it is the type of ending that could have been handled badly. That ending had the potential to feel like a rip off and cheapen the story, but in Wilson’s hands it felt perfect. I was so happy reading it. It was the perfect ending to an absolutely amazing story. Definitely want to read The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps now, which I believe is set in the same universe.
Okay, that’s my Hugo reading done for the year. I may have a look at the Best New Writer nominees since I have the time, but on the other hand I feel I need to go read something else for a while. Oh well, we’ll just have to see what happens next. Until next time, happy reading everyone.