The Hugo award deadline is right around the corner, so I’m running a series of posts about this year’s nominees in various categories. Today’s category is Best Novelette.
The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde
Lin is the youngest member of the royal family of the Jeweled Valley – a Jewel – and Sima is her servant, confidant, and jewel-setter – a Lapidary. The valley’s gems have been renowned across continents for centuries for their magical powers, but when Sima’s father, the king’s Lapidary, betrays the court to help a western invader, Lin’s world falls apart. Now, with very little time and knowledge, Lin and Sima must do what they can to make sure the valley is not overrun.
I heard a lot of praise for this story when it first came out, but reading it now, I don’t understand why. If the Lapidaries are the ones who can speak to the valley’s magical gems and control their powers, how come they aren’t the rulers, since they have so much control over the valley’s magic? Why is it important that Lin manages to fashion a veil out of platinum chains? What is the significance of the excerpts from a guide book that open up each section? The prose feels so spare that huge parts of the story’s world-building make no sense to me, and I wonder whether this is a continuation of a pre-existing series where a lot of this information has been explained previously.
The Art of Space Travel by Nina Allan
Emily Clarah Starr lives a life set in liminal spaces. She’s the head of housekeeping at a hotel near Heathrow, and her house is just a half-hour’s walk away. Her mother, Moolie, lives in a liminal space of her own, too – after taking part in a cleanup effort for a failed manned space mission, the chemicals she was exposed to have affected her mind. Emily’s life is usually the same from day to day, but as the launch date for the first manned mission to Mars comes closer, her hotel becomes ground zero for a media frenzy, and she’s not quite prepared for all of the feelings such an event dredges up.
What’s interesting about “The Art of Space Travel” is how the SFnal elements of it all are very light and in the background – while we get some references to this story taking place about 60 years in the future, aside from the prospect of a manned mission to Mars, it sounds like it’s set in the present day. No unusual technologies or scientific discoveries drive the plot. This is just a story about a young woman living day-to-day, talking to her mom, worrying about her job, and wondering about who her father might be. The voice here is human and gentle, and overall the story is very soft and understated.
The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon
Grandma Harken lives in the desert, and what makes her stay despite her age is her garden full of tomatoes. But lately those tomatoes are disappearing just as they’re ripe on the vine. Who’s stealing them? When Grandma Harken meets the thief and discovers that she’s trapped under a spell, the old lady seeks the help of the train gods and embarks on a journey through the desert to a place where time and space fold in strange ways. I’ll leave it to you to find out who the ultimate antagonist is, but it’s an unexpected delight.
I’ve loved Ursula Vernon’s past work, and while I’m only somewhat familiar with her story “Jackalope Wives”, which is set in the same universe as “The Tomato Thief”, you don’t need to read one to be able to appreciate the other. Grandma Harken is a cussed old lady, and I like how her voice, full of said cussedness, comes through clear as a bell. This story is just begging to be turned into a podcast. I hope that PodCastle records this one, pronto. This one is going to take the top spot on my Hugo award ballot.
You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay by Alyssa Wong
Ellis is the son of the desert and a strange man who had the ability to raise the dead. As their son, he can raise the dead himself and shapeshift like the desert’s sand. He does chores at the local brothel, but when his mother calls out to him, he’s helpless to respond. A local mining company has heard of his strange power, and wants to use his abilities to investigate a recent mine collapse. However, they have ulterior motives. Also, what’s the deal with the strange new preacher in town? Strange things are afoot, and Ellis may be overmatched.
I liked this a lot more than “A Fist of Permutations in Wildflowers and Lightning”, Wong’s nominee in the Short Story category. The plot made more sense to me, and the characters felt more grounded. However, I felt the ending, where Ellis raises the dead miners to reunite them with their families, tried to evoke a level of heart-tugging emotion that it didn’t quite earn. Also, it didn’t make sense to me that the preacher turned out to be his uncle – I didn’t understand why someone who was identified as a preacher would actually be someone allied with a much different kind of pagan magic.
Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman
“Touring with the Alien” is set in a near future where alien edifices have landed on Earth’s surface. No one really knows what they want, but our protagonist, Avery, is tasked with the highly unusual job of taking an alien, plus one of the abducted humans aliens have trained to be ambassadors, on a road trip to St. Louis. Eventually, it’s revealed that the aliens themselves aren’t conscious. Humans, it turns out, are unique in this universe for possessing consciousness, and the aliens can’t get enough of this state of mind. Consciousness is so intoxicating, in fact, that it’s actually killing them like an addictive substance would.
I really wanted to like this story, but Avery treats the alien presence and their ultimate goals with such a matter-of-fact demeanour that the whole thing is robbed of any mystery or sense of wonder. Why does Avery feel so little betrayal at the idea that the aliens have actually come here to invade? Why isn’t she a bit more staggered by the coincidence of the alien ambassador wanting to visit St. Louis, which is the city where her daughter is buried? These revelations are treated with so much understatement that it robs the climax of any heft.
Alien Stripper Boned from Behind by the T-Rex by Stix Hiscock
Dude, don’t try to beat Chuck Tingle at his own game. Just don’t. It won’t work.