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 Short Story.
The City Born Great by N. K. Jemisin
Cities are full of life. In Jemisin’s story, if they grow large and powerful enough, they’ll become living beings themselves. But the birth of a city isn’t easy, and there are dark beings out there interested in devouring this new life. It’s up to the city’s midwife to usher them into the world safely and prevent the forces of evil from winning out. However, New York’s midwife, our unnamed narrator, is homeless, hungry, and skeptical. But it’s up to him to deliver this baby, sing its song, and fight the unnamed Enemy that wants to suck it dry.
One of Jemisin’s hallmarks is the use of protagonists that deliberately test the boundaries of readers’ sympathies. Essun from The Fifth Season is a great example. The narrator of “The City Born Great” – a flippant, pragmatic homeless person – is another. The climax, where New York actually comes alive, is great. But I think the story would have been stronger if the final scene were cut entirely. Otherwise, the ending was too tidy.
A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong
Two sisters grow up with the power to see the snaking, infinite paths of the future, and twist fate to their own ends. When one sister leaves for the city, she regrets the effect her choice has on the other left behind. But some things are inevitable, and when she tries to return to save her sister, her attempts always fall short.
Wong’s story is interesting and the prose is delicate, but it somehow feels unfinished, overall. The story kept hinting that the girls’ parents were meant to be looming and significant, overbearing, but in the end they’re non-entities. I never understood why either sister felt so constrained by living with them.
Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander
I reviewed this story last November, and my opinion of it still stands. It’s perfect, snarly and angry.
Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar
Amira is a princess whose beauty encourages the advances of uncountable numbers of men, including her father. To keep herself and her kingdom safe, she willingly sits in exile on a throne atop a glass mountain, awaiting the one man who can climb it and prove being worthy of her hand. Tabitha is a woman who loved and married a shapeshifting bear-man. However, after his abuse raises her mother’s suspicions, she does an act that breaks his trust in her. She must walk the countryside, carry his bear-skin and wear through seven pairs of iron shoes as penance before she can return.
But when Amira and Tabitha meet – Tabitha climbs the glass mountain in the hope that such a magical surface will wear through the soles of her shoes even faster – neither of them believe that the other deserves such harsh treatment. It’s not Amira’s fault that men always lust after her, Tabitha says; nor does Amira believe it’s Tabitha’s fault that her husband beat her. So the two forge a life together on their own.
I love the quality of El-Mohtar’s prose, and “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a fine example of how delicate and crystalline and sweet her writing can be. But on a thematic level, while I recognize it’s a response to a number of misogynistic tropes found in traditional fairytales, the story left me lukewarm. It feels like the theme of “it’s not a woman’s fault if a man is a controlling asshole” is really hammered in. It’s a fine message in and of itself, but it’s not that subtle.
That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn
Major Valk Larn is a war hero; like all people of Gaant, he’s a telepath. Calla Belan is a field nurse; like all people of Enith, she isn’t. Gaant and Enith have been fighting over the same piece of land for years. However, despite the Gaantish advantage of telepathy, the Enithi have managed to fight them to a standstill and negotiate a peace treaty. Now that the peace is holding, Valk and Calla are free to rekindle their unusual friendship over a game of chess.
As soon as I read “That Game We Played During the War”, I knew that it was special, so I’m delighted to see it as a nominee. I’m especially happy considering that out of all the short stories on ballot, this one displays the least amount of literary pyrotechnics. No snarky narrator, no perilous acrobatics of prose. Just two people, a chess board, and a grand, if not particularly original, metaphor.
Calla and Valk are both given full, real personalities despite little information in the text about their personal likes, dislikes, and fears. The effect is as if I’m viewing a simple yet evocative pencil sketch – a lot of information is deftly packed into as few lines as possible. Most of all, I appreciate the story’s genuine sense of kindness and goodwill. These are characters who have learned to see each other as people rather than enemies.
An Unimaginable Light by John C. Wright
I didn’t bother to read this one. I know enough to steer clear of the bullshit that Castalia House publishes.