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Tag: Amal El-Mohtar

Hugo Award Roundup: Short Story Nominees

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

The cover for “The City Born Great”. Illustration by Richie Pope.

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.

Read “The City Born Great” for free online.

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.

Read “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” for free online.

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.

Read “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” for free online.

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.

Read “Seasons of Glass and Iron” for free online.

That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn

The cover for “That Game We Played During the War”. Illustration by John Jude Palencar.

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.

Read “That Game We Played During the War” for free online.

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.

The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar: A Taste of Poetry

honey_month_cover2Title: The Honey Month
Author: Amal El-Mohtar
Publisher: Cheeky Frawg Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 5 out of 5
How I got it: I purchased a copy from Weightless Books

It’s so hard translating a taste into language. Words like “bitter” and “sweet” lack nuance on their own, but our attempts to add that nuance often take a turn towards the cliched and the precious — think of all those labels that describe a wine as having “hints of oak” or an “elegant character.”

The impossibility sharing the experiences of one’s tastebuds is something I face a lot as a tea reviewer. Die-hard tea drinkers will understand what I mean when I say that a black tea is “malty” or “biscuity”, but I don’t have a developed-enough vocabulary to pick out each flavour and organize the taste sensations into an intelligible format.

This is why I find Amal El-Mohtar’s achievement in her anthology The Honey Month so impressive. Once, as a lark by a new friend, she was given 28 different vials of honey to taste and puzzle over. And taste she did, one day after the other for a month. Each flavour was so evocative that she wrote a short story or poem in response. It was only after she finished tasting the entire set that she started to imagine that the whole series of notes could be turned into a publishable collection.

I am so glad that this collection exists, though, because in it, she has found a way to take the flavours of each honey and transform her reactions to them into something impressionistic, yet distinctive and easy to grasp.

(Full disclosure: I’ve met Amal and have had conversations with her. I’ve even taken the rather intimate step of mailing her some tea from my cupboard!)

For example, here are her notes on leatherwood honey, which she tasted on the second-to-last day:

Colour: Chardonnay. I look at its pale yellow-gold and imagine the buttery aftertaste. Beautifully, stickily liquid and clear.

Smell: Candy-sweet with a creaminess to it, white flowers and sugared milk.

Taste: High sweetness; on the register of sweetness this would a top note. A sweetness you taste behind your eyes. Petals and light.

El-Mohtar is not afraid to use her body, her experiences, her memories — or even things that can’t be tasted at all — as points of comparison in her tasting notes. Combined with the loveliness of her fictional accompaniments to each variety of honey, it seems as if she has found a way to embody what she tastes.

Here’s an example; this is part of the vignette she wrote in response to tasting apricot creamed honey on day 24:

The bees come when she lets down her hair.

There is a simple brass stick, two-pronged, with which she binds it up until the moment is precisely right. When she leans over a railing to gaze at the sea; when she bites into an apricot and closes her eyes; when the rain ends and the air drips with the scent of wet leaves, she pulls the stick from her hair, releases it, lets it tumble down in chestnut waves. It smells of honey and ginger, and the bees love it.

When they surround her, she breathes in the vibration of their bodies, exhales music, breathes it in again. They crown and armour her, they hide her while she dissolves into a joy too keen for eyes that come in simple pairs, eyes that could not possibly appreciate the peace, the thrill, the trembling, the way those thousand bodies do. They sing her aching silence out, they chime their wings like champagne flutes, they pat her cheeks and lashes with more love than is commonly thought to be possible. You smell so good, so good, they cry, we love the way you smell. And when the trembling subsides, when their joy ebbs like a wave from the sand, they bestow a final kiss against her hair, her skin, before flying off.

The cascading tumble of hair, the surrounding thrum of the bees, their plaintive cries, the smell of ginger — could there possibly be a more evocative image to describe the juiciness and vitality of the honey in question? I think what strikes me most about The Honey Month is this: El-Mohtar bares herself in these works, is willing to dive deep into various sensations and memories to create new and fantastic images based on what she tastes.

In other words, she’s brave.

And it makes me think: I don’t engage in such flights of fancy when I write my tea reviews. What exactly is it about writing in such a style that scares me? Is it the fact that my wording isn’t as precise? Is it because I’m scared to make the leap towards using unusual but somehow bone-true images to describe what I’m tasting?

I suppose you could say that The Honey Month has given me permission to try a more experimental approach when it comes to tasting and reviewing. I felt a profound sense of “Wait, that’s allowed? You can actually do that?” as I flipped through the pages.

I’m not sure what to make of my own little epiphany just yet. But I do have a jar of linden honey sitting in the cupboard, all thick and crystallized. Maybe, if I’m brave enough, I will send some Amal El-Mohtar’s way.

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