2017 Hugo Nominees: Best Novelette

Let’s see if I can edit myself down a little bit, shall we?  (Previous 2017 Hugo posts: Novella nominees, Ninefox GambitA Closed and Common OrbitToo Like the LightningAll the Birds in the SkyThe Obelisk GateDeath’s End.)

1. The Jewel and her Lapidary, Fran Wilde

Hidden in a valley is a small kingdom, protected by the magical gems wielded by its royal family, the Jewels, and the Lapidaries who serve them and help control their magic.  This is the story of the Jewel princess Lin and her lapidary Sima, the last defense against the foreign invaders who have destroyed the Jeweled Court with the help of a betrayer within.  The invaders know they must control the last Jewel in order to solidify their conquest of the kingdom, but Lin and Sima have other ideas.  Their respective fathers, the king and his own lapidary, are both dead, one at the hands of the other, but under the incredible pressure of the deaths of everyone they love but each other, they persist in defending their home to the last.

The girls’ friendship is the heart and soul of this book, as each is devoted to the other through bonds of duty and love.  But while that devotion gives them strength, they are each clever and resourceful as well.  I don’t know if there is to be more of this series, but I hope so; despite a climax with great emotional effect, The Jewel and her Lapidary feels like it ought to be a prologue to a much longer story, and I’d love to read more of it.

2. “The Tomato Thief”, Ursula Vernon

Ursula Vernon is at her best when she is writing unlikely, stubborn protagonists, and Grandma Harken is no exception.  The ornery, practical witch from “Jackalope Wives” simply wants to tend her garden and live in peace, with an occasional fresh tomato sandwich.  When her tomatoes start disappearing overnight as they ripen, she sets out to catch the thief – who turns out to be a bird-woman shapeshifter under some kind of enslavement, who Grandma Harken releases and then tracks as she tries to get to the root of the situation.

“The Tomato Thief” isn’t a terribly long story, but the American Southwestern setting is dense with richly detailed magic and fantastic beings; the bird-shapeshifter seems practically mundane next to the train-god and the folds in reality and the Coyote with his sometimes-canine, sometimes-feline, always-tricky demeanor.  Grandma Harken’s own personality reminds me a lot of Granny Weatherwax from Discworld, with her combination of stubbornness and a prickly sort of kindness.  But where Granny Weatherwax’s canniness verged on genre savviness, in keeping with the metafictional nature of her world, Grandma Harken’s keen sense of how the world works – and particularly, how to respect the desert so it doesn’t kill you – simply feels like a lifetime of hard-won experience distilled into wisdom.  Between that and a gently snarky viewpoint, she’s a great character to spend an hour with; at this point, I’d happily read a story about Grandma Harken waiting in line at the DMV as long as Ursula Vernon was the one writing it.

3. “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong

Speaking of magical fiction set in the Southwest… Alyssa Wong tells a story of Ellis, boy who inherited necromantic magic from his late father and desert magic from his absent mother, which has left him sort of betwixt-and-between.  He lives and works at a brothel in the Southwest, though his otherworldly nature and general aura of death tends to prevent customers from lingering too long.  His best friend, Marisol, a girl at the brothel, is more understanding of his nature than most.

The desert is dangerous.  It collapsed a mine outside of town, killing dozens of townsfolk, and drought now threatens the town while dead things roam the desert.  Ellis’s internal conflict between the two halves of his magical heritage is reflected in that broken relationship between desert and town, and when the mining company tries to use his magic to return to the mine, things deteriorate further.

Ellis’s emotional arc is about learning to accept himself, conflict and all.  He is scared to let Marisol know too much about him, but after the things he faces in the desert, he is able to find greater understanding from her as well, and is able to help the town heal.

4. “Touring with the Alien”, Carolyn Ives Gilman

Alien vessels have suddenly appeared all over North America.  Human “translators” have emerged from them, claiming to be children previously abducted (or “adopted”) by the aliens.  Avery is a woman working for a legally-gray “shipping company” and has been hired to drive an alien translator and an alien itself from its vessel near Washington, DC to St. Louis.  Avery spends most of the meandering road trip talking with the translator, Lionel, and trying to understand the aliens better.  Lionel is not exactly acclimated to human society either.

Avery and Lionel gradually establish a rapport, as she begins to understand the relationship between the aliens, Lionel, and human society, and as she tries to teach Lionel how to behave like a normal human.  Gilman does an excellent job of portraying a truly “alien” alien – a species that is extremely difficult for humans to understand because their very notions of thought and action differ in some fundamental ways from what we are used to – and the frequency with which Avery and Lionel talk past each other because they’re making different assumptions felt like a much more realistic portrayal of the problems of first contact than most such stories I’ve read.

That said, the ending seemed to come out of nowhere.  Specifically, the way Avery suddenly not only accepted the situation they found themselves in but actively shifted to helping it along seemed disconnected from her behavior for the rest of the story.  Her breakdown in the graveyard was likely supposed to motivate how she handled the ending, but I feel like there were still a few missing steps on that emotional arc.

5. “The Art of Space Travel”, Nina Allan

A story about a woman working at a hotel which will soon host the astronauts about to embark on a mission to Mars, decades after a previous launch ended in disaster.  Emily’s mother was part of the disaster-recovery crew dealing with the fallout from the failed launch, and her health and memory have been gradually failing ever since.  Emily’s paternity has been a mystery her whole life, with her mother only recently being willing to speak about it as she realizes in her more lucid moments that before long she may not be able to say anything meaningful at all.

This story kind of meandered through Emily’s speculations about who her father was, having gotten some vague hints about it being someone her mother had met during launch preparations.  I frankly didn’t find that aspect of the story terribly interesting, not having known the character long enough for me to be invested in the paternity question, and the eventual revelation of her father’s identity was unsurprising to the point of being trite.  But there wasn’t a lot else to the story; the Mars mission itself was basically just a background detail that only impacted the story to the extent that it made the paternity question a little more immediate and motivated some discussion of Emily’s mother’s illness.

6. No Award

If you need a refresher on the Hugo rules, voters are allowed to include “No Award” (occasionally personified as eleven-time Hugo winner “Noah Ward”) in the rankings on their ballots.  If a work is ranked below No Award by a voter, it means that voter would rather no Hugo be given out at all than one be awarded to that work.  No Award is not only treated as a normal candidate in the instant-runoff process, but if it does not win the category outright, it is also compared in a direct head-to-head tally against the eventual runoff winner; if a majority of voters preferred No Award to the runoff winner, then no Hugo is awarded for that category.

Which brings us to…

7. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, Stix Hiscock

This year’s “Rabid Puppies” entry, a puerile and unimaginative attempt to out-Chuck-Tingle Chuck Tingle.  But “Hiscock” – I don’t know whether it’s a pseudonym for Vox Day or one of his sad little hangers-on, and honestly I don’t care – apparently can’t tell the difference between winking absurdity and simply bad writing.  This, if it isn’t clear by now, is the latter.  It starts off like a Penthouse letter, with our titular alien stripper expressing confusion at how the current situation came to pass.  Then, after either an unmarked viewpoint shift or an out-of-body experience on the part of our extraterrestrial narrator, we get multiple pages of sentence fragments describing, in lurid yet somehow boring detail, the stripper’s appearance and dancing technique.

Whereupon I returned to my Kindle’s home screen and deleted the book from my device.  I’m afraid no review of whatever Hiscock tried to pass off as a sex scene will be forthcoming here.  Reader, I tried.

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