Hugo reading 2018: Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher

Summer in Orcus is a portal fantasy sort of fairy tale by T. Kingfisher (the YA pen-name for Ursula Vernon).  Eleven year old Summer loves her mother, but wishes her mother didn’t love her *quite* so much, and would occasionally let her do things, like go on school excursions, or play outside where someone might grab her.  When Baba Yaga offer her her heart’s desire, she doesn’t quite know what it is, but she goes through the door anyway, and finds herself in a world that is full of magic, but under a terrible threat.

This is a simple, kind, sort of story, as I expect from Kingfisher / Vernon.  The delight is in the gentle humour and the characters – we have Reginald the Hoopoe, a regency fop of a bird with few brains and a kind heart – think of any character in a regency romance who goes by Freddy, and you will be on the right track.  He is part of an entire avian regency society, with his valet birds (who have a flock-mind), and the Imperial Guard Geese, who are fierce enough to give even a wolf pause.

And there is a wolf, too, named Glorious, who is afflicted by a were-house curse.  He turns into a lovely little cottage at night, and has to beware House Hunters, who will chain him with silver so that he cannot regain his wolf form.

There is a way station which is also a whey station and has magical cheese.  There is a talking weasel.  There are women in animal skins, who may or may not be shifters, and trees whose leaves turn to living animals when they fall.  There are the antelope women, who are not to be trusted.  And there are the villains – Zultan, Grub, and the mysterious Queen in Chains.

While this is an adventure story and a fairy-tale, it is, at its core, a story about figuring out who you are and what you want and how to be the person you want to be.  As mentioned above, it’s a very kind story, and the resolution is absolutely right, I think.  I’m not sure I’d call it Young Adult – it feels a little younger than that, more the sort of thing that someone who is the right age for E. Nesbit would enjoy.

If there is a flaw, it is that the pacing is a bit slow in places, and it drags a bit in the middle.  This is probably not something I’d have minded if I were at an E. Nesbit sort of age – what it lacks in pace it makes up for in avian regency balls and mores – but a little part of me was going, come on now, get on with it…

Definitely a pleasing start to the YA category, however, and I enjoyed it very much.

(It did make me cry at the end, though, but I don’t think it was actually sad, really. I’m just in a strange, sad mood today.)

Hugo reading 2018: Short Story Nominations

I’m doing this category in one giant batch, because I don’t think anyone really wants blog posts that go for two paragraphs at most…

Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience, by Rebecca Roanhorse is a near-future science-fiction story with a theme of cultural appropriation that expands to… appropriate the whole story, for want of a better description. It’s hard to talk about this story without spoilers, but the protagonist works in a virtual reality studio, providing ‘authentic’ Indian spirit guide experiences, which have more to do with what people have seen in old movies than anything relating to either the historical or contemporary experiences of American First Nations people. The story is told in the 2nd person, which is cleverer than it sounds, given the context.  It’s very gritty, and a bit single white female, with a twist at the end that I’m not entirely sure I understood.  It was fine, but didn’t grab me – it’s a bit grim for my tastes.

(Incidentally, Roanhorse was also nominated for a Campbell award, and this story was her contribution to the voter pack.)

Fandom for Robots, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, on the other hand, is a total delight.  In this story, a somewhat obsolete sentient robot who works in a museum discovers an anime series about a human and a robot on a revenge quest and becomes hooked. And then he discovers fanfic. Which is not logical, nor does it portray the robot character accurately. So he decides to see what he can do to increase the standard of accuracy in fanfic, first by commenting, and then, when he sees that honest critiques are not always well received by authors, by writing fanfic himself.   I absolutely loved this story – it’s funny and clever and affectionate and a complete joy to read.

Carnival Nine‘, by Caroline M. Yoachim is an odd sort of story. All the main characters are clockwork toys, who are wound up by the Toymaker every night, and have a certain number of turns during the day. These are determined partly by the quality of the clockwork, and partly by the Toymaker. As the toys get older, their clockwork tends to wind down a bit and they get fewer turns. It’s not very subtle, but the worldbuilding is fun.

The first part of the book introduces our protagonist as a child. She lives with her father, and has a LOT of turns by most standards (generally 35-45), so she is restless and wants adventure. She visits the carnival and meets Vale, and later on runs off to live with him and work at the carnival. It’s fun and the worldbuilding is cute, and it’s all light and fun and enjoyable. And then they decide to make a child together and things go wrong. The child only has four turns a day, which means he can do very little. And so she has to use a lot of her turns on his behalf.

If I’d never heard of spoon theory, I’d probably be fairly impressed by the analogy. As it is, I sort of sat back and watched the author ticking off all the boxes of Life With A Child With A Disability. Relationship falling apart under the stress – check. Guilt about doing anything that wasn’t related to caring – check. Worry about what would happen to child when protagonist dies – check. Resentment at having to use almost all her turns to look after child – check. Guilt about said resentment – check. Focusing on respecting child’s autonomy – check. Finding new ways to accommodate child without completely losing herself – check.

(Andrew wants to point out that this is an instance where the worldbuilding / fantasy genre is helpful in getting people who might not be interested in reading a story about disability to be exposed to these ideas, and he has a point. But I still think it could have been less heavy-handed.)

I like what the author was trying to do, but it felt a little heavy-handed, to be honest. And I felt that the tone of the story was really uneven – it started off very light and bright, but then kind of became a bit of a grim endurance exercise.

Also, I couldn’t help noticing that this was very much disability from the perspective of the carer. We never really know much about what the child thinks about the situation, which I think is a bit of a shame, really.

(Andrew’s perspective is a bit kinder than mine – he sees it more as a slice of life / average life in this world sort of story, though he agrees that the disability stuff is central to the story – but he also pointed out the centrality of not wanting to repeat the mistakes of her parents.)

To me, this story is definitely less successful than Prasad’s story. I’m not sure whether it’s better or worse than Roanhorse’s story. I’ll have to think about that one.

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde is a strange, strange story, where I’m not entirely sure I know what happened. It is told from the point of view of, I think, a carnival freak, who is showing you through some sort of exhibit. The nature of the exhibit is odd and uncanny and seems to have an unpleasant effect on the person viewing it. It mostly creates an atmosphere of gentle horror, rather than having much in the way of plot, but it does this very well. There are little, unpleasant, allusions to the sorts of medical studies done on the guide and people like her; a place where photos are taken of souls; and the atmosphere is such that when she asks ‘may I take your hand’, one is not at all sure that the question is not a literal one.

It’s very well done, if not quite my cup of tea.

Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon is good fun, as stories by Ursula Vernon always are. Allpa, a nice, unambitious, down-to-earth farmer, is bequeathed a magical sword by his grandmother, and has to deal with three spirits who want to train him to be a hero and go forth and conquer when all he really wants to do is grow nice potatoes. It’s funny and sweet, and there’s a hint of a romance to it, and I like it very much.

The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata is a science fiction tale about a future where everything seems to be doomed by lots of little things – natural disasters, antibiotics failing, Mars colonies not working out. The protagonist, Susannah, views time as a Master Torturer – killing the world and the human race inexorably, but excruciatingly slowly, and responds to this by deciding to build a tower on Mars – a monument to the human race that nobody will ever see, since nobody is there except the robots who are doing her bidding. Except that… maybe someone is there. Or maybe it’s just another AI, or a rival corporation, or something else. This is a story about whether it’s safe to hope, and whether one should hope anyway, and it’s probably one we need right now, but mostly it left me depressed (and also quite pissed off with Nate, who withholds some fairly important information from Susannah, with the specious excuse that she didn’t want news… but I feel that he must have known she would have wanted this news, he just didn’t want her distracted from the project…).

This is a hard category to judge, because there were a lot of things I liked (or at least wanted to like) in it. I’m putting Fandom for Robots first, because it is just such a delightful story. If I’m pretending to be all lit-crit-ish, I could comment that it does some interesting things with the ideas of sentience, logic and emotion, but mostly it’s coming first because I just plain like it. “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience is clearly last, because it did nothing for me even after reading it twice, and “Carnival Nine” is fifth, because I got irritated with its lack of subtlety. But I like all the others for different reasons and just don’t know how to rank them! Right now, I’m inclined to put “Sun, Moon, Dust” second, “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” third, and “The Martian Obelisk” fourth, but they could swap at any time, and may well do so before I put in my final vote.

I should probably look at this as being quite a good thing – there is a 2/3 chance that I’m going to be happy with the winner of this category, after all, and a 1/6 chance that I’ll be very happy with it!

Hugo reading 2017: Novelette category

The first novelette I read was You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay, by Alyssa Wong.  It’s a bit of a strange one to read – it’s written in the second person, which I find a little uncomfortable, and it’s sort of a Western, only with magic.  Specifically, the desert is full of dead things that are walking, and the protagonist can make the bones of the dead come together and walk, too, often without meaning to (for example, the chicken being prepared for dinner…).  It’s a bit of a coming of age story, and it’s fairly sad, and fairly dark. By the end of it, a lot has been lost, but something has been gained, too.

It’s good, but I wouldn’t want to re-read it.

I then moved onto the Puppy Special, which is that edifying work by Styx Hiscock known as Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex. This was clearly an attempt to get back at WorldCon / Chuck Tingle after last year’s Puppy nomination of Tingle backfired on them.

Honestly, I thought this was going to be another distasteful Puppy parody, and was expecting misogyny and rapiness.  In fact, while there is some fairly bad writing in there (Hiscock suffers from a terrible case of adjectivitis, and periodically switches tense mid-sentence), it’s all quite enthusiastically consensual, and clearly being written by someone with a sense of humour and an awareness that the premise is entirely ridiculous.

Let’s see if I can give you a slightly serious review of this…

The heroine is from the planet Fylashio (I feel certain that the author worked hard on that one), and is working as a stripper to earn quick money in order to fix her spaceship, which has broken down.  You need to know that she is bright green and has three breasts that discharge laser ejaculations when she has an orgasm.

The T-Rex at first appears to be judgmental, but turns out to be rather sweet, and with a Tragic Past.  The brontosaurus girl whom he loved died, and things have never been the same for him.

My personal favourite bit in the story is where our alien sympathetically asks him what happened to her, and he replies:

“A, um… a meteor got her… And my family… And friends… My neighbours… My church group… My dentist… My weed dealer…. Pretty much everyone I knew, actually…”

There is much to love in that sentence, as I think we can all agree.

I’m not entirely convinced there is enough here to raise it above No Award, and I don’t think it achieves entirely what the author is aiming for. For one thing, it can’t quite decide whether it is slut-shamey or not (it is, I think, trying not to be, but not entirely succeeding). There is some truly bad writing in places – so many adjectives, and a fair bit of repetition in words and phrases – but on the other hand I have definitely read worse-written sex scenes than the ones in this story, and I did quite enjoy the way the author was rejoicing in the sheer ridiculousness of the whole thing.

I would also note that my research indicates that Hiscock is, in fact, a woman, a legitimate author of SF erotica, and not puppy adjacent.  This might explain why it is that her jokes are actually funny.  I’m thinking I might put her last in the novelettes, assuming there isn’t a truly terrible one to come, but keep her above No Award, since she is clearly being used by the Puppies rather than being a Puppy herself.  And also because I did, in fact, find this story quite fun.  Terrible, but fun.

The third novelette I read was The Jewel and her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde.  This is a high fantasy story, in which the Jewels are royalty, and their Lapidaries are bound courtiers who can speak to jewels and use them to magically defend against enemies, or calm the distressed, or put people to sleep.  The relationship is a symbiotic one – the Lapidaries require their vows and bindings in order not to be driven mad by the gemstones, and the Jewels require the power the Lapidaries bring them.

This story starts by making it clear (via a guidebook extract) that the Jewels and their Lapidaries are all gone, and were in fact killed off some time ago, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is not a cheery story.  It starts with a palace coup, in which the King’s Lapidary goes gem-mad and betrays him, killing the entire court and then himself, and leaving only the youngest Jewel and her Lapidary alive.

Lin, the Jewel, was never intended to rule, so she was trained only to be a good wife to the prince of another kingdom.  Her Lapidary, Sima, who is three years older than her, is likewise quite weak and under-trained, which is one reason she was bound to a relatively unimportant princess.  But the two of them are all the kingdom now has, and so two teenage girls have to thwart the invading general who wants to marry Lin to her son so that he can take the throne, and take over the kingdom.

I love the relationship between Sima and Lin. Sima is at different times servant, guardian and nursemaid to Lin, and their relationship becomes more equal as the story progresses, with the balance of power tipping one way, then the other, between them.  It is, above all, a very strong friendship, with each trying to protect each other, and each holding an even higher loyalty to the kingdom itself.  I also love the way both girls slowly realise the power they have over the course of the story – not because they have had no power before, but because they have not been required to use it to its fullest degree.

The story feels a lot like a chess game, and I do not understand all of the moves.  I feel as though there is a lot of worldbuilding in the background that doesn’t always make its way quite enough into the foreground to be intelligible, at least to me.  But there is something very vivid about this world, that I think makes it quite compelling, and clearly puts it at the top of my novelette ballot so far.

At the halfway point of this category, I’m feeling unexpectedly heartened, mostly because I really was expecting the Hiscock to be like some of the nauseatingly awful puppy food from last year, and since it wasn’t, everything is just lighter and better!  I do hope that at least some of the novelettes or Campbells will strive for cheerier storylines, however.  I feel like I’m reading a lot of depressing things in a row at present…

Touring with the Alien, by Caroline Ives Gilman, is weird. The aliens have come to earth, but all they do is sit there in their pods. They have translators – children they abducted from Earth and raised, and with whom they seem to be in a symbiotic relationship – but the translators don’t say much and don’t really understand how to be human anyway.

In this story, the protagonist is asked by the government to take an alien and his translator on a tour of the country, with no particular destination. And I don’t really know how to describe the story further. The alien is really very alien, which is good, and there is a lot of discussion about what it means to be conscious and whether this is even important. There is also animal cruelty because apparently the unofficial theme of this year’s Hugo Awards is Let’s Traumatise Catherine By Doing Terrible Things To Cats.

It’s an interesting science fictiony story with some very lovely writing, and I didn’t like it.

The Art of Space Travel, by Nina Allan, was much more to my taste.  It’s only just barely science fiction, and is about the daughter of a physicist who was involved with planning the first voyage to Mars and in analysing the debris when it exploded over Heathrow.  Now there is another trip to Mars planned, and two of the astronauts are coming to visit the hotel at which the heroine works.

This was mostly a story about family, and identity, and history, though there were some interesting little moments, like when the heroine is thinking about the fact that one of the astronauts has two young children, and yet she is choosing to go on a voyage which she will not come back from and which is likely to shorten her life significantly.  The heroine is also trying to figure out the identity of her own father, who might or might not have been on the first, disastrous, Mars voyage, and her mother is dying of a mysterious illness that was probably caused by her work on all the radioactive debris from the first mission.

I’m not sure that a lot happens in this story, and the SFF connection is somewhat tenuous, but it was a relief to read after so many fairly grim stories, so it’s going to go high on my ballot.

I saved The Tomato Thief, by Ursula Vernonfor last, since I always enjoy Vernon’s work, and was pretty confident that this one would be just as much fun.  And it was.  The Tomato Thief is a cranky, subversive fairy tale about an old woman who is more than she seems to be, who lives in the desert and is tired of having her tomatoes stolen, so she lies in wait to find out who is doing the deed.  The answer to this question leads to entirely new questions, and also a quest, with all the proper elements done in Vernon’s lovely, dry, affectionate style.  Her fairy tales are always very concrete and grounded, and her characters are entirely and stubbonly themselves.  The protagonist in this story – I’m not sure we ever learn her name – reminds me a bit of Old Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, which is never a bad thing.

I definitely enjoyed Vernon’s story more than any others in this category though Wilde’s may actually be the better story.  I can’t tell if Wilde’s worldbuilding is actually more complex and interesting or if it’s just that I know Vernon’s style so well that it’s harder to see where it’s original.  This is where things get tricky, because if I were ranking purely on enjoyment, I’d actually put the Hiscock ahead of the Gilman, even though the latter is definitely better written and the former probably shouldn’t be on the battle at all.  I think my final rankings are Vernon, Wilde, Allan, Wong, Gilman, Hiscock.