Monday, May 22, 2017

Reading the Hugos: Novella

Welcome to the first entry in Reading the Hugos: 2017 Edition. If you remember my nomination ballot, you'll note that only one of the novellas on my ballot made the final ballot. That's okay. It would be somewhat boring if everyone agreed with me. Obviously, I thought Every Heart a Doorway was fantastic, but if I had the power to add one more story as a Finalist, I would add Matt Wallace's fantastic Lustlocked. If I could add two, I would also add Emily Foster's The Drowning Eyes (my review). Not enough people have been talking about that one. But, since people tend to not fully agree with my taste in fiction, let's take a look at what is actually on the ballot.

This would also be a good time to note that this category is very heavy with Publishing, taking four out of the six slots. That's a lot for one publisher, but there are a couple of things working in's favor. They publish a LOT of novellas each year, mostly of high quality, and they are both affordable and widely available. Most of the novellas I read from 2016 were from Publishing. But, perhaps next year there will be a wider variety of publishers represented.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle ( publishing)
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson ( publishing)
Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire ( publishing)
Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency)
A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson ( publishing)
This Census-Taker, by China Miéville (Del Rey / Picador)

This Census-Taker:  If I went with my initial inclination, This Census-Taker would have been listed below No Award. I first attempted to read this shortly after it was published and only managed perhaps twenty or thirty pages before I set it aside, knowing that it was not for me. It was too nebulous, too vague for me to actually enjoy. I need a bit more of a clear story and understanding of what the heck is actually going on. This Census-Taker gave me none of that. After making the final Hugo ballot I gave it another shot and, this time, I was able to make it through the novella and get more of a sense as to the story Mieville was telling. Unfortunately, it's still not for me. It'll sit above No Award, but not by a lot.

The Ballad of Black Tom: This is a dark, dark story filled with increasing horror. This is heavily inspired by Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook", which I would not have known if it wasn't talked about so often when discussing LaValle's novella. I don't know how familiarity with the original story impacts the reading of The Ballad of Black Tom, but I can tell you how that the story works independent of Lovecraft. To quote Chloe's review: LaValle’s writing is compelling, compulsively readable [...], and beautifully constructed. One of the most brilliant qualities of the writing here is the evocation of place, so smoothly and beautifully done throughout the book"

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe: The second of two novellas on the ballot inspired by and riffing off H.P. Lovecraft. This one is, I believe, inspired by "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath". Given that I've never knowingly read anything written by Lovecraft, whatever Kij Johnson did to put her own spin on the story is beyond me. Ultimately, it doesn't matter because The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe stands so very well on its own. This is just flat out a good story. It's an older woman, a professor at a strange university, going on a quest to find a student who ran away with a dreamer from another world (our world?) and put the school at risk.

A Taste of Honey: I wasn't one of the advocates for Kai Ashante Wilson's previous novella Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, though I appreciated the craft of the telling. A Taste of Honey was something different, a tighter and more personal story of love, loss, and choices made. Put that way, it doesn't sound remarkable, but the proof (as always) is in the telling. A Taste of Honey is wrenching and beautiful.

Penric and the Shaman:  Lois McMaster Bujold needs no introduction or explanation of just how fantastic a writer she is, but so often when I read one of her stories I am reminded anew just how good she really is. The storytelling is so smooth and compelling that I wanted another hundred pages from Penric and the Shaman (the second volume in the Penric and Desdemona series). Set four years after the previous novella, Penric has grown into a more confident and competent character and is more at ease with having a demon in his mind. In a different year, this might be my number one pick.

Every Heart a Doorway: Receiving a very rare 10/10 here on Nerds of a Feather (my review), Every Heart a Doorway remains a clear standout novella. To quote myself: "Every Heart a Doorway is a beautiful and heart wrenching story of kids who don't belong anywhere except perhaps the one place they can't get back to. By no means have I read everything Seanan McGuire has written, but this has to be her best work. It is damn near perfect in all of the ways that matter to me and to my heart."

My Vote:
1. Every Heart a Doorway
2. Penric and the Shaman
3. A Taste of Honey
4. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
5. The Ballad of Black Tom
6. This Census-Taker

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Writer / Editor of the mostly defunct Adventures in Reading. Minnesotan.