The Hugo ballot is officially open, and the time has come to perform the laborious task of deciding among excellence. And, while much of the attention of the voting community tends to concentrate on the Best Novel finalists, we at Tor.com all felt that this year’s short fiction field was equally deserving of attention. I’ve decided to help guide readers through the short story, novelette, and novella finalists in preparation for voting. You can find the short story discussion here.
This week I discuss the novella category. The five finalists display an impressive range of styles and genres, and since two of the entries were also nominated for both the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award, the competition is fierce.
Please keep in mind that I am an acquiring editor at Tor.com. While I didn’t acquire any of Tor.com’s Hugo finalists this year, I do possess an inherent bias. I will try to mark that bias as best I can, but you should take my suggestions for what they are.
The Butcher of Khardov
Written by Dan Wells
Published by Privateer Press
I’m not at all upset that I read The Butcher of Khardov. It has well-written action sequences, a rather interesting main character, and makes satisfying use of the ordering of its scenes. Dan Wells creates a complete picture of the life and character of Orsus Zoktavir, a towering giant of a man whose brain is as dangerous as his body. Orsus is a warcaster, capable of controlling warjacks with his mind and working powerful magic, as well as a murderer and arrested traitor against the Queen of Khador. We see his history of violence, which stretches from the raid that took his parents’ life when he was ten to the massacre that got him arrested. We also see him struggle to avoid violence at the request of his wife, Lola, who we know throughout the book is dead. Lola is, I’m afraid, the least impressive element of the story. She is flat and seems to exist only to die and thereby motivate Orsus.
I know how this sounds, but The Butcher of Khardov far exceeded my expectations. Dan Wells’ novella is, quite-literally, Warmachine® tie-in fiction. My third google result for “The Butcher of Khardov” is a wargaming miniature. There’s a lot of value in tie-in fiction. I personally derived endless entertainment from R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden and Ed Greenwood’s Elminster throughout my childhood. But I don’t think anyone really expected to see tie-in fiction end up on the Hugo list, and I’d be more than a little surprised to see it win.
“The Chaplain’s Legacy”
Written by Brad Torgersen
Published by Analog
Brad Torgersen provided a reasonably interesting premise for “The Chaplain’s Legacy.” His main character brokered a peace treaty with the alien mantes years ago by offering to help them seek religious enlightenment. Mantis culture has no religion whatsoever, and they are fascinated to study the human structures of faith. But after years of failure to feel any kind of religious sentiment, peace breaks down, and our chaplain, an army captain, the mantis Professor who has befriended the chaplain, and the mantis Queen Mother are caught in the crossfire.
Sadly, Torgersen fails to deliver on the promise of the story. The dialogue is flat and contrived, the characters shallow, and the exposition heavy. None of the characters made me want to care about them, nor did the conflict feel necessary. Let’s move on.
Written by Charles Stross
Published by Tor.com
Tor.com has two novellas on this list, and I must admit that this is my less-favorite one. I’m given to understand that Stross wrote “Equoid” on a bit of a dare. He was challenged to give unicorns the Laundry Files treatment, and he definitely delivered. I doubt a more horrific unicorn could be envisioned. They are not only invasive parasites, not only a stage in the life cycle of Shub-Niggurath, they also self-propagate through sexual violence. It’s extremely, as the kids these days say, squicky.
The Laundry Files seem like pretty light-hearted stuff, traditionally. They’re mostly-humorous takes on a bureaucracy dedicated to tracking down Lovecraftian monstrosities. This turns out to mesh kind of badly with the particular kind of squick on offer, which is further obscured by being written in traditionally purple Lovecraftian prose. I found “Equoid” to be a really fun story with a bunch of totally unfun bits sprinkled throughout.
Six-Gun Snow White
Written by Catherynne M. Valente
Published by Subterranean Press
Cat Valente delivers another beautiful story. Six-Gun Snow White reenvisions the classic fairy tale by setting it in the American Wild West, transforming Snow White into the daughter of a white mining tycoon and the American Indian woman he essentially stole from her people. Snow White grapples with her race, her history, and her femininity. Cat Valente shows off her immense facility for creating and maintaining voices, frames every chapter in conversation with a myth about Coyote, and in general wows her audience. No one should be surprised to see Six-Gun Snow White gracing the shortlists for all three of the major fantasy awards.
I loved Six-Gun Snow White, but I think it has an ending problem. Valente wrote herself into a bit of a corner. I don’t think she was satisfied with the traditional ending of the Snow White folk tale, and I can’t blame her at all for that. Snow White’s problems aren’t the kind to be solved by some man laying kisses on her sleeping, unconsenting mouth. So when Snow White falls into her comalike sleep, there’s no immediately obvious exit for her. Valente tries out a few solutions, all of which she has fail, and in the end goes for a long time-skip to the present day. I didn’t buy the resulting conclusion, and wish I could have. I would love to have an unconditionally positive opinion of the story.
Written by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages
Published by Tor.com
Tor.com’s second novella finalist, our only triple-nominee, and my personal pick for the ballot.
The success of “Wakulla Springs” hinges on its ability to imbue an (almost?) purely mundane setting with enough wonder, strangeness, and uncertainty to make it feel like a fantasy or a sci-fi horror. Just as Hollywood turned Wakulla Springs into Africa for their Tarzan movies or made the deep clear water into the Black Lagoon, Duncan and Klages make the Florida panhandle feel like another world, a primeval forest from another time or place. This defamiliarization goes both ways, bringing back our perhaps-forgotten wonder at the magic of movies. But unlike many stories that rely on defamiliarization, “Wakulla Springs” stays grounded. Its characters may not always believe in the reality of the woods and waters around them, or in their own mental sanctity and reliability, but we always believe in them.
The main stumbling block for “Wakulla Springs” is its total lack of a science-fictional or fantastical element. The characters experience ambient mystery and magic, and wonder if there’s something deeper, less explicable out there in the wilderness, there’s basically nothing supernatural going on here. At one point a monkey talks, but I’m 80% sure that’s just mental fatigue on the part of one of the characters. I don’t think this in anyway invalidates “Wakulla Springs” as a candidate for the Hugo, but I anticipate that it will rub some voters the wrong way.
For me, this is an easier category to vote in than short stories. “Wakulla Springs” and Six-Gun Snow White are far out in front of the rest of the pack. The Laundry Files are a very popular series, and Charles Stross is on his home turf, so I could see him pulling out a surprise upset. I’ll be back next week for the final installment of my short fiction coverage. Happy voting!
Carl Engle-Laird is an editorial assistant at Tor.com, where he acquires and edits fiction both for the Tor.com Originals program and for Tor.com: The Imprint. You can follow him on Twitter here. If you ask nicely he might even tell you how to find his Brooklyn Nine-Nine podcast.