Wed
Jul 16 2014 1:00pm

Voting the Categories: A Guide to the 2014 Hugo Novella Finalists

Hugo Awards 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.

 

“Equoid”
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.

 

“Wakulla Springs”
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.

17 comments
Louise Hughes
1. Louise H
Nice summaries, which I mostly agree with (and seem to be voting along with).

I interpreted the ending of Six Gun, Snow White as saying there was inevitably no place for the character in the world she was born into, however hard she searched, and that she had to wait for the world to catch up with her before she could find her place in it. It's not a poistive ending but it worked for me better than the somewhat vaguer and non-fantastical Wakula Springs (I get this has a feel of the fantastic and I loved reading it the most but don't feel I can vote it first place for that reason).
Deana Whitney
2. Braid_Tug
And the ending of Six-Gun ruined the story for me. Two days later I forgot it, and had to re-read the ending. It just did not linger.

I liked and connected with “The Chaplain’s Legacy”, even if some of it was heavy handed.
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
Here are my takes on the Novella category and in the order I ranked them:
“Equoid”, Charles Stross I both enjoyed Equoid a lot and was squicked out a lot at the same time in a lovely fashion that I appreciated immensely. The use of the Lovecraft letters and the procurement forms (recall Shub-Niggurath as a reason for those forms reappearing) played off of both each other and the story itself and served to ramp up the tension in a way that was really well done (I thought). The “Unicorn” and some of the Lovecraft letters were horrifying but they also work rather well with the mythos of Lovecraft himself. As “Case Nightmare Green” draws closer, it would seem that Bob’s world is going to get rather more horrifying.

Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne M. Valente : I love Valente’s prose and I liked the western riff on Snow White. Just, somewhat less than Equoid.

“Wakulla Springs”, Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages : I liked the story and the prose of Wakulla Springs quite a bit, but would have preferred the speculative part was more than tacked on to the end. It does have a feel of the sense of wonder about it throughout but I would have liked a few more examples in the text.

The Butcher of Khardov, Dan Wells : This was a decent enough story and I might have appreciated it more if I were into the Warhammer universe. Like Carl, I found it a nice addition.

“The Chaplain’s Legacy”, Brad Torgersen : This was better written than Torgersen’s novelette entry but didn’t seem to quite work for me. Moving on, as Carl says, seems best.

I enjoyed the first three quite a lot. Equoid finished in first for me quite easily, with the next two being close together followed a bit by Butcher and The Chaplain's Legacy being a fair ways back.
Stefan Raets
4. Stefan
The ending of Six-Gun Snow White worked for me, especially in the broader context of Valente's work. She often brings fairy tales and mythology into the present day (or into the future), showing how they evolve and how they continue to structure our lives. (I rambled on about this at some length in my review of her latest short story collection.) I believe the problem most people have with the ending is that it's so different from the rest of the novella: it's a very abrupt, jarring change in tone. Still, it definitely works for me. Six-Gun Snow White was my favorite piece of fantasy literature of 2013, and one of my favorites of all-time. I've read it so many times by now that I can recite chunks of it by heart. (I reviewed it elsewhere on this site.)

So yeah - it would get my vote, if I were voting in the Hugos this year!
Pamela Adams
5. Pam Adams
I still need to read the Valente. My top two to date are Equoid and Wakulla Springs. While I agree with the lack of absolute SF elements outside of the monkey (yes, he did talk!) and the ending, I still felt that the tone and worldview were SFnal. Where would something like this be published if not in SF? (I have a similar argunent for Rachel Swirsky's story)
Michael Grosberg
6. Michael_GR
Equoid completely ruined unicorns for me. Never again will I see, think or hear of a unicorn without that horrific mental image of the unicorn as a mating of a REDACTED and a REDACTED Stross concocted. For that conceit alone he deserves a Hugo - it's ingenious entertainment.
Six Gun Snow white is as different from Equoid as it gets. Dark, wild, beautifuly written, but so full of horrible suffering for the protagonist. It was a tough story to read but also a very rewarding one. As literature, it is obviously the superior piece, but as someone who admires the craft that goes into well-made comedy and entertainment I think I'll go with Equoid. Sorry Cat! She still gets number two on the ballot.
I have no idea what Wakulla Spring is doing on the ballot. I'm not a genre purist but there must be *some* limits.
I couldn't finish The Chaplain's Legacy. It felt antiquated - like it was written in the early 80's, just before the Cyberpunks broke into the mainstream. I read about half. I might also have been put off by the religious overtones, which I can accept from a good writer such as Wolfe, but Torgersen isn't one.
I couldn't even get myself to read The Butcher of Khardov. Can't get over the tie-in thing, sorry.
Steven Halter
7. stevenhalter
Michael_GR@6:The Chaplains's Legacy felt older than that to me --more like something from the 50's. Zelazny did "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" in 1963 for example, so earlier than that.
RDNinja
8. RDNinja
The Butcher of Khardov is getting my top spot. It was engaging and well-written, and despite being tie-in fiction for an IP I know nothing about, I never felt lost.

Equoid is next for me. It was generally good, but I thought the narrative voice was trying too hard to be clever, and th expense of clarity. That may be due to the same-language barrier, though.

The Chaplain's Legacy was OK, but felt rather cliche in its plot. It's 3rd for me.

Six-Gun Snow White was frustrating. It could have taken my top spot, until I reached the ending. The whole thing was just an incoherent mess that offered no closure. It goes below No Award for me, but still on the ballot.

Wakulla Springs? Sorry, not SF. I don't understand the apologists who seem to want to twist the definition to let just anything through. I suspect it's either people who want to claim any good literature that's willing to be seen under our tent, or a bunch of Brits and city-slickers who think any accurate depiction of rural America is exotic and fantastical (something to which I attribute much of the hype surrounding American Gods, despite the fact that the protagonist spends a large fraction of that book literally just waiting for the plot to happen to him).

On top of that, Wakulla Springs has no actual plot. Sure, lots of things happen, but there is no central conflict and the protagonists are very passive. This one gets no vote at all from me.
Ian Gazzotti
9. Atrus
My first vote went to Six-Gun Snow Shite. It took a while to digest the ending, but it makes sense. No traditional ending fit her version of the story.

I liked Wakulla Springs a lot, but it's an historical piece with just a sprinkle of magical realism. I think it made the ballot on the strenght of the writing alone rather than for actually being FSF.

The Chaplain's Legacy is... there. It's not bad, but it could've been written decades ago.

The Butcher of Khardov read like the D&D character bio of a 12-year old boy: self-important, violent, full of tired tropes, and women who only exist for fridging. No vote from me.
RDNinja
10. Alan Peterson
Re: Wakulla Springs

Come on, people!

One nomination for an SF award, maybe a fluke.

But all *three* major awards?

This was best story of its length published in our field last year, and if you enjoyed it and appreciated its craft, then not voting for it because it fails the "genre police" test is shameful.

- Mike
RDNinja
11. RDNinja
What is the point of having separate awards for SF if just anything can qualify, regardless of whether it's actually SF or not?
Ralph Feldhake
12. feldhake
"Equioid" is my no-brainer #1 vote--it's the only one I actually enjoyed start-to-finish, and I'm pleased that I now have several Laundry novels on my to-read list that I didn't previously know about.

#2 for me is "The Chaplain's Legacy," for I found it touching despite the language being pretty unpolished.

#3 is Six-Gun Snow White. This was an awesome story ruined by completely going off the rails at the end--she had a perfect opportunity to subvert the fairy tale by having Snow tell Mrs. H to f*@& off and living happily ever after with her seven outlaws, and instead she blows it with some present-day nonsense that makes zero sense and a deer boy storyline that goes absolutely nowhere. This is the one I expect will win, unless Charlie Stross's home contingent shows up.

#4 is "Wakulla Springs," not because it's not spec. fiction (although it's not), but because it's a literary-masturbation-style story that's all atmosphere and no plot. Am I impossibly old-fashioned to think that a story should, you know, tell a story?

Lastly, "The Butcher of Khardov" goes below no award for me as I couldn't get into it at all and didn't finish.
RDNinja
13. mutantalbinocrocodile
I too was surprised by how much I genuinely liked "Butcher of Khardov" (the cover picture had me dreading reading it); certainly not top-spot worthy, but above No Award. It's wasn't exactly "good", and yes, the main female character is completely flat (plus there were some lame plagiarized Trollocs), but the central character was so much better than I thought he would be that I ended up having some respect for it. Plus it was nice to have something from the Correia/Day slate that I could honestly put above No Award--makes me feel like I gave it a fair hearing.

I do think "The Chaplain's Legacy" belongs down in the Spot of Shame, however. There's intertextuality and then there's just boring stealing, and this story's on the wrong side of that line IMHO--to me it read like Enderverse-meets-Daleks with a little bit of Sazed from Mistborn thrown in as the Chaplain's Assistant.

I am deeply torn about "Equoid" and "Wakulla Springs". There is some great writing in "Equoid", particularly the funnier bits, and mostly the shifts from humor to horror work very well, but some of the sexualized horror (and THAT ONE LOVECRAFTIAN SCENE in particular) did cross my personal line into "I kind of wish I never read that." But "Wakulla Springs" is a real problem piece in this category. That's not because I'm being the genre police; it's because the act of reading a barely-there magic realist story against a backdrop of more conventional SF/F may have ruined its literary impact for me. I kept waiting for something supernatural to happen--not a good condition of reading for magic realism, and it diluted the power of those out-of-left-field moments.

I'm strongly for "Six-Gun Snow White" for the top spot, rushed ending aside, for the rich, layered story and great prose, but I am still warring about who should be 2 and who 3.
Stephen Dunscombe
14. cythraul
Am I the only one who's taken aback that "Wakulla Springs" makes Johnny Weissmuller - a real person, who still has living family - into a statutory rapist?

Is there precedent for it in his real-world conduct? I did some googling, and couldn't find any.
Deana Whitney
15. Braid_Tug
@14: ?!? I didn't get that impression at all. Guess I should re-read that section.
Stephen Dunscombe
16. cythraul
@15

He's a 40-year-old who impregnates a 15-year-old. IANAL, but...
RDNinja
17. Beth Z
I would find it very hard not to vote for a work that so well conflates Lovecraft and Cold Comfort Farm.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment