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The 2014 Hugo Ballot has five novellas: three by men, one by a woman, and one by a man and woman team. I’m going to review them from least-liked to most-liked.
The Butcher of Khardov, by Dan Wells, is a tie-in to the Warmachine game franchise and was poorly written enough that I didn’t finish reading it. I found myself describing the reading experience as “slogging” so I just stopped. If I were a Warmachine fan, my feelings might well be different, but probably not: this is an incredibly genretastic OMGMANPAIN story with very little that sets it apart. The writing isn’t that good, either, and the fake Russian-esque stuff irritated me (they have a powerful clear liquor called vyatka which is totes different from vodka u guis no really it is). I liked one scene early in the novella where it becomes clear that the protagonist is haunted by his dead wife, and dances with “her” (actually a huge axe) in an inn as people look on, horrified. It’s an intriguing scene, and gosh do I love ghost stories. But that scene is marred by the “you can tell I’m the good guy because I loudly object to a person insulting women, all men but me are abusive rapists” trope, and also by the protagonist going all ragey and murdering every single person in the inn for ~reasons~. After that it becomes pretty clear that ghostwife is your pretty basic idealized woman-on-a-pedestal who gets fridged for MAXIMUM MANPAIN. The negatives really outweighed the positives to this story, and I spent most of it feeling a little lost. If I were familiar (at all) with the game, I might have liked it more but, again, I didn’t think the writing was that great. And I’ve read ALL the “Vampire: The Masquerade” novel tie-ins. So trust me, I know from bad game novelizations.
The Chaplain’s Legacy, by Brad Torgersen, is a military genre piece about a chaplain’s assistant who accidentally averted human genocide after encountering an insect-like alien race. As a result of this, he was hella promoted. Now that the aliens are saying “nope nm we gonna kill u” he’s been called in to avert things again. As with Torgersen’s novelette, his military protagonist is anti-military-rank-and-protocal and has a folksy nickname and hooks up with a female character who exists primarily to motivate him, and makes really strained and unfunny sex “jokes.” Although an atheist, he adheres to some pretty stereotypical Judeo-Christian beliefs about sexual mores (if u dun love a grl u shdn’t slep w/her or its WORNG). The idea that an atheist is teaching an alien race about religion, and that he’s a spiritual inspiration to religious people, is a cool idea, but the writing is just so… blah. The characters remain shallow and uninteresting, overall. There’s a lot of “it’s in the script.” And Torgersen has a pretty anti-technology beef in the story that’s a little unrealistic. Namely, the alien race has been SO dependent on technology for SO LONG that they FORGOT they can FRAMBLE the KLURTZ!!!! Thankfully, there’s a HUMAN around to remind them of REAL LIFE and ACTUAL NATURE and INSTINCT. Oh gosh if ONLY those aliens didn’t have TECHNOLOGY preventing them from realizing how awesome faith is!!! There’s a few kernals of interesting ideas in here, but eh. Better than his novelette, but that’s damning him with faint praise. If you’re looking for military sf that reads like something written in the early 1960s, this might just be your bag.
Equoid, by Charles Stross, was a real mixed bag for me. There was stuff I really liked about it (unicorns as horrific creatures; a re-imagining of Lovecraft’s work) and stuff I didn’t like or didn’t think worked. One of the issues was that this Novella is part of a larger series, so I alternated between feeling kind of lost and feeling clumsily info-dumped. It’s not the only piece that was part of a larger series, and I wonder if the Hugos shouldn’t have a category that’s specifically for pieces of larger works. Another issue is that the story tries to be wacky humorous, like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchet, kind of off beat and wry and whimsical, and it feels forced and often falls flat… especially in contrast to the very visceral horror. It’s not a good mix. But there were two things that bothered me the most. The first is the idea that racism, virulent BNP racism, is an external thing pushed upon humans by evil, malevolent outside forces. Look. People who are racist aren’t monsters. They are human beings. Insisting that the only reason humans act in racist ways is because of horrific external influences just… it’s shitty. The second thing I really didn’t enjoy, that left me very uncomfortable, is the incredible and sexualized violence inflicted upon women in the story. Yes, yes, it’s spinning off of unicorn mythos in which (female) virgins play a big role. But I am left utterly cold when a teen aged woman is literally being eaten alive from the inside out and a male character talks about how turned on it leaves him despite the terror of it, and is saved from inadvertently fucking her when he catches sight of the monstrous barbed tentacle her clitoris has turned into. Women– girls, really, ranging in age from 4 years old to teen aged– are mind controlled, tortured slowly, and killed in agonizing ways. A handful of men are eaten and one gets shot and killed, but it is not the same level of torture, and throughout the narrative we’re meant to empathize with the male protagonist and realize how utterly awful it is that the unicorns kill men. Not that they enslave, torture, and kill the women they use as bait. That’s just a thing that goes on, kind of in the background, oh isn’t it a shame. And it’s really frustrating for two reasons: 1) I’m tired of it. I’m just so, so tired of it. 2) I keep thinking about this story. For all its flaws, bits of it really sunk into me and I keep mulling it over in my head. And every time I do that, I also get the image of naked girls being consumed from the inside, alternately whispering for help with their own voices and tempting men closer with horrific shub-niggaruth voices. That’s how women exist in the novella, as sacrificial horrors. There’s also jabs at little girls who like unicorn stories because if there’s one group of people who isn’t mercilessly shat upon for liking stuff, it’s little girls, right? I think there’s enough here that I liked that I’d be willing to try more stuff by the author, but I’m really turned off by the way women (girls, actually. literally little girls.) are treated here. Stross has a novel up for voting as well, so I’ll sample that and see how it goes.
Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages, is a marvelous piece of American Magical Realism. Set in a very specific place over very specific time periods, the novella explores America’s history of racism (and to a degree, classism and sexism) and the concepts of invasive species, cryptozoology, and what it means to be human. The setting is described so well, so completely, that it feels familiar; the characters are wonderfully drawn and interesting; the story is an intriguing one. This well polished gem of a story was a very pleasant surprise. I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I started it, but it’s very engaging. I’ve read some comments that one needs to be familiar with the Tarzan mythos to understand the story. I’m noddingly acquainted with it, no more, and didn’t feel any lack… which was a nice change of pace from all the pieces on the ballot that are part of larger works. This is a pretty short review. It’s a good story, very solid and excellently crafted. I’ll be on the lookout for more pieces by the authors, whether working jointly or individually.
Six Gun Snow White, by Cat Valente, was the best of the novellas… but I should note that I’m already a fan of Valente’s work and also love retellings of fairy tales so I was doubly biased. This is an eloquent novella that mixes the structure and theme of both classic European fairy tales and non-European folk tales. The story is rooted very strongly in a specific time, and several specific places, locations sketched with such detail that they feel familiar. Valente does a marvelous job of capturing Snow White’s voice, and deals beautifully with thematic elements like racism, colonialism, sexism, and domestic abuse. These all sound like heavy topics, and they are, but Valente manages very deftly not to write OMG AN ~~ISSUES~~ novella. It’s just a story about a person who has a bunch of bullshit in her life, and handles it to the best of her ability. I saved the reading of this novella for last, as something to look forward to. However, again, if I could award first place to two works I would. This and “Wakulla Springs” were both fantastic.
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