Hugo novellas: a surprisingly mixed bag

Okay, the novellas!

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress
On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard
San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats by Myra Grant
The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake

These are all links to Amazon except the one for The Stars Do Not Lie, which is easily findable in free form online, so I linked to that.

Okay, the order I have listed these novellas above? That is pretty much the order in which I expected to like them. I’d never heard of the one by Lake, I haven’t read much if anything by Sanderson, but in contrast I’d heard A LOT about thee ones by Kress and de Bodard.

I was really surprised because this order is (almost) completely different from the order I wound up putting them in. I’m going to work my way up from the one I personally didn’t like at all to the one I tentatively placed first.

The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake. Really did not care for this one. I disliked the first protagonist we see, and I didn’t like the language in which the story is written. Check this out:

Morgan Abutti … stared at the map that covered the interior wall of his tiny office in the Institutes substantial brownstone in downtown Highpassage. The new electricks were still being installed by brawny, nimble-fingered men of crafty purpose who often smelled a bit of smoke and burnt cloth. Thus his view was dominated by light of a flickering quality that would have done justice to a smoldering hearth, or a wandering planet low in the pre-dawn sky. The gaslamp men were complaining of the innovations, demonstrating under Lanteran banners each morning down by the Thalassojusticity Palace in their unruly droves.

He despised the rudeness of the laboring classes. Almost to a man, they were pale-faced fools who expected something for nothing, as if simply picking up a wrench could grant a man worth.

Okay, really? The brawny, nimble-fingered men of crafty purpose? The rudeness of the laboring classes?

Lake is clearly going for an archaic phrasing which might work for me if I were in the mood, maybe, but – the rudeness of the laboring classes? I’m already being set up to dislike the protagonist, and you know what? It worked! I disliked Morgan Abutti immediately, and that pushed me away from the story, and that means I’m not willing to make allowances for the brawny, nimble fingered men of crafty purpose, either.

Plus, the innovative, cutting-edge, daring plot of this story is all about how a small-minded parochial religion suppresses the glowing truth of science. Wow, that’s new.

I just skimmed the latter half of the story because I was so turned off by the first half, so that last comment may be unfair. Maybe Lake did something subtle with the plot that I missed. Nevertheless, I definitely didn’t hesitate to put this novella dead last.

Then it gets harder. But after dithering a bit, I have to say, I put Nancy Kress’ novella fourth out of the five novellas. I did not dislike it, exactly. It was immediately engaging:

It wasn’t dark, it wasn’t light. It wasn’t anything except cold. I’m dead, Pete thought, but of course he wasn’t. Every time he thought that, all the way back to his first time when McAllister had warned him: “The transition may seem to last forever.”

Forever was 20 seconds on Pete’s wrister.

And then the story rolls ahead pretty briskly. It’s true that I didn’t like Pete much as a protagonist — he was realistic, but not the least bit likable — and in fact I also didn’t much care for our contemporary protagonist, Julie, though there it’s harder to put my finger on why. She seemed so cold and almost hostile toward the people in her life that should have mattered to her; that was probably a big part of why I didn’t like her. Beyond that, I read McAllister herself as annoyingly sanctimonious.

You can see where they’re all coming from, given their situations, but I still didn’t much like any of them. But this story is well put together and I liked it as a whole. Except. Sorry, but I’ve always thought that Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis” was the stupidest piece of sophomoric philosophy that has ever been passed off as a real scientific hypothesis, and so a story founded on it is going to have a huge uphill battle to appeal to me. Huge.

Fourth of five. Sorry.

After that I had real hopes that I would just love On a Red Station, Drifting. Great title! Everybody loves the story! Plus, the setting draws heavily from Vietnamese influences, which is so cool. Also very foreign, not just the physical details but all these intrinsic attitudes. I mean all that inferior-superior stuff, and the reverence toward one’s ancestors, and most particularly the way that children are supposed to be more devastated by the death of a parent than the other way around (seriously?) – the culture drawn in the story is fascinating.

But I didn’t much like Linh and I seriously disliked Quyen.

Linh was unpleasantly self-absorbed, and halfway through the story she did something truly gratuitously cruel to a person whom she had no reason to attack, merely to take Quyen down a notch.

That was bad enough, but Quyen was worse. Though Quyen has many good qualities, her primary motivation when dealing with Linh is envy. Envy is a terribly unappealing character trait, because it’s not only jealousy of someone else’s success and not only wishing to have success yourself, it’s a desire to tear the other person down, make them smaller even if there’s no benefit to you from their fall, just because it makes you feel better to make them feel terrible.

Seriously, even if you thought it out for a fortnight, you could hardly come up with an uglier motivation.

I love stories that turn on complicated relationships between characters. But I didn’t come close to loving this one.

After that, I was really glad to read Myra Grant’s California Brownshirts story. I think it has a decent chance of winning, since it deliberately plays to the fans. Of course everyone does die – we know from the start that this is going to happen, since it’s a zombie apocalypse story, plus we are told explicitly up front that there is only one survivor.

A story like this is a guaranteed action-packed tearjerker. Even the dog dies! But Grant is at her best with this kind of story set in this world, far better (for me) than she is with her McGuire paranormals. This story really worked for me. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough – even though I knew everyone (and the dog!) was going to die. Plus, though it’s part of her FEED universe, it definitely stands alone. I am still wavering over whether to put it first in my lineup, or second.

The other standout for me was The Emperor’s Soul. The plot was clever, the magic even more clever (I loved the soul-stamp idea SO MUCH), the writing excellent, the protagonist and the most important secondary character (Gaotona) not only well-drawn but also sympathetic and admirable.

The shifting relationship between Shai and Gaotona really appealed to me – though you see from the beginning how it’s going to work out. I like the honorable-enemy set up, and I think they might have been more alike – in their drive for perfection – than either really recognized. You can see that Shai’s sense of artistic perfection is not going to let her escape until she’s seen her project succeed, no matter how much this puts her at risk; you can see that Gaotona’s sense of perfect justice and right action is not going to let him stand by while his own people murder Shai, no matter that he has to compromise his other principles to help her.

So I didn’t find this story broadly unpredictable, but I did find it thoroughly satisfying. You can say the same about the Grant story, though it was completely different. At the moment, I’m leaning toward putting the Sanderson novella first, and Grant’s second – I don’t think I’ll change my mind, but hey, it could happen.

If you’ve read any of these, what do you think? And anybody got a suggestion for a great book by Sanderson to add to my TBR shelves? I know he’s pretty well-known, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else by him.

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9 thoughts on “Hugo novellas: a surprisingly mixed bag”

  1. Fake archaic language drives me UP A FLIPPING WALL, because no one has talked that way ever. All it sows is a misconception of 19th century English (both British and American) which to me says that the author is trying to be clever and actually has no idea what they’re talking about. Which is to say that I would not like the Lake story any more than you did.

    Also, hi! I haven’t commented here recently.

  2. You’ve got a lot of choices with Sanderson!

    ELANTRIS – his debut novel, this is actually the world that THE EMPEROR’S SOUL is set in, but on the other side of the continent. It’s an interesting novel, but it’s been awhile for me–it was the first thing I read by him. He does plan a sequel “eventually”

    MISTBORN series – the first book in this series is basically a fantasy Ocean’s 11. It develops a lot past that. There’s the original trilogy and he plans additional trilogies in the same setting (set with new characters in later times). These are fun and really showcase his love for magic systems (there’s a few!)

    WARBREAKER – this was a great book and I really liked it. Really fun setup and I loved the characters.

    THE WAY OF KINGS – this is the first of his epic fantasy series (his own Wheel of Time, so to speak). I really liked it, but we’re waiting for book 2 at the end of this year or beginning of next. You may want one of the standalones or finished series!

    THE RITHMATIST – a YA offering that just came out featuring chalk-based magic in a very alternate United States around 1900-1910. First of a series.

    ALCATRAZ – a MG series by him that I know nothing about and apparently is unliked most of his other works?

    I also really enjoyed LEGION (a SF novella that is sort of a pilot for a TV show, featuring a man whose various hallucinations are experts in various fields so he’s like a jack of all trades) and FIRSTBORN, another SF novella that was pretty interesting–this one is free on

    He’s got another book coming out this year, STEELHEART, which is apparently set in a world where only supervillains exist, not superheroes and mundane folks try to take down these villains? Not sure. I’ll pick it up.

    Another thing you might see when you look around for options is that he has an overarching metauniverse for a lot of his fantasy called the Cosmere. ELANTRIS, WARBREAKER, MISTBORN, and WAY OF KINGS are all connected. It doesn’t really impact the story, but you might notice a very minor character showing up in most of these books. I guess it adds something fun, like Stephen King and everything connecting to the Dark Tower universe.

  3. For Sanderson, I’ve read ELANTRIS and, while I wasn’t overwhelmed, it was readable; husband liked it somewhat better. First book he had published. My husband has gone on to read the MISTBORN trilogy, and WAY OF KINGS. WoK, I’m afraid, he says had far more words than plot. But he liked the trilogy. I might try the RITHMATIST simply because it has to be shorter, hence have more plot and character building etc., for the words used. I want to find more writers I enjoy reading.

    THE EMPEROR”S SOUL was excellent.

    Jay Lake and Nancy Kress I haven’t been able to connect with. Their books often sound interesting but I haven’t finished them.

  4. I’m really interested to try that Browncoats story — I read another zombie novel dealing with a Star Trek convention and it could be interesting to see how similar ideas are explored by different people.

    I recently finished Sanderson’s first Mistborn book. It was pretty good — I loved the magic system, though much if the rest if the fantasy felt pretty standard. He used that to his advantage, sometimes, to hide unexpected or clever twists.

  5. Thanks for the Sanderson suggestions! Matthew, what was the Star Trek novel with the zombies? Did you like it? Because it sounds like fun.

    And Hi, Maureen — I have to admit, I’m not sure I’d spot falsity if the author was consistent, but I loath lack of consistency.

  6. I haven’t read all the novellas yet, but I thought I’d comment on the ones I’ve read.

    As far as I can tell, a lot of people love “After the Fall,” and I can sort of see why. Kress is a tremendously talented writer, and I usually like her work myself. But honestly, the minute I realized she was serious about the Gaia thing, the story moved behind “No Award.” _That_ was the explanation? Really??? As ridiculous as a bunch of Earth First! terrorist aliens would have been, the Gaia idea was even worse.

    Leaving that aside, I also agree with you about the protagonists. Pete was very believable, but it was definitely unpleasant spending a lot of time in his head. I also found Julie fairly unlikable, and I also thought some of her motives were pretty opaque. If she was worried that reporting the shady professor’s stolen data would get her sent to the FBI’s secret gulag, why did she give him her results in the first place? But that’s a minor quibble; the real issue I have with the story is the ending.

    I liked “Red Station” a lot better than you did, probably because I had more sympathy for the protagonists, especially Quyen. It certainly helped that they both realized they’d been wrong in the end and were sorry for how they’d behaved. I also thought de Bodard did a great job of sympathetically portraying a culture with a lot of unpleasant features (at least, I found them unpleasant). She didn’t ignore the obvious bad points, but she showed the valuable aspects of the culture as well.

    I’m in the middle of the Sanderson story, and I like it a lot so far. I agree with everyone above who recommended his novels, especially the Mistborn trilogy. It has a very interesting magic system, likable protagonists, and some interesting plot twists.

  7. Hi, it was called “Night of the Living Trekkies” and it’s by Kevin David Anderson. It’s been a good while since I read it, but I remember I enjoyed it even though there was a large cheese factor. What I can’t recall at all is if I enjoyed it because it was well written and funny on its own or if it was because I read it after my friends got me to volunteer at a science fiction convention…

  8. I don’t know, Linda, I think the reason Red Station did not work better for me might actually have been its length. Because if Quyen and Lihn had both had their epiphanies faster, I might have liked them both better. As it was, they stayed committed to their bad decisions for quite a long time and it wore out my patience.

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