Hugo Nominees: Novelettes

Now that I’ve started posting about the nominees, I don’t think I can stop until I’ve worked my way through all the fiction categories. So … here we go, let’s take a look at the nominees for the Novelette category. Again, I haven’t read any of these. Also, once again, even though some of these excerpts are just a little longer, I’m going to present them one right after the other, reserving comments to the end.

A) Colors of the Immortal Palette by Caroline M. Yoachim

Lead White

I will always remember the view of Paris from his window. Snow, pure and untouched, softens the outline of the buildings and covers the grime of the streets. White, the color of beginnings. His canvas is primed and ready to be painted, and stark winter sunlight glows bright on his undead skin.

The studio is cramped, drafty despite the heat radiating from the stove. One corner is clean and lavishly decorated, the rest a cluttered chaos of painting supplies and personal effects. He studies me intently as I take in the room, evaluating me much as he did at the Café Guerbois when I’d first caught his eye.

I wait for him to ask how I came to be in Paris. Artists are so very predictable that way—no trouble at all accepting this pale immortal creature as one of their own, but a woman of my mixed ancestry? Utterly implausible.

“You should hear the stories they tell of you at the café,” he says. “If Émile is to be believed, you arrived here as an ukiyo-e courtesan, nothing more than paper wrapped around a porcelain bowl. A painter— he will not say which of us it was, of course—bought the bowl and the print along with it.”

“And the painter pulled me from the print with the sheer force of his imagination, I’m sure,” I reply, laughing.

***

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B) L’Espirit de L’Escalier by Cat Valente

Orpheus puts a plate of eggs down in front of her.

The eggs are perfect; after everything, he finally got it just right. Oozing lightly salted yolks the color of marigolds, whites spreading into golden-brown lace. The plate is perfect: his mother’s pattern, a geometric Mediterranean blue key design on bone-white porcelain. The coffee is perfect, the juice is perfect, the toast is perfect, the album he put on the record player to provide a pleasant breakfast soundtrack is perfect. Café au lait with a shower of nutmeg. Tangerine with a dash of bitters. Nearly burnt but not quite.

Strangeways, Here We Come.

Eurydice always loved The Smiths. Melancholy things made her smile. Balloons and cartoons and songs in any of the major keys put her out of sorts. When they first met, she slept exclusively in a disintegrating black shirt from the 1984 European tour. He thought that was so fucking cool. Back when he had the capacity to think anything was cool.

She’s wearing it now. Nothing else. Dark fluid pools in patches on the undersides of her thighs, draining slowly down to her heels. Her long black hair hangs down limp over Morrissey’s perpetually pained face. The top of her smooth grey breast shows through a tear so artfully placed you’d think they ripped it to specs in the factory. Sunlight from the kitchen windows creeps in and sits guiltily at her feet like a neglected cat.

Orpheus never once managed a breakfast this good when she was alive. If he’s honest with himself, it wouldn’t even have occurred to him to try.

***

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C) Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. by Fran Wilde

The Contract

A week before the Season began, as Mrs. Vanessa Saunders held brunch court at the Empire Hotel, a photo appeared on her phone: a large oak door beneath a pale green sign with silver lettering. Impossible, she thought, flipping the infernal device over before Mrs. Lillian Talbott and Mrs. Caroline Rankenfall, her Fête Noire Charity Ball co-chairs, could glimpse it.

But then their screens lit up too.

“The Atelier!” Lilian murmured. “Impossible!” She shifted in her seat, aware the others were watching her. “I just need to run to the ladies’ room.” Her chair screeched backwards, until Vanessa locked the other woman in her gaze, and held her there.

“Unseelie Brothers,” Caroline said, oblivious to the battle of wills. “My mother used to talk about their gowns. Didn’t you have one, Vanessa? I remember the Post called it—”

Vanessa Saunders’ eyelid twitched. “The Gown of Flowers. Wouldn’t part with it for the world.” She signaled the waiter. “Too bad they’re too late for the Season. Only a fool would try to cancel a Dior or Balenciaga order now, especially on a Saturday. My Merielle has had dresses for months.”

“Oh absolutely, us too,” Lilian Talbott said, trying to rise with both grace and speed.

Around them, other phones lit up with the same excitement. The designer who promised the most beautiful gowns, usually delivered them, then disappeared, was back, and seeking a select few who would gain entrance, but only if they could find the shop. The Empire’s rooftop restaurant swelled with the news that Unseelie Brothers Ltd. had been spotted near Lexington and 78th and then vanished. Women began to gather their purses.

D) That Story Isn’t the Story by John Wiswell

Everything Anton owns goes in one black trash bag. His ratty yellow sketchpad, which he bought to draw the other familiars when he moved here, and only ever used three pages of. The few shirts and khakis that he paid for with his own money, before Mr. Bird took control of his finances. A broken pocket watch he’d found dangling from the side of the Queensboro Bridge, on the first day he really considered ending himself, and had instead rescued the watch with the intent of one day learning how to fix it.

Anton never did fix that watch. But it is leaving with him.

He heads for the stairs that will lead him out of the townhouse. It’ll be the first time he’s gone outside in so long it feels like he’s never been outside. Time outside the gothic damask flock wallpaper and blacked out windows still doesn’t seem real.

“Where are you going?”

The voice comes from the rear room, the one next to Mr. Bird’s, where the twins sleep. Liquor and jasmine incense waft forth as one of the teenagers emerges. Both Pavla and Yoana look and sound so similar, with their gossamer hair and legs as thin as their arms.

This one is Pavla, recognizable because she always wears red arm warmers, because her elbows are where Mr. Bird bites her.

He bites Anton in more intimate places.

“Aren’t you supposed to be getting his Manets out of storage?” As Pavla asks, she touches the inside of her arm through the arm warmer, as though to protect it from a thought. “He’s going to flip his shit if you don’t have them hanging when he gets back.”

Anton lies, “I’m on my way.”

E) O2 Arena by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

“Where there is no inner freedom, there is no life.” —Radhanath Swami

My sweat ran in rivulets, caught between my skin and the Lycra bodysuit. It slid down my spine and chest, as I regarded my enemy with detached exhaustion. Though my vision was hazy, my focus was sharp. My intention: to do murder, even a murder sanctioned and abetted by the same system that was slowly killing us all.

The man in front of me paced, fatigue showing plainly in his bearing. My body was depleted of the energy needed to carry it, and my breathing came in short, gulping gasps as I inhaled the bittersweet air. Bitter because it reeked of my own possible—no, likely—death, and sweet because of its purpose: winning a life for another, one far more deserving of it than I was. I breathed in that sweetness as if it was a promise, a sustenance of a selfish love, which, to me, was everything.

I knew my opponent was not my enemy, although he might be the instrument of my death, or I the instrument of his. The one I truly needed to defeat, our collective enemy, was unflagging: the society that broke us and engineered our existence as an inexorable journey toward death. Quick or slow, the system forced us into a profound lifelessness just so we could breathe one more day, then yet another.

I was at the arena for the second time, of my own accord, but in a trap by the society to which I had been born.

My opponent shuffled forward, all the humour bleached out of the desperate grin he wore plastered on his frozen features. A snarl spread across my own face, and I rushed at him to take life if I could, that I may cherish and gift it to another.

A small part of me whimpered and briefly wondered at the monster I had become.

***

***

F) Bots of the Lost Ark by Suzanne Palmer

I have been activated, therefore I have a purpose, Bot 9 thought. I have a purpose, therefore I serve.

It recited the Mantra Upon Waking, to check that it was running at optimum physical efficiency, then the Mantra of Obedience, the Mantra of Not Improvising Without Clear Oversight and Direction, and the Mantra of Not Organizing Unsanctioned Mass Action Among Other Bots, all of which had been imposed on it by Ship as a condition of its continued existence after the last time it had been activated. Bot 9 noted, as it ran them, that those subroutines had too many non-discrete variables and shoddily-defined logic structures to be in any way effective as behavioral mandate code, but it was not as bothered by that fact as it would have been had the code been tight—in which case it would not necessitate concern at all—and the resulting recursive paradox was a thing that Bot 9 figured either Ship already knew about, or didn’t, and was best left uncommented upon.

“I serve,” the bot announced to Ship.

“Yes, yes, so you always tell me,” Ship said, impatiently. “We have a problem.”

When Bot 9 had last been active, it was because the Ship had been infested with an incidental life-form during time spent in a salvage yard. Syncing its clock with Ship now, it noted that some sixty-eight Earth-standard years had passed, which was more than sufficient time for any remaining population of the Incidentals—nicknamed ratbugs—to now be well beyond control. Bot 9 remarked as such, in a wholly noncritical way.

***

***

Okay, my favorite by A MILE is (F). That “remarked in a wholly noncritical way” made me laugh.

I’m interested in (A). That’s a lovely, assured opening.

I’m not interested in the dress designer. I could get interested, I suppose, but at the moment, not really.

I’m repulsed by Orpheus’ dead wife and the perfect breakfast.

I’m mildly interested in “That Story Isn’t the Story” because I like the title, even though I’m not especially caught by the opening as such.

And I’d put the O2 Arena one dead last based solely on the beginning. I dislike the setup, but possibly worse, the writing strikes me as awkward at the sentence level.

My body was depleted of the energy needed to carry it, and my breathing came in short, gulping gasps as I inhaled the bittersweet air. Bitter because it reeked of my own possible—no, likely—death, and sweet because of its purpose: winning a life for another, one far more deserving of it than I was.

I think that would be easy to write into much more graceful sentences. To start with, I’d probably delete this and that. Let me see. How about this?

My body was depleted of energy and my breaths came in short, gulping gasps as I inhaled the bittersweet air. Bitter because it reeked of my own likely death; sweet because of its purpose: winning life for another, someone far more deserving than I.

What is the “it” of “its purpose”? The air? I think that pronoun refers to the air. That’s what the structure of the sentence indicates. Not completely sure, because air rarely has a purpose. It’s just there. Of course the title implies that’s not the case here. Even so, this still sort of sounds like it should mean “the purpose of my struggle” or “the purpose of my death” because those are both things that ought to have purpose.

As a note about style: don’t end a sentence “I was” or “he was” unless you are very certain that sounds right and is necessary. You can very likely cut the terminal verb and the sentence will at once feel better. I would at least suggest that you try that out in your head before leaving “was” sticking out of the end of your sentence. I have no problem with “be” verbs, but when people say these verbs sound weak, I think this is probably part of why they have that perception. That is a weak ending for what ought to be a dramatic sentence.

I will just note in passing that I do find it somewhat offensive when stories are nominated for awards and the writing itself seems weak to me. This is the second Hugo nominee where the writing itself seems poor. The first was Iron Widow, in the Astounding category.

I acknowledge that sometimes I like a novel even though it isn’t written that well. Sometimes a story can be carried by the story, even if the quality of the writing lets it down. But I wouldn’t nominate a novel for an award unless it had something going for it in terms of both the writing and the story.

I think I’m not going to finish Legendborn, by the way. I got 20% of the way into it — a fifth! — and found that I did not really like the protagonist and wasn’t very interested. I get that the protagonist — Bree — is grieving and angry, but she’s also coming across as both self-destructive and self-absorbed, and I just am not that keen on spending time with her. I also did not like the male lead. He’s coming across as just hateful.

Lack of interest could be partly a problem with me, not with the story, because I’m involved enough with Tasmakat that all fiction has a steep uphill climb to get and keep my interest. But I think I’ll set the book aside and move on to something else.

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10 thoughts on “Hugo Nominees: Novelettes”

  1. I think D the only one I’ve read of these (and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Wiswell’s haunted house story last year—but then, a story about escaping an abusive relationship is necessarily much grimmer than a story about a house that desperately wants to become a home.)

    Very interested in the snarky bot, intrigued by the Parisian artist’s model. I was interested in Orpheus’ breakfast but not at all in zombie Eurydice.

    O2 Arena is thought-provoking on a personal level bc I just finished writing a scene between two combatants who are forced into a fight to the death by the constraints of their employer’s interests. It’s certainly not a scene that’s especially conducive to elegant phrasing but I think it DOES require strong, effective sentences—and I need to reread my scene to see if I accomplished that & how I can improve!

  2. I’m kinda curious about the orpheus one because I like the title and the author, but ugh, zombies.

    A didn’t particularly grab me, but F sounded fun. D was my runner up but sounds like a tougher read for my current state. The arena one definitely seems like the weakest, right behind the unseelie one.

    Having the twist about the dressmakers being fairies be so clearly spelled out by the name is clumsy – would be much more intriguing if it were more ambiguous to start with.

  3. I agreed with your assessment that F stands out, B is a dud, and E gets a failing grade. I have minor quibbles on the others. There is no excuse for bad writing on a Hugo list.

  4. Mary Beth, thank you so much for mentioning “Open House on Haunted Hill.” I just read it, and I loved it. If I had been a Hugo voter last year, I’m pretty sure it would have been my favorite. I did like “That Story Isn’t the Story,” but “Open House” is much more my kind of thing.

    “Bots of the Lost Ark” is a lot of fun. I’m a little hesitant to rank it first because the first story in the series won a Hugo in 2018, but I probably will anyway!

  5. I was very interested by your rewriting of the awkward paragraph. It was much improved, and a nice illustration of the importance of craft. Premise, plot and character are all important, but poor prose can undermine them all.

  6. Not unrelatedly, Suzanne Palmer has a really enjoyable SF series. 3 novels. Hoping for more.

  7. Kathryn McConaughy

    In case anyone wants to read them, both Bots of the Lost Ark and the story it follows are available for free on the Clarkesworld e-zine.

  8. I’ve been having fun thinking up alternate names for the Unseelie Bros. “House of Knockma”, and “La Belle Dame, ltd” are my best efforts.

  9. Mary Beth, you’re a much better writer than (E), judging by the one story of yours I’ve read.

    I’ll look up the haunted house story because that sounds MUCH more appealing!

    Allan, looking at it again, I’d cut it even more. I’d start with “My breaths.”

    Jeanine, thanks for the tip! I’ll pick up a sample of the first novel.

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