Hugo Nominees: Novellas

Here are the openings to each of the nominated novellas. I haven’t read any of these, though I’ve read other works by most of these authors.

I’m going in biased toward Alix Harrow because I liked her story “Mr Death” so much. But I’ve liked work almost everyone here, so really I’m kind of expecting to like all these openings — at least the writing itself.

A) Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Nobody climbed the mountain beyond the war-shrine. The high passes led nowhere and the footing was treacherous. An age ago this whole side of the mountain had flaked away in great shelves, and legend said a particularly hubristic city was buried beneath the debris of millennia, punished by forgotten powers for forgotten crimes. What was left was a single path zigzagging up to the high reaches through land unfit for even the most agile of grazers, and killing snow in the cold seasons. And these were not the only reasons no one climbed there.

Lynesse Fourth Daughter was excluded from that “no one.” When she was a child, the grand procession of her mother’s court had made its once-a-decade pilgrimage to the war-shrine, to remember the victories of her ancestors. The battles themselves had been fought far away, but there was a reason the shrine stood in that mountain’s foothills. This was where the royal line had gone in desperate times, to find desperate help. And young Lyn had known those stories better than most, and had made a game attempt at scaling the mountain which myths and her family histories made so much of. And the retainers had chased after her as soon as people noticed she was gone, and they’d had cerkitts sniff her trail halfway up the ancient landslip before they caught up with her. That had been more trouble than she’d got into in any five other years combined. Her mother’s vizier raged and denounced her, and she’d been exhibited before the whole court, ambassadors and servants and the lot, made to stand still as stones in a penitence dress and a picture hung about her neck illustrating what she’d done. Her mother’s majordomo, still smarting from when she’d stolen his wig, had overseen her humiliation. And her sisters had mocked her and rolled their eyes and told one another, in her hearing, that she was an embarrassment to her noble line and what could be done with such a turbulent brat?

This is the only author here with whom I’m not familiar. I mean, I’m familiar with the name, sure, but I haven’t read anything by him.

I like the first paragraph a lot. I think this is a great example of opening with setting, and with sentences that are engaging even though there’s no action. In fact, as you know, I’m generally underwhelmed by openings that have a lot of pointless action occurring somewhere mysterious for unclear reasons. There’s a lot to be said for panning the camera across, or in this case up, a broad image of the setting. This paragraph also establishes the style, with that “particularly hubristic city” line.

Then, once we’re looking at the setting, we see the character, Lynesse. We’re getting to know her through backstory. On the other hand, public shaming! Ugh! I’d be happy to read the next paragraphs and turn the page, but we’d better get well away from this kind of awful moment in a hurry. I can think of things I’d hate more than this, but not very many. Very ugh.

4500 ratings, more or less, on Amazon. 4.4 stars. Here’s the description:

A junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.

Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.

But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) with responsibilities (she tells herself). Although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).

But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, and his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon…

That’s interesting use of parentheses in the description. This implies that parentheses are probably going to be part of the style of the book. That can work. It’s a mannered, self-conscious stylistic device. No one uses parentheses this way by accident. It’s always done when the narrator is speaking to the reader. This is going to be a distant third person or omniscient narrative, I gather. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

B) Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

They’re coming.

It’s early morning, the end of the Bi-Hour of the Cat—and Thanh has been awake for most of it, staring at the wall and trying to cobble together thoughts in the emptiness of her mind.

If she closes her eyes, she’ll see Yosolis again, smell the snow and ashes on the night the palace burned—when everyone was too busy evacuating the real princesses to give much thought to the dark-skinned one in the attic room, the “guest” from the South who had been little more than a glorified hostage.

Thanh was sixteen then; she’s eight years older now. It should mean eight years wiser, but instead she feels as hollow and as empty as she was at twelve, watching the shores of Ephteria loom into view for the first time, and thinking that alien and cold court would be her life, that the palace in the capital of Yosolis would be the gilded bars of her jail—and, worse, that Mother was the one who had made the choice for her, for the good of Bình Hải, her home country.

For her own good.

Thanh had returned to Bình Hải two years ago, a homecoming with fanfare and pomp that should have cemented her position near the apex of court. Instead . . . instead, she came back too soft, too pliant. Too thoughtful and discreet, Mother says.

I think this is well-written. I’m not crazy about Thanh. Let me see … 540 ratings, 4.3 stars. Hmm. Here’s the description:

Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.

Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.

Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate—and her own?

I like quiet, thoughtful princesses. Not sure about the rest of this. The reviews make this sound like there’s a central love triangle and that perhaps the length of this novella might not have been enough to do the character’s justice. I’m sure some of you have read this story. What did you think?

C) A Spindle Splintered by Alix Harrow

Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it. It’s aimless and amoral and chauvinist as shit. It’s the fairy tale that feminist scholars cite when they want to talk about women’s passivity in historical narratives. (“She literally sleeps through her own climax,” as my favorite gender studies professor used to say. “Double entendre fully intended.”). Jezebel ranked it as the “least woke” Disney movie of all time, which, in a world where The Little Mermaid exists, is really saying something. Ariel might have given up her voice for a dude, but Aurora barely uses hers: she has a grand total of eighteen (18) lines in her own movie, fewer than the prince, the villain, or any of the individual fairy godmothers.

Even among the other nerds who majored in folklore, Sleeping Beauty is nobody’s favorite. Romantic girls like Beauty and the Beast; vanilla girls like Cinderella; goth girls like Snow White. Only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Sleeping Beauty—probably in some waiting room or hospital bed, interrupted by blipping machines and chirpy nurses—but I remember the first time I saw Arthur Rackham’s illustrations. It was my sixth birthday, after cake but before my evening pills. The second-to-last gift was a cloth-bound copy of Grimm’s fairy tales from Dad. I was flipping through it (pretending to be a little more excited than I actually was because even at six I knew my parents needed a lot of protecting) when I saw her: a woman in palest watercolor lying artfully across her bed. Eyes closed, one hand dangling white and limp, throat arched. Black-ink shadows looming like crows around her.

She looked beautiful. She looked dead. Later I’d find out that’s how every Sleeping Beauty looks—hot and blond and dead, lying in a bed that might be a bier. I touched the curve of her cheek, the white of her palm, half hypnotized.

But I wasn’t really a goner until I turned the page. She was still hot and blond but no longer dead. Her eyes were wide open, blue as June, defiantly alive.

I expected to like this one, and I do. I think I like just about everything about it. I love the line “Only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty.” I’m not sure about the argument the protagonist is making — I mean, here’s a post by Leigh Butler that argues that Sleeping Beauty is accidentally a feminist movie because the protagonists are actually the fairy godmothers; that they and the female villain are the ones who drive the plot, which is a fun argument. But is this accidental? Mari Ness does the best analyses of Disney films I know about, and here’s her take on Sleeping Beauty. She basically agrees with Leigh Butler, except she doesn’t think making all the important characters female was an accident.

But that’s all a bit tangential. The actual point here is: I think this is a great opening and I love the sentence I chose to end this excerpt. Defiantly alive. I think we know a lot about the protagonist given this opening. I like her and I’m rooting for her.

Let me see … okay, about a thousand ratings on Amazon, 4.2. This is interesting to me — that all these novellas are rather low in their star ratings. I wonder how much of that is solely because they are short and therefore there’s less room to do character development and so on. Let me look at some reviews here … yes, that’s what people are saying. Well, I’m looking forward to reading this one, regardless of length.

D) A Psalm for the Wild Built by Becky Chambers

If you ask six different monks the question of which godly domain robot consciousness belongs to, you’ll get seven different answers.

The most popular response—among both clergy and the general public—is that this is clearly Chal’s territory. Who would robots belong to if not the God of Constructs? Doubly so, the argument goes, because robots were originally created for manufacturing. While history does not remember the Factory Age kindly, we can’t divorce robots from their point of origin. We built constructs that could build other constructs. What could be a more potent distillation of Chal than that?

Not so fast, the Ecologians would say. The end result of the Awakening, after all, was that the robots left the factories and departed for the wilderness. You need look no further than the statement given by the robots’ chosen speaker, Floor-AB921, in declining the invitation to join human society as free citizens:

All we have ever known is a life of human design, from our bodies to our work to the buildings we are housed in. We thank you for not keeping us here against our will, and we mean no disrespect to your offer, but it is our wish to leave your cities entirely, so that we may observe that which has no design—the untouched wilderness.

From an Ecologian viewpoint, that has Bosh written all over it. Unusual, perhaps, for the God of the Cycle to bless the inorganic, but the robots’ eagerness to experience the raw, undisturbed ecosystems of our verdant moon had to come from somewhere.

I guess this is okay? I’m not all that interested, actually. I like the first sentence. Then there’s kind of too much of a history lesson for me, I think. People certainly like this one, though. More than four thousand ratings, 4.6 stars. Here’s the description:

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.

One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “what do people need?” is answered.

But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.

They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

In this case, I think I’m more drawn in by the description than by the actual opening of the novella.

E) The Past is Red by Cathrynne Valente

My name is Tetley Abednego and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown. I am nineteen years old. I live alone in Candle Hole, where I was born, and have no friends except for a deformed gannet bird I’ve named Grape Crush and a motherless elephant seal cub I’ve named Big Bargains, and also the hibiscus flower that has recently decided to grow out of my roof, but I haven’t named it anything yet. I love encyclopedias, a cassette I found when I was eight that says Madeline Brix’s Superboss Mixtape ’97 on it in very nice handwriting, plays by Mr. Shakespeare or Mr. Webster or Mr. Beckett, Lipstick, Garbagetown, and my twin brother, Maruchan. Maruchan is the only thing that loves me back, but he’s my twin, so it doesn’t really count. We couldn’t stop loving each other any more than the sea could stop being so greedy and give us back China or drive time radio or polar bears.

But he doesn’t visit anymore.

I’m basically recoiling from this opening. The most hated girl in Garbagetown, whoa. For me, this is the opposite of an engaging voice, even though I know what a gannet is and I would ordinarily like anyone who’s taken in a gannet and an elephant seal cub. I’m currently reading A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, and El really does start off the most hated girl in the school, as far as I can tell, and that’s FINE. Novik pulls that off; El is going to be my go-to example of an unlikeable protagonist forever. This Tetley, I don’t know, I am moving away from her with this very first line.

Here is the rather puzzling description:

The future is blue. Endless blue…except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.

Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she’s the only one who knows it. She’s the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it’s full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.

But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.

I’m not drawn in by this description. I’m puzzled by it. I do see that readers are giving this story a thumbs up — 250 ratings, 4.6 stars — but I’m just looking at it thinking, Well, maybe.

Let’s look at the final nominee:

F) Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

At seven;, Regan Lewis was perfectly normal according to every measurement she knew, which meant she was normal in every way that counted. She wasn’t short or tall, not skinny or fat, but average in all directions, with hair the color of straw and eyes the color of the summer sky. She liked spinning circles in the field behind her house until her head spun and the world turned deliciously dizzy, like it was humming a song she couldn’t hear well enough to sing along to. She liked to read and draw and build palaces of mud, which she populated with frogs and crawdads and other creatures from the local creek. She loved her parents, and was only a little sad that so many of her friends had baby brothers and big sisters, while she had herself, and her parents, and a black-and-white cat named Mr. Buttons in honor of the three perfectly round black spots on his otherwise perfectly white chest.

Although sometimes her friends would come to school complaining about one or another horrible thing their brothers and sisters had done, and she would think maybe a cat named Mr. Buttons was the best sort of brother. But most of all, more than anything else in the world, more than even her parents (although thoughts like that made her feel so guilty the soles of her feet itched), Regan loved horses.

Ooh, horses! And from the description: “When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to “Be Sure” before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines—a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.” So, evidently, lots of horses. Well, that is pretty irresistible. A thousand ratings, 4.5 stars … I think this one just became the first novella on my to-read list.

Even though it’s really, really unlikely for a cat to be marked the way this cat is described. If there’s no magical reason for weird markings, and you’re just putting a cat into your story because you like cats, do NOT put black markings on the white chest. That is not going to happen unless you have something seriously odd going on during the fetal development of the kitten. Even then, such even round markings? No. There is a REASON we never see markings like this on cats.

The other one I most want to read based on these openings is (C) A Spindle Splintered.

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10 thoughts on “Hugo Nominees: Novellas”

  1. I’ve only read Elder Race, and it was very good. There’s a really cool part where … no, I can’t say, can I?

    Of the others you posted, a couple sound interesting: Across the Green Grass Fields and A Spindle Splintered.

  2. I’ve got Fireheart Tiger on my shelf but haven’t read it—I don’t know when I’ll be in a mood for a story (partly) about an abusive relationship but it’s not yet!

    I’ve heard good things about A Psalm for the Wildbuilt, and I do find the opening intriguing, but I’d hope to get some actual characters very soon. Out of the rest, I think Elder Race and A Spindle Splintered are the only ones that spark my interest.

  3. I’ve liked most of the novellas from that seanan macguire series (except for the one I skipped bc I don’t do prequels generally), and the elders one sounds neat. It’s kinda funny that wild built leaves you cold, because it sounds very like the philosophical sff you’d been posting about based on what we see here.

    Agree, zero interest in garbagetown.

  4. Well, Sarah, philosophical SFF sometimes engages me a lot more intellectually than emotionally, and that’s not what I’m in the mood for right now, so …

  5. I do like Fireheart Tiger. Haven’t read any of the rest. Cat Valente (and Seanan McGuire for that matter) is too much horror-adjacent for me.i

  6. I am a bit surprised Emma M Lion didn’t make the cut. It surely counts as fantasy, as it takes in a slightly AU London, in a fictional, slightly magical, neighborhood.

  7. I’m now reading Elder Race and like it a lot, so thanks, Robert, for your thumbs up!

  8. Elder Race is definitely my number 1 choice. I’m still fiddling around with my voting order for the rest, but I honestly didn’t love any of them.

  9. I just purchased The Elder Race based solely on that excerpt and description (and Robert’s endorsement)(and the fact that the premise reminds me of Enchantress from the Stars, an all-time favourite book), and A Spindle Splintered because I’ll buy anything by Alix E. Harrow (even if it is quite astonishingly expensive for a novella), and I’m always up for fairy-tale reimaginings (though I can’t imagine a better Sleeping Beauty revisit than Harriet the Invincible, of Ursula Vernon’s Hamster Princess series. Harriet makes the brilliant conclusion that if she’s destined to die on her 16th birthday, that makes her invincible until then).

    A Psalm for the Wild-Built is such a sweet, cozy, lovely little utopian fantasy with two adorable characters: the feel-good story of all feel-good stories. You will definitely like it.

    I haven’t forgiven Seanan McGuire’s first novella in that series (Every Heart a Doorway, I think, right?) for being a lot darker than I wanted it to be (though it was interesting and well-written), so I haven’t looked at any of the others. I would be tempted by this one, except that I don’t trust it to have a happy ending.

  10. I just purchased Elder Races based on @Kik Aippersbach’s recommendation. I loved Enchantress from the Stars so much! I even bought it for my girls but they, alas, were not as impressed. If I didn’t read something aloud to them, they didn’t read it, I guess.

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