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Hugo Capsules: Novels and Novellas

Last few hours to nominate for the 2016 Hugos!  I’ve updated my previous posting with a few more items. Now, for the last of my 2015 Hugos reviews.

Best Novel

1. Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

I have not gotten a chance to read the other novels, and it seems unfair to judge them based on hastily skimming excerpts from them, but I am confident that even so, Skin Game would remain on top of my list. It was an excellent installment in a line of excellent installments fourteen and counting (sorry Fool Moon). Butcher’s penchant for invention, wit, characters, and slam bang set pieces was on full display, alongside a twist that makes one want to reread the whole thing with a closer eye. In addition, for me, this was a vote not just for Skin Game, but for all the years that Butcher had been snubbed by the Hugos.

Best Novella

1. “Pale Realms of Shade”, by John C. Wright

Published online prior to its inclusion in The Book of Feasts and Seasons, “Pale Realms of Shade” represents Wright’s first foray (or second, depending on how one interprets the end of “One Bright Star to Guide Them”) into what might be called the metaphysical thriller, which Wright himself describes as a thriller “where reality is out of joint, and the mystery is not who did what, but what is what”. The denouement of a metaphysical thriller is, by original definition, an apocalypse, an ‘uncovering’, and “Pale Realms of Shade” has quite the uncovering. It is, however, not strictly speaking entirely a metaphysical thriller, as it also partakes of being thrillers both mundane and supernatural, wherein our deceased detective protagonist must discover both who killed him, why, and why he is turning into a very angry shade indeed. Wright’s prose are vivid throughout, while the tone runs the gamut from inspiring beauty to revolting horror, and the tale is by turns intriguing, terrifying, heartbreaking, and joyous. With skillful genre-blending, prose, and depth of theme, “Pale Realms of Shade” easily takes its place as top contender for the Hugo.

2. Big Boys Don’t Cry, by Tom Kratman

An explosive, exciting action romp that turns unexpectedly thoughtful and emotional about, of all things, sentient super-tanks that would be considered tremendous instruments of war even by 41st millennium standards. Ratha war machine “Maggie” is critically injured in an ambush, and reminisces on her past campaigns as technicians salvage what they can from her damaged hull and turrets. As she goes deeper into the past, she begins to find memories once hidden away now revealed by the damage to her artificial brain, and they are not happy ones… Kratman’s story is predominantly a speculation on how a living weapon might think, feel, be trained, and operate, but it hits on many notes in the course of the telling, warfighting and the politics of warfighting being recurring themes. Big Boys Don’t Cry is military SF of a high order, and I will definitely be looking into more of Kratman’s writing in the future.

3. “The Plural Helen of Troy”, by John C. Wright

The long-awaited sequel prequel interquel I give up to the excellent “Murder in Metachronopolis”. This one is broken up into fewer, larger chapters than “Murder” was, but is still presented for readings both linear and non-linear. Wright builds on the ideas of the first tale, showing off more of the Paradox Proctor Special Unlimited, and introducing a truly terrifying time-travelers’ boogieman that can time-jump around looking for the perfect moment to strike: the innocuously yet sinisterly named Tin Woodman. Yet, as before later simultaneously I give up, the true danger comes not from external foes, but from the sins and bent desires inside one’s own heart. The denouement takes a very unexpected, genre-blending turn that casts all the tales of Metachronopolis in a new light, delighted me, and strongly recommends the story be read in the order printed the first time through.

4. One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright

This work was first published as a short story, then expanded to novella size and republished. I would like to see it expanded further to full novel size, as I see its flaws (chiefest of which is ‘telling rather than showing’) all stemming from trying to do too much in too little space. Star works from the interesting premise of “what happens to the heroes of children’s fantasy stories who have to live normal grown-up lives on Earth after visiting and saving another world as children?”. Unfortunately, our glimpses into the hero’s childhood (a wonderful mash up of Lewis, Alexander, and Cooper) take the form of inelegant expositions given at the drop of a hat by various characters in the course of their conversations. It makes what should feel wondrous and nostalgic sound glib and insipid to my ear. These passages are tributes to stories I loved as a kid, and still do, but even I found myself rolling my eyes after the third or fourth time a character launched into a block of expo-speak that read like a Wikipedia summary.

The other effect of trying to fit what could be a novel’s worth of story into a novella is that I was unable to connect with any of the characters I ought to really care about; I simply didn’t know them well enough by the time something happened to them to feel anything, and I could tell I was meant to feel a great deal. It was frustrating, as this is, by rights, a story I should love, but up until the last two chapters, its execution left me cold (doubly frustrating, as Wright is a genius author, and Star is a personal favorite of his. Alas, I can see only a glimpse of what he sees in it). The last two chapters, are, however, excellent, very on form for Wright, and end on the perfect kind of eucatastrophic twist for the genre he is writing in. “One Bright Star to Guide Them” is a story I really want to love, and would gladly give another chance in an expanded form.

5. “Flow”, by Arlan Andrews, Sr.

A tale of a young lad from a Northern tribe who tags along with a crew of ice merchants as they ride a floe down a flowing river towards Southern towns to take it to market. The idea of ice brokers and ice merchants was new and interesting to me, and the story is well told, having the feel of a fireside tale our hero will pass on to his children in the future. The prose are well executed, and in all respects, “Flow” is a fine, workmanlike piece, yet it lacked the imaginative energy and verve of the preceding four works. There were no moments of breathtaking wonder, gut-wrenching horror, visceral action, or mind-bending eureka. There were no Big Ideas. The tales men might tell about a fire simply cannot compete with the tales men tell about fire.

Hugo Capsules Inbound!

I’ve got a lot of plane travel to look forward to over the next few two weeks: Pensacola this week and Japan the next. I also have my beloved Kindle Keyboard* stuffed to the brim with Hugo Nominees for Best Novel, Short Story, Novella, and Novelette. Despite what you may have heard, us Sad Puppies like to read things before we vote on them, and I have a golden opportunity here to not only read the heck out of the Hugo packet, but review the heck out of it as well. Some stories will inevitably get more attention than others, but I will make sure each story gets at least one sentence on what there was to like and dislike. I’ve already cracked a few of the novellas, and let me say, Kratman is giving Wright a real run for his money with Big Boys Don’t Cry (this big boy may or may not have cried), but I’ll have to reread Pale Realms of Shade to be sure. One Bright Star to Guide Them, sadly, left me underwhelmed, though I wonder that I may not be the right audience for such a tale, and will perhaps appreciate it more when I have grown older and more tired, and am therefore in greater need of a booster shot of hope.

*This XKCD strip sold me on the merits of the Kindle Keyboard. I successfully went my first two-and-a-half months in Japan with my Kindle as my only mobile communications device. I, no kidding, learned how to drive my predecessor’s stick-shift from Wikihow.