RogerBW's Blog

Hugo 2017: Novella 01 July 2017

These are my thoughts on the Hugo-nominated novellas. If you're planning to vote, you may wish not to read these notes until you have done so.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle: attempts to rehabilitate The Horror at Red Hook by, first of all, harping on the terrible lot of immigrants and non-white-people in New York in the 1920s, and then taking a different attitude to Malone, the investigator in that story. Nobody comes off particularly well here, and the overall feeling is pretty grim, but it's a better explanation of why someone might choose to get involved with a world-ending cult than I've read elsewhere.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson: Vellitt Boe is the Professor of Mathematics at the Women's College of the University of Ulthar, and one of her students has run off with a man; but it's not just a question of the effect on the College, because the fickle gods of the Dreamlands are involved. The body of this is Boe's trek across the Dreamlands, and that's excellent Lovecraftian pastiche, with the necessary nods to the lack of non-white-male characters in Lovecraft's work. This is all fine, if not outstanding. But it's right at the end, when Boe makes it into the "real" world, that things really take off; what a shame that this is such a tiny piece of the whole, when the whole might have been the first chapters of something greater.

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire: I've bounced hard off Seanan's novel-length writing, but this worked rather better for me. Nancy went on an adventure into a magical world, and is looking for the way back; her parents can't understand, and she's sent to a special school, which turns out to be better than expected, as it's specifically for the people (mostly girls) who've had such adventures to try to come to terms with living without them. Because there are lots of these worlds, and hardly anyone ever goes back. That's a lovely setup, but it's then squandered on a very obvious murder mystery; really, this feels like the script for the pilot episode of a post-Buffy urban fantasy series, with everyone having the perfect snappy comeback even when they're in deep emotional shock. The very rote plot pushes everything into predictable patterns, and the story would have been better off without it.

Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold: the only one of these that I wanted to write more than a paragraph about. By far the strongest contender here, and not only because it's part of a greater work; it doesn't spend all its time on setup, or assume that the twist or the gimmick is enough to carry the rest of the story, but gets on with the important stuff of plot and character.

A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson: strangely mundane science-fantasy is the background for a forbidden-love story. I found the background, which is sketched more than developed, more interesting than the love, and I don't think that's because it's gay male love; I think it's more that, as with Every Heart a Doorway, the foregrounded story (family/society despises gayness, new lover comes from a place where it's accepted, hard decision has to be made) is very familiar, and the unusual background ("gods" with advanced technology, "women's work" being mathematics and physics) is what I find new and interesting. There's nothing like enough of that for me; Wilson is more interested in writing about how nobody has ever been gay before. That it's all chopped up out of order, and that the vast majority of the story gheaf bhg gb or n qernz frdhrapr, are secondary annoyances.

This Census-Taker, by China MiƩville: provided only as PDF, with huge text on small pages, every one defaced by a massive "For Hugo Consideration" watermark. I'm already not a fan of MiƩville, and while I could probably strip the watermarks and convert it to a sensible format I find in myself no inclination to fight through this publisher's idiocy to get at the story. Del Rey, you should know by now what happens when you slap your customers in the face with great big "we don't trust you, you thief" signs.

Overall: it's great to see two solid pieces of modern Lovecraftiana here, but the old hand is a clear winner for me.

Voting order:

  1. Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold
  2. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson
  3. The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle
  4. Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

See also:
Penric and the Shaman, Lois McMaster Bujold


  1. Posted by Vivienne Dunstan at 05:13pm on 01 July 2017

    I read them all. My final voting order for Hugo was:

    • Ballad of Black Tom
    • Penric and the Shaman
    • Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
    • A Taste of Honey
    • Every Heart a Doorway
    • The Census-Taker

    I might have rated Penric higher if I'd read its prequel, but I haven't, and feel very strongly that nominated works should be judgeable on their own terms. And this one assumed a bit too much prior knowledge for me.

    Dream-Quest was generally strong for me, until the ending, which tailed off far too suddenly. I know a novella is shorter, but I found this disappointing.

    Census-Taker should have been a lot better, but there was still much I liked about it. Agree with you re the publishers though.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:43pm on 01 July 2017

    Thanks for your comments. I take your point on Penric, but I haven't re-read the earlier story since last year and it still seemed to work for me.

    I want to read the second half of the story of which Dream-Quest is the first half. I have no idea whether Johnson feels this way about it, but I'd love to think that she did.

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