July 7, 2019
Hugo Reading 2019: Best Short Story
This year's Short Story nominees are a fine group of stories, and even if one or two of them don't quite work for me, I can see how they got on the ballot. I would be happy if any of them won, really, but the top three, for me, were decided by coin flips and blind finger-pointing. It's a nice problem to have.
6) "STET," Sarah Gailey
This is the most experimental story on the ballot, which means it is probably the most marmite story of the six. In this case the format proved to a bit of a deal-breaker: the Epub version of the story didn't really work, as the placement of the footnotes, the editor's marks, and the protagonist's increasingly angry and impassioned "stets" (which are the story) weren't very readable in this format, at least on my e-reader. The PDF version made the story into handwritten notes in the margins, but my e-reader program turned these notes into such small print I couldn't really follow the narrative, and fiddling with the zoom didn't seem to help much. Fortunately, the author included a link to the original online version published in Fireside magazine, where the editor's marks and the "stet" replies are arranged in text boxes to either side of the main column of footnotes. This version was the most readable, but by then it seemed to me that the story had to make such an effort to get out of its own way that I couldn't place it any higher.
5) "The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat," Brooke Bolander
This is definitely a meta fable-fairy-tale sort of story, only in this case, I can easily imagine the wise, scarred raptor grandma telling it to a hissing, downy clutch of newly hatched babies. Brooke Bolander's signature rage runs through this tale, as it does in nearly all her stories, but this time it's more restrained and the story is the better for it. This would have been placed higher, except for the other four stories....did I already mention what an excellent ballot this is?
4) "The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society," T. Kingfisher
T. Kingfisher, AKA Ursula Vernon, is a treasure. This story definitely falls on the funny, whimsical side of the spectrum, with its group of fae sitting around and moping over the human woman they loved and lost. It's supposed to be the other way around, but Rose MacGregor is the kind of woman you can't forget. Kingfisher spins up these characters and world in six delightful pages.
3) "The Court Magician," Sarah Pinsker
This, by contrast, falls more towards the horror end of the spectrum, with this story of a young boy recruited to be a court magician, and the slippery slope he willingly slides down as he uses a spell of one word to get rid of "problems" (read: people) for his Regent, despite the price he pays: said spell eliminates body parts and other things he loves. It's a terrifying look at power and what we will do, or ignore, to keep it. (The most horrifying thing about the story is the implication provided by the narrator, another court magician who apparently uttered the word until nothing remained of him but a disembodied voice.)
2) "The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington," Phenderson Djeli Clark
This is another experimental story, in that it doesn't have a plot as such: it's a look at the lives of slaves who donated teeth to George Washington's dentures. But in those few paragraphs devoted to each person and tooth, there's an entire alternate world built, of myths and magic and mages and legends, crossing swords with (and sometimes joining) either the Continental Army or the British troops. I would love to see this expanded into a book...but at the same time, since slavery still exists in this world, I would quite understand if the author didn't feel inclined to write it.
1) "A Witch's Guide To Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies," Alix E. Harrow
This does have a plot, one that's heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time: a librarian/witch who gives a broken foster kid the Book he needs most, and with it the means to escape his life into another world. The fact that the author uses examples of real books (Harry Potter, et al) to illustrate her story's points give it real power, and is one of the reasons I couldn't forget it. When you can't get a story out of your head, no matter how much reading you've done since, that makes a story award-worthy. As I said, I would be happy if just about any of these stories won...but I'm pulling for this one.
(Yeah, I'm buckling down to my reading and ranking now. Only three and a half weeks left.)