This is the award for best new writer, regardless of output length (or quantity), and year after year it ends up my favourite category by delivering works that I think are better than any of the nominees in the main ballot. This year I will be thwarted however, as the three shorter pieces in this category are all in regular competition.1 On the upside, this makes this category an easy ask, as I’ve also already read Under the Pendulum Sun, leaving me with just three novels to cover.2
The Bear and the Nightingale (Novel)
A young girl must keep the old ways of the Rus to fight off the evil that lurks in the forest.
This is almost exactly what I am looking for out of this category. It has a uniquely realised world (Magical rural medieval Russia), that feels incredibly well researched, but also a living place. It has characters who feel real in that world, from the kindly and heroic father who nonetheless beds his unwilling wife out of a sense of moral obligation, to the nanny spinning stories by the oven that the family sleep on in winter. Even the supernatural elements feel real within the world created, with the most helpful spirits having a dangerous edge, like the friendly lake spirit that our heroine has to convince not to keep eating people.
Everything in this novel is of a piece. It even has a unique rhythm to it, with seemingly important characters being caught in the currents of history and being dragged out of our story, while others get pulled in. The only criticism that I can level is that the climax of the book doesn’t feel as innovative as the rest of the book, it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just not as novel.
Please take a trip to the Russian woods.
Heroine Complex (Novel)
A superheroine’s PA is forced to step up to fend off demon attacks in SF.
This was the book that almost broke this year’s Hugos for me. Let me start with the good elements: the story has its heart in the right place with its focus on young asian american superheroes and their scoobies, it opens in a fight with demonically animated cupcakes, and it sets up a major karioke battle to eternal flame. Unfortunately this is where it stops.
This is a textook case of telling not showing, with regular exposition dumps, and characters constantly stating important things. The main character is great but insecure, and large passages of the book are people telling her how great she is. It feels like a bad young adult novel, but one that has been hybridised with a bad paranormal romance story to supply the swearing and sex. Even the best idea in the book, the karaoke battle, is marred by poor execution: it literally centers on a girl who can control fire singing eternal flame and fighting, and it just ends up with her throwing a fireball. To top it all off, it has a fairly rote plot, and is almost 400 pages long.
A catastrophe of poorly executed good intentions.
Under the Pendulum Sun (Novel)
A woman comes to fairy land to assist her brothers Mission amongst the heathen…
I picked this up hoping for a book that grappled with theology and meaning in the face of the unnatural and unchristian,3 and certainly Ng does not completely neglect the ecumenical aspects of the novel. Similarly, the snippets of the fantastic around the edges, the land whales and pendulum suns are present, it’s just not what she’s interested in. What we have instead is straight up Gothic Horror: a woman moves to a remote and forbidding location populated with strange servants and a tortured master and spends a lot of time wandering around the setting, and Ng does an excellent job of nailing the tone of this genre for most of the book.4
The problem for me is the intersection between the fairy-mission story and the Gothic Horror: arguably the climax of the fairy aspect of the story directly undermines key elements of the Gothic Horror, unraveling the three threads of the story and throwing the end completely off kilter.
Recommended for Gothic Horror fans wanting something different.
Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Fandom for Robots (Short Story)
A robot discovers the joys of anime slashfic.
My description of this story is completely accurate, and depressingly reductive. Tales of robots discovering some aspect of human interaction that gives them meaning is some of the most well trod ground in science fiction. To move the needle, the execution needs to be exceptional, and here it is. If Fandom for Robots had nothing more to offer than a Lost in Space/Forbidden Planet style robot two finger typing emails by holding two styluses I would have loved it. Instead this is a story of the transformative power of engaging in fandom and the importance of including different voices within it, albeit one with an inadvertently humorous protagonist.
Don’t let the subject matter prevent you from reading this gem.
A Series of Steaks (Novelette)
A steak counterfeiter takes on an epic fraud under extreme duress.
A really great idea is one that is obvious in retrospect, and the idea of counterfeiting animal meat with printed meat is one of those ideas. This is where short science fiction shines, have a great idea, put it in a narrative that illustrates the idea, and get out. A Series of Steaks does this, and while I’m not entirely sold on the framing device (all half a page of it), it does more than this: the main character feels like a real person with a well developed back story, the counterfeiting story is actually a good con story, and it introduces a new and improved version of the manic pixie dream girl who actually exhibits some agency.
A good con story combined with a good ideas story makes a great read.
Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience (Short Story)
A real American Indian gives fake American Indian experiences in VR.
This is a short story that felt long, and for the first third of its length I was reasonably sure it would be my least favourite of the offerings, as I felt it was just a little too didactic. But there is a method to this story, and as the “Authentic Indian Experience” transforms into the Authentic Indian Experience, the end more than redeemed the beginning. I just wish it had been a little tighter.
Worth toughing out a rough start to get to the Authentic Experience.
An Unkindness of Ghosts (Novel)
A young healer thinks that a power dip on her generation ship is connected to the death of her mother.
This starts of in fairly conventional science fiction territory; a young healer on the lower decks amputates a limb from frostbite. She is clearly on the spectrum, and with some help from her friend she begins a quest to solve the ships problems and her mother’s suicide. It’s well executed, and is a fairly satisfying story; but it’s not what An Unkindness of Ghosts is about.
This is a book about slavery, not in the abstract, slavery is morally wrong sense, but in the practical, day to day horror that slavery necessarily begets. Solomon does a masterful job of letting it sneak up on the reader, as it is so internalised by the characters and setting that that the violence is seldom explicit, but is omnipresent, a constant shadow over every action and every personality. It also captures the righteousness of the slavers, the genuine belief that what they are doing is not only right, it is genuinely good for the oppressed. In spite of this, An Unkindness of Ghosts never feels oppressive: the plot always centers the story even when it is not driving events.
A good science fiction story that is great social commentary.
- Katherine Arden
- Rivers Solomon
- Vina Jie-Min Prasad
- Rebecca Roanhorse
- Jeanette Ng
- Sarah Kuhn
Once again this is very hard to rank at the top, with a ballot dominated by a medieval Russian fantasy, a disjoint pair of short stories about fanfic and a meat heist, and a polemic against slavery. I liked The Bear and the Nightingale best, thought Prasad’s two stories were both excellent and different enough to show range, and An Unkindness of Ghosts managed to walk the fine line of Being Important while still being enjoyable and entertaining.
The next tier is Roanhorse and Ng, who both wrote excellent stories that were undermined by a slow beginning (Welcome to your authentic Indian experience), or a weak resolution (Under the Pendulum Sun), but are well worth your time if you are interested in either topic.
Finally we have Heroine Complex.
- With none of them topping my ballot, though Fandom For Robots could have. [EDIT] Apparently Fandom for Robots did top my ballot and I am an idiot! [EDIT]
- As they are short reviews, I’ve included copies of the previous reviews, as well as linking to their categories.
- Like a fantasy version of the Sparrow, but that I actually liked.
- Unfortunately Gothic Horror is just not in my wheelhouse: I haven’t read/watched most of the major touchstones, and it has never really gripped me as a genre, so take what I say next with a grain of salt.