I like short stories to be self-contained: a good idea or a complete story. As such I often gravitate to stories that are focused on doing one thing well. It also means that I tend to prefer vignettes, where Hugo short stories can be surprisingly long (7500 words or less).
Note: it’s hard to discuss a short story without spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, skip to my rankings and general comments.
The Court Magician by Sarah Pinsker
A young boy is raised from the streets to Court Magician reckons with the cost.
In the annals of clichés, curiosity killed (or at least severely mangled) the cat is right up there. Not to say that this isn’t solidly executed; it gets particularly good mileage out of the omniscient, slightly familiar narrator, and it has a bit of a morality tale twist to it. The problem is that it just doesn’t shine or really stand out. It also didn’t help that it reminded me strongly of The Djinn Who Watches Over the Accursed,1 a similar story that just goes a little bit further in almost every way.
A solid, but not exceptional fable.
The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society by T. Kingfisher
A group of fairies commiserate over the lass that broke their hearts.
This is what I want out of short fiction, a great idea well executed. If it just provided a sex-positive subversion of the archetypal fairy relationship by asking “what if the girl did the dumping” that would be enough, but Kingfisher elevates it with a sly comedic tone, and a gamut of fay vignettes. It starts a little slow, but if “what really gets me is that she married the blacksmith.” doesn’t grab you I don’t know what will.
A sex-positive revisionist fairytale with excellent execution.
The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by P. Djèlí Clark
A tale about each of the Nine Negro Teeth left in Washington’s estate.
I like weird, sometimes I even love it. And this is very well executed weird, whose very existence makes an important point. But as I said at the top, I like a complete story, and this was a series of snapshots, admittedly sometimes great snapshots, from a magical revolutionary America that deliberately didn’t cohere into a complete narrative. I would love to read the novel, but as a short story it felt incomplete.
Amazing world building that doesn’t quite make an amazing story.
Stet by Sarah Gailey
Revisions to an academic paper become contentious.
I’ve written a few academic papers in my time, and had many a dialogue through comments and revisions. Gailey takes that idea, and uses it to tell a story that evolves naturally out of the paper, but that hits you emotionally like a gut punch. Stet is more than an innovation in form however, it has some philosophical heft to it as it grapples with the consequences of teaching AIs rather than building them. For anyone who has ever edited a report or paper, this is a very hard story to look past.
Innovative use of form that also tells an emotionally powerful story.
The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat by Brooke Bolander
Three raptors encounter male privilege, and can’t make head nor tail of it.
A review of this story is almost pointless, as the title is a perfect encapsulation of what the story is and probably whether you will like it or not. I really liked it.
A fairy tale from the dinosaurs perspective.
A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix Harrow
A good librarian will give you the book you want, a great one will give you the book you need.
I loved books as a child and was blessed with parents who also loved books. I think every bibliophile believes, deep down, that a good book can be a powerful force in one’s life. The story of a librarian trying to save a young boy who wants to escape his life by finding him the perfect book spoke to this belief, and brought tears to my eyes. Throw in story breaks punctuated by relevant series or book titles, and just the right amount of magic and you have a short story that contained the arc of a much longer work.
A triumph of magical realism that believes in the power of books to change the world.
- A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies
- The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society
- The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat
- The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington
- Court Magician
Howard Hawks said that a good movie was “three great scenes and no bad ones”, and the same can be said for a Hugo category. Rose MacGregor, Stet, and A Witch’s Guide to Escape are three great stories, and the other three stories range from solid, Court Magician, to very good, Three Sisters. Even Secret Lives was enjoyable, even if it wasn’t what I wanted out of a short story.
Separating the top is extremely difficult for me, as all three stories elicited a strong reaction in me: Rose MacGregor made me laugh, A Witch’s Guide made me cry, and Stet made me hurt. They all do very different things, so there is little to directly compare between them. My favourite at any given time is the one that I last thought of, but the rankings above reflect my ballot today, and obviously I’d be ecstatic for any of them to win.