REVIEW: Hugo Novelette Finalists

written by David Steffen

Another category in the Hugo Award review series for this year, this is for the novelette category which covers fiction between 7500 words and 17,500 words.

As mentioned before, this year marked several rule changes–including that there will be six nominees in every category, and the nomination tallying rules are different to discourage voting collusion that had been dominant in the couple years prior.  This (and perhaps other factors) seems to have had the intended effect.

1. “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde ( Publishing, May 2016)
The gems that live beneath in the kingdom in the Valley can talk, and they can exert a powerful influence on those who can hear them.  In centuries past the great deaf king found that he could bind the dangerous jewels mined from the earth so that they could be bent to the people’s will, and since then the country has been protected and ruled by a combination of Jewels and Lapidaries.  Jewels are the ruling class, those most influenced by the gems.  Lapidaries are their faithful servants, able to talk the jewels into speaking echoes of their own intent, though the gems will only obey those who are faithful to their oaths, the more powerful the oaths the more the gems may obey them.  The country is now in shambles, betrayed by the King’s Lapidary, and it is up to the one remaining Jewel (Lin) and the one remaining Lapidary (Sima) to thwart this hostile takeover.

Powerful story with very interesting and novel magical system.  I’m not entirely sure I understood all the details of the magic system by the end of the story, and so was never entirely sure what a Lapidary was capable of until it happened.  The switching points of view between the two main characters probably didn’t help because I didn’t always seem to notice when the point of view switches and took some time to realize and re-orient.  But I think this was only my own failure as a reader and not a problem with the story as such, and the story was very well done.

2. “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine, January 2016)

Grandma Harken lives outside of town, partly because she is a witch, but mostly because she just wants to be left alone most of the time.  When someone steals her prize tomatoes just before she has a chance to pick them for herself, Grandma Harken sets out to find the thief and show them the error of their ways.  No mundane gardener, neither is her tomato thief a mundane animal.

Grandma Harken reminds me (in a good way) of one of my favorite characters in fantasy stories–Granny Weatherwax of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett.  No-nonsense, grouchy but compassionate and unwilling to admit that last bit.  Vernon is very good at writing this sort of character (her “Pocosin” of the previous year is another great example), and I very much enjoyed this and the imaginative turns it took with its practical no-nonsense protagonist and this twisted desert mythology.

3. “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine, May 2016)

In this Weird West tale, Ellis is a young man in a small town trying to come to a handle on his necromantic powers.  Strangers come to town looking to make use of his uncanny abilities.

Alyssa Wong is one of those authors whose work I always look forward to.  Her stories are amazingly imaginative, with powerful and relatable characters and she seems to have a particular knack for writing very dark characters that are nonetheless very easy to root for.  This is another excellent one from an author who consistently hits them out of the park.

4. “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2016)

Because Avery has a security clearance, she gets recruited for a top secret job showing an alien and its human liaison around the USA in a tour bus.  At least, she’s told there’s an alien… is it in one of the crates?  Left only with the alien-raised human, who is strange enough.

This has the feel of a classic SF story with an inexplicable alien and the exploration of what it means to be human and how a lifeform that did not come from the same evolutionary environment as us–thought-provoking and interesting.

5. “The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan (, July 2016)

Thirty years after the first manned Mars mission, a second mission is preparing to launch. Emily works as a housekeeper at a hotel that will be housing some of the astronauts before the launch and so she is kept plenty busy with her preparations for the highly publicized visit to come.  Her mother, Moolie, mentions something that suggests that Moolie may have known some of the original crew, and may have been more than just acquaintances.  But Moolie’s mind is slipping–is she just confused, or is she talking about something that really happened?

I’m afraid I found this one quite hard to get into.  I didn’t find the Moolie’s vague claims all that compelling, and they did just seem to me like flights of fancy and it didn’t seem like there was enough substance to drive the whole thing to me.  Your mileage may vary, as ever.

6. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex by Stix Hiscock (self-published)

The story is exactly what it says on the tin.  The protagonist is a three-breasted green alien who shoots lasers out of her nipples when highly aroused.  When she meets a dinosaur who seems so different from the rest of her clientele… well, it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title, right?

Yes, this one is conspicuous on the ballot for its title, the author name, the cover art, and for being erotica.  Like Chuck Tingle’s story last year, there is a reason that you can find out if you dig into it.  Like last year it didn’t seem to be the author’s doing, so I wanted to give it a shot.

I’m afraid that speculative erotica might just not be my kind of thing.  It seemed like it was trying to be erotic and also trying to be funny, and for me it failed to inspire either response.  I think the cover art could use some serious work, and the quality of writing was not impressive, and the entire premise was pretty much contained in the title.