written by David Steffen
And the last of the shorter categories for the Hugo this year, covering stories from 17,500 to 40,000 words. The longer categories are often misses for me because I feel they have a lot of word bloat, but when I do like one of them they have so much space to grow.
1. “Equoid”, Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013)
This story is part of Stross’s Laundry series, wherein Bob Howard works as an agent for the secret British government organization for known only as “The Laundry” which serves the purpose of investigating and handling invasions of Lovecraftian monsters. This particular story involves an outbreak of outbreak of unicorns which are not the lovely pure animals we’ve been led to believe and even most of the people in the Laundry aren’t aware that they’re real.
This story is awesome, scary like few stories are, and simultaneously hilarious. Cosmic horror from the POV of a cynical career buraeaucrat. Even the smallest details are filtered through the funny point of view, so that even the recurring descriptions of a character’s beard had me rolling. I also loved how the story made HP Lovecraft part of the story, but not as the prophet you might think they’d make him considering their role, but rather of a crackpot who occasionally stumbled across something real, and knew just enough truth to be a dangerous idiot. I highly recommend this story and now I want to read more of the Laundry series.
2. “The Chaplain’s Legacy”, Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
In the previous story “The Chaplain’s Assistant” the eponymous chaplain’s assistant forestalled the annihilation of humanity at the hands of the technologically superior mantis race by provoking in them an interest in religion. The mantises have no religion of their own and they decided to study this strange phenomenon before destroying their opportunity to do so. Now it appears that the mantes may be growing impatient, feeling they’ve learned everything they can learn, and hostilities may recommence. Humans have now had time to prepare defenses against mantis attacks and the war might begin anew, but perhaps not as one-sided as before. Now the chaplain’s assistant is meeting with the Queen of the mantes and desperately needs to prove to the mantes that humans still have something to offer.
I thought this was a solid story. I appreciated it giving a fair shake to religion which traditionally SF doesn’t do. I admit I found the particular form of the mantes a little hard to take seriously (tiny flying saucers fused with giant praying mantises) but the story was good enough to overcome that as the chaplain’s assistant did everything he could to prolong the peace, and maybe even form a permanent truce. Good action, good characters, well told. This and the previous story are going to be repackaged as a novel published by Baen so I imagine that will be a solid offering as a package deal as well.
3. “Six-Gun Snow White”, Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press)
A wild west retelling of the Snow White story, in which Snow White is the daughter of a wealthy landowner Mr. H in the Montana Territory and his Crow wife. Snow White is the name given to her by the second Mrs. H, her cruel stepmother to mock her native heritage. Snow White is a crack shot with a gun but is otherwise naive to the ways of the world, but she runs away to make her own way.
I liked the character of Snow White. You’ve got to admire the guts it would take to be a woman gunman in a world that doesn’t exactly reward that and makes you fight for it every step of the way. I really liked the early chapters of the story where all of it was told by Snow White in first person. I found her character voice as interesting or more interesting as the stuff that was actually happening, so I was disappointed when it dropped into a distant third person partway through the story. I’m not sure if the only difference was the voice itself or if the story itself was just weaker but after that point I didn’t feel like I was emotionally invested in the character anymore.
4. “Wakulla Springs“, Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (Tor.com, 10-2013)
This story spans most of a century, mostly taking place at Wakulla Springs a beautiful natural wonder in Florida, a real life place that was used as a jungle-like setting for some twentieth century movies like Tarzan and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. This story follows a series of colored characters from a time when Jim Crow laws were the norm to the present day.
I reviewed this story in greater detail as a followup to my usual Nebula award reviews. To sum up, I thought that the characters felt very real, and it certainly had plenty going for it in terms of theme, but I didn’t rank it higher among the novellas because I didn’t feel that it had enough of a cohesive plot arc or character arc to really hold it together for me.
5. “The Butcher of Khardov”, Dan Wells (Privateer Press)
Orsus Zoktavir is a warcaster for the Khador army, one of those rare few who can control the powerful mechanical warjacks by his mind alone. As if this weren’t enough, he is a giant of a man wielding a deadly axe so that he is almost as deadly as a warjack itself. This story follows Orsus (in time-jumping fashion) from when he is a young boy through the events of his life that gave him the name “The Butcher of Khardov” where he is sentenced for slaughtering an entire village, and what happens after.
It’s no surprise that this story didn’t really enthuse me. It is the second book in a series based on Warmachine, a model-based tabletop roleplaying game that’s been around for ten years but which I haven’t played nor followed. Presumably the target audience of this story are players of that game who want to know more backstory for the characters they’re moving around the battlefield.
I decided to give the story a try anyway, on the chance that it might stand on its own. I didn’t have any trouble understanding the story. The concept of warjacks is simple enough and the story explained other concepts to my satisfaction. I didn’t think the time jumping did the story any favors, whiplashing constantly from past to future and back again with no apparent design. I didn’t feel convinced that the events in the story would actually transform a violent but basically sane young man into the psychotic war machine that he becomes in his more recent years. He kind of struck me as a rabid Perrin Aybara from the Wheel of Time series. In his older incarnation I didn’t care for him at all, and frankly thought the world would be a better place if someone did execute this rabid wolf before he turns on those he claims fealty to.