The clock’s ticking; we only have a few more weeks before the 2017 Hugo Award ceremony in August. Since I think it would be a crime to leave any of the shorter fiction entries unread, this week I’m reviewing three of the nominees for Best Novella at once. Click the jump for a review of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and the Shaman, Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey, and Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.
Penric and the Shaman – Lois McMaster
“I can give you words, but they won’t teach you any more than they did me. I don’t know if you can understand.”
“Inglis.” For such a gentled tone, it was oddly implacable. “From the strangest hour of my life, on a roadside four years ago, I have been sharing my mind with a two-hundred-year-old demon with twelve personalities speaking six languages, and an underlying yen to destroy everything in her path, and I expect to go on doing so til the hour of my death. Try me.”
The tale of how a lowly huntsman’s son inherited a powerful demon and became the personal sorcerer of the Princess Archdevine…is not what this novella about. That was in the first installment of the ongoing the Penric and Desdemona series. This new story is about a hunt for a shamanic murderer, and about the reason that murder happened in the first place.
It’s been four years now since Penric stumbled into his role as one of the highest ranking sorcerers in the land, and he’s settled into his new life surprisingly well. Penric makes for an appealingly unflappable character; not surprising, since it’s hard to rattle someone who’s possessed by supernatural being with the personalities of all twelve of the previous sorcerers it’s belonged to, and who occasionally takes control of Penric’s mouth to make snide comments. Or gets bored and sets things on fire. Desdemona gets bored a lot, but Penric has learned to sweet-talk her into behaving. Most of the time.
I would have liked to spend the whole novella reading about the sorcerer-demon team, because the hunt for the fugitive Inglis tended to drag a little. I’ll admit that the way magic is set up in this world is fascinating: the differences between sorcerers and shamans, Great Beasts (animals who carry the souls of generations of animals that came before them), even the ceremony at funerals to determine which god (if any) has accepted the soul of the departed. But we know pretty much from the start that the murder Inglis committed is more complicated than everyone thinks, and there were times that I just wanted them to get on with it. The story does have a satisfying payoff that actually made me feel a little choked up, and it leaves things open for more installments. I think I’d like to read the original series to learn Penric’s story first though, since that sounds a lot more fun.
A Taste of Honey – Kai Ashante Wilson
Better to forget tomorrow; better, when climbing a slope of loose gravel swarming with snakes and scorpions, to fix your eyes on the very next footfall – even if that means the cliff ahead must come as a surprise.
This is another story that occurs midway through a series (part of Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps world), so all the descriptions about Olorumi cousins and Dalucan soldiers, gods (who might be aliens, it’s not all that clear) and Ashean Enclaves came a little too fast to keep up with sometimes. The author manages to drop just enough information to keep the reader afloat, and the alien details along with Wilson’s prose (which has an odd cadence that I’m not at all used to) makes the tale dreamlike and exotic.
The publisher’s overview says this story is about a gay romance, but that’s a very simplified description. Beautiful and gentle Aqib bgm Sadiqi has never felt at home in his warlike culture, with all of the usual requirements about how men are supposed to behave and who a low-ranking sibling is expected to marry. In one chance meeting he finds everything he never realized he wanted in a visiting Daluçan soldier, Lucrio. And then finds out he only has ten days before Lucrio’s company leaves forever.
The action jumps back and forth, from the whirlwind love affair to random points in the life Aqib has to make for himself after he lets Lucrio go. The fantasy elements in this story are pretty much just set dressing (and in some cases I wondered why they were included at all), and the ending feels just a little bit like cheating. This is an extremely bittersweet story, one where the author seems to be saying that no matter how happy we try to be, we’re always going to be mourning all the choices we didn’t make.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe – Jij Johnson
“He says there are millions of stars, Raba. Millions.”
We begin with a scandal; a student of Ulthar Women’s College has eloped. It’s bad enough that Jurat would throw away a promising future so she could run away with a strange young man on a whim. To make things even more complicated, Jurat has disappeared to another reality, and she has some very powerful relatives who could use this as an excuse to destroy the Women’s College. And the town of Ulthar. And maybe a good chunk of the continent.
It’s been a long time since Professor Vellitt Boe’s far-traveling days, but she still knows more about the world than anyone else at the college, so the middle-aged adventurer straps on a pack and sets off on a hero’s quest to find her student and bring her back home.
And if you thought from the title that Vellitt Boe has to find a way into the world of dreams in order to locate Jurat then you’ve got it exactly as backwards as I did. Vellitt’s reality is the world of dreams; her journey is across the fantastical (and sometimes nightmarish) dream landscape in order to find a portal to the Waking world.
I’ll start out by saying that I didn’t read the Lovecraft story that this was an homage/response to. Kij Johnson apparently loved reading The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath when she was growing up, and she wrote this story to expand on the original. You know, with more women (any women) and less racism. But I hadn’t known any of that when I picked this up; I just stunned by how gorgeous it was.
Vellitt Boe’s world has all the strangeness and mystery that we accept as completely normal when we’re dreaming. The sky is a ceiling of ever-changing patterns, with exactly ninety-seven stars and a moon that refuses to follow a set schedule. Mountains can be made of crystals, ships are blessed by priests who’s robes constantly drip water, and on a journey you can pass sudden meaningless images, like a twisted oak tree standing in the middle of a plowed field, wrapped in chains, or a low stone table covered with mushrooms that make you terrified out of your mind for no reason. Johnson’s prose wraps itself around every image without ever getting as overwhelmingly wordy as Lovecraft.
The very worst of the monsters from Lovecraft’s story are here, and they’re all faced down by a middle-aged woman who’s back hurts most mornings. Vellitt’s outlook is a perfect balance of matter-of-fact and wonder. She’s had trauma in her past that she just shrugs off as something that wasn’t bad enough to make her stop traveling. She lets herself be sad about old love affairs or growing old in general, but without acting like they’re something that needs to be fixed. We see the dreaming world through her eyes, and we see even more of it through her memories of years and years of traveling, and everything is so exquisitely detailed that you feel like you could fall into this amazing world for days and only see a fraction of what it has to offer.
Plus, Vellitt travels with a cat who rides on top of her backpack. How can you not love that?
I’ve been looking back on all six nominees for Best Novella this year, trying to figure out which one could be the winner. All of them are amazing, and China Mieville’s comes very very close, but I’m going to put my money on this one. There’s so much packed into this one story, but it doesn’t feel like too much. It feels more like an entire novel distilled down to its essence, with not one word wasted.