I actually read this book right after Ursula Vernon won the Hugo for her story “The Tomato Thief” but I hadn’t had a chance to review it (“hadn’t had a chance” should be read as “didn’t get organized and stop procrastinating long enough” but I think most people assumed that was the case.) I didn’t want to try and write down the good bits from memory, so I sat down to read the book again.
I probably don’t need this kind of encouragement to procrastinate, but I’m so glad I did. The book’s even better the second time around.
(By the way, don’t skip the intro bits to the stories, or the acknowledgements, or all those sections that people like to jump over when reading a book of short stories: Ursula is right up there with Neil Gaiman and Stephen King when it comes to writing about writing, and I loved every little story that explained where the story came from.)
Below are my thoughts on each of the stories, though trying to distill one of Ursula’s stories down into a couple paragraphs is an exercise in futility. It’s mostly my best guess as to the heart of each story, over-simplified to the nth degree.
This is a very short story, almost like a poem, but more like a letter, from the point of a fairy Godmother, about why some people get magic dresses and other people don’t, and it’s probably not the reason you think.
Tomato Thief (which appears later in this book) won the Hugo, and if you haven’t read it you really, really should. But if you can you might want to read this story first. In Tomato Thief Grandma Harken talks about something incredibly stupid her grandson did. This is the story about that stupid thing, and how far she had to go to fix it.
This is the first time in a very long time that a story’s made me cry. And not once either, because this story is about a lot of different things that can upset you: losing someone, falling short in the things you create, having pride in crafting your lies so well the people you love never find out something awful. I got so emotional reading this one that the description of someone’s smile made me tear up. There’s a lot of gut-wrenching moments in this one, but there’s just enough hope at the core of it that it’s one of my favorite stories in the book.
The Carolina wren probably weighed less than an ounce. Bibb was an indoor cat and weighted an insolent nineteen pounds, and no mouse set whisker inside the house without suffering immediate and violent death.
Louise would have put all her money on the wren.
I’ve never been much of a bird watcher, but reading this story made me want to start. The way Ursua describes the birds is just brilliant. Without any pictures at all you can see every expression on their little bird faces. The story is much darker than I expected, and also much much funnier, and immensely satisfying.
That Time With Bob and the Unicorn
“Bob,” I say, “a man who is no longer interested in the genetics of inbred hillbilly water unicorns is a man who is no longer interested in life. I am afraid for your priorities, son.”
Ursula says in her intro that she’d kind of like to know more about the good doctor who’s the main character of this story, and I completely agree. The doctor’s way of following random thoughts that branch into the tail end of the oddest stories is ridiculously appealing. Within this one story we’re teased parts of at least a half dozen other stories and I want to hear all of them.
She was a good witch and a decent person, but decent people aren’t always easy to live with.
This was another story that made me cry. And with the way it’s written, in a very clear three-act structure, I could see how some authors would have written it as a whole book, stretching out the story to fit. I think it works much better as a short story.
The Dryad’s Shoes
There’s got to be dozens of Cinderella stories out there, and I always enjoy a good re-told fairy tale. Ursula’s version is especially fun, in a very (literally) down-to-earth kind of way. Hannah is much more interested in gardens than magic dresses, but what I love best is that the evil stepmother and step sisters aren’t really evil. Nobody is actively mean to Hannah, they just don’t understand her but they’re all fairly polite in a distant kind of way. Subtracting that level of mean-girl drama just makes the whole story more comfortable. Plus there’s a talking bird and a dryad who’s overfond of rhymes.
Let Pass the Horses Black
They were fairies, elves, some of them almost human but most of them not even close. They had antlers or hooves or heads like birds. One rider was a cloud of amber moths, swirling more or less above the saddle. One rode side-saddle to accommodate a massive serpent’s tail.
In the space of a few pages Ursula creates this intensely detailed look into the fairy world, all passing by the main character as she lies in wait for her brother. There’s a few moments in the middle where I literally stopped breathing. It’s a beautiful, dark, nail-bitingly tense story, combining modern times with ancient fairy worlds, and it has a fantastic ending.
This Vote is Legally Binding
This is a very quick poem to the guys who pitch a fit when a woman doesn’t want to talk to them. Don’t misunderstand: it’s not for guys who’ve had their hearts broken, or are embarrassed about being turned down, or even had a fight with a woman they love. We’ve all been there. No, this is for the guys (or even girls, when you think about it) who literally believe all of woman-kind since the very dawn of time has it in for them. This poem will not make them feel better.
Telling the Bees
I’m not completely sure what was going on with this story, except to look at death and superstition, and to look at the line in Sleeping Beauty that someone fell into “a sleep like death,” and how that could have been better worded.
The Tomato Thief
It had made a lot of big money men back east furious. They thought they’d owned the railroads. They had the pull to get the army brought out to try and bring the machines back under their control.
The train-gods only had to eat a couple of regiments before they realized their mistake.
This is the story that won the 2017 Hugo, and if you read it I think you’ll see why. It’s a story about magic, but desert magic, which is harder and more practical than regular fairy magic, but just as beautiful. I’m a sucker for off-kilter descriptions, little dream-like details about how the world you’re hearing about is not like the world you live in now, and I adore the Train Gods.
In Questionable Taste
This poem is about gardening, and how, when you think about it, it’s more than a little bit magical.
I never said she was a GOOD fairy, you know.
This is not a good story to read if you don’t want to hear about blood and gore and organs being sewn into new shapes. But if you like monsters and the story behind why someone creates them, this is a great story to read. And honestly, the gore isn’t that bad.
Ursula’s fond of witch’s stories, and this is another good one. I like how Ursula’s witches don’t usually mean anyone harm, they’d really just like to be left alone.
I always say Ursula is a master of fairy tales, but this is more of a folk tale than a fairy tale, because God and the Devil visit a witch to win the soul of something that isn’t entirely a possum. Someone absolutely needs to make that into a song.
It Was a Day
The first few lines of this poem are going to make every hard-core fantasy/sci-fi book nerd smile. It’ll be a sad smile sometimes, but still.