The other shorter-than-a-novel-but-longer-than-a-short-story category, these tend to be longer reads, which is a shame because I didn’t particularly care for any of them. It’s also one of the weirder categories in that three of the five nominees are from the same author. Two of the stories are also significantly expanded versions of much shorter stories (which, given my complaints below, would probably have been much better for me). None of the nominees are particularly terrible, per say, I just failed to connect with them, and it makes me wish there was a little more variety here. I don’t want too dwell on this, so let’s just get to it:
- One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright – This was pretty clearly my favorite of the bunch, a baroque tale of magic that evokes Arthurian legends, C. S. Lewis (complete with an appearance by a giant lion), Tolkien, and maybe even Stephen King’s Gunslinger series. The problem with this approach is that I would much rather be reading the works that served as inspiration than the novella itself. Still, of the other stories on the ballot, this was the most successful story and at least Wright’s style seemed to fit this narrative. It’s not a story I love, but I don’t mind having read it and it’s well constructed and written.
- Big Boys Don’t Cry by Tom Kratman – A few years ago, I read Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang, not realizing that it appears to be the template for so many other stories of sentient vehicles. I didn’t even enjoy the book, as its episodic structure was frustrating and left me cold. Kratman’s vehicle is a massive, sentient tank named Maggie (short for Magnolia) who, like McCaffrey’s singing ship, undergoes a series of episodic adventures that left me feeling disconnected from the story. Some of these episodes are actually pretty well executed though, and Kratman is pretty good at writing combat sequences, but there are more battles than necessary here, they’re disconnected from one another, and they’re interweaved with weird infodumps that grind the pace to a halt. This was apaprently one of the stories that was originally published in shorter form, then expanded to novella size… I haven’t read the original, but I’m betting the expansion did a disservice to the story. Still, there are interesting questions here about the motivation of sentient vehicles, especially when it comes to the complete lack of respect from their human masters. The ending of this story takes a pretty dark turn, and is almost comically didactic, but it at least gives the story a conclusion.
- “Flow”, by Arlan Andrews, Sr. – The tale of northerners selling an iceberg to the Warm Lands, then running afoul of the local religious inquisition or some such. There’s some interesting stuff hinted at here, but it never really goes beyond hinting, and I really could care less about our main protagonist. This is one of those stories that just sorta flies by (not in the way of a page turner, though, it actually took a while to read this one), leaving almost no impression whatsoever. It’s not terrible, I just could not connect with it.
- “The Plural of Helen of Troy”, by John C. Wright – I should like this story. All the hooks are there, but it’s like Wright forgot to attach the fishing line, so once he hooked me and attempted to reel it in, nothing really happened and now I’ve got these hooks all over me and I’m not one of those people who loves piercings, John! Seriously though, it’s a time travel story told with a Memento-like reverse non-linearity. Or something. The protagonist is a detective hired by one John F. Kennedy to kill a future JFK with the help of a middle JFK and maybe an alternate timeline JFK, all because Marilyn Monroe is Helen of Troy and is also a slave of the evil JFK, who is going to become a timelord or something. Look, I enjoy the byzantine structures of time travel plots, poring over details and making diagrams with straws, and so on. But Wright’s baroque style simply doesn’t fit here, and the rules of time travel and whatnot don’t seem particularly well established (or are elided to the point of incomprehensibility). I get the impression this is part of a larger collection of stories within a similar setting, so maybe that’s what I’m picking up on. Regardless, this seemed about twice as long as it needed to be and while the details kinda fit, I found myself caring less as time went on. Again, I should really like this story. But I don’t.
- “Pale Realms of Shade”, by John C. Wright – Another story with a pretty neat hook, a psychic detective who dies and comes back as a ghost (or maybe he’s going to become an angry poltergeist), visits with his ex-wife and business partner, along with a “fixer” (i.e. the devil) and a priest for some redemption. Along the way, we find out why and how he died, and so on. It’s actually a pretty complete narrative, but it’s one of those things that just really made me want to see more about this detective’s exploits taking down vampires and werewolves back when he was alive. As it is, we’re left with a dour, depressing tale that I never connected with. Wright’s style just doesn’t seem to connect very well with me.
For the first time this year, I’m actually thinking about deploying No Award on my ballot, if only to get past the ridiculous notion that one author wrote the three best novellas of the year or something. I mean, I guess such a thing is possible, but not with these three stories. That being said, Wright also wrote my clear favorite of the bunch, so I’m not slotting No Award very high.