Reading the Hugos: Short Story

This seems to be a really good year for me when it comes to keeping up and catching up on books I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The fact that the Hugo nominees are stellar this year doesn’t hurt. While I’m currently making my way through the novelette nominees, I’m already done with the short stories and I’m pretty sure I’ve settled on the way I’m going to rank them on my ballot.

The nominees for Best Short Story

  1. Alix E. Harrow – A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Pratctical Compendium of Portal Fantasies
  2. T. Kingfisher – The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society
  3. Sarah Gailey – STET
  4. Sarah Pinsker – The Court Magician
  5. Brooke Bolander – The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat
  6. P. Djèlí Clark – The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

The only short story I had read before the nominee were announced also turned out to be my favorite – if only by a small margin. Alix E. Harrow‘s tale of a witch who works at a library (where else?) and who tries to improve the life of a young boy by putting just the right book in front of him when he seems to need it was moving and beautifully written. It made me remember those early reading days when I first discovered The Neverending Story or got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a present. Books have the power to change lives and Harrow uses that knowledge to weave a wonderful tale with just the right amount of magic.

My second favorite – and no surprise to me – was T. Kingfisher‘s tale of a group of  magical beings gathering to tell their woeful tales of a human girl who didn’t behave like she should. We all know when a handsome elf comes your way and makes you fall in love with him, the human should do the pining once he’s gone. But pesky Rose MacGregor won’t have any of it but flips fairy tale tropes on their head. This story was hilarious, refreshing, and features one of Kingfisher’s trademark practical heroines. I adored every single line, some of which made me laugh out loud.

Sarah Gailey’s STET is probably the shortest of the nominated stories but those few pages pack a punch! The story’s form is almost as interesting as its content, written as an academic paper handed in for review. The actual story comes to life in the footnotes (I love footnotes!). Whether this wins or not, I urge you all to read it. On just a few pages, this story made me gasp, think, sent me through so many emotions… Even though it’s not in my top spot, I’d be happy if it took home the Hugo.

Sarah Pinsker’s story was a strange one. I loved the atmosphere it created right from the get go, when a young boy, desperate to learn magic, is recruited to be the Court Magician – a job that takes much more than sleight of hand card tricks. The deeper this new Court Magician sinks into his job, the darker this story becomes. I really enjoyed it, sinister as it was, but while the ending definitely works, I felt there was something missing. So it’s only number 4 in my list.

Brooke Bolander wrote an impressive novelette (also nominated and currently on my number one ballot spot) but while this story was fun and cleverly written, it didn’t resonate with me as much as the others. You get what it says on the tin. The story of three raptor sisters, a stupid prince, a clever princess, some carnage, and a big adventure. I can’t say much more than I liked the story but didn’t love it.

The only story I really didn’t enjoy was P. Djèlí Clark‘s tale. I see what he was trying to do, telling a tale for each of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, but few of those tales were interesting to me, some of them were quite boring, and there wasn’t any payoff at the end of the story. I look forward to reading his nominated novella but this short story just didn’t do it for me.

Much like the nominees for Best Novel, this is a ballot filled with dramatically different stories, which makes it all the harder to choose a favorite. All of these tales are well written, so my judgement is based much more on personal enjoyment and taste than on quality. Had I read them at a different time in my life, in a different mood, I might have ranked them differently, but for now, I’m happy with my choice. I’d be really happy for either of my top 3 to win the award, but I also wouldn’t mind for my numbers 4 or 5 to take it home. A ballot with only a single undeserving story (according to my personal tastes, I know lots of people love Clark’s story!) is definitely a great one.

I’ll continue to read the nominees and let you know what I think of them. I’m almost done with the novels (one and a half books to go, yay!),  the Lodestar finalists (3 books to go), and the novelettes – 5 to go, but they are quick reads, so you’ll probably hear about them next.

Refreshingly charming: T. Kingfisher – Bryony and Roses

Ursula Vernon aka T. Kingfisher has worked her way into my readerly heart really fast with no intention of leaving again. No matter what story of hers I pick up, they all give me some hours of enjoyment and when I finish them, I am wrapped in a blanket of happiness. Kingfisher’s fairy tale retellings have become something of a go to comfort read for me.

Bryony and Roses
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Argyll Productions, 2015
Paperback: 216 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: She was going to die because of the rutabagas.

Bryony and her sisters have come down in the world. Their merchant father died trying to reclaim his fortune and left them to eke out a living in a village far from their home in the city.
But when Bryony is caught in a snowstorm and takes refuge in an abandoned manor, she stumbles into a house full of dark enchantments. Is the Beast that lives there her captor, or a fellow prisoner? Is the house her enemy or her ally? And why are roses blooming out of season in the courtyard?
Armed only with gardening shears and her wits, Bryony must untangle the secrets of the house before she—or the Beast—are swallowed by them.

Beauty and the Beast is probably one of the most retold tales out there, but I think it is also one of the most difficult ones to make both interesting and not creepy. Fairy tales are, by their nature, simple stories with characters who don’t have much personality, if any – another difficulty in retelling them. But not for T. Kingfisher, who can do both really dark (see The Seventh Bride, her Bluebeard retelling) and humerous. Bryony and Roses definitely has its dark moments and it doesn’t end the way a Disney movie would either, but all things considered, it is a rather fun book to read and made me chuckle quite a lot.

Bryony is a gardener. She and her sisters live alone and have to make ends meet somehow. It is because of her passion for plants and gardens that Bryony and her horse almost freeze to death, only to stumble upon a – you guessed it – enchanted castle. The corner stones of the fairy tale are all there. The castle magically provides food and clothing, although unlike any other retelling I’ve read before, it seems to have a mind of its own as well. The castle definitely has a taste in clothing and décor because while it’s nice that a place cleans itself up after you mess it up, that doesn’t mean everything has to be cleaned into an explosion of pink. 🙂

Bryony also encounters the beast who is, much to my delight, a really nice beast and not a creepy dude keeping a young girl prisoner in his home. I mean, sure, Bryony kind of has to stay at the castle but the beast is both a nice conversation partner and even tries to help her with setting up a little garden of her own. In this retelling, their friendship and, later, romance, is believable because they are just two people (well one human, one beast) who get along really well and find shared interests.

But as many books, this one stands or falls with its protagonist. Bryony is resourceful and clever and easy to love. Not only is her love for plants infectious, she also figures out very soon that something is not right in the castle, that there must be some kind of curse, and she does all she can to figure it out. No wallowing in self-pity, no missing obivous hints. It’s so refreshing to read about a girl who has both a heart and a brain!

I won’t say much about the conclusion because Kingfisher came up with a wholly original idea as to why the castle and the beast are cursed and what that curse entails. The ending was, just like the rest of the book, lovely. And because I’m telling you so little about it, let me mention Bryony’s sister, who only shows up for a tiny little part but totally stuck in my mind. The fact that she, too, has her own mind and a distinct personality made her immediately loveable, in a matter of pages. It is the mark of a great author to bring characters to life so easily and I’m really sad that I have now read all of Kingfisher’s fairy tale novels.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

T. Kingfisher – The Seventh Bride

T. Kingfisher is Ursula Vernon’s pen-name. I first discovered Ursula Vernon through her graphic novel Digger (which I still haven’t managed to buy anywhere but want so much!!!), then I read her absolutely charming short story “Toad Words” and knew I had to try all her fairy tale stuff. I was not disappointed. I believe, T. Kingfisher will become a new author on my auto-buy list.

seventh bride

THE SEVENTH BRIDE
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Red Wombat Tea Company, 2014
Ebook: 183 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Her name was Rhea.

Rhea is an ordinary miller’s daughter, engaged to be married under suspicious circumstances to a man not of her choosing. He has unknown powers and a manor house full of mysterious women.
Rhea has a hedgehog. It claims to be ordinary, but normal hedgehogs don’t act like that.
It’s probably not going to be enough.

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Give me a good Bluebeard retelling any day and I’ll be a happy camper. But take Bluebeard and twist it into something new and even more horrible, and I’ll be your fan forever. T. Kingfisher tells the story of Rhea, a 15-year-old miller’s daughter, who enjoys her quiet life, helping in the mill, battling that evil swan that tries to steal her food, and living with her family. Until one day, she is told that she is engaged to Lord Crevan, a powerful rich man to whom the miller family can’t really say no.

I immediately loved the voice of this story and Rhea as a character. The voice is charming, almost like a friend telling you about something that happened to them, and Rhea is wonderfully practical in her ways, unlike so many other heroines, especially ones in fairy tales.

She hadn’t expected to love her husband. That sort of thing almost never happened outside of ballads anyway, and it didn’t really bother her. You married well and you were polite to each other, and if you were lucky, you became relatively good friends because after all, you were both stuck in this together. That was all she’d ever hoped for.

Being a good person and a good daughter, she is still not happy about this marriage but she’ll go through with it. Up until this part, the story reads like a light-hearted fairy tale, one that could easily be enjoyed by kids. But the moment Rhea sets out to visit Lord Crevan’s mansion, that’s when the darkness begins.

I’d go so far as to call this a horror novel because the things Rhea encounters are straight out of nightmares. Some are actual monsters, other things are terrifying for different reasons. However, Rhea goes to Crevan’s mansion and encounters – surprise! – some of his other wives. Her practicality shines through again when she is shocked that a man dares to take more than one wife at the same time. She also quickly finds out that all of the previous wives have lost something to Lord Crevan. Sylvie is blind, Ingath’s throat looks like it was torn out by a wild animal, and Maria the cook… well, it’s not quite clear what Crevan took from her but she is definitely afraid of him.

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What follows is Rhea being Rhea. She tries to figure this whole thing out and is helped by a friendly and possibly magical hedgehog she picked up on the way. As animal companions go, this must be one of my favorites! I’d say they should make a Disney movie of this but they wouldn’t dare – because this is a seriously creepy book. Lord Crevan gives Rhea certain tasks to do to get out of the marriage. This is where that fairy tale feeling comes back.

Rhea is definitely my hero. Not only do I love how… normal she seems, but also that, when faced with horrible situations, she is actually scared to death. She isn’t some superhero who doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything. When she meets a mosnter, she half pees her pants and wonders if she’s gone mad. Then she takes a breath and makes a plan on how not to die right now. It’s terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

Another thing I adored about this not too faithful retelling was that the side characters are fully fleshed out, and the ones that aren’t (because they stay on the sidelines) remain mysterious on purpose. Rhea isn’t on an adventure by herself, she has other women helping her the best they can. In the end, they all have to work together to defeat that monstrous man who has harmed them all in different ways.

Ursula Vernon has a knack for showing different sides of well-known fairy tales – she has proven that in Toad Words. But she is also great at taking a well-known tale and making it her own. I have always preferred retellings that don’t stick too closely to the original. This way, there are new things to discover, new riddles to solve, different ways to defeat evil. The blend of utterly charming voice and terrifying plot also worked surprisingly well. I’m definitely going to read all the other fairy tale retellings by this author.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Fairy tale retellings by T. Kingfisher:

  • Toad Words and Other Stories
  • The Seventh Bride (Bluebeard)
  • Bryony and Roses (Beauty and the Beast)
  • The Raven and the Reindeer (The Snow Queen)

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