The 2019 Hugo Awards are scheduled to be presented in August at the Dublin Worldcon. Many fans of SF/F are awaiting the big day, all the while eagerly reading and evaluating this year’s finalists. As per annual tradition, I will be joining in with a series of reviews covering the Short Story, Novelette, Novella and Novel categories.
To kick things off, here are the six candidates for Best Short Story…
“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander
Once upon a time, long, long, long, long, long, long, ago, there were three raptor sisters, hatched beneath a lucky star. They lived in a wood together, they stole sheep and cattle together, and all in all, there was no tighter-knit hunting pride of matriarchal dromaeosauridae between the mountains and the sea.
So begins “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters,” in an opening paragraph that neatly lays out the story’s mission statement: this is a fairy tale, but with dinosaurs. The three velociraptors are named SKRRKITTTT, RRRKIISH, and SSSSSS, although for the sake of convenience the story refers to them as Allie, Betty, and Ceecee. The world they inhabit is, aside from their presence, a conventional fairy tale milieu — something underlined by the arrival of the Prince.
The Prince, being a far more typical fairy tale character, is unfamiliar with dinosaurs. When he ventures towards the raptors’ forest, he is surprised to see villages ringed with tall stockades (“The wolves and the bandits in these parts aren’t that spry, surely?”) and bewildered by sizeable, three-toed footprints (“What large chickens they have here!”) When he meets the dinosaurs face-to-face, they find each other equally perplexing: the Prince responds with wide-eyed wonder, and the raptor sisters are confused by the presence of a human being who does not run from them.
Taking advantage of the confusion, the Prince rides the youngest sister Ceecee back home with him as a pet. While in captivity, she befriends the Prince’s wife. The two find common ground. Like Ceecee, the Princess was separated from her home and her sisters to live with the dim-witted Prince, and she yearns for a life of freedom. When Allie and Betty try to rescue Ceecee, the Princess decides to aid them — even if doing so involves turning to witchcraft.
With the introduction of the Princess, “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters” shifts from a genre mash-up to a deconstruction of fairy tale gender dynamics. Feminist rewrites of fairy tales are nothing new, of course; the field forms a sizeable subgenre in its own right. Stories of this type run the risk of being dour and preachy, sucking the life out of their source texts for the sake of making a point. Bolander’s story avoids this pitfall thanks to its raucous sense of humour. Seeing the rebel Princess team up with a band of dinosaurs is, quite simply, fun.
The narrative voice is squarely on the side of the dinosaurs: Bolander’s storyteller delivers the tale with great warmth (a stray “best beloved” suggests a certain Kipling influence) to an audience of baby dinosaurs, little chirplings listening amongst their eggshells. The people of the Prince’s court come across merely as stock figures in a story, while the three dinosaurs — and the Princess, once she joins them — feel real. Bolander describes their flesh-tearing, tooth-bloodying ways in detail, and tactility in contrast to the pantomime artificiality of the human characters:
Oh, hatchlings, the reunion that ensued! The glorious shrieking and fluting and twining of necks! The whip-whapping of tails and the flaring of plumage! The rubbing of snouts and the click-clack of sickle claws freed from their beeswax clots tapping a joyous tattoo on the floor! The horses didn’t appreciate it, not one blessed bit, but I know you would have, with your clever slitted eyes and your sharp senses of scent. The strength of the pride is in the many. Split us apart and we are nothing, but together—oh, together—there is nothing we cannot bring crashing and spouting to earth.
For all its spinning, mashing and revising, the story does end up paying homage to fairy tale tradition by eventually revealing that the Princess — after joining the dinosaurs — goes on to become the inspiration for a very famous folktale character. But by that point, “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters” has already become a perfectly good fairy tale in its own right. Bolander has done more than deconstruct the fairy tale — she has also reconstructed it.
“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” by T. Kingfisher
This story takes place in “a land of elven halls and hollows, of fairy mounds and great cathedrals underground”, where mortals are lured in and may never return. Here, a group of the fair folk gathers around a campfire to share some stories. But where mortals share stories of the fairy kind, the eight storytellers in the land of the fae have inverted this process: they are trading their tales of a mortal woman named Rose MacGregor.
According to tradition, mortal maidens are meant to fall in love with the alluring men of fairyland, and spend their lives pining when their supernatural partners finally return home. But Rose, somehow, was able to resist the charms of her otherworldly suitors. This has lent her a special allure within the land of the fae — rather like the fish that got away, perhaps — and the storytellers discuss her with a mixture of frustration and admiration.
“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” is a brief story with a slight plot. It takes the basic role-reversal joke of fairies sharing stories about mortals, and uses this to build a pastoral narrative that is both comical and touching. The story makes use of earthy sexual humour (Rose herself is said to be “well-endowed in all directions,” while one of the fairies “was descended of satyr stock, which gave him certain dramatic endowments”) and playfully riffs on folkloric conventions. However, it also shows respect for its source material.
The story uses the three principle fairy characters — the sinister pooka, the boorish selkie, and the melancholy satyr — to explore different aspects of folklore and fairy tale. Even as it pokes gentle fun at its subject matter, “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” captures why these stories retain their appeal. It is a good example of minimalist fantasy fiction: in a short, seemingly simple narrative, T. Kingfisher includes enough hints to conjure up a whole world.
“STET” by Sarah Gailey
“STET” is presented as an excerpt from a textbook of the future that discusses artificially intelligent vehicles. The main body of the story is a single paragraph, written in dry academic-speak and citing such fictional volumes as Magda Sheenan’s 2023 study A Unified Theory of Autonomous Conscience and Vehicular Awareness of Humanity as Compiled from Observations of Artificial Intelligence Behavior in Decision Matrices.
But the real story occurs in the set of footnotes that accompany the lone paragraph, citing further documents from this future era. Through news headlines and fragmented references to various ongoing debates, another narrative emerges: one in which a three-year-old girl, Ursula, has been killed by an artificially intelligent car.
The vehicular AIs, we learn, are programmed to avoid causing deaths. In cases where a death has become inevitable, they are programmed to calculate which life is least significant. In this latest case, a car had to choose between swerving to avoid Ursula and swerving to avoid an endangered woodpecker — and ended up sparing the woodpecker at the cost of Ursula’s life.
The footnotes are accompanied by editorial notes, which chart the author Anna’s arguments with her editor. The latter argues that the details of the Ursula case are irrelevant; Anna, growing increasingly impatient, allows her outrage to escape from the editorial discussion and into the footnotes themselves. In the process, yet another layer of the story becomes apparent, one that reveals the exact personal connections between Anna, Ursula, and the editor.
“STET” is an experimental story, one that is hard to imagine working before the era of the World Wide Web. The document itself is interactive, with the reader able to click on parts of the text to make the footnotes appear, before scrolling down to read the inline notations.
While the story’s formalistic experimentation is amusing, its subject matter is anything but. Piece by piece, hint by hint, “STET” paints a picture of a future where AI algorithms have a say in who lives and who dies — and where human responses feed into those algorithms, translating everyday bias into cold, mechanised brutality. The combination of formal playfulness and starkly horrific subject matter is positively volatile.
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker
This story follows a character as he grows up, starting out as The Boy Who Will Become Court Magician before eventually ending up as the Court Magician of the title. At the start of the story, he is merely a boy enraptured by the conjurers performing in a market square. One of their number, the Great Gretta, adopts him as a pupil and shows him some sleight-of-hand tricks.
The boy becomes an accomplished illusionist, his performances so sophisticated that he receives an invitation to study at the royal palace, where he can learn some real magic.
The story is narrated by the magician’s courtly mentor. While unnamed, this mentor drives much of the plot, manipulating the boy’s life to ensure that he is taken to the palace and educated in the arts of magic. The narrator adopts a detached, dispassionate tone that belies the streak of bitterness running through the tale. “The Court Magician” is a bleak coming-of-age narrative where we see the main character grow from wide-eyed innocent to a tragically compromised individual.
The opening paragraph of the story establishes the boy’s good nature:
The boy who will become court magician this time is not a cruel child. Not like the last one, or the one before her. He never stole money from Blind Carel’s cup, or thrashed a smaller child for sweets, or kicked a dog. This boy is a market rat, which sets him apart from the last several, all from highborn or merchant families. This isn’t about lineage, or even talent.
But as the story unfolds, we see this character being twisted by his harsh surroundings. The young magician is asked to make the Regent’s latest problem — a woman who stands outside the castle uttering offensive chants — to disappear. With a magic word, the magician causes the chanting to stop. He is left to ponder the exact implications of this: did he silence the woman, or eliminate her? Who was she? What was she chanting? The magician’s superiors do not explain, but they afford him such lush living quarters that he does not press the matter.
At the same time that the young magic-worker is being figuratively chipped away by moral compromise, he is being literally chipped away by his own magic. As he continues to cast spells, he loses fingers, toes, and teeth, along with memories of who he was before joining the palace. Each loss is merely the cost of working as the court magician.
This is an inspired inversion of the norm on the part of author Sarah Pinsker. From Narnia to Puff the Magic Dragon, fantasy narratives tend to associate the loss of childhood innocence with the loss of magic; but in this story, growth from good boy to compromised adult is associated with the gaining of magic — a Faustian trade-off.
Despite turning such a familiar concept on its head, “The Court Magician” retains the robustness and narrative clarity of a good fairy tale. The narrative of the magician’s steady moral decay is engaging, if rather crueler than a typical fairy tale. But then, what else could be expected from a story narrated by the protagonist’s chief manipulator?
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow
This is a story told from the perspective of a witch who is also a librarian. As we learn, the two roles often overlap: the narrator informs us that there are only two types of librarian, the first being “the prudish, bitter ones… who believe the books are their personal property” and the second being witches.
The witch-librarian presides over a hidden world. Through magic she can communicate with the books, learning how they were read by recent patrons. As the library is frequented by youngsters, the witch takes it upon herself to ensure that the kids go home with the books that will bring the most magic into their lives. She places particular faith in portal fantasies, with their ability to spirit young readers away to new worlds.
This premise sounds like pure whimsy. And, indeed, “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” is in large part a lighthearted celebration of the fantasy genre, one that recreates that magical time (the oft-cited golden age of 12) when the fantasy section of a library holds a particular sparkle in its promised journeys to other worlds. But at the same time, this is a story that deals with heavier themes.
As a story about escapism, “A Witch’s Guide” confronts the fact that escapism implies the presence of something to escape from. The youngsters in the narrative are not merely looking for a diversion to take their minds away from chores or homework — they are facing serious problems, from unplanned pregnancies to racial prejudice. The most prominent amongst them is an African-American teenager who is unable to even read a novel without suspicion:
Other patrons were forced to double back in the aisle, shooting suspicious, you-don’t –belong-here looks behind them as if wondering what a skinny black teenager was really up to while pretending to read a fantasy book. He ignored them.
Faced with such cases, the witch knows all too well the limitations of escapism, and yearns to use deeper powers to help those in need.
The story works on three levels. In one respect it is a meta-fictional celebration of fantasy, which will leave many a genre fan nodding their head in fond recognition:
I snuck in a few others (all pretty old, all pretty white; our branch director is one of those pinch-lipped Baptists who thinks fantasy books teach kids about Devil worship, so roughly 90% of my collection requests are mysteriously denied): A Wrinkle in Time came back with the furtive, jammed-in-a-backpack scent that meant he liked it but thought it was too young for him; Watership Down was offended because he never got past the first ten pages, but I guess footnotes about rabbit-math aren’t for everyone; and The Golden Compass had the flashlight-smell of 3:00 a.m. on its final chapter and was unbearably smug about it. I’d just gotten an inter-library-loaned copy of Akata Witch—when he stopped coming.
On another level it is a solid piece of world-building in its own right, teasing us with such notions as catacomb-libraries “guarded by librarians so ancient and desiccated they’ve become human-shaped books, paper-skinned and ink-blooded” and introducing us to a delightful central character — a Mary Poppins for the Goodreads era. Finally, the story offers a sensitive portrayal of the hardships frequently faced by young people so often assumed to be carefree.
The main virtue of “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” is that all of its disparate components fit together. The whimsy and the grit — the bright fantasy and harsh reality — contrast with one another to create a story as poignant as it is amusing.
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by P. Djèlí Clark
Every American school child has heard of George Washington’s dentures. But contrary to popular belief, none were made of wood. Some were, in fact, human teeth, and there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that these included nine teeth obtained from slaves on the Mount Vernon plantation. If so, exactly who these people were is lost to time. But “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” uses fantasy to imagine their place in the untold history of America.
The story comprises a series of vignettes, one for each tooth — or, more accurately, one for each person whose tooth ended up in the mouth of Washington. The first was a blacksmith who was forced to create the implements of slavery — shackles, collars and muzzles:
But blacksmiths know the secret language of iron, and he beseeched his creations to bind the spirits of their wielders—as surely as they bound flesh. For the blacksmith understood what masters had chosen to forget: when you make a man or woman a slave you enslave yourself in turn. And the souls of those who made thralls of others would never know rest—in this life, or the next.
And so, whenever he wears the blacksmith’s tooth, Washington is haunted by the sound of beating metal. The tooth of a runaway slave keeps falling out, eventually vanishing altogether; the tooth of a slave who killed a slave-owner causes Washington to wake up in the night screaming from nightmares; the tooth of a magician known for his deadly arts went on to curse those who wore it, prompting Washington to avoid putting it in his dentures.
The magic teeth and their attributes turn out to be primarily a framing device for the nine stories, and those nine stories themselves turn out to be chapters in a broader meta-narrative. “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” is not only a secret history of forgotten rebels; it is also a full-blown alternate history about an America where human beings rub shoulders with a range of supernatural creatures.
One of the slaves, while being taken to America, shared a ship’s hull with a merman — a species that, we are told, acted as exotic pets for aristocrats and slaves for Spanish pearl-fishers. Meanwhile, the slave-owner killed by the slave whose tooth ended up giving Washington nightmares is implied to have been a vampire.
In this version of American history, the Earl of Dunmore’s 1775 proclamation lists not only “indentured servants [and] Negroes” but also “hedge witches and wizards occultists, lycanthropes, giants, non-cannibal ogres and any sentient magical creatures.” Racial pseudoscience of the era declares that black people are closer to Bavarian goblins than to white people.
Most of all, the story celebrates the magic of African tradition — or, rather, traditions. Each of the nine slaves is revealed to have been a magician, and each one practiced a different form of magic. One, Tom, could conjure the ghosts of dead slaves to rebel. Another, Ulysses, was an enchanter-chef who turned slave-owners into pigs (and then, into pork) in the manner of the legendary Circe. And then there was Solomon, whose knowledge of chemistry was interpreted as magic by her peers, and whose tooth caused Washington to have dreams of an Afrofuturist land “where Negroes flew through the sky on metal wings like birds and sprawling cities that glowed brightly at night were run by machines who thought faster than men.” Notably, the magical practices often exist on a nexus point between African and European (and, in one case, Native American) traditions.
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” has an inventive structure and a fetching concept. More than that, it has the ambitious goal of shining a light on the more shameful aspects of American history while also delivering a series of rousing — even heroic — fantasy narratives.
It is hard to miss the theme that recurs across these six finalists: each one of these stories is, in large part, about storytelling.
“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” and “The Court Magician” all riff on fairy tale conventions, with varying degrees of revisionism. “STET” explores the way in which factual writing is an exercise in narrative-building, capable of emphasising or suppressing true stories. “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” pits the oral stories of a minority group against the dominant culture. Finally, “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” is about the appeal and the power of escapist fantasy fiction. A cynical observer might take this as evidence of modern fantasy having become self-absorbed, reaching the point where speculative fiction has nothing to speculate upon but itself. However, this reading ignores how each one of these stories succeeds in creating its own world, as is to be expected from science fiction and fantasy.
Between them, these six stories take us on a trip through fairy tale lands with strange new inhabitants, past an alternate version of the United States’ founding, into a contemporary library staffed by witches, and finally towards a future of dangerous new technology. Some of these lands may be outwardly familiar; but this time, we are seeing them from unusual perspectives, our storytellers ranging from African-American slaves to sororal velociraptors. The overarching theme is undeniable — but the six writers represented here have given that theme a strong set of variations.