Welcome back to another installment of WWAC’s series discussing the prose finalists for the 2021 Hugo Awards. Having covered the Best Short Story and Best Novelette category, it is now time to start on Best Novella with a look at Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted and Seanan McGuire’s Come Tumbling Down…
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
In a totalitarian America, state-sanctioned Librarians are tasked with providing the public with Approved Materials intended to drive away sedition and subversion. Those caught with Unapproved Materials risk being executed: Esther Augustus was forced to watch as her close friend Beatriz was hanged for “deviance”, Esther’s own father delivering a pious speech during the execution.
Esther flees her Arizona hometown by stowing away on a wagon belonging to a group of Librarians; when she is discovered by Head Librarian Bet and assistant Leda, the moment is tense and awkward. Esther pleads that she desires to join the Librarians and live up to all of the virtues and values embodied by the group; she learns, however, the Librarians are not quite as upright as she had been led to believe. As it happens, Esther has fallen in with a band of rebels connected to insurgent groups across the country, and she must adapt to their harsh way of life to survive.
Upright Women Wanted presents itself as an unconventional take on the Western genre, with its setting of a presumably futuristic (automobiles are referred to as a thing of the past) dystopia and the unlikely usage of badass librarians as protagonists. Beneath these trappings, however, Sarah Gailey captures one of the core traits that first gave the Western genre its broad appeal: the straightforward accessibility of a conflict between clearly defined heroes and villains.
Of course, times and contexts change. The Hugo Awards of 2021 are a long way from the heyday of John Wayne, and Upright Women Wanted reflects this. As we join Esther on her journey we find that the white hats are hardly the Earps, and the black hats are not quite the Daltons.
While more orthodox Westerns might define their villains as roving outlaws and the occasional corrupt lawman, Upright Women chooses as its antagonists an entire regime based upon patriarchal oppression and totalitarian ideology. We learn that, before she ran away in response to the execution of Beatriz, Esther had an abusive father. Her mother, meanwhile, was concerned more with educating her daughter on cooking and sewing than with even imagining the possibility of standing up to the household patriarch (“She taught Esther how to hide bruises, but she’d never done a thing to prevent them”).
The white hats, meanwhile, are solidly LGBT. Bet and Leda are a lesbian couple, while the third member of their group – Cye – is non-binary:
“Did you ever meet anyone who used they instead of she or he? Or did you only ever read about that in stories?” Cye paused, but not long enough for Esther to reply.
“That’s what I thought. It’s not safe to be they in town, no more than it’s safe for Bet and Leda to be anything but Librarians who happen to travel together. When there’s people around who we don’t trust, we let them think we’re the kinds of people who are allowed to exist. And the only kind of Librarian that’s allowed to exist is one who answers to she.”
Being around her Sapphic travelling companions makes Esther question her own orientation: “It was almost enough to make Esther feel like she and Beatriz could have found the same kind of life if they’d only tried hard enough, only known it was possible, only wanted it enough.” Her awakening is described in loving detail:
[T]he longer Esther talked to Cye, the longer she realized that the list of things she’d never seen before stretched longer than the shadows cast by the desert sun. Not just things she’d never seen—things she’d never known possible. Things like Bet and Leda huddling under the same blanket next to the fire, a map stead across both of their laps, neither of them looking nervously around to make sure no one saw when their hands touched. Things like Cye’s eyes dancing as they spin tales about switching to trousers halfway through a hoedown to spin the half of the room they’d missed when they were wearing a dress.
Esther even grows attracted to Cye; however, the killing of Beatriz looms large in her mind. “That’s what happens to people like us,” she says at one point. “We go wrong and then we get our comeuppance.” She finds herself reluctant to pursue a relationship with Cye less because of the latter’s gender, but because of her personal tragedy: “I don’t want to feel any kind of way about anybody. I’ve been down that road, and I know what’s at the end of it.”
Even the swooniest Western will typically have a degree of action, and Upright Women Wanted does not disappoint in this area. The story’s conflict is handled well, with both the violence and threat of violence sharing a strong, character-based underpinning. A lot of focus is placed on just how dangerous Esther’s new life is, with her Librarian companions taking some time to trust her: even halfway through the story the Librarians are contemplating the possibility of Esther being a mole for the state, with Bet suggesting that she be shot. This fits in with the coldly pragmatic attitudes shown by the rebels; even Cye, who becomes Esther’s love interest, initially declares that “[w]e should just turn her loose and let he make friends with the scrub spiders.”
Esther’s response to all of this is complex. She is nowhere near as hard-skinned as her fellow-travellers, and feels a degree of shame at being unable to help them in battle. However, it turns out that the domestic skills she has been taught by her servile mother – cooking and household repair – are exactly what the Librarians need in their harsh journey. As is so often the case with romantic leads, the protagonists may come from different worlds, but they nonetheless complete one another.
More thrills and spills follow: the presence of a fellow-traveller who may or may not be a traitor; an attack by a gang of bandits who turn out to be a sheriff’s posse (not, as Leda points out, that there is any difference beyond the presence of a star); and a memorable scene involving the gutting of a corpse to speed up its consumption by buzzards. These elements of grit and action are well-balanced with the romantic story of Esther’s self-discovery.
Upright Women Wanted is a textbook example of a Hug-nominated novella circa 2021: it shows a commitment to LGBT representation and associated themes, along with a strong grasp of structure and genre. The latter aspect is put on show through its usage of a well-worn Western romance structure, the science fiction elements adding just enough of an update to allow for a broader thematic range.
Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series has become a fixture at the Hugos, with the first installment Every Heart a Doorway winning Best Novella 2017 and every ballot since then seeing one of its sequels contending for the same title. The setting is a school for children who have passed through portals between the mundane world and lands of fantasy – experiences that can hardly leave them unchanged.
An earlier installment in the series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, followed twins Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott as they journeyed into a Gothic world reminiscent of old Universal horror films. The plot of Come Tumbling Down kicks off when Jack and Jill both return, albeit only in a manner of speaking. A portal opens into the School for Wayward Children and through it comes an unknown girl carrying the unconscious form of Jill – a form which, it transpires, is inhabited by the mind of Jack, the twins having swapped bodies.
Jack’s friends accompany her on a trip back to the Gothic world of the Moors to retrieve her body, but this plan has a problem. Jill is unwilling to give up Jack’s physical form: she has adapted fully to her world of mad science and megalomania, and is willing to take desperate measures to ensure that her every scheme succeeds.
While some of the novellas in the Wayward Children series have worked reasonably well as standalone stories, others have required the reader to be already familiar with McGuire’s universe and invested in her characters. Come Tumbling Down falls very much into the latter category, and a newcomer will likely find themselves utterly bewildered by the cast list alone. Over a brief space of time the reader is (re-)introduced to Christopher, a boy from a land of the dead who is gifted with the ability to create dancing skeletons; Cora, a mermaid who (temporarily) sports legs; Kade, crown prince of goblins; Sumi, “technically a candy construct brought back to life by a sort of demigoddess with a really large oven”; and Alexis, the stranger accompanying Jack, who is actually a revenant with “lightning where her heart should be” and speaks in sign language.
All of this amounts to an intricately bizarre web of character-based drama, as can be seen when the cast recap events of past stories:
“Of course I’m missing my glasses,” she said. “My sister—may the Drowned Gods devour every scrap of meat clinging to her barnacled bones—stole tem when she stole my skull. You’re all quite blurry at a distance.”
“I’m Cora and I’m very confused right now,” said Cora.
“Then you clearly belong with this student body,” said Jack. She leaned against Alexis as she pulled the box of gloves closer. Have there been any other miraculous resurrections since my departure? I do like to keep up on the latest gossip.”
“Everyone else who was dead is still dead, so far as I know,” said Kade. “Nancy’s door came back for her. She’s gone to the Halls of the Dead.”
“We left Nadya there when we went to find Sumi’s ghost,” said Christopher.
This is a universe in which characters swap bodies, the dead are regularly resurrected and where even genre is mutable, the protagonists freely hopping from realms of Gothic horror to lands of Lisa Frank kitsch. The introduction of a subplot in which Cora, the mermaid, ends up in the grip of Lovecraftian entities known as Drowned Gods does something to give the novella shape by raising the stakes. But what really stands out amongst the freeform worldbuilding – like buoys in a stormy sea – are the story’s stark moments of psychological insight.
Although the other characters find Jack and Jill physically identical, there re subtle differences between their bodies – something that Jack, who is specifically described as having OCD, is all too aware of:
Every difference ached. Every difference burned. Even her face was wrong. Different lines around the mouth and eyes, from different uses of the underlying musculature. People thought of Jack as the dour member of the pair, and perhaps they weren’t wrong, perhaps she didn’t smile as easily as her sister, but when she did smile, she did it with sincerity. She smiled because she meant it, a response that had already begun to translate into specific morphology. Jill smiled because her Master liked his daughter to be sweet and biddable, liked her to smile in his presence as if he was the source of all that was good in the world. Those smiles never reached her eyes.
As Jack explains later on, “[t]his body is tainted, Gideon. It’s rotten, it’s spoiled. The things my sister used to do… I could wash the skin from these hands and still be unable to stand the sight of them. How do I wash my blood? My organs? How do I scrub the sins from my sister’s skeleton?”
The setting of the Wayward Children series has always evoked online roleplaying communities and the internal identities that come with them – the cast including the likes of a dead boy who still lives and a mermaid with legs. McGuire not only captures the way in which such communities can become havens for misfits, she also examines what makes a person a misfit in the first place. As fanciful as the stories may be, they are underpinned with a strong degree of psychological realism.
It is debatable as to whether every novella in the series warrants a place on the Hugo ballot, particularly when – as is the case here – the book does not stand well on its own. Still, in continuing the saga, Comes Tumbling Down serves up another helping of the ingredients that made Wayward Children a success.