Review of “Bloodybones” by Paul F. Olson

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This novella was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was published for the first time in the author’s collection Whispered Echoes.

David’s friend Amy disappears from her property at Vassey Point during a violent storm. David helps her father close up her home in the old lighthouse, but six months later, he’s drawn to return. He meets Amy’s sister Karen wandering on the property, and the two of them strike up an acquaintance. They begin reading through Amy’s journals, finding creepy things. Can they solve the mystery of what happened to her?

Good points: This is a psychological horror, a ghost story that takes shape as the supernatural closes down slowly but surely on the two protagonists. It’s very smooth and offhand, so I gather Olson is very practiced at this. It includes a lot of information from David (as the narrator) that gives us local color and background on Amy, Karen and the history of the point that’s led to its haunting. Also, I can see the film in my head. This is very cinematic.

Not so good points: The narrator’s casual, matter-of-fact tone keeps the events here from becoming really scary. It’s very white bread and traditional. The techniques for generating horror are fairly standard—enclosed spaces, violent storms, ghostly presences, etc. I appreciate Olson’s technique and subtlety, but this just shivered my nerves a little. It didn’t really scare me.

Four stars.

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Review of “Little Widow” by Maria Dahvana Headley

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This short story was a finalist for the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was originally published by Nightmare.

Natalie is the Littlest Wife of the Preacher, a cult leader in Miracle. She’s at a sleepover when the cult suicides and the compound goes up in flames. Along with her surviving widows Reese and Scarlet, she is adopted by the Stuart family, and starts school. When the carnival comes to town, the girls go to what looks like a strip show, but the woman in the skimpy costume turns out to be Valerie, an angel from heaven who has come to contact them. Valerie has the Preacher in a cage and the girls confront him. She has also brought a shipment of T-Rexs from heaven that she lets loose to take care of some mistakes on the Earth. The four of them escape in a crop duster.

Good points: This story takes on a serious subject, which is how girls and women are often mistreated in patriarchal religious cults. It also takes a jaundiced view of miracles in general that fuel this kind of cult. It’s features good characterization, as we get background on the girls. They’re immigrant children, which suggests the problem with human trafficking.

Not so good points: This has a touch of surrealism, as the story moves from what could be reality to clear unreality when the girls meet Valerie. At this point, it’s actually less interesting. I was hoping it would follow through on the dramatic opening. Instead, this looks like another attack on the patriarchy. There are no male characters that don’t leer, and all the women are avengers. Even the dinosaurs are all female. Also, I’m not sure what the pterodactyl is about.

Three stars.

Review of “The Fall Shall Further the Flight In Me” by Rachael K. Jones

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This short story was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was originally published in Clockwork Phoenix 5. The title (and maybe the idea) is taken from a George Herbert poem titled “Easter Wings.”

Ananda is an earthbound holy woman, attempting to rise through repentance and self-denial so she can carry prayers upward to the heavens. She eats only seed cakes and works in her thorny garden. In this way, she expects to eventually become thin enough, and light enough, to step into the air like her grandmother. One day one of the winged sky people falls into the garden, bringing a message. Ananda rescues the creature Sano and tends her wounds. Sano kisses her, and Ananda locks her in the hut. It takes a week to purge the defilement. It took Ananda’s grandmother 40 years to rise, and her mother failed in flight, but Ananda is already so light that she puts rocks in her pockets to keep herself grounded. Her mother discovers this, and then Sano in the hut. Can Ananda and Sano escape?

Good points: The best thing about this story is the creative idea. It seems to be surreal fiction about the clash of conflicting worldviews, as the sky people think earth is heaven and the earthbound think the sky is heaven. Neither can answer the prayers of the other. The imagery is excellent. I can’t find any overt political message here (as has been popular lately), but maybe this is a vote for harmony.

Not so good points: The surrealism thing makes this pretty nebulous. There’s not much plot–it’s mostly philosophy–and the little glimpse I got through the imagery seems to be about the extent of the world-building and characterization. Ananda’s grandmother has risen skyward, and somehow this has invoked an impending war? Hm. I ended up with a lot of questions.

I’ll give it extra points for the creativity. Four stars.

Review of DAS STEINGESCHÖPF by G.V. Anderson

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This is the short fiction winner of the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Strange Horizons.

In 1928 Herr Hertzel has recently been made journeyman, and the Schöpfers’ Guild has given him his first commission. Frau Leitner has written from Bavaria to request a small restoration. Hertzel makes the journey and finds Frau Leitner in a small village. She is an older woman with a bad cough, and she takes him to the piece that needs work, a Steingeschöpf housed in her attic. The piece’s name is Ambroise, and he was carved in Queckstein by the French Master De Loynes during the seventeenth century. Ambroise’s eyes are so deteriorated that he can hardly see to paint, and he shows other signs of decomposition, as well. Hertzel feels inadequate to restore a piece of this history, and he tries to refuse the job, but Frau Leitner talks him into it. There are dangers. The Queckstein dust can destroy the lungs and working it absorbs life and memory. Is Hertzel up to the task?

For anyone wondering, Steingeschöpf roughly translates as “stone creature” or “stone golem.” The imagery and characterizations here are first rate. You can smell the snow, and feel it crackle underfoot. Hertzel is a Jew in the years between the World Wars, and working the Queckstein reveals his story of love and loss. The tale also reveals the love between Ambroise and Frau Leitner, and how little time they have left. It’s a very touching story, without a lot of plot, but filled with subtle, understated emotional content. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Literary vs. popular awards

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Following up on the Puppies’ aims, I’ve been reading Sarah Hoyt’s blog. Writing for the Puppies, she basically identifies the issue as between literary awards vs. sales. According to Hoyt, a Hugo Award increases sales, a Nebula is inert and a World Fantasy Award reduces sales. This suggests the attack on the Hugo Awards is about a) increasing sales or b) damaging the ability of the Hugos to increase sales for the winners. According to Hoyt, it’s just about getting some “fun” stuff on the ballot.

It makes sense that the Hugo would increase sales. It is supposedly a popularity award voted on by a group of people nerdy enough to attend WorldCon. This means people would assume nominees and winners would represent the popular taste. According to Hoyt, the Hugo has turned into a literary award instead. Literary awards select for ideas and writing technique over popular taste, and generally increase prestige for the writer, the publisher, and according to Hoyt, the writer’s agent. So, this means agents, magazine editors and book publishers are screening their slush piles for possible literary award-winning stories to increase their own prestige instead of looking for quality pieces that would be good sellers and make money for the writers. It also suggests the voters at WorldCon are increasingly these same people.

Looking at it this way, an associated group of writers has made an effort to get their stuff on the ballot in order to increase both their prestige and their sales. This may be correct, but if so, the main effect has been to expose the writing and the writers to criticism, some of it literary and some of it otherwise, leading to episodes of trolling and generally bad behavior that reduces their standing in the community. Likely some of the Puppies entered into the deal with this idea.

On the other hand, there have been a number of complaints about how this battle has “broken” the Hugo Award system. We can figure this is from people who have a lot invested in the awards, for example, past and aspiring winners, their editors, publishers, agents, etc. This suggests that some of the Puppies actually have the aim of destroying the Hugo Award system in order to break the hold of the group maintaining it as a literary award. This would reduce its prestige value and level the playing field a bit. Nominating lower quality and offensive works would be a part of this strategy. As I understand it, this is the split between the Sad and the Rabid Puppies led by Vox Day.

Looking at Hoyt’s statement that this is about getting some “fun” stuff on the ballot, I didn’t see anything especially fun. Leckie, Heuvelt and Monette came closest, but that’s the literary stuff. Looking around, I can’t find any reviews that say of how fun these nominees are. Reviews for a couple of the pieces actually say “avoid.” Applying the scientific method, this means I have to reject this claim. So, I conclude there may be an actual attack on the Hugo Awards.

A resort to strategies like this means there’s a disconnect in the SF&F community that we need to look at.

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