Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Prayer of Ninety Cats, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

The Prayer of Ninety Cats would probably be in the novelette category in awards other than the World Fantasy Awards--it's a pretty substantial piece--but there it is in short fiction.  It seems more lengthy as it is one of those artistic stories that is somewhat hard to read.  It's written in the second person, a really difficult perspective to pull off.  The setting is a theater where you are supposedly viewing scenes from the seriously debauched life of Lady Báthory Erzsébet, minor Hungarian noble from the 17th century.

For me it's odd and chunky and never quite comes together.  The prayer of the title is supposed to be a protective incantation, but doesn't really inspire awe.  Kiernan is a pretty good writer so this almost comes off, but it just seems to me like it needs more work or something.  The artistic manner is intentionally there to take the edge off some pretty revolting acts, but doesn't end up being quite up to making them art.  It's an OK story, but not in my mind a good one.  2 stars from me.

The Sun and I, by K. J. Parker

The World Fantasy Awards are out, and K.J. Parker has a nominated story, The Sun and I.  It's an interesting take on founding a religion, starting out like L. Ron Hubbard and ending like Ludwig Feuerbach,

Our protagonist, Esp, is one of five college students gone dissolute, begging for money and running small con games together.  They seem bound only by their failure to make anything of their privileged backgrounds.  Esp has the brilliant idea of founding a religion, and discovers some skills as a preacher.  They end up with momentum through some fortuitous predictions and  breaks, and as time and success roll on they start taking themselves seriously.  I'll save the really fun reveal, but it is safe to say that they grow into their roles in mostly good ways, even without wanting to.

It's all told in fine and competent fashion.  I really enjoy K. J. Parker as an author, and think she is destined for fine things.  This story should be a contender for an award, but it's missing elements I am finding in common in the other nominated stories:
  1. LGBT characters, love or sex
  2. Indications of racial diversity
It is a commentary on western and middle eastern culture's attraction to big religion that has been done before.  The setting is vaguely southern European but made up, and reads in such a way that one presumes the characters are white.  So in the end I don't think it will get traction--there's a pretty open field of social commentary in sexual and racial diversity being explored for the first time, so a more throwback tale, even a good one, isn't going to make it on the strength of social observation.  But do read it anyway.  Four stars from me.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Hild, by Nicola Griffith

I've been reading Hild, Nicola Griffith's novel that was nominated for a Nebula last year.  It tells the story of St. Hilda of Whitby as a young woman.  Not much is known about her, other than a very scant historical record, so Griffith made up a childhood and young womanhood worthy of St. Hilda.  Considering that she started as a younger child of a killed noble and ended up a key advisor to kings, she must have been pretty special.

Hild becomes a "seer", mostly by being very intelligent and observant.  She has a true feel for politics and guides her king (Edwin, overking of the Angles) through a lot of tough scrapes.  The book has both sex and violence, but isn't particularly dramatic.  It is, however, interesting, and held me to it all the way to the end.  I wouldn't say it builds, but it never lags.  The characters are strong and fully developed.  It's a good read.

What it's not is speculative fiction.  There are absolutely no fantasy, supernatural or speculative scientific elements in it anywhere.  It's historical fiction.  That's fine, but why a Nebula nomination?  The author?  Griffith is best known as a speculative fiction writer, so she has fans willing to vote for her work and get it an award nomination.  But if this is speculative, anything is.  Two stars for breaking category.