Ursula Vernon has been nominated a few times for the Hugos, and I have read some of her stories (Jackalope’s Wife and The Tomato Thief.) I didn’t dislike or like them. I know I’m not their audience but, unlike what happens when I read other Hugo finalists, I didn’t get the feeling someone was trying to insult me. They had a personal touch and a bit of humor here and there, plus some of the elements that any Hugo finalists needs, but aside from that, I found them generally unexciting. Tepid.
Sun, Moon, Dust is similar and it may also be part of the same shared universe. Generally well told and with some sense of humor, the story is, well, not much happens at all or, rather, a few things happen but the protagonist does hardly anything at all and he is so passive and harmless it’s a miracle he remembers to breathe. To sum up, Sun, Moon, Dust turns upside down the theme of the farm boy who becomes a warrior (or wants to become one) after being given a magic tool (a magic sword) by an older figure (a grandmother, in the story.) The trick? He doesn’t want to become a warrior and might be the most un-warrior person in the whole world. He really just wants to be a farmer, grow potatoes, and improve/fix up his farm, maybe even scrape enough money to get a llama (which, apparently, scare wolves.) There’s also a goat somewhere that gives some very mild comic relief to a story that sometimes feels like the literary equivalent of hospital food.
The sword has three spirits (Sun, Moon, and Dust) who are bound to train him, but after failing they have to give up. This could be an interesting premise for a clumsy adventure with a lot of comic potential but, unfortunately, the whole story just happens in his backyard and the only revelation is that, effectively, and as we have known from the start, he is no warrior and should stick to the potatoes (although most of the farmers I have met tend to be tough people, but whatever.) There’s a lot of what to me feels like unnecessary dialogue, and I suspect half of this short story could have been condensed in a few descriptive sentences (“And the three spirits tried to train him in the arts of warfare but…,”) which would have freed up quite a lot of space to develop a more interesting story or plot.
While the attempts at training him fail, a second story develops (or, rather, happens) alongside involving one of the three spirits (Moon,) who shows a romantic interest in him. Again, whoever, this is just something that happens to the protagonist and he doesn’t seem to do anything to deserve such interest from an ancient spirit. The spirit, by the way, is male, which is something I wasn’t going to mention, but after thinking a bit, I’ve begun to wonder if in the first draft of the story the protagonist might have been a woman, for his behavior feels stereotypically feminine in many ways. However, it might just be that the author is a woman and it’s hard to get into the other gender’s mind.
I have yet to read another Hugo short story finalist, but this one feels like a Hugo winner: It’s a subversion of sorts, although not in-your-face, it has some progressive beats (and I assume it’s almost impossible to win without a few sprinkled here and there,) and someone from the general public could read it without going WTF Did I Just Read as is common with more extreme and experimental Hugo finalists.
You can read the story at Uncanny.