It’s that time of the year once more: time to read the Hugo Award finalists and be shocked, amused, horrified, and (occasionally) entertained. As usual, I’ll stick to the short stories because they are free to and it’s where hungry, ambitious authors try to show off, so there’s hardly a better category to get a graphography (is that a word?) of the current zeitgeist, but I may throw in a novelette if I feel like it.
Of course, for the same reason there is such a thing as Oscar bait, there’s also Hugo bait, so expect to see certain patterns with these stories—or just with their authors. Like in previous years, gender is one main theme, and of the four big categories (novel, novella, novelette, and short story,) with 24 stories and 22 authors, 18 of the finalists are women, 2 identify as trans, and 2 weirdos are men. There are also many names you might recognize from previous years. Make of those things what you will.
Today’s story is The Court Magician, by Sarah Pinsker.
Eeeeeeh, I didn’t like it much, and I have some issues with it that I will be discussing in a moment, but I don’t want to give the idea that I hated it. It’s OK. You can see the Hugo Bait dangling from it from a mile away, but it’s ok-ish. Also, unlike other message stories popular these last years, this one has a message that has potential and doesn’t cling to current political hobgoblins.
As I’m writing this, I have only read two 2019 Hugo stories yet, but both have the same issue: puzzling writing. I mean writing in a purely formal sense; not the story, plot, or anything like that, just wrong writing—or, as I said, puzzling. And in both cases, I suspect the reason may be due to the authors’ attempt at writing in a certain style—archaic, old, fairy-tale like, heavily stylized…poetic, perhaps? I have encountered bizarre syntax, missing conjunctions, missing pronouns, dangling modifiers, overly complex sentences mixed with fragmented sentences, etc. I’ll give you a few examples in a moment, and if you think I’m being unfair, keep in mind these are Hugo finalists, the best stories of the year, not some indie, self-published crap I myself could put up on Amazon.
The point of all these examples is that as I was reading these stories, my eyes had to keep going back and forth to reread what I had just read because my brain noticed that something was amiss. Just details, something that may not take more than a second to reread, but these small obstacles keep adding up (and, by the way, the story is in the present tense, which doesn’t help):
He contemplates the tawdry illusions of the market square with more intensity than most, until he is marked for us by his own curiosity.
I’ll admit this is a very small issue, but it’s the first of many. Compare it with the simpler: “until his curiosity marks him out.” And why “with more intensity than most”? That’s like saying “my kid gets better grades than most kids.” Yeah, well, welcome to the upper 49% elite, I guess.
His eyes are marked by dark circles, his step lags, but he can do the trick she taught him, can do it as smoothly as she can, though admittedly she is not as Great as she once was.
The first comma followed by the modifier (his step lags) leads me to think that some sort of modifying list is being made, but this expectation is broken by the first but and the puzzling “can do it as smoothly as she can,” instead of just “as smoothly as she can,” To me, reading that sentence feels like driving a car that keeps stalling.
The text is also made up of many short sentences strung together with no rhythm unless you consider droning a rhythm, which makes the whole thing feel monotonous:
He learns all her tricks, then begins to develop his own. He’s a smart child. Understands intuitively that the trick is not enough.
Instead of: “He’s a smart child and understands all the tricks, soon beginning to develop his own and/but intuitively understanding that the trick is not enough, that the [and then you go on from there]” etc. Why three (four if you add what follows) sentences when you can just write… one.
By the way, in case you believe I’m being unfair, I ran this story through the program I use when writing/editing (Grammarly) and it highlighted three passages of text as “monotonous.” So it’s not just me.
Is this type of telegraphic writing a popular fad? Something taught at some writer’s workshop? Some sort of pseudo-Hemingway? A trick to infuse your text with an aura of… what exactly?
And conjunctions exist, you know:
He sits alone in his chambers. Wonders, as all court magicians do after their first act of true magic, if he should run away. I watch him closely as he goes through this motion. I’ve seen it before.
And then, as most do, he decides to stay. He likes the silk pillow, the regular meals. The woman was a nuisance. It was her fault for disturbing the Regent. She brought it on herself.
I’m pretty sure this is a conscious stylistic choice, that it’s taught somewhere, but I’m really puzzled. It’s monotonous and yet… it feels like it’s done on purpose to imitate something, but what? Improvised poetry? High literature of some kind? The spontaneous train of thought of someone depressed? Here’s the problem: that style may be high brown (somewhere) but it’s also reminiscent of how children write because they are just not very good at it (so short sentences, no conjunctions, lack of transitions, no subordination, etc.) There’s this that made my brain shortcircuit for a moment:
“Would you like to learn real magic?” I send a palace guard to ask my question, dressed in her own clothes rather than her livery.
Not only is the description of the action (sending a guard) that leads to the question written AFTER the question has already been shown being asked, the question is what is being dressed in her own clothes. Obviously what is being dressed is not the question but the guard, but it’s yet another stumbling reading block in my path, compounded by the apparently significant yet in truth irrelevant description of the guard (a completely non-essential character that disappears immediately) as she (and how is dressed doesn’t matter either.) Compare: “I send a palace guard, in his/her clothes rather than royal livery, to ask one question: “Would you like to learn real magic?”
Pro-tip to all writers: Put the most important item of a sentence at the end (or, sometimes, at the beginning) of the sentence.
He has to ask seven times. That is the rule. Only when he has asked for the seventh time. Only then is he told: If he is taught the true word, he has no choice but this path. He will not likely return to the streets, nor make a life in the theaters, entertaining the gentle-born.
What’s the point of a sentence of the “Only when…” type that only repeats what is already stated in the first one, ending abruptly without explaining the consequence of the conditional (i.e., that he will be told something)? To create, again, a feeling of repetition, monotony, almost like something droning? And “he has no choice but“… followed by “he will not likely“? Well, what is it, does he not have a choice or it’s just not likely that he will go back to his previous life?
I could go but you get the point. I had to dwell on this because style is clearly very important in this story, but what’s the story about anyway?
It’s about a poor kid who is eager to learn the secrets of magic and is chosen to do so, but by doing so he learns that it is just tricks, but when he has mastered all the tricks, he is promised “real” magic so he can serve as the court magician. He finally learns real magic, which is a single spell, a single secret word in fact, that seems it can accomplish anything but it’s just used to make disappear any problem the Regent may have. I by disappear I mean it literally, as or almost as if said problem (people, rebels, an angry lover, whatever) had never existed. The price? The magician loses something of himself, something he loves or cares about (fingers, eyes, limbs, people he loves, etc.—and, by the way, it’s implied the narrator is a previous court magician who lost everything except his voice, which is a cool detail.) Eventually, as you can imagine, he ends up as an old mutilated freak. He can’t do the job anymore and leaves, although unlike previous courts magicians (all of them as broken or more than he is) he still wants to discover the “trick” behind this magic.
Now, if you think this is a strange story (although my short summary is naturally very crude and can’t do justice to it) you are right, and that points to the second issue I had with this story. This is a “message” story, and depending on how you read it that may have been obvious to you or you may have completely missed it. The message (apparently confirmed by the author) seems to be about the cruelties, sacrifices, suffering, and pain those who serve power incur, represented in this case by everything the magician loses each team he solves a problem the Regent has, someone who will never have to pay for anything he orders others to do.
The interesting this is, for this kind of story, I’d advise making the message even more obvious and in-your-face than usual because this is not really a short story with a plot, it’s a fable, a moral fable, and these are as subtle as a hammer to your face—and they have to be that way. But by writing it as if it were a traditional story, I’m not sure it works that well. The entire thing is basically magic realism of a fairytale variety where some impossible bullshit happens because the narrator says so; it can’t be read “realistically.” And finally, there’s the explanation of what powers the magic, which is kinda lame but expected:
Then, because I know he will never utter the word again, I speak to him directly for the first time. I whisper to him the secret: that it [the magic] is powered by the unquenched desire to know what powers it, at whatever the cost.
Yeah, it’s the magic equivalent of a perpetual motion machine—as long as you want to know what powers it… you power it? As I said, pretty lame and I’m not sure how that fits with the message. Is it saying political curiosity or that getting involved or studying power feds tyranny? That tyranny feeds on those who want to understand it and that those will be its agents? I don’t know. Also, remember that the “magic” is overpowered, accomplishes anything, and nobody can stop it or figure it out… so I’m not sure what the message or real-life analogy is. Still, it fits the common Hugo pattern, where stories are either nihilistically depressing or ideologically resentful. I’m sure Nietzsche would have something to say about this.
In any event, as far as Hugos goes, it’s not a bad story. It needs polishing and the writing mystifies me, and I would have written it as a much more obvious moral fable instead of what sometimes looks like an attempt at a free-verse poetry slam, but it’s OK.
You can read The Court Magician here