Of the six short story nominees, three have a witch as the main protagonist (or two, depending on how you define “main”) who is also pretty woke. Outside of these Hugo finalists, I don’t think I have read a story with a witch protagonist in years.
Another trend I have noticed these last years is what I call trivial or mundane fantasy. These are stories with characters that have reality-altering powers yet they don’t use them for anything moderately interesting or to help other people (or themselves) even when that’s the point of the story. In fact, most of these characters are surprisingly powerless and victimized through the entire story. Why? Well, there are many reason, but here are a few: these are fantasy stories only superficially, the fantastic elements being clearly tacked on; related to that, they are not proper stories either but allegories, where powers and fantastic elements stand for something else; and, finally, the ideological consensus of these stories demands victimized characters and it naturally frowns on superpowered characters or even assertive ones—hence why many of these stories are such downers and need a quota of woke characters/moments so they don’t feel absolutely nihilistic. You obviously can’t have an oppressed, let’s say, witch, which is a stand-in for women, if she can blow somebody’s head off with a word.
These three elements appear in today’s final short story, which also involves witches, librarian witches, that is, because in the world it presents witches secretly work as librarians. There are hints at what powers they may have but none appears except those that allow the plot to advance toward that final scene the author had in mind. In fact, none of the powers (mostly mind reading) that appear are needed and could be replaced with good-old-fashioned conversation (more on that later because it’s important.) But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
To summarize the story: in a god-forsaken town in the rural south (at first I thought it was Kansas but it’s Kentucky, I believe, although it’s not explicitly mentioned) called Ulysses, a witch works (along with another witch) in the local library.
A black kid—it’s not important but it allows for a couple of ‘aren’t these redneck racists?‘ moments— comes in and immediately the witch senses the kid is troubled, and being a witch/librarian, she has to give every person the book they need. The kid desperately needs to get away from something (his foster family, it seems,) so he is obsessed with fantasy books, especially those about traveling to other worlds. The kid keeps getting fantasy books and she recommends him some but these are just normal books (so kinda useless against any real problem.) Then the witch remembers that her kind has secret and magical (witches-eyes only) books, and one of them is the titular book about magical portals. It’s against the coven rules to let outsiders read these books, but she is ready to accept the punishment to let the kid read the magic book. The story ends with said book open, a map of a fantasy land drawn on its pages, and the kid’s backpack beside it, implying he traveled to that world.
None, here’s the moment where I have to remind you about what I said: these are not real stories but allegories because writing straightforward fantasies (or, ugh, science fiction,) is beneath the Hugos, and the fantasy elements are either trivial, unnecessary, comical, or symbolic.
This is, as far as I can unearth, the real meaning of the story: books are awesome, they have transformative powers, and librarians should not be desk-bound but should try to find the perfect match between user and books. Mundane as it gets, hence the layers of trivial magic on top so it can classify as “fantasy.”
Now, having said that, I’m still going to write my thought processes as I tried to understand what had I just read.
Now, going back to the real-fantasy distinction, here’s a moment when the narrator (the witch) mentions the books he gives to the boy, which is a perfect excuse for another woke moment:
I snuck in a few other [books] all pretty old, all pretty white; our branch director is one of those pinch-lipped Baptists who thinks fantasy books teach kids about Devil worship, so roughly 90% of my collection requests are mysteriously denied
And the main theme of the story seems to be that fight between fantasy as escapism or as life-affirming literature:
Because I am a librarian of the second sort [a witch], I almost always know what kind of book a person wants. It’s like a very particular smell rising off them which is instantly recognizable as Murder mystery or Political biography or Something kind of trashy but ultimately life-affirming, preferably with lesbians.
So the ending can be read literally, symbolically, or in any way you want, and I’m not saying that as if it were positive because it’s not. This “it’s an allegory” is an excuse I sometimes come across when discussing these finalists (to, I need to remind you, a fantasy and science fiction award), but the problem is that in reality, these stories don’t seem to know (or care) what they actually are. And the more you analyze them, the more holes you end up finding.
The point of this story is, therefore, pretty vague: racist south, evil foster parents, the power of books and imagination, fantasy, something about escapism, and… magical abortions, I think?¿
The maternity and childbirth section trilled saccharine congratulations. She touched one finger to the spine of What to Expect When You’re Expecting (618.2 EIS) with an expression of dawning, swallowing horror, and left without checking anything out.
But I never gave her what she really needed: A Witch’s Guide to Undoing What Has Been Done: A Guilt-Free Approach to Life’s Inevitable Accidents. A leather-bound tome filled with delicate mechanical drawings of clocks, which smelled of regret and yesterday mornings.
I don’t know. That’s the moment, by the way, when remembering how she failed that teenage girl, she realizes she has to help that black kid by… letting him read a magical book that sends him off to some magical land? So, as you can see, there’s a contrast between real books and magical books, yet the story doesn’t seem to care whether its own fantastical elements are to be taken literally or not.
I’m probably overthinking this all too much since the story boils down to some internal feud between old-fashioned librarians and more forward-thinking ones. And if you think I’m rambling and not telling you anything really concrete about the story is because I really don’t know what I just read. Things just seem to… happen. The librarian/witch just… talks, but barely does anything at all to solve any problem. She could have asked the boy, ‘ey, what’s up, bro, do your cracka foster parents beat you up? I can whistle and they’ll become frogs.‘ Or, you know, at least should have asked him what was wrong with him before shipping him off to a parallel dimension where he will starve to death in a week. But, of course, that’s the problem, I’m taking this story literally, as if just because someone mentions witches, magic, and portals, I shouldn’t assume that’s what it’s about when instead it’s about… empowerment? Believe in your dreams? The magic of words and books? Laughing at rednecks? There’s even a cheap jab against Jesus:
Look, there are good reasons we don’t lend out Books like that. Our mistresses used to scare us with stories of mortals run amok: people who used Books to steal or kill or break hearts; who performed miracles and founded religions; who hated us, afterward, and spent a tiresome few centuries burning us at stakes.
And you know what’s worse? The apparent ¿allegorical? message of the story contradicts another earlier message, one I believe is much better. In fact, the previous Hugo had the exact same problem.
A lot of books are mentioned in this story, and one of them is The Count of Montecristo, and a sentence toward the end of that book is mentioned as the reason the librarian gives it to the kid: all human wisdom is summed up in these two words,—‘Wait and hope.’”
But as the story progresses, the witch realizes that’s not enough, and that she has to do something about this, that the kid needs more than waiting and hoping, and she comes to this realization:
The real moral of The Count of Monte Cristo was surely something more like: If you screw someone over, be prepared for a vengeful mastermind to fuck up your life twenty years later. Or maybe it was: If you want justice and goodness to prevail in this world, you have to fight for it tooth and nail. And it will be hard, and costly, and probably illegal. You will have to break the rules.
That’s awesome, and reading that I knew shit was going to get real. Finally, some action! It’s time to kick ass and quaff some potions, and I am all out of potions. But… no, she does break some rules, but only so she can… send the kid to a magical land which may not even be real but allegorical? So now the moral of the story is, assuming there’s one, if you feel bad, do nothing, talk to nobody, and hope that you will be magically whisked away to another dimension? That if you break rules, it shouldn’t be to solve problems in this world but to engage in wishful thinking? That as long as you have escapism and fantasy literature your foster parents can keep beating you up? That’s there’s a perfect book for every person and each problem, and that the job of the librarian is to find that match, not just works passively at the desk (I actually believe that’s the one, by the way)? Love your local library? Who knows.
Judging by the comments to this story, everybody found it amazing, inspiring, beautiful, and all of that, but I feel nothing. I’m dead inside so I’m fine with that, but what bothers me is that I am confused. I’m sure this story had a point, and I’m probably overthinking it too much, but it’s all scattered and mangled to me.
The main mysteries to resolve in this story were: what is wrong with the kid and how can we help him? To the former question, the answer is I dunno, and to the latter, who knows, read a book or something.
So, in conclusion:
You can read this story here.
P.S: I have to copy this comment to the story:
I completely agree with your analysis of this story, though I’m coming at it from the other perspective–I was the skinny, bookish black kid with an apparent failure of a home life.
For me, this story, while beautifully written, was a horror story with an utterly devastating end. I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of librarians and English teachers, always white and almost always women, who tried to live out their savior fantasy through me.
As you said, librarians are not social workers. This seems to be something that many bookish white women don’t understand. It is not a librarian’s job to sort out a kid’s life or make them whole.
To the librarians out there who identified with this story: You are a librarian. You do not have the training to fix a child’s life, no matter how bad those social workers appear to be. If you must suggest a book, don’t try to subvert the child’s parents–they know better than you what the child needs. Don’t try to plant ideas in that child’s head–you don’t know what cocktail of ideas you’re making or how they will react to each other.
Stay in your lane. That is what a good librarian does. Have some humility.
I had an English teacher in high school who saw me, a depressed, skinny black kid just like in this story, and tried to make me her pet. She offered to call CPS to get me out of my home. She told me I could stay in her classroom as long as I needed, whenever I needed. She was constantly giving me books to read that she thought would change me for what presumed to be the better. I read the books she offered and declined everything else.
She was fired the following year for sexually assaulting a student. I am now a grown man with a lovely life. I’ve forgotten the books she had me read, and I’ve read so many (and written some) since.
To me, this story read like what would have happened if I’d taken up my predatory teacher’s offers to stay after class; she would have used me to fulfill her savior fantasy, but she would have only separated me forever from the people who actually loved me and had my back.
This comment isn’t to knock the author; she did a wonderful job. This is mainly for the white lady librarians and English teachers who don’t realize how much damage they may be doing while trying to do what they think is right.