So it’s been a little while since I’ve posted any reviews related to the 2021 Hugo Awards. I’ve been pretty busy (first two weeks back to work full time! and a bunch of birthdays, mine included) and while I don’t feel like I’ve been slacking, I have not had as much time for reading and writing as I had before August hit (also before #smaugust hit lol).
Anyway, I think the perfect way to remedy that is to add some Hugo nominated short story reviews to my ever-growing list of Hugo related reviews. It’s been quite a while since I reviewed any short stories on this blog (the last one being a Robert Sharp number in 2018), so I’m feeling a little unsure how to proceed, but I supposed it’s just the same as any other review I’ve written . . . and who cares if it isn’t. I’m here for the funzies.
So, should Naomi Kritzer’s Little Free Library win a Hugo award in 2021?
Hot take: Probably not?
Don’t get me wrong, this is a wonderful short story, expertly crafted with much to love in the moment, but seems to crumble under further scrutiny. It does, perhaps, capture the essence of a portal fantasy, not by the literal use of a Little Free Library as a portal within the text, but in the fact that while you read the story, you are transported away from reality briefly and returned more or less able to continue on, refreshed but not really affected (in the times we’ve been having, perhaps this IS award worthy). I feel, especially since we have books like those in the Wayward Children series such as In and Absent Dream, that as a genre this is too simple a way to look at portal fantasies in general.
But I suppose I should try to break it down a little better.
Stuff I enjoyed:
I think one of the main parts of the story which gives it appeal to a wide audience is all the references to other books. Of course, there is the initial hook, Lord of the Rings, which every reader will recognize and kind of lets the reader know that they’ll be reading a fantasy, or at the very least, something fantasy related (interesting that they didn’t pick anything from The Chronicles of Narnia. I mean why not call it what it is haha).
And then we continue to get bread-crumbed through the mystery of who is on the other side of this portal through the other books which they select. The main character, Meigan, kind of thinks of this mystery as a game, and the reader is encouraged to do so as well, which makes it a fun puzzle. Points to everyone all around for fun puzzles.
Perhaps the second portion that I enjoyed, was simply that it was about libraries, and specifically a Little Free Library. I work for a library, so I’m always excited when one is featured (well) in a story and we have tons of these little book boxes all around (although MY neighborhood just took theirs down hmph) and I’ve always had a great experience swapping books through them. I have wondered where the books came from and who gave them up (although I never imagined something as crazy as this).
It’s just a cool concept, and another aspect of the story which lends itself to wide appeal. Even if people don’t know about Little Free Libraries, they have usually had SOME experience with a library and it’s pretty popular in our culture to romanticize them as gateways to other worlds (which for a lot of people they metaphorically are). I liked that in this case those other worlds were real and the gateway was literal.
Stuff I didn’t like:
Stories that rely heavily on allusion to other works, or references to them, are kind of a double-edged sword. If the reader knows them, or can mostly figure them out from context, the author is in the clear, but if not, the reader will be quite helpless to know what’s going on. It’s hard to imagine — especially reading all the Sci-fi and Fantasy blogs, channels, and books that I do — but there ARE people who haven’t read Lord of the Rings, or seen Starwars.
I haven’t read Ready Player One but I’m told it’s an extreme example of this, where the book is highly referential, and for a niche that actually isn’t all that big. I think this story falls into that a little bit. I’ll admit that I actually didn’t recognize too many of the books Meigan gave away. Some of them had titles that were generic enough that I could kinda get what they were about but, who knows? I don’t think this story did it enough to be ostracizing, but it’s a slippery slope.
Plus the whole thing felt vaguely nostalgic which I sort of have a love/hate relationship with. I’ll work this out someday and look back on these times of loathing and hatred with a fondness as I — Dammit stop that! Anyway, moving on . . .
— SORRY, SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT —
What was most interesting about the story to me:
I’ve been feeling that with a lot of stories these days, other people’s reactions are almost more interesting to me than the actual content of the story. For this book, people seem to feel that it’s very hopeful, and cute (which nothing that is ever called cute wants to be called cute lol) which I would have agreed with, immediately after reading, but actually began to think the opposite of as I pondered further.
Why you ask?
Well, the story essentially ends with what’s (assumedly) a dragon egg, sent through the portal with a note that says all has been lost, please take care of this baby for us. I don’t think poor Meigan is at all prepared to take care of a child out of nowhere (Who would be?), and this particular one has the added disadvantage of not even being a human. Whatever hatches from this poor egg is going to have a hell of a time living in a strange place, with strange people, and no others even remotely like itself to relieve any of the pressure of being (essentially) “the last of my kind”
Through this lens, the story is actually pretty bleak . . .
And what of it? What is the purpose of such tragedy? Not all stories need to have a message, or moral, or theme. It’s ok to have stories which are the literary equivalent of popcorn. Which is what this story seems to portend itself to be.
But even popcorn stories, which are not intentionally written with a theme, will usually still have one, even if it’s just the author’s outlook on the vast topics that happen through the story.
Little Free Library does not seem to give us any clue as to what that theme might be, and when we think deeper on the story (and assume the rather bleak outlook I described), it seems to need that theme or message badly but I just wasn’t sure what it was.
So . . . Hugo?
I think the lack of discernable theme, whether intentionally hidden or unintentionally left out is what lowered this story in my esteem. It had a wonderful premise and great execution of that premise, but (for me) did not deliver on the higher level which we typically associate with stories which are “award worthy”.
I can recommend this story to read, but not for the award . . .
What are y’all’s thoughts? DID this story have a theme which I just completely missed (this would not be the first nor last time)? Please let me know what you loved or didn’t love about the story in the comments as well as anything I’m missing here. Thanks so much for stopping by.
See you next time.