Hugo reading 2017: Best Series

“What’s this?”, you say?  “Best series?  What happened to best novel?”

Well.  I was supposed to read Becky Chambers’ book, A Closed and Common Orbit next, but I just thought I’d have a teensy look at the first book in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon, and the next thing I knew it was 2am and I was 200+ pages in and realising that I had to work in the morning.

(OK, I realised that well before this point, but I just didn’t care…)

So I wound up reading that first.  A quick note on the Best Series for me, by the way.  I’ve actually read everything in three of the series (serieses?) nominated this year, so I already know how they are ranked in relation to each other, and will write about them briefly here, but it’s hard to review an entire series, so I probably can’t do them justice.

The Vorkosigan Saga – Lois McMaster Bujold

Look, it’s very unlikely that anything is going to unseat the Vorkosigans from the top of my ballot.  I love every book in this series, and have read them all multiple times.  I love Bujold’s characters; I love her feminism; I love the way she takes a piece of technology like the uterine replicator and explores the different ways the it would shape societies.  I love the way character drives her plot, taking the series from space opera to political thriller to romance to coming of age stories (of various different ages).  Above all, I love the optimistic tone of her books.  No matter how bad things get – and Bujold has said herself that her primary writing mechanism is ‘what’s the worst thing I could do to this person’, her characters grow and survive and thrive.  There is no cynicism in her work; it’s the sort of science fiction that makes one look forward to the future.

The Hugo Voter Pack for the Vorkosigan Saga is the Borders of Infinity anthology.  This is both a good choice and a disappointing one; it gives you three Miles Vorkosigan novellas of different types, and they provide a good picture of her world and her characters, but they all occur fairly early in Miles’s career.  I find older Miles more interesting; I also think that Bujold’s writing has improved over the years, so that this is not her best work.  Having said that, I have no idea what I would recommend instead that is more recent, short of, you know, the whole saga, so I think this is probably the best choice that was available.

Anyway, unless one of the two authors I haven’t read does something startlingly amazing, she’s going to be at the top of my ballot, no question.

The October Daye Books – Seanan McGuire

These are dark urban fantasy, featuring October Daye, a Changeling and Knight of the Shadowed Court.  At least at first.  They fall somewhere between mystery and politics in terms of plot, and are too dark for my taste, if I’m honest, but still very compelling.  What makes them fascinating, and deserving of a high place on the ballot, is the range of characters and fae types, and the way that McGuire has clearly mapped out a story arc that spans dozens of books.  To me, these are really good novels that I generally can’t bring myself to read twice – there are some awful, awful things that happen to October and her friends over the course of the novels.

The Hugo Voter Pack for the Seanan stories is all of the short stories.  All of them.  The ones that are available for free on her website, the ones that appear at the ends of novels, and the ones from her Patreon.  And they are lovely and charming, mostly because the lion’s share of them are about Tybalt, the King of the Cait Sidhe (cat shapeshifting fey).  This is a really good introduction to the series, I think, spanning important events that happened in the world well before October came onto the scene, but also including stories that fit in with the current narrative.

This is second on my ballot, at least until I read the three series I haven’t read.

The Rivers of London Series – Ben Aaronovitch

Another urban fantasy series, featuring a young black policeman Peter Grant, who has become apprenticed to Nightingale of the Folly in order to learn magic.  It turns out that the British Police have a department that deals with magic-related crimes.  The department has been just one person for a very long time, but when Peter witnesses something that is clearly magic and that he simply accepts as such, he gets recruited.

This series is a lot of fun.  I like Peter a lot, I like Nightingale, and I love the world building.  The dialogue is great, and the plots are clever. What I do not love is how Leslie, the series’ only significant female character up until the most recent book, is treated in the text.  I was utterly furious with what Aaronovitch did with her character in Broken Homes.

The Hugo Voter pack for this one is an excerpt from Rivers of London, which I think is a bit of a pity – I’m still not convinced that one can adequately judge a book without knowing the ending.  Anyway, because I have not forgiven Aaronovitch for his treatment of Leslie, this series is going to number 3 on my ballot.

Temeraire Series – Naomi Novik

Temeraire is basically the Napoleonic War, with dragons.  Captain Laurence, a sea captain in the Royal Navy, and very happy with his career there, captures a French ship, which is carrying a dragon egg that is on the verge of hatching. Dragons are an important part of the British and French armies, but can only be tamed if they are harnessed directly out of the egg – and they will only take the harness if they want to.  One of Laurence’s sailors draws the lot to try to tame the dragon, but on hatching, the dragon toddles straight up to Captain Laurence and attaches himself to him.  This is good news for Britain, but terrible news for Laurence.  It spells the end of his career in the Navy; moreover, aviators cannot marry or be part of society.

Laurence names the dragon Temeraire, after a famous ship, and over the rest of the novel, we see the growth of the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire, their training, and of course, their involvement in the battles against Napoleon.

Put like that, it doesn’t sound like a lot, but I loved it.  It was a delight to read – the regency manners and Napoleonic war merged seamlessly with the draconic elements – and the characters were well drawn.  The plot was, perhaps, a little predictable – or at least, the beats of it were.  It’s the sort of story where you know you will have the initial bonding with the dragon, the training montage, the first battle, the setback, and the ultimate victory.  That didn’t matter, because it was all done so very well.  And the ending suggested that matters would not go smoothly for long.

Temeraire is going up to number 2 on my ballot, pushing October Day and the Rivers of London down to 3rd and 4th place.  Bujold remains unchallenged in 1st place.

Also, I’ve bought the second book in the Temeraire series.

Next up, we have The Expanse – James Corey.  The Voter Pack contains an excerpt from Leviathan.

I’ll be honest here; I haven’t really given this one a fair crack.  One big reason for this is that for some reason the Epub version on my Kobo is missing two or three lines from the bottom of every second or third page, which makes it hard to read.   But even in between that, it’s not really holding my interest.  So far, all the characters seem to be of a particular ‘antihero’ type – the hardened cop, the hardened ship captain whose career has stalled – that doesn’t do a lot for me.  I don’t really care about the story.  And every time I think that something slightly interesting might be happening, there are missing lines.  This is not the fault of the book, but I really can’t keep reading like this.

So I’ve read three chapters, and I think I’ll call it quits.  I don’t think it would be going high on my ballot even if I read further, because everything else on the ballot so far had me hooked within a few pages and this one doesn’t.  So I think I’ll leave it off the ballot entirely, unless The Craft Sequence annoys me so much that I need to put it below No Award, in which case I’ll put this in fifth place, to distinguish it from the actively offensive stuff.

The Craft Sequence, by Matt Gladstone, consists of five novels so far.  We get all of them in the Hugo Voter Pack, and, due to time constraints, I have read only the first one.

By which I mean, I have read the third one, Three Parts Dead.

Gladstone provides us with a rather endearing introduction (this one, more or less) at the start of his omnibus, explaining that he wanted to explore different cities and cultures in his world, from the point of view of the people who lived in them, rather than having his protagonists journey from place to place, interacting with it. So rather than doing a consecutive series featuring the same characters, he wrote five books set in the same world, and planned for each of them to stand alone.  And he started writing in the middle, in terms of the world’s history, so he numbered that book three (he also, helpfully, made sure that each book had a number in its title, so that people could easily figure out the chronology).

For reasons that I’m not entirely sure I understand, he decided to set out the omnibus in publication order, not chronological order.  Hence, I read the third one, which is also the first one, and which is called Three Parts Dead.

This is a world which is recovering from the God Wars.  It’s not entirely clear exactly what happened in these wars, but it seems that the Gods fought the Craftsmen and Craftswomen, and many of them perished in the fight.  Craftsmen are necromancers and lawyers; the Gods have amazing powers, but these tend to be controlled by contracts with other Gods, cities, or undying Kings.  When they die, they can, in some circumstances, be resurrected, zombie-like, to fulfil their contracts in particular ways, but they aren’t really themselves anymore.  It’s fascinating, convoluted, and confusing.

At the beginning of this story, Kos Everburning, the God who rules and protects Alt Coloumb (I had a lot of trouble with that name, it kept making me think of Control-Alt-Delete, or Alt-Right), is dead, possibly murdered.  Tara, who has just begun working for the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, and her supervisor, Ms Kevarian are contracted to defend Kos in court, and make a case for his resurrection.  He needs defending, because if he has died due to negligence in his contracts, then he is liable to his various debtors.  Their opponent is Tara’s former Professor and nemesis, Denovo, who was also responsible for turning the city’s former moon goddess, and Kos’s consort, Seril, into Justice forty years earlier.  Justice contains Seril’s power, but none of her personality or her spirit – this is a worst-case-scenario for a resurrected God.

The plot is complicated, and we mostly see it through the eyes of Tara, the junior necromancer, and Abelard, a novice priest of Kos, and the one who was on altar duty when Kos died. The magic is quite horrifying.  For example, we occasionally see the world through the eyes of Catherine Elle, who works as a Blacksuit – one of Justice’s minions.  Blacksuits have no will of their own when they are on duty, and are controlled absolutely by Justice.  This is something of a high, and whenever Catherine is off duty, she seeks other sources for the high, which… is often not ideal.

I don’t really know how to review this book.  It’s hard to unpick it at the edges without risking unravelling it completely.  It’s complex, and cleverly thought out, and full of politics, the characterisation is great, there are moments of dry humour, and the ending is satisfying – though it did require a fair bit of the aftermath and prologue to make sense of what had happened.  Also, Gladstone managed to make the ending work without cheating, which I initially thought he had done.

I’ll definitely be reading the other books, and I’m now trying to decide whether this goes below or above October Daye on my ballot.  It’s definitely less dark, which is a plus; on the other hand, I know all the October Daye books are pretty good, and I don’t know where this series goes from here.

On reflection, I think my ballot goes Vorkosigan, Craft Sequence, Temeraire, October Daye, Rivers of London, The Expanse.  Temeraire might have been more fun than the Craft Sequence, but I think this was much cleverer.

Here ends the Hugo reading for 2017!  I may read the zines for my own interest, but there’s no way I’m going to have time to review them.  And it would be nice to read something for enjoyment, rather than critically and with the intent to compare it with everything else on the ballot.

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