Hugo awards 2018: The results are in!

Having spent a pleasant afternoon watching the Hugo Awards live (for once, I was in a time zone where this was easy!), I thought it might be fun to compare the winners to my personal ballot to see how I did…

Best Fan Artist – Geneva Benton.

Hooray!  She was my first pick in this category, and I said…

Geneva Benton – I rather like these.  They are playful and colourful and sweet. And they feel very fan-art to me, though I couldn’t express why.  I like the third one, where she is doing a bit of a riff on Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but with a black woman.  Andrew reckons colours and style of art in that particular picture is reminiscent of the 70s soul funk vibe you get in blaxploitation films, and someone is clearly taking this whole section a lot more seriously than I am…

Best Fan Writer – Sarah Gailey

Oh yes, I liked her very much!  I think she got pipped at the post by Camestros Felapton, just because he was so much fun and I was feeling so very crappy that day, but I really liked her approach to the fannish things she wrote about, and she made me think differently.  I especially liked her piece about American identity being based on alternate history.  Here’s a bit from my review of her voter pack:

Facing Facts: American Identity is Based on Alternate History” is a very compelling piece pointing out that the history we tend to learn in schools is already alternate history – it’s a history where everything was fine, where wars were only fought for good reasons, where exploring the world was about discovery and bringing civilisation, not about greed or gold, where slavery didn’t exist, or where it did, slaves were treated well, where racism was solved in the 1960s.  It’s a provocative point of view, and one that will stay with me.  

Best Fanzine – File 770

This wasn’t my top pick, but I’m pretty happy with it regardless.  Everything in this category was good, and while File770 is not the most fun and exciting thing on there, it is the place I go every time my Twitter feed breaks out in fandom politics to get the breakdown of what is actually going on.  And that is worth a lot.  Also, Mike Glyer (who is apparently in hospital, poor chap) has said that he is withdrawing from all future nominations, because he gets nominated every year, and doesn’t really need to.  He seems like a good person and he definitely provides a very useful service to the fan community, so I’m glad he’s getting some recognition.

Best Fancast – Ditch Diggers

Like File770, this is a good, workmanlike podcast that does good things but does not greatly excite me.  It’s a worthy winner, but one year, I want Fangirl Happy Hour to win, drat it!

Campbell Awards – Rebecca Roanhorse.

I have to say, I was a bit sad about this one, because Rebecca Roanhorse was my least favourite of all the options in this category.  Having said that, she was a perfectly good writer, and everyone in this category was deserving. I just didn’t like her story very much, and there were several in this category that I really did love.

Rebecca Roanhorse provided a short stroy, Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience. It’s hard to talk about without spoilers, but the protagonist works in a VR studio, providing ‘authentic’ Indian spirit guide experiences. The story is told in the 2nd person, which is cleverer than it sounds, given the context. It’s very gritty, and a bit single white female, with a twist at the end that I’m not entirely sure I understood. I’m pretty sure the story is a metaphor for cultural appropriation. It was fine, but didn’t grab me – it’s a bit grim for my tastes.

Best SemiProzine – Uncanny Magazine

I think this came as a surprise to nobody, given how much of Uncanny Magazine turned out to be in the Hugo Voter Pack this year in the form of nominees for all sorts of categories.  This was my top vote in the category, so I’m quite happy, too.

Best Related Work – No Time to Spare: Thinking about what matters, by Ursula LeGuin

I’m super happy about this one, too.  I honestly can’t remember whether I put this first or second, now – I wanted Crash Override to do well, too, but I have to say, this was worlds more enjoyable.  I thought there was a fairly high chance that either this or the Ellison biography would win this year, based on the bereavement vote, and I’m glad this was the way it went, because I found this entire book charming and thought provoking and with very nearly enough cat stories.  My review is here.

Best Artist – Sana Takeda

She came third on my ballot and second on Andrew’s and I’m pretty happy with this one.  Her work is very beautiful and detailed, and while she wasn’t my favourite in the category, she is still a deserving winner.

Best Graphic Novel – Monstress

Ah, I’m a bit sad about this.  I really thought My Favourite Thing is Monsters was excellent, and on a whole different level to the others.  And Monstress, while beautifully drawn, turned out to be something I couldn’t read this year, because of the timing and bad things happening to cats.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) – The Good Place: The Trolley Problem

This, on the other hand, absolutely delighted me!  I loved The Good Place, and I really thought this was a stand-out episode.  Here’s my review:

“The Trolley Problem” is a total delight, and works much better on its own [than Michael’s Gambit].  The basic premise of The Good Place is that it’s a version of heaven, to which Eleanor was sent by accident (she was supposed to go to the Bad Place).  But she is matched up with an ethics professor as her soul mate, and so he is trying to teach her ethics so that she can learn how to be good, and thus be able to stay without destroying the entire place.  
 
This may sound boring, the show does a great job of teaching ethical systems and dilemmas while being very, very funny. This is a classic ‘ethics problem of the week’ episode, in which Chidi, the ethics professor, is trying to teach the four other characters about ethics, using the trolley problem as an example.  But one of these characters is basically a demon, so he’s not great at ethics, or at remembering why he is meant to be learning them.  It’s very funny, and you certainly come away with a good understanding of the ethical implications of the Trolley Problem.  And a lot of images of how that works out in reality that maybe you didn’t want in your head.  There is a romantic subplot which is less self-contained, but I think that’s OK, as you can still enjoy the episode as it stands.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) – Wonder Woman

Since this was the only nominee that I’d seen, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, I’m pretty happy about this, but have no basis for comparing it with anything else in its category.  But yay for more rewarding of woman-centred superhero movies.

Best Editor – Short Form – Lynne M. Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas

I didn’t really do this category justice, because I was running low on time by the time I got to the editor sections, but these two are the editors of Uncanny Magazine, so I put them first because they consistently publish stories I like reading.  So I’m pretty pleased to see them win, and win twice, at that!

Best Editor Long Form – Sheila E. Gilbert

I didn’t write about this category, because I never really know how to judge this category anyway, but Sheila Gilbert edits Seanan McGuire, so I’m pretty happy about this.

Best Series – World of the Five Gods

I am, obviously, over the moon about this one.  I love Bujold’s work in general and the Five Gods books in particular, and Penric is just such a delightful hero.  My review of her work is here, but this is probably the important bit:

I think for me one of the great things about Bujold’s work is its kindness.  Her characters are, by and large, people who are trying to make the world around them a better place.  And she usually lets them succeed.  It isn’t all sweetness and light – her preferred plotting style is still ‘what’s the worst thing I can do to this character’, but in the end, hope always wins.  And that’s an important thing.

Best Short Story – Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience, by Rebecca Roanhorse

So, the things I wrote above about the Campbell Award?  Apply here.  Only more so, because I pretty much loved everything else in this category.  Roanhorse seems like a lovely person, and she’s an intelligent and thoughtful writer, and I just didn’t like that story, I’m sorry.

Best Novelette – The Secret Life of Bots, by Suzanne Palmer

Again, this was a category where everything was pretty good, but there were three stories I really liked a lot, and three I wasn’t so taken with, and this was in the second category.  Andrew liked it a lot more than I did.  I am sulking, because if the Hugo voters were going to be all ‘lets vote for sentient robots’, I think they should have voted for the Vina Jie-Min Prasad one, because it was much more fun.  But we seem to be very serious this year.


Best Novella – All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

Or maybe not, because this was very pleasing!  This came a very close second on my ballot to Sarah Pinsker’s And Then There Were (N-One), and it was pretty charming, so I’m very much OK with it winning.  (Also, confirming my musing on this review, it turns out that sentient robots really ARE a thing this year.)

Here’s an extract from what I wrote (full review here):

Murderbot doesn’t like its job, and doesn’t like people, and really would rather spend its time watching soap operas through its satellite feed.  It has hacked its governor module, so it doesn’t actually have to obey any of its commands, but it does need to obey enough of them that it isn’t obvious that it has been hacked, otherwise someone will try to fix it.  So it’s basically half-assing its job, doing as little as it can get away with, and not paying attention to anything that might not be immediately relevant because why bother.  The humans it is contracted to are disposed to be friendly, but Murderbot is not.  It prefers to remain in armour, with its helmet darkened so that nobody can see its face.  It doesn’t want to talk to you.  It doesn’t want to be your friend.  It just wants you to leave it alone.

The Lodestar Award for the Best Young Adult Book – Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

I kind of fell in love with the Frances Hardinge book in this category, and I was also very fond of the Vernon and Brennan books, so I may be slightly sulking about this one too.  To be fair, this book was one where I was only able to get hold of an excerpt, and it did make me interested in reading more, and had I been able to do so, I might have voted this one higher (it’s certainly true that several books I’ve read this year and liked a lot would not have got my vote if I’d only read the first few chapters).

Best Novel – The Stone Sky, by NK Jemisin 

Look, the internet has been telling me for months that this would be the winning book, and the internet was right.  And there were no unworthy books in this category, but I still think this belonged in a Best Series category rather than a Best Novel category, because I didn’t think it stood alone very well, and other books in this category did.  On the other hand, everyone I know who has read the whole series has found it life-changingly good, so I’m going to assume that the problem is with me (and the fact that I haven’t read the rest of the series), not with the book.

And it was kind of adorable watching Jemisin trying to read her speech and being unable to do so because her speech was on her phone and her friends kept texting her.

And there you have it!  If I do an actual count, it turns out that a lot of the things I put first on my ballot actually received awards – 8 out of 19, plus two more who I placed second – so I really have no cause to complain… but complain I shall, because naturally, my wins were mostly in the categories where I did not have particularly strong feelings, and the categories where I found new authors and really loved them largely went to other books.

I really am very pleased about Lois getting another Hugo, though, and about the Hugos for the Good Place and the Murderbot Diaries, and I’m pleased to see Uncanny Magazine rewarded, but I’m so very disappointed that Vina Jie-Min Prasad didn’t manage to get any of the things she was nominated for, because I really enjoyed everything she did.  It’s nice to see so many women of colour as winners this year (and… so many women generally, now I think about it!), but I do wish they had not all been in categories where they were up against things that I enjoyed a lot more!

The memorial bit was nice, too – I’d forgotten they did that, and of course my friend Meg came up about halfway through, which was somehow a shock, though it shouldn’t have been, if I’d thought of it.  So that was a sad moment, though she was in very good company (and I can’t decide whether that is a good thing or a bad thing…).

On a cheerier note… New Zealand 2020!  Now that is exciting.  I might finally get to a WorldCon (and to New Zealand)…

Hugo reading 2018: Escape Pod

Escape Pod turned out to be unexpectedly fantastic.  This is a Fanzine where they also produce each story as an audiobook, and I probably should have listened to some of the audiobooks, but I am running very low on time now, so I didn’t.  It contained five stories, two of which I loved and all of which I liked, so that might be the best hit rate yet.  Though there were a lot more stories in Uncanny, so it’s a hard call which should win.

The first story I loved was Run, by CR Hodges.  This is a really lovely, touching story about two teenage girls, one living in Denver and one on the moon, who are effectively on opposite sides of a war – the girl on the moon is Russian, and the nations are jostling for power, and nuclear shelter drills are increasingly common.  They are both fascinated by Morse code, and communicate with each other during the brief periods when the moon is in the right position relative to earth.  And then the first bomb strikes.  I love the relationship between the two girls; I love that the parents, despite having their own agendas (Ivana is pretty sure her mother is a Russian spy, and that her stepfather is a French one) still enable the friendship and, when it matters, help the girls to communicate what is important.

Texts from the Ghost War, by Alex Yuschik was also fabulous.  It’s the story of an unlikely friendship between a fighter pilot (I *think* – it’s a little hard to tell what he is piloting, though), and someone in a position of familial power, told entirely through text messages.  It’s funny and endearing and tense, and just enormous fun to read.  It’s also an interesting world, which we discover in bits and pieces through the comments in the messages – everyone seems to be under attack by ghosts, to the extent that mourning now requires approval and safety training, because it’s so easy to attract ghosts by accident.  But it’s the dialogue and characters who sell this.  I don’t know why it makes me think a little bit of Miles and Ivan in Bujold, but it does.

The other three stories are clever and fun and touching, and pack a good emotional punch.  I was also rather taken with Ms Figgle-DeBitt’s Home for Wayward AIs, by Kurt Pankau, which is not your average killer robot story. Also, there are so many ways to ruin a caramelised banana cake if you are a robot!  I had no idea. Also, now I really want to make caramelised banana cake.

I think my final order is going to be Uncanny first, then Escape Pod, then Fireside and Strange Horizons, then the Book Smugglers, and last of all Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Hugo reading 2018: Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons was a bit of a mixed bag for me.  The two stories were good, but did not blow my mind.  Utopia LOL was funny and wrenching and didn’t quite work for me; These Constellataions Will Be Yours worked better – it was unsettling and cleverly emotional, set in a world where space exploration is reliant on turning certain members of a conquered race into the minds of spaceships (and conditioning them to think that this is the best way forward).  The protagonist is such a ship, and she is repelled, appalled, and then reluctantly fascinated and fond of the young dancer who refuses to be enslaved as she is.

There were two poems, one of which was at least half in a language I don’t speak, so I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

I think the most interesting part of this issue was an article by Erin Horakova, called Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift.  It was a multi-part essay, discussing popular ideas of Captain Kirk and how they are so pervasive that one ceases to be able to see the actual character through the stereotype. There was a really interesting and thorough investigation of Kirk’s character and relationships with women, and how ideas about masculinity – oh, let’s just call it toxic masculinity, because that’s what it is – have kind of retconned his character into something different from what t is. Very thought provoking, especially in pointing out the ways in which the discourse around masculinity has actually changed for the worse in recent years, and how current perceptions change how we see the original Star Trek, as well as the ways in which we form false memories and the difficulties of overcoming them.  I’ve seen maybe two episodes of the original Trek (or maybe one), and this was compelling enough to make me want to watch a lot more.

There was a roundtable on indigenous futurism and recolonising science fiction, which was good, but I don’t know what to pull out of it to write about. The thing that struck me most was when they were talking about how First Nations people in the US don’t really have exist in the present in modern fiction – they are missing from works set in the current era, and only appear as historical figures, so they have no place in the now, let alone in the future worlds of speculative fiction. This is an aspect of representation that had not occurred to me and bears thinking about.

And there were three reviews, one so literary I couldn’t understand it, one nice and straightforward and interesting, and one that was angry and fairly brilliant in discussing an anthology called ‘Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War’, edited by Douglas Lain, which is apparently attempting to be anti-war while being entirely US-centric and rife with American exceptionalism and no voices from the countries in which these American wars are taking place.
I think this goes below Uncanny, and probably below Fireside.  The only thing I absolutely loved was the essay about Captain Kirk, but that was good enough to put it above Book Smugglers and Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Hugo reading 2018: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods Series

Look, I’ve known from the start that Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods series was going to win this section for me, but I should probably review it anyway, just so that I can explain why!

Basically, it’s the theology. I love the way the Gods work in this world. I love the way nothing is without a price – but the price isn’t arbitrary, it’s more a matter of necessity. I love the way the Saints are all rather put-upon, and seem to share a bond of affectionate, not particularly pious, resignation with the ways of the Gods (often to the shock of more pious, but less God-ridden characters). I love the older characters who still get to be heroes and have adventures and find love. And I love the way in the first book, you spend 90 pages thinking that you have a nice, well-written, medieval-Spain sort of high fantasy on your hands, and then suddenly the miracle happens and the world changes and you realise that everything you have read up until now has a completely different interpretation and meaning to what you thought.

Most recently, I’ve been re-reading the Penric books, so I’m going to write in a somewhat rambling way about those. Penric, on his way to his betrothal, meets an old lady in distress – dying, in fact. He stops to help her, and so inherits her demon upon her death. You see, the elderly lady was a temple sorceror, and so now… so is Penric.

Well, not quite. Inheriting a demon makes you a sorceror, becoming a temple sorceror is more complicated.

Penric is possibly the most endearing hero I have read in a story. He is quite young in the first novella, and very naive, and means well, and is totally unprepared for politics. And when you have inherited a powerful demon, that can only be removed from you by killing either you or it, the politics will come… Demons, in Bujold’s world, emanate somehow from the Bastard’s Hell, and start off as unformed, destructive bits of spirit. But they learn from every animal or person who houses them, and kind of carry an imprint of their former hosts forward.

Penric’s demon (whom he dubs Desdemona) is old and powerful, and carries the memories and personalities of ten women, plus a lioness and a mare. Her previous riders were physicians and spies as well as sorcerors, and quite worldly-wise – Penric likens Desdemona to a ‘council of elder sisters’, and in some ways she is. In others, she is like a small child; and she is alternately protective, teasing, capricious, helpful, and destructive when bored. The relationship between Pen and Des is absolutely delightful.

I think for me one of the great things about Bujold’s work is its kindness. Her characters are, by and large, people who are trying to make the world around them a better place. And she usually lets them succeed. It isn’t all sweetness and light – her preferred plotting style is still ‘what’s the worst thing I can do to this character’, but in the end, hope always wins. And that’s an important thing.

Hugo reading 2018: Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series

Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series is one of the two series nominated for this award that I have read in full.  The series centres around the Price family, who are crytpozoologists, and the cryptids they serve.  The cryptobiology is well-thought-out, and ranges from the amusing to the grotesque, much in the manner of actual zoology.

The other thing you need to know about the Price family is that they are in hiding.  Several generations ago, the Prices and Healys were members of the Covenant, an international organisation devoted to protecting humanity from monsters.  But the Covenant defines monsters pretty broadly, and Alexander and Enid Healy began to have doubts about this mission after the extinction of unicorns led to an outbreak of cholera (unicorns purify water, after all…).  And possibly also after they encountered the Aislinn mice, a species of sentient mouse characterised by religious fervour and a tendency to talk in ALL CAPS WITH EXCLAMATION POINTS!  ALL HAIL THE EXCLAMATION POINT!!

Frankly, the Aislinn mice alone are worth the price of admission to these books.

Anyway, the Covenant did not take kindly to the departure of the Healys, who they viewed as traitors to the human race.  A generation or two later, they sent Thomas Price after them, but he wound up falling in love with Alice Healy and marrying her.  After that, the Healy and Price families basically faked their own deaths and went into hiding for several generations.

At the point when the series begins, then (in Discount Armageddon), the Prices have become the cryptozoologist equivalent of rangers – they study and protect cryptid populations, rehome or, where necessary, destroy cryptids who are preying on humans, and they learn to be very good at fighting, trapping and hiding from an early age, because not only is the cryptid population itself somewhat dangerous, one never knows when the Covenant might turn up again.  But they have to do this secretly, because the Covenant monitors the media for mentions of them – so Antimony hones her fighting skills through cheerleading and roller derby; another Price family member learns swordfighting through the SCA, and Verity Price is a professional ballroom dancer.

You will not be surprised to learn that the first book in this series begins with Verity Price meeting Dominic DeLuca, a member of the Covenant, on a rooftop in New York.

This series starts off light and fluffy and humorous – anyone who has read McGuire’s other work knows how much fun she can be when she puts her mind to it, and she really does so here.  But it’s not all sweetness and light, and the darker elements get stronger as the series continues.  Though you can always rely on the mice to improve matters – the Aislinn mouse colony worships the Price family with endless ritualised festivals and re-enactments of important events in the Price family history, but they are more than just comic relief.  They are, quite literally, the Price family’s ‘black box’ – a colony goes with each family member who travels away from the main family, because they can be relied upon to remember everything that happened, and turn it into a singing, dancing, festival that must be observed on the proper day.

An extra fun part about this series is that McGuire has worked out a LOT of the family history of the Healys and Prices, and so there are a lot of short stories on her website, following the lives of various Price and Healy ancestors, and giving us little vignettes of what the characters are doing in between the novels.  This is of particular interest, because after the second book, we leave Verity and follow her brother Alex for a couple of books, before returning to Verity, for another book, then moving on to little sister Antimony –  they are all off doing different things in different places (including Australia!  Where it is heavily implied that a number of the crytpids have managed to get themselves recognised as normal animals, to my amusement…), to further the overarching plot, which I suspect will be extensive, given how McGuire normally works.

This is a really fun series, and I don’t know how to judge it.  I was talking to Andrew last night about the fact that I seem inclined to downgrade novels that I enjoy too much, possibly out of romance-reader shame – I don’t trust my taste to be objectively good, because I like my literature escapist and fluffy.  But this is a problem, because I suspect I’m actually giving too much weight to this idea that my taste is flawed, or that fun, fluffy books aren’t worthwhile.  And… these books aren’t all fluff, either.

It’s also tricky, because I feel as though the worldbuilding is less dense here than it is in the Lady Trent or Divine Cities books, and I’m not sure that that is fair, either.  Yes, this is contemporary urban fantasy, so some parts of the world are already there with no added effort on McGuire’s part – but the cryptozoology and family history is actually very extensive.  It just feels different.  I wonder if this is also because McGuire’s voice is very transparent and modern, so one doesn’t notice it, while Lady Trent has a very distinctly Victorian feel, and the language in the Divine Cities is also subtly different?

I don’t know.  But I think I’m going to put this series second on my ballot after all, because ‘I really like this’ ought to be a value.  That means Lady Trent and the Divine Cities are now fighting it out for third and fourth, and I really have no idea how I’ll make that decision.

Hugo reading 2018: The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan

I read A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan, several years ago, and liked it quite a bit, but not enough to seek out the sequels.  I sort of half-remembered it, but not well enough to review it, so I decided to read the second book in the series, The Tropic of Serpents, for the purpose of the Best Series Nomination.

For those who don’t know this series, it’s pretty delightful.  Each volume is one of the memoirs of Isabella, Lady Trent, a naturalist who specialised in dragons, and travelled the globe to study them in a time when ladies were not encouraged to do such things.

Lady Trent lives in Scirland, which is clearly a parallel to Victorian England.  She is bookish from a child, and fascinated by dragons.  Her mother is unsympathetic, but her father, rather endearingly, makes a list of potential husbands who will let her share their libraries, and she eventually marries Jacob and goes on her first adventure with him.

This is the story of her second adventure, and it’s difficult to discuss without revealing a major spoiler from her first one.  But I will do my best.

Isabella clearly carries the story.  She is clearly writing these memoirs some years after the fact, and is old enough to be free of any embarrassment or shame about her youthful adventures – and it is doubtful if she ever had very much, despite the feelings of Society on the matter.  She is a scientist first and foremost; her narrative is straightforward and she does not shy away from improper topics, though she is aware that her audience might do so.  Her studies take her to other continents (her first adventure appears to be in an alternate Arabia; her second is, I think, somewhere pseudo-African and equatorial), and she deals with the people and their cultures in an equally straightforward fashion – she may not believe what they believe, but cooperating with their cultural mores is generally a good way to get what one wants in the long run, and so she does.  Her memoirs are thus as much anthropological as they are biological.

They are also adventure stories, because seeking out dragons to study is a decidedly hazardous proposition.  Lady Trent frequently finds herself in countries where she speaks the language only partially, negotiating customs that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and dealing with terrain that is a hazard in itself – on top of avoiding the diseases which so often strike Scirlanders when they travel to the tropics, and the Extraordinary Breath and claws of the dragons themselves.  And the odd hippopotamus, hostile tribe, or dangerous ritual.

These books are rather lovely to read.  The Victorian styling feels very thoroughly considered (right down to the unfortunate colonial aspirations and assumptions of many characters in the novels), and the dragon biology and life cycles are well thought out.  I think the fact that I enjoy them so much, then walk away from them and forget about them for years suggests that they don’t belong quite at the top of my ballot.  At the moment, the Five Gods books are unbeatable (and probably will be for many years – I really think they are the best fantasy series out there, but we’ll get to that review in a bit), but I’m struggling with where to place this in relation to The Divine Cities, which were excellent, and Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid Books, which I have read all of and enjoy very much.  It’s difficult to judge a series where you have read all the books against a series where you have only read one or two of them…

I think I need to reread the first InCryptid book as well as the last short story that I haven’t read in order to decide this category.  I’ll review the Bujold tomorrow.

Hugo reading 2018 – Martha Wells and the Books for the Raksura

Oh dear… I’ve just spent a relaxing weekend away at Lorne, and got quite a bit of Hugo reading done, and now I’ve come back to discover that Twitter is on fire because WorldCon seems to be on fire, having self-immolated in a fit of extreme stupidity.

(Honestly, while pretty much everything I’ve read about the latest news sounds pretty depressing and mean-spirited, my inner event manager is also appalled and confused on a purely practical level. I mean, event programming is annoying and time consuming, so if you have a bunch of shortlisted authors who are likely to be at your convention, why on earth would you *not* put them all on your program, and then dust your hands happily at knowing that you have THOSE slots filled? Surely laziness alone should be leading to a more diverse WorldCon program than this, and laziness is a powerful force. It seems that the Committee has put actual effort into being idiots, which boggles my mind.)

Never mind. I’m not going to stop my reading project now just because WorldCon is apparently being run by nitwits. On to the next series, which is the Raksura series by Martha Wells.

I went into this with very high hopes, having enjoyed her Murderbot novella so much. And… look, it’s pretty good. I read the first book in this series, The Cloud Roads, which centres on Moon, a young shapeshifter who has grown up alone, trying to ‘pass’ among groundlings (who are not shapeshifters, but not humans either), after his mother and siblings were killed when he was a child. He is an appealing character, and the worldbuilding is certainly very thorough.

I would actually describe the main part of Well’s worldbuilding in this book as ‘species-building’. Moon turns out to be a Raksura, a species of shapeshifter which itself is divided into two halves, the winged Aeriat, consisting of fertile Queens and Consorts and infertile Warriors, and the wingless Arbora, who are soldiers, teachers, hunters, of Mentors. Mentors have arcane powers of various kinds, particularly augury and healing. The Arbora do still shapeshift, though, and I get the impression that their form must be somewhat lizard-like, since scales and claws are mentioned, and they are clearly fierce and vicious fighters when necessary.

(Ooh, maybe they are crocodiles! Maybe Wells has invented an ENTIRE WORLD full of multicoloured, winged crocodile shapeshifters! This is now my headcanon.)

But there are other intelligent species in this world, too, who are equally complex. The main ones we see are the Fell, who are fairly similar to the Raksura in appearance and structure, but who are predators who prey on intelligent species. We also get a glimpse of the Dwei, but we don’t see much of them.

This story is partly a fish out of water / coming of age story for Moon, who is found by Stone, a Raksura consort, and introduced to his Court, Indigo Cloud. It’s also a story about how Raksura court politics work, and about trying to rescue a colony from peril. I liked Moon and the other Raksura. I also liked, very much, his cranky groundling wife, and was glad to see her later in the story. I did kind of keep tripping over what everyone looked like, which was odd, because I’m not great at visualising characters at the best of time. But apparently, I do like to know what general shape they are, and this is relevant in fight scenes. And there were many, many, fight scenes.

(Now I know they are winged crocodiles, of course, everything makes sense.)

(Oh! Wait! Maybe they are pterodactyls! And the wingless ones are… velociraptors! This all makes sense now!)

All in all, it’s a good introduction to the world of the Raksura, and I’d happily read more, but I’m probably not going to. This is going to wind up fifth on my ballot – not because it isn’t good, but because it’s competing against a very strong field this year. It deserves to be nominated, but I don’t think it deserves to win.

Hugo reading 2018: City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Andrew had actually bought a copy of City of Stairs, the first book in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities series, so I decided to try the novelty of reading a paper book rather than on my Kobo.

The story begins with a man on trial for using a symbol of a Divinity as part of his advertising.  In this world, the Continentals are banned from any mention of their Divinities, or any use of their symbols, and thus also from studying any of their history, by the conquering Saypuri.  The trial is interrupted by the news that a Saypuri scholar, known for studying the history of the Continent has been murdered, apparently by Continentals enraged that a foreign colonist is permitted to study in depth something about them that they themselves are not allowed to know.

So at first glance, we have the wicked colonial power oppressing the downtrodden indigenous population, and we know what side we should be on.

Except that within a couple of chapters, we learn that the reason for the conquest of the Continent is that the Continentals and their Divinities had enslaved the Saypuri for centuries, until the Saypuri rose up in rebellion, killed the Divinities, and conquered their people.

Which puts a different complexion on the whole thing, and makes it a little harder to work out who is wrong.  And even that is an oversimplification, because while the Divinities are supposedly all dead, some of their Miracles still work, one of them disappeared long before the conquest, and there are few, if any, witnesses to the death of at least one of them.

So that is the general shape of the world, and the theology that comes with it is fairly fascinating, and also develops during the book. I liked the fact that the Continent was kind of underdeveloped in terms of science and technology, because the Divinities did everything for them – which gave the Saypuri a huge advantage once the Divinities were gone.  I also liked the way that belief seemed to have changed not just current reality, but history, although that also makes my head turn inside out in uncomfortable ways.

As to the plot – the viewpoint character is Shara Komayd, a Saypuri, and a descendent of the man who killed the Divinities.  She is a friend of the murdered man, and arrives incognito in Bulikov to investigate his death.  Shara is a professional spy, and a scholar of the history and miracles of the Continent, and she travels with an assistant, the piratical Sigrud, who is really excellent at violence.  She quickly finds that the murder has less to do with the scholar’s alleged studies than it has to do with Saypuri and Continental politics.  And possibly religious fanaticism, but then again, possible not.

Also, it turns out that one of the chief movers in Continental politics is her former friend and lover from University, Vohannes Votrov, who is charming and charismatic and tries to hide the fact that he prefers men, which is not OK in Bulikov.  (I have to say, I knew, absolutely and from the start, that there could be no romance between Shara and Vo, not really, but that didn’t stop me from wanting one, or wanting SOME kind of romantic pay off for Vo, because he was a delight.  And there was one, sort of, but it was pretty heartbreaking.)

I also need to mention the governor, Turyin Mulaghesh, who is a wonderfully laconic and practical former military woman who really wants her next posting to be somewhere peaceful, with beaches.  You can sort of tell early in the book that this is not what is going to happen.  She is far too good a character to waste on retirement.

Also, you might want to know that some terribly sad and upsetting things happen in this book.  Bring handkerchiefs.

This is a fascinating book, with complex world-building and excellent characters.  I’d definitely like to read more in the series, though given how much of the scenery got burned to the ground towards the end of the book, I’m wondering just where Bennett can go from here.  But following Mulaghesh around certainly strikes me as a sound strategy.

I don’t think Bujold’s Chalion series is beatable in this category, but this is very, very good, and I definitely want to read more of the series.  I’ve read all the InCryptid books, and like them a lot, but it’s hard to compare a full series against one book.  I’m not sure I have time to read the other two before the nomination season finishes, either, even if I give up on the ‘Best Editor: Short Form’ category entirely.

Anyway, I’m very glad I got to read this one.  It’s clever and twisty and has interesting theology, and the characters are people I care about.  It’s hard to go wrong with that combination.

Hugo reading 2018: Fireside Magazine

For the Best Semi-Prozine category, Fireside Magazine provided a Hugo packet containing essays, novellas and short stories from their magazine.

The thing I notice immediately with this collection compared to other publications is that it is absolutely at ease with being political.

There is a series of essays talking about the Black SpecFic Report, which looks at rates of publishing for writers of colour in the field of speculative fiction, followed by responses talking about how to improve these rates, the need to combat unconscious bias, how to create diversity (it doesn’t just happen), and the experience of trying to get published as a black speculative fiction writer.

There is also an essay by John Wiswell called ‘Evil isn’t a disability’, which talks about how illness, particularly mental illness, gets portrayed in films, how Donald Trump’s mockery of disabled people plays into similar cultural norms, and horror movies that miss opportunities to be interesting by making the disabled = monster sterotype.

Some of the stories are political, too. Black Like Them, by Troy L. Wiggins, is full of biting, black humour. It purports to be a series of interviews by an investigative journalist about a drug called ‘Nubianite’ that makes people Black for 24 hours – only for some people, it doesn’t wear off. I especially like the interview with the boy who was going Black on weekends because he thought it was cool, and then wound up stuck with it. He likes that he can dress like a rapper and be cool, but the shit where he gets stopped by the police all the time is just not OK, because he’s Ivy League, man… And the ending is an absolute kick in the stomach. Brilliantly done.

‘The Revolution, brought to you by Nike’, by Andrea Phillips, is also shamelessly political. It’s about a marketer at Nike who decides that the best way to improve the brand’s image is to fight fascism and encourage a popular revolution. It’s political wish-fulfilment fantasy, set very much in the current presidency, and it’s great fun.

The other stories were hit and miss for me. I think the best of them were ‘Geppetto’, by Carlos Hernandez,the tragedy behind Pinocchio; ‘River Boy’, by Innocent Chizarim Ilo, a lovely, rather sad take on the changeling / magically given child story; and The Fisher of Bones, by Sarah Gailey, which is a disturbing and creepy novella about a Prophet who must lead her people to the promised land, and what happens when they get there.

I really like the diversity of authors in this magazine, and the essays were thought-provoking, but I feel that Uncanny Magazine had a better hit rate for me on the stories. This is going second on my ballot for now.

Hugo reading 2018: The Way of Kings, by Brian Sanderson

I’ve actually read two of the series offered in full, and one in part, so I’m saving them until last, hoping to have time to reread them in part, but knowing that I can review them regardless.

That being so, I decided to start with Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer series.

Sanderson provided copies of the first three novels in this series, as well as an introductory packet for Hugo voters.  The introductory packet is an act of kindness – he talks about the series generally, but also acknowledges that not all of us want to read multiple volumes of 1,000+ pages in order to judge a Hugo category.  So he has a series of extracts as well, though he warns that they get spoilery eventually.

Because the series sounded interesting, and I wanted to reciprocate this kindness, I decided to eschew the extracts, and read the first book, The Way of Kings.

I shouldn’t have.

Look, I gave it 300 pages, and then I went back and read the extracts which were further on in the book, and I am now feeling a bit cranky, because those extracts were clearly the Good Bits, and now I sort of want to keep reading, only I’m barely a quarter of the way through and it is interminable.  Also, I’m a little disappointed, because Sanderson talks a lot in his introduction about trying to take a science fiction approach to epic fantasy – creating the flora, fauna, meteorology, etc that make sense for his world.  And… I believe that it’s all in there.  But none of it is evident in the first 300 pages.

This is the kind of epic fantasy with multiple protagonists, each carrying their own storyline, who will presumably meet each other at some climactic point at the book.  I tend to be the wrong audience for this sort of fantasy, because I am often only interested in one or two of the characters or storylines, and forget the names of the other characters, so that whenever we go back to those storylines I am confused and bored.

In this instance, there was one character, Kaladin, who I really liked and was interested in, but all the terrible things kept on happening to him, and while I’m pretty confident he will be the hero of the piece in the end, slogging through that much war and slavery and death was a bit much.  Another character, Shallan, had a really interesting storyline, and I wanted to like her, and Sanderson wanted me to like her too, but she seemed to be suffering from Male Author Is Unsure How To Write Likeable Female Characters syndrome.  At her first appearance, we discover that she is spirited and witty – but in a way that manifests itself in wittily turning any compliment anyone tries to give her into a self-deprecating insult.  I have a strong suspicion that this is meant to make her more likeable, but mostly it made me wince on her behalf.  She improves a bit after that, but she is having to carry the burden of being the only female protagonist in this book, and it’s not doing her character any good at all.

The other main thread seems to be centred around the King and the High Princes, who are constantly at war, mostly so that they can get the opportunity to hunt dangerous beasts for the magical artefacts that they harbour.  If this sounds like a D&D game to you… it did to me, too.  There is some interesting political manoevering going on, and there are characters questioning the need for endless war, and I wanted to care about this, but I didn’t.

There were some interesting things going on around the edges that I wanted more of, but lacked the patience to wait for (especially since… maybe they weren’t going to happen anyway?).  This is a culture where only the women can read and write, which of course means that they control information flow to the men.  But the men seem to be as socially and politically dominant as you would expect in a standard warlike Fantasy Land culture.  The women seem to have a bit more power, as advisors etc, but I’m frankly astonished that they don’t have more.  Also, the women button their left hands into their sleeves at puberty, and refer to them as their Safehands.  Their right hands are Freehands.  I want to know more about this!  Why do they do this? What does it mean?  And what happens if they are left handed?  Also, there is clearly some commentary about racism going on here, with the Darkeyes / Brighteyes thing.

I’m pretty sure the worldbuilding in this series is massive and thorough and interesting.  I would happily read an encyclopaedia about this world, in fact, because it’s clear that Sanderson has put a lot of time into figuring out exactly how everything works, and I bet it’s fascinating.

But I found that as a novel, the pace was interminably slow, and for me, it was a slog to read.  I am the wrong reader for this book, it seems.