Actually, let’s just say – comments are for chatting if anyone else has read this book, and can be as spoilerific as needed – enter at own risk!
Oh, wow, I’d forgotten about reading books where I don’t have to force myself to keep reading! I hadn’t realised how much hard work the last two books were until I started Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, and basically devoured a quarter of it before I even knew what was happening.
Raven Stratagem is the second book in a series, but in my view, it passes the ‘does this book stand alone?’ test with flying colours. I read the first book, Ninefox Gambit, when it was nominated last year, and had forgotten most of the plot. My memories were basically ‘main character has this long dead, brilliant, but genocidal, strategist in her head and there is space opera and also maths and calendars make the technology work. Also, torture makes the calendars work.’
I had, in fact, forgotten everyone’s names, why the main character was chosen to have the strategist implanted in her head, and what happened at the end of the first book – all I remembered was that I liked the relationship between the main character and her ghostly sidekick. And the weird maths/magic/technology stuff.
It didn’t matter. We meet Jedao (the long-dead strategist) almost immediately, and we know he is in Cheris’s body. And we get more of the mechanics of that later. We also get shown fairly early on how the calendar/maths/technology stuff works. But once you’ve taken the technology on-board, the plot stands alone. Yes, it’s enriched by the first book, but the first book isn’t necessary to it.
Once again, I felt that the strength of this book was in its relationships and in its worldbuilding. I really liked the various viewpoint characters, and enjoyed spending time in their heads (which… feels like a strange sort of double-meaning in the context of the book). One concept that hadn’t been very much unpacked in the first book (I think) was ‘formation instinct’ – something implanted in the soldier caste (the Kel) that apparently makes it impossible for them to disobey orders from a superior officer – or rather, if they try, their body will try to prevent them. But it’s more than just about obeying orders – it also seems to implant an absolute loyalty to whoever the commanding officer currently is. This makes it tricky when someone with a higher rank and a terrible reputation comes in and tries to take over. During the book, we see that there are a couple of exceptions to this rule, but the price of being such an exception is costly, both socially and physically. But the deeper you dig into this idea, the more disturbing its implications… true, the Kel consent to have the formation instinct implanted (though it is questionable whether this is an informed choice), but that is in many ways the last time they can consent to anything.
Which is perhaps also a metaphor for the military in its current form – but it’s deeply creepy.
There is a lot of pretty awful stuff taking place in this book. There is some on-stage and fairly grotesque torture (a single seen, mercifully short), but it’s a single scene and you can sort of see it coming, and skim that bit without missing anything vital. There are underlying and concerning issues in the Hexarchy (the fact that it runs on torture, and has an entire caste for that, for example, isn’t great…). And there is genocide, discussed in frighteningly administrative detail.
But despite all this, it seemed lighter than the first book – perhaps because it’s clear from the start that this is not OK and someone is trying to do something about it.
The plot itself is delightfully twisty – I saw a couple of the turns coming, but it was still fun watching them approach – and is quietly making a lot of points about choice and ethics and sacrifice and consent, which I also enjoyed.
Also, it is so BLISSFULLY readable. I could just… read it and enjoy it, rather than having to fight the text to figure out what was going on (looking at you, Stone Sky), or wade through dull prose and economic theory to enjoy the (admittedly highly enjoyable) characters (hi, New York 2140). This is going to the top of my ballot for now – though I have to say, the three remaining books are all looking pretty promising, so I’ll be interested to see if it stays there.
I went into The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin with a bad attitude. I feel pretty strongly that a Best Novel (or Novella, or Dramatic presentation, etc) has to be able to stand alone, and the third book of a trilogy is unlikely to do that. Also, I read the excerpt when book 2 was nominated last year, and it did very little for me.
And… look, I don’t really know what to do with this one. The world building is complex and very thorough, which is a good thing in most circumstances, but coming in at book three felt rather like reading in a foreign language – there were bits that lacked context and which I felt I only half-understood at best. This was frustrating, and turned what would otherwise have been a strength into a weakness. (And this is why you shouldn’t nominate book three of a trilogy, folks! If you love the first book, then fine, nominate it. But after that, wait and nominate it for best series, already!)
Having said that, the characters carried me through to the extent that I kept reading all the way to the end, despite my disgruntlement, because I wanted to know what happened to them (mild spoiler: nothing good. This is only a mild spoiler because even going into this story with very little information about it, it seemed pretty clear that misery levels were going to be high).
The way the story was told was also designed to drive me right up the wall. There is a lot of second person, and a lot of random bits of documents from someone writing in the past, not to mention an entire separate plot thread from a different era entirely, and it was really only in the last couple of chapters that I felt that I had any idea what was going on. I suspect – no, I know! – that there are plenty of people out there who would love this sort of storytelling, but it drove me absolutely batty.
(Yes, Andrew, I can see you pricking up your ears. You would probably love this, because you are the sort of person who likes extremely irritating books, and I love you, but sometimes I don’t understand you…)
I don’t know how to review this fairly. The book 3 factor was a problem for me, but even without that, the literary style would have annoyed me, and even without THAT, I’d probably not have enjoyed this book very much because it’s really fairly depressing. The fact that I liked the characters didn’t help with that. I think the main reason I kept reading is that I wanted to find out who the characters in the Syl Anagist chapters were – their story, thankfully, WAS self-contained, and I liked it a lot – and this was resolved late enough in the book that I figured I might as well find out what happened to everyone else at that point. (Don’t get me wrong, I really did like the other characters – but they had Doomed, Doomed, Sadly, Miserably Doomed written all over them. I don’t think I could have read their story alone).
So, where does this leave me? It leaves me with a book that is, certainly, a very good book, but which I really didn’t like for a lot of reasons relating to personal taste. Does it past the ‘standalone’ test? Maybe. Barely. I think that depends on your tolerance for reading a book where you spend a lot of time not really understanding what is going on or why. And I’m not even sure that this isn’t intentional – I think Jemisin is deliberately opaque in places. To be frank, I don’t think I’d have liked this book very much even if it HAD been standalone.
I don’t know whether this goes above or below New York: 2140 on my ballot. It’s better-written, but an order of magnitude more annoying. And did I mention the general misery?
Let’s hope the next few novels turn out to be books I actually like without having to work quite this hard to be fair…
The Hugo Voter Pack for this section was fairly annoying this year, offering only two books in full and the rest as excerpts. I was in two minds about trying to get hold of the novels, to be honest, but when Andrew was able to find them all at the library, I accepted my fate.
I decided to start with New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson, on the grounds that it was a gigantic tome which will never fit in my handbag, and I wanted to get it over with. We had heard Robinson interviewed about it on the Coode Street Podcast, and he had described it as being set in a post-climate change, drowned New York with a Venice-like feel. He said he had spent a lot of time walking around New York with a map showing altitudes, to work out where the intertidal areas would be and where the drowned areas would be, which sounded appealing. He also said that he had spent a long time figuring out the economic set up, and that the villain in this story was Capitalism which sounded both depressing and dull. It sounded, frankly, like a climate change dystopia with economics, in 600+ pages – not my cup of tea.
So I was surprised to find I quite enjoyed it. It was a strange sort of enjoyment – up until about halfway through, it was the sort of enjoyment where I quite liked it while I was reading it, but could also walk away and forget about it at any time. After that, it got a bit more compelling.
I’m not sure how best to describe the plot. It centres around the denizens of the MetLife building – Inspector Gen, a Black woman and a fourth generation cop; Charlotte, a lawyer who works for the Housing Cooperative and tries to sort out housing for refugees ; Franklin, a financier who is not quite as much of a good guy as he thinks he is, but does have more ethics than are immediately apparent; Mutt and Jeff, two ‘quants’ who work on the mathematical side of financial speculation and are somewhat lacking in sense; Vlade, the building manager and former diver; Amelia, a ‘cloud star’ celebrity, who uses her zeppelin to assist the migration of endangered species, and films this for the public; and Roberto and Stefan, two very bright ‘water rats’ – children without visible means of support, who support themselves by diving and scavenging in the drowned city.
And… they try to keep the building together. They try to find buried treasure. They try to save the polar bears. They try to rescue refugees when a hurricane creates a gigantic storm surge. They fight off hostile takeovers and predatory financial systems, and run co-operatives, and eventually realise that this piecemeal approach is not enough, and they will need to find a way to fix the system entire.
I liked the characters, some more than others. Amelia is delightful; Vlade is someone I’d like to know; Franklin deserves all the eye-rolling in the world, but is actually quite likeable once he starts looking outside his own bubble; Gen and Charlotte are both great, but perhaps not that well characterised because I was constantly mixing them up.
It’s a surprisingly optimistic book, given its subject matter. It’s so optimistic, in the end, that I found it almost unbelievable – but that’s probably the effect of the current political climate.
I don’t think I’d seek out more of Robinson’s work – it is SO long and his characterisation wasn’t strong enough to keep me really interested – but I liked it much more than I expected to. And a little political optimism is a balm in the current climate. It’s a good start to the best novel category.
Last novel! Hooray! And I liked this one quite a lot, which means that now I have a problem at the top of my ballot…
But let’s get on with the book.
A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, is a very sweet, kindly sort of book. It feels like an epilogue, and I believe it takes place after another book set in the same universe. There is not, now I think about it, a lot of obvious conflict. It still kept me reading until after 1am on a work night because I needed to know what happened to everyone.
The book tells two stories in parallel. The first story centres around Lovelace / Sidra, a ship’s artificial intelligence system who is now trapped in a synthetic human body. And she does feel trapped by it – she no longer has unlimited memory and access to the Linkages, which seem to be a futuristic extrapolation of the world wide web. Her narrative arc is partly about coming to terms with her situation and figuring out how people who are not AIs (humans or aliens) work, and partly about her remaking her situation to a point where she can be content with it and have a purpose that appeals to her.
She is helped in this by Pepper, an engineer who was once a slave called Jane 23, and the second story is hers. This story starts when Jane 23 is ten, and, almost accidentally, escapes the factory which has been her entire world (quite literally – she does not know what the sky is, and is alarmed by this gigantic ‘room’ without walls). Running from feral dogs, Jane 23 is rescued by a stranded spaceship and its AI, Owl. Owl takes her in, and… basically teaches her how to be human. And, over time, how to repair the ship and get off this planet. This may sound unlikely, but Jane has been working to sort and repair broken machinery for her entire life as a slave, so while she has few other skills, she is very, very good with engineering. I must admit, while I liked Sidra a lot, and sympathised with her struggles, it was Jane’s story that kept me up until 1am wondering if – and how – she would be OK.
Note that Jane’s story is fairly disturbing – the treatment of the child slaves is chilling (we never do find out what happens when they turn twelve, but I suspect they are killed at that point), and she spends years scavenging for metal and for food, and mostly killing and eating feral dogs. Which is something you may have a visceral reaction to. (I just tried replacing feral dogs with feral cats in that sentence and was completely horrified and grossed out, so, yeah.)
With half the story being about an AI raised by humans and the other half about a human raised by an AI, Chambers is clearly saying a few things about what makes us human, but I’m not entirely sure what those things are. It’s clear that humanity is not limited to humans; the AI, Owl, is clearly appalled by Jane 23’s treatment, which, while it was at the hands of AIs called the Mothers, is clearly something that was decided and organised by the humans. Compassion, empathy and friendship, are clearly important things, and things that AIs can share with humans and aliens. Another important thread is the ability to lie, something that Sidra can’t do at the start of the story due to programming limitations. Once she is able to do so, it seemed to me that her relationships with humans and aliens changed for the better. But it is clear that AIs have free will, at least to an extent. Sidra can choose what she wants to do and how to spend her time, provided it does not go against one of her programming restrictions.
I don’t know where to put this book on the ballot. It was far and away the most enjoyable one to read of the novels in this category, but I don’t think that it was as creative as Ninefox Gambit or The Obelisk Gate. I still want to put it at the top of the list, because I want to encourage books that I enjoy reading. But I’m not sure if it ought to be first or second. Then again, I suspect a LOT of people will put Ninefox Gambit first (I’m expecting that one to win, actually), so maybe it doesn’t need my vote? I shall have to ponder this.
Today’s novel was Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee.
I really didn’t expect to like this one, since it is military science fiction, which doesn’t generally appeal to me. And, to be honest, it was rather like reading a book in another language – French, perhaps, because I understood most of it, but I had to work at it, and I felt as though there was vocabulary that eluded me. I suspect one needs quite a visual sort of imagination to follow what was going on with the various battles and campaigns, and I just don’t have that sort of brain.
But despite all of that, I really liked it. I didn’t quite love it, mostly because of my difficulty following the action sequences, but I’m definitely going to want to re-read it, and then go and read the other books in the series.
Also, let it be known that Yoon Ha Lee did not kill the cat. And about time, too, if you ask me. This alone would push Ninefox Gambit up the ballot for me.
N.K. Jemisin has offered an excerpt from her novel, The Obelisk Gate, which is the second novel in what I believe is going to be a trilogy. Normally, I get frustrated by excerpts, but with the voting deadline breathing down my neck, and having read so many works that I really did not like, I am feeling rather more benign about the whole idea.
Of course, having said that, it turns out that this is the only novel of the four I’ve read so far that I’ve really *wanted* to read more of. This is probably partly because I prefer fantasy to science fiction, but it’s also because I really love the narrator’s voice, which reminds me a bit of one Ursula Vernon’s narrators – knowledgeable, chatty, a little bit cranky, but with your best interests at heart.
Here’s the very start of the novel:
Hmm. No. I’m telling this wrong.
After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being. I am me, and you. Damaya was herself and the family that rejected her and the people of the Fulcrum who chiseled her to a finne point. Syenite was Alabaster and Innon and the people of poor lost Allia and Meov. Now you are Tirimo and the ash-strewn road’s walkers and your dead children . . . and also the living one who remains. Whom you will get back.
That’s not a spoiler. You are Essun, after all. You know this already. Don’t you?
It’s as confusing as hell, but I somehow want to keep reading.
I’m still not entirely sure what this novel is about, to be honest. At the end of the excerpt (which is the first hundred pages or so of the book), I do have a sense of the world, but it was harder to jump into than Death’s End was, so it doesn’t work quite so well as a standalone. What I know is that there are people called orogenes, who can sense and influence minerals in a variety of ways, up to and including causing or preventing earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. And the general population fears such people to such an extent that they will kill them in infancy if they find out about them. There has clearly been some cataclysmic event (I suspect in the previous book) that has sent the whole world into a Season, which seems to be something like an Ice Age, or another inhospitable geological Age.
There also seem to be untrained orogenes running around who can potentially do different things.
Our main characters are Essun, an orogene who has taken shelter with a community that also shelters a former lover of hers, Alabaster, a powerful orogene who seems to have caused the recent apocalypse and is now dying, and Nassun, her daughter. The two are separated – Nassun’s father discovered that his children were orogenes, and killed Nassun’s younger brother, but can’t quite bear to kill Nassun, his favourite. Instead, he took her with him, and left. Nassun, for her part, loves her father and was desperate to get away from her mother – but she is also now more than a little afraid of what her father might do to her. And Essun wants her daughter back, but does not know where to look for her. And anyway, the priority right now is survival, and possibly – assuming it is possible – doing something to stop this season.
And that’s it, really. I like the worldbuilding a lot, and the characters, and I want to know more. It’s hard to judge where to put this on the ballot, given that it is an excerpt where the other novels in the voter pack are complete, but I’m inclined to put it at the top, because I actually do want to keep reading, and in fact, would like to go back and start with The Fifth Season first. None of the other books on the list have made me want more, so I think that probably means that this belongs at the top of my ballot for now.
Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, is, I think, very good, but not for me.
I should start by mentioning that it is a very long novel, and I did not manage to finish it. It didn’t enrage me or anything, it just was not my thing. It’s very dense, hard SF on an epic scale, and I was finding that the only characters I really cared about or identified with were the ones who were in the wrong, at least as far as the philosophy of the book goes in the first half. I think I gave it a pretty fair chance – I read Parts 1 and 2, and part of Part 3, which amounted to just under 300 pages all up and took me nearly to the halfway point. I couldn’t face another 300+ pages. Sorry.
Death’s End is book three of the trilogy that started with The Three Body Problem. It stands alone quite well, which is to say, I had no idea that it was the third book in a trilogy, and certainly had no sense that it wasn’t a perfectly self-contained story, at least in the half I read.
There is a LOT of plot, and I don’t quite know how to summarise it. There is a lengthy synopsis here. Essentially, Earth has been under attack by the Trisolarans, but eventually the two sides settle into a sort of Cold War / mutually-assured-destruction scenario which allows both sides to prosper peacefully. This goes on until Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer who originally worked on a problem at the start of the Trisolar Crisis and was in hibernation for two hundred years before being woken up to address a completely different problem, is elected the new Swordholder. During the time Cheng Xin has been asleep, the world has become very feminised (initially she can’t tell men from women), and Cheng Xin, is viewed as a reassuring, Madonna-like figure, who will keep the world safe. Alas, when the Trisolarians attack, she is unable to press the button that would lead to the destruction of both worlds, and Earth is invaded.
And that’s really just the first quarter or so of the book.
There are some fun things in here. As an Australian, I got a certain kick out of the fact that when humans are restricted to reservations, the reservation is Australia. And it was amusing having the Australian government being in charge of the human portion of the world, at least for a while. Even if they did give Melbourne away. I was also amused that AA, Cheng Xin’s assistant is excited to meet an Aboriginal Australian man, Fraisse, and enthusiastically performs a Haka, and Fraisse just smiles and gently points out that no, Hakas are a Maori dance, before performing an absolutely terrifying one to demonstrate.
There’s also some fairly cool fourth-dimension stuff, which I don’t understand very well, but which I enjoyed nonetheless. The descriptions are fantastic, and the translator, Ken Liu is clearly a very gifted writer in his own right.
There are also things that annoy me. There seemed to be a pervasive sort of theme that women are nurturing and peaceful and that if men become nurturing and peaceful and too feminised, then this will inevitably result in destruction. Everyone forgives Cheng Xin in a rather patronising way, because she couldn’t help being sweet and gentle, and it’s the fault of others for electing her. It’s the Manly Men of the 21st century, the ones who came out of hibernation into this feminine world and didn’t fit in, who tell Cheng Xin not to run for election as the sword holder, and it’s the Manly Men who turn out to be right, and who are able to run the resistance. More Manly Men on spaceships are the ones who save the world (and even make a passing comment about how there really aren’t any Real Men on Earth any more). Even the gentle Fraisse takes the opportunity to point out to Cheng how it was that she could not intimidate the Trisolarians, because he might be gentle, but he is still a Man and therefore capable of expressing aggression in a way that Cheng Xin can’t.
Now, it’s possible that this gets turned around by the end of the book, but honestly, I found this quite frustrating to read. There really aren’t any other female protagonists, and it frustrates me that Cheng Xin is so consistently portrayed as being so emotional and soft compared to everyone else – at one point the Trisolarian calls her the only true innocent when it comes to their invasion, because Cheng Xin only did what she had to do. It’s the fault of the rest of the world for putting her there to fail. Which is only true if one assumes that Cheng Xin had no ability to say no to taking up the role of Swordholder or insufficient self-awareness to realise that she would be unable to do the job. Again, it’s a really patronising attitude, and it annoyed me a fair bit. And it smells a little bit like ‘women can’t be leaders because they aren’t tough enough to go to war’.
Aside from the sexism, I was uncomfortable with the the way the book seemed to be glorifying the sort of military hard choices that destroy worlds, and suggesting that without such choices, if people try to live peacefully, they are doomed. This is not a worldview I am comfortable with.
In conclusion, it’s a clever book, and it’s well written. I suspect that if you are a hard science fiction person, you will really enjoy the world building and the technology. But I don’t like it’s philosophy, and I don’t like it’s gender essentialism and underlying sexism.
Currently, it’s coming in ahead of Too Like The Lightning because my primary complaint was boredom rather than rage, and because it does, at least, have the virtue of being a self-contained story. But All The Birds In The Sky is still winning, because it managed neither to bore nor infuriate me.
All The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders is a strange book. I’ve finished it, and I’m still not entirely sure what happened, but I think the author was deliberately trying to leave things wide open.
Anyway, I quite liked it, which was a nice change.
It tells the story of Patricia, a witch who can communicate with animals, and Lawrence, who is a brilliant scientist. They meet as children and become friends, but I have to say, that whole first section of the book – about a third of the novel, I think – which takes place while they are children is absolutely harrowing. They are both bullied, horrifically, and the adults in their lives keep on blaming them for the things that are happening to them. Also, there is a random assassin who has decided that it is his mission to kill Patricia, so he signs on as the school counsellor. This doesn’t help.
I was bullied pretty badly at school (though this was a whole new, horrific level), and I found this part extremely hard to read. Also, beware – there is the now-traditional animal cruelty, though it’s mostly implied. But I have a bad feeling about what happened to Patricia’s cat after she had to leave. I do wonder why so many Hugo-nominated books are being sadistic about animals this year. It’s like they think it’s the Newberry awards…
Anyway, once everyone grows up, it’s easier to read, if you set aside the fact that the world is clearly about to end – the climate is breaking down, and there are food shortages and all sorts of other things going on in the background. But in the foreground, you have Lawrence, who is part of a team trying to get things sorted so that the human race can move to another planet when this one dies, and Patricia, who is wandering around doing witchy things at the commands of her witchy supervisors who, to be frank, seem to be rather awful and manipulative people. She is also trying to use magic to repair the world they actually have.
It’s hard to describe this book usefully. A big part of it is the central relationship between Patricia and Lawrence, who at different times are friends, strangers, lovers, enemies, and allies. There is some fascinating stuff going on with artificial intelligence. There are a lot of people who mean very well and do terrible things while meaning very well. And the world is coming to pieces. Really, horribly, coming to pieces. This should be a horrifically dark book, but it somehow manages not to be.
The writing style is transparent and coherent and lovely and so refreshing after Palmer and Tingle. I like the way the book straddles the border of fantasy and science fiction, and even having finished it, I’m not sure entirely what side it comes down on. I think fantasy – there is a lot of fairy tale structure – but it’s fantasy with a lot of technology and science in it.
… you know, it’s much harder to write about a book that I just quietly enjoyed. But that’s how I feel about this one. I liked it. I’d maybe even read it again. It didn’t change my world, but it also didn’t ruin my weekend. It’s a solidly good book which deserved nomination, but I do sort of hope there will be something I like more in the mix.