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: 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.

Hugo reading 2018: In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan

I actually read some of In Other Lands when Sarah Rees Brennan was first writing it on her blog.  I bought it when it turned into a book, and so this is effectively my second-and-a-half time through.  I’ve been enjoying it more on each reread.

Elliott, a bright, abrasive child with an absent mother and a neglectful father, is offered the opportunity to cross the wall into a magical land, where humans dwell alongside elves, dwarves, trolls, harpies, mermaids and more.  Unfortunately for Elliott, this opportunity comes with enrolment into a military school for those who will be protecting the Borderland.  Elliott is not into physical things and is appalled at the glorification of war.  He is also incapable of keeping his mouth shut, ever, and rapidly makes himself as unpopular on the magical side of the border as he was on his own side.

His saving social grace is his instant love for Serene-Heart-In-The-Chaos-Of-Battle, a beautiful elf maiden who has joined the school in order to study both the military and Council tracks.  Elliott may not see much point in the military side, but he respects her intelligence, and also he is in love, so he is willing to put up with Luke Sunborn, a blond, heroic warrior from a family of warriors, and Serene’s ‘sword sister’.

On a surface level, this novel is one long running joke about sexism and gender-based assumptions.  Serene is very much embedded in elf culture, which carries with it, shall we say, a certain level of toxic femininity.  She likes boys, and has an egalitarian friendship with Luke, but her attitude to men in general is both protective and dismissive.  She is concerned for the virtue of the young gentleman in the school, is uncomfortable with emotion and children (gentlemen are so much better at that sort of thing – they are naturally warmer and more caring), and is sympathetic to the fact that men are just more emotional than women, because “women shed their dark feelings with their menses every month… But men, robbed of that outlet, have strange moodswings and become hysterical at a certain phase of the moon”.

That one made me cackle out loud.  And I have to say, I strongly suspect that Brennan sat down with a checklist of sexist tropes and did not rest until she had reversed every one of them, which was a lot of fun.

Of course, human culture, even across the border, has the usual gender biases, so Serene experiences a certain amount of culture clash.

The story does go a bit deeper than this (not that an exploration of gender norms is not worthwhile in its own right), and I really enjoyed Elliott’s relationships with Serene and with Luke, particularly the latter.  Elliott… is not great at emotion.  Or being a human, really.  His father never really spoke to him at all, his mother left when he was a baby, and he had no friends at school.  He has never learned tact, or even seen the need for it prior to this book, and he doesn’t respect anyone who isn’t as smart as he is.  Which, in his view, is basically everyone he meets.  He does – sort of – like Luke, but he expresses this largely by insulting Luke and stealing his pudding.  Luke, while ridiculously nice, does have a snarky side, and the reader can see that he is quite fond of Elliott.  Elliott is naturally blind to this.

The novel is divided into five sections, one for each year that Elliott is in the Borderlands.  He goes home every summer, and it’s… a bit jarring every time.  This is a coming of age story, and an important part of Elliott’s coming of age is deciding which side of the border he will stay on, and why.  He doesn’t want to live in a world without decent plumbing and technology, and one where war seems to be a constant.  On the other hand… he does have friends there, and there seems to be very little for him on the normal side of the border.

This is a long novel – 800 pages on my Kobo, which makes it about twice as long as the average paperback (for Bujold fans, the Cordelia’s Honour duo comes to 1100 pages), and while it doesn’t drag, exactly, it feels long.  I suspect there are places where it could be tighter – the inevitable flaw of a book that started off as a serialised story, and where the author wanted to be sure not to miss a single joke.  (Having said that… they are good jokes.)

I don’t think it has the magic of Hardinge’s novel – there was a lovely depth to that one, like a well which might or might not have poison at the bottom – but it’s clever and funny and more serious than it first appears to be.  It’s a fun, enjoyable read, with some good payoffs, but it is also a novel that it is possible to walk away from.

I’m going to put it second on my ballot, above Summer in Orcus, but behind A Skinful of Shadows.  Akata Warrior will be fourth, and The Art of Starving fifth.

Hugo reading 2018: The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller

Why yes, I have been at home today, feeling largely too crampy and depressed to do much.

Which is why I had time to read another novel, The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller.

It was not the right novel for my mood.  Or maybe it really, really was.  To be fair, I don’t think I was ever going to love this one, especially in this context.

The Art of Starving
is told in the first person by Matt, who is not having a great time.  He is gay and getting a hard time for it at school, though his mother doesn’t know.  His sister has run away from home, and he’s pretty sure that someone did something terrible to her before she went and that it’s his job to avenge her.  His mother’s job at the meatpacking factory is looking increasingly insecure, and his father isn’t in the picture.

But he doesn’t have an eating disorder.  It’s all perfectly under control, and besides, when you don’t eat, your hunger means that you sense the world more sharply, perhaps even to a degree that is supernatural and allows you to smell what people are thinking and feeling.

So yeah.  He totally has an eating disorder.  There are calorie counts on every chapter heading.  I’m guessing that this would be as triggery as all hell for anyone with an actual eating disorder.

This book frustrated me immensely.  For one thing… it was pretty clear to me from about page 2 what one of the Deep Dark Secrets was going to be.  For another, it was really painful to be inside the head of someone who was doing that to himself.  And for a third thing… these are the Hugo Awards, not the Newberry Awards, so there ought to be some SFF elements, and there weren’t, really.  Or… they were so tenuous that it was possible to spend 90% of the book being pretty sure that this was a combination of the illness and wishful thinking.  The end sort-of-mostly confirms that they were real, but honestly, I wouldn’t call this speculative fiction.  This is an Issues book and a YA book, and I’ve seen more SFF elements in books that were shelved in the straight YA section.

Was it well-written?  Probably.  The author clearly has a real handle on eating disorders (unsurprisingly, since he mentions in the afterword that he suffered from one), and he certainly understands the hell that is being a teenager.  But there were no real surprises in this book, and I felt like I had read similar things before which I had enjoyed more.

This definitely goes below Summer in Orcus for me, and I’m probably going to put it at the bottom of my ballot, because as mentioned above, I don’t think it really belongs on a Hugo nomination list.  It’s a pity, because I can think of several ways to take this premise and make it more interesting, and/or more SF-nal.  But that’s not what the author did or was trying to do.

Hugo reading 2018: Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher

Summer in Orcus is a portal fantasy sort of fairy tale by T. Kingfisher (the YA pen-name for Ursula Vernon).  Eleven year old Summer loves her mother, but wishes her mother didn’t love her *quite* so much, and would occasionally let her do things, like go on school excursions, or play outside where someone might grab her.  When Baba Yaga offer her her heart’s desire, she doesn’t quite know what it is, but she goes through the door anyway, and finds herself in a world that is full of magic, but under a terrible threat.

This is a simple, kind, sort of story, as I expect from Kingfisher / Vernon.  The delight is in the gentle humour and the characters – we have Reginald the Hoopoe, a regency fop of a bird with few brains and a kind heart – think of any character in a regency romance who goes by Freddy, and you will be on the right track.  He is part of an entire avian regency society, with his valet birds (who have a flock-mind), and the Imperial Guard Geese, who are fierce enough to give even a wolf pause.

And there is a wolf, too, named Glorious, who is afflicted by a were-house curse.  He turns into a lovely little cottage at night, and has to beware House Hunters, who will chain him with silver so that he cannot regain his wolf form.

There is a way station which is also a whey station and has magical cheese.  There is a talking weasel.  There are women in animal skins, who may or may not be shifters, and trees whose leaves turn to living animals when they fall.  There are the antelope women, who are not to be trusted.  And there are the villains – Zultan, Grub, and the mysterious Queen in Chains.

While this is an adventure story and a fairy-tale, it is, at its core, a story about figuring out who you are and what you want and how to be the person you want to be.  As mentioned above, it’s a very kind story, and the resolution is absolutely right, I think.  I’m not sure I’d call it Young Adult – it feels a little younger than that, more the sort of thing that someone who is the right age for E. Nesbit would enjoy.

If there is a flaw, it is that the pacing is a bit slow in places, and it drags a bit in the middle.  This is probably not something I’d have minded if I were at an E. Nesbit sort of age – what it lacks in pace it makes up for in avian regency balls and mores – but a little part of me was going, come on now, get on with it…

Definitely a pleasing start to the YA category, however, and I enjoyed it very much.

(It did make me cry at the end, though, but I don’t think it was actually sad, really. I’m just in a strange, sad mood today.)

Hugo reading 2018: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula Le Guin

Well, this is definitely the last of the related works, anyway!

No Time to Spare, by Ursula Le Guin is, I believe, a collection of her blog posts, and it’s pretty delightful.  I read her Earthsea books when I was a child, and they didn’t particularly make an impression on me, so I don’t think I ever read anything else of hers.  (My general impression as a child of the 80s was that Science Fiction and Fantasy was all either post-apocalyptic or too scary or weird and unpleasant, or all of the above [Looking at you, Z for Zachariah].  I think Earthsea came into the Too Scary category.)  And now I’m thinking I really should, because I like her writing and the way she thinks.

The book is divided into four sections, Going Over Eighty, The Lit Biz, Trying to make sense of it and Rewards.  In between each of these sections, we will have The Annals of Pard, which are stories about Le Guin’s cat, and are absolutely charming.  Clearly, Le Guin understands cats very well.

I’m not sure how to usefully review a book of short essays of this nature, so I might try to say a little about each section and just assert overall that this was really an enjoyable read – I like blogs which are well-written and eclectic, sometimes thoughtful, other times facetious and humorous, and this is all of these things.

Going Over Eighty is a series of reflections on ageing, but even more so a reflection on the way ageing gets viewed by individuals and culture generally.  The ‘No Time to Spare’ quote comes from this, as Le Guin is bemused and irritated by a questionnaire from her alma mater to graduates from 60 years ago asking what they do in their spare time.  Most of them will be retired; and everything Le Guin has done with her life is in the ‘things you do in your spare time’ category anyway.  It was a thought-provoking collection.

The Lit Biz was probably my favourite section, other than the Pard stories.  There were so many fun and interesting essays here – the ones about letters from readers (especially children) were hilarious, especially the letter from the poor child old to write to Le Guin by his teacher whose best shot was ‘I have read the cover. it is prety good.’, leaving both author and child with no possible place to go.  There was a fascinating post about Homer, which reflects on how he and others write about war, and how this interacts with and critiques the idea that might makes right.  She is very taken with the idea of the Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal, and talks about prizes, politics, integrity, and the prize that she chose to refuse, and what became of it.  And she reflects on the idea of the Great American Novel.

In Trying to Make Sense of It, we get a more random selection of Le Guins thoughts on politics, gender, religion, belief, military uniforms, science and many other things.  I liked some of these and was less interested in others.  The Rewards section was similarly random, but more delightful.  I loved her comparison of a food bank to a cathedral – Our Lady of Hunger, and her reflection on a breakfast in Vienna and the proper way to eat a soft boiled egg, which almost convinced me that I should have a soft boiled egg for breakfast every day (and maybe I will tomorrow, at that).

All in all, I really enjoyed this collection.  I think I still want to put Crash Override first, because while I hate that it needs to exist, I am glad that, given the need, it does; but this will certainly be second on my ballot.  I’ll put Sleeping with Monsters third, Luminescent Threads fourth, the Ian Banks book fifth, and the Harlan Ellison book last in this category.

And so ends another category!

At this point, I’m hoping to finish the Best Dramatic Presentation – short form today, after which I have only YA, Best Series, Best Semi Prozine and the various best Editors to go.  I won’t be reviewing the Best Dramatic Presentation long form ones, because I don’t enjoy watching films enough to watch six in the next month.  And I’ll probably not write about the Best Editor Long Form here, since that’s mostly going to be me looking at the list of books they’ve edited and voting on that basis.

(I must admit, while I’m enjoying the Hugo reading much more this year than in previous ones, I’m rather looking forward to some nice, lazy re-reading of favourite romance novels once this is done…)

Hugo reading 2018: The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

Last novel!  And it is John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, which I expected to like, but found quite hard to get into.  I read Scalzi’s blog, and enjoy it, but I do find it disconcerting that his fiction-writing voice is so similar to his blog-writing voice.  It’s almost jarring.

The collapsing empire is more political space opera, because apparently that is what the Hugo novel section is about this year.  In this particular iteration, the human race is scattered across a range of planets, each colony dependent on the others for vital resources, and all linked by the ‘Flow’, which sounds to me like a slow-motion tesseract – one swims through it (and never knows how long one will be in it), and when one emerges, one is in an entirely different part of space.

Except that it doesn’t seem to be working properly any more, and there are several theories as to what it IS doing.

Also, the old Emperox is dead, his chosen heir died a few years previously in an accident, and the new Emperox is a very nice young woman with very little training or obvious aptitude for her role.  This is a problem, because if ever humanity needed a strong Emperox to hold things together, it’s now.

This is a bit of a weird book.  It should be more depressing than it is, given the body count and the premise (and this is perhaps why I found Scalzi’s breezy style a bit uncomfortable).  There are plenty of smart, interesting characters, with a wide range of ethics.  There is some cool stuff – I like the Memory Room, accessible only to the Emperox, where she can confer with computer-generated versions of all her predecessors.  These predecessors have all the memories they accrued during life, but no emotions, so they are quite helpful, but also very blunt.

There is also a character who I have heard is controversial, because she is almost incapable of saying three words in a row without one of them being ‘fuck’.  Also… her seduction of another character late in the book is a little uncomfortable.  I feel as though if the genders of the characters in that scene had been swapped, it would have been problematic, and I feel as though that sentence is itself problematic.  There is an opportunity for him to say no, and one presumes she would have accepted it, but there is also a significant power imbalance between them at the time, and… it just made me feel ever so slightly squirmy.  I think it’s OK.  But it is very close to not being OK.

The ending is not *quite* a cliff-hanger.  It resolves the immediate situation, but it does signal loud and clear that it is the first in a series and if you want to know what happens, you will need to read on.  It stands alone, but only barely.

This category is a tricky one.  Six Wakes and Raven Stratagem are both exceptionally good, and there’s not a lot to choose between them.  Provenance is comfortably in third place, no higher, no lower – I really enjoyed it, but on reflection, there was a pretty sudden plot shift towards the end that was a little clunky.  Collapsing Empire comes in just ahead of New York 2140, just because it was easier to read.  And The Stone Sky is last, I’m afraid, because it did nothing for me.

Having said that, this Best Novel section was worlds more fun to read than last year’s one.  Three books I actively enjoyed, zero books that enraged or traumatised me, and only two which I had to kind of force myself through (and even one of those had fun sections in it).  Nice work, I say.

Hugo reading 2018: Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty

Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty is both easy and difficult to describe. Six people wake up in cloning vats on a space ship, their brutally murdered bodies floating around them. They are – and always have been – the only people on the ship who aren’t in stasis. They only remember being on the space ship for two weeks – but with one exception, the bodies are 25 years older than they were when they got on the ship. Their memories are gone. The computer logs of the voyage so far are gone. The food synthesiser only makes hemlock.

Whodunnit? And why? And how?
This is a twisty, twisty, locked-room murder mystery, which also delves into a bunch of ethical issues around cloning. The personalities are interesting, though some are more sympathetic than others. The reasons for the murders clearly go back into the time before the ship was launched – but everyone on the ship has been cloned many, many times, so that’s a lot of past to look into. And everyone is hiding at least one thing relevant to the mystery from everyone else.
I feel reluctant to write more about this, because even more than with the last novel, I feel as though I have to either lie or give away chunks of plot (I have lied, slightly, above)
This is a really, really good story. It’s a strong thriller/murder mystery, but it does touch on quite a few bioethical questions that are already becoming relevant. It … drat, no, I can’t actually say any more without spoiling the ending.  There are, I think, homages to Agatha Christie and Jean Paul Sartre in there that I spotted; there are probably others that I didn’t spot.
I thought this was excellent, and it’s going to the top of my ballot.  Also, you should all read this one.  if only so that I have someone to talk about it with who won’t be spoilered.

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!

Hugo reading 2018: Provenance, by Ann Leckie

Provenance, by Ann Leckie, was a lot of fun. I feel like there is a bit of a trend this year for twisty, political, space opera, featuring at least one character who isn’t what he or she seems. I’m totally there for this trend, but it does make it a little difficulty to review books without giving anything away (which is why my review of Raven Stratagem really doesn’t do it justice, sadly).
So, let’s see. Our protagonist is Ingray, who is in competition with her foster brother to become their foster mother’s heir. She decides that a good way to impress her mother would be to break out the son of a rival from prison, and get em to show her where e hid eir family’s vestiges. 
And before I continue, let’s pause to actually understand what that sentence meant. Vestiges are… souvenirs with historical significance, basically. Letters from important ancestors, signatures on important documents, and so forth. Families on Ingray’s planet derive a lot of their prestige and political power from the possession of such vestiges.
As for the e/eir/em – well, in this book, that seems to be the third gender option, and about a third of characters are nomen. Which is just a thing, and not commented on. I have to say, I’m in two minds about the pronouns here. My linguistic, intellectual, aesthetic mind really loves them – they feel logical, organic in a way that zie/zir does not to me (I will, obviously, use whatever pronouns someone prefers, but that particular variant never looks quite like it belongs in English – a ludicrous statement that – to me). But for some reason, the same part of my brain that ‘hears’ punctuation and apostrophes when I read, and jerks to a halt when one is in the wrong place, kept on parsing this as cockney English and so every time someone was referred to as e or em, the whole sentence developed a strong cockney accent. Which… gave everything a strangely cheeky, working class vibe, and was a little bit distracting.
In short, I really liked these pronouns but the part of my brain that does reading has difficulty coping with them.
Back to the plot. Which is immediately complicated when it begins to look like the person Ingray broke out may not have been the right person. And then there are complications involving various alien species, political infighting, and extremely dysfunctional families.
I really enjoyed this novel. I like twisty politics, and I like families where some of the dysfunction comes from people being tools, but some of it comes from people meaning really well and just being terrible at it. Or doing stupid things to protect people. I appreciated the ways in which the various dysfunctions were resolved, and that some people were just going to continue to be tools and one just has to accept this as a thing and deal with it in whatever way works for you.
I liked, too, that this was something of a coming of age story for Ingray. Actually, between the family stuff and Ingray figuring out what she is good at, you could make a good case for putting this in the New Adult or Young Adult category.
Anyway. This was lots of fun, and I’m going to have to think hard about whether it comes in ahead of or behind Raven Stratagem.

Hugo reading 2018: Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

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.