Hugo reading 2017: Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer has been nominated for a Campbell Award, and her novel, Too Like The Lightning, which is her contribution to the Campbell voter pack, is also nominated for Best Novel.

It’s a very creative, interesting, clever, book and I haven’t been so irritated by anything in a very long time (including the government and the NHMRC).  It was *infuriating*.

Let me start by saying what I wish I’d known at the start: this is half a book.  It ends with nothing resolved, a whole bunch of secrets half-understood, and most of the cast headed in the direction of danger and likely death.  This, on it’s own, would frustrate me – I have no objection to two or three part stories, but only if the publisher plays fair and tells me up front that this is what I’m reading.

It’s at least twelve times as annoying when you are reading a book that is profoundly irritating on many, many levels, but you continue reading it because the plot, at least, is interestingly convoluted and you want to know what happens.

I wasted a day on this book and I still do not know what happens.  I was literally gritting my teeth and reading because the style was driving me mad but I cared about the characters and what happened to them, but apparently I don’t get to find out what happens to them unless I put myself through another entire book.  You cannot imagine how furious I am right now.

So, about the book itself.  Don’t believe what the blurb tells you, because it bears remarkably little resemblance to the book.  The story is set in a future world where people live in households that are essentially a formalised version of chosen family, with some biological family thrown in.  At adulthood, one declares one’s allegiance to one of the world’s seven political/cultural groups.  These groups are, of course, in competition in various ways, but also have a number of more or less nepotistic relationships with each other. What else?  Well, gender has basically become a thing that doesn’t get used, except when it does, and religion is banned due to its propensity for causing war.  Instead, there are sensayers, who are part philosopher, part counsellor, part priest, and who are authorised to talk about religion and related matters to their clients, so that people can figure out their own religion/worldview.

The narrator, Mycroft, is a former serial killer of a quite lurid and gruesome kind.  The death sentence was considered too easy for them, so instead they, like other serious criminals, are sentenced to a sort of communal slavery, where they must work for whoever asks them to, in return for food.  They are one of the main protectors of a child called Bridger, who has the ability to make toys real – mud pies become food, toy soldiers come to life and protect them, and so forth.  This is a unique and potentially dangerous ability, and so Mycroft is trying to keep Bridger a secret.

And there is a hell of a lot of political manoeuvring going on, including dozens and dozens of characters, which makes me even more furious, because I’ve just realised that if the sequel comes out in a year, I won’t have a prayer of remembering who is who unless I read this bloody novel again.  Aargh.

So, why did this book drive me up the wall?  Well, first, the narrator is literally the most aggravating character I have read in a book this year, and probably longer.  They mimic an 18th century style, love to talk directly to the reader (and often have an imaginary reader answer them), and while they live in a world and are writing about a time where people are never described in gendered terms, they delight in referring to particular characters as ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of they.  This is evidently a taboo, and one they really enjoy breaking, because they also have to draw your attention to it every. Single. Time.  And, most of the time, they do so by noting that biologically speaking, the person he has just referred to as ‘she’ is actually male, but some particular character trait in this person means that they view this person as female, or vice versa.  (Also, they have a very prurient gaze, which is rather unpleasant.)

I think the author is trying to make some points about gender, but Mycroft’s whole attitude of ‘ooh, aren’t I being transgressive by doing this, and incidentally, I’m flipping the gender around for my own purposes which are probably just to mess with you’ is annoying beyond belief.  It’s extra annoying because I like the idea of a book that explores gender in different ways, but really, all this makes me do is yell at the book and then yell at Andrew about the book, which is not really very much like re-examining my ideas about gender at all.  It’s enough to give one sympathy for the Sad Puppies.

Here is a particularly fury-inspiring example, which I share, because I suspect that if you enjoy this, you will love the book, and if it drives you as crazy as it drives me, you should be warned that if you want to get to the actual story, you will be wading through this sort of thing every couple of chapters.

+++++

Thisbe smirked. “I do have a life outside the bash’, you know.  I’m not a voker like Ockham and Lesley, I’m only on duty twenty hours a week.”

Certainly you too, reader, like Carlyle, had formed a portrait of Thisbe who existed only in that bedroom, drinking tea and waiting for the active cast to come to her.  But let me ask you this: would you have labeled her a stay-at-home so easily had I not been reminding you with every phrase that she is a woman?

Then stop, Mycroft.  Drop these insidious pronouns which force me to prejudge in ways I would not in the natural world.  At times I think thou makest a hypocrite of me simply for the pleasure of calling me one.  Had thou not saddled Carlyle and Thisbe with ‘he’ and ‘she’ I would not remember now which sex each was, and my thoughts would be the clearer for it.

No, reader. I cannot release you from this spell.  I am not its source.  Until that great witch, greater than Thisbe, the one who cast this hex over the Earth, is overthrown, the truth can be told only in her terms.

Thou hadst best be prepared to prove that claim in time, Mycroft.  Meanwhile, since thou insistest on thy ‘he’s and ‘she’s, be clear at least.  I cannot even tell whether this Chagatai is a deep-voiced woman or a man whom thou mislabelest, obeying that ancient prejudice that housekeepers must be female.

Apologies, reader.  And I know it is confusing too that I must call this Cousin Carlyle ‘he’.  With Chagatai, however, your guess is wrong.  It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes.  I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakeably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood beserks them.  That strength wins her ‘she’.

+++++

This is a LOT of gender essentialism and misgendering to stuff into one little piece of narrative in a world that allegedly does not recognise gender anyway.  Also, gah, that style is ANNOYING.  I admit, I’m a lazy reader.  I like interesting characters and an engaging plot, and I object to having to work quite this hard to get to it.  I’m not absolutely slothful – I’m willing to do the work of understanding the worldbuilding and the neologisms required to navigate it, but I find the over-the-top literary style more frustrating than appealing, and the didactic, smug narrative voice and the relentless ‘gotcha’ games with gender are just making me want to throw things.  Probably the book.

Also, the narrative does irritating things like deciding to show an entire conversation in Latin, with the translation in English beside it, and then footnotes about the type of Latin used.  I feel that this is really showing off.

Anyway, for the first 300 pages, the book is worldbuilding and setting all the (many) pieces in place for the various intrigues that are going on, and then all of a sudden we are in Paris and we are in an 18th-century-themed theology brothel.  Where they talk about De Sade a lot.  And philosophy.  But apparently theology is kinkier and more tittillating.  There is also a random nun (not a prostitute dressed as a nun, an actual nun – except that the object of her devotion is one of the characters in the book). This is also about the point where the plot takes off, and I start feeling as though maybe there is a point to reading this book after all.  And I really have to ask myself why one would wait 320 pages to introduce this, when clearly this is what the entire book should have been about.  I feel that this was a mistake on Palmer’s part.  Though I do like the part where someone is described as using theology to incapacitate his enemies.

(SERIOUSLY WHY ARE WE NOT SPENDING THE ENTIRE BOOK IN THE 18TH CENTURY THEMED THEOLOGY BROTHEL???  WHY???)

And then we have enormous amounts of plot and everything starts building to crisis point – and that’s the end of the book, and I screamed in fury and really did throw the book at the wall.

I have no idea how to rank this, either for the Campbells or the Best Novel.  I don’t think it *can* be a best novel, because it is only half a novel.  But 18th century theology brothels in Paris really ought to be encouraged.  On the other hand, really, really irritating narrators and books that are only half books should not be encouraged.  As for the Campbells – I think that technically speaking, Palmer is the most able writer on that list.  But I’m so utterly frustrated by this book that I don’t want to put her first.

Gah.  I’m going to read the Chuck Tingle entry next, as a palate cleanser.  Pure silliness, and if nothing else, I can trust him to actually finish a story, rather than making me work that hard for no good result.

Hugo reading 2017: Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley

And this brings us to the last of the Related Works, which is Kameron Hurley’s essay collection, Geek Feminist Revolution.  Hooray!  Or, as Courtney Milan would probably say, Huzzah!  Suffragettes!

I enjoyed this one a lot.  I was also rather pleased by the shout out to LiveJournal in the introduction, because I’m really very easy to please.

This essay collection is divided into four parts.  The first is about writing, and about being a woman on the internet.  Honestly, she makes it sound like very thankless work, especially in her essay about how persistence is the whole game, and in the recurring theme that yes, if you are a woman on the internet, people are going to say vile things to you, and while you shouldn’t have to deal with this, you are pretty much going to have to.  She also talks about sexism in the writing industry (apparently there is a perception that women only write werewolves and vampires, hard SF work written by women gets covers that looks like tampon ads, and of course the there is the predictable business about contracts that are less than what men get for similar work).  Hurley does talk about why she is still here, which is largely, I think, down to being inspired by Joanne Russ, and realising when she died that someone had to keep the torch burning, and that it was better when many people can share the load.

Reading these essays feels very much like reading one of the more fannish feminist blogs. This is probably because Hurley writes a fannish feminist blog.  Since I like reading fannish feminist blogs, this is right up my street.

I think one of my favourite essays in this section is called Taking Responsibility for Writing Problematic Stories. Hurley talks about a story she wrote where the only gay male character died.  She realised that this was problematic and tried to rearrange story to find a way that rescued the character without killing the story, but realised that she couldn’t do it.  So then she decided that she could at least improve representation of gay male characters in the story. But it still isn’t necessarily enough:

And though I stood there talking to the reader about all the things I’d tried to do both here and in later books to mitigate that problematic death, the gay guy still dies. I still played into the stereotype. And that stereotype still hurts people…

How we respond when someone tells us a trope or a story is problematic… is vitally important. It doesn’t always mean “Burn it all down”. It means this piece is broken and needs to be addressed. And if you are willing to live with that broken piece, it means owning up to it, saying yes, I know it’s damaging to people, and I own that.

I’m going to have to chew over that one, I think.

The next section is called Geek.  It starts off by and large being reviews of various movies and shows, rather in the tradition of problematic faves – pointing out misogyny and objectification of women but also pointing out where a show is good enough to capture her and even get her on side despite this.  I especially liked her review of Fury Road (which she does not, in fact, find problematic).  She does, however, believe that problematic stories – stories that are full of sexism and racism are economic dead ends.  Where there are stories available that don’t punch you in the face with things that you really don’t want, people will choose them.

The section then moves on to a collection of essays about gender roles and fictional characters, and what fictional characters are allowed to be.  Women, for example, can be strong, but not scary; they can be complicated, but not unlikeable in the ways men can be.  But men, while being permitted to be more complex, are also expected to cope with levels of violence and just absorb this in some way and not be traumatised it.  She also talks a bit about how a lot of the ideas we have about primitive humans come from 1950s fears and propaganda.

“Let’s be real. If women were “naturally” anything, societies wouldn’t spend so much time trying to police every aspect of their lives.”

She writes a lot of interesting things about assumptions we make about sexuality, including our own, and tells a rather striking story about how when she first had a crush on a girl she had no way to conceive of this outside a heterosexual narrative, and so she daydreamed about being male and thus able to flirt with this girl.  The idea that she could be a girl flirting with a girl didn’t cross her mind, because she liked boys, too, ergo she couldn’t be gay.

There is also a great essay on the importance of not becoming resigned and deciding that the world can’t be changed, which becomes a defense of dystopic fiction.  I hadn’t thought of dystopias as driving positive change – people see the place where they don’t want to go and are driven to fix things.  But you can’t have only dystopias, because people need hope, too.

“When you believe people can’t change the world, they win. Of course people can change the world. Who do you think got us here in the first place?”

Section three is called Let’s Get Personal, and it’s where we get a lot of essays about Hurley’s own life and the things that shaped her and made her who she is, from her weight and chronic illness, to her upbringing in a very white suburb (and subsequent studies in South Africa), to her life on the internet, both as herself and in a second persona who she created to be the things she couldn’t be.  This was one of my favourite parts of the book.  I especially enjoyed the article on Inspires Hate (which is a shitstorm I was never part of, though I knew a lot of people who got drawn into the many iterations of it, so I watched from afar as it all unfolded).

There is a particularly powerful piece on the Affordable Health Care Act, which seems both sad and timely in the current political environment.  I was also struck by Hurley’s view that tragedy is comforting to read about, because one can actually take the time to emote and have all the feelings that one doesn’t actually have the time or space for when one is actually dealing with awful things.

Honestly, this was the point where I gave up on analysing.  There were so many good articles in this section and in the final one, Revolution – on trolls on the internet, on reviewers and authors, on GamerGate and the Sad Puppies, and of course the wonderful We Have Always Fought essay – and it’s much less fun to read them when you have to keep on stopping to write about them.  Besides, at this point, I know that this book will be getting my top spot on the related works ballot, and you probably know enough to know whether you’ll like it too, so I’m allowed to stop.

Geek Feminist Revolution is timely, well-written, and I enjoyed reading it.  And I’m particularly glad I wound up reading it last in its section – it’s always nice to end on a high note!

Hugo reading 2017: An equation of almost infinite complexity, by J. Mulrooney

I did not mean to start reading the Campbell Award books on the plane, but I did, in fact, wind up reading stories by two and a half of them.  In the interests of writing about the stories while they were still fresh, I decided not to finish the third story just yet (since that particular author has several other stories in the Hugo Pack), but instead concentrating on reading all the works by the second author whose story I’d actually finished.  So today, you get J. Mulrooney and Laurie Penny.

It turns out that Mulrooney’s novel, An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity was also nominated for a Hugo by the Puppies, but did not have enough votes to get up.  I did not know this when I started reading it, but in retrospect, it does not surprise me.  There is something about the Puppy sense of humour that invariably fails to appeal to me.

The story is about an actuary who claims, in a job interview, that he can use statistics and charges to tell you the exact day any particular person will die.  He’s bullshitting, but he lives next door to the Devil (who is the minister at a local church), and meets Death at one of his parties, and steals his notebook, at which point his problem is really trying to convincingly reason backwards from the results to get plausible questions.

The book thinks it is terribly funny and cynical and witty.  There are lots of conversations which are circular and full of misunderstandings and allusions to other things. It actually reminds me a lot of some literary fiction I’ve read – the characters are all entirely unlikeable (and not always consistent in their characterisation), their relationships are unpleasant and superficial and about objectifying each other, and it just seems to be nasty for the sake of being nasty.  I suspect it is about to be obnoxious about religion (I suspect it is already being obnoxious about religion).

I want to know what happens which is a pain because I don’t actually want to read any more of the book.

The trouble with reading a book with such a strong focus on mortality when you are on a plane is that you start thinking, well, what if the plane crashes or catches fire on landing (the plane really made a nasty crunching clunking noise on take off, which was not reassuring)? What if I only have one hour and forty minutes left to live? Do I really want to spend it reading this book?

I do not.

So I gave up on that one at the 30% mark (which was 95 pages in, so I really do think I had given it a reasonable opportunity to not annoy me, which it had failed to take), and moved on to the next story on my list.

(I probably should go back and at least see how the book ends, but you know, I’m feeling pretty aware of my mortality right now, which is at least partly the author’s fault.  I could die at any moment.  And there are so many other books I’d rather be in the middle of when I do.)

Hugo reading 2017: Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I saved Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold, for last, because I have read it before and thus already knew I liked it, and I wanted to save something safe for last!  And really, I have liked it more on every read. Penric is such an utterly endearing character – unassuming, sharply intelligent, and so very kind, and I love his relationship with Desdemona, the demon who rides inside his head and shares his thoughts. It takes a certain type of personality to just accept the presence of a powerful demon, and to view Desdemona as a council of older sisters who are his constant (and frequently commentating) companions. I love the combination of affection and exasperation he has for Desdemona in her many persons.

In this story, Penric is helping track down someone who might be a murderer, or might be a trainee shaman who had things go terribly wrong.  He is in the company of Osric, who is this world’s equivalent of a detective inspector or something of that nature, who has called on Penric’s patroness for some support, as he knows that he does not have the capacity to deal with the supernatural on his own.

I think what I love most about Bujold’s work is that it is always very good-hearted. There is a generosity to her stories that gives characters permission to learn from their mistakes. Yes, there are consequences for actions, but justice in Bujold’s universe is restorative, rather than vengeful. This is very soothing, especially after all the Lovecraft pastiche! I like that Bujold can write a story in which everyone really is doing their best, without necessarily being right – good intentions are important, but not sufficient.

Despite my desire to give the other stories a fair chance, Penric’s Shaman was by far my favourite. It is so easy to read, it has humour, and kindness, and a clever plot, and characters I want to spend more time with. My one possible quibble – which is something I really can’t judge – is that I don’t know how well this story would stand on its own, without having read the first in the series. I think it would work, but one can’t in-read a book, so I just can’t tell.

And I love this story too much to care.

At this stage, my ballot will be Bujold first, Ashanti Wilson and McGuire next, though not necessarily in that order.  These three stories were all enjoyable, did not bore me at any point, and I would read them again. Johnson comes 4th, because while I enjoyed the beginning and ending and loved the main character, it did get tedious in the middle (possibly because it was trying to follow the Lovecraftian original). Miéville comes fifth, because it might have been a good story but I found it opaque and unpleasant, and Lavalle is in last place, because it was unpleasant and wasn’t even opaque enough to give me distance from the unpleasantness! Also, I think it really did require a knowledge of Lovecraft to enjoy it.  I don’t know what would have made me enjoy the Miéville, but at least it stood alone.

I think I’ll tackle some of the non-fiction next, as I have a story to write, so I need to starve myself of new fiction for a few days.  I might even give myself a few days off from the ballot entirely – after all, I’ve done five categories already, and may not even be doing the film/TV episode ones, so I’m doing quite well for time.

Hugo reading 2017: A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson

A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson is a love story centering around Aqib, a Royal Cousin in the Kingdom of Olorum and Lucrio, a soldier and part of the Daluçan embassy. They meet and fall in love and this is a bit of a problem, because the men of Olorum are absolutely not supposed to have relationships with other men.

I liked this book a lot. It is, however, almost impossible to usefully talk about without spoilers, especially since I know that many people have very strong (and justified) feelings about reading yet another tragic gay romance, so I am going to tell you whether it has a happy ending or not in pale yellow so that you have to highlight it with your mouse to read it.

Aqib and Daluça end up together. This is less of a spoiler than it might seem, because while the story starts off by seeming to close that door, the entire structure of the story points to some sort of future for the pair, even as it seems more and more impossible. And when it is achieved, it is done in a way that was absolutely unexpected to me, and which worked on a lot of levels and without undoing what was already done, even when it seemed to.

Without touching the ending further, I will say that the story has an unusual structure, and leaps forward and backward in time quite a bit. We start with the lovers’ first meeting, then with their parting, and then we travel through Aqib’s life, but keep going back to the time the lovers spent together, so you sort of know that it can’t be a done deal even though it clearly is. The jumping backwards and forwards made it difficult for me to get into the story early on, but it quickly became quite absorbing.

What is interesting about this story is the character of Aqib (we don’t see Lucrio except through his eyes), and the worldbuilding. Aqib is very young at the start of the story. He is beautiful, rather sweet, and painfully naive. There is a sort of innocence about him which doesn’t really leave him even as he gets older. He is also very privileged, and astonishingly oblivious to it – I hesitate to say adorably so, but it really almost is. His society is very stratified, and he is in one of the top tiers, and at one point, Lucrio asks how the nobility can be recognized as such, and he answers, in utter sincerity, that they have a sort of glow or aura about them that everyone recognizes. The narrative shows Lucrio deciding not to touch that one, but also noting that nutritional levels, clothing and hairstyles may also have something to do with it…

One thing that I especially loved about this story is the world building. The Daluçans are basically the Roman Empire. They speak Latin (or something that looks very like it), and are warlike and logical and civilized, but clearly take a more benign view of homosexuality than the actual Romans did (having said that, I found that having read Holy Shit last year, I was able to translate a little bit more of the naughty Latin that I might have expected to).

The Olorum people are an African civilization, with an extremely structured and tiered society. The nobility are supposedly descended from the Gods – and this seems to be literally the case, only the Gods are really mortals with a longer lifespan and greater psychic and intellectual powers. Mathematics and physics and learning of all kinds are ‘women’s business’, and the business of men is war, which is a problem for the rather beautiful and feminine Aqib. Interestingly, while the women appear to be less powerful initially, there are a few disquieting instances of the power they actually hold, quietly and behind the scenes, and it’s pretty clear that they have much more understanding of how their world works than the men do.

I’m still toying with where I want to put this on the ballot. I mean, I know that if the ending had been different, it would definitely be going beneath McGuire and Ashanti Wilson, but since it does, it’s now vying with McGuire for first place. In terms of re-readability, I’d definitely read it again, but I’m not sure I’d read it again more than once. Which would put it behind McGuire. And, for that matter, Bujold, which I’ve re-read twice already. But is that the best way to rank it? I don’t know.

Hugo reading 2017: The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, by K.M. Johnson

The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, by KM Johnson, was much more my thing!  It starts with a women’s college that feels much like the one in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, only it is set in a dreamland.   A student has eloped with a man from the waking world, which risks shutting them down, and so Vellitt, former adventurer and now a Professor of Mathematics goes in pursuit.

This quickly becomes a quest story – well, of course it does.  It’s right there in the title. Still, not a lot of quest stories feature fifty-five year old heroines,  so I approve. Vellitt’s youth has been a good preparation for this quest, and her she meets former friends and lovers along the way as she retraces her steps.

The world building here is fun. This is a rather chauvinistic world of dreams, and all the Dreamers who visit are male (it is believed that women cannot dream great dreams, something which Vellitt finds rather doubtful). Dreamers are very charismatic and tend to be quite self-absorbed, which makes perfect sense. But the world they dream goes on without them, there are capricious gods with destructive intentions who might be involved in the student’s elopement, and whatever the dreamers might think, the people who live in this place have lives that go well beyond what the dreamers observe.

I liked the dream landscapes.  The sky is different, and has only 96 stars, distances between places vary depending on whim, and the Gods are not so much worshipped as placated.  The quest goes quite smoothly from dreamlike to nightmarish, and it becomes clear that if Vellitt fails, it is not merely her beloved college that will be at risk.  Vellitt’s head is a pleasing place to inhabit – she is perceptive, a little acerbic, and quite self-aware.  The ending of the story is extremely satisfying.

My only complaint (and this might be an artefact of the fact that I’m pretty tired and crampy at present) is that the story seemed to have too much middle.  I loved the beginning and the end, but the middle did drag a little bit.  But it was a highly enjoyable, clever story, and deserves a high place on my ballot.

Hugo reading 2017: This Census Taker, by China Mieville

This Census Taker, by China Mieville just didn’t work for me.  I’m not sure whether that’s my fault or Miéville’s, but I found it very frustrating to read.  It has quite a strong style (and I admit, I prefer my prose transparent), and is quite poetic, and the narrator has the infuriating habit of changing from ‘I’ to ‘the boy’ or even ‘you’. I am sure that this is intentional, but it dragged me out of the story every time.

Which was not, on the whole, a terrible thing, because I wasn’t enjoying the story very much.

It’s hard to say what the story is about.  There is a boy, who was raised in a fairly isolated place above the down by his parents. There is his father who is gentle and kind except when he beats animals to death. He also quite probably murders the boy’s mother, though this is ambiguous, and he almost certainly murders others, but this is also not clear.  These deaths are disappearances, or we have the not-necessarily-reliable narration of the boy, or we only see them obliquely.  There are other children who believe the boy about this; there are villagers who believe him enough not to trade with the father, but not enough not to leave the boy in the father’s care. There are magical keys, but it is hard to say what they unlock. The children who believe the boy disappear, too, and one has to wonder if the father killed them.

The tone is weirdly serene for a  book with this much implied and sometimes outright violence.  And really, if there are murders in a book, I would much prefer to be sure that they happened.  Is this so much to ask?  The pacing is also bizarre.  The book itself appeared to have 275 pages.  At around 190 pages, I thought I possibly understood enough of the premise to describe it in my notes.  Then – hooray!  Suddenly there is action and movement and things falling into place and – oops, sorry, the book is actually only 200 pages long, the rest is previews of other work, we’re all done here.

Aaargh.

I honestly don’t know what to make of this story. It’s disturbing and strange and full of cruelty to animals, and I think only barely falls into the realm of SFF. I think I like it more than the De Valle, but once again, I feel like I’m missing something. A key, perhaps, which is somewhat ironic…

Hugo reading 2017: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

After all those short stories and comics, I wanted something a bit longer. But I’m not quite ready to commit to the novels yet, so it’s novella time!

First cab off the rank was Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. I’ve actually read this already, but it was a pleasure to re-read it. The basic premise of this story is that sometimes, the children who go to Narnia, or Oz, or Fairyland, or Wonderland, or the Land of the Dead, don’t want to come home. But they do anyway, and then what can they do? Well, fortunately for them, Eleanor West, who spent most of her childhood visiting a Nonsense world, has set up a school for these children, which is good, because whether they are High Nonsense / Virtuous, or High Logic / Wicked they tend to be a little bit odd.

Nancy has recently returned from the Land of the Dead, where she spent several years learning stillness before she was sent home to our world, in order to be sure that she wanted to stay. She is certain that the door will open again for her. Sadly, her parents think that she was kidnapped for six months and just want their bright, vibrant daughter back. They also want her to be normal and go on dates, which is a problem for Nancy, because she is asexual.

At the Home for Wayward Children, Nancy meets other children who are like her, but not like her. There is the hyperactive Sami, who spent time in a High Nonsense, candy-themed world; Allison, who ran on rainbows; the beautiful Kane, whose fairyland kicked him out when they realised that the little girl they had kidnapped was ‘actually a little boy who just happened to look like a little girl’ (I do like this way of describing a transgender character); the twins, Jack and Jill, who came from a rather dark world ruled by vampires, where Jack was apprenticed to the local mad scientist, and Jill was the chosen adopted daughter of the local vampire lord; and Christopher, my personal favourite, who went to a world of ‘happy, dancing skeletons’, and can still make skeletons dance with his bone flute.

Alas, someone is murdering the children at the school, and Nancy’s status as the new girl with an affinity for Death (and a tendency to be drawn to the other children from the darker worlds) makes her a suspect.

This story is great fun. It’s quite dark and scary in places, but there is a lovely sense of humour to it, and I do like the way Seanan writes characters whose sexualities are not the standard cis/het variety. I liked all of the characters, and of course the premise is awesome. The mystery was a bit light on – it was clear to me fairly early on who the murderer was – but in fact that didn’t matter, because the suspense came from a) the characters working it out b) wondering just what they would do when they did, since the personal moralities of these characters was pretty variable, and c) wondering whether any of the children would find their way ‘home’ to their other worlds. Which was, I think, something that mattered to the children even more than the murders did.

The bizarre bit is that I could have sworn that the answer to c) was different the first time I read this novella.

But I’ve just checked my hard copy of this book, and unless Seanan McGuire has channelled some sort of alternate universe magic – which is certainly possible – it was the same. Very odd. Anyway, I like this a lot, and it’s going to be high on my ballot!

Book review: How I Killed Pluto, and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown

Mike Brown is an astronomer who likes planets (apparently the moon is his nemesis, which I find amusing since his wife is called Diane. Amusingly, despite his sense of humour and the amount of time he spends in this book looking up the names of mythological figures, the coincidence of names has passed him by. But I digress. Already. Oh dear.). He’s the person who discovered the dwarf planet Eris (formerly known as Xena) and her moon, as well as two other very large bodies in the Kuipfler belt (an area beyond Neptune staffed by such well-known dwarf planets as Pluto), Haumea and Makemake (formerly known as Santa and Easterbunny).

Also, he has a daughter who was born right when he was discovering Eris, defending Santa from Spanish pirates, and trying to get Pluto demoted from planet status. Because he is a scientist, he has graphs of all her sleeping and feeding times (which you can find online, incidentally – apparently young Lilah had quite a following), which he analyses in various ways.

Oh, and the relevant part is that he is the author of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, a very funny, completely fascinating and extremely educational book about planets, astronomy, the workings of science, and why you really need a good sense of humour to be married to a scientist.

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Book review: Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Yesterday, I read Mary Robinette Kowal’s debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey. I can’t quite decide what I think of it; bits of it are exceptionally good, but I can’t quite bring myself to go back and re-read it. I’m not sure if I will feel differently later. I do know that I would be interested to read whatever she does next, because I would say that this novel is almost extremely good… and I think she might make it all the way next time.

This sounds like damning with faint praise, which isn’t fair either, because (and I realise I am repeating myself here), bits of it really are exceptionally good. In fact, it might be true to say that all the component parts are really good, but they don’t quite come together to make the fantastic whole you would expect from these parts.

Of course, books that are so tantalisingly close to being *right* are the ones it is impossible to resist reviewing. And I do want to go around recommending it, especially to people who like, say, Sorcery and Cecelia (which is both a better book and not quite such a good book, depending how you look at it. I definitely prefer Sorcery and Cecelia, myself). Kowal has obviously immersed herself in Austen and written an Austenian world in which magic (or rather ‘glamour’) is simply another ladylike accomplishment. And she has done this world-building exceptionally well.

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