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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugo reading 2018: A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows is exactly the sort of book I would have loved as a child.  It is a fantasy novel, a gothic story of ghosts and possession and strange, creepy families in strange, creepy houses, but it is grounded very solidly in the English Civil War, and feels more like a really good historical novel with supernatural elements.

It’s going to be difficult to talk about what makes this book interesting and exciting without spoiling at least some of the book – there is a fair bit of creepy foreboding in the first third or so of the story before we learn what is really going on with the elders of the family.  For me, the book really takes off once this secret is confirmed and Makepeace starts trying to fend for herself against it.  I’ll cut this where the spoilers start.

Makepeace has a gift, or perhaps a curse – she is able to harbour the spirits of the dead, and the spirits can sense this, and they want in.  Her mother tries to teach her to defend herself, and also to protect her from her father’s powerful family, but after her mother dies, she is on her own, and her father’s family is quick to claim her.  It’s pretty clear that they are a deeply creepy group of people, but her half brother, James who is also illegitimate, befriends her, and they plan to escape together.

Her gift is a family trait, and one which has in fact shaped the family, and there is a pretty sinister reason why the elder family members make a point of collecting any illegitimate offspring who carry the trait of being able to house ghosts.  And the first half of this book is a straight gothic, really.  What is going on in the creepy house?  Who are Makepeace’s relatives, really?  Can any of them be trusted?  Did you really think the answer to that last question was going to be yes?  Of course you didn’t.

But alongside this, England is getting worked up towards the Civil War.  Makepeace’s mother’s family were Puritans, but her father’s family are Catholics and for the King.  And once the war gets going, this creates all sorts of opportunities for Makepeace and her half brother, and the story starts moving out into the world, where it is still creepy and tense, but to my mind, much more fun – perhaps because Makepeace is now doing things rather than reacting.

The setting is just fantastic, incidentally.  I love the English Civil War era, and the space it makes for spies and politics, and I love how Hardinge writes it here, with both sides harbouring men and women of courage and integrity, and both sides harbouring some pretty terrible people as well, until one has sympathy with Makepeace’s feeling that she cares neither for King nor Parliament, just for the individuals who are having to live with this war.  She wants to preserve people, not ideals.

And speaking of preserving people… here be spoilers!

My favourite thing about this book is when Makepeace, half deliberately, half by accident, begins recruiting her own set of ghostly allies.  I love the shifting alliances inside their head, and the way they use each other and fight each other and band together or betray each other in turn – family is a strong theme in this book, and in many ways, Makepeace creates a family of her own from her ghosts.

Of course, you need to bear in mind that not all families are functional…

This is a very, very good novel – the grounding in history makes it feel substantial in a way not all fantasies manage, and there is both light and dark to be found.  I like the spirits, and I like Makepeace’s character – thinking about it, she is very firmly herself from start to end, which might be why she is able to fight so well in her situation.

This is going to the top of my ballot in the YA section.  Highly recommended.

Hugo reading 2018: The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

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…

Hugo reading 2018: Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor

I read Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor a couple of years back, when it was nominated for best novella, and I liked it.  I was under the impression that there had been a novel between that and Binti: Home, which is this year’s nomination but it turns out that this is the second novella in the series.

Once again, the worldbuilding is very rich, and I enjoyed the character of Binti.  This book was somewhat painful to read, as Binti returns (temporarily) to the family she left in order to go to Oomza University, and the dynamics are… tense, to say the least.  She also brings her Meduse friend, Okwu, with her, and this nearly leads to disaster the moment they reach earth.  Binti’s intention is to go on pilgrimage (and I would have loved to know more about that), but instead, she winds up taking a different journey.  There is some interesting exploration of cultural hierarchies, here.  While Binti’s people are viewed as primitive by the Khoush, they in turn look down on the Desert People, who of course turn out to be more than they seem (and not ‘mystical primitives’. either).

All of this is great until Binti gets word of a catastrophe, which means she must return at once, and then you turn the page and the book stops, and you *don’t* scream rude things because you don’t want to wake your husband, but really, why do people keep nominating portions of books for the Hugos?  Once again, I’m at a bit of a loss of how to judge this.  If I were judging it as a chapter or extract from a book, it would get very high marks and make me want to read the book.  But as a story in itself, I think it fails.  It has, if anything, even less resolution than The Black Tides of Heaven, and also less of a beginning, though that bothered me less – I think it stands alone at the front end, if one doesn’t mind being dropped into a world and needing to figure some things out, which I believe is a requirement for enjoying a lot of science fiction!

So yeah.  I don’t think  I can put this or Tides at the top of my ballot, even though they are both excellent at what they are doing, because what they are doing is not writing a novella.  But equally, I feel like they deserve a higher ranking than River of Teeth, which is a complete story, but which did not leave me with any particular desire to read the sequel (which, yes, clearly exists, and the story clearly ends at a point where you would like one – but it has the courtesy to finish the first story first.)  And I don’t know where to put them in relation to Sticks and Bones, which I did like and which is complete, but which I suspect isn’t quite as good, objectively.

Ah well.  I’ve been saving the Murderbot book until last, and I have high hopes for it… though since it has never previously occurred to me to ask whether books have proper endings or not, I’ve not scanned the reviews for it with that in mind.  Here’s hoping I won’t be unpleasantly surprised on that front…

Hugo reading 2018: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire is essentially a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. It tells the story of Jack and Jill and why they went through their door, and what happened when they did.  Their world had vampires and werewolves and mad scientists, and definitely falls into a horror sort of genre – it’s a fairy tale, and told like one, but it’s a dark one.

I actually bought and read this when it was first published, and wasn’t especially taken with it.  I enjoyed it more on this reading, partly, perhaps, because it was a nice change from all the science fiction.  McGuire does some interesting things with family, and gender, and how we are shaped by the roles we are put into (and what happens when we are given a chance at a different role).

One thing that I found kept grabbing my attention when reading this book (on both occasions) was the way Jack and Jill presented.  They are identical twin girls, and we meet them in Doorway, Jack dresses in a very masculine style, and has male mannerisms.  He is also the scientist of the group.  Jill, on the other hand, is a very girly-girl, and while she clearly has plenty of brains, she tends to pretend she isn’t using them. But at the start of the book, it’s little Jillian who is the bold, curious twin who gets pushed into the tomboy role and plays soccer and runs around, while the more timid, quiet Jacqueline is the ‘pretty’ twin, who wears beautiful dresses that she isn’t allowed to get dirty, and plays with dolls.  It’s clear that, once through the doorway, each child takes the opportunity to be someone different, but having seen them in such strongly gendered roles in Doorway, I kept getting confused and having to remind myself which was which in Sticks and Bones.  This is probably mostly a reflection on how I view gender…

I enjoy McGuire’s writing, and the way she convincingly relates the fantastical to the mundane.  For example, here is the vampire seducing Jill:

He is not so different from the boys she had been dreading meeting when she started her high school career. Like them, he wants her for her body. Like them, he is bigger than her, stronger than her, more powerful than her in a thousand ways. But unlike them, he tells her no lies, puts no veils before his intentions; he is hungry, and she is meat for his table, she is wine for his cup.

Creepy as hell, and not just because he is a vampire.

I don’t quite know how to write usefully about this novella.  I don’t think it’s McGuire’s most successful work, but I do think it’s good.  I don’t think it’s quite up there with the brilliance of And Then There Were (N-One), but I definitely rank it above the hippos.  We’ll have to see what else is in this category.

(Oh, and one last thing: you don’t need to have read Every Heart a Doorway to enjoy the Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but I think if you read Sticks and Bones first, then certain things in Doorway are going to be… fairly unsurprising.  In other words, read this one second.)

Hugo reading 2018: The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

I saved Katherine Arden for last in this section, since I saw that she had provided a copy of her novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, which looked like a fairy tale retelling – one of my favourite subgenres.

It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous book, and stands alone beautifully, though I gather it is the first in a trilogy (I almost don’t want to read the rest when it comes out in case it spoils the perfection of this story).  The protagonist of the story is Vasya, whose father is a lord in northern Russia, and whose mother had witchy blood.  While her other siblings are normal, pleasant, people, Vasya is wild, loves the forest, and can see the little household and woodland spirits – and the larger spirits, too.  Unfortunately for Vasya, when her father remarries, her new stepmother, the Tsar’s daughter, is a very devout woman who can also see spirits, but believes them to be devils.  She does not like her wild daughter, and matters become even more difficult when the Tsar sends a charismatic young priest, Konstantin, to the household, and he forbids offerings to the local spirits, allowing the demon of winter to begin to prey on the village.

The fairy tale is set in northern Russia, where it is winter most of the time, and very, very cold.  While there are personifications of Winter and Frost in this story, the non-personified season of winter is almost a character in its own right, too.  Even without any supernatural interventions, the frost and cold are formidable foes in this world.  Really, the setting of this book was one of its great strengths – I’m normally there for the characters and can take or leave the setting, but there was just something compelling about how *cold* everything was.  Oh, and I also liked that even though Pyotr is wealthy and important enough to be marrying a princess, his house is still cold, they still start running out of food during winter, and so forth – in this world, even being wealthy doesn’t entirely shield you from want.  It’s a very marginal existence, regardless of your status.

I loved the way the family in this book worked.  Pyotr, Vasya’s father, is a kind, slightly stern father, who loves his daughter, but recognises that in their world, there is no place for a young woman who seems fitted neither for marriage nor a convent, and so he tries to bend her to one or the other of these things, even while knowing that this will not be good for her.  He tries to be a good father, but lacks imagination – and, perhaps also, the power – to make a place in the world that will fit Vasya’s personality.  And he makes hard choices – he does his best to save Vasya from what seems very likely to be an awful fate, but his way of doing so is something that he knows will make her absolutely miserable.  And naturally, he doesn’t ever think to tell her what it is he is saving her from, or why he is so determined to see her settled, whether she likes it or not.

Vasya’s brothers and sisters are close and loving, even Vasya’s stepsister, who is the pretty one and much favoured by her mother, so that was a nice touch.  And Pyotr did not marry Anna from choice, but rather from politics, but tries to be a good husband by the standards of the time (which… aren’t that great, but again, this is more about lack of imagination than anything else, and Anna does not seem to expect anything different from him.)

I also liked the way Konstantin, the young priest, was written.  There were so many clichéd ways he could have been played – I thought this was going to be an old-gods-versus-new-gods situation, but I was pleased to see that this wasn’t where Arden went with the story.  He’s definitely not a good person – he loves power rather too much for that – but for much of the book, he is torn in several directions, between what he believes to be right, and what he is seeing.  He always makes the wrong decision, but he is not always unsympathetic.

The first two thirds of the book were increasingly oppressive and hard to read – I felt like matters spent a long time getting worse and worse before we finally got to see the heroine start taking decisive action – but this is perhaps realistic.  Vasya is still very young, after all, and she does love her family – it takes an extreme situation to push her into defiance. The end of the story was also an interesting and appropriate choice.  I thought the author might go somewhere different (and, well, if there is a trilogy, that may still happen), but was pleased that she didn’t take the easy choice.

I highly recommend this book – if you enjoy feminist fairy tales that have a fair bit of darkness in them but still allow light to triumph, then I think you’ll enjoy this.

Katherine Arden is unquestionably going to be my top vote for the Campbell awards.  I think I want to put Vina Jie-Min Prasad second, because her stories were just such fun, then Sarah Kuhn, Jeanette Ng, Rivers Solomon and Rebeca Roanhorse.

Hugo reading 2018: Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn

Sarah Kuhn provided a copy of her novel, Heroine Complex, and it is enormous fun. It straddles a few different subgenres – I feel like it’s primarily a new adult coming of age sort of story, but the setting is urban fantasy / super hero comic, and it also has strong romantic elements.  Ultimately, though, the novel is about friendship, found family, and acceptance.

Our protagonist is Evie Tanaka.  She works as an executive assistant for her best friend, local superhero Aveda Jupiter (formerly Annie Chang). Aveda has been saving San Francisco from demons since the portal first opened eight years ago.  Incursions since that time have been frequent, but fairly low level – which is fortunate, because so are Aveda’s superpowers.  Primarily, Aveda uses her martial arts skills, her charisma, and her determination to be perfect at everything she does.

The amount of work Aveda puts into being the superhero who can save San Francisco is admirable, but it doesn’t stop her from being an utter nightmare to work for. When she sprains her ankle at training after throwing a tantrum over a pimple, she insists that she can neither go to the awards night to which she has been invited nor cancel it – and instead coerces Evie into pretending to be her (with a little help from their friend Scott’s ability to create glamours). Of course, demons promptly appear at the ceremony, and Evie finds herself having to fight them and thus deal with her own, unwanted superpower.  Also, the demons seem to be evolving, Evie’s little sister is wagging school and getting drunk with her babysitters and Aveda is finding that she doesn’t really like having her best friend outshine her.  And did I mention that Evie’s powers seem to get more unpredictable when she is under stress?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. The characters were well-drawn, and I liked the theme of found family. And really, any book that starts off with a superheroine fighting off flying, fanged, demon-possessed cupcakes in a cake shop is already going to be ticking a lot of boxes for me. If I must look at the novel critically, I’d have to say that I saw several of the plot twists coming – but then, I do read widely in the YA, urban fantasy and romance genres, and in any case, the fun was less in the destination than the journey. I especially enjoyed the relationships between the various characters, particularly that between Evie and Aveda.  It felt very real, from their background as the only two Asian kids in their primary school, bonding over the mockery they received over their lunchboxes, to the way their roles were set early on in ways they weren’t always consciously aware of, and the friction that ensued when Evie was no longer happy with her role. This felt like a very real friendship to me.

I enjoyed the other characters too – Aveda’s trainer, Lucy, who uses karaoke to pick up girls (and who takes far too much interest in Evie’s love life); Evie’s cranky, clever 16-year-old sister Bea; Nate, Team Aveda’s doctor/scientist, who is also clever and cranky and distractingly hot; Scott, who should be hot, but inexplicably isn’t; and the terrible tabloid blogger and her sidekick.  All the interpersonal relationships gave the impression of having existed well before the book started – they had a level both of closeness and of grown-in-assumptions and roles that felt very true to life.

Basically, I loved this book and will be looking for the sequel. I suspect it’s a bit too fluffy to win its category, but it is clever and character-driven and funny and feminist and the perfect antidote to space-slavery-dystopias. I do wonder, sometimes, why I do these Hugo reads – so many of the books are so very much not for me – but every so often one discovers an author one wants to follow, and that’s what has happened here. Sarah Kuhn is going to the top of my ballot.

Hugo reading 2018: An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

Rivers Solomon provided an ARC of her novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts. It’s set on a gigantic colony ship which appears to contain the last remnants of Earth’s population, possibly on the way to a new planet, though nobody seems to have any expectation of getting there. It’s a dystopian world, with a pseudo-religious dictatorship, and passengers divided into decks by skin colour. On the upper decks, pale skinned people live luxurious lives; on the lower decks, those with darker skin are essentially slaves, producing food and other necessities for the colony ship.  The slaves – who are almost all women or coded female – are subject to beatings and sexual assault by the guards, to genetic mutations whose source is not mentioned but which I suspect spring from their high radiation environment, and also to electricity shortages that leave their residential areas so cold that they suffer from frostbite.  They also have all the high risk jobs, as well as the generally unpleasant ones.

The protagonist is Aster, who is from the lower decks but has managed to get an almost upper deck scientific and medical education, with the help of the Surgeon General, Theo, who is closely connected to the Sovereign, though his mother was black. Aster is written as a highly intelligent and compassionate woman who has something along the lines of Aspergers – she is very literal-minded and her emotions are just a bit… off.  Then again, in that environment, whose emotions wouldn’t be? Also, her mother killed herself on the day she was born, and Aster is trying to decipher her diaries and learn just what she discovered that may have led her to do this.

This is a thoroughly gruelling book to read. The brutality visited on the slaves is endless and pervasive, and periodically rises to deliberate and individual cruelty. Sexual assault is so endemic that part of Arden’s daily routine is to smear her vagina with a lubricant and a numbing agent, so as to minimise pain and damage if she is raped.  There’s an image I didn’t need in my head, thanks.

The mystery of what Luna was working on is compelling and interesting, and the characters and world are well drawn, but dear God this was a harrowing read.  In the last twenty pages, I began to wonder if the book was going to have an actual ending at all (and was preparing to throw a tantrum if it turned out to be another half-book!), but it did, of a sort.  It was very rushed, though, and I’m not sure whether anything was really resolved.  There were a couple of very dramatic events, but I’m not sure how I am supposed to feel about them – while they both have the potential to create positive change, nothing about the world the author has built leads me to believe that these will improve matters for anyone in the long run.

I have a feeling there is a sequel in the works.  I shall not read it.  Maybe I’m shallow, but if I’m going to be made to feel horrified and miserable and faintly guilty about slavery in the US (which is clearly what this author had on her mind when writing this book), I’d rather read about real people and events than made up ones.

In terms of my ballot, I’m not too sure where to put it.  I, too, tend to fall prey to the insidious idea that serious, depressing books are somehow more Worthy, but I can’t bring myself to put a story I so strongly disliked reading high up.  Trying to step back and be objective, the author clearly knows her craft, but I don’t think she quite managed the dismount – I just don’t know what she was trying to convey with the ending, I can’t tell whether she was deliberately making it ambiguous, and I can’t bring myself to go back and re-read it to see if I can determine this.  I do think the ending was rushed.  I would have liked to see an epilogue set a year or a month later, even if all it did was show that nothing had changed, the protagonist was dead and everyone who had tried to change anything had been crushed.

I do think this book is less successful than Under the Pendulum Sun (which also had a hasty ending, but a little more closure, and everything at least turned around and clicked into place so that one could see the whole puzzle at last), and it was certainly less enjoyable to read.

Drat it, I don’t want to put *either* of Ng or Solomon above Prasad, and I won’t.  So there. I’m pretty sure that fluffy will not win out over harrowing in the long run, but I’m not going to be part of encouraging a trend of increasingly miserable books being written and nominated.

Hugo reading: The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

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.

Hugo reading 2017: Malka Older

Malka Older was nominated for a Campbell Award, and has provided the Hugo voters with three short stories and a full-length novel.

The first story is called Tear Tracks, and it’s a first contact with alien story.  Quite a nice, anthropological sort of story about cultural differences with a naive but enthusiastic heroine who nonetheless has a nice professional relationship with her partner on the mission.  It’s a good story, but not subtle, and it ends rather suddenly.

The Black Box is an odd sort of story, and I didn’t quite understand what Older was trying to do with it.  It’s near-future, in a world where children can get a memory chip ‘lifebrarian’ installed in their brains to record their lives.  They can replay events when they choose; others can also replay events stored on the chip with their permission.  The story seems to be about how growing up with such a chip affects you.  Again, it ends quite suddenly.  I felt as though it was trying to be ironic but did not work.

Rupture returns to Older’s fascination with anthropology, and is, I think, the best of the three stories, though it has yet another abrupt ending.  Perhaps this is simply her style?  In this story the planet Earth is slowly coming apart, and most of its inhabitants have emigrated to other planets.  But some people still live there, and a descendant of some of the immigrants decides to visit Earth to work as an anthropologist and study why people stay.  I really liked the characterisation in this, and the awareness of cultural assumptions.

The novel is called Infomocracy and it is… intense.  And fascinating.  It’s a political thriller set in a future world which is divided into microdemocracies.  Essentially, the world is divided into ‘centenals’ (electorates or communities) of 100,000 people, and everyone in the world can vote for any political party in the world.  Whichever party your centenal votes for is the one that governs you, which means that you might share the same laws and culture and government as the centenal next door, or you might not, but you probably also share your laws with a bunch of centenals in Europe, maybe a handful in the US (but probably not many, they tend to still vote Democrat or Republican), a bunch in Africa, a lot in East Asia, and so forth.  Obviously, in larger cities this can be a bit impractical, so practical coalitions form between neighbouring centenals to manage things like lighting and public transport, but in the main, your life is dictated by your specific government.

It’s a fascinating system of government, and I kind of want it.  But of course, it is also rather flawed.  Many of the governments are in fact corporations – Phillip Morris governs a good chunk of centenals, for example – and whichever government has the supermajority can make rather broader laws than anyone else.   For the last twenty years, the supermajority has been held by Heritage.

Our protagonists are Ken, who works for Policy1st, a party that is trying to be about policies rather than personalities, and is doing OK, but not brilliantly, and Mishima, who works for Information.  Information is not a political party – it is part centralised news service, part fact-checker, part library, part Facebook mated with Google and gone metastatic, and basically central to everyone’s life.  There are also two slightly less central viewpoint characters, Domaine, who thinks that the whole system of microdemocracies is fundamentally flawed and that nobody should vote, and Yoriko, a spy for Policy1st.

And they are all in the lead up to an important election, which someone – perhaps more than one someone – is trying to steal, or maybe disrupt, or maybe prevent entirely.

The plotting and counterplotting is well worked out, and I enjoyed the characters and how their view of the system evolves over time.  I also liked the gentle and less gentle prods at our current system (one villainous character starts manipulating the Information at one point, providing contradictory stories to different groups, and cheerfully states that he will get away with it, because people in those different groups don’t talk to each other or view the same information sources anyway…).  It’s extremely clever, and a fascinating extrapolation of our current political system.

The book moves at a breathless pace and felt a lot like watching the entire US election campaign from the standpoint of Facebook while also reading and writing all my blog posts about microparties.  It is *relentless*.  I am as big a politics geek as the next person (as this blog will attest), but possibly not enough for this book.  I was exhausted by the end of it.  But also quite impressed.  I’m not quite the right audience for this book – I’m not hugely into political thrillers – but it was really extremely well done, and I couldn’t put it down.

I liked Older’s work a lot (and also, she didn’t kill any animals which was a VERY PLEASANT CHANGE), though I’m not entirely sure that she has mastered the short story length.  Her fascination with anthropology and politics and how people work was something that I enjoyed very much; it was also noticeable that when her stories were taking place on earth, they tended to be in South East Asia, India, and the middle east much more than Europe or the US (though there was some nice Paris stuff in Infomocracy).  Lots of Asian characters, and lots of diversity generally, which was a nice change.

I think I’m going to put her at the top of my ballot for now, just for the wonderfully compelling world building in Infomocracy.  Which I’m slightly coveting as a political system, because given where I live, I would TOTALLY be ruled by greenie socialists, and I could definitely go for that.