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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugo reading 2018: All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

I had heard good things about All Systems Red by Martha Wells, and rightly so.  This novella was an utter delight.  It is told in the first person from the perspective of Murderbot, a Security Robot on a planetary survey mission.

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

I adored Murderbot’s character.  It isn’t depressed, or angry, or sad, it’s just disgruntled and antisocial, and has no interest in pretending otherwise.  There are days when I would love to be that character. Of course, it does feel that its particular humans are not too bad, as humans go, and is not impressed when it seems that someone is trying to kill them, but it does not want to bond with them or be part of their team or accept favours or help from them.  It does, over time, begin to like some of its humans, in a standoffish sort of way, but resents having to waste emotion on actual people.  It would rather save this for fictional characters.  Did I mention that I love Murderbot and want to be Murderbot when I grow up?

The story itself is well-plotted, and – hallelujah! – has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  There is certainly room for a sequel, but you can also stop at the end of the book having read a satisfying story.  The other characters are well-drawn, and very nearly as annoyingly nice as Murderbot thinks they are, which is a pleasant change.

I really enjoyed this book (hmm, and apparently, sentient robots are a thing this year…).

I think And then there were (N-one) is still my top pick for this section, though it’s a close thing, followed by All Systems Red and Down Among the Sticks and Bones.  After that, The Black Tides of Heaven, which I would like to put higher, but the ending really frustrated me.  I don’t know what to do about the last two.  I think Binti: Home is *part* of a better book than River of Teeth, but to my mind it remains just that – part of a book, and not a story in its own right.  I’m almost tempted to put it below No Award, not because it isn’t good, but because I don’t think it’s a novella, in the sense of being a self-contained narrative.  I’ll have to think more about this.