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: 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: Short Stories

Since I had choir last night, and PDFs of graphic novels are not too portable, I decided to take a break from them and have a crack at the Short Stories category.  Which is SO MUCH BETTER than last year you CANNOT IMAGINE.

NK Jemisin –  The City Born Great. This is a story about the birth of New York, not in the sense of its founding, but of its birth and coming to awareness as a sentient, living being. The protagonist is, for want of a better word, the city’s protector and its midwife, which is a bit tricky, since they (I’m not actually sure if gender was ever specified) are decidedly underprivileged – homeless, hungry, and black.  I loved the bits about singing to the city, and graffitiing by circles in a black so dark that it looked like a hole so that the city could breathe through these new ventilations.  NK Jemisin clearly loves New York the way I love Paris. There is a nice poetry and sense of history to this story, and I love the concept.  I like  this story very much.

John C Wright – An Unimaginable Light. I went into this one a little prejudiced, because I know that Wright is associated with the Catholic end of the Rabid Puppies. I tried very hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Alas, this happened on page 2.

The kneeling girl did not look like a robot. She looked like a love goddess. Her face was piquant and elfin, her eyes danced and glittered. Her lips were full, her smile ready. She was pulchritudinous, buxom, callipygous, leggy. Her torso was slender, and her abdominal muscles as well defined as those of a belly dancer, so that her navel was like a period between two cursive brackets. Her hair was lustrous, and tied in a loose knot at the back of her swanlike neck. Hairy eye, and skin colour were optional. She was, of course, naked.

Oh, of course she was.  And Mr Wright needs to put down his thesaurus now. And also wash the hand that wasn’t holding the thesaurus because I think we all know where it has been.  Ick.

This story  seems to be a philosophical argument about who is truly human disguised as a short story about a man interrogating a robot, with rather pretentious styling. It is also a fable about how moral relativism is stupid. And how PC culture is oppressive and whiny and microaggressions are just about people bullying people who have *real* morals. It is not as clever as it thinks it is.  However, it is heavy-handed, pompous and sexist, and it also gets sadistic and rapey in the middle, which is just lovely.  Also, Wright never misses an opportunity to remind us of the robot’s shapely form or flirtatious gaze.  Bleargh.

Then we have a plot twist!  And theology!  And our constantly objectified heroine – who turns out to be called Maria, because that’s just how subtle John C Wright is – isn’t a robot at all!  The interrogator was the robot all along, but he didn’t know this!  Oh, my shock, it is so shocking!  Of course, the way he discovers this is that Maria gets executed in a particularly gruesome and painful way because apparently this is the best way to convey that Love is the most important value and that without religion people will obviously make terrible, sadistic choices.

(Also because Wright’s Catholicism is big on suffering, but it’s better if women suffer, especially if we get to describe their shapely limbs in detail while they do so.)

Also, this plot twist kind of makes a lot of the rest of the plot illogical.  Because the whole bit about the interrogator being turned on by hurting Maria is revolting enough when he is human, but makes absolutely no sense if he is a robot, especially as he is apparently following Asimov’s three laws of robotics.

I think this one is a clear No Award for me. It’s pretty terrible.

Alyssa Wong – A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers. This one is very good.  The protagonist keeps trying to change time so that she can save her sister, again and again. So many permutations of one event, but not enough. It reminds me a lot of  Kate Atkinson’s novel, Life after Life, actually. It’s sad and sweet and rather beautiful. It’s going to be tough to choose between this and the Jemisin. I think the Jemisin is more original, though. And I do have a thing for sentient objects.

Carrie Vaughn – That Game We Played During the War. This story is set in the aftermath of a war between the telepathic Gaantish and the non-telepathic, but very practical, Enithi. A Enithi former nurse who looked after Gaantish prisoners of war (who had to be kept sedated to frustrate their telepathy) comes to visit a former prisoner, and former captor, and friend, who is now in hospital, recovering from wounds received in one of the last battles of the war.

Oh, I love this. Not least because I want to read the romance novel that I am convinced is hidden behind and around this story.

I love that they have developed a way to play chess – which is of course tricky with telepathy involved. Calla, the Enithi nurse, thinks about all the moves Valk could make, but does not think about her moves, and in fact often moves at random, because it’s the only way to hide her strategy from Valk, and also, the randomness drives him up the wall. I admit to finding this especially appealing because I am a horrible chess player who gets overwhelmed by possibilities and thus also moves at random, only I do that most of the time. I also love the implications for how soldiers and prisoners and captors think about each other in this war, and the ways in which fears don’t match up with reality. But most of all I love the friendship in this book, which transcends war and enmity. This is such a kind, affectionate sort of story, the perfect antidote to John bloody Wright. It reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honoor, in all the best ways. I want to read more of Vaughan’s work. This is going to the top of my ballot.

Brooke Bolander  – Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies. A sadistic killer decides to make a harpy his victim. It doesn’t end well for him. This story is pretty clearly inspired by reading one too many stories about the ‘distraught father and husband’ who murdered his family, or the ‘promising young man’ whose bright future is being put at terrible risk by the fact that he raped someone (thank goodness for judges who won’t let him suffer too badly for twenty minutes of action!). It is full of rage, as is appropriate. It’s a good story, but there are a lot of good stories this year, and I prefer friendship and wonder to rage, so it’s probably going to be low on my ballot. But can I just say how delightful and refreshing it is to be forced to put a good story low on my ballot because there are so many good stories and they can’t all be at the top?

Amal El-Mohtar – Seasons of Glass and Iron. Another one that I love! This is a subversive, feminist fairy tale, so I am all over it like a RASH. The girl with the iron shoes (and I love how she reflects that the boys get seven league boots and slippers that make them invisible, while the girls get shoes made of molten iron or slippers that make you dance yourself to death) meets the girl on the glass mountain (who really does not want any of the suitors who fall in love with her, then shout horrific abuse at her when they fail to win her). I love how each heroine can see the injustices in the other’s story so easily, but cannot see the injustices in her own. And the ending is obvious and inevitable and utterly appropriate. This is totally the story I wish I’d written.

At this stage, I’m having trouble deciding on whether to put Vaughan ahead of El-Mohtar (mostly because I love Vaughan too much, and feel like I love it for the wrong reasons) (but I still love it more because that’s who I am), but Jemisin is definitely third, Wong is fourth, and Bolander is in fifth place. Woe is me, I shall have to read the Vaughan and the El-Mohtar stories again, just to be sure of who should go first…