Hugo reading 2018: Two YA nominees enter, neither leaves with a proper review

This is the part where I talk briefly about two novels that aren’t getting a fair deal from me this time around.

Four of the nominated novels were available in full in the Hugo Voter Pack.

For one of them, Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor, a four-chapter excerpt was provided.

For the final novel, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, by Phillip Pullman, nothing was provided.

You may recall that in the Best Novel category, we were given two books in a complete form, and four with excerpts.  But as it turned out, the four for which there were only excerpts were all available at either our local library or the City library, and I felt that judging more than half of a category solely on excerpts would be a pity.

With this category, it’s a bit trickier.  Akata Warrior is not available at our library.  The Pullman book is, but I feel disinclined to give him more of a chance than I’m giving Okorafor, given that she at least provided us with something, whereas Pullman didn’t even provide a link to so much as a summary.

Also, I’ve read some of Pullman’s other work, and really didn’t like it.  So there’s that.

Given all this, I’ve decided that for this category, I’m going to read only what was given, which means that Pullman will get a null vote (the odds were high he was never going to get higher than fifth in this category anyway).  Sorry, Mr Pullman.  You seem like a nice bloke in your interviews, but all the interesting stuff you talk about doesn’t seem to come through in your work for me.

As for Akata Warrior – well, that’s a tricky one.  Because I’ve read the excerpt now, and I really liked it.  I especially enjoyed the narrative voice in the introduction, which tells us what happened in the previous book, but does so with great personality and charm.  I like the main character, Sunny, and the things she has to juggle.  I like the Nigerian setting and the way magic feels… very different to the way magic works in most fantasy written by Europeans – much more dreamlike and with less obvious logic, at least to my eyes.  But it’s really difficult to judge an extract against an entire book, and I’m also a little suspicious of Okorafor after she pulled that no-ending trick in Binti: Home.  Akata Warrior is the second book in a series, too – is she going to do the same thing?  (I’ve read a couple of reviews now, and it sounds like she doesn’t, so that’s a point in her favour.)

I definitely liked this excerpt more and felt that it was a stronger work than The Art of Starving.   I suspect that it has more depth than Summer in Orcus, but it’s really hard to tell (and I have a feeling that in saying that it has more depth, I’m falling into that trap of thinking that Dark and Tragic is intrinsically more complex and thus superior to Light and with a Happy Ending.  Which I disagree with, but our culture does value Tragedy over Comedy, and sometimes that gets into my head too…).  On the other hand, I really liked the ending and the message of Summer in Orcus, so I’m going to put that first out of the four YA novels I’ve read so far, with Akata Warrior second.

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 2016: Novellas

OK, we are on to the novellas, and at least I’ve already read one of these and know it is good.

Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment) – I was liking this one, even though it was set in yet another virtual reality / computer game world (I feel like half the stories so far have been like this).  It was well-written, I was really enjoying the characters, the main female character was a heap of fun – and then we had the plot twist, which trashed the only female character in a way that was basically a cliché cake filled with cliché whipped cream and cliché jam, with cliché icing on top.  It certainly doesn’t deserve a no award – it’s a well written and enjoyable story, but boy, that annoyed me.  And it’s doubly infuriating because the author didn’t have to do that – he was clearly capable of more interesting things.  Gah.

The Builders by Daniel Polansky (Tor.com) – I’m afraid I just found this one boring and far too predictable – the dialogue, in particular, I felt like I had read many times before -and I didn’t really care about any of the characters.  I gave up at the 38% mark.  This might be unfair, but if you can’t hold my attention for the whole book – and I really did try to give it a fair shot – you probably don’t deserve my vote on the ballot.

Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon) – Surprisingly, I really liked this one.  I say surprisingly, because the opening scene had the heroine being tied down and tortured by the villain of the piece, and this was described (mostly in anticipation) in more detail than I, personally, needed.  And then it turned into a kind of ‘last survivors after a terrible, world-ending thing’ sort of story, which is also not my style.  But somehow, the focus in the end was on building and reconstructing and trying to find a way to survive as a community, and it was interestingly character-driven, and actually rather lovely and inspiring in some ways.  A worthy nomination, I feel.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com) – Another good story, and unexpectedly peaceful.  I don’t know how to describe it without massive spoilers, but I liked it very much.  I liked the main character and her sense of self, particularly.

Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum) – Look, I love Bujold’s Five Gods universe, and this is no exception.  I like Penric, and I like the way he tries to treat his demon like a person, and I like Desdemona, too.  Very happy to see this on the ballot.

I’m not quite sure what my final ballot order is.  Probably Penric, then Binti, then Slow Bullets, then Perfect State, then No Award, but I’m just not sure.  I loved Penric’s Demon, but I’m not sure that Binti isn’t the better book.