Hugo reading 2018: Children of Thorns, Children of Water, by Aliette de Bordard

I wasn’t expecting great things from Aliette de Bodard’s “Children of Thorns, Children of Water“.  I read one of her novellas for the Campbells last year, and it struck me as very technically pretty but a little empty.  But I was pleasantly surprised by this story.  It’s a sequel to The House of Shattered Wings, about which I have heard the sort of good things that make me suspect that it is excellent but not a book I will enjoy, but it stands alone very well.

In this story, Thuan and his compatriot Kim Cuc are spies disguised as houseless people, who are trying to win a place in Hawthorn House. They are teamed up with Leila, a true houseless person for their test, which turns out to be about baking something impressive in under an hour.  I was totally here for this.  In fact, I was so here for this that I was deeply, deeply disappointed when the test was interrupted by the inevitable plot-driving emergency, because I *cared* about those eclairs, damn it, and I wanted to know if they were going to get them done in time, and if they would taste good.

Also, now I want to make eclairs.

(Any time you want me to like a story, put baking in it.  Works like a charm.)

However, once I got over my disappointment, I really enjoyed this story.  I was a little confused by the magical system, but I liked the shape of it, and I liked the way the House worked.  I especially liked the character of Sare.  The ending was not at all unexpected – but that was fine, because sometimes the story has to arc in a particular way, and any other ending wouldn’t have fit.

This has actually made me want to go back and read de Bodard’s two novels in this series, so I think it’s pretty good.  Of course, Andrew pointed out to me a few years ago that, without exception, any book I recommend to him as being really really good and something he absolutely must read is full of people baking things, so I can be almost certain that the eclairs strongly influenced my feelings about this story.  But it’s currently fighting for first place on my list with “A Series of Steaks” (which, I now can’t help noting, is also about food… hmm…), with “Extracurricular Activities” trying to nudge it’s way into the winner’s circle.

Hugo reading 2018: Small Changes Over Long Periods Of Time, by K.M. Szpara

Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara is, at first glance, a sexy vampire story, and not really my thing. What makes it interesting is that the protagonist is a gay trans man who is on hormones and has had at least some surgery (top surgery, definitely – I’m not entirely sure what bottom surgery entails, but I think the implication is that he hasn’t got that far), and when he gets bitten, the restorative / regenerative effects of becoming a vampire start restoring him to the female body he was born with. Szpara is, I understand, a trans man himself, and he does a good job of writing this as the horror it is.

He also has to contend with the laws around vampire recruitment and vampirism. He is bitten by a vampire acting outside the law, but the penalties for becoming a vampire without filling out the proper applications (and the protagonist would never have been able to apply even if he wanted to, because trans people are one of several classes of people banned from becoming vampires) seem to fall upon both the person who turned the new vampire, and the new vampire him or herself. Szpara does some interesting things here; although the protagonist was turned mostly involuntarily (he would have died otherwise), the changes and effects are viewed as something he has chosen, and thus his problem to deal with, in a similar way to the way being gay or trans is often seen as being a choice.

I honestly find it hard to judge this story. The trans bits (is body horror the word I’m looking for?) were interesting and well-written, but I really have a strong dislike of the sexy vampire trope – it’s very, very rare for a book to manage to use this trope in a way that I don’t find thoroughly off-putting. I think, too, this story troubled me because it was using some romance tropes without being a romance – and from a romance reader’s perspective, I felt that the allegedly sexy older vampire was a bit alpha-hole-ish and not great on the whole consent thing, which is never comfortable to read (to be clear, with the exception of the initial biting attack, the later sex scenes were… not overtly, exactly, but I kind of felt like he was taking advantage of someone who was under the influence on several occasions.)

To make matters worse, the sexy older vampire shares a name with someone I work with and while I can usually ignore characters sharing names with people I know, for some reason I couldn’t this time and that added a whole extra level of squick to the situation.

This goes above The Secret Life of Bots for me, but not above anything else at this stage.

Hugo reading 2018: The Secret Life of Bots, by Suzanne Palmer

The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer was perfectly fine, but appealed to me less. The viewpoint character is Bot 9, an elderly robot, which is woken up to perform maintenance on an equally old ship headed to a perilous destination. The ship, it seems, is the very last ship left, being sent in a last-ditch attempt to save Earth from invasion.

The ship is captained by humans, but by and large run by bots, and the bots are the main characters in this book. The Bots are numbered in order of construction, and most of the bots on this ship are in the 8000s and above, and highly specialised, where Bot 9 is a multibot, capable of a variety of tasks. Bot 9 also has an Improvisation Routine, not included in later robots, because it made them unpredictable. The newer robots tend to view Bot 9 with a combination of respect and pity, and part of the story could be said to be about Bot 9 finding its place among the robot crew.

Altogether, this is a perfectly good robots-in-space sort of story. It presents a problem and solves it with the tasks to hand, and the robot characters are quite interesting. I like their ‘botnet’, which seems to be IM for robots, which allows them to share information – far more than the human crew might realise or desire – and make decisions based on that information.

I can’t quite say why this one isn’t my cup of tea. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, but I don’t love it. It’s probably going to sit in the middle of my ballot, unless everything on the list turns out to be brilliant.

Hugo reading 2017: Haunted, by Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey was nominated for a Campbell award, and provided one short story, Haunted, which came with a content note for domestic violence.  This does not sound promising, but here goes…

The story is written from the point of view of the house in which it happened.  At first, the house identifies strongly with the victim, Marthe, who loved the house, and eventually haunts it, but as time goes by, the house begins to feel trapped and resentful of the ghost which keeps anyone else from moving in, and keeps the house itself from moving on. This is straight horror, with some very good writing. I like this, especially:

He always kept his shoes on.  I should have known, just from that.  He treated the wood on the floors the same as he treated the dirt outside, the same as he treated his wife.

I liked this story far more than I expected to.  I’m not quite sure how to rank it compared to the others (it’s difficult when you are comparing three or four works with just one work), but I think I’ll be putting it second, after Penny, but before Robson.

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…