Hugo reading 2018: In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan

I actually read some of In Other Lands when Sarah Rees Brennan was first writing it on her blog.  I bought it when it turned into a book, and so this is effectively my second-and-a-half time through.  I’ve been enjoying it more on each reread.

Elliott, a bright, abrasive child with an absent mother and a neglectful father, is offered the opportunity to cross the wall into a magical land, where humans dwell alongside elves, dwarves, trolls, harpies, mermaids and more.  Unfortunately for Elliott, this opportunity comes with enrolment into a military school for those who will be protecting the Borderland.  Elliott is not into physical things and is appalled at the glorification of war.  He is also incapable of keeping his mouth shut, ever, and rapidly makes himself as unpopular on the magical side of the border as he was on his own side.

His saving social grace is his instant love for Serene-Heart-In-The-Chaos-Of-Battle, a beautiful elf maiden who has joined the school in order to study both the military and Council tracks.  Elliott may not see much point in the military side, but he respects her intelligence, and also he is in love, so he is willing to put up with Luke Sunborn, a blond, heroic warrior from a family of warriors, and Serene’s ‘sword sister’.

On a surface level, this novel is one long running joke about sexism and gender-based assumptions.  Serene is very much embedded in elf culture, which carries with it, shall we say, a certain level of toxic femininity.  She likes boys, and has an egalitarian friendship with Luke, but her attitude to men in general is both protective and dismissive.  She is concerned for the virtue of the young gentleman in the school, is uncomfortable with emotion and children (gentlemen are so much better at that sort of thing – they are naturally warmer and more caring), and is sympathetic to the fact that men are just more emotional than women, because “women shed their dark feelings with their menses every month… But men, robbed of that outlet, have strange moodswings and become hysterical at a certain phase of the moon”.

That one made me cackle out loud.  And I have to say, I strongly suspect that Brennan sat down with a checklist of sexist tropes and did not rest until she had reversed every one of them, which was a lot of fun.

Of course, human culture, even across the border, has the usual gender biases, so Serene experiences a certain amount of culture clash.

The story does go a bit deeper than this (not that an exploration of gender norms is not worthwhile in its own right), and I really enjoyed Elliott’s relationships with Serene and with Luke, particularly the latter.  Elliott… is not great at emotion.  Or being a human, really.  His father never really spoke to him at all, his mother left when he was a baby, and he had no friends at school.  He has never learned tact, or even seen the need for it prior to this book, and he doesn’t respect anyone who isn’t as smart as he is.  Which, in his view, is basically everyone he meets.  He does – sort of – like Luke, but he expresses this largely by insulting Luke and stealing his pudding.  Luke, while ridiculously nice, does have a snarky side, and the reader can see that he is quite fond of Elliott.  Elliott is naturally blind to this.

The novel is divided into five sections, one for each year that Elliott is in the Borderlands.  He goes home every summer, and it’s… a bit jarring every time.  This is a coming of age story, and an important part of Elliott’s coming of age is deciding which side of the border he will stay on, and why.  He doesn’t want to live in a world without decent plumbing and technology, and one where war seems to be a constant.  On the other hand… he does have friends there, and there seems to be very little for him on the normal side of the border.

This is a long novel – 800 pages on my Kobo, which makes it about twice as long as the average paperback (for Bujold fans, the Cordelia’s Honour duo comes to 1100 pages), and while it doesn’t drag, exactly, it feels long.  I suspect there are places where it could be tighter – the inevitable flaw of a book that started off as a serialised story, and where the author wanted to be sure not to miss a single joke.  (Having said that… they are good jokes.)

I don’t think it has the magic of Hardinge’s novel – there was a lovely depth to that one, like a well which might or might not have poison at the bottom – but it’s clever and funny and more serious than it first appears to be.  It’s a fun, enjoyable read, with some good payoffs, but it is also a novel that it is possible to walk away from.

I’m going to put it second on my ballot, above Summer in Orcus, but behind A Skinful of Shadows.  Akata Warrior will be fourth, and The Art of Starving fifth.

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: 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: The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller

Why yes, I have been at home today, feeling largely too crampy and depressed to do much.

Which is why I had time to read another novel, The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller.

It was not the right novel for my mood.  Or maybe it really, really was.  To be fair, I don’t think I was ever going to love this one, especially in this context.

The Art of Starving
is told in the first person by Matt, who is not having a great time.  He is gay and getting a hard time for it at school, though his mother doesn’t know.  His sister has run away from home, and he’s pretty sure that someone did something terrible to her before she went and that it’s his job to avenge her.  His mother’s job at the meatpacking factory is looking increasingly insecure, and his father isn’t in the picture.

But he doesn’t have an eating disorder.  It’s all perfectly under control, and besides, when you don’t eat, your hunger means that you sense the world more sharply, perhaps even to a degree that is supernatural and allows you to smell what people are thinking and feeling.

So yeah.  He totally has an eating disorder.  There are calorie counts on every chapter heading.  I’m guessing that this would be as triggery as all hell for anyone with an actual eating disorder.

This book frustrated me immensely.  For one thing… it was pretty clear to me from about page 2 what one of the Deep Dark Secrets was going to be.  For another, it was really painful to be inside the head of someone who was doing that to himself.  And for a third thing… these are the Hugo Awards, not the Newberry Awards, so there ought to be some SFF elements, and there weren’t, really.  Or… they were so tenuous that it was possible to spend 90% of the book being pretty sure that this was a combination of the illness and wishful thinking.  The end sort-of-mostly confirms that they were real, but honestly, I wouldn’t call this speculative fiction.  This is an Issues book and a YA book, and I’ve seen more SFF elements in books that were shelved in the straight YA section.

Was it well-written?  Probably.  The author clearly has a real handle on eating disorders (unsurprisingly, since he mentions in the afterword that he suffered from one), and he certainly understands the hell that is being a teenager.  But there were no real surprises in this book, and I felt like I had read similar things before which I had enjoyed more.

This definitely goes below Summer in Orcus for me, and I’m probably going to put it at the bottom of my ballot, because as mentioned above, I don’t think it really belongs on a Hugo nomination list.  It’s a pity, because I can think of several ways to take this premise and make it more interesting, and/or more SF-nal.  But that’s not what the author did or was trying to do.

Hugo reading 2018: Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher

Summer in Orcus is a portal fantasy sort of fairy tale by T. Kingfisher (the YA pen-name for Ursula Vernon).  Eleven year old Summer loves her mother, but wishes her mother didn’t love her *quite* so much, and would occasionally let her do things, like go on school excursions, or play outside where someone might grab her.  When Baba Yaga offer her her heart’s desire, she doesn’t quite know what it is, but she goes through the door anyway, and finds herself in a world that is full of magic, but under a terrible threat.

This is a simple, kind, sort of story, as I expect from Kingfisher / Vernon.  The delight is in the gentle humour and the characters – we have Reginald the Hoopoe, a regency fop of a bird with few brains and a kind heart – think of any character in a regency romance who goes by Freddy, and you will be on the right track.  He is part of an entire avian regency society, with his valet birds (who have a flock-mind), and the Imperial Guard Geese, who are fierce enough to give even a wolf pause.

And there is a wolf, too, named Glorious, who is afflicted by a were-house curse.  He turns into a lovely little cottage at night, and has to beware House Hunters, who will chain him with silver so that he cannot regain his wolf form.

There is a way station which is also a whey station and has magical cheese.  There is a talking weasel.  There are women in animal skins, who may or may not be shifters, and trees whose leaves turn to living animals when they fall.  There are the antelope women, who are not to be trusted.  And there are the villains – Zultan, Grub, and the mysterious Queen in Chains.

While this is an adventure story and a fairy-tale, it is, at its core, a story about figuring out who you are and what you want and how to be the person you want to be.  As mentioned above, it’s a very kind story, and the resolution is absolutely right, I think.  I’m not sure I’d call it Young Adult – it feels a little younger than that, more the sort of thing that someone who is the right age for E. Nesbit would enjoy.

If there is a flaw, it is that the pacing is a bit slow in places, and it drags a bit in the middle.  This is probably not something I’d have minded if I were at an E. Nesbit sort of age – what it lacks in pace it makes up for in avian regency balls and mores – but a little part of me was going, come on now, get on with it…

Definitely a pleasing start to the YA category, however, and I enjoyed it very much.

(It did make me cry at the end, though, but I don’t think it was actually sad, really. I’m just in a strange, sad mood today.)

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.