May 21, 2019

Hugos 2019: The Lodestar

(Note: The Lodestar, for young-adult science fiction and fantasy, is technically Not-A-Hugo along with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, although it is presented during the Hugo ceremony.)

I read quite a bit of young-adult SFF, so these books were part of the first load of Hugo nominees I checked out of the library. Only one of my nominees made the ballot (although I was a bit surprised that Tomi Adeyemi wasn't nominated for Best New Writer). I'm going to be wielding the scalpel of No Award a bit more this year, starting with this category, as I did not like two of these books at all.

7) The Belles, Dhonielle Clayton

I couldn't even finish this. The worldbuilding was thin and made little sense, and the characters were shallow and petty. To the extent I could understand the book's premise, the characters--or at least the protagonist--were meant to come across this way, and maybe she had a nice redemptive arc by the book's end, but the protagonist turned me off enough that I really didn't care. If I can't get interested in a story by the first 100 pages, I'm moving on.

6) The Invasion, Peadar O'Guilin

I finished this one, but I didn't like it any better. The characterization and pacing--particularly the latter--were the two big problems with this, and the book never overcame them. There's also a lot of gore and body horror in this story, far more than I would have expected for a young-adult novel.

5) No Award

4) Tess of the Road, Rachel Hartman

This was....okay. It's more of a deep character study than anything else, an inner journey echoing the outer one, hesitant and meandering and one step forward and two steps back, until the end. The world opened up a bit, but I preferred the two books about Seraphina, Tess's older half-sister.

3) Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

This book just won the Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult SFF at the Nebulas, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it come out on top here. I thought this fast-paced fantasy based on Nigerian culture, gods and mythology was very good, but it's still the author's first published novel, and it shows in the uneven characterizations (and especially the ill-advised romance between two of the main characters). I can't place this one on top, but I expect the next book to be better.

2) The Cruel Prince, Holly Black

This book draws you in slowly, and you wonder why on earth the protagonist is doing what she is doing...but as more layers to her character are revealed, you understand perfectly.

None of the characters are likable, but they are fascinating. This is not a cute and treacly Faerie, not at all: for the most part, the Gentry are beautiful, charming, ruthless sociopaths, and our main character is perilously close to becoming one as well. This world is harsh and the story is cruel, and the book is the epitome of the phrase, "Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it." But damned if I'm not going to snap up the next books in the series.

1) Dread Nation, Justina Ireland

This is the only one of my nominees to make the ballot, and it's definitely going on top. This Civil War-era alternate history zombie story, which starts with the dead rising after Gettysburg, is so much more than a zombie apocalypse: it's a searing commentary on racism, colonialism, and white supremacy, and the white supremacist culture that the protagonist and her friends are navigating turns out to be more dangerous than the zombies. The author is using SFF tropes to explore today's society, and it's damn near perfect.

May 19, 2019

And Now, Your Political Interlude

Welcome to 1819 2019.

Where the Confederacy has never died.

And the ghost of Harriet Tubman is shaking her head.

Bonus: Leslie Jones' righteous Saturday Night Live rant.

This has been your weekly Pregnant Woman in a Coal Mine commentary. Be afraid, but be prepared, America.

May 18, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: "Binti: The Night Masquerade," by Nnedi Okorafor

The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

This is the third in the Binti series of novellas, and the longest. It's on the border between novella and short novel. It wraps up Binti's story, and we find out more about her and her family, her village, her Himba people, the war between two alien races, and the secret behind the dreaded Night Masquerade. 

For all of that, this entry in the trilogy is curiously uninvolving, at least to me. A large part of that is because, as much as I hate infodumps, I like a bit of explanation, and precious little is provided here. (For instance, I know I should pick up on contextual clues, but despite my best efforts I was never able to figure out what Binti's "treeing" ability actually is. Considering that she seems to do it every other page, this got quite annoying after a while.) The characterization in general was just not that great, and the story seemed to meander aimlessly to the end. It was okay, but it's definitely not in my higher tier of quality.

May 15, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: "Tess of the Road," by Rachel Hartman

Tess of the Road Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a sort-of sequel to Seraphina and Shadow Scale, which introduced the country of Goredd and its dragon/human conflict. Tess Dombegh, the protagonist of this book, is the younger half sister of Seraphina, the half dragon/human who averted a war in the two earlier books. This book does not have stakes anywhere near that; it is the story of Tess's journey, both on the literal road and within, as she works through some PTSD and finds her own strength and sense of self-worth.

It's a deep character study, and the inner journey is meant to match the journey on the road: one step forward and two steps back, sometimes meandering, sometimes running, following the detours wherever they lead, and finally, at the end, coming to a better place with hope for the future. Not all of Tess's problems are solved, and not all of her mistakes are forgiven. This is fine, as she ends up a stronger person, sure of who she is and looking forward to the challenges ahead.

I liked it well enough, but it didn't knock my socks off. Maybe because in the two earlier books, Seraphina was a better-drawn and more interesting protagonist. This book also dragged in the middle and could have used some tightening up. The world opened up a bit, with the introduction of the World Lizards (basically a underground Goreddi version of Godzilla) that Tess's traveling companion, the quigutl Pathka (quigutls are smaller wingless cousins of this universe's dragons) is in search of. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding, the plotting in general, and the characterization is not enough to entice me to read further books about Tess.

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May 13, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: "The Invasion," by Peadar O Guilin

The Invasion The Invasion by Peadar Ó Guilín
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the second book of the Call duology. I haven't read the first book, and to put it bluntly, this book is such a hot mess that I'm not going to pick it up.

Problems. Where do we start? The big ones here are the characterization and the pacing. The pacing is the font from which all the other problems flow. Since this entire book is basically one big fight and chase scene, the author hardly has time to spend on his characters (although he doesn't seem much inclined to develop them anyway). I'm hitting hard on this because I just watched a program on Netflix, Springsteen on Broadway, that brings home everything this book is lacking. (This is not SFF, but bear with me.) Bruce Springsteen is a natural storyteller; if you haven't read his autobiography, you're missing out on a treat. You wouldn't think two hours alone on a stage, telling stories and singing songs, would hold an audience's attention, but it absolutely works. Why? Because Springsteen has a thorough understanding of dynamics, flow and pacing. He varies his pitch, speed and volume throughout the show; the arc of his stories bounces upward to a few shouted sentences, then down to whispers, and the overall effect is mesmerizing. This is exactly what this book is lacking, and 321 pages of (in effect) frenzied over-the-top running and shouting gets damned tiresome after a while. If there was any depth to the characters, this could be partially overcome, but calling them cardboard is being kind. In addition, there's little to no exploration of the worldbuilding, which had the potential to be interesting, if the author had given it room to breathe.

Also, this book is far more a horror novel than it seems. In fact, if you have an aversion to body horror, you'd best not start reading this, because there is a lot of it. Far more than I would have expected for an ostensibly young-adult novel. I did finish the book, but because the characters failed to engage me, I really didn't care what happened to any of them. It's disappointing, because I think there could have been a good story here, if the author had taken a deep breath and slowed to a walk.

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May 5, 2019

And Now, Your Political Interlude

Let's start with the blindingly obvious.

But hey, y'know, as long as he keeps owning the libs.

Attorney General Bill Barr did not exactly cover himself with glory either.

That's called shrinking oneself to fit.

In other news:

If only there were some "good guys with guns" here....

And finally, Porky says goodnight.

Vlad laughs, and Jesus weeps.

May 2, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: "Record of a Spaceborn Few," by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

I'm a fairly serious reader of SFF (science fiction and fantasy). I haven't read all the classics, nor all the SFF published today; that's impossible. But I don't often run across a science fiction novel that I could properly describe as "warm, fuzzy and plotless." This book is exactly that.

It does have its charms, to be sure. It's a deep character study, focusing on six characters (five human, one nonhuman) with intertwined stories. One of the human characters dies midway through, which is one of the few things that actually happens in this book, providing a catalyst for the other characters' growth. What little action there is is character-based, with no overarching goal or threat. This leads to a notable lack of suspense and tension throughout, which must be made up for by the reader's investment in the characters. Your mileage will vary on this one. I struggled to finish this book, and it's already fading from my mind. It's nice as far as it goes, but "nice" is not "award-worthy." Especially when I've already read books this year that have well-drawn characters and an actual plot, and rising stakes. You can have all these things at once, people!

Look, if this is your cup of tea, hop to it. Just be aware that you'll get about as much "plot" as a typical literary novel (without any subsequent higher quality of writing; the writing here is more meat and potatoes--adequate for what it sets out to do, but not outstanding). Maybe that's your thing. It unfortunately is not mine.

April 28, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: "The Winter of the Witch," by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden is on this year's Campbell Award ballot for Best New Writer, so I checked out this book to reacquaint myself with her writing. In the process, I discovered one helluva good book which will definitely make my Hugo longlist for 2019, and possibly my shortlist as well.

This book is a heady stew of Russian history, myth and folktales. In an Author's Note, she reveals that the broad outlines of the final battle in this book actually occurred in history, at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380. This sort of real-world historical grounding gives the narrative an edge that sets it apart from most fantasy. Unlike some war stories, the author does not concentrate on battle minutiae (there is some of that, but only to the extent necessary to set the stage and emphasize the importance of this battle), focusing instead on her characters and relationships. Plot threads woven in the previous two books come to a head in this one, and everything is resolved in a most satisfactory manner.

I particularly enjoyed the way the main character, Vasya, steps up and takes firm hold of her narrative, and shapes her own story. She's not a kick-ass heroine in the way that term is used nowadays--she doesn't swing a sword (though she is fairly adept with a knife) or have mad martial arts skills. She is, however, determined, stubborn, and persistent, and once she decides on a course of action she will carry it through, come hell or high water. In this book, she's aided by her family and friends, the latter being the people (humans and non-humans) she collects along the way. She is not a Mary Sue type; she is flawed, and as she says in the book, she has done good and she has done evil. But she is an inspiring character, and throughout the book she inspires the people around her to rally to her cause and see it through to the end, no matter the odds against them.

She's aided in this by two characters out of Russian legend: Morozko the frost-demon and Medved the Bear, the chaos-spirit. Both are complex characters (Morozko and Vasya become lovers in this book, in one of the best-written sex scenes I've read recently), and while Medved is pretty nasty in the first two-thirds of the book, when Vasya unbinds him to fight by her peoples' side in the final battle, the reader understands exactly why she does it. The book ends on not quite a triumphant note, but a bittersweet one: the reader can easily picture these three characters fading into the background, keeping the Russian folk demons alive and safe in their various magical realms, and being ready to step up at any time if they are threatened.

(The Russian firebird, masquerading here as a golden mare,  figures prominently in this book, with an eccentric, cranky characterization that delights. Vasya's own magical horse, Solovey, is killed early on, but resurrected at the end of the book in a scene that will bring tears to your eyes.)

This is a fine book in its own right, not just as the conclusion to the Winternight Trilogy. I suppose the only drawback is that the reader's appreciation of this book does depend somewhat on your having read the previous two. However, this is a pleasure in itself; you can see that Arden's writing has matured beautifully, and she tells her story with an assured hand. Your appreciation of this book will deepen after having read the first two, but nevertheless, don't pass this one up.

April 23, 2019

Hugo Reading 2019: "The Poppy War," by R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War (The Poppy War, #1)

(Note: R.F. Kuang has been nominated for the John Campbell Award for Best New Writer. This is famously "not a Hugo," but it will be presented at the awards ceremony.)

I've heard a lot about this book. It's been nominated for several other awards, and even won a few. I've heard how intense it is, and how the author pulls no punches when it comes to her depiction of war, and how many content warnings it needs (all of them)...and I'm here to say that all of that is true.

But damn, this is one of the best books you'll read this year.

First and foremost, this is a story about war, and yes, it is bloody and gory and not for the squeamish. (Just as one example, if you want to know exactly what happens when you thrust your sword under someone's chin, the author will provide a detailed description.) But more than the physical aspects of war, this book tackles the psychological aspects. Specifically, how war slowly but surely drains away one's humanity, and makes a soldier into someone who sees the enemy not as a fellow human being who is fighting for the same reasons you are, but as an animal to be hated and destroyed, and finally, simply, as a number in your way to be subtracted. The protagonist, Fang Runin, undergoes this journey, and emerges as (as she says at the book's end):

I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible.

Was she now a goddess or a monster?

Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.

This book breaks down what leads Runin (or Rin) to this place. It's a result of war, a reaction to the Federation invading her country of Nikan, but it also comes about due to her desire for power and revenge. She has a great deal to want revenge for, as it turns out. The depiction of the Federation destruction of a Nikara city and the wholesale slaughter of its entire population is a harrowing, sickening moment that I will warn you requires a lot of spoons to read. Multiple spoons. An entire drawerful of spoons. Even so, I wouldn't blame you if you set the book aside once you get to that point and never pick it up again. But Rin pushes on, and does something even worse in return, invoking the power of the supernatural entities she learns to partner with and control during the course of the book. It's a hideous game of one-upmanship, and the ending promises it will not stop there.

But because the author so convincingly strips Rin down to nothing but her hatred and obsession, it's as dark and compelling a character study as I've ever seen, and this is what kept me reading. There is no way out for these people, and their choices only make things worse. If you can't handle that kind of thing, it's best you don't even start this book. Because as bleak and relentlessly grimdark as it is from beginning to end, the author writes it with such skill you can't put it down. And dammitall, I'm going to pick up the sequel as soon as it comes out.

April 20, 2019

Review: Ms. Marvel, Vol. 10: Time and Again

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 10: Time and Again Ms. Marvel, Vol. 10: Time and Again by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the end of an era, as these are the last issues written by series creator G. Willow Wilson. Which is sad, but this is a good way for Wilson to bow out. A large part of this is due to the fact that Bruno has returned from Wakanda; his relationship with Kamala was a highlight of the series' earlier volumes. This volume feels more grounded as a whole, focusing to Kamala's relationships with her family and friends (she admits to being Ms. Marvel to the latter, only to discover they've known this for a long time). Aside from an odd little trip to 1257 A.D. to show Kamala's purportedly Inhuman ancestor, and an equally strange aside in the final issue revealing some kind of "quest game" wormhole (if it does end up reinforcing Kamala's ties to her friends), this volume feels back on track.

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