June 16, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller

 

This book is kind of a mixed bag. I think it does several important things. First of all, the main character is a gay male teen with an eating disorder (anorexia), which I understand is rare in YA fiction. Matt is not a likable protagonist, but he's not meant to be: he acknowledges that he's all kinds of effed-up. Side plots includes Matt's being bullied by his classmates, and the stress of coming out. This book is raw, honest, and straightforward, whether it comes to Matt's emotions, his dysfunctional relationship with food, or his hate/love for his boyfriend, Tariq. Taken strictly from a characterization and YA coming-of-age story viewpoint, this book is excellent.

However.

(You knew that was coming, didn't you?)

I mainly read SFF (science fiction and fantasy). This book has been nominated for several SFF awards, and just won the Andre Norton Award (presented at the Nebula Awards Banquet) for best young adult SFF book. Unfortunately, to me the SFF element (Matt's anorexia gives him superpowers) is the weakest part of the book. (Not to mention that it seems a problematic plot element, to say the least. But I'm not gay and have never been anorexic, so I'll defer to the author, who is and has been both. Obviously, he knows whereof he speaks, and that lived experience is a huge part of why Matt's character rings so true.) It didn't take me long to realize that Matt is an unreliable narrator, and to my mind there is a great deal of question as to whether Matt's expanding senses and what seem to be mind-control powers are actually happening, up until the last couple of chapters. So at the end of the book, apparently Matt really does bust the pigs out of the slaughterhouse and lead them on a revenge march through his small oppressive town. Then, after he completes his ED treatment and rejoins his family (and this section is, to my mind, unnecessarily rushed--after the extensive details of how his eating disorder took hold of his mind, we should have gotten to see how he freed himself from it), his powers seem to be dead.

Or are they? In the very last chapter of the book, that suddenly isn't the case--he ends up controlling one of the pigs he set free, and it dawns on him that maybe his "powers" aren't tied to starving himself after all. Which, to this reader, makes the entire thing a cheat, and is a huge disappointment. I would have much preferred leaving out the SFF element altogether, if this is how the book was going to end. I think it would have made the story more honest.

This book is worthy on the one hand, and has much to recommend it, but it is also extremely flawed. Still, the author is worth picking up--he has a deft touch with characterization, and his prose is gorgeous. But this book is not something I'm going to keep around.

June 12, 2018

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

Team Human by Sarah Rees Brennan (9781742378398)

Bah. I tried to like this book, I really did. I gave it 70 pages, which I think is a fair shot. I usually take my current read to work and read it during my lunch break. I did that today, and looked at the book and thought, "I don't like this, and I don't care what happens to these people" (otherwise known as the Eight Deadly Words). With all the good stuff I have to read, I'm not going to waste my time with something I don't like.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that Elliot Schafer, the protagonist, is a mean, nasty, sarcastic little jerk. This kind of character can be done well, obviously, but that is simply not the case here, at least as far as I am concerned. He has a few funny lines (one in particular made me laugh out loud, but no more than one), but he is not the kind of person I want to spend any time with. The second problem is the paper-thin, cliché-ridden worldbuilding. I realize, according to the blurbs on the back cover, that these well-worn fantasy tropes were deliberately set up to be subverted by the author, but since I didn't care enough about the characters or the story to get to the subversive parts, all this cleverness was rather wasted on me. The story came across as a cheap, shallow, boring network sitcom, and I am not a fan of sitcoms.

Nope, going to move on from this one. The next book I've started has already drawn me in, even though I'm only on page 28. (The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller, if you must know.) Life's too short to slog my way through what is, for me, a bad book.

June 2, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: The Book of Dust, by Philip Pullman

 Behold the Covers for Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust | Tor.com

First off, let me say that I came into this book cold--I've read none of the previous books that make up His Dark Materials. I mention this because a lot of reviews I've read reference the other books. The impression I'm getting is that you can't really appreciate this book unless you've read the other three (or however many) and maybe this is so. Unfortunately, this makes me give this book more than a slight sideways glance, because I've always thought books should stand on their own, without having to depend on any previous narrative, and a skilled author will work to make sure the reader is able to follow along.

That does not happen in this book. In particular, the worldbuilding and to a lesser degree the characterizations are simply...lacking. To be blunt, a lot of the worldbuilding makes no damn sense, particularly the idea of "daemons" (which are apparently physical, fleshly manifestations of each person's subconscious and/or id). This is so much a central part of the story you can't ignore it, but it irritated me to no end that not one character asked where in the hell these "daemons" came from, why everyone has them, and whether they are good or bad. One can argue that this is simply a facet of this alternate England and Earth, just as the existence of fairies, London river gods, enchanted islands of forgetting, and a complicated thirty-six-sided contraption called an "alethiometer" that supposedly foretells the future, or something, are other aspects of this alternate Earth. The characters know this and accept it, and therefore, in the interests of the story, the reader doesn't need any gratuitous infodumping. Well, maybe the characters know what's going on, but this reader most certainly did not, and sorely wished for a bit of infodumping along the way.

This book is written in what seems to be a classical English style, which is to say a distant, somewhat omniscient viewpoint. Most of the time we're in eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead's head (and I don't know any English boys, but Malcolm doesn't resemble any eleven-year-old I've ever met; to note just one plot point, he beats someone to death with his canoe paddle, as professionally as any master assassin), but the narrative is rather chilly and remote, and the characters suffer for it. The pacing is slow, deliberate and methodical, with an almost painful plodding set-up for the first half of the book. The author is skilled enough that he managed to hold my attention until the flood came and all hell broke loose, but those chapters really could have been cut in half without losing much of the story. The ending also leaves much to be desired, as nothing is resolved and the story just comes to a screeching unpleasant halt, followed by the Three Dread Words: "To be continued."

In short, nothing about this book inspires me to read on, not even what happens when Lyra grows up. Sorry, Malcolm. I did feel for your brave little canoe's sacrifice, but it wasn't enough.

May 28, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett

 The Mad Professah Lectures: BOOK REVIEW: City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

This is the second book in the Divine Cities trilogy (nominated for Best Series), and the author has definitely upped his game. I've heard this described as "urban fantasy," and it's not--urban fantasy usually takes place on our world, and wherever this planet is, it certainly isn't Earth (despite the presence of humans). This is a world where the gods are (or were) actual living beings, and god-inspired and -powered "miracles" co-exist uneasily with science, in the form of automobiles, fossil fuels and internal combustion engines, trains, electricity, guns, cannons, and heavy earth-moving and dredging equipment.

After the climactic battle in the first book, which resulted in the deaths of two gods, the country of Saypur is attempting to tame the Continent, its former oppressor. A major goal in this endeavor is the opening of the port of Voortyashtan, once home to Voortya, goddess of war and death. A discovery made here, and the disappearance of a Saypuri diplomat, necessitates dragging Turyin Mulaghesh, a character from the first book and a cranky fifty-something female general, out of retirement. (And may I say that the very existence of this character, let alone as the protagonist, warmed the cockles of my heart, because it's so rare.)

What begins as an irritating final tour of duty for the General quickly turns into a murder mystery and a fascinating dive into this world's history and mythology. (Among other things, the goddess Voortya created an actual afterlife for her followers, the titular City of Blades, which looms large indeed as the story advances.) But there are far deeper themes to be found here: a profound meditation on war and the price it demands of its soldiers, and what it means to be a soldier. Indeed, this latter point--what being a soldier means to Turyin Mulaghesh as opposed to what it meant to Voortya--is what the book's bloody climax hangs upon.

Along the way, the pacing and characterizations are excellent. We see mostly through Turyin Mulaghesh's eyes as she fights for her redemption. She doesn't really find it--as the book acknowledges, some things done in war can never be forgiven or forgotten, for all that they have been swept under the rug--but after the events in this book, she is awakened again to her life's purpose, which is to serve others. (And she may get the chance to do this in an entirely new way at the book's end, as the Prime Minister of Saypur, Shara Komayd, suspecting she is not long for that position, admits she is maneuvering Turyin Mulaghesh into taking up her mantle.)

This book completely avoids the dreaded Middle-Book Syndrome and is better than its predecessor, at least as far as I am concerned. If the final book sticks the landing, frankly I don't see how the series can be beat.

May 20, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

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This is another nominee in the new Best Series category. I've heard a lot of good things about this series (the Divine Cities), but as I've never read anything by the author I went into it pretty much cold. At first I wasn't sure if this would be my cup of tea, but slowly and surely the story drew me in.

This is a tale of ancient gods who are not quite as dead as they seem, of "miracles" and magic, of a conquered island who threw off the yoke of the oppressor and became the tyrant in its own turn. The bloody history slowly revealed here is deep and rich, with myths that come to horrifying life. There are subtexts of colonialism, and the arrogance of an occupying nation denying and attempting to erase a Continent's history that comes back to bite it in the ass, all wrapped up in a breathtaking final act where past and present collide.

Our protagonist is Shara Thivani, the great-granddaughter of the man who defeated the gods (this becomes very important at the story's end), a spy masquerading as a diplomat. Shara is not a kickass type of woman--although there is definitely one of those present, in the person of one General Turyin Mulaghesh--as she is short, unimposing, and wears glasses. But the way she outthinks and outmaneuvers her enemies is impressive, as is her persistence and determination. The fact that she has a nigh-unstoppable killing machine called Sigrud by her side, posing as her "secretary," also helps as the odds get steeper, although Shara puts all the pieces together and pulls off the victory at the story's end basically by herself, defeating two resurrected Divinities. (With some help from Sigrud, flying a magical steel airship.)

This probably sounds completely over the top. Let me assure you, it's not. The mystery plot clicks right along, and the story is tense and nail-biting. The Divine Cities, with their six dead (and not-so-dead) gods, is one of the most original settings I've read in a while. I've since checked out the second and third volumes of the series from the library, and am eager to tackle them. (In the process I had to return Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings unread, because of holds from other patrons. I'm not terribly sad about that. Just contemplating that six-inch brick exhausted me.)

The only knock the reader might have against this series is that it's written in third person, present tense. This may strike some people as an impossibly artsy-fartsy choice, and it did take a bit of getting used to. But as the plot kicked into high gear for the final battle, the immediacy of the present-tense narration made for a fast, absorbing read. This is a memorable first book, and I hope the others can live up to it.

May 10, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

“The Cloud Roads” rezensiert in der Bibliotheka Phantastika

After last year's trial run, the Hugos now have a category of Best Series. The Books of the Raksura, by Martha Wells, is among the nominees. I'd read exactly one work by Martha Wells, All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries (which I loved and nominated for Best Novella). So when I got my first stack of Hugo nominees from the library, I decided Wells' series would be the first I'd tackle. 

What an excellent decision. I discovered a book, and a series, I'd only vaguely heard of and might never have read, and which I came to love unreservedly. This book pretty much hit all my sweet spots--worldbuilding, characterization, and more than that, the "sense of wonder" engendered by only the best science fiction and fantasy. 

This book takes place on an alternate world that is most definitely not Earth, and features characters that are sapient but not human. (As a matter of fact, there are several non-human sentient races on the Three Worlds, and I hope subsequent books in the series spends some time with them, especially the insectoid Dwei.) Our protagonist Moon is a member of such a race, the shapeshifting Raksura. He begins the book not knowing this is what he is, only that he can shift into another form with wings, tail and claws, and he must hide this ability from the "groundling" clans he lives with. Moon serves as a necessary stand-in for the reader, without which we would be hopelessly lost. Martha Wells hits the ground running with this book, immediately drawing the reader in, and provides a master class in conveying a complex world and multiple non-human cultures without infodumps. Nearly every paragraph, it seems, provides some nugget of information, the result being that we learn about the Three Worlds and the Raksura along with Moon, and the pace and flow of the story never flags. 

There's quite a balancing act here, as all the characters are recognizably people, but never human--there isn't a homo sapiens to be found, and I fervently hope that remains so through the rest of the series. All intelligent beings, Wells is saying (unless they're so alien as to be incomprehensible, which is not the case here, nor could it be), have similar drives: they love, they suffer, they fight to survive, to have a place, to belong. This aptly sums up Moon's personal journey with the Indigo Cloud Court. His story begins with a rapid-fire series of shocks: being discovered, cast out and nearly killed by his groundling clan; rescued and taken in by a member of his true people, the Raksura; and coming into conflict with the book's primary antagonists, another race of flying shapeshifters (and a nasty, murderous one) known as the Fell. This is a lot to set up, especially as we're being introduced to the world and the Raksuran culture along the way. This is not to say the prose and character beats are frantic or rushed; they aren't, and there are periodic pauses both for Moon and the reader to breathe and digest what's happening. But even in these moments of relative quiet, something is going on: character work, an examination of themes and motivations, more reveals about the Three Worlds and its inhabitants. It's well-balanced and wonderfully done.

I also appreciated Moon as a character. He's not a hotheaded kid; he's a pragmatic, mature adult, and while he makes mistakes, he is neither impulsive nor arrogant. He is loyal and kind, and once he makes up his mind to stay with Indigo Cloud, he goes all in, even though his ultimate place there is up in the air until the end of the book. Despite the tight focus on Moon, the supporting characters are also well drawn, especially the Indigo Court's secondary queen, Jade, who Moon becomes consort to. (Yes, there's an appendix at the end describing the various forms and castes of Raksura, but while I appreciated it, I'm not sure it was necessary. Everything I needed to know was imparted in the book itself.) The story ends with one of those quiet moments, with the Indigo Court having defeated the Fell (at least one iteration, although we know they will be back) and are on their way to their new colony.

Just to show how much I was impressed by this, I hadn't even finished reading this book before I got on the computer and ordered the rest of the series, sight unseen. It's so wonderful to discover an underrated and, I think, somewhat overlooked author in Martha Wells. I hope her exposure in this year's Hugo awards creates many more enthusiastic fans of her work. 

May 2, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Warrior (Akata Witch, #2) by Nnedi Okorafor — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists

This is the first year of the Not-A-Hugo Best SFF Young Adult Book (similar to the John Campbell Not-A-Hugo for Best New Writer, technically not part of the Hugo Awards but presented at the same ceremony. Yes, I know it's a bit wacky. Just go with it). I actually read a fair amount of YA, enough to nominate for this new category. None of my nominations made the shortlist, but this little gem of book did, and I'm happy I got the opportunity to read it.

I've read Nnedi Okorafor before; I own all three of her "Binti" novellas, and while they are okay, I haven't liked any of them as much as I did this book. Akata Warrior is the story of Sunny Nwazue, born in America but now living in Nigeria, newly discovered to be a "Leopard Person" (a wielder of juju, in touch with the spirit world), and learning how to control and use her magic. (In fact, one could view this as a distant relation of J.K. Rowling, with Sunny as the Hermione counterpoint and protagonist.)

This is a complex mythology and world, and Okorafor presents it masterfully, building the world in a natural, easy manner without infodumps. It's a delight to read something so outside the hokey, confining box of European and/or Celtic fantasy. There are spiders the size of houses, giant flying "grasscutters" (as near as I can figure, a huge winged caterpillar, a fun character by the name of Grashcoatah), a magical dimension existing side by side with the physical world, djinns, juju knives, and a snarky, meta little introduction/Dramatis Personae/"previously in Sunny Nwazue-land" called "Let the Reader Beware":

Okay, let's begin.

Let the reader beware that there is juju in this book.

"Juju" is what we West Africans like to loosely call magic, manipulative mysticism, or alluring allures. It is wild, alive, and enigmatic, and it is interested in you. Juju always defies definition. It certainly includes all uncomprehended tricksy forces wrung from the deepest reservoirs of nature and spirit. There is control, but never absolute control. Do not take juju lightly, unless you are looking for unexpected death.

Juju cartwheels  between these pages like dust in a sandstorm. We don't care if you are afraid. We don't care if you think this book will bring you good luck. We don't care if you are an outsider. We just care that you read this warning and are thus warned. This way, you have no one to blame but yourself if you enjoy this story. 

I don't think I've ever read an intro like that. It certainly made me sit up and take notice.

As befits the thirteen-year-old protagonist and the book's target audience, the prose is simple and straightforward, even discussing some pretty heavy themes, such as finding one's true place in life. Sunny is a well-drawn, flawed, relatable character, as are her friends. During the course of this book, Sunny saves her brother from some nasty characters belonging to a "confraternity" (apparently the Nigerian equivalent of a gang), and visits a spirit city called Osisi to halt an apocalypse. (This continues a storyline introduced in the first Sunny Nwazue book, Akata Witch. Thankfully, the author handles this backstory skillfully, providing just enough information to fill the reader in on what happened in the previous book without disrupting the flow of this one.) But after the bad people have been beaten and she's returned to her everyday life, the book ends with Sunny being more of a typical teenager: attending a book fair (albeit a magical book fair, where "people argued and sometimes fought over books, and some of the books argued with and fought people"--please, get me to a book fair like that), playing in a soccer game--and scoring a goal.

This is a delightful book all the way around, and I appreciated the deep dive into Nigerian culture. We need more books like this, and I'm happy that Akata Warrior exists in the world.

April 29, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: My Favorite Thing is Monsters, by Emil Ferris






Apparently there's quite a story behind this book. The author, Emil Ferris, is in her fifties, and she had to teach herself to draw again after being partially paralyzed by West Nile virus. This is the first half of what is slated to be a 700-page doorstopper, and it's won countless accolades, including nominations for a Hugo and the industry's most prestigious awards, the Eisners.

All well and good. But I struggled to finish this. I thought it started out well--the artwork is like nothing I have ever seen before, modeled after ten-year-old Karen Reyes' sketchpad/diary, complete with background notebook lines. The story concerns budding sleuth Karen, who likes to pretend she is a werewolf girl (and draws herself that way in her sketchbook), clumsily trying to solve the murder of her upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg. It's set in 1968 Chicago, and one of the plot points is the assassination of Martin Luther King. There are several side plots, including the harrowing background of Holocaust survivor Anka that takes up most of the middle section. Karen's brother Deeze is involved in a sexual relationship with Anka, and Karen's mother is diagnosed with and dies from breast cancer. And the very last panel--or page, rather, since there aren't any "panels" in the usual comics sense--ends on a cliffhanger, revealing Deeze's identical twin, Victor, who Karen never knew existed.

Does this sound like a muddled mess? Unfortunately, it is. On the one hand, I can see why it's been praised and nominated for so many awards--it's genuinely something new and groundbreaking. On the other hand, I thought the story needed some severe tightening up, as it's not at all sure what it wants to be. Murder mystery, coming-of-age, coming-out (Karen very hesitantly admits to Deeze that she "likes girls"), Holocaust history, the American history of one turbulent flashpoint year? The storyline blunders through all of these subplots, and doesn't make much sense out of any of them. Plus, at 400 pages, it takes forever to get to what few points it manages to make.

Nope, this book sadly isn't for me. I'm very glad Emil Ferris managed to publish it--the author's background is actually more interesting to me than the book itself. But I won't be picking up the second volume.

April 23, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: Crash Override, by Zoe Quinn

 Crash Override by Zoe  Quinn

This book surprised me. It's not very long, and it's a fast and at times harrowing read. Zoe Quinn was one of the first victims of the nasty Internet blowup from a few years ago known as Gamergate. Unfortunately, her life has changed forever because of it, and she admits she probably won't ever be the carefree, nerdy little game developer she once was. All because of a nasty ex-boyfriend and a slavering horde of sycophants who were all too eager to bring a torrent of abuse crashing down on Zoe's (and other people's) heads, for basically no reason. (I don't care if she did sleep with five guys--or any number of guys [which she didn't]--to get a review for her game. This in no way justifies the doxxing, the rape and death threats, the phone calls to her friends and family, the stain on her reputation, the lost jobs, and the overall vile actions of the mob.)

This book roughly splits the difference between a memoir--what happened to Quinn and how she dealt with it--and a how-to book--how you, as the reader, can protect yourself against online abuse. Some of it is pretty damn pessimistic, especially when the police and tech company representatives dole out such stupid advice as "If this is what the Internet is like, then get off it." That is nonsense. The focus should be on changing the culture and corraling the abusers, not letting them take over and harass people with impunity. I found the how-to chapters particularly interesting, full of practical and pragmatic advice. There is also advice for those who want to assist victims, starting with a simple bottom line: consent is key. Always let the victim set the boundaries of what should be done and when, or anything at all.

At the end of this book, Quinn shows how she is beginning to recover, even going back to making games again. I feel for her, and wish her well. She's managed to take a bunch of rotten lemons and make some tasty lemonade, but I certainly wish it hadn't been necessary.

April 21, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: Novelettes

Note: a "novelette" is an odd, old-fashioned term, referring to a work with a length between 7500 and 17,500 words. A reallllly long short story, I suppose, as opposed to the novella, which in today's terms (what with brick-sized doorstoppers and all) constitutes a very short novel.

Anyway.

"The Secret Life of Bots," Suzanne Palmer, Clarkesworld Magazine September 2017. (I've never heard of this writer before, but obviously I need to seek out her work. This story was a delight from start to finish. This is the tale of a tiny repair bot, reactivated after a long sleep aboard a ship previously consigned to the scrap heap. The ship is the only thing standing in the way of a massive Earth invasion force, and it needs all of its bots to fix it up long enough to stop the aliens. This story is funny, poignant, whimsical and altogether wonderful.)

"Children of Thorns, Children of Water," Aliette de Bodard, Uncanny Magazine July/August 2017. (This story apparently takes place in the author's Binding Thorns universe, which I have not read. Nor am I very likely to, based on this sample. I've heard people raving about it, but this tale of magic, Fallen angels and cooking just isn't my thing at all.)

"Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time," K.M. Szpara, Uncanny Magazine May/June 2017. (This odd tale of a gay transgender vampire definitely isn't my thing, either.)

"Wind Will Rove," Sarah Pinsker, Asimov's Science Fiction September/October 2017. (This story took me by surprise. I'd thought there was nothing more to say about the SF cliche of a generation ship, and Sarah Pinsker comes along and proves me wrong. This is a lovely, poignant tale of history, and art and music and beauty, and how the stories we tell each other are passed along to the next generation, for better or worse.)

"Extracurricular Activities," Yoon Ha Lee, Tor.com 2/15/17. (This is set in Lee's "Machineries of Empire" universe--the books are Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, and the forthcoming Revenant Gun, and you should be reading them right now--and features Shuos Jedao, later to be an infamous undead General. This story of an undercover agent extracting a traitor is smaller, more intimate and whimsical than the full-blown novels, and even laugh-out-loud funny.)

"A Series of Steaks," Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Clarkesworld Magazine January 2017. (In a future where food and organs can be printed, this is a caper tale of a woman blackmailed into doing one last forgery, and her revenge. The ending is especially poetic.)

Wow. This one's going to be hard. At the moment, Suzanne Palmer has the slightest of edges over Yoon Ha Lee, Sarah Pinsker and Vina Jie-Min Prasad, but I think it's basically going to come down to a coin toss, and how I feel on the last day of voting. The top stories have already been reprinted in various "best-of" collections, showing the quality in this category. Check them out and see if you don't agree.