Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novel

And here it is. The big one. The Hugo for Best Novel is the one I’m always most excited for, even though the other categories offer plenty of amazing stories.

You can find my tentative ballots and thoughts on the other finalists here:

Just like last year, I had already read four of the six finalists for Best Novel when they were announced. Catching up on the final two was easy enough.
In general, I really like this ballot. There is one book that I personally disliked but as a representation of what was most talked about and got the most acclaim from fans last year, it definitely deserves its spot on the list. Even the Seanan McGuire (I’m biased because her fans nominate everything as long as it’s written by her) was a pretty good book, although I would have preferred to see something different in its spot, like Black Leopard, Red Wolf (which I’m still in the middle of but which would so deserve to be nominated).

The Finalists for Best Novel

Oh man, this is so hard! My top two spots are fairly easy but having to rank one above the other makes it a lot more difficult. I’m talking about A Memory Called Empire and The Light Brigade, of course. Both of these books blew my mind, although in very different ways. But only one of them also got me hooked emotionally, so I’m going with that one as my top choice.

A Memory Called Empire is a debut novel (all the more impressive) that has so many layers, it’s hard to pick a favorite bit. It’s about a space empire and one little space station that’s still independent. That station’s embassador has died and so Mahit Dzmare is sent to the capital as his replacement. It turns out he’s been murdered and Mahit wants to find out why and by whom. So far for the basic plot, but there’s so much more to discover. The cultural aspects, the technology, the relationships between the multi-layered characters, the language conventions, I just loved everything about this book. And then it’s well-written too! I can’t wait for the sequel to come out because this is such an immersive world with fresh ideas by a great storyteller.

Close on its heels is The Light Brigade, the first fiction I’ve read by Kameron Hurley. And what a gorgeous mind-fuck it was! I love stories that are also puzzles and this is a perfect example. It’s a military sci-fi novel very much in the vein of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers but clearly in conversation with the MilSF that came before. Dietz goes through gruelling military training, becomes a soldier and jumps via super cool technology to fight on Earth, on Mars, wherever the supervisors send them. But something’s not right. Dietz ends up returning from missions nobody has heard of or is sent on missions that don’t have anything to do with what the briefing was about…
There are a lot of things to figure out in this book and you definitely have to keep track of what’s going on when and where. But it is so rewarding and the ending was so fantastic that I couldn’t help but love it. The only reason this goes below Arkady Martine’s book on my ballot is that I wasn’t as emotionally involved with the characters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a book whose idea impresses me more than its execution. It’s all there, all the little things I love best about books and stories. The promise of adventure and magic and secret worlds behind doors. What we get is half a novel about a passive protagonist doing pretty much nothing. Then come some snippets of a book within a book that were brilliant, and a slightly more exciting third act to finish things up. So it’s a difficult book to rate. I loved some aspects of it so very much, I thought others were trying hard to achieve something they couldn’t – the lyrical language didn’t feel natural, it felt like Harrow pondered over every word, trying super hard to make it sound poetic. And January just isn’t a very good protagonist because she is so bland and passive and takes ages to become interesting. But once the story gets going, it’spretty great. And as for the book within the book – I absolutely adored it and would have gladly read 500 more pages of it. Also, this novel actually grew fonder in my memory the longer it’s been since I read it. I am totally undecided where to put it so it goes somwehere in the middle.

Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame is a pretty ambitious work with a great premise. Two engineered twins – one with a gift for language, the other a math prodigy – are separated as children to grow up in different families. The two of them combined embody the Doctrine of Ethos, something that basically gives them control over the world. But all Roger and Dodger want is friendship. They can communicate sort of telepathically and spend their lives trying to get together and being separated again.
With an overdrawn, slightly ridiculous villain and sloppy world building, this book still offered characters I rooted for and a plot that kept me turning the pages. Sure, there’s a lot of handwaving going on, none of the magic/science is ever explained or makes much sense, but there are great ideas here. It’s also a book of missed opportunities when it comes to the writing style and the anticlimactic ending. But overall, I enjoyed reading it. I probably wouldn’t give it an award but I’d recommend it to a friend.
ETA: I just had a thought when I was looking at the novella and series ballot and now I can’t let go of it. Seanan McGuire is so damn prolific, she publishes like 5 things every year. If she had spent more time on this one novel and not continued her various series in 2019, this could have been an entirely different beast! There’s so much potential here that it could have been a clear winner. But I guess if you churn out several full-length novels, a novella and a bunch of short stories in seven different universes, you just don’t have the time to spend on re-writes or thinking every aspect of your novel through. Maybe, one day, I’ll get my wish and see what McGuire really is capable of.

I was so excited for The City in the Middle of the Night because Anders’ first novel, All the Birds in the Sky, was right up my alley. She took quite a different route in this SF novel, set on a tidally locked planet that can only be inhabited by humans on a small strip of land between night and day. And while I really liked the book by the end, it took a long time for me to get into it. And I thought that Anders tackled maybe a few too many themes for one novel. She executed some of them brilliantly, others not so much, but I wanted just a bit more. I also didn’t connect with the characters for a long time. Again, by the ending, I was all in it, but that doesn’t change that I struggled during the start of this book. And that’s why it’s so hard to rank. On a pure enjoyment level, this book goes below Middlegame. On an ideas and skill level, it is above Middlegame. Where McGuire has only a little to say about humanity as such, Anders brings in the big guns, holds up a mirror to society and makes me think!

I’m one of the three people in the world who hated Gideon the Ninth. You guys, I like the idea of “lesbian necromancers in space” as much as the next person, but when I don’t get what I’m promised I get pissy. Instead of lesbian necromancers in space, I got 50 characters who aren’t distinguishable from each other, in a locked castle, sometimes doing some cool magic shit, sometimes doing cool sword shit (but nut nearly enough of either). Gideon may be a lesbian but other than her remarks about other women’s sexiness, this has no bearing on the plot. Which is also a mess, by the way. This book didn’t know what it wanted to be when it grew up so it just became a bit of everything but none of it well. Other than Gideon and Harrow, nobody had personality (I dare you to tell me any of the other House’s names or personality traits), the plot jumped from one thing to the next, never finding its focus. The end battle went on waaaaay too long. But the action scenes involving magic were pretty cool, as were the puzzles Gideon and Harrow have to solve. Is that really enough for an award? For me, no. It’s a mess that’s more obsessed with its own aesthetics than with good storytelling

My ballot (probably)

  1. Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire
  2. Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade
  3. Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January
  4. Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  5. Seanan McGuire – Middlegame
  6. Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth

I will most likely change spots 3 through 5 a lot in the next few weeks. I’m already struggling with my own ratings and how to decide which book is more deserving of an award than the others.

The top two books are easy. They did what they set out to do so well and they entertained and engaged me on many levels – what more can I want, really?
But then come the books that had one or two things going for them but didn’t do so well in other aspects. Now how do I decide whether a book that was more fun but maybe less accomplished should get an award rather than a book that takes risks but is a bit more of a struggle to read? I may have posted my ballot here for you to see but I very much doubt it’s going to look exactly like this when I hit that save button before voting closes.

Up next week: Best Graphic Story

Melissa Bashardoust – Girl, Serpent, Thorn

I was drawn to this book for three reasons. One, its title reminds me of Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi which I absolutely adored. Two, it’s a fairy tale retelling of sorts, and three, I had read Bashardoust’s debut novel and thought she had a lot of potential.
Thanks so much to the publisher and NetGalley for the eARC provided. This book comes out on July 7th, so if you’re interested you’ll only have to wait a few more days.

GIRL, SERPENT, THORN
by Melissa Bashardoust

Published: Flatiron Books, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 3/10

Opening line: Stories always begin the same way: There was and there was not.

There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.
As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.
Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.

I’ve read Melissa Bashardoust’s previous novel Girls Made of Snow and Glass and while I didn’t love everything about it, it showed a lot of potential and made me want to seek out whatever book came next. If I hadn’t known before, I would have thought this was her first novel and Girls Made of Snow and Glass her second one because so many first novel problems were present in Girl, Serpent, Thorn.

This is the story of Soraya, sister to the shah, and cursed with poison running through her veins. Everything she touches dies, so her family keep her locked away and nobody can touch her. Soraya fills her time with stories and gardening. Until her brother the shah returns home with a div prisoner who might know more about Soraya’s curse. I’m sure most people will agree that this is a pretty cool premise. The implications of a young girl, isolated from other people, unable to touch anyone without killing them – that alone already makes for a highly interesting story. What would such a girl’s life be like? How would she deal with being so alone, especially at an age when her one friend is falling in love?
Unfortunately, I may have gone into this book with very wrong expectations. This is not a character exploration, nor even a particularly well done F/F romance. It’s about an unbearably stupid girl fighting an unbearably stupid villain. And all because every single character in this book is too dumb to just communicate and talk normally with each other. Seriously, the entire plot hinges on forced misunderstandings, characters making illogical decisions that no sane person would make, and a romance that exists  because the author tells us, not because the characters actually get to grow close to each other.

The writing in Bashardoust’s first novel was competent and the characters were interesting and not easily classified as good or evil. Somehow, in this second book of hers, the writing got way worse. Everything lacks a certain subtlety. Pauses in the characters’ speech, for example, are always explained. Actually, everything is always explained. There are moments that would have had much more impact if Bashardoust had let the readers understand them for themselves. And I’m not talking about super difficult-to-interpret things either. Everything is fairly obvious, but I was all the more annoyed at having everything spelled out even though there’s really no reason for it. If you don’t trust your readers to be intelligent enough to get it, that’s just not very flattering.

Let’s talk romance. This is marketed as an F/F romance but apparently, the love triangle is also making a comeback. Because this starts with not quite insta-love (but sort of) and only some of it can be explained. Soraya has been lonely for a long time, so it’s only natural and understandable that she yearns for human contact and that she’d seek out the attention of a handsome young man. Why said young man is immediately infatuated with her, however, is unclear and should at least raise some alarm bells for Soraya!
And while her attraction can be understood, the immediate exclamations of deep emotions cannot. Sure, spill all your lifelong secrets to the guy you just met, even though you’ve been keeping them your entire life… How am I supposed to root for a heroine who behaves that stupidly and puts her trust in a complete stranger just because he tells her she’s pretty? Maybe I’m just too old for this kind of story but I just kept shaking my head and rolling my eyes for the entire first half of the book.

And it’s not just Soraya either. The villain – who has a great back story and could be so incredibly interesting! – is just as gullible and idiotic as Soraya. I also never understood why he’s evil. There’s no shades of grey here, he just does bad stuff because reasons. It’s just not fun to root for a dumb protagonist who’s fighting against an equally dumb villain, although at least the odds are somewhat evened out by the fact they neither of them seems to be using their brain. I won’t tell you exactly what happens because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, but let me give you a few vague examples.
Soraya immediately puts all her trust (something she hasn’t done ever!) in the guy she just met because he deeply loves her and thus is obviously trustworthy. Not only does she tell him about her curse but she also spills some other family secrets that are vital to keep her family safe!
Later in the book, Soraya tries to trick the villain by agreeing with him. It’s the most obvious, unbelievable trick in the universe and any villain worth his salt would not fall for it. Except here, he does.
And let’s not forget Soraya’s most glorious moment of stupidity when she accidentally lets someone know another secret by misspeaking. Girl, take half a second to think before you speak!! Seriously!

If the characters had otherwise been interesting, I might have overlooked those glaring problems. But they are all flat. Cardboard flat. Everyone gets one characteristic, one problem they’re dealing with and that’s it. The characters’ emotional response to anything that happens is just way overdone. Soraya holds back angry tears when telling a story that she’s heard and told over and over for many years? If we’re supposed to understand that she’s angry about it, make it less melodramatic, please. The same goes for the romantic moments. Everything felt just sooooo over the top. One smouldering look and Soraya’s skin prickles, it just felt completely ridiculous.  There were several of these instances and I kept getting the feeling that this is the author trying to make her readers emotional. It doesn’t work that way! You make us like and care about your characters and then bad or romantic or exciting things happen to them and we feel things. Don’t just tell us Soraya cried and expect us to feel sad along with her when we have no basis to understand her.

I admit I started reading this book when I was also reading Deeplight by Frances Hardinge and the difference in writing style and sheer skill became all the more apparent. I don’t know if I would have liked this better if I hadn’t been reading one of the best YA books ever at the same time but I’m pretty sure my reaction to the writing would have been mostly the same. I don’t like stupid characters without any nuance to them, no matter how interesting the setting may be.

Ah, let’s take a moment to discuss setting and world-building. There has been a high demand for fantasy set outside the tropey medieval Europe stuff that used to be everywhere, and I am more than happy that publishing is doing pretty great when it comes to that. We get all sorts of stories set in places all over the world – real and fictional – inspired by underrepresented mythologies, fairy tales, histories, and people. So of course I was excited to read a Persian-inspired fairy tale retelling. But it takes more to build a fictional place than just throwing in some fancy words or making your characters wear certain clothes. That’s only skin-deep and I have come to expect more of YA!
At no point did I really feel like I was in a specific setting. The palace may go by a Persion-inspired name but the way it’s described, it could have been any old castle. Other than that, we get a mountain and a forest setting. So fine, if the actual place and the climate don’t feature in the book very much, that’s okay. Then at least show us where we are through politics. Again, Soraya’s brother Sorush may have been called shah instead of king but essentially, that’s how he is presented. Politics are never even really mentioned and while that wasn’t super necessary for Soraya’s personal story, there are hints of div politics. The divs are just described as this supernatural species of beings who attack and kill humans. We don’t know exactly why humans and divs are at war. We do learn that divs aren’t all alike, that there are factions among them and they they don’t necessarily get along. Which would have been a cool addition to a really thin plot. But by the end of the book, we know exactly as much as we do at the beginning. So definitely don’t expect anything like City of Brass level political intrigue.

I don’t know the reasons behind the choices made with this novel. Is it a misguided belief that deeper world-building will put off readers? Do authors and/or publishers think kids wouldn’t get it? Was it just laziness because for an immersive world that feels real, you’d have to do a lot of research, hire sensitivity readers (especially when writing about a culture not your own), and put in a lot of work? From the afterwork I gathered that the author did some research but other than names, we don’t get to see the fruit of that labor. In the end, I honestly don’t care why the world building is so thin. If the end product remains shallow, that’s the version the publisher decided was going to go out into the world and that’s all we readers get. And I’m not particularly happy with what I got here.

Now that the most glaring problems are out of the way, let’s look at the actual story. Because, boy, does it have problems of its own. The first half of the book – and I’m pretty sure it’s almost exactly in the middle – reads like a first draft. The entire first half is basically the set up for the real plot. And I don’t mean the part that you read in the synopsis – that’s the set up for the set up. Soraya’s skin is poisonous and anything she touches, she kills. So her royal family has hidden her away. She moves through secret corridors, rarely interacts with humans other than her mother, and yearns for friendship and love and human touch. So far, so intriguing. Then that whole insta-love-but-not-really-thing happens followed by a series of super dumb decisions,and bad writing.
In the second half of the book, however, the story finally finds its footing and becomes interesting. I’m not saying it’s great but at least by that point, I actually wanted to get back to the book to see what would happen next. Until Soraya’s next act of supreme stupidity at least.

I’ve already ranted about the characters but I want to say that they are not all bad. The most interesting ones just aren’t the protagonist. Soraya’s mother, for example, would have made one hell of a heroine. Parvaneh, the imprisoned parik (a type of div) Soraya wants to question about her curse, also turns out to be more than first meets the eye. It’s a shame that Soraya herself is so flat. Her only defining quality is that she’s cursed, wants to get uncursed and thinks of herself as a monster. It’s a good premise. I like characters who are torn, who have to find their place in the world, but if that’s their only thing and they behave stupidly most of the time, then that’s just not enough.

You will not be surprised that I didn’t really like this book. During the second half, we at least get some interesting scenes and a few moments of excitement. Although that is quenched pretty quickly by Soraya being dumb, the villain being dumb, or the plot being super convenient. The ending left me feeling annoyed and asking myself what the hell I’d been reading and WHY. If the whole point of the story is for Soraya to accept her otherness and to live with who she is, that’s great but please wrap it in a good story.
I spent almost all of the time reading this book rolling  my eyes, waiting for something thrilling to happen, and asking myself when the actual romance part would start. Sadly, this was super disappointing. For the little spark of good ideas (villain backstory, hinted at div politics, great mother character) I’m giving this book a few brownie points. But if this hadn’t been a review copy, I would have DNFd it long before the 50% mark.

MY RATING: 3/10 – Pretty bad

Reading the Hugos 2020: Lodestar (Not-a-Hugo)

Before we head on the Best Novel, let’s have a look at another favorite category of mine, the Lodestar. My thoughts and ballots for the other categories can be found here (the ones below the Lodestar will go live on the following Mondays):

This was a category in which I had more catching up to do than expected. I read a fair share of YA but apparently, I missed out on a lot of great books last year. I’d like to thank my fellow Hugo nominators for having read and nominated them. Because if they hadn’t been finalists, I might never have picked up some of them. I even discovered one that will make it to my best-of-the-year list. And who wants to miss out on great books? That’s right, nobody!

The Finalists for the Lodestar (Best YA/MG Book)

I didn’t think this would be so hard, guys! There are some seriously great books on this list and I am both happy about it but would also have liked ranking them to be easier.

The Wicked King by Holly Black does that amazing thing where the middle novel of a trilogy is actually the best. The world is set up, the characters are established, now it’s time to up the stakes and move the relationships along. And that’s just what she does. This was such a page turner, I think I devoured the book in two days. But it also managed to convince me of the very flawed, somewhat messed up relationship at the heart of the story. The romantic couple is not one you root for from the start – in fact, at the end of the first book, I hoped there wouldn’t be any romance at all. Boy, did I change my mind! As much as I adore this story, I am aware of its flaws and I consider it more of a guilty pleasure.

I went into Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on CatNet with low expectations. I just wasn’t sure that the author could pull this off. Well, shame on me, because Kritzer not only wrote one of the most endearing AI characters I’ve ever read but also managed to make CatNet feel vibrant and alive, she peopled it with lovable diverse characters, and threw a super exciting plot with a mystery into the mix. The only thing that didn’t stand out to me was the romance, but then again, I like books where the romance isn’t the main focus, so that’s not really a bad thing. I found myself deeply caring for the characters in this book – real and artificial – and that’s usually the reason a book sticks with me.

T. Kingfisher is one of my favorite authors and I always adore her plucky, practical heroines. In Minor Mage, the protagonist is a young boy who is – as the title suggests – only a very minor mage who knows all of three spells. But in order to save his village he sets out on a journey, accompanied only by his armadillo friend. He meets new people, escapes death several times, and even learns some new minor magic. This is an adorable and heart-warming adventure story and I loved it so much. But it lacked some of the emotional impact of its competitors. It was a fantastic book and it did make me feel things but as a shorter book aimed more at the middle grade age group, it looks like it won’t make the very top of my ballot. Trust me, nobody is more surprised at this than myself!

The only previous Frances Hardinge book I’d read was Fly by Night which impressed me deeply with its original world building and great multi-faceted characters. For some reason, I never continued the series and never picked up another Hardinge book (although I keep buying them). I was so excited to get into Deeplight and Hardinge didn’t disappoint. Set in the Myriad, a series of islands, everyone lives and breathes the ocean. Sometimes quite literally. Because the ocean used to have gods in it which are now dead. But their relics remain. Deep sea diving, submarines, diving bells and bathyspheres are what this is all about. It’s also about Hark, a young con man whose best friend Jelt usually gets them into trouble.
This book was just pure joy! I have raved about all its aspects in my review, but I’m still not quite over how perfect an adventure it was. Unlike some of the other finalists, this is also one of those books that can work for many age groups because it just has so much to offer. 34-year-old me enjoyed the character development and relationships the most (plus many other things), but it could also be read just as a straight up adventure with trips to the Undersea (where the water is breathable!), finding out the truth about the gods, and suriving all sorts of shenanigans.
I didn’t think the Kritzer could be knocked off its top spot on my ballot but here we are.

I was looking forward to Yoon Ha Lee’s foray into YA/MG fiction. Dragon Pearl did many things right. Min, a young fox spirit on a rather uncool planet, yearns to join her brother in the Space Force and explore the universe. When her brother is accused of desertion, she sets out on an adventure to find him, and the truth, and maybe even the mysterious Dragon Pearl that can help terraform her planet.
What follows is an exciting adventure with lots of action, new friends, betrayal, battles, chores (so many chores!) and of course shapeshifting. The story as such reads like a nice middle grade adventure. What made this slightly more interesting to me was the incorporation of Korean mythology and the way Lee deals with questions of gender and identity. There are several supernatural creatures but only foxes can shapeshift into anything. Min changes quite a lot on her journey and that offered much food for though. Ultimately, the characters remained a bit pale and while I was interested to see what happened next, I wasn’t really in it, if you know what I mean. I’d recommend this to younger kids but for me it was only nice, not amazing.

My last read was Riverland by Fran Wilde. As I didn’t enjoy her novel Updraft at all, I went into it with low expectations. It just won the Andre Norton Award so it must be good, right? Well… I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. I kinda sorta liked it but with many reservations. Wilde picked a tough topic to write about – two sisters living in an abusive household, dreaming of a better life. And the author did a fantastic job on creating this oppressive atmosphere, of showing these girls’s lives with all the fear and shame and anxiety. But this is also a fantasy novel, specifically a portal fantasy with a magical river world. And that part was not executed well. I also felt that the plot lacked focus, tension, and solutions came  (surprisingly) too easily. I am very conflicted about my rating of this novel because I can’t imagine how hard it must be writing about this issue for a young audience. So I liked some parts of the book (the ones in the real world) and felt others were neglected (fantasy world building, characters, plot in general) which leaves this book at the bottom of my ballot.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Frances Hardinge – Deeplight
  2. Naomi Kritzer – Catfishing on CatNet
  3. T. Kingfisher – Minor Mage
  4. Holly Black – The Wicked King
  5. Yoon Ha Lee – Dragon Pearl
  6. Fran Wilde – Riverland

The only switch I’m still debating in my own head is between Minor Mage and The Wicked King. Holly Black doesn’t exactly need a push by winning awards. She is wildly popular, well loved, and will do just fine with or without a Lodestar. But I did love that book…
Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher on the other hand is an author I’ve been shooving in everyone’s face for a while and I’m glad she’s getting more recognition these days. But she’s not yet getting the acclaim she should! So I probably will leave these books in the spots they are now. I loved them for very different reasons and I love both their authors’ other work, but I would like to give Kingfisher a little extra boost.

Up next week: Best Novel

Sisters Survive Through Fantasy: Fran Wilde – Riverland

In my yearly quest to be a conscientious Hugo voter and read ALL THE BOOKS, I have come to look forward to the Lodestar finalists a lot. If you read a lot of YA, you can get overwhelmed by the various hypes surrounding books with pretty covers or by famous authors and it gets easy to overlook the lesser known ones. I’m glad the Lodestar finalists offer a variety of  books for young people and not just the most popular ones. Even if this one didn’t really work for me.

RIVERLAND
by Fran Wilde

Published: Amulet Books, 2019
eBook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5,5/10

Opening line: “Once upon a time…”

When things go bad at home, sisters Eleanor and Mike hide in a secret place under Eleanor’s bed, telling monster stories. Often, it seems those stories and their mother’s house magic are all that keep them safe from both busybodies and their dad’s temper. But when their father breaks a family heirloom, a glass witch ball, a river suddenly appears beneath the bed, and Eleanor and Mike fall into a world where dreams are born, nightmares struggle to break into the real world, and secrets have big consequences. Full of both adventure and heart, Riverland is a story about the bond between two sisters and how they must make their own magic to protect each other and save the ones they love.

Eleanor and her little sister Mike live with their parents, go to school, and are generally normal kids. Except for the house magic, of course. House magic is when things get broken or disappear, new things magically appear to replace them. It is vital that the two sisters keep this a secret from the rest of the world because if you break the rules, bad things happen…

I knew before I started reading this book that it deals with domestic abuse and violence but this is also a fantasy novel, so it took me a while to figure out whether the whole concept of house magic was actual magic or just something Eleanor made up to explain how when her father breaks pictures on the wall or the TV, her mom simply goes out and buys new things to replace them. Generally, I like my magic ambiguous. Give me Pan’s Labyrinth all the way and let me make up my own mind whether to believe the magic is real or just a metaphor. But in this book, I struggled for some reason. I wanted to know what was real and what wasn’t, especially when elements that were clearly fantasy and clearly “real magic” came into play.

While certain aspects of this novel were enjoyable, many others left me wanting. The world building and plot are very weak and real, difficult  problems are resolved too easily. It made me wonder what all the struggle was for when things can just get better with a poof. But let’s start with the characters because that’ what a good story hinges on for me.

I liked both Eleanor and Mike and it was easy to feel their fear and the restrictions their family life puts on them. They have to make extra sure to stick to the rules, to not make their father angry, disobey, or draw attention to their family because otherwise bad things happen. Those bad things are usually described only by the loud noises the girls hear before going to sleep but it’s obvious their father is violent. He breaks objects around the house, he may beat his wife, and he’s definitely easy to annoy. Having some experience with a hostile environment myself,  I found Fran Wilde’s descriptions of the girls constant fear to be excellent. Even if their father’s isn’t aimed directly at the girls, they  see and hear things and their home is not the safe and happy place it should be!
But unfortunately, that is the defining characteristic of our two protagonists. Sure, it is mentioned once that Eleanor likes school and learning in general, and that she enjoys fantasy books, but I didn’t get the overall impression that she was a fully formed character. Mike is mostly portrayed as the adorable younger sister who sometimes blurts out things she shouldn’t. That didn’t keep me from caring for these two but I just wanted a little bit more.

My biggest issue with this book was the plot and world building, though. When the kids’ father breaks an heirloom “witch ball” – a glass sphere that used to be a fishing lure – the girls discover a magical Riverland by falling into a puddle under Eleanor’s bed. This is where the real magic starts and it had so much potential to be a great children’s portal fantasy. But sadly, the magical Riverland is small, boring, and peopled very sparsely. This magical river is the world of Dream where nightmares are horse-shaped smoke, birds can talk, and crabs try to fix leaks in the river. And that’s it. There isn’t any more to it, even by the end of the book.
I also didn’t like how comparatively easy it was for the girls to go in and out of this magical world. There are obstacles, of course, but  much like the issue at the heart of this book, these obstacles are overcome too easily and too quickly. That made it harder for me to believe that the River is actually dangerous and it took out all the tension from the more exciting scenes. If I, as the reader, don’t think anything can really happen to the protagonists, why shouuld I care?

That doesn’t mean that this is a bad book. Ironically for an avid fantasy reader, I preferred the parts of the plot that happened in the real world and had nothing to do with magic. El and Mike meet their grandmother for the first time and see that spilling some water doesn’t have to end in being shouted at. El also visits her best friend Pendra’s house – a chaotic place filled with noise, and pets, and love. These scenes helped show the contrast to their own family home beautifully and made me ache inside. They’re just two kids and they deserve a happy childhood, not one where they have to be constantly on edge and fear that their toys will be taken away, their  mother might get hurt, or they will be  punished for things children do.

So I’m on the fence. I think Fran Wilde took on a very difficult topic and tried to wrap it into a middle grade story by leaving the worst parts out. I appreciate that there is almost no description of actual violence – it’s all shouting and noises of glass breaking or plates being smashed – but it also makes things feel less bad than they actually are. I also loved how the sisters don’t just go and talk to someone. There are many reasons why victims of domestic violence don’t come forward (shame, fear, any number of things) – that felt realistic to me, even though I know that speaking up and confiding in someone would have probably made their life a lot  better. I had hoped that their trips to the magical River would serve as a sort of parallel of them finding their way in the real world but for that, the magic system and world building just weren’t fleshed out enough. And again, when the ending does come and things are resolved, it felt almost cheap.

The core message here is that someone won’t magically appear to help you out of your trouble. You have to save yourself! And in this case, it’ two sisters saving themselves and each other. I can’t find any fault with that message but I still think it could have been wrapped in a better story.

MY RATING: 5,5 – A little meh, but still kind of good

The Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag

It’s that time of the year again. On the one hand, it feels like 2020 has just started and like every year, I wonder where all that time went. On the other hand, I could swear 2020 has been going on for at least three years what with all the things that have happened. We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, although it’s fairly under control here in Austria by now. We have about 450 cases at the moment, most restrictions have been lifted, and life is slowly returning to something resembling normal.

But I won’t lie. Current events had quite an impact on my reading. Not only because I suddenly hat a lot more time to read books but also because they made me seek out different types of books than I might have otherwise. I’m the kind of person who reads books about pandemics during an actual pandemic (if that’s not your jam, I totally understand. I don’t know why I’m like this.) and the Black Lives Matter protests definitely pushed some of my books by Black authors higher up on the TBR but they also made me read a lot more news, non-fiction, and pieces written by Black people about systemic racism and what’s going in the US right now.

How Much Have You Read

Total books read: 67
By Authors of Color:
17

I’ve been doing pretty well this year although I lost a lot of motivation for my reading challenges. When the world is falling apart, reaching a reading goal doesn’t seem all that important anymore and reading becomes more of a comfort, a self-care ritual. The current protests in support of #BlackLivesMatter also made me reexamine my reading habits and I changed my TBR priorities because of that. I have tons of books by Black authors anyway but now they’re going to get read a little sooner. My reading habits have changed quite a bit since I started this blog (from basically only reading white men and a handful of women to reading mostly women and a lot more Authors of Color) but I can do so much better! During the first half of the year, only about 25% of my books were by Authors of Color.  So for the rest of the year, I’m setting myself a little challenge not only to continue reading books by the Black authors I already know and love but to discover at least 10 new ones. That’s how favorites happen, after all.

BEST BOOKS YOU’VE READ SO FAR IN 2020

The City We Became is now a more timely book than ever. I read it before the protests that are currently happening all over the world and I honestly thought Jemisin painted her racist characters a little too racist. My opinion on that has changed. What I’ve seen in during the last weeks – videos, twitter exchanges, posts on social media sites – show that Jemisin knew exactly what she was writing and her characters are sadly realistic.
Deeplight totally swept me away. It is everything a YA novel should be and I’m still not over how phenomenal those characters were.
Doomsday Book turned me into a sobbing mess and I haven’t stopped thinking about that book since I read it. It is also very fitting for our current times as it’s about the plague as well as an epidemic so you can guess why it hit me so hard.
You can read more about my thoughts in my reviews (linked above).

BEST SEQUELS OF 2020 SO FAR

I’m finally reading the Earthsea Cycle this year! Three books in, The Tombs of Atuan is definitely my favorite. It’s a sneaky book that makes you care about the characters without letting you notice. And suddenly, you’re all emotions.
Sanderson continues to produce thrilling stories set in highly original worlds and this sequel to Skyward delivered just the kind of exciting YA adventure I wanted.

NEW RELEASE YOU HAVEN’T READ YET, BUT YOU WANT TO

There are many, but these are the ones I’m looking forward to the most:

  • Martha Wells – Network Effect
  • Tochi Onyebuchi – Riot Baby
  • Ilze Hugo – The Down Days

MOST ANTICIPATED RELEASE OF THE SECOND HALF OF 2020

A lot! Here’s a few of them, although my actual wishlist is much longer.

  • Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
  • Jordan Ifueko – Raybearer
  • Julia Ember – Ruinsong
  • Brandon Sanderson – Rhythm of War
  • Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education
  • Nnedi Okorafor – Ikenga
  • Romina Garber – Lobizona
  • Lauren Beukes – Afterland
  • Alaya Dawn Johnson – Trouble the Saints
  • Kalynn Bayron – Cinderella is Dead
  • Alix E. Harrow – The Once and Future Witches

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

It’s been a long time since I’ve been that bored with a book that sounded so good. The Guinevere Deception has flat characters, almost no plot, a lame climax and the constant feeling that this is just the opening chapter to the real story. I want the real story right now, thank you very much!
I picked up Blake Crouch because BookTube was hyping him like crazy. And while I can’t deny that Recursion was a page turner with a twist in every other chapter, it left no lasting impression. I felt very much like I was reading a science fiction thriller version of a Dan Brown book.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Descendant of the Crane just completely blew me away. I had no particular expectations so I was all the more happy to get a well thought-out story where young characters have to make tough decisions and are faced with difficult situations.
And of course I finally had to try The Witcher, which also exceeded all my expectations. I didn’t think I would get such a character driven story. I expected action and swordfighting and manly Witcher man being manly (which is totally okay) and instead I got something that resonated much more deeply with me. Fairy tales, characters in all shades of grey, and a protagonist who deals as much with ethics as he does with monsters.

FAVORITE NEW AUTHOR (DEBUT OR AUTHOR TO YOU)

She’s not new to me but finally picking up a second book by this author turned Frances Hardinge into a new favorite. Ted Chiang impressed me deeply with his story collection and I will definitely read more by him. Jessica Townsend has potential to become a favorite. I had so much fun with her book Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow. And Rivers Solomon continues to impress me. I’ve only read shorter works by them so far but I’m already itching to pick up their novel An Unkindness of Ghosts.

Newest fictional crush 

Geralt of Rivia of course.
I’m kidding. I don’t really get fictional crushes anymore but I won’t deny that I imagined Henry Cavill while reading The Witcher. And he is one beautiful man!

Newest favorite character

BOOK THAT MADE YOU CRY

Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book.
I mean… it’s a book that deals with time travel where a young historian visits the time of the plague. And there’s also an epidemic going on in the present. So it’s not like I didn’t expect some character deaths to happen. But Willis had me sobbing by the end in a way that I did not see coming.

A BOOK THAT MADE YOU HAPPY

Jessica Towsnend – Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow

It helped that I read this while on holiday on a beach in Myanmar but I think even rainy, cloudy days could have been brightened by this lovely book. I’m keeping the rest of the series for a time when I need to just feel good.

MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK YOU’VE BOUGHT OR RECEIVED THIS YEAR

Although this book has not technically arrived yet, it is beautiful to me both because first of all, I think it’s really pretty but also because I’ve been looking for a copy for years and finally found one that was in my price range. I did pay 50€ for it, so it was still pretty expensive. But now my Catherynne M. Valente collection is complete and I couldn’t be happier. The book is called Under in the Mere and it is illustrated by James and Jeremy Owen. I can’t wait to see it in person (be faster, post people!).

WHAT BOOKS DO YOU NEED TO READ BY THE END OF THE YEAR?

So many. Like I mentioned above, my regular reading challenges, including the Retellings Challenge, aren’t a priority anymore. Here’s a selection of what I hope to read this year not already covered in my most anticipated releases:

  • Bram Stoker – Dracula
  • N. K. Jemisin – The Stone Sky
  • Rivers Solomon – An Unkindness of Ghosts
  • Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Sower
  • Tade Thompson – The Rosewater Insurrection
  • Evan Winter – The Rage of Dragons
  • Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching
  • Emma Newman – Planetfall

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novella

Today, I’ll look at the finalists for Best Novella for the 2020 Hugo Award. For my take on the other categories, click the links below. As I’m still reading nominated  books and Graphic Novels at the time of posting this, the later links may go live after you read this. I’ll talk about a different category every Monday.

When the finalists were announced, I had already read three out of the six nominated novellas, so naturally I felt very pleased with myself. Fewer novellas to read means more time to catch up on those dreaded series (dreaded because of the amount of books, not the books themselves).

I have to say, my ballot is turning out very differently than expected. The first thing I noticed when gathering my thoughts about these finalists is that this is the first time I didn’t dislike any of them. Usually, there’s at least one that either doesn’t work for me at all or that simply falls flat compared to the others. But this ballot? Holy smokes, there’s not a single thing on here that’s not at least very, very good!
Whether you’re a Hugo voter yourself or not, you should consider picking up any or all of these books.

The Finalists for Best Novella

Never, ever would I have expected to love every single novella on a Hugo ballot this much and for such different reasons. Ranking them is super difficult but I’ve at least narrowed it down to areas on the ballot where each should go. Within those areas, I may still change things around a bit until the voting period ends.

I believe This Is How You Lose the Time War was the first of these novellas that I picked up and – much like everyone else who read it – I got something very different from what I expected. It’s not a time travel story and its not really about a war either. It’s an epistolary novel about two agents of the time war, one belonging to a nature-y side and one to a more tech-loving side, who affect events in history for the benefit of their side. But that already makes it sound too much like there’s a plot here. There isn’t. Unless you count their secret letter-writing and slowly budding friendship as plot. While I read this book, I really enjoyed it for the beautiful language and I found that the lack of plot and the complete focus on character didn’t keep me from turning the pages.
But – and here’s where it may have an unfair disadvantage – it’s been a while since I read it and the more I think about it, the hazier it gets and the less I like it. The same thing may well happen to the other novellas on this ballot after time, but all I can say is that when I read this book I would never have guessed it would end up on my bottom spot on the ballot.

I picked up The Deep by Rivers Solomon because of the premise and its interesting origin story. Mermaids who evolved from pregant slave women that were tossed overboard just sounds so intriguing. But I got much more than just a cool premise. This story is about memory, about community, about finding your place in the world and dealing with a horrible past in a way that won’t break you. There were so many things I loved about this. Solomon created a fascinating underwater species with its own culture and language, but they also tell a simple tale of a young person going out into the world to find out who they are. The language is beautiful, the message is deep, and the ending is lovely.

Next came The Haunting of Tram Car 015. I was one of the few people who didn’t like Clark’s short story “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” last year, so I went into this with some trepidation. But I shouldn’t have worried because this story turned out to be so much fun! The reason it’s rather low on my ballot is because while it’s about more than just a haunted tram car, it didn’t hit me as much as some of the other nominees.
But please don’t let that deter you from picking this up. It’s definitely the most light-hearted of the finalists and I hope Clark will write more stories set in the same world.

Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught if Fortunate is a curious little book. The one thing that divides most people’s opinion the most is the ending but I think it’s unfair to judge the entire book simply by the characters’ last decisions. I adored how Chambers packs so much into such a slim volume, starting from a new way to research planets (instead of terraforming, you change your own body so as to fit the environment), over the character dynamics in a small close-knit group, to the love for science and discovery. In fact, that’s what I took from this book the most – a sense of wonder at humanity and our wish to learn more about our universe. I’m pretty sure Becky Chambers could make me love mathematics. The joy with which she describes the scientific process is infections.
And for what it’s worth, while I wouldn’t have decided the way the characters did, I was fine with the ending.

Now for the dark horse. In an Absent Dream is number four in the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire. I have a history with that series and while I liked the second volume, the third one was so very bad that I didn’t want to continue reading it. But, consciencous Hugo voter that I am, I did pick this up. Again, I have to thank my fellow nominators for pushing this on me because it turns out, I seem to like at least every other book in this series.
We follow young Lundy through a magical door to the Goblin Market which is all about rules and giving fair value. I adored this world and I really liked Lundy and her deep sense of justice. Knowing how it ends took some of the excitement out of it, of course, but this was nonetheless a very good book that hit the emotional notes most of the other instalments couldn’t.
It goes solidly in the middle of my ballot.

The only author I hadn’t read before is Ted Chiang. His praises have been sung for many years, I know the movie Arrival is based on one of this stories (which I’ve yet to pick up) so my expectations were pretty high. And yet, he managed to exceed them!
I read his entire collection Exhalationand it was filled with great stories but Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom definitely stood out. With a rather simple sfnal premise – Prisms let you look into a parallel universe which you create by activating the Prism, so you can meet an alternate version of yourself – Chiang tackles questions of humanity, free will, of why life is even worth it if the multiverse holds every possible version of yourself anyway…
This made me feel like I’d watched a particularly excellent Black Mirror episode, although where the TV show is mostly rather grim, this story left me with a sense of hope. And with lots and lots to think about.
So the only author I didn’t know and the book I thought couldn’t possibly be better than my previous favorites is currently sitting in my number one spot.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Ted Chiang – Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom
  2. Rivers Solomon – The Deep
  3. Becky Chambers – To Be Taught If Fortunate
  4. Seanan McGuire – In an Absent Dream
  5. P. Djèlí Clark – The Haunting of Tram Car 015
  6. Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone – This is How You Lose the Time War

Ted Chiang and Rivers Solomon are my top spots and they are staying there, although they may switch places… I don’t know, I really don’t. I may also still switch the McGuire and the Clark stories. They were both great but one was more fun and one more bittersweet and I’m just not sure which I prefer. Becky Chambers will stay where she is and I’m afraid Time War will also remain at the bottom. I did enjoy that story while I read it but I have no desire to re-read it whatsoever and I don’t even remember why I liked it so much. That’s just not a good sign.

Up next week: The Lodestar

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novelette

Welcome to the second instalment in my Reading the Hugos project. This week, we’ll have a look at the finalists for Best Novelette.

Previous categories and what’s coming up:

Links to the upcoming categories will go live every Monday. Depending on when you read this, they may already be clickable. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait a bit longer (I’m still reading and gathering my thoughts on some of these categories).

I may not read short stories unless they are in a collection by an author I like, but I do stumble across the very occasional novelette on my own. This year, I had read one of the finalists and it was mostly a joy to catch up with the rest. Unlike the short stories (and the novellas, which I’ll talk about next Monday), this was a more balanced ballot for me, in that I didn’t love everything. I also didn’t hate anything, which is nice, but I’m having a much easier time ranking these novelettes than I did with many other categories.

The Finalists for Best Noveletta

  • Caroline M. Yoachim – The Archronology of Love
  • Sarah Gailey – Away With the Wolves
  • N. K. Jemisin – Emergency Skin
  • Ted Chiang – Omphalos
  • Siobhan Carroll – For He Can Creep
  • Sarah Pinsker – The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye

N. K. Jemisin is a master storyteller but not just when it comes to novels. She’s also really good with shorter works, as is shown in her novella Emergency Skin. This story is interesting for its narration – a first person narration by an AI implant in a space traveler’s brain – as well as its themes. While I agree that the point may be very on the nose and the message  obvious, I didn’t mind that at all. In fact, I thought it showed a lovely glimpse of a possible future for humanity if we only behaved differently.
I think it’s best to go into this story blind, so I won’t say anything about the plot. But you can expect Jemisin’s trademark writing (meaning to say, it’s brilliant) and her characters dealing with diversity and social justice. This was definitely a very hopeful story that left me feeling slightly better about the world.

Ted Chiang’s collection was my first foray into his writing and, boy, was I impressed! That said, the nominated novelette Omphalos was not my favorite. It’s about a version of Earth that was created by an all-powerful being (like God) and where there is scientific proof of that – bones that are fully formed without signs of having grown, ancient mummified humans without navels, etc.
When one archeologist finds out that there is more to this than the world thought so far, her belief is called into question. Like the rest of the collection, this story deals with big questions of free will, the importance of one’s actions, and the meaning of life. You know… the usual. The reason I didn’t like this story as much as the others in the collection was the style. While it fits perfectly with the setting and world building, it just wasn’t as enjoyable for me to read. That’s purely a matter of personal taste, however, and says nothing about the quality of the novelette.

I had high expectations for Sarah Gailey’s Away With the Wolves but it was… kind of disappointing. Gailey wrote a fresh take on werewolves, with a young girl living openly as a shape shifter in a small village. When she spends time as a wolf, she feels free and right. When she’s in human form, her body is plagued by constant pain and things just aren’t what they’re supposed to be. Trying to bridge these two identities make life pretty hard for her.
There is a lovely female friendship at the heart of this tale and I loved how the village dealt with the werewolf in their midst (not as you’d expect). But this story felt so repetitive after a while. We learn right away that being in a human body physically hurts the protagonist and this point is hammered home over and over again, to the point where I wondered if there would be any pages left for actual story. It also never became quite clear why staying in wolf shape forever and living in the forest was out of the question – or maybe I missed a line that answers this question? So I wasn’t super thrilled with this story but I did love the ending very much! It’s a good novelette but with this competition, it still goes somewhere near the bottom of my ballot.

The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker was both unexpected and super fun to read. It’s about a mystery writer who spends some time every year in a remote cabin where she finishes the next novel in her book series. She also has the World’s Best Assistant and, of course, a keen eye for clues. When a dead body shows up, she can’t help but try to figure out what happened…
This may sound like your average murder mystery and it certainly uses the tropes of the subgenre to its advantage. But rest assured, this does have a speculative element and it is super cool! The writing was so much fun and would have entertained me for many more pages. Like in a murder mystery, we get the solution to all our questions at the end. In this shorter format, that felt almost a little overwhelming, but since things fit together so beautifully and I got so much enjoyment out of it, so I’m ranking this one pretty high.

Siobhan Carroll’s For He Can Creep is a story told from the point of view of a cat. Immediate brownie points for that – I am a sucker for cat characters, especially if they feel properly cat-like. It’s also the story of the cat’s owner who is a poet in an asylum struggling with his art. When the devil appears one night to make a deal, things don’t go so well for cats and humans alike and our pawed protagonist Jeoffrey has to ask some friends for help in setting things right again.
I didn’t dislike this novelette as such, but compared to the others, it felt generic and flat. The plot was super predictable, right from the start, the cat characters were great but not intersting enough to set them apart from other fictional cats I’ve read about. It’s nice that this story is based on an actual poem about cat Jeoffrey but overall, this one was only okay.

The final novelette, The Archronology of Love, deals with grief in a science fictional setting. A colony on New Mars has been completely wiped out. On that colony was protagsonist Saki’s lifelove M. J. and wehil she may just be doing her job as a xenoarcheologist, trying to figure out what happened to all the people, she also can’t let go of the hope that she might see her love just one more time. In this story, humans make use of the Chronicle – a way to sort of time travel and look at a place how it was at a different time. But, as with all scientific observation, simply looking at something already changes it.
This was another nice story but one that didn’t do anything very special with its premise. The mystery at its core – what alien disease killed the entire colony? – never interested me that much because the book focuses more on Saki’s way of dealing with her loss, of never having been able to say goodbye properly. While that is something I sympathise with and generally like reading about, there wasn’t really enough time in this shorter work to delve into it deeply enough. We didn’t get to see the couple when they were together, we are simply informed that Saki is grieving, so I was missing the emotional impact. It’s a good story but, for me, not a Hugo Award worthy one.

My ballot (probably)

  1. N. K. Jemisin – Emergency Skin
  2. Sarah Pinsker – The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye
  3. Ted Chiang – Omphalos
  4. Sarah Gailey – Away With the Wolves
  5. Siobhan Carroll – For He Can Creep
  6. Caroline M. Yoachim – The Archronology of Love

Whew! That’s my ballot and I’m pretty sure it will stay that way. Jemisin’s work just resonates with me, so it sits firmly in my top spot. Pinsker’s murder mystery was so much fun and so clever that it has to come next. While Chiang’s story may not have been my favorite in his collection, it still has a brilliant premise and makes me think – I always appreciate stories that impact me so much that I tell others about them and mull them over long after reading.
I’m also quite certain about the ranking of my bottom three spots. Gailey’s story had some pacing issues but otherwise does interesting things with a well-known genre trope, Carroll’s story of Jeoffrey the cat was predictable but still fun. And Yoachim’s novelette, while an okay read, would have worked much better as a novella or even a novel.

Up next week: Best Novella

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Short Story

It’s Hugo Awards reading season! To celebrate all the amazing finalists, I thought I would do a series of short reviews for each category as well as show you what my ballot will most likely look like. Ballots are definitely subject to change, especially in categories where I had several favorites.
Every Monday, we’ll look at a different category until I run out of time – or out of steam. I’m still catching up with the finalists, especially in the series category, but I hope I can keep up this schedule.

  • Best Short Story
  • Best Novelette
  • Best Novella
  • Lodestar
  • Best Graphic Story
  • Best Novel
  • Best Series

I’m not a big short story reader. In fact, I almost only read short stories that are Hugo finalists because there’s just too much out there and I mostly don’t get a lot out of it. I usually want my stories bigger and meatier but there is something to be said for an author who can evoke an emotional response in the span of only a few pages. Here are six of them on one of my favorite Hugo shortlists ever.

The Finalists for Best Short Story

  • Alix E. Harrow – Do Not Look Back, My Lion
  • S. L. Huang – As the Last I May Know
  • Shiv Ramdas – And Now His Lordship is Laughing
  • Rivers Solomon – Blood is Another Word for Hunger
  • Fran Wilde – A Catalog of Storms
  • Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography  on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island

This went differently than expected. I loved Alix E. Harrow’s winning short story last time, so I fully expected her story to be in my top spot again. But the competition is tough!

I didn’t like Fran Wilde’s YA novel Updraft at all, so I was surprised at how deeply I cared about the characters in A Catalog of Storms. The story is about the weather and yet it utterly engaged me! Sila, the youngest of three daughters, is the first person narrator who shows us how she and her family live. Storms have been ravaging their home, so much so that humans mostly stay inside and hide. That is, until the weathermen appeared. These people learned to name the terrible storms and thus control and fight them. To become a weatherman is a great honor, although they usually end up dissolving into weather themselves. When Sila’s sister shows signs of turning into a weatherman, the family has to deal with that loss.
I can’t believe how much Wilde packed into this short story! Not only did she make me care for all the characters but she also immersed me in a highly original world. I was deeply impressed!

Alix E. Harrow may not have written my favorite of the nominated stories, but Do Not Look Back, My Lion was still very good. It’s about a warrior people who brand their babies right after birth to become fierce warriors. Eefa, husband to the legendary warrior nicknamed the Lion, has had enough, though. She is a healer and as such has very low social status. But she doesn’t want to watch her children go off to war and come back injured. Or maybe not come back at all.
While I loved the central relationship and the character growth in this story, I felt the world building just didn’t work for me. There were nice touches, like the gods of Life and Death, but to me the question of why these people are eternally at war remained until the end. It’s not the point of the story at all but it kept nagging at the back of my mind.
But for the excellent character work and beautiful writing, I still loved this story.

I know S. L. Huang as the author of the Russell’s Attic series as well as the super-heartbreaking The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist. I never read her trilogy but I know she can get me all emotional with her stories. But As the Last I May Know does more than that. It’s set in a future where weapons of mass destruction can only be used with the proper codes (so far, so normal), except these codes are embedded in a child who the president personally has to kill in order to get the codes. This idea alone was so mind-blowing that I wouldn’t even have needed the characters to love this story. But we do follow the ten-year old protagonist who is chosen to carry those launch codes and we see her spend a few years close to the president. Because there is a serious war going on and he may have to kill her in order to save his country…
I cannot put into words the emotional roller coaster this tale put me on. It’s a brilliant idea but we see it through such wonderful characters that every little change in the war physically hurts. It poses questions about ethics, about the value of a human life, about the Greater Good, and it kept me thinking a long time after I finished reading it. This is what all the best stories should do.

I loved Rivers Solomon’s novella, The Deep, and I was almost as taken with their short story, Blood Is Another Word for Hunger. It has one of the best (and longest) opening lines I’ve ever read and the prose is just beautiful. It starts with Sully, a slave girl, slaughtering the entire family for whom she works, and then suddenly being struck pregnant and giving birth to a girl that grows up to be a teenager within minutes. The universe needs balance, after all, and with five people dead, it seems only fair that five others come back to life – in this case, via Sully’s womb. This way, a little family grows and they start to make a life for themselves.
While I enjoyed reading this story, I’m not quite sure what Solomon was trying to achieve with it. Obviously, a slave rising up to take control of her own life was satisfying enough to drive the plot, but the story as a whole and especially the ending left me a bit puzzled.

Shiv Ramdas’ story And Now His Lordship is Laughing is about an old woman in India who makes beautiful – and somewhat magical – dolls. When her craft attracts the attention of an English lord, she refuses to make a doll for his wife because that’s just not how things are done. You don’t demand a doll, you are given one as a gift if the maker so chooses. What follows is a period of poverty, terrible hunger (and death following that hunger) because the English take things from the people to supply their own armies. When eventually, the protagonist does agree to make a dool for His Lordship’s wife, it comes with a caveat. She wants to hand the doll over herself and show the English lady how to make the magical toy laugh.
I loved how this story managed to say so many things about colonialism, cultural differences and the ways we perceive them, and the cost of an empire. It’s a beautifully written story but, unfortunately, a rather predictable one. Satisfying as the ending was, it didn’t really surprise me. The one truly emotional moment for me happened much sooner and is the catalyst for what happens next. I enjoyed it and I want to read more by Ramdas but on this ballot, it will be ranked rather low.

The last story I read messed up my entire ranking up until that point. Ten Excerpts not only has important things to say but also does so by playing with its medium. Nibedita Sen presents her story just like the title suggests – as excerpts from a bibliography on the women of Ratnabar Island. Through these very (!) short snippets, we get a story that spans generations and continents! I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to write something like this. When colonists “discovered” the women of Ratnabar island, they took some of them with them to England for a “proper education”, starting something much bigger and more vicious than they probably knew.
I won’t say much about the plot, if you can call it that, but holy shit, this story was mind-blowing. It’s so easy to fill in the parts of this history without having to be explicitly told, and I loved how Sen presented excerpts from different sources that have varying opinions on Ratnabar Island and its inhabitants. Most striking were probably the excerpts from the now displaced second- or even third-generation Ratnabarian women living abroad. My gut reaction after reading this was: Yeah, this is my top spot.

My ballot (probably)

  1. S. L. Huang – As the Last I May Know
  2. Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography  on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island
  3. Fran Wilde – A Catalog of Storms
  4. Alix E. Harrow – Do Not Look Back, My Lion
  5. Rivers Solomon – Blood is Another Word for Hunger
  6. Shiv Ramdas – And Now His Lordship is Laughing

You’ll see that the Nibedita Sen story is not in my top spot but that’s only because I have stewed over this ballot for quite a while. I may yet change the top two spots, depending on how I feel about these stories once a little time has passed after reading them. I am silmpy so very taken with Huang’s basic premise and her characters were the ones that felt most fleshed-out on this ballot that I don’t want to take it from my top spot at the moment.
I’m happy with Fran Wilde on my third spot, but after that, it gets difficult again.
I enjoyed all these stories and they all did interesting things, were written beautifully, and got some emotional reaction out of me.
The reason Shiv Ramdas’ story is currently at the bottom is simply because it was the most predictable one for me, so my pure enjoyment of it was just a tad less than with the other stories.
Rivers Solomon’s story was fantastic but I’m still not quite sure about the ending. And Alix E. Harrow’s story simply had standout character work. So nothing on this ballot is really secure, I may shift around a lot of things, but nothing will jump from the very top to the very bottom or vice versa.

Except for Wilde and Harrow’s tales, all the stories deal with issues of race, colonialism, or slavery and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these stories resonate so much with WorldCon members. These topics are more timely than ever and I am so grateful that I got to see them through the eyes of such brilliant, talented writers. There’s not a single bad story on here and I want to read more by each of these authors. So we’re off to a pretty amazing start when it comes to this year’s Hugo reading! And I believe can all use something to keep our hope and spirits up in these trying times.

Up next week: Best Novelette

Getting Closer to That Tower: Stephen King – Song of Susannah

This is my year of finishing book series. I finished a few series already and it felt so nice to finally know the entire story, to get to that long-awaited ending, that I decided to pick up some of the series I had left on the TBR for way too long. Stephen King’s Dark Tower is one such series. I don’t even know when I read the last book but I have to credit King’s writing for me remembering everything really clearly, even after a few years. This is the sixth book in the series and I won’t spoil any of its plot, but there will by necessity be spoilers for volumes 1 through 5 below!

SONG OF SUSANNAH
by Stephen King

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2004
Paperback: 450 pages
Series: The Dark Tower #6
My rating: 5,5/10

Opening line: “How long will the magic stay?”

Roland Deschain, gunslinger, hero, continues his perilous adventures in search of the key to the quest that will define his life.
Roland’s loyal followers Jake, Father Callahan and Oy set out the break Susannah’s date with destiny in New York.
Meanwhile, Roland and Eddie brave the state of Maine in the summer of 1977. It is a frightful world where bullets are flying. A world inhabited by the author of a novel called ‘Salem’s Lot
Driven by revelation and suspense, this pivotal instalment in this magnificent epic will leave readers gasping to read the electrifying conclusion, The Dark Tower.
And the Tower is closer…

I did not expect to get back into this vast univese as quickly or easily as I did. While I have an old paperback copy of this book on my shelves, I treated myself to the audio version as well and this may have been part of the reason why I read it so fast. Sure, Stephen King’s writing style is great to fall into, his books are usually page turners for me, and the short sub-chapters make it all the easier to read “just one more” before bed. But I don’t think that’s all of it.

The story picks up right where Wolves of the Calla left off and if you’ve read that book you know that Susannah is pregnant with a weird monster baby and also has been behaving very strange lately… That and the book’s title make it fairly obvious what we’re dealing with in this volume. I’m glad Susannah’s pregnancy wasn’t the only plot thread we followed, however.
While she is battling Mia’s personality who has taken over her body (and on occasion Detta… who’s back), Roland and Eddie take a trip to Maine where they visit a certain writer of horror fiction.

As the synopsis already tells you who they find, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that King actually did it. He wrote himself into one of his books and it was the weirdest, most delightful thing I could imagine. It takes guts to do that, to neither glorify yourself nor paint yourself in too bad a light and, for me, King pulled it off. I had so much fun reading these passages and – whether that’s true or not – it felt like we actually got to meet the real Stephen King. A Stephen King from the 70ies who’s still a fairly new writer but still. It was my second favorite part of the whole book.
Meanwhile, Jake and Father Callahan try to save Susannah from whatever fate awaits her. There are action scenes, we learn a bit more about the Low Men (which some of you may know from Hearts in Atlantis) but in general, there was too little Jake in this book, at least for my taste. And I’ve never truly warmed to Father Callahan which is probably why Wolves of the Calla took me ages to read.

I may have flown through this book but I don’t think it was actually all that good. I was hooked, of course, and I wanted to know what happened next. But the ka-tet is split up and that’s no fun. And Susannah’s part especially felt a lot like re-hashing the events of The Drawing of the Three where her split personalities battled each other to become Susannah. As much fun as it was, it felt like we’d been here before. Mia who’s possessing Susannah this time around was interesting enough and I found her backstory both intriguing and sad. But overall, I didn’t think the characters were developed much and their arcs weren’t pushed forward in this book. I just need my ka-tet to be together, okay?

There is one thing, however, that made this worthwile for me, and that was the last chapter. Don’t be fooled, it’s a nice and long chapter. I won’t tell you what it is about and while it also doesn’t really push the gunslinger and his ka-tet closer to the Tower, I had so much fun reading it. Many of Stephen King’s books tie into the Dark Tower universe and he did a fantastic job in showing how that came to be. It’s also a nice reminder of just how many characters, names, and stories feed into Roland’s bigger story. That’s all I can say without spoiling. You just have to trust me that it’s worth it.

The fact that this was only a meh instalment in an otherwise great series will not keep me from reading the seventh and final book, of course (and then the eighth which goes chronologically somewhere around volume four). Many series do that thing were the novel before the last is mostly set-up for the big climax and while I think authors should strive to do better, I’ve come too far to stop now.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Okay

A Near-Perfect Multi-Layered YA Novel: Frances Hardinge – Deeplight

I have to read more Frances Hardinge, you guys! There is no discernible reason why, after loving Fly By Night, I didn’t pick up any of her other books. I keep buying them because they all sound so cool, yet I never actually read them. This has to stop! I’m making a commitment now that I will read at least one more Frances Hardinge book this year. If I don’t, you all get to make fun of me forever and ever.

DEEPLIGHT
by Frances Hardinge

Published: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2019
eBook: 445 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: They say you can sail a thousand miles along the island chain of the Myriad, from the frosty shores of the north, to the lush, sultry islands of the south. 

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea meets Frankenstein in Frances Hardinge’s latest fantasy adventure
The gods are dead. Decades ago, they turned on one another and tore each other apart. Nobody knows why. But are they really gone forever? When 15-year-old Hark finds the still-beating heart of a terrifying deity, he risks everything to keep it out of the hands of smugglers, military scientists, and a secret fanatical cult so that he can use it to save the life of his best friend, Jelt. But with the heart, Jelt gradually and eerily transforms. How long should Hark stay loyal to his friend when he’s becoming a monster—and what is Hark willing to sacrifice to save him?

The description of the book, while technically accurate, doesn’t do it justice. This is the story of Hark, a young and rather criminally inclined boy who cons people out of their money, usually with his best friend Jelt. When one of their “missions” goes wrong and Hark is taken by the police, he is to be sold as an indentured servant. Luckily for him and thanks to his gift with words (= lying really well) and ability to read people, he gets off pretty easy and is bought by a brilliant scientist named Dr. Vyne. She takes Hark to a small island where he officially helps out at Sanctuary taking care of old and sick priests. Unofficially he spies on them to get information about the gods and the Cataclysm that wiped them out to Dr. Vynes. Except of course his old life comes knocking pretty soon and Hark is in deep trouble if he gets caught…

Probably the most striking thing about this book is the relationship between Hark and his best friend Jelt. Jelt is obviously manipulating Hark, always giving him the most dangerous part of a job but making it sound like there’s no other way, that Hark owes him. And while it’s obvious to the reader that Jelt is not the loving, caring brother that Hark sees him as, Hark himself still has a long way to go to see his friend for what he truly is. When they find a godware sphere – an enomously valuable piece of one of the dead gods – Hark mostly just wants to sit out his sentence and not get caught spying but Jelt has other plans. Because that ball of godware seems to have magical healing powers and that gives Jelt all sorts of ideas about the boys’ criminal future…

Even though I’ve only read one previous Francis Hardinge book, I have come to expect excellent world building from her and that’s exactly what I got. The Myriad feels like a real place, a set of islands that used to be ruled by the gods of the Undersea. Each island used to have their own patron god who required human sacrifices and came in all terrifying shapes and sizes. Now that the gods are dead, trade rules the world. Submariners wear their scars proudly, people who have lost their hearing underwater are common and therefore a lot of people know sign language. I loved the attention to detail because it made this world feel so real and lived-in.
The Undersea always feels like this mystical place. Its water can be breathed by humans which opens all sorts of interesting doors and both made me want to go down there to explore and stay as far away as I possibly can.

The plot and pacing were spot on. While at first I only worried about Hark getting caught, the book soon turns into a save-the-whole-world kind of thing. The fact that Hark quickly breaks the only rules Dr. Vyne gave him – Lie to everyone as much as you like but never lie to me! and Don’t meet up with your old friends! – makes this a true page-turner. There is always the threat of being caught and being sold off to row on some ship until your body just gives out. In addition, the piece of godware Hark and Jelt found behaves very strangely and they don’t really know what it does or if its healing powers have any unwanted side effects. And then there is Rigg’s crime gang who want to collect their debt, Hark’s conversations with the former priests that yield very little information but potential real friendships, and Rigg’s daughter Selphin who always seems to be a step ahead of Hark.

In short, this was a brilliant, exciting book that does everything right! I honestly can’t think of a single thing to nitpick here. Hitting that perfect balance between thrilling story, character development, world-building, and great writing, this can be read and enjoyed by anyone. Maybe, and I’m grasping here, the language is a tad difficult for younger kids, so maybe the middle grade age group wouldn’t enjoy it as much. But I’m a firm believer that kids are usually smarter than we think and they know what they want, even if (or maybe because) the language is challenging. Hardinge doesn’t talk down to her readers and because of the ocean setting and jargon, I even had to look up some words myself. But mostly, the prose just lets you fly through the story, eager to discover what Hardinge has thought up.

Hark’s character development may have been my favorite part of the book but I also adored the lore, the creative ideas about the gods, and especially the sea-kissed who have lost their hearing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that featured deaf characters, so I was more than excited for Sephin. But if you think she’s only there to be “the deaf girl” you are dead wrong! Selphin starts out as a side character who creates even more trouble for Hark than he manages on his own, but I grew fonder of her with every chapter, with everything we learned about her history and life. She’s also the kind of heroine I would have loved to read about as a teenager because she’s smart and brave and her heart’s in the right place.
Other side characters may not have featured as prominently, so I was all the more surprised at how much I cared for them by the end. Whether it’s the priests that Hark takes care of or his supervisor Kly, even crime lady Rigg herself – they all felt like real people, all with their own lives and agendas, all varying shades of grey. It’s something YA literature often lacks so I was thrilled at how well every single character was done here.

You may have guessed that I wholeheartedly recommend this! Whether you like great character development, original fantasy ideas, or simply a thrilling tale that you won’t want to put down – this is for you. It will also make my Hugo ballot even harder to rank because so far, there hasn’t been a bad YA book among the finalists. As of now (having read four out of six nominees), this sits firmly in my top spot, however.
If you have a recommendation for me as to which Hardinge book I should pick up next, please let me know. I own almost all of them and they all sound fantastic. Any help is appreciated because I definitely don’t want to wait long to discover more by this great author.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!