Pacific Rim meets The Hamfisted Handmaid’s Tale: Xiran Jay Zhao – Iron Widow

I fully expected to adore this book. I mean Pacific Rim, as silly as the premise may be, is just pure fun. Mixing that with feminist themes, a protagonist who dismantles the patriarchy, and has a poly romance as well – it almost sounded too good to be true. And it turns out, it was. There were aspects of this book I enjoyed, but others (important ones!) were terribly flawed or underdeveloped. Which leads me to one of those unpopular opinion ratings. I feel like I’m not allowed to have disliked this book because the internet seems to love it on principle, but I want to be honest here and it just didn’t deliver what it promised.

IRON WIDOW
by Xiran Jay Zhao

Published: Rock the Boat, 2021
Hardcover: 394 pages
Audiobook: 12 hours 14 minutes
Series: Iron Widow #1
My rating: 4/10

Opening line: The Hunduns were coming. A whole herd of them, rumbling across the wilds, stirring up a dark storm of dust through the night.

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

A story such as this, which is meant to show a strong girl protagonist smashing the patriarchy and disrupting existing power structures, needs a solid basis. We need to know how this world works first, in order for us to watch Zetian take it apart in a satisfying manner. That is unfortunately the first problem this book has, although it tries to distract us from this fact with lots of shiny things that grab our attention briefly. What little we know about the world and the ongoing war is this:
Humans are battling the alien mecha Hunduns using Chrysalises (Pacific Rim robots) that are steered by a man/woman team, whereas the man is usually in controll and the woman frequently dies because the mental connection between them is too much to bear. They use qi powers, although I still don’t understand how or what the different sub-types of qi really mean, even after finishing this book. It felt like a Pokémon style addition but without making much sense. There’s wood qi and water qi and one is good against fire and one against air and so on, but I couldn’t really explain it to you if I tried.
The fact that women pilots are used mostly as cannon fodder is accepted by the entire society because family get some money for sending their daughters to become pilots and male pilots need the women’s qi power in order to complement their own – much stronger – powers when driving the Chrysalises. Nobody except for our tenacious heroine (who has grown up in exactly the same society as everyone else in this book) questions this or finds anything with the tradition of sending your daughters and sisters to their sudden death.

But the very fact that Zetian is not like other girls (oh please, I thought we were past that!) kicks off the plot. She is fine with going to her own certain death, as long as she can avenge her sister who was killed by one of the most famous pilots in the land. Her plan is to become his female pilot, kill him and then die in the process or get executed afterward. Of course it then turns out she is MOAR POWERFUL THAN ANYONE because although she does succeed in killing the guy, she herself survives and becomes a Chrysalis pilot herself, an Iron Widow.
She is then paired with the single most powerful pilot currently living, Li Shimin. They measure this stuff in qi points or something – but this guy also happens to be forced to wear a muzzle and have a serious drinking problem. But right from the start you can tell that he is just a tortured superhero who is wrongfully seen as dangerous. I don’t have a problem with this trope, in fact I enjoyed this part of the book, but let’s just say it wasn’t exactly subtle or surprising. And it’s a little cheap that it turns out everything bad about this characters (or indeed, our protagonist) is totally not their fault. They’re perfect really. Any perceived flaws are soneone else’s fault…

Zetian also still has her old love interest Yizhi who follows her into the pilots’ program and sort of helps from the sidelines while swooning over her. One major marketing aspect of this book is the polyamory relationship but, honestly, I didn’t buy it. There wasn’t really anything there. Zetian kisses one guy, then the other, then they talk about it openly – which, granted, is very nice and mature and happens way too rarely in books or on TV – and everyone’s like “guess I’m okay with it then”. But plot convenience takes over immediately because this threeway relationship is never actually tested and can’t be appreciated at all. There are no actual romantic scenes with all three of them, there’s no chance for any of them to even get jealous, there’s simply romantic scenes with Zetian and Yizhi, and there’s romantic scenes with Zetian and Shimin. I’m not the expert on poly relationships, but this depiction felt disingenuous, like the author just didn’t want a love triangel (given how many other tired tropes they used) and so decided to just roll with both M/F relationships and have the guys sort of agree to this arrangement. I don’t want to spoil things but the ending makes it feel even cheaper.

Another thing that made me sad was how this supposedly feminist book handles its female characters. And I don’t mean the obviously terrible sacrifice of young girls that nobody seems to object to. I mean how Zetian thinks and talks about other girls, how they are shown – as conniving, idiotic bitches, as girls too stupid to understand anything, or too blinded and too conformist to use their brain. Only Zetian is smart, only she sees through the VERY OBVIOUS rigging of the entire system. I’m all for romance in my SFF, but I’ll take a good female friendship or at the very least some good female characters over a shallow poly relationships any day. I found this actually the most devestating thing in a book that is sold as “feminist”.
Zetian could have been such a great character. I mean, she’s pretty ruthless, she needs a cane and later a wheelchair because her family broke and bound her feet (beauty standards and all that) and she isn’t swayed easily by nice words. In short: She is damn interesting! I may not have wanted to be her friend, but I appreciated her strong will and her determination. Except she frequently turns on her fellow women – the ones she is supposedly trying to save – thinking of them as sluts or morons. And then toward the end of the book, she does several 180-turns in a row, one to do with her family, one to do with her general view of the world and whether she cares about what others think about her. It felt like a betrayal. By that point, I was already annoyed at the way she is depicted as oh so special and the only girl worth anything in this world, but that was just inconsistent and unnecessary.

So what did I like then, you might ask yourself? Well, as with most stories about gigantic magical mecha monsters fighting mecha aliens, this one had pretty cool battle scenes. It does rely heavily on Pacific Rim, even with the “drift compatibility” being represented as the mind connection between pilots and a sort of balance of Yin and Yang, but that doesn’t make the idea and the battles any less cool.
The writing was compelling, things happen quickly, and the author creates a sense of urgency in any given scene that makes it hard to put the book down. It may turn out the scene you just read is pretty meaningless overall, but books are allowed to be just fun. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
I also really enjoyed how the romantic scenes were written. I can get annoyed pretty quickly when characters throw cheesy lines at each other with no basis, just to sound dramatic and meaningful. So it was refreshing to have such no-nonsense people (although the boys are very one-dimensional) simply go for it without any fuss. And I liked the kissing. 🙂

As for the plot… it’s a bit of a mess. First of all, the big twist from the epilogue can be guessed way ahead of time and isn’t exactly an original or fresh idea. But that isn’t even all that important for this volume, it’s only set up for the second book. This book deals with Zetian discovering some similarly obvious things that are not only hard to believe but also shouldn’t have to be uncovered by an 18-year-old girl. Well, if everyone else is utterly stupid, then that makes sense, I suppose. You see, the battles and the dialogues between characters don’t really advance anything. They are fun to read, as I said above, but ultimately meaningless for the plot. When Zetian does find out some devastating truth, it’s simply presented or rather dumped on the reader. As all of these revelations can be guessed beforehand, this didn’t bother me that much. After all, I was just getting confirmation for what I had suspected all along. And I’m not trying to make myself sound clever here, it really is that on the nose!
But as the world building doesn’t really advance and we don’t learn new things about the Hunduns, qi magic, or how the Chrysalises came to be, that’s all the plot there is.

Sooooo, I read this for a readathon prompt that asks you to read a “five star prediction” and I think I don’t have to say more about that. I doubt I will read the sequel to this, even if the cover is pretty and reviews throw around buzz words. As I’ve learned yet again, just because a book wants to be something (feminist, original, featuring a poly relationship) doesn’t mean it actually succeeds. I didn’t hate reading this. It was quite a bit of light fun that smashes you across the head with ostentatiously feminist messages every other chapter, but as for rating it, especially as a Lodestar Award finalist, this sits firmly at the bottom of my ballot for now.

Because I want to end this review on a more positive note: For a good poly romance and female characters who don’t tear each other down in the name of “raising each other up”, check out the underknown but totally worthwile sci-fi novel Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi! Or, in fact, that one part of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season that I can’t explain in more detail for fear of spoilers. But reading that book is a good idea anyway, for whatever reason you choose. 🙂

MY RATING: 4/10 – Pretty bad

Sci-Fi Disguised as Fantasy: Adrian Tchaikovsky – Elder Rade

The (to me) most unexpected entry on theis year’s Hugo Award Best Novella Finalists list was this book by prolific and well-loved author Adrian Tchaikovsky. I had never read anything by him, atlhough I’ve heart plenty of recommendations for his Shadows of the Apt series as well as the newer Children of Time Duology, which I’m very much looking forward to. My high expectations weren’t met with this novella but I also didn’t dislike it.

ELDER RACE
by Adrian Tchakovsky

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook: 204 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: Nobody climbed the mountain beyond the war-shrine.

In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.

Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.

But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).

But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon…

This is one of those neat books that are really science fiction but, to some of its characters, work like a fantasy novel. The story is told through dual perspectives, that of Lynesse Fourth Daughter, the headstrong fourth princess of Lannesite, and Nyr Illim Tevitch, a human anthropoligist who spends most of his time in a sort of cryo-sleep, only waking up to write down whatever cultural changes of note the inhabitants have to offer for his reasearch. His colleagues have long left the planet, leaving him all alone to complete this mission of knowledge. When a “demon” is threatening some villages on the planet, Lynesse takes matters into her own hand and decides to climb up the mountain to the tower of the Elder Nyrgoth and ask for his help. As he has once helped her ancestor in a battle against an evil sorcerer many years ago…

The idea behind this set-up is not new, by any means, but that doesn’t have to automatically make this a boring story. In fact, Tchaikovsky offers plenty of cool aspects that make reading this worthwhile. My favorite part was probably the DCS – Dissociative Cognition System – which is built into Nyr (who has many augments, not least amon them a pair of horns!) and which lets him block all emotions in order to make the most rational decision for whatever situation he is in. Except those emotions don’t evaporate, he can only hold them back for a while, but needs to eventually let them out. As you can imagine, collecting a bunch of (usually negative) feelings, only to feel them all at once, is not very pleasant. Especially considering how incredibly depressed Nyr is and how little purpose he sees in this strange half-life he leads.

In order for there to be a story at all, he of course agrees to accompany Lyn and her companion Esha, to confront this “demon” of hers, fully suspecting either a natural disease or some old tech that was left over from when humans colonized the planet in the first place. He is ignoring the Prime Directive (it has a different name here) because, hey, if he’s the loneliest anthropoligst in the world, why not also be the worst? And so off they go, stopping in this village or that, collecting info on the demon, and going to kill it once and for all.

What didn’t work for me, or rather what I found surprising and disappointing alike, was the shallow characterization. Except for Nyr, who gets a personality (albeit a sad and depressed one), there wasn’t any effort put into anyone else’s character. Lyn’s one characteristic is that she has defied her mother in order to go on this quest and that’s it. Esha is the wise-ish companion but we never get to know her. And later on, another man joins the cast, who at least gets an interesting backstory but no more.

The same lack of focus can be found in the world buliding for the “fantasy” side of this story. Lannesite could have been described a little more, or any part of this world really, in order to make us care about what happens to its people. The way it is, it’s just generic fantasy land without any depth or lore or cool mythology. There are a few moments where Nyr explains something, telling the locals how it’s not magic, but science, and because of language barriers and translation problems, all they hear is “magic” and “sorcery” after all. I found that part really neat but it doesn’t make up for the lack of proper wold building. The sci-fi half of the novel fared much better, with a little info on how Nyr came to be here, what his job was meant to be, and what happened to Earth and us humans. I have no gripes there, except that it makes the fantasy part feel all the more like an unloved stepchild.

A question of taste, surely, but another thing I wasn’t too fond of was the writing style. Whether we were in Lyn or Nyr’s narrative, apart from the change in POV (Lyn is third person, Nyr first person), there wasn’t much difference in how events were described. Sure, Nyr uses words that Lyn doesn’t know, such as “anthropoligist” or “drone” but I think the contrast between the sci-fi and the fantasy sides of this tale should have been more visible, also in the writing. I never felt like the story was truly flowing, although I can’t put my finger on why. The style and I just didn’t gel.

The plot is, unfortunately, quite thin. Very little happens and despite a pretty cool ending, most of it was predictable. The book’s strongest aspect is surely the character of Nyr, how he handles his complicated emotions, the loneliness, the lack of purpose, the not knowing of what’s to come. Otherwise, there wasn’t much here to keep my interest and I’ll probably have forgotten most of this story in a copule of weeks. But I also didn’t actively dislike it. It was fine.
I certainly hope Tchaikovsky’s novel-length works do better in terms of characters (especailly female ones, come on!) and world building.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

I Want All The Alien Hugs: Becky Chambers – The Galaxy And the Ground Within

I read the Wayfarers series completely out of order and after my second book (and the third in the series), I thought that maybe they weren’t for me after all. Then A Closed and Common Orbit completely messed with my emotions and I just needed to read this final instalment in a series that has changed Science Fiction forever. It has cemented my love for these books and I’m sad this loosely connecte series is now over.

THE GALAXY AND THE GROUND WITHIN
by Becky Chambers

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2021
eBook:
336 pages
Audiobook:
9 hours 55 minutes
Series:
Wayfarers #4
My rating:
8/10

Opening line: In the Linkings, the system was listed as Tren.

With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop.

At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.

When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other. 

Ah, the balm for the soul that is a Becky Chambers novel! Don’t expect epic battles or life-shattering discoveries. Come instead for the exploration of differences and similarities between people of different cultures, species, and origins, and then stay for the warmhearted friendships, the obstacles that are overcome, the feeling of belonging somewhere even though you might look and feel different from everyone else. The magic that Chambers creates is its very own kind and whether you call it hopepunk, social science fiction, or something else entirely, it’s something I don’t want to miss from my reading ever again.

This story takes place on the planet Gora which has very little to offer, as it is only a stop between bigger, more important planets. However, when several strangers get stranded on the planet, even though very little happens in terms of big events, things get decidedly interesting as cultures and opinions clash.

Ouloo and her child Tupo run the Five-Hop One-Stop and they take that job seriously! It becomes clear only over the course of the book how much care Ouloo puts into her place, how proud she is of accommodating all species and taking care of their special needs and requirements. It seems like a small thing and it may sound like it’s not exciting to read about but it absolutely is! I can’t explain it to you, I just adored learning every new little tidbit that Ouloo had thought up to make what is essentially a quick stop between destinations into a welcoming, loving place for everyone. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it. She’s the kind of character that reminds you that purpose can be found in seemingly little things, that it is you who decide whether your job is worthwile and whether you are happy with it.
Ouloo’s child Tupo has not decided on xyr gender yet, as is customary for their species once a certain age is reached. That just goes to show how effortlessly diversity of gender can be incorporated into a story without making a big fuss. I personally don’t mind (in fact, I quite enjoy) reading about characters with all sorts of pronouns and genders, but I know some people can be put off by the idea of having to “learn” pronouns. Tupo goes by xe/xyr and is deserving of all the hugs. That’s all you need to know. Pretty easy, right?

As for the strangers that get stuck on Gora, they are a diverse and intriguing lot and it takes a while before they warm to each other – if indeed they do so at all… Roveg has been exiled from his home but he’s pressed for time a nd getting stuck makes him really nervous and unhappy. Pei technically isn’t all that bothered by the delay but she’s pondering prombels that have been with her for a while – she is also the one that connects this book very loosely to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And then there’s Speaker, possibly my favorite, who came to Gora with her sister Tracker who stayed behind on the ship when Speaker gets stranded planetside. They are each different alien species, not just with different physiological requirements (Speaker can’t be in the planet’s atmosphere without her suit) but also from different cultures and with very different plans.

Strangers forced into proximity is a great trope but Becky Chambers makes something truly special out of it. Most of her characters are respectful of each other, some even become friends easily, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an underlying tension between others. Again, there are no big battles of fisticuffs but opinions clash on occasion and, honestly, that was enough tension for me.
At first, it’s just fun getting to know these characters, finding out their backstories, where they were headed when they got stuck on Gora, and what their lives are like. Then it became lovely to watch them grow into a sort of force-upon-each-other found family, at least for alittle while. Chambers shows us new and interesting aspects of the universe she has invented, all without stepping off this one lousy planet.

I’m quite sad that this series is now over because it is truly special, but my heart leaps at the thought of Becky Chambers being as beloved and successful as she is. Because that means she can write many more stories filled with loving characters who show us that diversity is something to be celebrated, that kindness is a strength, and that family doesn’t have to be connected by blood. Congratulations on being a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo Award. This book is at the top of my ballot for now.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Saving the World With Science: Andy Weird – Project Hail Mary

I skipped Andy Weir’s Artemis because opinions were less than enthused and I had wondered anyway if the success of The Martian could be topped. With Project Hail Mary, however, reviews were mostly positive an it sounded cool, so I gave it a try. And I can only join most other readers in saying: Yes, it’s a great book and if you liked The Martian you will probably also enjoy this.
Also, it was one of the few books that could hold my attention at a time when my brain was in a very specific “I can’t concentrate” mode and that’s saying something.

PROJECT HAIL MARY
by Andy Weir

Published: Ballantine Books, 2021
eBook:
481 pages
Audiobook:
16 hours 10 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
8/10

Opening line: “What’s two plus two?”

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the Earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian–while taking us to places it never dreamed of going

This book was a great mix of the expected and the unexpected. Andy Weir’s name is known to most SFF readers, even some people who don’t read but have seen the movie adaptation of The Martian and so certain expectations were impossible to dismiss. I was hopeing for humor, for science explained in ways that made me feel like I got it without actually understanding the deeper science (because I am not a scientist), and I expected a story with lots of dangerous situations where the protagonist MacGuyvers himself out of harm’s way last second. No spoiler: all of that can be found in this book. But there’s also more. Weir didn’t just do the exact same trick again in a different setting, he came up with both a new and compelling protagonist as well as a cool world-threatening problem to solve.

Ryland Grace wakes up in a sort of tank in a room that he doesn’t recognize and with two dead bodies lying in similar tanks. He has no memory of who excactly he is, where he is, what the hell is going on or why he knows all sorts of scientific facts when he doesn’t even know his name. It soon becomes clear that he is, in fact, on a space ship and that he has some sort of mission. Probably. It’s hazy. But it’s coming back to him in convenient flashback chapters.

The story follows Grace in the present as he figures out what the hell he’s doing in outer space and it follows the events leading up to this mission, where we learn who he is and what prompted this interstellar journey. Without giving away too much, I can tell you that a serious threat to Life on Earth is discovered and Ryland gets drawn into it as a respected scientist who gave up academia for a life of teaching. The plot on Earth was surprisingly exciting, considering that it should be the space travel bits that really get the heartrate going, but Ryland is such an easy protagonist to identify with, with his too human fears and worries, but an essentially good heart. I especially liked that he’s not the perfect cookie cutter hero. He’s not super brave. He’s just a smart man who got dragged into the most important thing to happen to humanity in forever.
We see how humanity bands together – well, they kind of have to because the entire mission is spearheaded by one absolutely bonkers but equally brilliant lady by the name of Eva Stratt. A woman with so much power, it makes for some gloriously funny moments just by itself. It’s not every day that one person can pick and choose among the armies of the world and command them around like little kids.

Just as interesting is the story that unfolds aboard the Hail Mary, which is the name of the space ship that Ryland finds himself on. As he figures out the basic premise of his space travels as well as the goal humanity hopes him to achieve, he is not only confronted with truly hard-to-face truths, but also with all sorts of obstacles. Because this wouldn’t be an Andy Weir novel if something didn’t go wrong every other chapter.
Now I went into this book pretty blank, but I think it’s okay to say that there is a little more alien life in this book than one first expects and that life varies in threat level. That’s about as vague as I can remain without outright saying it. But because it’s such an essential part of the novel and – to me – the emotional core of the story, I do have to mention that Ryland makes first contact and sciences the shit out of this encounter. In the best of ways!

What surprised me the most was that the book kept me guessing. When reading The Martian, I never, for one second, doubted that Mark Watney would make it back home to Earth because it was just that kind of book. But in this one, I kept swinging back and forth on how things could end. Will Weir deliver a properly tragic ending with Ryland saving humanity but dying in the process? Will he somehow defeat all odds and make it back home alive? Will he sacrifice himself for others or will he go into survival mode and look out for himself first? It all could have happened, and it all would have somehow fit the tone of the story. It’s still humerous and Ryland has no problem laughing at himself or the situations he finds himself in, but overall, I found this a bit more serious than The Martian and the stakes are much, much higher – as terrible as that sounds because Mark Watney was awesome but he was only one guy stranded on Mars – this is all of humanity we’re talking about here.

I honestly had no clue how things would end until I actually reached the end. And then I was surprised again! I was pretty damn happy with how the story turned out but I admit, I did not see this particular ending coming. In retrospect, it’s spot on and fitting and ties things up emotionally as well. I’m getting a little teary-eyed thinking about it. And this, my friends, is why this highly entertaining science-filled alien-encountering humanity-saving book gets a very high rating from me. Making me enjoy myself for 16 hours and getting me to cry a little is my idea of a great novel.

Speaking of 16 hours: I highly recommend the audiobook. Ray Porter reads Ryland Grace like an actor and gives the whole story an added layer of immersion. But even cooler is that, for that alien life I was alluding to not very subtly before, certain sound effects are used that made me feel like I was really listening to different creatures, not one narrator reading their lines. Otherwise, this is your standard one-person narration without any gimmicks or background music. But that little bit of added sound made a whole lot of difference to me.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Aliens, Music, Queerness, And Dealing With the Devil: Ryka Aoki – Light From Uncommon Stars

This is one of those books that makes you think “no way is all of this going to work” as soon a you read the synopsis. I mean, aliens with a donut shop, an AI with feelings, a trans runaway violin prodigy, a woman in search of souls to sell to a demon, a quest to return to one’s home planet, a magical violin bow… It sounds like too crammed into one book much but what can I tell you? Somehow, it works!

LIGHT FROM UNCOMMON STARS
by Ryka Aoki

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
384 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 13 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Shh… Yes, it hurt. It was definitely not just a bruise.

Good Omens meets The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in this defiantly joyful adventure set in California’s San Gabriel Valley, with cursed violins, Faustian bargains, and queer alien courtship over fresh-made donuts.

Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.

When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.

But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.

As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.

Katrina Nguyen is running away from home. She can’t take it anymore. The abusive father, the unaccepting mother, the fact that her family don’t accept her for who she is. So she packs only what is necessary – including her violin – and finds shelter with a friend.
She soon meets the most (in)famous violin mentor in the world, Shizuka Satomi, who not only recognizes Katrina’s raw talent, but also has her own burden to bear. She has to deliver seven souls – six of which are already done – to hell in order to save her own.
Add to that Lan Tran, owner of a donut shop and mother of four, but also secretly interstellar refugee trying to get back home. Things are clearly complicated.

This was such a great reading experience (technically listening experience as I enjoyed the audio version) because there is so much going on in this book. It’s about music and family, about guilt and desire, about being trans and being a young person in today’s world, about love and all the shapes and forms, and yes, also about aliens and donuts. Because why not?
What I liked about it may be someone else’s annoyance because, yes, there is a lot of stuff here and not all of it gets the same attention to detail readers might hope for. For example, Katrina being trans, how she sees herself, how she grows over the course of the book and changes into a more confident young woman, that’s pretty central to the novel. Lan Tran being an alien who fled her broken home far far away because of something called the Endplague isn’t so central. Sure, Aoki throws in some hints here or there about that but this isn’t the kind of book that is about how space travel works, where exactly Lan’s home is in the universe or generally how aliens are hiding in plain sight on Earth. Just take that part with a grain of salt.

The other thing I really enjoyed was the way Aoki writes bout music and the people who love it. This story deals with violin music in particular but I think the passion that is described can work for any type of music (or art, really). There’s also the darker side of it with competitions that some people take way too seriously, instruments that cost ridiculous amounts of money, and snobbery all over the place. Because Katrina, with her rather cheap Chinese violin, doesn’t play classical music, she plays gaming music! I adored this because, come on, who could resist listening to a young nerd playing the Zelda theme on her violin? But with a degree of internet fame comes the inevitable hate and, as you can probably imagine, as a trans girl, the hate takes on entirely new dimensions.

There were many characters to like in this story, first and foremost Katrina and Shizuka Satomi, but I also grew rather fond of Lan Tran and her children – one of which is technically an AI an a projected body, so there’s a whole new can of worms. Shizuka just wants to save herself, her own soul, and she knows that sacrificing young ambitious violin prodigies is what it takes. It’s a totaly coincicence that she’s drawing out handing Katrina over to hell and has nothing to do whatsoever with the fact taht she’s grown fond of the girl…
Katrina is pretty broken at the beginning of the book (when it comes to her ribs, I mean quite literally broken), she feels ugly and undeserving of love, she just wants to belong somewhere and play her music to make people happy. Once Satomi takes her under her wing, a new workd opens up for Katrina and it was both joyful and heartbreaking watching her appreciate such simple things as not being hurt on a daily basis simply for who she is.

I enjoyed every moment of this story, especially the ending. Things appear pretty hopeless, at last for one of the main characters, and I so appreciate when characters are clever and do the right thing. That’s all I can say without spoiling.
But I also have to say that I don’t think this is a particularly good SFF novel. The fantasy and science fiction elements were there but more as afun bonus. Sure, there are discussions of when an AI counts as a person and there is a literal deal with a demon, but the SFF bits aren’t the book’s stongest suit. Very little is explained or even talked about much (Oh, there’s aliens? Cool, I guess.) and it felt like the author was simply having fun with it rather than doing a lot of world buliding or thinking up a magic system. And while that is absolutely fine, the gist of the book would have worked as a contemporary novel as well, which is why I’m not rating it higher. I had a blast listening to the audiobook but it’s not a top SFF novel for me.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good

Best of 2021: My Favorite Books of the Year

I’m not going to lie, this has been a pretty shitty year. Dealing with this pandemic is starting to take its toll and I think you can tell from my reading choices when things got better and when they got worse. But reading was, in fact, one of the small comforts that accompanied me throughout 2021, so let’s focus on the positives and celebrate all the cool shit I read this year. 🙂

To keep it organized (and to cram in more favorites, hehe) I’ve split this list into categories just like I did last year.


Favorite Books Published in 2021

Novels

Last year was absolutely insane when it came to SFF novels. This year felt like it’s keeping up rather well, with the only difference being that I’m way behind. There are quite a few books I think might end up being new favorites still on my TBR but here are the ones that I’ve already had the pleasure of reading and that all got 5 stars from me on Goodreads. Now that I look at them all in one place, I realize they couldn’t be more different!

All the Murmuring Bones by A. G. Slatter (Angela Slatter) was the first book that made me squee with joy in 2021. It’s part Gothic fairy tale, part family mystery, part coming-of-age female empowerment story and I loved it to pieces! Slatter has been a favorite of mine for a while now but this book, while keeping the fairy tale vibe her short stories tend to have, was a step in a new direction. It took me a while to find my way into the story but once I was there, I found it absolutely fantastic. I can’t wait for next year’s The Path of Thorns.

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey came next and I knew pretty early on it would be one of my top books of the year. The funny thing is that as I read it, every twist and surprise and every bit of character development cemented the book’s spot on this list. A not very likable protagonist, clones, questions of morality, how far science can and should go, questions of womanhood, a bit of light murder, and great twists until the very end make this one of the most exciting books of the year. It reads like a thriller but offers a lot of food for thought. And I just love Gailey’s writing and their complicated characters.

Nnedi Okorafor published a novella and a novel this year, the first of which (Remote Control) I liked but didn’t love. The novel, however, stole my heart. In Noor, we follow a young woman who has a lot of artificial/robotic body parts. This makes her something of an outsider and eventually she has to flee from the society she wants to be a part of. She meets with a different sort of outsider and together, they not only fight for their basic right to live (!) but also unravel a mystery of epic proportions. This book is short but it really has everything. Great characters, cool science and technology, a kick-ass plot, and deep emotional impact.

A Marvellous Light by debut author Freya Marske is something completely different. It’s a fantasy romance set in Edwardian England with one bookish protagonist and one sporty, impulsive one. But despite the romance being stunning (and quite, quite sexy!), Marske put a lot of effort into her world building and magic system as well. I loved the idea of cradling – magic spells require specific hand movements – and the way the magical society works in this story, and I especially love how women, who are considered too weak for difficult magic, use their powers quietly and show how powerful they really are. But, yeah, mostly I loved this for the romance, the sexual tension, and Edwin and Robin’s budding relationship. Can’t wait for the sequels.


Young Adult/Middle Grade

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He was my first YA crush this year. I was already taken with the author because of the amazing Descendant of the Crane but here she shows that she didn’t just get lucky with her debut but rather that she is someone to watch. This climate-fiction tale of two sisters who have been separated and are trying to find their way back to each other has layers upon layers and is hard to talk about it without spoiling. But believe me when I say that you’ll get great science fictional ideas, intricate characters with difficult emotions, many gasp-worthy twists, and a truly touching story about sisterly love. Plus a little bit of romance. Basically, it’s as amazing as the cover is pretty.

Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko didn’t get to me as quickly as the first book in this duology, but after reading for a while, I noticed how this tale of found/chosen family and heavy responsibility had sneaked into my heart again. I was struck by how well everything falls into place, how Ifueko managed to introduce a lot of new characters and made me love them as much as the old ones. There are still more surprises to discover. If you liked Raybearer, you will also like this book. The ending was just beautiful and I will forever be a Tarisai fangirl.

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen stole my heart and ran away with it like the thief that narrates this novel. This was one of my late-in-the-year five star reads that I totally didn’t see coming. It’s a loose retelling/sequel of the fairy tale The Goose Girl but it very much brings its own ideas to the table. First person narrator Vanja is the best kind of cocky, there are a lot of cool ideas to discover during this tale, and there’s an effortless diversity of sexuality to be found, all with an understated lovely romance, a kick-ass heist-filled plot that piles on the trouble but somehow resolves everything by the end. I am glad that we will get a sequel in (probably) 2023. I wish I could read it right now!


Novellas

My favorite novella of the year comes from none other than Catherynne M. Valente and it was The Past Is RedThis post-apocalyptic story set on the Pacific Garbage Patch – known as Garbagetown – is devastating and hopeful, expertly crafted, with characters that break your heart, prose that sings and dances, and even a great twist. It gave me all the feels and I’ll cherish and re-read it forever. Tetley Abednego is a protagonist who sees beauty in dirt and reminds us that oftentimes the world could be so lovely if only we learned to appreciate it.

Secondly, we have the very different but just as stunning Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. Valente. Hey, it’s not my fault she wrote two brilliant novellas in one year, okay? This one is eerie and atmospheric and best enjoyed without knowing anything about it beforehand. Although the twist at the end is its climax, it has great re-read value because once you know what’s going on you can go hunting for all the clues that you missed the first time. And there are so many of them! Valente shows that she can jump between genres as if it was nothing, all while staying true to her beautiful prose.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow was another top novella, although it is much lighter than my other favorites. It’s Harrow spiderversing a fairy tale, in this case Sleeping Beauty, and it just worked although I think it will not be for everyone. The writing is easy and filled with references to pop culture and literature, the characters aren’t super deep, but the themes hit home nonetheless. Protagonist Zinnia suffers from a rare disease that will most likely kill her before she turns 21. When she accidentally lands in a parallel world where she meets an actual Sleeping Beauty type princess, things don’t go quite as expected. This was a fun romp, it had things to say about feminism and gender and choosing your own path and I unabashedly loved it even though I would have preferred it to be longer.

And let’s not forget Becky Chambers‘ latest novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built. This was both what I expected and also totally different, if that makes sense. The nonbinary tea monk protagonist felt so utterly relatable it hurt, and while their journey wasn’t filled with shocking moments or daring adventures, it was exactly the quiet, philosophical kind of book we’ve come to expect from Chambers. Then again, it also felt somehow new and fresh. The hopepunk setting, the slowly building friendship between human and robot, it all worked together beautifully and I need the sequel now.

Sadly, these are (yet again) all Tor.com titles and I was determined to have at least one novella from a different publisher among my favorites this year. If you have recommendations, please leave me one in the comments.


Favorite Books Published pre-2021

Once again, I have to thank all the people who nominate books and series for the Hugo Award. The Best Series category, which is still pretty new, has been a treasure trove when it comes to backlist titles that aren’t old enough yet to be classics but not new enough to be the newest hot shit that everyone is talking about. Many of those in-between titles ended up on my list and that makes me super happy.

The Poppy War Trilogy by R. F. Kuang absolutely wrecked me and even though The Poppy War was a re-read, I’m counting it in this category, alongside The Dragon Republic and The Burning God. Because, damn! That’s right, that is the summary of my feelings.
But seriously, I don’t know what impresses me most. The fact that Kuang entered the scene with an unbelievably great debut, that she tackled a very dark period of history, that her characters are multi-faceted and flawed and believable, that her world building is impeccable, her writing engaging… I mean, at this point I’m just describing all the elements of a perfect novel. But you get the idea and I am forever destroyed by what these books have done to my poor heart.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune needs no explanation. Anyone who has read it will know why this heartwarming tale of found family ended up on my list, and people who haven’t read it have probably been told how this is a warm hug in book form a million times. It really is, though, and if you ever feel down and want a story you know is going to lift you up, make it this one. I can’t wait to pick up the book’s spiritual successor that came out this year, Under the Whispering Door.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler has convinced me that Butler will probably always end up on my Best of the Year lists, at least until I’ve read all her books. This is all the more impressive as the book in question is pretty much the opposite of the Klune in terms of atmosphere and vibe. Sure, Butler always conveys that shining bit of hope but the world and setting she uses in this duology is anything but nice. Still, one  of the most impressive and impactful books I read this year.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett was not surprising in any way. It’s fairly early Discworld but it does exactly what Pratchett always does so well. It holds a mirror up to humanity, with humor and heart and respect. This book made me laugh and cry, ponder and wonder, and most of all it made me miss Terry Pratchett all over again. As it tackles religion, which can be a… let’s say difficult subject, we should be all the more impressed how Pratchett managed to make fun of certain aspects of it without ever, EVER, disrespecting people or their faith!

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal is a bit of a departure from the first two books in her Lady Astronaut series. The plot happens parallel to the story of The Fated Sky, only this time we focus on Earth and the Moon colony as well as on a new protagonist, Nicole Wargin, pilot and politician’s wife and also super capable Moon survival person. This took a while to get going but once the story had taken off, I was reeling from all the amazing ideas. Whether it’s basic survival moves on the Moon or dealing with an eating disorder, or handling politics, it’s all there, it’s all done well and I ended up loving this book much more than I had anticipated.

The Interdependency Trilogy by John Scalzi was one of my biggest surprise hits this year. And my favorite volume of the three was probably the middle book, The Consuming Fire. I usually put a lot of Serious SFF (TM) on here but that’s not the only type of story I love. So this year, I’m adding this hilarious space opera romp by Scalzi because, while maybe not dealing with the deepest philosophical questions of humanity, it was just pure and utter fun! I adore Kiva Lagos and her filthy mouth, I loved the idea of the Flow and I simply enjoyed following all these characters as they are trying to save the world.

The biggest surprise, without a doubt, was how much I enjoyed Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. You may recall how much I disliked Gideon the Ninth, how I found it messily plotted, with flat characters (one exception being Gideon herself) and told in unnessecarily convoluted prose. The prose is still overly verbose and showy, but everything else about Harrow has taken me by storm. Damn, I want to know what happens next, how all these crazy revelations impact the world, and where this story will lead us eventually. And so I find myself actually happy that the trilogy has grown into a 4-book-series and that we’ll get Nona the Ninth in 2022. Yay!

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers was just lovely! I had really liked Small, Angry Planet but I bounced off Spaceborn Few for a long while (the ending turned it around but overall, my opinion was rather meh), so I didn’t have the highest expectations. And then Chambers just goes and tells not one, but two hearbreaking stories in one novel. My eyes were perpetually wet as I listened to this on audiobook and it is now by far my favorite book in the series.


I am not feeling too great about the pandemic at the moment (not that I ever felt great about it, but you know what I mean) but at least I am happy with what I read in 2021.

Top of my TBR: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chen, Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune, Summer Suns by Lee Mandelo, The Chosen and the Beautfiul by Nghi Vo, The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

If you’ve posted a best of the year list, let me know in the comments. I love looking through other people’s favorite reads of the year. I’m especially interested in 2021 publications that I might have missed and should prioritize. 🙂

The 2021 Hugo Award Winners (And My Thoughts On Them)

The 2021 Hugo Award winners have been announced and there is reason to cheer! I actually managed to watch the livestream which was pushed back from 2am my timezone to 3am my timezone and thus took a lot of willpower on my part! My alarm went off and I had a very serious debate inside of my head on whether to get up and do this thing or just check out who won the next day on Twitter. I’m glad I decided to watch it live, because the ceremony was very nice and you kind of had to be there for the slime mould alone (more on that later). It didn’t all go without technical whoopsies but overall it was quite well done and inclusive.

For all the winners, nomination and voting details go here.

So, on to the winners of my favorite categories, my hopes and predictions and what I think about who ended up with a rocket trophy. Before diving into it, let me say that I am filled with joy, I don’t begrudge anyone their win, I think every winner was absolutely worthy (even if they were not my personal top choice) and that this was a great Hugo Awards year!


BEST NOVEL + BEST SERIES

I’m grouping these two because they both went to Martha Wells for Network Effect and the Murderbot Diaries respectively. Congratulations!

I adore Murderbot and I am thrilled that it took home an award. Would I have preferred these two awards went to two different works? Yes. Do I understand why Muderbot was such a success last year? Also yes. During a time when we were all dealing with negative feelings, with fear and anxiety, with grief and loss, with isolation and self-centered people, it comes as no surprise that a book and series about an AI with anxiety and social awakwardness that is as heartwarming as it is exciting has touched so many of our hearts. So I am more than happy that Muderbot was recognized in this way, even though I really wanted Best Series to go to The Poppy War which cannot be nominated again (the trilogy being finished), unlike the Murderbot Diaries. But as I will be forever grateful for Murderbot and its adventures, I congratulate Martha Wells. Her acceptance speech was particularly moving and I hope this acclaim convinces her to keep writing and make even more great art.


BEST NOVELLA

Hooray, my second favorite novella has won! Congratulations to Nghi Vo and The Empress of Salt and Fortune.

I was hoping so very hard Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark would win because that book was such a great ride with layers upon layers, but Vo’s book was a close second for me and I appreciate what it does in terms of storytelling. I am very happy that Vo won and I hope this finally gives me the push to read something else by this new and exciting author. What surprised me about this category’s final tally was that Riot Baby ended up in last place. That novella didn’t work for me but it seemed to be everyone else’s darling so I expected it to come in as a close second. Apparently, that impression was far off because, well, the votes don’t lie.


BEST VIDEO GAME

This new category gives me lots of joy. Not only did I (and my partner) discover two games through it that we otherwise wouldn’t have tried, but we ended up loving them so much that they got my top two votes. Congratulations to Hades for winning the inaugural Best Video Game Hugo Award!

I expected either Hades of Animal Cossing to win, the first because it is crazy beloved among all sorts of fans, the second because it was everyone’s go-to feelgood game when the pandemic really hit and we all needed something to pick us up and give us hope. I didn’t see my boyfriend much once he started playing Hades but that was okay because I was playing Spiritfarer on the PS4 at the same time. I admit I was unsure about this category but I thought it was handled very well (what with getting a code to try some of the finalist games as part of the voter packet) and being able to play most of them enough to rank them. We’ll see what Best Video Game brings in the future, but for now I am glad we have this category and I am super happy Hades was the first to win it.


LODESTAR + BEST SHORT STORY

I’m grouping these two again because they were won by the same author who proved yet again that she is a pure delight and makes any awards ceremony better simply by being there. Congratulations to T. Kingfisher for A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and “Metal Like Blood in the Dark”.

I had the pleasure of hearing Kingfisher’s acceptance speech in Helsinki in 2017 which was about whale fall. This time, she stayed true to herself and didn’t talk about the book and short story that won either, but rather about slime mould. Yes, that’s right! Everyone who attended or watched the Hugo Awards ceremony online now has some impressive knowlegde about this intriguing organism called slime mould and it makes me love T. Kingfisher all the more. Hers was my favorite short story so I have no complaints there. I did very much want Raybearer to win the Lodestar, especially because Defensive Baking has already won some other awards, but again – it’s understandable that many of us ranked this book high enough to win when sourdough starters gained interest during lockdown, when reading about a decent person trying to do the right thing even when it is hard and winning against the odds – when this book was just pure comfort during a dark time.

My beloved Raybearer sadly came in last and even though Jordan Ifueko will probably never read this, I want her to know that her books are among my favorites and have touched me deeply and given me so much hope during this terrible time.

Both surprising and a little disheartening is the fact that A Deadly Education came in second when it shouldn’t even have been in this category in the first place. It also received some nominations in the Best Novel category, but not nearly enough to make the final ballot. Let me reiterate: I really enjoyed this book! But I sincerely hope that, in the future, authors have the decency to refuse a nomination when it is in the wrong category. You can’t have it both ways. Either write YA and accept the unfortunate stigma that still comes with that (which, btw, we should really work on getting rid of) or write for adults but then remain unable to win awards for YA fiction.
If Naomi Novik had done that, a book that was actually written and published as a YA novel would have made the ballot, and that is When We Were Magic by the amazing Sarah Gailey. Now I adored that book but also find it quite problematic in some ways, but at least it is and always was meant for young readers and thus would have fit perfectly into this category.

The boundaries between YA and adult are blurry and arbitrary, I know. But we do need some kind of boundary to set this category apart from others. I hope that this kind of mishap will stay in the past, that readers and nominators and Hugo Awards administrators will learn from our/their mistakes and make sure this category honors the books and people it was meant to.


BEST GRAPHIC STORY

This was both a surprise and not a surprise at all. The winner of this category is Parable of the Sower, the Graphic Novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s novel by Damian Duffy with art by John Jennings. Congratulations!

Again, my number two spot has taken home the Hugo Award and I am both happy and positively surprised. On the one hand, it is a feat to win against an instalment of Marjorie Lu’s Monstress in any given year, on the other, the events of the past years have drawn more attention to Octavia E. Butler’s amazing body of work. This Graphic Novel adaptation is incredibly well done and it likely helped how pescient Butler’s story is. So considering all that, it isn’t surprising that this book won.
But what is surprising is that it differs so very much from other winners in tone. Where we went with hopeful, heartwarming, feelgood things in many categories, here we embraced the dystopian setting and chose a story that is gruesome and tough to read and where not very many good things happen to good people. But there is that tiny glimmer of hope and sometimes, that’s all it takes.


BEST PROFESSIONAL ARTIST

Yay, this Hugo Award went to the inimitable Rovina Cai and her stunningly beautiful art! Congratulations!

I don’t begrudge John Picacio his 386 Hugo Awards, but it has been getting rather boring, watching him win this category over and over again. You’d get the impression there are no other artists out there who do anything worth mentioning when, in fact, the very opposite is the case. I would have been happy with either Rovina Cai, Tommy Arnold, or Galen Dara winning this year, but Rovina Cai’s art has been more present, at least in my reading (chaper art for Elatsoe, covers for various books I bought, and so on) and I am overjoyed to see her win this one. Her art is beautiful, instantly recognizable and enriches any book that features it.


About Seanan McGuire’s many Hugo nominations

  • In Best Novella, she had the most 1st place votes but ended up in third place overall.
  • In Best Series, she had the second most 1st place votes (which were just a little over half of what Murderbot got so it was not a close race) and ended up in third place overall.
  • In Best Graphic Story, she had the most 1st place votes (albeit only 18 more than Parable of the Sower) and ended up in second place overall.

So the tradition of the past years seems to continue. McGuire has a loyal fan base that will always get her easily onto the final ballot and will just as loyally vote for her as their number one spot, but when all ballots are counted and all voices are heard, her work remains middle-of-the-ballot.

Maybe when the October Daye series ends in a few years, this will give readers a push to finally give the series a Hugo Award or maybe the sequel to her highly successful Middlegame will blow us all away and garner her another Best Novel nomination? Either way, I am sure we will keep seeing McGuire on the ballot in whichever category she has published things. My only hope is that some of those things will grab me enough to vote for them as my 1st choice as well. The McGuire burnout is already knocking on my doors…


Overall, this was a spectacular year of Hugo Awards and I can look back on the SFF works published in 2020 with a big happy smile. My own personal hopes weren’t met perfectly, but enough of my favorites or second-favorites won that I feel joyful, and the favorite works that didn’t win are by authors who are still writing and creating and publishing, so I have high hopes for the future – go Rebecca Kuang, go Jordan Ifueko, go P. Djèlí Clark, I believe in you!
Now, it’s time to catch up on some 2021 publications so we can do this all over next year. I’ll see you then. 🙂

Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Series

I love this category and I hate this category. This year, I was quite lucky in having read at least the first book each in five out of the six series but as we know, the first book isn’t enough to properly judge whether a series/trilogy as a whole should get a Hugo. But with WorldCon being moved to December, this was also the first year where I had enough time to properly catch up and even finish most of the finalists!

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

I am so glad this category exists even though it makes me gasp at the amount of pages it wants me to read every year. This year was also the first one where I thought a bit more about why this category exists and whether it’s fulfilling its original purpose. Cora Buhlert has some excellent thoughts on this (that’s why she is a finalist for Best Fan Writer) and I absolutely see where she’s coming from.

Best Series is meant for those books/series that usually wouldn’t have a shot at a Best Novel Hugo even though they might be deserving. If you loved the 10th Dresden Files book or the 14th in the October Daye series, it’s unlikely it will become a Best Novel finalist and, even if it did, how many voters unfamiliar with the series would read through the previous 9 (or 13 or however many) instalments to get to this particular one?
But in the Best Series category, you can nominate that series precisely because book 14 was so great. And other people might nominate it based on the instalment they’ve just read – whether that’s book 3 or book 8 – if they think that the series overall is worthy of a Hugo.

But what we’ve seen in the few years since the category has been around is, yes, some long-running series like the ones I described above, but also lots and lots of trilogies, many of which had volumes nominated for Best Novel as well. And look, I myself am guilty of this. I nominated The Winternight Trilogy and I nominated The Murderbot Diaries as series as well as some of their individual instalments for Best Novel. And on the one hand, that’s because I don’t have any super long-running series that I follow (unless you count The Stormlight Archive, which I suspect will unfold its true brilliance once the final book is out and that’s when I plan to nominate it (unless it starts sucking along the way, of course)). On the other hand, I nominated those trilogies because they didn’t manage to get their single volumes onto the Best Novel ballot, so I feel vindicated.

But however you look at this category, it’s an important one that makes the Hugos just a little bit better and more modern and more interesting than they used to be.


The Finalists for Best Series

This category grows on me more each year. Last year, it led me to discover two series (one trilogy, one quartet) that I have since continued because they are really damn good. This year, it forced me to continue lots of series I had already started AND introduced me to a trilogy I would’t have picked up at all if it weren’t for the Hugos but ended up loving.

I think my biggest difficulty in this category is the question whether I should be voting for the series I had most fun reading or the one I think is most accomplished or some mix of both. Maybe I should go for the one where I think it being a series makes it bettern than each of its instalment on its own? Because, let’s face it, the most accomplished is easily The Poppy War Trilogy. It’s ambitious, incredibly well written, and all the more impressive because Kuang is such a young writer. But it’s also super dark and not as easy to digest as, say, a John Scalzi trilogy or a Murderbot book.

I wasn’t that happy about Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon being nominated for both Best Novel and the series for Best Series at first, mostly because the first book already won a Hugo. But the Lady Astronaut series actually did what I wish every series would do. It got bigger and better and more fun along the way. The Calculating Stars deserved its Hugo win and I loved the book by itself, but it was also super uncomfortable to read because it shows just how unfair the world can be. The Fated Sky continues to show what it’s like belonging to a minority (or, you know, being a woman) and all the unpleasantness and injustice that comes with that, but it was also more fun to read. Not everything was always terrible and it focused on space travel and real-world science a bit more. It ended up being my favorite of the series so far. Then I picked up The Relentless Moon, and even though it took me a while to let go of Elma and Mars and instead follow Nicole Wargin on the Moon, I ended up falling completely in love with that book! So yeah, this is a series that gets better and bigger along the way and is thus a perfect finalist in this category.

Murderbot is a similar case but not quite, because this year is the first time that the series has an entry that is a full-length novel. I’d like to think that even if that novel hadn’t come out and Martha Wells had continued writing only novellas, Murderbot would have made the final ballot for Best Series anyway. Here my feelings are almost reversed to The Lady Astronaut series. I feel just slightly less inclined to vote for the Murderbot book in Best Novel because I think the series as a whole is better than the novel on its own. I wouldn’t have loved Network Effect as much if I hadn’t already known Murderbot and its backstory. So if I had my way, Martha Wells would not win the Best Novel category (which is incredibly strong this year) but would win Best Series. Except maybe not this year (I’ll explain why later) but definitely in a few years. We know that Murderbot is here to stay – at least for a few more years – and if the quality of Wells’ writing stays at this level, the series will definitely be nominated again. And I absolutely want it to win a Best Series Hugo because it is deserving and also a perfect example of what I think this Hugo category should be for.

It feels a little unfair for me to even rank the October Daye series at this point because, although I read another instalment this year, I am so far behind that I can’t possibly judge the current state of the series. I have read three out of fourteen (!) volumes and if the other voters nominated it based on the strength of its most current book and not just because they like the author, then I have no way of knowing whether I agree with them. I still enjoy the series – although the first book was the best and they got slightly weaker from there – and I want to continue reading it. I guess it will show up on the ballot again in two years and maybe by then I’ll have caught up a bit more. At the point I am right now, it’s a fun Urban Fantasy series that I enjoy but nowhere close to the other entries on the ballot in terms of originality, quality, or impact on the genre. Maybe that will change as I continue reading and that’s why I feel my ranking may not be very fair but I’m judging as honestly as I can given the books that I have read.

Thanks to this ballot, I finally finished The Daevabad Trilogy and mostly agree with other readers that it’s a great trilogy with a satisfying ending. S. A. Chakraborty is an author I will watch because not only did she write a story about djinn, bringing a refreshing perspective into the fantasy genre, but she also does politics and court intrigue really well. Her writing style is engaging and I enjoyed all three of these books, even if the middle one felt like a filler and the last one was too long and a bit slow for my taste. So here comes the hard part again. My esteem for this trilogy is pretty high and I will pounce on Chakraborty’s next book, whatever it is. But in comparison to some of the other finalists, it didn’t feel as innovative and doesn’t get me equally as excited, and so ends up in the lower area of my ballot.

Damn you, Scalzi, I thought it was a safe bet that I could put The Interdependence Trilogy safely in the lower half of my ballot. And then you go out and write three books that are fun, exciting, finished way too quickly, and make me want to read more of the same. This trilogy was the only one I hadn’t even tried prior to the finalists being announced and I didn’t have high expectations. And look, this may deal with a galaxy-spanning empire but it’s not exactly deep. Which doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, this may have been my favorite of the ballot when it comes to pure enjoyment. I can totally see myself re-reading it when I need something exciting that makes me laugh out loud, cheer on the good guys and cackle when the bad guys get what they have coming. Granted, it can’t keep up with some of the other finalists in terms of scope or ambition, but it has great ideas, highly engaging writing, and it gave me several hours of pure fun! Plus, Kiva Lagos and her filthy mouth are everything!

The last series I tackled for this year’s ballot was The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. I had read the first book when it came out, was deeply impressed but not very hyped to read the next book – not because I didn’t like it but because it gets so very dark! So I did a re-read to refresh my memory this year and then went on to read the whole story in one swoop. It was both rewarding and terrible because my already very insecure ballot got mixed up even more. I mean, how could I not put this in my number one spot? The first book was even better on a re-read and that doesn’t happen often! The second book upped the stakes, didn’t feel like a middle book at all, and ripped out my heart several times over.
How can an author so young write a debut that is this brilliant? And as if it’s not enough that the writing is amazing, the characters multi-layered and difficult, but it’s also got rich world building, is inspired by real historical events, explores dark and important themes, and pushes the boundaries of the genre. I didn’t finish the third book before the voting period ended (I read it very slowly because (1) I was scared of the ending and (2) I didn’t want it to end), but I was certain that Kuang would deliver a bombastic end to her trilogy and deserves my top spot.

My ballot:

  1. The Poppy War
  2. The Lady Astronaut
  3. The Murderbot Diaries
  4. The Interdependency
  5. The Daevabad Trilogy
  6. The October Daye Series

Voting is now over but here are my thoughts from just before I finished up my ballot:

Okay, so a lot of this ballot is a mess and I have no idea how to rank these and not feel shitty about it. The Poppy War will stay on top, that much is certain. No matter how I twist and turn it, there is simply no way I can justify putting it any lower.
My bottom two series will stay where they are as well even though I might still swap them. Spots 2 through 4 are giving me a headache of epic proportions, however. I think I like Murderbot more than the Lady Astronaut, but here’s where my brain goes into strategic mode. I really, really, really want The Poppy War to win and I think Murderbot is its strongest contender, so by raking Murderbot one lower than I normally would, can I give The Poppy War a slight edge? I also want Murderbot to win but that series is still ongoing, unlike The Poppy War which has its last chance of winning this year. And since none of the individual novels won (which is a shame), I want it to win Best Series even more.

I realize that this approach may not be how other people vote (and that’s fine) but this ballot is so hard to rank that this is the only way I feel halfway comfortable with. All of that said, I will be more than happy if Murderbot or The Lady Astronaut series win this year. R. F. Kuang will likely write another masterpiece and let us shower her with Hugos sooner or later.

That’s it folks!
I didn’t get to the Astounding Award this year. I probably could have managed it but I honestly felt a little burned out on reading so many books because I “had to” (you know what I mean). I’m currently reading by mood and enjoying the hell out of it. But I’m not going to lie, I already look forward to doing this craziness all over again next year. 🙂

I hope you enjoyed this series of posts. Now let’s all be excited for the awards ceremony and cheer on those finalists!

What an AI’s life is worth: Becky Chambers – A Closed and Common Orbit

So I’m reading the Wayfarers series very much out of order but that’s one of the great things about it: you can pick up any novel you like and get a full story without missing anything. The only recommendation I would make is to start with the first one, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet if you don’t want any spoilers at all. Having read three out of the four novels, this one is my favorite by far.

A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT
by Becky Chambers

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2016
eBook:
385 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 4 minutes
Series:
Wayfarers #2
My rating:
8.5/10

Opening line: Mimetic AI housing is banned in all GC territories, outposts, facilities, and vesels.

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She’s never felt so alone.

But she’s not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

Together, Pepper and Lovelace will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it’s anything but empty.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible imagination of Becky Chambers and has been nominated for any number of awards and accolades, including the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction, the Tiptree Award, the Kitschies Golden Tentacle and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect and Star Wars.

When Lovelace was put into a body kit at the end of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, she lost all memories of who she was before. She knows she is an AI, she was built to be a ship’s computer, and that her previous version wanted to live in a human body. With the help of brilliant engineer Pepper, Lovelace now finds herself in such a body (not really human, but close enough) and has to accomodate to this new life she has entered. Not does her programming make it impossible for her to lie – which is unfortunate when you’re residing in a body kit quite illegally – but she also has to learn how to navigate the world from this new vantage point.

This book follows two perspectives in two different timelines and I honestly couldn’t tell you which one I liked better because they are both so amazing and offer such interesting glimpses into Becky Chambers’ universe. The present day story follows Lovelace, or Sidra as she calls herself, as she learns to ropes of being human (well, pretending to be), how to move in her new body, how to adjust to having only the narrow vision her eyes allow her, rather than the view through numerous camera lenses. Simple things like not seeing things from the top down anymore – as a security camera installed in a room corner would – or not being able to taste food and drinks can really throw her. But in addition, there’s the whole bigger question of what makes someone “human”. Sidra struggles with many things but learns to enjoy and even love others. In perfect Becky Chambers fashion, Sidra’s story is an introspective one but with enough new and interesting things to discover for us readers. I loved reading about the various alien species and their cultural and physical differences as well as the things that unite them. There is definitely some magic in Becky Chambers’ universe!

The second timeline follows Jane 23, a 10-year-old girl who lives in a place where she and many other Janes sort metal parts into scrap and useable bits, where her day is strictly timed, where the mothers oversee their work. Until, that is, Jane glimpses something thorugh a hole in the wall that she didn’t know existed. It’s a big blue ceiling and a room that doesn’t seem to have an end… . Jane 23 wants to escape the life she’s leading and finds help in a very unlikely place. This event will change the course of her entire life and have repercussions that are still felt many years later.
I don’t want to say very much about this story line because I found it so touching and I loved watching it evolve and slowly catch up to the present. What I can tell you however, because it’s never a secret in the book, is that Jane 23 is Pepper as a child. Now finding out how Jane 23 turned into Jane who then turned into Pepper, that’s the interesting part. It’s also incredibly moving, poses lots of philosophical questions about personhood, family, and agency.

The two other Wayfarer books I have read hit me in very different ways. I loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet but there were quite a few characters to keep track of and so I think I wasn’t as emotionally invested in either one of their stories. Then Record of a Spaceborn Few took forever to get going. I adored the ending and the message but a big part of that book felt like a slog. So not a favorite. But this! This book right here did everything right and hit all the right notes for me. Following two protagonists allowed me to get to know both of them very well, to care about them and to admire them for who they are. But the alternating chapters also guaranteed a nice pacing. There was even a bit of action in this book.

I loved every part of this story but the ending brought me to tears. There’s a reason this is everyone’s favorite Wayfarer book and I should have listened to you all long ago and read it much sooner. But I’m glad I read it now, during a time when a story of found family, finding your home and a place where you belong is exactly what I needed.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!

Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Novel

Once again, we have reached the Big One. The Hugo Award for Best Novel.

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

This year, I had only read three out of the six finalists, although two of the unread ones were already on my TBR. The sixth was a book I wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been nominated. And that just goes to show how valuable the Hugo Awards are because I ended up ranking that book pretty damn high for something I wasn’t even interested in…

2020 was an insanely good year for SFF publishing. The finalists could have included 15 additional novels and it would still have been a fantastic ballot. Seriously, this was the first time I felt bad because I had to leave several worthy books off my nominations ballot as only five works can be nominated. Now as for ranking the ones that made it… oh boy.


The Finalists for Best Novel

When the finalists came out, I thought I had them all figured out. I expected to hate Harrow the Ninth, I may have loved Piranesi but it doesn’t feel like a Hugo book to me, and Network Effect has now won both a Nebula and a Locus, so I could rank it a bit lower without feeling bad. Roanhorse and Kowal were the big unknowns for me. But then Harrow turned out to really get its hooks into me, Black Sun – although it can’t stand on its own and reads more like half a novel – impressed me enough to keep floating around in my mind and all of that just leaves me stumped. I can’t possible compare these books, much less rank them!

Nobody is more surprised than I am at Harrow the Ninth turning me into a fan. A reluctant one, sure, but a fan, nonetheless. I still don’t like Muir’s writing style, I don’t see its merit for the story and/or characters, and I simply don’t enjoy reading it. BUT. Pretty much everything else about Harrow the Ninth was super fun. The crazy magic system, the puzzling nature of everything in this book, how nothing makes sense until it suddenly does… I even got quite emotional at times and that’s something that was completely missing in Gideon for me. Reading this book felt like work a lot of the time and it made me shout “What the hell is going on?” many, many times, but I keep thinking about it, I keep making up theories, I keep wishing for the next book to come out soon because I have to know how it all ends. And that’s just amazing to me and pushed this book up on my ballot.

With Network Effect, I’m taking an approach that not everyone may agree on. I adore Murderbot as much as the next person and I was very fond of this full-length novel in a series otherwise comprised of novellas. I nominated it myself and it would originally have ended up as number 2 on my ballot. But – and here’s my controversial voting strategy – I would much rather see Murderbot win Best Series because I think the series as a whole is better than its individual instalments and also more than just the novel on its own. I mean, the novel won a Nebula and a Locus Award, both absolutely deserved, but it makes me kind of want the Hugo to go to another book. 2020 was such a great year for SFF and the awards scene shouldn’t make it look like Network Effect was the one and only great book we got. So yeah, these are the reasons why I’m ranking this brilliant, heartwarming, action-packed book that I loved, quite low on my ballot.

N. K. Jemisin may feel like a similar case. After doing what nobody has done before and taking home three consecutive Hugos for her Broken Earth Trilogy, it would feel a bit… repetitive to give her another Hugo. But then The City We Became is going in a completely different direction, showing her amazing genre-busting skill. It was the first 2020 publication I knew I would nominate and it feels like it should be number 1 on my ballot. My opinion of it is colored by the amazing audiobook version which turned the book into a proper event. Out of all the books on the ballot, I read this one the longest time ago, and yet I still remember certain scenes vividly, I still have the character voices in my head, and I still loved the story arc. So it has to go in my top three at least, but maybe not in the number one spot anymore?

Rebecca Roanhorse’s new series starter, Black Sun, didn’t impress me all that much while I read it. Most people unabashedly love this book and I found it fun to read as well. I liked the characters, I loved the world building and the set up, but I found the story quite predictable and derivative. You could tell where each story line would go from the very beginning, so, much like her Urban Fantasy, the only thing that set this apart from other stereotypical books of that sub-genre, was the setting and the character diversity. As these are two things I value greatly, I believe we can commend Roanhorse, but does that make her novel worthy of an award? Add to that the fact that Black Sun isn’t even the kind of trilogy opener that tells a full story and only leaves a handful of questions open, no no, it actually just stops mid-tale. If I didn’t know there were more books coming, I would be majorly pissed that this is how the book ends. Because it doesn’t, it just pauses. To me, this makes it a much more fitting contender for the Best Series category (depending on how good the sequels are, of course). I will be reading the next book and I look forward to it. But I don’t believe that Black Sun has enough to offer to merit a Hugo Award.

My last read was The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal because I first had to catch up on the second book in the Lady Astronaut series. In hindsight, I regret not reading it sooner because I would have nominated that for a Hugo last year! Now this third book took me a while to get into, mostly because of the change in protagonist, but then Kowal worked her magic again and I was caught in the world of scientists and astronauts, of a sabotage plot with a hint of spy mystery, of deeply human characters with believable relationship. And I ended up loving it so much! This book is making voting harder not just in this category but also in Best Series. Because the series is getting better and even though you can read the books as standalones, it’s so much more than the sum of its parts when you follow the series as a whole.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Mary Robinette Kowal – The Relentless Moon
  2. Tamsyn Muir – Harrow the Ninth
  3. N. K. Jemisin – The City We Became
  4. Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
  5. Martha Wells – Network Effect
  6. Rebecca Roanhorse – Black Sun

Maaaaaan, this is a difficult year! I don’t think I’ve ever had such trouble ranking the Best Novel finalists. The only book I’m sure about is Black Sun in my last spot (again, not because it was bad, but the other stuff is just better). I’ll probably also keep Network Effect at number five because it’s already won so much and I’m ranking Murderbot higher up on my Best Series ballot.

But 1-4 are a complete mess that I have changed about fifty times by now and I’m never quite happy with my ranking. I’ve been debating putting Harrow first but then Jemisin’s newest book was so much nicer to read and Kowal’s Relentless Moon hit me really hard emotionally… And Piranesi was brilliant even if I think it’s not a typical Hugo book. So you see, the ballot I’m posting here could stay the same or it could change a hundred more times before the voting period ends. Your guess is a good as mine.

The great thing about this is: I would be happy for any of my top 5 books to receive the Hugo Award. As much as I complain about difficult choices and rankings and blah blah blah, it’s a truly wonderful year when we can’t decide what should win because everything is so damn good.

Up next week: Best Series