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

Africanfuturism at Its Best: Nnedi Okorafor – Noor

I was so lucky to be granted a review copy of Nnedi Okorafor’s newest (and one of her best!) books. Thanks to DAW for the e-ARC. It is much appreciated, especially since it turned out to be truly brilliant. Nnedi Okorafor achieves in 200 pages what other authors can only dream of achiving in twice as many. The future she paints is vivid, believable, and peopled with diverse characters. I really, really loved it.

NOOR
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published: DAW, 16th November 2021
eBook:
224 pages
Standalone
My rating:
9/10

Opening line: I would never do this again. But for the moment, I survived.

From Africanfuturist luminary Okorafor comes a new science fiction novel of intense action and thoughtful rumination on biotechnology, destiny, and humanity in a near-future Nigeria.

Anwuli Okwudili prefers to be called AO. To her, these initials have always stood for Artificial Organism. AO has never really felt…natural, and that’s putting it lightly. Her parents spent most of the days before she was born praying for her peaceful passing because even in-utero she was wrong. But she lived. Then came the car accident years later that disabled her even further. Yet instead of viewing her strange body the way the world views it, as freakish, unnatural, even the work of the devil, AO embraces all that she is: A woman with a ton of major and necessary body augmentations. And then one day she goes to her local market and everything goes wrong.

Once on the run, she meets a Fulani herdsman named DNA and the race against time across the deserts of Northern Nigeria begins. In a world where all things are streamed, everyone is watching the reckoning of the murderess and the terrorist and the saga of the wicked woman and mad man unfold. This fast-paced, relentless journey of tribe, destiny, body, and the wonderland of technology revels in the fact that the future sometimes isn’t so predictable. Expect the unaccepted.

I believe the last time I was this taken with a Nnedi Okorafor book was when I picked up Binti and marveled at how much a truly great author can pack into such a little package. Noor is longer than a novella, but for a novel it’s still pretty slim. Don’t let that fool you into thinking it doesn’t have teeth, though. There is a lot to discover between its covers and I’m still reeling a bit. I also pre-ordered a hardback copy, just to give you an indication of how impressed I am.

AO just wants to live a quiet life without being judged on sight. She’s an auto mechanic in Abuja where people have come to know and accept her for who she is. She may not like that they call her “more machine than human” because that’s just not true, but at least she is accepted as a member of society and can go about her business like anyone else. Until, that is, shortly after her boyfriend had left her, she goes to market to buy some food and a handful of men decide that she is an abomination and must be punished. Well, it’s not smart attacking a woman with a bionic arm… A few heartbeats later, AO is looking at the result of the men’s violent attack and realizes she has to run. Police are never going to see her side and so she flees north into the Sahel desert and closer to the natural disaster known as the Red Eye, a huge sandstorm that only few managed to survive.

It is on her rather aimless journey that she meets a man who feels equally uprooted, who has lost what he considered his normal life as well and is being hunted as a terrorist. So AO joins this man, DNA, and his two steer GPS and Carpe Diem and they try to find a new purpose together, a reason to live, and a place to be accepted just the way they are.

I loved everything about this story, beginning with its incredible protagonist AO who probably has more than a little Nnedi Okorafor in her. If you’ve read her non-fiction TED book Broken Places & outer Spaces (which I highly recommend, btw) you’ll know that Okorafor lost the use of her legs at a young age and regained it only through hard work and a lot of pain. It’s not quite the same as her character AO but there pere parallels and certain descriptions that made me think it’s not all imagination but some of it was real, lived experience. When AO decides to replace her crushed legs with bionic ones, people aren’t exactly supportive and part of the reason for that is that you can only make those legs work if you withstand a lot of pain. AO sees the world through a red fog of pain for a long time before she can walk with ease.
I also adored DNA – short for Dangote Nuhu Adamu – the Fulani herdsman in the desert, who loves his steer dearly but who also has a nomadic family. Unfortunately, the Fulani are seen as little more than terrorists by other people when all DNA wants to do is live quietly with his steer, maybe a wife someday and some kids, with no ambitions for riches or glory. Much like AO, he is simply looking for acceptance in a world that refuses to see him as he truly is.

I’d always had it coming. In the dark this was all clear. I emerged from the warm protective darkness of my mother’s womb poorly made. A mess. And then years later, fate had unmade me. How dare I embrace what I was and wasn’t, and build my self?

Speaking of the world – Nnedi Okorafor packed so much world-building into this book, it’s hard to believe. Starting with the Red Eye, that eternal sandstorm that has changed the lives of people living nearby dramatically, to the constant presence of Ultimate Corp who harness the Red Eye’s wind power to send energy to other places around the world. The way technology, the internet, drones, and bionic limbs work in this world, was also highly interesting. It all goes together so well and paints the picture of a real, lived-in world, a believable portrait of the future with both good and not-so-good sides. Another thing I loved (even though we’re used to it from Okorafor’s fiction) is the focus on Africa, Nigeria and its surrounding countries in particular. Sure, you might say that’s the whole point of Africanfuturism, but it is still refreshing when the US or Europe are only mentioned in passing as places that exist but that are not the center of this story.

As much as Nnedi Okorafor has to say about making yourself into the person you want to be, about freedom, about big corporations getting rich on the backs of cultures they think worthless, about preserving a way of life, and finding friends and maybe even love in the most unlikely situations, what she also does is write a damn good action scene! Because although I haven’t mentioned it yet, Noor‘s plot kicks serious ass right from the start and with hardly any pauses. Whether it’s entering a deadly sandstorm, making crazy plans to save someone in need, being confronted with an army of drones, or surviving a physical attack – I held my breath many times while reading this book. And then came the twists which made me gasp out loud. Add to that the moments of emotional resonance, the quieter character-focused scenes, and you’ve got a novel that does pretty much everything right.

I already know I will nominate this book fo r a Hugo Award next year. It was so impressive on so many levels and mixes themes and subgenres in a way that only Okorafor does. If you like her writing already, go and buy yourself a copy right now. If you’re new to her fiction, this is a great starting point. In fact, if you even remotely like science fiction and fantasy, pick this up and join me in cheering for Nnedi Okorafor and the way she gets better and better over the years.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Reading the Hugos 2021: Lodestar (Not-a-Hugo)

It has taken us way too long to finally create a (not-a-) Hugo Award for YA fiction! Sure, technically YA or MG novels could have been nominated in the Best Novel category but that has happened rarely with even fewer wins (one for Harry Potter, one for Gaiman’s Graveyard Book). Plus, there is so much great stuff being published that having six finalists just means more fun and reading goodness for everyone.

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

This may have been the category I was most excited for because although I had already read half of the finalists, the other three were all high up on my to read list. Hearing nothing but good things about them may have helped.


The Finalists for the Lodestar

First things first, this is a great ballot with not a single bad book on it. It’s also impressively diverse! Not only are authors of all sorts of different backgrounds represented, but the stories range from contemporary fantasy in a college setting to secondary world fantasy to a parallel Earth inspired by Lipan Apache myths… The characters are also vastly different from each other. I really appreciate this mix and the many perspectives I got to experience while reading through the ballot.

The one book I nominated in this category and still my absolute dear-to-my-heart favorite is Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. Man, did I fall for that book. I didn’t even expect to love it so much when I picked it up, I just thought it would be a nice story with an enemies to lovers trope in an African-inspired fantasy world. But once I started reading, it turned into an all-the-feels kind of novel that offered impressive characters and world building and had a lot of fun playing with tropes and turning them on their head. None of the tropey things I was expecting came to pass exactly as I expected them. Either they didn’t happen at all or they were twisted around to form something completely new and beautiful. I adored Tarisai, I adored many of the side characters, the found family, the super high save-the-world stakes and that ending! I actually re-read it before finishing the duology with Redemptor and it holds up on a second read as well.

T. Kingfisher‘s books are always, always fun and A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking was no exception. In fact, I felt that it was even better than last year’s finalist Minor Mage. Kingfisher’s humor really works for me and if a sourdough starter named Bob or a teenage girl whose magical abilities only work on bread don’t make you giggle, then I don’t know what to tell you. Young magical baker Mona discovers a dead body in her aunt’s bakery and then stumbles into an adventure that grows bigger the more you read. It is a super funny book that has serious moments as well. Mona is a great protagonist who knows what’s right and important and who I fell in love with so much I wanted to hug her. And then Kingfisher managed to deliver a pretty epic ending that got me all choked up.

A big surprise for me was Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. Not that the book didn’t sound interesting – it did! – but I liked it despite the fact that the mystery was super obvious and I had it completely figured out by the middle of the book. Normally, that takes out a lot of fun for me, but in this case, I didn’t mind. Because while the murder mystery is interesting, it’s not what makes this book great. With a trans boy as a protagonist, a dead gay ghost, a vegan witch with pink hair, and a lot of heart, this story was great even without the twist being in any way shocking or surprising. Yadriel’s everyday life was fun enough to follow. His family doesn’t quite understand how to handle him being trans, his Latinx grandmother cooks way too much (oh, that food sounded so delicious!), the other brujxs don’t treat him like he really belongs… and then there’s this boy that makes him feel all warm inside. Aiden Thomas definitely did something right in this book because I adored every page and it made me immediately want to pick up another book by this author.

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn I was very unsure about. It has a cool cover, but King Arthur was never something I particularly gravitated toward and so I didn’t think a modern twist on Arthurian Legend could interest me. But again, this book has a lot more to offer than just that. In fact, some of the most interesting aspects didn’t have to do with King Arthur at all. This is about dealing with grief, trusting people, making new friends in a strange and new environment (in this case: college) and, of course, fighting monsters and doing magic, because that’s how we roll at the Hugo Awards.
I can’t say that I was particularly impressed with the magic system or the way Arthurian Legend was incorporated into the story but I just had so much fun reading it. I even liked the romance and how some side characters could surprise me after I had made my mind up about them. It wasn’t my favorite book but I liked it well enough and I will read more by Tracy Deonn. Probably even the sequel to this book.

The one book I expected to love but ended up feeling mostly indifferent about was Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger. This promised to have everything I love. An Earth that is almost but not quite like ours because it has magic, mythology that is real, Lipan Apache myths (which are new to me so I was excited), and a murder mystery. Add to that illustrations by the amazing Rovina Cai and you have a recipe for a new Dina’s favorite. But just like some books can positively surprise you, the opposite can also happen.
Not that I hated this book, not at all. It was nice enough, but it never really touched me. It started with the protagonists reading like 12-year-olds instead of the 17-year-olds they were supposed to be. There was such a disconnect between what I was told and what I actually saw happening on the page that I couldn’t properly connect with Ellie. I also really liked the myths that were woven into the story but the way it was done felt clumsy in retrospect. My favorite part was the murder mystery, the way it gets solved, and especially how clever the killer is (nobody likes a stupid villain, the smart ones are way more interesting). However, as it was all written in this cutesy, rather childish way, this book simply can’t keep up with the competition.

Lastly, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik was a book I probably enjoyed more than many other people, at least judging from reviews I’ve read. Although this book has many flaws, it was kind of fun. I still don’t know how to explain it. There is very little plot, the world building is done in strange ways – too many info dumps at first but leaving out many super important bits – and the characters aren’t exactly perfect. I feel like I shouldn’t have liked this book but for some reason I just did. I plan to read the sequel and hope that this gives me more clarity. However, I won’t consider this book for the Lodestar ballot. You can find my reasons below.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Raybearer
  2. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
  3. Cemetery Boys
  4. Legendborn
  5. Elatsoe
  6. A Deadly Education

A Deadly Education was not the least enjoyable book of this bunch and it isn’t unworthy of an award in general. It is, however, unworthy of an award for YA/MG fiction, especially when it was on the shortlist for the Alex Award which specifically awards adult books with a crossover appeal to a younger audience. ADULT books. Those are not what this category is for, those go in Best Novel if they get enough nominations or Best Series if they’re part of a well-loved series.
And the thing is, Naomi Novik is well-established, she has previously been nominated in Best Novel, she won a Nebula. She’s the only really big name on this ballot and doesn’t need the awards boost. Her books sell just fine.
Whether you think it’s in bad taste that she even accepted the nomination or the Hugo administrators should have caught the fact that this is an adult book in a YA category, I definitely feel that it shouldn’t win a Lodestar. That’s just not the right award for this book. So while I technically enjoyed reading it and would have ranked it differently had it been in the correct category, I am leaving it off my ballot completely.

I love the Lodestar and I’m so happy we finally have a YA/MG category in the Hugo Awards, so I really, really don’t want to see adult books take up the space meant for those books just because they technically can be read by a younger audience. This category was hard won and I mean to defend it!

When it comes to my ballot, I am firm on my first and last places. After T. Kingfisher’s Andre Norton AND Locus YA win for Defensive Baking I am debating ranking her book a bit lower. While I am super happy for her and have wanted her to win for years, I just loved Raybearer so much! Now that Kingfisher already has two awards for her book, I feel like Jordan Ifueko or someone else should get this one. At least in my head, that’s the dream outcome.
That said, I would be happy for either of my top books to take home the Lodestar. Sure, my hope is All The Awards for Raybearer but the Hugos are a democracy after all and we’ll see how my fellow voters decide.

Up next week: Best Novel

Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Graphic Story

I love Graphic Novels but I rarely know where to discover cool new ones to follow. Enter the Hugo Awards and the wonderful WorldCon members who are more knowledgeable in the field than I am and nominate great stuff every year.

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

I have to say I felt pretty caught up this year. With two series ending last year, it was time for something new to show up on the ballot. And as expected, we have two sequels to previous finalists, a sequel to a graphic novel I’ve actually discovered all by myself and loved, volume 1 of something new (but written by a previous Hugo finalist) and an adaptation of a novel that I had previously read.

I was super excited to start reading this category. Not only was I looking forward to the sequels to stories I already liked, but the mixture of different styles, stories, and artists makes this a wonderful and varied ballot.


The Finalists for Best Graphic Story

  • Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans – DIE Volume 2: Split the Party
  • Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda – Monstress vol. 5: Warchild
  • G. Willow Wilson, Christian Ward – Invisible Kingdom vol. 2: Edge of Everything
  • Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora – Once & Future vol. 1: The King is Undead
  • Octavia Butler, Damian Duffy, John Jennings – Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
  • Seanan McGuire, Takeshi Miyazawa – Ghost-Spider vol. 1: Dog Days Are Over

What an exciting ballot with a lot of newer series rather than just the next instalment in the ones that always get nominated. Of course the ones that always get nominated are there for a reason – they happen to be really good – but it does get a bit boring, reading the newest volume in the same series every year. With The Wicked + the Divine and Paper Girls finished, the only longer running series on the ballot is Monstress and I suspect it will keep coming back until it is finished as well.

Kind of a series starter but also not really is Ghost-Spider vol. 1: Dog Days Are Over by Seanan McGuire. Because on the one hand, this is volume 1 of the Ghost-Spider series but it heavily references events that happened in the comics that came before. Those were named Spider-Gwen: Ghost-Spider... It’s all quite confusing but you don’t need to read those in order to understand and enjoy Ghost-Spider vol. 1. It’s about Gwen Stacey and her inter-dimensional academic pursuits. Her identity as Ghost-Spider is well known in her own universe, but thank the multiverse, there are others where she can live and study in blissful anonymity. There’s even a Peter Parker over there, although quite a bit older than her Peter Parker. Gwen goes to college, makes some friends, there’s an evil scientist dude trying to catch her and so the adventure begins. And that’s really all there is to it. The dialogue is snappy, I loved the artwork, but storywise, this was a generic beginning for a generic comic book adventure. I had a lot of fun reading it, but I don’t think there’s anything special about it.

I liked the first volume of DIE last year except for some pacing and character development issues. Those issues remain for volume 2: Split the Party and the pacing problems actually get worse. I didn’t re-read the first volume and that may have been my mistake (although other comic series manage catching readers up on what happened previously just fine so I shouldn’t have to re-read). I remembered very little of who everyone was, except for Ash, and simply dove into the story. Gillen tried to show more of each character in this volume but that only means that each issue sort of focuses on one of them without ever really letting us get to know or care about them. I appreciated some of their stories, I loved the artwork, but just like last time, I didn’t really feel close to any character and I wasn’t invested in their fates. Add to that the wonky pacing and even Charlotte Bronte can’t save you. It was okay but not great.

The other Kieron Gillen comic on the ballot marks the beginning of a new series and the graphic novel entry for what seems to be a current Arthuriana hype in SFF. Once and Future Volume 1: The King is Undead is clearly written by the same guy who wrote DIE, not because it’s in any way similar in plot or characters but because the pacing is all over the place. A slow intro (which I enjoyed) then leads to events overtaking each other, up to the point where it becomes ridiculous.
The idea itself is a cool one – resurrecting King Arthur but as a zombie and with all sorts of crazy magic – and I really liked the characters. Shy, single protagonist dude, the accidentally-dragged-into-the-story love interest, and most of all, the grandma. 🙂 As you can tell, I don’t actually remember anyone’s names but that grandma kicked serious butt and I would gladly follow her story for longer.

Just as expected, Parable of the Sower was phenomenal. It’s not that hard when you consider the novel it’s adapted from was brilliant. But adapting into a graphic novel takes more than just picking out the most important plot beats and having someone draw pictures. Damian Duffy got things incredibly right in this adaptation with the very rare jarring pacing jump. Mostly, the novel flows well, creates an immersive and terrifying world, and characters you’ll remember for a long time. I was stunned at how absorbed I got reading this, seeing as I had read the novel not that long ago and thus knew all the twists and turns this story would take. The artwork is not beautiful as such, if you want pictures that look pretty, but it works so well in conveying the tone and the raw world of this story. It shouldn’t look pretty!

This fifth volume of Monstress was probably my favorite so far. I’m still not as hyped about this series as many other people seem to be but it is consistently good, the artwork is always stunning, and the story is full of darkness but always with glimpses of hope. In this part, we live through a siege, and watch our protagonsit pretend not to care about individual people but then totally go out of her way to make sure those individual people survive. It’s heartwarming, if you can say that about a story set during a brutal war…

Invisible Kingdom is the book I was happiest to see on the short list. I had read the first part last year and liked it so much that I decided I had to continue the series and now the middle volume of only three (that’s right, folks, this trilogy is concluded) is nominated for a Hugo. As I adored every single page, the way the characters grew and developed, the romance I had been hoping for, the world building that became even better, and the gorgeous art with its rather unique and bright colors, this goes easily to my number one spot. It may not be as important a work as Octavia Butler’s story but damn if it didn’t get me the most invested and excited for the third volume.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Invisible Kingdom Volume 2: Edge of Everything
  2. Parable of the Sower
  3. Monstress Volume 5: Warchild
  4. Once and Future Volume 1: The King is Undead
  5. Ghost-Spider Volume 1: Dog Days Are Over
  6. Die Volume 2: Split the Party

Up next week: The Lodestar

Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Novella

The Best Novella category this year is dominated by Tordotcom more than ever. Since the publisher started their novella initiative, the popularity of novellas has risen dramatically, not just in SFF fandom in general but also when it comes to my own reading. I used to think of novellas as “not quite novels” for some reason, like they were somehow lesser because they needed fewer pages to tell a story. I have since learned the error of my ways and come to appreciate the novella for the amazing form it is.

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

This year, I had already read four out of the six finalists, although one of the unread ones was already on my TBR. The sixth was a book I wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been nominated. As I quite liked the latter and didn’t much like the one I had had on my TBR, that just goes to show you that awards ballots are great and can push you to read better books. 🙂


The Finalists for Best Novella

As much as I love Tordotcom and their novellas, they have become so numerous that the quality isn’t as top notch as it was in their first year of the novella initiative. They are still publishing amazing stuff, don’t get me wrong, but there is one book among this list whose appearance on the ballot I just can’t understand. But let’s talk about the individual titles a bit.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark is my clear and absolute favorite. I nominated it myself and I’ve been wanting it to win a Hugo since the moment I finished it. Of course, I first had to read some other finalists but I honestly didn’t expect anything to get much better than this. It’s about a group of women who hunt Ku Kluxes – the very real monsters you turn into when you’ve been part of the Klan too long. What I enjoyed so much about this was the mix of exciting adventure, crazy cool world building, deep characters, and a clear message. And when I say message, please don’t think you’re going to get a “don’t be a racist” lecture in this book (although, obviously, don’t be a racist) but rather that Clark manages to give us sympathetic characters we care about and then shows how unfairly the world treats them. Plus, the monsters are extra cool, there is a magical sword, and I actually cried during one chapter… Yeah, this is an easy number one for me.

It’s been a bit longer since I read The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo and unfortunately, I didn’t review it here so my memories aren’t as clear as I would like. But I do remember the gist of the story – a young historian finding out the story of the former Empress through stories evoked by common everyday objects. And that story turns out to be how women, even when they are seen and used as pawns on a political chess board, have power if they stick together. A quiet power, sure, but power nontheless. It’s also about finding happiness in the most dire of situations. I remember loving the language of this novella and how slowly, over the course of its pages, an image evolves of the Empress that is quite different from the first idea we have of her. I’d be totally fine if this book won because although I liked the Clark more, Nghi Vo is an author I (and many other SFF readers, I suspect) will follow closely.

The middle of my ballot gets a little tricky. You may know of my strange relationship with Seanan McGuire, especially with the fact that all her work gets Hugo nominations simply because, but on this not-super-strong ballot, her fifth Wayward Children novella Come Tumbling Down is going to end up on my number three spot. At least for now. It is by no means a perfect novella, not even a great one, but it does many things right. Presenting intriguing protagonists, setting up a cool problem for them to solve, and sending them off to a creepy world togehter – what’s not to like?
The story does fall flat in the second half when it turns out McGuire bit off too much to chew when it comes to world building and juggling too many characters who all want to be protagonists when really, there should be a maximum of two per novella. But the story does reach a rounded ending. While I didn’t find it emotionally impactful, it was satisfying from a storytelling point of view.

To my own surprise Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby is not at the top of my ballot. I expected to completely love this book but, well, I just didn’t. I had different expectations from the blurb and while there are many lines that feel like they perfectly encompass certain truths about our world, what I was missing the most was story. It’s about a brother and sister, the sister has superpowers but somehow they barely make an appearance or rather they don’t become important for the plot until very late. As for plot, there really isn’t any. The brother goes to prison, which goes about as well as you can expect for a young Black man, and Onyebuchi shows us harrowing scenes of that life, but that’s not a story, is it? So for that reason, while I liked the writing and I have adored Onyebuchi’s book War Girls, this one just didn’t work for me. It’s got a lot of things to say that are important but it didn’t manage to wrap them in an engaging story.

Another novella by an author I normally love but which didn’t work for me was Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted. This book has a story, although not a particularly original one. It’s set in such a cool world that could be a parallel universe or a post-apocalyptic Earth where the Wild West has made a return of sorts but LGBT+ people aren’t accepted at all. Our young protagonist is a lesbian and has run away from home to join the Librarians – which is a group of people travelling the land. With horse-drawn wagons. And guns.
This book was more about coming of age and coming to terms with your own sexuality and how to stay true to yourself in a world that doesn’t want you to be yourself. It’s about finding family in unexpected places, and maybe even finding love. So I’m all for the message but I just didn’t connect with the characters and I didn’t feel the world building came across as that well thought-out.

The last novella I read and the one I think shouldn’t be on this ballot is Finna by Nino Cipri. The idea is sooooo great! A wormhole suddenly pops up in an IKEA-like store and an elderly shopper wanders into it. In order to save her from whatever parallel world the multiverse has opened up, Ava and her very recent Ex Jules go on a mission into the wormhole. I mean, this could have been so much fun, but sadly nobody told Cipri that rushing through seven worlds in less than 100 pages is a bit too much.
The characters just made me sad because they didn’t get to be proper people. Jules’ only concern and the thing that apparently defines them in this story is that they’re nonbinary (serioulsy, real people’s personality consists of more than they gender identity or sexuality… like give them a hobby or something) and Ava is just annoying until we find out she suffers from depression. Neither of them have hopes, dreams, goals in life, or any human connection beyond their failed relationship.
The world-hopping itself could have been fun and the worlds we get to see aren’t bad. It’s just that arriving, staring in wonder, getting into danger, fleeing , and getting to safety in the matter of 3 pages doesn’t make for good reading. It’s too fast, none of the worlds felt real or got to shine, and so this read more like something you’d write in school for an assignment than a professionally published novella. This needed a lot of work and maybe full-novel length. The way it stands, I am not impressed.


My ballot (probably)

  1. P. Djèlí Clark – Ring Shout
  2. Nghi Vo – The Empress of Salt and Fortune
  3. Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down
  4. Sarah Gailey – Upright Women Wanted
  5. Tochi Onyebuchi – Riot Baby
  6. No Award
  7. Nino Cipri – Finna

So my top three spots are pretty firmly set. I don’t know if I’ll switch Sarah Gailey and Tochi Onyebuchi around but as I don’t plan on re-reading either book, I don’t see why I would do that. I am still debating on whether to leave Finna off my ballot completely or simply rank it last. The thing is, I really don’t think it should win an award. It does nothing award-worthy whatsoever. All the other books, even the ones I didn’t enjoy, either do something new and original and/or they tell a great story. Finna is just a nice idea badly executed.

All things considered, I am not too impressed with this ballot. Sure, I liked most of the books in some way, but there has to be more out there than what Tordotcom publishes. Which would also mean a greater diversity of ideas. Let’s all try to read at least one novella not published by Tordotcome this year, okay? Maybe this way, we’ll discover a hidden gem and get other publishers on the ballot for next year.

Up next week: Best Graphic Story