Mental Health and Space Colonies: Emma Newman – Planetfall

Thank you, Hugo nominators, for pushing this series onto me! I have said this quite a few times in the last months because I am genuinely grateful for the wonderful books I’ve discovered this year due to the Hugo Awards. People have been raving about Emma Newman’s Planetfall series for years but because her fairy-inspired series didn’t work that well for me, I’ve been hesitant to pick up another book by her. Boy, was I stupid! This is one of the finest science fiction books I’ve read and it also does something I’ve never encountered before: combining science fiction with all its tech and (potential) alien life with a very human protagonist who deals with mental health issues.

PLANETFALL
by Emma Newman

Published: Roc, 2015
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: Planetfall #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Every time I come down here I think about my mother.

From the award-nominated author Emma Newman, comes a novel of how one secret withheld to protect humanity’s future might be its undoing…
Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.
More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.
Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.
The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

Renata Ghali, called Ren, lives in the only space colony on a planet far from Earth. She and the other settlers came here on the ship Atlas because they were following a genius named Lee Suh-Mi who was looking for God. That may sound super religious but the book is really not. In fact, we know right from the start that the things most colonists believe aren’t true. Religious rituals are firmly in place but Ren and Mack – the Ringmaster and kind of, sort of leader of this place – know what’s what. Finding out the details of what exactly these two are hiding from the rest of the colony and why is one reason this book was so intriguing. But that’s not all there is to it.

The story kicks off with a new arrival to the colony. There shouldn’t be any humans left alive who aren’t already part of the colony, so naturally Ren and Mack are worried. Who is this person that looks so much like Suh but couldn’t possibly have survived out in the wild, far from the technology that keeps the colony going? It turns out this person is, in fact, Suh’s own grandson Sung-Soo, the only survivor of a group that apparently landed far away from what has become the human colony at the foot of God’s City. Oh yeah, I haven’t even mentioned that part. Just outisde the colony, an alien “building” looms, made of tentrils and organic-seeming matter, filled with corridors and secrets… This is believed to be God’s City and it’s where a big ritual is held every year that keeps the colony in touch with the now almost mystical Suh.

Throughout this novel, we follow Ren, who suffers from anxiety and who also has a secret or two. Ren is such a fantastic character, not only because she represents people who don’t often get to be the hero in a science fiction story but also because she is flawed but her flaws are understandable. She constantly feels guilty about the past (you’ll find out all the details about that), she has trouble letting go of things and people, she is a very private person with few – if any – close relationships. It is strongly suggested that Ren, a brilliant engineer responsible for the colony’s 3D-printers, was in love with Suh and followed her on this mission to find God for reasons other than pure logic. She also had a relationship with one of the colony’s doctors, Kay, that didn’t last because Ren just wouldn’t open up. She just felt like such a real, complicated person that can’t be described in a few lines, and that’s exactly how I like my protagonists best!

There’s a lot more going on in this book and I haven’t even scratched the surface yet. I’ve given you headlines, hints of what’s to come, but reading this and discovering all of it for yourself is so much fun! And let’s not forget that amazing surprising moment around the middle of the book. Ren deals with social anxiety and that much is clear from the start. But she is dealing with much more than that and the way this was revealed showed just how much skill Emma Newman possesses as a writer. Without naming the thing, without explicitly describing it, she nonetheless made it clear for the reader what is going on, what Ren has been hiding for years and years, and I was stunned and impressed and deeply unsettled. I can’t tell you more than that without spoiling and, trust me, you want to experience this for yourselves.

Emma Newman manages to weave her themes into a thrilling plot with so much ease, I almost didn’t recognize her writing from her other books. This book deals with guilt, anxiety, the way society works, religious fanaticism, technology, living in tune with nature, and so much more! Again, I can’t tell you any more details without spoiling things, but this book is an example of how to advance plot, world building, and characters all at the same time. There are no info dumps, no lengthy expositions, everything just happens organically and  everything the readers learn, we learn through context.

The plot is pretty fast paced for a novel that also focuses so much on Ren’s feelings. Things are always happening, there is this underlying sense of tension that turned this into a proper page turner. Which is another thing I don’t come across that often. A book that’s both exciting because our protagonists are in danger, but still has enough time for introspection, for developing those characters, for making them come to life and having them grow. I found the side characters just as interesting as Ren herself but this story is clearly her journey.

The ending may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it brings Ren’s character arc to a beautiful and satsifying close. Had I read this when it came out, I might have liked it less because the ending leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But knowing this is only the beginning of a loosely connected series, I’m perfectly fine with the way things ended here. I also won’t be able to wait very long to dive into the next book, After Atlas. Newman has created a fascinating world, peopled with diverse characters that all feel real. I’m sure there is plenty more to discover and I look forward to going into the next book completely blind. Is it a prequel or a sequel? Do we meet characters we’ve heard about? I don’t know and I don’t care. Emma Newman has a new fan and I trust that I’ll love the next book as much as this one.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ballot (probably)

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

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

Up next week: Best Novel

The Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag

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

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

How Much Have You Read

Total books read: 67
By Authors of Color:
17

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

BEST BOOKS YOU’VE READ SO FAR IN 2020

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

BEST SEQUELS OF 2020 SO FAR

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

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

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

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

MOST ANTICIPATED RELEASE OF THE SECOND HALF OF 2020

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

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

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

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

BIGGEST SURPRISE

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

FAVORITE NEW AUTHOR (DEBUT OR AUTHOR TO YOU)

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

Newest fictional crush 

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

Newest favorite character

BOOK THAT MADE YOU CRY

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

A BOOK THAT MADE YOU HAPPY

Jessica Towsnend – Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow

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

MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK YOU’VE BOUGHT OR RECEIVED THIS YEAR

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

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

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

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

Aliens, Spies, and Secrets: Tade Thompson – Rosewater

I’m so glad I picked this up. I’ve been hearing about this trilogy ever since the first book came out but reviews were all over the place. Some people loved it, some hated it, some said it was too difficult to understand – that’s exactly the right mix to get me super interested and want to form an opinion of my own. It was difficult to read and it’s definitely only the start of a longer story but, boy, did I love it!

ROSEWATER
by Tade Thompson

Published: Apex Book Company, 2016
Audiobook: 13 hours 30 minutes
Paperback: 432 pages
Series: The Wormwood Trilogy #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: I’m at the Integrity Bank job for forty minutes before the anxieties kick in.

Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is the start of an award-winning, cutting edge trilogy set in Nigeria, by one of science fiction’s most engaging new voices.
Rosewater is a town on the edge. A community formed around the edges of a mysterious alien biodome, its residents comprise the hopeful, the hungry and the helpless—people eager for a glimpse inside the dome or a taste of its rumored healing powers.
Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past. He has seen inside the biodome, and doesn’t care to again—but when something begins killing off others like himself, Kaaro must defy his masters to search for an answer, facing his dark history and coming to a realization about a horrifying future.

This is a crazy book with many ideas, several timelines, different planes of existence, and an interesting cast of characters. We follow Kaaro, a former thief turned government agent, who is also infected with xenoforms that let him enter the xenosphere – a sort of parallel world of thoughts. He can read people’s thoughts and feelings which is pretty useful for his secret work for the government agency Section 45. His day job is working at a bank, trying to deter other sensitives (others like him) from reading people’s passcodes or bank data from their minds. He does this by crowding the xenosphere with unimportant thoughts, usually reading a classic novel.

Whew! That’s just the basic introduction and you can see there’s already so much packed in there. So I have to agree with the people that say this isn’t an easy book to read. The writing style is great, the prose flows smoothly, but keeping everything straight in your head, keeping up with what happened to Kaaro during which time period – it takes a bit of work.
His first person narrative jumps between the present, 2066, and the past, mostly 2055 but sometimes other times in between. Kaaro lives in Rosewater, a city that has grown around an alien biodome that sometimes grants healing powers to those in its vicinity and which is also responsible for sensitives.

Discovering just what this science fictional future Nigeria is like was so much fun. Again, it takes some work to keep things straight in your head while you read this book but it is utterly rewarding. On the one hand, I wanted to learn more about who Kaaro is. When we first meet him, he seems somewhat depressed, not really knowing where to go with his life. When he is set up with beautiful young Aminat, he has something to hold on to again. Through the flashback chapters, we learn more about his criminal past, about how Rosewater came to be, and about how he started working for S45. I’m keeping all the details out and just letting you know that the fog that you may feel at the beginning of this book will slowly lift.

There was very little I didn’t like in this book. The cast of characters is interesting and varied, Kaaro himself is a diffulct and flawed protagonist but I actually really liked him. He is strangely focused on women’s looks and highly sexualizes any woman he comes into contact with but, in general, he’s a good guy who grows throughout the novel.
I also enjoyed the writing style. With Kaaro’s trips into the xenosphere, things can get a bit confusing because – as you can imagine – a world of thought doesn’t exactly follow Earth rules. In the xenosphere, Kaaro is a gryphon, physics don’t apply, but you can still run into all sorts of danger.
Probably the most intriguing part was the whole alien thing, though. The way this novel plays out, people have just come to accept the various changes alien life has brought to Earth. The biodome is visited by many, especially the old, the sick, or people who think they are broken in some way and hope to be “fixed”. The existance of Sensitives is also well-known by everyone. In order to ward them off, people use anti-fungal cream and techniques like Kaaro’s at his bank job.

I don’t really want to tell you anything about the plot (or plots, plural) because part of the fun here is finding out how everything is connected and how it all fits together at the end. In the prestent, Kaaro discovers that Sensitives seem to be dying and he’s trying to figure out what is happening to them. Are they being murdered? Does it have to do with the xenoforms and do they give them all some sort of disease? In the flashback chapters, we see some of Kaaro’s previous missions, some of which give us glimpses into politics and the alien biodome. I admit it can feel like reading several separate stories at times, but by the end, everything comes together and we get the whole puzzle. And the puzzle is just the beginning of a probably much larger tale – this is only part one of a trilogy, after all.

The nature of this book makes it very hard to talk about. It is best to be experience. I used an Audible credit for the audiobook and I can highly recommend it. It’s narrated by Bayo Gbadamosi and he does a fantastic job! Not only was it nice to hear how some of the names are pronounced but Gbadamosi also creates so much atmosphere. When Kaaro is freaked out by something, it absolutely shows in the narrative, giving me a sense of anxiety and completely immersing me in the story.

I highly enjoyed this book and have books two and three lined up and ready to go. It’s like Thompson took certain ideas and tropes that may have been there before but combined and twisted them into something that feels utterly fresh and new. It has a noir feeling to it, it’s definitely weird, it’s science fiction, and it’s about a man figuring out what to do with his life. And also there’s aliens… Mashing so many things into one book shouldn’t work but it totall does. I am hooked and can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy and anything else Tade Thompson writes!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novella

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

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

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

The Finalists for Best Novella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ballot (probably)

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

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

Up next week: The Lodestar

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Short Story

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

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

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

The Finalists for Best Short Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ballot (probably)

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

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

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

Up next week: Best Novelette

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

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

DEEPLIGHT
by Frances Hardinge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

N.K. Jemisin – The City We Became

I don’t know what I expected. I mean, N.K. Jemisin can do no wrong if you ask me, but you never know, especially when an author branches out from epic fantasy novels into something more urban and contemporary. But if the author possesses enoughs kill and creativity, we still end up with a great novel. And we don’t have to debate Jemisin’s skill after her three-in-a-row record-breaking Hugo wins.

THE CITY WE BECAME
by N. K. Jemisin
narrated by Robin Miles

Published: Orbit, 2020
Hardback: 437 pages
Audiboook: 16 hours 14 minutes
Series: The Great Cities Trilogy #1
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: I sing the city.

Five New Yorkers must come together in order to defend their city in the first book of a stunning new series by Hugo award-winning and NYT bestselling author N. K. Jemisin.
Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.
But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

Wow! This may not have been the first review of one of Jemisin’s book that I start with a simple “wow” but it’s the most succinct way of summing up my feelings about her ideas, her writing, her characters, and her plots. If her three consecutive Hugo wins haven’t convinced you yet, N.K. Jemisin is a shining star in the SFF field and I am so happy for her success! But as any truly great writer, she doesn’t just rest on her award wins but keeps working and keeps getting better and better. I will do my best to sum up my thoughts in a coherent fashion, but my review will probably end up very long and somewhat rambly. I am only a little sorry for that. 🙂

When Great Cities are born, a human avatar comes into their power. It’s happened with many cities on Earth, but now it’s New York’s time! A young homeless man feels himself become the city and the city coming to life. But something is wrong – it’s too much for him alone to hold and there’s something dangerous and evil lurking in the shadows… Cue the awakening of five other humans “awakening”, representing each of New York City’s burroughs. This is their story.

Having never been to New York, I only had pop culture and friends’ accounts to use as reference, and I really have no idea whether the descriptions and personalities for the five burroughs can be called accurate or fitting. But it certainly felt that way. We first meet Manny – Manhattan – who is new in the city and has no memories of his previous life. But even though it’s his first time in New York, he knows there shouldn’t be white tentacles growing out of the street and he knows something weird is going on in his mind.
We may start with Manny but he is the character that remained the most mysterious until the end. Sure, as some of his memories come back – mostly flashes, feelings, and ideas, not actual scenes – he becomes more fleshed-out. But I didn’t really connect with him the way I did with the others. Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t sympathetic. It’s a sign of great writing that I even cared about a character that I don’t know a lot about.

Brooklyn is a former MC turned politician and all she really wants is to make sure her daughter and father are safe! When she meets Manny, she’s kind of his lifeline because Brooklyn understands a little more about what’s going on and why she’s suddenly the avatar of her burrough. But even she doesn’t have all the answers.
When I say I found Brooklyn to be the second-weakest of the characters, that doesn’t say much. Because even though the others are more fleshed out and we get to spend more time with them alone, outside of the group, she still comes across as a believable human being whose welfare was important to me as I read. Actually, scratch that bit about “second-weakest” – I liked Brooklyn and she grew on me more and more over the course of this novel.

Bronca, the newly-born avatar of the Bronx, sees the big picture. Not just about the birth of her city and her fellow burroughs, but about what’s going wrong in the world. She runs an art gallery in the Bronx and just wants to make the world a little better. But it’s not easy when she has to deal with disgusting art by racists pretending to do good…
I adored Bronca! First of all, she’s an older woman of Lenape heritage who doesn’t take shit from anyone. But she’s also caring and deeply protective of the people she loves. Her dynamics with young Venesa (part surrogate daughter, part protégée) were beautiful to read and showed different aspects of Bronca’s personality. I also enjoyed her storyline with the art gallery a lot which made her my favorite character to read about.

Queens is a young woman of Indian descent named Padmini who lives and breathes mathematics. She comes into the mix rather late but I loved her from the get go. Her reaction to suddenly being Queens is the exact correct level freaked-out. But while she may appear somewhat quite or even meek at first, she soon shows her strength when it is most needed.

Now this book wouldn’t be very fun if all characters were essentially good, so there is a villain and a good one at that. And then there’s Staten Island. Aislyn has grown up very differently from the other characters. Raised by a protective and super racist cop father, she has learned that white = good and brown = bad. Men are dangerous, nicely-dressed women are safe. So it’s no surprise that Aislyn is the one who listens to the strange woman in white who may or may not have something to do with the weird white tentacles growing out of the street and sometimes even out of people.

As you may have guessed already, there is a lot of social commentary in this book. And if what Jemisin has to say about the state of the world differs from how you see things, you probably won’t like The City We Became very much. I, however, am on board and I thought she did a great job in showing how a group of diverse people deal with all the shit that’s happening on a daily basis. Whether it’s some dude mansplaining to Bronca why his torture porn piece of art isn’t racist when it clearly is, or Brooklyn worrying about her daughter’s safety, whether it’s the New York avatar’s homelessness or Queen’s fear that her family might be deported – there’s a lot to think about here and it’s all presented in a careful, respectful manner. Most importantly – while Jemisin’s message is clear and not particularly subtle, it is never hammered in. I didn’t feel lectured at any point. She simply invites you to think about certain things and while her characters certainly know what they think about these issues, you are welcome to make up your own mind.

The same people who might be opposed to Jemisin’s social commentary will probably also have things to say about the diversity of the characters. Except for Aislyn, all the protagonist and side characters are People of Color, some of them queer. Honestly, if the avatars of a city as big and diverse as New York had been all white people, I would have been shocked and it would have made the whole idea of this novel less interesting. I also found that Jemisin made her characters effortlessly diverse, without any heavy-handedness. And I find it hilarious that the book itself even mentions how bigots react to this kind of thing, accusing people of using POC as tokens, of trying to gain political correctness points, and so on. This book can certainly be read as simply a great story but I loved the meta apsects of it as well. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Better New York Foundation reminded me quite a bit of a certain group of “melancholy canines” that was opposed to women and POC winning Hugo Awards a few years ago…

So many words written and I haven’t even talked about the plot yet. Well, it’s both simple and complicated. Essentially, the burroughs find out that they are the avatars of a newborn city and they should probably all get together and also see what happened to the avatar of New York as a whole. Oh, and while they’re at it, try not to get killed by the woman in white and her evil tentacles. Why? Well, to save their city, of course!
The driving force behind all their actions is a deep love for their sprawling, beautiful, flawed city and the wish for everyone in it to have a good life. It may not be a quest to throw a ring in a volcano but it was just as exciting. There’s a nice, solid build-up to the climax that leads to a thoroughly satisfying ending. That’s all I can say without spoiling the fun.

I treated myself to the audiobook version and I was so happy about the narrator. Robin Miles does such an amazing job reading this book! She does different accents for the characters, some of them better than others. I found her British accent really good and she absolutely nailed the nuances between the differenct characters’ way of speaking. Sao Paolo’s accent was a bit of a miss but then again, Miles is a narrator, not an impersonator. Considering all her other qualities – reading action-packed scenes with the necessary urgency, doing different voices for different characters, having a brilliant maniacal evil laugh – I can forgive the slightly off accent for Paolo.
Another thing about the audiobook that I want to mention is the occasional sound effects and music. They don’t happen often, but they give the story that little extra that helps immerse yourself in it. I definitely loved it!

If you like a diverse cast, reading about a city like it was a character (and which city isn’t, really?), about current issues wrapped in a fantastic tale, about friendships and family, then pick up this book. Jemisin’s writing is superb as always and this story is all the better for being a book-shaped middle finger in the direction of people who think they deserve better than others, be it because of skin color, gender, or sexual preference. This New York is for everyone!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Ted Chiang – Exhalation

I am so happy Ted Chiang is nominated for two Hugo Awards this year because that gave me the necessary push to finally read something by him. Instead of just reading the nominated novella and novelette, I decided to read the entire collection. And boy, am I happy about that decision. His first story collection Stories of Your Life and Others is already on my e-reader and I cannot wait to read that as well. There may be some gushing below.

EXHALATION: STORIES
by Ted Chiang

Published: Knopf, 2019
Ebook: 352 pages
Collection
My rating: 8,5/10

Opening line: O mighty Caliph and Commander of the Faithful, I am humbled to be in the splendor of your presence; a man can hope for no greater blessing as long as he lives.

This much-anticipated second collection of stories is signature Ted Chiang, full of revelatory ideas and deeply sympathetic characters. In ” The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate ,” a portal through time forces a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad to grapple with past mistakes and the temptation of second chances. In the epistolary ” Exhalation ,” an alien scientist makes a shocking discovery with ramifications not just for his own people, but for all of reality. And in ” The Lifecycle of Software Objects ,” a woman cares for an artificial intelligence over twenty years, elevating a faddish digital pet into what might be a true living being. Also included are two brand-new stories: ” Omphalos ” and ” Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom.”

In this fantastical and elegant collection, Ted Chiang wrestles with the oldest questions on earth—What is the nature of the universe? What does it mean to be human?—and ones that no one else has even imagined. And, each in its own way, the stories prove that complex and thoughtful science fiction can rise to new heights of beauty, meaning, and compassion.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

The opening story is one that, after two or three pages, made me ask myself why I have waited so long to read Ted Chiang!
A merchant in Baghdad visits an alchemist’s shop where he is shown two gates. One whose right side precedes the left by a few seconds – meaning if you stick your hand in, it won’t come out the other side. At least not immediately, but only a few seconds later. He is then shown a second gate with a time difference of 20 years – essentially, a time travel portal. The alchemist then precedes to tell our merchant several stories of people who have gone through this gate and what befell them. These read almost like fairy tales, with simple characters, but clever ones nonetheless.
I am a sucker for fairy tales, the rule of three, and all that stuff, so I gobbled this up with joy. But it’s not only a fairy tale with a science fictional twist, it’s also a story about whether the past can be changed and, if yes, whether it should.

Exhalation

The titular story of this collection was both intriguing, thought-provoking, and a little weird. We follow a scientist who is trying to figure out two things. One, how does a person’s memory work, and two, why do all the clocks seem to run fast? It becomes apparent very early that the protagonist and his people are not humans but some sort of robots or cyborgs? A science experiment then leads to big revelations about their world and ones that translate pretty well into our world as well. There may not be exact parallels but it definitely got me thinking about climate change, entropy, and the fate of our universe in general.
I liked the story but it wasn’t my favorite and maybe a little too weird to hit me emotionally.

What’s Expected of Us

A very short tale with a cool premise that fell mostly flat for me because I had actually seen a documentary once, dealing with this very topic. The question posed – or rather, answered – is that of free will. Do humans have it? And if you could prove we don’t, do any of our actions still have meaning?

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

I had heard about this novella before but, to my shame, never read it until now. This was truly something else. It’s about a start-up that creates digients, sort of virtual pets, but ones that can and have to be be taught to mature – like the ultimate Tamagotchi (I’m totally showing my age here). Ana is a young woman who trains and teaches these creatures and gets quite attached to them. We then follow Ana and Derek – who animated the animal’s faces – and the digients themselves throughout the next years and get to watch an astounding development.
It’s hard to put into words how this story made me feel, but it made me feel A LOT! As much as we are reminded that the geniets are software, I couldn’t help but join Ana, Derek, and their friends in truly caring about them and their future. It poses questions of what makes a person, whether love to a string of code can be real love, and about human (and AI) rights. The ending was a bit of a let down because compared to the pacing of the novella so far, it happened too abrupt and wasn’t as satisfying for me as I’d hoped. But this is still one of the best novellas I have ever read.

Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny

Now this was very much up my alley. Framed as the description of a museum piece, it tells the story of a man who was looking for a better nanny for his infant and promptly invented a mechanical one. I don’t want to spoil anything about where this goes but while most of it is rather predictable, it is so well written and so entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time that I really loved it.
It also always amazes me when one author can switch voices so effortlessly. Chiang wrote this piece in a completely different style from the other stories here and it works beautifully. It feels authentic and puts you in a different time period.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling

Another well-known story that I’d heard of but never read before, this felt very much like a Black Mirror episode, except not quite as dark. In fact, it uses one of the same gimmicks – a device calle Remem that records everything a person sees, hears, or says. This device can be used to win arguments over who said what, settle issues at court, and much more. So learns a father when he rediscovers his own past not as he remembers it, but as it truly happened…
A parallel story told is that of a people without written culture. They keep their memories by oral tradition, simply telling the next generation what needs to be remembered. When missionaries introduce writing into this culture, however, young Jijingi sees how it may change things.
I loved the ideas presented in this story despite the fact that I had encountered the technological gimmick in pop culture before. But what Ted Chiang does differently from Black Mirror is showing not the big impact technology has an humanity as a whole, but rather looking at the little things. Small conflicts that only affect two or three people, not world-changing questions are at the center of this story. It also asks questions about the reliability of human memory and whether what’s true is also right.

The Great Silence

This story is merely a few pages long and I didn’t much care for it until the very end. Told from a parrot’s perspective (yes, a parrot), it draws a parallel between a message sent out into the universe in the hopes of finding alien life and the “alien” life that exists alongside us on Earth, namely the parrots of the Río Abajo Forest.
It is a nicely written story but one that I only sort of enoyed. Until the ending, that is. The very last line hit me right in the guts and even made me tear up a bit.
The origin of this story, explained in the Story Notes at the end of the collection, is also highly interesting.

Omphalos

Here we are, at the first Hugo finalist for 2020. This novelette has many things going for it, first and foremost the world that is somewhat like ours, but also decidedly not. It is told through a series of long prayers to the Lord, said by Dorothea Morrell, an archeologist, recounting her days. You see, on this alternate Earth, archeologists can trace back artifacts to the creation of Earth by God. There are trees with no growth rings, human bones without signs of having grown; they simply came into existence fully-grown, and so on.
The plot revolves around the theft (probably) of some such artifacts, dating back to the creation of Earth, and Dorothea wants to make things right, but discovers something much bigger in the process.
I really liked discovering the world building of this particular story but the plot and language just couldn’t reach me the way some of the other tales in this collection did. Had I read this on its own, I may have liked it more, but with this sort of competition, I wasn’t really in it.

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom

The other Hugo nominated tale, up for Best Novella, had a much deeper impact on me. Again, a technological gimmick is the source (or the catalyst) for diving into deep questions about what it means to be human, whether our choices and actions have any meaning, and whether technology helps or hurts humanity.
Prisms are computer-like divices that set off different branches of the universe. In universe A you may go grab a coffee before work, in universe B you go straight to work and consequently get run over by a car – that’s my very short, simplified description of it but of course, things are much more complicated. People like to see what their paraselves – them in different universes – are up to. While differences usually aren’t drastic, depending on how long ago a prism created another branch, your paraself may be quite different from yourself. You might hate your job and have messed up your relationship while your paraself is happily married and loves their job…
Ted Chiang uses this idea and spins a fantastic story about a handful of characters who are all impacted by prisms in one way or another. Dana is a psychologist whose clients’ problems often have to do with prisms, Nat works at a place that rents out prism time for people to chat with their paraselves, and Nat’s boss Morrow has a plan to make them both very, very rich.
There was so much to unpack in this novella, so many things to think about, to ponder over, to endlessly discuss with friends, preferably when slightly drunk and feeling inspired and philosophical. I adored it!

General thoughts

What a collection! Of course, I didn’t like all stories equally, but I couldn’t say that any one of them was bad or that I didn’t enjoy it. But even with stories of this high quality, some are bound to appeal more to any individual than others. As a fan of fairy tales, I loved the opening story, but others might prefer more contemporary settings, even though that story does involve a time machine.
But what really tells me that this is an excellent collection is that I can’t really choose a favorite. Each story does something different, is set in a different place at a different time and deals with completely different characers. Sure, they have certain themes in common – free will, the impact of technoligal advance, the meaning of freaking life! – but it doesn’t feel right comparing them with each other.
The only remotely negative things I can say about this is that I was disappointed in the rather abrupt ending of “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” and that “What’s Expecte of Us” didn’t work for me. But when I say this it’s not the same as when I said it about other collections. Because while one story may not have been my jam and another ended differently than I had expected, they were still fantastic science fiction stories that deserve a wide audience and all the awards.

As much as I want to dive straight into Ted Chiang’s first collection Stories of Your Life and Others, I think I’ll have to let this one sink for a while. There’s a lot to digest, an enormous amount of food for thought, and characters (not all of them human) that will stick in my mind for a while. If it hasn’t come across yet – I am deeply impressed and will henceforth call myself a Ted Chiang fan.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – So very excellent!

Friendship is Magic: Sarah Gailey – When We Were Magic

After their amazing debut novel Magic for Liars, I knew I had to read whatever Gailey decided to publish next. While their novella Upright Women Wanted wasn’t the right fit for me, they are back in top form with this YA (?) novel about six friends, the bonds that tie them together, and their troubling adventures disposing of a body…

WHEN WE WERE MAGIC
by Sarah Gailey

Published: Simon Pulse, 2020
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: I didn’t mean to kill Josh Harper.

Keeping your magic a secret is hard. Being in love with your best friend is harder.
Alexis has always been able to rely on two things: her best friends, and the magic powers they all share. Their secret is what brought them together, and their love for each other is unshakeable—even when that love is complicated. Complicated by problems like jealousy, or insecurity, or lust. Or love.
That unshakeable, complicated love is one of the only things that doesn’t change on prom night.
When accidental magic goes sideways and a boy winds up dead, Alexis and her friends come together to try to right a terrible wrong. Their first attempt fails—and their second attempt fails even harder. Left with the remains of their failed spells and more consequences than anyone could have predicted, each of them must find a way to live with their part of the story.

This book starts with death by detonating penis. It took exactly two paragraphs for me to know I would love this novel and although it’s about much, much more than just that opening death scene, I did end up loving every bit of it. Alexis just wanted to have sex with a boy for the first time, to get it over with. So Josh seemed as good a pick as any but the prom afterparty ends with an exploded penis, a dead Josh, and a desperate and shocked Alexis, not knowing what to do. So naturally, she calls her five other magical friends to help. Together, they try to reverse whatever spell gone haywire caused this grisly scene, but they only succeed in removing some of Josh. Certain body parts remain and now need to be gotten rid off.

This makes it sound like this book is all about gore and covering up an accidental murder but it’s really not. Sure, that’s part of it but it’s really about a group of friends who happen to be able to do magic, each in her own way, each a little different from the others. We see these amazing young women through Alexis’ eyes and so it becomes very clear very early that while she may love all her friends, there is one among them that she may love in a different way.

I can’t tell you how enjoyable it was to get to know these six girls over the course of this story. The plot became almost not important anymore because I just wanted to know who these people are, how they met, what they can do, and watch them just be wonderful, loyal friends to each other. Whether it’s Marcelina with her plant magic, Paulie (the cheerleading Taylor Swift lookalike) and her fierceness, Iris who can create new spells out of nowhere, Maryam who takes make up artist skills to a whole new level, passionate Roya who is a champion swimmer even without magic, or Alexis herself who – even in her own narrative – constantly sells herself short, worries whether she even deserves these friends and whom I wanted to hug the entire time.
The diversity in this cast was just beautiful to read. Not only are the girls from different social, ethnical, and religious backgrounds, some of them are queer, Alexis has two dads and an adopted brother, and they are each just amazingly different people who came together to form this beautiful found family that just works.

Covering up a murder for your best friend is one thing. Actually taking a body part and trying to get rid of it is a whole different story. But they all agree to it, without hesitation, because that’s what magical friends do. Of course Josh’s absence is noted soon and eventually the police start investigating, so there is the plot keeps its tension until the end. But again, that’s not what made this book so good. It wasn’t even Alexis’ obvious pining after Roya and my hope that these two would finally get their shit together and make out, the best part of it was really just watching these girls respect the hell out of each other. They are so different and they react to trauma in different ways. One of them may want to be alone, another one may need to vent and shout out her feelings, yet another one could just want to pretend everything is fine – and the others all respect that and do what needs to be done so their friends can be okay. I absolutely loved that!

The more we learn about the six girls (who are represented pretty amazingly on the cover by the way), the more we also get to see of their magic. While small magic can be done with a handwave and a smile – like changing your nail polish or cleaning a spot off your shirt – the big magic they’re trying to do now to somehow bring Josh back to life or at least keep Alexis from being called a murderer is different. It has a cost and it’s not cheap. But they deal with this as they do with everything else. If one of them is not okay because of the terrible things they’re faced with, then they will all be not-okay together.

The book’s ending wasn’t exactly a revelation but it still felt incredibly right for this story. As much as I wanted to hug Alexis throughout the book, I also kept wondering if I should even sympathise with her. She did after all kill a person, whether by accident or not! And while she feels all sorts of remorse, the fact remains that Josh has been murdered. Even if the girls manage to somehow bring him back, that guy can never be the same… But because this isn’t the kind of book that focuses on the murder investigation or the group trying to make up clever lies to cover it up, that didn’t bother me too much. It was there, in the back of my mind, the entire time but the friendships and potential romance took over pretty quickly.
I’m impressed with Sarah Gailey’s ability to write stories that put such different weight on certain aspects. While Magic for Liars had a lot more focus on the actual murder mystery, characters were still highly important to that book. Then in her novella Upright Women Wanted, there was almost no plot and the characters, while important, were mostly there to transport a message – an important one, but one that didn’t particularly work for me. Here, it’s neither message nor plot – it’s characters all around. If you like the way Becky Chambers’ characters treat each other, then definitely pick this up. There’s no aliens here, just believable witchy characters who can teach all of us a thing or two about friendship and respect and love.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent