My Thoughts on the Hugo Finalists 2021

It is time for excitement, for making reading lists, for having opinions. Because DisCon III announced the Hugo Award finalists on April 13th and

CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL THE FINALISTS!

I’ll do this the same way I did it last year. I’ll go through the categories one by one, see how many books I’ve already read and what I think about the finalists. I will – again – leave out the categories about which I have little to say and/or which I don’t plan to vote in (like Best Editor, Long Form) or which don’t really fit this blog (the Dramatic Presentation categories).

Warning: This is going to be a long post. Feel free to skip ahead to a certain category or to my general thoughts at the very end.


BEST NOVEL (3/6)

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

Network Effect and The City We Became were both books I nominated for obvious reasons. I left out Piranesi because, well, I knew it didn’t need my help and I had some other, less buzzy books I wanted to support (Micaiah Jonson’s The Space Between Worlds ended up on my ballot for example – Johnson is an Astounding finalists so that makes me happy). And as much as I loved Clarke’s newest book, I don’t feel it’s a Hugo novel. It feels more like a World Fantasy or Mythopoeic Award kind of book, you know?

I look forward to finally continuing Mary Robinette Kowal’s excellent Lady Astronaut series and I knew – I just knew – that my fellow Hugo nominators would make me read the entire Locked Tomb series simply by nominating it. I was one of the very few people who didn’t find much to like in Gideon the Ninth but I’m willing to give Harrow a try. Although from what people have been saying it’s even more bonkers than the first so I don’t have high hopes that I will like it. But hey, I’m open for it. Maybe this time, aesthetics and cool names will be enough to entertain me.

I’m surprised that Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia didn’t make it. It was on my nominations ballot and there was a lot of hype surrounding that book. The author beats her own marketing drum hard all year round and it’s impossible to miss this book’s gorgeous cover. I was so sure she would make it onto the final ballot. Then again, horror books have a hard time at the Hugo Awards, so I guess I should have known better.
I also expected Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future to be on here because Robinson is an old Hugo darling and always ends up as a finalist. To me, he is one of the authors the older Hugo voter generation nominates simply because he has written something – which doesn’t mean he isn’t deserving! I haven’t yet read any of his works so I wouldn’t know but I dislike authors being nominated rather than books and that seems to happen a lot. I guess times have changed a little and I can’t say I’m too upset. 🙂


BEST NOVELLA (4/6)

  • P. DjèlĂ­ Clark – Ring Shout
  • Sarah Gailey – Upright Women Wanted
  • Nghi Vo – The Empress of Salt and Fortune
  • Tochi Onyebuchi – Riot Baby
  • Nino Cipri – Finna
  • Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down

Ah, the inevitable Seanan McGuire and her Wayward Children series. Look, I’ll be the first to admit that last year’s novella was actually very good but that doesn’t change the fact that, overall, she just shouldn’t be a finalist every year simply for having lots of fans. Not EVERY SINGLE ONE of her books is award-worthy. That’s not me being mean to her in particular, that goes for every author, even someone like N. K. Jemisin. But you can be sure, if McGuire has written something (and she’s always written something) it will end up on the Hugo ballot wherever it fits, taking a potential spot from a debut or underrated or marginalised author.
I’ll read Come Tumbling Down and I hope it’s another good one, but can we please all admit someday that apparently, she just doesn’t write Hugo Award novels/novellas? She has won once for the first Wayward Children novella and then nothing ever again. And it’s really not for lack of chances as you’ll see when we meet her again further down the ballot, not once, but twice, because of course.

I wasn’t a big fan of Upright Women Wanted, and Riot Baby surprisingly fell flat for me. I loved the message of both these novellas but they lacked story/plot and didn’t hit me emotionally the way they promised. I think that’s mostly me, though, not the quality of the work. Gailey and Onyebuchi are both authors whose other work I adore!
(This is a good example of how not to nominate authors simply because I like them but to nominate based on the quality of their eligible work. I would gladly throw Hugos at Gailey and Onyebuchi (figuratively speaking) but these particular books weren’t for me so I didn’t nominate them. It’s really not that hard…)

Ring Shout is a different story. I nominated it because that novella did everything right and completely blew me away. With two novellas still to read, I am fairly certain it will remain on the top of my ballot. The Empress of Salt and Fortune was also excellent, although very different in tone. So far, these are my top two. I’m going to check out Finna and the McGuire, mull things over a bit and then decide on my final ranking.

Generally, I’m very sad that the entire ballot is made up of Tordotcom novellas. I love Tordotcom as much as the next guy but it wouldn’t hurt to have more variety on the ballot. And because I am one of the culprits who only nominated stuff from Tordotcom, I know that I myself should do better as well.
So, here’s my appeal to other publishers: Please step up your game and promote your novellas the way you do novels if you want them to reach a wide reader base. Dear old-timey magazines: It’s 2021 so get with the times and make sure your online presence is inviting. Then people will come and read your stuff and, if it’s good (which I suspect it is), they will nominated it for awards.


BEST SERIES (5/6)

Boy, am I glad it’s a Toby Daye year, not an InCryptid year! I’m only two books into the series (14 novels published so far, plus a ton of shorter stuff) but I genuinely liked both. I didn’t consider them award-worthy, because they are fun and have interesting characters but tons of books have that. For a Hugo Award, there should be a little more. I’m hoping to catch up a LOT on this series because people say it gets better and better and I’m curious to see if I hit the point where I go “oh, I get it now” and where I think the series as a whole should get a Hugo Award. Either way, this is one Seanan McGuire series I enjoy and would continue even without the bi-yearly nomination.

If you think it’s clear that Murderbot will win, wait a second. Yes, it’s universally beloved and it totally deserves an award. BUT. The series is still ongoing which means it has a chance of being nominated again and then winning, whereas The Daevabad Trilogy and the Poppy War series are finished. If we want to honor them with a Hugo, now is the time! That said, I also totally think Murderbot will take home the award.

I loved City of Brass and just started Kingdom of Copper which is also very good so far. I love how much more depth and politics the first book offered than I had expected. I also admit to shipping a certain couple and I’m curious to see where that goes. The question I’m going to ask with all the finalists here is whether the series as a whole is more than the sum of its parts – if it makes a difference whether you’ve just sampled the world and story or actually followed through until the end.
The Poppy War is a tough one, in every way. I loved the first book, as much as you can love something that so utterly depresses you. I want to finish the trilogy but knowing a little of what’s ahead (pain, tears, death,…) it’s difficult to get in the right mood. I will absolutely read the other two books before the voting period ends but I need to pick them up between some super happy stuff!
I enjoyed The Calcuating Stars a lot and it earned its Hugo Award two years ago. With the third in the series/universe being up for a Best Novel Hugo again, I’m even more excited to continue. Although I’ve mixed things up in the past – with Becky Chambers’ books for example – I will go in publication order here and read The Fated Sky before I dive into The Relentless Moon.
The only series I haven’t even started yet is Scalzi’s Interdependency. I heard great things about the first book and… not so great ones about the last book. Scalzi is a strange one for me. I am a huge fan of him as a person and his online writings. I haven’t been such a fan of his fiction which makes me all the more curious to see what this sci-fi trilogy is like. My fingers crossed but I’m keeping expectations low.


BEST GRAPHIC STORY (0/6)

  • Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans – DIE, Volume 2: Split the Party
  • Seanan McGuire, Takeshi Miyazawa, Rosie Kämpe – Ghost-Spider vol. 1: Dog Days Are Over
  • G. Willow Wilson, Christian Ward – Invisible Kingdom, vol 2: Edge of Everything
  • Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda – Monstress, vol. 5: Warchild
  • 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

Okay, okay. There’s nothing too surprising on this ballot but I’m looking forward to all of those, even the – who would have expected this nomination?! – Seanan McGuire comic. (Can you tell I’m a little bitter when it comes to her? Cause I am definitely a little bitter and will tell you more at the bottom of this page.)
Although I have technically read zero out of these finalists, I have read the first volume(s) of 3/6 of them.

Monstress is on the ballot yet again and while I’ve never fallen head over heels for this series, I find it beautifully drawn, I like the story, and I don’t begrudge it its success. It just doesn’t get me emotionally for some reason but I’ll gladly read the latest instalment when and if it’s included in the Hugo Voters Packet. Last year’s packet was amazing so I’m all caught up on the series except for this newest volume.

I am thrilled that G. Willow Wilson’s Invisible Kingdom vol 2 is on here because I read volume 1 a few months ago and immediately put the second part on my wishlist. I haven’t gotten to it yet but I’m cackling in anticipation! This is such a cool world with original characters.
Last year, Die vol. 1 was nominated and I found it pretty good, very dark, but also a bit too much of a set-up volume to really grip me. Again, this is a universe and an idea I’ll happily explore further and Kieron Gillen is someone I’ve come to trust.
Gillen is nominated a second time, for the first volume in a new series, Once & Future, which seems to be a dark contemporary spin on the King Arthur legend. I have no idea what to expect but I’m here for it. King Arthur seems to be cool again, he also shows up in the Lodestar category.
I also can’t wait to see what the Graphic Novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower will be like. It hasn’t been that long since I read the book so it’s all still fresh in my mind and I know there are things in that book that I do not want to see… I’m intrigued to read the graphic novel and see how things are depicted but at least I know the story is good.
And last but not least, Seanan McGuire has written a Gwen Stacy comic titled Ghost-Spider. I am always up for some Spider Gwen, although reviews of this one are pretty middling. Also, it appears this “volume 1” is set after two volumes of Spider Gwen, the second of which is called Ghost-Spider Vol. 2? I haven’t made sense of it it yet and need to do more research but I am properly confused.


LODESTAR (3/6)

  • Jordan Ifueko – Raybearer
  • Tracy Deonn – Legendborn
  • Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education
  • Darcie Little Badger – Elatsoe
  • T. Kingfisher – A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
  • Aiden Thomas – Cemetery Boys

Aaaaaaaah, this is such an exciting ballot! With the exception of Naomi Novik’s book – more on that later – I love how diverse and different all these books are.

Obviously, my beloved Raybearer is on here. I am so hyped for its sequel (and duology ender) so maybe I’ll give this a re-read before voting is over. I haven’t heard many people talk about this book so I am doubly glad enough people read and liked and nominated it. Because now even more people will read it and get to know Sunshine Girl and this beautiful found family!
I just read Legendborn and enjoyed it quite a bit. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the way the King Arthur legend was used, but as a story of its own about a secret society at college, it worked fine. Its strengths were definitely the themes of dealing with loss and grief, racism and finding a place to belong. So I’m happy to see it nominated but for now, it feels like a middle of the ballot kind of book.

I have so much excitement for Elatsoe – it has a ghost dog, apparently! – as well as Cemetery Boys – a trans, Latinx protagonist is something new for me and I love reading different perspectives from my own. And T. Kingfisher is just T. Kingfisher. I can’t wait to meet her latest pragmatic protagonist and the shenanigans they get into. Maybe I should read this after one of the R.F. Kuang books…

Now, about A Deadly Education. We’re talking arbitrary frontiers here, like what even is the line between YA and adult fiction? Most of these lines are drawn by publishers and/or book sellers who put the book in a category and that’s what we sticks. I could be wrong (I can’t find the interview I remember reading) but didn’t Naomi Novik herself make clear that this is not YA? Like how dare we assume that just because a book is written by a woman and takes place at a magic school with teenage protagonists, it’s automatically YA? And I agree, that assumption is stupid and we should all be better than that. But then, when it gets nominated for an award, it’s suddenly okay again that the book is considered YA? That leaves a bad taste in my mouth, to say it mildly.
I was one of the people who enjoyed this book – although I still can’t quite tell you why, it has so many problems – but I find the author’s behaviour a little strange. Add to that the fact that Novik is well established and beloved in the SFF community and doesn’t really need an awards boost. If you look at the other authors, they are all either new or not well know or not the big bestselling types and can each benefit greatly from being nominated. If Novik had declined the nomination (based on the fact that she doesn’t consider her book YA and it thus doesn’t fit the category), who would have gotten the last finalist spot? Guess we’ll have to wait until December to find out.


ASTOUNDING AWARD (2/6)

So that’s where those other buzzy books went. 🙂
The Unspoken Namen by A. K. Larkwood has been popping up here and there over the course of the last year. I haven’t read it yet but I’m glad to pick it up for Award reading. The same goes for The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons and the rest of the series – the speed with which these books are being published is stunning. I don’t know if it was the Game of Thrones-y style of the covers that kept me from picking them up so far or something else. But I look forward to checking it out.

The two authors I’ve read are Micaiah Johnson – I nominated her myself – and Emily Tesh. Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds was excellent and I even nominated it for Best Novel as well. I read the first of Tesh’s novellas, Silver in the Wood which was good, but didn’t stick in my memory for very long. I’ll read the second one, Drowned Country, but unless it has more memorably characters or a more exciting plot, I can’t say anything much nicer than that Tesh is a competent writer.

I am most excited about Simon Jimenez‘ novel The Vanished Birds. This feels like such a quietly buzzy book. I kept coming across it, in more literary circles as well as genre spaces, but the reactions to this book were overwhelmingly positive. So I cannot wait!
Lindsay Ellis wasn’t on my radar at all, although I have seen Axiom’s End floating around. Whisleblower/first contact/conspiracy story sounds intriguing, especially because it’s not my usual cup of tea.


BEST FANCAST (5/6)

  • Be the Serpent
  • The Coode Street Podcast
  • The Skiffy and Fanty Show
  • Worldbuilding for Masochists
  • Kalanadi
  • Claire Rousseau’s YouTube channel

Here’s another category that gives me OPINIONS. Or, to say it better, that makes me feel like a bit of a fool.

Last year, I was so excited that a BookTuber was nominated, and even one that I knew and liked. Claire Rousseau used to do these Genrewise SFF News videos that summed up what’s going on in the field really well. She has a nice D&D based TBR game going with herself, and I liked her reviews, even when we didn’t agree. So I felt she totally deserved her nomination (last year). But in 2020, she has barely uploaded any videos – which I absolutely don’t mean to sound reproachful. It’s a pandemic and holy shit, we all understand when you have other things on your mind than creating content. But if you don’t create anything, should you be nominated for an award? Like, for what? For having made some videos for the first few months of the year and then just stopped? I follow Claire’s channel and I get notified when she uploads new stuff. She was completely off my radar for the second half of 2020 because there was simply nothing there. Her channel literally shows you the newest video (one day ago) and the video before (7 months ago). Again, I’m not saying Claire has any obligation to produce videos but I do believe that we should award fancasters who actually, you know, fancast.
Her channel will probably be at the bottom of my ballot because I’ve already seen all her 2020 videos and they will have a hard time keeping up with what the other finalists have to offer. But I’m glad she plans to re-launch her channel and I’ll happily nominate her next year if she makes great videos again in 2021.

This year, Claire isn’t the only BookTuber on the Hugo ballot this year. Rachel from Kalanadi, a wonderfully calm and thoughtful person, has been making videos consistently for years. I also follow her (although I didn’t nominate her, I instead nominated The Fancy Hat Lady Reads, another BookTuber) and I especially like her long-term projects of reading certain award winners – she did the Tiptree a while back, she’s reading through the SF Masterworks, but she’s also very self-aware and checks in on her goals and reading stats. As with any reviewer, we don’t always agree, but I appreciate her reviews and the way she talks about books. I would definitely be happy to see her take home a Hugo Award.

Now to the podcasts. I like The Coode Street Podcast and its two incredibly well-read hosts, which I say every year. 🙂 I sometimes love, sometimes don’t like Skiffy and Fanty, also like every year. I have to listen to Be the Serpent more to make up my mind properly. And I don’t know Worldbuilding for Masochists at all, so this is exciting. I love discovering new things through the Hugo ballot and this is one of the few that’s actually completely new to me.

I will admit to a general bias on my part towards the BookTubers. This category has been going to podcasts for so long that I feel it’s time for a change. Having two BookTube finalists on the ballot is already a win but unless Be the Serpent or Worldbuilding absolutely blow me away, Kalanadi will be my first choice for this award.


GENERAL THOUGHTS

In general, there is nothing overly surprising on this year’s ballot. In the Best Novel category, so many potential great books could have made it, it was really just a matter of who was nominating this year and what their personal favorites were. Some years, you just know one or two of the most hyped books, the ones everyone was talking about. But 2020, we were all talking about many buzzy books that we loved.

The one thing that I did notice last year, and in part with the Hugo finalists, is the blurry distinction between YA and adult novels. The Bone Shard Daughter, for example was very well received but was it YA or adult? I think it’s sold as adult but the marketing campaign gave it YA vibes, if you know what I mean. Maybe that kept people from nominating it or maybe some nominated it as Best Novel, others as a Lodestar? I’ll be interested to see the final stats in December.

The Best Related Work category is interesting this year. I don’t have enough to say about it to warrant its own section in this (huge) post, but it’s cool that a convention is nominated – although I have no idea how I, as a non-attendee, am supposed to judge that – as well as the ConZealand Fringe, a sort of side event alongside regular WorldCon which can be watched on YouTube. Add the obligatory ranty blog post and one actual non-fiction book and you have a pretty diverse category.

My (yearly) Seanan McGuire rant:

I’m so tired of having to read so much Seanan McGuire every year. You guys, I know I can sound mean when I talk about her, but I’m really just tired. It’s like this war inside me where, on the one hand, I want to give all nominated books a chance and vote fairly for what I thought was best, but on the other hand, I spend my precious time reading her books when I could be reading a debut author, a marginalised author, an underrated author, or even re-reading an old favorite.
It’s getting to the point where I want to just not read her work, no matter the book – just the way she gets nominated every year, no matter the book. And if I don’t read it, I won’t vote for it. If her fans can convince themselves that every single of her works deserves an award, then I can convince myself of the opposite. The truth is probably somewhere in between but I guess we’ll never know because people aren’t always fair and authors aren’t always gracious.

Seanan McGuire is by far not the only author who has lots of Hugo nominations but only a single (or even no) win. The difference is that she writes so damn much that she takes up space in at least two categories every year. If she wrote a novel, a novella, and an instalment in a series, you can be damn sure she will be on the ballot in all three categories. If she really were that much of a literary genius, shouldn’t she be swimming in Nebula Awards? World Fantasy? Mythopoeic? I mean, those are the ones that get judged by other authors, by her peers. Interestingly, she was only nominated and won once for Every Heart a Doorway which is also her sole Hugo win (except for fancast but she was part of a larger group there).
I know nothing I say here will sway the hardcore McGuire fans. And look, I’m glad she has so many fans and I’m glad they love her work that much. Finding a favorite author is a great thing, especially when that author churns out a ton of content every year.
But if you count together all the spots taken up by McGuire works in the last few years, spots which eventually all ended up not winning – the potential other books for those spots could have given at least 10 other authors a hands up in the industry, a chance for a career, a chance to build their own fan base just like the one McGuire has. Simply not accepting a nomination – at least in one of the three/four/five categories – has apparently never crossed McGuire’s mind. After being told by the voters that her work is not deserving of a Hugo this many years in a row, maybe giving someone else a chance is a viable option?

This year, I will read all her nominated works again because I would feel like a quitter otherwise and they all sound interesting. But next year, I will definitely skip InCryptid – the first one is a book I’d be ashamed to have published – and only pick and choose the rest. Depending on this year’s Wayward Children novella, I may or may not read next year’s. And if you think these won’t make the ballot next year, don’t make me laugh. If it has the name Seanan McGuire on it, it will be on the ballot…

So now that’s out of the way again, I have decided to focus on the postives. There are so many books, graphic novels, and series I look forward to discovering or continuing this year. I hope this ballot will push me towards my goal of finally finishing up some series I’ve started and show me some new authors and creators I can follow in the future.

What do you think about the finalists? Did your nominees make it? Am I too touchy about Seanan McGuire? 🙂 Are you going to read the finalists and if yes, are you voting?

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Series

Here’s my last instalment of the Reading the Hugos series for this year. I’ve done better than ever before in this category but disclaimer right here: I didn’t even get close to reading all the books in all the nominated series.

For my thoughts and rankings (currently) of the other categories, go here:

This is probably the toughest category for me (and many others) to judge. While a Best Novel or Lodestar nomination may happen for book two or three in a trilogy, it rarely happens for part 12 of a long-running series. Which is the entire reason this category exists! So that book series can be honored even when their first book(s) didn’t garner a lot of acclaim or weren’t as well known yet. Sometimes the tale grows with the telling, sometimes it’s only after a few books that characters really get to shine, and sometimes a trilogy in its entirety is just so much more than the sum of its parts.

The Finalists for Best Series

I’ve been gushing about The Winternight Trilogy ever since the first book came out. While the first is still my favorite, simply because its fairy tale vibe and atmosphere is so dear to my heart, I can’t deny that Arden actually got better with every book. The Winter of the Witch was a worthy and beautiful ending to a pretty epic story. I loved it to pieces, I nominated the books for Best Novel every year, so it would warm my heart to see the trilogy as a whole take home a Hugo. While the first book could be read as a standalone, the trilogy definitely tells a larger tale that is well worth exploring. Full of atmosphere, great multi-layered characters, and Russian history, it’s the perfect trilogy for reading on a winter night.

I started The Wormwood Trilogy from scratch and was very impressed with the first book. Yes, the reviews are right – it is a confusing book, jumping between different timelines, different levels of existence and dealing with a lot of fresh ideas. Kaaro is a former thief who now works for a special branch of the government as an interrogator. It’s not the kind of interrogation you might think, though. Kaaro is also a sensitive – one of the people who got some sort of mind reading powers from the alien biodome around which Rosewater is built – so he can just go into a prisoner’s mind and have them spill the beans on whatever the government wants to know. And although that’s already a lot, there’s even more to discover in this book. It’s a wild ride with crazy ideas and while I definitely struggled to keep the timeline straight in my head, it was a great experience.

Emma Newman’s Planetfall surprised me in many ways. I had only read her previous fairy-inspired series and didn’t much like it. Not only did Newman create a fantastic science fictional world here but her writing is also just phenomenal There was not a single second in the first book, Planetfall, where I was bored. Renata lives on the one and only space colony on a distant planet. She and others followed Lee Suh-Min to this place in order to find God. However, Renata and the Ringmaster Mack have a secret, one that involves the colony’s religious ceremonies… When a stranger arrives at the colony, things are put into motion and Ren’s many secrets are revealed over the course of this novel. This was exciting, filled with awesome ideas about life on a different planet, and Ren is one of the most intriguing protagonists I’ve ever read about. It’s hard to say much without spoiling but just do yourself the favor and pick this book up!

Although the cover screams that this isnot for me, I did give InCryptid by Seanan McGuire a try. After all, I quite like her October Daye series, so why not try her other urban fantasy? Well, now I know why. Because of all the things I dislike in books, McGuire picked most of them and threw them all together. A super-perfect heroine, a plot that doesn’t start until a third of the book is over, and that third being filled with info dumps and mentions of how great the heroine is. I hated Verity from the get go because I just don’t like Mary Sues without nuance or flaws, and a girl shooting someone while wearing heels doesn’t impress me. When she does something intolerably stupid (although she is supposed to be so perfect), that was it for me. The final nail in the coffin was the forced love interest that is the opposite of organic and feels like it was just thrown in there because you have to have romance in your urban fantasy. As I didn’t care for anything in this book, I finally DNFd it at 34%. This book is the definition of Not My Thing.

When I started reading Luna by Ian McDonald, I knew very soon that I wouldn’t be able to be super fair to this book. It can be summed up as a Mafia story set on the moon – and how cool is that? – which puts it in the uncomfortable position of being compared in my mind to Jade City by Fonda Lee. I know that’s not fair and I know I should keep those books separate in my head but I am only human and that’s just how my brain works.
Mind you, although it’s tough for any book to be as great as Jade City, I still enjoyed this one. I didn’t think the character work was quite as well done, but as to not be even more unfair, I tried to focus on the worldbuilding. This is science fiction about a society living on the moon, ruled by the Five Dragons (old families running big corporations). There is no criminal law, only contracts. If you can’t pay for air, well, that’s too bad. The plot had massive pacing problems (or just… non-existence problems) but the writing was great and the ending had me reading with my mouth gaping open. Not my favorite but I will continue the series someday.

The series I feel most uncomfortable ranking is The Expanse. I read the first book shortly after it came out but I just haven’t kept up with the series. We are currently at seven volumes, so even if I had managed to read Caliban’s War in time, I wouldn’t have been able to judge the series fairly. My hope is that it will be nominated again in a few years and I’ll have caught up by then. As long as the series is still ongoing, there’s still hope. And I don’t have to feel too bad for ranking it based solely on its first volume.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Katherine Arden – The Winternight Trilogy
  2. Emma Newman – Planetfall
  3. Tade Thompson – The Wormwood Trilogy
  4. The Expanse
  5. The Luna Trilogy
  6. No Award
  7. Seanan McGuire – InCryptid

As mentioned above, I took the next best approach to reading all the books in all the nominated series, which is to at least read the first volume in each series and continue on with those that interested me the most – if the first book doesn’t capture my attention enough for me to want the second book, then the series will proably not be my top choice. Even if the series in general gets better after book 3 or 5 or whatever, I’m not going to like it as much as a series that was great right from the start. At least that’s my reasoning. I also hate when people justify long series by saying things like “Oh, it really gets going around volume 4”. Why do I have to force myself through three mediocre or even bad books to get to the fun part? Shouldn’t the series have started with the fun part?

That’s why I only read the first book in the InCryptid series and I won’t be reading another book of that series even if it inevitably gets nominated again. I am going to vote for No Award in my sixth slot because, try as I might, I don’t see any reason why this could be deserving of an award. Considering the other finalists, this book just shouldn’t be here. It offers no original ideas, the writing is the laziest version of Urban Fantasy trope-land, the protagonist is plain bad, and the plot didn’t promise anything new. Yeah… I really hated it. But even apart from my personal taste, I think it is objectively not a great book that shouldn’t be in the company of these other finalists.
Luna and the Expanse might still switch places on my ballot. It’s been so long since I read Leviathan Wakes. On the other hand, Luna was the last book I read. I enjoyed both but one was definitely more fun and one had more ambitious science-fictional ideas. And I don’t know how either of their sequels handle characters and world building, so I’m pretty much just ranking them by gut feeling.
As for Emma Newman and Tade Thompson, both first books were utterly stunning, so I definitely need a second one to make a final decision on where to rank them. Unfortunately, time is  running out. I definitely plan to finish both these series, but when I had to decide on which one to continue first, Planetfall won. So this, and this alone, is the reason I am ranking it above Rosewater (for now). I am going to start the sequels for both of these books today and I may still finish them before voting closes. But with the decision making power I have at my disposal at this moment, this is where they go on my ballot.

And this is it for my Reading the Hugos series. I’m sad I didn’t get to the finalists for the Astounding Award or Best Related Work. I read half of the Astounding finalists but I definitely won’t catch up on the rest before Hugo voting is over. And, to be quite honest, I look forward to just reading whatever I want again.

Reading the Hugo finalists has been incredibly rewarding and led me to discover some truly fantastic books and probably even new favorite authors. But now that I’m done, I feel relieved that I can pick up a book by mood and catch up on 2020 releases. There’s an entire Murderbot novel waiting for me! And I got a gorgeous hardcover edition of Octavia Butler’s Parable duology that wants to be read.

I will be nominating and voting in the Hugo Awards again next year. And if everything works out well, I may even do another Reading the Hugos series. 🙂

Mafia Families on the Moon: Ian McDonald – Luna: New Moon

Here we have another book that, although I was interested, I probably wouldn’t have picked up if the trilogy weren’t nominated for a Best Series Hugo Award this year. I have nothing against hard sci-fi but I am a character reader and characters tend to draw the short straw in many hard sci-fi novels. This trilogy starter was actually really good, but it didn’t exactly change my mind on the subgenre and its pros and cons.

LUNA: New Moon
By Ian McDonald

Published: Tor, 2015
eBook: 432 pages
Series: Luna #1
My rating: 6.75/10

Opening line: In a white room on the edge of the Sinus Medii sit six naked teenagers. 

The Moon wants to kill you.
Maybe it will kill you when the per diem for your allotted food, water, and air runs out, just before you hit paydirt. Maybe it will kill you when you are trapped between the reigning corporations – the Five Dragons – in a foolish gamble against a futuristic feudal society. On the Moon, you must fight for every inch you want to gain. And that is just what Adriana Corta did.
As the leader of the Moon’s newest “dragon,” Adriana has wrested control of the Moon’s Helium-3 industry from the Mackenzie Metal corporation and fought to earn her family’s new status. Now, in the twilight of her life, Adriana finds her corporation-Corta Helio-confronted by the many enemies she made during her meteoric rise. If the Corta family is to survive, Adriana’s five children must defend their mother’s empire from her many enemies… and each other.

This is the story of the Cortas, a successful almost mafia-like family whose matriarch Adriana has established a name for herself on the moon by selling helium-3. Adriana came from Brazil, from nothing, and built an entire dynasty in one of the most inhospitable places a human could live. The environment wants to kill you, air has to be paid for, there is no criminal law, only contracts. And when you’re as rich and famous as the Cortas, assassins never stray too far…

I was hooked pretty quickly when I started reading this book because who doesn’t like a good mafia story? And this is essential a mafia story set on the moon. The moon may not be far away but it feels like a completely different world when you imagine living on it. The world building was well done and I got more and more of a sense of what it’s like to live on the moon, especially through the point of view of Marina. She isn’t part of the Dragon families and, in fact, starts out as a Jo Moonbeam (a newcomer to the moon) living in poverty.
While this first impression of life on the moon got me interested, I wanted a little more detail when it came to the world building. So many cool things are mentioned that I wanted to learn more of. Since this is only the start of a trilogy, I’m being lenient and hope to find out more in the sequels.

The most important part of a novel for me is always the characters. And there are plenty to choose from here. I honestly don’t remember how everyone is related to each other but I at least managed to keep the many, many Cortas separated in my head by age groups. Adriana Corta started it all, then come her sons and daughter who will inherit Corta HĂ©lio, and then there are their children. Plus wives, madrinhas (more on that later), servants, bodyguards, and trusted advisors. I went into this expecting to be confused because the book starts with a long list of character names. However, I think any novel should establish the characters in such a way that no lists are needed, that the reader learns through context who is who and how they relate to each other. McDonald did an okay job with this. It’s all a bit much at first but the more we follow single characters and their story lines, the clearer it becomes who they are and what their role is in the family.

The plot was sadly a bit disappointing. It starts off with a bang. Several bangs, actually. We begin with Lucasinho (one of the younger Cortas) on his moon-run. I’m not spoiling that particular crazy tradition for you, but it had me on the edge of my seat for the entire first chapter. And then there’s an assassination attempt on one of the Cortas. Talk about a great start!
Except after that, the plot starts meandering, never really  finding its footing. We follow the different Cortas doing their daily business and as they try to further their dynasty and prepare for a time when Adriana Corta will retire and hand off the company to one of her heirs. But I never got the sense of following a red thread, of having anything to hold on to. It’s all snippets and glimpses and the POV changes happen so quickly that it was hard to fully immerse myself in any one character’s story. I never really built an emotional connection to them. I found them intriguing, certainly, and I enjoyed following their lives, but they always stayed at a distance. My heart just wasn’t in it, so I also didn’t much care about their love stories, character deaths or their business successes and failures. I felt like a scientist watching these people in a lab and nodding with interest, not like someone living these stories alongside them.

I didn’t expect it but the language was quite challenging. With the Cortas originally coming from Brazil, there are many uses of Brazilian Portuguese words – or more specifically, Brazilian Portuguese words influenced by a life on the moon – that are easy enough to understand through context but made reading this book a bit harder nonetheless. Add to that all the cool tech our moon-dwellers use, the many concepts that are second nature to them but are new and strange to us Earth people, and you’ve got a book that takes a while to get through. Take for instance the madrinhas. With some knowledge of Romance languages, I kept thinking “little mother?” whenever I came across the word, and it’s not that far from what it means in this book. Madrinhas are surrogate mothers who carry the Corta’s children – but children created of the sperm and egg cells of actual Cortas and whoever they chose to marry. These surrogate mothers don’t just carry the baby, however, they also raise it for a while and become part of the larger family, which was a really interesting concept. Not one I necessarily understand or find particularly appealing to hand off childrearing because you’re too busy but still want a legacy, but… you know, interesting.

Another language thing I noticed was that McDonald seems extraordinarily in love with the pronoun game. A large number of chapters and POV changes start with lines like “Carlinho took her by the arm and led her to the other room […]” or “He walked down the steps in this secret passageway” with several paragraphs of not specifying who “she” or “he” is. This device can be used to create suspense, to make a surprising twist more shocking, or even just for fun on occasion. But in Luna it’s done so often and never for any point I could surmise that it got annoying rather quickly. It’s not like there aren’t enough names and relations to keep in mind already. At least tell me the name of the person I’m going to follow in this chapter!
I also found the descriptions of sex in this book a bit strange. There is plenty of it and while I loved that the people on the moon don’t give one single fuck about who sleeps with whom, the actual descriptions of sex made me cringe. I’m currently listening to The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson which also has a lot of graphic sex in it so I can’t help but compare (unfair as that may be). And while in Hopkinson’s book even very detailed descriptions feel natural and honest, in Luna they felt like the author was just trying to be edgy. Don’t misunderstand me, the scenes weren’t bad, I just didn’t really understand the purpose of the detail in regards to this tale.

My favorite part, probably because it tells an actual story, was the first person narration of Adriana Corta which intersplices all the other characters’ stories. She tells her entire life story; how she lived in Brazil, went to the moon, had one crazy idea and built one of the biggest companies there. There was also friendship and love in that life and although I also didn’t connect very much with Adriana on an emotional level, I was excited to read about her. Her chapters were the ones where I didn’t want to put the book down.
Until the ending. Remember how there isn’t really any straightforward plot? Well, there really isn’t but somehow at the end, everything happens at once. I have to be vague so I don’t spoil things for you but let’s say that the incredibly exciting events of the last chapter should have been built up better. It all makes sense once it’s explained but it felt a bit out of left field. At least drop a clue here or there so the readers can go “ooooh, I should have seen that coming” at the end. Okay, that’s about all I can say without telling you what happens. I will add that this ending was brilliant and showed me that I cared at least about some of the characters more than I had thought. I am in no rush to continue the trilogy (even though the next book is set up and will probably be great) but I’m glad I read this.

MY RATING: 6.75/10 – Pretty good

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Graphic Story

This week’s Hugo category is one where I usually struggle with some of the finalists because – just like in the Best Series category – it’s often volume 7 of a series that’s nominated. When I haven’t read all the previous ones, it’s hard to judge the current finalist.
It gets even more difficult when a series is nominated that I started and didn’t continue because I just didn’t like it that much. Do I push through the missing volumes to see if this one is really great? Do I at least pick up the next (for me) volume and give the series another chance? Do I not read it at all?

It’s a tough one but you’ll find out how I handled the situation below. Let’s just say my plan to read one instalment of each series didn’t exactly work out…

Other posts in my Reading the Hugos series:

The Finalists for Best Graphic Story

    • Nnedi Okorafor, Tana Ford & James Devlin – LaGuardia
    • Kieron Gillen & Stephanie Hans – Die Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker
    • Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang & Matt Wilson – Paper Girls
    • Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda – Monstress
    • Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie – The Wicked + The Divine
    • Wendy Xu & Suzanne Walker – Mooncakes

I love Nnedi Okorafor’s writing so it came as no surprise that her Graphic Novel LaGuardia turned out to be wonderful. While two of her novels didn’t work for me so well, I always appreciate the writing, the themes, and the diversity of her stories. Okorafor also has an amazing range – adult fantasy, YA, sci-fi novellas, short fiction, you name it.
This story deals with a future where aliens have landed on Earth and now live among us. In fact, if you want to know how that happened, check out her novel  Lagoon.
It’s very obvious that this can be read as a book about racism. Sure, we’re talking humans and aliens here, but the experiences are based on the same issues. “Random” searches at airport security, groups of people wanting aliens out of their neighborhoods for no discernible reason other than that they are “not like them”, you know the drill. We see this world through pregnant Future’s eyes who has smuggled a plant creature from Nigeria to the US.
Apart from the great story, I also really loved the artwork. It’s vibrant and beautiful, the characters are distinguishable and come to life on the page. I’m sure this will not appeal to everyone, especially the people who like their fiction message-free (as if that even existed!), but I absolutely loved it and will continue reading the series.

I thought that Die: Fantasy Heartbreaker was a strange title for a graphic novel but it all becomes clear in the first chapter and is actually the most fitting title I could have imagined. This is the story of a group of teenagers who play a D&D game their friend created. And then crazy Jumanji-type stuff happens… I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that they are sucked into the game and emerge, two years later, in the real world again, with plenty of scars, both physical and psychological. The bulk of this volume is about their adult selves dealing with what happened to them. And then they get sucked right back into that crazy world and have to finish the game they started so many years ago…
I found the pacing of the first chapter to be way too fast but it really only serves as an introduction. The main plot is much more evenly paced and offered a lot of fun elements. As we visit the imaginary worlds of someone who grew up in the real world, there are a myriad of references to fantasy worlds any SFF fan will recognize. A quasi Middle Earth, the Bronte’s Glass Town, a Gibson-esque Cyberpunk place, and so on. But I enjoy stories mostly for their characters and while the protagonists are interesting and diverse, I had a hard time really getting attached to any of them. But I believe, over time, they can each grow even more interesting. So while this wasn’t an instant hit for me the way Saga was, I will probably continue reading it to see where it goes.

I read the first Paper Girls volume just after it came out and while I liked it, I just wasn’t hooked enough to continue. But when I found out that this series is now finished, that gave me the motivation to pick up at least the second volume. And about five hours later, I had binged the entire series… That tells you already that I was quite entertained by the story of these four 12-year-old girls time traveling through decades, meeting their older/younger selves, or sometimes completely different versions of themselves, and finding out certain things about the future that they probably shouldn’t know. I had a lot of fun, I enjoyed the characters immensely, but when it comes to the story and the sci-fi aspects of it, there wasn’t really anything new here. I’ve also just watched the third season of Dark (start watching it right now if you haven’t!) so my expectations for time travel stories are somewhat higher than they used to be. This is a solid, fun series with great diverse characters that I will gladly recommend. But for the top of the ballot, I needed it to be just a bit more. Oh, and I adore the artwork! Must never forget to mention the artwork. 🙂

I had super high expectations for Mooncakes, not so much that the plot would blow me away, but I hoped it would be a cute, wholesome story about a young girl and a non-binary person falling in love while doing magic. And I kind of got that, but the execution didn’t work for me at all. Any action there was, was over within a few panels. Instead we get lots of time following conversations like “How are you?” “I’m better, thank you. Do you want to sit down?” [Person sits down, they procede to hug or hold hands or smile at each other]. That would have worked really well in a movie but a comic book needs to use what little space it has more wisely. That just wasn’t the case here and many pages felt entirely like filler, rather than pushing the story or characters along.
The plot was also super thin, and I was never remotely worried that something bad could happen to anyone because every threat is just magicked away so quickly, you barely have time to be afraid. I was hoping so much I would love this. I didn’t hate it. I just… nothinged it… which is probably the worst thing a book can do. Leave me completely cold. The artwork was also not up my alley, so this is sadly but clearly at the bottom of my ballot.

I also binged the entire The Wicked + The Divine series in one day, even though I only meant to re-read the first volume and maybe try out the second. I remember not liking the first volume very much when I first read it years ago. This time around, I honestly don’t know what my problem was. Sure, it was only the beginning of a larger story but I found it quite intriguing. So I ended up spending a sunny afternoon with 12 reincarnated gods getting into all sorts of shenanigans, having relationship drama, and saving the world (of course). While I found the volumes varied a lot in quality, the overall story was really great! Paper Girls’ volumes were all steadily good, whereas The Wicked + The Divine had some fantastic and some less great volumes. I was also not a fan of the guest artists’ artwork because I loved the original art so, so much!
But for originality, characters, and overall plot, I think this kicks Paper Girls off my second spot. Plus, I keep thinking about this story more than a week after having finished it and I keep finding new details to appreciate.

The last series I read – another one where I’d read the first volume previously and never continued – was Monstress. I remember mostly enjoying  it, especially the gorgeous art. But the art was so intricate that it kept distracting me from following the actual story.
Even though I only had to read four volumes for this series, it took me the longest. The books are consistently good but never really grabbed me emotionally. It may be that the protagonist is not a particularly emotional person and even when she said emotional things, her expression didn’t let us see that. Whether that’s miscommunication between writer and artist or a conscious choice, I can’t say, but it always kept me at arm’s length from Maika and never let me properly care about her.
The world building is so complex that, unfortunately, pages of info-dumping are needed just to keep the audience somewhat up to date on what is going on, who is fighting whom, what factions exist in this world, etc. etc. While this was always accompanied by stunning art, it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s a lot of text that isn’t conveyed through story.
Lastly, the art is beautiful but it really didn’t work for me when it came to action scenes. Whenever there was fight, each panel was so damn busy, so filled with detail, that I couldn’t quite follow who was hitting whom, who was getting hurt, and so on.
Another problem I had with the series is that it’s missing focus. We keep visiting new places, introducing new characters, finding out a little bit about who Maika is and what’s going on this world, but as Maika’s such a distant character, I don’t even know what to hope for in this story. If the series is nominated again next year, I’ll read the next volume, but I won’t go out and buy it for myself. Except for Kippa and Zinn, I don’t much care for any of the characters.

My ballot (probably)

  1. LaGuardia
  2. The Wicked  + The Divine
  3. Paper Girls
  4. Die: Fantasy Heartbreaker
  5. Monstress
  6. Suzanne Walker – Mooncakes

It is really unfair to judge single volumes against entire finished series. Sure, officially it’s the latest volume of Paper Girls, Monstress, and The Wicked + the Divine that’s nominated, but those volumes build on the work that was done during the previous volumes. And comparing two finales and one middle volume with two first volumes just doesn’t feel right.
As always, I ranked the books by personal enjoyment but obviously the two first volumes had a much harder time than the long running series. Despite it being only the start of a (hopefully) longer series, I put LaGuardia first even though, as a whole The Wicked + the Divine was more fun to read, simply because there was so much more of it. If it wins, I’ll be super happy, but I also think a series that hasn’t had time to build a loyal fan base yet should get a chance, especially since I enjoyed it so very much and definitely want more of the same.

Mooncakes is clearly on the bottom of my list. I don’t want to be mean, I appreciated the thought behind that book, but the execution is several leagues beneath everything else that’s nominated. It’s important that this book and others like it exist but I honestly don’t see how it would be worthy of an award, especially compared to the other finalists.
Monstress is the one series that I think just isn’t for me. There are things I enjoy about it but the crucial missing element is my emotional envolvement. It’s just not there. If you push the next volume on me, I’ll read it, but I honestly wouldn’t mind never finding out how that story ends.

Up next week: Best Series

Buffy and Ballroom: Seanan McGuire – Discount Armageddon (DNF)

I’d been looking forward to reading the next book in McGuire’s October Daye series but after this, I think I’ve had my share of McGuire books for the year. Toby Daye can wait until 2021 because I have McGuire burnout!
The only (!) reason I picked up this book with the horrible cover, the generic title, and the boring premise is because the series is nominated for a Best Series Hugo Award and I want to give everything a chance. McGuire has surprised me in the past, even within the same series (Wayward Children, I’m looking at you) so I jumped over my shadow and read this gave this a fair shot. Things did not go well…

DISCOUNT ARMAGEDDON
by Seanan McGuire

Published: DAW, 2012
Ebook: 368 pages
Series: InCryptid #1
My rating: DNF

Opening line: Verity danced circles around the living room, her amateurish pirouettes and unsteady leaps accompanied by cheers and exultations from the horde of Aeslin mice perched on the back of the couch.

Cryptid, noun: Any creature whose existence has not yet been proven by science. See also “Monster.”
Crytozoologist, noun: Any person who thinks hunting for cryptids is a good idea. See also “idiot.”

Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night…
The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity—and humanity from them.
Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right?
It would be, if it weren’t for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family’s old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed.
To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone’s spreading rumors about a dragon sleeping underneath the city…

I don’t usually write reviews about books I didn’t finish because… well, I can’t judge the whole book when I’ve only read a part of it. But I can judge the bits I’ve read. In this case, they were not good. Actually, they were pretty terrible. We follow Verity Price’s first person narration as she lives in New York where she works with cryptids – supernatural beings – and protects them, but also makes sure that the wilder ones among them don’t start eating people. Otherwise, it’s exile or, you know, death. I have read 34% of this book (so sayeth my Kobo) and I could not bear a single page more. Let me elaborate.

Verity Price is good at everything. Scratch that – she’s perfect at everything. Blonde, lithe-bodied, athletic, and of course super smart. She’s everything I hate in a protagonist. Through rigorous training – NOT superpowers or magic or something else more believable – she is basically a pro in a dozen martial arts, knows how to use all sorts of weapons, she free runs through New York City, and generally just excels at everything she touches. Oh yeah, she’s also really into ballroom dancing, a fact with which she keeps bombarding the reader in every paragraph. That’s all we learn during the first five chapters or so, so this book was off to a very bad start.
I want my heroines flawed and if they have to be really good at something, at least give them something else that they sucks at. Or if the protagonist has to be supernaturally amazing at everything, give me an explanation that is somewhat believable. Even a handwavey explanation would have helped. But, alas, we are supposed to believe that one person can be this great just because she applied herself. Way to go for creating unrealistic expectations of women.

I’m probably one of the few people in the world who doesn’t have a problem showering while standing on one leg and pointing the toes of my other leg toward the ceiling.

Oh yes, Verity, you are so super special. But I’ll let you in on a secret. Even without a super special and unrealistic ballroom career next to your other job of full-time monster protecting, there are people who can do the splits… I’m one of them. We’re not that special. Being flexible shouldn’t be anyone’s best (or only) quality.

So what’s this mess of a novel even about? The Price family used to work with an organization called the Covenant – essentially a monster-hunting secret society that has sworn to find and kill all the cryptids living on Earth. Except the Prices realized that not all monsters are bad, some just want to live their life in peace and don’t eat people on a regular basis. So why not coexist? They left the Covenant and have been in hiding ever since. That’s important for the plot, which takes a whopping 15% of the book to even show the slightest hint of starting (but, spoiler, doesn’t even really start until 31%).
Because when Verity encounters an agent of the Covenant, she just straight up tells him who she is, that her family is alive and well, and then she lets him go… Remember, this is the super smart protagonist who paints herself as Miss Perfect and sleeps cuddling her many, many guns. I cannot BEAR stupid protagonists, especially when that supidity stands in stark contrast to what we’ve been told about them. There was absolutely no reason for Verity to tell that guy who she was. She just did it. Her explanation afterwards? She lost her temper. Which wasn’t there on the page at all. In fact, because she’s such an uber-badass, she remained pretty calm during the entire encounter. And then she proceded to spill her family’s secret. Because reasons, I guess.

“Hi,” I said brightly. “Ever been shot in the head? Because I don’t think you’d enjoy it much. Most people don’t.”

What little dialogue there is, was super cringe-worthy. It’s like Seanan McGuire tried to write her own Buffy (without the superpowers that give Buffy all her strength etc.) but couldn’t reach anywhere near Joss Whedon’s witty dialogue and snappy one liners.

The actual plot – cryptids gong missing and a certain creature existint that people thought didn’t exist  – only begins at about 31%. That means you get over 100 pages of info dumping, repetitions about how wonderful Verity is and how she is great at everything, ESPECIALLY BALLROOM DANCING!
At that point, I decided I would give the book a limited number of pages to get me hooked and if it failed, I’d just DNF it. The more I read, the more annoyed I got. Because apart from the really dumb protagonist who we are repeatedly told is amazing, the pacing and plot are also really bad. If nothing of interest to the story happens during the first 100 pages, something went wrong during the editing stage. It’s great that we get to learn about all these cryptids and their quirks but I didn’t pick this up because I wanted a list of supernatural beings. I want plot and interesting characters. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
And when we’re not getting endless paragraphs about the make up habits of gorgons, we instead have to work several pages filled with the rules of ballroom competitions. And of course many mentions of Verity’s brilliance and awesomeness and general perfection.

Side note: I did a search on my Kobo and the word “dance” appears 145 times in this book. “Ballroom” is only used 30 times. But you get the picture. Verity doesn’t actually do much ballroom dancing, she just likes to let us know in every paragraph that she’s great at it.

Another thing that didn’t help was the humor. It may very well work for you – we all know humor is absolutely divisive and something one person hates can make another one giggle for hours. Generally, I do like Seanan McGuire’s humor, especially in interviews (her personal, real sense of humor works for me and I usually laugh at her jokes) but I was disappointed that, apparently, that’s the only type we ever get from her. The October Daye series – which I’ve started last year and enjoy a lot – doesn’t try as hard to be funny but Toby also likes being a bit snarky at times. Verity, however, lays it on pretty thick. Her “funny” one-liners left me frowning rather than smiling, her oh-so-clever descriptions of cryptid species all sound the same. I wish that these two urban fantasy series did more to stand apart when it comes to writing style as well as characters/plot.

The part where I finally decided I’d had enough was when Verity, out of nowhere, kisses a guy she had previously shown no interest in kissing. But of course, the only human male that we’ve met so far has to be the love interest because them’s the rules, I guess.

I know that this series, as well as McGuire’s other books and series, has quite a fan following and I wish I could have joined them. But to me, this felt like a carelessly thrown together mess without a point. If you’ve finished this book or even read more of this series, please let me know in the comments if things get better. At this moment I have no desire of ever touching another InCryptid novel, but who knows what the future might bring.

MY RATING: Did Not Finish (but I’d give the first third of this book 2/10)

 

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novel

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

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

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

The Finalists for Best Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ballot (probably)

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

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

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

Up next week: Best Graphic Story

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

Sisters Survive Through Fantasy: Fran Wilde – Riverland

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

RIVERLAND
by Fran Wilde

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

Opening line: “Once upon a time…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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