Reading the Hugos: Best Novel

What a ballot! When the nominees were announced, I had already read four of the six nominated novels and I thought I was doomed. How was I supposed to choose my favorites among these excellent books? Couldn’t there at least be two or three that weren’t as good? Well, I’m all caught up and while the ballot is still filled with fantastic books, at least I know somewhat how to arrange my list now.

The nominees for Best Novel

  1. Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera
  2. Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver
  3. Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun
  4. Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars
  5. Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning
  6. Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few

At this moment, I’m certain about my number one spot and the bottom two spots. But the three books in between could switch places a hundred times before the voting period ends. Because I just don’t know! They are incredibly difficult  to compare, they did such different things, they were all brilliant, and I really don’t know at this point what my final ballot will look like.

Cat Valente’s Space Opera is my number one for several reasons. First, I have adored Valente’s writing for years, she has never let me down, and while I think she should have won a Hugo already for Radiance, I believe this book is just as deserving. Humorous science fiction is rarely taken into consideration for awards so I don’t believe it will win. But when you pick up a book that everybody has compared to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it doesn’t let you down? That’s already a winner for me. I mean, who could stand up to that comparison and come out not just with “yeah it was okay” but with a nominateion for a Hugo Award?  Valente not only made me laugh out loud with the premise – Eurovision In Space – and the hilarious invasion scene as well as many silly moments, she also showed her originality with the alien species she invented. And, most of all, the story is full of heart and a deep love of humanity, warts and all. I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh and feel all warm and fuzzy inside like this. If Redshirts can win, than Space Opera should have a chance as well! I sincerely hope it does.

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver was a beautiful book. It suffered from too many unorganized POV characters and it wasn’t quite as good as Uprooted but that’s about all the negative things I can say about it now. I adore fairy tale retellings (as you may have guessed if you stop by here occasionally), so I’m putting it in second place for now. Novik turned a Rumpelstiltskin retelling into an epic fantasy, which is already a feat, but she also created memorable characters and great romances – I know many people didn’t like them, but I stand by my minority opinion.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun concludes the Machineries of War series. In order to read this, I had to first catch up on the second volume, which suffered from middle-book-syndrome a lot. This, however, was a worthy and exciting finale to an epic series. It started with a bang, made me think I knew where it was going, turned the other way, then swerved around yet again. It was clever, had great characters (Jedao must be one of my top ten characters ever!) and a satisfying ending. Seriously well done. I can’t wait for whatever Yoon Ha Lee publishes next.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is easily the best novel of hers I’ve read. It was thrilling, despite being so character-focused and lacking in space battles. It made me uncomfortable and excitied and angry all at the same time. I loved that the protagonist lived in a stable, happy marriage, I loved how the book dealt with mental health issues. There were so many things I loved about it. And seeing how it won a Nebula Award, I wasn’t the only one. As I’m having such a hard time ranking these books, I’m going to use that win as an excuse to rank it a bit lower. It’s already won an award, after all, and while there have been several books that won both Hugo and Nebal awards in the same year, I didn’t think this book was quite amazing enough for that.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning was on the bottom spot of my ballot for a long time. Not because it’s bad but because it was too ordinary for an award. A fun Urban Fantasy story in an original setting may be entertaining to read, and I did enjoy how Native American mythology gets woven into the plot, but I still don’t think this book deserves an award. Many, many other books are published every year that do the same thing: sassy, kick-ass heroine solves mystery while working through her dark past, meeting potential love interest, betrayal, battles, magic, etc. etc. Neither the writing nor the characters were good enough for me to want to give this an award.

However, Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few, which I expected to love, goes even below that (for now). In reality, this book was better written than Trail of Lightning, but it had absolutely no plot for such a long time that I kept asking myself why I was even reading it. It’s the equivalent of a married couple discussing who’s going to do the dishes tonight… except in space. For a few hundred pages! Although once the plot does start (very late in the novel), the book becomes really, really good, by then I was too fed up already with the hours I’ve spent reading about nothing (in space).

So this is it, my Best Novel ballot. I may yet switch the bottom two novels around, depending on how my feelings change in the next month or so. I may also change my mind about my slots 2 through 4, but for now, I’m okay with the way I ranked these books.

I’m sure everyone has their own way of deciding how to rank a certain book. As I’m not a professional critic, all I have to go on is my own enjoyment of any given book. And – as was the case here – if I enjoyed many of the books, I try and find other criteria such as originality, writing style, potential for rereading, etc. For example, I’ll probably never reread The Calculating Stars because although it was a very good book, it was not exactly a fun book, but I may give Spinning Silver another go and I will most definitely reread Space Opera someday. It’s a total comfort read.

How about you guys? Are you voting for the Hugos this year? Do you agree/disagree with my list? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments! 🙂

Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars

I didn’t think I’d enjoy this book as much as I did. From the description, it sounded like a quiet kind of story, one that is more about the people in the background of cool science fictional stuff, rather than the heroes who actually go on adventures. What I learned is that “hero” is subjective and Elma and her friends turned out to be my personal beloved heroines by the time I was finished with this book. It’s also my favorite of Kowal’s books so far and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

THE CALCULATING STARS
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published by: Tor, 2018
Ebook: 431 pages
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Do you remember where you were when the Meteor hit?

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

When a meteor hits the planet, Elma and her husband don’t suspect just what an impact this event will have on their lives and the lives of every other human on Earth. They “only” think about the family members they have suddenly lost and wonder how their lives are supposed to continue after this. These first chapters were really hard to read, which is in large part due to Elma’s voice. Mary Robinette Kowal writes as if Elma were really talking to us, telling her story to a friend. There is an immediacy to the text that makes you like Elma from the first moment, so her losing almost her entire family at once hit me pretty hard even though they were characters we hand’t even met.

It doesn’t take long, however, for Elma to figure out just what devastating effects the meteor will have on the Earth as a whole. Apart from waves of refugees, people who have lost everything, food shortages and devastation along the coast, the future doesn’t look much brighter. The threat of climate change in this novel feels all too familiar. Elma explains beautifully how, in the next few years, things may look okay, but the Earth is going to be uninhabitable within decades. The voices of “What global warming? It’s snowing today” made me just as angry in this book as they do in real life.

But Elma and her husband Nathaniel pick up the pieces of their lives and make the best of it with the skills they have. They both happen to have PhDs, so they can both do their part to pave the way to space for all mankind. And this is where the setting really shines – if you can say that. The book starts in the 50ies and although it is made clear from the start that women have been pilots in the war, and that there are numerous competent women mathematicians (as well as other professions), they are treated anything but equal. Don’t even mention black people!

This unfair treatment made me so angry while I read but it also made one hell of a story! Elma faces a ton of situations in which things are presumed about her because she is a woman, in which she deals with stereotypes about Jews, in which her competence is questioned based on nothing but her gender. She herself messes up lots of times with her black friends. She makes mistakes, assuming things because of their skin color or simply forgetting that – hey, black people are also around! This actually made Elma even more likeable. She never has bad intentions, she is simply learning something that is new to her and that means making mistakes. I have been in situations where my own ignorance made me say something stupid, as I suspect many other readers have. You may not intend to be mean but words have consequences, whether you meant well or not. Making mistakes is part of it and we can all count ourselves lucky if we have friends like Elma’s who let us know when we said something idiotic.  Watching Elma learn these things, watching how her world and circle of friends grew richer through it, was almost as beautiful as seeing how humanity first ventures into space.

There were so many more things I loved about this book. Elma’s relationship with Nathaniel was simply beautiful. Here are two people with understanding for each other and each other’s flaws. Elma deals with crippling anxiety whenever she has to speak in front of a crowd or reporters or generally is the center of attention. I can relate so well! And so, it appears, can her husband although he doesn’t suffer from anxiety. It was just so lovely to see this married couple be there for each other, give each other space when needed, and talk things over without any drama. Also, it’s just refreshing to have a protagonist with a solid, loving relationship rather than adding some forced tension by throwing in a love triangle/divorce/cheating husband/whatever. Nathaniel is Elma’s safe haven and that’s something I suspect many people aspire to so it was really nice reading about it.

But not all people respect Elma and the other women the way Nathaniel does. They way the women in this story are treated when they want to join the male astronauts made me furious (yet again). Proven facts are simply ignored – such as women having an easier time dealing with G-forces – and instead it is taken as a universal truth that women are weaker and space “just isn’t for them”. They’re good enough to do all the calculations for the big boy astronauts but actually give them a chance to go into space themselves? What would people think? A lot of this book shows the narrow bridge women have to walk if they want to achieve anything. Be too demanding, you’re hysterical. Stay quiet in the background and let your work shine for you, you’ll be ignored or erased. So finding the right balance between making yourself heard but not so loudly that powerful men can call you hysterical is what Elma had to learn. It means staying quiet when you know how to solve a problem, it means being five times as good as a man when applying for a job, it means letting others ridicule you and smiling about it. As angry as this book made me, it also made me really happy to watch Elma persist and never give up on her dream.

This is also a book that shows female friendships, not in some way where everything is always peachy and nobody ever fights, but in a realistic way. These diverse women are kind of in the same spot – although one has to mention that Elma’s black and Asian friends are even more excluded than the others – so they stick together. Not all women in this book are perfect angels, they each have a personality and some of them are not nice people at all. But the general message that women can be friends, even when they’re competition (like for a spot on a space ship, say) is one I wholeheartedly agree with.

Mary Robinette Kowal has managed to write a book that works really well on so many layers. It explores women’s roles in what to this day is stereotypically “a man’s job”, it explores racism and antisemitism, grief and love, mental illness and dealing with pressure. It is peopled with excellent characters whom I grew to love without even noticing. The story is riveting although this is by no means what I’d call an action story. I have very little to nitpick, except maybe that I found Elma and Nathaniel’s dialogue that lead up to them having sex a bit cringeworthy (rocket ready to launch… ahem). But that’s a super minor complaint and also a question of taste rather than writing quality. I loved this book and will definitely check out the sequel to see what heppens with Elma, Helen, Ida, and all the others.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Mary Robinette Kowal – Glamour in Glass

Why did I read this? I had mostly lukewarm feelings about Shades of Milk and Honey, the first part in this series. But Mary Robinette Kowal is so likable and seems so clever in her interviews and podcasts that I wanted to give her a second chance. If the first novel was – and such a thing is possible, I’ve learned – too much like Jane Austen and read like all the characters were ripped off, this one has its own voice and mood to it. Unfortunately, it was a mood that bored me almost to death.

glamour in glassGLAMOUR IN GLASS
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published by: Tor, 2012
ISBN: 1429987286
ebook: 213 pages
Series: Glamourist Histories #2

My rating: 6/10

First sentence: There are few things in this world that can simultaneously delight and dismay in the same manner as a formal dinner party.

Mary Robinette Kowal stunned readers with her charming first novel Shades of Milk and Honey, a loving tribute to the works of Jane Austen in a world where magic is an everyday occurrence. This magic comes in the form of glamour, which allows talented users to form practically any illusion they can imagine. Shades debuted to great acclaim and left readers eagerly awaiting its sequel. Glamour in Glass continues following the lives of beloved main characters Jane and Vincent, with a much deeper vein of drama and intrigue.
In the tumultuous months after Napoleon abdicates his throne, Jane and Vincent go to Belgium for their honeymoon. While there, the deposed emperor escapes his exile in Elba, throwing the continent into turmoil. With no easy way back to England, Jane and Vincent’s concerns turn from enjoying their honeymoon…to escaping it. Left with no outward salvation, Jane must persevere over her trying personal circumstances and use her glamour to rescue her husband from prison . . . and hopefully prevent her newly built marriage from getting stranded on the shoals of another country’s war.

dividerAfter Shades of Milk and Honey, I was hoping for many things to happen in the second novel. I wished Mary Robinette Kowal would be a little less like Jane Austen (who but Jane Austen can really pull it off, after all?) and more like herself. Check. I was hoping that the characters weren’t such obvious copies or amalgamations of Austen’s own Elizabeth Bennet or the Dashwood sisters. Check. I was hoping that her magic system, Glamour, would be further developed. Check.
Despite all of these good things that were delivered as per my personal order (or so it seems), there was one element this book was missing. Badly. It was drive, it was that thing that makes you go “wow” and get really immersed in a story. Frequently, the five-year-old that I secretly still am on the inside, wanted to shout out “This is BOOOORING” while I was reading. I shushed her and everything, pointed out the nice writing and the depth of research that must have gone into the novel. But five-year-old me didn’t care. She wanted a good story. And that’s where Glamour in Glass was truly lacking.

glamour in glassIt opens on a dinner scene where Jane, who, with Vincent, has just finished a magnificent glamural commissioned by the Prince Regent, describes the dinner conversations, all the rules of propriety that go with such and the separation of the sexes once the whisky and cigars are brought and the discussions start going in a political direction. This may be very interesting from a historical point of view but it lacks any wit that Jane Austen always provided in her work. And the plot (if you can call it that) meanders along in the same manner until the last quarter of the book, when finally something happens that requires action. I am by no means averse to slow-moving books that focus on characters. But let’s take a look at the characters we meet here.

Jane, for the most part, is incredibly sulky and passive throughout the novel. Until said event in the last bit makes her come out of her shell and become pretty awesome. I liked her a great deal in Shades of Milk and Honey, but here I found myself not caring very much about her and actually being annoyed with her a lot of the time. Vincent has lost his brooding mystery and what little we see of him didn’t excite me either. This may be entirely my fault or it may be due to the inconsequential conversations the newlyweds have. I don’t know. It just didn’t grab my attention at all.

What Mary Robinette Kowal does brilliantly is paint a picture of the era. I’m no expert, not even an amateur, in the field, but everything just feels right. The way people behave, the differences between England and France and Belgium, the clothing, the carriages and horse-drawn carts… simply guessing from what I’ve read in her two Glamourist Histories, I would say, Mary has a firm grip on her research. The afterword gives us a clue of how thorough she has been, creating a list of words with all the words Jane Austen used in her works, and eliminating or rephrasing any words Mary used to fit the vocubulary of 1815.

I was also very happy to learn more about Glamour and see Jane come up with new ways to use it. It is like reading steampunk – you read about inventions that could have been made in the past. Only this is glamourpunk. The scenes where Jane and Vincent work on their theory and try to put it into practice were the first ones that got me really hooked and that offer a myriad possibilities for future novels in the series.

What did I think? In the end, the story left me rather cold. The fact that I didn’t particularly like Jane or Vincent for most of the book is surely a large factor in this. The lack of a driving force behind the plot made this, to say it in my five-year-old self’s words, simply boring. I need something to want to read on, be it characters, action, magic or world-building. None of these things were interesting enough to hold my interest. I am somewhat surprised to see this on the Nebula shortlist and I have the strong suspicion that, like with the Hugos, sometimes authors just make it onto that list because they are very present. Or because “it’s kind of their time to get an award”. Mary is a great writer, no doubt, and has a firm grip on her research and craft. But for this second Glamourist History the elevator pitch “Jane Austen with magic” does not work anymore. There may be magic in the shape of Glamour, but there is none of Austen’s wit or clever critique, there are none of her ridiculously funny characters. And so, for me, there wasn’t really much magic at all.

The Good: Well-researched, with perfect French (that made me squee a lot) and an ending that redeems some of the earlier problems I had.

The Bad: Three quarters of the story were painfully boring, except for one scene involving Glamour. Lacks the Austenesque humor and fun characters.

The Verdict: Slow burning historical piece with threads of magic woven into it.

My Rating: 6/10 – Okay

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The Glamourist Histories:

Mary Robinette Kowal – Shades of Milk and Honey

Spätestens seit Susanna Clarkes Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell wissen wir, wie gut sich das 19. Jahrhundert mit Magie vermischen lässt. Während Clarkes Protagonisten männlich waren und ihr Stil ein bisschen an Dickens erinnert hat, versucht sich Mary Robinette Kowal an einem Buch, das sie selbst als “Jane Austen with magic” bezeichnet. (Quelle: der empfehlenswerte Podcast Writing Excuses) Der Jane Austen Teil ist gelungen – vielleicht sogar etwas zu gut…

Deutscher Titel:(noch) nicht erschienen
Erschienen: Juli 2010
Seiten: 304
Erschienen bei: Tor Books

Meine Bewertung: 6,5/10

Erster Satz:The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect.

Jane Ellsworth ist mit ihren 28 Jahren bereits eine alte Jungfer. Ihre lange Nase und das spitze Kinn haben ihr in der Gesellschaft keinen Ruhm eingebracht, im Gegensatz zu ihrer jüngeren Schwester Melody, einer fröhlichen, etwas zu leidenschaftlichen Schönheit. Jane widmet ihre Zeit daher den schönen Künsten. Dazu gehört neben der Malerei und dem Klavierspiel auch die Magie.
In Mary Robinette Kowals England ist Magie ein natürlicher Bestandteil des täglichen Lebens. Man kann damit Räume verschönern, Gemälde dazu bringen, sich zu bewegen oder eine kühlende Brise erschaffen, die einen stickigen Sommertag erträglicher macht.

Das größte Problem in diesem Roman sind die Charaktere. Kowal bringt das Kunststück fertig, wie Jane Austen zu schreiben. Ihr Stil liest sich flüssig und amüsant. Man könnte meinen, Austens siebten Roman in Händen zu halten. Leider hat sich die Autorin etwas zu sehr auf ihre große Inspirationsquelle gestützt, denn die Geschwister Jane und Melody ähneln den Dashwood Schwestern aus Sense and Sensibility für meinen Geschmack etwas zu sehr. Ebenso beruht die Handlung auf Austens beliebtestem Werk Pride and Prejudice und ist daher für jeden, der diesen Roman gelesen hat, leicht vorhersehbar. Für mich war beim Lesen von Anfang an klar, wer schlussendlich wen heiraten wird und welche Schadtaten hinter wessen Rücken getrieben werden. Das ist natürlich schade, denn der Spannungsbogen hat so gewaltig an Kraft verloren.

Die Magie kommt ebenfalls etwas kurz. Während Kowals Idee und die Umsetzung der Magie in diesem alternativen England gut sind, zeigt sie uns ein bisschen zu wenig davon. Ich habe mich beim Lesen öfter gefragt, ob etwas so Mächtiges wie Magie nicht größere Auswirkungen auf die Gesellschaft haben sollte – so könnten etwa Kühlschränke in jedem Haushalt stehen, die mit magisch erschaffener, kalter Luft gekühlt werden. Doch die Autorin lässt Magie zu einer Kunstform werden, die hauptsächlich für das Dekorieren von Räumen genutzt wird.

Während die männlichen Charaktere großartig und alle – selbst kleinere Nebencharaktere – sehr lebendig beschrieben waren, lasen sich die Damen zu sehr nach Jane Austen (ja, so etwas gibt es wirklich!). Jane und Melodys Mutter gleicht einer dezent weniger nervtötenden Mrs. Bennet, Jane und Melody selbst sind eine Mischung aus Lizzie Bennet und den Dashwood Schwestern. Erst zum Ende hin entwickeln sie ihren eigenen Kopf und verhalten sich wie eigenständige Persönlichkeiten.

Das Ende hielt noch einige positive Überraschungen bereit. Der Spannungsbogen war wieder da und ich konnte das Buch kaum mehr weglegen.
Insgesamt haben die wunderschöne Sprache und die Aussicht auf den zweiten Band mir dieses Buch doch sehr versüßt und machen es zu einem lesenswerten kleinen Ausflug in Jane Austens Welt, wo junge Damen zaubern können müssen, um hohes Ansehen zu erringen.

PRO: Liest sich wahrhaftig wie ein Jane Austen Roman.
CON: Zu wenig eigenständige Ideen, die Auswirkungen der Magie sind etwas unglaubwürdig.
FAZIT: Ein sehr schönes Buch, das vor allem zum Ende hin zeigt, dass die Autorin mehr kann als sie uns hier zeigt. Jane Austen Fans könnten es lieben oder hassen, ich bin jedenfalls höchst gespannt auf Teil 2.

Bewertung: 6,5/10

Infos zu anderen Werken sowie Neuigkeiten zu Folgebänden (vorerst nur Band 2: Glamour in Glass) findet man auf  Mary Robinette Kowals Homepage.

Die Glamourist Histories: