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

Internet Friends Are Real Friends: Naomi Kritzer – Catfishing on CatNet

A few years ago, Naomi Kritzer won a Hugo Award for her short story “Cat Pictures, Please”. It was an adorable story that apparently inspired her to write an entire novel with a similar premise. This YA book is currently up for a Lodestar Award and (without having read all the finalists yet) I think it has a good chance of winning. What a heartwarming and exciting tale! I’m so glad enough people nominated this book because otherwise I would probably never have picked it up.

by Naomi Kritzer

Published: Tor Teen, 2019
Ebook: 288 pages
My rating: 7,5/10

Opening line: My two favorite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures. 

How much does the internet know about YOU?
Because her mom is always on the move, Steph hasn’t lived anyplace longer than six months. Her only constant is an online community called CatNet—a social media site where users upload cat pictures—a place she knows she is welcome. What Steph doesn’t know is that the admin of the site, CheshireCat, is a sentient A.I.
When a threat from Steph’s past catches up to her and ChesireCat’s existence is discovered by outsiders, it’s up to Steph and her friends, both online and IRL, to save her.

Who doesn’t enjoy a book with a lovable AI character? I mean, Murderbot anyone? AIDAN from Illuminae? I was pretty much destined to like this book simply because it has an AI character, and not the HAL kind but one who just wants to help people and do good in the world. With the entire internet as its database, it’s pretty easy to find out what people want or need and to make that happen. It’s not as easy, however, not to freak them out completely when it does…

My two favorite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures. I particularly like helping people who take lots of cat pictures for me. I have a fair amount of time to allocate: I don’t have a body, so I don’t have to sleep or eat. I am not sure whether I think faster than humans think, but reading is a very different experience for me than it is for humans. To put knowledge in their brains, humans have to pull it in through their eyes or ears, whereas I can just access any knowledge that’s stored online.

 Admittedly, it is easy to overlook knowledge that I technically have possession of because I’m not thinking about it in the moment. Also, having to access to knowledge doesn’t always mean understanding things.  

I do not entirely understand people.

In this book, we don’t only follow the sentient AI that has created and administrates CatNet but also Steph, a young girl who only knows life on the run. Her mother keeps whisking her away from every new town before she can make friends, before she can finish the semester, taking her to a new and different place where she has to be the new girl all over again. The reason for this is Steph’s creepy stalker father who burned their house down when Steph was little. Because her father is crafty and charming, it’s up to Steph and her mom to be careful not to leave a trace. After all, nobody knows what he could do if he ever found them.

This book was about many things, but most of all it’s about a rootless girl desperate for a friend. Not that Steph doesn’t have friends, but all her BFFs are on CatNet and she has never actually met them in meatspace. But this book also shows that these friendships are just as real as friends you may see face to face on a regular basis. What with Steph’s need for privacy, her online friends may not know what she looks like, but they are there the second anyone needs help!
The plot begins with Steph and her mom arriving in yet another small town and Steph starting school as “the new one” again. Apart from having to read The Scarlet Letter for the third time (because changing schools a lot will do that to you), Steph meets Rachel, a girl she really wants to be friends with. But is it worth striking up a friendship when she knows she’ll be gone in a few months? And anyway, mostly she still wants to get out of this town and into one with a better school as fast as possible. As history has shown, when Steph gets in trouble (even for silly, childish things), her mom packs them up and off they go. So she and her CatNet friends devise a plan to hack the school’s robot which is supposed to teach Sex Ed. And… things happen from there.

I know I say this in almost every review, but I really don’t want to tell you too much about the plot. There is a mystery about Steph’s past, it’s not clear whether her mom is telling her the truth about her stalker father or what exactly happened when Steph was little, and my beloved AI character has to make a decision on whether to out themselves to the people they most care about. Without spoiling anything, I can promise you plenty of action, even if the start of the book is rather quiet. Naomi Kritzer managed to build up tension over time and delivers a fantastic action-packed ending that had me on the edge of my seat!

What I found so great about this book (and there are many things) was how it shows that online friendships are just as real as meatspace friendships. Sure, an online discussion can’t replace a hug by a person you care about, but it is its own kind of support network. And when you have a character like Steph, who never gets to call a place her home, this network can make all the difference. The book also shows the darker aspects of our technological world. Leave the GPS on your phone on all the time? Well, if someone really wants to, they can find you. They can find out where you spend your Saturdays, who you meet with, where you shop, and where you go to school! The entire opening chapter of this book shows all the little ways we use technology that could help someone with enough criminal intent to make your life hell. But Steph’s mom is a programmer and savvy enough to have kept them safe for years.

The book also offers a sweet little romance that I found beautiful not just because I really cared about the characters but also because it’s not what the plot revolves around. If every YA book needs a romance, let more of them be like this! I also appreciated how diverse the cast is. Steph isn’t sure about her sexual preferences yet, but many other characters are queer, trans, gay, or undecided. And all of them love and respect each other. This has become somewhat of a trend in recent fiction but I still can’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy inside when I read about a diverse group of friends who are simply there for each other, no matter what. If one of them wants to go by “they” instead of “she”, even only for a while, then why not respect that and let them figure out who they are? The guys on CatNet are like that, so it was really easy to like them. Their respect for each other doesn’t keep them from bantering and making silly jokes, however, which kept the story moving along nicely.

If you want to pick up a book with brilliant characters, a book about true friendships, but with a plot that still delivers twists along the way and gets super creepy at times (remember the stalker-dad), then please pick this up. I found it absolutely delightful and a really good book for the currenty times. The stakes may be high and a lot of scary things happen, but you can always rest assured that Steph’s CatNet friends will be there to catch her. I totally didn’t expect it, but this turned out to be a feelgood novel and one that I will proably rank pretty high up on my Lodestar ballot.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Reading the Hugos: Novelette

Just like the short story category, the nominees for Best Novelette are almost universally excellent. Again, there was only one story that didn’t resonate with me at all, but I enjoyed the other five. Some more than others, with two that clearly stood out to me.

The nominees for Best Novelette

  1. Brooke Bolander – The Only Harmless Great Thing
  2. Daryl Gregory – Nine Last Days on Planet Earth
  3. Zen Cho – If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again
  4. Tina Connolly – The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections
  5. Naomi Kritzer – The Thing About Ghost Stories
  6. Simone Heller – When We Were Starless

It was a close call to pick Brooke Bolander‘s story for my first place because my top three are all wonderful, ambitious pieces of fiction. What took The Only Harmless Great Thing over the top for me was its basis in reality. It’s the story of one of the Radium Girls, women hired to paint all sorts of equipment so it would glow in the dark. The paint they used – and the fact that they had to lick their brushes to keep them nice and sharp – caused severe physical damage (and I mean gruesome stuff!)  and a very early death. Bolander adds elephants as characters who come with their own mythology and gave the whole story a lovely fantasy vibe. As tough as it was to read, this was my favorite story of the bunch.

Daryl Gregory follows closely with his tale of alien seeds crashing to Earth, messing up the planet with new and unusual plant life. It’s both an intimate tale, following one character as they grow up, have children and grandchildren of their own, but also tells the broader story of the alien plants. I loved everything about this story, the narrative voice, the pacing, the plot, and most of all the characters.

I had read some of Zen Cho‘s fiction before, so I knew I was in for something good. Her story about an imugi trying to ascent to heaven to become a proper dragon, was at the same time tragic and funny. Waiting a thousand years for even a chance is already a sign of great patience. But when the protagonist imugi fails – and not once, but many times – even they have trouble keeping up hope. It takes trying out a different life for them to find the will to keep going, and this is that story.

Tina Connolly‘s story is what it says in the title. A banquet of temporal confections. A baker who can infuse his confections with memories serves a banquet of them to the evil Duke. While there are lovely descriptions in this story, both of food and the memories it evokes, I found this story to be too predictable and a little bit too safe to make one of my top spots. The story unfolds with each course, but you can see from very early on where it is going. So the ending, while technically satisfying, left me thinking: so that was it?

Another story that gives you exactly what you’d expect was Naomi Kritzer‘s novelette about ghost stories. The protagonist researches ghost stories and the people who tell and who believe them, all the while kind of living through her own ghost story. It’s without a doubt an accomplished story well told, but again it lacked that certain something. The protagonist hid her feelings a little too well for me, as a reader, to get involved enough in her story for the ending to resonate. I think I should have felt more than I did.

The only story I didn’t like at all was the one by Simone Heller. I’m still not sure what exactly it is about. A tribe of post-apocalypse (maybe post-Earth) creatures is trying to survive in a hostile environment. There are “ghosts”, there are weavers, none of which are described or introduced properly. Some of what’s going on I figured out by the end, but as I spent most of the story trying to puzzle out what’s going on, who the protagonist was in relation to the others, what they were even doing, and where the hell everything took place, I can’t really say I enjoyed this. Maybe that’s my own fault for not reading carefully enough, for missing some key explanation or hint, but I didn’t like this enough to give it a second try.

I hope to have finished all the nominees for Best Novel by next week and then follow that with the Lodestar finalists. The novellas will have to wait a bit longer because I’m just not in the mood for them right now and I’m trying to keep up with my reading challenges this year. You know how it is: So many books, so little time…