Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novella

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

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

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

The Finalists for Best Novella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ballot (probably)

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

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

Up next week: The Lodestar

The Goblin Market Awaits: Seanan McGuire – In An Absent Dream

My track record with Seanan McGuire’s books is not great, but it is slowly getting better as I pick up more of her books and find I quite enjoy some of them. The Wayward Children series, however, has been a mixed bag, to put it nicely. And my biggest problem with the series remains – namely that we don’t get the magic but only the grief of having lost it – but there are moments of brightness. This instalment, I’m happy to say, is on such bright moment.

IN AN ABSENT DREAM
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tor.com, 2019
Ebook: 187 pages
Series: Wayward Children #4
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: In a house, on a street, in a town ordinary enough in every aspect to cross over its own roots and become remarkable, there lived a girl named Katherine Victoria Lundy.

This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.
When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she’s found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

Katherine Lundy is a quiet, almost solemn, child who sticks by the rules and has learned not to mind the fact that she has no friends. Being the headmaster’s daughter is difficult but she retreats into a world of books. When one day, a tree appears in her path, and in that tree is a door, Lundy may hesitate, but she steps through – and into the Goblin Market. Before she comes out on the other side, however, there are certain rules to remember…

You will be surprised but not as surprised as I myself was that I really, really enjoyed this book! Finally, this volume shows what I had been hoping for from the beginning, by the description and marketing of this series. It shows a young girl who stumbles into a different, magical world, and then loses that world. You know that’s not a spoiler because the premise of all of these books is that it’s about people who have lost their portal world. But here, we actually get to see and experience it alongside Lundy and learn to love it the way she does. Here, we feel her pain whenever she has to go home again only to yearn for her return to the Market. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This particular version of the Goblin Market has very little to do with the poem by Christina Rossetti, except that everything has a price. So much so, in fact, that cheating someone becomes impossible. The Market regulates itself and ensures that fair value is given for every transaction. Whether that is a trade of goods, or a service rendered, if someone goes into debt, the Market does what is necessary to restore balance. In this case, it means you slowly turn into a bird… for a small debt, you may sprout some feathers, for a larger one your hands may turn into talons, and so on. I myself am also a friend of rules so, much like Lundy, I gravitated towards this magical world where doing good deeds will grant you good things in return. But despite all the logic and rules, there is still magic everywhere. Centaur unicorns, books that want to be tucked in at night, it’s all there and it’s all wonderful!
And I haven’t even mentioned Moon, the very first friend Lundy makes at the Market. Their relationship, while it could have been fleshed out a bit better, created another anchor for Lundy, another reason to stay at the Market forever and not return to a world where women are not listened to and fair value is rarely given.

The writing style varies but it’s mostly competent with moments of true greatness! This was the first book in the series that made me feel like I get to step into a fairy tale with its protagonist. Some of the descriptions came across like some wise old person was reading them to me, winking when appropriate. McGuire managed to paint pictures with her words and made me taste hot pies and berries fresh off the trees. Why isn’t everything she writes like this?

The one big problem with this book (and the series as a whole) is that we never get to be there when all the great stuff happens. When Lundy returns to our world for the first time, we have seen some of the wonders the Goblin Market can hold, but we are only told that a big event took place, one that even cost a character their life – except it’s a character we never got to know so this isn’t a spoiler. And because this character was only mentioned briefly by name but never properly introduced, Lundy’s grief had zero emotional impact on me. Apparently, she made another friend at the Market, and that friend died in an epic showdown with the Wasp Queen. But we didn’t get to be there! We don’t know that friend, we don’t get to experience the friendship and the consequent pain of losing that friend because it’s literally a throw-away line that lets us know this happened. Also, I would have been really interested in that Wasp Queen and that big battle…
The second time she returns home, the same thing happens. We’re quickly informed there was a battle against Something Evil that leaves Lundy with scars but, not having been there, the reader doesn’t ever get to feel with Lundy. I don’t quite understand why McGuire chose to do it this way. Surely she could have made up some other reason for Lundy to briefly return to our world, if only to get supplies with which to trade at the Market.
I guess this being  a series of novellas rather than full-length novels is partly to blame for that. There simply isn’t enough time to explore all these portal worlds in depth when you only have about 200 pages to do so. There was enough wonder for me to truly enjoy this book, but I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if we’d actually gotten to see all of Lundy and Moon’s adventures in full.

I won’t say much about the ending, except that I thought it was well done and made me feel for Lundy like I had never felt for any of Eleanor West’s wayward children before.

Now that all the gripes are out of the way, I have to say that this is the first Hugo nominated Wayward Children novella that I believe truly deserves its spot on the ballot. Down Among the Sticks and Bones was very good as well, but I didn’t enjoy the writing so much as to notice it. Here, in this novella,  I actually smiled to myself occasionally while reading. And sure, McGuire takes the emotional impact out of her own books on purpose, and this could have been a much deeper, much more moving work of fiction, but for its 187 pages, it got me emotionally involved enough. I don’t quite know where to place this on my Hugo ballot (it’s full of excellent titles) but at this moment, I see it somewhere in the top four.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Sarah Gailey – Upright Women Wanted

Ever since I read the brilliant Magic for Liars, I have been determined to pick up whatever else Sarah Gailey publishes. Their newest novella is a post-apocalyptic western with gunslinging librarians, so there was no way around it. And although the book wasn’t at all what I had hoped for, I liked it for other reasons. This may not end up as one of my favorites but I can see how this book could be meaningful to so many other readers out there.

UPRIGHT WOMEN WANTED
by Sarah Gailey

Published: Tor.com, 2020
Ebook: 176 pages
Standalone novella
My rating: 6,5/10

Opening line: As Esther breathed in the sweet, musty smell of the horse blanketsin the back of the Librairans’ wagon, she chewed on the I-told-you-so feeling that had overwhelmed her ever since her father had told her the news about Beatriz.

“That girl’s got more wrong notions than a barn owl’s got mean looks.”
Esther is a stowaway. She’s hidden herself away in the Librarian’s book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her–a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.
The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.

When I read, I love putting myself in other people’s shoes. I like pretending I’m a character from a different place, a different gender, even from a different species. I also like reading books where the protagonist has sexual preferences that differ from mine – because that’s what makes books so great. You get to be all sorts of people, you get to live with them through amazing stories, have great adventures, and experience so many emotions. I don’t believe that certain books are specifically for a certain type of person, but in this case, I felt like Sarah Gailey not only wrote a very personal book but also one specifically for people who struggle with similar things as the protagonist, who maybe haven’t found their place in the world yet or even think that there isn’t one for them.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about this book. It’s about young Esther who has run away from home and hidden in the cart of a traveling librarians’ group. When she is found out, to her surprise, the three women allow her to ride on with them for a while. Because Esther’s reasons for running away, it turns out, are very, very good. Her secret girlfriend was hanged for possessing Unapproved Materials – and Esther is supposed to be married off to some man her father picked for her. You can see how that’s not a prospect she’s looking forward to. So out into the unknown she goes, in the hopes of becoming a librarian herself.

Sarah Gailey gives us many glimpses into the world she has set up, but sadly that’s all we ever get. It becomes clear that this wild west is a post-apocalyptic one. There used to be cars everywhere, now we’re back to horses and carriages. We’re also back to executing gay people. And let’s not forget that people only get to read Approved Material… It doesn’t take more than that to make it clear that America is not a very nice place to live in. And although what little world building we get is enough to set the scene, I always kept hoping for more.

But this book isn’t really about the world, nor is it about the plot which wasn’t very strong either. Esther travels with Bet, Leda, and Cye, three queer librarians with the task of picking up a parcel and taking it to the insurrection. So far, so exciting. And of course, trouble is hot on their heels, the law wants to hunt them down, and they have to keep many aspects of their personalities secret when they reach a settlement. But for Esther, this is the first time seeing a lesbian couple just living happily together. Dangerously, sure, but happily nonetheless. And Esther also can’t help but feel attracted to Cye, who makes clear from the very start that they are “they” on the road but “she” in town. It was both beautiful and heartbreaking to read about these characters. Carving out a little place in the world where they can be themselves, but having to hide who they are when other people are around…

While the book deals with a certain amount of adventure, it really is about Esther accepting who she is and being happy with herself. If all the books you were ever allowed to read were about husband and wives, and all the people you know are straight, it’s only understandable that Esther feels like something is wrong with her. Learning that that’s not the case, that in fact it’s the world that’s wrong, is what it’s all about. So you might call this a book that’s more about the message than the actual plot and I know some people have an issue with that. I don’t. Because if the message is this clear and told through great characters, then why the hell not? All of that said, I am white and cis and straight, so I don’t pretend even for a second to understand what Esther might feel like. I can try and imagine, of course, but I know very well that’s nowhere near the real thing. But even doing just that, putting myself in her shoes, I felt for her. I wanted her to be okay and I wanted her to see that she is fine the way she is.

Despite afterwords and acknowledgements, we readers can never really know how much of themselves an author puts into their work. But whether it’s true or not, this felt like a very personal novel. Sarah Gailey definitely can write and from the dedication and acknowledgements, I got the feeling that this is the book they wrote for their younger self. Maybe I’m totally wrong and they’re just really good at making up fantastic and diverse characters, but it’s definitely a book I would put into many young people’s hands. Not just queer ones, not only ones who seem to struggle with their identity, but everyone! Because the message that, no matter who you love or what color your skin is, you are valuable and you deserve to live a happy life – that’s something everyone should know.

I will be looking for reviews of this book from queer people because I suspect that this novella resonates with the LGBTQ community way more than it did with me. All things considered, I liked the book for its characters and the message of hope it sends, but I thought the plot wasn’t particularly strong and I would have liked more world building, more fleshing out of its science fictional setting. But this is a hard one to rate. For its importance, I would give this book 9/10 points, but I rate all the books on my blog first and foremost by my own personal enjoyment. So here goes…

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

Excellent but kind of unfinished: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Winterglass

I can’t resist a good fairy tale retelling, especially if it comes wrapped in a cover like this! And at 130 pages, this promised to be a quick read which is good to keep motivation for reading challenges up.

WINTERGLASS
by Benjanun Sridunagkaew

Published by: Apex Book Company, 2017
eBook: 130 pages
Standalone (?)
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: On the night of Nuawa’s execution, she saw the Winter Queen for the first time.

Winterglass is a sci-fantasy about one woman’s love for her homeland (Sirapirat) and her determination to defeat the Winter Queen who has overtaken the land.
The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.
At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.
To earn her place in the queen’s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers’ souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.
If the splinter of glass in Nuawa’s heart doesn’t destroy her first.

This book was both a bit of a rush and a pleasure cruise. In the prologue alone, so many details are introduced that don’t make sense yet. The protagonist, Nuawa, just a little girl, is sent into an execution device called a ghost-kiln. But her mother – who is to be executed with her – gives her something to swallow, something sharp and icy, and Nuawa survives.

Nothing much makes sense at first, but throughout the story of (now grown-up) Nuawa, readers get to explore this strange science-fantasy world, in which human souls are used to generate power, where the Winter Queen has conquered formerly lush and warm places and turned them to ice, where nobody seems powerful enough to defeat her. And of course that is Nuawa’s goal. To kill the Winter Queen, who is not only responsible for turning her home into a cold place but for killing her mother as well. But Nuawa is the embodiment of patience. Many assassin’s have failed but Nuawa doesn’t plan to be one of them.

I found this a strange reading experience because it was at once a slow read, focused on character development, and at the same time things happend very quickly, rushing you through the plot to the end – which didn’t really feel like the end of the story, merely a first chapter of something bigger.

But let’s start with the story’s strong points. I loved the world building, maybe even because the reader gets thrown into it and we have to figure things out for ourselves. For Nuawa, having grown up in it, her world is self-explanatory. For us, there are many strange things and customs to discover. It’s a beautifully diverse world, filled with weird little details that enrich the story greatly. In a fight, Nuawa can slice through her oponent’s shadow, inflicting pain (and even death) on them. Sexuality seems very fluid, as well as gender identity – there is a variety of pronouns used for different characters. There are methods, appearing magical but presented as a sort of science, to protect your body against harm, and I found this all highly original and interesting. So discovering this world definitely whetted my appetite for more.

My favorite part, by far, were the characters. Although Nuawa is not exactly someone who warms the heart, her determination and strength mader her into an intriguing protagonist. She pursues her goal at any cost – there was one particularly harrowing scene which demonstrates just how far she will go. It sent shivers down my spain and made me question if I should even like Nuawa. Equally interesting was General Lussadh, the Winter Queen’s best soldier and lover. I could have read a whole book just about Lussadh!
When Nuawa and Lussadh meet, there is an instant spark – which is probably due to them both having one of the Queen’s mirror shards in them, but I like to believe that there’s also a bit of regular old attraction mixed into it. Either way, reading about these two not so different characters was the absolute best.

The story itself is pretty straight forward. Nuawa enters a tournament and wants to battle her way to the top, to become one of the Winter Queen’s soldiers. She hopes that getting close to the Queen, she will get a chance at killing her, ending her country’s enslavement to winter once and for all. And battle, she does! I will not go into detail here, but I found the fight scenes pretty awesome, especially because they show the science-fantasy quality of the book so well.

If you’ve read anything by Sriduangkaew, you know that she’s got a firm grip on language and knows how to use it to great effect. She describes scents and sounds so beautifully to make you feel like you’re there, at the place she’s talking about, standing just next to the protagonist. You can just fall into the story, which is no easy feat when the story is so short. To create a full world on such a little amount of pages is something few authors can do.

But the ending… if you can call it an ending. I do not know, at this point, if this novella is meant as the beginning of a trilogy or series but I sincerely hope so. There is a story arc here, without a cliffhanger. But the story is far from finished. Both Nuawa and Lussadh’s relationship  as well as Nuawa’s quest (and it is a quest!) simply stop at the end of this book, without even a hint of being resolved. My rating of this book depends a lot on whether it is the first part of a series or meant as a standalone. Reading this was pure pleasure but I just want more! If there is more, you can go ahead and add a full point to my rating.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Second opinions:

Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: Home

I was far from the only one who fell in love with Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti two years ago. Now, the long-awaited sequel has finally arrived and almost lives up to its predecessor. When I started reading it, I thought it would be a sort of standalone novella, but it’s not. In fact, it ends in the middle of the plot, which is the main reason why I didn’t love it as fiercely as I did the first book.

HOME
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 176 pages
Series: Binti #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: “Five, five, five, five, five, five,” I whispered.

The thrilling sequel to the Nebula and Hugo winning Binti.
It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she left her family to pursue her dream.
And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.
But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.
After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?

As the title suggests, this is the story of Binti coming home after spending a year at Oomza University. This homecoming is fraught with emotion, not only for Binti herself, but for her family, her hometown, and her entire planet.

Binti and Okwu may have found a way to live together in peace, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world is quite as open to change. Seeing Binti in her new life as a student was pure joy. Seeing her come home, accompanied by Okwu as the first Meduse allowed on Earth, less so. On the one hand, Binti is still dealing with PTSD from the events that led to her friendship with Okwu and the end of an age-long war. On the other hand, Binti is now confronted with her clashing wishes – being part of her culture, making her family proud, being a Himba, but also wanting to continue her studies, see more of the world, find her own place.

I was a bit surprised that the tension left by Binti’s disappearance took so long to break. At first, her family are simply happy to see their daughter again. And then the shitstorm breaks loose and all the pent-up resentment, jealousy, and condescension rain down upon Binti. And that doesn’t even take into account her new “hair” which seems to have a mind of its own because of her bond with Okwu. In fact, I both loved and hated reading about the reactions to Okwu. You can tell that most people try to be civil, keep an open mind, but that in their hearts, they are either afraid, mistrustful, or straight up hateful toward the Meduse. It made the difference between Binti’s university life and her home town all the more stark.

Home was again filled with beautiful writing, especially when it comes to descriptions of Binti experiencing her home. Whether it’s walking through the desert, showing Okwu the lake, or using maths for meditation – Okorafor makes the most use of her words and manages to build an entire world in less than 200 pages. Skill like that always impresses me in writers. Conjuring up pictures in your readers’ minds is one thing, but doing it in short stories or novellas is quite another and Okorafor got that skill down!

Over the course of this story, Binti has a lot on her plate. At times, I felt like she was being torn apart trying to please everyone but not losing herself in the process. She also learns new things about herself, her family, where she comes from, and where she might want to go. Her travels with her grandmother were lovely to read and expanded the world Okorafor has created for these novellas. I don’t want to give anything away here because discovering these things with Binti was so much fun and you should all experience it for yourselves.

The ending is the one thing that I didn’t love unreservedly because, unlike the first instalment, this book ends on a cliffhanger. Sure, a part of the story is told and there is a definite arc, but just as something really exciting and dangerous happens, the book is over. Had I known this before, I would have waited for the third book to come out, so I could continue reading. But considering that my only gripe with this story is that it ended too soon and that I now have to wait for the sequel, that still leaves an amazing book which tackles big themes without sacrificing story or character. If you haven’t guessed it, I am now eagerly waiting for the third book, The Night Masquerade.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Second opinions:

Matt Wallace – Lustlocked

I just read and adored Matt Wallace’s first Sin du Jour adventure, Envy of Angels. Thanks to the friendly people at Tor.com, I was given a review copy via NetGalley of the second in this (hopefully long) series of hilarious culinary monster stories. It says on Tor.com that books 3 and 4, Pride’s Spell and Idle Ingredients will both be published in 2016. YAY!

lustlocked

LUSTLOCKED
by Matt Wallace

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 224 pages
Series: Sin du Jour #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: They aren’t biting today.

Love is in the air at Sin du Jour.
The Goblin King (yes, that one) and his Queen are celebrating the marriage of their son to his human bride. Naturally the celebrations will be legendary.
But when desire and magic mix, the results can be unpredictable.
Our heroes are going to need more than passion for the job to survive the catering event of the decade!

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Holy shit, David Bowie is the actual goblin king!! I’m sorry for that outburst but in Matt Wallace’s world and in this story, the king of the goblins is David Bowie and his singing and acting career is just a fun way to pass the time among us unsuspecting humans. Labyrinth is one of my favorite movies ever and “meeting” its goblin king Jareth again in a story where I really didn’t expect it was just wonderful, especially in the light of Bowie’s recent passing. I giggled with joy and then I almost cried.

Okay, now on to the actual review. The New York catering restaurant Sin du Jour is hired to cater the wedding of the goblin king’s son… so, the goblin prince, I guess. Goblins, apart from not looking the way we’d expect from fantasy stories, have interesting dietary habits which involve lots of precious metals and gemstones. Of course, the Sin du Jour crew have done their very best to create an unforgettable meal for the wedding.

My expectations for this second adventure in Matt Wallace’s hilarious series have been surpassed in some respects, and met in others. Darren and Lena are now official chefs, although still in their probationary period. Darren, other than being gay and much slower in the kitchen than Lena, doesn’t have much personality and he stayed mostly in the background in Lustlocked. I’m totally fine with that – he has potential but there are a lot of other characters that I fell in love with and want to see do stuff all the time.

Lena resolves her tension with sous-chef Dorsky, who is still a little shaken by having lost to her in their knife-fight. You know, because Sin du Jour is that kind of place. When gigantic, horny lizard-monsters attack (read: try to hump everyone to death), Lena and Dorsky have to work together to survive. And we all know how near-death experiences and being forced to cooperate can create a bond between two formerly bickering characters. I get a big fat grin all over my face just thinking about it.

“This giant lizard thing in a tux is trying to bone that dude from Grey’s Anatomy,” Pacific says, totally unfazed. “You know, the one with the hair.”

My other favorite part of Sin du Jour is the stocking and receiving department, consisting of Ritter, badass Cindy, idiot (but lovable) Moon, and Hara. I liked these four right from the start and seeing them on one of their missions is always fun. Ritter also shows aspects of his personality that were only hinted at in Envy of Angels. I am really curious where all of this is going.

Lustlocked – which, by the way, sports another perfect cover and title – also introduces some new characters. Little Dove and White Horse are just the kind of bickering grandpa/granddaughter team I love to read about. So the cast is growing to a considerable size which makes me hope for a novel-sized story about Sin du Jour, sometime in the future.

Also, without spoiling anything, that ending was totally not okay and I need the next instalment or short story or something RIGHT NOW!!! Please, Matt Wallace, and please, Tor.com, give us more of Sin du Jour. These are seriously funny stories with a great cast that plays out like a hilarious action movie in your head. I want more of the same. A lot more!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Bonus short story: SMALL WARS

small warsMy review copy of this novella also included a surprise bonus short story which was just published on Tor.com and which you can read there for free.

It’s a sort of double-prequel, telling – in one timeline – the story of how the stocking and receiving troupe acquires ingredients for the goblin wedding, and in an earlier timeline, how Ritter recruited Cindy, Moon, and Hara to work for Sin du Jour.

The plot wasn’t as funny as the novellas, but it is used instead to shine some light on Moon’s character. I found his actions and words during the crazy battle that invariably ensues to be touching and thought-provoking. Usually, he makes stupid comments, angers Cindy, annoys Hara and Ritter, and is generally a dick. Except there might be some humanity inside him and we get to see it during this trip to Wales. Looking for Welsh gold, the Sin du Jour guys discover the little creatures that live under the earth. And leprechauns are no joke, believe me…

I appreciated this story for the background information and for Moon’s character getting some spotlight. Other than that, it was a usual trip for these guys. Which doesn’t mean it was boring. They don’t do boring at Sin du Jour.

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Second opinions:

Matt Wallace – Envy of Angels

This was SO MUCH FUN! Before I say anything more about this Tor.com novella, let me tell you that if you feel down and you just want a quick adventure with great humor, go pick this up. I’m so excited that a sequel novella is coming out this year.

envy of angels

ENVY OF ANGELS
by Matt Wallace

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 225 pages
Series: Sin du Jour #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: A hotel room in São Paulo is the third worst place in the world in which to go into cardiac arrest.

In New York, eating out can be hell.
Everyone loves a well-catered event, and the supernatural community is no different, but where do demons go to satisfy their culinary cravings?
Welcome to Sin du Jour – where devils on horseback are the clients, not the dish.

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The Sin du Jour is a New York catering service. For demons. Darren and Lena, two chefs out of work, can’t believe their luck when they are hired by celebrity chef “Bronko” Luck to help out for a big event but when they arrive at Sin du Jour, things are… weird. They’re not allowed to get fresh ingredients themselves because, well, let’s say they don’t only stock meats and vegetables here but also giant killer monsters that want to eat you. Hilarity ensues.

Matt Wallace has written a seriously fun and funny story about a restaurant for the supernaturally inclined. Throwing Darren and Lena into this formerly unknown world is a great way to introduce readers to the craziness that is Sin du Jour. A parallel storyline tells of four Sin du Jour veterans who go out to get more ingredients – and “ingredients” could mean literally anything in this case. I immediately fell in love with the dynamics between stoic Ritter, quick Cindy, Moon, and hulking Hara when they do one of their missions.

The big conflict of Envy of Angels is the fact that, for this big diplomatic meetings between two enemy demon tribes, they are supposed to serve angel. A real coming-from-heaven angel. And while preparing all sorts of wild creatures for demons may have a detrimental effect on your morality code, that is something most people at Sin du Jour feel a bit uncomfortable with. So they need a plan.

Apart from characters with great potential (yay for the sequel!), Matt Wallace is really good at writing funny dialogue and scenes that play out in your head like an action movie. There are a few twists and surprises along the way that always hit the mark and were usually as creepy as they were hilarious. The writing is worksmanlike, the pacing is perfect, this adventure is impossible to put down. I also loved the references to a certain fast food restaurant chain and its famed-for-its-secrecy recipe. And once you read the story, you realise just how perfect that cover is.

This novella also makes me appreciate Tor.com all the more for offering such a variety of stories in their 2015 novella line-up. We’ve had stories with the purplest of prose (Sorcerer of the Wildeeps), urban fantasy about modern small-town witches (Witches of Lychford), a first contact story in space (Binti), a fairy story about changelings (Domnall and the Borrowed Child), the gorgeous perfection that is Angela Slatter (Of Sorrow and Such), and all sorts of other fantasies that I haven’t discovered yet. The often rather dark tales are interrupted by this funny urban fantasy romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Tor.com know their readers and they also know we don’t only like one thing. I loved Binti and Witches of  Lychford to bits (nothing needs to be said about Angela Slatter, you know I’d read her shopping list and love it), but I also adored Matt Wallace’s fictional restaurants with its chefs, busboys, and ingredient-hunting crew. Let’s hope Tor.com continue giving us such varied stories in 2016.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Excellent fun!

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Second opinions:

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley – Domnall and the Borrowed Child

After a shaky start, the Tor.com novella lineup has been nothing short of excellent. I haven’t read all the titles yet (working on it) but I want to tell you about this new addition which comes out  – drumroll – today! If you’ve been reading big, epic books with ambitious world-building and multi-layered characters, if you just need a break, some time to breathe with a short fun tale, pick this one up.

domnallDOMNALL AND THE BORROWED CHILD
by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 112 pages
Standalone novella
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: For centuries – more than that, millennia! – since the beginning of time itself, the fae had celebrated the Spring by finding the bluebells and creating a faerie ring.

The best and bravest faeries fell in the war against the Sluagh, and now the Council is packed with idiots and cowards. Domnall is old, aching, and as cranky as they come, but as much as he’d like to retire, he’s the best scout the Sithein court has left.
When a fae child falls deathly ill, Domnall knows he’s the only one who can get her the medicine she needs: Mother’s milk. The old scout will face cunning humans, hungry wolves, and uncooperative sheep, to say nothing of his fellow fae!

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Domnall doesn’t have it easy. He’s one of the Fair Folk, but few remain that hold with the old ways. Fairies nowadays are scared and careful and hide away under their hill, not like it used to be. But whenever there’s trouble, who do they run to? Domnall, of course. No need to be sneaky and hide from the humans – he’s a fae, after all, and proud of it. They used to run about all over the place, making fairy rings, enchanting humans, drinking fresh dew…

Domnall and the Borrowed Child tells exactly the story you’d expect from the title. Domnall has to exchange the sick Sithein girl for a human child, so the fae can get human mother’s milk – a cure-all for fairy diseases. But of course, things don’t go smoothly. Domnall manages to swap babies somehow but forgets that the human baby, now under the hill among the Sithein, also requires milk or else it will scream its head off. But he can’t exactly milk the mother, so sheep will have to do. And milking sheep is no easy task. Domnall stumbles from one disaster into the next, just trying to do the best he can.

Along the way, he gets help by the young Sithein Micol and I think there were supposed to be romantic undertones in their relationship. I didn’t feel those at all, because to me, Domnall was much, much older than Micol (and he is, 100 years older at least) and so I was rather hoping for a friendship. Domnall’s character is lovable, if somewhat one-dimensional. The plot was fun and quick-moving and adorable in many ways. It also fell a little flat because it was such a straight-forward fairy story. This may very well be my own fault because I have been spoiled rotten with wonderful subversions of fairy tales, lately, so Domnall is not to blame.

I have very little to say about this book, other than that it was cute and I’d totally pick up another of Sylvia Spruck Wrigley’s stories. This wasn’t the kind of story that sticks in your mind, not the kind that makes you think deep thoughts or question the world around you. But it was highly entertaining, a romp through the fairy hills, with a Sithein who’s essential just a good guy with a grumpy exterior. Lovely.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

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Second opinions:

Paul Cornell – Witches of Lychford

It’s funny that I’ve never read anything by Paul Cornell before. I really like the guy, I have listened to every episode of the SF Squeecast, I enjoyed his presentation of the Hugo Awards a few years ago, and I generally like what he has to say on the interwebs. So no pressure, Paul, but I had high hopes for this novella. And it passed with flying colors. I was enchanted and creeped out and just completely enjoying this well-paced, well-written story about three witches.

witches of lychfordWITCHES OF LYCHFORD
by Paul Cornell

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 144 pages
Series: Lychford #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Judith Mawson was seventy-one years old, and she knew what people said about her: that she was bitter about nothing in particular, angry all the time, that the old cow only ever listened when she wanted to.

Traveler, Cleric, Witch.
The villagers in the sleepy hamlet of Lychford are divided. A supermarket wants to build a major branch on their border. Some welcome the employment opportunities, while some object to the modernization of the local environment.
Judith Mawson (local crank) knows the truth — that Lychford lies on the boundary between two worlds, and that the destruction of the border will open wide the gateways to malevolent beings beyond imagination.
But if she is to have her voice heard, she’s going to need the assistance of some unlikely allies…

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Judith Mawson stole my heart on the very first page. The grumpy old lady who is known as a bit of a strange one in her village knows things for what they are. Her banter with her husband, whenever she leaves the house, is charming and shocking at the same time, her view on life and her neighbors completely understandable. I adored Judith from the start and she helped me fall into the story without problems – a welcome change after the first Tor.com novella and I didn’t really hit it off.

 Judith hated nostalgia. It was just the waiting room for death.

Autumn, owner of the local magic shop, is also a bit strange, at least in the eyes of the villagers, and in a town as small as Lychford, everyone has an opinion on everyone else. Cornell managed to convey this feeling of people being up in others’ business really well, without long dialogues or descriptions. It’s just a feeling, floating around in the air, on every page of the novella. Lizzie, Autumn’s old friend, has recently returned to Lychford and the relationship between the two women is fraught, to say the least.

Lizzie takes on the job of reverend in Lychford, something Autumn (who is all about logic and science and doesn’t think much of religion) can’t fully understand. But Lizzie brings her own demons back with her – it is these layers, the fact that each of the three women has a back story, a past, and their own hopes and dreams for the future, that makes the novella so compelling. We learn early on what happened to Lizzie and why she is struggling with her faith. Autumn’s secret comes out only later, and Judith has a big reveal left for the very end.

The plot itself was also solid. On the one hand, a big supermarket is supposed to be built in Lychford, destroying its idyllic life, but offering all sorts of employment to its inhabitants. So the village is divided. All will come down to a final vote. But that’s not all there is to it. If the supermarket is built, the barriers between our world and the fairy worlds will be broken and things will go batshit. Judith knows this. Now she needs to convince Autumn and Lizzie of this fact and get them to help her.

witches of lychford

Witches of Lychford is a charming, enchanting story about a small village, about three women having to work together without having much in common anymore, other than their connection to the Other World. The way they come together, the way the lurking evil is introduced, it was all so wonderfully done I can’t find the right words for it. The pacing was spot on, the characterisation beautiful, and Cornell even managed to break his readers’ heart right there at the end. To pack so much depth into a small novella is nothing short of amazing.

I am so excited that he will revisit the town of Lychford (just found out about this a few days ago) and that I may get to see Judith, Lizzie, and Autumn again. Either way, Paul Cornell is now very high on my to-buy list. The man isn’t just charming on podcasts, he is also a damn fine writer!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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Kai Ashante Wilson – The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

This was really not my thing. It sounded like my thing, I started like it would be my thing, but then it drifted off into a territory only known as verbose, show-off-ish polysyllabic thesaurus-world. If the plot had been interesting that could have saved the book. As it is, the first of Tor.com’s novellas (I’m still buying and reading all the others) was not a good start to the lineup.

sorcerer of the wildeepsTHE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS
by Kai Ashante Wilson

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 224 pages
Standalone novella
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: The merchants and burdened camels went on ahead into the Station at Mother of Waters.

Since leaving his homeland, the earthbound demigod Demane has been labeled a sorcerer. With his ancestors’ artifacts in hand, the Sorcerer follows the Captain, a beautiful man with song for a voice and hair that drinks the sunlight.
The two of them are the descendants of the gods who abandoned the Earth for Heaven, and they will need all the gifts those divine ancestors left to them to keep their caravan brothers alive.
The one safe road between the northern oasis and southern kingdom is stalked by a necromantic terror. Demane may have to master his wild powers and trade humanity for godhood if he is to keep his brothers and his beloved captain alive.

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Oh, this sounded so good. “Hair that drinks the sunlight” – yes, please! Demigods abandoned on Earth? Even more yes, please. To be fair, this novella started out really good. Demane is introduced and through him, we meet his caravan brothers, a group of diverse and thoroughly interesting men who I thought I’d love to follow through this story. But then something else happened.

The author frequently loses himself in long rants, filled with big words that I either had to look up or just skimmed over. Demane expresses himself equally but instead of adding a layer to the pretty intriguing world-building, this detracted from the story because it was so inconsistent. One chapter would be written in beautiful prose, not simple, but readable, then suddenly we’d go off on a tangent expressed entirely in words of 5 syllables or more. I didn’t understand the purpose of this and felt very much that the author just wanted to show off how well he knows his language. That’s really cool for you, Mr. Wilson, but it didn’t really work for your story.

So the prose was already a big hurdle for me which, granted, may be due to my not being a native speaker. But I read big books with big words and don’t consider myself to struggle with the language. This was unintelligible at times. Which leads to me still not quite knowing if I missed a part because the language threw me out of the story or because it’s actually missing. There are scenes that are interrupted mid-sentence (which I find pretty cool), there are flashbacks and there are memories, all thrown somewhere in between the continuing main plot. I found it incredibly hard to follow where, in the time-line, I was at any given moment. It was hard to find a red line to follow, to hold on to a character or the plot, because within a matter of paragraphs, I’d be thrown into the past or the future or a tangent memory anyway.

In the Wildeeps, a monster is said to reside, one so terrifying that the toughest of people are afraid of it. The blurb hints at that, and also at Demane possible having to make a sacrifice in order to save his lover, the Captain. I really like that idea, but again, the execution was so confusing and incoherent, I couldn’t even tell you what exactly happened. There is a monster, yes, and it comes with a pretty nice plot twist, but other than that, I couldn’t say I cared about much of anything that happened in this story. This may also be due to the fact that Demane’s relationship with the captain may be mentioned a lot, but we’re not shown enough how these two love each other.

There are so many hints and beginnings of great things here that were simply dropped in favor of purple prose descriptions. I have nothing against big words – hell, my favorite author is Cat Valente and she’s a walking, talking thesaurus – but if they don’t paint pictures, if they don’t add to the story, why put them there? I wanted to learn more about the man whose hair absorbs sunlight for nourishment, about the love between him and Demane, about the other men in the caravan.

Reading this felt more like work than pleasure. I wanted to like this so, so much, and ended up not only bored but actually annoyed at the wasted opportunity. From what I’ve read on the internet, I’m almost alone with that opinion (which is fine, not every book is for everyone and all that), but I can happily declare that the second Tor.com novella, Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford charmed the living daylights out of me.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

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Second opinions: