#Mythothon 4 – Week One

This readathon was just what I needed to get me back on track. The year 2021 hasn’t been going too well – work is insanely busy and stressful, I still haven’t been vaccinated, we are currently in another mini-lockdown, and after over a year of this pandemic, I have to admit it’s starting to get to me psychologically, even though I’ve been super lucky (still got my job, can work easily from home, etc.). Anyway, my reading was going very slowly and I definitely needed a pick-me-up and something to motivate me and remind me why I love reading. Enter Mythothon!

How the week went

The beginning of the month is always stressful at work. Add to that the funeral my partner and I had to attend on April 1st and you’ve got a pretty bad start to the month. But it did give us a chance to visit some family whom we hadn’t seen since Christmas and it meant two train rides with plenty of time for reading. It’s a very small consolation but I’m trying to focus on the positives.

I wasn’t really sure which book to start with, but as I had just finished an audiobook and needed a new one and my first and second choices weren’t available (Elatsoe and Into the Heartless Wood), I went with Legendborn by Tracy Deonn (my review goes up on Monday). It’s read by Joniece Abbott-Pratt, who also read Raybearer which I ADORED, so the decision was quickly made. Abbott-Pratt does a fantastic job and sounds very different than she did in Raybearer (which is as it should be). The story itself is also engaging and fun and does a really god job of showing the casual, every-day racism that Black people are confronted with. The focus of the book is protagonist Bree entering into a secret society with the descendents of King Arthur and his Knights. There’s magic and romance, danger and prophecy, and although I’m not super hooked on the King Arthur references (the magic could be based on literally anything else), I like how Deonn handled the themes of loss and grief!

My second book was a re-read but my first time was so long ago that I didn’t remember much of the plot anyway. Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure was just as much fun as I had hoped. A very quick, child-friendly read that may be simple and straightforward but also did some unexpected things for a book published in 1983. For example, it was the first fantasy book I ever read – especially one written for a younger audience – that acknowledged and dealt with girls having a period. The girl disguised as a boy trope is used often and I enjoy it a lot. But I’ve never come across one that shows us how the disguised girl deals with her monthly cycle while pretending to be a boy. So bonus points for that!
Even though I definitely had some issues with the storytelling – things happen soooo fast! – and looked at other aspects through a different lens – like what if a trans kid read this book? – I had fun reading it and I liked the boost it gave me for this readathon.

And because it was so easy and quick to read, I jumped right into the next book in the series, In the Hand of the Goddess. This was another super fast read and although I had fun with it, my inner critic started grumbling more and more. A lot of time passes in this short novel but it never really felt like it. Just being told that something happens a year later doesn’t convey the passage of time when everything happens so fast. There’s a war and then, ten pages later, it’s already over. It’s winter but suddenly, spring has passed again. Alanna grows older and romance is suddenly a thing. The main story arc of Alanna’s training to become a knight is finished, however, and I’m curious to see what adventures she will have in the two remaining books. So despite its flaws, I find these books enjoyable and perfect to get you out of a reading slump. I will continue the series and maybe even finish it during this readathon.

I’m just getting all the quick and easy reads out of the way so I have more time for the chunky ones later in the month. “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” is a short story by P. Djèlí Clark that I found fun but not great. I really enjoyed his novella The Haunting of Tram Car 051 which is technically set after this story in an alternate Cairo where djinn live among humans and people have evolved into a gear-punky society that’s way ahead of the West. Both of these tales are set before Clark’s upcoming novel A Master of Djinn which I’m looking forward to soooo much. So you see, I just had to catch up on the Fatma el-Sha’arawi series. The story was too short to make me really get into the world building or Fatma’s character but it gave me a taste of what’s to come and I look forward to exploring this alternate Cairo more.

I also finished a non-readathon book this week which turned out to be really good. It was one of my five star predictions for the year, I’ve been meaning to read it forever and I’m glad I finally did. Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre (review to come next week) has won both the Hugo and the Nebula Award, it shows up on a lot of Best SFF lists, and it’s pretty short. So I really don’t know why it took me so long to pick it up. But this post-apocalyptic book about a wandering healer and her snakes had a lot going for it. A world that slowly reveals itself to the reader – at first it feels almost like fantasy, then turns more and more into sci-fi – a strong protagonist, LGBTQIA+ themes (this was published in 1978 so I was positively surprised), and a lot of emotional impact for a book that’s so short.
Despite it’s slightly episodic nature, I suspect this is a book that will stay in my mind, make me think, and that I’ll probably grow fonder of over time.

Books finished:

Currently reading:

  • Maria V. Snyder – Poison Study (Sir Tristan)
  • A. G. Slatter – All the Murmuring Bones (Nimue Team Read)

Other activities

I started watching Merlin the TV show because it’s on Netflix and I’ve never seen it and, well, it goes with the readathon. I’m only a few episodes in and while I don’t find it particularly original yet, nor well done in terms of production value, I do like the characters and the actors playing Merlin, Arthur, and Gwen. Also, Giles from Buffy is King Uther Pendragon and I keep expecting him to go to the library and look up a demon. 🙂

Plans for next week

I guess I’ll just go ahead and finish the Song of the Lioness, right? I’m also very much looking forward to the other books on my Mythothon TBR but as the Hugo Award finalists will be announced on Tuesday, I guess I’ll be trying to make a lot of the nominees fit the readathon prompts so I can get a head start on reading them. On the other hand, WorldCon has been moved to December this year, so there’s really no stress and plenty of time to read the finalists.

I’m approaching next week in a pretty relaxed way and I’ll pick up the books I’m most in the mood for.

Go Team Nimue!

Best of 2020: My Favorite Books of the Year

What a year this has been. At times it felt like we fell into an actual science fiction novel. We lived (and are still living) through a pandemic, the US answered the murder of George Floyd and many others by protesting against police brutality and a broken system, the US also elected a new president, there was a terrorist attack on my city, my partner lost three family members, and we spent most of the year working from home, isolated from friends and family, and trying to keep it together somehow.

But 2020 also had its good sides and I think it’s important that we keep reminding ourselves and each other of that. People came together while staying apart in a multitude of creative ways, they stood together against violence, they used their democratic right to vote, we support and lift each other up, and those of us who are readers found solace in our hobby and the fantastical worlds into which it lets us escape.

I have read so many amazing books this year. Award season will be a horror show because how can anyone pick one favorite among so many brilliant, original, heartbreaking works? As every year, a few books stood out… except this year “a few” is a higher number than usual. This list will be rather long but it’s not my fault authors published such exceptional stories this year.


Favorite Books Published in 2020

Novels

This year has been phenomenal when it comes to SFF novels (even if everything else was pretty terrible). Granted, there are still many 2020 publications I haven’t read yet but out of the ones I have read, there was just a single one that I think of as merely good. All the rest were stellar and make me dread Hugo nomination time. Which ones do I leave off my ballot?

 

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin is an obvious choice. Jemisin has been producing brilliant work for years and although this is her first foray into Urban Fantasy, I knew I would love it. I just didn’t know how much. When the city of New York comes to life through avatars of its burroughs, they have to come together to fight an ancient evil. That may sound simple, but  Jemisin’s way of painting the city as a living, breathing entity, turns this into a proper adventure with diverse characters, lots of social commentary, and – as always – great writing.

Alix E. Harrow‘s latest novel The Once and Future Witches took me a while to get into. Its three protagonist sisters had too many POV jumps for my taste, but Harrow found her rhythm eventuall and delivered a beautiful, heartwarming tale of sisterhood, the fight for women’s rights, and witchcraft. A love of stories and fairy tales and women working together permeates this whole book. And the way the characters are allowed to grow just made me warm and fuzzy inside. I may have started sceptical but I ended up adoring this book.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is the author’s long-awaited second novel after the mind-blowing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell although it has nothing to do with that book. Piranesi lives in a labyrinth of halls, lined with statues. This book is best read without knowing anything about it because it is a riddle and a mystery, poetically told, with a twist along the way. This is clearly an accomplished, amazing short novel but the emotional resonance is definitely fading over time.

The First Sister by debut author Linden A. Lewis wasn’t a perfect book. There were some character and plot aspects that could have been done better, but ultimately, I just enjoyed reading this so very much that I mostly ignored the things that didn’t make sense. An interstellar war between Gaeans and Icarii (Earth/Mercury people and Venus/Mars people) is shown through three POVs, who are all intriguing and face very big problems. Points for diversity (including the nonbinary audiobook narrator for the nonbinary POV character) as well as setting up a world I want to return to.

Another debut was The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. This multiverse story delivers plot twist after plot twist while we follow protagonist Cara as she visits neighbouring universes that are similar to ours but not quite the same. Her lower class status and her unrequited love for her superior doesn’t help but over the course of a very exciting Mad Max-esque plot, it’s wonderful to watch Cara grow and find her place in the world(s).

I’m so glad I loved Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia. I was in the minority finding her Gods of Jade and Shadow only okay but now I can finally join all the other fans in squeeing about her foray into gothic horror. Set in 1950s Mexico, Noemí visits the isolated house where her cousin lives with her husband. Needless to say, strange things happen there and the family is anything but welcoming. I loved the atmosphere and the setting, Noemí’s character growth and the slow burn romance… Seriously, everything about this book was amazing and I highly recommend it for someone looking for a spooky read that offers more than just scary moments or monsters.

Is anyone surprised that Martha Wells’ Network Effect made this list? No? Didn’t think so. It’s the first full length Murderbot novel and while you get much of the same stuff we’ve come to expect and love from a Murderbot story, this one goes deeper. I particularly enjoyed Murderbot’s voice and its reunion with ART. What really made this into a favorite was the tender moments between Murderbot and its humans or even Murderbot and other AI characters. As much as it’s not human, it is through its humanity that we connect to Murderbot and care for it.


Young Adult/Middle Grade

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko is the kind of YA debut that every YA author should aspire to write. It defies the tropes I find annoying and plays with the ones I like. Young Tarisai has been raised by her mother who is only called the Lady, and she has been raised for one purpose only: To get close to the prince and then kill him. But Tarisai finds the prince totally nice and doesn’t want to kill a kid. The premise makes you assume certain things (romance between her and the prince, magical solution to this “you have to kill him” problem, etc.) but let me tell you that you will not see anything coming. Ifueko plays with the readers’ expectations, throws in a lovely found family, beautiful world building and an ending that promises an even more epic sequel.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson seems to be a divisive book. I wouldn’t have thought I’d like a witchy story set in a puritanical village at all, but Henderson’s story telling is so engaging and her protagonist so easy to like that I couldn’t put it down. For a debut novel especially, I was impressed with the way relationships between the characters were portrayed. I’m not a big romance reader either, but I adored watching the people in this book come together slowly and bond over important things. There’s none of the cheap YA tropes here. Plus, the witches are properly scary and the curses Immanuelle has to deal with are pretty gruesome. A perfect Halloween read.


Novellas

The standout novella for me this year is P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, a book that immediately grabbed me, kept me engaged and entertained throughout, and has a powerful story to tell. I was all the more impressed with how fleshed-out the characters were and how much world building was put into such a slim volume. Clark is definitely an author to watch and I hope this novella gets him a Hugo Award.

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings is Australian Gothic and captured me with its tark fairy tale vibe. Ignore that first over-the-top flowery chapter and just roll with it. You’ll get a tale of interconnected stories that seem very weird at first but all make sense in the end. This was an incredibly atmospheric read that shows how Jennings is not only a great illustrator but also a writer that I’m going to watch.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo doesn’t need any more recommendations. Everyone who’s read it loved it and for good reason. The way Vo chose to tell this story – in sort of flashbacks inspired by objects – is one reason it was so good. But the actual story it tells is also breathtaking. The plot itself isn’t all that epic but it makes you think about how we deal with history, whose stories get told (and whose should get told) and what happens to the people on the sidelines of a war.


Favorite Audiobooks

I swear it is a coincidence that all my favorite audiobooks of the year are written and narrated by Black authors and narrators. I didn’t even realize it until I listed them up here. My challenge to read more Black authors definitely contributed to me picking these books up, but this is where I want to share the amazing work narrators did with these stories.

N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became was one of my top books of the year but the audiobook turned it into something else. Not only does Robin Miles do a brilliant job when it comes to different voices and conveying emotions, but this audiobook also has a few sound effects and music mixed in. Don’t worry, it only happens occasionally but it did help me get immersed in the story. I would have loved this as a paper book as well but if you’re still unsure which version to go with, definitely pick up the audiobook.

In The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, we follow three very different female characters living in very different time periods and settings. I never thought I would love this book as much as I did but I should have known better. Hopkinson effortlessly weaves magic and Caribbean myth into her tale, and there’s even a real historical figure in this one. Bahni Turpin switches characters beautifully, which includes accents and timbre, and really helped paint a picture of this story in my mind.

Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is a challenging book for any narrator to do but Cherise Boothe did a brilliant job. Nnot only does she have to switch between characters of different genders, protagonist Aster is also neurodiverse and thus delivers certain lines in a manner that seems almost cold to other people. Yet Boothe managed to make Aster lovable while maintaining her speech pattern. It’s also just a great story.

Rosewater by Tade Thompson is a difficult book to follow because of its jumping around in time. Not having a paper book to read along makes this even harder, but Bayo Gbadamosi did his very best to help us keep the timelines and characters straight. This very different alien “invasion” story may not have the most likable lead character but I found it enthralling from beginning to end and I can’t wait to find out how the trilogy ends.


Favorite Books Published pre-2020

Without a doubt, the three books that touched me the most in 2020 were Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I’m noticing a concerning similarity in my favorite books this year. Almost all of them managed to make me cry…

I read Doomsday Book right whent he first lockdown started in Austria and when it hit home all around the world that this pandemic was, indeed, a global thing that meant nothing would be as it was before. The book is about an incredibly realistic epidemic (I could literally compare the fictional government’s reaction to real world goverments) as well as the plague. Time-travelling historian Kivrin visits the Middle Ages but things don’t go exactly as planned. Connie Willis made me fall in love with her characters only to put them through hell. At the same time, she shows the best of humanity and the reason there is always hope. I cried a lot reading this book.

The Sparrow was something else entirely. A first-contact story that sends Jesuit priests and scientists to an alien planet in order to find the creatures whose singing has been received on Earth. This beautiful tale of a found family sets you up for disaster right from the start. Told in two time lines, you follow the mission itself as well as its aftermath through the eyes of sole survivor Emilio Sandoz. I’ll be honest, I felt like crying throughout the entire book because it’s just got that tone to it. But by the end I thought I had prepared myself for certain things. I was not prepared. This story had me sobbing by the end and left me with a massive book hangover.

Much more hopeful, albeit also dystopian, was An Unkindness of Ghosts. This was one of my five star predictions and I must say, I totally nailed it. Aster lives on a generation ship that is organized vaguely like the Antebellum South. Social injustice, terrible conditions for the people on the lower decks, and Aster’s unusual personality made this an engaging read. Add to that fantastic world building, a mystery to be solved, and Aster’s relationship with her friends and colleague, and you’ve got a book that will stick with you. Rivers Solomon effortlessly adds discussions of gender and sexuality, neurodiversity and class difference into an exciting tale which – thankfully – didn’t leave me crying at the end, but rather with a sense of hope and satisfaction.

Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Fate was long overdue. If you’ve read the Tawny Man trilogy you can guess why I stopped reading after The Golden Fool. I was a little worried that I had forgotten all the important plot points but Robin Hobb is a skilled writer who reminded me of everything important in the first chapter, all without info dumping. It was like I had never left. And so I followed these characters I already loved onto a quest that promised doom for at least one of them. I did cry when certain events came to pass but Hobb managed to deliver an ending that felt both realistic and hopeful – something that’s not exactly the norm for Fitz. No matter how many years pass between books or which series you follow, you just can’t go wrong with Robin Hobb. She is a master of the genre.

Now Kindred by Octavia E. Butler was only my second Butler book but it made me want to go and read everything she’s written. This story of a young Black woman who is randomly transported back in time to a slave plantation does everything you expect plus a little more. Butler doesn’t waste time exploring the time travel mechanisms of her story – they don’t matter – but rather focuses on character and setting. Dana suddenly has to deal with a time when people like her were seen as little more than animals, so this book is exactly as hard to read as you think. It was a powerful story, though, that showed all characters as faceted, believable human beings, as well as highlighting aspects of slavery that especially impact women. This was not a fun read but I can’t recommend it highly enough!

I’ve had some starting problems with Laini Taylor but this year, I gave The Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy another chance and promptly fell into it and read all three books. Daughter of Smoke and Bone still wasn’t a complete hit but worked better for me on the re-read. Days of Blood and Starlight showed that Laini Taylor can expand her fictional world without losing sight of her protagonists, and Dreams of Gods and Monsters brought the tale to its epic, bittersweet conclusion. What I love most about this series is the feeling of myth and lore and history that pervades it all. Even though we learn a lot about Chimaera and Seraphim, it always feels like there’s more hiding just around the corner. The relationships in this story were amazing, both the romantic ones as well as the friendships and found families that are made along the way. Oh, and of course, it’s written in beautiful, lyrical prose.

I also used this year to finish the Strange the Dreamer duology by picking up Muse of Nightmares and, boy, did that book rip my heart out. Again, Laini Taylor expands an already intriguing fantasy world and shows us just how much more there is out there. She also adds some new characters that put me through an emotional roller coaster. What I love most about these two books is probably the villains – or lack thereof. There are antagonists but as we get to see the world through their eyes, it becomes clear they’re not Evil. For the entirety of the book, I was sure things would end in tragedy and there couldn’t possibly be a happy end. And I’m not saying things end all that happily (at least not for everyone) but again, there is a tone of hope as well as the satisfaction of having read a complete story. The prose is otherworldly. Serioulsy, I could put quotes from this duology all over my walls.

Francis Hardinge’s Deeplight swept me off my feet a little unexpectedly. I knew Hardinge was a good writer with very original ideas but then she just goes and delivers a YA novel with truly complicated characters and relationships, set in a world with dead underwater gods, with a deaf character, multiple twists, and an exciting plot? Count me in for more Francis Hardinge because this was a pretty perfect YA novel if you ask me. I’m still thinking about some adventurous moments from this book and then I’m impressed yet again at how well constructed it was.
The Lodestar Award went to Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer which I also adored, so shoutout to that book.

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He was a twisty emotional rollercoaster that definitely stands out from other YA novels in that it doesn’t focus on the romance, puts its protagonist through seriously difficult choices, and delivers great solutions to its core mysteries. If you want a fast-paced book that nonetheless takes time to develop its characters, pick this up. Unfortunately, it ends a bit abruptly and as of today, there’s no sequel in sight. Here’s to hoping we’ll get one eventually.


I don’t know about you, but I’m going to call this a pretty successful reading year. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many favorites, especially among the new publications. Many of these books will end up on my Hugo nomination ballot – I’ll post it when the time comes. And who knows, until then I may have caught up on even more awesome books.

If you’ve posted a best of the year list, let me know in the comments. I love looking through other people’s favorite reads of the year. I’m especially interested in 2020 publications that I might have missed or should prioritize. 🙂

Monster Hunters, Racism, and Humanity: P. Djèlí Clark – Ring Shout

What a ride! I am always amazed when an author manages to accomplish in a novella what others fail to do in a big, chunky novel. P. Djèlí Clark is definitely one to watch (if you’ve somehow missed him until now) and I can’t wait to gobble up whatever he decides to write next. I hear there’s a full length novel in the Djinn universe coming up…

RING SHOUT
by P. Djèlí Clark

Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 192 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: You ever seen a Klan march?

Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy historical novella that gives a supernatural twist to the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror.

D. W. Griffith is a sorcerer, and The Birth of a Nation is a spell that drew upon the darkest thoughts and wishes from the heart of America. Now, rising in power and prominence, the Klan has a plot to unleash Hell on Earth.

Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales. When she’s not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she’s fighting monsters she calls “Ku Kluxes.” She’s damn good at it, too. But to confront this ongoing evil, she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh–and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it.

I don’t even know where to start gushing about this book because it was so damn good! From the very first chapter I knew I would love it but then it kept getting better and better.
We follow a group of three women who hunt monsters. Maryse, our protagonist, Sadie (my favorite) and Chef – three badass Black women doing their best to rid the world of the monsters that invade it. The premise of the book and one of the coolest ideas ever is that the members of the Ku Klux Klan aren’t exactly all human. You wait long enough, and some of them start turning into what our heroines call Ku Kluxes – these monsters with the pointy heads need to be killed and that’s what Maryse and her friends do. But something big seems to be coming and it has to do with the planned showing of The Birth of a Nation on Stone Mountain…

I want to tell you as little about the plot as possible, not because there are many huge twists but simply because this novella is so well crafted that I think you should experience it for yourself in all its glory. But I can tell you why it worked so well for me, starting with the characters. In the very first chapter, Clark introduces us to our protagonist Maryse and her two friends Sadie and Chef while they’re on a job, and over the course of just those few pages, they each became real people with histories and hopes and dreams. It’s something that many full-length novels don’t manage to do in 500 pages and Clark just gives us a handful of lines, some banter, and – wham! – we have three women who are interesting and amazing and whom we immediately root for. I have a special soft spot for Sadie and her gun, Winnie. She is loud-mouthed and direct, loyal and funny, and I just wanted to be friends with her.

I may be a character focused reader but there’s plenty for people who enjoy a killer plot. Not only do Maryse and her friends hunt monsters which leads to crazy cool action sequences, but there’s a lot of world building going on as well. Again, no spoilers, but Maryse can summon a sword out of thin air (how cool is that?) and sort of dreamwalks into another world where she talks to three Aunties who help her along the way. We also get a sort of magic system when it comes to the Ku Kluxes and how the evolve (if you want to call it that) plus some folklore interwoven with science fictional ideas. It’s really awesome, you guys!

Another intriguing aspect of this book is, of course, the Ring Shouts. I had no idea what a ring shout even was before I picked this up but even without looking it up, you get the idea and the meaning behind it. These shouts are incorporated into the story, not just as window dressing or a world building vehicle, but as something important to the plot. Music plays a big role in general and I loved how the scenes with shouts were also used as a chance to give the side characters more depth. While Maryse is the character we follow most closely, this being a first person narrative, the other characters were all fleshed out, even if they only show up a few times and don’t get to say much. Clark paints a picture of an entire community, a close-knit group, a found family. I’m a sucker for found families, especially when they are done so well.

What else makes this book so great? Well, there’s the language. Almost all the  major characters are Black, the story takes place in 1920, and the language reflects all of that. I could totally hear Sadie’s voice in my head and while I had to read Nana Jean’s lines several times to make sure I understood (English being my second language does not exactly make it easier to read her dialect) but I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it. The narration adds atmosphere to the story and gets us closer to Maryse and the demons she carries with her.
And she’s got some demons to deal with… Finding out just what exactly happened in Maryse’s past and led her to become a sword-fighting monster huntress was just another layer to an already great story. It’s clear from the start that she was orphaned a while ago and dealing with her grief makes her just as much who she is as the friendships she’s found along the way.

Most of all, I am impressed with how much Clark managed to put into this novella without ever making it feel overloaded. There’s explorations of trauma, racism, purpose, and friendship. But it’s also a great fantasy story with cool monsters and action  and a magic system. And to top it all of, it taught me things about the real world, things about history I didn’t know much about. I’m no editor and no writer, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t a perfect example for a novella done right. Everything you could hope for is right there, it’s all delivered beautifully, and it leaves a lasting impression. This is definitely going on my favorites of the year list an onto next year’s Hugo ballot!

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Damn excellent!

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novella

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

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

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

The Finalists for Best Novella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ballot (probably)

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

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

Up next week: The Lodestar

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

This seems to be a really good year for me when it comes to keeping up and catching up on books I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The fact that the Hugo nominees are stellar this year doesn’t hurt. While I’m currently making my way through the novelette nominees, I’m already done with the short stories and I’m pretty sure I’ve settled on the way I’m going to rank them on my ballot.

The nominees for Best Short Story

  1. Alix E. Harrow – A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Pratctical Compendium of Portal Fantasies
  2. T. Kingfisher – The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society
  3. Sarah Gailey – STET
  4. Sarah Pinsker – The Court Magician
  5. Brooke Bolander – The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat
  6. P. Djèlí Clark – The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

The only short story I had read before the nominee were announced also turned out to be my favorite – if only by a small margin. Alix E. Harrow‘s tale of a witch who works at a library (where else?) and who tries to improve the life of a young boy by putting just the right book in front of him when he seems to need it was moving and beautifully written. It made me remember those early reading days when I first discovered The Neverending Story or got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a present. Books have the power to change lives and Harrow uses that knowledge to weave a wonderful tale with just the right amount of magic.

My second favorite – and no surprise to me – was T. Kingfisher‘s tale of a group of  magical beings gathering to tell their woeful tales of a human girl who didn’t behave like she should. We all know when a handsome elf comes your way and makes you fall in love with him, the human should do the pining once he’s gone. But pesky Rose MacGregor won’t have any of it but flips fairy tale tropes on their head. This story was hilarious, refreshing, and features one of Kingfisher’s trademark practical heroines. I adored every single line, some of which made me laugh out loud.

Sarah Gailey’s STET is probably the shortest of the nominated stories but those few pages pack a punch! The story’s form is almost as interesting as its content, written as an academic paper handed in for review. The actual story comes to life in the footnotes (I love footnotes!). Whether this wins or not, I urge you all to read it. On just a few pages, this story made me gasp, think, sent me through so many emotions… Even though it’s not in my top spot, I’d be happy if it took home the Hugo.

Sarah Pinsker’s story was a strange one. I loved the atmosphere it created right from the get go, when a young boy, desperate to learn magic, is recruited to be the Court Magician – a job that takes much more than sleight of hand card tricks. The deeper this new Court Magician sinks into his job, the darker this story becomes. I really enjoyed it, sinister as it was, but while the ending definitely works, I felt there was something missing. So it’s only number 4 in my list.

Brooke Bolander wrote an impressive novelette (also nominated and currently on my number one ballot spot) but while this story was fun and cleverly written, it didn’t resonate with me as much as the others. You get what it says on the tin. The story of three raptor sisters, a stupid prince, a clever princess, some carnage, and a big adventure. I can’t say much more than I liked the story but didn’t love it.

The only story I really didn’t enjoy was P. Djèlí Clark‘s tale. I see what he was trying to do, telling a tale for each of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, but few of those tales were interesting to me, some of them were quite boring, and there wasn’t any payoff at the end of the story. I look forward to reading his nominated novella but this short story just didn’t do it for me.

Much like the nominees for Best Novel, this is a ballot filled with dramatically different stories, which makes it all the harder to choose a favorite. All of these tales are well written, so my judgement is based much more on personal enjoyment and taste than on quality. Had I read them at a different time in my life, in a different mood, I might have ranked them differently, but for now, I’m happy with my choice. I’d be really happy for either of my top 3 to win the award, but I also wouldn’t mind for my numbers 4 or 5 to take it home. A ballot with only a single undeserving story (according to my personal tastes, I know lots of people love Clark’s story!) is definitely a great one.

I’ll continue to read the nominees and let you know what I think of them. I’m almost done with the novels (one and a half books to go, yay!),  the Lodestar finalists (3 books to go), and the novelettes – 5 to go, but they are quick reads, so you’ll probably hear about them next.