My 2020 Five Star Predictions: How did they hold up?

In January, I dared to make some five star predictions about books that I thought I would end up loving. This was brave insofar as I often don’t even read the books I plan to, despite having an entire year to do it. But I did surprisingly well, not only in reading the books but also in predicting my own rating. Not all my predictions turned into five-star-reads, but they were all books I enjoyed.

5 STARS: Rivers Solomon – An Unkindness of Ghosts

So much yes! This was the book I was most unsure about so it made me even happier that it blew me away from the very start. Rivers Solomon is such an inriguing writer. They create vivid characters, do worldbuilding effortlessly, and manage to deal with a myriad of topics all while telling an engaging story. This generation ship story has so many layers and one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve ever read. Go pick it up!

4-ish STARS: Mishell Baker – Impstor Syndrome

This might have been a five star book, had I read it sooner. Waiting as long as I did between books 2 and 3 was definitely a mistake. It took me a long time to figure out who was who and what had happened before so my enjoyment was delayed for at least a third of the book. Then my mood may also have contributed to this only being a good read, not a great one.
I still wholeheartedly recommend this trilogy, however, only with the caveat that you read them closer together than I did. The first two books were standout novels which both got five stars from me. This one ended up with four-ish.

5 STARS: Laini Taylor – Muse of Nightmares

I have to admit, I was worried for a second, that this would “only” turn out to be a four-star-read. The beginning of the book takes its time, re-establishing the events of the first book, letting readers get back into the world, but once the plot kicks off, it goes non-stop until the end. And yes, this did end up getting five stars from me because this book was so close to perfect, it broke my heart. I was constantly close to tears, I cared so much about the characters, and I couldn’t see any way for the story to end well. I’m not telling you how it did end, but whether good or bad or bittersweet, the ending was satisfying and fitting. I love it and I want more Laini Taylor NOW!

5 STARS: N. K. Jemisin – The Stone Sky

Oooooh, how daring of me, predicting I will love an N. K. Jemisin novel… I admit, I was playing it rather safe, both with Laini Taylor and N. K. Jemisin, but this was the book I was most certain would end up getting 5 stars. And it did.
I did take a while to find back into the world of the Broken Earth but by the time I had remembered all the little world building tidbits from the previous books, I was highly engaged again and hoped along with Essun, Nassun, and the others that there would be a way to save the world and themselves. The ending was such a beautiful thing, bittersweet and magical and bringing all the elements together. I can say very little without spoiling but this trilogy is simply mindblowing and deserving of all its Hugo Awards.

??? STARS: Marlon James – Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Here’s the outlier. I have read exactly 50% of this book and found it highly interesting and immersive. But the world James set up isn’t exactly a happy place and the characters are complicated beings whose motives aren’t immediately understood. Plus, the plot is difficult to follow, the language is demanding, and just everything about this book makes it a Hard Read.
Now, I’m always up for a challenge and I plan to finish this book eventually. It may even still turn into a five star read but only if I pick it up at the right time. Pushing myself to finish it just so I can say I did will not help my enjoyment. So I’m waiting until the mood strikes to dive back into this African-inspired dark tale of mythical beings, kidnapped children, mysteries and magic.

And that’s it! This little experiment was actually a lot more fun than I thought so I’m now going to prepare the next round. For 2021, I’ll be a little more daring and even choose books by authors I don’t already know. After all, it’s easy to predict a five-star-read from a favorite author.

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. 🙂

Neurodiversity in Space: Rivers Solomon – An Unkindness of Ghosts

This book was one of my five star predictions for the year and I’m glad to say, it was everything I had hoped and then some. As I loved Rivers Solomon’s novella The Deep, I wasn’t really worried that I might not like this book. But I didn’t just like this book, I loved it with the strength of a baby sun and I totally want to read everything else Solomon writes.

AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS
by Rivers Solomon

Published: Akashic Books, 2017
eBook: 340 pages
Audiobook: 11 hours 55 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: Aster removed two scalpels from her med-kit to soak in a solution of disinfectant.

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.
Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.
When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

This will be a difficult review to write, so let me say the most important thing first: I adored this book, from the very first page to the very last. It exceeded my (pretty high) expectations and strengthened my resolve to follow Rivers Solomon’s career closely. In this novel, they do so many different things, give us so many layers of story and character and world building that I don’t even know where to start gushing.

The most logical thing is to start with Aster, our protagonist, who has lived on the generation ship Matilda all her life. She was born in the lower decks, which are populated mostly by People of Color who are basically slaves in space. They have overseers, they get up very early to work in the fields, they have little to no rights, and the rich people from the upper decks look down on them as if they weren’t even human. But if you’re expecting a narrative that dwells mostly on the horrible social structure of Matilda you’re only partly right.
Aster is a helper/mentee to the ship’s surgeon, Theo, a former child prodigy who is considered only a step away from godhood. Aster is training to become a doctor of her own and the book even starts with her performing an amputation. But that’s not all Aster is or does. Although it is never mentioned explicitly, we learn throughout the story that she is neurodiverse, sometimes having difficulty distinguishing whether people mean what they say literally or figuratively. She makes a great effort to learn new words, to listen how people use them, to learn how to behave.
I guess Aster won’t be for everyone. Her curt and direct manner don’t exactly make her a Mary Sue, but I absolutely loved her.

But this book also isn’t only about Aster becoming a doctor. Twenty-five years ago, Aster’s mother Lune died, leaving her nothing but a journal that contains records of Lune’s everyday life. When one day, Aster’s best friend and sort of kind of lover says that the journal is obviously written in code, Aster begins searching for the truth her mother has been hiding and which may even have led to her death. Add to that the fact that Matilda‘s Sovereign Nicolaeus is very ill, the lower decks don’t get any proper heat, and conditions on the ship are getting worse and worse, and you’ve got all the ingredients for an exciting novel.

The reason I loved this book so very much is the characters. Because Aster isn’t the only complicated, interesting, realistic person on the ship. I quickly developed a soft spot for Theo, whose past we learn about through flashbacks and memories. The circumstances of his birth give him more privilege than Aster but that doesn’t mean he has had it easy. Frequently being called effeminate for choosing not to wear a beard or for not behaving “manly” enough, he has his own burdens to bear. Aster and Theo both don’t identify with the binary genders that were assigned to them and while they may not know what to call it, they know what feels right to them.  I found this to be another highly interesting aspect of their characters, also considering that they don’t have a lot of romantic feelings towards anyone. But they do care for each other.
Giselle, that impusive, complicated, wonderful human being, equally impressed me. The way she deals with the horrors she is confronted with came as a surprise. This book comes with trigger warnings for physical violence, assault, and rape. I wasn’t surprised that the overseers pick out girls from the lower decks when they feel like it – sadly, it’s that kind of a society – but I did have certain expectations on how the lower deck people would deal with this. Aster has her own way of making sure she survives which fit her practical personality (but make it all the more clear how terrible it is to live on the Matilda as a Black person), but Giselle is very different. That’s all I can say without spoilers. Giselle wasn’t exactly likable either and does some seriously shitty things, but I appreciated her all the more because it made her feel so real!

My second favorite part was the world building. It is done effortlessly through storytelling, without info dumps or lenghty exposition. We simply follow Aster throughout the day and, thorugh the things she sees and experiences, we learn about how Matilda works. There are a handful of chapters from different points of view – one for Theo, one for Giselle, one for Aster’s surrogate mother – but the bulk of the novel is seen through Aster’s eyes. Her astute observations and analytical mind aren’t exactly the right vessel for flowery descriptions or romantic metaphors, but I thought the practical, almost cold, way in which she views things created a great atmosphere and showed life on the generation ship for what it was.

Aaaand just in case you’re worried there isn’t any plot, let me reassure you. The red thread is Aster’s research into her mother’s past, trying to decipher her journal and find out what her mother knew. Interwoven and connected to that plot thread is the way Matilda operates as a whole. The ship has been going through space for nearly 300 years, traveling to an unknown destination, a promised land for the colonizers. If I say any more, I’ll get into spoiler territory, but you can probably guess that something isn’t quite right and that Lune figured certain things out that may or may not have led to her death. I would have loved this book even if there wasn’t much of a plot, but for those of you who are more plot-focused readers, I think this mystery and its ultimate resolution will be enough to keep you interested.

An Unkindness of Ghosts has so many more things to offer and I’m sure I’ve missed some of them, which is why I plan to re-read it some day. As my five star predictions go, this was a total hit. A deeply unsettling look at humanity through the eyes of a diverse character, this is a book I’ll remember for a long time. And it’s the book that makes me officially call myself a Rivers Solomon fan.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

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 2020: Best Short Story

It’s Hugo Awards reading season! To celebrate all the amazing finalists, I thought I would do a series of short reviews for each category as well as show you what my ballot will most likely look like. Ballots are definitely subject to change, especially in categories where I had several favorites.
Every Monday, we’ll look at a different category until I run out of time – or out of steam. I’m still catching up with the finalists, especially in the series category, but I hope I can keep up this schedule.

  • Best Short Story
  • Best Novelette
  • Best Novella
  • Lodestar
  • Best Graphic Story
  • Best Novel
  • Best Series

I’m not a big short story reader. In fact, I almost only read short stories that are Hugo finalists because there’s just too much out there and I mostly don’t get a lot out of it. I usually want my stories bigger and meatier but there is something to be said for an author who can evoke an emotional response in the span of only a few pages. Here are six of them on one of my favorite Hugo shortlists ever.

The Finalists for Best Short Story

  • Alix E. Harrow – Do Not Look Back, My Lion
  • S. L. Huang – As the Last I May Know
  • Shiv Ramdas – And Now His Lordship is Laughing
  • Rivers Solomon – Blood is Another Word for Hunger
  • Fran Wilde – A Catalog of Storms
  • Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography  on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island

This went differently than expected. I loved Alix E. Harrow’s winning short story last time, so I fully expected her story to be in my top spot again. But the competition is tough!

I didn’t like Fran Wilde’s YA novel Updraft at all, so I was surprised at how deeply I cared about the characters in A Catalog of Storms. The story is about the weather and yet it utterly engaged me! Sila, the youngest of three daughters, is the first person narrator who shows us how she and her family live. Storms have been ravaging their home, so much so that humans mostly stay inside and hide. That is, until the weathermen appeared. These people learned to name the terrible storms and thus control and fight them. To become a weatherman is a great honor, although they usually end up dissolving into weather themselves. When Sila’s sister shows signs of turning into a weatherman, the family has to deal with that loss.
I can’t believe how much Wilde packed into this short story! Not only did she make me care for all the characters but she also immersed me in a highly original world. I was deeply impressed!

Alix E. Harrow may not have written my favorite of the nominated stories, but Do Not Look Back, My Lion was still very good. It’s about a warrior people who brand their babies right after birth to become fierce warriors. Eefa, husband to the legendary warrior nicknamed the Lion, has had enough, though. She is a healer and as such has very low social status. But she doesn’t want to watch her children go off to war and come back injured. Or maybe not come back at all.
While I loved the central relationship and the character growth in this story, I felt the world building just didn’t work for me. There were nice touches, like the gods of Life and Death, but to me the question of why these people are eternally at war remained until the end. It’s not the point of the story at all but it kept nagging at the back of my mind.
But for the excellent character work and beautiful writing, I still loved this story.

I know S. L. Huang as the author of the Russell’s Attic series as well as the super-heartbreaking The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist. I never read her trilogy but I know she can get me all emotional with her stories. But As the Last I May Know does more than that. It’s set in a future where weapons of mass destruction can only be used with the proper codes (so far, so normal), except these codes are embedded in a child who the president personally has to kill in order to get the codes. This idea alone was so mind-blowing that I wouldn’t even have needed the characters to love this story. But we do follow the ten-year old protagonist who is chosen to carry those launch codes and we see her spend a few years close to the president. Because there is a serious war going on and he may have to kill her in order to save his country…
I cannot put into words the emotional roller coaster this tale put me on. It’s a brilliant idea but we see it through such wonderful characters that every little change in the war physically hurts. It poses questions about ethics, about the value of a human life, about the Greater Good, and it kept me thinking a long time after I finished reading it. This is what all the best stories should do.

I loved Rivers Solomon’s novella, The Deep, and I was almost as taken with their short story, Blood Is Another Word for Hunger. It has one of the best (and longest) opening lines I’ve ever read and the prose is just beautiful. It starts with Sully, a slave girl, slaughtering the entire family for whom she works, and then suddenly being struck pregnant and giving birth to a girl that grows up to be a teenager within minutes. The universe needs balance, after all, and with five people dead, it seems only fair that five others come back to life – in this case, via Sully’s womb. This way, a little family grows and they start to make a life for themselves.
While I enjoyed reading this story, I’m not quite sure what Solomon was trying to achieve with it. Obviously, a slave rising up to take control of her own life was satisfying enough to drive the plot, but the story as a whole and especially the ending left me a bit puzzled.

Shiv Ramdas’ story And Now His Lordship is Laughing is about an old woman in India who makes beautiful – and somewhat magical – dolls. When her craft attracts the attention of an English lord, she refuses to make a doll for his wife because that’s just not how things are done. You don’t demand a doll, you are given one as a gift if the maker so chooses. What follows is a period of poverty, terrible hunger (and death following that hunger) because the English take things from the people to supply their own armies. When eventually, the protagonist does agree to make a dool for His Lordship’s wife, it comes with a caveat. She wants to hand the doll over herself and show the English lady how to make the magical toy laugh.
I loved how this story managed to say so many things about colonialism, cultural differences and the ways we perceive them, and the cost of an empire. It’s a beautifully written story but, unfortunately, a rather predictable one. Satisfying as the ending was, it didn’t really surprise me. The one truly emotional moment for me happened much sooner and is the catalyst for what happens next. I enjoyed it and I want to read more by Ramdas but on this ballot, it will be ranked rather low.

The last story I read messed up my entire ranking up until that point. Ten Excerpts not only has important things to say but also does so by playing with its medium. Nibedita Sen presents her story just like the title suggests – as excerpts from a bibliography on the women of Ratnabar Island. Through these very (!) short snippets, we get a story that spans generations and continents! I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to write something like this. When colonists “discovered” the women of Ratnabar island, they took some of them with them to England for a “proper education”, starting something much bigger and more vicious than they probably knew.
I won’t say much about the plot, if you can call it that, but holy shit, this story was mind-blowing. It’s so easy to fill in the parts of this history without having to be explicitly told, and I loved how Sen presented excerpts from different sources that have varying opinions on Ratnabar Island and its inhabitants. Most striking were probably the excerpts from the now displaced second- or even third-generation Ratnabarian women living abroad. My gut reaction after reading this was: Yeah, this is my top spot.

My ballot (probably)

  1. S. L. Huang – As the Last I May Know
  2. Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography  on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island
  3. Fran Wilde – A Catalog of Storms
  4. Alix E. Harrow – Do Not Look Back, My Lion
  5. Rivers Solomon – Blood is Another Word for Hunger
  6. Shiv Ramdas – And Now His Lordship is Laughing

You’ll see that the Nibedita Sen story is not in my top spot but that’s only because I have stewed over this ballot for quite a while. I may yet change the top two spots, depending on how I feel about these stories once a little time has passed after reading them. I am silmpy so very taken with Huang’s basic premise and her characters were the ones that felt most fleshed-out on this ballot that I don’t want to take it from my top spot at the moment.
I’m happy with Fran Wilde on my third spot, but after that, it gets difficult again.
I enjoyed all these stories and they all did interesting things, were written beautifully, and got some emotional reaction out of me.
The reason Shiv Ramdas’ story is currently at the bottom is simply because it was the most predictable one for me, so my pure enjoyment of it was just a tad less than with the other stories.
Rivers Solomon’s story was fantastic but I’m still not quite sure about the ending. And Alix E. Harrow’s story simply had standout character work. So nothing on this ballot is really secure, I may shift around a lot of things, but nothing will jump from the very top to the very bottom or vice versa.

Except for Wilde and Harrow’s tales, all the stories deal with issues of race, colonialism, or slavery and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these stories resonate so much with WorldCon members. These topics are more timely than ever and I am so grateful that I got to see them through the eyes of such brilliant, talented writers. There’s not a single bad story on here and I want to read more by each of these authors. So we’re off to a pretty amazing start when it comes to this year’s Hugo reading! And I believe can all use something to keep our hope and spirits up in these trying times.

Up next week: Best Novelette

Dealing With History: Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes – The Deep

Usually, a book is what happens when a writer sits down and puts their ideas into words – and then publishes them. But sometimes, books have more interesting origins. In this case, the band clipping.’s Hugo-nominated work “The Deep” was the inspiration for Solomon’s novella and I have to say, it makes me want to read way more fiction based on music. And of course more books by Rivers Solomon.

THE DEEP
by Rivers Solomon
Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Published: Saga Press, 2019
Ebook: 166 pages
Standalone novella
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: “It was like dreaming,” said Yetu, throat raw.

Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.

Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface, escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.

Yetu will learn more than she ever expected to about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.

This is another one of those hard reviews to write. On the one hand, the book synopsis tells you most of what happens within the covers of this book, but on the other hand, it doesn’t even get close to telling you what emotions this story will put you through. The premise is a great fantasy idea: When pregnant slave women were thrown (or jumped) from the ships transporting them, the babies they carried went through some kind of super-evolution and were born as water-dwelling mermaid-like creatures. These creatures then found others like themselves and formed a society. The wajinru, as they are called, don’t have great memories – but on purpose. They choose one person to be their historian, their memory-keeper, the one who remembers where they came from, who they are, why they are here in the deep darkness of the ocean.

Yetu was chosen as historian but to say the job overwhelms her is an understatement. She gets lost in the myriad memories stuck inside her head, she sometimes can’t distinguish reality and the present from what she remembers, from the past. The way Rivers Solomon described Yetu’s feelings was so amazing, I felt like I knew her after only a handful of pages. At the beginning of the book, we don’t even know what exactly those memories are (although we can surmise they are not pleasant, given the wajinru’s origins), but we feel Yetu’s pain nonetheless. When the annual ritual of sharing those memories with the rest of the wajinru arrives, Yetu makes a terrible decision. For a few moments, she is supposed to hand the memories over to the others, so they can remember who they are, and then she should take them back and store them within herself, so the others can go on with their lives. But Yetu isn’t sure she’ll survive another year, even another minute, carrying that weight alone. So she leaves…

And thus starts a journey of finding herself, of learning more about her past than she ever did before, of finding out that even painful memories are worth preserving. Yetu leaves the deep and goes to the surface where she meets some humans. If you think you have a Little Mermaid retelling on your hands, though, think again. Although Yetu does develop a sort of relationship with one of the humans, most of her time is spent thinking about her actions and her people whom she left below. She worries about going back, about staying, about what is right and wrong. The question of whether she should return even if the memories would destroy her is constantly on her mind and it was a strange pleasure to read.

This is a truly beautiful book. Not because the subject matter is beautiful – it’s not. In some chapters, we learn about the first wajinru, how they came to be, we see single memories of slave women, we see dark times and slightly better times. But Yetu’s journey – both physical and emotional – was just such a damn good story. Should she sacrifice her own sanity, her own health for the good of her people? Should one die so many can live? Or are there maybe other solutions to the wajinru’s problem? And is it even important to keep those memories if everyone is much happier when they forget? It’s a tale of identity, of belonging, of remembering where you came from even if it hurts. But it’s also the story of one individual who desperately wants to live and enjoy everything life has to offer. That includes maybe falling in love, learning to live with pain, choosing your own path. I can’t describe what goes on in The Deep in a better, more eloquent way. I can only urge you to pick up this book.

I’m pleased to say that the ending was a thing of utter beauty. I wasn’t sure until the very end whether this story could be resolved in a satisfying way because every choice Yetu took seemed like it had more bad sides than good ones. But Rivers Solomon definitely has a storytelling gift. They created a character that readers can identify with even if they have nothing in common with her. Then they put her through a harrowing story where, granted, not much happens in terms of plot but so much happens under the surface (pun intended) and they round it all up with an ending that made me feel warm and loved and like the part of something bigger. This is a book that wormed its way into my brain and that I’m still thinking about weeks after having finished it. After being so taken with this novella, I can’t wait to pick up Solomon’s full length novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent