Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Series

Here’s my last instalment of the Reading the Hugos series for this year. I’ve done better than ever before in this category but disclaimer right here: I didn’t even get close to reading all the books in all the nominated series.

For my thoughts and rankings (currently) of the other categories, go here:

This is probably the toughest category for me (and many others) to judge. While a Best Novel or Lodestar nomination may happen for book two or three in a trilogy, it rarely happens for part 12 of a long-running series. Which is the entire reason this category exists! So that book series can be honored even when their first book(s) didn’t garner a lot of acclaim or weren’t as well known yet. Sometimes the tale grows with the telling, sometimes it’s only after a few books that characters really get to shine, and sometimes a trilogy in its entirety is just so much more than the sum of its parts.

The Finalists for Best Series

I’ve been gushing about The Winternight Trilogy ever since the first book came out. While the first is still my favorite, simply because its fairy tale vibe and atmosphere is so dear to my heart, I can’t deny that Arden actually got better with every book. The Winter of the Witch was a worthy and beautiful ending to a pretty epic story. I loved it to pieces, I nominated the books for Best Novel every year, so it would warm my heart to see the trilogy as a whole take home a Hugo. While the first book could be read as a standalone, the trilogy definitely tells a larger tale that is well worth exploring. Full of atmosphere, great multi-layered characters, and Russian history, it’s the perfect trilogy for reading on a winter night.

I started The Wormwood Trilogy from scratch and was very impressed with the first book. Yes, the reviews are right – it is a confusing book, jumping between different timelines, different levels of existence and dealing with a lot of fresh ideas. Kaaro is a former thief who now works for a special branch of the government as an interrogator. It’s not the kind of interrogation you might think, though. Kaaro is also a sensitive – one of the people who got some sort of mind reading powers from the alien biodome around which Rosewater is built – so he can just go into a prisoner’s mind and have them spill the beans on whatever the government wants to know. And although that’s already a lot, there’s even more to discover in this book. It’s a wild ride with crazy ideas and while I definitely struggled to keep the timeline straight in my head, it was a great experience.

Emma Newman’s Planetfall surprised me in many ways. I had only read her previous fairy-inspired series and didn’t much like it. Not only did Newman create a fantastic science fictional world here but her writing is also just phenomenal There was not a single second in the first book, Planetfall, where I was bored. Renata lives on the one and only space colony on a distant planet. She and others followed Lee Suh-Min to this place in order to find God. However, Renata and the Ringmaster Mack have a secret, one that involves the colony’s religious ceremonies… When a stranger arrives at the colony, things are put into motion and Ren’s many secrets are revealed over the course of this novel. This was exciting, filled with awesome ideas about life on a different planet, and Ren is one of the most intriguing protagonists I’ve ever read about. It’s hard to say much without spoiling but just do yourself the favor and pick this book up!

Although the cover screams that this isnot for me, I did give InCryptid by Seanan McGuire a try. After all, I quite like her October Daye series, so why not try her other urban fantasy? Well, now I know why. Because of all the things I dislike in books, McGuire picked most of them and threw them all together. A super-perfect heroine, a plot that doesn’t start until a third of the book is over, and that third being filled with info dumps and mentions of how great the heroine is. I hated Verity from the get go because I just don’t like Mary Sues without nuance or flaws, and a girl shooting someone while wearing heels doesn’t impress me. When she does something intolerably stupid (although she is supposed to be so perfect), that was it for me. The final nail in the coffin was the forced love interest that is the opposite of organic and feels like it was just thrown in there because you have to have romance in your urban fantasy. As I didn’t care for anything in this book, I finally DNFd it at 34%. This book is the definition of Not My Thing.

When I started reading Luna by Ian McDonald, I knew very soon that I wouldn’t be able to be super fair to this book. It can be summed up as a Mafia story set on the moon – and how cool is that? – which puts it in the uncomfortable position of being compared in my mind to Jade City by Fonda Lee. I know that’s not fair and I know I should keep those books separate in my head but I am only human and that’s just how my brain works.
Mind you, although it’s tough for any book to be as great as Jade City, I still enjoyed this one. I didn’t think the character work was quite as well done, but as to not be even more unfair, I tried to focus on the worldbuilding. This is science fiction about a society living on the moon, ruled by the Five Dragons (old families running big corporations). There is no criminal law, only contracts. If you can’t pay for air, well, that’s too bad. The plot had massive pacing problems (or just… non-existence problems) but the writing was great and the ending had me reading with my mouth gaping open. Not my favorite but I will continue the series someday.

The series I feel most uncomfortable ranking is The Expanse. I read the first book shortly after it came out but I just haven’t kept up with the series. We are currently at seven volumes, so even if I had managed to read Caliban’s War in time, I wouldn’t have been able to judge the series fairly. My hope is that it will be nominated again in a few years and I’ll have caught up by then. As long as the series is still ongoing, there’s still hope. And I don’t have to feel too bad for ranking it based solely on its first volume.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Katherine Arden – The Winternight Trilogy
  2. Emma Newman – Planetfall
  3. Tade Thompson – The Wormwood Trilogy
  4. The Expanse
  5. The Luna Trilogy
  6. No Award
  7. Seanan McGuire – InCryptid

As mentioned above, I took the next best approach to reading all the books in all the nominated series, which is to at least read the first volume in each series and continue on with those that interested me the most – if the first book doesn’t capture my attention enough for me to want the second book, then the series will proably not be my top choice. Even if the series in general gets better after book 3 or 5 or whatever, I’m not going to like it as much as a series that was great right from the start. At least that’s my reasoning. I also hate when people justify long series by saying things like “Oh, it really gets going around volume 4”. Why do I have to force myself through three mediocre or even bad books to get to the fun part? Shouldn’t the series have started with the fun part?

That’s why I only read the first book in the InCryptid series and I won’t be reading another book of that series even if it inevitably gets nominated again. I am going to vote for No Award in my sixth slot because, try as I might, I don’t see any reason why this could be deserving of an award. Considering the other finalists, this book just shouldn’t be here. It offers no original ideas, the writing is the laziest version of Urban Fantasy trope-land, the protagonist is plain bad, and the plot didn’t promise anything new. Yeah… I really hated it. But even apart from my personal taste, I think it is objectively not a great book that shouldn’t be in the company of these other finalists.
Luna and the Expanse might still switch places on my ballot. It’s been so long since I read Leviathan Wakes. On the other hand, Luna was the last book I read. I enjoyed both but one was definitely more fun and one had more ambitious science-fictional ideas. And I don’t know how either of their sequels handle characters and world building, so I’m pretty much just ranking them by gut feeling.
As for Emma Newman and Tade Thompson, both first books were utterly stunning, so I definitely need a second one to make a final decision on where to rank them. Unfortunately, time is  running out. I definitely plan to finish both these series, but when I had to decide on which one to continue first, Planetfall won. So this, and this alone, is the reason I am ranking it above Rosewater (for now). I am going to start the sequels for both of these books today and I may still finish them before voting closes. But with the decision making power I have at my disposal at this moment, this is where they go on my ballot.

And this is it for my Reading the Hugos series. I’m sad I didn’t get to the finalists for the Astounding Award or Best Related Work. I read half of the Astounding finalists but I definitely won’t catch up on the rest before Hugo voting is over. And, to be quite honest, I look forward to just reading whatever I want again.

Reading the Hugo finalists has been incredibly rewarding and led me to discover some truly fantastic books and probably even new favorite authors. But now that I’m done, I feel relieved that I can pick up a book by mood and catch up on 2020 releases. There’s an entire Murderbot novel waiting for me! And I got a gorgeous hardcover edition of Octavia Butler’s Parable duology that wants to be read.

I will be nominating and voting in the Hugo Awards again next year. And if everything works out well, I may even do another Reading the Hugos series. 🙂

Buffy and Ballroom: Seanan McGuire – Discount Armageddon (DNF)

I’d been looking forward to reading the next book in McGuire’s October Daye series but after this, I think I’ve had my share of McGuire books for the year. Toby Daye can wait until 2021 because I have McGuire burnout!
The only (!) reason I picked up this book with the horrible cover, the generic title, and the boring premise is because the series is nominated for a Best Series Hugo Award and I want to give everything a chance. McGuire has surprised me in the past, even within the same series (Wayward Children, I’m looking at you) so I jumped over my shadow and read this gave this a fair shot. Things did not go well…

DISCOUNT ARMAGEDDON
by Seanan McGuire

Published: DAW, 2012
Ebook: 368 pages
Series: InCryptid #1
My rating: DNF

Opening line: Verity danced circles around the living room, her amateurish pirouettes and unsteady leaps accompanied by cheers and exultations from the horde of Aeslin mice perched on the back of the couch.

Cryptid, noun: Any creature whose existence has not yet been proven by science. See also “Monster.”
Crytozoologist, noun: Any person who thinks hunting for cryptids is a good idea. See also “idiot.”

Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night…
The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity—and humanity from them.
Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right?
It would be, if it weren’t for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family’s old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed.
To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone’s spreading rumors about a dragon sleeping underneath the city…

I don’t usually write reviews about books I didn’t finish because… well, I can’t judge the whole book when I’ve only read a part of it. But I can judge the bits I’ve read. In this case, they were not good. Actually, they were pretty terrible. We follow Verity Price’s first person narration as she lives in New York where she works with cryptids – supernatural beings – and protects them, but also makes sure that the wilder ones among them don’t start eating people. Otherwise, it’s exile or, you know, death. I have read 34% of this book (so sayeth my Kobo) and I could not bear a single page more. Let me elaborate.

Verity Price is good at everything. Scratch that – she’s perfect at everything. Blonde, lithe-bodied, athletic, and of course super smart. She’s everything I hate in a protagonist. Through rigorous training – NOT superpowers or magic or something else more believable – she is basically a pro in a dozen martial arts, knows how to use all sorts of weapons, she free runs through New York City, and generally just excels at everything she touches. Oh yeah, she’s also really into ballroom dancing, a fact with which she keeps bombarding the reader in every paragraph. That’s all we learn during the first five chapters or so, so this book was off to a very bad start.
I want my heroines flawed and if they have to be really good at something, at least give them something else that they sucks at. Or if the protagonist has to be supernaturally amazing at everything, give me an explanation that is somewhat believable. Even a handwavey explanation would have helped. But, alas, we are supposed to believe that one person can be this great just because she applied herself. Way to go for creating unrealistic expectations of women.

I’m probably one of the few people in the world who doesn’t have a problem showering while standing on one leg and pointing the toes of my other leg toward the ceiling.

Oh yes, Verity, you are so super special. But I’ll let you in on a secret. Even without a super special and unrealistic ballroom career next to your other job of full-time monster protecting, there are people who can do the splits… I’m one of them. We’re not that special. Being flexible shouldn’t be anyone’s best (or only) quality.

So what’s this mess of a novel even about? The Price family used to work with an organization called the Covenant – essentially a monster-hunting secret society that has sworn to find and kill all the cryptids living on Earth. Except the Prices realized that not all monsters are bad, some just want to live their life in peace and don’t eat people on a regular basis. So why not coexist? They left the Covenant and have been in hiding ever since. That’s important for the plot, which takes a whopping 15% of the book to even show the slightest hint of starting (but, spoiler, doesn’t even really start until 31%).
Because when Verity encounters an agent of the Covenant, she just straight up tells him who she is, that her family is alive and well, and then she lets him go… Remember, this is the super smart protagonist who paints herself as Miss Perfect and sleeps cuddling her many, many guns. I cannot BEAR stupid protagonists, especially when that supidity stands in stark contrast to what we’ve been told about them. There was absolutely no reason for Verity to tell that guy who she was. She just did it. Her explanation afterwards? She lost her temper. Which wasn’t there on the page at all. In fact, because she’s such an uber-badass, she remained pretty calm during the entire encounter. And then she proceded to spill her family’s secret. Because reasons, I guess.

“Hi,” I said brightly. “Ever been shot in the head? Because I don’t think you’d enjoy it much. Most people don’t.”

What little dialogue there is, was super cringe-worthy. It’s like Seanan McGuire tried to write her own Buffy (without the superpowers that give Buffy all her strength etc.) but couldn’t reach anywhere near Joss Whedon’s witty dialogue and snappy one liners.

The actual plot – cryptids gong missing and a certain creature existint that people thought didn’t exist  – only begins at about 31%. That means you get over 100 pages of info dumping, repetitions about how wonderful Verity is and how she is great at everything, ESPECIALLY BALLROOM DANCING!
At that point, I decided I would give the book a limited number of pages to get me hooked and if it failed, I’d just DNF it. The more I read, the more annoyed I got. Because apart from the really dumb protagonist who we are repeatedly told is amazing, the pacing and plot are also really bad. If nothing of interest to the story happens during the first 100 pages, something went wrong during the editing stage. It’s great that we get to learn about all these cryptids and their quirks but I didn’t pick this up because I wanted a list of supernatural beings. I want plot and interesting characters. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
And when we’re not getting endless paragraphs about the make up habits of gorgons, we instead have to work several pages filled with the rules of ballroom competitions. And of course many mentions of Verity’s brilliance and awesomeness and general perfection.

Side note: I did a search on my Kobo and the word “dance” appears 145 times in this book. “Ballroom” is only used 30 times. But you get the picture. Verity doesn’t actually do much ballroom dancing, she just likes to let us know in every paragraph that she’s great at it.

Another thing that didn’t help was the humor. It may very well work for you – we all know humor is absolutely divisive and something one person hates can make another one giggle for hours. Generally, I do like Seanan McGuire’s humor, especially in interviews (her personal, real sense of humor works for me and I usually laugh at her jokes) but I was disappointed that, apparently, that’s the only type we ever get from her. The October Daye series – which I’ve started last year and enjoy a lot – doesn’t try as hard to be funny but Toby also likes being a bit snarky at times. Verity, however, lays it on pretty thick. Her “funny” one-liners left me frowning rather than smiling, her oh-so-clever descriptions of cryptid species all sound the same. I wish that these two urban fantasy series did more to stand apart when it comes to writing style as well as characters/plot.

The part where I finally decided I’d had enough was when Verity, out of nowhere, kisses a guy she had previously shown no interest in kissing. But of course, the only human male that we’ve met so far has to be the love interest because them’s the rules, I guess.

I know that this series, as well as McGuire’s other books and series, has quite a fan following and I wish I could have joined them. But to me, this felt like a carelessly thrown together mess without a point. If you’ve finished this book or even read more of this series, please let me know in the comments if things get better. At this moment I have no desire of ever touching another InCryptid novel, but who knows what the future might bring.

MY RATING: Did Not Finish (but I’d give the first third of this book 2/10)

 

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novel

And here it is. The big one. The Hugo for Best Novel is the one I’m always most excited for, even though the other categories offer plenty of amazing stories.

You can find my tentative ballots and thoughts on the other finalists here:

Just like last year, I had already read four of the six finalists for Best Novel when they were announced. Catching up on the final two was easy enough.
In general, I really like this ballot. There is one book that I personally disliked but as a representation of what was most talked about and got the most acclaim from fans last year, it definitely deserves its spot on the list. Even the Seanan McGuire (I’m biased because her fans nominate everything as long as it’s written by her) was a pretty good book, although I would have preferred to see something different in its spot, like Black Leopard, Red Wolf (which I’m still in the middle of but which would so deserve to be nominated).

The Finalists for Best Novel

Oh man, this is so hard! My top two spots are fairly easy but having to rank one above the other makes it a lot more difficult. I’m talking about A Memory Called Empire and The Light Brigade, of course. Both of these books blew my mind, although in very different ways. But only one of them also got me hooked emotionally, so I’m going with that one as my top choice.

A Memory Called Empire is a debut novel (all the more impressive) that has so many layers, it’s hard to pick a favorite bit. It’s about a space empire and one little space station that’s still independent. That station’s embassador has died and so Mahit Dzmare is sent to the capital as his replacement. It turns out he’s been murdered and Mahit wants to find out why and by whom. So far for the basic plot, but there’s so much more to discover. The cultural aspects, the technology, the relationships between the multi-layered characters, the language conventions, I just loved everything about this book. And then it’s well-written too! I can’t wait for the sequel to come out because this is such an immersive world with fresh ideas by a great storyteller.

Close on its heels is The Light Brigade, the first fiction I’ve read by Kameron Hurley. And what a gorgeous mind-fuck it was! I love stories that are also puzzles and this is a perfect example. It’s a military sci-fi novel very much in the vein of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers but clearly in conversation with the MilSF that came before. Dietz goes through gruelling military training, becomes a soldier and jumps via super cool technology to fight on Earth, on Mars, wherever the supervisors send them. But something’s not right. Dietz ends up returning from missions nobody has heard of or is sent on missions that don’t have anything to do with what the briefing was about…
There are a lot of things to figure out in this book and you definitely have to keep track of what’s going on when and where. But it is so rewarding and the ending was so fantastic that I couldn’t help but love it. The only reason this goes below Arkady Martine’s book on my ballot is that I wasn’t as emotionally involved with the characters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a book whose idea impresses me more than its execution. It’s all there, all the little things I love best about books and stories. The promise of adventure and magic and secret worlds behind doors. What we get is half a novel about a passive protagonist doing pretty much nothing. Then come some snippets of a book within a book that were brilliant, and a slightly more exciting third act to finish things up. So it’s a difficult book to rate. I loved some aspects of it so very much, I thought others were trying hard to achieve something they couldn’t – the lyrical language didn’t feel natural, it felt like Harrow pondered over every word, trying super hard to make it sound poetic. And January just isn’t a very good protagonist because she is so bland and passive and takes ages to become interesting. But once the story gets going, it’spretty great. And as for the book within the book – I absolutely adored it and would have gladly read 500 more pages of it. Also, this novel actually grew fonder in my memory the longer it’s been since I read it. I am totally undecided where to put it so it goes somwehere in the middle.

Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame is a pretty ambitious work with a great premise. Two engineered twins – one with a gift for language, the other a math prodigy – are separated as children to grow up in different families. The two of them combined embody the Doctrine of Ethos, something that basically gives them control over the world. But all Roger and Dodger want is friendship. They can communicate sort of telepathically and spend their lives trying to get together and being separated again.
With an overdrawn, slightly ridiculous villain and sloppy world building, this book still offered characters I rooted for and a plot that kept me turning the pages. Sure, there’s a lot of handwaving going on, none of the magic/science is ever explained or makes much sense, but there are great ideas here. It’s also a book of missed opportunities when it comes to the writing style and the anticlimactic ending. But overall, I enjoyed reading it. I probably wouldn’t give it an award but I’d recommend it to a friend.
ETA: I just had a thought when I was looking at the novella and series ballot and now I can’t let go of it. Seanan McGuire is so damn prolific, she publishes like 5 things every year. If she had spent more time on this one novel and not continued her various series in 2019, this could have been an entirely different beast! There’s so much potential here that it could have been a clear winner. But I guess if you churn out several full-length novels, a novella and a bunch of short stories in seven different universes, you just don’t have the time to spend on re-writes or thinking every aspect of your novel through. Maybe, one day, I’ll get my wish and see what McGuire really is capable of.

I was so excited for The City in the Middle of the Night because Anders’ first novel, All the Birds in the Sky, was right up my alley. She took quite a different route in this SF novel, set on a tidally locked planet that can only be inhabited by humans on a small strip of land between night and day. And while I really liked the book by the end, it took a long time for me to get into it. And I thought that Anders tackled maybe a few too many themes for one novel. She executed some of them brilliantly, others not so much, but I wanted just a bit more. I also didn’t connect with the characters for a long time. Again, by the ending, I was all in it, but that doesn’t change that I struggled during the start of this book. And that’s why it’s so hard to rank. On a pure enjoyment level, this book goes below Middlegame. On an ideas and skill level, it is above Middlegame. Where McGuire has only a little to say about humanity as such, Anders brings in the big guns, holds up a mirror to society and makes me think!

I’m one of the three people in the world who hated Gideon the Ninth. You guys, I like the idea of “lesbian necromancers in space” as much as the next person, but when I don’t get what I’m promised I get pissy. Instead of lesbian necromancers in space, I got 50 characters who aren’t distinguishable from each other, in a locked castle, sometimes doing some cool magic shit, sometimes doing cool sword shit (but nut nearly enough of either). Gideon may be a lesbian but other than her remarks about other women’s sexiness, this has no bearing on the plot. Which is also a mess, by the way. This book didn’t know what it wanted to be when it grew up so it just became a bit of everything but none of it well. Other than Gideon and Harrow, nobody had personality (I dare you to tell me any of the other House’s names or personality traits), the plot jumped from one thing to the next, never finding its focus. The end battle went on waaaaay too long. But the action scenes involving magic were pretty cool, as were the puzzles Gideon and Harrow have to solve. Is that really enough for an award? For me, no. It’s a mess that’s more obsessed with its own aesthetics than with good storytelling

My ballot (probably)

  1. Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire
  2. Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade
  3. Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January
  4. Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  5. Seanan McGuire – Middlegame
  6. Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth

I will most likely change spots 3 through 5 a lot in the next few weeks. I’m already struggling with my own ratings and how to decide which book is more deserving of an award than the others.

The top two books are easy. They did what they set out to do so well and they entertained and engaged me on many levels – what more can I want, really?
But then come the books that had one or two things going for them but didn’t do so well in other aspects. Now how do I decide whether a book that was more fun but maybe less accomplished should get an award rather than a book that takes risks but is a bit more of a struggle to read? I may have posted my ballot here for you to see but I very much doubt it’s going to look exactly like this when I hit that save button before voting closes.

Up next week: Best Graphic Story

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novella

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

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

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

The Finalists for Best Novella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ballot (probably)

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

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

Up next week: The Lodestar

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

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

IN AN ABSENT DREAM
by Seanan McGuire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

The Faerie PI Continued: Seanan McGuire – A Local Habitation

I have a strange relationship with Seanan McGuire’s books. Some of them I really hate, others I find okay, yet others show such amazing glimpses of potential that they make me want to read everything she’s ever written. I only started the October Daye series last year but that first book truly blew me away. So even though I’m about a decade behind, I picked up the second book and – while not as great as the first – was yet again entertained and positively surprised.

A LOCAL HABITATION
by Seanan McGuire

Published: DAW Books, 2010
Ebook: 400 pages
Series: October Daye #2
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: The last train out of San Francisco leaves at midnight; miss it and you’re stuck until morning.

October “Toby” Daye is a changeling, the daughter of Amandine of the fae and a mortal man. Like her mother, she is gifted in blood magic, able to read what has happened to a person through a mere taste of blood. Toby is the only changeling who has earned knighthood, and she re-earns that position every day, undertaking assignments for her liege, Sylvester, the Duke of the Shadowed Hills.

Now Sylvester has asked her to go to the County of Tamed Lightning—otherwise known as Fremont, CA—to make sure that all is well with his niece, Countess January O’Leary, whom he has not been able to contact. It seems like a simple enough assignment—but when dealing with the realm of Faerie nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Toby soon discovers that someone has begun murdering people close to January, whose domain is a buffer between Sylvester’s realm and a scheming rival duchy. If Toby can’t find the killer soon, she may well become the next victim.

I’m not well-versed in the realm of Urban Fantasy but I thought this story was such a cool mash-up. You get Fae and changelings and all sorts of mythical creatures, but you also get a sort of locked room murder mystery. Toby and her new teenage assistant Quentin are sent to the County of Tamed Lightning to see if Sylvester’s niece is okay. She hasn’t been calling and that’s unusual. When they arrive at Countess January’s computer company, things immediately turn weird. Not only are there very few staff for a building this size but they also seem to be hiding something. And January tells Toby that she’s got things wrong. It’s Sylvester who hasn’t been answering Jan’s calls. Something is definitely rotten in the County of Tamed Lightning.

This second Toby Daye adventure had a much slower start than the pilot novel (I’m calling it that now, because this feels like a TV show and I wouldn’t mind an adaptation). But all that somewhat tedious set up is for a reason. Not only does McGuire introduce a bunch of new characters, she also uses the time to foreshadow things and to lead her readers astray. I thought I was so clever when I figured out one little twist pretty early on. And I was right about that twist. But I also thought I had everything else figured out. Something or someone is killing off the people working at January’s company and I was sure I knew who the murderer was from the beginning. I’m glad to say I was wrong and McGuire did manage to surprise me!

We don’t only follow Toby and Quentin along on their investigation, though. That alone would have been fun because the two of them develop a wonderful dynamic. Toby wants to teach Quentin, but she’s also fiercely protective of him. After all, spending any amount of time with her usually leads to mortal danger and she does not want Quentin to come to harm because of her. But there is also something very strange about the murders. Normally, when Fae die, the Night Haunts come to take away the bodies. Fae don’t rot, so even though they’re immortal, when they die, humans would eventually notice the bodies. But these murders? The Night Haunts seem uninterested in doing their job. What’s even stranger is that the victims’ blood is “empty” – Toby can’t get their memories out of them and so she’s tapping in the dark for a long time.

There were a few things that frustrated me while reading this book but most of them can be explained away by “it’s magic”. I did feel like the reader is supposed to know a bit more than Toby but knowing – or at least suspecting – what I did, it annoyed me so much that Toby didn’t get it as well. She’s smart, damn it, and she knows way more about Faerie than I do!
The other thing, and that’s the reason I don’t read much Urban Fantasy, is the narrative tone. I’m not a particular fan of the smart, somewhat self-deprecating, sassy heroine who nonetheless overcomes a dozen injuries and can still kick ass. And Toby is exactly that. But, and that’s why I want to follow her further adventures, she’s also kind and a little lost and she’s got a sense of humor.

As slow as the beginning may have been, the book ramps up the stakes and delivers more and more action scenes the further you get along. The ending was great, although I could have done without the emotional villain monologue, and I was so happy that things turned out differently than I expected. McGuire managed to write a fun, exciting second novel in this series and if the next one is as good, she may yet turn me into a proper fan. Go, Toby!

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!

My thoughts on The October Daye series:

  1. Rosemary and Rue

Apocalypse Twins: Seanan McGuire – Middlegame

So, I’m not a huge Seanan McGuire fan (although I did love the first book in the October Daye series and hope I’ll continue to love the rest of the series) but this book had caught my attention even before it was a Hugo Award finalist. That striking cover, the synopsis – separated twins who, when working together correctly, can control the world? – and the general buzz made me want to pick this up. And it turned out to be pretty good. Not great but, you know, pretty good.

MIDDLEGAME
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tor.com, 2019
Ebook: 528 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

Opening line: The gunfire from outside is louder and less dramatic than he expected, like the sound of someone setting off firecrackers inside a tin can.

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.
Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.
Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.
Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.
Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

This book opens with the Bad Guys plotting an Evil Plan. A plan that involves creating twins who are supposed to embody the Doctrine of Ethos – which is essentially the power to control the world. The Bad Guys want that power and now it seems they have finally succeeded in breeding a pair that will manage to grow up and manifest it. In order to grow up just the way the Bad Guys want, Roger and Dodger (yeah, I know) are separated and given to different families who raise them as their own almost-normal kids.

It soon turns out that Roger is gifted with languages while Dodger is a maths prodigy. Oh, and they also find out they can communicate across the continent by closing their eyes and talking to each other. What others may see as imaginary friends, these two know to be the real deal. And so begins a tale of two lonely kids who find their best friend only when they close their eyes. It’s a tale of finding each other, of separation, of doing what’s right for the world, of looking out for each other and sometimes letting go of each other. It’s also about playing around with time and saving the world, of course.

Before I get into my gripes with this book, let me say that I enjoyed reading it. It’s by no means a short book and while there are many huge books out there that let you breeze through them in no time at all, this is not one of them. I don’t know how many times, while reading, I thought to myself “okay, get on with it already”. But that doesn’t mean that the long-ish chapters between the moments when something actually progresses are bad. As someone who likes character-focused stories, there was always something for me to enjoy in any given chapter. Roger and Dodger were both very likable protagonists and, although most readers won’t be able to identify with two wunderkind characters, it was easy to sympathize with them and want to follow them on their journey to adulthood.

I don’t know when I started seeing the potential in books I’m reading rather than just go with what’s there. I used to simply read and take what the author had chosen to put on the page, not imagine ways in which this story could have been told better or the theme could have shone more brightly. That’s happened to me a lot lately, and especially so with this book.

With two genius protagonists who each excel in their field, it would have been so great if the writing style reflected that. It’s a third person omniscient narrative, meaning the narrator often knows more than the characters do (and tells us) – that’s a pretty neat device to build tension but it doesn’t help all that much with character development. Had this been told in third person limited – in the viewpoint character’s voice – we could have gotten an amazing distinction between Roger’s linguistic acrobatics and Dodger’s mathematical assessment of the world. I would have loved to not only be told that they experience the world and express themselves differently but also to see it.
While narrative choice is one thing, dialogue should be another. Roger and Dodger, having been made into what they are, having grown up apart (even with the mental connection they share) should absolutely not talk the same. But they do. Roger especially should maybe, occasionally use all those words we are told over and over again he knows. The more I think about it, the more lazy the character development feels. As much as McGuire likes to repeatedly inform us that Roger is all about language and Dodger is all about maths, she doesn’t take much time to actually show her characters be that way. Dodger, to me, was a severely lonely, depressed girl with nothing in the world to hold on to except her work and Roger. Roger on the other hand came across as easy going, strangely successful with the ladies, and quick to make friends. And they talked exactly the same. Just like the side characters who aren’t prodigies.
None of that makes the story any more interesting or hurts the ideas presented here, but I still felt it was wasted potential and weak character development to have everyone speak the same. Real life people (prodogies or no) don’t all speak the same but two academic geniuses seriously should have the occasional quirk in the way the talk or think.

What bothered me even more, although it’s connected to the gripes mentioned above, is that the world building and magic system (if you want to call it that) is super wishy washy. I really loved the beginning of this book because it feels like the author has this all planned out and there’s a big scheme that I, as the reader, get to discover over the next 500 pages, unravelling it bit by bit. That promise was not kept, I’m afraid. The revelation what the twins are and why they were made comes early, and after that, the only mystery left is what happens if they do manage to manifest and actually become the embodiment of the Doctrine of Ethos.
Without spoiling the ending for you here, all I can say is that it all fell rather flat. It’s not a bad ending, it just isn’t as epic as it could have been. What with all the build up and the promise of great things, I was hoping for more than the book kind of trickling to a stop. Especially when I consider that this book is pretty damn big and spends a lot of its time repeating how Great and Terrible things can be once the twins manifest.

Now, I have to throw in one thing I absolutely adored about this (and which, in the long run, will probably lead to more disappointment on my part, but that’s a different story). The Alchemist who came up with the genius plan to put the Doctrine of Ethos into people was Asphodel Baker. It is also her Frankenstein’s-monster-like creation Reed who continues with her plan and made Roger and Dodger. To preserve her ideas in plain sight, Baker wrote a children’s book called Over the Woodward Wall of which we get to see snippets at the end of some chapters. And those snippets made me want to snatch a copy of this fictional book right away! The good news is, Seanan McGuire actually wrote the book within a book and it’s coming out in October 2020! The (probably) bad news is that I am now very, very worried that all the things we are told are coded into the childrens book won’t actually end up making sense. You see, Baker supposedly hid all her secrets in plain sight, putting instructions to world domination via Doctrine-manifestation into her children’s book. And because the world building in Middlegame was less than stellar, I worry that Over the Woodward Wall will be no different.
BUT! The little scenes we got to read from the book within a book were so engaging and promised such a lovely tale that I think I can enjoy it even when it doesn’t make sense in the larger world of Middlegame. I look forward to this so, so much!
(While McGuire is by no means the first person to do this, I couldn’t help but feel that she just copied Cat Valente – who is her friend – and what she did with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making.)

But back to Middlegame. In the end, I think this book wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. An epic sci-fi story or a slow character piece? Unfortunately, it did both of those things only half-heartedly. There are great science fictional ideas here but they were never properly worked out or explained in a way that made sense to me. Whenever things got tricky, the author just handwaved them away, saying things like “Dodger knew the math of this situation and did stuff” rather than work out an actual, believable sfnal way how she does this. I am totally fine with character-driven narratives and it was Roger and Dodger as people that I enjoyed following, but that, too, wasn’t done as well as it could have been.
This is just my opinion, but I believe McGuire should have waited to write this book until she had the required skill. It’s based on a really cool idea and it’s done well enough to keep me reading and want to know how it all plays out. But the execution wasn’t as great as it could have been and I can’t help but wish this had been done by another author, just to see what they would have done with it. It is a worthy finalist for the Hugo Award but with what it lacks in language and world building, I don’t think it can keep up with its stronger competitors.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good

Urban Fairy Thriller: Seanan McGuire – Rosemary and Rue

I am not a fan of Seanan McGuire’s fiction. But I really like her as a person – in the SF Squeecast podcast, in interviews, whenever I read her non-fiction – and so it was hard for me to see that this cool, funny person has written books that I considered – sorry –  utter crap (two of the three Wayward Children novellas, the third one was actually quite good). So I came to this book with negative expectations. I was worried I would encounter the same one-dimensional characters and lack of plot. Thank the gods of literature I was wrong. So very, very wrong in fact that I’m actually looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

ROSEMARY AND RUE
by Seanan McGuire

Published by: DAW, 2009
Ebook: 368 pages
Series: October Daye #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The phone was ringing.

October “Toby” Daye, a changeling who is half human and half fae, has been an outsider from birth. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the Faerie world, retreating to a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, the Faerie world has other ideas…
The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant and renew old alliances. As she steps back into fae society, dealing with a cast of characters not entirely good or evil, she realizes that more than her own life will be forfeited if she cannot find Evening’s killer.

I went into this book knowing only the very basics. Toby Daye, half-fairy or something, and private detective investigates case. Which was really good because when I read the first chapter, the twist at the end blew me away! Within just the first few pages, McGuire delivers an emotional punch to the guts that set the tone for the rest of the reading experience for me. I suddenly liked this book, even though the story hadn’t even started. And because I want you guys to have that same fantastic experience, I will not tell you what this initial plot twist is.

The actual story begins when Countess Evening Winterrose – a pretty important fae – is brutally killed, hiring Toby with her last words to figure out her murder case. Now Toby has been absent from the world of Faerie for a long time and doesn’t really want to go back but promises and bindings are important things and she has no choice but to investigate this murder and figure out what is going on. She meets old acquaintances – both the friend and the enemy kind -, meets new people, and almost reaches the end of her powers. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the case is resolved in the end, because there are many more questions left open and much of the world to discover yet.

What I liked about this book first and foremost was Toby herself. That girl has been through hell and is just trying to survive. And people just don’t want to let her. Whether it’s the case that sends her to places and people who take an emotional toll on her, or rather plain attempts on Toby’s life, she just can’t catch a break! I felt for her, I really did, even though there isn’t much that separates her from the other Urban Fantasy heroines I’ve read about. But that one thing from the beginning does separate her and I just happened to like her personality. She’s not the average sassy, sexy, monster-slaying bad-ass. She may be a changeling (a half-fae) but other than that, she’s just a woman trying to get by in life. That includes feeding the cats and paying the bills.

The other thing I really enjoyed and that will probably keep me reading a lot more of this series is the world building. I love mythology and fairy tales, so many of the terms in this particular Faerie world weren’t new to me, but I really liked how McGuire interwove everything and gave certain mythological beings different powers. The fae themselves are separated into different sub-spieces, if you like, and they all come with different abilities. Changelings have weaker powers and, depending on their parentage, their magic also manifests in different ways. There are kelpies and goblins (I loved the rose goblins so much, I want one of my own!), there are Undine and Sidhe, and there is something called the Court of Cats with the aptly named Tybalt as their leader.

Speaking of Tybald, and the male characters in general, I was worried for a while that there would be a romance sub-plot in this story because it’s Urban Fantasy and the dreaded love triangle seems to be a staple of that genre. While Toby doesn’t live in celibacy, I wouldn’t call this a romance. At all. There was a very obvious hint at a potential romance to come in later books but I hope it goes another way. I was a little surprised myself but I’m quite partial to Tybalt. 🙂

Now the plot was at the same time the weaker element of this story and one of its strengths. Let me explain. I thought Toby ran around pretty aimlessly for a long time, talking to people who might have information on her case, visiting places that may give her something to go on, and that’s dandy and all, but it never felt like we got any closer to the resolution. However, the last third of the book, maybe even the entire second half, was so filled with action that it became impossible to put it down. I don’t know how many times I thought “just one more chapter, and then I’ll go to sleep” but I ended up finishing the book. Because if Toby had it hard before, in the second half of the book she really doesn’t get a moment’s peace. It was so much fun to read, with something thrilling happening in every chapter, an attempt on Toby’s life, a big revelation, a character betrayal, you name it.

This felt very much like the beginning of a series, with its own plot, but with many more plot lines that have only just been set up. I’m sure some of the favors Toby called in, some of the promises she’s made, will come back to bite her in the ass later and all you long-time fans will probably giggle to yourselves right now because you already know. I can’t judge the series based on only this book, but I was positively surprised and will definitely continue reading.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Seanan McGuire – Every Heart a Doorway

This is a severe case of over-hyped book. Tor.com had been advertising this book for months, it is the only one of the novellas to come out in hardcover as well as paperback and e-book, and that does send a clear message to readers. It has Seanan McGuire’s name on it, so it must be a hit. Except even a writer with a fanbase as large as McGuires can write something bad every once in a while.

every heart a doorway

EVERY HEART A DOORWAY
by Seanan McGuire

Published by: Tor.com, 2016
Ebook: 176 pages
Series: Every Heart a Doorway #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: The girls were never present for the entrance interviews.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.
No matter the cost.

divider1

Here’s an idea that is so perfect, so full of potential that just thinking of it makes me weep a little. Children disappear to magic lands, parallel universes, the underworld, a palace of clouds to have adventures, fall in love, come of age – only to be thrown out eventually. And they never truly find their way back into our world because that other place is what they think of as home. In the hands of Cat Valente, this idea would have probably turned into a whole series of beautiful, heartbreaking books, but Seanan McGuire (as capable a writer as she is) just is no Cat Valente.

The entire novella felt very cold. I can’t put my finger on why, that’s just the general feeling I took away from it. Nancy arrives at her new school, where everybody is somewhat like her. Everybody went to a different place and had to come back. They are all looking for their door to return to where they were happiest. I suppose this could all be taken as a metaphor for not wanting to grow up and trying to find your way back into childhood, but you know me – I always take magic seriously and I take these trips to other worlds literally.

As this novella is the first of a series, maybe McGuire will expand on all the things that were lacking here in later stories. But with a school full of world-travelling kids, there is just so much potential for cool stuff. To be fair, McGuire does show us some of the madness. Nancy went to the underworld (thus the frequent mentions of pomegranates), others went into a rainbow world, yet others lived in a zombie-infested place full of violence, or one full of vampires. But no  matter how gruesome or uninviting their world may seem to us outsiders, they all want to go back. The bit I found quite annoying was that there is a specific classification of worlds at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. There are logic and nonsense worlds, which can be subdivided into even more categories. Nancy – as any good protagonist would – asks about this in the beginning but then seems to lose interest and drops the topic. I feel that if you go to the trouble of building your own system for a multiverse, it would be nice to let the readers get a small glimpse of it.

An even bigger problem for me was the complete lack of emotional impact. I can live without world building, without logic (this is fantasy, after all), even without much plot. But I need characters to hold on to, to understand, to feel something. Nancy’s slightly catatonic state was completely understandable. I don’t quite get why in her underworld, standing as still as a statue was so important, but okay, let’s roll with it. Nancy’s roomate Sumi may have been a sterotypical cloud cuckoo lander, but at least she brought some movement into a very slow, boring plot.

Speaking of plot. I expected a sort of anti-Harry Potter, a story of a girl feeling misplaced in this world, wanting to go back to the world of the dead, now finding her way in a school with others who feel just as much that they don’t belong. An anti-magic school if you like. But the book changes its mind and turns into a murder mystery. Which, okay fine. Except I didn’t really care about any of the murder victims or even about who did it and why. When the characters are so pale that they are barely cardboard, I find it difficult to care about their fate.

every heart a doorway cover detail

Instead of staying on the topic that drew me in (I know it’s not the author’s job to cater to my very specific needs, although I often wish it were :D), focusing on how these children had to leave a world behind, leave their adventures and – I assume – friends, and finding a place in this world, this novella deals mostly with the murders of several students and, occasionally, with people’s sexuality and gender identity. Sadly, that’s about the only positive thing I got out of this  – some character diversity. I did like both Kade and Nancy, although Nancy remains pretty pale throughout, but this may be due to how the underworld shaped her to be.

I’m not a writer, so I can’t put my finger on what exactly would have to be done differently to make this story good. But it just left me completely cold from beginning to end. Looking back at the entire novella, I don’t see the point. I didn’t like the plot, didn’t care for the characters, and the ending had no impact whatsoever. In fact, for a while I thought Nancy was going to kill herself to return to the underworld, which – drastic as it may be – would at least have been something proactive, something that comes with a cost, and would return her to the underworld. You can guess that this did not happen… The ending that did happen cheapens the entire point of the book.

All my problems with this book may very well be my own fault for having set my expectations too high or for having misunderstood the book description, but that doesn’t change that I really disliked Every Heart a Doorway. To me it felt like Seanan McGuire was trying to write a Cat Valente story and failed miserably. I’ll give the next book in the series a chance, but if that turns out to be equally boring, I will probably stick to McGuire’s other books.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

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Second opinions:

 

Catherynne M. Valente – Indistinguishable From Magic

You all know I go a little coo-coo when it comes to Cat Valente’s books, right? So I pre-ordered this sometime last year, as soon as I found out it would be published. Now imagine my shriek of joy when I got an e-ARC in my mailbox. Yes, it was loud. The boyfriend thought I had seriously injured myself. And then I sank into a cloud of words and didn’t come up for air until I was finished.

indistinguishable from magicINDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MAGIC
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Mad Norwegian Press, 6 May 2014
Paperback: 244 pages
Standalone non-fiction
Review copy from the publisher
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: These days, it’s almost a Cartesian axiom: I am a geeky postmodern girl, therefore I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Indistinguishable from Magic, more than 60 essays by New York Times-bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland) are brought together in print for the first time, sharing Cat’s observations and insights about fairy tales and myths, pop culture, gender and race issues, an amateur’s life on planet Earth and much more. Join Cat as she studies the fantasy genre’s inner clockwork to better comprehend its infatuation with medievalism (AKA “dragon bad, sword pretty”), considers the undervalued importance of the laundry machine to women’s rights in locales as wide-ranging as Japan and the steampunk genre, and comes to understand that so much of shaping fantasy works is about making puppets seem real and sympathetic (otherwise, you’re just playing with dolls).

Also featured: Cat takes a hard look at why she can’t stop writing about Persephone, dwells upon the legacy of poets in Cleveland, and examines how stories teach us how to survive – if Gretel can kill the witch, Snow White can return from the dead, and Rapunzel can live in the desert, trust that you can too.

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Mad Norwegian Press are known (by me, at least) for such collections as Chicks Dig Time Lords and Whedonistas and the feshly-Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords –  book-shaped love letters to fandom. But they also publish collections of essays by single authors. Having been to her blog a couple of times, I know that I enjoy Cat’s non-fiction almost as much as the made-up stories she shares with her readers. The release of Indistinguishable From Magic has been pushed back a couple of months but, trust me, you want to get your hands on this!

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

My approach to collections is usually to read them front to back and then maybe go back to my favorite pieces and re-read them. I went the same way about Indistinguishable From Magic, except I went back all the time to highlight passages, and jot down book recommendations, and make notes to look this or that thing up on the internet later. It is a treasure cove of geeky goodness.

But most impressively, this book made me feel more accepted and more understood than anything else I’d read before. Growing up as someone who loves fantasy books wasn’t particularly harrowing on me. I always had friends and they accepted my quirks as a given, not questioning why I would be into that weird stuff about made-up worlds, why I would name my pets after Hobbits and characters from Labyrinth. But still, there was nobody around who shared that obsession. Then the internet happened and suddenly, I wasn’t so alone anymore. Cat Valente gets that. Oh, how she gets it.

I choose magic. I choose invented histories. I choose epic battles between armies of wolves and spriggans. I choose witchraft, ray guns, AI, and dark gods. I choose swashbuckling, cruel queens, and talking beasts. I choose cross-dressing orphan heroines. I choose unreliable narrators. I choose my friends.

Whether I share her opinion on the importance of folklore or not (I do), whether I agree with her paper – “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” – on Alice, Dorothy, and The Nutcracker‘s Clara, I couldn’t help but feel like I was talking to a friend. In fact, if I hadn’t admired and envied her before, after this collection, I want to be her best friend. Someone I can call late at night to talk about that old Doctor Who episode that made me cry again, or how underrated Flora Segunda is. I think she’d just get it, happily brew herself a cup of cocoa and discuss the night away.

While the collection is structured by topic – pop culture, gender in SFF, publishing – every section overflows with love for the genre and the community. Yes, there are rants about our failings, and pleas to behave like decent human beings – within fandom and outside of it – but the overwhelming feeling I got was this endless love for fantasy and science fiction. That’s something I can get behind.

indistinguishable from magic
Cat Valente also reveals a fair bit of herself through her writing. It depends, of course, on how you read her articles and how much you know about her already, but the fact that she can’t let go of Persephone speaks volumes. Her experience as an army wife, living in Japan, keeps coming up and if you’ve read a bit of her short fiction you’ll recognize sides of Cat in them that suddenly make all the more sense. You understand that behind that achingly beautiful prose is a full person with dreams and a past, and all the puzzle pieces fall together. So in a way, this is probably the Valente work in which she is most vulnerable and open about herself as a writer and as a human being. Obviously, I love her all the more for being that brave.

While Indistinguishable from Magic, as a book should, starts with a foreword, I will end this review with it. Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows a little bit about Cat Valente, the foreword is written by her friend Seanan McGuire. I have no words for how jealous I am of their friendship. The introduction not only shows off McGuire’s own hand at writing poetic prose but it shines with love and friendship and respect. And while I don’t know Cat Valente personally, I believe every word Seanan McGuire says about her. It is obvious from Valente’s prose that she must at least have a little bit of magic in her, eaten some of those pomegranate seeds, been sprinkled with just a thimble-ful of fairy dust.

 She is a poet and a poem, wrapped up in the same star-and-moon-tanned  palimpsest skin. She contains many contradictions. She’s the serious mermaid explaining to you why trading fins for feet was a feminist action, and why the sacrifice of a voice is sometimes a simple thing, because there are so many kinds of voices, child; the sea witch left you fingers, left you figures, left you everything you’ll ever need to make this tale your own. She’s the laughing gingerbread witch standing by the chicken coop, feathers in her hair and a promise on her lips that you may or may not want to hear, because promises are prophecies, in their own way, in their own time. She is her own once upon a time, and her own happy ending, and those are two of the best things in the world to be.

MY RATING:  8/10  –  Excellent

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