Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Series

I love this category and I hate this category. This year, I was quite lucky in having read at least the first book each in five out of the six series but as we know, the first book isn’t enough to properly judge whether a series/trilogy as a whole should get a Hugo. But with WorldCon being moved to December, this was also the first year where I had enough time to properly catch up and even finish most of the finalists!

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

I am so glad this category exists even though it makes me gasp at the amount of pages it wants me to read every year. This year was also the first one where I thought a bit more about why this category exists and whether it’s fulfilling its original purpose. Cora Buhlert has some excellent thoughts on this (that’s why she is a finalist for Best Fan Writer) and I absolutely see where she’s coming from.

Best Series is meant for those books/series that usually wouldn’t have a shot at a Best Novel Hugo even though they might be deserving. If you loved the 10th Dresden Files book or the 14th in the October Daye series, it’s unlikely it will become a Best Novel finalist and, even if it did, how many voters unfamiliar with the series would read through the previous 9 (or 13 or however many) instalments to get to this particular one?
But in the Best Series category, you can nominate that series precisely because book 14 was so great. And other people might nominate it based on the instalment they’ve just read – whether that’s book 3 or book 8 – if they think that the series overall is worthy of a Hugo.

But what we’ve seen in the few years since the category has been around is, yes, some long-running series like the ones I described above, but also lots and lots of trilogies, many of which had volumes nominated for Best Novel as well. And look, I myself am guilty of this. I nominated The Winternight Trilogy and I nominated The Murderbot Diaries as series as well as some of their individual instalments for Best Novel. And on the one hand, that’s because I don’t have any super long-running series that I follow (unless you count The Stormlight Archive, which I suspect will unfold its true brilliance once the final book is out and that’s when I plan to nominate it (unless it starts sucking along the way, of course)). On the other hand, I nominated those trilogies because they didn’t manage to get their single volumes onto the Best Novel ballot, so I feel vindicated.

But however you look at this category, it’s an important one that makes the Hugos just a little bit better and more modern and more interesting than they used to be.


The Finalists for Best Series

This category grows on me more each year. Last year, it led me to discover two series (one trilogy, one quartet) that I have since continued because they are really damn good. This year, it forced me to continue lots of series I had already started AND introduced me to a trilogy I would’t have picked up at all if it weren’t for the Hugos but ended up loving.

I think my biggest difficulty in this category is the question whether I should be voting for the series I had most fun reading or the one I think is most accomplished or some mix of both. Maybe I should go for the one where I think it being a series makes it bettern than each of its instalment on its own? Because, let’s face it, the most accomplished is easily The Poppy War Trilogy. It’s ambitious, incredibly well written, and all the more impressive because Kuang is such a young writer. But it’s also super dark and not as easy to digest as, say, a John Scalzi trilogy or a Murderbot book.

I wasn’t that happy about Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon being nominated for both Best Novel and the series for Best Series at first, mostly because the first book already won a Hugo. But the Lady Astronaut series actually did what I wish every series would do. It got bigger and better and more fun along the way. The Calculating Stars deserved its Hugo win and I loved the book by itself, but it was also super uncomfortable to read because it shows just how unfair the world can be. The Fated Sky continues to show what it’s like belonging to a minority (or, you know, being a woman) and all the unpleasantness and injustice that comes with that, but it was also more fun to read. Not everything was always terrible and it focused on space travel and real-world science a bit more. It ended up being my favorite of the series so far. Then I picked up The Relentless Moon, and even though it took me a while to let go of Elma and Mars and instead follow Nicole Wargin on the Moon, I ended up falling completely in love with that book! So yeah, this is a series that gets better and bigger along the way and is thus a perfect finalist in this category.

Murderbot is a similar case but not quite, because this year is the first time that the series has an entry that is a full-length novel. I’d like to think that even if that novel hadn’t come out and Martha Wells had continued writing only novellas, Murderbot would have made the final ballot for Best Series anyway. Here my feelings are almost reversed to The Lady Astronaut series. I feel just slightly less inclined to vote for the Murderbot book in Best Novel because I think the series as a whole is better than the novel on its own. I wouldn’t have loved Network Effect as much if I hadn’t already known Murderbot and its backstory. So if I had my way, Martha Wells would not win the Best Novel category (which is incredibly strong this year) but would win Best Series. Except maybe not this year (I’ll explain why later) but definitely in a few years. We know that Murderbot is here to stay – at least for a few more years – and if the quality of Wells’ writing stays at this level, the series will definitely be nominated again. And I absolutely want it to win a Best Series Hugo because it is deserving and also a perfect example of what I think this Hugo category should be for.

It feels a little unfair for me to even rank the October Daye series at this point because, although I read another instalment this year, I am so far behind that I can’t possibly judge the current state of the series. I have read three out of fourteen (!) volumes and if the other voters nominated it based on the strength of its most current book and not just because they like the author, then I have no way of knowing whether I agree with them. I still enjoy the series – although the first book was the best and they got slightly weaker from there – and I want to continue reading it. I guess it will show up on the ballot again in two years and maybe by then I’ll have caught up a bit more. At the point I am right now, it’s a fun Urban Fantasy series that I enjoy but nowhere close to the other entries on the ballot in terms of originality, quality, or impact on the genre. Maybe that will change as I continue reading and that’s why I feel my ranking may not be very fair but I’m judging as honestly as I can given the books that I have read.

Thanks to this ballot, I finally finished The Daevabad Trilogy and mostly agree with other readers that it’s a great trilogy with a satisfying ending. S. A. Chakraborty is an author I will watch because not only did she write a story about djinn, bringing a refreshing perspective into the fantasy genre, but she also does politics and court intrigue really well. Her writing style is engaging and I enjoyed all three of these books, even if the middle one felt like a filler and the last one was too long and a bit slow for my taste. So here comes the hard part again. My esteem for this trilogy is pretty high and I will pounce on Chakraborty’s next book, whatever it is. But in comparison to some of the other finalists, it didn’t feel as innovative and doesn’t get me equally as excited, and so ends up in the lower area of my ballot.

Damn you, Scalzi, I thought it was a safe bet that I could put The Interdependence Trilogy safely in the lower half of my ballot. And then you go out and write three books that are fun, exciting, finished way too quickly, and make me want to read more of the same. This trilogy was the only one I hadn’t even tried prior to the finalists being announced and I didn’t have high expectations. And look, this may deal with a galaxy-spanning empire but it’s not exactly deep. Which doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, this may have been my favorite of the ballot when it comes to pure enjoyment. I can totally see myself re-reading it when I need something exciting that makes me laugh out loud, cheer on the good guys and cackle when the bad guys get what they have coming. Granted, it can’t keep up with some of the other finalists in terms of scope or ambition, but it has great ideas, highly engaging writing, and it gave me several hours of pure fun! Plus, Kiva Lagos and her filthy mouth are everything!

The last series I tackled for this year’s ballot was The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. I had read the first book when it came out, was deeply impressed but not very hyped to read the next book – not because I didn’t like it but because it gets so very dark! So I did a re-read to refresh my memory this year and then went on to read the whole story in one swoop. It was both rewarding and terrible because my already very insecure ballot got mixed up even more. I mean, how could I not put this in my number one spot? The first book was even better on a re-read and that doesn’t happen often! The second book upped the stakes, didn’t feel like a middle book at all, and ripped out my heart several times over.
How can an author so young write a debut that is this brilliant? And as if it’s not enough that the writing is amazing, the characters multi-layered and difficult, but it’s also got rich world building, is inspired by real historical events, explores dark and important themes, and pushes the boundaries of the genre. I didn’t finish the third book before the voting period ended (I read it very slowly because (1) I was scared of the ending and (2) I didn’t want it to end), but I was certain that Kuang would deliver a bombastic end to her trilogy and deserves my top spot.

My ballot:

  1. The Poppy War
  2. The Lady Astronaut
  3. The Murderbot Diaries
  4. The Interdependency
  5. The Daevabad Trilogy
  6. The October Daye Series

Voting is now over but here are my thoughts from just before I finished up my ballot:

Okay, so a lot of this ballot is a mess and I have no idea how to rank these and not feel shitty about it. The Poppy War will stay on top, that much is certain. No matter how I twist and turn it, there is simply no way I can justify putting it any lower.
My bottom two series will stay where they are as well even though I might still swap them. Spots 2 through 4 are giving me a headache of epic proportions, however. I think I like Murderbot more than the Lady Astronaut, but here’s where my brain goes into strategic mode. I really, really, really want The Poppy War to win and I think Murderbot is its strongest contender, so by raking Murderbot one lower than I normally would, can I give The Poppy War a slight edge? I also want Murderbot to win but that series is still ongoing, unlike The Poppy War which has its last chance of winning this year. And since none of the individual novels won (which is a shame), I want it to win Best Series even more.

I realize that this approach may not be how other people vote (and that’s fine) but this ballot is so hard to rank that this is the only way I feel halfway comfortable with. All of that said, I will be more than happy if Murderbot or The Lady Astronaut series win this year. R. F. Kuang will likely write another masterpiece and let us shower her with Hugos sooner or later.

That’s it folks!
I didn’t get to the Astounding Award this year. I probably could have managed it but I honestly felt a little burned out on reading so many books because I “had to” (you know what I mean). I’m currently reading by mood and enjoying the hell out of it. But I’m not going to lie, I already look forward to doing this craziness all over again next year. 🙂

I hope you enjoyed this series of posts. Now let’s all be excited for the awards ceremony and cheer on those finalists!

Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Graphic Story

I love Graphic Novels but I rarely know where to discover cool new ones to follow. Enter the Hugo Awards and the wonderful WorldCon members who are more knowledgeable in the field than I am and nominate great stuff every year.

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

I have to say I felt pretty caught up this year. With two series ending last year, it was time for something new to show up on the ballot. And as expected, we have two sequels to previous finalists, a sequel to a graphic novel I’ve actually discovered all by myself and loved, volume 1 of something new (but written by a previous Hugo finalist) and an adaptation of a novel that I had previously read.

I was super excited to start reading this category. Not only was I looking forward to the sequels to stories I already liked, but the mixture of different styles, stories, and artists makes this a wonderful and varied ballot.


The Finalists for Best Graphic Story

  • Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans – DIE Volume 2: Split the Party
  • Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda – Monstress vol. 5: Warchild
  • G. Willow Wilson, Christian Ward – Invisible Kingdom vol. 2: Edge of Everything
  • Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora – Once & Future vol. 1: The King is Undead
  • Octavia Butler, Damian Duffy, John Jennings – Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
  • Seanan McGuire, Takeshi Miyazawa – Ghost-Spider vol. 1: Dog Days Are Over

What an exciting ballot with a lot of newer series rather than just the next instalment in the ones that always get nominated. Of course the ones that always get nominated are there for a reason – they happen to be really good – but it does get a bit boring, reading the newest volume in the same series every year. With The Wicked + the Divine and Paper Girls finished, the only longer running series on the ballot is Monstress and I suspect it will keep coming back until it is finished as well.

Kind of a series starter but also not really is Ghost-Spider vol. 1: Dog Days Are Over by Seanan McGuire. Because on the one hand, this is volume 1 of the Ghost-Spider series but it heavily references events that happened in the comics that came before. Those were named Spider-Gwen: Ghost-Spider... It’s all quite confusing but you don’t need to read those in order to understand and enjoy Ghost-Spider vol. 1. It’s about Gwen Stacey and her inter-dimensional academic pursuits. Her identity as Ghost-Spider is well known in her own universe, but thank the multiverse, there are others where she can live and study in blissful anonymity. There’s even a Peter Parker over there, although quite a bit older than her Peter Parker. Gwen goes to college, makes some friends, there’s an evil scientist dude trying to catch her and so the adventure begins. And that’s really all there is to it. The dialogue is snappy, I loved the artwork, but storywise, this was a generic beginning for a generic comic book adventure. I had a lot of fun reading it, but I don’t think there’s anything special about it.

I liked the first volume of DIE last year except for some pacing and character development issues. Those issues remain for volume 2: Split the Party and the pacing problems actually get worse. I didn’t re-read the first volume and that may have been my mistake (although other comic series manage catching readers up on what happened previously just fine so I shouldn’t have to re-read). I remembered very little of who everyone was, except for Ash, and simply dove into the story. Gillen tried to show more of each character in this volume but that only means that each issue sort of focuses on one of them without ever really letting us get to know or care about them. I appreciated some of their stories, I loved the artwork, but just like last time, I didn’t really feel close to any character and I wasn’t invested in their fates. Add to that the wonky pacing and even Charlotte Bronte can’t save you. It was okay but not great.

The other Kieron Gillen comic on the ballot marks the beginning of a new series and the graphic novel entry for what seems to be a current Arthuriana hype in SFF. Once and Future Volume 1: The King is Undead is clearly written by the same guy who wrote DIE, not because it’s in any way similar in plot or characters but because the pacing is all over the place. A slow intro (which I enjoyed) then leads to events overtaking each other, up to the point where it becomes ridiculous.
The idea itself is a cool one – resurrecting King Arthur but as a zombie and with all sorts of crazy magic – and I really liked the characters. Shy, single protagonist dude, the accidentally-dragged-into-the-story love interest, and most of all, the grandma. 🙂 As you can tell, I don’t actually remember anyone’s names but that grandma kicked serious butt and I would gladly follow her story for longer.

Just as expected, Parable of the Sower was phenomenal. It’s not that hard when you consider the novel it’s adapted from was brilliant. But adapting into a graphic novel takes more than just picking out the most important plot beats and having someone draw pictures. Damian Duffy got things incredibly right in this adaptation with the very rare jarring pacing jump. Mostly, the novel flows well, creates an immersive and terrifying world, and characters you’ll remember for a long time. I was stunned at how absorbed I got reading this, seeing as I had read the novel not that long ago and thus knew all the twists and turns this story would take. The artwork is not beautiful as such, if you want pictures that look pretty, but it works so well in conveying the tone and the raw world of this story. It shouldn’t look pretty!

This fifth volume of Monstress was probably my favorite so far. I’m still not as hyped about this series as many other people seem to be but it is consistently good, the artwork is always stunning, and the story is full of darkness but always with glimpses of hope. In this part, we live through a siege, and watch our protagonsit pretend not to care about individual people but then totally go out of her way to make sure those individual people survive. It’s heartwarming, if you can say that about a story set during a brutal war…

Invisible Kingdom is the book I was happiest to see on the short list. I had read the first part last year and liked it so much that I decided I had to continue the series and now the middle volume of only three (that’s right, folks, this trilogy is concluded) is nominated for a Hugo. As I adored every single page, the way the characters grew and developed, the romance I had been hoping for, the world building that became even better, and the gorgeous art with its rather unique and bright colors, this goes easily to my number one spot. It may not be as important a work as Octavia Butler’s story but damn if it didn’t get me the most invested and excited for the third volume.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Invisible Kingdom Volume 2: Edge of Everything
  2. Parable of the Sower
  3. Monstress Volume 5: Warchild
  4. Once and Future Volume 1: The King is Undead
  5. Ghost-Spider Volume 1: Dog Days Are Over
  6. Die Volume 2: Split the Party

Up next week: The Lodestar

Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Novella

The Best Novella category this year is dominated by Tordotcom more than ever. Since the publisher started their novella initiative, the popularity of novellas has risen dramatically, not just in SFF fandom in general but also when it comes to my own reading. I used to think of novellas as “not quite novels” for some reason, like they were somehow lesser because they needed fewer pages to tell a story. I have since learned the error of my ways and come to appreciate the novella for the amazing form it is.

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

This year, I had already read four out of the six finalists, although one of the unread ones was already on my TBR. The sixth was a book I wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been nominated. As I quite liked the latter and didn’t much like the one I had had on my TBR, that just goes to show you that awards ballots are great and can push you to read better books. 🙂


The Finalists for Best Novella

As much as I love Tordotcom and their novellas, they have become so numerous that the quality isn’t as top notch as it was in their first year of the novella initiative. They are still publishing amazing stuff, don’t get me wrong, but there is one book among this list whose appearance on the ballot I just can’t understand. But let’s talk about the individual titles a bit.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark is my clear and absolute favorite. I nominated it myself and I’ve been wanting it to win a Hugo since the moment I finished it. Of course, I first had to read some other finalists but I honestly didn’t expect anything to get much better than this. It’s about a group of women who hunt Ku Kluxes – the very real monsters you turn into when you’ve been part of the Klan too long. What I enjoyed so much about this was the mix of exciting adventure, crazy cool world building, deep characters, and a clear message. And when I say message, please don’t think you’re going to get a “don’t be a racist” lecture in this book (although, obviously, don’t be a racist) but rather that Clark manages to give us sympathetic characters we care about and then shows how unfairly the world treats them. Plus, the monsters are extra cool, there is a magical sword, and I actually cried during one chapter… Yeah, this is an easy number one for me.

It’s been a bit longer since I read The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo and unfortunately, I didn’t review it here so my memories aren’t as clear as I would like. But I do remember the gist of the story – a young historian finding out the story of the former Empress through stories evoked by common everyday objects. And that story turns out to be how women, even when they are seen and used as pawns on a political chess board, have power if they stick together. A quiet power, sure, but power nontheless. It’s also about finding happiness in the most dire of situations. I remember loving the language of this novella and how slowly, over the course of its pages, an image evolves of the Empress that is quite different from the first idea we have of her. I’d be totally fine if this book won because although I liked the Clark more, Nghi Vo is an author I (and many other SFF readers, I suspect) will follow closely.

The middle of my ballot gets a little tricky. You may know of my strange relationship with Seanan McGuire, especially with the fact that all her work gets Hugo nominations simply because, but on this not-super-strong ballot, her fifth Wayward Children novella Come Tumbling Down is going to end up on my number three spot. At least for now. It is by no means a perfect novella, not even a great one, but it does many things right. Presenting intriguing protagonists, setting up a cool problem for them to solve, and sending them off to a creepy world togehter – what’s not to like?
The story does fall flat in the second half when it turns out McGuire bit off too much to chew when it comes to world building and juggling too many characters who all want to be protagonists when really, there should be a maximum of two per novella. But the story does reach a rounded ending. While I didn’t find it emotionally impactful, it was satisfying from a storytelling point of view.

To my own surprise Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby is not at the top of my ballot. I expected to completely love this book but, well, I just didn’t. I had different expectations from the blurb and while there are many lines that feel like they perfectly encompass certain truths about our world, what I was missing the most was story. It’s about a brother and sister, the sister has superpowers but somehow they barely make an appearance or rather they don’t become important for the plot until very late. As for plot, there really isn’t any. The brother goes to prison, which goes about as well as you can expect for a young Black man, and Onyebuchi shows us harrowing scenes of that life, but that’s not a story, is it? So for that reason, while I liked the writing and I have adored Onyebuchi’s book War Girls, this one just didn’t work for me. It’s got a lot of things to say that are important but it didn’t manage to wrap them in an engaging story.

Another novella by an author I normally love but which didn’t work for me was Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted. This book has a story, although not a particularly original one. It’s set in such a cool world that could be a parallel universe or a post-apocalyptic Earth where the Wild West has made a return of sorts but LGBT+ people aren’t accepted at all. Our young protagonist is a lesbian and has run away from home to join the Librarians – which is a group of people travelling the land. With horse-drawn wagons. And guns.
This book was more about coming of age and coming to terms with your own sexuality and how to stay true to yourself in a world that doesn’t want you to be yourself. It’s about finding family in unexpected places, and maybe even finding love. So I’m all for the message but I just didn’t connect with the characters and I didn’t feel the world building came across as that well thought-out.

The last novella I read and the one I think shouldn’t be on this ballot is Finna by Nino Cipri. The idea is sooooo great! A wormhole suddenly pops up in an IKEA-like store and an elderly shopper wanders into it. In order to save her from whatever parallel world the multiverse has opened up, Ava and her very recent Ex Jules go on a mission into the wormhole. I mean, this could have been so much fun, but sadly nobody told Cipri that rushing through seven worlds in less than 100 pages is a bit too much.
The characters just made me sad because they didn’t get to be proper people. Jules’ only concern and the thing that apparently defines them in this story is that they’re nonbinary (serioulsy, real people’s personality consists of more than they gender identity or sexuality… like give them a hobby or something) and Ava is just annoying until we find out she suffers from depression. Neither of them have hopes, dreams, goals in life, or any human connection beyond their failed relationship.
The world-hopping itself could have been fun and the worlds we get to see aren’t bad. It’s just that arriving, staring in wonder, getting into danger, fleeing , and getting to safety in the matter of 3 pages doesn’t make for good reading. It’s too fast, none of the worlds felt real or got to shine, and so this read more like something you’d write in school for an assignment than a professionally published novella. This needed a lot of work and maybe full-novel length. The way it stands, I am not impressed.


My ballot (probably)

  1. P. Djèlí Clark – Ring Shout
  2. Nghi Vo – The Empress of Salt and Fortune
  3. Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down
  4. Sarah Gailey – Upright Women Wanted
  5. Tochi Onyebuchi – Riot Baby
  6. No Award
  7. Nino Cipri – Finna

So my top three spots are pretty firmly set. I don’t know if I’ll switch Sarah Gailey and Tochi Onyebuchi around but as I don’t plan on re-reading either book, I don’t see why I would do that. I am still debating on whether to leave Finna off my ballot completely or simply rank it last. The thing is, I really don’t think it should win an award. It does nothing award-worthy whatsoever. All the other books, even the ones I didn’t enjoy, either do something new and original and/or they tell a great story. Finna is just a nice idea badly executed.

All things considered, I am not too impressed with this ballot. Sure, I liked most of the books in some way, but there has to be more out there than what Tordotcom publishes. Which would also mean a greater diversity of ideas. Let’s all try to read at least one novella not published by Tordotcome this year, okay? Maybe this way, we’ll discover a hidden gem and get other publishers on the ballot for next year.

Up next week: Best Graphic Story

When The Wild Hunt Rides Things Get Tricky: Seanan McGuire – An Artificial Night

While I had expected this to be a Best Series finalists in the Hugo Awards again this year, I wanted to continue the series anyway. But the nomination gave me the necessary push to maybe start reading a bit sooner, because the more instalments I can read before the voting period is over, the better I can judge the Toby Daye books against their competition. And the competition is fierce!

artificial-nightAN ARTIFICIAL NIGHT
by Seanan McGuire

Published: DAW, 2010
eBook: 352 pages
Series: October Daye #3
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: One thing I’ve learned in my time working as a private investigator-slash-knight errant for the fae community of the San Francisco Bay Area: if something looks like it’s going to be simple, it probably won’t be.

Changeling knight in the court of the Duke of Shadowed Hills, October “Toby” Daye has survived numerous challenges that would destroy fae and mortal alike. Now Toby must take on a nightmarish new assignment.

Someone is stealing both fae and mortal children—and all signs point to Blind Michael. When the young son of Toby’s closest friends is snatched from their Northern California home, Toby has no choice but to track the villains down, even when there are only three magical roads by which to reach Blind Michael’s realm—home of the legendary Wild Hunt—and no road may be taken more than once. If she cannot escape with all the children before the candle that guides and protects her burns away, Toby herself will fall prey to Blind Michael’s inescapable power.

And it doesn’t bode well for the success of her mission that her own personal Fetch, May Daye—the harbinger of Toby’s own death—has suddenly turned up on her doorstep…

This may only be the third book in a pretty long series (14 volumes at the time I’m writing this) but after reading the first two, I felt confident enough to go into this one blindly. I didn’t read the synopsis, I didn’t check out any reviews, I simply trusted that Seanan McGuire would deliver the same or at least a very similar type of story that I had enjoyed previously. Except with new threats, of course. And maybe a start of that romance I’m hoping for?

Toby is faced with a new kind of problem, namely that kids go missing. And not just Fae kids, either, at least one human girl as well. So, in order to get back her best friends’ children, some Cait Sidhe that Tybald is missing, and Quentin’s human girlfriend, Toby sets out to first investigate and then plan a rescue mission. Which is easier said then done when the kidnapper is none other than Blind Michael who wants to use the children for his Wild Hunt!
Entering Blind Michael’s land is hard, but getting back is even harder. Toby wouldn’t be Toby, however, if she didn’t dive in headfirst anyway and do her very best to save those children and maybe, just possibly, not die herself in the process. Which would be easier to believe in if she hadn’t just received a visit from a very portentous person…

This is my first time reading through the October Daye series and as I’m only three books in, I can’t say too much about the series as a whole. But I do like its episodic nature with a dash of overarching story. Except this time, that story didn’t really advance and it’s more of a monster-of-the-week kind of instalment. Which is also fine because said monster happens to be terrifying! I really enjoyed exploring this new side of Faerie, one that is decidedly not lovely, but quite dark and with more than one horror aspect to it. There are certain scenes that are pure nightmare fuel if you think about them too long, which led to another exciting adventure with Toby as our reluctant hero jumping headfirst into danger for the greater good.

The thing is, this adventure is kind of over at the halfway point of the book. I’m trying not to spoil anything here but let’s just say the quest part of the story is done. Well okay, there are some loose ends. Sort of. But the second half of the book felt mostly like a re-hashing of what had happened before, only slightly altered, and therefore didn’t hold my interest quite as much. The plot as a whole didn’t feel as thought out as in the previous two books.

Another small gripe I have is the characters. Am I the only one who doesn’t particularly like Connor and gets annoyed when he’s there? That’s not the gripe, that’s just an aside. My problem is that this is book 3 of a series. We have met most of the side characters already. I appreciate McGuire giving us gentle reminders of who everyone is and how they relate to each other (seriously, that’s worth gold when you let some time pass between books) but I don’t like that she’s trying to evoke the same emotions she did in previous volumes with the exact same words. The Luidaeg is super powerful, we know that. We also know that, although she could have killed Toby already, she didn’t because she seems to like her and who’s to tell a Firstborn what to do? So pretending like Toby asking the Luidaeg for something is this grand dangerous endeavour just doesn’t work. We know she’s not in real danger because, unlikely as it may be, the two have become friends and the Luidaeg cares for Toby. So the attempt at a doom and gloom atmosphere when visiting the Luidaeg just feel flat.

Unfortunately, I had similar feelings about Tybalt, a big favorite of mine. I do so hope he doesn’t turn out to be an asshole or dies in the next book or something (I honestly don’t know, please no spoilers). Mysterious and brooding and helping Toby out while pretending he’s not really helping her out but only acting in his own self-interest, he’s the kind of fictional dude I can root for. Except this time, he didn’t get to shine despite appearing several times. Where there used to be tension and atmosphere in the first books, everything had kind of sizzled out at this point.
I did love the new character of May and the way her relationship with Toby and the others developed over the course of this novel.

While reading this, I constantly had the feeling like this book was rushed. Not so much because the plot happened to fast, but because it didn’t feel like McGuire put the same love and care into this particular volume like she did with the previous ones. Once you’ve finished the book, there’s actually not that much plot. There are a lot of characters but many of them were shallower versions of their previous selves. So it was a very so-so read for me, with exciting parts, characters I liked, but also with plot lines that I didn’t care for or that felt contrived, with characters I liked from earlier novels but didn’t much care for this time.

So far, this was my least favorite Toby Daye book because of its plot and character issues and the fact that, in the second half, I kept rolling my eyes at Toby’s hero complex. That woman keeps trying to kill herself in creative ways. Sure, it’s usually to save others, so you can’t even be mad at her, but damn it, Toby, have a shred of self-preservation!

Also, the Shakespeare quote titles are so pretentious, I can’t get over it. Whenever the title drops in the actual book, I can feel how badly the author and/or publisher wanted to make it fit. Sometimes that works better than others but the connection between urban fantasy stories about a Changeling and Shakespeare’s plays isn’t something I can see. Every title drop just feels like McGuire wants to let her readers know that she has read Shakespeare and we should all be impressed because random lines from his plays pop up at random moments in her books with no emotional impact or deeper meaning whatsoever. As much as I love Shakespeare, I am not impressed and I think the forced quote titles do the series a disservice. But hey, there are worse things to complain about. In the end, I only found this book okay but it will not stop me reading the rest of the series.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Good Start, Mediocre Rest: Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down

I have this strange love/hate relationship with the Wayward Children series, although it tends to lean more towards hate than love. However, since these novellas keep getting nominated for Hugo Awards by Seanan McGuire’s loyal fans, I keep having to read them. Occasionally, a really good one comes up, but mostly, this series suffers from the big problem that it wants to do great things in too little time and thus ultimately falls flat (most of the time).

come-tumbling-downCOME TUMBLING DOWN
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 206 pages
Series: Wayward Children #5
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: Eleanor West was fond of saying – inasmuch as she was fond of saying anything predictable, sensible, or more than once – that her school had no graduates, only students who found somwhere else to do their learning for a time.

When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister – whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice – back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.
Again.


If you’ve come this far in the Wayward Children series, you will be familiar with Jack and Jill. The Wolcott twins were first introduced in the very first volume, then we got their backstory and a glimpse into their world – the Moors – in the second book. As difficult a relationship as I may have with these books, Jack and Jill’s story was easily the most interesting one, and not only because we follow them for much longer than most of the others. So naturally, I was excited to see Jack again and maybe get to know the Moors a little better.

Come Tumbling Down starts out really well. Our protagonist (but not really) this time is Christopher whose world is called Mariposa. It’s full of bones and skeletons and, for some reason, butterflies? As usual, one shouldn’t question the portal worlds these kids come from too much. The important thing is it’s their world where they feel at home and while, for some, that can mean candy and rainbows, for others it’s bones and blood.

When Jack surprisingly returns to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, she comes with a quest. Something terrible has happened, her homelands are in danger of being destroyed, and she needs help to defeat the Master and her sister Jill if she wants to return to her life in the Moors. The quest is a go – despite the “no quests” policy the school has (and which makes absolutely no sense when you think about it) – and Kade, Christopher, Cora, and Sumi follow Jack into her world to do some adventuring.

Let me first tell you the things I liked about this book. There are a few characters that I’ve come to care about, even though I’ve never been a huge fan of the series in general. Sumi’s chipper yet occasionally morbid personality is definitely a win. Her humor is very much Seanan McGuire’s humor and since I happen to find her very funny, Sumi just works for me. When someone asks you if you weren’t the one that got killed a while ago and you answer with “I got better” I just can’t help but laugh.
I also found fascinating how McGuire showed Jack’s OCD. Given the situation she’s in – Jill switched the twins’ bodies – it’s easy to see how Jack is just barely keeping it together and working hard every moment not to go mad. Especially at the beginning of the book, this was done really well.

I read the first half of this book in one sitting because it was exciting, the characters were interesting, and the plot promised a visit to a cool if creepy world and a potentially epic finale. Sadly, during the second half, it became clear that the scope of this series’ idea is too big for what can be done in a handful of novellas. Shoddy worldbuilding is okay when you only mention someone’s portal world briefly, but when you send a group of people into it, flaws become obvious. The Moors just didn’t feel like a real world. They felt exactly like what their purpose is in these stories. A few small ideas thrown together that sound good but when you put people into that world, it all feels flimsy and unbelievable. Again, I am aware that this is not the purpose of these stories. If I want epic world building and intricate politics, there are plenty of other books out there, and Seanan McGuire definitely knows how to do world building. But because the world building here is almost nonexistent and the portal worlds themselves are simply backdrop for the character drama that’s going on, the character drama needs to be really good to keep me interested.

This was another aspect that starte out very well and then just kind of ebbed away towards the end of the book. Jack and Jill’s story is the king of all sibling conflicts but I felt that the other characters (most of whom I like) got in the way of it. The story shoudl have focused more on Jack and Jill, the Master and Mr. Bleak, and the way the Moors work. Although I gladly read Sumi’s quippy and sometimes poignant remarks, any line given to other characters took precious page space away from Jack. And so, by the end of the book, I watched things go down semi-interestedly but I wasn’t invested anymore. Jack’s OCD was barely mentioned anymore (that’s not a critique, I understand why that choice was made) and we spent too much time drifting off to other characters. The kind-of-but-not-really protagonist Christopher also never gets to be a fully fleshed out character because 200 pages is simply not enough.

The problem I have with all of these books, even the ones I enjoyed, is that they are trying to do a certain thing – and it’s very transparent what that is – but they never quite accomplish it. And that’s not for lack of skill on the author’s part, it’s simply that the format of novella isn’t suited to the endeavour because there just isn’t enough time to build up the characters, make them feel real, rather than just stand-ins for various diversity points.

This series gets praised for representation a lot and while I am thrilled that there are fantasy books about all sorts of diverse people, I’d still like these people to be more than their “condition”. I think it’s doing them a disservice to reduce them all to their sexuality, their gender identity, their disorder, their weight, their skin color… It’s clear that the point of these books is to show that all people can be heroes, regardless of how they are viewed in our world. The Wayward Children are all outsiders in a way, marginalized because they “don’t fit in” for various reasons. Giving those characters stories of their own, stories where they get to be the protagonist, is wonderful and it’s probably the main reason I am still – reluctantly – reading this series. But simply saying the cast is X or Y, like checking off an imaginary diversity list, doesn’t accomplish the goal of giving them a proper story and voice. To truly establish a character with every aspect of who they are – be that Jack’s OCD or Kade’s being trans – takes time. Time that simply isn’t there when you’re trying to tell a whole story in 200 pages. So as much as I commend McGuire for writing about these characters (and I want her to continue doing so), I also think novellas are maybe not the way to go. Even Jack, one of the most memorable characters so far, came across as a bit flat by the end of this book.

I remember nitpicking in the last instalment that the readers weren’t allowed to take part in the actual adventuring but only witnessed the aftermath and the quieter moments in between the exciting parts. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have complained because it turns out, the “adventures” in this series just aren’t very good. And I get it, that’s not what the series is supposed to be about. But even in a character-focused piece, if you’re sending your characters on a quest, at least make that quest somewhat interesting, make the stakes believable and high enough for us to care, and don’t just tell us the plan, then execute the plan, then be done with it. That’s boring!

This book also reminded me of the worst instalment yet (the sugary one) and the most annoying, least likable character of them all. Cora, the former mermaid and incredibly self-absorbed wayward child, is mostly just annoying and bitchy, but when she actually does take action, it’s sure to make life even harder for everyone else. Cora believes everything is about her, even though this is clearly Jack’s story and taking place in Jack’s world. But no, every chance she gets, Cora is convinced things revolve around her somehow. Every piece of dialogue, even about the most random things, is surely an attack on her person, and everyone is definitely spending their entire time thinking and saying mean things about her. Wow, I really can’t stand that girl and I hope she soon finds a doorway back to her underwater world and we never have to read about her again. Just stay out of other people’s adventures if you’re going to make them all about yourself. She doesn’t deserve how nice people are to her because, frankly, she is useless and offended at things that have nothing to do with her. And she constantly accuses her friends (!) of making fat jokes when nobody even gives the tiniest shit about her weight and nobody at the school would ever make a hurtful joke about her because they are all outsiders and know what that’s like. At one point, she says something accusingly for which absolutely nobody but herself is responsible yet she presents herself as the victim of her evil, evil friends who dragged her into this (she wanted to come!) and for whom she almost died (she endangered herself of her own volition while Kade actually risked his own life to try and save her!!!).
I assume the 7th Wayward Children novella will be all about her and I’m curious if McGuire manages to make her at least a little sympathetic by then. Otherwise, I will just have to skip that book.

All things considered, I loved the first half of this novella. I didn’t like the second one all that much, and the ending – while I technically find it ends in a satisfying way – didn’t carry the weight it could and maybe should have. Because there are too many characters crammed into this little book, the emotional impact got lost over the course of the story. I didn’t dislike it but I didn’t love it, which will probably make it end up somewhere in the middle of my Hugo ballot this year.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

My Year of Finishing Series!

Happy Holidays!
I’m spending time with family for the next few days (we’ve all been tested negative and been isolated for the past weeks, plus we have masks, so it’ll be a very safe and very strange Christmas, but you know. We make the best of it). I have so many reviews to write as well as my favorite books of the year list to finish, but there’s no way I can get that done before Christmas. So I’m leaving you with this loooong list of mostly great books and promise to catch up after 26th December. I hope you’re all safe and healthy and I wish you wonderful holidays!

Entirely by accident, 2020 turned out to be the year where I finally continued and even finished (!) a bunch of book series I had started. By no means did I finish all the series I have ongoing, but a good chunk of them is now done and I cannot begin to tell you how satisfying it is to get to the end of a long, sprawling story that has been with you for years. Even if the ending didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, it still left me with a feeling of accomplishment.

Now let me tell you about the series I finished (or caught up on) this year and whether they were worth it.

Finished

Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham – FABLES

Fables complete serie - The Deluxe Edition - Hardcover - - Catawiki

I finally did it! I finished Fables!!! Now, to be honest, this wasn’t a series I ever intended to rush through. Some volumes were better than others but the overall quality was so good that it felt kind of nice to always have a few more volumes to look forward to. I’ve been reading the deluxe editions in increments, sometimes waiting for the next one to come out, then waiting for the right mood to strike. I have had the final three volumes on my shelf for some time now and all I needed to do to get to the very end was pick them up. Thanks to Covid-19 and the lockdown, I had a lot of time on my hands.
This story about fairy tale characters living secretly in our world, with politcal intrigues, crimes, a full-blown war, dark mysteries, curses, love stories, and everything else you can think of, is exactly the kind of thing I go for. At the beginning I would never have thought I’d come to care so much for random side characters or go out and actually buy all the books in the spin-off series about Jack of Fables… and yet I did. It was the idea that drew me in, but it was the characters that made me stay. There were definitely some weaker volumes but I can totally see myself re-reading the entire thing someday.


Book Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy by Laini Taylor – Cups and Thoughts

Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Technically, I still have the novella about side characters Mik and Zuzana to read, but I’ve finished the main trilogy after a rather rough start. I first read Daughter of Smoke and Bone years ago and didn’t love it. In fact, I was rather pissed off by the tropes used and the sudden shift in story in that book. On a re-read, however, knowing what to expect, I ended up quite liking the book. Then I continued reading and the series sneakily stole my heart. Laini Taylor’s wonderful ideas and world building are stunning – even if her fictional creatures are maybe a tad too beautiful. The way she wrote about this unwinnable war, about star-crossed lovers, about friendship and death and loyalty and loss… yeah, it worked for me. So much so that, immediately after finishing the second book, I went and devoured the third. Taylor also managed to stick the landing with the ending, delivering a satisfying finale that left me feeling content and mostly happy. I’m definitely still going to read that book about Mik and Zuzana though!


LAINI TAYLOR – STRANGE THE DREAMER

Look, I didn’t expect anything else but I was still surprised at how much this duology touched me. It’s not just Laini Taylor’s exquisite language or her brilliant, faceted characters who are never all good or all bad, it’s also the world building and the plot. Seriously, I can’t find fault in these books and I’ll probably re-read them many times to come.
Any lover of books or fairy tales, anyone who loves learning about different cultures, or who just likes reading about crazy original fantasy ideas will find something to enjoy in these books. Laszlo Strange is so easy to love and his story turns from rather small and intimate into a sprawling epic that I didn’t see coming. I consider this some of the very best the fantasy genre has to offer!


Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea due to be re-released on October 17th with brand new covers and illustrations. : Fantasy

Ursula K. LeGuin – The Earthsea Cycle

Books keep getting added to this series every time I check but for a while, at least, it was the Earthsea Quartet and that’s the part I’ve finished. I still have two short story collections to read but I read all the novels in LeGuin’s beloved fantasy series. This was also prompted by a re-read of A Wizard of Earthsea, a book I didn’t adore either time I read it but one I appreciated much more when I read it the second time, simply because I was looking for different things and noticing different aspects of LeGuin’s genius. When I got to the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, I finally understood why everyone loves this series so much. Man, did that book hit me in the feels! The third one was rather meh but I suspect I may like it more when I’m older and Tehanu, the one that got lots of award nominations and wins, was a thing of pure beauty. There is something special about the Earthsea books. Each is quite different from the previous one, in a way, and yet they all share common themes and LeGuin’s way of conveying emotion almost without me noticing (I mean that in the best way possible).
Reading these books was definitely rewarding and gave me a lot of food for thought.


The Arcadia Project: Borderline; Phantom Pains; Impostor Syndrome von Mishell Baker - Taschenbuch - 978-1-5344-1828-8 | Thalia

Mishell Baker – The Arcadia Project

This is the trilogy where my reading experience has led to a clear recommendation for you guys: Don’t let years pass between books 2 and 3! I read the first and second books soon after they were published and that small-ish gap between them worked fine. But then I waited several years before picking up the third book and I had a hard time remembering everyone’s name and station, who’s currently fighting with whom, how exactly all the magic worked, etc.
That didn’t keep me from enjoying Millie’s story as she handles not only her Borderline Personality Disorder as well as being a double amputee, but also navigating a new workplace (with magic!), her attractive boss, trying to make friends with people who don’t necessarily want to be her friend, and of course all sorts of fairy shenanigans. In terms of representation, this trilogy is amazing! Not only have I never read a story with so many diverse characters in terms of mental health, disabilities, LGBTQIA+, but the best thing is, they are all drawn with care, like real people – some likable, some not so much. These character’s aren’t their disabilities. They are all people, some of whom are gay, some transgender, some with mental health issues, some with physical disabilities, some with disabilities that aren’t visible. Even if there hadn’t been a kick-ass story about humans and fairies, this would be an important trilogy for our time.


FANS WILL WORSHIP THE WICKED + THE DIVINE, BOOK ONE

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie – The Wicked + the Divine

I read this comic book series in its entirety (re-reading the first volume) for the Hugo Awards and again, re-reading made everything better. Giving books a second chance is definitely the way to go, because apparently my mood plays a large part in how much I enjoy a book. This series, while it has some slight ups and downs, was overall really fun and exciting.
A pantheon of gods is reborn into regular humans’ bodies who then live like rockstars for two years, after which they will die. Except this time, they seem to die much quicker and it’s not of “natural causes”. There was so much to love here, starting with the art style which I found absolutely stunning. The story also grows bigger and bigger as you follow along. The characters become more fleshed out and I caught myself caring for some of them who I previously didn’t even notice all that much. Overall, this was a great experience, all the more because it sticks the ending.


Die Ära der Zeitreisen | Kultur

Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, and Matt Wilson – Paper Girls

For this, I didn’t re-read the first volume, which I had also read when the series first started. I liked the Stranger Things vibe but I remember that the story got a little too crazy for me at the end of the first book. As I continued, however, I was just fine with the amount of crazy. Time travel, LGBT romance, meeting your older selves, saving the world… yes please, give me more.
I don’t quite know why, but although I enjoyed every single volume of this 6-volume series, none of the instalments ever got me really excited. It felt a bit like a great mash-up of things that had been done before, drawn quite beautifully, and told well. But not groundbreaking. So it was a solid series, I’m happy I read it, but I don’t think I’ll revisit it.


Robin Hobb – The Tawny Man Trilogy (Realm of the Elderlings)

I first read Assassin’s Apprentice when I was 16 years old (I’m 34 now) and spent the following years devouring more and more of Hobb’s books set in the Realm of the Elderlings. Except with the Tawny Man Trilogy, I kind of hit a slump. I read The Golden Fool in 2012, so it’s been a LONG time. But Hobb wouldn’t be Hobb if she didn’t manage to immerse me in her world immediately and make me feel like no time has passed at all. I finally finished this third trilogy in her series of connected trilogies (plus one quartet). And although this trilogy is done, I will continue on with the larger series and see what’s been happening down South with those Bingtowners and the people in the Rain Wilds. After all, nobody can make me cry like Robin Hobb and her stories have stayed with me throughout the years. I’m actually glad I still have more of them to look forward to.


N. K. Jemisin – The Broken Earth Trilogy

You guys, I know it’s weird that I didn’t gobble up these books right when they came out. The Fifth Season still is one of the most mind-blowing fantasy books I’ve ever read and I wish I could erase my memory of it just to experience it for the first time again! But it’s exactly because it was so good that I waited a while before picking up The Obelisk Gate. And then I saved up The Stone Sky deliberately as a treat. Well, I think I’ve earned that treat by the end of 2020 and so, in December, I finally picked up the finale of this triple Hugo Award winning trilogy.

All caught up

Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda – Monstress

This is the one series on this list that I don’t plan to continue. I had read the first volume when it came out, liked it okay, but not enough to continue. The gorgeous art kept distracting me from the story and the aloof protagonist never managed to get me emotionally involved with her story. But as volume 4 was nominated for a Hugo Award this year, I caught up on the series and am left with the exact same feeling. Cool ideas, stunning artwork, but little emotional impact. I have to concede that this series is just not for me because as far as I can tell, neither writer nor artists are doing anything wrong. I see the appeal and I’m glad so many other people like it, but I don’t feel like reading more of it.
If the next volume is nominated for a Hugo again, I’ll read it but I won’t go out and actively buy a copy for myself.


Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn

So, I had read (or rather listened to) all of the Mistborn books already. First era, second era, all done. But! There was still this little novella set during the first era told from a different perspective on my TBR. I finally picked this one up, not expecting too much from it. I should have known better. Sanderson always delivers, after all!
Plotwise, Secret History doesn’t offer much that’s new, but it was like a behind the scenes look that gives a bit more background information on the larger story and on the Cosmere as a whole. You don’t need to read this to enjoy the Mistborn series but if you’re into the Cosmere, you won’t want to  miss it.


Brandon Sanderson – Skyward

Yeah, there’s no question I’ll always jump on the next book in this series as soon as it comes out. This YA sci-fi series is not Sanderson’s best but I can’t help but love it anyway. You’ll get his trademark twists at the end, you get a cast of lovable characters, great side characters (M-Bot & Doomslug!) and you get an exciting plot that promises even bigger secrets to be revealed in the future.
I also loved how Sanderson has grown in terms of his characters. They still don’t curse, ever, but in Starsight, we get characters who don’t belong to a specific gender and that’s not something I had expected from Sanderson. Way to go and please keep moving in that direction. People and aliens come in all different shapes, sizes, genders, with all kinds of abilities and disabilities. There will be two more volumes in this series so I don’t expect it to be finished before 2023. Until then, we get the next Stormlight Archive book, so I’m not complaining.


Carina's Books: Cover Reveal: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman – The Book of Dust

I had heard mixed things about this follow-up trilogy to His Dark Materials. With La Belle Sauvage, Pullman convinced me that he could actually pull it off and The Secret Commonwealth was no different. We follow an adult Lyra whose relationship with her daemon Pan is rather fraught. Lots of exciting things happen, of course, but the heart of the story is Lyra and Pan’s struggle to find back to each other emotionally.
Look, this isn’t His Dark Materials and nothing can take away the greatness of that trilogy. Even if the story is very different, the writing style gives me major nostalgia and reminds me how I felt when I first discovered this world as a teenager. So it is a worthy successor and one I intend to follow until the end.


Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Her Pitiless Command

I was thrilled to find out that the book that had felt so much like a series opener was, in fact, a series opener. So I picked up Mirrorstrike soon after it came out. It wasn’t as good as the first book, Winterglass, but then middle volumes rarely are. When the third volume comes out, I’ll be right here waiting for it because the characters and world building are simply too good not to find out how it all ends. And let’s not forget the absolutely stunning language with which Sriduangkaew tells this sort-of fairy tale retelling of The Snow Queen set in South East Asia.


Review: Martha Wells & The Murderbot Diaries | A Study in Murderbot

Martha Wells – The Murderbot Diaires

I waited a bit before I picked up the first full-sized Murderbot novel, part five of the Murderbot Diaries. When I did pick it up, it was just as delightful as I had hoped. Murderbot simply has a way of stealing your heart with its hilarious narration and the way it deals with emotions (it would rather not). This series is a source of pure joy and I hope it continues for a long, long time – whether the next one is a novella or another novel, I don’t even care. Just as long as I get more Murderbot and maybe even more ART. Despite all the action and the constant danger, I’d even call this a feelgood series.

Continued a bit

Emma Newman – Planetfall

So I actually only started this series this year but rather than do what I usually do (read book one, then wait forever before I pick up the next), I continued pretty soon after with the second book. Although very different in setting and story type, I was taken with both of these. And since the series is finished, I intend to read the other two books as well. And soon!
Planetfall tells a very interesting story set on a different planet where humans have settled. But things aren’t exactly as they seem, the protagonist holds a highly intriguing secret (well, more than one actually) and things unravel from there.
In After Atlas we get a police procedural set on Earth, but a future Earth where society works a bit different from ours, and not exactly in a good way. I had so much fun reading both of these and I can’t wait to discover where Emma Newman takes the story in the final two books.


The Dark Tower series (9 BOOKS) BY Stephen King-MP3 AUDIOBOOK – ty's cheap DIGITAL audiobook/Etextbook

Stephen King – The Dark Tower

I don’t even remember when I started this series but I think I was still in school. So… very long ago. The first book wasn’t really for me, the second took a while to get going but then I binged books 3 and 4 right after. Wolves of the Calla was the one that made me stall again. It was just too long, had too many side stories, and I was a bit burned out on Dark Tower stuff by then. Newly motivated to continue some series, I picked up Song of Susannah, read it in no time at all and, while not loving it, at least gained my excitement for Stephen King’s writing back as well as the urge to finally finish this epic series. So far, I have managed to avoid spoilers about the ending (thank you, internet, for being so considerate and actually hiding spoilers about this series 🙂 ).


Open Your Door to Centaurs and Unicorns in Across the Green Grass Fields, the Newest Installment of Seanan McGuire's Wayward Children Series! | Tor.com

Seanan McGuire – Wayward Children

This series is so hit or miss for me I hadn’t planned on continuing it. But it keeps getting nominated for the Hugo Awards and as a diligent voter, I had to pick up In an Absent Dream. It turns out, this was one of the good volumes and I really, really enjoyed it. In fact, I liked it so much that I’ll continue with the next book even if it doesn’t get an awards nomination. Considering how much I hated the third book, that’s pretty high praise.


Series Sunday: Toby Daye by Seanan McGuire – Post Thirty Two of Stay Home Order – Redd's Reads

Seanan McGuire – October Daye

As strange as my relationship with McGuire’s writing is, this is a series I really like so far. Granted, I’ve only read the first two books but they have both delivered exciting, action-packed tales with interesting fairy politics and a protagonist I can root for. I know nothing about the rest of the series (again, thank you, people who use spoiler tags!) but I’m hoping for a certain romantic pairing and to see more of some side characters I’ve grown to like.
I usually read hardly any Urban Fantasy so I’m glad I discovered a series I can follow along, knowing I’ll get a quick read that will be fun and make me feel stuff. I think the Shakespeare quote titles are a bit pretentious and don’t have much to do with the plot but I intend to stay with this series for the next few years. These books (so far) are excellent to get you out of a reading slump.


My Top Ten 2019 Reads (+ 20 More Great Ones) – Book Geek Reviews

Jessica Townsend – Nevermoor

I picked up the The Trials of Morrigan Crow during my holiday (which luckily fell into the time just before Covid-19 hit Europe and everything went into lockdown), then continued on with The Calling of Morrigan Crow in the Summer. I bought the third volume when it came out but haven’t gotten to it just yet.
This is such a heartwarming, whimsical tale with the loveliest found family, great friendships and lots of cool ideas. The world of Nevermoor may be dangerous, but it’s a cozy kind of dangerous if you know what I mean. Following Morrigan on new adventures feels a bit like coming home and the series was definitely worth it for all the warm and fuzzy feelings it gave me.
It’s also nice to have a book series I can gift to the kids in my family that isn’t you-know-what.


My Fancast/Dreamcast: An Ember In The Ashes Series – NJG Entertainment.com

Sabaa Tahir – An Ember in the Ashes

I remember how the first book in this quartet had me at the edge of my seat THE ENTIRE TIME. Every chapter made my pulse go up because it was so damn exciting and I was so scared for the protagonist! I wanted more of that, but unfortunately, the second book was a big let down. There was a ridiculous, obvious, unnecessary love triangle, the plot was quite weak, and there were none of the tense scenes I enjoyed so much in book 1. I’ll give the next book a chance but I’m not super eager to continue the series at this point. Depending on how well volume 3 does for me, I may just call it quits after that.


Marissa Meyer's Renegades Trilogy is Riveting Superhero Fiction | Den of Geek

Marissa Meyer – Renegades

I was lukewarm about Meyer’s sci-fi superhero series Renegades after reading the first book. Sure, it was fun and easy to read, but it felt a bit unstructured and convoluted. I did pick up the second book because Meyer is my guilty pleasure author and sometimes you just need a book that doesn’t require too much brain power. I enjoyed it well enough, I liked how it fleshed out the world and finally delivered some moments I had been hoping for from the very start.
It’s not great science fiction and not great literature either, but definitely great fun. After the second book, things are perfectly set up for a great climax, so it won’t be too long before I finish the trilogy.


Andrzej Sapkowski – The Witcher

Like many people, I finally picked up the Witcher books because of the Netflix series and I’m not sorry. Not only did the picture of Henry Cavill in my mind greatly enhance the reading experience, but the books themselves also surprised me. My expectations were… let’s say different. I thought tough manly Witcher man would run around slaying monsters. Instead I got a thoughtful exploration of who the real monsters are and a protagonist who, most of all, stands out because of his empathy! So far, I’ve read the two story collections that form the start of the series as well as the first novel. It wasn’t as good as the collections but I’m still invested enough in this universe and its characters that I look forward to the rest of the series.


Netflix verfilmt Bone von Jeff Smith - Anidrom - Animation News

Jeff Smith – Bone

I have a big, chunky all-in-one volume of this series and finally started reading it late last year. This charming tale about three bone creatures trying to survive in a hostile world and find their way home to Boneville starts out so simply and then slowly grows in the telling. At first, it’s this whimsical, cute story, but the more adventures the Bones go on, the bigger the world seems to get. We get mythology, strange creatures, lovable side characters, and a tale that grows up to be rather epic in scope.
I’ve read four out of the ten volumes so far and I’m glad there’s more Bone to look forward to.


Diana Wynne Jones – The Land of Ingary/Howl’s World

This loosely connected trilogy has languished on my TBR for too long. I read and loved Howl’s Moving Castle many years ago but when it was picked for the Sword and Laser book club, I took that chance to finally continue the series instead of re-reading the first book. Diana Wynne Jones writes with such charm and ease that it’s hard not to love her stories.
Humble carpet merchant Abdullah goes on an unexpected and rather wild adventure that was too delightful to describe here. Howl and Sophie do make an appearance, but this is clearly Abdullah’s book. I can’t wait to finish the trilogy next year. Whenever I need a book that feels like balm for my soul, I’ll pick this up.

So this is it… I swear I didn’t set out to do this at the beginning of the year. I planned on catching up on some series but I never thought I would get so far. It’s been incredibly rewarding, especially when I was reminded again, after years of neglecting a series, how much I loved it in the first place and how great it was to return to that world.
I’ve also discovered that re-reads can do wonders. Books I didn’t like the first time suddenly appeared in a new light or I appreciated things I simply missed before.

How are you handling your book series? Do you wait until it’s finished and then binge it in one go? Do you catch up on the newest volume every year? Or are you like me, which is to say completely unorganized? 🙂

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