Reading the Hugos 2020: Lodestar (Not-a-Hugo)

Before we head on the Best Novel, let’s have a look at another favorite category of mine, the Lodestar. My thoughts and ballots for the other categories can be found here (the ones below the Lodestar will go live on the following Mondays):

This was a category in which I had more catching up to do than expected. I read a fair share of YA but apparently, I missed out on a lot of great books last year. I’d like to thank my fellow Hugo nominators for having read and nominated them. Because if they hadn’t been finalists, I might never have picked up some of them. I even discovered one that will make it to my best-of-the-year list. And who wants to miss out on great books? That’s right, nobody!

The Finalists for the Lodestar (Best YA/MG Book)

I didn’t think this would be so hard, guys! There are some seriously great books on this list and I am both happy about it but would also have liked ranking them to be easier.

The Wicked King by Holly Black does that amazing thing where the middle novel of a trilogy is actually the best. The world is set up, the characters are established, now it’s time to up the stakes and move the relationships along. And that’s just what she does. This was such a page turner, I think I devoured the book in two days. But it also managed to convince me of the very flawed, somewhat messed up relationship at the heart of the story. The romantic couple is not one you root for from the start – in fact, at the end of the first book, I hoped there wouldn’t be any romance at all. Boy, did I change my mind! As much as I adore this story, I am aware of its flaws and I consider it more of a guilty pleasure.

I went into Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on CatNet with low expectations. I just wasn’t sure that the author could pull this off. Well, shame on me, because Kritzer not only wrote one of the most endearing AI characters I’ve ever read but also managed to make CatNet feel vibrant and alive, she peopled it with lovable diverse characters, and threw a super exciting plot with a mystery into the mix. The only thing that didn’t stand out to me was the romance, but then again, I like books where the romance isn’t the main focus, so that’s not really a bad thing. I found myself deeply caring for the characters in this book – real and artificial – and that’s usually the reason a book sticks with me.

T. Kingfisher is one of my favorite authors and I always adore her plucky, practical heroines. In Minor Mage, the protagonist is a young boy who is – as the title suggests – only a very minor mage who knows all of three spells. But in order to save his village he sets out on a journey, accompanied only by his armadillo friend. He meets new people, escapes death several times, and even learns some new minor magic. This is an adorable and heart-warming adventure story and I loved it so much. But it lacked some of the emotional impact of its competitors. It was a fantastic book and it did make me feel things but as a shorter book aimed more at the middle grade age group, it looks like it won’t make the very top of my ballot. Trust me, nobody is more surprised at this than myself!

The only previous Frances Hardinge book I’d read was Fly by Night which impressed me deeply with its original world building and great multi-faceted characters. For some reason, I never continued the series and never picked up another Hardinge book (although I keep buying them). I was so excited to get into Deeplight and Hardinge didn’t disappoint. Set in the Myriad, a series of islands, everyone lives and breathes the ocean. Sometimes quite literally. Because the ocean used to have gods in it which are now dead. But their relics remain. Deep sea diving, submarines, diving bells and bathyspheres are what this is all about. It’s also about Hark, a young con man whose best friend Jelt usually gets them into trouble.
This book was just pure joy! I have raved about all its aspects in my review, but I’m still not quite over how perfect an adventure it was. Unlike some of the other finalists, this is also one of those books that can work for many age groups because it just has so much to offer. 34-year-old me enjoyed the character development and relationships the most (plus many other things), but it could also be read just as a straight up adventure with trips to the Undersea (where the water is breathable!), finding out the truth about the gods, and suriving all sorts of shenanigans.
I didn’t think the Kritzer could be knocked off its top spot on my ballot but here we are.

I was looking forward to Yoon Ha Lee’s foray into YA/MG fiction. Dragon Pearl did many things right. Min, a young fox spirit on a rather uncool planet, yearns to join her brother in the Space Force and explore the universe. When her brother is accused of desertion, she sets out on an adventure to find him, and the truth, and maybe even the mysterious Dragon Pearl that can help terraform her planet.
What follows is an exciting adventure with lots of action, new friends, betrayal, battles, chores (so many chores!) and of course shapeshifting. The story as such reads like a nice middle grade adventure. What made this slightly more interesting to me was the incorporation of Korean mythology and the way Lee deals with questions of gender and identity. There are several supernatural creatures but only foxes can shapeshift into anything. Min changes quite a lot on her journey and that offered much food for though. Ultimately, the characters remained a bit pale and while I was interested to see what happened next, I wasn’t really in it, if you know what I mean. I’d recommend this to younger kids but for me it was only nice, not amazing.

My last read was Riverland by Fran Wilde. As I didn’t enjoy her novel Updraft at all, I went into it with low expectations. It just won the Andre Norton Award so it must be good, right? Well… I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. I kinda sorta liked it but with many reservations. Wilde picked a tough topic to write about – two sisters living in an abusive household, dreaming of a better life. And the author did a fantastic job on creating this oppressive atmosphere, of showing these girls’s lives with all the fear and shame and anxiety. But this is also a fantasy novel, specifically a portal fantasy with a magical river world. And that part was not executed well. I also felt that the plot lacked focus, tension, and solutions came  (surprisingly) too easily. I am very conflicted about my rating of this novel because I can’t imagine how hard it must be writing about this issue for a young audience. So I liked some parts of the book (the ones in the real world) and felt others were neglected (fantasy world building, characters, plot in general) which leaves this book at the bottom of my ballot.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Frances Hardinge – Deeplight
  2. Naomi Kritzer – Catfishing on CatNet
  3. T. Kingfisher – Minor Mage
  4. Holly Black – The Wicked King
  5. Yoon Ha Lee – Dragon Pearl
  6. Fran Wilde – Riverland

The only switch I’m still debating in my own head is between Minor Mage and The Wicked King. Holly Black doesn’t exactly need a push by winning awards. She is wildly popular, well loved, and will do just fine with or without a Lodestar. But I did love that book…
Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher on the other hand is an author I’ve been shooving in everyone’s face for a while and I’m glad she’s getting more recognition these days. But she’s not yet getting the acclaim she should! So I probably will leave these books in the spots they are now. I loved them for very different reasons and I love both their authors’ other work, but I would like to give Kingfisher a little extra boost.

Up next week: Best Novel

Shape-Shifter Space Adventure: Yoon Ha Lee – Dragon Pearl

Yoon Ha Lee is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting voices in SFF. His Machineries of Empire trilogy did things to my brain that I didn’t think possible. Going from this crazy complex SF story to Middle Grade is a big departure. While I think he did a good job and wrote a wonderful tale of adventure, it lacked that certain extra that made his adult novels stand out the way they did.

DRAGON PEARL
by Yoon Ha Lee

Published: Rick Riordan Presents, 2019
eBook: 312 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

Opening line: I almost missed the stranger’s visit that morning.

Thirteen-year-old Min comes from a long line of fox spirits. But you’d never know it by looking at her. To keep the family safe, Min’s mother insists that none of them use any fox-magic, such as Charm or shape-shifting. They must appear human at all times.
Min feels hemmed in by the household rules and resents the endless chores, the cousins who crowd her, and the aunties who judge her. She would like nothing more than to escape Jinju, her neglected, dust-ridden, and impoverished planet. She’s counting the days until she can follow her older brother, Jun, into the Space Forces and see more of the Thousand Worlds.
When word arrives that Jun is suspected of leaving his post to go in search of the Dragon Pearl, Min knows that something is wrong. Jun would never desert his battle cruiser, even for a mystical object rumored to have tremendous power. She decides to run away to find him and clear his name.
Min’s quest will have her meeting gamblers, pirates, and vengeful ghosts. It will involve deception, lies, and sabotage. She will be forced to use more fox-magic than ever before, and to rely on all of her cleverness and bravery. The outcome may not be what she had hoped, but it has the potential to exceed her wildest dreams.

This is exactly the kind of adventure story I would have loved as a kid. A young girl with magical shape-shifting powers runs away from home to find her brother who allegedly deserted his dream job at the Space Forces. Min knows that just can’t be true and she is determined to find her brother Jun, clear his name, and maybe even find that Dragon Pearl that could help terraform their dusty planet. There are all sorts of dangerous situations, new friends (and enemies) to be made, dark secrets to discover, and lessons to be learned.

But I read this as an adult and while I love YA and Middle Grade fiction, I need something more than just a good story. And Yoon Ha Lee did a pretty great job at adding layers onto this tale of wild space adventures. It begins with Min’s family being fox spirits. Based on Korean mythology, fox spirits can shape-shift into anything, even inanimate objects, and because of their powers (and the fact that they are said to suck the souls from humans) they are feared. So Min has been hiding her true self all her life, but it becomes necessary to use those powers and use them frequently on her quest to save her brother.
This led to several interesting developments. While making herself slightly older-looking to get past some guards is one thing, at some point she changes into a male body because the situation demands it. Now Min doesn’t dwell much on this, except for the occasional comment about suddenly having more stuff between her legs, but I found it intersting because it manages to talk about gender without really making it a big deal for the characters. There’s not really much discussion about Min’s identity – she’s always herself, no matter which body she currently wears. And one of the side characters is addressed as gender-neutral, which is also explained once and respected by everyone. The way this seamlessly just works within the story makes it easy to glance over it, but I think it’s an important message, especially for kids.

The world building was also quite interesting, although it’s one of the things that I felt needed more depth. Apart from fox spirits, there are also dragons, tigers, dokkaebi, and goblins – all with different supernatural powers. The Dragon Society is essentially rich people. Dragons can influence the weather and do most of the work when it comes to terraforming new planets. Jinju, Min’s home planet, got the short end of that stick and is still pretty impoverished and not exactly nice to live on. If only the mystical (and missing) Dragon Pearl were here, then it could help make Min’s planet more livable.
There are definitely great ideas hidden in the world building and I liked how Lee handled the class difference between different cultures or planets. But there’s not a lot of that and I felt like I had to make up my own ideas about the backstory if I wanted to know more. And I get why it is written that way – there is a lot of story to get through and adding more to the world building would have made this a much bigger book. And it’s meant to be for kids.

The characters ranged from well-developed and layered to flat and I don’t know how to feel about them as a whole. Min is a good protagonist, she’s clever and resourceful, brave and kind, and it’s easy to insert yourself in her shoes and live through her journey with her. Some side characters also showed surprising amounts of depth, like Haneul and Sujin, the two people Min’ befriends on a space ship. But others, especially the villain, remained flat until the end. Ooooh, I’m bad because I want all the power and I have no conscience and nothing will stand in my way. 
Of course that works for a children’s book because it’s easy to hate the villain and it makes the heroes’ decisions much simpler. Again, I understand why it was written that way, but I believe that kids can handle more nuanced characters just fine.

That all sounded very negative but I actually enjoyed reading this book because it does tell an exciting story with cool magic. I may have remained at arm’s length from the characters but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy space battles, dealing with ghosts, learning about the Space Forces, or watching Min trick others with her fox magic. This may only have been a good book for adult me but I just know that child me would have loved it. And while I can’t go back in time and give my younger self this story, I can definitely put it into the hands of other young people.
As science fiction for young readers goes, this is definitely one of the more interesting ones, not only because it mixes Korean mythology with a space adventure but because it shows a diverse range of people and genders. There’s not enough books like this out there and I have to say, I am growing ever fonder of the Rick Riordan Presents series!

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite Good

Reading the Hugos: Best Novel

What a ballot! When the nominees were announced, I had already read four of the six nominated novels and I thought I was doomed. How was I supposed to choose my favorites among these excellent books? Couldn’t there at least be two or three that weren’t as good? Well, I’m all caught up and while the ballot is still filled with fantastic books, at least I know somewhat how to arrange my list now.

The nominees for Best Novel

  1. Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera
  2. Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver
  3. Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun
  4. Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars
  5. Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning
  6. Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few

At this moment, I’m certain about my number one spot and the bottom two spots. But the three books in between could switch places a hundred times before the voting period ends. Because I just don’t know! They are incredibly difficult  to compare, they did such different things, they were all brilliant, and I really don’t know at this point what my final ballot will look like.

Cat Valente’s Space Opera is my number one for several reasons. First, I have adored Valente’s writing for years, she has never let me down, and while I think she should have won a Hugo already for Radiance, I believe this book is just as deserving. Humorous science fiction is rarely taken into consideration for awards so I don’t believe it will win. But when you pick up a book that everybody has compared to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it doesn’t let you down? That’s already a winner for me. I mean, who could stand up to that comparison and come out not just with “yeah it was okay” but with a nominateion for a Hugo Award?  Valente not only made me laugh out loud with the premise – Eurovision In Space – and the hilarious invasion scene as well as many silly moments, she also showed her originality with the alien species she invented. And, most of all, the story is full of heart and a deep love of humanity, warts and all. I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh and feel all warm and fuzzy inside like this. If Redshirts can win, than Space Opera should have a chance as well! I sincerely hope it does.

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver was a beautiful book. It suffered from too many unorganized POV characters and it wasn’t quite as good as Uprooted but that’s about all the negative things I can say about it now. I adore fairy tale retellings (as you may have guessed if you stop by here occasionally), so I’m putting it in second place for now. Novik turned a Rumpelstiltskin retelling into an epic fantasy, which is already a feat, but she also created memorable characters and great romances – I know many people didn’t like them, but I stand by my minority opinion.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun concludes the Machineries of War series. In order to read this, I had to first catch up on the second volume, which suffered from middle-book-syndrome a lot. This, however, was a worthy and exciting finale to an epic series. It started with a bang, made me think I knew where it was going, turned the other way, then swerved around yet again. It was clever, had great characters (Jedao must be one of my top ten characters ever!) and a satisfying ending. Seriously well done. I can’t wait for whatever Yoon Ha Lee publishes next.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is easily the best novel of hers I’ve read. It was thrilling, despite being so character-focused and lacking in space battles. It made me uncomfortable and excitied and angry all at the same time. I loved that the protagonist lived in a stable, happy marriage, I loved how the book dealt with mental health issues. There were so many things I loved about it. And seeing how it won a Nebula Award, I wasn’t the only one. As I’m having such a hard time ranking these books, I’m going to use that win as an excuse to rank it a bit lower. It’s already won an award, after all, and while there have been several books that won both Hugo and Nebal awards in the same year, I didn’t think this book was quite amazing enough for that.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning was on the bottom spot of my ballot for a long time. Not because it’s bad but because it was too ordinary for an award. A fun Urban Fantasy story in an original setting may be entertaining to read, and I did enjoy how Native American mythology gets woven into the plot, but I still don’t think this book deserves an award. Many, many other books are published every year that do the same thing: sassy, kick-ass heroine solves mystery while working through her dark past, meeting potential love interest, betrayal, battles, magic, etc. etc. Neither the writing nor the characters were good enough for me to want to give this an award.

However, Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few, which I expected to love, goes even below that (for now). In reality, this book was better written than Trail of Lightning, but it had absolutely no plot for such a long time that I kept asking myself why I was even reading it. It’s the equivalent of a married couple discussing who’s going to do the dishes tonight… except in space. For a few hundred pages! Although once the plot does start (very late in the novel), the book becomes really, really good, by then I was too fed up already with the hours I’ve spent reading about nothing (in space).

So this is it, my Best Novel ballot. I may yet switch the bottom two novels around, depending on how my feelings change in the next month or so. I may also change my mind about my slots 2 through 4, but for now, I’m okay with the way I ranked these books.

I’m sure everyone has their own way of deciding how to rank a certain book. As I’m not a professional critic, all I have to go on is my own enjoyment of any given book. And – as was the case here – if I enjoyed many of the books, I try and find other criteria such as originality, writing style, potential for rereading, etc. For example, I’ll probably never reread The Calculating Stars because although it was a very good book, it was not exactly a fun book, but I may give Spinning Silver another go and I will most definitely reread Space Opera someday. It’s a total comfort read.

How about you guys? Are you voting for the Hugos this year? Do you agree/disagree with my list? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments! 🙂

Brain-breaking… in a good way: Yoon Ha Lee – Ninefox Gambit

I’m going to tell you what everybody says and that’s the reason I stuck with this book at all. Stick with it! The first few chapters are confusing as hell and you may break your brain trying to understand what the hell is going on. But if you push through, it will all make sense and the book will teach you how to read it as you go along. Seriously! Stick with it!

NINEFOX GAMBIT
by Yoon Ha Lee

Published by: Solaris Books, 2016
Ebook: 384 pages
Series: The Machineries of Empire #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: At Kel Academy, an instructor had explained to Cheris’s class that the threshold winnower was a weapon of last resort, and not just for its notorious connotations.

To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao–because she might be his next victim.

I must admit to you guys that I did a thing. I had read about half of this book when Hugo nominations were about to close and… well, I nominated it. Without having finished the book! But as much as I felt I was doing something wrong (although, who was gonna stop me?), I can now happily report that I don’t regret it a bit. This book’s second half turned out to be, if possible, even more amazing than its beginning.

As mentioned above, don’t let the first two or three chapters put you off. It’s fine if nothing makes sense, it’s okay not to get what the hell that whole formation thing is about and what people mean when they say calendrical rot. These things are vital parts of the world building, but you don’t have to understand them right away. Just think of it as magic and go along until everything becomes clearer.

What carried me through the rather steep learning curve of this incredibly original story was the relationship between the protagonist, Kel Cheris, and the personality of prisoner/mass-murderer/potential psychopath Shuos Jedao that is implanted in her brain. Cheris is an object of her own education and while none of the things that baffle us as readers are new to her, it’s still intriguing to discover this world through her eyes. Plus, her conversations with Jedao help a little in making sense of the world, as he has been in prison torture hibernation for centuries and doesn’t know everything about the state of affairs.

So Cheris is in charge of a quest to win back the Fortress of Scattered Needles which has fallen to rebels. The calendrical rot that has gripped the Fortress threatens to take it out of control of the Hexarchate. I could tell you so many little details about the world, but learning them by yourself, bit by bit, putting puzzle pieces together in your head and getting that aha moment, is such a big part of why this novel is fun. Don’t get me wrong, it’s violent and tragic and mysterious, but the reading experience as such can only be described as utter fun. Cheris and Jedao make an excellent team, even though Cheris can never be sure if Jedao is manipulating her for his own purposes – whatever those might be. And this constant dance on the sword egde, in addition to the potential conspiracies going on outside of Cheris’ head, make this book very hard to put down.

Of the many things that are fascinating, Jedao was probably my number one reason to keep turning the pages. I love characters whose motives and secret plans are never quite clear, who could be either good or evil or a bit of both. Paired with Cheris, who is – to put it in very simple terms – really good at maths, who tries to do the right thing, but who is guided by her programming as much as the next Kel, a dynamic is created that is stunning to watch. Cheris knows she can’t trust Jedao, but what if he gives great advice? What if that advice only appears to serve Cheris’ plans while actually furthering his?

It took me quite a while to read this book, although it is relatively short. But this isn’t something you can read on a train during your morning commute. This story demands your full attention, and not just because the world feels so utterly crazy, so far into the future that the functionality of weapons is dependent on a calendrical system. So I recommend you savor it, you give every chapter the attention it requires, and you read it as a mystery on many levels. Between figuring out how this world works, how society works, and what Jedao’s motives are, there is still the main plot to follow, which is military science fiction at its finest.

I am beyond happy that this book is a Hugo Award finalist, although it makes my choice on how to vote that much harder. Whether it wins or not, I am looking forward to the sequel (which will come out in June) and to anything else Yoon Ha Lee writes. And thank you to the interwebs for telling me over and over to stick with the book despite those first chapters. Without these assurances, I wouldn’t have discovered this book which is quite unlike anything I’ve read before.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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