Reading the Hugos: Novelette

Just like the short story category, the nominees for Best Novelette are almost universally excellent. Again, there was only one story that didn’t resonate with me at all, but I enjoyed the other five. Some more than others, with two that clearly stood out to me.

The nominees for Best Novelette

  1. Brooke Bolander – The Only Harmless Great Thing
  2. Daryl Gregory – Nine Last Days on Planet Earth
  3. Zen Cho – If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again
  4. Tina Connolly – The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections
  5. Naomi Kritzer – The Thing About Ghost Stories
  6. Simone Heller – When We Were Starless

It was a close call to pick Brooke Bolander‘s story for my first place because my top three are all wonderful, ambitious pieces of fiction. What took The Only Harmless Great Thing over the top for me was its basis in reality. It’s the story of one of the Radium Girls, women hired to paint all sorts of equipment so it would glow in the dark. The paint they used – and the fact that they had to lick their brushes to keep them nice and sharp – caused severe physical damage (and I mean gruesome stuff!)  and a very early death. Bolander adds elephants as characters who come with their own mythology and gave the whole story a lovely fantasy vibe. As tough as it was to read, this was my favorite story of the bunch.

Daryl Gregory follows closely with his tale of alien seeds crashing to Earth, messing up the planet with new and unusual plant life. It’s both an intimate tale, following one character as they grow up, have children and grandchildren of their own, but also tells the broader story of the alien plants. I loved everything about this story, the narrative voice, the pacing, the plot, and most of all the characters.

I had read some of Zen Cho‘s fiction before, so I knew I was in for something good. Her story about an imugi trying to ascent to heaven to become a proper dragon, was at the same time tragic and funny. Waiting a thousand years for even a chance is already a sign of great patience. But when the protagonist imugi fails – and not once, but many times – even they have trouble keeping up hope. It takes trying out a different life for them to find the will to keep going, and this is that story.

Tina Connolly‘s story is what it says in the title. A banquet of temporal confections. A baker who can infuse his confections with memories serves a banquet of them to the evil Duke. While there are lovely descriptions in this story, both of food and the memories it evokes, I found this story to be too predictable and a little bit too safe to make one of my top spots. The story unfolds with each course, but you can see from very early on where it is going. So the ending, while technically satisfying, left me thinking: so that was it?

Another story that gives you exactly what you’d expect was Naomi Kritzer‘s novelette about ghost stories. The protagonist researches ghost stories and the people who tell and who believe them, all the while kind of living through her own ghost story. It’s without a doubt an accomplished story well told, but again it lacked that certain something. The protagonist hid her feelings a little too well for me, as a reader, to get involved enough in her story for the ending to resonate. I think I should have felt more than I did.

The only story I didn’t like at all was the one by Simone Heller. I’m still not sure what exactly it is about. A tribe of post-apocalypse (maybe post-Earth) creatures is trying to survive in a hostile environment. There are “ghosts”, there are weavers, none of which are described or introduced properly. Some of what’s going on I figured out by the end, but as I spent most of the story trying to puzzle out what’s going on, who the protagonist was in relation to the others, what they were even doing, and where the hell everything took place, I can’t really say I enjoyed this. Maybe that’s my own fault for not reading carefully enough, for missing some key explanation or hint, but I didn’t like this enough to give it a second try.

I hope to have finished all the nominees for Best Novel by next week and then follow that with the Lodestar finalists. The novellas will have to wait a bit longer because I’m just not in the mood for them right now and I’m trying to keep up with my reading challenges this year. You know how it is: So many books, so little time…

Zen Cho – Sorcerer to the Crown

Well, this was charming! The first time I read Zen Cho (The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo), my main gripe was that the story was too short, that the scenes didn’t have enough time to unfold, that danger was averted too quickly and too easily. Well, Zen Cho has now produced a novel that has none of those problems, but delivers a huge dose of charm and humor.

sorcerer to the crownSORCERER TO THE CROWN
by Zen Cho

Published by: Macmillan, 2015
Hardcover: 416 pages
Series: Sorcerer Royal #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The meeting of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was well under way, and the entrance hall was almost empty.

The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, one of the most respected organizations throughout all of England, has long been tasked with maintaining magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman—a freed slave who doesn’t even have a familiar—as their Sorcerer Royal, and allowing England’s once profuse stores of magic to slowly bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession…
At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers and eminently proficient magician, ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up. But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

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Zen Cho has her language down. Open up Sorcerer to the Crown and you will feel like you fell into a Jane Austen novel. Except there’s magic, and sorcerers, and social commentary. For the first few chapters, I was reminded very much of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell but this would be a much more lighthearted version, a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This lightheartedness is at the same time strength and weakness of the story.

Zacharias Wythe has just become Sorcerer Royal and with that role inherited a number of problems, only some of which can be traced back to people’s prejudice about his skin color. Less and less magic is in the air for magicians to use, ambitious gentlemen wish to gain Zacharias’ position for themselves, he has to hold a speech at a young ladies’ school for (or rather for the suppression of) magic, and he caught a small case of making a bargain with the Fair Folk – which is never a good idea unless you are the fairy.

Enter Prunella Gentleman. What a charming, delightful, practical creature she is! Zacharias may be the protagonist of this book but, honestly, Prunella steals the show on every page. And Zacharias is fine with that, I’m sure. Not only does Prunella actually want to explore her magical talent, despite society (and her school) preaching that women aren’t strong enough to support magical currents, to use magic, and thus must be trained to suppress it entirely. But Prunella just gets it. She understands the society she lives in and she understands her place in it. Naturally her number one goal is to find a wealthy husband – as any Jane Austen heroine will know, this is no laughing matter, for without one, a woman would be quite dependent on her parents or the kindness of strangeres. Prunella wants security, and only then does she have time to pursue her ambitions as a magician. It’s not only her attitude that makes her so wonderful, it’s also her honesty. Reading about Prunella was the best thing!

Zen Cho also does some interesting things with world-building in her alternate England. I loved that Fairyland is a place you can visit and that fairies aren’t cute, but dangerous (if not evil as such, they do like to trick humans). The idea of a sorcerer needing familiars to grant him status and power was interesting, although I believe not done well enough. The same goes for the use of magic. We learn that hedge witches (not respected magicians, of course, but mostly servant women in rich households) use magic to help them do their chores, but what the actual Unnatural Philosophers do is a mystery – which also might be a nod to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell again. There are ghosts, but it’s not clear when somebody turns into a ghost and what exactly the point is. This world is stuffed full of ideas and I can’t help but think that picking only a few of them and focusing a bit more on these would have been a better idea.

Similar things bothered me about the plot. It starts as one thing, introduces Prunella, and instantly turns into another. But with so many side plots, it was difficult to know what the story is supposed to be about. I chose to read for Prunella. Her storyline was a true pleasure, but the rest of the plot suffered for it. Prunella is just too center stage (and that’s a good thing) for me to care much about anything else. Zacharias’ curse is mentioned several times but only becomes revealed at the end. It all meandered a bit and felt overloaded.

Speaking of the end. Predictable as certain aspects were, Zen Cho genuinely surprised me with how she got there. I had some ideas in my head of stuff that just HAD TO HAPPEN and it did happen. But what Prunella and Zacharias have to do to achieve this end was quite original. Damerell, a side character who stole my heart a little, does his part and grows into more than just comic relief. I quite adored the ending, especially considering what it means for the next novel in the series.

So despite the slightly too ambitious approach to the plot, I believe Zen Cho has created a world that is worth revisiting. And if there is more Prunella in the next book, you can definitely count me in. What an utterly, utterly charming character.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

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Books in the Queue – The Late Summer Edition

Lately, I’ve been switching between reading slump and reading burst and I have no idea what’s going on. For weeks I can’t bring myself to read more than 10 pages, and then suddenly I devour 3 books in as many days. But whether it’s hormonal or related to the weather, I am currently in that motivated, must-read-all-the-books phase. And because we’re already well into the second half of the year, I am tackling some reading challenges and review copies during the rest of the summer.

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Ellen Kushner – Thomas the Rhymer

(Ages ago) I read Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, and then forgot almost everything about it. I remember liking the book while I read it but can’t for the life of me tell you the plot or the character names – which could be either because my memory sucks or because the book really was forgettable. So I was hesitant about Thomas the Rhymer – a few pages in, however, I am positively ecstatic. This will be a good one, I just know it!

thomas the rhymerAward-winning author and radio personality Ellen Kushner’s inspired retelling of an ancient legend weaves myth and magic into a vivid contemporary novel about the mysteries of the human heart. Brimming with ballads, riddles, and magical transformations, here is the timeless tale of a charismatic bard whose talents earn him a two-edged otherworldly gift.
A minstrel lives by his words, his tunes, and sometimes by his lies. But when the bold and gifted young Thomas the Rhymer awakens the desire of the powerful Queen of Elfland, he finds that words are not enough to keep him from his fate. As the Queen sweeps him far from the people he has known and loved into her realm of magic, opulence—and captivity—he learns at last what it is to be truly human. When he returns to his home with the Queen’s parting gift, his great task will be to seek out the girl he loved and wronged, and offer her at last the tongue that cannot lie.

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Stephen King – Wolves of the Calla (The Dark Tower #5)

Oh man, The Dark Tower has been with me since I was in my teens. I kind of like spreading out this epic series over many years. But the boyfriend (who finished the entire series in a few weeks after I gave him The Gunslinger) keeps pestering me. He wants me to finish it so we can discuss All The Spoilers. Somehow, I got in the mood again to return to my favorite ka-tet.

wolves of the callaRoland Deschain and his ka-tet are bearing south-east through the forests of Mid-World on their quest for the Dark Tower. Their path takes them to the outskirts of Calla Bryn Sturgis. But beyond the tranquil farm town, the ground rises to the hulking darkness of Thunderclap, the source of a terrible affliction that is stealing the town’s soul. The wolves of Thunderclap and their unspeakable depredation are coming. To resist them is to risk all, but these are odds the gunslingers are used to. Their guns, however, will not be enough…

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Sarah Monette – Mélusine

My one big hope for this year’s Hugos is that The Goblin Emperor takes home the award for best novel. I loved that book so, so much! As I’ve owned a paperback copy of  Mélusine for over a decade, I thought it was time to finally read more by Katherine Addison/Sarah Monette. This sounds dark and tragic and absolutely wonderful (despite the cover).

melusineMélusine — a city of secrets and lies, pleasure and pain, magic and corruption — and destinies lost and found.
Felix Harrowgate is a dashing, highly respected wizard. But his aristocratic peers don’t know his dark past — how his abusive former master enslaved him, body and soul, and trained him to pass as a nobleman. Within the walls of the Mirador — Melusine’s citadel of power and wizardry — Felix believed he was safe. He was wrong. Now, the horrors of his previous life have found him and threaten to destroy all he has since become.
Mildmay the Fox is used to being hunted. Raised as a kept-thief and trained as an assassin, he escaped his Keeper long ago and lives on his own as a cat burglar. But now he has been caught by a mysterious foreign wizard using a powerful calling charm. And yet the wizard was looking not for Mildmay — but for Felix Harrowgate.” Thrown together by fate, the broken wizard Felix and the wanted killer Mildmay journey far from Melusine through lands thick with strange magics and terrible demons of darkness. But it is the shocking secret from their pasts, linking them inexorably together, that will either save them, or destroy them.

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Zen Cho – Sorcerer to the Crown (Sorcerer Royal #1)

Aaaaaah, I got a review copy of this and I’m so excited! Zen Cho’s novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo wasn’t a great hit with me, but mostly because it was too short. I loved the language and just wanted more time to get to know the characters. Now Cho has written a novel which promises all those things. Plus magic.

sorcerer to the crownIn this sparkling debut, magic and mayhem clash with the British elite…
The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, one of the most respected organizations throughout all of England, has long been tasked with maintaining magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman—a freed slave who doesn’t even have a familiar—as their Sorcerer Royal, and allowing England’s once profuse stores of magic to slowly bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession…
At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers and eminently proficient magician, ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up. But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

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Fran Wilde – Updraft

Another review copy! I actually really dislike the cover but I’ve been hearing so many great things from early readers that I couldn’t resist. The story sounds ambitious and intriguing. Having never read anything by Fran Wilde, I’m curious how this will turn out.

updraftIn a city of living bone rising high above the clouds, where danger hides in the wind and the ground is lost to legend, a young woman must expose a dangerous secret to save everyone she loves.
Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.
Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.
As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever—if it isn’t destroyed outright.

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Now I’m only hoping that my current reading mood persists and I can catch up on everything I missed in July. Seriously, I only read two books in July. TWO! But August looks to be a quiet month at work so I’m hoping I will find enough time to read all these beauties up there.

Zen Cho – The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this little book but the cover and premise both intrigued diversiverse3me enough to go buy it, no waiting on the wishlist required. And since it’s #Diversiverse time, this was the perfect moment to read the story – also, I’ve never read anything by a Malaysian author before and that needed to be remedied. Zen Cho’s story had some aspects that I loved and others that left me very disappointed.

perilous life of jade yeoTHE PERILOUS LIFE OF JADE YEO
by Zen Cho

Published by: self-published, 2012
Ebook: 81 pages
Standalaone novella
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: I had tea with the intolerable aunt today.

 

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For writer Jade Yeo, the Roaring Twenties are coming in with more of a purr – until she pillories London’s best-known author in a scathing review. Sebastian Hardie is tall, dark and handsome, and more intrigued than annoyed. But if Jade succumbs to temptation, she risks losing her hard-won freedom – and her best chance for love.

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Jade Yeo is a young Chinese woman, making her way in 1920s London by writing for a newspaper. She deals with her insufferable (and very rich) aunt and learns, for the first time, what it is like to fall in love and fall in lust.

Since it’s the first thing mentioned in the synposis, I need to adress the time and setting of this novella. The Roaring Twenties are somewhat of a buzz word that makes me happily buy a book. Except there isn’t really much roaring or twenties in The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Sure, the time period becomes somewhat apparent in how women are viewed by society, how Jade’s insufferable aunt things Jade should behave, what is considered proper and what makes a scandal. But for everything else that’s there, this could as easily have been set in the 1950s.

The story is set in London and as a Chinese woman, Jade has to deal with some degree of cultural misunderstanding and prejudice. I don’t know if it’s because of her practical, witty character that we don’t see much of it or because the author didn’t want to turn this novella into a novel, but I expected Jade’s life to be much, much harder. A young, unmarried woman whose proper name people can’t pronounce, whose family values are completely different from what she sees on an everyday basis… there should have been more problems for Jade than just paying the rent.

Taking into consideration, however, that the novella is written as Jade’s diary, she may just not be telling us everything there is to know. And  I must say that I adored her voice. She is a practical, surprisingly modern woman with a sense of humor and a hunger for life. When famous author Sebastian Hardie makes advances on her, she just goes with it. Because hey, adventure! She knows she isn’t in love but having an affair is just so damn interesting. The problems I had with the time and the setting are probably due to the fact, that Hardie – as well as his wife – are equally practical modern people. The arrangement that married couple has would be frowned upon by a lot of people, even by today’s standards. For clever, adventurous Jade to fall into the hands of such a freedom-loving couple is unlikely and lessens any drama there could have been given other circumstances.

But the writing and characterisation are spot on. Jade has something of a Jane Austen in her, with her clever observations, her quick comebacks, her overall view on humanity. She’s charming and funny and at the same time vulnerable and real. And she has fun with words which makes me love her infintely more.

A nice Indian servant gave me a drink (I wish I could have spoken to him). I skulked in a corner clutching it and trying as hard as I could to look inscrutable and aloof, but feeling scrutable and loof as anything.

This is a novella that basically reads itself. It happily goes along, without much risk for the protagonist or much impact. Jade may think she’s in trouble but that same trouble is resolved within a matter of a few pages. Zen Cho hints at some heavy subjects but because everything turns out well for our heroine, and everything is so easy, they are somewhat lessened. Come to a different country all aloneperilous life of jade yeo, having (and enjoying) sex as an unmarried woman,  and unwanted pregnancy are just a few things that feel like they were drizzled over the story to give it some depth. Except they don’t feel like issues because EVERYTHING FALLS INTO PLACE SO DAMN EASILY. As soon as a problem arises, somebody goes “Oh that? Don’t worry, here’s a neat little solution.”

At the very end, when Jade realises that she has fallen in love (rather predictably, one might add), that’s the only time where cultural differences really present obstacles. Of course Jade is determined to overcome them and make their love work somehow, but at least we get a glimpse of the difficulties they will face on the way to marital bliss. And even that discussion is over within minutes. But at the very least, there isn’t an immediate, pretty solution. They talk about the issues at hand and promise to find a way to make things work. But we, the readers, know it’s not going to be simple and it’s going to alienate people. Traditional, conservative families whose child wants to marry someone from a completely different culture, will be up in arms. They know this, we know this, and there’s no easy way out.

There were so many things I loved about this story, the protagonist’s voice the foremost among them. I can’t really say anything bad about it except that everything was too easy and happened too fast. A novel-length version of this story with some stakes for the characters would be perfect. If the solutions to Jade’s problems weren’t as quick to arrive, for example, that would have already made this more interesting. If her future hangs in the balance for a mere (short) chapter, I won’t get overly excited. If, however, her uncertainty and at some points, her helplessness were to last longer, that would make it memorable. That would make her little troubles real problems. I commend her for wanting to do everything herself and not relying on the help of others but again, help does come and it pretty much gets her out of any situation without much fuss.

This was only a nice and very quick read that keeps your heartrate at a steady level. No sizzling romance, no danger for our heroine, but a lot of interesting people with surprising views on love, sex, and culture. It’s a peasurable read but not one that will stay with me for long, I suspect. Who would have thought I’d ever say it but here it is: I need a little more drama in my fiction. If I don’t feel with the characters I’m not likely to remember their stories for long.

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