I have in the past labelled some science fiction stories as ‘hard’, without fully explaining what that means. To quote Wikipedia; “Hard Science Fiction is a category of science fiction categorised by an emphasis on scientific accuracy.” Originally terms like ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ differentiated between the ‘soft’ sciences (i.e, social sciences) and ‘hard’ sciences (natural sciences), however the distinction has since become more about the relationship between the science and the rest of the story.
Science Fiction stories can be thought of as existing on a spectrum between soft and hard. For example, Star Wars explains none of its technology, and the Force is almost a fantasy element. The story in Star Wars is a very space opera one, that could conceivably be retold as an adventure or western with a bit of creativity. Meanwhile, Star Trek often has episodes that revolve around technology or bizarre alien biology. Hence Star Trek is ‘harder’, science fiction-wise, than Star Wars. However, a lot of the technology in Star Trek isn’t fully explained, and whilst there is usually an internal consistency, Star Trek technology and worldbuilding isn’t always scientifically accurate. Thus, Star Trek is still on the ‘soft’ side of the spectrum.
At the very end of the ‘Hard’ end of the spectrum, you’ll find Hal Clement. Clement and some other hard SF authors of the time saw their stories as a game. The objective of the author was to create a crazy world and crazy situations whilst adhering to the known laws of reality. The objective for the reader was to find mistakes. This approach leads to some amazing worldbuilding, but it also results in less emphasis on story and characters, and whilst I have enjoyed everything I have read by Clement, his work is dated, and not just because of 1950s morality (though, this story does contain a Human going to a planet and meeting pre-industrial age aliens and we know how that is usually played in this era. I think Cycle of Fire treats the subject better than most other books of the time, but it is a very 1950s worldview at work here.) The prose itself isn’t something that modern writers would do. The narrative switches between the thoughts of both main characters without any type of break (though I feel this works, given the narrative voice) and towards the end of the book we get pages and pages of exposition about the planet’s history and the biology of the aliens on it.
Keep in mind though, that Hal Clement is a master worldbuilder. Reading pages about Humans researching an alien planet and reporting their findings is fun if you enjoy natural history and the research is being done on a crazy Hal Clement world with two suns, or 250x Earth’s gravity. Also, Cycle of Fire is short. I’ve read a lot of hard SF that occasionally gets bogged down in the technical details and I end up skimming, but such books are usually huge doorstoppers. Meanwhile, Cycle of Fire is under 200 pages, so the info dumps are out of necessity kept short and are better integrated into the story.
If you can keep in mind the time period in which Clement wrote, and the aim of his stories, then it quickly becomes apparent why he is considered a Grand Master of science fiction. In his most famous story, Mission of Gravity, we are taken on a romp on a planet with 250x Earth’s gravity and a day length of about nine minutes. Cycle of Fire isn’t as well known, but the worldbuilding is still amazing and almost as crazy.
We find ourselves on planet Abyorman, following Dar, a native pilot who has crashed his glider and must traverse a barren volcanic landscape to get his precious cargo – his books – to the Ice Ramparts. Along the way, he meets another castaway; space cadet Nils Kruger. Kruger was part of an exploration team, but was left behind after an accident which led the team to conclude he had died. The two must travel on foot across a planet in a binary star system, and use a combination of Dar’s supreme intellect and knowledge of the planet and Kruger’s willingness to experiment and experience with higher technology to overcome a range of challenges.
The characterisation of Dar and Kruger is somewhat lacking, but it was enough that I came to believe they had a close bond and found their last conversation touching. Of course, the draw of this book isn’t the characters. It is the world. Abyorman is the only planet in a binary system, and it goes through intense seasons that kill Dar’s people en masse every 60 odd years. The true nature of the world and its people is obscured for most of the book, until Dar and Kruger’s journey comes to an end, and then they help some researches find out everything they can about the world. We get many chapters about the geological and evolutionary history of Abyorman, and it is fascinating stuff. I also loved how all this new knowledge impacted Dar. His whole view of his world and his place in it was upturned by the humans and he took it in stride.
An interesting thing about this book is that Dar’s people are shown to be more intelligent than Humans, even though they’re level of technology is so much lower. Kinda progressive for the time, but the way the Humans respond to meeting supposedly superior aliens says a lot about the time period this was written in. But writing about colonialism and racism in old SF could make a post of its own.
It’s also interesting reading Cycle of Fire because it comes before Star Trek made the Prime Directive such a huge part of alien stories. Dar joins the human researches and they encourage him to learn as much as he can from them. In fact, the aliens ask the humans to stop sharing so much science, since they are concerned with how that will impact their way of life. The humans view the alien that made that request as “an opinionated, narrow-minded, dictatorial old fuddy-duddy.” Interestingly though, arguments are made that support the Prime Directive attitude.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I would recommend it in a heartbeat to anyone who loves classic SF, and anyone who likes hard SF. Even if these two things aren’t your jam, I’d still encourage anyone who loves science fiction to read a Hal Clement book at some point for the historical value. Just keep in mind the time it was written in and the way Clement approached his writing. Also, it’s nice to know that you can write hard SF without destroying an entire forest. Whether I’d recommend Cycle of Fire as the Hal Clement book to read though is a difficult question. The only other books I have read are the Mesklin ones (Mission of Gravity and Starlight). Cycle of Fire is a lot more accessible than that series, and I liked the characters better. However, Mission of Gravity has much better worldbuilding (remember that part about a nine minute day and 250x Earth’s gravity?), which is really what you’re looking for in a Hal Clement book.
No real reason to review these two stories together to be honest. I’ve just been falling behind with my reviews, as my followers may have noticed. I enjoyed both novels, but don’t feel like they were anything super special.
I did listen to both these books on Audible, making them my first non-Ada Palmer audiobooks. I must say I am liking this format a lot more than I thought I would. I’ve heard mixed things about audiobooks, but since I spend a lot of time driving alone, being able to listen to a book in my car works for me. Frost is also going to hold a special place in my heart because I started listening to it with my partner in the car. He isn’t a reader, so although I talk to him about the books I read a lot, I’ve never been able to have a conversation with him about a book where he has followed along with the story and come to his own conclusions about it. He hasn’t finished Frost yet, but it was great listening to it together and then coming up with our own theories about it.
Let’s start talking about the actual books though. The Bear and the Nightingale is a novel-length Russian folktale. It is certainly fantasy, with talismans and magic and demons aplenty, but it is also grounded in reality. This story features a lot of information about 14th Century Russian life and politics, and when the fantastical elements weren’t present it almost read like historical fiction.
The more realistic vibe has an impact on the fantasy parts of the story too. A lot of common fairy tale tropes are played with. For example, the Heroine’s mother died giving birth to her, and early on in the book her father remarries. Her step-mother is an ‘evil’ step-mother, but she is not entirely unsympathetic, and her relationship with the heroine deteriorates over time, rather than starts out entirely antagonistic.
This book had great worldbuilding and lovable characters, and a nice coming-of-age story, but I find myself not excited about the sequel at all. Which is okay, since this book feels complete to me. It had a satisfying ending where all loose ends were tired up. The sequel feels like a bonus, but I am just not interested in continuing in this world at the moment. So, I guess I’m going to part amicably from this series. I guess the magic system didn’t appeal to me, though I did like the descriptions of all the spirits of the house and forest. I can’t really put my finger on why I didn’t love this book. It could just be that I’m not that into fantasy.
All in all The Bear and the Nightingale is a good book, and really well written. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves fantasy and folk tales.
Now we get to Frost, and I can tell you exactly what this book did right, and what it got really wrong. First of all, the narration by Cyrina Fiallo was excellent. She used a lot of filters to get all the robot voices sounding perfect. For this alone, I would recommend the audiobook. The story itself was also interesting. It’s about a young girl called Frost who has spent her whole life in an apartment in a post-apocalyptic city. Her only companions are her pet Roams, a giant pink monster, and her robot Bunt, who has the consciousness of her dead father somewhere inside him. When Roams gets sick, Frost insists on taking him through the city, which is full of all sorts of dangers, hoping to get him to a safe place that may have medicine for him.
So we have this innocent young woman travelling through this terrible city, witnessing all these horrible things as she tries to save her beloved pet. As she meets many different robots and Humans in robot bodies, there are discussions about what makes someone a human, or how to obtain personhood. There were some elements that reminded me of games that had discussed this topic, such as Nier Automata and Soma. There are also zombies in this world, but they’re not really your standard zombies. They are called eaters, and it is made clear that they are still thinking, feeling people, they just have an uncontrollable hunger that they cannot resist. They also can’t communicate, because usually they eat their own tongues soon after becoming infected. I really liked the eaters, as they act like zombies, but their personhood poses a moral dilemma to the protagonists.
The writing style was a mixed bag for me. Kowlowsky uses very descriptive language, which paints a real vivid picture of the world. But some of this descriptive style finds its way into character dialog, which created some really long and unrealistic monologues. Characters were also a mixed bag. I liked Bunt, and I liked the main villain. I liked Frost a lot at first, but she did seem a bit Mary Sue at times. Some of the minor villains also seemed unrealistically bad. These problems probably wouldn’t have been that big a deal, but I also really didn’t like the end. Or rather, I didn’t like where the story ended.
During Frost’s journey, she crosses the Good John Lord, a tyrant who requires something from her and her father. The plot to defeat this villain and save the city got really interesting and exciting. It also came to a satisfactory conclusion an hour before the book finished. Everything that happened after that seemed long, drawn out, and rather pointless. Which is a shame, because this book has a good twist that was very well built up, but the reveal happens for no reason and doesn’t pay off. There were two other moments in the last hour of the book that were supposed to be really dramatic and touching, but they just felt pointless and contrived.
There is a sequel in the works for this book, and again, I’m not too sure I want to continue the series. I am really interested in some of the unanswered questions at the end of Frost, but I feel really let down by the ending.
Both of these books I found entertaining, but I didn’t love them. Both were good, enjoyable books, and I’m glad I listened to them.
I’ve been trying to avoid doing reviews of sequel to books I’ve already reviewed, since that usually sees me repeating myself a lot. I gave The Obelisk Gate a brief mention when I finished that, but now that I have completed the series with The Stone Sky, I feel compelled to sing its praises.
The Fifth Season was the book that got me interested in fantasy again. The world of the Stillness was unique, vividly imagined, and cruelly unfair. This is more than mere worldbuilding though, as this massive land and its 40,000 year history play a vital role in everything that happens in this story. The Stillness experiences apocalyptic events so regularly that they are called ‘seasons’, and every aspect of this society is influenced by the need for communities to be able to survive these cataclysms. The magic system of this world consists mostly of a power called orogeny, which affects the earth. Given that most of the seasons are caused by tectonic upheavals of some sort, people with the ability to use orogeny are vital to preventing seasons. Since Orogenes are so necessary, they cannot be allowed a choice in how their powers are used. They must be broken down and made to serve. Those who are not under government control must hide who they really are, because the population at large hates them.
The main characters, the orogene Essun and her daughter Nassun, are shaped almost completely by this world and its prejudices and need to exploit others. The plot at its core is their attempts to fix this broken world, or at least to find a place where they can be happy. This story would not have been as powerful as it was, nor would the characters have been as engaging as they were, if the worldbuilding had been anything less than perfect, and in The Stone Sky the nature and history of this magical Earth really shines through.
Let’s speak more about the prejudice orogenes (and now the Niess) experience in this series. This book has a message to deliver. A message that is sorely needed in today’s world. The Shattered Earth series shows the many ways that prejudice, bias, and oppression operate. This is a series where we see loving parents turn on their children, a whole group of people treated as sub-human, marginalised children turning to desperate measures to protect themselves, a society that has everything they could ever want, but still feels the need to enslave and exploit others for more, and much much more. This is a brutal book, but it is not brutality and tragedy just for cheap shocks. The horrors we see in this series feel real, because they are things that happen way too easily in our world.
Reading about Essun, Nassun, Hoa, and everyone else working through the dangers of this world made for an amazing story. I loved all the characters in these books, and the reason why was because I was deeply invested in their struggles. To change the world, or just give up and end all the suffering. This is a series that packs a strong emotional punch.
It is also very well written. I mentioned in my review of The Fifth Season that Essun’s parts of that book were written in second person, and that in general there is a very strong narrative voice. The Stone Sky has three viewpoint characters, having three different adventures. One story is told in second person, one in third person, and another in first person. It sounds like a mess, but it works so well. Part of the reason is because the way this story is told reflects the characters and their relationships. In The Obelisk Gate, we find out why the narrative voice is so prominent, and in The Stone Sky, we realise why parts of the book are in second person. It is genius the way this book was written. Pure genius.
It’s hard to think of things I didn’t like about this book. I suppose at times the way the magic system worked could have been clearer. I also forgot who Hjarka was when I started reading The Stone Sky. I can find a few nitpicks if I look hard enough, but all in all, this entire series is amazing. The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate both earned their Hugo Awards, and I’m already tipping The Stone Sky for next year. If you haven’t read this series yet, please go out and get it.
Engel credits the inspiration of this book to George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. As the title suggests, it’s a story more inspired by 1984 than Brave New World. 2084 could almost be considered a modern, YA re-imagining of 1984.
2084 follows Vincent, a high school student who lives in an isolated community called a Seclusion. The ever-constant TVs of 1984 are no-where to be found in the Seclusion. Instead, everyone wears devices called lenses, which are contact lenses with the capabilities of a smartphone. Amongst all the mundane functions of the lenses, there are two big things they can do. The first is run simulations; VR programs that provide education and entertainment. In other words, brainwash the population, and then use pleasurable simulations to keep the people happy and unable to speak or think clearly, like the drug Soma in Brave New World.
Most importantly though, the lenses also record everything their wearer sees. For security reasons. This world has a terrorist problem you see. Vincent cherishes the few minutes a day when he can remove his lenses, but not long after the book starts, everyone gets new lenses that can’t be taken out. After that discovery, Vincent becomes a target for Newsight; the company that makes the lenses and which is lobbying for less restrictions on what it can do with the data the lenses provide.
2084 differs from 1984 in that in the latter, Big Brother’s dystopia is well established and so powerful that nothing can be done to stop it. In this story though, the permanent lenses are only just getting handed out and Newsight still needs to lobby the Senate. We have the appearance of hope, which makes Vincent’s escape and resistance more exciting. It also makes the setbacks he experiences more shocking.
Whilst there are a lot of intentional similarities between the two stories, there are some important aspects of the 1984 world that Engel doesn’t re-explore. There is no equivalent of Newspeak, which was disappointing considering how language played such an important role in limiting people’s ability to resist in 1984. The closest Engel gets is including a few slogans. Manipulation of the truth also isn’t one of Newsight’s concerns, and yet it was what terrified me the most about Orwell’s world, and what scares me the most about our current post-truth politics. Here though, Newsight hasn’t got the ability to change its mind about who the nation is at war with right in the middle of a rally and have the entire population roll with it. Or at least, I saw nothing in the story to suggest they could do that.
Of course, these are areas where I think Orwell has said all that needs to be said in a way that no-one else will be able to top, so shifting the focus to the constant attempts to use the threat of terrorism to undermine our privacy, and the ever growing power of large corporations isn’t a bad thing. The shift in focus helps 2084 feel like something new and distinct from 1984, but the more I think about it the more I miss Orwell’s most pervasive themes.
A lot of the best parts of this book are still those that resemble Orwell’s book the most. Whether you see this as a faithful homage or a blatant rip-off is a subjective issue, though I tend towards the former.
As to the quality of the writing, we get a mixed bag. There are some scenes written so well that they really drive the horror home. Most notable is when Vincent tries to take his new lenses out and realises that they are stuck to his eyeballs. On the other hand, this book really needed another run through with a red pen. There are some poorly worded sentences, and a number of grammatical and spelling errors. For example, using the word ‘gate’ instead of ‘gait’ in one instance. These errors aren’t everywhere in the book, but they were common enough to make me lower my rating.
2084 is not without its flaws, but it is still an impressive debut novel. Today more than ever, we need to remember what Orwell warned us about in 1984, and here we are once again reminded of just how easily we could find ourselves completely controlled.
Well, that was an adventure. The livestream for the Hugo Awards didn’t work, which was frustrating, but the text-based live coverage saved the day. The team running that were excellent. At one point a guy in the audience started livestreaming the event on Bilibili. The stream wasn’t very consistent for me, so, there was more frustration, but I wasn’t giving up that easily. Between the two sources I got a decent look at the ceremony. A lot happened, but I am super tired, so I’m just going to go ahead with the results:
Best Fancast: Tea and Jeopardy
Best Fan Writer: Abigail Nussbaum (No win for Chuck Tingle this year)
Best Fan Artist: Elizabeth Leggett
Best Fanzine: Lady Business
Best Semiprozine: Uncanny
Best Professional Artist: Julie Dillon
Best Editor (Short Form): Ellen Datlow
Best Editor (Long Form): Liz Gorinsky
Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form): The Expanse: Leviathan Wakes
Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form): Arrival
Best Graphic Story: Monstress Vol. 1: Awakening – Marjorie Liu & Sana Takada
Best Related Work: Words are My Matter: Writings about Life and Books, 2000-2016 – Ursula K. Le Guin
Best Short Story: Seasons of Glass and Iron – Amal El-Mohtar (My top pick!)
Best Novelette: The Tomato Thief – Ursula Vernon (Another top pick of mine won. Ursula Vernon made a cool speech about dead whales, but the video lagged right at the punchline.)
Best Novella: Every Heart a Dorrway – Seanan McGuire (Not my top pick, but we all knew this would be the result. Every Heart a Doorway is a worthy winner.)
Best Series: The Vorkosigan Saga – Lois McMaster Bujold (Presented by George R.R. Martin. I really have to start reading this series now.)
Best Novel: The Obelisk Gate – N.K Jemisin (Wow, I was not expecting that. Was really hoping for Ninefox Gambit. But I can’t fault the voters; every nominee deserved to win, and The Broken Earth Trilogy is absolutely amazing. I can’t wait to read the final book next week. I think this is the second time a sequel has won the Hugo in the year immediately following the first book, with Speaker for the Dead being the first. I’ll fact check that tomorrow… too tired right now.)
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Author: Ada Palmer
There was also an award handed out at the start of the ceremony to the Hugo Awards from the Guiness Book of Records. Turns out the Hugos are now the longest running SF award in history.
There were a lot of amazing nominees, and all the winners deserved their rockets. I’ll have to go and rewatch some of the speeches when the recording comes out, since I missed most of them. For now though, it’s passed 5am, I’m wondering if it was worth staying up so late. If your interested in seeing how the votes went down, the Hugo Report can be found here.
This is a book that has been sitting on my bookcase for years. It is also the first novel by Rusch that I have ever read, though I have read many of her shorter works and enjoyed them. Alien Influences is a ‘fix-up’, a novel constructed from a number of short stories. I haven’t read the original stories and am not sure how much of this book is original or reused. I’m only going to judge this story as a whole.
Alien Influences is the story about Humans on a colony world called Bountiful, which produces a valuable drug and is home to an alien race called the Dancers. The Dancers have a number of differences to Humans, such as an apparent inability to recall the past. Their heart, lungs, and hands also work like our teeth; the baby forms fall out to make way for more permanent replacements. The Dancers speed up this process with a ritual that removes a child’s heart, lungs, and hands, allowing them to grow up. When a few Human children turn up dead and mutilated in the same way, this understandably causes some tensions between the colonists and the Dancers. There are also questions on how the colonist’s children are influenced by spending time with these aliens.
Given that this is a fix-up novel, the book suffers from some pacing issues and an uneven plot. We start with what seems like a murder mystery/ethical dilemma, with questions about how to ethically deal with aliens who see killing and mutilating children as a good thing, and cannot be taught that Humans don’t work that why because they learn through instinct and repetition rather than knowledge of the past. This story comes to a satisfying end (for a short story) but then the book goes on to other stuff. First we get the trials of the Humans involved in the whole affair. We also see the Human government being extremely corrupt and terrible, and get hints that there will be a legal drama that seeks to undo it… but that never really materialises. Then we have a time skip, and find out what happened to the children that were influenced by the Dancers at the start. One of these children has become a bounty hunter, and ends up having to go back to Bountiful and confront his past.
I really enjoyed the first part, even though the true nature of the murders was quite obvious. Though to be fair, part of the reason it was obvious was because of the blurb. I also liked the end part, where John is a bounty hunter going after first a creature called a Bodeangenie and then some very special Dancer jars. There were also cool bits in the middle, but overall it got pretty slow there. And we never really get to see anything get done about the big government cover-up. A lot of the problems facing the characters in the second part of the book seemed to just disappeared on their own during the time skip.
Another problem I had was that I went in expecting a science fiction book, but it’s more of a fantasy in a sci-fi setting. This threw me for a while, because I was trying to figure out how the magic worked rather than just accepting it as magic. I’ve read a lot of books lately that blur the line between science fiction and fantasy and enjoyed them, but this didn’t go over so well for me. Until right near the end it just feels like a SF story with fantasy elements being patched on.
Alien Influences has some interesting ideas, and a lot of really emotional scenes. I really felt for a lot of the characters, and enjoyed this story despite the issues with the fix-up nature of the plot.
Just a reminder that The Hugo Award Ceremony Will be held in just a few days time, and Worldcon has released details about the coverage of the award ceremony which can be read here. The winners will be announced on Friday the 11th August, and the ceremony will start at 19:30 local time. Which is 02:30 on Saturday where I am (near Sydney).
After the ceremony, the results should be easy enough to find online. I’ll try to do a wrap-up post myself, though since I’ll be staying up until at least 3am to watch the ceremony, I might be too tired and lazy to do it the following day.
Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee & Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer
Score: 10/10 for Both
After talking about this year’s Hugo nominees, I was excited to dive into not one, but two sequels to those books. First I read Raven Stratagem, the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, and then I immediately followed up it up with Seven Surrenders (Sequel to Too Like the Lightning) on Audible. All I can say is WOW, both books are amazing, and reading them so close together made July probably my best month for reading. Both are 10/10 books for me.
I suppose I should be giving these books both separate reviews, but since I have already reviewed the previous books in both series I feel doing full reviews would see me repeating myself a lot. I’ve also been a bit busy on my own writing, so I’ve had less time to do reviews.
I’ll start with Raven Stratagem. Last year I gave Ninefox Gambit a perfect score, but warned that it was a book that didn’t explain much of the world and would require the reader to pay a lot of attention. The first thing I noticed about Raven Stratagem was that there was a fair bit of exposition at the start to explain the world. This worried me at first, even though it is standard practice for sequels to have that bit of catch up exposition for people who haven’t read the first one. I feared that some of the wonder of the world would be lost if Yoon Ha Lee started explaining everything as we went. I soon found my fears were unfounded. Once the obligatory second-book exposition was done it was all action, and I found I really liked having everything I’d learned from the first book confirmed and re-explained.
In Raven Stratagem, the crazy undead general Shuos Jedao, who is possessing the body of Captain Kel Cheris, captures a fleet, and we see how the Hexarchate scrambles to respond to this new threat. We have epic space battles, a range of interesting characters, and no idea just how things are going to go down until the end.
Whilst the first book dealt with one battle and really showed how war is hell and the toll fighting a war takes on individual soldiers. In Raven Stratagem we zoom out, and instead see how even without actively participating in a war, life in an oppressive regime can be hell. The Hexarchate has a faction called the Vidona, who are responsible for the public, ritualistic torturing of heretics. (For extra horror, the Vidona are also this civilisation’s schoolteachers.) At one point, the Hexarchate tries to get Jedao/Cheris to give up by committing genocide against Cheris’s ethnic group. After this declaration, we get a few snippets from the point of view of these innocent genocide victims who have played no role in the story, just to show that once again the decisions those in power make have a real impact on other people.
There is one issue that Raven Stratagem has that I can already see has divided people. In Ninefox Gambit, we saw the world mostly through Cheris’s eyes. Her relationship with Jedao was one of the highlights of Gambit, and after the end of that book, I was really eager to get back in their head and see how that huge ending had altered them, and how much of each one of them was left. However, Stratagem doesn’t give us this until near the end. This is understandable, since if we were in their head and knew what Jedao was planning, a lot of the suspense would be gone, but it is a dynamic that is sorely missed.
The upside though is that we get other viewpoint characters who give us a much wider view of the world. And damn the worldbuilding continues to be amazing. The culture of the Hexarchate has a very East Asian feel to it, going off the naming conventions, food, artworks, card games etc. In Ninefox Gambit we spent most of the story at the Fortress of Scattered Needles, so we were limited in how much of this galaxy we saw.
Raven Stratagem was a perfect continuation of the series. At first, I thought it might be the end of the series, but I’ve been assured that this is a trilogy, and I will be looking out for any word on book 3.
Now we get to Seven Surrenders. I enjoyed Too Like the Lightning; it was a unique story completely unlike anything I’ve read before. However, there were parts of Too Like the Lightning that I felt dragged on a bit, and there was a lot about the world and the characters left unexplained. I feel that Seven Surrenders fixes these issues, and delivers an impossible to put down ride. There is no catch-up exposition at the start; In universe, Seven Surrenders is Vol.2 of Mycroft Canner’s history, and therefore it is expected that you’ve read Vol.1. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend reading Raven Stratagem without reading Ninefox Gambit, I think doing so would be possible, though very confusing. Not so with Seven Surrenders; if you try to start here, you’ll have no idea what’s happening. Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders between them cover just seven days of plot and feature dozens of important characters.
Given that this book is an immediate continuation of Too Like the Lightning, most of the things I loved about it I’ve already talked about. The worldbuilding is great; we get shown those futuristic flying cars we’ve wanted for decades but we also see how they change the world. The big focus of the series is the politics of this new world, and as the story progresses and we see the conspiracies the rulers of this utopia have become involved in, we can’t help getting drawn into the plot. In Seven Surrenders, all these conspiracies begin unravelling at once and it is glorious to see.
We also get a better look at some off the characters. Our narrator Mycroft provides more information about why he did the horrible things he did, and we also discover the true nature of the enigmatic J.E.D.D Mason, which is quite a ‘Whoa, WTF’ moment. It’s really a testament to Ada Palmer’s skill that she can have so many memorable characters in one story. (Hell, she gets so many memorable characters in just one room, and it still works.)
This series discusses a lot of different ideas about religion, gender, and war. We see a peaceful world that hasn’t known war for 300 years, but throughout the series there is a dread that war might return to the world, and with the new technology and lack of experience, it’ll be the worst war ever known. This makes a lot of sense, and really made me think about the problems that come with maintaining peace for so long. I wasn’t so interested in the discussions on gender. This future society tries to avoid gendering people, and one of the characters tries to use society’s lack of experience with gender roles as a weapon. I’m not really buying that idea, and I also think it’s weird that all the ‘feminine’ social activities fall under the jurisdiction of just one of the Hives. But the discussion was done in an interesting way, and I didn’t feel like I was being preached at about the author’s views; this was just the way gender worked in this universe.
In short, Seven Surrenders was amazing. It wrapped up the stories quite well, whilst also setting the stage for the next pair of books, which will depict how this war will be thought.
2016 saw some amazing books, and already 2017 is proving to be just as good. I cannot recommend these two series enough; they just keep getting better.
And now that I’ve done that, I really need to read some of the older books that have been sitting on my shelf for a few years. Give them some love. At least until The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin comes out.
Voting for the 2017 Hugo Awards is now closed. I have reviewed all the short fiction and talked about all the novels at some point on this blog, but I think it’s time to have a talk about all six nominees in the same place. And we’re going to look at these novels in what I consider a perfectly logical way. By seeing what the six nominees would be like, it they were Pokémon.
I think I’ve made it clear by now that I love Pokémon. Not only do the Pokémon games provide an enjoyable RPG experience , but the ability to battle other humans leads to a rich, complicated strategy game.
For those unfamiliar with how Pokémon work, let me give a quick description. Battles are between two Pokémon Trainers, who both have a team of six Pokémon, and the teams fight a turn-based battle with one Pokémon from each team in play at a time. Each of the six Pokémon has hitpoints (HP), which when depleted will cause the Pokémon to faint from exhaustion and be unable to fight. Each Pokémon can learn up to four ‘attacks’ that they can use to wear down their opponent’s HP.
I put the word attacks in quotation marks because not all techniques are simple attacks. Some of these techniques allow a Pokémon to heal itself, or make itself more powerful, or cripple the opponent by putting them to sleep or poisoning them. Even the weather and terrain can be altered. And even if you did just want to go all out attacking, you would still need to take into account types. There are 18 elemental types in this game. Each attack is assigned one of these types, and each Pokémon can have up to two types. These types have a rock-paper-scissors-like relationship of strengths and weaknesses against each other. For example, if you attacked a fire type Pokémon with a water type attack, it would do a lot more damage than a grass type attack of equal power.
There are 802 Pokémon. Those 802 different creatures represent not just a huge variety in type combinations, but also in stat variation. Some species have more hit points than others, some are more powerful and so do more damage. Then we go back to those techniques; there are 719 of them in total.
A Pokémon team is composed of 6 Pokémon. 6 out of 802. And each of those 6 can only learn 4 moves between them. As you can imagine, this makes choosing your team hard. You have to choose six Pokémon that’ll be able to stand up to any team imaginable. Building a Pokémon team involves thinking long and hard about how your Pokémon will complement each other. Building a team that works well together takes a lot of planning.
Or, you can make a theme team. Don’t worry about synergy. Just choose Pokémon that resemble six house motifs from Game of Thrones. Or six Pokémon that look like cats. It’s fun coming up with such teams, and since they’re likely to not be a balanced team, battling with them can provide an extra challenge.
Since there are six novels nominated for this year’s Hugo Award, I decided to make a 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel team. Or, just Team Hugo 2017 for short. So, let’s talk about the nominees, and what Pokémon each book would be.
All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders;
Choosing one Pokémon to represent All the Birds in the Sky was hard. The biggest challenge was that this story combines both fantasy and science fiction storylines together. It’s a story with witches and AIs and two-second time machines and talking birds. With two very different genres interacting with each other, how could I choose one Pokémon to represent both? I could have chosen Mismagius, to represent a witch, or Metagross, as a supercomputer, but choosing one of them would be ignoring half the book and half its world.
For a while, my pick for this book was Dodrio, a three-headed bird. This was to represent the Parliament of Birds that we meet early in the book, and also a reference to the title. But then I thought about it more, and decided that the tree the birds meet in is probably a better representation of the story as a whole. The two main characters both ponder a tree related riddle throughout the story, and that tree itself is more special than even the birds realise. I’m afraid I may be edging towards spoiler territory here, but I’ll just say that the tree is where the fantasy and science fiction elements of this story both come together. Can’t explain how, you’ll have to read the book to find that out.
There are many tree Pokémon I could have chosen. I decided on Trevenant because it shares a few features with the Parliamentary Tree. Trevenant is known to be very protective of the creatures that nest in it, likewise, the parliament tree hosts birds of all types. Trevenant’s pre-evolution Phantump is said to have been created by the spirits of lost children possessing tree-stumps. This morbid origin shows a union of the natural world with the human world. Likewise in All the Birds in the Sky, we see a union between the natural (magical) and human (technological) worlds, that involves the parliament tree.
A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers;
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. A Closed and Common Orbit; a space opera that explores an AI’s attempt to live in organic society and a slave girl’s efforts to repair a spaceship and escape her planet, represented by a washing machine?
I swear, I’m not crazy.
I had trouble picking one Pokémon for this book because there were two stories here. There is Sidra’s story, about a ship’s AI reluctantly possessing a fake Human body and passing in a galactic society that forbids giving AIs such bodies. Then there is Pepper/Jane’s story, about a young girl genetically engineered to slave away in a junkyard, who escapes and then gets raised by a spaceship’s AI. Jane and the AI spend years repairing the ship, so that they can finally leave the planet and be free.
I was thinking about using Porygon-Z for this one, since it is a digitally created Pokémon intended for space travel. However, it felt like I was leaving out Pepper’s story, and using the ‘Virtual Pokémon’ seemed to be hinting at a more cyberpunk story. Although, in hindsight, Porygon-Z’s glitchy nature could work well with the fact that Sidra and Pepper both go against what they were ‘programmed’ to do. Hmm… the more I think of it, the more I question my decision. But oh well, the Dubious Discs needed to get a Porygon-Z are hard to come by, and my team did need a water type.
So, why Rotom? Well, Rotom isn’t really a washing machine. Rotom is a small electric/ghost Pokémon that possesses the motors of appliances and controls them. You could say Rotom is a ghost in the machine. Rotom isn’t the appliance it inhabits, like how Sidra isn’t the Human bodykit she inhabits. Sidra’s disconnect with her artificial body is the driving force for a lot of what she does. Meanwhile, Rotom is an expert at manipulating machines, Just like Pepper. Pepper not only makes a living repairing machines, but it was this expertise that allowed her to repair the spaceship and escape from the junkyard. A junkyard that was probably full of discarded fridges, mowers, fans, ovens and washing machines.
Yes my logic may be a bit farfetched here, but I still think Rotom is a good addition to the team.
Also, Rotom is motor backwards. How did I never see that before?
Death’s End – Cixin Liu;
Death’s End was a really hard one. There are so many mind-blowing concepts that this book explores. Mutually Assured Destruction, the effect of sub-light interstellar travel on humans, alien invasion, suspended animation, changing spacial dimensions and the results of fiddling around with universal constants, the terror at knowing how insignificant we are and how hostile the universe is. So many concepts, but not a lot of Pokémon to fit the bill.
I considered Absol, the Pokémon that foresees disasters, since a big part of this book is about Humanity knowing a disaster is inevitable. I also thought of Stunfisk, since it is flat and two-dimensional space plays a big role in this book.
In the end though, I decided an Ultra Beast would be the best fit. Ultra Beasts aren’t quite Pokémon. They arrived in the Pokémon world through a wormhole, and because they are so alien, pokéballs don’t work on them. They are also quite aggressive at first, since they have been caught in a wormhole and taken from their homes. This aggressive alien invasion parallel, the transition between different dimensions, and the idea that being cut off from your home planet can change a person for the worst represents Death’s End quite well I think.
But which Ultra Beast? Kartana obviously. Why obviously? Well, it’s origami. It is a tiny, flat piece of paper with the potential for great destruction. Which probably makes sense to people who have read the book, but if I explain the connection anymore I’m going to spoil the ending.
Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee;
This should be an obvious one. Ninefox Gambit gets a ninefox. There’s no huge leaps of logic or overthought symbolism here. Just, ninefox. Simple.
In Ninefox Gambit, we are introduced to the Hexarchate; a controlling, vast interstellar civilisation, controlled by six government factions. Each of the factions is given an animal motif, and the ninefox is the sign of the Shuos, the faction responsible for spying and assassinations. One of the main characters, Shuos Jedao, is a general from this faction. Since most generals in the Hexarchate come from the Kel – the factions that controls the military – him being a ninefox is important. More important though, is that he is probably crazy, and once destroyed his whole army. That has given him the title of the ‘immolation fox’, which is why I chose the fire type original Ninetails, rather than the ice/fairy type Alolan variant.
I suppose if I thought about it more, I could have come up with something that represents Jedao’s status as an undead consciousness, or the fact that him and Cheris share a body. I probably wouldn’t have been able to find a Pokémon that represents the horrors of war this book portrays since the game is intended for kids. In the end though, there’s no reason to make such an abstract connection when both Nintendo and Yoon Ha Lee included Kitsune/Kumiho in their worlds.
The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin;
I suppose it’s weird that I didn’t choose a ground type, since the magic system in this world is tied to the Earth and earthquakes. It would have been really nice to get a Pokémon that could use the attack Earthquake. I was considering Lunatone for this role, as it gets Earthquake and the moon is important in this series. Froslas would also be appropriate, since orogene magic works by drawing energy from the orogene’s environment, causing the air around them to go ice cold. Part of the reason they are feared so much is because they can freeze someone solid by using their powers. Froslas would make a good proxy of Essun, the protagonist of the series. Essun is a powerful orogene, who has gone through several upheavels in her life at the hands of anti-orogene authorities and a general population that hates orogenes.
But in the end, I went for Carbink because I wanted to represent the titular obelisk gate. The gate is made of hundreds of large obelisks that float above the world, each one being made of a precious stone. Carbink is a precious stone that floats. Given how important the obelisk gate, and individual parts of it, are for Essun and her daughter Nassun, I thought it would be appropriate to choose a Pokémon that can represent it. Ores are also significant because the Fulcrum, an organisation that trains and exploits orogenes, names it’s orogenes after different ores. The Fulcrum may not control Essun anymore, but in this book we see the devastating ways it still affects both her and her daughter.
Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer;
There were a lot of options for this political story. The flying cars play a big role, connecting the entire world together, so Magnazone could represent this book. Or Durant, since the main power blocks on the planet are no longer nations, but groups called Hives. 18th Century Paris and the gender roles and costumes from this period are also important, so Mega Gallade or Mega Gardevoir would also fit if they were obtainable.
But the most important thing in the world, according to the characters of this book, is thirteen-year-old Bridger and his miraculous ability to bring toys to life. This book touches on a lot of interesting topics; a post-nationalist future, a lot of theological discussions, whether we can ever achieve peace. Bridger and his power added a layer of magic to this story that made me get into it despite some slow points at the start.
Banette is an old discarded toy that has come to life. Bridger finds his toys amongst the rubbish. None of his creations seem to be fuelled by a grudge at being thrown out, but other than that, I think Banette would fit right in with Bridger’s other creations.
If you have Pokemon Sun and Moon, you can see this team in action over the Vs. Recorder (accessible over the computer in Festival Plaza) by entering the code R95G-WWWW-WWW7-TE4Y. If you would like to battle Team Hugo 2017, feel free to contact me and ask for a battle. My friend code is 1547-5851-7576.
All six nominees this year were amazing. Last year, The Fifth Season was my top pick, and I wasn’t surprised to see it win. This year, I honestly don’t know which book will come out on top. 2016 was a great year for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the six books that got nominated for the Hugo are all very special.
The winners will be announced at the Hugo Award Ceremony at Worldcon75 on the 11th August. So far I haven’t been able to find the time the ceremony will take place, but I assume it will be confirmed closer to the date. Last year I watched the ceremony live at ustream (Link), though I noticed Worldcon75 also has an official Youtube channel too. I’ll share more details about how to watch the awards closer to the date.
I’ve now finished reading all the written fiction nominated for the 2017 Hugos. And I did it all before the voting deadline this time. Yay! This year was full of really strong stories, and the novellas were some of the best I think. Most I have read, or have been intending to read for a while, so I’m really glad to have finally read and reviewed them all.
Penric and the Shaman– Lois McMaster Bujold
Penric and the Shaman is the sequel to Penric’s Demon. I read this last year and loved it, but since then I’ve read the sequel, Penric’s Mission, and every time I try to think of Penric and the Shaman, I end up thinking about Penric’s Mission instead. Shaman explores a different type of magic to the chaos demon magic we were introduced to in Penric’s Demon. Shaman magic is based on nature and animals, and there is some mistrust between Shamans and Sorcerers.
This story not only explores the magic and theology of a really well developed fantasy world, but is also a murder mystery with no actual antagonist. I found out that this story references a lot of things from Bujold’s novel The Hallowed Hunt, which I am now eager to read.
It’s hard to say how well this story stands on its own. It’s a sequel, but it doesn’t follow straight on from Penric’s Demon. Compared to Penric’s Demon and Penric’s Mission, I don’t think it’s as good, but it is still a fun read. I’m just going to say that the entire series is amazing, with a fascinating magic system and compelling characters.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe – Kij Johnson
This is a retelling of H.P Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Johnson wrote this story as a way to revisit something she loved in childhood but contained things she found problematic. I have to say, mission successful. This Dream-Quest has everything great about the original, but the writing feels modern, and not racist or sexist at all. Johnson’s Dream-Quest is an adventure story in a strange, fantasy world full of strange creatures, fantastic areas, and insane gods. The protagonist is the titular Vellitt Boe, a teacher at Ulthar’s Women’s Collage. I really enjoyed reading an adventure story about an older woman; Vellitt isn’t the type of heroine I would expect to find in a story like this, but she was such a fun character.
As well as great characters, this story has an amazing world. Of course, the credit for the Dreamlands has to go to Lovecraft, but Johnson has done an excellent job of bringing this world to life once again. Her descriptions of all the locations Vellitt visits are wonderfully evocative. Lovecraft’s worlds and mythos are wonderful, but Kij Johnson is a much better writer, adding more depth to the Dreamworlds and crafting an amazing plot. With dialog! Lovecraft was never that good at writing dialog. If you are interested in Lovecraftian stories but don’t like the man’s views or some of the themes he put in his stories, then I cannot recommend this re-telling enough.
The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle
Another Lovecraft retelling from Tor.com. I am loving all these modern takes on Lovecraft. Like Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, The Ballad of Black Tom explores the horrors of racism through Lovecraftian themes. This is a re-imagining of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, which I haven’t read yet. I was intending to read The Horror at Red Hook before I read Black Tom, but at the end of the day, I didn’t want to delay reading a really good story in order to slug away at what is considered to be one of Lovecraft’s most poorly written works. Especially since it supposedly relies on the reader being xenophobic in order to be frightening. Maybe I’ll go back and read it if I get all these novellas read before voting closes. Whilst I don’t have any desire to read The Horror at Red Hook, I loved The Ballad of Black Tom enough to be interested in that extra context.
This is the story of Tommy Tester, and Detective Malone. But mostly of Tommy Tester, aka Black Tom. Tom hustles to make a living, and ends up crossing the path of a man who wants to wake the Sleeping King, bringing about the end of the world as we know it. You’d think Tom would want to get the hell away from that level of evil, but being black in the 1920s means Tom actually does get to face great evils from other places too. It’s quite scary seeing just what can happen when you push someone too far.
Then the second half of the novella focuses on Detective Malone, and more on the gory, traditional Lovecraft horror. Some of the things Malone encounters are quite horrific, and the descriptions of these horrors would make Lovecraft proud.
This is another must read for anyone interested in Lovecraft’s mythos but unwilling to read the originals. Actually no, this is a must read for any horror fan out there.
Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire
This novella has received so much hype. I’ve been wanting to read it for ages, but the price in the kindle store was more than I was willing to pay for a novella. I’m glad I didn’t go out and buy this story straight away; this story is amazing, but I feel it falls short of the hype.
Every Heart a Doorway is about what happens to children that travel to magical worlds after the adventure ends and they return home. These children come home to parents that are worried sick about them, and who don’t believe that they have been on magical adventures. The kids have changed during their time in their magical world, and have come to view the other world as home. The story features a secluded boarding school where these wayward children get sent to so they can ‘recover from their delusions’. However, the headmistress has actually been to her own magical world, and helps her students in ways the parents wouldn’t approve of.
It’s a wonderful story, with really engaging characters, diverse magical worlds, and a great fantasy vibe even as the plot began to get really dark. The writing is top notch, and it features transgender and asexual characters. But when you hear a story being praised for a year, and see that story win tons of awards, the bar gets set extremely high, and Every Heart a Doorway fell short of my expectations.
The big problem for me was with the pacing; the plot rushes forward before we’re really finished getting introduced to all the characters and the setting. This causes problems with the character’s reactions to the action. For example, the main character – Nancy – discovers the mutilated body of another student. A few minutes later, she is asking one of the other students about the world they went to. I don’t think these are problems with the plot itself or the characterisation. I just feel that there wasn’t enough space for both the character’s backstories and the plot to be fully explored, and by cramming both together everything was thrown off. Every Heart a Doorway needed to be longer.
That being said, I can’t wait to read the next novella in the series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones. I feel that since it focuses on what I thought was the best part of Every Heart a Doorway (going to a magical world) I’ll probably like it even better.
This Census-Taker – China Miéville
I’m not really sure what to make of this one. It’s been on my to-read list for a while, but I just had a lot of trouble getting into it. It was confusing at first, but slowly the world building and the story started falling in place. It had a lot of details I really liked, and I also liked the writing style.
This story is about a little boy who lives on an isolated hill with no-one else around except his parents. One day, he witnesses his father kill his mother, but none of the townspeople downhill believe him, so he is forced to continue living on the hill alone with his father. It’s creepy, but I’m not sure I’d consider this horror.
I really liked the characters. Only two of them actually get names, but I never noticed until after I was done. As for the worldbuilding, I would have liked a bit more, but what we got gave us a nice, subtle look at a world falling apart, with hints of past wars. I suppose more information would have ruined the effect, but I feel that there was a bit too much left unexplained.
That being said, I still had trouble with this story. It ended abruptly, and whilst the writing and characters and worldbuilding were all really good, I had trouble getting into it. I think it was that slow start; by the time I had the story figured out and was getting interested, it was starting to draw to a close.
A Taste of Honey – Kai Ashante Wilson
Every other novella on this list I had heard about before reading. A Taste of Honey was the only one that I hadn’t heard of before, and I had no idea what to expect going in.
And damn, this story blew me away. Which is weird, because it is mostly a romance in a high fantasy setting; not the sort of thing I usually go for. It’s the story of Aqib, master of the menagerie in the kingdom of Olorum. One night while walking the prince’s cheetah, he meets Lucrio, a visiting Centurion from the Empire of Daluça. The two hit it off and begin a whirlwind romance. There are some problems though; firstly, Olorum is a very homophobic place, so Aqib and Lucrio must keep their relationship a secret. Secondly, Lucrio and the other Daluçans are returning home in a few days, meaning Aqib must choose between young love and his family obligations.
The story is written in an interesting style, which jumps between different times in Aqib’s life. Aqib is a wonderful, multi-dimensional character who I really came to care about, and this style and the pacing helps bring Aqib’s world and challenges to life. His relationship with Lucrio, as well as all the members of his family, all felt real. Though I would have liked to see more of his father and brother after Aqib made his decision. And I suppose the idea of such a strong romantic relationship forming in such a short time is a bit silly, but the way Wilson writes make it feel real.
The worldbuilding was good. Daluça is Fantasy Rome, and I feel Olorum might be an expy of North Africa, or the Moors, but it felt like a fantasy world. A fantasy world that runs on Clarke’s Law; everything the ‘gods’ say is extreme technobabble that makes no sense to Aqib or the reader, but it made the magic and the religion of the world seem real and unique.
I loved the ending of this story. I feel that deserves special mention, because it is the type of ending that could have been handled badly. That ending had the potential to feel like a rip off and cheapen the story, but in Wilson’s hands it felt perfect. I was so happy reading it. It was the perfect ending to an absolutely amazing story. Definitely want to read The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps now, which I believe is set in the same universe.
Okay, that’s my Hugo reading done for the year. I may have a look at the Best New Writer nominees since I have the time, but on the other hand I feel I need to go read something else for a while. Oh well, we’ll just have to see what happens next. Until next time, happy reading everyone.