Well, I didn’t get to read all the novellas before voting closed. I couldn’t read Slow Bullets and The Builders in time, partly because of my poor time management skills, and partly because J. K. Rowling distracted me with a new Harry Potter story. It was still great fun reading them all. All five are novellas that I think deserve praise and recognition, but they are also five novellas that I wouldn’t have gotten around to reading if I hadn’t set out to read and review Hugo nominees.
So let’s set aside the politics, and just enjoy some good stories.
Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
A fantasy story about a young man who accidentally gets possessed by a demon. It is set in the Chalion universe (aka World of the Five Gods), which I am unfamiliar with. Despite this, I never got confused by the world or what was going on. This novella stands on its own and makes me interested in reading more of Bujold’s work.
The relationship between Penric and his demon Desdemona was a joy to read, and I would be very interested in seeing them go on more adventures. Demons in this setting are not necessarily evil, and being possessed of one gives one magical powers. At first Desdemona can only communicate with Penric by talking out loud with his own mouth. That combined with the fact that Desdemona has only ever possessed women before leads to a few funny moments.
This novella had an amazing, deep world, an interesting magic system, good characterisation and an action-packed climax. All in all, a total hit.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
A very original story with a unique perspective. Binti is a teenage Himba girl. Himba referring to an indigenous Namibian people. I’m not going to give a detailed analysis here of who the Himba are, since Google is a thing, but they have a couple of traditions that play a big role in Binti’s story. Firstly, since they live in a desert with very little water, they cover their bodies and hair with otjize; a paste made of ochre and butterfat. Secondly, the Himba rarely leave their ancestral lands. This causes some complications for Binti, as she is excepted into the most prestigious university in the galaxy. And no, it is not within the Himba ancestral lands. It isn’t even on Earth.
So Binti has to make a journey away from her home and family, to be surrounded by people who do not share her customs. I found the start of this story, where Binti is travelling amongst strangers for the first time, to be really interesting. Once this introduction phase is done we get caught up in a conflict between humanity and their alien enemies. This part of the story was fun too, but there are a few things that I felt let it down. The science wasn’t really articulated that well, making a lot of what happened feel a bit more fantasy-esque that it should. I also feel that the resolution was a bit too neat for everyone involved, considering just how Binti got caught up in this conflict.
Despite its flaws, this story will stay with me for a few reasons. The first is that Okarafor takes a group of people who we view as ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’, and shows them in the far future being adapt with technology yet still sticking to their customs. The second is that the idea of a planetary-wide university full of all sorts of people is just so appealing for me, and the third is that there are more stories about Binti on the way for me to look forward to.
Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson
I’ve always had a soft spot for stories that have fantasy and science fiction tropes mixed together, so as soon as I knew that the magical god-emperor had a nemesis that built robots, I was intrigued. This story is about Emperor Kairominas and his world. Kai has a magical power called lancing, which allows him to do everything but control the weather. He is the most powerful and important person in the world; but his world is not the only one out there.
It turns out that in this universe the majority of people are brains in jars, living in simulated worlds that revolve around them. Fantasy worlds, futuristic worlds, contemporary worlds, and communal worlds where they can all meet and interact.
The nature of this universe raises a lot of ethical and existential issues for Kai and the other people he interacts with. Do their life really have purpose? Are their accomplishments real? Are the simulated people in their worlds real? And if so what rights do they have? But fear not; as interesting as the philosophy discussion is in this story, that’s not all that’s there. We have world-building – not just Kai’s world, but this whole brain-in-a-box system feels very much lived in – we have character development, we have giant robots and fights, this is a fun, action packed ride. And the ending… well, obviously I’m not going to say much about that, except that it was pretty damn powerful.
Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
This story starts as a big war is coming to a close. There is a ceasefire, but that doesn’t mean that everything is suddenly peaceful. Scur, the main character, is left for dead after being captured by a savage war criminal on the other side. It’s like the set up for some sort of revenge fuelled rampage, except after Scur loses consciousness she wakes up in a hibernation berth on a derelict ship, along with hundreds of prisoners of war. Scur still wants revenge, but survival becomes the main concern of everyone. I’m not going to say much about the state of the galaxy outside their ship, because learning about that along with the characters was one of the best parts of the story. And really, it needs that slow reveal. Without the intrigue of learning more about the world and what has happened outside the prison ship, this story starts to feel a bit less original.
I liked the idea of the slow bullets. Tracking devices/information storage devices/bombs placed in the chests of every soldier. It’s really hard to talk about their importance without writing spoilers though; let’s just say that the characters have to make a huge decision about what happens to their bullets.
The Builders by Daniel Polansky
A novella with 53 chapters. That alone is pretty impressive. This is a western fantasy, and is a story where all the characters are small anthro animals, which gave the story a nostalgic feeling for me. However, these animals aren’t cute and don’t sing songs; they murder each other violently and get drunk. It’s a straightforward story of the revenge fuelled rampage I thought Slow Bullet’s might go for at first.
The Builders is also very well written. I liked the style, and the characters were all fun badarses who were introduced very well. I wish the worldbuilding was as good. This tale takes place in a kingdom called The Gardens, which boarders a Kingdom to the South, which implies a fantasy world. However, France and Mexico and Turkey are also places in this world, so maybe it is actually a furry version of our world. Hard to say. It’s also hard to imagine the scale of this world, which I suppose is unavoidable in this medium. We know that badgers are amongst the largest animals and almost touch ceilings in a lot of buildings, but there are all manner of smaller creatures. Most seem to be rodents, but there are also cats and foxes.
This is a fun, dark, action-packed tale. However, I’d say this was my least favourite of the five nominees. Mostly due to lack of world-building, and also the quest the characters go on feels a bit pointless at times.
Well, that’s all for the Hugo Nominees this year. As I said, no time to look over everything. I guess I’ll see you all again when the awards are handed out. Or maybe earlier; we’ll see.