I was thinking earlier this year that maybe I should cover other awards, after all, the Hugos aren’t everything. But doing both the regular and retro Hugos this year has shown me why that is not a good idea; there is so much to review, and so many other things to read. Thankfully all the novels and novellas I’ve read so far have been a lot of fun. I’m not sure if I’ll end up reviewing the novelettes and short stories, at least not for a while. But I’m all caught up on the 2018 novellas, and after a little break to read Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun and feeding my new addiction to Saga comics, I’ll find the Retro Hugo nominees and read the hell out of them. For now, let’s meet the 2018 Hugo Nominees for Best Novella.
The Black Tides of Heaven – JY Yang
The Black Tides of Heaven is the first entry in the Tensorate series, and it has got me well and truly invested in this world. The Tensorate is a richly detailed silkpunk world with heavy East Asian influences and a clever magic system called Slackcraft (Seems to be a thread analogy: magical energy is slack until a ‘tensor’ comes and pulls at it.)
I’ve always had an appreciation for fantasy worlds that include technology, as it has seemed strange that magic should always come at the expense of scientific advancement. Here we have a society where magic is a basis of power, and a ‘Machinist’ rebellion is building, which seeks to use technology to empower people who are not proficient in magic. Exploring the social and political implications of guns and other technology being introduced to a magical, fantasy setting is a real treat, and not something I come across too often. The scene with the Sunballs I found particularly haunting.
But this isn’t the point of the story, and I would be remiss to paint Black Tides of Heaven as a story about technology or rebellion. It is the story of two twins, Akeha and Mokoya, as they grow up under the toxic influence of their mother, the tyrannical Protector. They were born as barging chips, threatened with separation at the whim of their mother, and eventually find different paths in life.
The story takes place over many decades, which leads to big time skips that given the novella length make some events feel rushed or not fully described. Akeha joining the Machinists seemed to come out of no-where for example.
Another strength of the story is how Yang handles gender and sexuality. In the Tensorate, children are treated as genderless until they confirm their gender. This can happen at any age, and slackcraft is used to prevent any markers of adulthood from showing until confirmation happens. Mokoya and Akeha are identical twins, but both get confirmed as different genders. Akeha’s decision to be confirmed as a man is a surprise to his family and a source of tension between him and Mokoya. Akeha’s love interest is also a man, and you know what, I love how stories with LGBTI+ themes are becoming such a strong presence within the genre.
Black Tides of Heaven was released along with the next book in the series, The Red Threads of Fortune. The novellas are described as standalone introductions to the series, but I would start with Black Tides of Heaven, as Red Threads of Fortune takes place later chronologically and references events in Black Tides.
One last thing, have you seen the cover art from this series? Despite being novellas, I would not mind having physical copies of these books on my shelf.
All Systems Red – Martha Wells
This was a fun story about a security android (called a SecUnit) who is charged with protecting a group of scientists on a dangerous planet. The plot is simple, interesting, and works because the SecUnit protagonist, which calls itself Murderbot, is a fantastic character.
Murderbot is self-aware, and has hacked its own ‘governor module’, which means it no longer has to obey humans. Rather than go on a rampage, it downloads hours of TV shows and puts the bare minimum effort into its job so it can be by itself watching shows.
The scientists under Murderbot’s care see it as just another tool, until one day an explosion injures a member of the crew and Murderbot shows its face in order to keep the injured human calm. The crew come to realise that they have overlooked Murderbot’s personhood, which leads to some soul-searching amongst the group, and overtures of friendship towards Murderbot. Murderbot is so shy that this new attention causes it anxiety.
As an introvert myself, I related to Murderbot quite well. Not only is Murderbot introverted, but it is sarcastic and apathetic to a lot of what goes on around it. I’ve seen the first paragraph quoted a lot, and I’m going to repeat it because it sums up the character and story so well:
I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.
When I first heard of All Systems Red, I was expecting a ‘science team on remote planet deal with killer robot story.’ I was not expecting to laugh so much. I was not expecting to feel so much empathy for Murderbot. This was a fun, action-packed story. I’ve recently read the sequel, Artificial Condition, and I feel Murderbot’s journey is going to keep getting better.
And Then There Were (N-One) – Sarah Pinsker
Insurance investigator Sarah Pinsker is invited to a convention on a remote island by a version of herself from a different reality, who has discovered how to open portals to alternate timelines. Everyone attending the convention is an alternative version of Sarah Pinsker, and everyone is looking forward to seeing how different events could have changed their lives. The fun is cut short by a murder, so Sarah the insurance investigator must discover who killed a different iteration of herself.
I love this premise so much. Who hasn’t wondered what it would be like meeting different versions of yourself from alternate timelines? Everyone wants to know how different events might have played out differently and led us to become different people. This story goes about exploring these questions in a fun way, and even before the murder mystery came into play, I was interested in seeing how the convention was being put together.
The mystery was crazy. How can it not be when everyone involved is the same person? There were so many pieces to put together, and whilst it was a bit hard to follow everything, I feel the mystery – and the story – came to a satisfying end.
Binti: Home – Nnedi Okorafor
It’s hard for me to write about this one, because I’ve read the third novella in the series, The Night Masquerade, more recently than Home, and despite how much I enjoyed this series I’m not ready to re-read parts of it yet. I don’t think that a re-read would help either, since The Night Masquerade is a direct follow on to Home and having read it will always influence the way I see the previous entries in the series.
One thing that struck me about Home was how deeply it explored Binti’s cultural roots and the repercussions her decision to defy her people’s taboos have caused. In the first Novella, Binti left the lands of her people, the Himba, to go to a huge university in space. It was her dream come true, but the Himba are not supposed to leave their homes. Now that Binti has come home, she is confronted with the anxiety and shame she has caused her family by leaving. She must reconcile her culture, which has always been such a pillar of who she is, with other aspects of herself, like her desire to leave for university, as well as other changes she has faced along the way. Binti is of two different worlds now, and coming home forces her to discover just who she has become.
Binti also suffers from PTSD as a result of the actions in the last book. After feeling that things wrapped up a bit too nice and friendly in the last book, I was glad to see such a huge does of reality. What happened in Binti was horrific, and I’m glad that the impact those event had on Binti hasn’t been glossed over. Binti’s struggles to reclaim her life – even though she doesn’t know what her life should be like anymore – made her a very compelling character.
All in all, this wasn’t what I was expecting from the series. After the first book and all the trouble Binti went to get to Oozma University, I was looking forward to seeing more of the university and seeing Binti interacting with more aliens. However, Binti’s story has always been about her coming of age and finding a path that harmonises all the different facets of who she is. To fully explore this, and to fully heal from the trauma of the previous book, she needed to come home.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones – Seanan McGuire
The second instalment of McGuire’s Wayward Children series. The first novella, Every Heart a Doorway, was the winner of last year’s Hugo Award. Whilst I liked Every Heart a Doorway, I felt as if it didn’t live up to the hype. My main gripe with EHaD was that it was too short to explore both it’s own plot and adequately tell the stories of all the other characters and magical worlds. Down Among the Sticks and Bones tells the story of twins Jack and Jill in their world, before they returned to Earth and the events of Doorway happened. This more focused plot, with one fully realised world, two of the more interesting characters from EHaD, and McGuire’s amazing writing promised to be everything I was hoping for in Every Heart a Doorway, and as expected I found myself loving this book more than the original.
This story was well and truly a dark fairy tale, with an all-present narrator who leads us on a creepy journey through the moors with Jack and Jill. The characterisation and worldbuilding were amazing, I’d met the characters and heard about the world in the first book, but here is were they really shine. We learn everything about the twins: the story starts with their parents deciding to have children, and we follow them for years before they find their magical staircase. Jack and Jill’s parents (who would never call them Jack and Jill, it’s always Jacqueline and Jillian), each have their own idea of what they want their perfect child to be, and each molds one of the twins into their perfect daughter.
Jacqueline is her mother’s perfect princess; the pretty one, who would never be allowed to wear jeans. Meanwhile Jillian is the closest her Dad will get to that son he always wanted, and so she is expected to be the athletic, tough tomboy. Is this depiction highly exaggerated? Maybe, but there are a lot of parents who try to make their kids fit into certain roles, and the exaggeration fits in with the fairy tale story-telling. It’s also a good look at how many different ways there are to be a girl, and how important it is to let kids be kids and let them find their own roles.
Jack and Jill find themselves in the moors, a cruel world under a huge red moon, full of vampires and werewolves and drowned gods. There had been a few descriptions of the moors in EHaD, but I’d always thought of it as a small place until now. Down Amongst the Sticks and Bones paints a cruel, dark, and huge world.
The next novella in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, returns to Elanor West’s school, but the forth book seems to be another backstory. I’ll be quite happy if McGuire continues to alternate between the main story in the ‘real world’ and the children’s backstories.
River of Teeth – Sarah Gailey
There has been a lot of love for this book, and it feels like I was one of the few people not completely blown away with the premise. Alright, ‘western revenge-plot with killer hippos’ is a pretty cool premise, but it wasn’t an instant sell for me. It sounded fun, but not anything that would blow me away.
Now I’ve read River of Teeth and come to a conclusion: it’s a fun book, but it didn’t blow me away. There was a lot of cool worldbuilding, but the story didn’t pull me in. I didn’t think much of the plan, and a lot of things just seemed to happen to the characters, rather than from their own agency. One thing that I felt was rushed was the main romantic pairing. I liked seeing these two characters come together, but I feel they went from strangers to madly in love unrealistically fast.
Which brings us on to the characters. They were a fun, diverse cast of hippo riders. I feel their diversity both helps and hurts the story. It helps because it’s great seeing a varied cast in a western, and as we were meeting the characters I was really interested in them, but the way these characters fit into the 1890s America setting felt a bit off at times.
I’ll use Hero to explain what I mean. They’re a non-binary or intersex character. When they first meet the protagonist Houndstooth, they get right up in his face and say: “Ask. I know you’re wondering. If we’re going to work together, you may as well ask.” I loved this exchange; it shows that Hero cops shit for being non-binary in this time period, and Houndstooth’s reply sets their relationship up beautifully. However, for the rest of the book everyone gets Hero’s pronouns right, including a stranger who has never met them and only sees them unconscious. Using the singular ‘them’ is something people living in the 21st century who are aware of gender-diversity stumble over at times, seeing 19th century U.S. Marshals and mercenaries say it so naturally was odd. If the world had been more fantastical, rather than historically-based, I wouldn’t have any issues with the diverse cast, but aside from one easily resolved speed-bump where they need a white man to buy their supplies, they don’t come across the attitudes I was expecting them too. Which is a shame, because they had some interesting reactions to the small issues they came across.
Despite my issues, this book was still a lot of fun. I was struggling to put it down close to the end, and whilst I’m not in love with the series, I’m not against continuing. Seeing more of the world and the attitudes in it, spending more time with the characters, and seeing the actual result of their plan may address the issues I had and make me like River of Teeth more.