Reading the Hugos: the short stories

An admission up front: I don’t read short fiction (unless it’s fanfic). I’ve just never found a short piece – even a novella – that I found overall satisfying. If the characters and world are interesting, I want to dig deeper, see more, explore further. If they aren’t, I’m not interested at all. So a strong argument could be made that I just don’t “get” short fiction. But I do get a vote, and all I have to make that vote with is my opinion, so here we go.

  • “On A Spiritual Plain” by Lou Antonelli – I felt like this didn’t really go anywhere or do anything. We’re given the setup, and then that’s what happens, without twist or surprise. Perhaps the point is meant to be the “spiritual” (ho ho?) journey of the narrator-protagonist, but I didn’t really feel like there was much of that either. There could have been. This could have been a confirmation of his faith, or a chance to really explore humanity’s complex and multi-varied relationship with souls, spirits, ghosts and ancestors. But the story didn’t do that. In addition, the style profoundly lacked grace or felicity. I don’t believe this deserves to be in contention for a Hugo.
  • “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright – Such an amazing yawn that I didn’t even finish it. The world’s a mash – the description of the city rings heavy classical-Roman bells, but later on a horse bitches about Napoleon eating him. Everything is, I assume, supposed to stand in stark allegorical silhouette, but for me that mostly just feels like generic. I’m not a fan of talking animals to start with, so endless paragraphs of them striking heroic poses and woffling with referential verbosity tried my patience beyond what this little black duck will endure from fiction. Obviously, I don’t think this deserves to be in contention.
  • “A Single Samurai” by Steven Diamond – While there’s a nice shape to the plot arc, there’s nothing in terms of character and emotion packing it into place. The little glimpses of personal history here and there are far more interesting than the – sometimes confusing – slogging through “wilderness” in pursuit of a definite but fuzzy goal (kill the kaiju… “somehow”). Things happen to fall out well for our nameless, unknown samurai, and I suppose that’s nice, but it’s not a story that’s going to stay with me.
  • “Totaled” by Kary English – A good story. I liked Maggie, and enjoyed following her inventive exploration and problem-solving, and if the ending made me want to watch Source Code all over again, it was a good similarity. It could have plucked that note of “how much can you ask of me?” a little more fulsomely, and the Algernon-esque decline could have been paced a little more elegantly, but overall, this was a story that delivered in a satisfying manner.
  • “Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa – A sentient spaceship learns to be a cowboy. The unavoidable comparison to the work of Ann Leckie isn’t favourable; this lacks subtlety and ambiguity, and the style is overblown and riddled with human-voiced niggles. Moreover, the inconsistency of numbers as words or numerals gave me the right irrits (not the author’s fault so much as the editor’s). If I’m supposed to be considering this for best short story of the year, I expect better.

Really, now, the only question remaining for me in this category is whether a story deserves to win a Hugo Award just because it doesn’t actively suck. Surely the bar should be a little higher? The competition a little more… well, present?

Reading the Hugos: Goblin Emperor

First up in my reading of the Hugo shortlist is Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. It’s been on my to-read list for ages, and as the only straight-up fantasy on the best novel shortlist, I thought I’d start with something I’m most likely to enjoy. Also, my library had it available.

And enjoy it I did. It’s a very charming, intimate and political story, full of intricate details of society, politics and etiquette and bound very closely around the journey undertaken by the main character. That character – Maia – was the neglected, exiled and disregarded fourth son of a strict monarch, until an airship disaster leaves him the only surviving son and therefore Emperor. From here, the book covers the first fraught months of his reign, as Maia attempts to take on a role he has never been prepared for amidst the machinations of the court.

A highlight, for me, was the social worldbuilding, and the delightful use of language it prompted. The careful use of levels of formality in interaction – and the dance of pronouns – was particularly delicious, and given an extra layer of poignancy through Maia’s previous extreme isolation; as he negotiates society, so he introduces it to us. However, politically, I was a little underwhelmed by proceedings. Things work a little too smoothly for Maia, and a combination of his good intentions shining through, and the fortuitously correct selection of trustworthy assistants, means things never get as twisty, backstabby or ambiguous as I really like in my political fantasy.

But all of that is trumped by Maia’s emotional journey and how strongly connected to him we become through the course of the novel. He is both sincerely earnest, and gently self-mocking, and the combination is so terribly endearing that despite my political druthers, I found myself consistently hoping that everything would turn out well for him, and being delighted when it did. And so the almost fairytale realisation of it all – that the good end well because their goodness prompts and draws goodness in others – somehow works to make the book overall very satisfying.

I gave this four stars on GoodReads (because I enjoyed it a great deal, but didn’t love it outrageously) and I think it’s an extremely well crafted novel with interesting, true things to say about being human.

Reading the Hugos

For the first time ever, I’ve bought myself the right to vote in the Hugos. There have been a variety of reasons why I haven’t previously. For most of my life, lack of money was chief, but also the fact that I generally don’t like sci-fi even slightly, and the Hugos are a very, very sci-fi set of awards. I also don’t much like short fiction – however excellent the story, I always get to the end of it dissatisfied that that’s all there is; I’m a sprawling-novels sort of girl.

But I have enjoyed looking at the Hugo shortlists in previous years to see what interesting things might have slipped under my radar that were making other fans excited, and it makes me sad this year that I cannot trust that the nominations were made in excitement. Also, given the broad, sweeping statements various Puppy-types have been making about what readers of speculative fiction do, don’t, should or shouldn’t want in their fiction (statements completely opposite to what I like in my speculative fiction) and given that I can afford a supporting membership at present, I figured it was time to stand up and be counted.

So here I am, an eligible Hugo voter. Now I have to figure out what to do with this vote.

I must say, it’s very tempting to just read everything not on a Puppy-plate, and draw a No-Award line under that. I don’t like what the slates have done, and I dislike the rhetoric many of the supporters have used loudly, often, and without censure – indeed often with explicit support – from the slatemakers.

But my point here is about what I – a reader and fan of speculative fiction – do and don’t want in my speculative fiction. So to make that point abundantly clear, I’m going to try and read the entire Hugo shortlist. I am going to read, and I am going to blog about it – not necessarily to influence anyone else but to make my thoughts, feelings and reasons explicit and transparent.

Some provisos:

  • I will not be spending money on this. My policy – for reasons of thrift, bookshelf space and self-respect – is that I only buy books that I know I enjoy (i.e. have already read) or that I have a significant belief that I will enjoy (i.e. from a known author, or just looks so damn amazing the dollars won’t stay in my pocket). None of the material on the shortlist fits that criteria (yet) so I will only be able to read material that is in the voting packet, available from my library, or that I can otherwise lay hands on (e.g. loans from friends). When there is a piece that I cannot get hold of in any way, I will make do with evaluating it from available material, and this will most likely mean it doesn’t make it onto my ballot. Them’s the breaks.
  • I will be reading the way I usually do. Those who follow my reading habits (on GoodReads) are probably aware that I am pretty demanding, and have little compunction about putting down a book that is annoying, boring or elsewise aggravating me. Hugo nominations get no greater leniency. If I wouldn’t read a book ordinarily, there are lots and lots of books that I did read and enjoy that I think are more worthy of the award than it is. When I blog about a story I put down, I will be discussing where and why.
  • The one rule of my regular reading habits that I will be bending is the one where I currently don’t even bother picking up a book unless it mentions a female character by name in the jacket copy. For this once, a Hugo nomination enables a bypass. But I have a reason for that rule, and books that don’t meet it are going to be starting with a handicap.
  • Relatedly: I’m a reader reading. I get to have my own opinion on the things I read. (You get to have your own opinion on the things you read.)
  • At the end of the day, I might find there are things on the Puppy-plates that I enjoyed. I will still be measuring whether those things are better than – or at least comparable to – everything I read last year that didn’t make it into the nominations before I consider where to place them on my ballot. Considering some of the amazing things that came out last year, this is going to be a tough one, but that is just what the slates have bought for these stories by raising questions as to the authenticity of their nomination.

Cereal and puppies in unpleasant company

Yesterday, care of Nathan over at Fantasy Review Barn, I fell into a puddle of stuff about the Sad Puppies Hugo campaign, and the associated mindset and community.

I found many things in this to be uncomfortable about, but I was trying to be even-minded in crafting my thoughts about it. After all, this crew has as much right as anyone to write, read and tell people about whatever things they find most delightful in the genre. Now personally – to borrow Brad Torgersen’s lengthy breakfast cereal analogy, from what appears to be a statement of intent about the Sad Puppies list – towards the end of the ’90s and into the ’00s, I was picking up book after book and going, “Ugh, not fucking Nutty Nuggets again. Don’t we have any variants on this recipe?” So to be honest, I am delighted with the wide range of strings fantasy fiction has been adding to its bow in the last fifteen years. More, more, more, I say (with gleeful disregard for the length of my to-read list). But I appreciate how Mr Torgersen might be sad about what he clearly perceives to be a lack of Nutty Nuggets. (I say perceives because, from where I’m sitting, there are still heaps of books of that ilk. I know because I’m picking them up in the bookstore – or getting them out from the library – not finding anything interesting about them, and putting them back.)

Continue reading Cereal and puppies in unpleasant company

Reading in 2014

As usual, Goodreads did its “Here’s what you read in 2014!” email and I went, “Not done yet!” and read another couple of books. But now 2014 is definitely, really, seriously done with (and an interesting year it was too – I’ll reflect on writing in 2014 in another post, I think) and here’s some things I really enjoyed reading this year:

Continuing series

  • Queen’s Thief series: book 3, King of Attolia – I love this series and its easy writing and serrated characters and storylines. Love it so much that I’m doling the books out to myself like rare and prized treats.
  • Dagger and the Coin: book 3, The Tyrant’s Law – What everyone who likes Game of Thrones should be reading, because it’s amazing fantasy, and actually businesslike about delivering the story.
  • The Raven Cycle: books 2 and 3, Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue – I don’t read these books, I wallow in them wreathed all over with outrageous delight.
  • The Craft Sequence: book 2, Two Serpents Rise – Max Gladstone is a genius and I love his brain and all the post-industrial magic-based philosophically bent fantasy it produces.
  • The Wave Trilogy: book 2, Warring States – This alterni-history fantasy series continues to be sharp and full of the unexpected and very rich in interesting ideas.

Firsts or lone books

  • The Girls at the Kingfisher Club – Genevieve Valentine retells the Twelve Dancing Princesses as flappers in jazz-age New York and I fall over in delight at the wonderful ladies and their sparse but beautifully depicted relationships. The needlepoint of this book sews itself into  your skin.
  • Vicious – Sociopaths and superheroes; all the ways in which being human is hard and being super human is too hard.
  • The Dreamhunter Duet – A lavish and mysterious fantasy of a turn-of-the-century alterni-colony, where dreams can be harvested, if you can ignore some dark secrets. A beautiful look at consumerism, privilege, the opiates of the masses.
  • London Falling – It’s the Bill with vicious hooks and magic. It is serious copper business. It is really quite great, if you’re up for a bit of grit.

The conflict of language

There’s some amazing discussion of language in fantasy (and especially the ubiquitous and lazy “common tongue”) going on at the moment. Kameron Hurley has written a fantastic piece on common realistic civilisation fails in fantasy worldbuilding, and followed up with more depth on language in particular, and Django Wexler’s writing about languages in fantasy over at Fantasy Faction.

There is just so much YES about all of these pieces that I feel like I have very little to conceptually add except emphatic nods and perhaps the offer of a beer. However, the pieces – especially Kameron Hurley’s second one, and her comments on the inherent tension in the multilingual state – really made me think of a couple of personal experiences that I wanted to throw into the gumbo on this.

1. Communicating, and trying to communicate. A few years ago, Mr Dee and I went to Russia. A friend was getting married, and it was the chance of a lifetime to see a place very different from what we were used to. And it was amazing, but it was also incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons, one of which was language and communication.

English is not common in Russia. In fact, outside the elite tourism sector (expensive hotels, expensive restaurants, some tourism venues, mostly the popular ones) no one speaks a word of it. Or of any language save Russian. (Why should they? As we tried language after language on one shop assistant – between us, we can communicate badly in about five – she looked at us like we were crazy, pointed to herself and said, “Russki.” She’s Russian. Why would she speak English? Or French, or Italian, or German, or…)

But most difficult was the lack of willingness to make an effort to cross the communication divide. Guides in museums would just speak slower and louder at us; we resorted to mime and gestures and guessing, desperately searching for the “da” or “nyet” that would give us something like a clear idea what we were being told we could or couldn’t do. The aforementioned shop assistant, with whom we wanted to complete a financial transaction, was completely disinterested in working with us to find a pair of shorts that fit, despite demonstrations of the problem with this pair of shorts. And the train conductor on our overnight from Moscow to Novgorod shook her head at our tickets, made us stand aside, and we realised that there was nothing at all we could do. We could be stranded in this country and have no idea what the problem was, no way to attempt to resolve it.

That’s what language means.

2. Language and identity. Same trip, two weeks later, we’re in Belgium. We’re so delighted that basically everyone speaks English (especially in touristy Brugge) that we didn’t really think about Belgium being an officially bilingual country until we sat down for a social beer with our B&B hostess. We’d made our booking by email in French (because Mr Dee could, and it seemed polite to at least make an effort) but had noted that Brugge was in Flemish-speaking Belgium (and therefore strictly shouldn’t be called Bruges); we asked what language she preferred. She noted that she was Flemish, but as a tourist guide and now B&B host, she spoke English and French as well. But her children had learned English at school as a second language, not French. They refused, in fact. They actively avoid the language. They don’t want to know. This is a country with two official languages, one of which is not English, but people aren’t learning both of them. They learn their language. And English.

A year later, we’re back in Brugge, catching up with our hostess for another beer. (It’s what we do in Belgium.) She tells us that Belgium still doesn’t have a government, hasn’t had one since before we were there last time. They haven’t been able to form one, in part because the bilingual issue in the country is so contentious. One party won the Flemish side, one won the French. Both have intractable positions. Other parties want to figure out compromises, but none can make a majority. (While we’re there, the king uses his national-day-of-Belgium address to tell the politicians to get the hell on with it and sort something out.) Language, especially in terms of financial and service use, is such a hugely contentious issue (among others; I’m not pretending this is simple or I know everything about it) that before any sort of resolution can be reached Belgium will have been without an official government for 541 days. In any other day and age, this is civil war sort of talk, and you can’t tell me otherwise.

That’s what language means.

And if you’re missing out on these amazing tensions in your fantasy, you’re missing out, yo.

Fave reads of 2013

(The fact that I can reasonably make this post at all is 100% down to GoodReads. Just saying.) From what I read in 2013 – some of which may have been published earlier! I am slow and behind! – some highly-recommended favourites in no particular order:

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone. One of these days I’ll stop raving about this series, but today is not that day. Three Parts Dead is full of fantasy delights (necromantic rituals, gargoyles, hive-minded security forces, legalistic duels of power and will) delivered with modern savvy and urban panache. It is vivid and different, and intelligent while still being delightful and delighted. It’s the sort of canny fun I wish there was more of.

White Cat by Holly Black. In a world where magic is performed by touch and everyone wears gloves, our narrator’s struggling with his family history of con-artistry, crime lords and violence. Yeah, sure, it’s YA urban fantasy, but it is every inch serrated razorblades and knotted twists and I loved it to vicious black-hearted bits.

Shadow in Summer & A Betrayal in Winter by Daniel Abraham. It’s sort of cheating to have two books in here, but I read them back to back in an omnibus printing, so they’re quite melded in my mind. Betrayal was absolutely magnificent, just an ineluctable emotional wrench of a novel, a fantastic feat of character conflict and self-sabotage, but it wouldn’t have had nearly the power without the amazing worldbuilding triumph of Shadow. And it’s a world I find myself thinking about again and again, constantly turning over the amazing poetry-driven magic system (such a meditation upon the term “capture”) and the fantastic Cold-War-detente analogy it drives.

Tomorrow, the Killing by Daniel Polansky. The most amazing world-fantasy-noir feat I’ve ever encountered, with a sympathetic but believably hard narrator getting dragged snarling through his past (including a truly magnificent fantasy analogy for the First World War). The regret was delicious, and the conclusions unsettling and splendid.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I avoided this for a long time because my “meh” list includes teenage fantasy and dragons, but I’m so glad I finally gave it a try (and persevered past the prologue) because it was a really good book, with a worthy heroine and some great ruminations on entrenched prejudice. And genuinely interesting talking dragons. There. I said it.

And a significantly honourable mention for Maggie Stiefvater, who scored highly (and viscerally) on my reading list this year with both The Raven Boys and The Scorpio Races.

Big Ideas and growing up

Elizabeth asks the best questions.

I managed a twitter response, though sometimes I feel so constrained by the 140 character limit that I can practically feel the “I will burst free!” song and dance number welling up in my throat. But honestly, this deserves more verbiage and certainly more thought.

The longer answer is more along the lines of: when I say “YA is not my thing” I’m sort of being lazy. What I really mean to encapsulate with that pithy dismissal is: there are many things that I regularly see cropping up in books that are identified as YA that dissatisfy me as storytelling habits or mechanisms. Because I do keep seeing them over and over, in books that are often lauded as excellent examples of the genre, I tend to assume that they are “the way it’s done” for YA. But there are YA-identified books that I love! (More on this later.) So clearly, those things that often dissatisfy me aren’t compulsory. (Possibly, one of the reasons I’m reading quite a bit of YA at the moment is to build up my sample size and help me whittle down the specifics of the things that dissatisfy me, so I can more accurately identify and avoid them.)

But also, as I said in my twitter response, a big element of why I keep trying YA despite dissatisfaction is ideas. There seem to be a whole lot of outrageous, amazing, wild-eyed, fascinating ideas in YA novels, something that I feel is not quite so common in spec fic for growed-ups. I’m basing this on reflections on my browsing in stores – I pick up a book, I read the blurb, sometimes the first page or two, and either a lightbulb of interest goes off (ding! and it goes on the to-read list) or it goes back on the shelf. YA books get a lot of dings because there’s often a Big Idea in either character or setting that’s sitting right there in the blurb. Adult fantasy blurbs are often a bit of a same-old trudge. Here are two (often male) characters who will be set at odds. Here’s an old (male) warrior, struggling with Kids Today. Here’s a King, and here are his Troubles. Here’s a Thief. Here’s an Epic Fate and Forces of Darkness.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of fun with characters at odds in epic fates, and I love old warriors struggling with what the years have wrought. I enjoy the depths and complexities of the worlds – but to be honest, it can be tricky to tell from the blurb and the first few pages whether this is going to be a novel with Ideas, or just a same-old Tolkien-euro-clone with concepts lifted straight from Tough Guide to Fantasyland (not naming any names). Often the Ideas are buried beneath Life, and it can be rewarding to see them unearthed through the narrative. But y’know what? Sometimes it’s fun when the Ideas are life, and are the narrative. There’s a lot of excitement to “OH MY GOSH, CONCEPT!” and I’m having trouble thinking of an adult novel that made me do that – Three Parts Dead, of course, but others? Um. Hmm.

(I admit, I’m hoping to hear about some oh-my-gosh-concept reads…)

The next book in the series…

I have a couple of unpopular fantasy-fiction-reading views.

1) I’m kind of over A Song of Ice and Fire. A Dance With Dragons has been sitting on my shelf – and on my to-read list – since September 2011. My husband’s read it. I haven’t. And every time I look at it I go, “…eh. But is anything actually going to get done?” (To be brutally honest, I’m sort of viewing the television series as the polished edit of his increasingly rambling first draft.)

2) I prefer single-volume fantasy. Related to the first point? Very probably. I might, I admit, be getting burned out on having to wait ages to find out what happens next, only to have to wait again. But also, my appreciation for a tight, concise, hard punch of a story is increasing all the time. (Also then I don’t have to worry about getting all the same bindings/sizes/covers to line up on my shelf…)

That said, here are three series I’m really intellectually invested in right now:

Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin
Next to read: The Tyrant’s Law (#3). World fantasy in the character-politics-heavy magic-chicanery-light mode of George Martin. After the strength-to-strength magnificent tapestry woven in the first two books, I have no hesitation putting this series top of my list. Those strengths? Genuinely intricate and wide-ranging politics, making banking and finance integral and fascinating, and amazing characters who are each and every one believable, developing and sympathetic. And then setting those characters at cross purposes.

Max Gladstone‘s Craft Sequence
Next to read: Two Serpents Rise (#2). World fantasy of highly developed societal systems; urban fantasy of the most wild kind. It’s been over a month since I read the first of these (Three Parts Dead) but I’m still utterly giddy about it, assisted by the buzz around Two Serpents, and the amazing draft cover for the next book, Full Fathom Five. There’s so much enjoyable, intellectual, inclusive and innovative about these books that I just genuinely can’t stop raving about them. (Of course, putting this on the list might be considered cheating, as the books seem to be more stand-alone novels in a shared world. But GIDDY. ABOUT. IT. So there.)

Daniel Polansky‘s Low Town series
Next to read: She Who Waits (#3). Holy grimy fantasy noir, Batman. Part of what has me so excited for the third book of this series is that, for me, there was such an improvement in book 2 (Tomorrow the Killing) over book 1 (Straight Razor Cure, where I come from). Don’t get me wrong, Cure was zippy and rich and full of grit, but Killing was magnificent, layered and complex and just oozing the regret that gets you nowhere. So I’m eager as anything to see what the third book – tantalisingly named after the world’s oft-referenced goddess of death – brings to play.