Hugo Awards

Hugo Awards: The Obelisk Gate

Of the six finalists for this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel, N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate was my least anticipated. I’m in the dramatic minority here, as the first novel in this series, The Fifth Season, received near unanimous praise and walked away with the Hugo in a decisive win. I was less sanguine about that initial novel’s pessimism and relentless misery, which mostly served to distance me from the narrative rather than suck me in. There were some interesting revelations and solid worldbuilding in that initial volume, but on the whole, it didn’t feel like much progress had been made in the overall arc. Such things happen in the first volume of a series, I guess, but that didn’t exactly inspire confidence that the second book in the trilogy would fare better. Spoilers for both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate forthcoming…

When a novel’s overarching narrative is that the world is ending, but the world is so monstrous that such an apocalypse is seen as almost welcome from its inhabitants (at least, the ones we get close to), it’s hard not to feel detached. As I noted in my review of The Fifth Season:

If Fantasy too often errs on the side of optimism, this book perhaps errs too far on the side of pessimism. It’s one thing to confront complex problems, but it’s another to propose a solution that is the end of the world. That’s not a solution that provides hope or inspiration, merely despair. Or maybe I’m just being too literal. Jemisin is certainly a talented author with a good command of language, but this novel never really managed to get over the hump for me.

The Obelisk Gate begins with a rehashing of man murdering his toddler, because such anguish was only hinted at in the previous book and obviously needed to be expanded upon with further detail here (“It doesn’t take a lot of effort to beat a toddler to death, but he hyperventilated while he did it.”) After this cheery interlude, the story picks up where The Fifth Season leaves off. Essun (aka Syenite, aka Damaya) has not yet caught up with her toddler-murdering husband Jija or their kidnapped daughter, Nassun, but is instead living in an unusual underground comm called Castrima, where she has met up with her old mentor Alabaster. She learns that he has actually set off the current world-destroying event by attempting to leverage the obelisks that float in the skies to end the cycle of Seasons and thus shatter the social structures that oppress so many, but he apparently failed and his powers are on the wane. The cryptic and tantalizing cliffhanger of The Fifth Season was a simple question: “Tell me, have you ever heard of something called a moon?” It seems that this world once had a moon, but a previous civilization did something to drive it off, and we get some background here. Now it’s returning, and Alabaster attempts to share his knowledge with Essun so that she can finish the job. But since the world is currently ending, they also have to deal with enemies at the gates, and all that fun stuff. Elsewhere, Essun’s daughter Nassun has wound up being trained as an orogene herself, and is starting to come into her own.

The horror of the opening chapter’s infanticide aside, I actually found this to be a somewhat less grim exercise than the opening novel. Nassun’s thread, in particular, is a welcome addition. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of misery to go around and Nassun is clearly coming under the influence of some unsavory folk, but maybe I’m just inured to it this time around, or maybe I just braced properly for the sucker punches. Still, it’s good to get a differing perspective on the world, even as Essun’s narrative seems to stall out. Such is the way of middle installments of a trilogy, but I’m still struck by a remarkable lack of progress in the overarching narrative. Two books in, and little has actually happened. Jemisin seems more concerned with her characters than the plot, and the big twists of these novels bear that out. In the first novel, we find that the three viewpoint characters were actually the same person. In this novel, we finally figure out who is telling Essun’s story in second person narration… it’s Hoa, the stone eater. This is not quite as interesting as the first book’s revelation (and I’m not entirely sure how Hoa knows enough details to narrate that way), but at least we’re getting somewhere. The various factions of the world (guardians, stone eaters, etc…) are fleshed out a bit more (though still plenty of open questions), as is the magic system, but it all still feels like characterization, worldbuilding, and setup rather than a satisfying story in itself. Not to overuse this bit from Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, but I can’t help but think that too much of this book is “perpetrating hooptedoodle.” The clouds have been gathering for two novels, but I suspect the finale will be a light rain shower, not the exciting thunderstorm that would normally be expected.

I think I can see the outlines of the endgame. I suspect Essun will be reunited with her daughter… in battle! As Essun tries to save the world by bringing a renegade moon into orbit (thus perhaps permanently quelling the earthquakes that shatter the world so), it looks like Nassun is being manipulated to bring the Moon crashing down on the world, ending everything once and for all. Plus, her feelings towards her mother don’t exactly indicate any desire for reconciliation in the first place. Or something like that. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Jemisin seems to revel in subverting established tropes of storytelling, which sometimes results in an interesting spin on a familiar story (the “revenge” throughline of this series certainly hasn’t gone as expected, for instance), but that sort of thing is difficult to pull off. Sometimes tropes are tropes for a reason. I’m guessing the “battle” I mentioned above won’t be a big action setpiece, but rather a small, intimate battle of wills. Is that enough? On a personal level, I simply haven’t been able to get over the hump, even if it feels like the near unanimous sentiment of fandom is one of ecstatic enthusiasm.

Ultimately, if it weren’t for the Hugo Awards, I wouldn’t have read this, and I have no real interest in finding out if my above speculations will come to pass. Hugo voters doing what they do, though, means that the final book will probably get nominated and thus I’ll feel obligated to give it a shot. Jemisin is a talented writer, but not one that has really struck a chord with me. I’ve now read all of the novels nominated for this year’s Best Novel Hugo. Alas, this one will be bringing up the rear, along with Too Like the Lightning. A peg above those two is All the Birds in the Sky. I keep flipping Death’s End and A Closed and Common Orbit, but either would make a fine #2 or #3 ranking. At the top of the list remains Ninefox Gambit. A pretty good list this year, if a bit heavy on the hooptedoodle.

Hugo Awards: Too Like the Lightning

You will criticize me, reader, for writing this review of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning in the style that the book itself notes is six hundred years removed from the events it describes (though only two hundred years removed for myself). But it is the style of the Enlightenment and this book tells the story of a world shaped by those ideals.

I must apologize, reader, for I am about to commit the sin of a plot summary, but I beg you to give me your trust for just a few paragraphs longer. There are two main threads to this novel. One concerns a young boy named Bridger who has the ability to make inanimate objects come to life. Being young and having a few wise adult supervisors, he practices these miracles mostly on toys. Such is the way they try to understand his powers while hiding from the authorities, who would surely attempt to exploit the young child ruthlessly.

Looking after Bridger is Thisbe Saneer, a member of prominent bash’ (basically a house containing a family that is less biological or romance than interest-based, though all seem to coexist in this world) that controls the world’s transportation network and Mycroft Canner, who is our erstwhile narrator. He’s also a mass murderer, like a combination of Jigsaw and Hannibal Lecter. He was long ago caught for torturing and murdering an entire bash’ (a crime we’re told, repeatedly, was the worst in centuries), but in this society, most criminals are not sent to prison, but instead are relgated to becoming a “servicer” who wears a uniform and serves at the pleasure of society. With his Hannibal-esqe intelligence, Mycroft is actually highly sought-after by the most powerful people in the world, frequently mixing with rulers and highly-influential businesses. At least, he wants us to believe this is so. It is unclear as yet why Mycroft has such an interesting service regime. Has he been conditioned, Clockwork Orange-style, to be less violent? Or is there something deeper at work here? He’s our narrator, and we should, reader, assume that he’s an unreliable one (even if it’s not entirely clear in this initial volume of the series how this will manifest). Regardless, Mycroft has taken it upon himself to protect Bridger from the world powers in whose orbits he revolves (at least, until Bridger is old enough to fend for himself).

The other plot thread has to do with a stolen a Seven-Ten list (more on that in a moment) that mysteriously shows up at Thisbe’s bash’ house. A crude attempt at a frame-up that is immediately seen for what it is, but investigation is unavoidable. This bash’ is responsible for the world’s transportation network, after all, and if it was so easily broken into, this must be investigated, which, alas, may have the unintended consequence of exposing Bridger.

So Seven-Ten lists. There are things about the worldbuilding that might give pause, but this, reader, is perhaps the most difficult thing to swallow in the book. Each year, a number of publications present listicles in which the worlds most influential people are ranked. For some unfathomable reason, a given leader’s position on these lists can actually have a profound effect on the political, social, and economic order of the entire planet. Surely, these lists are based on some sort of objective, measurable criteria, right? No, dear reader, they are not! Completely subjective, and some appear to be ghost-written by the equivalent of a bright intern who thought it might be fun to shake things up. It is very nearly a bridge too far, reader, enough to almost make this feel like a Buzzfeed-feuled dystopia.

But no, reader, I exaggerate. Listicle worship aside, the rest of this world feels balanced and approachable, if not entirely convincing. Depending on one’s predilections, one could even go the opposite route and see a utopia in the making. On a personal level, I find that unconvincing though. This setting has the ring of tradeoffs. For example, there is a sort of internet that is easily and freely accessed by a device called a “tracker”, which I think you can intuit also provides various surveillance capabilities to authorities. It gives you convenient access to information and travel networks, but at the price of privacy. This isn’t new, reader, it’s just a simple and perhaps even likely extrapolation of current trends. Sure, it’d be a big change for us but after a period of adjustment, we’d probably get along fine. Not utopia fine, but just regular fine, complete with tradeoffs, like we’ve always had to deal with. Other aspects of the worldbuilding are somewhat less successful. Each of the “Hives” have interesting concepts attached, but we don’t really see how they play out and none of those concepts are sufficiently explored. There’s a lot of “telling” without actually “showing”, and all we really get a look at is the “Great Men” of this world.

Is this style starting to get to you, reader? Surely it is my own lack of knowledge and skill that grates, but my experience with the novel’s narration was sometimes strained as well. Science Fiction is infamous for its exposition and info-dumps, and indeed, this device provides an interesting and perhaps more justified approach than most. On the other hand, exposition and info-dumps are still out in full force, and this strategy, while clever, might also have provided a false sense of security for the author. The information that is summarily and frequently dumped on us, reader, is often interesting in its own light, but in context presents certain challenges. Pacing, for example, becomes a genuine problem. It’s difficult to get into the story when you’re constantly being interrupted. This is absolutely intentional, but self-awareness does not necessarily make it less of a flaw.

The information on offer ranges from worldbuilding tidbits to philosophical interludes to sexposition (a sequence that I must admit, reader, fooled me in precisely the way Palmer intended) to character background to Mycroft’s running commentary, a sort of humorless MST3King of the plot as it unfolds. Some of these are vital, others work at first but chafe after a certain point. The Eighteenth Century direct address and prostration for forgiveness bits work fine at the start, but halfway through the book, on the umpteenth occasion that our narrator lectures us on gender pronouns, it grates. Not because of the subject mater, reader, but because of the repetition and dismissive assumptions. I get it, and the gender pronoun contretemps presents some thought provoking ideas that have generated some interesting debate in the fandom. But after the dozenth time the plot is interrupted to rehash that very same idea, I was less willing to go with the device.

I have been calling you reader, but I’m virtually certain you do not frequent my writings. This is not an admonishment, reader! Just context, since you may not have seen a recent pointer to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, in which that estimable author perfectly describes my feelings on this book’s stylistic trappings. He calls it “perpetrating hooptedoodle”, and that, dear reader, is what this book is filled with. Also this review, so let it be clear, reader, that I’m not above hooptedoodle. But I’m not nominated for a Hugo award either, and with good reason.

All that being said, there is much boiling under the surface here. As absurd as the Seven-Ten lists are, their superficial nature belies the fragile balance the various world powers have struck. There’s clearly more going on here than the lists, which, indeed, appear to be a red herring and are dealt with in pretty short order. But the investigation of Thisbe’s bash’ does present other problems, and not just for Bridger. I must admit, reader, that this book had nearly lost me before the revelations of its final chapter (a chapter, I should note, that is not narrated by Mycroft, who you must remember is an unreliable narrator). Are those revelations enough to get me to read on? Will the potential be fulfilled? And how, reader, shall I rank this amongst other Hugo finalists?

In order to emphasize the incomplete nature of this story, I was going to try and end this review on a cliffhanger. Perhaps just finish the review mid-sentence, or add a “To be continued in one year…” note. But that would be unfair to you, reader, and to the author as well. It still does beg the question though: Is this like one of those TV series where you have to get through the frustrating first season to get to the good stuff? Or one of those video games where it, like, totally gets better after you put 40 hours into it? I almost certainly wouldn’t read the sequel to this book, with the one caveat that the Hugo Awards tend to revisit series throughout, and this feels like it could be one of those. This is clearly ambitious stuff, and I am curious about some of the open plot threads. The revelations of the ending could certainly lend themselves to a more engaging narrative and let’s not forget some of the logical endpoints of the Enlightenment, such as the Reign of Terror in France. Will this series actually go there? I admit curiosity, but not so much that I’d check it out without nudging from a second Hugo nomination. For all its interesting ideas and ambition, as it stands now, this book would fall somewhere towards the bottom of my current ballot.

Hugo Awards: The Dark Forest and Death’s End

The universe is so large that it’s inconceivable that we’d be the only form of intelligent life in existence, but in the words of Physicist Enrico Fermi, “Where is everybody?” If there’s lots of intelligent life out there, some far more advanced than we are, why isn’t there any evidence that they exist? This contradiction between probability and evidence is known as the Fermi Paradox. There are potential explanations, but the implications of the Fermi paradox are often not very comforting and sometimes downright depressing.

In science fiction, first contact stories usually deal with this in some way, at least implicitly (if not explicitly). In The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu lays out one reason first contact should be carefully considered. Spoilers for all three novels follow! In that novel, a Chinese scientist, disheartened by her Communist upbringing (during the Culural Revolution, her father is killed, she is persecuted for reading a banned book, other family members joined the Red Guard, etc…) and general cruelty of humans, basically invites a nearby alien race to come and “purify the human race.” The Trisolarans live in an inhospitable star system and the relative comfort of a planet like Earth is attractive to them, so they naturally begin invasion procedures. Interstellar travel being what it is, even for a civilization more advanced than we are, it will take their invasion fleet 400 years to reach earth. To clear the way for the invasion, the Trisolarans send and advance party of Sophons (basically a computer/AI embedded into a single proton in a handwavey but bravura sequence in the book) that will spy on the humans and also halt human scientific research and development by interrupting experiments and giving false results, etc…

The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo award a couple years ago, thanks in part to its absence from Puppy-related slates (and yet, being the type of story that Puppies seem to like). The follow up, The Dark Forest, picks up where the first book left off: Trisolaran fleet on its way, Sophons blocking technological progress, whatever shall humans do? After some speculation on the general impact such events would have on society and politics, the book settles into an examination of a human plan called the Wallfacer project. The UN selects four individuals and provides them with unlimited resources in order to devise a counterattack to the Trisolarans. However, thanks to the surveillance of the Sophons, these four men must keep their true plans secret. The Trisolaran response, carried out by human traitors in an organization called the ETO (Earth-Trisolaris Organization), is to designate four individuals in opposition, the Wallbreakers.

Due to the need to keep these plans secret, they all appear to be rather simplistic and silly on their face. However, as the novel progresses and the Wallbreakers study their opponents, the true nature of the plans come to light. Wallfacer Frederick Tyler, the former US Secretary of Defense, has a public plan to create a fleet of mosquito ships with kamikaze-like pilots that will swarm the attacking fleet and detonate nuclear bombs. His Wallbreaker reveals the true plan, which involves bringing a huge amount of water into space and using it to fuel a massive hydrogen bomb (this plan was never all that clear to me). Wallfacer Rey Diaz, famous for repelling a US invasion of Venezuela, has a similar public plan of creating huge nuclear bombs, but his true plan, to use the nuclear bombs to launch Mercury into the sun, thus destroying the entire system (including Earth), is exposed by his Wallbreaker. While this might have been an effective deterrent, it was revealed too early and the rest of humanity wasn’t too keen on the plan. Wallfacer Bill Hines, a British neuroscientist, wants to use genetic modification to improve the human mind. His true plan is subverted by his Wallbreaker, who is also his wife. Details are a little unclear, but it turns out that the “Mental Seal” device he created actually instills defeatism in its users. Fortunately, the process was never fully adopted.

Finally, there’s the most unlikely Wallfacer, Luo Ji. If this book could be said to have a protagonist, it would be him. He immediately refuses the honor, but his refusal is taken to be part of his plan. Resigned to his fate, he simply adopts a hedonistic lifestyle, finding an isolated home, drinking expensive wine, and using the UN as a dating service to find an attractive woman (who, for some reason, goes along with this?) Eventually, he reveals a public plan to transmit a “spell against the planets of star 187J3X1” into the universe. He says this will take at least one hundred years to work, but he predicts that his spell will be devastating. For their part, the Trisolarans seem the most afraid of Luo Ji, and rather than assign a Wallbreaker, they simply try to assassinate him. Luo Ji escapes barely, and manages to make his way into hibernation.

200 years later, he awakens to a changed world. Environmental degradation has lead to large underground excavations. Despite the Sophon block, technology has increased dramatically, and humanity now sports a fleet of thousands of spaceships. Observations of the Trisolaran fleet show trouble for our enemies, as the size of the fleet dwindles (presumably due to accidents or damage sustained during high speed travel). Humanity seems to regard the Wallfacer program a failure and is now seeking to establish diplomatic talks with the Trisolarans. Despite this, Luo Ji has to dodge a series of assassination attempts after he awakes, so clearly the Trisolarans are still scared of him.

All’s well, right? Well, not so much. The arrival of the first Trisolaran probe results in a devastating attack on humanity’s space capability (dubbed “The Battle of Darkness”). If such a tiny probe is so advanced, humanity has no chance against even a weakened Trisolaran fleet. That is, until Luo Ji’s spell finally takes effect and star 187J3X1 is destroyed. His Wallfacer plan is thus finally revealed, and it relies on one of the more depressing explanations for the Fermi Paradox: While intelligent life may be plentiful in the universe, if you reveal your location, at least one of those civilizations will be both more advanced than you AND be a scary, predatory culture that will only see you as a potential threat. The strategy of such a civilization would be to preemptively strike any developing civilization before it can become a true threat. Luo Ji had sent out a message indicating that it came from star 187J3X1. This message was presumably received by lots of alien civilizations, but it eventually reached a more predatory species who simply destroyed the system. The title of the book comes from a metaphor: The universe is a dark forest where every civilization is a silent hunter. Any civilization that announces itself becomes a target.

Phew, that’s a lot of plot, and believe it or not, I’m greatly simplifying here and leaving lots out. Like its predecessor, this book is stuffed with plot, ideas, and little thought experiments. This makes for interesting reading, and the overarching conflict is tense and exciting, but in execution it does feel a bit scattershot. The concept of the Wallfacer project is great, but it takes a bit too long to get at the hidden plans, and we spend a lot of time with characters who are closed off and focused on seemingly tangential plot points. It turns out that in deceiving the Sophons, the Wallfacers also have to deceive the reader, which is a great idea, but Liu only barely clears that bar, making this an entertaining read, but one that feels like it has a lot of filler. By design and for good reason, but filler nonetheless. That being said, I was surprised that it didn’t manage to make the Hugo ballot last year. Then again, it’s not like I read it back then or nominated it, so I don’t have to look far for an explanation.

So finally we get to Death’s End, the conclusion to Liu’s trilogy and one of the nominees for this year’s Hugo Awards. Naturally, this one starts with a segment set during the Fall of Constantinople. Without spoiling details, it ends millions of years in the future. Inbetween, we get some other approaches to the Trisolaran threat that parallel the Wallfacer project (a timeframe referred to as the “Crisis Era”), such as the Staircase Program (an attempt to send a lone human emissary to meet the Trisolaran fleet). We eventually get to the “Deterrence Era” in which Luo Ji is known as the Swordholder and deters the Trisolarans with mutually-assured destruction. But Luo Ji is getting old and must be replaced. His replacement is Cheng Xin, who worked on the Staircase project. Unfortunately, at the moment of transition, the Trisolarans immediately attack (using their probes and Sophons, etc…) and it’s revealed that a new invasion fleet, capable of light speed, has set out from Trisolaris and will arrive in 4 years. Cheng Xin does not initiate the Dark Forest broadcast (because that would kill both civilizations) and the Trisolarans start colonization procedures, allowing humanity to collect itself in Australia (while the Trisolarans will take the rest of the planet). When the full implications of this emerge (the Trisolarans expect only about 50 million humans to survive), humanity gets all uppity and ends up broadcasting the location of Trisolaris into the Dark Forest, resulting in its quick destruction. It’s only a matter of time before that same scary, predatory race intuits Earth as the origin of these broadcasts, so the Trisolaris fleet changes directions and flees into the galaxy. Humanity works on ways to counter the predatory race, either by hiding from it, escaping to interstellar space, or a few other tricks. Will they succeed?

Once again, what we have here is a novel that is overstuffed with ideas and thought experiments. Liu has a knack for naming things to evoke archetypal characteristics. Wallfacer/Wallbreaker, Staircase, Swordholder, and even the various Eras referred to throughout (Broadcast Era, Bunker Era, etc…); all of these lend a certain feeling of universality and scope that make this seem classical and enduring. High ambition, high stakes (that are actually earned), and a willingness to confront uncomfortable ideas and take them to their frightening but logical conclusions. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s bittersweet at best, and existentially terrifying at worst. There’s a reason that Fermi Paradox folks like to say “No news is good news” and this novel nails why that statement works.

Those ideas that evoke the fabled SF goal of Sense of Wonder are what make these books work. The more sociological and philosophical aspects of the story are a little less focused and successful, leading to some inconsistency in terms of characters and pacing that perhaps make the series too long and pull the books down a peg or two. I suspect some things are lost in translation here, but this is not meant as a slight on Ken Liu (who translated the first and third books in the series), just an acknowledgement that translations naturally produce, for example, awkward dialog and pacing. I’ll put this on me too, as reading a book from another culture always presents challenges that I’ll readily admit I’m not always equal to. However, most of my complaints are far outweighed by what this series gets right, and this will rank high on my Hugo ballot, though I don’t know that it will unseat my current frontrunner (which remains Ninefox Gambit). This isn’t quite the diamond-hard SF of Greg Egan or Peter Watts, but it’s fully in the tradition of “literature of ideas” and even if some of those ideas don’t land for me, it’s definitely my kinda SF.

The 2017 Hugo Awards: Initial Thoughts

The 2017 Hugo Award Finalists were announced this week, so I guess it’s time to start the bitter recriminations and whining. Assorted thoughts below:

  • The novel ballot looks pretty good and indeed, I’ve already read three of the nominees, all of which were pretty good (and two of which were in my nominations). Ninefox Gambit is the clear front-runner for me, with its intricate worldbuilding and simple, pulpy plot. A Closed and Common Orbit ranks a distant second, but I liked its focus and positive attitude enough to throw it a nomination. All the Birds in the Sky has a great, whimsical tone to it, but of the novels I’ve read, it’s the one that could fall behind some of the things I haven’t read yet. Speaking of which, Cixin Liu returns to the ballot with Death’s End, the conclusion to the story begun in the Hugo-winning Three Body Problem and the one I’m most looking forward to catching up with (even if it requires me to read the second novel, which I never got to last year). Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning has been on my radar for a while, but I never pulled the trigger. It sounds like it has potential for me. N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate rounds out the nominees. A sequel to last year’s Hugo-winning The Fifth Season, a book that I have to admit that I did not enjoy at all. Well written and executed, but it felt a little too much like misery-porn for my liking, and thus I’m not particularly enthused about reading the sequel. I realize this puts me in the minority here, but it’s got me seriously considering not actually participating this year. I really don’t want to return to that gloomy world of suffering and despair, as well written as it may be…
  • For the shorter fiction categories, the only thing I’ve already read was Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and the Shaman, which I enjoyed, but which I feel is inferior to its sequel, Penric’s Mission (perhaps because that came out late in the year, not enough people caught up with it?) In fact, now that I’ve caught up with the latest Penric & Desdemona book, Mira’s Last Dance, I can say that Penric and the Shaman is my least favorite in the series. And yet, I’ll wager that I’ll like it better than most of the other nominees. Only one way to find out, I guess.
  • The only out-and-out trolling nominee (in the fiction categories) is Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, which, ugh, why bother? I’m so over this Rabid Puppies trolling and I really don’t get it. Their point was made, now they’re just being gluttons for punishment. We know exactly how all the Rabid Puppy nominees will fare this year (at least there were less of them). The Sad Puppies seem to have faded away, which is fine I guess, but while I never really joined forces with them, I did have a certain sympathy with the type of fiction they claimed to enjoy. Of course, many of their nominees didn’t really bear that out, but the idea was solid. Except that this whole three year affair has ended with a really polarized field of nominees, which again makes me wonder if I should participate again this year. A good amount of the nominees in short fiction categories are available online for free, which is nice and could allow me to get a better feel for the tenor of these categories.
  • The Best Series award is new and experimental this year (and could be made permanent next year if people like it) and they’ve generated some interesting nominees. Chief among them is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, which might be my favorite series of all time. Of the other nominees, I’ve only read one book from James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse, which frankly did not impress me very much. I’ve recently had Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence recommended to me by an independent observer, so I may get to that at some point. I really enjoyed Naomi Novik’s Uprooted last year, so I’d wager that her Temeraire series could also strike a chord with me. That Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series made the list is interesting because I don’t think any of them have previously been nominated for a Best Novel… The Peter Grant / Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch is the only one I wasn’t really familiar with at all, but it sounds interesting enough. Those last two are both Urban Fantasy, a sub-genre I’m not a particularly huge fan of, and not something traditionally awarded by the Hugo crowd, so this is an interesting list… That being said, this category has some rather high logistical hurdles facing it… If you haven’t already read these books, it’ll be difficult to pack them into the next couple of months (along with other Hugo reading). Some of these series are short, but most are very, very long. I’m a huge Vorkosigan fan, so I have something to root for here, but I don’t think it’d feel right to vote on this award without giving a fare shake to all the nominees, which is probably not going to happen…
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form has a clear winner for me in Arrival. <a href="Deadpool“>Deadpool and Rogue One made the cut, neither of which is particularly surprising. Season one of Stranger Things showing up here (as opposed to one of the episodes in the Short Form category) is a pleasant surprise. Ghostbusters is a profoundly mediocre blockbuster and it’s surprising that it made the ballot. I’m disappointed that The Witch couldn’t draw enough nominations, but it’s not your typical Hugo fare either…

So there you have it. Still not decided with whether or not I’ll actually vote this year, but I will probably read a bunch of stuff on the list in any case, so look for some reviews in the next couple of months…

Hugo Award Season 2017

The nomination period for the 2017 Hugo Awards is open, so I thought I’d get some of my thoughts out there before the requisite whining and controversy begins in earnest. I’ve read several eligible works, but as of right now, only two will make my ballot:

The interesting thing about these choices is that both feature the concept of two characters sharing one consciousness. Ninefox Gambit comes from an arguably SFnal perspective, while Penric’s Mission is distinctly fantasy. Ninefox’s characters have a more adversarial relationship, while Penric’s characters are more symbiotic. I don’t know what this says about me, especially if you’re the type who doesn’t believe in coincidences.

On the novel front, I’m currently reading A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers that has the potential to make the cut. I might get to one or two other novels before the nomination period ends, but I’m probably more interested in digging into some short fiction in the near term. Of note here is Jonathan Edelstein’s roundup of short fiction over at Haibane.info, of which several seem right up my alley.

This also marks the first year the Hugos are considering a Best Series category. It’s not guaranteed to continue, but there are tons of eligible series this year, including some heavy hitters. As far as I can see, this is Harry Potter‘s award to lose. I’m also nominating Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga here, though again, I’m doubt any series could stop the Harry Potter juggernaut. The rules for best series are pretty simple, which of course means that there are lots of edge cases that make it difficult to predict how or even if this award will continue. The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of non-trivial problems with this award. For example, let’s say we get 5 series nominated. If you haven’t read all of them, what does that mean for the voting process? The Vorkosigan Saga is somewhere between 15-20 stories (depending on how you count some of the novellas) that would be difficult to read in just a couple of months. All of which is to say that I’m curious to see how this shakes out this year…

I will obviously be nominating for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form award, most notably Arrival (which I think should win) and The Witch (which I’m doubting will get a nomination at all). After those two, there’s a second tier of worthy nominees that I’ll have to wade through.

I’m hoping that this will be the least controversial year since I started voting, as the Sad Puppies will be proceeding much like they did last year, while Rabid Puppies seem to be reticent to spend any money to support the Hugos anymore (which will, you know, mean less influence since it costs money to nominate and vote).

Any recommendations or suggestions are welcome! I will most likely post a follow up post with my final nomination ballot as the end of the nomination period approaches (sometime in March or so).

Hugo Awards 2016: The Results

The Hugo Award winners were announced last night and I’m having a hard time caring all that much. I’ve played along with the Hugos for the past few years, but unfortunately, that roughly coincides with the rise of Sad/Rabid Puppy movements and by intention or not, the award and seemingly the entire field has become a politicized morass. Of course, this isn’t new and this year fared significantly better than last year’s disaster, so let’s look closer. (Also of note: the full voting breakdown in case you wanted to figure out how instant-runoff voting works.)

  • The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin won the best novel Hugo. This was a bit of an upset since Naomi Novik’s Uprooted seemingly enjoyed a broader fanbase and scored previous wins in the Nebulas and Locus Fantasy awards. On the other hand, The Fifth Season was the only novel not present on any Puppy list, so it’s hard not to see this as a political win rather than a joyous celebration of a great story (especially when combined with Jemisin’s history with Vox Day). Back on the first hand, though, while I wasn’t a fan of the book, I can also recognize it as a well written work that makes for fine award material. I found it to be misery porn (which is emphatically not what I look for out of SF/F), but really well done misery porn. I will admit to being a little surprised at 480 votes putting Seveneves under No Award, which again seems like a political response to its inclusion on the Rabid slate. Then again, I’ve long since stopped being surprised when Stephenson’s work rubs some people the wrong way, which has always been the case (and long before any Puppy controversy) in my anecdotal experience.
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor takes the best novella award. Again, hard not to see it as a political choice, but it was a decent enough story, even if I found it to be lacking. It was the only finalist not to appear on the Rabid list, though it did get the nod in Sad Puppies. Also of note, No Award did not place in this category, which is fair – it was a strong category.
  • “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu wins in best novelette. Yet again, this is the only finalist not to appear on the Rabid list, even if it was on the Sad Puppy list. No Award shows up in the rankings here, beating out the two Castalia House nominees.
  • “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer wins the short story award. I can’t really argue with that since I voted for it, but once again, it was the only non-Rabid choice, even if it was a Sad Puppy choice. No Award places second. This was a dumpster of a category this year, so this isn’t surprising at all.
  • The Martian takes home the Long Form Dramatic Presentation award, which was a nice nod to the type of SF that I really enjoy, and Andy Weir got himself a Campbell award for best new SF writer, which is also very cool. I look forward to his next book with great anticipation.
  • Once again, the Puppies are trounced. It’s the same old story: Action, Reaction. The Sad Puppies seem to have faded from the ire of fandom, but the Rabids remain steadfast in their quest to destroy the Hugos. Or do they? There appears to be a dramatic drop-off from the nominating stage to the voting stage this year, so perhaps there is hope yet for the future of the award. Then again, their divisive tactics have polarized fandom into awarding the types of works I tend to dislike. As usual, my hope for the future is that we can all just calm the fuck down, read some good stories, and celebrate them with the awards. Yeah, politics are inherent in the process, but we shouldn’t be able to look at a list and predict the winners without looking at the quality of the work at all, which you could have done with this years awards.
  • Last year, I noted that “The notion that voting on the current year gives you the ability to nominate next year is a brilliant one that might actually keep me participating.” This year, they apparently voted to revoke that practice, which means I’m much less likely to participate next year (or whenever it takes effect – may not be next year). I’m guessing this was because of Rabid interference this year, but it also feels short-sighted. Also of note, they appear to be pushing the deadline for nominations up from January 31 to December 31, which probably spells doom for any SF/F story released in December. I’d have to look into both of these things more to really figure out how much I like them, but their intention seems to be to decrease participation, which doesn’t feel like a great idea. I’m still on the fence about participating next year, but I guess we’ll see how things go. The crappy thing about politicization of the awards from my perspective is that I feel like simple celebrations of great writing are being eschewed in favor of virtue signaling (on both sides of the divide). It’s become a polarized field, which leaves me in the middle, not really caring about either side and wondering why I’m even participating. As H.P. notes:

    So which side “won”? Which side lost? The Rabid Puppies/alt-right/Vox Day and the SJWs both won. That is, the people who wanted to hijack the awards to make it just another venue for their political fight (see the longlist of Best Related Works nominees for a good idea of the relative importance placed on politics versus reading). People who actually love to read and would prefer to think about books first lost. It’s probably been a foregone conclusion for many years now, but the Hugo Awards will continue to long decline into irrelevancy.

    Well said. Like H.P. I’m just going to go and read a book rather than dwell on it. I’ll see you next year, when the Hugo whining begins in earnest.

And that’s all for now. I’ve actually been reading some great SF of late (none of it is recent though) and we’re about to shift gears into the most wondrous time of year, The 6 Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, so stay tuned.

2016 Hugo Awards: Semi-Final Ballot

Today is the voting deadline for the Hugo Awards, so here’s the final ballot I submitted. I’m only really voting on the fiction categories right now, but I might take a gander at the artists or fan writer categories later if I get time. Overall, this is a significantly better year than last year, though the Short Story category continues to be a drag. Let’s get to it:

Best Novel

  1. Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson [My Review]
  2. Uprooted, by Naomi Novik [My Review]
  3. Ancillary Mercy, by Anne Leckie [My Review]
  4. The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher [My Review]
  5. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin [My Review]

This is a pretty solid ballot! I’ve noticed a few things about the way I tend to vote in this category, and one of them is that entries in a series tend to fall behind standalone entries. This year, that puts Seveneves and Uprooted far, far above the competition. Sometimes the first entry in a series can work, but both of this year’s examples of that suffered under the weight of their respective long-term stories. In both cases, not much really happens in the first installment, and while there’s a definite ending, neither was particularly satisfying. Ancillary Mercy, at least, provided some form of closure (though even that did not fully pay off the promise of the initial entry in the series). There have bee various proposals over the years for including some way to reward series as series, which makes sense, but is also fraught with challenges. The devil is in the details, and there are lots of details for that sort of thing.

Predicted Winner: Uprooted although The Fifth Season seems suspiciously popular…

Best Novella

  1. Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
  2. Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson
  3. Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
  4. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
  5. The Builders by Daniel Polansky

See My Reviews for more details. Again, a pretty solid list of finalists, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: Penric’s Demon

Best Novelette

  1. “Obits” by Stephen King
  2. “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander
  3. “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu
  4. “Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai
  5. “What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke

See My Reviews for more info. A decent list, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” but who knows, this seems more up in the air. Also, I’m terrible at predicting these things. I don’t

Best Short Story

  1. “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer
  2. “Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon
  3. “Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao
  4. No Award

See My Reviews for more details. Sorry Chuck Tingle, I ultimately decided to leave you off the ballot because seriously? Oy. And it goes without saying that “If you were an award, my love” doesn’t belong on here either. Otherwise, these are fine, but unremarkable.

Predicted Winner: Cat Pictures Please though No Award has a fair chance here because this ballot was rough.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. The Martian
  2. Mad Max: Fury Road
  3. Ex Machina
  4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  5. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Ran out of time before posting about this, but basically, the top three are great, the bottom two are cromulent but clearly on a lower level. I go back and forth on Martian vs Mad Max, but since Martian is more clearly SF and the sort of thing we don’t see often, it goes first on my ballot.

So there you have it. I doubt I’l get to any other categories since the deadline is tonight, but this is what I’e entered in. A pretty decent slate of finalists this year, with one category being a real bummer (Short Stories). Looking forward to seeing who wins (assuming we actually have winners this year).

2016 Hugo Awards: Novellas

After last year’s train wreck of a Novella ballot, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this year’s finalists. But it seems my fears were misplaced, as this might be the most solid fiction category of the year. Novellas can be awkward and to be sure, a couple of these don’t entirely pull it off, but even those manage better than the other categories.

  1. Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold – No surprise here, as I was one of the many who nominated this in the first place. I’m a huge fan of Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga and it’s very much to her credit that I’ve followed her from my preferred SF genre to her fantasy worlds. This story takes place in her Chalion universe and tells the story of a young man who accidentally contracts a demon. This is both better and worse than you’d expect. Better, because in Chalion, demon possession can grant great powers. Worse, because with great power comes intrigue and scheming by those interested in your new powers. That’s all background though, and the story itself is well plotted and the character relationships, particularly between Penric and his demon, and extremely well done. Easily and clearly tops this list. (Also of note: the sequel to this story is out!)
  2. Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson – What I know of Brandon Sanderson is that he tends to write epic (i.e. 1000+ page tomes), high fantasy stories, and that he’s extremely prolific. So imagine my surprise when he’s nominated in this pint-sized story category… for a work that is primarily SFnal in nature. Oh, sure, there are lots of fantasy tropes in here too, as this is a virtual reality story and our hero is the master of all he surveys. Almost literally, since he is a “liveborn” living in a simulation tailored directly to him. There are border states and other areas he can cross into to meet (and battle with) other liveborns, but he seems content to live out his little fantasy. Until he goes on a date with another liveborn and his rival engineers a monster attack. Well drawn and executed, with some interesting ideas that stick with you after reading (in particular, I’m curious about how this universe generates and maintains echo chambers – we don’t see much outside of our hero’s perspective, but we get enough to wonder). Would have topped my list in any of the past few years, but falls just shy of Bujold’s story.
  3. Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds – Scurelya is in hot water. She’s been captured by a sadistic enemy and even though the war is over, her tormentor doesn’t acknowledge such things. After a harrowing escape, she passes out… and then wakes up on a prison ship that appears lost in time. This is a grim and gritty little SF tale. There are some interesting ideas floating around, in particular the predicament they find themselves in and how that happened, but Reynolds never really harnesses them together in a cohesive enough way. The concept of a slow bullet seems rather silly, honestly, especially given how easy it is to hack. Some of the relationships could be interesting, but feel perfunctory. Again, some of the ideas are decent, but they’re too obscured by Reynolds’ insistence on grim and gritty action. As a result, the story hangs together ok, but never really soars.
  4. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – An interesting little space opera tale that doesn’t quite land, this tells the story of Binti, an ethnic minority (Himba) traveling to a university planet. At first marginalized, she realizes that while her fellow classmates aren’t Himba, they were still her people (because of their love of learning, etc…) Then the Meduse, a Metroid-like alien race, show up and turn everything upside down. It’s the sort of story that kept me engaged while reading it, but whose flaws became immediately apparent in the end. The prose is a little ornate, but the real problems have to do with the Meduse. They’re not particularly well established and even Binti’s relationship with them feels rushed and unbelievable (especially given what the Meduse has done to her friends). Similarly, once she presents the university authorities with the Meduse’s story, their response is even more ludicrous. Finally, there’s a mysterious artifact that the story hinges on that is clumsily introduced and rather poorly explained. Again, an entertaining enough story, but one which falls apart upon reflection.
  5. The Builders by Daniel Polansky – As H.P. notes: “A mouse, a stoat, a possum, a salamander, a badger, a mole, and an owl walk into a bar…” A neat idea, but unfortunately, I can’t say I was as taken with this story as H.P. The captain is a mouse who was betrayed during a civil war. He’s bided his time and now seeks revenge. He puts his gang back together again and takes on his nemesis. A decent idea, but I found the execution rather lacking. In particular, the opening of the novella is awkwardly paced and clumsy. The stakes here aren’t particularly well drawn either. We like the Captain and his band of fighters mostly just because they’re the ones we know, not because they’re inherently noble or something. In the end, it all feels a little pointless, even though it is fun to hang out with a salamander gunslinger or a possum sniper and whatnot. Not a terrible story or anything, I just didn’t quite connect with it the way I did the others this year (and what’s more is that I liked this much more than any of last year’s nominees, which gives you an additional point of reference here).

All pretty good stuff, no need to deploy No Award. See also: Jonathan Edelstein’s thoughts over at Haibane.info (I mostly agree with his assessments, with only minor differences in ranking). The top two are pretty well set, but the bottom three may shift around a little before I finally submit the ballot… which is due this week? Yikes, where does the time go? I’ve finished all of the fiction categories, and will probably only vote in a handful of others…

2016 Hugo Awards: Novelettes

Continuing the march through the Hugo finalists, we come to the awkward middle-ground between short stories and novellas that no one else uses but SF people: Novelettes. Fortunately, this is a pretty decent bunch of stories (especially compared to the lackluster short story ballot), even if none of them really stands out as truly exceptional. For me, they are all flawed in one way or another, making it pretty difficult to rank them. As such, this ranking will probably shift over time.

  1. “Obits” by Stephen King – A modern-day journalism student who naturally has difficulty landing a real job creates a snarky obituary column for a trashy internet tabloid. One day, frustrated, he writes an obituary for a living person. This being a Stephen King story, I think you can pretty much predict what’s going to happen from there. Admittedly, this is a bit on the derivative and predictable side, but King’s got the talent to pull it off with aplomb. He ably explores the idea at it’s core, taking things further than I’d expect, even if the premise itself doesn’t quite allow him much room. King has a tendency to write himself into corners, and you could argue that here, but I think he just barely skirted past that potentiality. It’s comforting to be in the hands of a good storyteller, even if this is not his best work. Still, its flaws are not unique in this batch of novelettes, so it ends up in first place for me.
  2. “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander – Rhye is a former military cyborg, now streetfighter and freelance security agent, whose boyfriend and hacker Rack is in hot water with some gangsters. It seems Rack’s virtual security system is a little too good at it’s job, and when the gangsters destroy his body, Rhye most go into virtual reality to finish off the mission and maybe save Rack’s consciousness while she’s at it. Cyberpunk comfort food, I guess. It doesn’t really extend the genre at all, and its gratuitous cursing and violence feel a bit tacky. There’s a decent enough story at the core here, and it’s well executed, but it’s even more derivative and predictable than Obits, even if it remains satisfying enough in the end. Still, I could see this falling in the ranking by the time I submit my ballot.
  3. “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu – Beijing is separated into three spaces, and the city literally folds and unfolds, making each space active for a limited time. Lao Dao is basically a third-space trashman in need of a quick infusion of cash so that he can afford his daughter’s tuition. He takes on a mission to illegally travel to first space to deliver a love letter. Along the way, he gets a glimpse into the economic and social forces dividing the spaces. It’s an interesting prism with which to view class struggle and unlike the other stories, it’s not predictable. The problem is that it doesn’t particularly feel satisfying either. It’s a very literary exploration, and as such, the speculative elements are mostly just window-dressing. The storytelling feels a bit flabby and uneven, with multiple loosely-related threads that are explored, but not particularly resolved. Of course, they don’t need to be resolved, but this sort of approach makes it feel less speculative and more flat, which drops it down a peg on my ranking… and it could potentially fall even further, though I’m betting it will remain where it’s at.
  4. “Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai – Commander Hoshi Tenzen of the Japanese Space Self Defense Force is on patrol near Titan as China launches a gambit to take over the system (is it China? No, yeah, it’s definitely China.) The result is basically space battle porn, and it’s well conceived and executed. This is the only real hard SF story of the bunch, and as such, the practical matters are the compelling force here (rather than, say, characterization), from the physics to the economics. Alas, not much else to say about it than that, though it does seem to be aging well in my head.
  5. “What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke – Vango is a fighter pilot who finds himself in some sort of virtual reality system, reunited with various comrades, even including his long dead ex-girlfriend. As time goes on, they’re given more and more advanced tasks, and their simulation gets more and more detailed. Once again, we’ve entered derivative and predictable territory here, and while the ending twist is easily guessed, it does leave you with some tricky moral questions. Not questions that are particularly well explored, mind you, but it does give this story enough of an edge for consideration. I liked this one a lot when I first read it, but it has been falling in my estimation since then…

All finalists ranked, no need to deploy No Award this time around, which seems to be my pattern with Novelettes. However, I’m having a lot of trouble ordering the list, such that almost all of the finalists could move around dramatically when I submit my final ballot…

The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

Jim Butcher is most famous for chronicling the adventures of that other wizard named Harry in the long running Dresden Files series, but he has been known to branch out into other Fantasy realms from time to time. What was nominated for this year’s Hugo Award is one of those departures, a steampunk adventure called The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass. I’ve read four of Butcher’s Dresden novels with mixed reactions, and that feeling generally holds here. Steampunk fans may enjoy this heartily, but I found myself struggling through it for some reason that I’m having trouble pinning down. I should really enjoy this novel, but something elusive is holding me back.

Humanity has retreated from a hostile, mist-covered earth into large floating spires ruled by aristocracy. They fly ships harnessing ethereal currents and use magic crystals to power everything. Spire Albion is currently embroiled in a cold war with Spire Aurora, a war that’s about to escalate, even as an even greater threat to humanity begins to stir…

Captain Grimm commands a merchant ship (ne privateer) for Spire Albion, but when the ship is hobbled in combat, he must embark on a secret mission at the behest of his Spirearch, Lord Albion himself, in order to secure the necessary repairs. Along for the ride are Gwendolyn Lancaster, hailing from a prominent aristocratic house that is famous for growing those magic crystals in vats. Her cousin Benedict is a warriorborn, human beings hybridized with some feline features to make them more efficient warriors. Bridget Tagwynn is another aristocrat, but her house is not nearly as prominent as the Lancasters. Her talking cat Rowl follows her, acting all haughty and superior (as cats do). Then there are the etherialists, people who can harness ethereal powers for their own purposes, driving them partially mad in the process. Ferus is renowned and powerful, but comes off as an absent-minded, bumbling professor. He mentors Folly, a manic-pixie dream girl whose goofiness manifests as a tendency to address all communication to her crystals (rather than who she is trying to communicate with).

All of these characters are actually pretty well established and likeable, and their relationships work well. There are some mentor-mentee things going on, some romantic inclinations, unlikely friendships, and so on, and it’s all effective and entertaining stuff. Grimm is a well-drawn leader and the glue that keeps the group together and focused. As you might tell from my description of Folly above, she initially comes off as a bit cliched, but as time goes on and we spend more time with her, she really comes into her own. There’s a villain named Cavendish who is a worthy foe. There are big ship battles that are effective and maybe even realistic. Butcher takes full advantage of the three dimensions, and seems to leverage some of the principles of aerial combat (i.e. higher altitudes have a higher energy potential, a la John Boyd’s E-M Theory, or maybe I’m giving too much credit here).

This should work for me, but for some reason, it doesn’t. Maybe it’s just the steampunk tropes that are giving me the hives. Every once in a while, Butcher will drop a term that is so very steampunk and my reaction was almost always a roll of the eyes. Verminociter? Telescoptic? Oy. But that’s just superficial surface stuff, right? The deeper dislike is more difficult to pin down. One of the things I’ve never particularly enjoyed about Butcher’s storytelling is his sense of pacing. He gets repetitive and overly-reliant on exposition, especially in the middle sections of this book. There’s great action sequences at the beginning and end of the novel, but the middle section features entirely too much silkweaver (a sorta cross between giant spiders and centipedes). Butcher’s brand of fantasy also seems to fall into the whole “escalating magical powers” trap that usually doesn’t work for me. A corollary to this is the hero who can take on obscene amounts of punishment in battle and still come through alive and well in the end. This book isn’t as bad as some of Butcher’s others, but it’s still there, and it is one of those things that just makes the book seem longer…

It often feels like we’re just spinning our wheels. Eventually everything’s set up for the climax, so he kinda gets there… only that isn’t really the climax. The conflict between Spires Albion and Aurora has only just begun. There are hints at an even larger threat, an ancient enemy, but they’re only hints. We don’t really get far into either of these, and yet this book is over 750 pages long. Sometimes you can get away with that, but the airship battles, characters, and their relationships just weren’t enough to overcome the bloated exposition and steampunk cliches. I’m not particularly opposed to finding out what happens next, but I can’t see myself picking up the next book in the series either (without some sort of outside prompting).

In the larger context of the Hugo novel category, it’s perhaps telling that my two favorites are standalone novels (Seveneves and Uprooted), while the two series-starters (this book and The Fifth Season) are clearly my least favorite. Ancillary Mercy kinda squeaks by because it’s the end of it’s particular story, even if I didn’t particularly love it. I’ve finished off the novelettes and am working through the novellas now, so look for updates on those in the near future.