New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson

91dTajmVJmLAnd in contrast to my last book, this one was shit. I went into the Hugos slightly worried that I’d already read all the good ones (a lot of Nebula crossover plus authors I’d sought out anyway) and this… not only confirmed it but doubled down on it.

To put it as briefly as possible: I do not want my SFF novels to be economics textbooks. And I never thought I’d have to spell that out. It seems so obvious… and yet, I present to you: New York 2140.

Not that that was the only issue, mind you.

  1. It was an economics textbook.
  2. I didn’t care about any of the characters.
  3. I don’t want to read whole chapters going on about how amazing this one bit of New York geography is and how it basically changed the world.
  4. Still don’t care about economics.
  5. Or finance in any way at all.
  6. Still no.
  7. Aaaand the tone is really smug.
  8. WOO MISOGYNY.
  9. Yes I know global warming is shit, you didn’t have to tell me that. FIFTEEN HUNDRED TIMES. I ALREADY AGREE.
  10. Oh look, it’s another chapter about how amazing and unique New York is.
  11. When will this torment end.
  12. ECONOMICS.

The answer to 11 was “in way too long” because it is not a short book. Really not. And it felt so much longer than it was. I nixed my lead on my Goodreads reading goal because of this book. I coudn’t stick more than a couple of chapters at a time. The writing style is really smug and self-congratulatory, and the characters are all unlikeable wankers, and then oh god the economics.

Okay, to explain that (because a lot of this blog post is just gonna be “ugh economics”) – one of the characters works in finance. Like… trading… something? Shut up, I know sod all about this stuff. Anyway, his chapters follow two topics; either he explains economics at length and in depth, or he’s sad about a lady he fancies not liking him enough and he doesn’t understand women. And the problems with the second one are pretty self explanatory. But re: the first… some of this is just me. I have absolutely zero interest in finance, economics and the associated whatever. I just don’t and can’t muster it. Sorry. But some of it would be there whatever bit of science it was (ok unless it was linguistics or a bit of biology I find cool). It’s just way too much. When a character only exists to lecture you on this one bit of science (or angst about a sexy lady)… it’s just not enough. They become EXPOSITION MAN. And it’s not even really exposition a lot of the time. It is honest to god just explaining to you how trading or whatever works. Like, real things that exist in the real world. Occasionally it dips into how they affect the flood-filled future, but the point isn’t super about how they’ve changed. It’s just… explaining them. Again and again and again. And so I started skimming them. I didn’t really take much in. And it in no way affected how I understood the book – the rest of the plot was entirely comprehensible without them. So… what are they? Just guff. Unnecessary, self-indulgent wittering guff. It’s obnoxious, because it came across really patronising too, like the author felt I ought to know about this so he was going to take some time out of writing his SF to teach me economics. Dude, fuck right off.

This is, to be honest, my major issue with the book. It bored me to fucking tears with this shit. There wasn’t enough of anything else to balance it out. But hey, there were other issues too so guess I’m going to rant some more.

The misogyny… was definitely an issue. There are a lot of fleshed out female characters in the book, so it’s not like KSR is a serial idiot on this front. I suppose maybe the intention was to use it as a character flaw in Franklin (economics man). But the problem is, he doesn’t really have a character, so you don’t really take it as indicative of him as a person, because there’s no person there. He’s exposition-man! Who needs personality when you have ECONOMICS FACTS? So it felt more like a reflex of the author’s views… and then it jarred horribly with those fleshed out female characters. So it just didn’t make any sense. So that was fun…

And there was a lot of American exceptionalism. Like, a LOT. I know urban fantasy has a thing for going “hey, London? LONDONLONDONLONDON!!” but this was worse. Even if I leave aside the “I’ve been to London ever so can picture this”. There was so much of the author telling you how this one specific building/person/thing in New York proves that New York and its people are just that special and magnificent and world changing that it just swamps you. He once takes the piss out of it… then keeps doing it, so you don’t believe he actually thinks it’s stupid. And it is so fucking repetitive. It’s only outdone by the economics, frankly. But it’s mostly not done in a character voice, it’s just a chapter of author-voice stuff, so it’s not even like it’s got a thin veil of being in service to the plot. He just interrupts this scheduled programme to tell you have trully amazing New York is. Didn’t you hear? Even if I ever cared (nope), I don’t anymore.

At the heart of all this belaboured fuckery, there’s a vague mystery plot or some shit. Who even cares? It’s buried under so much bullshit it’s not worth finding, and even when you do it’s half-assed and stupid. There’s no real resolution to it, and the way it plays out is just kinda… eh? The resolution is a bit serendipitous and hand-wavey. But it really is quite sparsely strung out among all the other plates the book is spinning, so even in the quite hefty tome, there’s not enough space to do it justice. I guess someone could claim this was actually a book about some people who live in future New York, and yes there’s a bit of mystery solving but mainly it’s about people and their relationships… but the book really doesn’t want you to measure it against that yardstick, let me tell you. I give no fucks about any of the people in it. They’re all a bit… who gives a shit. Or wankers. Or annoying preteens. Or all of the above. The women are, thankfully, at least as fleshed out as the men, so it’s not a misogyny fest but that’s not a high bar. They’re all a bit pointless and under-shown. So… yeah no, not that.

I guess that’s my real problem. I don’t know what this book is supposed to be, and it feels like it doesn’t either. It meanders along trying to be deep and clever, but it achieves boring or irritating. Mainly “long”. And “economics”. It never achieves any sort of actual resolution, and just… it’s a big sort of “bleeeeerggghgh” on a lot of pages, on a load of semi-related things the author cares about, vaguely tied together with some characters or something. It doesn’t feel finished at all. Not that I think I’d like what this would be even if it were. God it was such a fucking effort to get through this, I honestly nearly gave up.

If this wins the Hugo I’ll be seriously pissed off.

Current Hugo rankings, therefore, run thus:

1) Raven Stratagem – Yoon Ha Lee
2) Provenance – Ann Leckie
3) The Stone Sky – N. K. Jemisin
4) Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty
5) New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson (and it’s saying something that I think this is even shitter than Six Wakes).

 

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Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

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This isn’t actually the edition I read – that was the cool black and white one – but finding a usable image for that was a bugger.

Well this was amazing.

I forget how brilliant good books can feel, when I’ve spent too long reading mediocre things. And this is more than just good. It wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up being the best book I read this year. And some of that is that it plays into stuff I like – of course I’m going to enjoy a reworking of a Greek myth on some level – but some of it is more than that… it’s just really damn good. It makes you think. The writing is really solid. It takes a very well known Classical myth and makes it so vividly relevant to the modern world that you can forget it was a Classical myth at all. It gives you characters who feel incredibly real, and some of whom are very easy to care about. But most fundamentally? It’s a very challenging book. It left me wondering about my own motivations for liking the characters I liked, feeling what I felt, sympathising how I did. And some of that wasn’t exactly in a good way – it left me wondering how much prejudice I was having to examine about my own feelings – but even if it wasn’t fun on that level, it still felt valuable. I for all that I like enjoying books, sometimes it’s good to read something and come away re-examining yourself for unconscious biases.

The crux of the story is a retelling of the Antigone myth – if you don’t know it, essentially it is this:

Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polynices have died, one defending the state, one fighting against it. The one who defended them has been buried with full honour, but the other has been left to rot in the son and be eaten by the dogs, by the ruling of the new king of Thebes, Creon. This is an offence to the gods, incredibly taboo, and against the deepest mores. Antigone defies Creon and buries her brother, against the advice of her more timid/pragmatic sister Ismene. Creon punishes her by locking her in a tomb to die. He has a change of heart, however, and hurries to the tomb to free her, only to find not only her corpse, but that of his son Haemon, who was engaged to Antigone. Creon’s wife also kills herself, upon discovering the death of her son.

Home Fire doesn’t always stick totally close to the original narrative, but it does reinvoke the spirit of the original, telling a story about a girl defying the laws of men, invoking higher, more fundamental forms of “right” and dying for her beliefs. It is set in modern Britain, with Aneeka (Antigone) and her family Isma (Ismene) and Parvaiz (Polynices) being muslims living in London, and Karamat Lone (Creon) a muslim-born Home Secretary, along with his son Eamon (Haemon). Aneeka’s father, a jihadi, left their home many years ago and died en route to Guantanamo Bay, leaving their family under suspicion and surveillance back in the UK. The bulk of the story takes place in a time when the Home Secretary is increasing security and scrutiny on the families of those who leave to join ISIS, and the suffering this causes. We get a chapter each from the perspectives of the main characters, and see the story on both sides, though with the ever-present undercurrent of the original myth telling us always who is “right”.

The thing that really stood out for me, and made me think most about the book, is the fact that I sympathised most with Isma. Ismene in the original myth is meek, timid and obedient, insisting her sister should submit to Creon’s will and let their brother’s body be. Antigone defies her, and we all know she’s right – she is defending the rules of the gods, not those of mortal men. Shamsie has written her Ismene to be the most pragmatic of the siblings – she seeks to keep her younger brother and sister safe in the current climate of suspicion, advises them to behave, to let things lie, to survive. She’s not meek, exactly, but she is not the one pushing to Do The Right Thing – she just wants to protect her family. And I find her incredibly sympathetic. Some of this is because a lot of her personality is something I can identify, she’s a natural rule follower, quiet and studious, sensible and organised. But I can’t help but wonder if some of it is also my context – whether I think they ought to go along, get by, because… well modern Britain. And I cannot honestly say whether or not this is affecting me (because who can). And that bugs me. Because I know Antigone/Aneeka is meant to be Right. That’s the whole point of the story. But I struggle very hard to sympathise with her because, like the original Antigone, she has no flexibility in her. No compromise, no softness. And again, I can’t honestly tell if this is me disliking her as a person, or this is me disliking her politics – am I reacting because I think she ought to be quiet and get by, not protest against the unfairness of things? I don’t know. And that’s… quite something. It’s not fun, but it feels… right to be challenged like this? Worthwhile.

I won’t go too much into how things play out in the book, because as I say, it doesn’t follow the story too closely, but I want to talk about it as a retelling of a myth… because it is exactly what I think mythic retellings ought to be.

The best example, this aside, of a retelling of a myth I have seen recently is Ody-C. Does it follow the original story closely? Nope. Does it fuck around with some of the fundamentals? Heck yeah. Does it instead take the essence of the story and make something new which still has the soul of the original? YES. And this is what Home Fire does, and what I think the best retellings do. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ll read things like The Wicked + the Divine, or The Gospel of Loki. I’ll enjoy them. But they’re not great literature, or even good. They’re nice, pleasant enough stories that I mainly like because “hey look, Greek mythology!”. Not… because they’re any good. The ones that leave a lasting impression are the ones that take what the story actually means and make something good of it. And that’s what this is. It has taken a story which relies on the taboo about leaving a body out to rot (which for all it’s still not something we’d really support right now, it doesn’t have the same status of “oh god no” it did then), and found a way to twist it into the modern world, to find something that plays into that same deep-seated sense of what is Right, and rooted itself right in. It feels like a story that relates the same emotional weight, in the same direction, by translating it to modern feeling, rather than hoping the reader can grasp the weight of the original – and that makes me think it would carry the same force, whether or not one knew the original myth. Which ought to be the point.

I’m immensely glad I read this, and that it won the Women’s Prize this year – it absolutely deserved it. If it goes on to be the best book I read this year, I won’t be sad. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, whether or not you like or care about Greek Mythology.

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Mirror the Mountain – Emma Ríos, Hwei Lim

mirror-the-mountainAnd on from Nod, I wanted to go onto something fairly quick, to get back some of the momentum I lost on it and The Book of Joan (which I’ve not finished and may well come back to shortly, we’ll see), neither of which I was super into. So a pretty graphic novel seemed very much the way to go.

And… well… it was pretty, I guess?

Mirror the Mountain is about an asteroid inhabited by humans and magic animals, but the asteroid itself is somehow conscious and involved in things. It’s a bit weird. And it is massively not helped by the fact the story is told non-linearly. I’m not against that, normally, but I think this is the worst example of it I’ve ever seen. You need to be able to get to grips with the pattern of the story at some point, if not immediately, to be able to follow what’s going on, and this… never gives you that. Each section is too short to give you a real sense of itself, and then you’re thrown into another bit of the timeline. And they helpfully give you in-universe dates for all the sections but… it’s really hard to remember whether the last chapter you read was before or after in random dating system. Even if you spot it at all (it is not the most obviously placed). So I just ended up really confused. I sort of knew what was happening by the very end, but I didn’t enjoy the process of getting there, because I spent way too much time flipping back and few pages and trying to figure out where we even were to spend the time I needed enjoying the story.

It also didn’t help that this gave me no time to enjoy any of the characters, and none of them shone out enough on their own to overcome that. I think the confusion frankly overrode all the other ways I’d normally measure a book, because I just didn’t get a chance to pay attention. Pacing? Lol what even is pacing? Because it only felt like it pulled together at the end, it felt like a huge rush of threads being resolved, where you’d not connected stuff properly beforehand so you’d not been able to get a clear sense of how events were progressing.

The only thing, then, that I get a clear shot at is the art. And it’s good – it’s pretty in a washed out sort of watercolour way – but it’s not pretty enough to carry a whole book. It’s not even in my top five of graphic novel art.

I feel like if it had been given more length, more patience, this could have been a lot better. Give each section space to let you understand when you are in the timeline, to establish itself, slow everything down and give the characters a chance to speak for themselves and shine, then maybe I could have really really enjoyed it, because the central ideas and themes felt worthwhile. I just never got a chance to appreciate them. It’s not promising enough that I’ll read a sequel, but I would not say no to reading more by the author/artist combo.

That being said, it was a quick read, confusion aside, and something I needed to keep the momentum going and drive me into my next book, so I appreciated that. There’s always something quite satisfying about being able to sit down and read the entire graphic novel in one sitting.

So a solid meh, but not one I am particularly miffed to have experienced. I gave it 3 stars, but definitely it’s a low 3, heading for the 2/3 border. It also suffers by contrast to my next book, Home Fire, which I’ve already finished and will try to blog shortly, which was AMAZING. I will be enthusing a lot about that one…

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Nod – Adrian Barnes

nod-adrian-barnes-616x956A brief digression from the Hugos for one of the two books recently lent to me by friends. The other – The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch – I have somewhat bounced off. It wasn’t bad enough to be worth angry reading, nor weird enough to be enticing. It was just weird and bland and uninteresting. I will try to push on at some point, but now is not the time.

This is the other. I wasn’t super sold on it when it was mentioned, but I trust the lender, and it was a short book, so I figured, why not? I now have a fulsome answer to that question…

So, the premise of the novel is that suddenly, inexplicably, nearly everyone in the world is unable to sleep. This is a snapshot of the fallout of that catastrophe – what happens in a world full of sleep-deprived people careening towards inevitable psychosis and death, told from the perspective of one of the few left who can sleep. Problem is, I’m not super sold on that premise. It reeks a bit of cut price zombie story… and I really don’t like zombie stories. Not just because the prospect is kinda scary (though it is), it’s just… dull. Oh the unstoppable progress of the shambling horde, oh no… oh they’re still shambling huh? Who would have guessed. Shamble shamble… and on it goes. It’s just very much not my thing, and the way this is blurbed kinda read like it might fit into that vibe.

As it happens, it didn’t quite, but still captures some of the other aspects of a zombie novel – the ones I think that are just more common in general to dystopia fiction – that I don’t like. The whole survivalism thing, especially when it’s the man going out and fighting for the food, foraging, surviving in the new urban wilderness with skills he never knew he had. The writing off of a lot of people as just suddenly Other, whether as a zombie horde, another tribe or the slowly unravelling sleep-deprived. So yeah, it’s pushing a load of my nope buttons, through no fault of its own (though I would argue that slotting into the Great Survivalist Man trope is problematic in its own ways that the author isn’t entirely excused from).

But aside from it just not being my thing by way of skirting into a genre I meh… it’s also bad in several ways. Leading on from the Survivalist Man thing, one of the main one was gender. I present to you, the following excerpt (I think spoiler free):

We called her Zoe, Tanya having plucked the name from a mental list of future-children names that women seem to carry around inside themselves like eggs. Women. Eggs in their bodies, babies in their eyes.

So. Some issues here.

Firstly, I do not carry a fucking list of baby names in my head, simply because I am a woman. I am not, thank-you-very-damn-much, reducable to my reproductive capacity. How fucking DARE you.

Secondly, you make a sweeping statement like that, so unequivocal, you’re gonna run up against the fact that it just doesn’t fucking apply to a lot of people. Not all women have eggs in their bodies, for instance, let alone whether all of us can be characterised by a fanatical desire for babies.

Thirdly, it’s frankly just creepy.

This is… not uncharacteristic of the way women are portrayed in the book (or woman, really… there’s only one of any real note). There’s never anything to give us a sense that the book disagrees with the narrator’s view of women – it’s never undercut, his opinions are never countered. And then it doubles down by using a woman as property… having one man demonstrate his power over her specifically to upset another man. At no point is this shown to be because he’s upset that her free will is being suborned, either. It’s not about her being forced. It’s about her being his. And that was fucking galling to read.

But it’s not just women, oh no. We also get this gem:

‘I just fell down. I was too scared.’ The fat man shook his head and his jowls flapped. There’s a point of obesity where, like it or not, whatever your other personal achievements or qualities, all you are is ‘the fat man’ or ‘the fat lady’. The world is a gawking four-year-old.

As someone who recently had a phonecall with an older person who asked her “are you still putting on weight darling?”, let’s just say this isn’t an attitude I’m unfamiliar with. And the way it’s put – like it’s hard, immovable fact – is just horrendous. Again, it’s never undercut. The fat people of the book are vaguely comical and grotesque, and that’s their lot. Again, galling.

You see where this is going.

And there’s never anything to redeem the narrator, in fact, he’s portrayed as being so very special clever, alas misunderstood misanthrope, too tied up in his clever words to relax and be among people, so sad. I was only a few pages in when I may have described him as “totally up himself”. The language, especially early on, is what someone who wants to sound clever but hasn’t quite got the knack of using all those words in real conversation uses. It’s just that shade too awkward, too up-register. It sits wrong. And it makes both the author and the narrator feel like unlikeable, arrogant, armchair intellectuals. I definitely felt like they’d both mansplain to me given half a chance.

And this permeates the book entirely. We never escape the narrator’s viewpoint, never see anything other than his little, self-absorbed view of the world, and it feels bereft. I’m not saying the idea is stellar or anything, but it could have been a better book than this, if only given something less shallow to support it, a person I actually wanted to see from the inside.

Shockingly then, the attempts to draw sweeping conclusions about humanity and modern life fall rather flat. I’m wary of that sort of thing anyway – one man realises how superficial we all are, sees below the surface, exposes the rot, because somehow, he’s the one man who really can… it’s just, again, arrogant and self-important – but it’s not even done well. If the prose was good, the character compelling… I’d never love it, but I’d roll with it. It wasn’t even letting me do that. And of course, if you’re this sort of self-important, you’re going to take pot-shots at religion. Like so:

There’s a natural point in the development of any religion where the prophet becomes first a nuisance and then a positive liability. Just imagine Jesus walking into an evangelical church while the collection plate was being passed around – or into a Catholic priest’s chamber while the altar boy’s frock is pulled up over his head. At some point it’s inevitable that the prophet has to go.

I’m not saying never criticise religion – that would be stupid – but come on. Really. This is what you’re giving us? This is pretty much the epitome of his incisive commentary.

And so it goes. It’s not the worst book ever – I only gave it two stars, not one – but I have read some truly appalling shite, so it’s a low bar to get under, when you think about it. It’s definitely bad enough I’m happy to lump it into “shite”. It’s rather more pleased with itself than it deserves, and I just have no interest in reading another smug, white dude being satisfied with his own “cleverness”. It’s not like it’s never been done before. And it manages to be not even low-grade offensive in a way that doesn’t disabuse me of the notion that the author thinks the offhand comments are… somehow okay. Maybe he didn’t. I can’t know for sure. But it didn’t feel that way, to read. And to be quite honest, that’s the bit I think matters. It’s pretty easy not to be a misogynist, fat-shaming prick, and I’m not particularly inclined to give anyone the benefit of the doubt.

All in all, a big no from me. But it was short, and I moved onto better things after (I’ve actually already finished two subsequent books, one of which was meh and one of which was bloody amazing, so at least it’s upwards from here. I’ve now started on the Hugos too. Yes, yes I should blog more quickly).

 

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Jade City – Fonda Lee

36681361Edited to add: I wrote nearly all of this post over a week ago, before the Nebula results were announced. You’ll have to take it on trust that my prediction is honestly what I wrote back then.

I’ve finished the Nebulas! And thank god for that. And thankfully it ended on… well, not exactly a high note, but the highest note available in the bunch. Jade City, to get to the crux of the matter, is absolutely the best book in the Nebula nominees this year, from my point of view, and is the one I’m hoping will win.

But. But…

It was still, ultimately, a bit of a disappointment. Not a huge one, I’m not angry at having to read it, and if I’d read it outside the Nebulas, I’d probably be pretty happy with it. But guys, come on, this is meant to be BEST SFF BOOK. Of the YEAR. This is supposed to be a high bar, right? And I’d hope that in any normal year, Jade City would be the high end of average. It does a lot of good shit – the characters are far better than any other of the Nebula nominees, and pretty good even just generally, the setting is interesting, well built and outside of the usual, the magic likewise, the plotting is decent. Admittedly the pacing is faaaaairly bad, but hey, that’s one thing right, we can manage one thing. But… well, it’s not that special. It’s not your usual fare, and it’s competently done, but it’s no… I don’t know, Ninefox Gambit. It doesn’t sing.

But balancing against that, there’s a lot of joy in what it’s chosen to do. I mean, there’s very often joy in just fantasy that’s decided “fuck you pseudo-medieval Europe” and “sod off urban fantasy London”. Do a different thing! Different things are fun! But this is a particularly good example of a different thing, because it’s really well visualised. I can see the city she describes, hear it and smell it, feel the sticky heat. It’s a setting concerned with very different problems than fantasy pseudo-medieval-England, with different resources. And that should be more the norm, always.

I suppose I was spoilt last year – the field was excellent, and I was glad to have read even the books I didn’t like. I’m just getting pissy because this year, everything is shit. *sigh*, ah well, we do what we can.

The reason I will remember this book, and the reason I would ever seek out the sequels to read, is because I loved the characters. Not just “ooh, they seem like actual people, how novel”, but genuine love. I wanted them to succeed, to learn and to change, and even though they had conflicting wants and aims, I wanted them all to be happy nonetheless. And that’s hard. Ok fine there’s one viewpoint character I didn’t like, but he’s a very minor one, so that’s fine. The central family we follow, we see inside the minds of three siblings and a cousin, and they all have so much going for them. And more importantly, they all have such empathy for each other, and we get to see them through their siblings’ flawed gazes, and it is brilliant. There’s the calmer, much older brother who’s a little reticent and trying to take the long view, while also forced to live up to the reputation of his grandfather. There’s the younger, hothead brother who seems like an unthinking, violent idiot… until you watch him thinking about his sister, and how complex his feelings about her life choices are. And then there’s the little sister, frustrated by how hard she’s had to work to keep up with the men, and doubly so by the fact that working so hard was what ended up counting against her, and struggling with ideas of identity and home and family and who she ought to be. You can see who I liked best. And then the cousin, outside but inside, giving us a different perspective altogether. They fit well together, and bring us to see the whole of the world that Lee has created.

And it’s a good world. Not one quite so magical as its characters, but well done all the same. It’s a novel setting done relatively well, and the newness does a lot for me. She definitely does a lot of work realising the details of it, so it really does feel plausible, the way the magic weaves into how the world works, and even affecting international relations – and I think it’s crucial that although magic affects a lot of things, it doesn’t dominate most of them. The only people for whom it is so crucial and central are people who are portrayed as a bit obsessed by it. They’re an elite… but also a nuisance, a danger and something to be reigned in politically. It’s very well balanced.

But what lets it down is the pacing. And it’s sufficiently a problem that I think it actually does cast a shadow over the rest of the book, however well done. It drags out abominably at the beginning – it felt like the setup would never stop – and then suddenly I’m not just in the action but several chapters deep and somehow I missed the switch. It’s part of why it took me longer than usual to get a feel for whether I enjoyed the book or not. And then the end chops off so suddenly, I started reading the acknowledgements, and went back assuming I’d missed a couple of chapters somewhere. It’s not that the story is left as a cliffhanger or anything – it ends in a reasonable place – but we get to it in such a strangely timed way that it feels very awkward and unsatisfying.

It’s not something that would stop me reading a sequel – I enjoyed the book, and I think it’s something likely to change in future novels by the author – but it did tarnish an otherwise excellent book, and made me less than thrilled that this was the best I got (apparently) for the year. Yes, it was good. Yes, I will read more. Yes, I loved parts of it… but it’s not brilliance just yet. I’m not going to recommend it to all and sundry (like I did with All the Birds in the Sky, or with Borderline, both of which were firm favourites from the go for me). It’s good, but it’s not great… but it’s good enough for potential, hope and trust in the author for better things to come.

Which brings me neatly to my round up…

So, my final ranking of the Nebula nominees of 2018 runs thus:

1Jade City – Fonda Lee
2. The Stone Sky – N. K. Jemisin
3. Amberlough – Lara Elena Donnelly.
4. 
Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory.
5. Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty
6. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – Theodora Goss.
7. Autonomous – Annalee Newitz.

You may notice I’ve switched my bottom two places around. This is deliberate. The further away I get from The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, the less angry I become at having had to put up with it, and the more I become convinced that it was at least a touch more readable than Autonomous. They’re still both absolute shite, don’t get me wrong. There’s not what you might consider literary merit in either of them. But I think, on reflection, Autonomous is the worst of the lot.

As to who will actually win? My money (hypothetically speaking) is on The Stone Sky, which I wouldn’t be super upset about, because it’s not actually shit, like most of them. I’d be deeply upset if any of the bottom four win, and kind of miffed if Amberlough did, but not… distraught. Obviously I want Jade City to win, but I really doubt this is what’s going to do it. Fingers crossed though, and only about a week to wait to find out…

Of course, what this does mean is I can get on with the Hugos. Currently, I’ve already read most of them, so my starting ranking runs thus:

1. The Raven Stratagem – Yoon Ha Lee
2. Provenance – Ann Leckie
3. The Stone Sky – N. K. Jemisin
4. Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty

There’s a decent gap between 3 and 4 here, because Six Wakes really was quite shit. Hopefully the other two I need to read – New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi – will come in ahead of it, but I doubt either are going to top my chart. I have very, very limited interest in cli-fi, for instance, and have managed to not get round to reading any Scalzi thus far… and wouldn’t have started now but for this. He just seems a bit dull. But we shall see. Fingers crossed I’m proven wrong.

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The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold

1226This was a slightly weird one for me. I’ve had it recommended to me by quite a few people over several years, not with any particular blurb, just that it was very good. What I actually got when I started reading, then, surprised me, because it felt like very… pat fantasy. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting in its place, given that no one had said anything to me about what it was actually about, but I guess I just thought it would be something… less obvious? Less tropey? It was an odd place to be, in any case.

I ended up rating it 4/5, which sounds like it means I came to see how wrong this assessment of mine was… but that’s not the case. The five star system really doesn’t leave enough space for nuance. It was definitely a low 4, because I didn’t want to give it 3 (my rating of “meh, I guess” or “the shitty bits are outweighed by moments of great”), because it isn’t a meh book. I enjoyed reading it, and got through it pretty quickly once I actually started reading. But it felt… like just a step up from Trudi Canavan or something. Competent, pleasant trash without sufficient substance to be anything more than that. 7/10, I’d say, if Goodreads had a better system.

The setting felt pretty pat fantasy to me – pseudo-medieval pseudo-Europe, courts and religion and politics and princesses, you know the drill. I was told afterwards that there’s a specific link to Spanish history, but I didn’t really notice it while reading (though it definitely tends toward a Mediterranean flavour in the naming etc.), and I don’t think it’s sufficiently important to make a difference – we’re not talking Guy Gavriel Kay here. There’s nothing particularly wrong with such a traditional setting, but it didn’t exactly rush up and grab me either. You know what you’re getting, and that’s what you get. It’s relatively well done, but nothing stellar, just a sturdy, readable example of that.

Likewise, the characters are pretty well done, a bit run of the mill, but definitely feel like actual humans. The protagonist – Cazaril – is plausibly a man with a Hard Past who has seen many difficulties in life and struggles with them in his present. He’s got problems that do affect him daily as a result of his experiences, and that’s dealt with well. He’s also a pleasant enough personality who I liked riding along with well enough (except the couple of bits where I didn’t reeeeally need to know what was going on in his “loins”). But if you come back to me in a year? I’m not going to really remember him, or any of the other characters, pleasant as they were, except maybe a vague “yeah I think they were alright?”. They didn’t have any sort of real impact on me.

Likewise, the plot is your standard court politicking with a bit of magic thrown in. Again, it’s perfectly competently done, but there’s nothing stand-out to make you point to the book and go “omg this”.

I did have the misfortune to be spoiled on one of the parts where there was actual tension, so I can’t really comment on how effective that would have been. I think I would have assumed the book was going the other way on the issue than it eventually did, but it’s hard to say for sure when I knew what was coming. It felt like there would have been some decent suspense and it would have carried through well, so that’s good. But it’s the only part of the book that I really felt had that.

All of this isn’t to say it’s badly done – it’s really not – and she completely avoids the issue of the bad guy(s) being caricatures. She works well on making them just as human and plausible as her protagonist and allies, and giving them real motivations so their choices felt natural. They weren’t characters I sympathised with or enjoyed, and it’s not a case that their actions were plausibly good, but they made sense, and that’s a good bar to have crossed. They gave the plot a decent opposition from fairly early on without letting it slip too easily into obviousness, or forcing one to assume that all allies of the antagonist were naturally evil, as they would have to be to ally themselves with such a monster. There was a general sense of concern for motivation, some of which, I imagine, comes out of that link to real historical events (however tenuous).

So far, so forgettable. But there was one aspect of the book that did stand out for me… and not in a good way – the religion.

Initially, it feels exactly like any other fantasy religion. You have a limited pantheon with strictly delineated roles, and whose existence is in no question for they have reliable and demonstrable interactions with the world. And if you just leave it at that, I already dislike it. Because the way that fantasy often writes religion – as gods who are “real” and act – leaves no room for faith as it is in the real world. Where is belief when your god lets you zap a man with a fireball? It strips the complexity out of a lot of real-world religion, leaving it more as a different flavour of magic, which feels deeply unsatisfying for me. And the book is, in some ways, striving for realism – you get actual rituals and a feeling of the yearly calendar of events within the church that feels more true to life than often is the case, and more present in the lives of its adherents likewise – and so this feels all the more frustrating. There’s one moment, where the archdivine (head of the church) explains a small point of theology central to the actions of one particular character, and the complexity it brought to the plate was refreshingly realistic… but the contrast to the whole of the rest of the book’s unnatural simplicity of religion was jarring, and made the incompleteness of it all the more apparent.

But her religion also feels an alarming lack of personality – the people within it just don’t act like people, and that’s wrong. The central faith follows five gods – the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter and the Bastard. Most clergy are in the service of one of these gods, all of whom have their strictly delineated roles and purviews. And there is no infighting at all. None. Ever. Everyone gets along with the other factions and is all jolly and co-operative and there’s never a fight over whether this particular obscure sphere of life actually belongs to the Mother or the Father that’s turned into a source of ongoing theological tension between the factions for the last three centuries and caused a schism. I don’t believe it. There’s also one group of people who don’t worship the fifth god – great, actual schism! Fantastic. Finally some plausibility. But then you think about it for a moment and… wait… this is a world when the gods’ existence is without question because they demonstrate their powers at predictable and reliable points. Their avatars claim the dead at funerals. And so how… do you have a faction that cuts out a god when that god’s existence is beyond argument? It makes no sense.

Now, the book is not centrally focussed on religion, but religion is a very important part of it, and I found myself time and again being confused by just how simplistic it was. Faith, as a major sphere of human action, just isn’t simple. People aren’t simple. So you have to build your faith and the people who comprise it as a realistic model of the complexity of real human characters and activity, or it just feels hollow and fake (looking at you Game of Thrones and tbh literally nearly all fantasy ever).

And this, for me, is what let the book down most of all. Without it, it would have been enjoyable, forgettable trash that I’d have happily given a 4 to without qualms and run off to read the rest of the series in a week, before forgetting the entire plot within two months. And I’d have had fun with that. As it stands, it does still get a 4… but very much on the lower end, and with caveats. I’ve been told the second book, Paladin of Souls, is the better of the series, and I probably will go ahead and read it… but only because I trust the person telling me that quite a lot.

And this is kind of what’s confused me about the whole thing. People – ones I trust on books, and whose opinions are normally enough for me to go “ok, yep, that book” – have strongly encouraged me to read this. And I just don’t get… why. I don’t see anything special in it, anything that isn’t “just another fantasy book”. It’s not bad… it’s not annoying or wrong, for the most part… but nor is it in any way notable. And so I’m just really confused why they’re all so keen, and sat here feeling like I’ve somehow missed something. Huh.

Coming up next – the final Nebula nominee Jade City by Fonda Lee. Fingers crossed it manages to be sufficiently not awful that I endorse it wholeheartedly for the win. After that, I have a couple of books loaned to me that I want to get through, and then I’ll read the two uniquely Hugo nominated books, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. If I’m honest, I’m really not interested in either of them, but we’ll see, I could be surprised. Fingers crossed.

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Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty

lafferty_sixwakes_tpGod damnit. I’d heard this one was GOOD. But NO. It was only LIES and TEMPTATION and BETRAYAL. Cruelly building up my hopes, only to dash them with the inevitability of shitness.

In hindsight, the praise I’d heard of this book was mainly focussed around the idea, and the idea isn’t a bad one – a murder mystery in space, where a group of clones have been awakened without their memories so even the killer may not know whodunnit. It’s not stunningly original, but I’m intrigued, and I love a cosy mystery so maybe this would be my jam. I had not heard (ok, except on the cover of the book itself, so not to be trusted anyway) that the writing was any good. Which is good because… it wasn’t. Like, super wasn’t. I’m not saying I should have seen this coming, because I can’t go around assuming all SFF is badly written until someone tells me otherwi-… actually, that might not be a bad idea…

Ok, I joke, but the Nebulas are really getting me down at this point. Why are they all so TERRIBLE?

Fundamentally, my issue with this one is that it frustrated me a lot because it was a decent (if not stunning) idea, let down by utterly uninspiring writing. I’m not saying the sort of writing that gets out of the way so you just enjoy the story. That would have been fine. No, it’s the sort of bad where you occasionally have to stop and take a photo of the page because the writing is so bad it’s a bit funny. Not Autonomous levels of hilarity – I didn’t end up tweeting any screenshots of this one – but definitely amusing. I am particularly remembering a digression at the start of a chapter about sentient teapots. And it’s just depressing because honestly, this is a problem for SFF. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the acceptable threshold of writing quality is way, way lower than in other genres. You get away with a heck of a lot of crap because “oh well the world building is good” or “oh but it’s about the ideas”. Don’t care. Still a novel. Still needs to function as a novel that I actually want to finish reading. And a lot of people have a stick up their arse about how much SFF is looked down on, as a genre, by e.g. literary fiction. And you know what? Maybe that’s because we let this shit fly. Because there ARE well-written bits of SFF out there: The SparrowKrakenAnnihilationKindredNinefox Gambit, The Handmaid’s TaleVellum… they clearly do exist. And I’m not complaining that the greats aren’t the majority, because that would be a stupid argument. What I am complaining about is the fact that the basic standard for entry is just too low. You get crap like this, like Autonomous, like The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s DaughterRed RisingEragonThe Dresden Files… I could go on. And I’m not saying that trash is bad. I like some trash – I was once a teenage girl who read Trudi Canavan novels – but SFF has a whole massive layer below trash that’s just shite. No wonder the genre gets judged. I judge, and I read it for preference. If we, as readers, can’t be bothered to exert basic standards of writing quality on what we read, well then of course we’re going to be judged. You don’t exactly see hordes of SFF writers winning e.g. the Booker, and I’m not going to be claiming this is because of Outrageous Prejudice.

And Six Wakes is exactly the problem SFF has. It has been lauded (I’ve seen a fair bit of stuff going round about how it’s pretty awesome) when it does not reach my basic metric for functional storytelling – can I get through the whole book without stopping at any point to look at the writing because its low quality has gone so far as to distract me from the content of what I’m reading. This is not a HIGH BAR. I’m asking for “not distractingly bad”, not Booker Prize Winning. And yet, here we are, with supposedly one of the contenders for best SFF book of the year, and we can’t reach that standard. HALF OF THE NOMINEES can’t reach that standard. God. Think about that for a minute. And I’ve not even read Jade City yet, what if that’s crap too…

Maybe someone could tell me this isn’t the genre for me, if other people enjoy this badly written stuff and it’s making me this angry. Let it lie. Go read something else that caters to what I want. But no, fuck it no. I care about SFF – I think it’s a fantastic genre with a lot of scope to tell the stories other genres can’t or won’t, and to think about things in new ways, and from new angles, because it has the freedom to be broader, to look further and to think more differently. It has a freedom of metaphor and exploration that you don’t necessarily get in things based in the mundane world – you have the space to explore the nature of humanity by holding up a close yet unreal mirror in the form of AI. You cast a shadow on the present by showing us the future. SFF lets us build whole worlds that tell us more about the one we currently have and that is brilliant and beautiful and a thing to treasure, but in all that brilliance and beauty, at the core, these are still books that are meant as objects to be read and in some way enjoyed, and god damnit if they don’t make it hard for us by writing them poorly.

We need to stop settling for less, when clearly we can have more. We just have to accept that maybe, just maybe, a good idea isn’t enough. The world is littered with failed authors who had that great idea but lacked the talent or the drive or the time or the determination* to make it all the way to a decent novel. I bet you, you ask half a dozen SFF fans and they’ll give you six good ideas for a novel – I have one too. But I don’t have the talent to turn that into a good novel. Most of us don’t. That’s not a crime or much of a failing. It just… is. But when someone steps up who does have that good idea, but not just a good idea, they have the ability to turn that idea into an actual story, with writing that grips you, characters you can’t leave behind and a plot you can’t bear to put down… then, then maybe we can talk.

And so I refuse to accept that a good idea is enough, because it never is, and until we start judging the quality of the books for what they are in all their scope, this is the sort of shite we’re going to have to read.

… I should probably talk about this particular book now.

In all honesty, it’s not as shit as some of the ones I’ve read so far for the Nebulas. It’s a fairly mediocre whodunnit in space, that’s undercut by shoddy, clunky writing. It lacks polish and finesse, and doesn’t have the charm to explain to me why some people have liked it despite that.

The story follows six clones awoken in the middle of a long journey through space. Their previous incarnations have been attacked/killed, and they must figure out who did it while they themselves have lost all memory of the journey so far, including, most likely, the killer. It’s a decent conceit, and I like the idea of possibly, in our multiple viewpoints, actually being inside the head of a murderer trying to solve a murder they committed, while coming to terms with that fact. That could be a really cool character exploration.

But Lafferty is apparently completely useless at character exploration. It’s massively tell-not-show, but also all the dialogue and interaction is incredibly unsubtle and inauthentic. Each conversation feels like the author decided what information needed to be conveyed… and then just put that into a sentence. There’s no awareness that people don’t speak like exposition machines, that they have personalities beyond “psychopath” and “likes food”. There’s no nuance or gradual build up of a sense of person. You just get plonked down a description of what someone’s like, and then some crude approximations of that through clunky conversation. I actually read some of it out to myself, to sound it out as a person might speak it, and I was cringeing. They just didn’t feel like people.

The plot is let down too by a slow deterioration. It didn’t have the sense of planning that a good murder mystery does, and there was too much about the ending that required maguffins and sudden reveals, so you never felt as if it were solvable all along. You don’t get all the information you need until right up at the reveal, and even then it’s quite garbled and unsatisfying – I feel like if I went back and picked at the ending, there would be threads that weren’t tied off. But I really can’t be bothered, because I just don’t care.

There was also some stuff about the ethics and politics of cloning, but it felt awfully artificial. The book actually starts with a faux-legal bill about cloning and it’s just so painfully… unlike legal language that it didn’t give me a good intro to the world. Just a weary sigh and the dawning realisation that this would be shit too. And the thing is, the ethics of cloning is FERTILE GROUND for interesting discussion. You don’t have to be a genius to reach it… and yet.

A triumph of mediocrity in the face of inspiration, I really would not recommend this book. It got two stars, simply by not being as offensively, aggressively shit as some of the other things on offer. It enters my ranking just above the Zone of Rage, at number 4:

1The Stone Sky – N. K. Jemisin
2. Amberlough – Lara Elena Donnelly.
3. 
Spoonbenders – Daryl Gregory.
4. Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty
5. Autonomous – Annalee Newitz.
6. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – Theodora Goss.

Dear god, come on, let Jade City be good. Give me one thing I enthusiastically want to win this godforsaken award…

 

*Or the privilege to be in a position of stability/wealth/comfort/education to execute that good idea and have a publisher take it seriously. There are other factors at work here too, I’m not ignoring them. And tbh, if there were fewer mediocre white men’s books out there, that might already be a start…

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