Edited 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.
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:
1. Jade 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.