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Review: The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

The beginning of JY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven drops the reader straight into political intrigue in a world we don’t really understand yet.  We learn that the kingdom is ruled by a ruthless Protector who treats her children as bargaining chips in her efforts to solidify her political power against some unknown rebellion; we know the Grand Monastery also wields some power (using, as we soon learn, the mystical “Tensor” power they command) and used that power to help the Protector; and we see the youngest children of the Protector, the twins Akeha and Mokoya, sent to the Monastery in return for its aid.

The world unfolds in bits and pieces from there, as the nature of the Machinists’ rebellion against the Protector becomes better understood, as does the powers wielded by Tensors – and the power of prophecy Mokoya is discovered to have.  The story takes place in a series of vignettes over the course of multiple decades, and the readers don’t get many explicit details about the history that passes in between each section, instead piecing it together from the way the twins interact with the world.

One particularly interesting thing we learn is the way the Tensorate society handles gender.  A child is considered ungendered until they choose their gender for themselves; they go through a ceremony of “confirming” their gender, and their body is modified as needed (through what seems to be a combination of tensor magic and medical surgery).  A small number of people choose to remain unconfirmed for their entire lives.  The process is considered completely normal and unremarkable, except to the extent that choosing one’s gender and being confirmed is considered a rite of passage into adulthood.

Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s free of complications, though.  Akeha’s and Mokoya’s differing choices of gender are not the first thing that fractures their formerly-inseparable relationship as twins, but it’s one of the strongest indications that they’re growing apart as they’re growing up.  And indeed, they part ways shortly thereafter, and the rest of the novella follows Akeha as he gradually becomes involved in the Machinist rebellion.  (Mokoya’s story picks up in The Red Threads of Fortune, the simultaneously-published companion novella.)

The Protector’s influence over Akeha’s and Mokoya’s lives is insidious and destructive; reading this so soon after Down Among the Sticks and Bones, there are certainly comparisons to be made between the narcissistic, emotionally abusive parents in each story.  But unlike the Wolcotts, the Protector casts a long shadow over the twins’ lives despite being very rarely present; as the despotic ruler of their nation, the Protector’s influence is hard to escape from, and this is a big part of what ultimately drives Akeha into the rebellion.

I enjoyed the story, but the episodic and incomplete nature of it ultimately left me unsatisfied.  Perhaps I’d feel differently had I picked up The Red Threads of Fortune immediately afterwards, but I hadn’t realized how tightly the novellas were paired until I was looking up information about them for writing this review.  But for purposes of the Hugo ballot, this one novella is all I had to go on.

My Best Novella ballot so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire
  4. The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang
  5. River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey​

Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

This will be a quick review; I honestly don’t have a lot to say about River of Teeth.  The conceit is an alternate-history counterfactual inspired by an plan that was actually proposed (but never implemented) in 1910 – what if hippopotamuses were brought to America?  The historical intent was to control invasive plants and be a source of meat, but in River of Teeth some hippos have been domesticated while others have gone feral.

Against this background we have a crew of characters all dressed up for a heist – the charming ringleader, the fiery demolitions expert, the chaotic-good con artist, the unscrupulous sharpshooter, the ruthless assassin – but the actual job they they’re hired to do, driving a herd of feral hippos out of an area of swampy land, feels like background noise compared to the various axes the characters have to grind.  The character interactions drive a lot of the story, but I feel like it would have been more effective had they meshed better with the putative job the crew was hired to do.

The thing I had the most problem with was the sense of place.  Between the dam that somehow created a large body of water downstream and the use of explosives at the story’s climax that somehow managed to cause effects in different places many miles apart, I just had a lot of trouble developing a mental picture of what was actually going on, and couldn’t quite manage to maintain my suspension of disbelief as a result.  All the same, it was a fun read; the richness of the characters and their relationships make up for a lot of the plot difficulties.

My Best Novella ballot so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, ​Seanan McGuire
  4. River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s novella Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second entry in her Wayward Children series, and a prequel to the first book, Every Heart a Doorway (which I reviewed here, and which won last year’s Hugo for Best Novella).  The twin sisters Jack and Jill Wolcott were two of the most intriguing – and least well-adjusted – children in the previous book, and now we get their backstory.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not pretty.

The story begins by relating their birth and childhood, raised (more or less) by parents far more interested in the idea of being parents to perfectly-behaved children than in the reality of nurturing actual human beings with their own opinion and desires.  Chester and Serena Wolcott are just horrible people, in an all-too-believable way – rather than the cartoonish cruelty typically exhibited by bad parents of fairy-tale children, the Wolcotts’ personalities are a toxic mixture of narcissism, entitlement, and shallow materialism, with just a soupcon of megalomania for flavor.  They are chilling figures in the story because of how realistic they feel; while their worst behaviors might be slightly exaggerated for dramatic effect, I have heard far too many tales of emotionally abusive parents to be able to write them off as entirely fictional.

(As an aside: the portrayal of people hurting and abusing others by weaponizing human interactions and emotions is one of McGuire’s greatest strengths as an author.  Her antagonists are scary not because we’ve never seen their like before in our lives, but because we have.  It’s the same reaction that made Dolores Umbridge so much more frightening a villain than Voldemort.)

Jack and Jill’s existence effectively began as a ploy to improve the Wolcotts’ social standing and garner attention, and it went downhill from there.  They were raised by their grandmother – possibly the only positive parental-type figure they ever had – because their parents just couldn’t handle the realities of parenting newborns.  Or toddlers.  And yet, Chester and Serena manage to be as shitty to Chester’s mother as they are to their kids, treating her as a hired nanny rather than as family that they needed to ask for help.

So Jack and Jill’s childhoods are lived under the oppression of parental expectations without compassion or nurture.  When they find the doorway that allows them to escape to the Moors, an alternate world that feels something like the shared setting for every mad-scientist/monster/vampire movie you’ve ever seen, they think they have a chance to grow without the weight of their parents’ abuse.  And that’s true, to some extent – but the expectations placed on them by their new guardians are just as constricting, even if they’re better suited to Jack’s and Jill’s respective personalities.

Jack and Jill’s relationship as twin sisters informs the story just as much as their relationship to their parents and guardians, and while it is at times dysfunctional as well, the story draws a clear line between the “we don’t always get along, but we still care about each other” love between the sisters and the emotional abuse that passes for “love” from their parents.  The contrast between these two family dynamics makes up much of the heart of the story.  When the chips are down, who’s going to be there for you?  Who will support you and who will fail you?  That is the important thing in a relationship, and no amount of shared blood can make up for a failure to care.

I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy Down Among the Sticks and Bones quite as much as Every Heart a Doorway.  But as a parent, the depiction of the Wolcotts’ miserable, narcissistic parenting was chilling.  It was a hard book for me to read because of how deeply angry I was at the horrendous conduct of these entirely fictional characters – and that speaks to how effective Seanan McGuire is at writing emotionally affecting characters and stories.  So while this certainly wasn’t my favorite novella of the year, I cannot deny that it is well deserving of the nomination.

My Best Novella rankings so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor
  3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, S​eanan McGuire

Review: Binti: Home and The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti won the Hugo Award for Best Novella last year.  This year, the middle volume of the trilogy, Binti: Home, has also been nominated, and a few months ago the conclusion, Binti: The Night Masquerade was released.  So it seems like a good time to talk about the whole series!

(As I am discussing the final book of a trilogy, there will be a certain amount of spoilers for the first two books.  I will do my best to keep them somewhat vague, and to avoid spoiling the third book much.)

In Binti, we met the title character – a gifted harmonizer able to create currents of energy by “treeing”, or meditating on mathematical equations, and the first of the Himba people to attend Oomza Uni, a prestigious galactic university.  The Himba are strongly rooted to the earth that they live on, as evinced by her people’s tradition of covering their skin and hair with otjize – a mixture of red clay, oil, and fragrant herbs.  The neighboring Khoush people mock and belittle the Himba for that and for their general provinciality, despite the Himba specialty – and in fact Binti’s family’s own expertise – in the intricate and widely used technology of astrolabes (think smartphones taken to their logical conclusion of being one’s entire interface to the digital world).

Despite derogatory comments from the Khoush and resistance from her own family, Binti boards a living spaceship full of Khoush students, literally covered in her own homeland as she travels out into the galaxy despite the way it separates her.  She also brings her edan – a strange artifact she found in the desert, which responds somehow to her treeing – and she brings her wisdom as a harmonizer in training as well.  All of these things allow her to be the sole survivor of an attack on her ship by the alien Meduse, in which the hundreds of Khoush students are killed. Binti is pressured into acting as a representative for the Meduse and brokers a truce between them and Oomza Uni – but she is irrevocably changed in the process, becoming somehow part Meduse herself, and developing a sort of bond with a Meduse named Okwu, who becomes the first Meduse student on Oomza Uni.

In Binti: Home, she tries to go home again, a year later, and Okwu accompanies her.  She is now wearing otjize made from clay on Oomza Uni, reflecting her confusion and ambiguous feelings about what “home” means to her. Her family, being so strongly rooted to their homeland, is still angry about her departure; Binti has to endure barbed comments from family and friends alike. The Khoush are still angry about the Meduse attack on their students, and see Okwu’s accompanying Binti back to Earth as a provocation. And Binti learns more about the non-Himba side of her family; her father came from the Enya Zinariya people, who even the Himba look down on. Instead of going on the traditional pilgrimage of Himba women, to attain her status as an adult of her people, she is instead taken to see the leader of the Enya Zinariya and undergoes a ritual to unlock the alien technology embedded in their blood. At the end of the second book Binti discovers that her family home, the Root, has been attacked by the Khoush, seeking revenge on Okwu.

Binti: The Night Masquerade picks up immediately from that cliffhanger and thrusts Binti back into the position of trying to broker peace between humans and the Meduse.  Her own identity has been shattered into pieces – part Himba, part Meduse, part Enya Zinariya – and the tension between the different parts of her, as well as the disorientation from her new access to the Zinariya technology, leaves her unbalanced and unsure of herself.  Her otjize continues to carry the symbolic weight of her connection to her concept of home, which in this story takes quite a beating as Binti tries her hardest to resolve those tensions and figure out who she actually is – not who she’s being told to be by her Himba family and friends, or who she’s been turned into by the Meduse metamorphosis, or who she’s been linked with through the Zinariya technology.  But despite all the strife she faces both within herself and at the intersection of the multiple different worlds that all try to claim a piece of her, her heart is still in the same place.  She is a harmonizer, and harmony is the meaning of her life; she seeks to bring it to those around her and strives for it within herself as well.

Dr. Okorafor writes Binti’s struggles so empathetically.  It’s an utter joy to spend time in Binti’s head, even when she’s miserable and unsure, because she just feels so real, despite the fact that the problems she faces are mostly alien to me, both literally and figuratively.  At her lowest points I was worried and desperately hoping she would find a path to happiness; at her highest points I exulted along with her in the wonders the universe had to offer, and at her strongest moments I marveled at her fortitude, her harmony, the gravitational pull she exerted on the world around her to try to make things better.  Binti: Home was a masterful conclusion to the trilogy, leaving me satisfied with the story but simultaneously hoping to see more of Binti’s story someday.

Best Novella Hugo

Only two novellas in, and this is already a really difficult choice.  I suppose it’s my own fault for starting with my two favorites.  As I have noted with previous ballots, I typically prefer to avoid voting to give a second Hugo to a series; in this case, Binti was awarded the Hugo for Best Novella in 2016, so I’ll put the newcomer on top for now.

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells
  2. Binti: Home, Nnedi Okorafor

Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red by Martha WellsAll Systems Red is the first novella of a new series entitled The Murderbot Diaries.  For some of you that’s probably enough to recommend the book already; it was for me.  (Well, that and hearing about it via Seanan McGuire’s Twitter feed.  Any murderbot that passes Seanan’s standards is good enough for me.)  Suffice it to say, I was not disappointed.

The titular character is, well, a murderbot.  Specifically, a security unit with little ambition and less interest in murdering people, who has been contracted – rented out, really – as protection for a research group investigating a new planet.  Its main interests are serial dramas and gaining personal autonomy by hacking one’s own governor protocols; its greatest dislikes are social interactions and being forced to do things it doesn’t want to do.

The murderbot simply refers to itself as Murderbot, and it is not a person, at least as far as its society is concerned.  The line between human and robot has become rather blurred – we know augmented humans exist, and Murderbot’s body is at least part organic; nevertheless, Murderbot is an object, owned by a corporation and rented out like a rototiller.  But the first-person viewpoint of the story – engaging, emotional, and all too familiar to someone who suffers from social anxiety like I do – puts the lie to that idea almost immediately.

I found Murderbot to be a deeply sympathetic character, whether just trying to keep its head down and not shoot anyone, or fretting about how the humans it protected would see it, or recoiling from the humans’ well-meant attempts to get to know it.  Murderbot clearly has a severe case of social anxiety from being treated as less than human for so long, and goddamn do I understand that feeling.

Lest I give the impression that the whole story is just Murderbot trying to figure out how to interact with humans – there are actual problems outside of its own head to solve, too; its personal development is driven by, and drives in turn, other events in the plot.  But it’s Murderbot’s emotional arc, and the tension between its clear personhood and society’s refusal to consider it as anything other than an object, that grabbed my attention more than anything else – and that leaves me wanting so badly to read the next book in The Murderbot Diaries.

Best Novella Hugo

This looks like another strong year for several of the Hugo Award categories, so as I review each of the nominees for this year’s Hugos I’m going to build up my final ballot one by one, rather than trying to put everything in order at the end.  In this case, I read All Systems Red last year and nominated it for the Hugo, and I’m happy to see it on the ballot.  Will it be my top choice?  Honestly, I’m not sure; three of my nominees were finalists, and even among those I don’t know how I’ll order them yet.  But until I review them, my ballot so far:

  1. All Systems Red, Martha Wells

Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Space Opera started as a joke. How else? Cat Valente was livetweeting the Eurovision Song Contest, Charles Tan made a joke about “you should write a Eurovision SF novel”, and Navah Wolfe immediately offered to buy the novel before a word had been written.  From these hilarious, humble beginnings came… well.

Take the combined aesthetics of David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Jem and the Holograms, and the Diva Plavalaguna and crush them into a glittery powder.  Now smash Douglas Adams and Hunter S. Thompson together in a transporter accident, and have the resulting author-golem snort an entire noseful of the aforementioned powder and then rewrite “Encounter at Farpoint” as a pop-song competition with humanity’s survival at stake.  That’s almost what Space Opera is like.

Almost, but not quite, because I still haven’t figured out how to describe the raw, beating heart and soul of the book.  The absurd descriptions of the aliens and their technology and culture, and the improbable appearances of certain Earthly avatars seven thousand lightyears away, are certainly due at least in part to Adams’ influence – but he never examined the failures and faults of humanity with such anguish.  The aliens’ gonzo music scene and the variety of neurochemical alterations needed to fully grok it, as well as the unflinching descriptions of humanity at its shittiest, are also somewhat reminiscent of Thompson’s work – but he never contemplated the human condition with such compassion.

In the end, comparisons to other authors and artists fall short.  The heart of this book is Catherynne Valente’s own, as is the variety of startling and revelatory imagery she employs, and they’re the same things that keep me coming back to every new book she writes.  Humanity, like all life across the galaxy, is beautiful and stupid.  We fuck things up all the time but we keep trying, and Valente loves us all for it, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting off easy.  Beneath all the glitter and glam, Space Opera reminds us that we’re capable of so much beauty, if we could just stop being assholes to each other for long enough.

2018 Reading List

Everything I read in 2018, with 2018-published works separated out and bolded if I’m considering nominating them for Hugos.  See 20172016, and 2015 lists.  (As usual, there are plenty of works that I enjoyed quite a bit but am unlikely to nominate; don’t take the lack of bolding as an indication that I didn’t like it!)


2018 Novels (at least 40,000 words):

  • The Wonder Engine, T. Kingfisher
  • Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente
  • Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee
  • Ruin of Angels, Max Gladstone
  • Tricks for Free, Seanan McGuire
  • Rites and Desires, Amanda Cherry

2018 Novellas (17,500 to 40,000 words):

  • Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire
  • The Armored Saint, Myke Cole
  • Binti: The Night Masquerade, Nnedi Okorafor
  • Artificial Condition, Martha Wells
  • The Flowers of Vashnoi, Lois McMaster Bujold

2018 Novelettes (7,500 to 17,500 words):

  • TBD

2018 Short Stories (less than 7,500 words):


Non-2018 works read in 2018:

2017 Hugo Ballot

My final ballot for the 2017 Hugo Awards, with links to my review posts:

Best Novel

  1. Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee
  2. A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers
  3. Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer
  4. All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders
  5. The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin
  6. Death’s End, Cixin Liu, tr. Ken Liu

Best Novella

  1. A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson
  2. The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle
  3. Penric and the Shaman, Lois McMaster Bujold
  4. Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire
  5. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson
  6. This Census-Taker, China Mieville

Best Novelette

  1. The Jewel and her Lapidary, Fran Wilde
  2. “The Tomato Thief”, Ursula Vernon
  3. “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong
  4. “Touring with the Alien”, Carolyn Ives Gilman
  5. “The Art of Space Travel”, Nina Allan
  6. No Award
  7. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, Stix Hiscock

Best Short Story

  1. “The City Born Great”, N.K. Jemisin
  2. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, Alyssa Wong
  3. “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar
  4. “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, Brooke Bolander
  5. “That Game We Played During The War”, Carrie Vaughn
  6. No Award
  7. “An Unimaginable Light”, John C. Wright

For everything below this point, I have been limited by what I was already able to read/watch prior to the voting, hence the incomplete ballots in most places.  Some particular notes:

  • I did read a few excerpts of each of the Best Related Work nominees, but not in most cases the entire thing.
  • For the artist awards I looked through the provided portfolios.
  • The editorial awards are primarily based off which of their various edited works I read and enjoyed; I deeply appreciate this year’s Hugo packet including lists of editorial credits.
  • Some categories I haven’t read from at all, and have just omitted as a result.

You might see No Award pop up here or there; while I’m just leaving most works I haven’t seen off the ballot because I do not have enough information to make a judgment, there are a few cases that have specifically squandered any benefit of the doubt I might have had.

Best Related Work

  1. The Geek Feminist Revolution, Kameron Hurley
  2. Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, Ursula K. Le Guin
  3. The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher
  4. The View From the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman
  5. The “Women of Harry Potter” posts, Sarah Gailey
  6. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, Robert Silverberg and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Best Graphic Story

  1. Saga, volume 6, Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Hidden Figures
  2. Ghostbusters
  3. Rogue One
  4. Deadpool

Best Professional Editor, Short Form

  1. Ellen Datlow
  2. Jonathan Strahan
  3. Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
  4. Neil Clarke
  5. John Joseph Adams
  6. Sheila Williams

Best Professional Editor, Long Form

  1. Sheila E. Gilbert
  2. Liz Gorinsky
  3. Devi Pillai
  4. Mirian Weinberg
  5. Navah Wolfe
  6. No Award
  7. Vox Day

Best Professional Artist

  1. Julie Dillon
  2. Chris McGrath
  3. Sana Takeda
  4. Galen Dara
  5. John Picacio
  6. Victo Ngai

Best Semiprozine

  1. Uncanny Magazine
  2. Strange Horizons

Best Fanzine

  1. Rocket Stack Rank

Best Fan Writer

  1. Mike Glyer
  2. Chuck Tingle

Best Fan Artist

  1. Vesa Lehtimäki
  2. Elizabeth Leggett
  3. likhain
  4. Ninni Aalto
  5. Spring Schoenhuth
  6. Steve Stiles

Best Series

  1. The Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold
  2. The Craft Sequence, Max Gladstone
  3. The October Daye books, Seanan McGuire
  4. The Temeraire series, Naomi Novik

John W. Campbell Award (for best new writer)

  1. Ada Palmer
  2. Malka Older
  3. Sarah Gailey

2017 Hugo Nominees: Best Short Story

Last of the prose fiction categories!  The first five nominees here are an amazing set of stories showcasing the breadth and depth of what the genre is capable of, and again I had a hard time making some of these choices.

(Previous 2017 Hugo posts: Novelette nomineesNovella nomineesNinefox GambitA Closed and Common OrbitToo Like the LightningAll the Birds in the SkyThe Obelisk GateDeath’s End.)

1. “The City Born Great”, N.K. Jemisin

At first, the juxtaposition of monsters on a plane of reality we can’t quite see and police-driven racism in New York City would seem to place this story in very similar territory to The Ballad of Black Tom, but N.K. Jemisin takes a much more optimistic view.  In Black Tom, by the present day the entire world is already damned – has been, for close to a century – by our inhumanity towards those we refuse to acknowledge as people of equal significance.  Whereas in “The City Born Great”, taking place in the present, Jemisin says: see that kid over there?  The homeless guy you spit on, the gay teenager you kicked out of your home, the unarmed black man who could get murdered any day by the police while you look away?  He’s going to stand against the darkness.  He’s going to bring this place that reviled him into a new age of glory.  He’ll save us all, if you’ll only let him.

2. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, Alyssa Wong

When someone close to you commits suicide, woven through the shock and the grief is that question that may well haunt you for the rest of your life: What if you’d done something differently?  Could you have saved them?  What if you had the chance to try again?  Is there, maybe, a universe where they’re still here, and if so, can you make your way to it if you’re willing to never make peace with your loss?  Alyssa Wong turns those counterfactuals into a reality-bending trip through multiple different ways this short, sad story could have unfolded.

3. “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar

The burdens and expectations that patriarchy puts on the two female protagonists of this story are rendered as physical, magical impediments.  One must wear down seven pairs of iron shoes on a quest to save her husband from his own abusive nature, while the other is locked in a glass castle on a glass hill as men dash themselves against it to reach her.  But when the two of them meet, each of them recognizes the injustice of the other’s situation while still believing that, on some level, they deserve their own plight.  “Seasons of Glass and Iron” interrogates the stories we tell ourselves about the abuse we suffer, and raises the question of why we can so clearly see injustice against others and yet have so much trouble identifying our own abusive situations.

4. “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, Brooke Bolander

The story of a murder and its aftermath, seeking to redress the imbalance between the men whose stories take center stage and the women whose deaths are used simply as motivation fodder.  If you’re sick of seeing women fridged, this is a short but satisfying response, reclaiming at least this one story in the name of one seriously pissed-off harpy and her sisters who help her take revenge.  And for an ancient mythological creature, her voice is delightfully modern – not only in the liberal sprinkling of profanity, but also in the very matter-of-fact way in which she describes, as a series of fifteen or so bullet points, the relevant facts of the situation.

5. “That Game We Played During The War”, Carrie Vaughn

An enjoyable story about Calla and Valk, two soldiers on opposing sides of a recently concluded war, and each at one point a prisoner under the watch of the other.  Valk’s race is telepathic, but they still passed the time playing chess on occasion; the game, and the strategies Calla developed for confounding his telepathy, becomes a symbol and a common interest around which they reconnect.

The optimistic theme of two nominal enemies building a bond of understanding during the war, and then building further on it during the ensuing peace, reminded me a little of Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan.  As did the characters themselves; I thought of the dynamic between Cordelia’s canny emotionalism and Aral’s surface-level stoicism whenever Calla managed to surprise Valk despite being a completely open book to him.  She is so open, and he is much more closed off, and in spite of that mismatch, or because of it, they build a rapport that could hold the key to a future of peace.

6. No Award

Here we go again.

7. “An Unimaginable Light”, John C. Wright

For all the complaining the “Rabid Puppies” do over “boring message fiction”, they sure do write some excruciatingly dull stories.  I bailed on this story about a third of the way through.  Nearly the entirety of that time was spent by the two main characters, a robot and a robopsychologist, lecturing each other about the history of robotics and their analyses of each other.  Most of the remainder was spent in descriptions of the robot’s appearance, like this paragraph of introduction:

The kneeling girl did not look like a robot. She looked like a love goddess. Her face was piquant and elfin, her eyes danced and glittered. Her lips were full, her smile ready. She was pulchritudinous, buxom, callipygous, leggy. Her torso was slender, and her abdominal muscles as well defined as those of a belly dancer, so that her navel was like a period between two cursive brackets. Her hair was lustrous, and tied in a loose knot at the back of her swanlike neck. Hair, eye, and skin color were optional. She was, of course, naked.

Six pages later, she still hasn’t been given a name, but the author has made multiple sneering references to the social justice concepts he has spent the last several years railing against.  John C. Wright is going to make sure you know how little he thinks of ideas like pronoun choice and microaggressions, by God, no matter how shitty a story he has to write to do so.

2017 Hugo Nominees: Best Novelette

Let’s see if I can edit myself down a little bit, shall we?  (Previous 2017 Hugo posts: Novella nominees, Ninefox GambitA Closed and Common OrbitToo Like the LightningAll the Birds in the SkyThe Obelisk GateDeath’s End.)

1. The Jewel and her Lapidary, Fran Wilde

Hidden in a valley is a small kingdom, protected by the magical gems wielded by its royal family, the Jewels, and the Lapidaries who serve them and help control their magic.  This is the story of the Jewel princess Lin and her lapidary Sima, the last defense against the foreign invaders who have destroyed the Jeweled Court with the help of a betrayer within.  The invaders know they must control the last Jewel in order to solidify their conquest of the kingdom, but Lin and Sima have other ideas.  Their respective fathers, the king and his own lapidary, are both dead, one at the hands of the other, but under the incredible pressure of the deaths of everyone they love but each other, they persist in defending their home to the last.

The girls’ friendship is the heart and soul of this book, as each is devoted to the other through bonds of duty and love.  But while that devotion gives them strength, they are each clever and resourceful as well.  I don’t know if there is to be more of this series, but I hope so; despite a climax with great emotional effect, The Jewel and her Lapidary feels like it ought to be a prologue to a much longer story, and I’d love to read more of it.

2. “The Tomato Thief”, Ursula Vernon

Ursula Vernon is at her best when she is writing unlikely, stubborn protagonists, and Grandma Harken is no exception.  The ornery, practical witch from “Jackalope Wives” simply wants to tend her garden and live in peace, with an occasional fresh tomato sandwich.  When her tomatoes start disappearing overnight as they ripen, she sets out to catch the thief – who turns out to be a bird-woman shapeshifter under some kind of enslavement, who Grandma Harken releases and then tracks as she tries to get to the root of the situation.

“The Tomato Thief” isn’t a terribly long story, but the American Southwestern setting is dense with richly detailed magic and fantastic beings; the bird-shapeshifter seems practically mundane next to the train-god and the folds in reality and the Coyote with his sometimes-canine, sometimes-feline, always-tricky demeanor.  Grandma Harken’s own personality reminds me a lot of Granny Weatherwax from Discworld, with her combination of stubbornness and a prickly sort of kindness.  But where Granny Weatherwax’s canniness verged on genre savviness, in keeping with the metafictional nature of her world, Grandma Harken’s keen sense of how the world works – and particularly, how to respect the desert so it doesn’t kill you – simply feels like a lifetime of hard-won experience distilled into wisdom.  Between that and a gently snarky viewpoint, she’s a great character to spend an hour with; at this point, I’d happily read a story about Grandma Harken waiting in line at the DMV as long as Ursula Vernon was the one writing it.

3. “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong

Speaking of magical fiction set in the Southwest… Alyssa Wong tells a story of Ellis, boy who inherited necromantic magic from his late father and desert magic from his absent mother, which has left him sort of betwixt-and-between.  He lives and works at a brothel in the Southwest, though his otherworldly nature and general aura of death tends to prevent customers from lingering too long.  His best friend, Marisol, a girl at the brothel, is more understanding of his nature than most.

The desert is dangerous.  It collapsed a mine outside of town, killing dozens of townsfolk, and drought now threatens the town while dead things roam the desert.  Ellis’s internal conflict between the two halves of his magical heritage is reflected in that broken relationship between desert and town, and when the mining company tries to use his magic to return to the mine, things deteriorate further.

Ellis’s emotional arc is about learning to accept himself, conflict and all.  He is scared to let Marisol know too much about him, but after the things he faces in the desert, he is able to find greater understanding from her as well, and is able to help the town heal.

4. “Touring with the Alien”, Carolyn Ives Gilman

Alien vessels have suddenly appeared all over North America.  Human “translators” have emerged from them, claiming to be children previously abducted (or “adopted”) by the aliens.  Avery is a woman working for a legally-gray “shipping company” and has been hired to drive an alien translator and an alien itself from its vessel near Washington, DC to St. Louis.  Avery spends most of the meandering road trip talking with the translator, Lionel, and trying to understand the aliens better.  Lionel is not exactly acclimated to human society either.

Avery and Lionel gradually establish a rapport, as she begins to understand the relationship between the aliens, Lionel, and human society, and as she tries to teach Lionel how to behave like a normal human.  Gilman does an excellent job of portraying a truly “alien” alien – a species that is extremely difficult for humans to understand because their very notions of thought and action differ in some fundamental ways from what we are used to – and the frequency with which Avery and Lionel talk past each other because they’re making different assumptions felt like a much more realistic portrayal of the problems of first contact than most such stories I’ve read.

That said, the ending seemed to come out of nowhere.  Specifically, the way Avery suddenly not only accepted the situation they found themselves in but actively shifted to helping it along seemed disconnected from her behavior for the rest of the story.  Her breakdown in the graveyard was likely supposed to motivate how she handled the ending, but I feel like there were still a few missing steps on that emotional arc.

5. “The Art of Space Travel”, Nina Allan

A story about a woman working at a hotel which will soon host the astronauts about to embark on a mission to Mars, decades after a previous launch ended in disaster.  Emily’s mother was part of the disaster-recovery crew dealing with the fallout from the failed launch, and her health and memory have been gradually failing ever since.  Emily’s paternity has been a mystery her whole life, with her mother only recently being willing to speak about it as she realizes in her more lucid moments that before long she may not be able to say anything meaningful at all.

This story kind of meandered through Emily’s speculations about who her father was, having gotten some vague hints about it being someone her mother had met during launch preparations.  I frankly didn’t find that aspect of the story terribly interesting, not having known the character long enough for me to be invested in the paternity question, and the eventual revelation of her father’s identity was unsurprising to the point of being trite.  But there wasn’t a lot else to the story; the Mars mission itself was basically just a background detail that only impacted the story to the extent that it made the paternity question a little more immediate and motivated some discussion of Emily’s mother’s illness.

6. No Award

If you need a refresher on the Hugo rules, voters are allowed to include “No Award” (occasionally personified as eleven-time Hugo winner “Noah Ward”) in the rankings on their ballots.  If a work is ranked below No Award by a voter, it means that voter would rather no Hugo be given out at all than one be awarded to that work.  No Award is not only treated as a normal candidate in the instant-runoff process, but if it does not win the category outright, it is also compared in a direct head-to-head tally against the eventual runoff winner; if a majority of voters preferred No Award to the runoff winner, then no Hugo is awarded for that category.

Which brings us to…

7. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, Stix Hiscock

This year’s “Rabid Puppies” entry, a puerile and unimaginative attempt to out-Chuck-Tingle Chuck Tingle.  But “Hiscock” – I don’t know whether it’s a pseudonym for Vox Day or one of his sad little hangers-on, and honestly I don’t care – apparently can’t tell the difference between winking absurdity and simply bad writing.  This, if it isn’t clear by now, is the latter.  It starts off like a Penthouse letter, with our titular alien stripper expressing confusion at how the current situation came to pass.  Then, after either an unmarked viewpoint shift or an out-of-body experience on the part of our extraterrestrial narrator, we get multiple pages of sentence fragments describing, in lurid yet somehow boring detail, the stripper’s appearance and dancing technique.

Whereupon I returned to my Kindle’s home screen and deleted the book from my device.  I’m afraid no review of whatever Hiscock tried to pass off as a sex scene will be forthcoming here.  Reader, I tried.