Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Hugo Nominees: The Novels

Of course you all know that the nominees were:

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Blackout by Myra Grant
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold
Redshirts by John Scalzi
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

And I would say that of these, 2312 is probably the favorite to win (or that’s what I’d guess, anyway) and the one by Saladin Ahmed is the dark horse, because it’s a debut novel.

And if you’ve been following along, you know I wasn’t very happy with this list because I think too many of the nominees are not really important enough to be up for a major award and because I think some much better titles were inexplicably passed over. Or maybe explicably, I guess, since I suppose everyone agrees that the enthusiasm of a particular fan club can definitely drag nominees onto this list, which is much less true for other major awards, a factor which I suspect is eventually going to seriously lower the prestige of the Hugo.

Well, now that I’ve read them all, I’m still disappointed, but at least I can be enthusiastic about my pick for the top spot.

As for the novellas, I’m going to work my way up from the bottom:

THE THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON. For me . . . sorry, but this was a DNF. (As you may have gathered, it’s not uncommon for me to NF a book; I probably DNF about an eighth of all the books I start.)

What bothered me about this book: The writing style did not particularly appeal, phrasing choices sometimes grated, the characters were not sufficiently engaging, the plot seemed okay but not particularly different from a thousand other plots. I honestly cannot imagine what caused multiple readers to pick this one out of the crowd, though I know other readers have had completely different reactions.

Adoulla Mokhslood, an aging professional hunter of ghuls, is kind of a whiner. He whines about being old, about the increasing problem with ghuls, about the lack of younger talent coming up to help him.

Well, fine, but you know what? He has apparently spent his professional life refusing to train young men to take his place because he doesn’t want them to have to live the same kind of hard life he has lived. Over time, refusing to train youngsters will indeed kind of lead to a lack of demon-hunter colleagues, without any need to fatalistically invoke the will of God. To me, Adoulla has basically no outstanding characteristics beyond a) being a whiner, and b) being uncouth. Neither of these traits appealed to me at all.

Adoulla’s young companion, the fanatic martial artist Raseed, is so clichéd. A young man raised by an order of martial monks (essentially) and entirely devoted to Purity and The Right. I rather like Zamia, the girl who turns into a lioness, but I had to roll my eyes at the insta-attraction between her and Raseed – both soooo reluctant and yet drawn toward each other despite themselves. Of course they were.

Plus, Ahmed often switches pov – not only among these three characters, but also to more minor characters as well. This is a challenge to the reader’s engagement with any particular character, and for me the writing was not strong enough to handle much of a challenge. What particularly bothered me was the fairly frequent use of contemporary phrases in a story that is mostly being told in an Arabian-Nights-light style. For example, at one point someone says to Zamia, “You’ve done too much talking already, child, and you’re not in the clear yet.” Not in the clear sounds much more contemporary-American than the rest of the dialogue and is therefore jarring. This sort of thing drives me nuts – I can think of several other books which had this problem and I didn’t finish them, either.

For an Arabian Nights story, I have to say, I strongly preferred THE DESERT OF SOULS by Howard Andrew Jones instead. That one has a more lighthearted feel and yet probably has more depth, nothing about it seemed so clichéd – it’s an homage to the Arabian Nights, but that’s not the same thing as clichéd – the style is more consistent, and in general I just liked it a lot better than this one – enough to buy the sequel.

Anyway, sorting out the middle of the pack is a lot harder. I definitely liked all three of the books I’m going to list next – in fact, I liked them all very much – and I’m not sure how I will wind up listing them, but my inclination is to put Grant’s BLACKOUT fourth.

This is partly because it’s a series book and imo doesn’t stand alone very well. When I try to imagine reading it as a standalone, it loses a lot of the context that I think the reader really needs. Another reason I’m inclined to put it down toward the end of the stack is because I thought all three of the books in this series had pretty significant problems with plotting – my comments on the second book continue to apply to this one. (Huge evil conspiracy, really?) (Seriously, magic clone?) Despite these flaws, I liked it a lot because the writing is so strong and the world really well presented.

I see that the first book in this series, FEED, was also up for the Hugo. I don’t think it won, but it really should have been a contender. I think it was a brilliant, ambitious, and powerful story and even though I had problems with its plot as well (mostly not the same problems as with the second book) I definitely encourage anybody who generally avoids zombie books to try it – possibly as a standalone.

After that, I’m inclined to put Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS third. I really enjoyed this book! Really! It is funny and clever and has a lot of charm. I’m positive I will re-listen to it again. In some ways it’s ambitious just to work out a convoluted plot like this one. On the other hand, that does not seem like enough to recommend it for a major ward. Also, I thought the ending was quite weak and completely unnecessary – I think it should have stopped a bit earlier. Plus, the serious tone of several of the codas sort of argued with the light tone of the book itself – though I have to add that I didn’t actually dislike the codas.

That puts CAPTAIN VORPATRIL’S ALLIANCE second. I think Bujold is a better writer than Scalzi – please compare her use of movement tags with Scalzi’s dialogue tags, to start with – and I think this book stands alone rather well for a series book, though I certainly think the reader will love many details much more if already familiar with the Vorkosigan books. As far as deserving an award – not really. This book is delightful and charming, but it’s not the one of Bujold’s that I’d pick out for importance and depth.

Which obviously means I’m putting 2312 first in the lineup. I was sure I would from the first lines, and in fact I haven’t actually finished it yet (I’m a third done), but I don’t think there’s any chance I’ll be changing my mind. This book has what the others lack: mindblowing ambition and scope as well as excellent writing.

Listen to this:

The sun is always about to rise. Mercury rotates so slowly that you can walk fast enough over the rocky surface to stay ahead of the dawn; and so many people do. Many have made this a way of life. They walk roughly westward, staying always ahead of the stupendous day. Some of them hurry from location to location, pausing to look in cracks they earlier inoculated with bioleaching metallophyles, quickly scraping free any accumulated residues of gold or tungsten or uranium. But most of them are out there to catch glimpses of the sun.

Mercury’s ancient face is so battered and irregular that the planet’s terminator, the zone of the breaking dawn, is a broad chiaroscuro of black and white – charcoal hollows pricked here and there by brilliant white high points, which grow and grow until all the land is as bright as molten glass, and the long day begun. This mixed zone of sun and shadow is often as much as thirty kilometers wide, even though on a level plain the horizon is only a few kilometers off. But so little of Mercury is level All the old bangs are still there, and some long cliffs from when the plane first cooled and shrank. In a landscape so rumpled the light can suddenly jump the eastern horizon and leap west to strike some distant prominence. Everyone walking the land has to attend to this possibility, know when and where the longest sunreaches occur – and where they can run for shade if they happen to be caught out.

Or if they stay out on purpose. Because many of them pause in their walkabouts on certain cliffs and crater rims, at places marked by stupas, cairns, petroglyphs, inuksuit, mirrors, walls, goldsworthies. The sunwalkers stand by these, facing east, waiting.

The horizon they watch is black space over black rock. The superthin neon-argon atmosphere, created by sunlight smashing rock, holds only the faintest predawn glow. But the sunwalkers know the time, so they wait and watch – until –

a flick of orange fire dolphins over the horizon

and their blood leaps inside them. More brief banners follow, flicking up, arcing in loops, breaking off and floating free in the sky. Star oh star, about to break on them! Already their faceplates have darkened and polarized to protect their eyes.

It’s hard to pick a place to stop quoting, but I wanted to give you a look at stylistic features that show a serious feel for the language – a feel that in my opinion is lacking in Ahmed’s book, for example. Though the first thing you notice is the integration of science into the poetry of the language. Or is the first thing you notice the poetry? Somehow the very simple first line captures you: The sun is always about to rise. It’s a simple observation about how it would feel to live on Mercury, but it has the feel of a line of poetry, or an aphorism. I don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that this line captures both poetry and science, that you can’t tell which was uppermost in Robinson’s mind, if either.

Did you notice the semicolon in front of the “and” in the second sentence? That’s not standard and I expect the copy editor marked it, and quite right, too. But obviously Robinson chose to do that on purpose, and in fact that slight extra pause feels right for this sentence. I’ve also seen CJ Cherryh use semicolons in this way.

I’m sure you did notice the one line that is set by itself in a paragraph with neither a capital letter nor a period. I imagine the copy editor marked that, too. It’s obviously part of what gives this passage the feel of poetry. So is the use of words like sunreaches and sunwalkers and goldsworthies. So is the second to last sentence I quoted – interestingly juxtaposed with the last sentence of the quote, which is pure science.

As you read this book, you will find many, many tidbits tucked between the actual chapters. Lists, for example. Maybe a list of the names of craters on Mercury, maybe a lot of tiny extracts from nonfiction sources. Maybe a step-by-step guide for how to turn a twenty-kilometer asteroid into a terrarium, filled with any fully functional Earth biota that appeals to you. Your own marsh or savannah, whatever you like! I’m dying to create one of these habitats of my own – I’ve always been partial to the African savannah.

The research and background knowledge that went into this book is incredible. The writing is amazing. It’s true that Swan, the main protagonist, is not very likable. She is such a histrionic self-absorbed idiot. Plus with a self-destructive streak a mile wide. Robison made her “mercurial” on purpose – she’s from Mercury – and then made one of the other secondary protagonists saturnine (Wahram is from one of Saturn’s moons). Robinson does a good job with this, and the book is so good in other ways that I don’t really care that I dislike Swan. The writing has to be really good for that to be true, though I do like Wahram better.

I can’t judge the overall plot because I haven’t finished the book, but plot is usually the thing that matters least to me for a good reading experience. As far as I’m concerned, whatever happens with the plot, this book deserved to be nominated for all the major awards, and I hope that when the Hugo votes are counted, it’s no contest.

So that’s my take on the Hugos this year. Maybe if I have time I’ll look up the artists and podcasts and things, too.

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4 Comments Hugo Nominees: The Novels

  1. Elaine T

    I know I don’t read much really new stuff these days – a lot of it is either marketed wrong for catching my eye, or if it does catch attention it looks un-enjoyable – but was the year really that bad? Even the Bujold was mediocre. And I gave THRONE a couple tries, with a DNF both times. I haven’t picked up the Robinson yet, as he lost me some books ago, but what you’ve quoted is really good, and I will try it.

    Why isn’t Jemison’s book on the ballot?

  2. Rachel

    Yes, that’s definitely what I said — where’s the Jemison? : ( I mostly just don’t read all that many books in the same year they’re published, so I wind up loving a book two years after it might have been nominated. I can’t even swear to do better, because I just do not have time to keep up!

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