Interesting new category for the Hugo, and I just wanted to pause long enough to take a look at the first pages (or some reasonable version thereof) of each nominee and think about how they all look.
Now, as you know, I just read Winter’s Orbit and liked it a lot. It’s popular — over 1500 ratings on Amazon — but I really do not think that popular necessarily equals best. I enjoyed the story, but the worldbuilding is light, the plotting predictable, the prose style fine but not great, and the success of the story based almost wholly on the relationships between the two protagonists. If you like that relationship, then you’ll enjoy the novel; if not, then you won’t think much of it.
Let’s take just a brief look Winter’s Orbit and compare the opening to the other nominees.
1) Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
“Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.
She sat, severe and forbidding in a high-collared tunic, in her reception room at the heart of the warren-like sprawl of the Imperial Palace. The arching windows of the tower were heavily optimized to amplify the weak autumn sunlight from Iskan V; the warm rays that lit the wrinkled Imperial countenance should have softened it, but even the sunlight had given that up as a bad job.
Across from her, in a formal uniform that was only slightly crumpled, Kiem — Prince Royal of Iskat and the Emperor’s least favorite grandchild — had been stunned into silence. He was rarely summoned to an Imperial audience unless he’d done something spectacularly lacking in common sense, so when the Emperor’s aide had called him, he’d racked his brain for a cause but had come up empty-handed. he’d half wondered if it was about the Galactic delegation that had arrived yesterday and stirred up the palace. Kiem wasn’t a natural when it came to politics; maybe the Emperor wanted to warn him to stay out of the way.
This was the opposite of staying out of the way.
This opening is just okay for me. I’m not crazy about opening with dialogue; I think that seldom works as well as other options. I’m not crazy about the writing style, though it certainly signals that this is not a story to take too seriously, and that’s useful to know.
I would add, now that I’ve read the whole novel, that it’s rather slow to start. On the other hand, I started liking Kiem quickly even though characters who are spectacularly lacking in common sense are awful. He’s not really a screwup, in fact, and one thing he’s definitely got going for him, he’s a genuinely kind person.
But you already know I liked this book. Let’s move on and look at the other nominees.
2) The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood.
I’m starting after a very short prologue type of scene. There’s nothing wrong with that scene, it’s atmospheric, it reads like a fairy tale or like a myth, but I want to show you this part here, where the story actually begins.
One month before the day of Csorwe’s death, a stranger came to the House of Silence. Csorwe did not see him arrive. She was down in the crypt, listening to the dead.
In the underbelly of the House there were many cellars, hollowed out in the grey strata of the sacred mountain. Deepest of all were the crypts, where the eminent dead among the Followers of the Unspoken Name were sealed to strive for rest. Rest was not something that came easily here, so close to the Shrine of the god. The dead scratched at the walls and cooed in sad imitation of living song.
Csorwe was sitting in the antechamber trying to pick out the words, as she did from time to time, when she heard someone coming down the passage. She drew her feet up into the alcove, hoping she might not be noticed. A bubble of candlelight approached and was opened. It was Angwennad, one of the lay-sisters.
“Csorwe, dear, come out from there, you’re wanted upstairs,” said Angwennad. The other lay-sisters called Csorwe miss or, unbearably, ma’am, but Angwennad had been Csorwe’s nurse, and there were certain liberties permitted her.
Now, I grant, I’ve read the short prologue and also a few more pages, so I’m making this judgment based on more than this tiny snippet. But this is a really nice opening that promises MUCH deeper worldbuilding than Winter’s Orbit. Does it deliver on that promise? I don’t know; I haven’t read it. But I feel like it’s going to.
Also, I’m glad some of you said this one is good and not too dark because wow, the dead scratching at the walls certainly sounds like a detail from a world that could be very dark. So does the description from Amazon:
What if you knew how and when you will die?
Csorwe does—she will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice.
But on the day of her foretold death, a powerful mage offers her a new fate. Leave with him, and live. Turn away from her destiny and her god to become a thief, a spy, an assassin—the wizard’s loyal sword. Topple an empire, and help him reclaim his seat of power.
As it happens, I like thieves, spies and assassins — depending on how they’re handled — so I’ll be happy to try this book.
3) The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson
What a great cover!
My goodness, I love this cover! I would absolutely pick this book up and look at it based on the cover. Even the faded letters of the title don’t cause any problems. The font is so large and simple that I have no trouble reading the title, even at thumbnail size.
This book has more than 4300 ratings on Amazon. Wow. In a straight-up popularity contest, which the Hugo Awards basically are, this one has got to have an edge. Not that I’ve looked at all the nominees yet, but wow. Here’s part of the description:
Multiverse travel is finally possible, but there’s just one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying—from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total.
That’s interesting, though honestly, I can hardly believe that it’s at all difficult to find people who grew up in such precarious circumstances that they died on hundreds (or thousands) of parallel worlds. But maybe there are lots of people like Cara; who knows? It’s a perfectly fine setup. Let’s take a look at the opening:
When the multiverse was confirmed, the spiritual and scientific communities both counted it as evidence of their validity.
The scientists said, Look, we told you there were parallel realities.
And the spiritualist said, See, we always knew there was more than one life.
Even worthless things can become valuable once they become rare. This is the grand story of my life.
I’m at the base of a mountain, looking over a landscape I was never meant to see. On this Earth — number 171 — I died at three months old. The file only lists respiratory complications as the cause of death, but the address on the file is the same one-room shack where I spent most of my life, so I can picture the sheet-metal roof, the concrete floor, and the mattress my mother and I shared on so many different Earths. I know I died warm, sleeping, and inhaling honest dirt off my mother’s skin.
“Cara, respond. Cara?”
Dell’s been calling me, but she’s only irritated now and I won’t answer until she’s concerned. Not because I like being difficult — though there is that — but because her worry over a wasted mission sounds just like worry over me.
Okay, what do you think? I think this is beautifully written. I don’t like it. I don’t like the pretentiousness of the beginning lines. I also dislike the voice of the main character. She sounds … what? Needy, I suppose. Clingy. Whiny? I don’t know. She does not at once strike me as a character I’d like to hang out with for a novel. I don’t want to turn the page.
Let’s look at the next entry …
4) She Who Became the Sun by Shelly Parker-Chan
I remember this one very clearly from your comments! Many of you said things like, “Wonderful book, but I winced a lot.” I don’t think that’s a direct quote, but it’s close. Tragic story, right? About how the only way to survive is to take and hold power, but holding power will make you into a terrible person. Something like that.
Here’s the description:
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
Grim, grim, grim! I love the trope of a girl dressing as a boy, but this “no matter how callous” thing, I don’t believe I’m up for that. I think I will stick with The Phoenix Feather series by Sherwood Smith instead. That had the girl-dressing-as-a-boy thing and the Asian-inspired setting, but Mouse went in the exact opposite direction of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous.
But while we’re here, sure, let’s look at the beginning of She Who Became the Sun.
Zhongli village lay flattened under the sun like a defeated dog that has given up on finding shade. All around there was nothing but the bare, yellow earth, cracked into the pattern of a turtle’s shell, and the sere bone smell of hot dust. It was the fourth year of the drought. Knowing the cause of their suffering, the peasants cursed their barbarian emperor in his distant capital in the north. As with any two like things connected by a thread of qi, whereby the actions of one influence the other even at a distance, so an emperor’s worthiness determines the fate of the land he rules.
Okay, I’m stopping there. I don’t like this. The first sentence is practically calculated to turn me off; plus I hate hate hate droughts, which we suffer through almost every year here; and yes, we all already know that the emperor’s worthiness determines the prosperity of the land he rules. We know that because (a) the peasants just cursed the emperor in the prior sentence, and (b) because we just know that anyway. You don’t need to explain it.
So, I know that some of you admired this book and enjoyed it (even if you might have winced your way through it). But I don’t think it’s for me on any number of grounds.
A couple more, let me see …
Okay, next up is Tracy Deonn, who is interesting right off the bat because I see for the first time that she’s included an essay, a short story, AND a novel in the Hugo Voter’s packet. Given that she has all that available, that’s very smart! Who brought out this book? Ah, this is a Simon and Schuster imprint, it turns out. I do think S & S has more marketing savvy than lots of other publishers.
Let’s take a look:
5) Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
This is an Arthurian retelling! I didn’t know that. Or not a retelling, but informed by the Arthurian mythos, it looks like. 6000 or so ratings on Amazon, very popular novel. Here’s part of the description:
After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus. A flying demon feeding on human energies. A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down. And a mysterious teenage mage who calls himself a “Merlin” and who attempts—and fails—to wipe Bree’s memory of everything she saw.
There’s a prologue. Let me decide whether I want to pull a few paragraphs from that or step ahead to Chapter 1 … yeah, okay, the chapter opening is fine, but let’s take a look at this prologue:
The police officer’s badge goes blurry, then sharpens again.
I don’t stare at him directly. I can’t really focus on one thing in this room, but when I do look, his face shimmers.
His badge, the rectangular nameplate, his tie clip? All the little metal details on his chest ripple and shine like silver change at the bottom of a fountain. Nothing about him looks solid. Nothing about him feels real.
I don’t think about that, though. I can’t.
First person present tense is my least favorite narrative mode. It can work for me. I have to grit my teeth through an adjustment period, but I do get used to it and then, as I say, it can work. But it’s never going to be my favorite. This prologue is short. This girl’s mother has just died in a car wreck, I believe. This is a tough way to open a story, so wise decision, keeping it short. Chapter 1 opens more gently, some months later. At college. This is looking like a YA story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I wonder if that’s part of why the author chose first-person-present. That style became popular in YA some years ago and maybe still is.
Okay, I do like the opening above, and reading a little bit farther, I kind of like the opening of the first chapter as well. This is reminding me a little of The Queen of the Dead by Michelle Sagara / West — which is my favorite of hers, in fact. That thought is making me want to possibly move this book up closer to the top of the stack, maybe actually read it. You know what, I think I’ll send this one to my Kindle right now. … There.
Okay. Now let’s look at the last nominee for this category.
6) Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
I know one of you pointed to this one as very dark. Let me take a look at the description:
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead...
Wow, I hate this. All about hatred between boys and girls, institutionalized hatred, from another bit of the description, it looks like it’s deliberately set up that way. Ugh, no.
But fine, let me see how it actually opens …
The Hunduns were coming. A whole herd of them, rumbling across the wilds, stirring up a dark storm of dust through the night. Their rotund, faceless bodies, made of spirit metal, glinted under the silver half-moon and sky full of glittering stars.
A lesser pilot would have had to fight off nerves to go meet them in battle, but Yang Guang wasn’t fazed. At the foot of his watchtower just outside the Great Wall, he compelled his Chrysalis, the Nine-Tailed Fox, to launch into action. It was as tall as a seven- or eight-story building and bristly green. Its metallic claws pounded across the earth, shaking it.
… and I am so done. I don’t think this writing style is appealing at all. 4500 ratings or so, 4.7 stars, and I’m like, really? Really? This is a boring opening to me, all bland action with no sense of the character. The language is pure modern American. Fight off nerves, he wasn’t fazed. These are not word choices that pull the reader into a compellingly drawn world.
The Nine-Tailed Fox is green. Green, like a fox, I guess. It’s as tall as either a seven- or an eight-story building? Well, which? Its claws are pounding the earth? What a weird anatomical feature to pound the earth with. Crabs hold their claws up in the air when they mince across the sand on their smaller claws. If you want to pound the earth, how about hooves? (Like a fox, I’m trying not to add.)
I was kind of prepared not to like this, but I was also prepared to think the writing was good. I didn’t expect to like She Who Became the Sun — and I didn’t — but the first sentences there were vivid. This isn’t vivid. This is boring, and the writing style immediately turns me off almost as much as the girls-against-boys setup. I’m not in the least inclined to bother reading further.
For me, Legendborn is the one I find most appealing as an option to try next. It should be easy to get into, with its contemporary-ish setting — I think I’d have to work harder to get into The Unspoken Name. However, my feeling is that if I read both of those, I may decide to put the latter first on the ballot. I do like creative, ornate worldbuilding and even if I wind up liking one of the others better personally, I may pick The Unspoken Name as the one of these that I’d prefer to win the award. I suspect that the thin worldbuilding of Winter’s Orbit will cause me not to put it first, even though I really did like it a lot.