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Art vs basic competence

I know I said I was cutting back on fiction. And I am! But I had this major craving for chocolate last night, and anyway I’d easily made my daily minimum plus a little, so I did in fact start THE CHOCOLATE KISS by Florand. Oh, it is so smooth and delightful, reading it is almost as sensual an experience as letting great chocolate dissolve on your tongue.

Listen:

It was a good day for princesses. The rain drove them inside, an amused little rain with long, cool fingers that heralded the winter to come and made people fear the drafts in their castles.

These are not literal princesses, I should add; that’s just how the aunts who own this chocolate shop refer to some of their female customers. Despite the non-literal princesses, this is a fantasy — barely; it’s a magical-realism story, which I love, since I personally find that a touch of magic really enhances a romance. Like this:

If a few more princesses had spines, it would do them a world of good, Magalie thought with a huff of irritation, and back in the kitchen she shook her head at the chocolate as she stirred it: May you love your life and seize it with both hands.

And also this bit:

Aunt Aja took the tray out, and just as she left the kitchen, the silver bell over the front door rang with a chime so sharp and true that it pierced Magalie straight through the heart. She clapped her hands over her ears to try and stop the sound, . . . but the tone kept vibrating inside her body, until she stamped her boots twice and slapped the counter to force it to stop.

The bell over the door rings with a different tone depending on who opens the door, see. Naturally that is Magalie’s ideal guy opening the door in that scene, and naturally neither of them has any idea.

Anyway, I’m finding that these books are not the kind you swallow in a gulp; they’re best savored slowly, a bit at a time. Ideal for nibbling your way through a stash of chocolate over several days, and also ideal for not interfering with your own work.

Now, contrast this with A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP by David Weber, which I’m listening to as I rip the knee-high (and sometimes hip-high, I’m embarrassed to admit) grass out of the vegetable garden and give the melons and okra a fighting chance.

“I mean it, Stephanie!” Richard Harrington said. “I don’t want you wandering off into those woods again without me or your mom along. Is that clear?”

“Oh, Daaaddy –!” Stephanie began, only to close her mouth sharply when her father folded his arms. Then the toe of his right foot started tapping lightly, and her heart sank.

Okay, while basically competent, is anything about this beginning the least bit interesting or special? Does any of it catch the ear like music or poetry? No. No amused little rain here. Plus, wow, folding the arms! Tapping the feet! It makes me laugh because I can’t help thinking of the Nac Mac Feegals in Terry Pratchett’s WEE FREE MEN, and the way they moan in terror if Jeanie shows the folding of the arms, much less the tapping of the feet.

I find Weber’s prose gets the job done, inasmuch as it communicates what’s going on — but I often do find his dialogue stiff and flat-sounding, his metaphors cliched, and his prose in general just uninteresting.

Having produced something of an indictment there, though, let me just add that I am enjoying listening to A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP anyway. I do think Weber can build a story that carries you along. But I also think that if Florand had written this particular space opera, it would be a more beautiful friendship because the prose itself would be beautiful.

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Resolved: media tie-ins are real novels

I laughed when I happened across this post by Vonda McIntyre over at Book View Cafe.

“Back in the 1980s, I wrote a bunch of Star Trek novels,” she begins, “I thoroughly enjoyed writing them. Pretty much the only drawback was that some of my colleagues took exception to my polluting my precious bodily fluids with evil tie-in novels. You’d’ve thought they believed they had to save my soul . . .”

Actually, back in the 80s, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Star Trek novels. The best of them were as good as — wait! Actually much better than — the show itself. Of course some of them were dreadful, but lots were good and some were truly excellent. When I cleared out my shelves a year or so ago, I dumped about half of them — but I kept the other half.

Some of my favorites:

Diane Duane wrote some great Star Trek tie-in novels! MY ENEMY, MY ALLY is a wonderful book, very Romulan-focused.

John M Ford wrote THE FINAL REFLECTION, a fine story which developed Klingons rather than Romulans. He also wrote HOW MUCH FOR JUST THE PLANET, which is actually a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta disguised as a Star Trek novel; it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

I loved Barbara Hambly’s ISHMAEL and still go back to it from time to time.

Janet Kagan wrote UHURA’S SONG, introducing Dr. Evan Wilson as a fantastic supporting character. Great humor in a fairly serious first-contact storyline. I still laugh when I think of Evan’s command: “Eyebrow on obliterate, Mr. Spock!”

And of course Vonda McIntyre wrote the novelizations of the movies, plus other stories outside the show’s canon, like ENTERPRISE: THE FIRST ADVENTURE.

One problem for me today is that while I’m sure Star Trek tie-in novels are still being written, I’m not that interested in any that are based on the spin-off shows, and anyway I have no idea which ones are really good. Here’s a category where Amazon just cannot come close to browsing in a bookstore; if you don’t see the book on the shelf and pick it up and read three pages, how are you supposed to know it even exists, much less whether it’s any good?

So. First, anybody else enjoy tie-in novels? And second, anybody got a recommendation or two for really good Star Trek tie-ins? Even if they’re from other shows, if they’re extra fabulous I’d be interested.

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Patrick Rothfuss isn’t alone in counting time travelers among his fan base

I’ve seen this odd phenomenon before. Not me personally (as far as I know), but other writers I know.

But Rothfuss may have the best Goodreads post commenting on that situation.

And now I’m following Rothfuss’ reviews on Goodreads, too. Because, y’know, I desperately need to expand my TBR pile.

I may be the only reader of fantasy on the planet who hasn’t yet read THE NAME OF THE WIND, btw. I’m waiting for the third book to come out. God knows there is no shortage of other things to read while I wait.

Incidentally, I do expect my TBR pile to explode over the next couple of months, because I’m now hardly reading fiction, because yes indeed I am writing and no I don’t want to get seriously distracted.

Though I am working at a very easy pace (1300-1500 words per day, more only if I feel like it), so I doubt I’ll have to stop all fiction reading completely. But step it down, oh yes.

However, I did just finish 2312 by KSR and it is really excellent, in case you wondered. I even sort of wound up tolerating, maybe even kinda sorta liking, Swan, even though she is such an emotion-driven histrionic character. Anyway! I am thinking that KSR may be a good choice for reading-while-also-writing, because even though I love them, all the beautiful descriptions about geology and terraforming and stuff are not as distracting as a faster-paced character-driven story would be. I think this may be a good time to re-read the Mars trilogy, finally.

Plus I will be listening to one or two audiobooks while weeding, because hey, no end to the weeding! I can’t even tell you. Look away from the vegetable garden for three or four weeks and WHAM, impenetrable jungle. Crabgrass and this weird vining succulent weed are the hardest to grub out. A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP by David Weber is the first one I’m going to listen to, because (to be frank) I don’t like Weber’s books all that much, so I don’t expect it to be too compelling a story. And if I’m mistaken on this one, great! It’s a win-win.

And thanks to Heidi at Bunbury in the Stacks for the link to that Rothfuss post on Goodreads!

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Here’s a fascinating question —

Should authors post reviews on Goodreads?

Heidi at Bunbury in the Stacks asks, in a post that was a nice surprise for me!

Anyway, Heidi points out that at least some readers disapprove and at least one author has quit posting reviews in response.

Isn’t that interesting? That never occurred to me.

It’s true that I nearly always post positive reviews about books I really enjoyed, because what if I ran into that author at a convention sometime? I would feel so uncomfortable if I had written a very negative review about his or her book!

Of course I’m not very likely at all ever to bump into Tana French, because I don’t think she is probably going to a lot of SFF conventions. But I actually did carefully avoid Myke Cole at last year’s WorldCon. I really did. So you can see why I hesitate to post many negative reviews!

On the other hand, when I post a glowing review, I really do mean it. Luckily so far all my writer-friends are very good writers whose books honestly do appeal to me! But you’ll notice I didn’t write a review of EMILIE AND THE HOLLOW WORLD, whereas I did for all of Martha Wells’ other books, and if you infer from this that I didn’t love EMILIE, well, what can I say? There are lots of books I don’t review, and that’ll be one of ’em.

Oh, and can you BELIEVE that authors post five-star reviews of their OWN books on Goodreads? How tacky is that? Just sayin’.

Okay, I’m off to add Patrick Rothfuss and Phoebe North to my daily list of blogs to tour / reviews to track. Life’s too short!

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Stockhold Syndrome: Judith Tarr’s Take on the Publishing Industry

A fascinating post by Judith Tarr, over at Book View Cafe, about publishing and the midlist author.

It’s scary and disturbing; also thoroughly optimistic. That’s the breaking-away-from-Stockholm aspect — eg, self-publishing gives the author options.

Though those options are always changing. It’s amazing how fast.

The sands, as the article says, are shifting. They always have been, but it’s getting faster. So fast that advice we gave or took six months ago is already outdated, and last year’s Must Do is this year’s Oh God Don’t. — says Tarr, in response to this article by Kathryn Rusch.

And you may know that Tarr practices what she preaches: you’re aware of her kickstarter project for a space opera? Because she wanted to write it and no publisher was interested? Her project was in lots of ways a great model for how to run a kickstarter proposal for a book.

Though I should add here, that, while I’m glad to have options, my agent has never tried to get me to write anything in particular, and I can’t imagine letting a publisher force me to write five books a year. (Srsly? Who could do that even if they really really needed to?)

So, anyway, important to keep half an eye on the state of publishing and options within the field. I can see I need to add Book View Cafe to my regular schedule.

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Very good advice —

From Scott Lynch, hattip from Martha Wells.

Now, Lynch, as you may know is the author of THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA, which I liked quite a bit. It’s an involved, complicated coming-of-age politics-heavy story that was close to too dark for me, but never went over that line. Kind of like Brent Weeks that way, if that gives you an idea.

I enjoyed Lynch’s second book, too, but it ended with the protagonists painted thoroughly into a corner, so I suggest you may not want to read that one until the third is out (this year sometime).

Anyway!

Lynch says:

… there’s always a tiny minority I can spot by the nature of the questions they ask and the statements they fixate on. They’re not interested in hearing about hard work, study, or self-improvement. Their eyes glaze over when I talk about concepts like effort or practice. They want nothing to do with developing actual skills … They just want me to tell them how to duck under that imaginary velvet rope.

So, advice about getting published, obviously.

It doesn’t fucking exist, this shortcut. This magic steam-catapult to perceived stardom. This underground railroad for misunderstood slacker geniuses. It’s just not there!

Ah, those misunderstood slacker geniuses! I don’t know that I’ve met too many, actually, but isn’t that a wonderful phrase? The whole post is fun, not that the misunderstood slacker geniuses are likely to read it, much less think it applies to them, I guess, but the rest of us can totally read this and enjoy rolling our eyes.

And Martha Wells adds:

… if you knew someone who said they wanted to be a doctor, but they didn’t know they had to go to medical school first, that would be weird, right? Or if they knew being a doctor involved curing people, but they didn’t know what the process was for doing that? Or if they rented an office and got a stethoscope and a lab coat, and thought that was all they needed? That wouldn’t be rational. Especially as all the information about the process for becoming a doctor is readily available online. It’s kind of like that for publishing.

Which, yeah, exactly. Of course the good thing about publishing is that you don’t have to pay some school a boatload of money for the training, it’s all do-it-yourself to the max.

I was just talking to a student about this the other day — she had this assignment — and one of the questions was about what kind of degree you need to be a professional writer, and of course the answer is: None in particular. The more specific answer is: But if you don’t know anything about anything, good luck with that.

Of course you don’t need a degree to learn stuff these days, you just have to be interested in how stuff works in the world, right?

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Hugo nominees: professional artists

Last year I didn’t look at artist portfolios, even though I like art and care about cover art, and then I wound up regretting I hadn’t made time for this category. So that was a project for me this morning.

The nominees were:

Vincent Chong.

To me, Chong’s monochromatic palette and somewhat grotesque style is not super appealing. There’s a really distinct horror feel to a lot of his work. That’s perfectly fine, of course, but not really my thing. I don’t mind horror-light or some kinds of dark fantasy, but don’t really care for real horror, and of course you all know that I detest grimdark fantasy. I could definitely see Chong’s work being used for horror — maybe not so much for grimdark. Maybe post-apocalyptic. Definitely zombie stories.

Okay, moving down the list:

Julie Dillon

I liked the colors and the flowing organic lines in Dillon’s pieces. Plus, hey, dragons!

DesertDragon1

I would be happy to have Dillon do a cover for me.

Dan dos Santos

Now, this artist is the one whose work I immediately recognize! He did those great covers for the Mercy Thompson series, which I think are absolutely perfect for the series. (I don’t like his wolves much, for the Alpha & Omega series; I think his people are better than his animals). He does a lot of more straightforward portrait-style covers, lots of them very good. I really like this one, from his gallery:

Which turns out to be for a book by Jay Lake, actually; I just googled the painting’s name (Kalimpura), and the Amazon link popped right up. Of course I would be more interested in the book if I’d liked Lake’s Hugo-nominated story better. But I do really like this cover. The baby is definitely an unusual element, and I love the woman’s determination, which just radiates from the portrait.

Okay, then there’s Chris McGrath.

I’m not sure what the appeal is for these limited color palettes? This is the second nominee to seem very restricted in his use of color. I think McGrath’s work lacks the grotesque edge of Chong’s work, but it does seem gritty — these are the kinds of images I think you’d see on books with titles like THE EXECUTIONER or whatever — I think of mercenaries and gunslingers and last stands when I look at them. Though some look more fantasy-themed than big-gun themed. They’re portrait style, mostly, like this one:

And the last nominee this year is John Picacio.

Sort of surreal images, a lot of these, and some that are more landscapes than portraits. I often really like art that stretches out for a wider view and offers a view of an interesting landscape; something that gives you more of a view of the world; something evocative. I really like this piece, which was used for endpaper artfor HYPERION by Simmons:

I don’t think I’m ready to sort these artists out and line them up on the ballet. I know I like Dillon, and my first impression is I might put her first, but I don’t know. Anyway, you can check out their galleries if you’re interested, their names should link right over.

Out of curiosity, in general, what appeals to you more on cover art? Portrait-style art or more emphasis on the landscape? And do you like a sort of monochromatic color scheme, or is something brighter more likely to catch your eye and make you pick a book up and look at it?

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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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Hugo novellas: a surprisingly mixed bag

Okay, the novellas!

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress
On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard
San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats by Myra Grant
The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake

These are all links to Amazon except the one for The Stars Do Not Lie, which is easily findable in free form online, so I linked to that.

Okay, the order I have listed these novellas above? That is pretty much the order in which I expected to like them. I’d never heard of the one by Lake, I haven’t read much if anything by Sanderson, but in contrast I’d heard A LOT about thee ones by Kress and de Bodard.

I was really surprised because this order is (almost) completely different from the order I wound up putting them in. I’m going to work my way up from the one I personally didn’t like at all to the one I tentatively placed first.

The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake. Really did not care for this one. I disliked the first protagonist we see, and I didn’t like the language in which the story is written. Check this out:

Morgan Abutti … stared at the map that covered the interior wall of his tiny office in the Institutes substantial brownstone in downtown Highpassage. The new electricks were still being installed by brawny, nimble-fingered men of crafty purpose who often smelled a bit of smoke and burnt cloth. Thus his view was dominated by light of a flickering quality that would have done justice to a smoldering hearth, or a wandering planet low in the pre-dawn sky. The gaslamp men were complaining of the innovations, demonstrating under Lanteran banners each morning down by the Thalassojusticity Palace in their unruly droves.

He despised the rudeness of the laboring classes. Almost to a man, they were pale-faced fools who expected something for nothing, as if simply picking up a wrench could grant a man worth.

Okay, really? The brawny, nimble-fingered men of crafty purpose? The rudeness of the laboring classes?

Lake is clearly going for an archaic phrasing which might work for me if I were in the mood, maybe, but – the rudeness of the laboring classes? I’m already being set up to dislike the protagonist, and you know what? It worked! I disliked Morgan Abutti immediately, and that pushed me away from the story, and that means I’m not willing to make allowances for the brawny, nimble fingered men of crafty purpose, either.

Plus, the innovative, cutting-edge, daring plot of this story is all about how a small-minded parochial religion suppresses the glowing truth of science. Wow, that’s new.

I just skimmed the latter half of the story because I was so turned off by the first half, so that last comment may be unfair. Maybe Lake did something subtle with the plot that I missed. Nevertheless, I definitely didn’t hesitate to put this novella dead last.

Then it gets harder. But after dithering a bit, I have to say, I put Nancy Kress’ novella fourth out of the five novellas. I did not dislike it, exactly. It was immediately engaging:

It wasn’t dark, it wasn’t light. It wasn’t anything except cold. I’m dead, Pete thought, but of course he wasn’t. Every time he thought that, all the way back to his first time when McAllister had warned him: “The transition may seem to last forever.”

Forever was 20 seconds on Pete’s wrister.

And then the story rolls ahead pretty briskly. It’s true that I didn’t like Pete much as a protagonist — he was realistic, but not the least bit likable — and in fact I also didn’t much care for our contemporary protagonist, Julie, though there it’s harder to put my finger on why. She seemed so cold and almost hostile toward the people in her life that should have mattered to her; that was probably a big part of why I didn’t like her. Beyond that, I read McAllister herself as annoyingly sanctimonious.

You can see where they’re all coming from, given their situations, but I still didn’t much like any of them. But this story is well put together and I liked it as a whole. Except. Sorry, but I’ve always thought that Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis” was the stupidest piece of sophomoric philosophy that has ever been passed off as a real scientific hypothesis, and so a story founded on it is going to have a huge uphill battle to appeal to me. Huge.

Fourth of five. Sorry.

After that I had real hopes that I would just love On a Red Station, Drifting. Great title! Everybody loves the story! Plus, the setting draws heavily from Vietnamese influences, which is so cool. Also very foreign, not just the physical details but all these intrinsic attitudes. I mean all that inferior-superior stuff, and the reverence toward one’s ancestors, and most particularly the way that children are supposed to be more devastated by the death of a parent than the other way around (seriously?) – the culture drawn in the story is fascinating.

But I didn’t much like Linh and I seriously disliked Quyen.

Linh was unpleasantly self-absorbed, and halfway through the story she did something truly gratuitously cruel to a person whom she had no reason to attack, merely to take Quyen down a notch.

That was bad enough, but Quyen was worse. Though Quyen has many good qualities, her primary motivation when dealing with Linh is envy. Envy is a terribly unappealing character trait, because it’s not only jealousy of someone else’s success and not only wishing to have success yourself, it’s a desire to tear the other person down, make them smaller even if there’s no benefit to you from their fall, just because it makes you feel better to make them feel terrible.

Seriously, even if you thought it out for a fortnight, you could hardly come up with an uglier motivation.

I love stories that turn on complicated relationships between characters. But I didn’t come close to loving this one.

After that, I was really glad to read Myra Grant’s California Brownshirts story. I think it has a decent chance of winning, since it deliberately plays to the fans. Of course everyone does die – we know from the start that this is going to happen, since it’s a zombie apocalypse story, plus we are told explicitly up front that there is only one survivor.

A story like this is a guaranteed action-packed tearjerker. Even the dog dies! But Grant is at her best with this kind of story set in this world, far better (for me) than she is with her McGuire paranormals. This story really worked for me. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough – even though I knew everyone (and the dog!) was going to die. Plus, though it’s part of her FEED universe, it definitely stands alone. I am still wavering over whether to put it first in my lineup, or second.

The other standout for me was The Emperor’s Soul. The plot was clever, the magic even more clever (I loved the soul-stamp idea SO MUCH), the writing excellent, the protagonist and the most important secondary character (Gaotona) not only well-drawn but also sympathetic and admirable.

The shifting relationship between Shai and Gaotona really appealed to me – though you see from the beginning how it’s going to work out. I like the honorable-enemy set up, and I think they might have been more alike – in their drive for perfection – than either really recognized. You can see that Shai’s sense of artistic perfection is not going to let her escape until she’s seen her project succeed, no matter how much this puts her at risk; you can see that Gaotona’s sense of perfect justice and right action is not going to let him stand by while his own people murder Shai, no matter that he has to compromise his other principles to help her.

So I didn’t find this story broadly unpredictable, but I did find it thoroughly satisfying. You can say the same about the Grant story, though it was completely different. At the moment, I’m leaning toward putting the Sanderson novella first, and Grant’s second – I don’t think I’ll change my mind, but hey, it could happen.

If you’ve read any of these, what do you think? And anybody got a suggestion for a great book by Sanderson to add to my TBR shelves? I know he’s pretty well-known, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else by him.

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