After loving The Warmth of Other Suns, I rushed out to read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much. The problem is a familiar one with non-fiction: It feels like a great magazine essay (or in this case maybe 2-3 great magazine essays) padded out to fill book length.
But maybe part of the problem is just that this isn’t the book I expected to be. As the book starts out, it’s talking about how the three big caste systems are India’s famous one; the one that the Nazis instituted in Germany; and America’s racial caste system. And so what I was hoping for was an analytical history of those three systems, how they developed, their parallels and differences, and so forth.
Wilkerson does do some of that—the part about how the Nazis explicitly looked to Jim Crow laws as inspiration when writing their own laws (and how they rejected some American provisions as too harsh) is chilling—but to a large extent, it’s just not the book she’s writing. Wilkerson has done some research on India, clearly, but she’s not fundamentally writing about India’s system, and reading this book will only give you the shallowest understanding of it; she’s writing about America’s, and only really references India and Germany as they relate to the American experience.
Really, beyond wanting the scope of the book to be larger, I think my disappointment is mostly just that this isn’t a history so much as it is a work of journalism. The first person anecdotes in The Warmth of Other Suns read as carrying the oral history of her subjects through to a more recent period, but here they don’t have that function, so just feel more like typical first-person magazine essays.
But so my criticism only goes so far, because this was also a breezy read, and there is good stuff in here. If it feels occasionally repetitive or with some bits of less-essential anecdote as filler, it’s not in any sense bad; it’s just not essential like Warmth was. Lightly recommended.
Octavia Butler’s Earthseed duology was written in the ‘90s, but is an extremely 2020 series. For one thing, they start in the 2020s, but for another, they’re describing a sort of broken-down dystopic society.
But so, back in the ‘90s, there were lots of “the future will be a broken-down dystopia” works, right. Like, almost any movie from that period that looks ahead to the near future pictures the nation as being overtaken by inner-city gangs and urban decay. What sets Butler apart from that crowd is the sophistication and eerie plausibility of her dystopia. Like, it’s not a full-on apocalypse, but climate change has wrought havoc and made areas unlivable, and large-scale forced migration has caused rising social tensions, and a breakdown in the effectiveness of government institutions has basically made it so large parts of the country are outside of any actual government control even while the laws nominally still exist and the US is still a thing and all that.
Butler had an eye for how societies fail, is what I’m saying, and it’s rare for a near-future book from decades ago to hold up as well as this one does. Even if it’s not—fingers crossed—our 2020s, there are a lot of familiar elements in this.
But beyond the setting, it’s also a fascinating character portrait, as we see the protagonist first as a girl, and then as a woman (and through the eyes of others in her life). In watching how Lauren Olamina goes through her life, the things she does deliberately for their effect on other people, and the things she can’t help but do because it’s who she is, we get a portrait of a leader in a mold that’s notable even today and must have felt revolutionary then.
These books are deservedly classics, compellingly readable and with a lot to say about society, religion, community, law, and purpose. Highly recommended.
Nicky Drayden’s Escaping Exodus reminds me a lot of Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion—it’s got a matriarchal society that’s set up a space-based civilization on a fleet of bio-tech worldships, which you have to admit is not a premise that a lot of books are using—but with the critical difference that the characters are not exclusively horrid monstrous antiheroes.
Which isn’t to say that they’re all nicey-nicey. This is fundamentally a book that’s about social inequities—class, gender, and even to some extent racial strife all pop up in the book—and the characters are embedded in their society in the way that people are, with even the “well-meaning” characters unthinkingly echoing stereotypes they’ve absorbed along the way, or defending the indefensible. There’s plenty of conflict.
But however flawed, the characters do largely mean well. We can see that they’re essentially decent people, and cheer for them to win the day or hope that they’ll change the way they’re handling some particular thing or whatever; and that goes a long way toward turning this book into something that’s enjoyable rather than a brutal and unpleasant slog.
I do have some minor complaints about the book. For one, the main protagonist seems way too ignorant of how her world works, even granting that she’s been a kid with a privileged upbringing; her being so clueless works well as a way to bring the reader up to speed on what’s going on, but it makes her seem kinda legit unqualified to be seeking out political power. For another, there’s a part in the middle of the book where growing political conflict divides two characters, and it seems like that was basically just glossed over with a time skip, like “storming the Bastille yada yada Napoleon took over” (not in the particulars, just in the sense that a lot of interesting stuff got skipped), which also makes later interactions with those two characters ring not-quite-true.
But those aren’t book-killers. Overall, this is an enjoyable book set in a mostly original setting with a lot of things to say. It’s a good, solidly written piece of SF. Recommended.
Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is an oral history of the Great Migration. The book is built around the experiences of three Black Southerners, who moved to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century; it’s sourced from interviews that Wilkerson did with them in (mostly) the 1990s, as well as newspapers, public records, and other research that puts more color and detail into their experiences, and sets up the broader context for the world in which they were living.
The book was a huge bestseller and award winner when it came out a decade ago, and so the stuff Wilkerson is writing about has diffused out into the wider culture a lot more over that decade. That’s probably exactly what a writer of a book like this wants to happen, but it does mean that this book wasn’t as novel and surprising in 2020 as it probably was in 2010—I think I’ve read any number of essays and explainers and thinkpieces that cited this book in one way or another. But even with all those people blithely spoiling history without a proper spoiler warning, it’s still fascinating reading.
Because yes, the book’s got a lot of facts and statistics and big-picture social trend stuff in it, but fundamentally, it’s the story of these three people who uprooted their lives in the South for one reason or another to set up in the North or West. And Wilkerson does an amazing job at telling their complex human stories—to the point where I’m not sure if she waited so long after the interviews to publish because she had a lot of research and writing to do, or because publishing a book with such candid, frank pictures of these people would have felt inappropriate while they were still alive. These are just ordinary people, by and large, but she tells their stories so compellingly that the book ends up a page-turner as we move through the happenings of their lives. Among other things, I can’t help but think that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be grateful to have such a thoroughly humanized look at who their grandparents were and what they lived through.
All those people who praised this book when it came out were dead-on correct: This is a history that both illuminates the big demographic shift of the American twentieth century and tells the deeply personal stories of these three people, and does both things well. Highly recommended.
So the thing I always love about history is seeing the connections and influences that exist across expanses of time, the way that things persist and change and are forgotten. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a novel, not a history, but it captures that feeling better than just about any novel I can remember reading.
Because yeah, it’s a novel, but it’s also a collection of short stories at the same time—Gyasi is telling the story of two separated sisters and their descendants, in this multi-generational epic. And so every chapter has a new protagonist, and each chapter tells a contained story about that person’s life; you could flip to any chapter at random, read it, and feel like you got a complete story. But they also build and connect, as each chapter relates inevitably to the chapter before it, with this protagonist’s life shaped inexorably by the experiences of previous generations.
It’s a brilliant structure, because it really captures both the depth of connection that we have with our history, and how invisible it is—we know our parents through a lens as their child, we know our grandparents as old people, and beyond that, for most people their family’s history is just a set of names and maybe a few fragments of memory. And so you see that in these stories where people end up in situations that to them are inevitable, normal, and just how the world is; but we see the contingent personal decisions and experiences that led to this point.
And of course, this structure only works if the stories work—being introduced to a series of new characters and situations would be absolutely momentum-sapping if they were dull or uninteresting in any way. But they’re not. Each story, across continents and centuries, is vivid and fascinating and memorable.
So, yeah, I straight up love this book. I haven’t read anything quite like this before, and it’s doing exactly what I want fiction to do. Highly recommended.
The titular character of Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby was born in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, and the book follows him (and his superpowered sister) as he grows up, constantly faced with obstacles due to his race; as he is put into a racist and exploitative carceral system; and finally, into an SFnal future where the systemic racism that’s shaped his life is made that much more efficient with new technological innovations. It is a book brimming with anger in a way that, by the end, reminded me of Jemisin’s Broken Earth books (and in fact, the author references those books as an inspiration in the afterword).
And so taken on those terms, as a book that’s trying to viscerally communicate the awfulness and hopelessness and endless ratcheting impositions of living in a society suffused with racism, it succeeds. It’s searing, and if you ever start to think “well, maybe it’s not always this bad,” you just need to look at the news to be disabused of that notion. (I was thinking as I wrote this, that the book is incredibly timely with this week’s events; but then realized that depressingly it would have been just as timely months ago, or years ago, and will likely be timely in the future, too.)
Taken as an SF novel, though, it worked less well for me. Mostly this is because the fantastic elements of the book aren’t really explored in any thorough way. The superpowered heroine doesn’t really get a lot of time fleshing out the details of what she can do, or why, or how. It’s kind of a background element that’s just there, accepted by the characters in the story as just a Thing. Which is clearly a deliberate choice the author made, but which left me feeling like the book was skipping over an important element, in the way that novelettes and short stories tend to background their SFnal elements out of wordcount necessity.
But, look, I can see that this complaint comes perilously close to “the book spent too much time on all this race stuff, and didn’t give me the superpower book I really wanted,” and that’s obviously a pretty shitty and off-point critique to make. So I guess what I’ll say is, go into this knowing what you’re getting: Yes, there are SFnal and fantastic elements, but fundamentally this isn’t a book that’s delving deep into those. They’re there for a reason, they’re critical to the story being told, but end of the day, this is mostly a story set in the present-day about a character living in our actual society. Recommended for anyone more interested in the characters and the portrait of an unjust society than the fantastic elements.
So when I read and liked The Haunting of Tram Car 015 in my Hugo novella reading, it was pointed out to me that Clark had written another novella in that setting, so I went off and read P. Djeli Clark’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Black God’s Drums.
A Dead Djinn in Cairo is the one that’s in the same world as Tram Car 015—it’s an alt-history Cairo where magic is returned to the world, and (as in the other story), we’re following an official in the government agency whose job it is to investigate supernatural crimes, as they investigate a murder. It’s pretty clear that I was supposed to have read this before the later story—while Tram Car 015 stood alone just fine, there were in retrospect character callbacks to this one that I hadn’t recognized as such, but had recognized as having weirdly important-seeming characters who played only minor roles. The mystery of this one is a little more obvious than in the later story, and it feels a bit more rushed, like a novel crammed into novella form, but it’s still good stuff. (Although oh wait, now that I’m looking stuff up, I see that this is actually “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” properly styled, as it’s a novelette and not a novella. Which certainly explains why it’d feel like it wanted more wordcount. Oops. Well, I’m still counting it as a full book, since it was published under its own cover and all, so neener.) Anyway, I love this setting and I want a novel in it, and allegedly one is on its way, so that’s cool.
So The Black God’s Drums (which actually is a novella—I just checked) isn’t in that same setting, but is also an alt-historical fantasy with airships and magic. This one is set in New Orleans, but a New Orleans that’s not part of any United States. It follows a young street girl as she meets up with an airship captain to… well, figuring out exactly what’s going on is a lot of the story, so I’ll just leave it at that. It’s also a lot of fun, and I’d be happy to read a novel in this setting, too.
Both stories are highly recommended to anyone who likes alt-historical fantasy, and Clark is on my read-on-sight list at this point.
Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf is one of those novels that I’m not going to be able to do justice to. Because so it’s an African epic fantasy novel, right, but when you say that, it’s easy to think “Tolkien or Martin or whatever, except in Africa.” But it’s not that; it’s dense and layered and literary and subtle in ways that remind me of nothing so much as a Gene Wolfe novel.
And the thing about novels like this is, I’m bad at reading them. When there are stories nested in stories nested in stories, when there are unreliable narrators… well, the thing is, I’m not always up to reading something dense and challenging, right. So when I’m reading this kind of book, I’ll go read some comic books with breakfast instead, and so it takes me forever to read it, and because I’m interweaving it with like a month’s worth of Marvel comics, I end up missing things or taking events too superficially.
But all that said… dang, this is really good. I rarely read the book jacket/blurb stuff before I read a book, and so without the prompt that this was an epic fantasy, it’s not immediately obvious what James is doing at first—it starts off with a framing story, but then jumps into earlier parts of the protagonist’s life, with a sort of coming of age, and things about family—but it eventually becomes clear at some point that this is, nominally, a quest fantasy that follows some familiar genre patterns. Except sorta also not really. I don’t want to go too hard on this Gene Wolfe comparison—James’ writing is a lot funnier and more earthy than Wolfe’s cool, distant tone—but you know how Wolfe’s Wizard Knight series was supposed to be his foray into straight-up epic fantasy, except that it totally wasn’t? Yeah, it’s like that.
So yeah, this is a dense novel with a lot going on; it’s got a distinctive African mythology that it’s working with, it’s got great characters who are tragic and funny and horny, and the writing is evocative and distinctive. This kind of dense literary novel is the type where I often end up saying, “I respected it, but I didn’t like it,” but in this case, I actually did like it a lot, too. It’s definitely not a light read, so pick it up when you’re ready to give it some attention… but do pick it up.
Also, I didn’t know this when I read it, but apparently this is the first book of a whole friggin’ trilogy, and according to an interview with James, “The thing is, the next novel is somebody else’s eyewitness testimony, and their first remark is, ‘Everything you read before is not true.’” So, uh, yeah, getting back into these in detail years apart is going to be a challenge. But I’m up for it, eventually. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the intersection of literary fiction and epic fantasy.
So last up on my Hugo reading for 2020 is two of the novella nominees.
P. Djeli Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a supernatural mystery of sorts. The main characters are from a bureau that investigates hauntings and such-like, in an alternate Egypt where magic was reintroduced into the world there. The world-building is excellent; it’s only a novella, but in the space available to it, it builds up a world with a different history, with different magic-tech, with different politics and international relations, one that feels plausible and detailed. And then it adds to this great characters, with not only the two protagonists (an older, more jaded, investigator and his fresh-eyed young partner) but a whole cast that they interact with. And then it uses these characters and setting to build and develop an actually interesting mystery storyline. This is everything that you want a story to do, but which so many novellas can’t quite manage. This Is How You Lose the Time War was a worthy winner in this category, but I wouldn’t have been mad if this had won.
Rivers Solomon’s The Deep is based on an a song from clipping. (which is why it has so many authors listed), and tells the story of a society of water-breathing sea people and their historian. The book description/cover copy gives more detail than that, but doling out information about their history is largely what this story is about, so I’m going to call that too spoilery for me to say here. This novella is good, but didn’t quite work for me. The story structure is a bit lumpy, as it’s trying to mix together a present-tense story of this historian with the history of the people as seen both in broad overview and in specific anecdotes—while the history and the character’s story have thematic resonances, the interweaving of them still felt awkward. Then too, the protagonist is doing that YA thing where they think of themselves as a bad person for reasons that are obviously not true, and discovering this is going to be one of the emotional beats of the story. This is a common trope that must work for a lot of people, but I always bounce off it. I think this is a worthy nominee, and I’d probably place it about the middle of my list if I’d been voting for the Hugo.
Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning is subtitled “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” and sure enough, that’s what it is, an epic, centuries-spanning intellectual history of (especially) anti-Black racism.
The book is organized around examining the ideas and times of five historical figures—Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. It can sometimes get a bit loose in this framing, because there are things that Kendi needs to introduce that those people weren’t involved with, but as an organizing structure, it does keep the scope focused.
I’m not going to sit here and recap the book’s arguments or analyses, because that’s what the book’s for. What I will say is that Kendi lays his analytical framework out clearly, makes a compelling case for his arguments, and draws a clear intellectual through-line through five hundred years of European colonialist and then American history. This is a scholarly book (by which I mean, for calibration, there are 45 pages of endnotes citing sources), but is absolutely accessible enough to find a popular audience.
Which, obviously, it has, winning a whole boatload of awards and topping bestseller lists. So yeah, my recommendation isn’t really needed here, but all the same: Highly recommended, essential reading for anyone who wants to actually understand American history.
So I started reading Ted Chiang’s Exhalation because one of the novelettes in it, “Omphalos,” was Hugo-nominated. I didn’t actually like that story much, but I’ve liked Chiang’s short fiction in the past, so figured the rest of the book would be better. Alas, it mostly wasn’t.
The problem is that most of these stories aren’t really stories at all—they’re just thinkpiece essays with a light veneer of fictionalization on them. More than anything else, they’re exploring a science-fictional premise in detail rather than narrating a set of events that occur to characters we’re supposed to care about. Chiang is particularly interested in the themes of free will and the exploration of truth, and most of the essays… er, stories touch on those themes in one way or another.
To be fair, there are two exceptions: The Lifestyle of Software Objects and Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom both have multiple characters who interact with each other in a way that relates a sequence of events in narrative form, which is to say, they’re actual friggin’ stories. And they’re pretty good! And as you can tell from my italics, they’re both novellas, so make up a significant fraction of the book’s total verbiage.
I’ve been pretty negative here, but really, you can probably make a case that it’s worth reading this collection for two good novellas alone, and it’s not like the shorter fiction is terrible; if you like thought experiments, Chiang runs them with the best. Recommended for fans of Chiang, people who like SF short fiction better than I do, and people who are more interested in big ideas than characters or plots.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell. No, you’re thinking of Oliver Cromwell; Thomas was a key advisor to Henry VIII. (But yeah, they’re related.)
So the general arc of the thing is reminiscent a lot of Hamilton, but tbh it’s probably the arc of a lot of historical figures who meet with early success and then die before their time. But basically you’re looking at a first book that’s Cromwell’s rise to power, where he first becomes an advisor to Henry, and rises to prominence. The second book is him at the height of his powers, cementing his success and place in the world. The third book… well, it’d be a spoiler if this weren’t history, but also nobody hangs around Henry too long and stays alive, so yeah, it’s a tragic ending.
These books have won tons of awards, so it’s probably not any surprise when I say that they’re excellent. They seem to be well-researched; which is to say, you can find grumpy old history professors complaining that the conversations and details about interpersonal relationships are fiction—which I think people pretty much get; no matter how much you think you understand a historical figure from a novel, you don’t really understand them—but lots of other professors saying that Mantel nailed the details and concerns of the period; and nothing felt obviously off to me, someone who is not an expert but has done a nonzero amount of reading about this time period.
Beyond the setting, Mantel really also paints an incisive portrait of not only Cromwell, but all the characters in the book. (There’s actually literal portrait-painting here, as Hans Holbein is a character in the books, and does his famous painting of Henry, but I digress.) In particular, one of the things that Mantel does well is keep you in Cromwell’s mindset, but then periodically drop in someone telling him what his reputation is in the countryside or whatever, and it’s always a bit of a shock, because you’re seeing this very reasonable calm guy do the things he needs to do as kindly as he can, but then it’s like, oh yeah, right, he did technically literally just burn Thomas More for a religious difference, I can see why people might think badly of that, even as it seemed an inescapable course of action to Cromwell.
The different books also capture their mood well. The first is… not exactly exuberant, but it’s the kind of optimism and energy of a youngish man on the rise. But by the third, it’s looking back as often as forward, it’s rueful at times as Cromwell second-guesses himself, and in general it’s a darker and more melancholy feeling that culminates where it inevitably must.
Obviously strongly recommended for anyone who’s interested in Tudor England, but honestly this trilogy is good enough that I’d recommend it to anyone for whom that time period isn’t an active negative
So the premise of Naomi Alderman’s The Power is that suddenly one day, women start getting the power to generate/manipulate electrical fields, making them powerful and dangerous in a physical way, in the way that men stereotypically are today.
This could have come off as a kind of wish-fulfillment power fantasy or as a purely cynical “power corrupts” fable, but it mostly doesn’t do either of those things in a straightforward way. What it mostly feels like is a plausible story of how things change—slowly at first, and then somehow so quickly that it all seems inevitable in retrospect—and about how the course of events is always balanced between the large forces that nobody could change and the whims of particular individuals.
And along the way, it really hits its notes well. The characters feel real, the online forums that it portrays are the most precise portrait of online communities that I’ve seen since Vernor Vinge’s Galactic Usenet in A Fire Upon the Deep, and even its framing story captures its characters and interactions in a note-perfect way.
Recommended for anyone looking for a good read about gender roles, the sources and uses of power, and the ways that civilizations change.
So the basic premise of Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun is that in the age of British imperialism, they also discovered Arcadia, the mystical land of the Fae… and proceeded to go about sending missionaries and traders and so forth there, just as much as they did to any other “heathen” place.
Neat premise, but unfortunately it gets executed in the form of a gothic tale of misery and horror. A missionary has been in Arcadia for some time, and his sister gets worried about him, and decides to go for a visit. When she arrives, she finds a faerieland that is inscrutable and incomprehensible to mortals, on her way to the creepy old mansion (named “Gethsemane”) where her brother has been staying.
From there it gets less and less pleasant, as dark secrets are exposed on the way to the revelation of even darker secrets, horrors pile upon horrors, and all the characters descend into their own personal nightmares.
Objectively speaking, this is a good book. Ng has built something that’s unlike any other fairy story I’ve read; and it engages with religion more deeply than I’ve seen outside of, say, Lent, with which it shares some common themes, now that I think about it.
But it was deeply, deeply unpleasant to read, and I can’t really recommend it, unless gothic tragedy in elfland is the aesthetic you’re looking for.
Martha Wells’ Network Effect is the first Murderbot novel (after four novellas), and it is pretty much exactly what I wanted it to be.
Basically, you’ve got Murderbot, one of the best first-person narrators in recent years (really, rivaled only by Gideon). You’ve got returning characters from the novellas, including my personal favorite. You’ve got the meditations on identity and humanity and friendship and purpose that are kind of the running theme of the series. And you’ve got a very solid plot full of mysteries to be solved and action to be had.
Really, the only difference between this novel and any of the novellas is that it’s more. The character interactions get a chance to be deeper; the plot is substantially more complex; there’s just more room for everything to breathe. There are writers out there who, in making the jump from novella to novel, might end up losing the tautness of their work as a bit of flab sets in, but Wells isn’t one of them.
To my tastes, this is the best Murderbot work yet. The whole series is strongly recommended.
I was a little meh about Foundryside, but Robert Jackson Bennett’s Shorefall, the second book in that trilogy, impressed me a lot more.
Part of this is because of where things were left at the end of Foundryside. Rather than just reprising a standard fantasy-thief thing, it’s set up to do something far more interesting; I don’t want to talk about this in any detail, because that probably constitutes a spoiler for the first book, but it’s neat.
But then also part of it is because this book just kicks into high gear and never lets up. There’s this hyper-compressed timeframe (I think the whole book takes place in like two days?), and just a lot of stuff going on. And then, when you think you know where it’s going to end up, it doesn’t really do that, either.
It’s not just fast-paced action, though; the book is also digging into some really interesting themes about what it means to “win” in a historical sense, in kinda the way that the last season of Game of Thrones essentially failed to. I’m looking forward to the third book, and will read it basically as soon as it’s available. Recommended to anyone who likes modern-style epic fantasies that don’t suck.
So I liked Station Eleven quite a bit, which made picking up Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel an easy call. But so, in my write-up of that earlier book, I mentioned that it wasn’t really an apocalypse/post-apocalypse novel, it was “one of those literary novels that tells a portrait of a handful of characters over the course of their lives.” And hey, guess what this is doing even more explicitly, and with even less of a fantastic element to it?
So the main thing that happens in the book, the event that the story is wound around in a multi-character, time-jumping sort of way, is the unwinding of a Ponzi scheme that’s explicitly based on the Bernie Madoff scandal. There’s more to it than just that, because you don’t make rich, layered character portraits out of just a single event, but that’s the really big thing.
It’s well-written and affecting, mostly with a kind of melancholic mood. Recommended if you liked Station Eleven for its literary qualities, which this also has; disrecommended if you liked it for its apocalypse, which it doesn’t.
Walter Jon Williams’ The Rift is kind of a weird book. WJW has mostly written interesting and sophisticated SF and fantasy, but this was his attempt to write a bestseller disaster novel in the ‘90s, and it reads like… well, like a big dumb bestseller from the ‘90s.
It’s got the tons of characters—the President, a rollerblading teen (the ‘90s!), a stockbroker, a KKK sheriff, an end-times preacher, and a whole bunch more. It’s got the dumbed-down, easy-reader bestseller style. (Which is really weird when you know that’s not how he normally writes.) And of course, it’s got its big ol’ disaster.
The disaster is a little weird, too, because it’s not an apocalypse. Yes, there’s a giant earthquake; yes, bad things happen to the Mississippi; yes, our characters are caught in the midst of life-threatening crises… but at the end of the day, civilization isn’t destroyed; the US government is deploying its resources to get things back to normal and rescue people and all that.
Like, there’s one part where a character in deep shock is trying to get to their job, and it’s obviously absurd—the city they live in is levelled, there’s a disaster going on, of course “your job” isn’t a thing to be thinking about anymore. And yet, the company’s New York branch is totally fine and 100% unaffected, and the person’s coworkers are still working normal 9-5 shifts and the company’s still cutting them a paycheck and what-not.
It’s a little surreal, that combination of world-altering crises mixed with life-goes-on mundanity, but also more than a little relateable at this particular moment.
But also, the part where rescues keep happening but our protagonists need to always be in danger results in some semi-contrived plotting, as the characters keep finding almost-safe spots and then leaving them for one reason or another. In fact, because they’re always in motion, this ends up being something of a river novel, as they go down the Mississippi from Missouri to Louisiana. (And really, the part where the main characters of this river novel are a black man and a white boy has to to be a deliberate nod to Twain.)
Anyway, the book is fine, and if you want to read a big dumb disaster thriller period piece, hey, here it is. It’d be good airport reading, if airports are ever a thing again. But if you’re expecting a Walter Jon Williams novel, with the kind of style and verve that would normally imply, this isn’t what you’re looking for.
So Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is about magic doors, in pretty much every sense of the word. It’s set around the turn of the century (not this most recent one, the one before that), and it interweaves a kind of children’s adventure story in with the rise of twentieth century imperialism, contrasting modern capitalist institutions with exploration and wonder and the like. Which sounds really tendentious when I say it that way, but while the book comes close to being too precious, it stays on the right side of the line.
While I was reading it, though, the Hugo nominees were announced, and somewhat to my surprise, I saw that Ten Thousand Doors was on the list, as were two books I’d previously read (Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire). Well, that’s three of six; if I’m halfway done reading the nominees, I might as well commit to it, and read the rest.
So next up was Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night. I’d read a previous novel of hers while reading through the 2017 nominees; it was okay, but was the weakest of that bunch, so expectations were low here—but those expectations were easily surpassed. Because this is a kind of ‘70s-era SF story about a distant-future human civilization on a planet with a distinctive environment (in this case, it’s tidally locked to its sun, so has a boiling hot side and a freezing cold side, and humanity lives in a narrow band on the boundary between them); it’s one of those civilizations where things clearly have not gone right for the settlers, and seem to be only going worse over time in an entropic way. So in addition to the personal story of the protagonists of this novel, there’s also a kind of over-arching question of whether humanity has a future.
One of the things I like about this novel is that it is deeply political, but it is never simplistic. As much as you might sympathize with the revolutionaries, Anders will keep you from deifying them; as much as you might hate this or that aristocratic character, it’s not clear whether anyone else in their position wold really be better. Solid characters, great world-building, and an interesting multi-track story make this one a very solid piece of SF in the Le Guin mold.
And speaking of low expectations, I was extremely hesitant about Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, because I also read one of her books, Feed, while reading through the 2011 nominees, and I absolutely loathed it. It was, and remains, one of the worst SF books I’ve read, and it was a terrible award nominee.
And so McGuire has been super-successful, with like a zillion Hugo nominations (and wins) to her credit, and it is of course entirely possible that a writer can grow and improve over nearly a decade; but I have been distinctly lacking in recommendations for her work from people who share my opinion of her early stuff, so… who knew what I was getting into.
Fortunately, it turns out that she has improved greatly as a writer. This book is enormously better than Feed was, in a whole bunch of ways. It’s telling the story of two kids with a particular destiny, the alchemist who made them, and the battle for control of cosmic forces as waged through children’s fantasy stories. It’s creditably fast-reading, has an interesting story structure that’s playing around with time, and is an enjoyable read.
But while it’s good, I still don’t think it’s great. The storybook element never really fully integrates in with the modern storyline, and there’s some really clunky writing—I forget if it’s actually a verbatim quote that the villain says “I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!” but at worst, it’s something close to that. Yikes. Decent fluff, but not really award-caliber stuff, in my opinion (which is clearly not that of the Hugo nominators).
And finally, we come to Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. This one is best described as a leftist’s response to Starship Troopers. It starts off the same way, with a young non-citizen joining up to attack the alien menace after they wipe a city off the Earth, and then we follow them through that war (not always in strict chronological order—this is another one that’s doing interesting structural things with time). It should be an interesting read, and much of the time it is.
But the problem is, the actual story is interspersed with these godawful political rants. Some of them are monologues in a character’s mouth, others are just straight tendentious description from the first-person viewpoint. In both cases, they’re awful. They’re just crashingly unsubtle. While Hurley’s political beliefs are a lot better than Ayn Rand’s, this has the monologuing quality of Rand, like someone got a really predictable red rose twitter feed mixed up with the novel.
And the hell of it is, it’s not needed. If Hurley just told the story straight, you’d end up angry at the capitalist overlords; if she just had people naturally doing what they do and going about their lives, you’d understand the pains and frustrations of their daily life in this world. Showing the story would drive home the point a lot more clearly than page after page of political philosophizing does anyway. (And really, even if it were taken down a notch that way, it’d still be simplistic; there’s none of the nuance and depth you see in Anders’ novel here, this is just straight polemic.)
Overall, this is a solid round of nominees. If I were voting for the winner, I’d put Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire on the top of my list (probably in that order); next up would be Ten Thousand Doors and City in the Middle of the Night (in no particular order), as the “very good” choices. Below that, I’d vote for Middlegame as a kind of weak winner, and then “No Award” before Hurley’s novel. It’ll be interesting to see what the actual Hugo voters do.
C.L. Polk’s Witchmark is set in a fantasy world that’s at like the equivalent of our world’s World War 1, both in terms of its tech (where aether-powered lights are replacing older gaslights, for instance), and in terms of, well, a major war coming near an end.
That’s the setting. The story is about a doctor with a secret past investigating a mysterious death—which involves gathering allies and delving into the world’s political and magical underpinnings. I’m reluctant to say much more than that, because it’d be too spoilery; but thanks to the original world-building, this is an interesting journey to go on.
This is the first volume in a series, but it does resolve satisfactorily without any kind of cliffhanger. (And the second book is out now anyway, as it happens.) I’m actually really curious to see where the second book goes from here, because it doesn’t seem like it could just be more of the same. Highly recommended to fans of fantasy investigations.