Next up on the Hugo nominee reading list is Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. This turns out to be another first novel, but Lee is an accomplished short story writer, and that comes through pretty clearly—for both good and ill, I think.
So the world-building on this one is… complex. It throws you into the deep end of a galactic war built around quasi-magical concepts, and as you read about calendrical heresies and threshold winnowers and Kel formations… yeah, you’d better have some experience doing that SF-reading thing where you are able to read dense clouds of nonsense words and figure out what they mean gradually as you go. But I promise it does cohere quickly enough, and into a setting that’s both unique but also very much in the SF tradition of magic-tech space empires.
What never quite cohered for me in the same way was the main character. We spend the book seeing things through their eyes, but I didn’t feel like we ever really got to see behind their eyes; the protagonist was reserved and distant in a way that made it hard to really get emotionally invested in the book. For maybe unfair reasons, this kind of distant affect strikes me as a short story-ish quality, and I think it works fine at short length, but for novels I want more of a visceral hook.
Ultimately for me this is one of those books that I respect, but don’t love. The world-building’s great; the plot moved along quickly enough to keep me reading, with twists along the way; the writing is quietly accomplished; but… well, there’s a sequel coming out soonish, and even though I’m interested in what happens next, I don’t really care that much. Still, given that this is a very solid first novel, I’ll probably give it a go, and hope that it manages to be just that bit more friendly.