Hugo Best Novel Roundup

Best Novel nomination list

  • The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
  • Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
  • Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
  • Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan)
  • Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

OK, first things first I am going to address the elephant in the room here. If you have been reading my reviews of the nominations for Best Novel you may notice that I have only done reviews for four out of six. This is because I failed to finish Space Opera, which I will explain a little about later on. I have not yet read Revenant Gun because I have only read the first in the series and I want to read some of the other categories in full before I make any attempt at the series, which means that for now I am leaving it off my list to prioritise other things.

So onto explaining about Space Opera. I tried reading this book, the premise sounded absolutely fascinating and honestly I haven’t read much science-fiction comedy in a long while. People likened it to Douglas Adams’ books and I am a big fan of those so I really expected to like it.

Unfortunately I found the language use really put me off. The long paragraphs and overly wordy sentences managed to lose some of the humour for me as I kept having to re-read things to try and work out what the actual intention was, which was basically like having someone explain a joke to you and really does kill the humour. I gave it a good few chapters but in the end I decided that since I was not enjoying it and therefore very unlikely to vote for it, I was better abandoning it and moving on to other things and I honestly do not regret that choice. I am not saying that the book is awful and no one will like it, I am saying that this book is most definitely not for me.

That leaves us with four books left. If you have been paying attention to my ranking system you will note that both The Calculating Stars and Trail of Lightning received four stars from me, which means that much as I really enjoyed both books they are not getting my vote in this category (it was a good field though).

Which leaves it between Record of a Spaceborn Few and Spinning Silver. Much as I am a huge fan of Becky Chambers and her writing. Her characterisation is absolutely excellent and her stories are just so warming to your core in ways that I honestly don’t experience enough these days, I think for me I will have to put Spinning Silver over it. The use of language, the way Naomi Novik weaves the plot, it was just so superbly done that I cannot but wish to see it win.

My winner: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik.

Spinning Silver (5*)

Book: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

spinning silver“But the world I wanted wasn’t the world I lived in, and if I would do nothing until I could repair every terrible thing at once, I would do nothing forever.” 

Another one in my series of Hugo reads. I actually bought this one in paperback when I finished it because I loved it that much.

The story starts off following Miryem, the young daughter of a moneylender whose father is too kind to collect on his debts leading them to live in poverty. When her mother gets sick she takes over collecting to ensure she can actually care for her family.

It turns out that she has a knack for it and she turns around the family business, commenting that she can turn silver into gold. Unfortunately for her this boast is overheard by a race of creatures bound to the winter and hungry for gold who want to use her abilities for their own ends.

The book actually has a number of different narrators, mostly women, adding more voices as the story goes on. If I have any complaint at all about the book, it’s the fact that some of the narrators didn’t entirely feel necessary to me and at one point it actually took me a moment to work out whose point of view we were seeing things from, which threw me out of the story for a moment.

But mostly what I loved was that this book gave us several very well realised female characters, with their own problems, motivations and story arcs and the crossover between them was handled very well. She managed to balance showing us the troubles that women of the time might go through, without making them perpectual victims and also whilst still sticking to the very well done fairytale atmosphere of the book.

“There are men who are wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies. That is what was in your house with you, all your life. But here you are with your brothers, and you are not eaten up, and there is not a wolf inside you. You have fed each other, and you kept the wolf away. That is all we can do for each other in the world, to keep the wolf away.” 

I was very impressed at how she blended a feeling of realism in the way the characters acted and how the setting works, especially how well she conjures up a sense of cold (and deprivation at times). I felt entirely swept up into the world she created and it was honestly a book I struggled to put down at points.

Previously I have only read the first of the Temeraire books (which I did very much enjoy), but this is so much better than that. I have been told by others that Uprooted is even better and if that is the case then it really must go up my priority list to read because honestly this was such an excellent book. I must admit I am a sucker for modern fairytales (well written in the modern era in this case) so this book was entirely up my street, the feminist leanings just made it even better.

One of the other main things I feel I need to mention is the clever way that she twists the stereotypes of the Jewish moneylender and actually does something positive with it. Given the loaded history of such characters and how often they have been used to harm the Jewish community, it was really pleasant to see them reclaimed in this manner, especially given that anti-semitism seems to be once again on the rise at the moment. A timely book and well deserving of its place in the Hugo nominees.

Trail of Lightning (4*)

Book: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

trail of lightning

“Everything you’ve done, your past, it’s all just a story you tell yourself. Some of it is true, but some of it is lies.” 

Continuing on with my Hugo reads, this is one that I have wanted to read for a while since I heard the premise of it so I was pretty pleased that doing Hugo voting has given me a chance (as far as I know it’s not out in the UK in paperback yet and I don’t buy e-books).

The book follows Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter and a supernaturally gifted fighter. When she helps a small town deal with a monster problem is sets her on a chain of events to uncover who created the monsters and why.

She teams up with Kai Arviso, a medicine man, and together the two of them need to unravel this mystery and Maggie will also have to face up to something from her own past that she would rather avoid.

One thing this book does do is use a lot of Navajo language words from the start, but it does it in a way that you can understand them easily enough from the context of what is going on so I felt that they added, rather than subtracted from the story. Especially for this one where the characters are likely dual language so them thinking in two different languages for different terms makes a lot of sense and adds to atmosphere.

“We were safe. Safe from the outside world, at least. But sometimes the worst monsters are the ones within.” 

In terms of the overall premise this does seem on the surface like a fairly standard urban fantasy just one based in a culture we might not often see stories told in. For me it does go a bit deeper than that, looking at not only questions of belonging but also at what makes a monster and what makes a hero. Whilst looking at these questions is also not entirely revolutionary the book deals with it really well and overall produces an excellent story that has you guessing at what is going on.

It plays a lot with the idea of are people what they appear to be on the outside, the main character dealing with issues which makes her think that she is a monster or could easily become one. Her loneliness and isolation is shown quite clearly from the start of the book and how much her own trauma has harmed her in her relationships with others.

My main complaint with this book is whilst there are some other female characters within the story, the main focus is with Maggie and her relationships with male characters and that did frustrate me a lot. I do have reason to think from how things end that this may change going forward in the series so we shall have to see.

I am hoping that the nominations that this book has achieved will lead to the author’s books becoming more easily available in the future because I know that this book is just the beginning of a series and I am quite fascinated with where it will lead.

The Calculating Stars (4*)

Book: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Continuing my catch-up I am moving onto The Calculating Stars which I read as part of my book club, I can’t remember if it was before the Hugo nominations were announced but I know it won the Nebula between it getting nominated for book club and our meeting about it.

calculating“Without a plane, what was I supposed to do? Math the problem to death?”

This is the story of Elma York, a mathematician and pilot who ends up training as one of the first female astronauts. It’s strange to classify this book as science-fiction because in some ways that’s not entirely accurate, it’s an alternate history rather than anything else. The story is centered around a meteorite which crashed into the Earth in 1952, which starts a chain reaction which will ultimately wipe out humanity from the planet so they look to go to the stars as a way out.

I have to say that the story comes across as being genuinely well researched. I heard the author talk on her podcast Writing Excuses about the book and that she talked to real astronauts about it and got them to correct any mistakes she had made and that works to create an amazing sense of realism in regards to what they are actual doing in the book that works very well.

One of the things I loved in the book is how it shows the mysogyny of that time period very well without forgetting that racism was also very much a thing and not something that the white main character really thinks about until it is pointed out to her and that was done splendidly. As a white person I know how much I have had to educate myself on this (and still am) and it was important to me that they made a point of showing that intersectionality needs to be a thing in the advancement of women.

But anyway, getting off my feminist high horse for a moment one of the other main things I wanted to mention was the fact that other than the death of the planet, there is another antagonist to the story in the form of one of the male astronauts who is very against women joining the programme. He is very well done as he is not portrayed as a mistachio twirling villain but a very realistic person. He can be kind to people, he clearly does care a lot about what he does and yet on the other hand he can be horrible too. This is so important since a lot of people assume that if someone is nice to them then they cannot be a “bad guy” and this book shows very clearly that it is not the case.

“Nathaniel and I were a healthy young married couple, so most of the stars I saw were painted across the inside of my eyelids.” 

Honestly my main complaint about the book is the fact that there is a lot of sex in it. And if it wasn’t a story told in first person, I might not have minded so much, but instead it feels like someone’s memoir of their time getting to be an astronaut and for some weird reason they decided to include a lot of details about their sex life with their husband. Maybe it’s my asexuality shining through (though honestly I am quite a fan of a good written sex scene so I don’t think it’s that), but I think it’s more likely the constant rocket/penis comparisons that made me cringe so badly that it did end up detracting from my enjoyment of the story. I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler since the book practically opens with her talking having sex with her husband when the meterorite struck, but yeah, something to bear in mind.

Still, I do think this is a very good book, well told and deals with an interesting subject in a really good way. I haven’t read some of the other Nebula nominees, so I cannot say whether I feel it deserved the win, but I definitely do rate it highly and I shall be endeavouring to pick up the sequel when I can.

Wayfarers Series (5* overall)

Books: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

So as I am going to WorldCon I get to vote in the Hugos! This is very exciting to me as it’s my first WorldCon and I have not done voting like this as well so I am doing a lot of reading for it.

To start with I am reading my way through the Best Novel category and since I have already read all of the Becky Chambers books I thought I would start things off my catching up on some outstanding reviews as part of all of this. Since the series is up for an award along with the third book it seemed a good start to do all of them at once.

long wayThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (5*)

“Do not judge other species by your own social norms”

The plot of the book follows the crew of a ship whose job it is to help create what are basically wormholes between two points in space. To do so there needs to be two points to make one between and then the ship has to punch through to create it, but they need to punch from the destination and since that doesn’t already have a way to get there quickly they need to go the long way to the planet (hence the name of the book).

It should be said that the plot is not really the main point of the book, the book is made on the characters and the interactions between them. The setting is really detailed and well thought out and you learn about it through the characters learning about each other. I love the diverity of voices in the characters and how relatable a lot of them seem to be (even if you don’t like them).

Honestly this book felt like a warm hug to me, the characters ended up feeling like good friends and I cared what happened to them throughout the story. There is adversity and disaster in this book and it’s generally used as a means to drive the character’s stories and relationships rather than the plot itself necessarily being something you overly care about (it’s just not the focus of the story).

I think the only thing that saddens you about going on from the end of the book is finding out that the rest of the series follows different people so you don’t get to see more of their lives. This book sucks you in, fills you with all of the emotions and leaves you desperately wanting to read more.

common orbitA Closed and Common Orbit (4*)

“Perhaps the ache of homesickness was a fair price to pay for having so many good people in her life.” 

The second book follows Lovelace, an AI who we met in book one and her friend Pepper (who appears briefly in book one as well). Lovelace (or Lovey) is trying to adjust to her new life and Pepper is doing her best to help. The book also gives us flashbacks into Pepper’s past and how she got to where she is now and why helping Lovey is so important to her.

One of the things I loved about this book was it’s focus on relationships was were not sexual. Pepper seems to have a QPF with the person she is living with and there is never any real sign that Lovey is interested in much other than perhaps romantic relationships and as an asexual this sort of representation is often meaningful.

I could have a small gripe about how AIs are one of the typical things used to show asexuality and how that can be a negative thing when non human representations are one of the only things you see, but this is done well and representation of all sorts of relationships are the core of these books so it does not feel like it was done with that sort of thing in mind so I enjoyed it a great deal.

Another excellent and heartwarming character driven story that perhaps didn’t quite tug on some strings the way the first one did, but overall is really quite excellent and I loved it.

spaceborn fewRecord of a Spaceborn Few (5*)

“From the ground, we stand. From our ships, we live. By the stars, we hope.” 

Now we come to the one up for a Hugo for best novel. This book follows a few specific inhabitants of one of the Earth colony ships that took them out into the stars and whilst many humans have moved on elsewhere to colonies and other worlds, some have stayed on the ships to try and retain the culture that they developed on their long journey in space.

Like the first book this one follows a group of people so we see far more perspectives than the second book and honestly it seems to be something of a strength that Becky has in weaving those narratives together in interesting ways, especially in this case when the people do not have the tight interconnectedness of being on the same ship and some of them are far more loosely connected.

Still, she shows us a fascinating culture that has developed on these colony ships and how the people left on them are trying to keep the old traditions going whilst dealing with the fact that many people leave to go elsewhere and they sometimes feel more and more obsolete.

I was absolutely swept up into their lives and I felt so much for them in their individual troubles and hurts, which is where she excels. You weep with these people, you love with them, feel joy with them and that is a beautiful thing to inspire in a reader.

I am not sure if she is going to write more books in this setting, but even if she doesn’t I look forward to seeing what she comes up with in the future so I can fall in love and be heartbroken for a whole new set of characters.

Of Ghosts and Memories – short story

OGAM CoverApologies for not updating in a while, things have been hectic. Since I haven’t had any luck submitting this short story anywhere I thought I would stick it up here and see what people think whilst I work on other things.

Note that this is a personal story with horror elements to it and it does deal with topics of abuse so please be warned before reading.

 

 

Of Ghosts and Memories

by Mairi White

It’s hard not to freak out as I round the corner and realise that nothing around me looks the way it should. For as long as I can remember I have always been able to find my way back to somewhere I have been before effortlessly. But where the library should be, instead of the old concrete building with the brick front and the stairs next to it leading up to the shortcut through the car park, there is a new modern building, all big mirrored windows and beige coloured stone, too new to have been tainted yet by pollution.

I stop, staring at it for a long moment, feeling utterly lost and suddenly on the edge of tears. Being lost always unsettles me and this is not the time to deal with that.

A gnawing sensation starts in my gut as my body reacts to the sudden stress. My legs suddenly go weak and I lean a hand against the wall for support.  As if the weather can sense my distress, the sky clouds over and the warmth of the autumn sun suddenly vanishes, leaving me with an icy sensation in the pit of my stomach and shivering slightly.

For a long moment I stand there, drawing deep breaths into my lungs as I try and calm my heart before it beats its way out of my chest. I cannot fall apart right now, I have too much to worry about already.

It’s been over a decade since I walked this way, it was bound to have changed. My phone is in my coat pocket so I fish it out carefully, trying not to pull anything else out as I do so and open up the map, it doesn’t take long to get it to give me a route and I resume walking, fear of being lost starts to subside and is instead replaced by older fears the nearer I get to my destination.

The rest of the journey goes by in a flash, I reach the right street in less than ten minutes and stop at the top, looking down the hill at the row of terraced houses, their stone, grey facades stretch in a uniform line all the way down. There aren’t many people about and no one seems to be paying me any attention, which is actually a relief because I am not sure how well I can stop my my feelings from showing on my face and I don’t really want to deal with the concern of strangers right now.

The house is only a few doors down from the top of the street, so I soon find myself standing outside of somewhere I swore I never wanted to see again. It looks incredibly normal, the same two-storey terrace house with a small garden out the front as the others in the street. There is a For Sale sign stuck in the garden, near the wall at the front, but nothing else out of place about it. It used to belong to my best friend, back when I lived a few miles from here and something within has haunted me now for years.

My heart rate spikes again and my hands get clammy, I jam my nails hard into the palms of my hand, the pain grounding me as I try to get a grip on myself. Now that I am here a part of me is not sure I can go through with this; not sure I can face what awaits me within this place. I steel myself and fish out the key I have been lent to show myself around, the advantage of knowing the estate agent means I have been trusted to do this without an audience. My hands are shaking as I go to put the key in the lock and it takes me another couple of minutes to get the door open.

I feel like I should be looking at somewhere far more unsettling, but the hallway before me is irritatingly normal, just dark. I enter the house carefully and reluctantly close the door behind me.

The click as the door latches makes me jump and there is a sudden feeling of pressure in my chest, as though the atmosphere inside is suddenly closing in around me. It takes all my willpower to start to walk forwards, the downstairs bathroom is on my right, but something stops me from opening that door just yet, so I head on, past the bottom of the stairs and into the living room on the left.

There never used to be a door to this room when I visited, it was always open to the rest of the house. In the years since I was last here someone has installed one, so I push it open and step into a bare room, the windows overseeing the currently neat front garden.

Back when I used to stay over, I often used to sleep in this room, curling up on the coach under a pile of blankets. Staring at it now, I remember waking one night, frozen in fear by something and looking over to see a light at the top of the stairs. I first thought that it was just the light from the upstairs bathroom, but no, this light was moving downwards and that terrified me. I pulled the covers over my head, screwed my eyes tightly closed and prayed for it to go away, too afraid to go and see what it was.

The memory prompts me to walk over and stand where the sofa once was, and I turn to look through the doorway at the stairs beyond. Nothing seems to happen though, no sign of whatever light I seem to remember, so I lie down on the floor, looking towards the corner of the room by the window where the TV once stood. I close my eyes for a moment and it feels like I have been transported back in time. I can hear the sound of the TV, feel the blankets over me and… something else. It’s as if I can feel eyes on me and I go cold, my blood roaring so loudly in my ears it sounds like someone screaming.

Am I screaming?

Suddenly I can’t move my body, I feel trapped and powerless. The voice in my mind is shouting at my body to move but it won’t obey me at all. In utter desperation I finally manage to force my eyes open to see the reality of the empty room.

I almost cry with relief at the normality of the room around me though it still takes me a while before I get control enough of my body to move, gently persuading myself to relax so I can get back up. My legs are still shaking as I lean myself against the wall opposite the door. I am not sure what that was, a new memory perhaps? I do vaguely recall nightmares about staying down here, but the details always slipped away from me when I woke.

Rattled, I head out of the living room and turn left into the kitchen. A door to the back garden stands roughly opposite the door I entered in. I lean against the doorframe for a moment and then head inside. I can almost smell the home cooking that my friend Laura’s mum used to do here whilst we all sat around the table. This is a place that was filled with laughter and good food and I relax for a moment, feeling a little of the tension leave me.

I walk further into the room, moving to where the table used to stand. One moment I am lost in the happy memories this place holds and then I stop where the kitchen table was and the temperature seems to plummet again. I try to move back from it but another memory grips me and the paralysis descends again.

This time I am sitting in the kitchen then, where I am standing now, my best friend Laura and her sister Sam are across from me. Suddenly I can feel ghostly hands roaming up my body and over my chest. I am frozen to the spot, but I look across and they are laughing and smiling as normal even as I am unable to move anything more than my eyes. Do they not see him? How can they not see him?

Just as quickly as it comes the memory releases me and I stagger back against the wall, wincing as I hit it harder than I expected. It will likely leave a bruise. I take a moment to catch my breath.

Did that really happen? Am I recalling actual events or something else?

A deep fear washes over me, and I am afraid of what else I might uncover here. My therapist was so sure that I need to come back to find out what really happened to me, but I suddenly know without a doubt that I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t have come. I push myself back upright and head out of the room, deciding to leave now before it’s too late.

On my way towards the door I pass the downstairs toilet and I stop dead in my tracks. There is something about that room which tugs insistently at my memory and before I really know what I am doing my hand turns the handle and pulls the door open. In front of me is a perfectly ordinary room: one toilet, one sink and a mirror above it. The moment I catch my face in it another memory overwhelms me.

The water in the sink is running and I look up to the mirror and there is a dark figure directly behind my right shoulder watching me, one hand snaked around my waist. Strangely this memory holds less fear, it’s like even in my memory I am watching this happen to someone else, like a film playing in my head. My mind is numb, and my body just acts on autopilot without needing my permission.

I turn the tap on, echoing the start of the memory and splash my face with cold water. This seems to help draw me back to myself and I stare at my face for a long while, I look even paler than normal, my hair falling over my face as I hunch slightly. As the numbness fades I feel start to shake again, I can see the fear in my eyes and that makes it churn in my stomach.

My hand stretches out and turns the tap off and I look back up to see the figure there again, this time not in my memory but now.

I stumble backwards, still sure that I can see the shadow of the man, now it’s between me and the front door so I flee towards the back one, back into the kitchen, desperate now to get myself out of this house.

But now the figure is now in front of me, standing behind where I used to sit at that kitchen table. I cannot see eyes but somehow, I know that he is watching me, and I stumble backwards, tripping over my own feet and landing heavily at the foot of the stairs.

Before I can stop myself, I am pushing myself to my feet and half running, half falling up the stairs. My heart is pounding so hard it’s trying to climb out of my throat. I run passed the bathroom on the right, and head straight into the first bedroom, the room that used to belong to my friend and her sister, slamming the door after me.

I slide down onto the floor, sobbing heavily in terror, my legs too weak to keep me upright. My back rests against the wood, hoping that maybe I can hold the door closed with my body weight. Terrified, I fumble for the phone in my pocket and manage to pull it out, but my hands are still wet, and I drop it and it bounces away across the carpet towards the far wall.

My breath is catching in my throat and I crawl forwards on the floor, not entirely caring anymore if the shadow follows me or not now, desperate to get to my phone so I can get someone to come and help me. My fingers close on my phone and I pull it to me, shaking too badly to do much yet other than hold it.

As I lay on the floor, struggling to get my body back under my control so I can use my phone, I hear the door open behind me, footsteps thudding dully into the carpet as the figure walks towards me. I freeze, lying perfectly still and squeezing my eyes shut, unwilling to see whatever is following.

The figure bends down and I feel a pressure against my back, as something presses against me. It takes all my willpower not to scream or whimper. Hot breath catches the back of my neck and a voice whispers in my ear, “Turn over, please turn over.”

Suddenly I am slammed back into the past. This isn’t reality, it’s another memory. I was fourteen and I did lie here whilst that exact thing happened to me. It’s like a door bursts open in my head and it all comes flooding back.

My eyes snap open, the room is as empty as it was before. I slowly get to my feet, tucking my phone back into my pocket, my heart still pounding in my chest. I remember that day now, I remember lying there terrified of what he would do, just pretending to be asleep and hoping that he would go away.

Trembling, I walk to the door and open it, heading slowly back down the stairs. As I stare into the living room I remember being on that couch with him, he would stay up after everyone else had gone to bed and I was alone. I remember his hands; the feel of his fingers inside me and I almost throw up.

I stagger towards the back door, looking into the kitchen out of a morbid sense of curiosity. The hands aren’t ghostly now, they are his, touching me secretly even whilst his family are in the room.

This can’t be real, musn’t be real, but I know it is. I collapse again to the floor, sobbing but this time in relief. The door is open now, I can’t shut it again, even if I want to.

I let it all out, I cry and scream and cry some more. Years of pain, shame, guilt and sorry flood uncontrollably out of me until there is no more to come. I am physically and mentally exhausted now.

Slowly I get back up, tidying myself up as much as I can before heading out of the front door. As the cold air hits my face I breathe it all in and step out into the street as the door closes behind me.