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Novel

I was quite familiar with three of the finalists - White's The Ill-Made Knight, Van Vogt's Slan, and Smith's The Grey Lensman - all quite well-known classics of the genre, and all on my nomination list. Boye's Kallocain, which I had actually read earlier this year, was also one of my nominations [1]. So the only new novel to me among the finalists was The Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson [2], which, having now read, I think of as a quick and pleasant read, but not particularly special.

My personal opinion is that The Ill-Made Knight has aged the best of the the finalists, and as a retelling if the Arthurian legend, it holds a special place in my memories. But I'd be almost as happy if Slan wins, as it's a book I remember with much nostalgia from my childhood - as I suspect do many socially outcast young nerds.


Novella

Heinlein's If This Goes On… and Coventry - both personal favourites among his early work - were on my nomination list for this category. Magic, Inc., however, has always seemed to be one of Heinlein's lesser works and I did not consider it for nomination.
I had read both of the de Camp/Pratt finalists - The Mathematics of Magic and The Roaring Trumpet - before, but long enough ago that I did not remember them clearly. I have now remedied that [3]. Both of the de Camp/Pratt novellas were good, well-crafted comic adventure pieces, but I remain convinced that for technique, entertainment value, and maturity of themes and ideas, the two Heinlein science fiction pieces are the cream of this crop.


Novelette

Heinlein's "Blowups Happen," Sturgeon's "It!” and Bates' “Farewell to the Master” were among my nominees - I was of course long familiar with the Heinlein novelette, but not Harry Bates' story, which I read for the first time this year and was quite taken with, or the Sturgeon novelette, which I also read earlier this year [4]. Heinlein's “The Roads Must Roll" was a close contender for me, though it just missed being one of my nominations. The late addition to the finalists, A. E. Van Vogt's "Vault of the Beast" was new to me, and sadly, I was not impressed [5]. All in all, "Blowups Happen" and "Farewell to the Master" made the strongest impression on me in this category.


Best Short Story

“Martian Quest” by Leigh Brackett, “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein, and "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges - I adore Borges - were all among my nominations for this category, and both “The Stellar Legion," also by Leigh Brackett, and “Robbie” by Isaac Asimov were among the works I had under consideration up to the end [6]. I think I'd be quite content if any of them were to win, but my secret hopes are for the Borges piece.



[1] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/181310.html
[2] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/198078.html
[3] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/198990.html
[4] short notes on the Bates and Sturgeon novelettes here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/188154.html
[5] short notes on A. E. Van Vogt's novelette here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/199299.html
[6] short notes on the two Brackett stories here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/188154.html

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The Roaring Trumpet and The Magic of Mathematics, two of the novellas nominated for the 1941 Retro Hugos, are the first two entries in a series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

De Camp and Pratt collaborated on a series of comic fantasy adventures featuring Harold Shea, psychologist and occasional enchanter. In our universe, Shea works in a psychology institute attached to a hospital, and along with a few of his his colleagues, has developed an interest in what they call paraphysics - the theory that all the worlds of the imagination exist, and the key to moving between them is the ability to shift one's sensory awareness from one universe to another.

In The Roaring Trumpet, the first of Harold Shea's adventures, he plans a nice trip to Ancient Ireland, but instead winds up in the universe of Norse mythology, in the midst of Fimbulwinter, with Ragnarok just around the corner. At first, Shea doesn't realise that the laws of physics he knows don't work in this universe - and neither do his matches, his gun, or anything else he brought with him, but once he works out the basic laws of magic, he gains respect as a warlock, and helps the gods prepare for their final battle. His bewilderment in dealing with the gods, giants, trolls and other magical folk from Norse legend provides much of the comedic enjoyment, and in the end, it's a fun - if somewhat bloodthirsty - romp through a mythic winter wonderland.

The Mathematics of Magic, the second adventure of Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt's Compleat Enchanter Harold Shea, takes place in the universe of Spenser's Gloriana, where Arthurian-style knights comport themselves nobly against a background of Elizabethan pageantry. This time Shea is accompanied by his colleague in psychology and "para physics," Dr. Reed Chalmers, as they roam from tests of arms to jousts and tournaments to battkes with evil magicians under the guidance of the great female knights Britomart and Belphebe, and the much-imperiled damsel Amoret, committing magical mayhem as they go. De Camp and Pratt offer a fine parody of the excesses of the courtly literary tradition, with a few trenchant comments on the general position of women in the world of knights and fair ladies.

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Reading Jack Williamson's Reign of Wizardry (it's one of the Retro Hugo finalists) is like stepping back into my childhood, the days when many science fiction and fantasy novels were brisk swashbuckling adventure stories based, sometimes quite openly, other times more subtly, on legends and folktales, and ancient history.

Reign of Wizardry is set in the time of the Minoan Empire, and calls on the myth of Theseus, the Athenian who killed the Minotaur and broke the hold of Minoan Crete over the Mediterranean world. In Williamson's fantasy, the power that sustains King Minos is wizardry, and Theseus must set human courage and ingenuity against supernatural forces - aided by the love of Ariadne, daughter of Minos and priestess of Cybele.

This is a very Golden Age fantasy, for all that it stays rather close to the bones of the Greek legend. The hero is from the same mould as Conan - bold, strong, smart, a warrior with a touch of barbarian nobility fighting against the decadent, cruel, and immeasurably wealthy forces of corrupt magic. The woman is a cypher who exists only to fall madly in love at the hero's passionate kiss and betray everyone she's ever known, everything she's ever believed in, to help him defeat the only world she knows. It's a fast, tightly plotted read that moves from set piece to set piece with efficiency and provides all the entertainment the reader expects.

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Hugo Nominations - Novel and Novella

Unlike my Hugo voter experience last year, this year I had actually read many of the finalists in the novel and novella categories before the finalists were announced, and was able to quite quickly read those I had not. This post is simply a placeholder, to gather together links to my comments on all the finalists.

And now, to make a few comments on my relative assessments of these works in the novel category. I had a very hard time making my personal nominations - right up until the end there were about ten novels that I could barely differentiate in ranking, and The Fifth Season, Uprooted, and Ancillary Mercy were among that group. There was but a hair's-breadth of difference for amongst them all, and hence, only a hair's-breadth of difference between these three at the top of my ballot. The other two novels were not in that final group of ten.

As for novellas, Binti is the only one of my nominations that appeared as one of the finalists. Both Slow Bullets and Penric's Demon were on my list until the end, and had I read The Builders before nominations closed, It would have been another possibikity for consideration.


Novel

The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/173419.html

Uprooted, Naomi Novik
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/176380.html

Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/177907.html

Seveneves: A Novel, Neal Stephenson
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/181055.html

The Aeronaut's Windlass, Jim Butcher
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/193254.html


Novella

Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/179830.html

Slow Bullets, Alastair Reynolds
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/185477.html

The Builders, Daniel Polansky
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/192634.html

Penric's Demon, Lois McMaster Bujold
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/170131.html

Brandon Sanderson, Perfect State
http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/192320.html


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I'm not a big comics/graphics fan. I rarely search out graphic novels, and my tastes in this form of narrative are heavily influenced by my preferences in both visual representation and subject.

Of the five finalists in this category, three are graphic novels/narratives and two are web comics. The first of the graphic novels is Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: Overture, drawn by J.H. Williams III. Most people have suggested that this is the odds-on favourite, and it's easy to understand why. First and foremost, it's The Sandman, and when you consider that even I have read The Sandman and been blown away by it, that's saying something. This prequel is a more mature work, in which Dream must take responsibility for a decision that will result in the end of the universe unless he can find a way to correct his error. It's thoughtful and beautiful and powerful and the story and art are so amazingly wound together and support each other. It is another masterpiece from Gaiman, and there's not really much more that needs saying.

The Divine, written by Boaz Lavie, with art by Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka, is an interesting piece. Inspired by a photograph of 12-year old twin child soldiers who were leaders of an army of Karen refugees fighting a war of resistance against the state of Myanmar, the story has been transmuted in the creator's hands into a narrative focused on Western (specifically American) involvement in Asia and its backing of exploitative and genocidal regimes. Mark, a former demolitions technician, is persuaded by an army buddy to join a short but highly paid mission to the (fictional) nation of Quanlom. Once there, he finds himself in the midst of a battle between government forces that want to explode a volcano to access the mineral wealth inside and a child army that is all that remains of the indigenous people who sought to preserve their way of life. Magic confronts bullets, as Mark chooses to side with the indigenous people. Intriguing story, decent art, but unfortunately the characterisation falls short. Mark's friend Jason is a caricature of the ugly American soldier, and the children are somehow made too supernatural to be sympathetic.

Invisible Republic Vol 1, written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, is a rather compelling beginning to a story about (as I understand it so far) the rise and fall of a political regime. The story unfolds in two time periods. In the story's present, a frame narrative set in the unrest and upheaval of the end of the Mallory regime on the colony of Avalon, down-on-his-luck and discredited journalist Croger Babbs, looking for a story to revive his career, stumbles on a priceless manuscript - the memoirs of Maia, the cousin of the vanished dictator Arthur McBride. The narrative cuts back and forth between Babbs' investigation and the events described in Maia's papers. In the issues contained in Vol. I. We really see only the beginnings of both storylines, but there's more than enough of interest there to make me want to keep following the story. The suggestions of parallels to the Arthurian legends are an additional draw for me though this may not be true of everyone.

Erin Dies Alone, a webcomic written by Grey Carter, art by Cory Rydell (dyingalone.net), is an ongoing story about a woman who hasn't left her apartment or physically interacted with another human being in two years. She sits around doing nothing much except smoke weed and shop online - until her imaginary friend, a raccoon in a red bandana, lures her into reviving her old gamer instincts. Both from the characterisation and the style of the art in the scenes set in Erin's reality - grey, monotone, faintly drooping - Erin is in the grip of serious depression. Overlying this narrative exploring Erin's pain and depression are some very funny representations - sometimes even parodies - of popular video/online games and common situation in the gaming life. The question is, will gaming bring Erin back to herself, or take her further away? There's a complexity and ambiguity about this narrative that lifts it above the ordinary.

The other webcomic nominated in this category, Full Frontal Nerdity by Aaron Williams (ffn.nodwick.com), is a humorous look at nerd life and culture, with particular focus on gaming, comics and media. The art style is very basic cartooning, and there is no ongoing narrative, although portrayals of familiar gaming situations are spread over several individual strips. It's often funny, and portrays the obsessions and idiosyncrasies of gamers and gamer culture with a knowledgeable and kindly eye, but in my mind it lacks the extra "oomph" an award-winning work ought to possess.

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Editors are a vital part of the whole literary business. The work they do in selecting, acquiring, nourishing, critiquing, shepherding, and making ready for publication at all levels the fiction we love to read is invaluable, as much as it is, to the reader, invisible (except when it's been poorly done, or not done at all, and then we can all see what the editor brings to the bookshelf).

In considering the Hugo finalists for best editor, short and long forms, I paid attention both to the work done by the finalists during the past year, and to public statements I could find by the finalists about their philosophies and approaches to editing and to science fiction. I consider the latter to be important because editors are gatekeepers, and their attitudes and philosophies determine what works are published, and thus shape the future of this complex genre.


Editor, Short form

This year's finalists were all well-known to me, John Joseph Adams, Neil Clarke and Ellen Datlow in particular. I don't read Asimov's regularly, but I do often enough to be familiar with Sheila Williams. Jerry Pournelle I know mostly as a writer of hard sf.

Adams is a remarkably prolific editor - in addition to editing the online magazines Lightspeed, Fantasy and Nightmare, he edited or co-edited five anthologies in 2015 (that I know of). Under his guidance, special editions of Lightspeed, Fantasy and Nightmare devoted to the work of women and queers were published, and a new round of special editions featuring the work of people of colour is in the works. I've read any of the anthologies he's edited, and many stories from those online magazines.

Neil Clarke is the editor of Clarkesworld, an online magazine publishing some of the most interesting and innovative short fiction around. Last year's offerings included two of the best short stories of the year - Naomi Kritzer's "Cat Pictures Please" and Aliette de Bodard's "Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight."

Ellen Datlow has been a name to conjure by in the workd of science fiction for a very long time. In addition to her many print anthologies - three of them released in 2015 - she is one of the editors at tor.com, another source of innovative new short fiction. Among the pieces she edited for tor.com in 2015 were the excellent novellas "The ​Pauper ​Prince ​and ​the ​Eucalyptus ​Jinn" by Usman ​Malik and "The Waters of Versailles" by Kelly Robson, and the wonderful novelette "Fabulous Beasts" by Priya Sharma.

Sheila Williams is the editor of Asimov's Science Fiction, which has long been one of the giants in the field. In 2015, works published under her aegis included Eugene Fischer's compelling novella "The New Mother," and Sarah Pinsker's "Our Lady of the Open Road."

Jerry Pournelle is a noted science fiction writer. He also edited a fair number of anthologies back in the 80s and 90s. However, the work he edited in 2015, There Will Be War X, appears to be his first sf anthology in over 20 years. And my impression after skimming it was that it was uneven - some very good work, some average work, some work that coukd have been stronger, clearer, or better written. Not an impressive body of work from 2015 on which to hang a Hugo, I'm afraid.


Editor, Long form

Sheila E. Gilbert, Liz Gorinsky and Jim Minz provided the Hugo Voters Packet with lists of novels they had edited in 2015 in support of their finalist status. The other two finalists did not, and I was rather disinclined to hunt for further information in either case.

Sheila Gilbert is co-publisher of DAW Books. Her list of 2015 works included Michelle West's Oracle and Tanya Huff's An Ancient Peace - both works from writers I consider to be among my favourite "must buy" authors.

Liz Gorinsky is an editor at Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates. Her list included such notable works from 2015 as Liu Cixin's The Dark Forest, Catherynne Valente's Radience, and Mary Robinette Kowal's Of Noble Family.

Jim Minz is an editor at Baen Books. I was not familiar with any of the books mentions on his list, but a quick check of reviews indicated that while the books he worked on were not to my taste, his editorial hand was involved in several popular and well-received novels.

Toni Weisskopf is both editor and publisher at Baen Books. She may well have edited some remarkable books in 2015, but as she didn't care to let the Hugo voters know what they were, there's no way I can assess her editorial contributions in 2015 or consider her as a finalist in this category.

The last of the finalists also failed to provide any indication as to the works he edited in 2015, or the books put out by his small press publishing house. But that's just fine by me, as everything I have read by the man confirms my belief that his vision of science fiction is so antithetical to mine that I could never vote for him.

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Two of the finalists in the Best Novelette category were stories I'd already read - “Folding Beijing” [1] by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu, which was one of my own nominations, and Brooke Bolander's "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead," [2] which had been on my 'for consideration' list right up to the final cut. Both were reviewed earlier in the year - URLs are in the footnotes.

While I don't feel that Stephen King's "Obits" is quite as powerful as either of these, it is nonetheless a creditable finalist. Dark fantasy rather than outright horror, it tells the story of a young journalist who inadvertently discovers that he kill anyone he chooses by writing their obituary. King explores both the addictive power of the ability to decide between life and death, and the visceral recoil of the average human from it. In the end, though, it is a story of hope, arguing that it is possible to turn away from the seductive draw of such power.

"Flashpoint: Titan” by Cheah Kai Wai, published in the anthology There Will Be War X, is a relatively straightforward milsf story about a battleship, its captain, and a battle in space that is won at significant cost. The writing is clear, with minimal infodumping, the story stripped of all narrative elements other than those which further the military encounter. Commander Hoshi at least emerges as a well-developed character - though this cannot be said about most of the other characters. The leanness of the narrative means that we have little sense of the political milieu in which the encounter takes place, and no real understanding of the motivation of the enemy combatants. This is essentially battletech porn - each manouevre is detailed, every strike and counterstrike described. The opening gambit, the set up, and the battle are the story. Competently written, but too limited in scope for my taste.

On the other hand, “What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke, the second finalist in the novelette category from the There Will Be War X anthology, is a well-written and thought-provoking piece with much to recommend it. The premise of the story is that Earth is under sustained attack from aliens with superior firepower, the defense of Earth and its colonies is going poorly, and the only way to survive is to push both technology and ideas of appropriate use of personnel to the limits - and possibly beyond. The story begins with a crack pilot waking up in a virtual simulation. At first he assumes he has been injured and the simulation's purpose is to communicate with him and check on his healing while his body regenerates. But as time passes, the simulation widens to contain 23 other pilots, all of whom he's served with, some of whom he's sure were killed in action. There are simulations within the simulation, as the pilots are given the opportunity to train on a different kind of individual fighter ship, with new mission parameters and tactics.

While I was able to figure out quite easily what was really happening and why, the 'twist' at the end isn't really the point of the story. It's more about establishing the essential humanity of consciousness - done through solid characterisation and a deft balance between the simulated actions of the pilots and the introspective ruminations of the key protagonist - and asking each reader to decide the title question for herself. A good and thoughful story.



[1] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/185839.html
[2] http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/178331.html
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Only four of the best short story finalists are reviewed here. the omitted piece was to the best of my knowledge written and nominated for the sole purpose of mocking other authors and their work; as I find this contrary to the spirit of the Hugos, I'm not dignifying it with my time or consideration.

Turning to the other finalists, the cream of this otherwise stunted crop is Naomi Kritzer's short story "Cat Pictures Please," [1] which was added to the ballot to replace Thomas A. Hays' withdrawn piece "The Commuter." This story was on my shortlist though it was not one of my nominations - but this was a year in which It seemed a great many superlative short stories were published. I'm very happy to see it on the list of finalists. I reviewed it earlier in the year, but I will add that I find that I keep coming back to the essential question - is it better to have full autonomy even if one screws up royally, or to live, all unknowing, under the control of a beneficent force - and pondering various aspects of it. An excellent piece of work.

S. R. Algernon's very short piece "Asymmetrical Warfare" is all about alien invasion gone wrong, from the perspective of a mission commander who makes too many assumptions based on their own culture and experience. Told as a series of journal entries by the leader of a fleet invading Earth, this wry piece (even the title is a pun) details the confusion of the star-shaped aliens as they discover that the enemy whose weapons they have been destroying are not the radiates of the ocean but the bipeds on land. Sadly, the outcome for humanity looks rather grim regardless of the misapprehensions of the invaders. A slight piece, but fun.

“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao, from the anthology There Will Be War Volume X, is a vicious little piece of work, a short shockfic with racial overtones and no subtlety - and indeed, almost no story. China, engaged in the economic colonisation of sub-Saharan Africa, finds the indigenous population unsuited to their needs - too violent, too lazy - and designs a genetic virus to annihilate all Africans. An American scientist who discovers the plan is blackmailed into silence. The end. It's a nasty scenario, proposed and then left hanging.

Thanks to the appearance of "Space Raptor Butt Invasion" on the list of Hugo finalists for Best Short Story, I have finally read something by the famed (or is that infamous?) Chuck Tingle. While I prefer my erotica to be somewhat more literary in style, I must admit that I found the story to be quite a hoot. Not sure whether I'll sample any more of Dr. Tingle's output, so to speak, but the writing was competent and the story had a good build-up, consistent characterisation, plenty of action (of the kind one would expect, of course), and a satisfying conclusion - making it a rather better effort than some other recent finalists I could mention, though not in my opinion a work of sufficient calibre to merit a Hugo award.



[1] my comments on "Cat Pictures Please" can be found here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/149268.html

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Campbell Award nominee Sebastien de Castell's Greatcoat series was not on my radar prior to the Hugo announcements, so I was not quite sure what to expect from the first volume, Traitor's Blade. The reviews I'd read suggested a Dumas-inspired sword and swahbuckle adventure, humorous on the surface but serious underneath. And so it is.

The Dumas influence is fairly obvious. Three roguish swordsmen, members of a once proud but now debased band of King's-men, pragmatic and honourable at the same time. Corrupt and venial nobles and an imperiled royalty. Set in a time where the use of gunpowder is just beginning to intrude on the mysteries of the sword. There's even a Milady figure.

I also found it somewhat reminiscent of David and Leigh Eddings' Elenium, possibly because the narrator's voice - wry, somewhat worldweary but still completely devoted to an ideal - reminds me of Sparhawk, who is one of my favourite fictional knights.

Traitor's Blade introduces us to three former Greatcoats - representatives of the King and empowered to act as magistrates and upholders of justice throughout the land of Tristia. Their order disbanded, their King deposed and murdered by the powerful Dukes who wanted no authority above them, Falcio val Mond and his companions Bresti and Kest are still following the quest set on them by their king just before his death - to find his Charoites, his hidden jewels.

There's lots of action and adventure, and valorous deeds and courageous stands and corrupt dukes and scheming Duchesses and distressed damsels (who turn out to be quite competent and able to assist in their own defence) and evil underlings and wholly unexpected cavalry coming over the hill when things seem darkest. It's lots of fun - but there's also some unexpected depths as it explores the concepts of honour, valour, duty and sacrifice.

The fun continues in de Castell's second Greatcoats novel, Knight's Shadow. The remaining Greatcoats - bolstered by a new generation trained by the late King's mother, known only as the Tailor, have taken up the quest of placing the King's daughter Aline on the throne. But the Dukes do not with to give up the autonomy and power they've had since the deposition and murder of the king, and at least one of their number - the powerful sorceress Trin - wants to rule over Tristia herself. But other forces are stirring as well - rebellion brewing among the common folk, mysterious assassins murdering the ducal families down to the last child, and roving bands of knights who have taken it upon themselves to bring order - though little justice - to the fractured land of Tristia.

De Castell's intriguing vision does not flag in the second installment of the Greatcoats series, nor does the momentum falter. Action, humour, surprising twists and turns, political manouevres, betrayals and victories - all the things that made the first book so readable are here, but the stakes are higher, the forces arrayed against the Greatcoats darker and more dangerous, and the plots more complex and more deadly.

All in all, these novels make for a strong debut, and I look forward to reading more from de Castell.

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I've seen Pierce Brown's debut novel Red Rising described in terms of its thematic and situational resemblance to other novels - Ender's Game, Lord of the Flies, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games. And it certainly does share something with each of these, beyond the obvious violence and general grimdark of the story. It shares with Ender's Game the concept of brutalising children to teach them to be warriors and the question of whether all-out violence is a legitimate path to victory. With Lord of the Flies, the depiction of children who lose the values of civilised society - compassion, rationality, tolerance, justice - in the face of the struggle to survive, and the question of the innate nature of humanity. With Game of Thrones, it shares an examination of leadership, loyalty, allegiance, power, betrayal - the stuff of politics and social organisation and control. And with Hunger Games, it shares the idea of hope, of the defiant gesture that speaks truth to power in the face of death, and of resistance to a society built on cruelty and injustice.

Darrow, the young protagonist of Red Rising, is a Red - a member of the worker caste, a helium3 miner in the dangerous depths of the Martian mines, the lowest of the low. The society he lives in is a rigidly hierarchical oligarchy in which the genetically and surgically enhanced humans of the Gold caste dominate all other humans - the merchant Silvers, the pleasure-giving Pinks, the technological Blues, and all the other Colors, high and low - through fear, brutality, indoctrination, false hope and lies.

But in the depths of Mars, revolution is brewing. And the Sons of Ares have chosen Darrow for a dangerous mission. Altered by painful surgeries, trained to act and react like a young Gold, given a false background, the leader of the revolution directs Darrow to infiltrate Gold society, gain as much power and influence as possible, and use his position to destabilise the highColor overlords and weaken their ability to suppress the coming rebellion.

But first, Darrow will have to not just survive, but win in the deadly game of capture the castle that Golds use to cull the weaklings from among their own children and train them to be ruthless and cunning. And though he doesn't know it, politics among the Gold great houses has stacked the deck against him.

This is not a comforting novel. It is dark, and Brown does not shy away from presenting the depths to which a society that rewards brutality can fall. Darrow is a young man, driven more by grief and anger, by the need to avenge the death of innocents and the betrayal of the people he grew up among than by abstract concepts of justice. He comes close to becoming that which he is supposed to tear down, over and over as he moves without guidance through the viperpit of Gold society. There is no guarantee that he will come out of the trial with soul even partly intact - but there is hope.

It's fast-paced, action-filled, hard to put down - but it's also profoundly thoughtful, raising questions about the best and worst expressions of humanity, leadership, social organisation and justice.

And I picked up the second volume in Brown's trilogy and started reading just minutes after finishing the first. Golden Son carries on the story of Darrow, out of the limited arena of politics and war he learned to navigate in the first novel, and into the charged world of immense wealth and intense house rivalry that is known simply as the Society.

Brought into the household of the ArchGovernor of Mars - the Gold ruler who had his wife killed - Darrow finds himself in the middle of political intrigues, machinations and feuds between the Great Houses, plots and rivalries within the House he serves, and changes in the direction of the Sons of Ares that he cannot countenance. Striking out on his own, he uses his discovery of a plot to overthrow the ArchGovernor of Mars - one backed by the sovereign herself - and the deep personal relationships, of both loyalty and animosity, that he forged in the first novel, to foment unrest and ultimately civil war. Though he succeeds - at least for a while - in starting, and winning, a war to drive a wedge between Mars, under the rule of the ArchGovernor, and the Sovereign, everything comes crashing down when his true identity is discovered, and the book ends with Darrow captured, the ArchGovernor dead at the hands of his own son - a deadly enemy of Darrow's - the Sovereign fully in control once more and the leader of the Sons of Ares killed.

Golden Son continues to explore the themes of leadership and loyalty that began in Red Rising, as Darrow learns through his triumphs and failures with both friends and foes. The non-stop action continues as well, sweeping the reader up in Darrow's path to glory and defeat.

Morning Star, the final volume of the Red Rising trilogy, continues the roller-coaster ride as Darrow is rescued and reunited with his allies - and gathers more as he moves inexorably toward a final confrontation with the Sovereign of Society at her power base on Luna. The novel is packed with battles on the ground and in space, with negotiations and secrets and plans within plans, victories and betrayals and all the action you could ask for. In the end, there is change, but not all that was dreamed of, the sacrifices and the costs of the revolution are massive, and the task of completing the rising and rebuilding a better, more just society seem almost too much to take on.

But still, there is redemption for some, and peace for others, and some kind of hope for all, no matter how provisional and how incomplete the victory.

All in all, it's a strong closing to a compelling work in three acts, and an impressive debut from Pierce Brown.

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When I'm reading a book I wouldn't ordinarily pick up on my own accord, I like to check out a few reviews first, so I know something of what I'm getting into. So before starting Campbell Award nominee Brian Niemeier's debut novel Nethereal, I looked for reviews and read a few. It was a little disturbing to note that the majority of reviews I located were written by people situated within one degree of internet separation from a Rabid Puppy. Nonetheless, I embarked on the novel.

There is a way to plunge right into the manners, politics, history and culture of a secondary world without leaving the reader with so many questions that the text is frustrating in its opaqueness. Good science fiction and fantasy writers do it all the time, dropping just enough clues, giving just enough exposition, that the story and the characters' actions make sense. Neimeier, unfortunately, does not do this.

In addition to being frustrated and confused, this lack of incluing [1] left me feeling very little interest in the fates and fortunes of the characters.

I gave the novel a decent chance to grab me - but by the time I'd read ten percent, I was still uninterested and unimpressed. And I certainly would not consider an author for a Campbell award on the strength of it.

However, the other two works of Niemeier's that I located were a rather different story. The first is a novelette, Strange Matter, that was published in Up and Coming: Stories by the 2016 Campbell-Eligible Authors, edited by S. L. Huang and Kurt Hunt. A variation on the Groundhog Day theme, a mechanic finds himself reliving over and over again the last ten minutes and seventeen seconds before the end of the world. It's a competantly crafted story, and it kept me reading to the end.

The second is a short story Izcacus, which is posted on his website. [2] Told in an epistolary format, it's the account of a mountain-climbing expedition in a uncharted region of the Caucasus mountains gone horribly wrong. It's a very much a Lovecraftian story, all about horrors hidden in places where humans should not go, and what happens to them when they come up against the powers of an ancient evil, though it draws on Christian mythology rather than Lovecraft's, or one created for the story. It was decently structured and written, and I rather enjoyed it.

On the basis of my reading, I wonder if perhaps Neimeier's strengths are better suited to short fiction. While both pieces of short fiction are somewhat derivative, they are quite readable. Still not Campbell calibre, but decent work.



[1] Incluing is a technique for world building, in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. The idea is to clue the readers into the world the writer is building, without them being aware of it. http://fritzfreiheit.com/wiki/Incluing

[2] http://www.brianniemeier.com/p/izcacus.html

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The Aeronaut's Windlass is the first novel in a new series by Jim Butcher. It's a bit of a hybrid, part fantasy, part steampunk - a Regency-flavoured world of tower cities called Spires, at war - or at least in competition with each other - protected by armadas of airships powered by artificial crystals and propelled by etheric currents.

It starts out with a generous set of introductions to the people who will, I assume, play important parts in the series. There are some lovely and quite viscerally written aerial battles. And Butcher definitely intrigued me with his sentient cats. I was however annoyed when a specific event, for which there had been considerable build-up and which was portrayed as an important nexus with significant political ramifications for various houses and personal ones for several key people in the story was suddenly interrupted to begin the unfolding of the main narrative, which is the surprise invasion of Spire Albion by Spire Aurora.

There's a rather interesting ensemble cast - the bold privateer captain with the mysterious blot on his past record, the completely mad etherialist (i.e., wizard) who possesses incredible power but can't manage to figure out how doorknobs work, his almost completely mad apprentice who communicates by talking to some crystals she carries around in a jar, the "warriorborn" officer and gentleman of the Spirearch's Guard, and two Guard trainees, both young women of the nobility, though from houses at opposite ends of the social ladder. And of course, the cat. There's also an interesting collection of villains - one of them the etherialist's former apprentice and another the captain's former wife - and a quick peek at an unidentified Big Bad who will likely figure more prominently in sequels. And there's a delightfully well developed cat culture and society which plays a significant role in the unfolding of the plot.

Butcher has clearly spent some time in world-building here, but aside from explaining the basics of his techno-wizardry, he allows the details of his world to emerge slowly. This sometimes leaves the reader wondering about the meaning and significance of some things, but the further one gets into the narrative, the sharper the picture becomes. One is left with the feeling that there are still major mysteries about this world, its society and its peoples to be explored - but for me, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

It's a high-intensity action novel. There are lots of battles, ranging from close combat between cats and giant spiders to epic aerial battles between dreadnaughts of the air. But Butcher doesn't lose sight of character development in the midst of all the fighting - one comes to care about these characters.

This was fun reading, and interesting - and original - enough that I'm looking forward to reading the next entry in the series.
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There are things that I'm not particularly fond of in my fiction. The tropes and settings of the American West for one. Talking animals as characters instead of people for another. A scene that ends with "Now here's the plan...." so that the characters know what they're doing but you don't. Not that I can't enjoy a good book that has these things. I loved Karen Memory. Narnia and Animal Farm are among my formative influences. And there are some books where keeping the reader in the dark does not cone across as an artificial way of ratcheting up the suspense. Still... I have to push harder to get into books that utilise these things.

Which made Daniel Polensky's novella The Builders a difficult book for me to get into at first. What helped pull me in was the long slow introductory sequence best described as "getting the band back together again." It starts, as many westerns do, in a bar, when a mouse with great personal presence, called only the Captain, walks in and asks Reconquista the barkeeper, a severely disabled rat, if he's the first to arrive. Flashbacks taking up fully one-quarter of the text show the Captain tracking down all the former members of his gang. Some years ago, it seems, they undertook a task of some sort. They were betrayed, and failed, and split asunder. And now the Captain intends to try again.

It's quite a fascinating collection of characters in animal form - a stoat, a salamander, a raccoon, a badger, a mole, an owl, and of course, a mouse - and it is made quite clear from the start that these are not cute kiddie farm animals. They are ruthless and accomplished killers. The enemy, rather appropriately, is a skunk, and his agent, a snake.

This is a brutal and bloody tale of revenge, of finishing what was started no matter the cost - keep in mind, this is a western, and there are seven gunslingers riding on this trail.

There's some clever craft in the writing of this novella. Polansky quite skillfully uses the well-known traits of the various animals to flesh out the characters in a way that makes up for the difficulties normally faced in handling so many key characters in a relatively short work. There's the slightly folksy tang of the oral storyteller in the way he uses language, and in the way the novella is structured, with short chapters and frequent diversions, that adds to the sense that this could be a story told around a campfire on a cold prairie night.

In the end, Polansky gives us something that is part fable, part legend, tapping into well-worn western tropes from a hundred movies with a generous hand - and subverting them, not unlike Clint Eastwood's classic deconstruction of the western hero in The Unforgiven. The question at the heart of the story is familiar - can a stone cold killer ever change, become something different? Be a builder, not a destroyer? Polansky's answer can be found in the rubble of buildings and the bodies strewn across the battlefield at the end, when the heart of a place once known as The Gardens becomes little more than a mass grave.

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Brandon Sanderson's novella Perfect State is about the fantasy adventures of a brain in a jar - albeit a brain that is fully aware of the unreality of its existence, and is at heart in some existential distress because he knows his life is a game shaped by those who control the illusionary state he lives in. The main character, Kairominas of Alornia - Kai for short - infodumps the concept early in the narrative, although it's hardly necessary as Sanderson gives multiple clues to what's going on, which is this:

...the best way to create greatly satisfied people using minimal resources was to remove their brains when they were fetuses and attach them to simulated realities tailored to fit their emerging personalities. Each Liveborn received an entire world in which they were the most important person of their time. Some became artists, others politicians, but each had a chance for supreme greatness.


Kai is God-Emperor of a State based on the standard medieval fantasy tropes. He spends his time developing new ways of using the magic system active in his personal reality and engaging in battles with Liveborn from other States. He's a good God-Emperor - he cares for the simulated characters that are his subjects, and tries to make their lives happy and comfortable. Then the rhythm of his life is changed when the Wode Scroll - the representative/communications interface of the agency (whatever it may be) that manages the fantasy universes - instructs him to travel to a Communal State - one which maintains its own programming regardless of which and how many Liveborn "enter" it - and arrange to procreate with a Liveborn woman (outside the fantasy states, the two Liveborns' DNA will be merged, but for some reason, the donors are expected to simulate sex in the fantasy states before this can be done).

But Kai has a bitter enemy, one of the Liveborn with whom he has been battling sporadically for some years. And his enemy is about to deliver a most painful revenge.

The novella's congruences with films from Tron to The Matrix franchise and a wide range of cyberpunk novels and their kin is immediately obvious, although this work is different from most in that there is no way out for the Liveborn. They are nothing more than brains in jars, they must live in this artificial reality for as long as their brain tissue lives - and the details suggest that this is a very long time, at least subjectively. So the thrust of Kai's inner journey cannot be about changing the situation he is in, but rather finding ways of existing and adapting to it that will be less about playing the games set before him and more about finding whatever degree of meaningfulness he can in reaching out to the Liveborn around him to try and break the paradigm of endless struggle.

There is a moral here, I think, buried under the subjective fantasy and the vaguely suggested science-fictional world beneath it, about breaking out of the bubbles of self-delusion we create for ourselves, and the strictures of functioning day-to-day in a world that often demand of us that we conceal huge swathes of ourselves, and connecting with others on a real and honest basis. It's not a new or revolutionary idea, but it is a good one.

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Alyssa Wong was on my nomination list for the Campbell Award, based on three darkly brilliant short stories: "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers," "Scarecrow" and "The Fisher Queen." [1]

Wong writes dark fantasy and horror, tales of gods and magical creatures, narratives often informed by by South Asian/Filippina tradition and culture, and queer sensibilities and experience. Her work is rich and multi-layered, dealing with complex psychological issues and post-colonial realities.

Such is the case in another of Wong's short stories, "Santos de Sampaguitas," [2] a heart-wrenching story about love and loss, betrayal, sacrifice and revenge. Woven into this emotionally searing narrative are backgrounded but powerful examinations of ableism, and class and race in Filippino society.

These four stories comprised the whole of Wong's published fiction as of the end of 2015 - though she has several stories coming out this year, and I'm looking forward to reading them - but considering that each story so far has been something very special (she has accumulated two Nebula nominations, one World Fantasy nomination and one Bram Stoker nomination with those four stories), I think she's earned the Campbell nom as well.


[1] all three stories reviewed here: http://bibliogramma.dreamwidth.org/185839.html

[2] Strange Horizons http://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/20141006/sampaguita-f.shtml
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Last year, I was a new voter. Despite the controversies surrounding certain works on the shortlist and how they got there, I dutifully read, watched, listened to or otherwise researched as many of the finalists as possible in every category. I posted my thoughts here on all the literary, literary-related and dramatic categories.

This year, I feel no such urge to be quite so obsessively even-handed. I have no intention of wasting my time on works whose presence on the shortlist is the consequence of a group of very sad people to disrupt a time-honoured event by slating material whose only purpose is to mock or disparage authors or other fans. This means, for instance, that I will be reading very little from the Related Works category which is filled with spiteful drek and other pointless entries.

Nor do I feel obligated to read, watch or listen all the way to the end anything that is not, in my opinion, work of a calibre that merits an award. I did enough of that last year, bailing out on only one thing that I found quite unreadable. Of course, if something interests me even if it's not work that deserves to be describes as one of the best pieces of work in its category released this year, I will read to the end. But I don't feel obligated to.

And now, back to reading.

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