Nebula Awards Reaction/Wrap-Up

It came down to the wire but I read and reviewed all of the 2018 Nebula Award nominees for Best Novel and Best Novella before last night’s ceremony took place!

What I love about taking part in a reading challenge is that it challenges you to read books you may never otherwise have picked up and to evaluate their merits. In particular, reading the novella category challenged my prejudices about the genre and broadened my horizons.

THE NOMINEES
Nebulanominees
novella

Novellas
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark  small 4 stars + Review
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
by Kelly Robson  small 4 stars + Review
Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield  small 4 stars + Review
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard  small 3 half stars + Review
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells  small 4 half stars + Review
Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee  small-2-stars + Review

Novels
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang small 4 half stars + Review
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse  small 4 stars + Review
Witchmark
 by C.L. Polk  small-3-stars + Review
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller  small 3 half stars + Review
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik  small 4 half stars + Review
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal  small 4 stars + Review

NEBULA AWARDS
Best Novella
My Favourite: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells, but I was rooting for Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson. Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series continues to blow me away, but she won Best Novella last year with All Systems Red, so I was really hoping Kelly Robson would take it.
Predicted Winner:
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark. The Black God’s Drums rightfully got a lot of buzz for its combination of steampunk, Yoruba mythology, and an alternate history of the United States into an enthralling adventure.
Actual Winner:
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard. Although I felt the mystery fell a little flat in this homage to Sherlock Holmes, I adored the world-building and the sheer imagination and originality of this story.

Best Novel
My Favourite:
 The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. The Poppy War was one of the best books I read last year. It’s a brutal read that may not be for everything, but it was unlike anything I’d read before and I adored it.
Predicted Winner:
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. The Nebulas don’t often reward debut novels and they tend to pick science-fiction over fantasy. Consider the fact that Naomi Novik, another strong contender, already won Best Novel a few years ago for Uprooted and we’re left with Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history of spaceflight.
Actual Winner: 
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. No surprise here, but it’s a great novel and feels very timely, both in its exploration of the struggle for gender equality and it depiction of mental illness, so I’m very happy with this result.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of the winners? Would you have selected differently? Let’s chat in the comments!

Congratulations to all of the nominees and to the winners! The full list of 2018 Nebula Award Winners can be found here.

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Books: Spinning Silver

36896898Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Published July 10, 2018
star-4-half
I grew up reading books on world folktales and Greek mythology more than the popular fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. I suspect that’s one of the reasons why Naomi Novik’s twisted fairy tales don’t resonate with me to the extent that they have with other readers. Quite frankly I found the hype over Nebula Award winner Uprooted baffling, but it’s easy to understand why Spinning Silver is so beloved. Novik’s loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, is a winning feminist fairy tale about women who refuse to lie down and accept their fates, but who forge their own futures through bravery and wit.

Told through multiple perspectives, Spinning Silver is primarily focused on three women – Miryem, Wanda, and Irina – each of whom must rewrite their fate. When Miryem’s mother falls ill, she takes over her father’s moneylending business and soon proves adept at collecting outstanding debt. As her shrewd ability to turn a profit grows, she’s approached by the frightening Staryk King, an otherworldly being who promises to make her his Queen if she can change Staryk silver into gold three times over. Wanda works as a housekeeper for Miryem’s family in order to pay off her violent alcoholic father’s drinking debts, yet she soon realizes that she is better fed and treated away from home. Finally, Irina, a duke’s daughter, is a disappointment to her father, who does not expect her to make a brilliant match. To her dismay, Irina unexpectedly winds up married to the Tsar, whose cruelty she witnessed when they were children. Yet the Tsar conceals a dark secret that threatens to harm not just Irina, but her people as well.

All three women serve as protectors who watch over those who can’t take care of themselves, yet not solely in a traditional motherhood role. Miryem hardens her heart and does what she must to provide her sick mother with food and medicine, Wanda earns a wage working for Miryem’s family and begins learning Miryem’s form of magic (numbers) in order to protect her two brothers, and Irina uses her wits to protect her faithful nurse and to hold her country together when it’s threatened by the creature possessing her husband.

What really resonated with me though was the fact that these women, who have been commodified by the men in their lives know their own value and set their own price. Miryem says as much to the Staryk King, setting a value on her services greater than he bargained for, while Wanda and Irina too know what price their loyalty and particular gifts should command.

I also loved the role that Miryem’s Judaism plays in the novel. Her culture, her traditions (including observing Shabbat), and her people hold such importance for Miryem and it grounds her character nicely in the narrative.

I do have a few minor quibbles. The familial connections that Novik crafts are rich and compelling, but I wished we had seen more of the friendships between women in the text than we did. I also found the male love interests somewhat underwritten, a detail that kept me from fully investing in the romantic relationships between characters. It’s worth noting that all of the characters grew on me by the end though.

The prose is well-crafted throughout and Novik makes excellent use of fairy tale tropes to weave her original tale. Admittedly the conditions under which I finished Spinning Silver (desperately trying to make it to the end before leaving for Vermont the next day) were not ideal and may have influenced my opinion, but I didn’t find the climax of the book suspenseful or tense enough to rate this a full five stars. Still, I really loved this one and if it can win over even someone like me, who isn’t big on fairy tales, I can only imagine how much readers who adore fairy tales must love this book.

Books: Witchmark

Witchmark RD3 fixedbleeds new dressWitchmark by C.L. Polk
Published June 19, 2018
star-3
C.L. Polk’s debut is a syrupy sweet queer romance that defies categorization. Combining medical mystery, adorable gay romance, and family drama into its post-WWI inspired historical fantasy, many readers will find that it strikes just the right balance. If you’ve been reading my reviews for awhile though, you’ll know that descriptors like ‘cute’ and ‘sweet’ are rarely selling points for me. I loved the idea behind Witchmark, but found its surface-deep treatment of serious issues, like PTSD in veterans, disappointing and its romance too cloying and underdeveloped to satisfy.

Witchmark’s protagonist is Miles Singer, a man with few choices. Belonging to an influential family of mages, he is doomed, either be committed to an asylum or enslaved as a living battery for his more powerful sister to draw upon. He goes to war to escape and returns home under an assumed name, where he practices medicine in a hospital and discreetly uses his magic gift for healing to aid ailing veterans. When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing abilities, he puts his freedom at risk to investigate the patient’s murder.

Doctor Miles Singer is the kind of hopelessly naive protagonist that makes you want to put your head in your hands multiple times over the course of the book, but his compassion and stubbornness won me over in the end. Even when his decisions made me want to wring my hands, they were understandable because his family and friends are so obviously his blind spot. The romance at the center of the book is appropriately adorable, but I found the love interest comparatively underdeveloped and wished that Polk had invested more energy into the relationship so it didn’t walk a fine line between romance and instalove.

What Witchmark does extremely well is communicate its themes. Polk offers important commentary on how soldiers returning from war with mental health issues are frequently ignored and mistreated. Freedom/agency and the lengths to which we’ll go to achieve and then to maintain our ability to choose is a key theme. There’s also some interesting discourse about the needs of the many versus the needs of the few argument and how this perspective is used by the privileged to justify mistreating the underclass, “for the good of society”.

It isn’t the only Nebula-nominated debut novel, but to me Witchmark is the only one that feels like a first novel. The ideas are definitely there, but Polk’s writing style is still developing. The book also suffers from uneven pacing. The opening chapter is gripping, but Polk loses momentum after that, focusing on the day-to-day banal existence of her characters rather than continuing to develop the plot and build suspense. The result is a book that I enjoyed while I was reading it, but that I wasn’t compelled to continue once I had set it down. In contrast, the last 50 pages or so gave me tonal whiplash as Polk seems to scramble to bring everything together in the book’s abrupt climax.

This is sounding overwhelmingly negative so let me stress that I did *like* Witchmark, I just wanted more from it. I wanted the deep dive into the issues characters in this world face, more detailed world-building that puts the climax in context, and more developed secondary characters. What I got was a fluffy romance with some fantasy aspects and interesting commentary on agency.

Although Witchmark wasn’t ultimately for me, I can see why it has its fans. There have been too many recent reminders that when it comes to media representation of queer relationships, happily ever afters are still, sadly, a rarity. Witchmark provides that much needed happy ending and more; It is pure escapism right when we need it most. It didn’t move or transport me the way I hoped it would, but I still admire the attempt.

Books: Fire Ant

39359011Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee
Published March 22, 2018
star-2
Fire Ant is both the last of my Nebula Award reads for this year and the least accomplished. It’s readable and there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it, but Fire Ant is your garden-variety military sci-fi tale of a plucky underdog who is selected to join an elite squad and must prove herself to her superiors and to her fellow pilots. Generic and predictable, Fire Ant is the novella equivalent of a popcorn movie; enjoyable enough while you’re reading/watching it (if you don’t think too hard, that is) but difficult to remember as soon as it’s over.

Floribeth “Beth” Dalisay is a member of the Off-Planet Worker underclass who has, by virtue of her 4″6 height, become a pilot for a mega-corporation that sends tiny one-person ships on missions of exploration. On a routine contract to search new solar systems for natural resources and/or habitable planets, Beth encounters a hostile alien presence who begin firing on her. Some fancy flying saves Beth’s life, but when she reports her encounter to the company, they ground her ship and impose financial penalties for equipment losses. Luckily the Directorate Navy is interested in Beth’s skillset and enlists her as a Navy fighter pilot.

I suspected Fire Ant wouldn’t be something I’d enjoy. There’s the rare exception (Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is a clever, complicated, and well-characterized example of the genre), but military science-fiction (MilSF) holds very little appeal for me. Like many examples of its genre, Fire Ant offers an abundance of action, military procedure, and space battles, but is woefully short on characterization. By half-way through the novella I had started to skim, the extended training exercise descriptions and battle scenes making my eyes glaze over.

How, I wondered, does such a mediocre novella make it into an otherwise impressive slate of Nebula Award nominees? The answer seems to be through playing the voting system. A closed Facebook group of independent science-fiction and fantasy writers, including Brazee, put forward a list of authors with eligible works that they encouraged their members to vote for – and it worked! 6 of the works they suggested have been nominated for awards this year.

Undoubtedly a nomination will increase the visibility of a work, but I wonder if this approach doesn’t do as much harm as it does good. Sure I wouldn’t have picked up Fire Ant at all if it hadn’t been nominated for Best Novella, but when a work isn’t anywhere near the caliber of writing demonstrated by the other nominees in its category, it suffers by comparison.

Unfortunately, Fire Ant feels amateurish. Published under self-publishing imprint Semper Fi Press, I caught multiple spelling and grammar errors in Fire Ant that suggested it could use a more comprehensive edit. I don’t want to take away from anyone’s passion. I certainly haven’t written and published a book, so I have a great respect for those who follow their dreams and become a writer, but when you not only put your book out into the world, but then push to have it recognized by one of the most prestigious awards for science-fiction and fantasy authors, you open yourself up to criticism.

Books: Artificial Condition

36223860Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
Published May 8, 2018
star-4-half
An apology to an underappreciated format:

Dear novellas,
I misjudged you. I erroneously assumed that your limited page count couldn’t possibly deliver the emotional depth or satisfying character arcs that I so desired. I stubbornly maintained this view and neglected to read novellas even when I knew that a short story or slender work of fiction could pack an emotional punch. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to see the light, but I’m a convert to the format and ready to spread the word!
Sincerely,
Me

After being, quite frankly, a little stunned by just how much I loved All Systems Red, the first in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series of novellas, I couldn’t wait to see where Murderbot’s journey would take it next. I was not disappointed! Artificial Condition picks up shortly after the events of the first book and follows Murderbot as it undertakes a mission to learn more about its past, specifically the incident at a mining center where it went rogue.

Like the first book in the series, Artificial Condition examines humanity and what it means to be human through the point-of-view of its decidedly not human main character. Murderbot’s discomfort with altering its physical appearance and behaviour to appear more human (a safety precaution so it can explore the mining facility while escaping detection) is keenly felt, even as it also recognizes the drawbacks of being a construct.

Although Murderbot’s crew don’t appear in the story, there are plenty of new characters to get to know and love, such as Murderbot’s latest clients (three naive, but well-meaning humans, including one who uses gender neutral pronouns!) My favourite new addition though is a bored, super intelligent research transport vessel named ART who is capable of being every bit as snarky as Murderbot itself. A scene where ART is emotionally compromised by a fictional media serial was both amusing and relatable.

Artificial Condition enables Wells to expand on the broader world that’s only hinted at in the first book, while deftly exploring themes of found family, choice, and freedom. It’s a brilliant continuation of Murderbot’s personal journey and a compelling, well-paced thriller that offers no easy answers.

Books: The Tea Master and the Detective

36686547The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
Published March 31, 2018
star-3-half
In the 125+ years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes there have been countless adaptations, but I’ve never encountered a re-imagining quite as unique as The Tea Master and the Detective.

Set in a galactic empire inspired by Vietnamese culture, consulting detective Long Chau must team up with The Shadow’s Child, a sentient transport warship (known as a mindship) with PTSD, to solve a mystery. As a science-fiction novella it works; de Bodard’s world-building is detailed and refreshingly free from Western military conventions, and The Shadow’s Child is an engaging and sympathetic narrator. As a Holmes pastiche though, the execution falls flat. The mystery is, well, not much of a mystery at all, and the understanding between Long Chau and the mindship doesn’t feel earned.

Here’s where I make a confession. When it comes to Hugo or Nebula nominated books or novellas that are part of a broader world, I usually try to read the preceding works in order to contextualize the nominee. Reader, I ran out of time. I went into The Tea Master and the Detective without reading any of the author’s other Universe of Xuya novellas and I definitely felt the lack. The Tea Master and the Detective is technically a standalone, but to fully grasp the nuance of the world-building I’d recommend at least skimming the author’s page about the series here before diving into the novella.

I did love each of the characters individually. De Bodard may not be the first to gender swap Holmes and Watson, but what a joy to see two female characters team up to solve crime! Long Chau is an enigmatic and compelling presence as the abrasive consulting detective, although I wished her intelligence and deducing were shown more than told. The Shadow’s Child stole my heart though as a battle-scarred, compassionate ship eking out a living not as a transport ship but as a mixer of personalized tea blends that grant the drinker special properties. I wish the relationship between these two characters had undergone a more gradual transition from dislike/reluctant partners to mutual respect, but I enjoyed the journey anyway and would love to read another adventure that builds on this understanding.

The Tea Master and the Detective didn’t quite come together for me. I loved the premise of a Vietnamese-inspired empire and a female Sherlock Holmes in space, but found the pacing uneven and the plotting too simplistic for a detective story. I’m intrigued by de Bodard’s Universe of Xuya though and will be checking out more of her works in the future.

Books: All Systems Red

32758901All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Published May 2, 2017
star-4-half
Gloriously snarky, intelligently plotted, and surprisingly touching, it’s easy to see why the first novella in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series is so acclaimed.

I knew I was going to love All Systems Red from its opening paragraph:

“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module. but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”

149 pages later I’ve recommended it to multiple people and am so glad that I have the sequel, Artificial Condition, waiting for me! The book’s first-person narrator, Murderbot, is every bit as snarky, apathetic, and self-deprecating as the opening lines of the novella suggest and as someone who loves these kinds of characters (think Jaye Tyler in Wonderfalls, George Lass in Dead Like Me, and fanon Bucky Barnes post-Winter Soldier, only set in Space and minus Steve), I found the author’s sense of humour both appealing and relatable.

Murderbot is hands down the best new-to-me fictional character I’ve encountered this year. Part human and part bot, it’s an agender security unit assigned to keep watch over a group of explorers. Murderbot would like nothing more than to half-ass its job and be left in peace to binge-watch its serials, but when the mission goes awry, Murderbot chooses to use its proficiency to keep its humans alive.

The important word there is chooses, because Murderbot lives in a world where it is treated as sentient property, owned by a corporate entity that leases security units out for contracted work. Its hacked governor module allows Murderbot to make choices, but it is still listed as inventory, still belongs to the company. It may look human under its armor, but can never fully belong as one, and so it shuts itself off from humanity by avoiding unnecessary interaction and pretending not to feel emotions. Like many of the best science-fiction stories involving robots, androids, and other non-humans, All Systems Red is, at its heart, a story about what it means to be human.

I don’t know why it took me so long to read All Systems Red but I am definitely picking up the rest of the Murderbot Diaries series ASAP! I can’t wait to dive deeper into the murky morality of this world and Murderbot’s past in Artificial Condition.

Books: Alice Payne Arrives

39332603Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield
Published November 6, 2018
star-4
The titular Alice Payne, a thirty-something woman in Georgian England, moonlights as notorious highway robber The Holy Ghost and gets swept into an adventure that will have far-reaching consequences in this quick-paced and utterly delightful timey wimey novella.

With two of this year’s Nebula-nominated novellas telling stories about time travel and imagining humans in a distant devastated future, it invites comparison. Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, which I reviewed here last month, has the edge; Its characters are given greater depth and its world-building is more comprehensive, but Alice Payne Arrives is clever, queer, and a whole lot of fun! While Robson takes a “Google Street view of the remote past” approach to time travel, in which trips back in time do not alter or change the future, Heartfield does the opposite, focusing on the consequences that individual decisions can have on the future.

In Alice Payne Arrives, time travel is largely restricted to two militaristic sects: the Farmers and the Guides (short for Misguideds) who work endlessly to change turning points in the timeline, including the Mayerling incident and the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and so change the world. Major Prudence Zuniga is no closer to achieving her goal though, so she looks for something, or someone, new and finds it in 1788. Enter Alice Payne and her darling Jane.

I love reading science-fiction where women feature prominently and this was no exception. Alice is an independent, resourceful protagonist used to taking matters into her own hands. She’s also a mixed-race, bisexual woman living in Georgian England with her companion/lover, the more pragmatic and scientifically-minded Jane. I was less taken with Major Prudence, but I did find her concern for her family and the choices she ultimately makes to secure her future sympathetic.

Alice Payne Arrives can be confusing at times, but that’s only because keeping track of a story that not only covers multiple points in time and the wide-ranging consequences on the timeline of an individual choice, but also the smaller-scale changes that impact characters’ backstories is a challenge! I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to plot this novella and Heartfield does it brilliantly. I wished there had been more exploration of the Farmers and Guides and their conflict throughout the story, but nonetheless this was an enjoyable and intelligent read and I look forward to picking up the sequel, Alice Payne Rides, soon!