Book Review – An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton

This book started out as a series of posts on Tor.com call Revisiting the Hugos. It was the author’s, Jo Walton’s, look at the Hugos. She look at not just the winners, but the nominees, the books that didn’t make the short list, the other awards, and anything else she found interesting. When putting the book together, she included some of the most relevant of the comments; mostly those from fellow writers and editors.

That highlights the strength and weakness of this book. It’s put together by someone who isn’t only a science fiction/fantasy fan, but by a professional writer who has spent years not just reading but studying the works in the field. The comments that she uses are primarily from editors, who know the field as professionals, not as “simple” fans. The book covers not simply the works, but their place in historical and cultural context, how well they’ve aged, and how well they’re remembered.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read just a year or two at a time. I had to slog and really force my way through it, but I kept thinking that, at some point, I was going to want to go back and read this or that entry again, with more careful attention to it. I never paid a lot of attention to the politics, history, and culture of the science fiction community as a whole; I just read what I enjoyed that I could find.

The tone of the book is informal and chatty; it sounds very much like a conversation. My biggest issue with it is that she puts so much information into each year that it’s intimidating. She talks about books that she read once thirty years ago with actual memory of it; I struggle to do the same with some books I read last year, or last month.

She covers the Hugo Awards, mostly for the novels but the shorter works are discussed and all other awards are at least briefly mentioned, from 1953 to 2000. There’s a lot of material here and I look forward to reading it again…one chapter (year) at a time.

Walton, Jo. An Informal History of the Hugos. New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018. Kindle edition. Amazon. August 7, 2018.

Review – European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

This is the second book in The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club. The first book in the series, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, was nominated for the Nebula award and the World Fantasy award, and was a fun read.

This book starts off planning the trip set up at the end of the first one, an expedition to visit Mary Jekyll’s former governess, Mina Harker nee Murray, and to rescue Lucinda Van Helsing. And the adventure itself is fun, full of adventure, kidnappings, fights, romance, and lots of familiar names. The seven women from the first novel all have their parts to play in this one, with several new women in this, from Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. After the rescue, our heroines take off to stop a Royal Society-type organization that is creating more monsters.

I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as the first one, and I think the reason is that, at 720 pages, it was too long. There are two stories, related, but I think it would have worked better if the stories had been separated. And, since the book was so long, the comments from the other women, which tend to be funny and add color and character, became distracting.

I’m hoping that the author gets advice to shorten her books so that the next entry in the series will be as entertaining as the first one.

Goss, Theodora. European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. New York, NY: Saga Press, 2018. Kindle edition. Amazon.

Review – Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I suspect that, like Uprooted by the same author, Spinning Silver will be nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards next year.  It is engaging and well-written and will certainly be a good contender for either award.  I especially enjoyed this novel because the central characters are all female and willing to take action to change their lives, and because it isn’t set in the standard Western European fairy tale kingdom, but an Eastern European one, which means that things aren’t as standard.  (Warning: there are spoilers in this review for the novel.)

The novel revolves around three young women, all of them isolated, belittled and scorned, who decide to take what actions they can to improve their lives or the lives of those they love.  Miryem Mandelstam, the Jewish moneylender’s daughter, is the only one who truly feels loved at the beginning of the novel, is also the one who sets things in motion. When the Staryk, winter fairies, begin expanding the winter, her mother becomes sick.  Her father is notoriously bad at collecting the debts owed him, so Miryem goes out and begins doing so to get what is needed to help her mother get well. Her parents are horrified, but aren’t capable of taking over the job, so she continues.

The second of the three young women is Wanda, the daughter of one of the farmers in the nameless town in which the novel begins.  Her mother dies after giving birth to eight children, of whom only three survive: Wanda, Sergey and Stepon. While trying to recover from the final birth, her father Gorek borrows six kopeks from Miryem’s father.  After drinking two and gambling two, he uses the last two to get medicine for his wife, which isn’t enough to save her. Years later, when Miryem begins collecting what her father is owed, Gorek claims he cannot pay.  Deciding that this is probably true, Miryem bargains instead for Wanda’s labor to care for the Mandelstams.

For Wanda, the most passive of the three young women, this is a rescue.  As long as she has to work for Miryem, her father can’t sell her off to be married.  In addition, once she begins to work for Miryem and her family, she discovers love and care that she hasn’t had since her mother’s death.  It is Wanda who uses the metaphor that Miryem can spin silver into gold by watching her employer turn a small investment into a greater profit.

The Staryk king hears this and comes for Miryem.  He first gives her a silver kopek and tells her to turn it to gold.  She goes to the jeweler fiance of her cousin, he turns the silver into a ring, and they sell that ring to Vysnia’s duke in return for a single gold coin.  As is common with fairy tales, the king demands greater quantities of gold. In return, he will not kill Miryem, but will marry her. The second quantity is turned into a necklace and the third into a crown.  All three are bought by the duke to give to his daughter, Irina, to convince the tsar to marry her. Irina is the third of the young women at the center of the novel.

Each of the young women has to face a trial at the hands of the brutal and violent men in control of their lives and, ultimately, wrest control back to their own hands.  Each of them finds strength in community, and in the women, and sometimes the men, in their lives. As with traditional fairy tales, the risks are perhaps greater than the reward, but that reward is not insubstantial.  And in the end, these women rescue each other.

The connection to Rumpelstiltskin is a little on the thin side, but that was never the main charm of this novel anyway.  That is in the women.
Novik, Naomi.  Spinning SIlver.  New York, NY:  Del Rey, 2018. Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Good Guys by Steven Brust

Good Guys is a detective story: the main characters have to find out who’s killing people with magic.  Seems simple, but along the way they have to figure out if they’re actually the good guys and if they’re working for the right people.

I have a complaint about Good Guys that I’ve run into a couple of times lately.  I’m not sure why this isn’t being caught/addressed, or if this is a factor of growing older and more aware of the technical aspects of writing, but Brust is not good, especially early on, about signalling that the story is being told from a different character’s point of view.  I went several chapters before realizing that the sections being told from the bad guy’s perspective weren’t being told from Donovan’s.  It’s not that I didn’t know who the person was who had the perspective, but that I could so easily mix them up.

Other than that one complaint, I enjoyed Good Guys.  The “whodoneit” aspect of the story is answered early on, the “whydoneit” follows within a reasonable amount of time.  When the characters do something stupid, the results of their stupidity (impatience) are what you would expect.  The guy who falls into the “magic is real” actually acts like someone would in his position, and the confrontation with the higher-ups actually feels real.  There are no loose ends dangling, although this could easily be turned into a series.

I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure it will go onto my “reread” list.  A solid 3.5 stars.

Brust, Steven.  Good Guys.  New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – I Met a Traveller in an Ancient Land by Connie Willis

Although this isn’t one of my favorite of Connie Willis’s stories, it is a worthy addition to her oeuvre.  Told in the first person, the narrator is doing publicity for his blog, Gone for Good, about things that are just that.  He is also trying to get a deal to turn his blog into a book.  After a particularly bad interview, he takes a walk in midtown Manhattan, is caught by a rainstorm, and finds shelter in Ozymandias Books.

The rest of the story is his experience within Ozymandias Books, what he finds there, and how it changes him.  As he is led through the shop by Cassie, an employee, he notes many of the book titles, including an old favorite of his from childhood.  As he realizes what the shop truly is, his agent calls him that an interview has been moved up and he has to leave.  I’ll leave what happens next for the reader to enjoy.

Unlike my favorite Willis stories, there is little humor.  It does have the character’s obsessive noting of details, the strangeness of the setting, and action that moves the plot forward.  The story is a quick read, and one that will stick with me.  I recommend it.

Review – The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is based on several Victorian-era horror stories, told through the five daughters, biological or otherwise, of the original main characters.  It is primarily a mystery, or several mysteries, with a good bit of the original horror mixed in.

This story is the first in a series, since the second one has been published, and as such spends much of its time setting the stage.  Largely through flashbacks, each of the “daughter’s” story is told.  In addition to the five young women, there is a housekeeper, a scullery maid, and in the epilogue, two more “daughters.”  In addition, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson also make appearances, and are two of the very few men in this book who are portrayed in a positive light.

Part of that, of course, is the time in which the novel is set, but part is the premise of the novel.  All of these women have been created and then abandoned, or escaped destruction, by their monstrous, alchemist fathers.

All of the above makes the book sound dreary and dull, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  It’s a romp!  And I’m looking forward to the second adventure of the Athena Club.

 

Goss, Theodora.  The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.  New York: Saga Press, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

 

Review – The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky is a fantasy novel, set in the distant future on what is implied to be Earth.  It is also the final book in a three book series.

This novel is a difficult one for me to review.  Quite frankly, I didn’t enjoy it, and had to slog my way through all three books.  On the other hand, the series is well-written, the world-building is wonderful and complex, and the characters are complex.  My issues with the series are that I could never really care about the characters–in fact, it took me until quite late in the first book to realize that the three women were the same person–and the plot left me cold.

That said, the first two books in this series won the Hugo Award for Best Novel last year and the year before.  I suspect this one has a very good shot of winning this year.  This may be a case in which I’m missing whatever is great about this novel and the series.

The best I can say is give it a try.  Your mileage may vary.  (I kind of hope it does.)

 

Jemisin, N. K.  The Stone Sky.  New York: Orbit Books, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

The title of the novel, Spoonbenders, refers to two different, but related, things.  It directly refers to the family the book is about, the Telemachus family, but it indirectly refers to the art of mind over matter demonstrated by bending spoons.  This second, generally believed to be stage magic, describes the Telemachus family.  Teddy Telemachus, the father of the three main characters claimed that the entire family was psychically gifted; however, these gifts were brutally debunked on a television show when they were children.

The veracity, or fraudulence, of the gifts of the various members of the Telemachus family, and those of the next generation, are the core of the novel.  A novel which deftly moves between laugh-out-loud funny and all-too-real sad, with characters who range between youngsters losing their innocence, adults maybe getting to gain theirs back, and a paterfamilias who isn’t quite as much a flim-flam man as he appears to be.

The climax is a set-piece of prophecy, surprise, and explosions that is lovely and satisfying.  I highly recommend it.

 

Gregory, Daryl.  Spoonbenders.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

 

Review – Jade City by Fonda Lee

This novel is described as The Godfather with magic and kungfu, which is an accurate description as far as I know.  It is set in an Asia-flavored city.  Since neither The Godfather nor Asian-flavored backgrounds really appeal to me, it doesn’t surprise me that this novel doesn’t either.
The basic story is that the families who control jade, which powers magic, also control the city.  The more jade a person wears, the more power they have.  In addition, there is a new drug, Shine, that allows magically weaker people to use more jade, with all of the advantages and disadvantages of any performance-enhancing drug.

Superficially, this novel about power, all kinds of power, what people will do to get, what they will do to keep it, and the ramifications of the above.  In reality, it is about family and loyalty, what members of a family will do to protect each other, what they will do for those who have given their loyalty, and what they will do to those who have betrayed it.

This isn’t a novel I enjoyed, but it was compelling and well-written.  If the description appeals to you, it is well worth your time.

Lee, Fonda.  Jade City.  New York: Orbit Books, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

This isn’t a book that I would have picked up on my own, but I’m glad that I did.

Since this is the first of a series, the second novel is due out in May. The fact that this is a fantasy world may be more obvious in later novels, but in this one, the only indication that it is a fantasy is that the areas discussed haven’t existed in human history.

The plot follows a group of people associated with the Bumble Bee Caberet in the city of Amberlough. The plot is a spy story set in an environment much like that of pre-WWII Germany. Or maybe today. Before the election that brings the radical, homophobic One State Party, the city is accepting of, and reveling in, diverse lifestyles and identies.

Once the OSP is elected, through an election many believe to have been tampered with, the main characters, and the city as a whole, must deal with the fact that the new regime will crack down on many who were believed to be good citizens before.

Although many of the characters are unlikable, at least I found them so, Donnelly makes them engaging and compelling. There are no good guys, and even the bad guys have shades to them. It’s an interesting book; I look forward to the sequel.

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly. Tor Books (Kindle Edition, February 7, 2017). Amazon