“Hugo Finalist” Reading: John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Photo and Tiara credit to Amanda Downum!

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer is the original “not a Hugo” award which comes packaged with all the actual Hugos. To be eligible for this, the author’s first professional writing has to have come out within the last two years, which makes it a bit of a grab-bag of individuals who, for whatever reason, have been able to generate buzz very quickly for their new writing careers. If 2018’s ballot is an indication of the “new face” of the genre, it’s a promisingly diverse one: five people of colour, multiple queer creators, and not a white dude in sight (although before anyone starts fussing over my raising that, let’s remember that Andy Weir won this award literally two years ago thanks to The Martian, so we are hardly watching the death of dude fic right now…)

In a departure from my other posts, I’m not going to use absolute rankings, because it’s one thing to categorise works as “meh” and “good” and “awesome” but not an appropriate thing to do with people’s names. Instead, you may assume that all of people below are awesome, and I’ll just let you know the order they’re going on in my ballot, because apparently I still have to put numbers to these wonderful humans.

6. Sarah Kuhn (What I read: Heroine Complex). Sarah Kuhn’s main work is the superheroic adventures of Evie Taneka and Aveda Jupiter, best friends turned superpowered ladies turned put-upon assistant and overrated diva, respectively. I have only read the first book in this series, which is now up to book 3, and while its an enjoyable story I didn’t “click” with some of the characters or the romantic element, so I haven’t explored any further. I completely understand why it’s such an important and exciting story for so many people, though, and I’ve no doubt later entries get even more accomplished.

5. Rebecca Roanhorse (What I read: “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience”). I’ve already reviewed Roanhorse’s Hugo nominated story, which is second on my ballot for that award, and I’m really looking forward to diving into her debut novel which is already waiting on my Kindle for me to finally finish with Hugo reading and ARC commitments. Unfortunately, this is such a strong ballot that I can’t rank Roanhorse any higher, but even on the strength of that one story she more than deserves her place here.

4. Katherine Arden (What I read:The Bear and the Nightingale). Arden’s novels, set in rural 19th century Russia, follow a headstrong young woman named Vasya whose connection to the spirits around her, and unwillingness to accept the very limited roles available to women in her society, bring her into direct conflict with her community and with the growing influence of the Christian church. I’ve read both, although only one is technically eligible for consideration here, and found them both to be interesting and highly readable, sitting in that sweet spot between YA and adult fiction that often delivers the most delicious of page turners. Again, the positioning here is more on the strength and depth of what’s ahead than any weakness in Arden’s own work, and I’m not sorry to have nominated her in this category.

3. Rivers Solomon (What I read: An Unkindness of Ghosts). Solomon’s first novel is a brutal story where the racial and power dynamics of the American South have been reproduced on a generation ship, and the residents are now struggling with a vessel that’s starting to come apart. Told through the perspective of Aster, a non-neurotypical and intersex protagonist, this is not a narrative that pulls its punches, and it was hard to read in multiple places, but the voice and tone it hits are very accomplished and I’m glad it exists. Bonus points for being great in audiobook, too.

2. Jeanette Ng (What I read: Under the Pendulum Sun). This is a book that I would have loved ten years ago, and even the me of now can’t deny its quality. Going all-in on a strong gothic style, it tells the story of a woman who has followed her missionary brother into the land of Fairy, a grim realm. The writing is pitch perfect, capturing the period sensibilities it is aiming for . Unfortunately, I can’t say I liked the story, particularly its more taboo-inducing twists, but its definitely a case where I can overlook that personal discomfort to focus on the technical strengths of the work, which are immensely impressive.

1. Vina Jie-Min Prasad (What I read: “Fandom for Robots” and “A Series of Steaks”). It’s surprising to me, given my strong preference for novels over short fiction, that it’s a short fiction writer I want to put at the top of this list. but, on the strength of just two stories, it’s a position I think Prasad completely deserves. A Series of Steaks and particularly Fandom for Robots pack so much emotional resonance into what are, on the surface, fairly straightforward stories. I’m really looking forward to her continued presence on the ballot forever.


What I think will win: Can we just buy tiaras and drinks of choice for all the amazing people in this group?

What I nominated:

I did basically no eligibility checking before going for this, so I may well have nominated people who didn’t qualify. Again, I’m disappointed Michele Tracy Berger hasn’t had any awards buzz for Reenu-You, but I hope we’ll be seeing more from her regardless.

  • Katherine Arden (for The Bear and the Nightingale)
  • Lara Elena Donnelly (for Amberlough)
  • Michele Tracy Berger (for Reenu-You)
  • K.B. Wagers (for the Indranan War trilogy)

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Hugo Finalist “Reading”: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (2018)

Like with TV, I don’t watch a lot of movies, but oh boy do I tend to have strong opinions on the ones I do, and a lot of them… aren’t positive. This list mostly beats the odds, but it took a long plane ride with a very fortuitous film choice (literally, 3 of the 4 things I had left to watch at that point) to get me motivated enough to finish the category.

Adri’s Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form Rankings 2018

Meh Tier

Blade Runner6. Blade Runner 2049. I suspected this was not going to be for me, and would you believe my expectations were not challenged. Somehow, this sequel to a classic film (that also has no emotional resonance for me, because I will honour none of your idols) manages to make a plot about reproduction and personhood ALMOST ENTIRELY about the deliberately underplayed feelings of notable male, Ryan Gosling, with women sprinkled in as sex objects or professionals (or both) but never as, you know, mothers. Because why would a film about reproduction and personhood concern itself with mothers (EXPLICITLY IDENTIFIED, LIVING ones that you don’t want to HAVE SEX WITH, before you come at me) when we can just endlessly gaze upon the deliberately underplayed feelings of adult fucking men? It’s pretty and I’d happily play Cosmic Encounters to the soundtrack, but honestly, fuck this movie.

Good Tier

wonder woman5. Wonder Woman. I’m really very pleased this movie exists, and that it delivered highly enough to blow the idea that female-led superhero movies “won’t work” or whatever out of the water. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, however, I have to put this one down as something I am very happy exists in a genre niche that isn’t really for me. Everything’s a bit grim and grey, I wanted more Amazons, the third act is kind of a mess, and the less said about some of the supporting characters (like the Native American stereotype hanging out on the Western Front, what were you THINKING), the better. Diana is a wonderful character, though, and I wish there weren’t these two completely separate universes going on so that she and Thor could hang out. Somewhere with colours. As a side note, I think this is the lowest I’ve ranked something that appeared in my nominations on my final ballot…

the Shape of water4. The Shape of Water. I found a lot to like in this movie, not least that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s got a satisfying, surprisingly twisty plot and a likeable cast of characters who mostly rise above their own stereotypes. That said, it was definitely “like” not “love” for me, and the downer ending makes it unlikely I’ll want to revisit this story. Also, it’s time to leave behind forever the trend of casting able bodied actors in disabled roles, not least because no movie with a disabled character for a largely able-bodied audience needs to have a “oh wow, I’m not disabled any more!” dream sequence, ever again. I’m all for characters who have nuanced, realistic outlooks on their disabilities, but this type of erasure contributes nothing to that goal.

Great Tier

thor ragnarok3. Thor: Ragnarok. Despite having watched few of the “prerequisites” for this entry in the ongoing MCU saga, this movie was great fun, both intentionally (brightly coloured space trashland!) and unintentionally (Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent!) I understand that utilising Chris Hemsworth’s fantastic comic timing is a new direction for Thor, and if that’s the case I might avoid going back to fill in the movies I’ve missed, because this version of the character is the one I want to be canon. The plot is easy to follow, although having basic familiarity with the characters is probably necessary to fully get what’s going on. Super mega bonus points to Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, who gets to be show-stealingly badass in several different ways.

Awesome Tier

star wars last jedi2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi. So, the thing about The Last Jedi is that 90% of the “accepted” criticism towards it completely fails to identify any of the things that are actually wrong with the movie. I rationally accept these elements do exist (Abigail Nussbaum’s review does a great job of identifying where the film falls short) but it makes it really hard to write anything nuanced without getting drawn into a cultural debate that’s been overtaken by the lowest common denominators. Anyway, I absolutely loved The Last Jedi, especially its handling of Luke and the constant challenges to male entitlement; while the narrative need to offer redemption to young men who absolutely don’t deserve it based on the consequences of their actions is highly problematic, it doesn’t fundamentally weaken my enjoyment. There’s a strong possibility JJ Abrams is going to screw up the dismount on this trilogy, and I’m really unconvinced that we need the number of movies we’re apparently going to be subjected to in the next few years, but from this film I’m firmly on board with where the main Star Wars saga is at.

Teaser_poster_for_2017_film_Get_Out.png1. Get Out. Fun fact: I saved this movie for over two months after watching everything else on the ballot, because horror is really not my thing. It turns out I was saving the best for last, though! I went in with  little idea about the plot beyond “creepy white neighbourhood meets mixed race couple” (which those who have watched the film will note is not even particularly accurate) and I think my lack of expectations added a lot to my viewing experience, so I won’t say any more except that it was SUCH a smart, self-aware film packed with moments of dark humour and narrative satisfaction. I really enjoyed working through all the twists and mysteries and guessed a reasonable percentage of them while still leaving plenty of surprises for the film to offer me. If all movies were this good, I could probably get over my Thing about movies.


What I think will win: …you’re probably all going to vote for Blade Runner, aren’t you? Fine. FINE. Whatever.

What I nominated:

I’d love to see video games represented in this category someday, as there’s so much high quality, unique storytelling going on in the medium, particularly from smaller developers. When I played Pyre early this year, it hit certain emotional buttons so hard that I actually had to uninstall it for a while after finishing my first campaign because I didn’t have the capacity to deal with the replay I desperately wanted and function as a human being. There’s something about a game like this, which is story driven but encourages replays and allows for different, equally valid outcomes for the same groups of characters, that hits a spot for me that in a parallel universe might have been satisfied through getting involved in fan fiction or other transformative activities. Also, the game is about playing magical basketball in Purgatory, and there’s a giant woman with horns who sort of shares my birthday, so it doesn’t get much better than that.

I also gave a hopeless nod to Critical Role, a hugely popular Dungeons and Dragons live play stream which wrapped up its first campaign at the end of last year. It’s probably good that it had no chance of making the final ballot, given that each of its 110+ episodes are individually eligible for this category (!) and the full running time is around two full weeks (!!) but… my god. If you want to experience a hilarious, emotionally charged, unconventional viewing experience with a bunch of talented video game voice actors and their beloved characters, go check this show out. The second campaign got under way at the start of 2018 and is “only” 26 episodes long at this stage, making it a less daunting place to start.

  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Wonder Woman
  • Pyre
  • Critical Role: Season 1

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Hugo Finalist Reading: Best Graphic Story (2018)

Today I’m looking at Graphic Story, and it’s yet another category where I admit that, beyond reading for the Hugos, I don’t know a whole lot about the form. This year’s options include four sequels to works I’m already familiar with, all of which are from Image, as well as some new experiences, all of which were well worth having. But, as we all know, the rankings must flow…

Also, the theme for me in this category is apparently surprise at my own opinions, which is perhaps not the strongest place from which to build an analysis. Here we go anyway!

Adri’s Best Graphic Story Rankings 2018

Good Tier+

Favourite thing monsters.jpg6. My Favourite Thing is Monsters, written and illustrated by Emil Ferris. This is an accomplished, unusual piece of work, covering the life of aspiring werewolf girl sleuth Karen Reyes, whose obsession with horror stories is juxtaposed with the more mundane horrors of her life in 1960s Chicago. Because all the horror imagery is in Karen’s imagination, it’s really a story about genre than a genre story; that alone isn’t an issue for me, but it means that the story itself spends a lot of time on exactly the sort of relentlessly grim family/community drama that I enjoy least in fiction. Karen is a sweetheart, but she’s going through a lot, from family issues to bullying at school to understanding her queer sexuality to dealing with a murdered neighbour upstairs, and it all gets a bit much at times. There’s also a plot within a plot concerning said murdered neighbour which comes with a ton of content warnings including rape, pedophilia and holocaust depictions, The unusual visual style – which is made to look like the work was completed biro and coloured pencil in a lined notebook- is wonderful, but missing a little in execution, with text flow issues on many pages; the art style also gets notably simpler towards the second half of the book, which is certainly a change I can relate to but disappointing nonetheless.

Great Tier

BitchPlanet_vol02-15. Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro and Taki Soma, colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick, lettered by Clayton Cowles. This series is super interesting, and I’d like to continue following it, but at the same time I can’t say I like Bitch Planet very much. Taking the aesthetic of exploitation films of the 1970s (which I have zero experience with) and putting itself in a hyper-patriarchal world where women can be branded “non-compliant” for anything which can be construed as threatening to men (so, anything), it follows a group of women on a prison planet who are roped into playing a hyper-aggressive sports game for Reasons. Clearly, it walks a very thin line in reproducing a particular exploitative aesthetic without veering into voyeuristic territory itself, and while I think it succeeds, it definitely won’t be for everyone. Also, while it doesn’t affect my analysis of this volume, the release schedule is non-existent, which makes it impossible for me to sustain interest in where the story is going.

paper girls 3.jpg4. Paper Girls, Volume 3, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang, colored by Matthew Wilson, lettered by Jared Fletcher. I really like Paper Girls, though worryingly I can’t put my finger on why! After three volumes, I’m still not sure what’s actually supposed to be going on in the main plot, except that it involves cross-dimensional time travel which has roped in four teenage girls from 1988. It’s all been a bit episodic and confusing, but the art style is compelling and pretty and while I have somewhat low expectations for the teen girl issues in it to be treated with consistent sensitivity and tact, nothing has raised my hackles so far. So yes, it’s fine? I guess I think it’s better than the two things I’ve ranked it above, even though I can’t explain myself? How do I critical engagement with art, again?

51IJekUzjWL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_3. Saga, Volume 7, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples. Seven volumes in to this vicious, claustrophobic, technicolour space opera about a mixed family trying to escape the legacy of galactic war, and it’s not entirely clear where we’re going but I’m still along for the ride. Saga is the kind of story that could only exist in comics, while also being a victim of that medium’s slow pacing; with such a huge cast and scope, trying to balance family drama with various interstellar machinations and flashbacks, it always delivers slightly less than the level of promise that the worldbuilding and Fiona Staples’ art entail. This volume sees the characters settling briefly on a comet at the heart of the war between Wreath and Landfall, which goes about as well as you might expect. Emotions ensue. Side note, I forgot this one happened last year and nominated Volume 8 instead, which I think I liked more anyway…

418YhFURXUL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_2. Black Bolt, Volume 1: Hard Time, written by Saladin Ahmed, illustrated by Christian Ward, lettered by Clayton Cowles. Another year, another Marvel character I knew literally nothing about until now.  Today I learned that Black Bolt’s real name is Blackagar Boltagon, and he’s the leader of the Inhumans, which I think is sort of like more monarchic alien X-Men, though to be fair I know nothing about the X-Men either. He also has a voice that can destroy things, which apparently means he has to express his kingly intentions through meaningful looks a lot of the time, and his giant amazing dog has also hung out with Ms Marvel. Keeping in mind my near-total ignorance, this volume – which is basically a prison break – really worked as a compelling introduction, with a clear goal, a straightforward and individually compelling supporting cast, a nice buildup of tension that didn’t require outside knowledge to work, and lots of explosions and fights. Or maybe I just made up a load of justifications in order to praise the space dog. Space dog!

Awesome Tier

Monstress_Vol02-11. Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood, written by Marjorie M. Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda. There’s lots of quality on this ballot, but once again, there’s only one Monstress, and like last year it’s a cut above all the other competition. This volume continues to follow the story of Maika Halfwolf, a demon-possessed kind-of-the-worst child of war, searching for the secrets of her dead mother. Maika is one of a race called the Arcanics, who are themselves the offspring of humans and anthropomorphic animal people called the Ancients, and who are at war with the humans and particularly the magic users who consume them in order to fuel their own power. Tense plotting combines with superb steampunky Asian-inspired worldbuilding, beautiful art that draws on both manga and western comic styles to make something unique, and a cast of interesting characters, who (bonus!) are nearly all female. There’s also a race of talking cats with multiple tails, if that’s your thing – and why wouldn’t it be?


 

What I think will win: As with last year, Monstress is the thing to beat in this category, and I doubt any of the other sequels have the ability to top it. My Favourite Thing is Monsters, with its novelty and sheer artistic brilliance, seems like the most likely contender, but I suspect its being a “second-order” genre work might count against it. I find it tricky to evaluate the appeal of Marvel works to others, though, so maybe I’m underestimating King Blackagar (…why is he called that) and his space dog?

What I nominated: I was pleasantly surprised by the Rat Queens reboot and willing to give it another shot despite the behind-the-scenes disaster that franchise became after Volume 3. I’d also have loved to see Mare Internum, one of two webcomics by the mega-talented Der-Shing Helmer, get a nod, although maybe it has a better shot this year as a (likely) finished product. It’s a very high-quality piece of SF about alien ecosystems on Mars and a trash human and his friend who fall into it. And it’s free online!

  • Saga Volume 8, Fiona Staples, Brian K. Vaughan
  • Monstress Volume 2: The Blood, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
  • Mare Internum Chapter 4, Der-Shing Helmer
  • Rat Queens Volume 4, Kurtis Wiebe and Owen Giani

 

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Hugo Finalist “Reading”: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (2018)

Most people who have attempted to engage me in media conversations will know I’m terrible at keeping up with TV shows. Living beyond the reach of TV networks for the past four years haven’t helped, but even before then I just don’t have the time to dedicate after reading and gaming, and even when I am interested in something I often don’t find the right moments to put on a show rather than doing something else. There are exceptions – I keep up with Game of Thrones because of the social aspect, and Steven Universe because it’s the best – but most of the time, I’m at least a year behind and possibly only halfway through things that should probably be my favourites.

That means that this category can be a mixed blessing for me: on the one hand, the high number of season finales that seem to end up here means that I end up with a lot of catching up before I get to the episodes I need to be watching, and sometimes that makes it impossible to find motivation to get through all the entries. On the other hand, it’s sometimes the nudge I need to catch up or discover new shows and watch them all the way through. This year, the burden was a bit lower, with two entries from the same series, a single from Clipping, and a Doctor Who episode I’d already watched, and it was a good feeling to be able to get the whole category out of the way relatively early in my Hugo adventures.

Adri’s Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form Rankings 2018

Good Tier

6. “Music to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” from Star Trek Discovery. Now, I haven’t watched enough of any Star Trek to have any opinion on whether this is really Star Trek or whatever, but I can’t say this series really enthused me – in fact, I stopped watching after getting to the nominated episode and have only the vaguest intentions of going back to finish it up. It’s a fun premise but, eh to this whole series. This particular episode has an interesting time loop premise, and gave the cast some great moments, but the only thing I dislike more than the gross villain dude is the captain, and at least the villain isn’t in every episode.

5. “Twice Upon a Time” from Doctor Who. I’m really glad the Moffat era of Doctor Who is coming to a close. It’s had its moments, and I’ve liked a lot of the characters despite Moffat’s inability to write more than two female archetypes, but there’s been too much of what I’d call “surface clever”: twisty things and moments that sound good in dialogue and might make for some surprises on screen, but don’t contain anything interesting enough to keep thinking about once the episode is done. This episode is basically more of that sort of thing. Yes, it’s kind of neat to bring the First Doctor in at a parallel point, yes, it provides some mildly unexpected moments, but in the end its all just surface fluff and one too many zippy lines of dialogue. Also, given how long it has taken Moffat to get on the agenda and not write cardboard women or treat queer storylines as more than hilarious asides, the lampshading of the first Doctor’s sexist attitudes felt unearned, to say the least.

Great Tier

=3. “The Trolley Problem” and “Michael’s Gambit” from The Good Place. This series is going down as this year’s big find for me: a sitcom about characters navigating ethics in the afterlife? Sign me up!  Featuring a diverse cast (the two white people who show up on all the publicity are nearly the only two white people in the show) and a plot which moves forward pretty consistently and swiftly for a show of this format, this is a show I hope to keep following for the rest of its run. So why is this only mid ballot? Well, while these episodes are highlights of season 1 and 2 respectively (Michael’s Gambit is the game changing finale of Season 1, while The Trolley Problem is a hilarious look at the titular philosophy thought experiment) I think The Good Place’s real strength comes from the show as a whole, and the seasons both add up to more than the sum of their parts. It’s too bad the scheduling means we’re unlikely to see entire seasons nominated in the Long Form category, because that’s where I think this would be more comfortable. In terms of internal rankings, Michael’s Gambit has the edge over The Trolley Problem, but the latter is just so joyous that I might change my mind.

2. “USS Callister” from Black Mirror. For the past two years, I have allowed Hugo voters to pick out the best Black Mirror episode of the year for me and only watched that one (although, technically I don’t think that works this time because most of the series was released in 2018?) Don’t get me wrong, I understand why people like the show in general but I detested large parts of the first two seasons and have developed a strong aversion to Charlie Brooker’s writing of female characters in particular. I think a lot of that has improved and/or been reined in since production hopped the Atlantic, but I still have minimal time for this particular sort of navel gazing about the worst of humanity, and I still have lingering trauma from boozy late night conversations about the series with otherwise respectable friends. Anyway, now I’ve dismissed the series as a whole, let me highly praise this episode (and last year’s nominee San Junipero) for being smart, interesting and fun without making me roll my eyes too regularly. I particularly like how effectively the show plays with our sympathy for different characters, encouraging us to back a side but never shying away from showing us that the people we are rooting for are also flawed and willing to do terrible things (e.g. blackmailing your own duplicate with revenge porn). It helps that USS Callister is a big, unapologetic fuck you to male nerd entitlement and behaviour, and that’s a Big Mood for many of us right now.

Awesome Tier:

1. The Deep (single) by Clipping. My musical background with hip hop is pretty much what you’d expect from a white girl who grew up on a musical diet of The Spice Girls followed by 2000’s rock and emo. However, over the past few years I’ve increasingly found a lot to appreciate in the crossover between nerd culture and rap. Clipping’s entry on the ballot last year was a massive stealth earworm for me, combining a great (if difficult) sound with extraordinarily clever and deep lyrics which feels like exactly the kind of thing a literature genre award should be recognising in its dramatic categories. The Deep, which was produced by the group for NPR, is another worthy track, with even more going for it than any individual song in Splendor and Misery. In just a few minutes, the group packs in the history of a sea dwelling people descended from pregnant slaves thrown overboard in the Atlantic, and their rediscovery by surface humans as climate change drives them out of their former depths, told through lyrical brilliance and plenty of (mostly new-to-me) cultural references. It’s only a five minute song, which makes it difficult to compare to significantly longer TV episodes (and in a way, it’s a shame this is here the year after Splendor and Misery was nominated, because I think that highlights the length even more), but it’s just so impressive that I can’t help but rank it top.


What I think will win: Not Clipping, unfortunately. Black Mirror would be my guess, as it combines a very classic aesthetic with a smart, subversive plot in a way that I think will appeal to a wide range of voters.

My Nominations:

As mentioned earlier, I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I do religiously watch Steven Universe and this is the second year I’ve almost exclusively nominated episodes from the show in the hope it’s going to make the cut someday. Looking over this list again, I’m not sure I did a great job figuring out what the four best episodes from last year were – not that it’s likely to have made a difference, but if I find out that Lars’ Head or I Am My Mom was one vote away from the final ballot I’m going to feel rather stupid…

  • The Deep (Clipping) 
  • Gem Heist  (Steven Universe) 
  • The Trial  (Steven Universe) 
  • Off Colours  (Steven Universe)
  • Raising the Barn (Steven Universe)

 

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“Hugo Finalist” Reading: WSFS Young Adult Award (2018)

We’re skipping down the ballot today because Adri hasn’t finished reading for series or BRW yet and technically leaving official Hugo territory to look at the new World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) Award for Best Young Adult Book. Before I dive in, let me say a huge thank you to the people who worked to get this recognised against what sounded like a lot of inertia (to put it politely). Set up as a “not a Hugo” award to get around the problem (your mileage may vary on how much of a problem this actually is) of the same writing being nominated in two separate Hugo categories, it’s likely to be known as the Lodestar award from next year. However, because of administrative shenanigans the award was approved one year ahead of the name, hence the rather convoluted this time around. Like I say, I’m really grateful to everyone who goes the extra mile to push for change on the administrative side, because frankly it sounds grim.

I feel it’s also important to note that having a YA award voted on by a largely Old Adult base (and I include my not-yet-30 self in that category) means that, inevitably, what’s recognised is going to reflect tastes outside the target demographic. While I don’t think that’s a problem as such (and certainly not a problem exclusive to this award), it’s worth bearing in mind that my reviews are coming from the perspective of a chronological grown up who is primarily into SFF rather than YA more generally.

Rankings

If you haven’t been following my posts, I’m employing an absolute ranking system alongside indicative ballot positions. It’s really nitpicky because, hey, we’re dealing with some of the best books of the year and all…

  • Meh Tier: Stuff I either didn’t like or take specific issue with.
  • Good Tier: Works I liked but wasn’t wowed by.
  • Great Tier: Works I was impressed with, but which don’t quite hit all my buttons.
  • Awesome Tier: Except in special cases (see below), these are the most award-worthy nominees for me.
  • Everyone Else Go Home: Those rare works that make it all worthwhile.

Adri’s WSFS Young Adult Award Rankings 2018

Good Tier

61f7iyJLzGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_6. La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. I might be being unfair to this book. It’s a good read, and I appreciate the addition to the original trilogy, but it was very much a book of two halves in more than one sense, and everything that made the first part enjoyable for me got washed away (pun intended) in the second. I didn’t want or need the biblical allegories, or the tonal shift from tense political interest to straightforward juvenile adventure, and I really started drifting off when that became the main thrust. Pun intended. Also, while I don’t think it’s affecting my view on the text, I am unreasonably irritated about the fact that the series is called “The Book of Dust”, and is printed in huge writing on the front cover, and the book is called La Belle Sauvage but I keep calling it the Book of Dust because I’ve been Taken In by some sort of marketing decision or something and why would a series call itself a book, I ask you? On the bright side, this is the first of two books on this list which prominently feature Oxford, and I did get to relive memories of 7am rowing sessions up near the Trout Inn, not that that’s helped it in the rankings. Grumble grumble.

art of starving.jpg5. The Art of Starving by Sam Miller: Matt is a gay teenager whose problems seem to keep multiplying: his sister has left their small town abruptly and under mysterious circumstances, his mother is on the verge of losing her job at a struggling slaughterhouse, and his crush Tariq is part of a shady gang of boys who are bullying him at school. In fact, the only thing Matt thinks is going well for him is that if he stops eating, he seems to develop superpowers. This is an Own Voices story: Miller is gay and, according to the afterword, his own struggles with teen anorexia initially went unrecognised because he was male. The narrative certainly doesn’t shy away from the grim reality of having an eating disorder, while the slipstream fantasy elements make it difficult to figure out what’s actually going on with Matt’s powers: the SFF reader in me was inclined to take it on face value, but his eating disorder makes Matt an unreliable narrator and I can certainly see how one would read it as delusion. It’s impossible for me to judge how successful this is as a story for its intended audience, having been straight-passing at school and never suffered from anorexia, but obviously any recommendation comes with content warnings for depictions of anorexia and a recognition that for a lot of ED sufferers/survivors, any realistic content can be triggering, so this may be a book to approach with caution. Stylistically, this comes across far more as contemporary YA than fantasy, and that alone puts it in the liked-but-didn’t-love category for me.

Good Tier +

61r5YdC4eKL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_4. A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge. Hey, this book features Oxford and the English Civil War, making it very relevant to some of my more obscure interests! I’ve only really discovered Hardinge recently and this is the third book I’ve read from her, all of which have featured resourceful, compelling heroines in sticky situations. In this case, it’s Makepeace, a girl who grows up in a Puritan community with a secretive mother, only to discover on her death that she’s an illegitimate member of an unpleasant family of nobles whose genetic talent is seeing and “taking in” recent deceased spirits. Being unpleasant early modern English nobility, they use this talent to allow the old men of the family to effectively become immortal and take over their descendants, and when Makepeace finds herself next in line for this procedure she winds up on adventure that takes her across battle lines and into the orbit of some very interesting characters. It’s great fun, although it never rose to the level of The Lie Tree for me.

Great Tier

akata warrior3. Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor. Published as “Sunny and the Mysteries of Osisi” in the UK and Nigeria, this is Okorafor’s second entry in a series where magical families live secretly alongside ordinary people, hiding their talents and their own magical society from view. What sets this apart from other stories with a similar premise (Harry Potter is the obvious one, and Chrestomanci also springs to mind) is that this magical society is very much rooted in Igbo traditions, and is set in Nigeria. The Nigerian-American protagonist of the series, Sunny, discovers that although her family are non-magical, she is a rare “free agent” born with magical talent anyway. Cue induction into the magical world of the Leopard People, full of spiritual awakenings, currency that falls from the sky when people learn new things, fantastic creatures, fun new friends and — most importantly — fantasy football. Akata Warrior builds on the worldbuilding and relationships of the first book to great effect, expanding the story, introducing new places and people, and adding depth to Sunny’s struggle to balance her new life as a Leopard Person with her family relationships. Sunny herself is a wonderful protagonist and Okorafor does a great job bringing her to life as a girl caught between multiple identities and worlds, who has to fight hard to have her talents recognised but is often rewarded with success and recognition in ways that are still disappointingly rare for black girls in media outside Okorafor’s writing.

Awesome Tier

SummerInOrcus_SCFrontCover2. Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher, illustrated by Lauren Henderson. Remember how I said this is definitely a YA award by and for adults who read YA? Well, Summer in Orcus is probably the most transparent example of this in action, seeing as how it’s explicitly advertised as “a portal fantasy for adults who are angry with the portal fantasies of their youth”. I reiterate that this isn’t necessarily a problem, and I’m especially willing to accept it if it brings more Vernon-as-Kingfisher onto the ballot. Anyway, Summer in Orcus was originally posted chapter-by-chapter to Vernon’s blog in late 2016, with the illustrated edition – which this is a nomination for – Kickstarted and released in 2017. Summer, a girl struggling to support her difficult, emotionally needy mother while dreaming of freedom and adventure, finds herself thrust into a fantasy world by Baba Yaga with nothing but a weasel in her pocket and promptly discovers that going on an adventure in a land where the queen is trying to hunt you down is all a bit grim, actually. Featuring some magnificent fantasy creations (like the Werehouse: wolf by day, house by night) and a plot which doesn’t shy away from tricky emotional realities while never getting overwhelming or grim, this is definitely one to check out. The illustrations are icing on the already very delicious cake.

Everyone Else Go Home

51JCJ9tfSvL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_1. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan. This is not just my top pick for this ballot, it’s my favourite book published in 2018, full stop. Like Summer in Orcus, In Other Lands is a portal fantasy for the discerning and perhaps more chronologically advanced YA reader, but it brings a very post-Harry Potter sensibility to its militarised magic school setting that totally eviscerates the structure of magical dynasties, default humans in a world of diverse sentients, and teenagers as world saving heroes that those books instilled into my generation as core fantasy. It also features Elliott Schafer, who could so easily have been the most irritating character ever (yeah, I acknowledge that to some people he is…) but whose prickly, take-no-prisoners attitude is balanced by a narrative voice that shows us just enough about his insecurities, the impact of his upbringing, and the good things that he’s actually doing and then lying to himself about to make that endearing and forgivable (and frequently hilarious) rather than The Absolute Worst. The mermaids are perhaps not quite as present in the narrative as they are in Elliott’s head or the publicity, but otherwise this worked out perfectly for me. And, as a bonus, it might be the only book on this entire ballot that had me actively invested in a romance! That’s rare.


What I think will win: In Other Lands is the thing I’m backing hardest across all categories, so it’s honestly quite hard for me to make any kind of call that suggests I don’t think it will happen. I could find reasons to back anything, though: Miller took the Andre Norton award, Okorafor took the Locus YA, Kingfisher is a strong favourite among Hugo voters (as evidenced by Summer in Orcus reaching the ballot despite initially questionable eligibility), and Philip Pullman and Frances Hardinge are pretty big deals in general. Surely it’s got to be In Other Lands, though. I mean, it was objectively the best book of the year. (Not really, but… really.)

What I nominated

As you can probably tell from my ballot, I was disappointed at the lack of April Daniels on the final list. Dreadnought and Sovereign were both great books, and hopefully we will have more from Danny Tozer aka Dreadnought in the not too distant future. If I’d known the illustrated version would make Summer in Orcus eligible, I’d probably have nominated it over one of the others here.

  • In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
  • Dreadnought by April Daniels
  • Sovereign by April Daniels
  • Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Grey
  • Weave a Circle Round by Kari Maaren

New Worlds, Year One: A Writer’s Guide to the Art of Worldbuilding by Marie Brennan

Marie brennan cover.jpg

New Worlds, Year One: A Writer’s Guide to the Art of Worldbuilding by Marie Brennan

2018, Book View Cafe.

This book is a collection of essays that were initially written for a subscription-based worldbuilding Patreon – as the title suggests, the project is still ongoing and you can support it here!

Marie Brennan is an author I know from her fantastic series about Isabella, Lady Trent: a draconologist from a secondary world heavily based on the second half of our nineteenth century. In the course of her adventures, Isabella visits a range of cultures and places from cold mountain villages to tropical coastlines struggling with colonialism and conflict to far-flung not-Pacific islands, and the care that Brennan takes to make all of these cultures come to life so effectively and sensitively means this collection makes perfect sense. The essays themselves cover everything from geology and plate tectonics to linguistics to folklore and culture to food, and there’s a particular focus on the kinds of subtopics that standard SFF doesn’t tend to play with too much.

This is a project which prioritises breadth rather than depth, for good reason. The aim of each essay is clearly to provoke creators into thinking through and researching aspects of their world which they might otherwise choose an easy answer for, and to encourage deeper thought about what each element of a world means for related aspects of culture. For example, the chapter on naming lament the unrealistic standardisation of western style “firstname lastname” names, provides a few other real-world examples, and then elaborates briefly on what those real-world examples imply about the cultures they come from: a name with a large genealogical component, for example, indicates that lineage is important to this society, while an individual with names from different cultures might have mixed heritage of some kind. The real-world examples, and references to other SFF works, are applied sparingly, so there’s never a sense of being bombarded with facts. After all, the point is not to provide the reader with a list of real cultural practices to cherry pick from, this being a method which would carry a very high risk of cultural appropriation without greater understanding of the society you are touching on. You still have to do your own research: Brennan is just highlighting areas you might never have even considered researching for.

While the material is reordered from the original Patreon “serialisation”, there are still rough collections of material in different categories. If I were being picky, I’d note the format could have been cleaned up more from Patreon, with explicitly subtitled categories and rewrites where essays originally started with “this month we’ll be looking at…” beyond just changing the tense. Still, the order itself makes good intuitive sense, and there were no obvious leaps of logic from the reordering.

Not being a very good or consistent fiction writer myself, I’m not entirely sure what stage of a worldbuilding process I’d recommend this book for. It’s not exactly a how-to manual, and although it links resources like Patricia C. Wrede’s fantasy worldbuilding checklist and while it covers a lot of ground it’s impossible to cover every facet of a fictional world in 52 essays. I think on a practical level, this is something that will appeal most to those who already have their own fantasy world ideas (even those of us who aren’t very good at getting them down in writing) but who are seeking extra food for thought about particular aspects or want something relatively light and easy to read that will spur creativity. One of the closing essays, instead of taking a particular fantasy topic, instead talks about building the habit of worldbuilding, and that’s a good way of looking at the collection as a whole. While none of the topics are likely to be totally new to anyone with a basic grasp of human geography (although some of the examples probably will be — I learned something new about Mandarin linguistics and I’ve studied the language for years…!) this is still a clear, concise and interesting foundational text which I’m sure will be of great use to its intended audience.

Rating: 8 solid insights on secondary world naming conventions out of 10

Hugo Finalist Reading: Best Short Story (2018)

It’s the fourth of my Hugo roundup series, which means it’s time to tackle the most compact fiction categoru: Short Story. Like Novelettes, I don’t read a huge amount at this length over my ordinary course of reading, and for 2018 I deliberately chose not to push myself to read intensively during the nomination period simply for the sake of having things to put on the ballot. This meant that I hadn’t read any of the finalists before the finalists were announced, though I’d certainly heard about most of them). The lovely thing about short fiction is that this state of ignorance can be rectified within hours, rather than days! Moreover, this was a fun, wide-ranging list to catch up on.

Ratings

Once again, my absolute rating system is:

  • Meh Tier: There’s people out there who think it was one of the best things written last year. Sadly, I’m not one of them.
  • Good Tier: There’s people out there who think this was one of the best things written last year, and I get why they think that (but I don’t agree).
  • Great Tier: There’s people out there who think this was one of the best things written last year, and they have good taste.
  • Awesome Tier: There’s people out there who think this was one of the best things written last year, and they are 100% objectively correct.
  • Everyone Else Go Home: This is one of the best things written, ever.

Adri’s Best Short Story Hugo Rankings 2018

Meh Tier

384659576.Carnival Nine” by Caroline Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)I might have made a mistake when naming this category because, like the novelette I ranked here, this is a pretty infuriating read, rather than one which provoked indifference in me. It’s set in a toytown-esque world where everyone gets “built” out of spare parts and lives for mere hundreds of days, allocated a certain number of “turns” in their wind-up mechanism each day, and follows a main character who gets lots of turns but ends up having to raise a son who gets almost nothing. Clearly this is intended to be a meditation on disability and care – the parallels with the spoon theory are pretty straightforward – but it doesn’t do anything with those ideas beyond saying “doesn’t it suck to have to give up your life to care for someone else, while other people avoid their responsibilities and do cool stuff?” There’s no hope, no climax to the struggle, no event that causes the protagonist to change perspective on her own life beyond passively accepting it. I didn’t appreciate this as a story and I certainly didn’t appreciate it as a commentary on disability. (Story Link)

Good Tier

uncannyimg5. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017). This is a beautifully written, short (even for the category) piece which I didn’t really understand. Someone is taking a tour through something that is an exhibit of curiosities but might also be the narrator’s inhuman body, and also the bodies of all of us? The narration is full of beautifully described oddities and instructions to the audience (this is second person narration) that indicate the show is provoking change in its fictional viewer as well: through viewing what would once have been called a freak show, we have taken a little of the freakishness away with ourselves. It’s impressively written, and I do love me some Fran Wilde (The Jewel and her Lapidary was my top choice for novelette last year) but even on a second read it felt like there was some key to this story I just couldn’t grasp. (Story Link)

TOR_The Martian Obelisk4. “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017). A woman on earth is remote piloting the construction of a monument on Mars, after disasters have wiped out the Martian colonies. The Earth is becoming uninhabitable too, so basically everything is futile and everyone is going to die, so why not spend your life on IRL Martian Minecraft? The story is highly atmospheric and provoked strong emotions in me, although ultimately it was all a little bit predictable and didn’t leave me with much to say. I really need to read some of Nagata’s longer fiction some day, though. (Story Link)

Great Tier

DZkQDE2WAAAyC5o3. “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017). No ballot would be complete without Vernon’s blend of practical heroics and agricultural expertise, and this year we get the story of a farm boy who discovers his grandmother’s old sword and the three ancient fighting spirits bound to it, who naturally expect him to make a career switch he has no interest in. I have to say, this story feels more like solid Vernon rather than outstanding Vernon, but she’s a great author and one who I believe has a large following among Hugo voters in particular (well justified on last year’s Novelette acceptance speech alone, never mind the high quality fiction), so I’m not surprised it’s found its way here and I enjoyed it very much. (Story Link)

Awesome Tier

391194902. “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, Aug 2017). I have to admit I didn’t “get” this story on the first read, but it stuck with me for much longer than anything else. The narrator is a Native American who works for a virtual reality company selling “Indian experiences” to tourists who usually want half naked medicine men taking them on drug-infused journeys to meet their spirit animals (well, that or exotic sex). The narrator clearly doesn’t identify with any of this stuff, but finds himself drawn into the scheme of a repeat customer who somehow ends up causing him to question his own identity. It was definitely a “delayed release” story for me: the ending felt almost anticlimactic but I was left thinking about its messaging on authenticity and culture for a long time afterwards, and I’ve finished up with a great deal of appreciation for this dark, understated tale. (Story Link)

DQVN2I7W0AAWPM_1. “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie Min Prasad (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017). The story of a 1950s robot, sentient through a fluke in programming that has never been repeated, who escapes its rather boring life in the museum by becoming active in an anime fandom. I loved everything about this story, from the robot aesthetics – Computron is literally a box with claws attached, who has to type by holding two sticks and pressing the keys one at a time – to the very subtle way its discovery of community is portrayed. Prasad usesh a mixture of third person narration, e-mails and fanfic descriptions (complete with comment numbers) to really evoke the aesthetic of online fandom, making the emotional resonance feel more plausible with anyone familiar with the field. It’s not a saccharine story by any means (Computron doesn’t even feel human emotions!) but it quietly took hold of my heart while I was reading and I caught myself going “awww” out loud by the time I got to the end. (Story Link)


What I think will win: I have even less idea than usual. Roanhorse’s story won the Nebula award and Nagata’s took the Locus, but I wonder if the voting community that gave Cat Pictures, Please the win two years ago will share my affection for Fandom for Robots? Also, I mentioned in my novelette prediction that I’d like to predict an AI sweep, so that settles it: I’m staking my utterly non-existent reputation as a Hugo pundit on Prasad’s win.

My nominations: Nothing in this category. I sometimes wish I were a more short fiction oriented reader, but I’m not doing any better at keeping up this year, so I think that’s a resolution that will have to wait until I run out of novels to read…

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