Wrap-up of the 2020 Hugo Reviews

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That finishes the reviews in the main fiction categories for the Hugo Awards this year, so here’s the wrap-up for anyone looking for patterns in the nominations. There was an approximate 60% overlap with the 2019 Nebula finalists, so I didn’t have to read that many stories to fill in the gaps. In addition to the Nebula correspondence, about 85% of the finalists appeared on the Locus Recommended Reading List, issued in February of 2020.

There was fair diversity among the nominees, both in ethnicity and gender of the authors and in the variety of settings and themes. There were 24 works nominated, but two were co-written, resulting in 28 authors. In the case of The Deep, Rivers Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are credited for the previously Hugo-nominated song that inspired the novella. This Is How You Lose the Time War was co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. As usual, apologies if I’ve missed anybody. I’m sure I’ve way undercounted disabilities, for example, as most authors don’t post their health status.

Best Novel: 6 women, 0 men, 5 LGBTQ, 6 white, 0 ethnic minorities
Best Novella: 3 women, 6 men, 1 non-binary, 2 LGBTQ, 4 white, 1 Jewish, 3 black, 1 Arab American, 1 Asian
Best Novelette: 5 women, 1 man, 3 LGBTQ, 3 white, 1 Jewish, 1 black, 2 Asian, 1 disabled
Best Short Story: 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 4 LGBTQ, 2 white, 1 black, 3 Asian

Here are the percentages: 18/28 (64%) women, 8/29 (29%) men, 2/28 (7%) non-binary, 14/28 (50%) LGBTQ, 15/28 (54%) white, 2/28 (7%) Jewish, 5/28 (18%) black, 1/28 (4%) Arab American, 6/28 (21%) Asian, and 1/28 (4%) disabled. The ethnicity percentage works out to more than 100% because I’m counting some authors in multiple categories. The results above follow the current trend toward white, LGBTQ women authors in the Hugo nominations, and the only way white men made it in at all was through co-written works. No Hispanics or Native Americans received nominations this year. White authors at 54% were below the US demographic of 61%. Black authors at 18% were somewhat above the US demographic of 13%. LGBTQ authors at 50% were well above the US demographic of 4.5%. Asian authors at 21% were above the US demographic of 5.6%, and Jewish at 7% and Arab-American authors at 4% were above the US demographics of and 2.6% and 1% respectively.

Looking at the lead characters in the works: 18/24 (75%) had female leads and 2/24 (8%) had equal male and female leads. Only 1/24 (4%) had a clearly male lead. The others were gender-indeterminate, cats, etc. 7/24 (29%) had non-white lead characters, and 7/24 (29%) had clearly lesbian characters. There was a noticeable shortage of male LGBTQ authors and/or characters in the nominations, which is is a recurring pattern from past years. This suggests there may be active discrimination against this particular group.

Looking at the genres: 11/24 (46%) had science fictional settings, and 13/24 (54%) had settings that look like mainly fantasy. The definitions have to be pretty loose, because a number of the works seem to mix science fictional and fantasy tropes. None of the works would qualify as hard SF, except maybe Chambers’ work about the dangers of space exploration. All the other SF stories had mysterious far future or alternate reality settings.

As far as publishers go, there were no finalists from print-only magazines this year. Tor dominated the list with 8/24 (33%} entries, and Uncanny Magazine came in next with 3/24 (12.5%). This suggests that the style and philosophy of Tor’s editors is popular with WorldCon members. Heavy promotion may also be a factor, as again, I could have almost predicted some of these results from the levels of advertising.

Themes were varied, but in style there was a clear trend toward surreal effects. The Hugo’s tendency for political commentary showed up in a number of cases, especially the short stories. Killing people to take their power appeared as a theme in three works, and revenge for past abuse appeared in four works. Interestingly, a couple of the novels this year frankly addressed socialist revolution. Hurley’s Light Brigade strives against authoritarian control and toward a panacea of living free in communism, but Anders’ novel has a more realistic and cynical view of how well this works. At least two pieces looked directly at the issue of power. Outside the fiction category, Ng’s acceptance speech from last year also made the list of finalists, an interesting choice, as it was denounced by some in the audience as both sexist and racist. All the finalist works had a strong emotional component.

Other observations: A few of these works came across as ordinary, but in general, the quality level ran fairly high, including both concepts and execution. The reading list seems to have been limited, as McGuire, Solomon, Harrow and Chiang were all nominated in more than one category. Also, some of the authors are perennials: Chambers, McGuire, Clark, Pinsker, Gailey and Harrow were also nominated last year. This repetition seems to be a developing standard for the Hugos. It’s a trend that can increase the minority count, but it also clearly reduces diversity. Surely there are plenty of qualified authors out there who could provide more diverse voices.

Review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor/Titan on 12 February 2019 and runs 348 pages. This review contains spoilers.

January is a tidally locked planet, in a synchronous rotational orbit around its sun. That means it’s divided into dark and light, a permanently frozen darkness on one side and deadly, scalding sunshine on the other. Human colonists have built two main settlements in the twilight zone in between. Xiosphant is authoritarian and highly regimented, a system that curtails individual freedoms but provides for all. Argelo is a free-wheeling party city, ruled by competing aristocratic families, and if you’re not well-connected, you starve. Sophie is a working-class student with a scholarship to the prestigious Gymnasium in the city of Xiosphant, sleepmates with her upper-class friend Bianca. Mouth is possibly the last survivor of the nomad group Citizens, who normally works as a smuggler between the two cities, and sleepmates with co-worker Alyssa. Bianca is a student subversive, working toward the overthrow of the authoritarian government of Xiosphant. When she casually steals food chits, Sophie steps in to take the fall for her and is exiled from the city. She is rescued by the Gelet, mysterious native creatures that are often hunted for meat. She sneaks back into the city and hides out, finding a job in a coffee house. Bianca, thinking her dead, moves further into subversive activities, and her group starts planning a revolution. Conditions outside the cities are worsening, and after a tough run, Mouth and Alyssa are in Xiosphant. Hearing about a Citizens artifact stored in the palace, Mouth joins the revolution to get in, but escapes as the rebellion goes bad. Her group flees and takes Bianca and Sophie with them to Argelo. Bianca establishes herself quickly in Argelo, aligning with the head of a powerful family. Still intent on overthrowing the government of Xiosphant, she plans an invasion. Meanwhile, Sophie’s contacts with the Gelet show that Mouth’s adored Citizens accidently undermined the Gelet’s climate controls that make the Twilight Zone livable, and that both cities are likely doomed as a result. If Bianca can take over the Xiosphanti government, will anything change?

So, this needs a trigger warning for anyone who suffers from depression. It’s a pretty dark work, and it was a hard slog for me to get through it. The sun never shines, and the climate is going from bad to worse. Poor Sophie starts off naive and does her best. She tries to love Bianca, and to mediate between humans and Gelet, all without much success. The theme is clearly stated: the failure of grand ideas. The students start off thinking they will change things for the better, but all their efforts are wasted. Bianca leaves a trail of death and destruction behind her, and when she takes over the government, she becomes just what they’ve hated all these years. There’s also an interesting symbolism set up with the dark and light, and the population living in the gray area in between. The City in the Middle of the Night is the Gelet city, mostly underground, where Sophie is transformed to something half Gelet and half human.

On the less positive side, this has readability issues because of the depressive atmosphere. Plus, it’s a little messy. The theme is supported very clearly through both action and pronouncements, but there are also a lot of other things going on that are less clear. One issue is Mouth’s devotion to the Citizens, who all died and left her, and how this turns to ash when she finds out more about them. Another is the presence of the Gelet, who have to represent another way of doing things, but this remains unclear. Another issue is the folk living outside the cities, the smugglers and salvage operators, and the horrific creatures that kill them off in the wastelands. And last, Sophie is transforming to an alien. Maybe this is actually about midlife crisis?

Anders is a little older than I thought, actually Gen X instead of Millennial, and if we’re going to pick out important works as part of the awards process, then this is it, a warning to all those idealistic young kids who think they can change the world and not become corrupted themselves. There’s also a message here about the results of party city versus working hard.

Five stars.

Review of The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

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This science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Saga/Angry Robot on 19 March 2019 and runs 369 pages. The novel is an expansion of the author’s short story “The Light Brigade” published by Lightspeed in November 2015. This novel is not appropriate for children, and it gets a trigger warning for adults, too, as it includes graphic descriptions of death in a war. This review contains spoilers.

After São Paulo is depopulated by the Blink, Dietz wants to be a hero. She signs up for the Corporate Corps to fight against the Communist Martians that everybody knows are responsible. She goes through basic training and then is deployed on missions with a technology that breaks combat grunts down into particles of light and reassembled them somewhere else. However, for some soldiers this light-speed travel causes time glitches. Dietz experiences the war in a jumble of out-of-sync missions, but keeps her mouth shut about it because of rumors people who talk about things like that disappear. After a while, the jumble of missions starts to assemble into a picture that causes Dietz to question the very basis of the war. Is there anything she can do about it?

First the literary allusions: “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a narrative poem written by by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1854 about the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Here’s a short sample: “Not though the soldier knew, someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.” Besides this, the transport technology strongly suggests Star Trek.

This novel is another in the recent trend to surrealist writing, and the accomplishment is fairly impressive. The main theme seems to be how easy it is to believe in lies and never think for yourself, and the story also functions as an anti-war screed. There is a definite plot, but it’s jumbled because of the time glitches and has to be assembled by the reader (you might want to take notes). Next, it seems Hurley has read Marx, who predicts that the end game of Capitalism is a small number of huge, wealthy and powerful corporations that ruthlessly fight to eliminate the competition. Hence the corporate wars in this novel. The Big Six are pitted against one another, and will commit any atrocity to win. While the rich corporates get richer, the poor are dying in the ruins. The Martian resistance is the Marxist revolution. We don’t get a clear picture of how these rebels carry on their business, but they are presented as living free lives and are labeled by the corporate leaders as dangerous Communists who threaten an important way of life.

On the less positive side, the author’s tool for creating impact includes constant graphic descriptions of violent death and dismemberment. Just be warned—I flinched at the first few incidents, but after a while I got desensitized and just plowed through the carnage. Next, the book makes an excellent case against the dangers of uncontrolled Capitalism, but suggesting that Communism is a simple, easy answer to the problems is another lie. Economists know that neither system is a panacea, and the best solution is a middle ground that stimulates enterprise while still providing opportunity for all. The important issue becomes how to provide that, especially for vulnerable members of the population. And one last annoyance: this is written in first person, and Dietz remains ungendered through the whole book until a friend calls her by her first name on page 351. Please, either let us know about gender early on or else let the protagonist remain ungendered. This device is clearly meant to be a gotcha, and it is not a twist ending.

Four stars.

Review of Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

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This science fiction/fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 7 May 2019 and runs 492 pages. Interestingly, McGuire says she tried to sell this book on spec, but couldn’t explain it to anybody, so had to write it to make the whole thing clear. This review contains spoilers.

Roger and Dodger are twin geniuses adopted by parents who live on different coasts. Roger’s talent is language, and Dodger’s is math. The children are quantum entangled, so by an early age, they’ve found they can talk to each other inside their heads. It’s fun to have an imaginary friend that will talk back to you, but when Roger mentions Dodger, a scary woman comes to the house and threatens to take him away from his parents. This is Leigh Barrow, an evil assistant to evil alchemist James Reed, who is churning out genetically engineering pairs of children in an attempt to achieve the Doctrine of Ethos and the Impossible City through a guide laid out in the children’s book Over the Woodward Wall by his creator A. Deborah Baker. Terrified, Roger withdraws from his interactions with Dodger, but later he actually meets her at a chess tournament. They somehow both end up attending Berkeley, and soon start to realize they’re really brother and sister and a possibly dangerous combination. Meanwhile, Reed is getting impatient with their slow development and thinks he has achieved a more promising and tractable pair of children. In order for that pair to fully mature, he needs to get rid of Roger and Dodger. Can they defeat him and his evil minions? And then what?

First some background: Middlegame in chess is the part of the game in between the opening and the endgame. The Doctrine of Ethos, defined by Pythagoras, is about balance, especially between language and mathematics. At the time this book was published, Over the Woodward Wall did not exist, but it is now a novella scheduled for publication on October 6, 2020, by Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker. In Middlegame, McGuire describes Baker as “the greatest alchemist in North America, spreading her calm propaganda masked as fantasy.” It’s an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek glimpse of the author.

The best part of this story is the developing lifetime relationship between Roger, Dodger, their parents and friends. The characterizations, for the most part, are excellent, and we feel the children’s pain of separation and loneliness as bright children, especially Dodger, who is the math genius. The author lives in the San Francisco Bay area, so we get detailed descriptions of the setting where most of the story takes place. I’ve encountered the themes and devices used here elsewhere over the last couple of years, but this is definitely a creative synthesis of what’s out there.

On the less positive side, this could be considered a thriller, but there’s not that much to the plot, and at 492 pages, it moves very slowly. The first couple of hundred pages were gripping, but I was tired before we got to the end. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and the timeline changes a couple of times, so you have to accept that events are not immutable. Luckily, the pivotal events seem to be fairly enduring. The novel is a tour-de-force as far as symbolic construction goes, but eventually I think it got stuffed a little too full of themes and ideas, where the asides start to distract from the main storyline. Reed, Barrow and the association of alchemists are only sketched in, when they might have been used to provide a stronger power struggle underlying the story. The pathway supposedly outlined in the children’s story remains totally vague, and the absurdist references to this eventually detract from the seriousness of the story. There’s a lot here, from advice to bright children, to finding balance, to maintaining your own ethics, to fighting evil, to understanding what to do with power. Although it has a science fictional framework, the inclusion of undefined alchemy and the powers granted by achieving the Doctrine of Ethos give it a strong fantasy feel.

Four and a half stars.

Review of To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

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This science fiction novella is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards, a stand-alone novel written in the universe of the Wayfarer series. It was published 3 September 2019 by Harper Voyager/Hodder & Stoughton and is billed as 176 pages, but it looks more like 136 in the ebook. There’s an extensive acknowledgement section and “exclusive content” at the end that is an interview Chambers conducted with her (mom) science consultant, Nikki Chambers, an astrobiology researcher and educator in Southern California, that makes up the rest of the advertised length.

It’s the 22nd century and Ariadne O’Neill is part of the Lawki 6 team sent to explore exoplanets. The team has an assigned itinerary, and spends the time between arrivals in torpor storage where they are adaptively somatoformed so they can move freely on each particular world. Aecor has an ice crust with phosphorescent creatures that live under the ice. Mirabilis is a riot of life. Opera is terrible, fraught with storms that ultimately prevent them leaving the ship. Votum is tidally locked and at first appears deserted, but they find caves that hold secrets. Somewhere along the way Lawki 6 has stopped receiving bulletins from Earth. The team receives a final transmission from Lawki 5, damaged and attempting to land on Earth, but then nothing else. Is there any reason to continue their mission?

For anyone who’s wondering, this title is from a quote by UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim, 1977, recorded on the Voyager Golden Record as a message to any sentients who might intercept the interstellar probe.

I’d rate this story moderately high on the hardness scale because of the projections and the amount of real science that’s included, and as is usual with Chambers’ work, this contains a pretty big emotional wallop. The characters include two men and two women, with one of the men maybe trans, but this is only hinted and remains respectfully private and unclear. All characters are appealing and they respect each other, getting along with a minimum of conflict. The group is immersed in work they love and they experience the joy of discovery, but the mission turns dark when they start to suspect something bad has gone wrong on Earth. Besides this, Chambers engineers traumatic events in the mission that strongly affect the team members’ mental health.

On the less positive side, this probably needs a trigger warning because of its representation of murder, depression and attempted suicide. I would also have liked to read more on the ethics of killing aliens. The issue is given as cut and dried here, but it looks like a huge philosophical problem to me. The story also leaves us with an inconclusive ending. In the scenario provided, there’s no way around the team being stuck. It looks like a return to Earth might be a poor idea. They could extend their mission, but eventually they will run out of fuel. This raises the question of how they’re getting around. I’m just not sure the technology for a mission like this would be based on fuel that runs out. Shouldn’t the ship be at least nuclear powered?

Four stars.

Review of In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

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This fantasy novella is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It is a stand-alone story from McGuire’s award-winning Wayward Children series, including Every Heart a Doorway, Down Among the Sticks and Bones and Beneath the Sugar Sky. This book was published by Tor.com on 8 January 2019, and runs 197 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

Katherine Lundy is the principal’s daughter and friendless. She always follows the rules and spends her time reading and studying, expecting that life will provide a husband and family sometime in the future. However, she takes a wrong turn on the way home from school and opens a door into the Goblin Market, a place that offers friends and adventure, but also enforces rules and accounts for debt. Everything has a cost or a consequence in the Goblin Market. Lundy moves back and forth between worlds, and forges ties to both. Her eighteenth birthday is coming up soon, when she will have to choose between the two worlds. Is there any way she can avoid the choice and continue to live in both worlds?

This features McGuire’s trademark style and fills out the backstory for one of the characters in her Wayward Children universe. As usual, it has the feel of middle grade to young adult. This is likely a standard narrative for children whose response to exclusion is burying their nose in a book, and so will likely strike familiar chords with dedicated readers. Because Lundy is such a devoted rule follower, her door opens into a world where the Market imposes strict rules about fair value in person-to-person interactions and imposes consequences for failing to follow the rules. I’m glad to see someone take on the issue of rules and consequences, as this seems to be something often missing in current media for children. Lundy’s attempt to get around the major restriction leaves her stuck in childhood, a warning for kids who think they can avoid choices and never grow up.

On the less positive side, this has huge gaps that skip over adventures related in other books from the series, without giving any indication of where to find the rest of the story. This affects the characterization and the continuity, and affects the readability. We skip through Lundy’s childhood, mostly learning about her relations with her family at home, including her father, her older brother and her younger sister, and about her relationship with the Archivist and her friend Moon in the Goblin Market. Maybe because of the short book length, these relationships still feel merely sketched in. I’m also concerned that rule-following has a faintly negative flavor in the book. It’s true that not all rules are good and that we should always question the need for them, but rules are also there for a reason, and good rule following is what holds our human society together. It allows us to set appropriate boundaries and demands that we respect the rights of others. Although fair value is a great concept, it’s also a little vague, and I’m not sure the rules given in the book will be clear or relatable for young readers.

Three stars.

Review of “Omphalos” by Ted Chiang

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This alternate reality novelette is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was released in the author’s collection Exhalation, published 7 May 2019 by Knopf. This review contains spoilers.

Dr. Dorothea Morrell is an archaeologist working on a dig in Arisona. She is scheduled to give a public lecture in the Chicagou area on how tree rings and other artifacts date the creation, which goes well, but afterward she finds evidence of the illegal sale of museum relics. With only a post office box address to go on, she lays a trap for the thief and catches Wilhelmina McCullough, daughter of Nathan McCullough, director of the University of Alta California’s Museum of Natural Philosophy in Oakland. Wilhelmina explains that she is not really a thief, but she feels the relics not being displayed should be in the hands of the faithful, especially considering the huge crisis of faith that will be coming soon. Her father is in possession of evidence that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Can Dorothea’s own faith withstand this knowledge?

In case you’re wondering, omthalos is Greek for “navel,” and this story is a play on Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, by Philip Henry Gosse, published in 1857, where the author tries to reconcile the events of the Biblical Genesis with the evidence of science. In Dorothea’s alternate world, tree rings and ridges on clam shells stop at a certain point, the Atacama mummies have no navels and someone is carving the Yosemiti Cathedral into a cliff face in California. The date of the creation is clear. Faith is clearly a huge part of everyone’s existence, and the narrative mostly comes from Dorothea’s conversations with God. The number of stars is limited, and the center of the universe turns out to be approximately at 58 Eridani. This is a catastrophe on par with Copernicus’ observation that the Earth actually revolves around the sun and not the other way around, meaning that humans aren’t really the navel of creation. In this case, it looks like the inhabitants of 58 Eridani are, instead.

This story is satire, a gentle but fairly direct questioning of Western religion, and as such, I can imagine it might be offensive to some readers. I’m personally disappointed that the story didn’t give us any real glimpse of God’s chosen people out there at 58 Eridani. Dorathea wonders where that leaves us. Just an accident, I guess.

Four stars.

Review of “Away with the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine September-October, 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Suss hurts when she lives in human form. She is much more comfortable as a wolf, but she worries that she causes problems for her friend Yana and the other village folk. When she wakes as a girl this time, Yana tells her she has destroyed three chickens, two gardens, the apothecary, and possibly the widow Nan Gideon’s goat. Suss and Yana make the rounds to apologize and offer amends for the damage, but the goat is a problem. It’s clearly been killed by a canine, but Suss doesn’t remember doing the deed. Is she spending so much time as a wolf that she’s losing touch with her human self? Or is something else going on?

Contrary to the traditional, horrific werewolf story, this narrative leaves a warm feel because of how Suss is accepted, loved and supported by her friends in the village. It’s written in first person, giving us a good feel for the characters through description and interaction, but not that much of an image for the village. Suss had Yana follow up on the mystery of the dead goat, providing practical advice to Nan for defraying the cost by selling the meat and cleaning up the pen. Because the goat shakes Suss’ confidence in herself, she considers giving up her life as a wolf, but Yana offers her an alternative that works out well, where she can live at the edge of the wilderness and become the village’s protector instead.

On the less positive side, there’s not much plot here, and the question of what actually killed the goat isn’t hard to figure out. The story is fairly straight forward and depends heavily on the emotional content for its impact. Suss’ pain is represented as physical in the story, but symbolically this suggests that she’s actually retreating from the problems of functioning as a human being. It’s good she finally finds her niche.

Three stars.

Review of “Do Not Look Back, My Lion” by Alix E. Harrow

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This fantasy short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies on 21 January 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Eefa is a cripple and a healer and she has been a good husband, but now she wants to leave. She is married to the great warrior-woman Talaan the Lion and lives in the city of Xot, where the Emperor, Her Greatness the Mother of Vultures and Wolves, Ukhel’s Beloved, the Conqueror-King, has proclaimed the god Ukhel’s Era of Death. Talaan is pregnant with her fifth child, and now the Emperor wants her to fight in a war of conquest. Talaan has promised that this child will be unmarked by a promise scar and will not go off to war like her other children. Reluctantly, she agrees to the Emperor’s demands and rides to meet the foe. Her favorite son Tuvo, a sweet and sensitive page, is killed in the fighting. Talaan swears again her new daughter will not be scarred, but Eefa returns from praying at the temple to find the deed has been done. Talaan catches her packing to leave again. Will Eefa manage to escape the city this time?

On the positive side, this story features vivid imagery, strong characterization and impressive world-building. Although Eefa remains somewhat shadowy, Talaan comes across larger than life. This is a high fantasy tale where Talaan wrestles with her success as a warrior versus her love for her family. The Emperor, hooked on conquest, makes more and more demands of her hero, until the costs start to outweigh the benefits for The Lion and her First Husband. The fact that these women seem to be Amazons adds an interesting angle, and it’s impressive that Talaan agrees to go off to war while carrying a child. And then ready to take on the Emperor right after childbirth? Pretty tough.

On the less positive side, the usage of gender terms in this society is interesting, but the switch ends up being awkward. As the prime example, it’s not immediately obvious why Eefa is considered a husband and not a wife. Because she’s a cripple and engaged in a non-military profession? And Tuvo is a war-wife, while most husbands father children and, presumably, keep house? Okay, got it. But this did assemble fairly slowly throughout the narrative, meaning it set stumbling blocks that affected the flow of the story.

Four stars.

Review of “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang

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This fantasy/alternate reality short story is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 23 October 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Nyma is ten years old and the chosen child. Her country is at war and Otto Han has just been elected president. The military has the seres missiles that will most certainly stop the war, but will also cause terrible destruction to the cities of the enemy. Nyma has the access codes for the missiles buried next to her heart, and the president has a ceremonial dagger that can be used to retrieve them. Nyma’s tutor Tej tells her to establish a relationship with Han, so she reads him poetry, and after a book of her poems is published, she becomes recognized nationally as a poet. However, their country is losing the war and pressure is mounting to use the missiles. Will Han sacrifice her to get the codes?

This is a highly creative mashup of atom bombs and access codes with human sacrifice. The Order, creators of the system, have put a human face on the codes, a child that the president has to kill with his own hands and that the people in the country know and love. Han has to complete this step before he can bring the missiles to bear on the enemy, a task that might otherwise be easy, callous and unfeeling. Stress builds, while we wonder if Han has the stomach to do it. As I was reading, I had visions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where people had no warning of the firestorm coming down on them.

On the less positive side, this is a little too pat. The characters carry out their roles and we get the message, but there’s really very little conflict other than the inevitability of the decision Han will have to make. Everybody remains obedient to the system, even though I expect military interests could come up with several ways to get around the issue of killing a child. We get to know Nyma through her poetry, but she remains mostly a cipher. The world and the situation also remain vague, and I ended up with very little in the way of solid images or details. Shouldn’t Nyma have had a security detail?

Three stars.

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