Wrap Up of the 2017 Nebula Reviews

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First, I have to admire how the SFWA manages to produce this much of what I think is real diversity in the finalists. I’ve been assured that the list is not produced by committee, but it does seem that some kind of grassroots movement must be working to make sure the organization is well represented and that no one much can complain about being left out. The list includes humor, military SF, urban fantasy, high fantasy, Asian fantasy, Native American fantasy, alternate reality, historical fantasy, satire, horror and absurdist fiction. This kind of representation is a big step, considering the political strife about inclusion that’s recently afflicted the SFF community. There was also a lot of diversity in the list of authors. The list of publishers/magazines includes both print and online sources.

Regardless of this bounty of diversity, themes did tend to repeat. For example, a high proportion of the works featured trans or non-binary characters and/or non-standard forms of marriage. In a couple of cases, this seemed peripheral and extraneous, as if an editor had recommended the additions. Several works addressed sentience in robots or similar constructs.

As is usual in the last few years, ordinary white men were frozen out of most categories. Several of the finalists (especially the men) had credentials as publishers or editors, which suggests they may have attracted nominations because of these connections. I’m also wondering why Amberlough was accepted for the list of finalists. Like last year’s World Fantasy finalist Roadsouls, this just didn’t seem to meet the requirements for SFF.

Also, the way names and publishers repeat among the finalists is troubling. For example, Sarah Pinsker and Vina Jie-Min Prasad appeared in more than one category, and some of the names repeated from last year. Four of 7 of the Best Novel finalists come from Orbit, and 4 of 6 of the Best Novella category come from Tor.com, plus one of the novelettes and one of the short stories. This outlines an inbred, elitist system. The SFWA recently broadened their membership qualification requirements, but the award finalists still look to come from a very small number of favored publishers. Surely there are other authors and publishers out there putting out deserving works.

It can be argued these publishers are the market leaders and so are attracting the “best” works, but this also speaks of how the list of potential candidates is put together. Small publishers and little known authors are often shut out by the “right” reviewers, so their releases have little chance of attracting notice. Somehow the SFF community needs to create a system to promote excellence in small presses and lesser known publishers who are doing good work in the shadows. Since major publishers have dropped the midlist, an award for self-published works might be helpful, too.

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Review of Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Knopf.

Teddy Telemachus is a con artist. Always has been. Always will be. He’s getting kind of old now, so it’s time he took care of some things. He approaches the wife of a local crime boss in the grocery story, and as usual, his charm pays off. With her on his side, he’s got leverage to deal. Besides this, Teddy is a widower and the head of a family of dysfunctional psychics. He, himself, is a card reader. His daughter Irene can’t keep a husband or a job because she can tell when people are lying. His telekinetic son Frankie is in debt to the mob. His youngest Buddy is a clairvoyant that is terrified of somehow changing the future. His grandson finds that masturbation causes astral projection. And then, there are the twins. Can this family ever find happiness and success, or is the future going to end for all of them on September 4?

Looking at this from Buddy’s point-of-view, it’s a steaming, tangled pile of past, present and future. For most of the novel, he’s working hard, trying to make preparations for Zap day, when the future ends in his consciousness. Luckily we have information from other points-of-view, too, which help us make sense of what’s going on. Because of Buddy’s aptitude and Teddy’s con artist leanings, this is tightly plotted in many ways. Because of the wild card character of the family gifts, we also get a lot of human failings. Besides this, government agents are lurking about, hoping to replace Teddy’s dead wife Maureen as their greatest weapon. Plus, the mob.

This is a smooth, delightful read with absorbing characters and slightly over-the-top humor. It has a tendency to carry the reader along to the satisfyingly tied up ending, so it’s hard to be aware of not so good points. I did wonder a couple of times about Teddy’s ploys, especially in his and Frankie’s contacts with the mob. Zap day turned out to be sort of manic, and Buddy’s trans girl/boyfriend looked a bit artificial, like an editor’s insert to make the book more attractive as award material.

Regardless of these little issues, I’m going five stars on this one. Highly recommended.

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

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. As best I can figure, it’s steampunk, and it’s published by Saga. The sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club), was published in 2018.

After years of declining health, Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her alone and without any means of support. Among her papers, Mary finds payment of a monthly charity allowance that supports “Hyde.” Knowing there is still a reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of her father’s associate Edward Hyde, Mary contacts detective Sherlock Holmes, who is working on a murder case. Mary follows up and finds she has a sister raised by the charity, Diana Hyde. As Holmes and Watson continue their investigation, it seems that Edward Hyde could be a prime suspect. Assisting with their case, Mary and Diana discover other women created by unscrupulous scientists in a secret society, including Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini. Can the women band together to help solve the mystery of who’s murdering girls in the streets of London?

This is a very fun and readable mashup of vintage mad scientist tales, including both historical and fictional characters from the 19th century, along with the wonderful addition of Holmes and Watson to handle the murder investigation. It also has the feel and flow of these old novels, without being too weighty. The text includes asides where the characters discuss the writing of the manuscript, which is supposedly handled by Catherine Moreau. There are also messages about sexism during this period, especially having to do with women’s fashion.

Not so good points: The story avoids the obvious questions like the ethics of scientific experiments on live subjects, and on humans especially. The messages about women’s fashion were interesting, and reinforced a couple of times, but Goss didn’t manage to tie this to current issues. Women reading it will think “oh, it’s great that we don’t have to wear all those old corsets and long skirts anymore,” but miss the pressures for children to wear sexy clothes and for adult women to look like film stars when the fashion industry is built on the backs of third world labor.

Four and a half stars. Not deep, but very creative and fun to read.

Review of Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s billed as “vintage alternate reality” and was published by Tor. Presumably this is going to be an ongoing series, as it’s described as book 1 in the Amberlough Dossier. Book 2, Armistice, is due on May 15, 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Cyril DePaul is from a wealthy family and works as a spy for the government of Amberlough. Since a mission gone wrong, he’s been working a desk at headquarters in Amberlough City and enjoying a torrid affair with cabaret performer and smuggler Aristide Makricosta. Cyril’s boss pulls him off the desk to take over an emergency assignment, and his cover is blown before he even gets started. He’s forced to make a deal with fascists agents planning to take over the government. Returning home, he breaks off his affair with Aristide and takes up with Cordelia, a stripper at the cabaret, trying to carry off a plan. Is there any way to stop the fascists and preserve Amberlough City? Can Cyril save himself, Cordelia and his lover Aristide? Can he even protect himself?

This book feels like the 1930s or 40s, and it’s notable for its detail and sensuality. We get to feel the early spring breeze, smell cologne and sweat mingled at the club, walk in a carpet of cherry petals in the park and even catch the butcher-shop scent when the dead bodies start to pile up. The story gets increasingly more gripping as the fascist’s plot advances and the main characters end up fighting for life and liberty. They’re pretty much down and out by the end of the book, but it’s clear that Cordelia, at least, is going to be real trouble for the bad guys.

Not so good points: I can’t see any science fiction or fantasy either one in this book. Also, if it’s an alternate reality, I don’t see what it’s alternate to. It’s a great intrigue set in in imaginary place, but not really SFF at all. Also, I think the sensuality is a little overdone so that it interferes with readability and obscures thin world building. I ended up with a really clear idea of who was sleeping with whom and what cologne they use, but not much about foreign politics and how this impacts Cyril’s decisions. There’s a logical issue here that makes his actions seem really questionable.

Four and a half stars (but not SFF).

Review of Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction and published by Orbit. It runs 361 pages.

Maria is one of a seven person crew on the generation starship Dormire, 25 years into a voyage to a new home on Artemis. Her clone wakes drowning in cloning fluid and it’s immediately obvious something has gone wrong. There’s no gravity. Once out of the vat, she sees her dead body is sitting there, like she’s hit the resurrection switch. The rest of the crew is struggling out of their own vats. They’ve awakened without any memory of what happened. Can they get control of the ship, unravel the mystery of who killed them all and stop the carnage from happening all over again?

This is a strongly plotted novel, as all the members of the crew are criminals/undesirables that have been given the option of crewing on the ship as opposed to legal penalties. As they give up their personal stories in the aftermath of the massacre, a picture emerges of conflict over cloning and the rights of clones, including riots, religious opposition, power politics and illegal hacking. This is the real meat of the novel, which investigates how human cloning might be regulated and what could go wrong. Eventually the crew puts together the story of how they’ve been used, and how this threatens the future of the ship and the passengers waiting to be revived into new life.

Not so good points: There are some bad-science errors here that an editor or beta reader should have picked up. For example, some of the systems work on “solar power” but there isn’t any of that in deep space. Also, the technology here sounds like it’s contemporary, not projected to the late 2200s. Why would they still be using computer labs and tablets with glass screens instead of something more integral? The technology also seems uneven, with the kitchen being clearly better equipped than the infirmary or the cloning lab. There’s a huge waste of space on the ship for apparently recreational woods and gardens. Last, the prose doesn’t flow well, and the dialog tends to be somewhat stilted.

Regardless of these issues, I’d recommend the novel because of the ideas it presents. Lafferty gets an A for effort here. She’s aimed at thoughtful hard SF.

Four stars.

Review of The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award and the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s SF/fantasy and was published by Orbit. It’s third and last in The Broken Earth series.

After the fall of Castrima, Essun and the survivors set out, looking for a safe place. Nassun and Schaffa leave Found Moon in Antarctica, taking the orogene children with them. Out of reach of the village, they abandon the children and continue north. The Stone Eater Hoa takes Essun through the Earth to Antarctica, where she sees Jiju’s remains and finds that Nassun has gone. Nassun and Schaffa arrive at a deadciv city where Nassun powers up a vehicle which takes her and Schaffa to Corepoint on the other side of the world. On the way, Nassun contacts the consciousness of the Evil Earth and Schaffa is mortally wounded. Hoa takes Essun to Corepoint where she struggles with the angry Nassun for control of the Obelisk Gate. Will the Earth be destroyed, or can Essun recapture the Moon into its orbit?

As I said about books I and II of this series, the best things about it are the creative ideas and the complex world building. This continues during this book, as we learn more about the deadly Seasons, the deadciv, the lost Moon, the Stone Eaters and the orogenes’ function in suppressing the Seasons and making the Earth livable. The characters are well drawn here, and I’m finally liking them a little better. Essun and Schaffa have both mellowed so they’re less cruel and angry. You also have to give Jemisin credit for avoiding cliché endings. This was different.

Not so good points: These also continue from books I & II, with the worst problem still being readability. There are a lot of pages here and not much in the way of events, plus shifting first, second and third person narration. We’re also up to a huge cast of characters—I notice there are character guides sprung up on the internet to help you keep track of who’s who, as it’s hard to remember given the gap between release dates on the books. There are also some logical issues that developed in this installment. If Stone Eaters can carry people through the Earth, then why have they made the key players walk around through all the dangers of the Season? Also, if Hoa is the narrator for the second person sections here, why does he refer to himself in third person? And why is everything about magic in this book, when there was no mention of it in the first book? And a loose end: what happened to Essun’s baby?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Jade City by Fonda Lee

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This novel is fantasy and a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Awards. It was published by Orbit and runs 512 pages. Apparently this is the first novel of a saga that’s meant to continue.

The island of Kekon is controlled by a cult of Green Bone warriors who use Jade from its mines to enhance their mental and physical prowess. Following the war, the older generation is waning and a young generation of the Kaul family must step up to defend their territory in Janloon, the capital city. However, a new drug has become available that allows anyone to use jade for enhancement. This threatens to turn the power structure of the island upside down, setting the Kauls against the rival mountain Ayt clan who mean to open the jade market to foreign interests. Can Lan, Hilo, Shae and Arden come together to maintain their territory? Defend it against foreign invasion? Protect themselves?

This has the feel of an epic right from the beginning, starting at a slow, leisurely pace and introducing a number of characters. Eventually the main cast emerges. The Green Bones is a semi-secret cult that requires tribute from those it protects, i.e. a crime syndicate like the Yakuza or the Chinese Triads. The main plot emerges gradually as events outline the changes, stresses and dissolution of the old power structure, and heats up as the young Kauls start having to stamp out fires everywhere and eventually risk everything to survive. There’s also a sub-theme as Shae and Anden try to establish independence, torn between loyalty to the family and disapproval of its methods. The sex scenes are fairly sensual without being pornographic, and Lee does an excellent job of presenting the honor system necessary for the family to operate.

Not so good points: The pace is the big detractor here, as the story develops very slowly, and the style and the entertainment value weren’t really enough to make up for it. The characters are a trifle flat, and I didn’t connect with any of them until nearly the end of the book. Still, I’ll have to give Lee credit for the idea and the epic plot line. She’s got a lot of ambition.

This will most likely be enjoyed by people who love the written word, enjoy Asian crime stories and want to cocoon with a really thick book.

Three and a half stars.

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