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.

Congrats to the 2020 Hugo Finalists!

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As usual, there’s a pretty high correspondence between this list and the Nebulas. I’ve linked to the reviews I’ve already done, and I’ll review and link to the others in the fiction categories as soon as I can get organized. Okay really, pretty soon.

Best Novel
The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)
The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)
A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)
Middlegame, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novella
To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)
Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)
In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)

Best Novelette
“For He Can Creep”, Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)
“Omphalos”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
“Away with the Wolves”, Sarah Gailey (Uncanny 9-10/19)
“Emergency Skin”, N.K. Jemisin (Forward)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)
“The Archronology of Love”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)

Best Short Story
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/31/19)
“As the Last I May Know”, S.L. Huang (Tor.com 10/23/19)
“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing” Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9/9/19)
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, Nibedita Sen (Nightmare 5/19)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com 7/24/19)
“A Catalog of Storms”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 1-2/19)

Best Series
Winternight, Katherine Arden (Del Rey; Del Rey UK)
The Expanse, James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Luna, Ian McDonald (Tor; Gollancz)
InCryptid, Seanan McGuire (DAW)
Planetfall, Emma Newman (Ace; Gollancz)
The Wormwood Trilogy, Tade Thompson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

Best Related Work
Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (University of Illinois Press)
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein, Farah Mendlesohn (Unbound)
“2019 John W. Campbell Award Acceptance Speech”, Jeannette Ng (Dublin 2019 — An Irish Worldcon)
The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, Mallory O’Meara (Hanover Square)
Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood, J. Michael Straczynski (Harper Voyager US)
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

Best Graphic Story or Comic
Die, Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker, Kieron Gillen, illustrated by Stephanie Hans (Image)
The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 9: Okay, Kieron Gillen, illustrated by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson (Image Comics)
Monstress, Volume 4: The Chosen, Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image)
LaGuardia, Nnedi Okorafor, illustrated by Tana Ford, colours by James Devlin (Berger Books/Dark Horse)
Paper Girls, Volume 6, Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang & Matt Wilson (Image)
Mooncakes, Wendy Xu & Suzanne Walker (Oni Press; Lion Forge)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Avengers: Endgame
Captain Marvel
Good Omens
Russian Doll, Season One
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Us

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Doctor Who: “Resolution”
The Expanse: “Cibola Burn”
The Good Place: “The Answer”
The Mandalorian: “Redemption”
Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”
Watchmen: “This Extraordinary Being”

Best Editor, Short Form
Neil Clarke
Ellen Datlow
C.C. Finlay
Jonathan Strahan
Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas
Sheila Williams

Best Editor, Long Form
Sheila Gilbert
Brit Hvide
Diana M. Pho
Devi Pillai
Miriam Weinberg
Navah Wolfe

Best Professional Artist
Tommy Arnold
Rovina Cai
Galen Dara
John Picacio
Yuko Shimizu
Alyssa Winans

Best Semiprozine

Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Escape Pod
Fireside
FIYAH
Strange Horizons
Uncanny

Best Fanzine
The Book Smugglers
Galactic Journey
Journey Planet
nerds of a feather, flock together
Quick Sip Reviews
The Rec Center

Best Fancast

Be the Serpent
The Coode Street Podcast
Galactic Suburbia
Our Opinions Are Correct
Claire Rousseau’s YouTube channel
The Skiffy and Fanty Show

Best Fan Writer
Cora Buhlert
James Davis Nicoll
Alasdair Stuart
Bogi Takács
Paul Weimer
Adam Whitehead

Best Fan Artist
Iain Clark
Sara Felix
Grace P. Fong
Meg Frank
Ariela Housman
Elise Matthesen

Lodestar for Best Young Adult Book (Not a Hugo)
The Wicked King, Holly Black (Little, Brown; Hot Key)
Deeplight, Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)
Minor Mage, T. Kingfisher (Argyll)
Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)
Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee (Disney/Hyperion)
Riverland, Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Astounding Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo)
Sam Hawke
R.F. Kuang
Jenn Lyons
Nibedita Sen
Tasha Suri
Emily Tesh

Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

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This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It’s listed as the author’s debut novel, published 10 September 2019 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 385 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the early 1900s, and the wealthy William Cornelius Locke is the founder of an amateur archaeological society that collects ancient artifacts. When he runs across Julian Scaller, a needy black man with a baby girl, he employs Scaller to find artifacts for him and takes in the girl as his ward. January Scaller grows up with wealth and privilege, but also carefully protected, as her nursemaid works to turn her into a fine young lady acceptable for polite society. Scaller sends Jane, an African companion for January, and Locke takes her in, too, plus a big, protective dog named Bad. January finds a magical chest in Locke’s study that presents her with messages and gifts from her father, including a book about another girl and Doors to other worlds. After her father disappears and is presumed dead, January gets drunk at one of Locke’s parties and rejects his birthday gift, embarrassing him. Her wealthy, sheltered life comes crashing down then, as he fires Jane and has January sent to the local asylum. Is he really a monster, and has she been a hostage to ensure her father’s cooperation all this time?

This has the feel of young adult. On the positive side, Harrow’s style has been described as “lyrical” and the sweet love story between January’s parents evokes childhood’s wonder at the wide possibilities in the world. The timeline catches the end of the imperialist Victorian period when polite young ladies were carefully controlled and expected to be seen and not heard, and the resulting themes are about what you’d expect from this period, including repression, personal freedom, racism, cultural appropriation, wealth, and power. At one point, Locke comes right out and equates whiteness with power and influence, and later an epiphany dawns on January that it’s dangerous to be quiet for too long. The Doors represent diversity and opportunities for change.

On the less positive side, the plot doesn’t really get moving until the second half of the book, and then it seems to get seriously confused. The fact that almost all the principal characters turn out to come from other worlds undermines the racist statements Locke has made. We’re expected to automatically condemn the man and his strange friends because they’re wealthy, powerful and racist, but when you look at the situation critically, Locke is offering the talented January a chance at high station, privilege and power herself. At this point she has a choice: 1) go with it, become wealthy and powerful and try to destroy his organization from within, or 2) get drunk, publicly rebel, get her dog hurt, herself tortured in the asylum and her friends Samuel and Jane injured and nearly killed. January takes choice #2 and suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, she has no idea how to survive in the world without Locke’s protection. Jane even has to warn her that she has no skills and needs to be smarter. In the end, January commits fraud, forging documents in order to take over Locke’s wealth and position herself. Are we supposed to applaud? What are young readers expected to take from this story?

Two and a half stars.

Review of Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published 27 July 2019 by Del Rey and runs 367 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the 1920s in Mexico, but the Jazz Age hasn’t come to the small town of Uukumil, where Casiopea Tun and her mother, as poor relations, work as near-servants in her wealthy grandfather’s house. Casiopea is especially annoyed by her cousin Martin, who constantly demands she run errands for him and polish his boots. He gets her in trouble with their grandfather, and Casiopea is left at home while the family goes to a nearby spa. Casiopea goes to her grandfather’s room to mend his shirts and notices he has left the key he normally wears on a chain around his neck. She uses it to open his old chest, expecting to find treasure, but instead she finds a pile of old bones. She gets a shard of one stuck in her hand, and suddenly Hun-Kamé, the Mayan God of Death, assembles from the bones. He explains that she is now his captive, and that she must help him regain the throne in Xibalba, the Underworld, stolen by his brother Vukub-Kamé. He buys her a new, modern wardrobe and they set off on an adventure that passes through Mérida, Veracruz, Mexico City, El Paso, and ends in Baja California. The two are linked by the bone shard, and as they travel, Casiopea is slowly dying, while Hun-Kamé absorbs her life-force and becomes constantly more human. When the contest comes with Vukub-Kamé, Casiopea finds he has recruited Martin to help him. Can she successfully outwit her cousin and place Hun-Kamé back on the throne? Or should she look after herself, instead?

This is basically a dream-come-true romance with the feel of young adult, as Casiopea transforms from a Cinderella figure in a small town to a grand adventurer traveling with a handsome prince. Along the way, they meet various supernatural entities who call Casiopea “Stone Maiden” (another figure from Mayan tradition, associated with an archaeological site at Xunantunich, Mexico). The subtle and gradually shifting relationship between the two main characters stands out as the best feature of the narrative. This has a strong Latin flavor, a slight tongue-in-cheek quality, and regardless of the romantic content, avoids a trite ending.

On the less positive side, Martin is pretty much the stereotype of an evil stepsister, and other characters are hardly present. Most of the text is about Casiopea’s journey, and somehow there never seems to be a real threat of failure. Hun-Kamé fills the shoes of a handsome prince fairly blandly, and I’d have preferred a little more darkness from the God of Death.

Four stars.

Wrap Up of the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award Reviews

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For anyone who doesn’t know, Amazon bought Goodreads in 2013, in a move to integrate the review and discussion site for direct promotion of its literary offerings. Goodreads analyzes the data from what they say includes hundreds of millions of books rated, reviewed, and added to their Want to Read Shelves in a given year to determine which books make the cut for the Opening Round. This is followed by Semifinal Round and a Final Round where site users are invited to vote for the winners. In 2019 there were 300 initial nominees with an average rating of 4 stars. Because the site is so powerful, it’s clearly important for authors to pay attention to how their books are received and reviewed there. That makes this pretty much a popularity award, though I expect it will be affected by factors like levels of promotion and influencers within the various Goodreads groups.

So, this went better than I expected. I don’t always like bestseller novels because I do like solid world building, strong characters and literary elements like theme and meaning. Although Crouch’s book was a little weak, I did like the novels the women authors wrote. One of the big advantages in reading for this award was that there seemed to be a minimum of political messages in the books. There were messages and themes, of course, but in general they were more social commentary than political screeds. These included the dangers of technology (Crouch) and the effects of power, abuse and bullying (Black). Bardugo’s book is a little harder to summarize, but also seems to be about abusing others for the purposes of achieving power.

These books seem to have won the awards pretty much on their entertainment value and for how they speak to the reader, rather than for their “diversity” or other characteristics. All three winners involve mainly white characters, except for Bardugo’s black Centurion, and all the authors are also white. Bardugo appears to be Jewish, and Crouch writes about gay characters fairly often, but hasn’t come out as gay that I can find with a quick search. Of the three, only Black seems to have been recognized by the SFF community; she won the Andre Norton Award in 2005 for Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faery.

Since this went well, I’ll do it again next year. Stay tuned for the 2019 Nebula reviews.

Review of The Wicked King by Holly Black

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The Wicked King is the second novel in the Folk of the Air series, and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult SFF Novel in 2019 with 48,181 votes. This is preceded by The Cruel Prince and followed by The Queen of Nothing to complete a three-novel set. The Wicked King was published by Little Brown in January of 2019, and runs 336 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, the High King stepped down; backers of Prince Balekin slaughtered the royal family, and Jude discovered her foster brother Oak was actually an heir to the throne. In a scheme to protect him, she lured Prince Carden into a bargain that crowned him High King and left him in her power for a year and a day. In her new position as Seneschal, she sent Oak to live in the human world with Vivi and now works as the power behind the throne, pulling the strings that run the kingdom of Elfhame. Locke has abandoned Jude and is now engaged to marry her twin sister Taryn. Madoc is part of the faction that is backing Balekin, who is imprisoned in the Tower of Forgetting. The Kingdom of the Undersea offers the Queen’s daughter Nicasea as a bride for Carden, backed by the threat of war with the Land if he refuses. The night before Taryn’s wedding, Jude is attacked, and later lured to the Tower, where she is kidnapped and held hostage by the Undersea. King Carden has to make concessions to get her back. He is poisoned by Balekin in a bid for the throne, but Jude saves him and then kills Balekin. Carden offers Jude vows of marriage if she will rescind the bargain giving her control of him, and he then banishes her to the human world in punishment for the murder of Balekin. It seems she has lost control of the king, but there are still threats to her family. What can she do?

On the positive side, this story remains a gripping intrigue, and themes are now developing related to power and submission. While Taryn has submitted to her tormentors and found a way to fit in, Jude has fought her way to a position of power. Although her scheme to gain control of the kingdom succeeded brilliantly, she struggles with inexperience and makes mistakes in dealing with the challenges. The bullying has stopped, but it has been replaced by plots and attacks on a larger scale. Jude is faced with holding onto what she’s won, and she seems unable to move beyond the station of her birth as a lowly mortal. She doesn’t know how to form alliances, or how to wield power except through Carden. Court officials disrespect her and her office, and her family treats her with their usual familiarity, unable to see her as having grown into anything different. She’s still mired in a mortal worldview, unable to see the big picture, and unable to even form a new self-image.

On the not so positive side, this installment of the story is a little hectic. Jude rushes to put out one fire after another, oblivious to the fact that Carden is now the High King and showing signs of competence in using the powers that go with the position. It also looks like Elfhame has some serious issues with security, as agents of various factions seem to have easy access to the king and his court. Jude is especially blind to issues of her own safety. After barely surviving a solo fight in the forest, for example, she falls right into the Undersea’s kidnapping plot. I’m also concerned about the number of people getting killed in this story. The Fay are immortal and have a low birth-rate. This suggests they should heavily guard their lives and have strong rules for investigating and penalizing murder, but it’s just not happening.

On the whole, this remains a good read, and I finished it up fast, moving on to the series finale.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Made Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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This novella is a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s novelette Precious Little Things. It was released by Tor.com in November 2019, and runs 192 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Coppelia lives in the Fountains Parish barrio of the city of Loretz, where she works as a puppeteer, con-artist and thief. She tries hard to stay clear of the Broadcaps police, who have been after her since she escaped from the orphanage. Coppelia has some unusual friends that help her in her work, tiny manikins originally created by the mage Arcantel. They don’t entirely trust her, but they have established a good working relationship and she helps them by using her small magical ability to carve bodies that they can animate to make more of their kind. Coppelia is getting along fairly well with this state of affairs, but then she captures the attention of the local crime lord, who sends her with a crew to rob the Mages’ palace. The plan goes wrong fairly quickly, and they encounter the powerful, life-sized, manikin Archmagister in the palace. Can Coppelis engineer some way escape with her life?

This is a quick, easy read, fairly upbeat and entertaining. The characterizations here are attractive and the manikins very strange and magical. Tchaikovsky sketches in a believable world with its hierarchies of power, and gives us the view from the bottom where Coppelia struggles along in the shadow of the crime lords and city mages, where wealth buys magic and magic buys wealth. The story is fairly whimsical, but it’s not all sugar and spice. People do get killed as the stakes get more desperate. There’s a slightly ironic touch in the dealings of the nobles.

On the not so positive side, this comes across like a children’s tale, while, as an adult, I would have preferred darker and more serious themes. Conflict is actually low, and Coppelia never has to make any really difficult choices. She is supposed to be struggling along through this world, driven by others with more power, but somehow the situation never feels really desperate. People seem to pick her up as a protégé, offering advantages, and with all the support she has, I never felt she was truly at risk. The power structure is sketched in, but this is just observations, and we don’t get into the fine points of how power can be employed for both good and evil purposes.

Three and a half stars.

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