Review of “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde

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This novelette is a Nebula finalist published by Tor.com. It ended up with 14 recommendations on the Nebula Recommended Reading List.

Lin is a Jewel, one of the ruling class, and Sima is her lapidary, an adviser, servant and jeweler. The ruling class uses the power of gems to work magic, and Sima’s father has betrayed the king. The two girls wake tied and gagged in a pit in the throne room, and an invading army is fighting the king’s defenders. The king falls and the King’s Lapidary breaks his diamond, commits suicide. The girls try to escape but are captured by the invading army, led by female warrior Nal. She expects Lin to marry her young son Remir and demands the Star Cabochon which hasn’t yet been found. When the girls refuse to accede to her demands, she threatens to torture them to death. What can they do?

This story is about keeping vows, loyalty and self-sacrifice. It felt pretty intense right from the beginning, as it starts off with the battle already in progress and continues at about the same level of tension. There’s a prologue that indicates this an event from history, and that the castle now lies in ruins. This kind of commentary is also interspersed throughout the story, which I expect is used as a device to reduce exposition. It also provides a little relief from the stressful plot. Characterization, imagery, symbolism, etc., are all subordinate to the emotional component, so none of the characters are really well-rounded.

This is meant to have a strong emotional impact, but I must be getting jaded. Without a strong attachment to the characters, I found it didn’t affect me all that much. This might have worked better if the ending had been presented as a plot twist. As it’s written, we see the girl’s plans unfolding, so the ending isn’t really a surprise. Good writing, decent plot.

Three and a half stars.

What’s the longest novel ever published?

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Of course, I’ve been aware for a long time that it takes different skills to write short stories than it does to write novels. If you work in stories of different length, you also find that writing a piece of flash fiction takes different skills than writing a fully developed short story. The issue with SFF short stories is how to do your world-building quickly, how to round out your characters in just a few words, how to present a plot and a theme and wind it up within the word limit of the magazine or anthology. If you move on to novelettes and novellas, then the requirements are loosened a bit. You have longer to develop your plot and theme and for readers to get to know the characters. You get to add subplots and subthemes.

When you move up to novel length, then you have even more opportunity for this, but you have to be more aware of pacing. There tends to be a slump in the middle of a novel-length work, for example, where you’ve introduced the characters and everything bogs down before action starts rising to the climax. Looking at the novels I’ve reviewed for the Nebulas/Hugos, I’m noticing there are different requirements for writing a short novel versus a long one. The issues of idea, plotting and pacing are definitely showing up here.

So what is the longest novel on record? According to Wikipedia, it’s not Moby-Dick (as many a weary high school lit student must think). It turns out to be Les Hommes de bonne volonté (Men of Goodwill) by Jules Romains, published in Paris by Calmann Lévy in 27 volumes, 1932-46. It comes in at a whopping 2,070,000 words. That’s about 8,280 pages.

Congrats to the Nebula nominees!

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Nebula_Award_logoNovel

Raising Caine, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (Saga)
Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Del Rey)
Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, Lawrence M. Schoen (Tor)
Updraft, Fran Wilde (Tor)

Novella

Wings of Sorrow and Bone, Beth Cato (Harper Voyager Impulse)
‘‘The Bone Swans of Amandale’’, C.S.E. Cooney (Bone Swans)
‘‘The New Mother’’, Eugene Fischer (Asimov’s 4-5/15)
‘‘The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn’’, Usman T. Malik (Tor.com 4/22/15)
Binti, Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
“Waters of Versailles’’, Kelly Robson (Tor.com 6/10/15)

Novelette

‘‘Rattlesnakes and Men’’, Michael Bishop (Asimov’s 2/15)
‘‘And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead’’, Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed 2/15)
‘‘Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds’’, Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/11/15)
‘‘The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society’’, Henry Lien (Asimov’s 6/15)
‘‘The Deepwater Bride’’, Tamsyn Muir (F&SF 7-8/15)
‘‘Our Lady of the Open Road’’, Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 6/15)

Short Story

‘‘Madeleine’’, Amal El-Mohtar (Lightspeed 6/15)
‘‘Cat Pictures Please’’, Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld 1/15)
‘‘Damage’’, David D. Levine (Tor.com 1/21/15)
‘‘When Your Child Strays From God’’, Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld 7/15)
‘‘Today I Am Paul’’, Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld 8/15)
‘‘Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers’’, Alyssa Wong (Nightmare 10/15)

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Ex Machina, Written by Alex Garland
Inside Out, Screenplay by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley; Original Story by Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen
Jessica Jones: AKA Smile, Teleplay by Scott Reynolds & Melissa Rosenberg; Story by Jamie King & Scott Reynolds
Mad Max: Fury Road, Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris
The Martian, Screenplay by Drew Goddard
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Written by Lawrence Kasdan & J. J. Abrams and Michael Arndt

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

Seriously Wicked, Tina Connolly (Tor Teen)
Court of Fives, Kate Elliott (Little, Brown)
Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge (Macmillan UK 5/14; Amulet)
Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace (Big Mouth House)
Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee (Flux)
Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older (Levine)
Bone Gap, Laura Ruby (Balzer + Bray)
Nimona, Noelle Stevenson (HarperTeen)
Updraft, Fran Wilde (Tor)

Review of And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead by Brooke Bolander

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779This is science fiction, but not especially hard, as the events look like magic. The novelette was published in Lightspeed.

Rack’s security software has caught a kid hacker in its coils, and the kid’s mobster dad kills him for it—at least his body. Rack is the brains of the operation and Rhye, retired soldier, is the brawn. The mobster insists that she go into cyberspace to rescue the kid. She agrees, because that way she’ll have a chance to locate Rack’s digitized consciousness, as well. Once inside the security program, she finds she has to fight her former self, as Rack has programmed the security in her image. If she’s successful, she can rescue the kid, but what can she do about Rack?

Is cyberpunk currently experiencing a renaissance? This is the second cyberpunk story I’ve read just recently. It helps to be familiar with the tropes, as it moves pretty fast. Besides that, Rhye, the narrator, has got a really dirty mouth.

The writing is competent, and Bolander has got a firm grip on the cyberpunk. The best point of the story is the symbolic way that Rhye has to confront her former, violent self. She’s matured and changed now, and knows Rack’s survival depends on her. Drawbacks: We learn very little about the world where these people live. We get background on Rhye, but hardly anything at all on the rest of the characters. Picking at the science a little, the twist ending is asking us to accept a lot. However, if we consider it magic, we’re all fine. Entertaining, but not thought-provoking. Three and a half stars.

Did diversity really take a hit in the 2015 Hugos?

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A while back, I posted a blog to the effect that diversity had taken a hit at this year’s Hugo’s because of the Puppies’ mostly white, male slate of nominees. I notice that other people, such as Lynn E. O’Connacht, are calling it a win for diversity because Thomas Olde Huevelt and Cixin Liu turned out to be the winners. According to O’Connacht, diversity in the award isn’t just about gender and race, but also about the international flavor of the awards. She’s written an interesting blog here where she breaks down the award nominees in fiction categories by country. It’s a little unclear about what years this covers, but O’Connacht notes that lists of nominees from 1953-1959 are not available. She also mentions the difficulties of dealing with shifting categories, pseudonyms and multi-country ethnicities. Whatever, here’s what she came up with.

Best Novel nominees by country:
US: 82.2% (106 authors)
UK: 12.4% (16 authors)
Canada: 3.1% (4 authors)
China: 0.8% (1 author)
France: 0.8% (1 author)
Jamaica: 0.8% (1 author)

Original languages for Best Novel nominees:
English: 98.4% (127 books)
French: 0.8% (1 book)
Chinese: 0.8% (1 book)

Best Novella, Best Novelette and Best Short Story nominees:
US: 74.5% (205 authors)
UK: 10.2% (28 authors)
Canada: 3.3% (9 authors)
Australia: 1.1% (3 authors)
France: 0.4% (1 author)
Netherlands: 0.4% (1 author)
Unknown: 10.2% (28 authors)

It’s obvious that the US dominates the awards. Expecting that the innovation of the Internet and online submissions might have made a difference for international publication of short fiction, O’Connacht also looks at the recent short fiction awards. Clearly these skew even more heavily to the US.

Short fiction awards from 1996-2015:
US: 76.9% (103 authors)
UK: 8.2% (11 authors)
Canada: 4.5% (6 authors)
Australia: 2.2% (3 authors)
France: 0.7% (1 author)
Netherlands: 0.7% (1 author)
Unknown: 6.7% (9 authors)

So, is the result this year really a win for diversity? Is it a signal that the Hugos are less US-centric (regardless that it’s called WorldCon)? Or were these results just an accident of Sad Puppy strategy? Actually, the statistics don’t look promising for non-US writers.

Back to the Sad Puppy complaints

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The last couple of blogs have brought me back to looking at the Sad/Rabid Puppy complaints. The tendency is to get swept up in the histrionics about the Hugo slate and to consider Vox Day and the Puppies shrill low-lifes that have corrupted the awards just because of innate meanness. However, getting caught up in this means we’re not objectively looking at the situation and what they might be complaining about.

The Sad/Rabid Puppies are thinking they’ve been excluded from the Hugo Awards because of diversity vs. white men, or SJWs vs. conservative values. But, I’ve just pointed out Eugie Foster, an Asian woman who failed to make the ballot, according to some opinions just because her story was published in Daily SF instead of Asimov’s, Clarkesworld or Lightspeed.

Looking at things this way, nothing from Castalia House would ever be considered for an award mainly because the perception is that Castalia House is a loser publisher that doesn’t win awards. This same kind of cachet could be attached to a writer who normally does work for hire, or someone who normally does hack work but suddenly produces something earth-shakingly brilliant. The opportunity passes for nomination because of community expectations.

This is not to say that the Puppy slate this year featured high quality work. Now I’m wondering if they chose so many stories from Analog because of its status as a “big pro magazine.”

More Comments on the Hugo Nominees

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FeatherPenClipArtI gather the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies plan to game the Hugos came up fairly quickly, leaving the perpetrators searching for suitable “traditional” works to submit. Still, I have to complain about what ended up on the ballot. Hugo-worthy hard SF stories, for example, should not make errors about low gravity. Stories should present believable setting and characters. They should have conflict and resolution. They should provoke thought. Essays should have a visible structure.

Regardless of the Sad/Rabid Puppy’s efforts to stamp out literary elements, a couple of literary type stories did make it onto the ballot. These include Heuvelt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” with its allegory and The Three Body Problem with its highly creative hard SF presentation. Both of these have that bright, creative spark I’m looking for. These authors have taken some risk. Cixin Liu has especially taken some, expecting that his readers will enjoy orbital mechanics and nano-tech applications. Significantly, both these stories were written by people outside the mainstream English market. If hard SF these days was all like The Three Body Problem, I’d spend more time reading it.

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