Wrap-up of the World Fantasy Finalists

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That concludes the reviews of the 2018 World Fantasy Finalists. See the full list of finalists here. The awards will be presented the first week of November at the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there’s quite a bit of overlap between this and the Hugo and Nebula ballots, so I didn’t have to review that many works to finish up the list. There are actually two prior award winners here: “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Short Story, and “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17) won the Eugie Foster Award.

There’s pretty fair diversity in this list, not only among the authors, but also in the style and direction of the works–though not as much as in the Nebula ballot. I think. The short story category has a fairly serious diversity issue in that there were no men nominated at all. Best Novella leaned to men, and Best Novel was evenly split gender-wise. As is usual with recent SFF community awards, the nominees leaned strongly to women and Asians, with Hispanic/LatinX (typically at 0%) coming in way short of their US demographic. African Americans were maybe about right for their US demographic. Roanhorse complicates this issue, as she’s bi-racial, but I’ve included her only once in the Native American category below. The breakdown includes 43% POC and 57% white, which pretty much matches the demographics in the US. Here’s the breakdown:

Best Short Story  Best Novella

Best Novel  Overall

As usual, the ballot is completely dominated by American writers, but it does include minority, Greek and UK viewpoints. Of course, this group tends very strongly to the literary, and there’s not much of an adventure cast. There was a variety of publishers, but the big print magazines were shut out again.

Overall the subject matter looks somewhat more cheerful than my most recent reviews suggest. There is definitely a depressive and in some cases nihilist trend to the nominations, but a few works stand out with strong characters fighting for what they want and maybe, just sort of winning ground against the darkness. These brighter works include: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory and In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle. Chakraborty’s novel is dead serious, but the others are characterized by mild humor and social commentary that investigates the human condition fairly entertainingly.

Nothing here really caught my imagination, but the cliffhanger at the end of The City of Brass is going to worry me some. I’ll probably pick up The Kingdom of Copper when it comes out in January.

Best of luck to all the nominees!

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Review of City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s released by Harper Voyager and billed as The Daevabad Trilogy #1. It runs 569 pages. The next novel in the series, The Kingdom of Copper, should be available 22 January 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Nahri is a con woman in 18th century Cairo who poses as a healer and palm reader to cover her real work as a thief. She sets up a zar to sooth a crazed girl, and while singing some old songs, accidently summons Dara, a magical djinn warrior. The girl turns out to be possessed by an ifrit, which attacks Nahri. Dara carries Nahri away from Cairo and takes her to Daevabad, the hidden City of Brass. He introduces her to the djinn King Ghassan as the last of the powerful Nahid family, and the court seems to welcome her. It turns out there are nasty undercurrents in the politics, simmering resentments between the six djinn tribes and the half-breed shafit. Nahri struggles to learn the healing arts they try to teach her, and Ghassan thinks she’s at most a half-breed human, but still plans a political union by marrying Nahri to his oldest son Muntadhir. He sends his youngest, the scholarly subversive Prince Ali, as a tutor to win her over to the plan. When Dara hears of it, he tries to carry Nahri away again, but Ali interferes and they are caught trying to cross the magical lake that guards Daevabad. Dara is killed, Ali possessed and banished, and Muntadhir’s companion Jamshid badly wounded. Ghassan is determined the marriage will go on as planned. Can Nahri turn any of this to her advantage?

So, counter to the depressive trend in the WFA finalists this year, this is a romance and an intrigue. All these people are lying to each other, and political groups are plotting right and left. Daevabad is exotic, the details of the city life, the temples and the palace very well assembled. I didn’t have any problems visualizing the people, the creatures or the scenery–the author has done a lot of research. She’s also done a great job in blending tradition with modern sensibilities. The characters are slightly flat, but the story is more focused on the action and intrigue than on revealing their deepest inner thoughts. The reader is left to deduce a lot of what’s going on from their actions.

In case you can’t tell from the synopsis, this is a cliffhanger, as everybody is at risk at the end, and the political tides are still rising. Nahri mostly lets people push her around in this book, but her political faction didn’t abandon her over the marriage, so she’s now well placed to be a power player in the next novel. Without Dara and Ali, she’ll have to find other protectors.

On the negative side, the magical world here was a little too complex for me to keep up with the way I read the book, which was a piece here and a piece there. Politics in the city was fairly clear by the time I was done, but a lot of other creatures seem to be circling Daevabad, just waiting for some chance to get in. I didn’t get a clear idea of the motives or alignments there. One other note: this seems to be an unfortunate choice of title, as it’s apparently shared with a successful video game. That means a search for the book turns up mostly the game info instead. However, I guess Chakraborty’s fans can tell the difference.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

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This book is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s published by Saga and runs 465 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The narrator has recently lost his wife to illness and is dying himself. He finds a sick crow and nurses it back to health. They become friends and it tells him its history. The crow Dar Oakley calls the realm of the crows Ka, and that of humans Ymr. He also knows a realm of Other. Dar Oakley receives his name from a human girl he calls Fox Cap. The two of them go into Other to find Nothing, and Dar Oakley finds it but hides it for himself. Fox Cap cries and afterward dies, but then Dar Oakley finds he is immortal, always reborn. Humans have battles that provide carrion, and crows find they can encourage them to kill each other. Following a Saint, Dar Oakley is caught by a storm and blown to a New World, where the people are killed by a mass sickness brought from the Old World. There is a great War where the dead in blue and gray provide a huge feast, and crows become numerous because of the growing bounty. Dar Oakley becomes friends with poet Anna Kuhn, and later her son becomes a great crow hunter. Dar Oakley encourages the crow flock to attack him, and they are eventually successful against him. The narrator wants Dar Oakley to lead him and his housekeeper to the Other place of the dead. Will this plan be successful?

So, this book is about death. Crowley is a well-known stylist, and he gets points for creating meaning in the narrative. Still, I found this really hard reading. Because Dar Oakley is a bird, he is light-minded and in general all his observations are surface level. That means we get a lot about flocks and mating and chicks, and the meaning takes shape from the carrion events and from what the humans say.

It’s clear that Crowley did a lot of research on the topic of crows and their status as death birds. The lore in this narrative is sort of scary, and I think humans are lucky that crows aren’t any bigger than they are. On the other hand, the events that feed the crows don’t say anything much good about humans, either.

This one isn’t for the faint of heart.

Four stars.

Review of The Teardrop Method by Simon Avery

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award, and the title piece for Book 4 of the TTA Novellas series, published in 2017. The British press TTA also publishes Interzone and Black Static. The book is dark fantasy and also contains the short story “Going Back to the World.” The novella is about 111 pages and the short story runs about 40. This review contains spoilers.

Krisztina Ligetti is a cult artist, a singer/songwriter living in Budapest who produced one hit album years ago and then had nothing else to follow up with. After her lover Alice dies, Krisztina begins hearing elusive music that turns out to be the songs of mortality from people around her. She collects songs for a new album one-by-one that become complete as people die. She reconnects with her father, a 60s pop star who has been diagnosed with cancer, and hears his song. The story darkens as Krisztina finds she’s being followed by a man in a porcelain mask. Tracing the song of a ballerina, she encounters the writer Rebeka, a serial killer with a similar gift who has no compunction about killing people to complete their stories. Rebeka wants her story. Can Krisztina find a way to survive?

This narrative has something of a sick feel, as it’s about winter and death and the extreme depths that people plumb to feed their creativity. The title refers to the method Krisztina uses to produce her songs, detailing the grief and pain that go into each one. It lingers over relationships, failures and bitter coffee. The imagery seems foremost, as it’s all about bright futures declining into eventual decay and death. There’s nothing left at the end but the songs.

On the not so great side, the narrative jumps around a bit and seems fixated on Alice’s death, while her character remains undeveloped and peripheral to the main story. The whole thing is about depressed people who need some joy in their lives. I’m also left wondering how Rebeka gets away with her murders. Although Krisztina sees her commit a murder and the man in the mask knows who she is, nobody reports this to the police. But then, I guess it’s not about the reality.

Three and a half stars.

Review of In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Tachyon and runs 174 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Claudio Bianchi is an aging farmer and sometimes poet in Calabria, Southern Italy. His farm is remote, generally visited only by the postman, and he’s gotten used to having no company but his own. That means it’s a surprise when a unicorn begins to build her nest under his chestnut tree. After a period of gestation, she drops a black colt. The secret gets out and suddenly news reporters, tourists, unicorn hunters and animal rights activists are trampling over Bianchi’s farm, looking for the mystery beasts. The unicorns are elusive, and eventually the horde of people thins, but then Bianchi gets a visit from a representative of the local crime syndicate. Bianchi refuses to sell the farm, which puts everything he has at risk, including his newly discovered love for the postman’s sister Giovanna. The crime syndicate ups the pressure, but there’s something no one has considered. Where is the male unicorn?

This story is character driven and is a positive, enjoyable read. It has a simple plot, and Beagle’s prose has a magical, Old World feel to it. Bianchi is a simple man who enjoys his wine, his cows, his cats and his poetry. We get a good feel for the farm and the old house, plus revelations about what made Bianchi the near recluse that he is. The best thing about this is the symbolism, though. As soon as we see that demure little unicorn on the front cover of the book, we know it’s going to be about sex, right? Bianchi is revitalized by his developing relationship with Giovanna, and the ending is very powerful. Beagle is a pro, after all.

On the not so great side, there’s not much in the way of action here—it’s not that kind of book. I didn’t come away with a good feel for the village, either, or the surrounding countryside. Also, there’s not much character development for anybody but Bianchi. Giovanna comes across fierce, but we don’t know anything much about her but that.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “Old Souls” by Fonda Lee

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published in the anthology Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy and runs about 8800 words. This review contains spoilers.

Not only does Claire remember her past lives, but she can read the past lives of others when she touches them. She has just had her 20th birthday and knows she has never seen her 21st. She visits a fortune teller, hoping for help, but finds the woman is a fraud. Pearl, a woman in the waiting room, follows her out of the business. Pearl has no past lives because she is one of the Ageless. She is searching for the soul of a man she knew in a previous life and she wants Claire to help her find him. Claire agrees, and is surprised to find the man is Kegan, her boyfriend Ethan’s brother. She lets Pearl know, and then finds Pearl has lied to her. Can Claire deal with Pearl’s deception? Can she break the pattern that has always taken her life before age 21?

This story is plot driven and moves along fairly smartly to a fairly violent climax. The characters are adequate, but not really deep, regardless that we know something about their past lives. Pearl’s deception isn’t a complete surprise because of foreshadowing. As Pearl says, everybody sets up a pattern. The details about student life add depth to the plot and the ending is emotionally satisfying.

On the not so great side, I’m not sure that satisfaction is justified. Claire thinks she’s broken her pattern, but it’s still a while before her 21st birthday, and Pearl is still out there. Maybe she’ll go on thinking she’s accomplished her goals, or maybe not. Also, what kind of pattern will Kegan follow now? We’re led to believe he’s an innocent, but could Pearl have been right about him?

Patterns aren’t really world-shaking, but you have to give Fonda credit for saying something a little different.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou

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This story is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award in the short fiction category. It was published in Strange Horizons December 2017, and it runs fairly long at about 8400 words. This review includes spoilers.

Maria is stuck in Athens when the plague strikes. She is 23-weeks pregnant and her elderly father is infected. Taking him with her, she sets off, trying to make it home to Thessaloniki and her husband Simos. There have been riots and the power grid is down. There are birds everywhere. The roads are choked with abandoned cars, and eventually she can’t make any more progress on the highway. Maria leaves her father in the car and goes out foraging for food. She sets birds free that are trapped indoors, finds a shopping cart to load her father into. She meets Elena, another uninfected woman, and the two of them join forces, traveling toward Maria’s home while her father slowly turns into a bird. When they get to the house, it’s empty. Simos has gone to Athens to look for her. Maria is attacked and injured by an infected person, loses the baby. She wants to continue the fairy tale, but can she?

This leans heavily to the surreal, and there’s not much in the way of plot. Elena calls it the “zombie apocalypse but with birds.” The story is very strong on imagery and dwells on words that describe collectives of birds. There are long blocks of Maria’s observations and memories, interwoven with a narrative to her unborn child where she tries to somehow turn the end of civilization into a fairy tale. It did hold my interest until the end, and amazingly, the ending felt uplifting.

On the not so positive side, some readers might feel this is a total waste of time. It’s all about the experience.

Three and a half stars for the artistic effect.

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