Hugo Novella Review 2016

written by David Steffen

The Hugo Awards Best Novella category covers stories between 17,500 and 40,000 words.  See here for a full list of the nominees this year.

1. Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment)

Kairominas is God-Emperor, who has defeated every foe and united the world under his rule.  He has lived for hundreds of years and has become powerful in Lancing, an arcane power drawn from the sky.  Of course, everyone else in the world is a simulation, all of it designed specifically to keep him engaged and interested and satisfied with his life.  Knowing this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel a sense of responsibility for the simulated people he rules–EVERY natural person is the most important person in their own custom-designed simulated world.  Kai tries to forget, as often as he can, but he has been called upon by the Wode, the makers of these worlds, to fulfill his obligation by going on a date with the ruler of another world in a neutral world.

Brandon Sanderson continues to be consistently one of my favorite writers from year to year, in large part because I love his worldbuilding, especially his magic system worldbuilding.  In this case the magic that the protagonist wields is a simulated magic, part of a computer program, and the protagonist knows this, but it still ends up giving the story as a whole a magic parallel worlds story even though it is actually a science fictional simulated worlds story.  I like science fantasy, and enjoy that mixed feel.  As ever, Sanderson provides stellar worldbuilding with interesting and relatable characters, and manages to convey all this at the perfect pace so that it is never bogged down with excess explanation nor confusing in its brevity.  Solid read from beginning to end.

 

2. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)

Binti is the first of the Himba people (of Namibia) to ever be offered a place at Oomza University, the seat of learning in the galaxy.  To accept the offer, she leaves her family behind and travels far away from the place where her family is so deeply rooted.  Her fellow travelers do not respect her cultures or traditions, and she has a long and frustrating (if enlightening) road ahead of her.  But before they even arrive at their destination planet, their ship is attacked by the Meduse, a deadly alien race at war with the world she is joining.

Great epic story from a point of view not usually portrayed in speculative fiction.  Before reading this story I was entirely unfamiliar with the Himba people, and I enjoyed it in large part as an opportunity to learn something about a real-life  culture, as well as to see wider representation in fiction.  Besides those factors, Binti is also a protagonist that I loved to root for–smart, capable, and brave.  I’ve been hearing people talk about this story all year as a possible award nominee, and I can see why.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

3. Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum)

Lord Penric is riding on the way to his betrothal when he comes upon a riding accident with an old woman injured on the ground.  She turns out to a Temple divine, the servant of the Bastard, one of the five gods that rule over the world.  In her dying breath she bestows upon him the demon that possesses her as part of her role, which now resides in Penric’s body.  While demons are expected to pass to another person after the death of their hosting divine, normally it is all prearranged with a specific chosen person, rather than a random passerby.  What, exactly, this means for Penric or for the demon, no one seems willing to say, apart from the fact that he now must change plans in order to speak to the people who can tell him.

This story is billed as taking place in the same world as three of Bujold’s novels, but I never would’ve suspected from only reading the story itself.  The story is self-contained, so you can read this story (as I did) with no prior knowledge of the world or people in it, and expect to be able to follow the story.  It’s possible that you may have a greater appreciation for events if you have more familiarity, but it could all be followed very easily.

Not long after his possession Penric learns that the demon can speak to him using his own mouth, so much of the book envelops as part of Penric (sort of) talking to himself in private, learning about the demon and what it is capable of, and more about their uncertain future together.  This was a clever way to convey the world to the reader, and was fun to read as well, because the demon is an interesting character in its own right and there is a great deal of chemistry between Penric and  the demon.  Since Penric is entirely unfamiliar with demons apart from rumors, and knows little about the inner workings of the temple, he has to learn on the road as he’s traveling with the demon, and so does the reader.  He is taken out of his familiar but unremarkable town out into the wider world.  This story was a great deal of fun and it was quite interesting to see the demon’s abilities unfold as it established a rapport with Penric.

4. Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon)

Scur is a soldier in a vast interstellar war spanning hundreds of solar systems.  That war is finally nearing an end, and she is beginning to allow herself to contemplate the life that may come after when she is taken prisoner by a war criminal and left for dead.  She wakes up on a prisoner transport where everything seems to be going wrong–the passengers are all thawing out at once, war criminals and prisoners from both sides of the war lines.  Their slow bullets (implanted devices that both store their soldier’s history, and can be set to kill them if they turn rebel) are their only links to their past.  Not only that, but there is something seriously wrong with the ship.

Lots of action and difficult decisions in this story, as soldiers from opposite sides of a long and gruesome conflict wake up in a closed system with each other.  Scur takes on the responsibility of being an impromptu leader to try to keep everyone from each other’s throats long enough to understand how they all ended up there, how to best salvage as much functionality out of the malfunctioning ship as possible, and where to go from there.  A solid science fictional tale about a group of opposing soldiers trying to unite in a post-war environment to try to survive.

 

5. The Builders by Daniel Polansky (Tor.com)

The Captain, a mouse, sets out to reunite the old gang of thieves and scoundrels of various  species (stoat, owl, mole, salamander, and others) who had all scattered after the last job went disastrously wrong.  As he seeks each one out and recruits them anew on this mission to right what has gone wrong, we learn about each of them and their background before they reach their destination and carry out The Captain’s revenge.

This story was cleverly told, with a feel that I found reminiscient of Ocean’s Eleven or other heist films, about gathering a group of elite specialists and then facing down insurmountable odds (though here there is more direct confrontational action rather than sneakery in general).  My favorite character was probably Bonsoir the stoat, whose blustery mannerisms were fun to witness.  The story was laid out so that you gradually find out more and more about the job that went wrong as each character appears and plays their own part.

I enjoyed the story best when it bordered on the comedic, often in Bonsoir’s dialog, or in some of the amusing chapter titles.  The action was well written and convincing as well, and there was no pulling punches with the deadly consequences of the  whole quest.  I enjoyed the read, but I guess for me I was hoping to be able to relate to some degree to the purpose of the quest, and I just didn’t find it at all compelling.  I was interested in the characters, their histories, and what they wanted from their futures, and I cared enough about them that it just seemed a waste to send them into this situation to quite likely die for a reason that I didn’t find that compelling.  That’s a testament to the portrayal of the characters that I cared enough about them to care about the potential waste of their lives, I suppose.

 

My Hugo Ballot 2014

The voting deadline for the Hugo Awards is tomorrow, July 31st, and I’ve read as much of the Hugo content as I’m going to have time for. So, the time has come for me to cast my ballot and put awards aside until next year. As I’ve done the last couple years, I’ve publicly shared what my ballot is going to look like, as kind of a final section of my Hugo review that is kind of an overarching look at what I thought of the categories. I didn’t read work in all the categories, so I’ve abstained from voting in those that I had no familiarity with and left them off the ballot.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with how the voting system works, it used an instant runoff scheme which allows you to rank all of your choices. First, they count everyone’s first choice. If no one gets more than half the votes, then the lowest ranked one in that scheme is eliminated, and anyone who chose that one as their first choice then has their 2nd choice tallied instead. And so on until there is a clear winner. It is possible to vote for “No Award” which you do if you would rather no one win at all than for the remaining ones to win, and in the end if too many ranked No Award above the eventual vote-winner, then no award is given.

 

Best Novel

  1. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books / Orbit UK) (I reviewed it here)
  2. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US/Orbit UK) (I reviewed it here)
  3. Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross (Ace / Orbit UK) (will post review on July 30)
  4. Parasite, Mira Grant (Orbit US/Orbit UK) (I reviewed it here)
  5. No Award

I also reviewed Larry Correia’s Warbound here but ranked it below No Award. I didn’t get a copy of Neptune’s Brood until quite late in the game. I won’t finish it before the deadline but I’ve read far enough to get an overall impression to rank it here. I originally planned to post this ballot on July 30, but decided to post my partial review of Neptune’s Brood on that day to give me a couple more days of reading.

 

Best Novella

  1. “Equoid”, Charles Stross (Tor.com, 09-2013)
  2. “The Chaplain’s Legacy”, Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
  3. No Award

I reviewed this year’s Novella category here for more details.

 

Best Novelette

  1. “The Waiting Stars”, Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky, Candlemark & Gleam)
  2. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013)
  3. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com/Tor.com, 09-2013)
  4. No Award

I reviewed this year’s nominees here for more details.

 

Best Short Story

  1. “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”, John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013)
  2. No Award

I reviewed this year’s nominees here for more details.

 

Best Related Work

  1. “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative”, Kameron Hurley (A Dribble of Ink)

 

Best Graphic Story

  1. The Meathouse Man, adapted from the story by George R.R. Martin and illustrated by Raya Golden (Jet City Comics)
  2. Girl Genius, Volume 13: Agatha Heterodyne & The Sleeping City, written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
  3. No Award

I reviewed this year’s nominees here for more details.

 

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Iron Man 3, screenplay by Drew Pearce & Shane Black, directed by Shane Black (Marvel Studios; DMG Entertainment; Paramount Pictures)
  2. Gravity, written by Alfonso CuarÃ’ n & JonÃ’ s CuarÃ’ n, directed by Alfonso CuarÃ’ n (Esperanto Filmoj; Heyday Films; Warner Bros.)
  3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, screenplay by Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt, directed by Francis Lawrence (Color Force; Lionsgate)
  4. Frozen,screenplay by Jennifer Lee, directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee (Walt Disney Studios)
  5. Pacific Rim, screenplay by Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro, directed by Guillermo del Toro (Legendary Pictures, Warner Bros., Disney Double Dare You)

I reviewed this year’s nominees here for more details.

 

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Game of Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere”, written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by David Nutter (HBO Entertainment in association with Bighead, Littlehead; Television 360; Startling Television and Generator Productions)
  2. No Award

Game of Thrones is awesome, and that was one of the best episodes in the series so far. I haven’t seen the rest of the category, but I am tired of episodes of Dr. Who dominating the ballot. There ARE other worthwhile things being published in SF, people. I’d rather Dr. Who would not be on the ballot or win anymore, so I’m voting accordingly. I haven’t seen Orphan Black, don’t know anything about it–so I don’t want to vote for it with no knowledge, but to vote No Award above Dr. Who episodes there’s nothing to do but lump Orphan Black in with them.

 

Best Editor, Short Form

  1. John Joseph Adams
  2. Neil Clarke
  3. Sheila Williams

 

Best Professional Artist

  1. Dan Dos Santos
  2. Julie Dillon
  3. John Picacio
  4. John Harris
  5. Galen Dara

I based these entirely on the portfolio included in the Hugo packet. Though I do have a soft spot for Dos Santos–I have an autographed print of his portrait of Moiraine Damodred hanging in my office at home. They’re all good but I tend to like the styles that make the people seem very real, and convince me that everything unrealistic is just as real.

 

Best Semiprozine

  1. Lightspeed Magazine
  2. Beneath Ceaseless Skies

 

Best Fanzine

  1. Dribble of Ink

 

Best Fancast

  1. No Award

It’s not that I hate the nominees. It’s just that, with all the amazing fiction podcasts out there, I find it extremely disappointing that only nonfiction podcasts are on the ballot, and that the only fiction podcast that’s ever been on the ballot had to heavily pander to get there. If fiction podcasts aren’t going to be recognized in this category, then I hope this trial category is short-lived.

 

Best Fan Writer

  1. Kameron Hurley

 

Best Fan Artist

  1. Sarah Webb

I based these entirely on the portfolio included in the Hugo packet, which only included work from three of the five nominees for some reason.

 

Hugo Novel Review: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

written by David Steffen

I’ll try to keep spoilers out of the review and just talk on broad arching principles and maybe a few specifics that aren’t major plot points. Since this is a series of fourteen huge books, that limits a great deal of what I could talk about. But I’ll do my best.

I had nominated the final book of the series, A Memory of Light, for the Hugo Award, but it is not just the final book but the whole series that is up for nomination. I had no idea this was a possibility until it happened. It’s only allowed if none of the individual books were on the final ballot in previous years, and I think the idea is to consider a single long work as a whole if it has a continuous plot arc from beginning to end. So, that’s what happened.

Some people on the Internet are making a stink about The Wheel of Time series being on the final ballot, complaints that some Wheel of Time fans might start a voting bloc, etc etc. There’s drama every year, and this isn’t even the biggest drama of this year. If you want to get worked up about such things, go for it, but it’s operating entirely within the rules so if you don’t like it, try to influence a change in the rules. Otherwise, IMO, there’s not really anything to complain about.

Plus, if you buy a supporting membership for WorldCon this year to get the right to vote which costs $40, then you get the entire Wheel of Time series in ebook format at no additional cost. That is seriously cool.

History of the Series

The Wheel of Time is an epic other-world fantasy series created by Robert Jordan. Robert Jordan wrote the series up to book eleven: The Eye of the World, The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn, The Shadow Rising, The Fires of Heaven, The Lord of Chaos, Path of Daggers, A Crown of Swords, Winter’s Heart, The Crossroads of Twilight, and Knife of Dreams, published between 1990 and 2005.

In 2006, Jordan publicly announced that he he had been diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis. He passed away in September 2007, having left copious notes and partial sections written of what he intended to be the one final book. After some long consideration, Brandon Sanderson was chosen as the writer to complete the writing of the series using Jordan’s notes. In Sanderson’s words, he said that there were certainly better writers than him, and there were certainly bigger Wheel of Time fans than him, but he was probably the best choice to maximize both of those concerns at once.

Brandon Sanderson finished writing the remaining sections of and compiling what ended up being the final three books of The Wheel of Time: The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light, published in 2009, 2010, and 2013 respectively.

Review

Most people who’ve tried reading the series fanatically love it, fanatically hate it, or fanatically love it until about book ten at which point they lost interest and never finished the rest.

Those who fall into that last category: I encourage you to give the rest of the series a try. As a whole, I see value in almost all of the books in the series, though there’s certainly some uneven qualities. Book ten, The Crossroads of Twilight, is the exception. I went on at length about that particular book in a separate review, so I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that nothing happens at great length for a long book, until literally the final page when something finally happens. So, you might just want to read a general summary, read the last few pages, and move on to Knife of Dreams. Granted, I wouldn’t listen to someone’s advice if they told me that, but if you do insist on reading it, just keep in mind it is not representative of the quality of the series after it, so at least try Knife of Dreams.

I’ve also written up a separate review for A Memory of Light, the last book in the series, which you can find here.

The first book starts with a sudden influx of strangers into the town of Emond’s Field in the Two Rivers, where three young men of very similar age live: Rand al’Thor, Matrim Cauthon, and Perrin Aybara. It seems like these are just visitors for the holidays, but it’s no coincidence that the town is attacked by Trollocs, beasts the locals believe to only be myths. One of the strangers in town, Moiraine Damodred and her warrior companion Lan Mandragoran, smuggle the boys out of town, claiming the attack was directed at finding them. The first book follows that group as they are pursued by Trollocs as they try to journey to Tar Valon where they can be protected.

The series goes on in various directions from there, most of which I can’t really talk about without getting into heavy spoiler territory. This is and always will be one of my favorite series, and it’s definitely getting my vote for the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year.

The Good Parts

  • Imaginative worldbuilding with a variety of detailed cultures
  • A cool and detailed magic system
  • The first book stands well alone as a standalone read
  • Most of the books in the series are memorable in their own right
  • Colorful and interesting cast of villains
  • If you like the story, there’s certainly a lot of it

The Bad Parts

  • The Crossroads of Twilight
  • The Crossroads of Twilight
  • A few of the other books relatively unmemorable
  • Some of the characters fall into the same personality cliches repeatedly (I still love them but it’s hard not to see)
  • Seriously, The Crossroads of Twilight. Yes it deserves to be on this list three times. It’s really that bad.
  • Some of the advancements in magical abilities are unexplained spontaneous jumps that don’t seem to fit into the worldbuilding
  • Some inconsistencies with how magic is explained in the first book with how it’s used in the rest of the series.
  • Sometimes the italicized internal monologuing gets excessive.

The Series’ Effect on My Life

I first came across The Wheel of Time when I was in about seventh grade. I was at a Barnes & Noble waiting for my mom to pick me up. To kill some time I went to the Science Fiction and Fantasy section and grabbed the book from the endcap with the most appealing cover, which happened to be book seven or eight of The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. From there I went into the aisle and found book one of the series: The Eye of the World. I sat down and started reading and it drew me right in with the young man Rand al’Thor and his father Tam walking through a bitter cold wind and glimpsing a mysterious stranger. I was sorely disappointed when my mom got there and we had to go without the book.

At the time I lived in a tiny town with a pathetic closet of a library that mostly contained romance novels, and a school library that was no better. So without money I didn’t have a quick way to access it. I had a little side job delivering advertising newsletters for small amounts of money, so I spent those meager paychecks buying the books in The Wheel of Time series.

That was during a time of my life where I felt very isolated, having no car and living a couple miles outside the closest town which only had a population about 500 people. I’d moved there when I was ten, by which time the social cliques were very well cemented, and in the eight years that I lived there I never really felt part of any group. Reading and video games got me through a lot of that time, keeping me entertained enough to stay sane and The Wheel of Time was a big part of that as the next several books came out through the high school years, and each time a new book came out I would re-read the series again in preparation.

In college, things were much better, but there were still some rough times. One of the worst kind of times were nights in the dorm sophomore year when I lived in a room next to a sorry excuse for a human being who played music and video games at all time of night with the subwoofer planted against the wall with no consideration of other people’s sleep. Talking to him accomplished nothing. Talking to the dorm master accomplished nothing. There was one particular night where he was playing Counterstrike until 3am with the machine guns and grenades pounding the walls. I had to get up at 5am to work at a gas station the next morning. I managed to get through that night without killing anyone and without having a nervous breakdown, and I owe that at least in part to a meditation technique that our main protagonist Rand al’Thor learns in the very first book. I used that technique and even though I was awake for most of the night, just kind of watching the clock and lying still, I still felt rested enough the next day.

And, The Wheel of Time has even molded some of my strategies for life. One of the elements of the series that I found very compelling was ji’e’toh, the systematic system of honorable behavior followed by the warlike clans of the Aiel. There are many details of it, but one of the things that I took from the system was that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do, sometimes you want to do things that will have consequences you’d rather avoid. But what is generally best is just to do what you need to do and then willingly pay the price required for it. It may not seem profound at the surface, but I’ve found that a lot of everyday problems can be broken down to that level: just asking what you need to do, and asking what you need to pay to do it.

Bottom line: it’s got my top vote for the Hugo Award, and it probably would no matter what other books it was running against. Any other year, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice would probably be my favorite, but The Wheel of Time has had a huge impact on me.

2014 Hugo Noms!

written by David Steffen

It’s award season again! If you’re eligible to vote for the Hugos, you have until the end of March to decide on your picks. I wanted to share my picks, as I always do, in plenty of time so that if anyone wants to investigate my choices to see for themselves they’ll have plenty of time.

Quite a few of the categories I don’t have anything to nominate because I don’t seek out entries in them, so I left those out. And for any category that I have eligible work I mentioned them alongside my own picks.

The entries in each category are listed in no particular order.

Best Novel

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Premier novel by Leckie. Great premise, difficult point of view, great space opera. I reviewed it here.

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
The 14th and final book of Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series.

 

Best Novelette

Monday’s Monk by Jason Sanford (Asimov’s)

Best Short Story

The Promise of Space by James Patrick Kelly (Clarkesworld)

The Murmurous Paleoscope by Dixon Chance (Three-Lobed Burning Eye)

HELP FUND MY ROBOT ARMY!!! by Keffy R.M. Kehrli (Lightspeed)

Hollow as the World by Ferrett Steinmetz (Drabblecast)

The Boy and the Box by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed)

For Your Consideration:
I Will Remain in After Death Anthology
Could They But Speak at Perihelion
Reckoning at Stupefying Stories
Meat at Pseudopod
Coin Op at Daily Science Fiction
Escalation at Imaginaire

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

Ender’s Game

Warm Bodies

Game of Thrones Season 3

 

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

The Rains of Castamere (Game of Thrones)

And Now His Watch Has Ended (Game of Thrones)

Walk of Punishment (Game of Thrones)

Second Sons (Game of Thrones)

Valar Doheris (Game of Thrones)

 

Best Editor (Short Form)

Neil Clarke (of Clarkesworld)

John Joseph Adams (of Lightspeed, Nightmare, and anthologies)

Tina Connolly (of Toasted Cake)

Norm Sherman (of Drabblecast and Escape Pod)

Shawn Garrett (of Pseudopod)

 

Best Semiprozine

Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Daily Science Fiction

Lightspeed

Escape Pod

Drabblecast

Best Fanzine

SF Signal

My work for you to consider:
Diabolical Plots
I do consider Diabolical Plots a zine. Consider, too, that this was the first year Diabolical Plots also provide the Submission Grinder. The Submission Grinder itself doesn’t fit any of the categories, I think, but Diabolical Plots does.

 

Best Fancast

Toasted Cake

Pseudopod

Dunesteef

Podcastle

Cast of Wonders

 

Best Fan Writer

Ken Liu

Ferrett Steinmetz

Juliette Wade

Cat Rambo

Anne Ivy

For your consideration:

David Steffen
Frank Dutkiewicz
Carl Slaughter

 

Review: A Memory of Light

written by David Steffen

(I’ve done my best to keep this spoiler-free as long as you’ve read the previous 13 books)

It’s the end of a saga twenty-three years in the making, the conclusion to the Wheel of Time series. I picked up book one of the series when I was in eighth grade. I was at a Barnes & Noble with no money and time to kill, so I picked the book on the SF/fantasy endcap with the coolest looking cover. The one on the endcap was book 8 in the Wheel of Time series, so I found book one, “The Eye of the World” and sat down in one of their cushy chairs to read for a half hour until my ride showed up.

By the time I’d finished the prologue and first chapter, I knew I had to read the series. I stuck with the series as I went, getting each book as it came out. And now, a decade and a half later in January 2013, the final book has been published.

Robert Jordan is the creator of the series, and he wrote the first eleven books of the series. In 2007 he came down with a blood disorder and passed away. He left copious notes behind, and eventually Brandon Sanderson to finish the series. Brandon has done an extraordinary job with his work on the series. I can’t tell what parts he wrote and what parts Jordan wrote, and I didn’t notice any shift in the tone, the style, or the characters.

This final book is all about the leadup to the Last Battle, and the Last Battle itself, which everything in the previous thirteen books has led up to. All of the nations have been gathered by Rand with the intent to unite them. It is finally revealed what identity Demandred has taken since escaping the Bore. The armies of Light face off against the forces of the Dark One. Slayer, the creature that had once been Padan Fain, the six remaining Forsaken, hordes of Trollocs, all against Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene and the White Tower, Fortuona and the Seanchan.

The book was solid throughout. The prologue started out with a huge reveal that ties into details revealed ten books ago. There’s plenty of variation in action, and the stakes have never been higher. In the previous thirteen books, Robert Jordan had shown that he was very reluctant to kill off any major characters who fight for the Light–that is one of the major criticisms that could be leveled against the series since it does lower the tension quite a bit. But this is the last book, and it is the Last Battle, and all bets are off. Any character can die, and some of them do.

Rand’s fight against the Dark One is a very interesting one which goes to places I wouldn’t have expected. The Dark One gets some unexpected character here that I wouldn’t have seen coming, some glimpse of his motives in the grand scheme of things. In some ways he’s not entirely evil though his acts generally are. That was a pleasant surprise since, for the most part, the Dark One has been a stereotypical Satan kind of character.

The battle scenes of the last battle are epic and tense. The most badass characters in the series are there facing off against one another and you never know who’s going to die or when. Every day when I had to set the book down I was eager to pick it back up again to find out what happens next. The best part of the book, though, is watching how Perrin has developed. From the beginning of the series he has been my favorite character, especially his abilities that come from being a wolfbrother. In this book he finally reaches his full potential and he needs every ounce of that to fight against Slayer. His battles against Slayer in Tel’a’ran’rhiod are some of the most exciting reading I ever remember reading. It’s a great setting for a battle between two experienced fighters who have cultivated the flexibility of mind to be truly dangerous there.

Another one of my favorite characters plays a big role in this book, this one who had only been introduced in The Towers of Midnight (Book 13), Androl Genhald, an Asha’man Dedicated who is among the group loyal to Logain (rather than Mazrim Taim). Through his eyes we get to see some of the inside stories at the Black Tower, which has been closed to most other characters for half the series. Androl is, strictly speaking, one of the weakest of the Asha’man in raw strength, but he has a Talent that allows him to create gateways despite his weakness and in greater quantity and size than any other. You get to see Androl unleash this Talent, and he can be quite badass.

The one thing that I was disappointed with was the resolution of the plot thread with the creature that had once been Padan Fain. That is one of the longest plot threads in the series, starting in the first few chapters of the first book when the Darkfriend Padan Fain arrives in the Two Rivers and later in that book is distilled by the Dark One to hunt Rand like a hound, only to be corrupted by Mashadar, the mindless entity that haunts Shadar Logoth. His abilities have grown and grown throughout the series so that no one, not even the Dark One can match him. The books have talked up his abilities so much, I was wondering how they were going to resolve it at all. So I watched for him with great anticipation, at which point that thread was resolved a little too neatly, a little too easily.

So, well done Brandon Sanderson for finishing the series with high quality. I truly believe that Robert Jordan would have been proud of you, and quite happy with how it turned out.

 

Review: Hugo Novella Nominees 2013

written by David Steffen

And here’s the last of the short (ish) prose fiction categories, the almost-a-novel aka Novella, which covers fiction from 17,500-40,000 words. This was a tough category to pick my favorite in, so for this one I’m glad that the Hugo awards use an instant runoff voting system so that if your favorite doesn’t win your lower votes can count towards the result.

Hugo Award for Best Novella

1. The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Publications)
The Emperor’s wife has been killed and the Emperor has been injured in an attack by assassins, via a crossbow bolt to the head. The best magic of the legal variety can heal his flesh, but cannot heal his mind, leaving him catatonic. The Emperor’s highest ranking officials are the only ones who know of the outcome of the attack. The official mourning period for the Emperor’s wife is one hundred days, at which the Emperor will be expected to speak in public. If he cannot, the Empire will be thrown into chaos. They have but one chance to salvage the situation with the recent capture of the criminal Forger Wan ShaiLu. Various legal branches of the art of Forgery, which can rewrite the history of an object, can be practiced in the Empire. Shai, however, practices the forbidden branch of art which allows even a person’s soul to be Forged into something else. This criminal, this blasphemer, is their only hope, if she can reforge the Emperor’s soul using only journal entries and interviews with his counsel.

Brandon Sanderson is great at inventing new magic systems. I enjoyed Warbreaker, and I enjoyed this. The details are intricate, but logical, so that the magic is more of an alternate-world-science, something which appeals to my engineer mind. Shai is an expert in certain areas of her craft, and she goes at the work with the zeal and skill of an expert craftsman, all while contemplating how to escape before she is inevitably killed to silence her. The situation maintains constant tension while maintaining intellectual curiosity and emotional depth. The art of Forging depends upon understanding the history of a person or thing completely and then creating a manmade branching point to change that history, so to pull of this most difficult of all Forgeries she has to exercise her powers of empathy like she never has before.

Great story, well written. One of my new favorites. Well done!

 

2. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications)
An apocalypse hits the Earth in 2014, killing most people and rendering most of the planet unliveable. Very few people survived, and those were saved from certain death by boxlike tentacled figures (nicknamed Tesslies) that would appear in a shower of golden sparks, grab the person, and take them somewhere else. These survivors wake up in a building with no doors to the outside, with machinery meant to serve their basic food and sanitation needs. The Tesslies never told them what was happening, but their best interpretation is that aliens have attacked earth and kept some humans as specimens. Many years later a new piece of machinery they call the Grab machine appears in the Shell which periodically makes a window through time to the years before the apocalypse. Whoever goes through, the Grab machine yanks them back to the future with whatever they’re touching, so they use it to grab supplies and to grab children to help repopulate the future (adults die when they pass through). This part of the story follows Pete, a fifteen year old boy who is a child of some of the original survivors.

Meanwhile, back in 2013, mathematician Julie Kahn is working with a police task force trying to determine a pattern to the robberies and kidnappings.

I related completely to both Pete and Julie, even when they did things I didn’t agree with or when their actions were in direct opposition to each other. This story had me interested from beginning to end and it felt neither too long nor too short. Well done, Ms Kress, well done. Unfortunately, I hadn’t finished reading this before the Nebula voting period ended, and Sanderson’s story squeaked past this one for my top vote, but with the instant-runoff system I can still show my love.

 

3. San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats by Mira Grant (Orbit)
The first outbreak of the zombie epidemic happens during the overcrowded opening night of San Diego Comic-Con 2014. This story is the chronicle of that chilling event, told as a 30-year retrospective.

This story is well-written with believable characters and a strong emotional core. The main reason why this didn’t rank higher on my list is that I didn’t feel that it trod any new ground. Zompocalypse stories have been too common in recent years, probably only second to sexy vampires as overused tropes. I’d rather see an original speculative element, an original setting, or both. This story didn’t vary from the familiar zompocalypse rules, at least not in any significant way, so it’s not an original speculative element. I don’t recall seeing a zombie story set at a convention before, and I suspect that’s why it’s been popular enough to get nominated. But, personally, it just strikes me as lazy, trying to keep the writing in a comfort zone rather than trying something different. Kind of like a Stephen King story about a writer that takes place in a sleepy town in Maine.

Also, the story is formatted as though it’s a documentary, but the story itself admits that much of it is conjecture based on known facts. This in itself wouldn’t be problematic, except that by my reckoning, probably 80% or more of the events have to be either pure speculation on the part of the media because the deathtoll was high enough to make after-the-fact compilation of stories problematic. The story would’ve been better if it had just discarded the idea of using a framing story and just told it as a standard narrative.

 

4. The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake (Asimov’s, Oct-Nov 2012)
Morgan Abutti, 4th degree Thalassocrete, member of the Planetary Society, has discovered something new in the stars that violates the truths taught by both the Lateran and the Thalassojustity belief systems that rule the world. He has arranged for a public discussion of his findings, which could shake the world. Bilious Quinx, master of the Consistatory Office (aka Inquisition) must find Abutti before he makes his heresy public. Eraster Goins, head Thalossocrete, has very different motives for finding Abutti.

As you might be able to tell from this brief explanation, there are several religious factions which at least to my mind were never clearly differentiated. Maybe that’s an intentional statement about religious schisms, maybe it could’ve been made clearer, or maybe I just don’t get it. I generally liked the Morgan Abutti character who did not consider his findings a heresy but only wanted to share his findings of the universe to expand their understanding of it, a scientist trying to work within a religious government system. But I just didn’t find the stakes all that riveting. Whether or not Abutti’s announcement becomes public, some other scientist will discover the truth anyway (as the story itself points out), so the events of the story feel pretty moot to me. It doesn’t help that the grand discovery has implications for major future changes, which don’t make it into the space of this story. Those major future changes are what I’m really interested in. If Jay writes a story about the events after this story I will read it eagerly.

 

5. On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard (Immersion Press)
Cousin Linh has arrived on Prosper Station, seeking refuge from the Emperor, whom she has rebelled against in a token fashion. Quyen, magistrate of the station, allows her refuge grudgingly. Linh’s visit causes no end of trouble.

The world of the story takes traditional beliefs and uses futuristic technology to reinforce them. In particular, people in this society are not only expected to honor their ancestors, they also have memchips implanted in their brains that allow their ancestors to give them advice on everything that is happening around them. Very cool idea. The station’s systems are run by the Honoured Ancestress, a being that is sort of a metahuman, with an altered version of a human mind that allows it to run all of the day-to-day affairs of Prosper, and allowing residents of the station to interact with this mind by entering the trance. There’s something wrong with the Honoured Ancestress of Prosper.

I loved the worldbuilding in the story, but I just wasn’t that interested in the main events that took up the bulk of the story. Linh and Quyen’s conflicts didn’t really interest me. I didn’t particularly relate to either one, and it didn’t matter to me which one succeeded or failed in their goals. The state of the Honoured Ancestress was, to me, my biggest interest in terms of plot, but it did not have as much text devoted to it as I would’ve liked, and the solution to the problem was presented without a lot of interesting development to get there.

So this story just wasn’t for me. It was just too long to justify the parts of it I was actually interested in. It didn’t help that the length was such, and my free time segmented enough, that it took a dozen sittings to get through it.

 

MiniCon Report (and my first editor pitch)

I’ve been meaning to make it to a science fiction convention for quite a while now. Even before I started writing they sounded like fun, lots of people with similar tastes all getting together and hanging out, swapping book recommendations, arguing about which authors write better books and why, and so on. But now that I’m writing, I figured I should check out the con scene from the fan side before people start knowing who I am.

For some reason all the cons in the Twin Cities seem to occur over holiday weekends, so for the last few years I’ve been out of town visiting family and unable to attend. But this year, I learned early that Brandon Sanderson was the writer guest of honor. So I registered early and decided that this time I would go.

I asked a few people if they’d want to go with me, but no one took me up on it, so I ended up going solo. Which was probably for the best, because if I’d been there with someone I probably would’ve just used them as an excuse to not meet anyone. So to avoid just sitting by myself the whole time I struck up conversations with a few strangers, met a few writers I’ll try swapping story critiques with, and just got a chance to talk to people about all kinds of things.

I missed the opening ceremonies, including the keynote speech by Brandon Sanderson because we’d bought hockey tickets for that night long before I registered for MiniCon. So I didn’t get to MiniCon until Saturday, with the meetup of the local speculative fiction writers group Minnspec. That was nice to meet a few of the members. I’ve been meaning to get involved with them for quite a while but I’ve just never gotten around to it. I mostly stuck to the panels during the day, not the bars after or the musical guests or anything like that. I’ve been so busy with schoolwork lately that I haven’t been able to spend as much time with Heather as I’d like, and since I was lucky enough to get a homework free weekend in the middle of the semester I wanted to make sure I didn’t neglect her the whole weekend.

For those of you who are used to the big mega-size cons, this is many orders of magnitude different, which is both good and bad. Bad because, of course, there are less guests, less people. But good because it’s so much more personal. At the big cons, if there’s a big guest, you could be one of thousands of people waiting around for a chance to get a glimpse, let alone any actual personal contact. But here, there just a few guests, and about four parallel programming tracks in four rooms. Even the guests of honor are extremely accessible. Most of the panels had a few dozen attendants, and a handful would hang around to talk to the folks presenting.

After the MinnSpec panel was an Editors’ panel with Moshe Feder (Brandon’s editor), Ben Bova (who should need no introduction), Eric Heidemen (editor of Tales of the Unanticipated), and Michael Merriam (slush reader for Fantasy Magazine). That was really cool, especially seeing Ben Bova was particularly cool. All four of them had a good sense of humor and had a lot of good interplay.

That afternoon I stopped at a Dan Dos Santos art exhibition. He showed a sped up video of him painting the cover art for Warbreaker, 70 hours compressed to 10 minutes or so. That was really cool to see it start at the vaguest shapes and down to finer and finer details, with layers of colors that look strange at first but blend into the vivid colors and textures of the final image. After that, he did a quick portrait of Brandon while everybody watched and while the fans could watch both of them. That took about a half hour and was really neat to watch.

Most of the rest of the programming I went to was Brandon Sanderson programming. He gave some interesting advice, told some funny stories, and was just generally good to listen to, including one panel dedicated just to telling the story of how he got the Wheel of Time gig.

But the highlight of the con, for me, was The Pitch. Anyone could volunteer to throw a three-minute novel pitch, for a novel that’s complete or incomplete, and give it front of Moshe Feder and Brandon Sanderson. I only heard about it a few hours ahead of time, but I decided that the opportunity was too good to pass out. So between the panels I wrote out a quick outline to help me when I was on the spot.

We volunteers raised our hands and Brandon picked one of us at random to go first. That random person happened to be me, so I got to go up and throw out my pitch before seeing what anyone else’s pitch sounded like or seeing how kind or cruel Moshe or Brandon were. So I gave my three minute pitch, terrifying, a bit awkward, but I made it through the whole thing with only a few ums and ahs. I didn’t have time to get out the whole plot, but I got about halfway through to a good stopping point. My characters, uh, need a little work, so I concentrated mostly on the plot.

Both Moshe and Brandon were simultaneously nice and honest. Both for my pitch and everyone else’s they gave constructive criticism and you got a pretty good idea of their level of interest in the story. Both of them had their points about my story, and they were mostly on target. I didn’t describe my characters much, which is an area that I’d had trouble with in the manuscript itself as well (it’s been quite a while since I worked on it, it could use some polish in that area). Brandon thought one part of the plot was too much of an idiot plot–that one I didn’t agree with, but I can see how he would’ve thought that from the short pitch. They also pointed something out which I hadn’t thought of at all–my beginning is very much a thriller beginning, an ordinary guy with his life thrown into sudden and immediate danger, and putting him on the run. But, despite the things they pointed out as needing improvement, Moshe said he’d be interested in seeing the manuscript. I’ve been concentrating on short stories for quite a while but it seems this would be a good time to reawaken the novel writer in me.

And after the feedback, Moshe gave me a Jelly Rat (like a Swedish Fish, but with a wormtail), which was a nice touch.

Some of the pitches were smoother than others, but Moshe and Brandon found something to compliment and something suggest an improvement for each one. I’ll list some of the more prevailing threads here, for anyone who might learn from it:

1. Don’t be too vague. Editors don’t care about spoilers when they’re hearing a pitch. One of the writers was afraid of giving away details that would be stolen, but it left the pitch so vague that it meant nothing. Sentences like “and they did something” means that you should probably either leave that out entirely or flesh it out to something more specific.

2. Tell something about the characters. Most everyone can come up with an SF idea, and there’s no doubt that SF ideas are important, but there need to be characters that have the problems, that drive the story, and it’s the interactions between the characters and the idea that make the story really unique.

3. Try to include as many of the relevant details as possible. Granted this is really difficult when you have such a limited time limit, especially when it was an impromptu pitch in the first place. For instance, if you explain the climax of the story, and it depends on some major plot point that happens earlier, you’ll want to make sure you mentioned that plot point.

So that was my first editor pitch. I thought it went well, and I’m looking forward to sending something to Moshe a manuscript as soon as I can.

Anyway, back to the con. Then, Sunday was mostly centered around doing the autograph fanboy thing. I bought a copy of Warbreaker, and got it autographed by Brandon(who wrote it), Dan (who did the fantastic cover art), and Moshe (who edited it). On top of that, I bought a print of a really great piece of art by Dan, a portrait of Moiraine Damodred (from the Wheel of Time series). I didn’t intend to buy any art, but it was just so beautiful I couldn’t possibly turn it down. I need to get a really nice frame for it and hang it in my office over my desk.

I’ll definitely be going again next year.

Wheel of Time Re-read Review: Crossroads of Twilight

[Fair warning: The beginning of this article is a lengthy explanation of why I’m re-reading this book at this moment. If you don’t care, then skip down to the part below that says BEGIN REVIEW]

I’ve long proclaimed that Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time fantasy series is my favorite fantasy series of all time. The characters are great, the magic system is detailed and interesting, and the worldbuilding is just extraordinary. Jordan strikes just the right balance between style and substance, hitting a medium that flows easily but still reads in an appealing way.

But, since 2007, I have been dreading picking the series again. The reason for my dread is not anything that Robert Jordan did, but rather a change in my tastes, leaning towards the critical. I started writing fiction back then, and it has changed my reading preferences forever. Above all, I’ve learned that my most valued trait of any writing is conciseness. Is it the best length for the story it has to tell. This has made it VERY hard to read Stephen King novels! Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels are very long, and there are a lot of them (11 written by his hand before he died), so I’ve been worried that I will no longer be able to enjoy the books now that I’m so much more picky.

In September 2007, Robert Jordan died of a blood disease. I regret that I was never able to meet the man who created my favorite books. He’d known how the series would wrap up for a long time before the end, and since he saw the end coming he kept copious notes so that the Wheel of Time would not have to pass away prematurely with him. His publishers at Tor chose Brandon Sanderson to use the notes to complete the series. I’m not sure what to expect from Sanderson. I haven’t read anything else that he’s written so he’s a completely unknown entity to me. I got the newest WoT book, The Gathering Storm, for Christmas, so I will soon find out what I think of his writing. I will probably either love or hate him, depending on if I feel he is continuing Jordan’s legacy satisfactorily.

To be fair to Sanderson, I decided that it would be best if I re-read some of the Wheel of Time before reading the new one. After all, it is possible that I no longer care for Jordan’s writing style, and so it would be rather unfair to judge Sanderson against a nostalgic memory that isn’t all that accurate anymore. Sanderson is the guest of honor at MiniCon here in the Twin Cities, which I will be attending, so I want to have gotten started on The Gathering Storm before that time so I can decide whether I hate him. So I don’t have time to re-read many of the Wheel of Time books. I decided to re-read books 10 (Crossroads of Twilight) and 11 (Knife of Dreams), leaving me at least a little time to get started on The Gathering Storm before Easter weekend.

So, long story short, I’ve just finished Crossroads of Twilight, and here is my review!

BEGIN REVIEW

Spoilers ahead, and I don’t really feel like marking them out after this. So, if you don’t want to know, then don’t read it!

The good news is that I still enjoy Jordan’s writing style, his accessible characters, and the world they’re contained in. The bad news is that I found this book incredibly boring. I suspect (but am not entirely sure) that it’s just this book that I dislike and that I could still enjoy the other ones. There are several reasons why I simply had trouble getting into this one:

1. Too many POVs. By this point in the series there are so many separate groups of people, widely distributed from one another, most of them in a position of some power over a huge group of other people. The trouble is, there are just simply too many groups to be able to give any single one of them justice within a single book, even a book that’s nearly 700 pages. For the first 600 pages or so, the narrative takes turns going to each of these characters for two or three chapters in a row, then on to the next and the next. The trouble is that each time there’s a transition there’s a break in whatever tension had been built to that point and I start the next section in a null state. And when it became clear that most of these people would not even be returned to in this book, it was hard to care much what happened in their everyday lives. I understand that Jordan, by this time, had set up a wide cast of characters that we all care about, but he would be better served picking just 3 or 4 major characters and focusing on them for this book, and focusing more on other characters for other books. The way it was, it seemed that fairness and equal representation was more important than reader interest or conflict, and that really killed any tension that could’ve been created.

2. Aftermath syndrome. In the last book, Winter’s Heart, a hugely important event occurs. Rand and Nynaeve, along with a bunch of other helpers, manage to use incredibly powerful sa’angreal to do what has been thought impossible–cleanse saidin, the male half of the source. Since the Breaking of the World, the world has lived in fear of men who can channel because the taint on saidin eventually causes them to go mad. The modern version of Aes Sedai are only female out of necessity and an entire division of the White Tower (the Red Ajah) is dedicated entirely to neutralizing any man who can channel for the safety of all. This is a huge blessing for Rand and others who can channel, and though it will be hard to prove the claims of the cleansing of saidin on any large social scale, it will allow channeling men to live longer and be free from madness.

Anyway, the actually cleansing created a beacon of power of both saidar and saidin detectable from anywhere within the book’s world by anyone who can channel. This is understandably disconcerting for those who can channel because they would’ve thought that magnitude of Power usage would’ve been impossible. I understand why they’d be disconcerted. But one of the major annoyances of the book is that every one of these multitude of sections involved a rehashing of this concept. All of the sections took place more or less simultaneously, beginning just before this beacon appeared and lasting for a day or two after. So the mystery and the worry is rehashed so many times. Maybe this would interesting if we weren’t already aware of what the beacon was, but we already saw it in the last book! So it just gets tiresome.

3. No thread of standout importance. In most of the Wheel of Time books, there is a thread that is clearly meant to be the most important thread of that book. In book 1, the quest to find the Eye of the World. In book 3, the quest to catch up to Rand and Rand’s drive to go to the Stone of Tear. Many of the books end with a major fight with one of the Forsaken, or a major revelation such as Rand’s learnings in Rhuidean. In Crossroads of Twilight, none of the threads seemed significantly more important than the others. Each was just like a quick update on what that character’s up to, but in most cases it’s entirely clear that they’re in the same place they have been and will continue to be aftereward. Only in the very last chapter does any sense of change really take place and it’s so unforeshadowed and comes so completely out of nowhere that I never had any particular tension about it in the first place (More about that in #4).

4. No climax. Okay, yes, the book does end on a cliffhanger. Egwene sets off in a rowboat to use her mad cuendillar-making skills to block the harbors. She succeeds in blocking one of the harbors, but is captured and brought into the tower. Which is a great twist, and the quest that sparked it was both worthy and interesting. The trouble is that quest was not foreshadowed in any particular way. In her sections she thought from time to time about some unspecified plan she had, but never went into details. This bugs me to no end, because I like to really sink into a point of view when I read a story. I want to feel what the character’s feeling, but that’s impossible if she’s making huge overarching plans and keeping it as a secret from me. Finally in the last five pages, I figure out what she’s doing, and then she gets captured two pages later. Because I’ve read the book before, I knew her plan and knew the cliffhanger, and there was a hint or two but not enough to create significant tension for a first read. If I’d known her plan back when she started making it, then I could worry about how it would turn out, but revealing the plan and then having it fail at the same time doesn’t work well for me–I’m already disinterested! And because of my #1 complaint, Egwene had a very minor portion of the book, page-wise, so it didn’t make a great deal of sense to have her ending be the big ending.

I like when the beginning ties to the end in some significant way, but in this case there was no Chekhov’s gun to tie everything together. It ended up seeming more like a collection of uninteresting status updates on every character. Next I’m reading Knife of Dreams. I hope this one measures up more to my memory of the series! That’s Jordan’s last chance to get me warmed up to read the new Sanderson volume. Wish me luck!

-David Steffen