Books

Voting, Popularity, and Awards

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It’s been a long week, made longer by world events.

Needless to say, I turned to my books to keep me company while I’ve been riding out the storm. Books don’t want to talk about the merits of Trump v. Clinton, at least, not in explicit terms.

Yet, a different kind of electoral strife hits the bookternet at the end of the year: awards season.

The past three or four years in particular have had a lot of upheaval in the bookish world. In particular, the Sad Puppies’ impact on science fiction fandom has been controversial. But, all of the upset, the fighting over popular opinion versus panel awards, the debates over cannon, and the push for more diversity in publishing have left us wanting more and talking more. To me this has always been the upside of these “culture wars.”

That being said, it’s easy to be disappointed.

I woke up this morning to a flurry of messages. The Goodreads Choice Award finalists have been announced. After the initial shock of “Wow. This is a lot of stuff I haven’t read” and the following “These are not the best in XYZ category,” I think it’s worth while to revisit the idea of awards and their merit.

The Goodreads Choice Awards get the same general complaint every year: the books are too populist and not representative of the really great works in their genres or categories.

I’m inclined to feel the same way. Because of the open-forum nature of the Goodreads Awards and the ways that the awards nominees are selected, they wind up being much more of a “what was the best airport read of the year?” kind of award.

There’s a time and place for this, but it falls into all of the weaknesses of the publishing industry. Underrepresentation; promoting lighter reads over those that make you think; difficulty in getting recognition for works that are truly fantastic, but don’t get the same marketing budget.

I don’t know that there’s a way around this unless Goodreads users really start using the write in.

Bright Point! Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution was a write-in and has made it to the final round!

On the Brightside, there are hundreds of other awards that strive to be inclusive and promote more obscure or substantive works. It’s why we have genre awards. So, bummer, but we can all take this for what it is: an algorithm meant to promote increased amazon purchasing.

I’ll wait for the Booktubesff Awards instead.

 

Some thoughts on Everfair by Nisi Shawl

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I won’t mince words; I wasn’t a fan of Everfair. I wanted to be, but wasn’t.

I got my copy in the mail and was so excited. I was ready to drop everything and start reading. I often have this feeling, but was spurred on by the promise of something truly spectacular and very rarely seen in western publishing. The idea of a well executed literary fantasy set in a steampunk version of Congo was like a big piece of cake staring me down. I may have actually squealed a bit.

I want to be very clear when talking about this, because for as much as I have my criticisms, Shawl is very clearly good at her craft. She’s eloquent and considered. Even having disliked the book, I came away with a positive impression of hers. I would chalk my struggles up to some of the construction elements rather than saying that her writing isn’t worth the read. You should pick it up and give her a try, at the very least, read some of her short work.

The story itself follows a group of missionaries and refugees living in a section of the Congo set aside to become a land called Everfair. One part safe have, one part socialist republic, the book follows a family from Britain that is trying to lead Everfair in their vision, occasionally with the help of the black population, and, more often, without the input or significant leadership of the black population. The family deals with death, abandonment, interracial marriage, and sexual orientation all the while.

My problems with the story were compounding.

The story format jumps between characters and timelines. So, you can go from following one character in 1810 to another totally different character in 1823 all in a matter of four or five pages. For me, this was confusing and left the story without a cohesive feel.

The plot was meandering and unfocused. Rather than having a clear end-point, it paused every few pages to talk about tangents or give unnecessary context. This was all without really adding to an overarching arc that would have given that cohesion the story desperately needed.

The characters were tough for me. They could have been very interesting, but not enough time ever seemed to be spent on them. We’d stop in on them every once in a while. But in the mean time, there were so many other characters to visit and so many other shifts in timelines and ages that keeping track was a challenge.

The story is clearly well researched and Shawl clearly spent a good deal of time thinking it through. Her writing is very atmospheric, but I didn’t find the style to be cohesive enough to compensate for the meandering plot. It was a promising story, but didn’t deliver for me. I’ll have to check in with Shawl’s next work instead.

 

The Ladies Who Could Have Been…

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My shelves are filled with ladies. I’m a fan of Leia and Rey; I adore Xena and Gabrielle; Buffy and Charmed are my sick day go-tos. I have feminist SFF coming out of my ears. But I spend a lot of time wondering if it’s really THEM that I like. Something about the Strong Female Protagonist is always going to grab me, but sometimes it seems like the Chinese takeout of the speculative fiction world: tasty and fun, but not always satisfying.

What I really want in my female characters has never been strength for strength’s sake. I want them to be rivers that run deep even when they look shallow. When I think about my favorite ladies, they tend to fit that mold. It’s not hard to see the complexity in Buffy’s character as the seasons go along.

I think what may be odder are the female characters I like who aren’t in the typical mold. I like many characters set up to be side characters and many of the main SFPs I can’t stand. It’s an interesting thing I’ve been thinking about lately. Read the rest of this entry »

Review | The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

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I was excited to hear Sofia Samatar was writing a new novel set in the same world as A Stranger in Olondria. I had listened to the book on audio a few months before and was interested to see what else she would do for the world.

The Winged Histories expands upon the world in A Stranger in Olondria, providing a background into the political/religious setting of the world. It’s set contemporaneously to A Stranger in Olondria and follows four women caught up in the upheaval.

The thought Samatar puts into the world and the religious development is fantastic. She features a number of well thought-out political and religious overlaps and how those interact.

One of the things I noticed right away was the consistency in Samatar’s writing style. The similarity in the first character’s voice and the narrator’s in Olondria was striking. Samatar’s sentence construction and description styles for the two felt very similar. In a way, I both liked and disliked this. I liked the consistency and the distinctiveness of Samatar’s writing, but worried that the book would be atonal, especially considering that there were three other characters whose points of view were about to be presented.

The stories’ characters were definitely distinct. They ran the gambit from funny and loving to dark and brooding. I would argue that the story is family based. The initial character is a young woman in line for the throne. Her family has worked hard to position themselves to take control. After a semi-scandal involving her sister and cousin, she is the last hope to marry well and secure the family’s position, but she runs away to join the army, to become a shieldmaiden.

From that point forward, she becomes the catalyst for revolution, eventually involving her lover, sister, and political rival’s daughter.

The story is fantastical and brings back some interesting characters like Tailon, the daughter of the Priest of the Stone. The overall connections between the characters shows the depth of the story’s construction. Each character influences the others, eventually contributing to the political upheaval that takes place.

I really enjoyed the addition to the world Samatar built in A Stranger in Olondria. That being said, I wasn’t always sure that the story would have stood well on its own without my previously having read Samatar’s work.

The story feels very much like a series of intertwined novellas. Each new perspective pushes the story forward without always answering the questions left behind by the other stories. Some of the lore of Avalei is pretty important to the story overall, but doesn’t receive the same in-depth treatment that was needed in Olondria. In a way this makes sense, the distinction between the theology of the stone and Avalei is less important, but I imagine that reading The Winged Histories first may leave you a little lost.

At the same time, I can see the potential for the story to be a great introduction and context to its predecessor.

Overall, the story is very enjoyable. It’s beautifully written with some varied character voices, but I’d definitely suggest reading Samatar’s earlier works beforehand.

If you’ve read The Winged Histories, and especially if you read The Winged Histories before reading A Stranger in Olondria, I’d be very interested in your thoughts. Please comment below!

Thanks to Small Beer Press who provided me with a copy of The Winged Histories for review.

Review + GIVEAWAY | The Witch Who Came in from the Cold

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Giveaway is now closed

When I found out the premise and model of storytelling that Serial Box is doing, I knew I wanted it; when I found out who was participating and the quality of the work, I knew I needed it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review | Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal

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Mary Robinette Kowal’s Forest of Memory is a new Tor.com novella that (according to my .pdf reader) is about 50 pages. It also happens to be great to read while you soak your feet (which may or may not be how I read it). It chronicles the mysterious and unconfirmed week of a young woman who had gone missing.

The story is told from a first person perspective. The narrator, Katya, is a young woman who deals in antiquities, artifacts from previous years that show their wear. She goes up to look at a fairly rare find, a manual typewriter and dictionary, and is waylaid on her way home by a stranger who appears to be shooting—poaching? meddling with?— deer in the forest. She almost runs into the deer, but when the stranger notices her, he kidnaps her.

The story is fun for a number of reasons. The narrator is unreliable; it’s filled with intrigue; and you find yourself just wanting to know what in the world is going on.

It’s set in a future where people are constantly in touch with one another. People live stream everything. The narrator is particularly well known for this, because the authenticity and story that goes along with the items is as valuable, if not more, than the item itself. The very idea that someone could go missing and show up on the other side of the country without anyone knowing is basically unfathomable.

This brings into question a lot of different topics, like whether you can count on an individual’s memory, how interconnected we are, whether you can really have something be valid and authentic without “proof.” Kowal takes an, at times, round about way of talking about these issues, but the overall impact is no less effective.

The story is suspenseful and entertaining. There are moments where it can be slow, but this is often a good change of pace from the more tense moments of the book. The narrator is likeable, if unbelievable.

This was a pretty perfect evening-in book. Kowal managed to make an interesting world with a captivating plot that leaves you just wanting more. Better yet, she did it all in a story you can read in a sitting.

A big thanks to Tor.com for providing me with a copy of Forest of Memories in exchange for an honest review.