Friday, July 21, 2017

The Obelisk Gate, by N. K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate is the second book in the Broken Earth series, and was nominated for at least the Nebula and the Hugo this year.  I really enjoyed the first book, The Fifth Season, and was looking forward to this one also.  It did not disappoint.

Our protagonist, Essun (once Syenite--that gets confusing, I don't think I ever figured it out from the first book) has gone in search of her daughter Nassun, but has pretty much given up on that quest and is trying to settle into Castrima, a comm (community) where orogenes are welcomed and have been summoned.  Essun tries to fit in, but it isn't really working.  Especially because her mentor, Alabaster, is dying there but trying to pass on his knowledge to her.  We also get to see some development of Nassun, who survives a journey with her father to an orogene colony in the Antarctics.

There is some real and fascinating progression in the plot, more than enough to keep the story very enjoyable.  We learn more about the very alien Stone Eaters.  It took me awhile to remember where the Stone Eater Hoa fits in--might be worth skimming the previous volume as Jemisin doesn't spend a whole lot of time reviewing the previous book.

I think it's a contender for a sweep this year, though All The Birds In the Sky and Borderline will give it a run for the Nebula.  I give a narrow edge to Borderline but Jemisin is better known and may be the favorite.  This book is four stars, and I'll look forward to the last one.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway is the first book in the Wayward Children series, and the last of the novellas nominated for a Nebula that I'll be reading this year. 

McGuire is a very competent and prolific author.  I am familiar with her through her Newsflesh trilogy (here is one of my reviews) which was aimed more at adults, but a lot of her work is aimed at teen girls.  Every Heart a Doorway is one of those.

The story is fairly basic.  Our protagonist is one of a number of girls thought to be kidnapped, but actually having visited an alternate reality through one of many fairy-tale type doorways that open up to those who look for them.  There are a few boys, but mostly it is a girl thing.  The girls sometimes return from these alternate realities, willingly or unwillingly, and are thus reunited with their families, but are permanently changed by their experiences.  They don't fit here anymore, and the ones sent to Eleanor Wilson's Home for Wayward Children want to go back to their alternate worlds.  The actual plot in this book is a murder mystery--the girls are getting killed one by one--but mostly it illustrates the alternate worlds.  It's all pretty orderly--there are major and minor axes for the types of worlds.  There are a few plot inconsistencies that cause grief in this orderly universe--the worlds the girls discover "fit them well" and they want to go back, but there's also a mention of another home for those who hated their alternate world experience and don't want to go back.  Oops.

So this is another fairly well executed, not overly original book by McGuire.  If you like the rest of her stuff you will like this.  3 stars.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer

Too Like the Lightning is one of the Hugo nominees this year.  The awards seem to be back on track, and we've had strong entries so far in All the Birds In the Sky and Ninefox Gambit.  This is another worthy entry.

I'll say up front, though, that it takes some work to read and appreciate this book.  The setting is several hundred years in the future after the Church Wars nearly wiped out humanity.  What has been settled on is a system of Hives, approximating old political regions and tightly interlocked.  There is freedom of belief, but preachers and proselytizing are no longer allowed.  In their place, we have sensayers, people who help interpret your beliefs and educate you about others.  They seem like a mild parody version of Unitarian Universalists.  People live in 'bashes, extended group homes for both life and work.  The focus of the story is the Saner-Weeksbooth 'bash, in charge of the entire network of self-driving cars.

The story is told mostly by Mycroft Canner, currently a Servicer--someone who has committed a crime severe enough to warrant forbidding all material possessions and working only for meals.  Canner is an incredibly talented fellow so his services are much sought after, at the highest levels.  Canner has discovered a miracle--a child who can himself perform miracles--and has brought it to the S-W 'bash for assistance.

The first half of the book is a dense slog through scene-setting.  Awkward combinations of ethnic names, acronyms, and characters slowly sort themselves out.  The Saner-Weeksbooth 'bash is weak, having lost its senior members in a freak rafting accident, and now they are trying to deal with a miracle as well. 

Perseverance pays off, as things really pick up in the second half of the book.  One is by turns horrified and rendered thoughtful, and then those get blended.  It's a fine piece of work, and I won't say anything about the second half to avoid spoiling it.  I will say that the book does not stand on its own--it is the first of the Terra Incognita series, and has a cliffhanger ending.  In the end I enjoyed it and it edges over into 4 stars.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The City Born Great, by N. K. Jemisin

The City Born Great is N. K. Jemisin's entry in the Hugo short story category, though it's nearly a novella in length.  Our protagonist is a homeless man, first seen ululating at the city of New York.  In general.  Is he a madman, or clued in on its future?  Pretty quickly we find out the latter--he is chosen to bring the city to birth.  This will not be at all easy or safe. 

Along the way we get a take on our current relationship between blacks and cops.  But the intent of the story seems to be to show someone deeply in love with his city, knowing it in a way others do not.  Not the first of these I have read, and New York is often a focus (see James Blish's Cities in Flight series--this story reminded me of these, if only for the setting).  It's enjoyable and a fine entry for the short story award.  3 stars from me.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Tomato Thief, by Ursula Vernon

The Tomato Thief is a Hugo nominee for the Novella award this year.  This one fits into the Native American tradition, with some interesting twists.  Our protagonist is an elder (the term isn't used in the story), Grandma Harken.  She grows the best tomatoes in the area, and they are getting stolen.  Turns out the thief is a shapechanger--a woman who is also a mockingbird.  The story revolves around what happens when Grandma Harken catches the thief and learns her story.

Vernon had a story called Jackalope Wives nominated for the Nebula in 2015.  Grandma Harken is the protagonist there also, and there's a brief reference, but you don't have to have read it to appreciate this one.

Vernon has constructed a very interesting world in a short space.  We have magical, sentient trains that speak like mystics.  A child with cholla ribs for bones.  It's a fascinating read, and will be a contender for the award.  I give it a strong 3 stars.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Touring With the Alien, by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Touring With the Alien is the first Hugo-only nomination I have read this year, and it's a very strong entry for the award.  We have a pair of protagonists--Avery, the exotic loads driver, and Lionel, the child abducted by the visiting aliens.  They are inscrutable inside their massive, seashell-like "ships".  There is no evidence that these things traveled to get to earth, but they either did that or grew here.

Then an alien wants to tour the country, so Avery is hired to drive the bus.  She starts talking to Lionel and discovers the crux of the story.  These aliens are not conscious, in the exact same sense that we can act without self-consciousness.  They are in the zen flow, every day, all the time.  No self reflection.  No sense of self, so no sense of death.  They act in the world, harnessing technology and other species to work for them, but all without that sense of self that humans have. 

But they get that sense through their abductees--or adoptees.  And it turns out that consciousness is like a drug.  It tears the aliens up and ages them prematurely, but they can't kick it.

The story unpacks this notion, including some of the creepy physical aspects.  The story itself is limited, but the idea is such a dandy one that you just have to admire it.  I will give it four stars for the "zinger".  Fun!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Everfair, by Nisi Shawl

This is the fourth of five novels I'll be reading for the Nebulas.  Everfair is categorized by its author as an alternate history steampunk novel.  And while there is steampunk to be found, it's pretty heavy on the history.

The setting is an imaginary country in Africa, carved out like all others from European conquest.  In this case it is not by force, but by "purchase" from the Belgian king Leopold.  Well-meaning whites in the British Fabian Society facilitate the purchase, and it becomes an African democracy.

The story is one of forward-thinking hope--the narrative is driven by a lesbian love triangle and interracial romance.  Everfair is modern in all aspects--it is scientifically as well as socially advanced.  The technology is interesting--we have bicycles powered by very small steam-turbine nuclear reactors, and very intricate prosthetics (driven by atrocity).  But the technology in most cases does not seem to interact as much as it might with the history, the exception being the development of flight as freight transport through advanced dirigibles.  Mostly it's a recitation of the various political struggles and intrigues of a colony formed by idealists, trying to avoid Liberia's fate.

Personally I just did not find it engaging.  There's very little action that matters, and while drama is the central driver, it rarely reaches more than a simmer.  Everfair kind of bumps along, speaking lessons to our time but in a way that reminds me of an overly warm summer school classroom.  Took me forever to read.

It's a book you want to like, but in the end I can only give it two stars.