If you’ve not yet seen my posts on the Hugo Award Nominees 2020 and the Nebula Award Nominees 2020, then check them out now for a list of all the nominees in the novel, novella, novelette and short story categories.
This year, I’ve challenged myself to read all of the nominated novels and short stories, and at least some of the novellas, before the award winners are announced later in the year. I’ve been promising an update for a while, so finally here it is! I’ve not read any of the novellas or novelettes, but have made progress in reading the novels and short stories.
There’s six novels nominated for each award, but because there’s three overlaps, there’s only nine novels in total to read. So far, I’ve read three of these.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
This is the only one of the books I’d read before it was nominated. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the first novel by author Alix E Harrow, who wrote the short story ‘A Witches Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies’. Which is quite a mouthful which I can never quite remember without looking up, even though it is one of my favourite short stories of last year! Anyway, I loved that so sought out Alix E. Harrow’s first novel when it came out.
Like the author’s award winning short story, this book is about magic portals, or doors as they are rather mundanely known (not that there’s anything mundane about them). Basically there’s lots of doors between lots of worlds, if you know where to look. The main character, January, lives with her father’s employer, a super rich collector of rare objects, while her father travels round the world seeking out said rare objects for his employer’s collection. As a young child, she accidentally finds a door, briefly goes through. She almost forgets about if for many years, until one day she finds herself needing a magical door again.
This book is a story within a story, because it also tells the tale of a girl called Adelaide. At times it is a bit like a Russian doll of a book – stories within stories within stories, but it all fits together nicely by the end.
More than anything, this is a beautiful, magical read that flows along really well. I found myself being drawn into the tale. This is a tale of magical realism, and a bit of magical not so realism perhaps too. If you enjoyed The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, you’ll love this book. I loved them both, but of the two, preferred this one.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
The Teixcalaani Empire is vast, stretching across the galaxy and encompassing within its bounds most of humankind. Out on the edge of that empire though is Lsel, a fiercely independent mining station that wants to stay out of the Empire’s clutches. Newly promoted Ambassador Mahit Dzmare is posted to the heart of the Empire, the great city of Teixcalaan itself. When she arrives though, she discovers that her predecessor was murdered, and she could be next.
This is an intriguing science fiction novel by debut author Arkady Martine. It is part space opera, part murder mystery, and a lot of the book is about the political intrigues in the capital, as various factions compete to be the one to replace the elderly and ailing Emperor.
On basic plot alone, this could be quite routine and run of the mill, without anything to distinguish it from the thousands of other new authors competing for the SF reader’s eye. What sets this apart is what the author does with it however. This is an examination of two very different cultures. Both are human, but they have obviously at some point diverged in culture, technology and society. The main character, Mahit, is examining Teixcalaani as an outsider, and as such you learn a bit about two quite different civilisations. There’s some cool technology here too – from cloudhooks to infofiche sticks and imago machines. Then there’s the Teixcalaani names – Eleven Conifer, Six Direction, Three Seagrass. They add to the strangeness of the culture in a really good way. Oh and the Teixcalaani have a thing for poetry too.
All in all a gripping, fascinating SF novel.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This is a fantasy novel set in early 20th century Mexico, in the so called ‘Jazz Age’, not that this means anything to our main character Casiopea Tun who is living a life of drudgery for her wealthy grandfather – sweeping floors, doing the family’s shopping for them, and being essentially bullied by her insufferable cousin. She dreams of a better, more exciting life, but she gets more than she bargains for when she accidentally awakens the Mayan God of Death…
This book is a sort of fairy tale, with elements of the Cinderella story, largely because of Casiopea’s subservient roll in her family’s household – beyond that you can’t really liken the Mayan death god Hun-Kame to the fairy godmother… The novel does have that fable-like element though.
I really did enjoy this book. It is slow in places, the plot moving along at a sometimes too gentle pace as they move from place to place in quite a linear quest, but the plot isn’t really the main thing here. What I loved about the book is the world that the author creates, far away in time and place from my own. I’ve not read much, if anything, set in Mexico so that was a refreshing change. I do like a bit of mythology too, and there was quite a lot of Mayan mythology in here which I knew nothing about before reading the book. A very refreshing and interesting read.
“And Now His Lordship is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas (read it here from Strange Horizons) is a short story set in colonial India in the early 20th century, and features an old woman, Apa, who makes dolls out of jute (a vegetable fibre that grows in the area). A colonial governor hears about her skill and insists she make one for him, at a time when colonial policy is starving the native Indians and causing the death of all she loves. You can tell this isn’t going to end well for the colonial governor at least! This basic concept of this story is a simple one that has been done many times before (though Ramdas puts his own twist on it), but what makes this story really good in my opinion is the great writing and the historical and cultural backdrop. It opened my eyes to the Bengal famine and the “denial of rice” policy of the British colonial rule, which I ended up having to go read up about after finishing the story to find out more.
“A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde (read here from Uncanny Magazine) is a fascinating and hugely imaginative story about storms that come to threaten a small community, and the weathermen who try to warn people about the impending storms. This all seems quite mundane eh, why is this a speculative fiction story I hear you ask. What makes this story so great, is the endless variety of storms you’ve never heard of before, much less experienced, including a Browtic which is “rising heat from below that drives the rats and snakes from underground before they roast there” or a Vivid, “that bright sunlit rainbow-edged storm that seduces young women out into the early morning before they’ve been properly wrapped in cloaks.”
“As the Last I May Know” by S.L Huang (available here on Tor.com). Have you heard the phrase “one death is a tragedy, a thousand deaths is a statistic”? Well if you have millions if not billions of lives in your hands, how can you possibly see the human tragedy behind your decisions? This is the idea behind this excellent story – I just love the concept of this one, and it is a really well written human story, but with big consequences. I suspect I’ll be thinking of this one long after I’ve forgotten most of the other stories I’ve read recently.
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion” by Alix E Harrow (available at Beneath Ceaseless Skies) – You know something’s going to be a different when right from the opening line which says “Eefa has been a good husband, she knows, but now she is running.” Husband and Wife are terms dictating the role a person plays in this story, and not their gender. In this fantasy world, war is the one constant, going off at the Emperor’s whim to fight and die… Eefa wants none of it, wants to escape and is determined that her new baby be not marked from birth as a warrior to fight and die for the emperor. This is a really good fantasy story, which also has a lot to say, about war, gender, family loyalty.
So that’s it for now – four stories and three novels down, plenty to go at. I’m going to hold off thinking about favourites, until at least next time…