Yup, I’m doing this Pokémon/Hugo Review mesh up again. Let’s go. This year my ability to relate everything back to Pokémon was really tested, but I came through. This is my first theme team on the gen 8 games, but no new Pokémon appeared in this team.
If you are wondering what the hell I’m talking about, click here. the TL;DR: I like Pokémon, so every year I make a theme team with six Pokémon that each represent one of the nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Why? Why not? Let’s get to the reviews.
by Seanan McGuire
Published May 2019
I haven’t posted anything about the winners of the Locus Award yet, but now seems a good time to mention that Middlegame won this year’s award for the Best Fantasy Novel. I found this book to be a very exciting page turner, and I enjoyed the two protagonists, magic twins Roger and Dodger.
Magic is the wrong word for this story. In Middlegame, it is alchemy that powers all the fantastical elements in the story. It’s basically magic though. Roger and Dodger were created by an evil alchemist in order to embody an alchemic doctrine which would grant god-like power to whoever controlled it. Roger is a prodigy when it comes to words and language, whilst Dodger is a math genius. They are separated at birth and have no idea what they are, but from a young age have a telepathic connection with each other. The book follows the twins through the ups and downs of growing up smart and alone, and all the rocks this causes their relationship. That and the plot of the evil alchemist to use them for his own, mysterious means.
I enjoyed the plot, I was excited to get through it, and whilst I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the audiobook, I didn’t have any major issues with the narration.
One thing that did annoy me turned out to be McGuire’s writing style. She repeats a lot of things, and describes things with conflicting terms. In the Wayward Children series I found this whimsical and magical, but in a longer book with adult characters, it gets old fast.
I chose Bisharp to represent this book due to all the chess imagery used. There is even a conversation between Roger and Dodger about how different their lives would have been if Dodger had lost the black bishop from her chess set. It’s unusual that I get such strong, popular Pokémon in these theme teams. I’ve never had a competitive Bisharp before, but I’ve always liked the design.
The Light Brigade
by Kameron Hurley
Published March 2019 (Saga Press)
I read this book right after reading the latest Murderbot novel, and I feel that may have had an unfair impact on my feelings towards this book. In both Light Brigade and Network Effect, all powerful corporations with no regard for human life rule a dystopian future. Whilst I usually appreciate this trope, reading two books in a row with it got both depressing and a bit boring.
Fortunately, that’s the only similarity these books have, and the corporate power wasn’t the key focus in either book, so I was still able to enjoy The Light Brigade. This book is pure military science fiction set mostly on an almost destroyed Earth, with a fascinating technology and a troubled, flawed protagonist. It is excessively violent and depressing, with plenty of scenes that will make you angry at some of the militaristic and capitalistic aspects of our own society. I think this book supplied the right amount of anger, but it’s hard to judge that since reading it after Murderbot burnt me out a bit.
The main draw of this book for me was the main technological gimmick; the drops. Soldiers are turned to light and beamed to the site of their next engagement. It’s like the teleporter in Star Trek, except horrible. The process is physically painful, it messes with people’s minds, and accidents such as limbs being rearranged through chests, soldiers rematerializing within the ground, and people being merged together are common. Though to be fair, the teleporters in Star Trek had their fair share of horrific accidents.
Our protagonist Dietz has bad drops of the time-no-longer-being-liner kind. She gets beamed off to a mission, and sometimes finds that when she rematerialises she is on a completely different mission from a different time.It’s exciting riding along with Deitz as she tries to be a good soldier whilst figuring out the ‘rules’ to her strange out-of-time jumps. I greatly enjoyed piecing together the story of this war as Deitz experienced it in fragments, and trying to figure out how Deitz was going to close the loop she was on.
As with a lot of military science fiction though, before this book gets to the exciting war part, we go through the basic training section of the story. Maybe I’ve just read this sequence too often, because even though I can think of a number of stand-out scenes from this section, it was a struggle for me to get through it. I suppose this leads me to one of the problems with this book: it isn’t the most original story out there. It is often described as The Forever War meets Edge of Tomorrow and yeah, that’s pretty much all you get. Just add in the ‘fuck capitalism’ message.
Despite the action-packed timey-whimy story, my liking for Deitz, and the fact that this book agrees with a lot of my political views, I just find that the more I think about it the less I like it. Sort of the opposite of what happened with The Ten Thousand Doors of January. The ending is partly to blame; after all the anger and hopelessness this book made me feel, I wanted something more from the ending. I didn’t feel like the themes of this book were handled with any subtelry or originality. I also didn’t care about any characters other than Deitz; and even then I never felt like I truly got her, even though the story is told from her 1st person POV.
There was also a little thing that annoyed me a lot. Deitz’s gender was obscured until the end of the book for no reason. Except it wasn’t obscured well, though I can’t think of a way to explain the slip-up without dropping a spoiler. I don’t really know if Deitz being woman is supposed to be obscured; it could just be a reflection of no-one in universe caring, but it felt like it was being deliberately hidden, and I see no reason why. There were plenty of women in the military, and Samus Aran did the ‘you were a girl all along’ surprise better. Despite this being the most minor issue, it’s the only one that ever took me out of the book whilst I was reading it.
Picking a Pokémon to represent this story was difficult. On one hand, I wanted a heroric, paladin-like Pokémon to represent Deitz’s ambitions. However, Deitz realises that she is not the hero she wanted to be. I ended up going with Beheeyem, partly due to it’s habit of teleporting around the place, and partly because Beheeyem can rewrite memories, which seems appropriate given that part of what gives the Corporations in this world their power is how they rewrite and reframe the truth. I wasn’t aware that was something Beheeyem could do, because to be honest I usually forget that this Pokémon exists.
Gideon the Ninth
by Tamsyn Muir
Published November 2019 (Tor)
It’s been a while since I read this book, so now I’m trying to figure out where to start. In short, I loved this book a lot. I originally said I wasn’t going to read it; nothing I read about it really appealed to me, and I was seeing it on absolutely all my social media. I guess I didn’t want to give into the hype. Eventually I clued on that it was a dark fantasy IN SPACE and decided to give it a go. That turned out to be one of my best decisions last year.
So, one description of this book is “Lesbian Necromancers in Space” and I think I’ve seen another one somewhere that just says “Skeletons!” and yeah, those quotes are perfect. The basic premise is that the Emperor of the Solar System (Or galaxy?) is holding a necromancy competition for the nine heirs to the great noble houses. Each of these noble necromancers flies to this abandoned gothic mansion on an ocean planet with their sword-wielding cavalier. The necromancer/cavalier teams are left to explore the mansion, and eventually find and complete a series of tests together. I really like stories where there is some sort of game or test going on, so this was right up my alley.
We follow Gideon, the reluctant cavalier for the Ninth House. The Ninth House necromancer, Harrowhark, specialises in reanimating skeletons. All the necromancers have different powers, but Harrow’s is one of the coolest. Also, Harrow and Gideon absolutely hate each other. Which makes their having to work so closely together an interesting dynamic. Gideon and Harrow are both very compelling characters, and they are surrounded by an interesting supporting cast of distinct individuals.
I listened to this as an audiobook, but I’d still call it a page turner. The audiobook is great by the way, Moira Quick does excellent voices. The magic system in this story is easy to figure out, the mystery is compelling, and the necromancy challenges and sword fights are really cool. There was however a section of the story early on where Harrow refuses to interact with Gideon and disappears for days on end, leaving Gideon to wander aimlessly through the mansion and hang out with the other cavaliers. I felt like this was a speed bump where I got a little bored of the story, but once Gideon and Harrow are back together and working on the challenges, everything gets fun and exciting.
I chose Marowak as the Pokémon to represent this book, because bones motherfucker! The Alolan variant would have been more appropriate, but given I haven’t gotten too far in the new DLC yet it would be hard to get one.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January
by Alix E. Harrow
Published September 2019 (Redhook)
I’d been looking forward to reading this book for a while, but when I started reading it I found it didn’t interest me or grab me like I hoped. I mostly blame this on the timing though. I read this book right after Middlegame, and a lot of similar themes are repeated here, so I think I was getting a bit worn down by the ‘words are magic/power’ thing. Maybe if I re-read it later I’d enjoy it more.
And I’m not against re-reading it later either. I did enjoy this book overall, and there were some very exciting parts. The story is set in the 1900s, and follows January, a mixed-race girl growing up in the mansion of her father’s wealthy benefactor, Mr. Locke. As January grows up, chafing against the confines of her life with Mr. Locke and longing to go adventuring with her father, she encounters magical doors that connect different worlds.
Its a story with memorable characters and amazing worldbuilding. January goes through a lot of personal development, and at the end I was happy to see her stand up for herself. Which is a good thing, because I was annoyed at how passive she was in earlier parts of the book. I love her dog Bad as well, and it was so hard for me when he’d get hurt. The worldbuilding is the star of this book for me though; I loved all the glimpses we saw of the different worlds, with their different magic systems and rules.
That being said, I still had a lot of trouble getting into this story. Even after I had got hooked, there were still times when I was pushing myself to listen to this book, because I just wanted to be over and done and onto the next one. Seeing as the next book on my list was the new Murderbot novel, I suppose that is a bit unfair to this book. I guess Harrow’s writing style may have contributed too. This story is gorgeously written, and whilst I liked the descriptions and word choices, that combined with the slow start to the plot and the time skips made me a bit impatient.
The only concrete complaint I had is that January’s magical powers didn’t stick to the limits the story had set in place. I know that’s important to the themes of the story, and kinda the whole point of January’s character development, so it seems weird to complain about this, but I just wish it was handled differently. To me the most exciting part of the book was when she had to escape and nearly died doing so.
I have no big complaints though. Nothing that makes me angry or made me roll my eyes. But I also didn’t get that much out of it. I found it to be a nice, well written portal fantasy with good worldbuilding. I think for me, it may have been the wrong time for this book, and I may be looking at it too harshly. It’s a story outside my usual preferences, that I felt like I had to read right now despite having other things I wanted to get to, so take the negative aspects of this review with a grain of salt. If the premise interests you, I’d recommend still giving it a go.
I chose Klefki to represent this book, because with all those keys they collect, I bet they can open all the magic doors if they tried. I had a Klefki in an earlier game that had the move trick, which switches items. My strategy would be to give Klefki the speed-lowering iron ball, and then trick the opponent so they’d be slowed down and without their prefered item. With Klefki’s ability, trick would always go first, so they weren’t bothered by the speed drop. In one battle I badly misread the situation, and ended up using trick on a Pokémon that was already slow, and had been holding an Assault Vest (an item that buffs Special Defence whilst preventing the wearer from using any non-damaging moves.) Since Klefki is all about annoying, status causing non-damaging moves, this hurt me a lot more than my opponent.
The big question I had after this battle was; how does a keyring wear a vest? In the end I pictured Klefki with a tiny Assault Vest dangling off a keychain. Maybe that’s how they hold all items?
City in the Middle of the Night
by Charlie Jane Anders
Published February 2019 (Tor Books)
Ahhhh this book. Where to begin? I read this one over a year ago and didn’t write anything down. I don’t even know if I liked it or not.
Actually, I liked it. I can barely remember any of the plot, and if I wasn’t effectively a captive audience (read this book while on a long international flight) then it would have taken me ages to get through the slow, sometimes boring story that I’ve mostly forgotten. But still, I loved the worldbuild of this story so much that I am willing to forgive a lot.
Not saying that this is a bad story set in a fascinating world. This is quite a deep story, about how hard – yet how necessary – it is to change the ‘way we’ve always done things’. A story about a young girl trapped in both a society and a relationship that is toxic. It explores what it means to be human, and looks at how injustices can shape social systems long into the future. It touches on climate change, revolution, and altruism. It’s a book with a lot of deep things to say, and I wish I’d written down my thoughts as soon as I read it, since obviously I didn’t really soak up as much of this book as other people did.
What sticks with me most about this book is the worldbuilding. This story is set on a tidally-locked planet, and there are just so many little details that drive home what it would be like living on such a planet. In the very first chapter we see students meeting in a room with the blinds shut, but there is a hole in the blinds, and since the sun doesn’t move the opposite wall is actually discoloured where it’s been exposed to the constant sunlight. It sounds better when Anders describes it. A more notable example of this worldbuilding is how the sun impacts social status. One of the protagonists, Sophie, is from the working class of the city Xiosphant. Her family live near the edge of the day, with a sky constantly darkened. The prestigious university she goes to is in the centre of the city, in full sunlight, and most of her fellow students have been privileged to grow up in the bright daylight. The other protagonist, Mouth, is from a nomadic culture, and I felt so happen when I realised that when she talked about having walked ‘from dawn until dusk’, she was talking about how far she’d gone, not how long she’d been going for. At no point in this story do you forget that this world doesn’t have a day and night cycle.
There are only two big cities on this planet – at least, only two big human cities – and they both have very different ways of dealing with the lack of day/night cycles. In Xiosphant, an authoritarian government goes to great lengths to enforce a sleep cycle. Shutters are closed at sleep time, bells sound every hour, and if you are awake past curfew or not where you’re supposed to be each hour, then the punishments can be quite harsh. Of course, this control seeps into every aspect of Xiosphant life, including designated currency for different items. The plot of this book is kicked off by Sophie being thrown out to the deadly cold night side of the planet without a trial for appearing to have stolen three small ration chips, so, yes, Xiosphant is not an ideal place to live.
The other city, Argelo, turns out not to be much better. It is a lot freer, and Sophie is able to grow a lot more there than on Xiosphant. Argelo is called The City that Never Sleeps, because people there have given up on accurate and consistent timekeeping, and everyone is on their own schedules. As I said before, I read this whilst on a long plane ride, and my plane touched down for a seven hour layover in Kuala Lumpur just after Sophie and co had reached Argelo had described how things work in the city. At the airport, I was hit with jetlag and motion sickness, and all around me were people sleeping, eating dinner, getting breakfast, having lunch, basically everyone was on their own inner clock. I felt like I had stepped off the plane and into Argelo. Back to the book, the lack law and order means that criminal gangs run this city, and many people live in poverty.
There is one other city on this planet, and it’s the one in the title. It is not inhabited by humans, because on the night side of the planet it is too cold to easily keep humans alive. It is the city of the native sentient life of the planet, the gelet, which the humans have dubbed ‘crocodiles’. Hence why I have chosen Krookodile – a Dark type crocodile – to represent this book on my team. When Sophie is cast out of Xiosphant, she is saved by a gelet and forms a connection to her. Throughout everything that happens to Sophie in this book, the gelet, and their inhuman way of doing things, calls to her.
There have been some comparisons between this book and Ursula K. le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I didn’t see the connection at the time, but now I do. They both take a look at humans whose history and society is shaped by factors totally alien from life on Earth. They each explore two opposing cultures on this planet, and the plot is secondary to this anthropological study. Also, both planets are cold, snowy worlds. Of course, this description simplifies both stories, and they each have a lot of differences between them. I also haven’t read either one recently, so it’s a struggle trying to talk about them like this. Still, I’m surprised that despite not having City in the Middle of the Night fresh in my mind, and despite not having the fondest memories of this book, I still have so much to say about it. It shows that I probably got more out of this book than I was initially thinking.
Before I move on, there was one thing about this story that I remember well and I hated, and that is the ending. There are so many things unresolved, and I feel like it ended just as things were getting interesting. I’d call the ending sequel bait, but this is a stand alone book. It isn’t finished on a cliffhanger, but it still didn’t sit right with me. I know from reading other reviews that this is a controversial point and that others are happy with the ending, but I’m in the hate it camp. Whilst doing some research for this review, I came across a comment from Anders on Goodreads saying that a short story following some of the supporting characters after the ending of the book was to be shared in February, but I haven’t come across any more information. I’m a bit lost going through Ander’s website and twitter, and if anyone can point me in the right direction I’d appreciate it.
A Memory Called Empire
by Arkady Martin
Published March 2019 (Tor)
I’ve touched briefly on this book before, but now’s a good time to talk about all the great stuff in this book. First of all, the worldbuilding is excellent. There is a big galaxy alluded to, but all the action takes place on the planet Teixcalaan, which is centre of an empire of the same name. Our protagonist, Mahit, is an ambassador from a small mining station called Lsel, and her whole life, she has loved everything about Teixcalaan culture; even though Teixcalaan is a threat to her own home. Going to Teixcalaan is a dream come true for her, but she remains loyal to her home. It is through Mahit that we become immersed in the Teixcalaan Empire.
Unlike other books on this list, where the amazing worldbuilding kept me loving stories despite not being that interested in their plots, A Memory Called Empire is very well plotted and kept me up late trying to listen to just one more chapter. When Mahit arrives on Teixcalaan, she discovers that her predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, has died under suspicious circumstances, and no-one is willing to admit it was murder. Mahit discovers this pretty much as soon as she gets off the ship, and begins investigating right away. She soon discovers that Yskandr was stirring up something big in the highest levels of the Teixcalaan court, and that she is in danger. Most of this book is dialog and explanations, but it is still very exciting.
The characterisation in this is brilliant, and is heavily tied into the worldbuilding. Very quickly we grow to care not just about Mahit and Yskandr, but a lot of the secondary characters too. And yes, despite being dead, Yskander still plays an active role in this story. Lsel station uses a technology called Imago, where a person’s consciousness and memories can be transferred to another. Eventually the two merge into one mind, the purpose being to preserve skills and memories. Mahit is given Yskander’s imago before heading to Teixcalaan, but this imago is fifteen years out of date and she isn’t given enough time to fully recover from the process, leading to complications. Technologies like imagos are also taboo amongst the Teixcalaan, making her imago issues harder to deal with.
A Memory Called Empire features really unique memory/consciousness transfer technology and all the ramifications of that, an intricately imagined political system and culture, and a story that shows how someone can fall in love with an imperial culture that threatens their own. Really fun story, but the fact that it all takes place over such a short time with nearly every moment accounted for was a bit odd.
I chose Solrock to represent this book, based on a scene where Mahit becomes ‘sunstruck’. The Teixcalaan religion places emphasis on the sun, and not long into her stay on the world Mahit is awed by a ray of sunlight near a temple. It seemed like a good symbol of her awe at Teixcalaan culture.
Okay, that was a lot of reviewing. I feel that making a Pokémon team with this theme was worth it just to see Solrock playing with the disco ball in the camp. There is still about a week left until voting in the Hugo’s closes, and the awards will be announced on the 1st of August. I imagine it’ll be a very different ceremony, since due to Covid-19, Worldcon is completely virtual this year.
These were all good books, and I’m also enjoying the novellas, short fiction, and graphic stories. Which of course is why I cover the Hugos; with such a backlog of books to read, it’s good to have something prompting me to read newer fiction. Plus, it makes me read good books that I otherwise wouldn’t have been interested in. With all this focus on the best of 2019 though, I think I need to focus on something old school for a while. Good thing the Retro Hugos are there for that.