Saturday, September 18, 2021

Reviewing the 2021 Hugo Nominees: The Hugo Award for Best Short Story


Hugo Award voting is open and will continue through the November 19, 2021 (The voting period is extra long this year due to COVID delaying the convention till December).  For those of you new to the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre, the Hugo Award is one of the most prominent awards for works in the genre, with the Award being given based upon voting by those who have paid for at least a Supporting Membership in this year's WorldCon.  As I did the last fouryears, I'm going to be posting reviews/my-picks for the award in the various categories I feel qualified in, but feel free to chime in with your own thoughts in the comments.

This is the first part of this series.  You can find all the parts of this series, going over each category of the Hugo Awards HERE.

In this post, we're going to start covering the nominees in the Short Fiction categories - specifically, the nominees for Best Short Story.  These are works of no more than 7500 words, and can often be particularly short, such as only a 1-3 pages long.  This length requirement does not mean that these stories cannot make a big impact - indeed past and present nominees often come with a punch so strong to make one feel it for a while.  Which isn't to say that all of the nominees for this category have to be serious or impactful - fun, wistful, and heartwarming stories get nominated all the time.

Last year we basically had a bunch of serious stories, some of which carried significant punch, but no fun and/or silly ones.  This year, we actually have several fun, lighter stories, in addition to a few serious bittersweet ones.  In a change however, we really don't have any stories with significant punch or historical weight this year, and honestly, there aren't any stories that really make me think of them as "must reads" this time around.  None of the stories are bad, and a few of them are pretty good, but there have been some past stories that have just stood out to me as "Clear Hugo Winning Material", and I don't really see that here this time.  But all are good enough to be better than No Award, so I'll make the effort to rank them.....after the jump.  

As usual, all of this year's nominees are available online, and as such I have provided links to them for you to read below.  I encourage you to do so.

Friday, September 17, 2021

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: The Councilor by E.J. Beaton


The Councilor is the debut novel (and first in a series) by author E.J. Beaton.  The book is marketed as a Machiavellian fantasy, featuring a woman whose life's work has been studying and crafting a book based upon past history of what would be a truly "Ideal Queen", but that marketing - as is typical - is a bit misleading.  The story is instead the tale of a commoner woman given the chance at guiding power, finding she has a taste for it herself and struggling to handle her desire to do what's right, the lessons of her commoner heritage and an oppressed minority lover, along with the lessons her tyrannical ruler mother figure once taught her. 

And there's a lot here to like in The Councilor, especially in its lead character, its world (a very egalitarian and LGBTQ-friendly world, despite the oppressive treatment of a major minority group), and some of its prominent side characters.  Still the book, which isn't short but isn't long either, doesn't seem to have enough page length to deal with the moral and other struggles of its heroine, such that it doesn't quite seem to have enough space to deal with the interesting issues being dealt with.  There's also a drug addiction plotline that goes absolutely nowhere (and is advertised on the back page), which is very weird.  I'm very much interested to see where this goes in the next book, but this didn't quite hit the potential that it set up, to my disappointment.  

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: Bright Raven Skies by Kristina Pérez


Bright Raven Skies is the third and final book in Kristina Pérez's Sweet Black Waves trilogy, which featured a dark fantasy and YA take on the story of Tristan and Eseult/Isolde.  The first book, Sweet Black Waves (reviewed here) introduced the basic elements of the story, including our strong protagonist Branwen who would fall in love while gaining magical powers that she desperately tries to use to help her cousin due her duty and bring peace to her home country.  The second book, Wild Savage Stars (reviewed here) saw the lengths to which the heartbroken Branwen would go to do her duty to preserve the peace, even in the face of her loved ones jeopardizing everything.  The two books left the trilogy in a fascinating place, thanks to its tremendous lead character who felt both real and compelling as she tried to navigate impossible dilemmas and to take what little joys she could from it all.  

Bright Raven Skies, up through its final act, is a worthy successor and finale to the trilogy, as Branwen firmly deals with the consequences of her actions, and has to find a way to live going forwards.  And while the final act of the story feels a bit disjointed, as if it was written first before other plot developments were thought out, it still works as a conclusion to the story of a tremendous lead character, which makes this a satisfying conclusion in the end.  It's not quite a concluding volume that can elevate this story to the masterpiece it came close to, but I'm still really glad that I got tipped off to this trilogy, which features tremendous characters and relationships throughout.  

Spoilers for Books 1-2 are inevitable:

SciFi/Fantasy Anthology: This Year's Best African Speculative Fiction (2021) edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki


Full Disclosure:  This book was read as an e-ARC (Advance Reader Copy) obtained from the editor in advance of the book's release on September 28, 2021 in exchange for a potential review.  I give my word that this did not affect my review in any way - if I felt conflicted in any way, I would simply have declined to review the book.

This Year's Best African Speculative Fiction is another SciFi/Fantasy anthology which is obviously exactly what it claims to be - a collection of short stories from African writers that were published in 2020.  The collection features twenty nine stories published in 2020, all short story or flash fiction-esque in length, and as such features a ton of small bites for readers to enjoy and think about (rather than featuring any longer more in-depth stories).  Interestingly, unlike other collections, this collection has no hesitation including multiple stories from the same authors - so the book features two stories from Tlotlo Tsamaase, three stories from Sheree Renée Thomas, and two from Tobi Ogundiran. 

It's a solid and often very interesting collection, hitting a number of themes and topics throughout, featuring a number of writers who readers may be familiar with from recent highly praised novels (T.L. Huchu, Suyi Davies Okungbowa, C.L. Clark) and others from writers who are less well known.  I'd actually read a number of these stories before in both other anthologies (Dominion, Black Sci-Fi Short Stories) or just online (there's a couple from the FIYAH-Tor Flash Fiction collection that I distinctly remembered), and I was not displeased to see them collected again here.  All in all its a solid collection, whose biggest issue is mainly that it just seems not organized in any particular fashion, such that similar stories in the collection are kind of scattered throughout, rather than collected together.  

Some more specifics after the jump:

Trigger Warnings: Murder, Suicide, Child-Harm, and more in various stories.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Spoilery Discussion/Review: When Sorrows Come and the October Daye series, 15 Books In


This post is for a spoilery discussion of the 15th novel in Seanan McGuire's October Daye series.  If you are interested in the series and want to speculate on what the events of this book mean?  This is for you.  If not, and you still want to read this series, I recommend not reading on beyond the jump.

If you accidentally found this page and want to read the actual spoiler free review of this book, go HERE.

You have been warned.

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: When Sorrows Come by Seanan McGuire (Non-Spoiler Review)


Full Disclosure:  This book was read as an e-ARC (Advance Reader Copy) obtained via Netgalley from the publisher in advance of the book's release on September 14, 2021 in exchange for a potential review.  I give my word that this did not affect my review in any way - if I felt conflicted in any way, I would simply have declined to review the book.

When Sorrows Come is the Fifteenth (!!) book in Seanan McGuire's urban fantasy "October Daye" series, her first of two long running urban fantasy series.  I pretty much love this series - it's not high art or deep in its themes or whatever, but it's a really fun urban fantasy series with great characters, a really strong world that does deal at least somewhat with real aspects of our own world (even as it deals more and more as it goes on with the Fae rather than with ordinary humans).  And its fae world is really creatively done, its characters have grown tremendously over time, and honestly I just love so much of it all, even when the series does have the occasional off book here and there.  

When Sorrows Come is not an off book - it's probably going to wind up one of my favorite books in the series, if just for the ending and the attached novella.  The general overall plot isn't anything special to write home about, but the characters remain great, and most importantly, this book concludes what seems like a long plot arc of this series in such a happy and enjoyable way, with the main protagonist and her family coming together in generally pleasant ways, that I just found myself smiling in the end.  It's really to the point where the series could end here, and it would be a satisfying ending, even as this book still hints at more to come in the future.  

Note: This review will include as few spoilers as possible, although spoilers for past books are fair game.  A second post, linked HERE, will contain spoilery discussion and speculation for the series, so if you want to comment with your own thoughts, please comment there.  

Note2:  As is traditional with the series, the book contains an attached novella; however, unlike in most prior books, the attached novella is more of an epilogue than its own unique story, and as such, I won't be reviewing it separately.  

Thursday, September 9, 2021

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao


Full Disclosure:  This book was read as an e-ARC (Advance Reader Copy) obtained via Netgalley from the publisher in advance of the book's release on September 21, 2021 in exchange for a potential review.  I give my word that this did not affect my review in any way - if I felt conflicted in any way, I would simply have declined to review the book.

Iron Widow is the debut novel of author Xiran Jay Zhao, one with a pretty killer hook: what if you had a young adult novel that's a cross between Pacific Rim, A Handmaid's Tale, and the story of the first/only female Chinese Emperor in history?  Not that adding giant mecha into tales based on dark but real historical events fails to work often (see Tochi Onyebuchi's fantastic "War Girls"), but still the combination of all these things could easily have gone pretty poorly - being boring or tone-deaf at worst.  That is absolutely not the case with Iron Widow.

Instead Iron Widow is an absolutely tremendous piece of YA Sci-Fi, placing its tremendous heroine in a misogynistic world that she is determined to not let consume her.  The book deals really well with issues of patriarchy and misogyny and how it's reinforced by both men and complacent women, while also featuring a girl who will absolutely not bow to anyone and will not take such treatment without the possibility of getting revenge.  Oh yeah, and there are giant mecha, pacific-rim style, a strong love triangle, and a plot very much inspired by Chinese history that all meshes together really well, up until it ends on a hell of a cliffhanger - this is the first book in a duology, and I will look forward to the concluding half.  

Trigger Warning: Suicidal Ideation, References to Sexual Assault (not on page), Abuse by Family Members, Alcohol Addiction, and Torture.