An Odd Way to Read October Daye

With the Hugo Award closing date not until November and due to circumstances giving me an unusually good head start, I’m making a serious stab at voting in the Best Series category this year.

  • The Daevabad Trilogy, S.A. Chakraborty (Harper Voyager) <- I’d already read all of this and enjoyed it!
  • The Interdependency, John Scalzi (Tor Books)<- I’d already read all of this and enjoyed it!
  • The Lady Astronaut Universe, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books/Audible/Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction/Solaris)<- I’d already read SOME of this and enjoyed it and then I read the rest of it!
  • The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells (Tor.com) <- I’d already read all of this and enjoyed it!
  • October Daye, Seanan McGuire (DAW)
  • The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)<- I hadn’t read any of this, so I went and read it and enjoyed it!

So that leaves October Daye. I’d read none of these. I’ve read a lot of Seanan McGuire (in absolute terms…in relative terms to how much she has written…not so much) but mainly as part of Hugo reading. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read but I’m not a close match to an ideal reader for her work. I don’t then seek out her other books. There are books I read and appreciate the craft that has gone into them but don’t really grab me (e.g. Becky Chambers) and books I read & enjoy but have had enough by the end and then there are books that I want to consume more of. McGuire’s books so far have been more in that middle category for me. Undeniable talent but not quite what I’m after.

Of course, that’s what is so good about reading for the Hugo Awards. You get to read writers that push your own boundaries and involve you in other styles and narratives. Authors aren’t writing to appease individual readers, although inevitably they have a fanbase to whom they tailor their writing to some degree.

So the question was how to read October Daye. Not counting shorter works, there are 14 books and a 15th due in September. That is the essence of the Hugo Reader Paradox: there are too many books for a set of people who don’t believe there can be too many books. The rest of the nominees are either completed trilogies or ongoing series which are still at a manageable level of books for a new starter. Yet, back in the middle of the last decade when “Best Saga” was being discussed, October Daye was this kind of long-running series that was cited as the need for a new category.

Here is another dimension to my problem: trains or rather the lack of them. A global pandemic shifted my reading habits. Whereas, I used to mainly read books on a Kindle sitting on a train since 2020 I now mainly listen to audiobooks when going for a walk.

If I’m not going to read all of the series, then which parts should I read? The early bits? The later bits? The best bits? Reading the “best” ones (i.e. the ones fans like the most) upsets the pedantic side of my nature — I can’t judge a series just on the best bits! That’s cheating! Well, it isn’t but you know…or maybe you don’t and it’s just me…anyway, just assume that I wanted to get a sense of what reading the WHOLE thing is like without reading the whole thing.

My solution is to only read the odd-numbered October Daye books, at least up to book 7. I’d be “halfway” through that way and have a good sense of the series but only have read a quarter of the books!

How is the plan going? I’m on my third book i.e. book 5 One Salt Sea. So far I’ve read Book 1 and Book 3. I’m not won over yet but I’m also not tired of reading them or virtual throwing the audiobooks across the room.

Book 1 Rosemary and Rue is very much a debut novel and makes for fascinating reading just for the compare-and-contrast for McGuire’s writing compared with something as complex as Middlegame. You can see both the rough edges and the obvious talent but it also feels like a book of its time or rather a book of the time when McGuire would have first been working on it. Also, the noir-ish private-eye aspect of the story doesn’t quite work but the characters are engaging enough and there’s this real sense of promise in the story. You can also see all these budding themes and ideas that are going to sprout into later works.

Book 3 An Artificial Night is a massive levelling up in quality in all dimensions. Everything is more tightly written. It is also much more of an overt fantasy novel with just nods to the “real” modern world base setting for the central character. Most of the plot is driven by events in a faerie sub-world and you can also see McGuire’s interest in portal fantasies and the implications of these worlds on the children characters who visit them. There’s still a bit of a pacing issue with events feeling like they’ve reached a natural end twice before getting to the actual end.

Book 5 One Salt Sea I’m still reading. Now I’ve clearly missed a whole bunch of stuff in Book 4 but McGuire does a great job of getting a reader up to speed who may have missed a given volume. I don’t feel like this plan is going to leave me hopelessly confused.

I’ll keep going for the time being. I’m confident I’ll get to at least Book 9 now.

Lodestar 2021 Review: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

We have a lot more reading time this year in the Hugo Awards than usual and I’ve found I’ve made some dents into categories I don’t normally get to. My biggest problem with longer fiction is that my reading time for novels is now almost exclusively when I’m exercising which means audiobooks. I’ve recently launched myself into reading Seanann McGuire’s October Daye series but that’s a post for a different day. The other foray has been into fiction for a younger audience in the other not-a-Hugo aka the Lodestar Award.

First book in that arena is Legendborn, a YA urban fantasy Arthurian romance and that’s a very nice cocktail of sub-genres. Chaste love triangles? It’s a Young Adult cliche, it’s how urban fantasy spawned paranormal romance but it is nothing new to the legend of King Arthur. The classic Matter of Britain is such a rich vein that Legendborn feels so natural a fit to its premise that I feel like it must have been done a thousand times before but I can’t think of any examples. It cleverly fills an empty niche and if it had done only that then Tracy Deonn would deserve plaudits if only for spotting an unfilled spot.

Clever sub-genre choices though aren’t what makes a book worthy of a not-quite-a-Hugo-but-yeah-really-it-is-a-Hugo-c’mon and the test is not picking a clever premise but doing clever things with the premise and I’m genuinely impressed with how Deonn works with the idea and then pulls out layers and layers while still delivering on the demands of the sub-sub-genre.

Bree Matthews is a bright student who gains acceptance to an “early college” placement at a notable college in a Southern US state. Her academic success though has been marred by tragedy — shortly after being accepted to the college, her mother died in a car accident. She now finds herself as a sixteen-year-old, in the quasi-adult world of university still grieving and with unresolved issues around her last argument with her mother.

On her face night, things get weirder when she encounters magical creatures and a clique of students who appear to have magical powers…

So if you want the magical school setting and the urban fantasy masquerade and all that stuff, Legendborn delivers from training montages to magical competitions and handsome but troubled young men. We quickly learn that (gasp) the legend of King Arthur is a cover story for a history of a secret war between magical initiates and invading demons. A historic secret society at the college is actually a front for an international society of descendants from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Each family of descendants of the knights have a chosen representative with the capability of gaining special powers matched to the lineage.

Clever stuff but…

Bree is Black and the secret society has all the baggage that you might imagine of a clique of wealthy families connected to a historic institution in America’s south. Legendborn isn’t a subversion of the standard tropes of its multiple genres but it does allow the plot and the character to dig into the history and assumptions of its own settings.

The mystery of her mother’s death drives Bree into involvement with the so-called ‘legend born but also leads her into looking into the history of her own family. There she learns not just about some of the deeper secrets of the secret society she has become embroiled in but also a different history and a different model of magic.

There are some really nice touches here and while I don’t want to give too many spoilers there are some subtle choices in the world-building. For example, in the Arthurian set-up, which is presented initially as the magical world in which Bree is initiated, magic is based on lineages and bloodlines. Inheritance and family are key aspects of having power. Later, as Bree taps into a different world of magic, family is still important but it is transmitted via oral tradition from grandmothers to granddaughters. The comparison and contrast between the idea of magic (and hence power) as a family legacy is very well done but it is subtle and woven into the more conventional narrative.

The novel is part of a series and the over-arching plot isn’t complete by the end but as a stand alone novel, it works and there is a good (and revealing) climax that shifts events and character relationships into a new state.

No big plot surprises but an excellent example of how to take what superficially looks like a by-the-numbers plot and do engaging things with it.

Hugo 2021: Best Series – The Poppy War by R F Kuang

Having already read three of the six Best Series finalists, 2021 was already looking like the year that I might actually have a well-informed opinion of the category. In the time since the finalist were announced, I’ve completed The Lady Astronaut series [https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2021/05/21/hugo-2021-the-fated-sky-relentless-moon-lady-astronaut-by-mary-robinette-kowal/ ] which left Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series and R F Kuang’s Poppy War. Given the sheer amount of material for McGuire and the fact that the Covid years have shifted me to audiobooks (long story), the choice of “what’s next ” went to The Poppy War and it was a good choice.

Spoilers for the whole series in terms of broad plot arcs follow…

Continue reading “Hugo 2021: Best Series – The Poppy War by R F Kuang”

Hugo Packet Time!

How exciting! I’m just perusing the contents PDFs for the moment but there is a dramatic (ha ha) uptick in the BDP-long/short contents. In short there are links to a FULL episode on Vimeo for Doctor Who and The Expanse. Long Form also has a link to the full movie of The Old Guard as well as screenplays for The Old Guard and for Palm Springs.

Written works is also very generous, Best Series and Lodestar in particular. I think only Piranesi in Best Novel is the only excerpt.

Well done Discon! I know it must be challenging work to assemble these packets. Greatly appreciated.

Hugo 2021: Black Sun (Between Earth & Sky 1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

It is time for a big canvas, multi-character epic fantasy with duelling gods and political machinations. Rebecca Roanhorse follows four characters towards disaster as a holy city awaits a foretold solar eclipse.

The setting is a set of nations with a feel of pre-colonisation Americas, with influences drawn from multiple cultures. The alternating perspectives of the four protagonists make the world feel large and varied, with two people having to travel from other nations to reach the city of Tova and a third recently returned there. At the heart of the conflict is a generational crime in which the ruling Watchers murdered large numbers of the Carrion Crow clan many decades earlier. While the focus is on Tova and its religion, politics and magic, there is a strong sense of a bigger world with multiple cultures and languages.

Key to the world-building exposition is Xiala: an exiled sea captain who drinks too much and hails from the semi-aquatic Teek people — an all-female society of ocean-dwelling people of magical origin. Drawn into a contract to escape jail, she is tasked with taking a mysterious cargo across the sea to Tova, with strict instructions to get there before the capital-c Convergence. Xiala is a stranger to the politics and culture of Tova whereas the other three characters are already embroiled in events. However, each of the characters are to some degree outsiders.

Serapio (the aforementioned cargo) is a young man with mysterious powers over crows. Raised far away from Tova, he is heading home to the land of his mother. Okoa is a leading warrior of the Carrion Crow clan and like all the warriors of the Sky Made clans that mean he gets to ride a magical oversized version of his clan’s signature creature i.e. a giant crow. Pulled home to Tova by the death of his mother the matriarch of the clan, Okoa finds himself amid the lingering political and cultural tensions of Tova. Finally, Naranpa has found herself at the apex of Tova’s religious hierarchy as the Sun Priest but her lowly origin among Tova’s underclass leaves her far more powerless than her high office would suggest.

Magic, violence and cruelty run through the book but there are tender moments and the four characters are each out of their depth in quite different ways as long-laid plans draw them towards the same point in time. In particular, Serapio’s back story as a child is distressing, as he has been shaped into a magical weapon of vengeance. He is though, an excellent example of how Roanhorse makes use of the familiar tropes of epic fantasy and subverts them. Both he and to a lesser extent Naranpa have elements of the classic chosen-one trope of fantasy but neither of them in a wholly conventional sense and Serapio with a substantial sense of a dark force reborn.

The audiobook manages the frequent shifts in character perspective by using multiple narrators. That helps with the initial chapters where the reader is plunged into the rich world Roanhorse has created.

I thoroughly enjoyed this and despite the scale of the world-building, I found myself immersed into the setting very quickly. It is a book with a sense of bigness to it with quite different magical elements to it distinct to the individual characters. The growing tension as chapter by chapter we get closer to what will clearly be a very bad day for all concerned, is well executed and if I hadn’t been using the audiobook version I would probably have rushed through the final chapters.

I’ve enjoyed other works by Roanhorse but this is definitely a more skilful and mature work from a writer who started with a lot of promise. It sits in that sweet spot of delivering the vibe of the big magical saga but with enough innovation in setting and magic to feel fresh and original.

Good stuff…but we’ve also got to look at this as a candidate for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. That is a tricky question. Definitely deserves to be a finalist. I found it to be expertly crafted and original. It is an excellent example of what current science fiction and fantasy can offer a reader. However, it is also very much book 1 of a longer narrative and faces all the issues that epic fantasy has when competing in the Hugo Awards. Book 1 of a series can win Hugo Awards, in recent years Ancillary Justice, The Fifth Season, The Three-Body Problem are each the first book in a series and also stand-out winners in what is already a highly elite set of books. Yet, Black Sun really feels like we’ve stopped in mid-flight in a way those novels don’t. It’s more than just that there is more to come but that the immediate arc of the story is left hanging.

The book stops at a sensible point but it really is hard to evaluate the story as a complete thing in itself. Of the four characters, Serapio has the fullest story arc but Xiala is the most complete character. We learn a lot about Naranpa but I felt like I was only beginning to get a sense of her as a character. Okoa feels like his story has barely begun. The underlying questions of revenge for historic wrongs versus reconciliation have only partly been touched on by the end of the book. None of that is a criticism of Roanhorse’s craft, quite the opposite. The pacing of the character’s arcs here is a smart choice for building a complex multi-volume narrative. But…I feel like I’m back to the Tad Williams problem we discussed recently. It’s hard for epic fantasy because book 1 is only a beginning.

Is that unfair? Part of the negative aspect of the Hugo Awards is where we find fault in excellent books by judging them against unreasonable criteria. Gosh, Black Sun didn’t quite manage to pull off the trick that The Fifth Season managed to create a story that has the natural momentum of a beginning while the satisfaction of a complete novel! Fancy that – didn’t quite make all the elements of one of the most highly praised books of this century! Shocking! Yeah, it’s unfair and it is part of the unfairness of picking out the best-of-the-best-of-the-best. I’ll have no complaints if Black Sun wins, probably won’t be my number one pick but the Hugo Awards should reward writers showing consummate skill in the genre and Black Sun would be a worthy winner.

Hugo 2021: The Fated Sky/Relentless Moon/Lady Astronaut by Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series continues to offer an almost Campbellian approach to science fiction with her alternative history series. Set in an alternate 1960s where a cataclysmic meteorite crash has plunged the Earth into a climate crisis and spurned on space exploration, the first two novels followed the back story of Elma York, the heroine of her much earlier short story The Lady Astronaut of Mars.

I say Campbellian, because this is an epic series about bold people with top piloting skills, sharp mathematical brains and a dedication to treating the perils of space as engineering problems to be solved. They are also books that would probably make John W Campbell apoplectic, as Kowal puts second-wave feminism front and centre with York having to fight institutional and personal prejudices to become an astronaut and also brings in the racial politics of 1950s/60s America. And while her major characters have all the supposed ‘right stuff’ to venture into space, their apparent hyper-competence masks complex emotional and mental health issues.

Although very different in style and genre to the many re-workings/re-appropriations of H.P.Lovecraft-style fiction we have seen in recent years, there is a similar transform being applied. Take an older style and re-examine it under a critical lens for the underlying prejudices and societal expectation — tease those out and then turn them and apply what we know about society. It is by no means a trivial task and Kowal has accomplished it with skill.

The books enter the Hugo lists again this year in two forms. Firstly book 3 (The Relentless Moon) is a finalist for Best Novel and secondly the whole series is up for Best Series.

I listened to the audio books of two books in the series, having read the first in 2019. An advantage and disadvantage of the audio is that is performed by Mary Robinette Kowal who is a thoroughly entertaining voice actor but…who really, really needs some help with some of the foreign accents she is attempting.

The Fated Sky, follows Elma York through humanity’s first attempt to fly to Mars. It is a well driven story that pulls in political tensions on Earth and then tracks the events of an interplanetary voyage using early 1960s technology. If you want claustrophobic space adventure it certainly delivers. However, it also is very much a season 2 of drama that felt very fresh in season 1 but which offers the same thing in the next set of episodes but with different events. Characters do develop (in particular Elma’s long-term rival/opponent Stetson Parker) and the collision between the alternate-history’s politics and the actual changes in 60s America around civil rights add a deeper dimension to the story. I genuinely enjoyed it but finished it unsure if I wanted to read a third story just like it but just moved on a few more years. Also, the focus on the long Mars mission meant that the complexities on Earth had to take a back seat once the key characters were trapped in the long void between planets.

Well, there is a reason why Kowal is a professional writer. Book 3 cleverly defied my expectations. With Elma York stuck in a tin-can, The Relentless Moon changes the protagonist and tweaks the genre expectations. Set in roughly the same time period as The Fated Sky, we follow Nicole Wargin a side character from the first book.

Wargin, like York, is an experienced pilot whose World War 2 experience helped her become one of the first set of women to go into space during the events of book 1 The Calculating Stars. Unlike York, Wargin is a wealthy, socially connected woman who is also the wife of the Governor of Kansas — the state that post meteor, now also houses the US capitol and is the centre of the space program. However, in other ways Wargin is a hero very much in the same mould as York: she is a very capable woman with socially progressive (for the 1960s) views but with a privileged background. While York has to deal with chronic anxiety, Wargin’s cool, calm, collected demeanour covers up her long-standing eating disorder. She is also a woman with a secret, which I shan’t reveal here but which I found to be nicely revealed and which was cleverly introduced in fragments and retrospectively explains a great deal about the character.

The broad template of The Relentless Moon follows a similar model as the earlier books. The initial chapters are set on Earth and we learn a lot about the politics and social dimensions of the desperate space program and post-meteor society. Wargin must overcome sexism to get herself back into space and also in the process has to come to understand the other prejudices that riddle the world she lives in. Those chapters lead Wargin back into space and follow her onto a role on Earth’s growing moon colony.

However, where the earlier books narrative arc were determined by the episodes and events of the central mission, The Relentless Moon has a different story dynamic. The space mission faces opposition by a reactionary/populist movement and Wargin finds herself investigating possible sabotage and infiltration of the Moonbase. The focus on solving the practical difficulties of living in space with only 1960s technology remains, it is just that many of those practical problems (including a polio outbreak) are complicated by more active human malice.

The detective story element doesn’t feel tacked on. It integrates nicely with the existing style of the books and if you enjoyed either of the earlier books, The Relentless Moon delivers the same strong elements but with an added perspective that I welcomed.

It isn’t quite a stand-alone book and the eventual resolution of events not only ties it back to the events in book 2 but also marks another shift in the radical social change going on in Kowal’s post-meteor society. However, you can quite reasonably read The Relentless Moon and The Fated Sky in either order and I can see an argument for reading them in reverse order (some events will be spoiled but not drastically).

Hugo wise? The Relentless Moon is a reasonable finalist and deserves its place but simply isn’t as groundbreaking as The Calculating Stars. It isn’t likely to be my number 1 pick but not because of any particular flaws. It is a strong entry in the series though, which takes us to the other question of Best Series. I’ve struggled with this category but this year I’ve actually read a hefty chunk of the finalists and Kowal’s books are a very strong entry. Consistency isn’t a relevant virtue for Best Novel but is an important aspect of Best Series and this series has three very strong books (and one piece of shorter fiction that kicked the whole thing off). Too early to say if the series will be my number 1 pick but it is a strong contender.