Saturday, June 23, 2012

2012 Hugo and 2011 Nebula winner, novel: AMONG OTHERS by Jo Walton

For trendspotters, there’s a nice resonance between this book and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.   Both are novels with strong sf elements about young people overcoming rotten childhoods and doing so with the aid of science fiction media. Both novels are extremely nostalgic, and the timing isn’t that far apart (Ready Player One is obsessed with the 80s as a whole, though leaning towards the middle of the decade, Among Others takes place from fall of 1979 to spring of 1980, though it's more nostalgic for the books of the ‘60s and ‘70s). It’d be easy to make some grand pronouncement about generational shifts, or sf eating itself, or memoir bleeding into genre…or something. All that said, Among Others is a very different book from Ready Player One, and I think it’s a nice commentary on the diversity of the genre that Cline and Walton were obsessed with sf around the same time but had very little crossover in interests (Walton’s not so into the video games, the tv, and the movie films, though I’d argue, as a book lover who’s not fond of book snobbery, that Cline’s days in the arcade, and Walton’s science fiction book club probably served a lot of the same purposes for them).

In 1979, a fifteen-year-old Welsh girl named Morwenna runs away from home and finds herself in the custody of a father she has never known. Her wealthy aunts decide to send her to boarding school, where she is the unpopular new kid, though Walton nicely avoids piling on Dickensian melodrama and instead shows us a teenager who is simply not very popular, which certainly makes her relatable to much of this novel’s audience. Morwenna finds refuge in science fiction novels and eventually discovers a cohort of like-minded bookworms. It’s a gentle coming-of-age story peppered with commentary on the popular sf novels of the age. I imagine that there’s a fair amount of autobiography here as well, considering that the author was a fifteen-year-old science-fiction-adoring Welsh girl herself in 1979 (there were echoes of Walton’s Hugo blogging series here – fans of those posts should check out the novel and vice versa).

Oh yes, the fantasy twist. Morwenna is the daughter of a witch, she can see fairies, and she can cast spells herself. I’m very fond of the way Walton works this in. There are some pretty passages that meld fairies with the post-industrial Welsh landscape (check out the first pages for one of the best examples), Morwenna frets a bit about the ethics of magic, and there is something of a fantastic climax, but, for the most part, the fantasy elements are in the background. In fact, the most dramatic confrontation, in which Morwenna’s twin sister is killed in an attempt to stop the evil magic of their witch mother, occurs before the novel starts and is usually referred to only obliquely.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that Morwenna is an unreliable narrator with an overactive imagination. There are subtle clues that suggest this: magic works purely by coincidence, not many people see fairies (you have to believe!). I think I’d need to reread the novel to find more. That said, Walton doesn’t underline that question and avoids the tired “I swear it was real!” fantasy trope. It doesn’t matter if it’s real, because it’s a real component of how the narrator experiences or processes the world around her.

This is a really charming novel, and it’s the type of book that I like more as I write about it, which is always a good sign. Is it Hugo-winner worthy? That’s a tougher question, especially since the speculative elements are so light. I almost wish it could win "related works." I am leaning towards it though - I'll talk more about my pick for winner soon.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

2012 Hugo nominee, novel: A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by George R. R. Martin

Yes, I'm still here. This summer is gonna be rough for me, so expect sparser and shorter posts. Sorry.

Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is surely the hottest property in speculative publishing at the moment (maybe disregarding YA), especially with the conclusion of the second season of the HBO series, which has been a success critically and in the ratings. I had my doubts about the first volume, was won over by the second, and adored the third. There's a general consensus that the fourth and fifth volumes show a decline, and, well, I guess I have to agree.

I obviously read A Feast for Crows first. My quick take is that it’s not as poor as its reputation – the fact that it was years late and its sequel years later factoring large in its assessment. That said, it’s a partial story, and the characters left out (not to mention the end points for the characters left in) seem especially designed by Martin to frustrate readers. The book is fairly focused though, and, in Cersei Lannister, we get one of our clearest single-book character arcs since Ned Stark’s in book one (though, again, it lacks an ending). I’d probably give it a B+, which is a big step down from the previous two entries, but not bad at all.

A Dance with Dragons, on the other hand, I found even worse than its reputation. I think it's a clear low point in the series. The series has always been a little notorious for its tangents - character arcs never quite end up at their original goal, new elements are constantly added, and characters can get bogged down in specific locales or storylines. Some people have gone so far as to suggest that Martin is using delaying tactics because he doesn't know where the series is going. I'm not going to go that far, but that would explain a lot. 

In Dance, one major character sets out in a promising direction and then gets waylaid at least half-a-dozen times to the point that he ends up as a slave performing a variety act. A major new claimant to the Iron Throne is introduced. Yes, by God, another one! Another major character is killed off for no particular reason (though I doubt he's really dead). Several characters only get look ins or don't appear at all, and most of the plotlines left hanging in Feast land with a thud. I found this novel somewhat tedious, and it took me months to get through (I read A Storm of Swords, which is longer, in a week or so, and Feast even faster - I think because I was still riding the high of Storm).

That said, the book does still contain many of the series' virtues. The prose is strong, the dialogue clever, the characters feel real, and he world is insanely detailed. Song of Ice and Fire fans will still find plenty to like. But some forward momentum and simplification of the plot would really be welcome.

A lot of bloggers seem to think that this is the odds-on favorite to win based on the current buzz that the franchise has. I'm not sure I buy that - my gut says Embassytown is unbeatable - popular Hugo-winning author does space opera for the first time is a clear winning formula. But I can't say I'd mind horribly if this did win, even after spending a full blog post complaining about it. There's no clearly better winner, in my opinion, and I'd view an award for this novel as an award for the series, which has not yet won and really does deserve to. I wouldn't vote for this novel though.

Grade: C+