Hugo Reaches Dry Ground under Uncommon Stars

This year's Hugo-nominated novels are both highly diverse in subject and not so diverse in other ways.

Issue #26, Wednesday 20 July, 2022

Bookish News

New and Upcoming Releases

Limberlost by Robbie Arnott

Release date: 15 October 2022

In the heat of a long summer Ned hunts rabbits in a river valley, hoping the pelts will earn him enough money to buy a small boat. His two brothers are away at war, their whereabouts unknown. His father and older sister struggle to hold things together on the family orchard, Limberlost. Desperate to ignore it all—to avoid the future rushing towards him—Ned dreams of open water. As his story unfolds over the following decades, we see how Ned’s choices that summer come to shape the course of his life, the fate of his family and the future of the valley, with its seasons of death and rebirth.

The third novel by the award-winning author of Flames and The Rain Heron, Limberlost is an extraordinary chronicle of life and land: of carnage and kindness, blood ties and love.

I’m very excited to see this. Arnott’s first two books were both brilliant, so I can’t wait to read this one.

More details

The Registrar by Neela Janakiramanan

With the frenetic pace of a psychological thriller, The Registrar offers a rare insight into the world of a surgeon-in-the-making from one who has survived it. Told with compassion, skill and emotional heart, this gripping and moving novel goes behind the headlines to reveal the human experience of being both doctor and patient in a medical system at breaking point.

‘This is compelling. You won’t put it down.’ Dr Norman Swann

Looks to be a must-read to know what life is really like for our overstressed public hospitals in Australia.

Buy it at Readings

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd

The Night Ship is an enthralling tale of human brutality, fate and friendship - and of two children, hundreds of years apart, whose destinies are inextricably bound together.

I’m a sucker for a good middle-grade novel, which this one appears to be.

Buy it at Readings

My Reading

2022 Hugo-Nominated Novels

Perry Middlemiss and I have been working our way on our podcast through all of the fiction nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards. We finally reached the novels, of which I’ve now read all but one. I’ll cover these in my order of preference, best last.

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

This was the sole Hugo-nominated novel I didn’t read, mainly because it is a sequel to a novel I also haven’t read and I couldn’t summon up the energy to read both.

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

I had high expectations of this book, based on what I'd read about its setting and concept, but I was greatly disappointed and found it hard work to get through.

The story is set in 1912 Egypt—just prior to the First World War—but in an alternate timeline where, many decades earlier, a portal has been opened into the realm of the djinn, many of whom have entered our world and live amongst humans, in some cases working alongside them, or operating businesses of their own. Djinn are beings who are all but immortal, and some of whom have immense magical power. But they also suffer from many of the failings of humans. Somehow, I'm not sure if this is meant to be connected, but we also have a bit of steampunk, or clockwork-punk in the form of mechanical servants (called "boilerplate eunuchs" for some reason), and a giant mechanical brain.

So far so good. Interesting concepts, had a lot of promise. But the execution lets it down almost completely.

It begins with a middle-aged Englishman, Archibald Portendorf, toiling up a long flight of stairs in some building in Cairo. He's bringing along some precious package to a meeting of similar Englishmen who've formed a Masonic-like society called "The Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz". Al-Jahiz was the 19th-Century mystic who opened the portal to the realm of the djinn. Portendorf has managed to locate the magical sword reputed to have belonged to Al-Jahiz.

This meeting however is invaded by a mysterious figure wearing a mask, declaring that he is Al-Jahiz returned. This figure seizes hold of the sword and conjures up some magic which sets the flesh of those gathered there on fire, while leaving their clothing intact, before vanishing. Everyone in the Brotherhood is dead, including Portendorf. As an aside, I really don't like books which start off by getting you invested in a character who is then despatched before the end of the first chapter.

Cut to the real protagonist of the book, Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, who is tasked by the Ministry to look into the mass murder of the Brotherhood.

So the whole rest of the book details Fatma's investigation, as the purportedly resurrected Al-Jahiz starts appearing around the city and raising crowds of supporters with a message to the poor and oppressed to rise up against their masters. He is, he tells the awed crowds, Al-Jahiz, the Great Teacher, the Inventor, the Master of Djinn.

Fatma, with aid of a new assistant, Haida, and Fatma's lover Siti, spend a long time investigating, trying to work out who this imposter is—because they are certain he is an imposter—and how he obtained his powers.

And when I say "a long time", I mean a long time. The book just seems to take forever to push the plotline forward. There's an immense amount of detail, some of it admittedly interesting, about Egyptian and Islamic culture and history, but it just bogs down the story as Fatma goes here and there, interviews one person after another after another or spends pages talking over matters with her associates. By the middle of the book I was really having to force myself to keep going.

I also couldn't engage with Fatma's character. We really find out very little about her other than the fact that she likes to wear a series of different elegant suits and bowler hats, seemingly a different outfit every day (I couldn't work out how she can afford this obviously extensive wardrobe on her public servant's salary) and that she has the hots for Siti.

And the crucial moment which sees the defeat of the imposter isn't through any action of Fatma, Haida or Siti but that of another character who up until this point has played a minor role.

At the end, too, things don’t quite seem to add up. When I had found out who the imposter really is and what their real motives are, I thought back to the earlier parts of the book and some of it didn't make sense to me in the light of those revelations. There were a number of troubling loose ends left dangling. What, for example, were the motives of the "Angels"—spirits who walk around in mechanical exoskeletons—who it seems have engineered matters to make sure the imposter obtained a powerful magical object?

So, disappointing all round.

Footnote: I was annoyed by the author’s continual use of “said-bookisms”, silly avoidances of the word “said”, eg (my italics):

“Lots of that to go around,” Fatma assured.

“Agent Fatma,” the policeman greeted.

“[That] would be desecration!” Harmony melodically lectured.

“Melodically lectured”? These usages really jolted me out of reading, each and every time I encountered one.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

I thought for quite a while that I was the only person in the known universe who doesn’t like this book. But I’ve now talked to a few other people who feel the same way.

In some ways it’s very similar to Weir’s first book The Martian. Again we have a male protagonist stranded all by himself in a hostile environment who has to use his wits and knowledge of science to get out of it.

In this case, the protagonist is a man called Ryland Grace. He wakes up, and at first he has no idea where he is, but he’s alone. Except for a disembodied, very bossy AI and a couple of desiccated corpses.

He eventually comes to understand that he’s on board a spaceship and that he’s on a critical mission to save humanity alongside the rest of the crew. Except that the rest of the crew is dead due to some failure of the deep-sleep system. He’s alone.

We eventually find out what the mission is about (the Solar System has become infected by a space-dwelling bacterium which is absorbing energy from the Sun) and why Grace and the others were sent to Tau Ceti. He’s been awoken by the AI because his craft is about to arrive.

Not long afterwards he discovers that he is in fact not alone. There’s another spacecraft in the Tau Ceti system, but it didn’t come from Earth. The alien on the other craft is also alone, with all the rest of its crew dead (gosh, what are the odds?). Together Grace and the alien figure out how to save mankind and alienkind. Hooray!

Look, this is entertaining enough stuff, but just as in The Martian, for my taste Andy Weir indulges far too much in technical explanations of how his protagonist is solving the series of problems he’s faced with. I found it impossible to engage much with Ryland Grace, who doesn’t appear to have much depth to his character.. Nothing in the book has any relation to real people or real life. Not my cup of tea.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

This is a mildly entertaining but ultimately lightweight piece of SF. Apparently it's the final of a four-book series called The Wayfarers, none of which I've read, nor am I likely to on the basis of this one.

The set-up here is an extremely familiar one, which has been used many times before, particularly in theatre and in crime fiction: a bunch of people, none of whom have met before, are stranded together in the same location for an indeterminate period without being able to leave; the story such as it is is about their personal interactions and occasional conflicts; and eventually they all depart, possibly sadder but wiser, having made friendships or enemies during their stay.

The fact that in this book all the people are purportedly different alien species with a wide variety of body types and methods of communicating, from radically different cultures doesn't change this basic set-up one jot. And that's the problem, I think.

Let me start at the beginning, though. Almost all of the action is set on a small world called Goran, which is a way-station for interstellar travellers waiting their turn to pass through wormholes to various destinations. Goran was a barren, lifeless rock with little atmosphere, but now its crammed with hostels, brothels, bars and so on.

The various characters of the story are all staying in one hostel on the surface when a power satellite undergoing maintenance blows up and creates a cascade of orbital debris which prevents communication and any space flight. This is the equivalent in other such stories of an island's only bridge collapsing or the ferry sinking, or what have you.

So all the people in the hostel are stuck there until the mess is cleaned up, which may take several days.

And that's it. There's no other real action apart from these people talking to each other, visiting, having meals, having arguments and so on. The closest we get to any action is when the young child of the hostel owner has a near-fatal accident which of course forces everyone there to cooperate despite their differences.

None of the people at the hostel are humans. At least we're told they are not humans, and get a fair amount of detail of how they differ from humans physically, and how their cultures are different and so on. But the problem is that they speak and think exactly like middle-class white Americans. Even the child of the hostel host (a furry, multi-limbed marsupial-like alien) behaves and speaks just like an American teenager. There seems nothing the least bit alien, unusual (and therefore interesting) about any of the thinking patterns of the characters.

Here, for example, is a sample of an argument between Pei (a scaly crab-like being who communicates in colour) and Speaker (a tiny arboreal beast who breathes methane):

Everything about Speaker’s tone and cadence was disarmingly pleasant, but Pei knew a don’t fucking insult me stare when she saw one.

Now, really, how would that encounter be any different if it was between two middle-class American women rather than these exotic aliens?

So this was pretty much what I was thinking all through the book. But as I say, it's entertaining and pleasant enough, an easy read. Much easier than A Master of Djinn, that's for sure.

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

This novel is based on a couple of completely whacky premises. But I like whacky ideas if the author can pull it off, and Aoki certainly does here. I really liked this novel, to my great surprise (since the capsule synopsis I read make me think I would hate it). In fact, if it weren't for my patriotic desire to vote for an Australian author in preference, I would probably vote for this as Best Novel in this year's Hugo Awards.

So what are these whacky premises?

Firstly, we have a Japanese virtuoso violinist, Shizuka Satomi, who, we discover, has sold her soul to Hell in order to be able to continue performing after she develops an injury to her bowing hand. But she's been granted a reprieve: if she can deliver up the souls of seven other violinists to Hell instead, she'll be released. So far, working as a violin teacher to build up students to the highest levels of performance and desire for fame, she has delivered six of her students to Hell.

Second whacky premise: a family of aliens has fled an interstellar war in a Galactic Empire and landed on Earth, where they have incorporated their spaceship into a donut shop in suburban Los Angeles, and, disguised as humans, are busily selling donuts, having bought the business from the previous owners.


But at the start of the novel we don't know any of this. Instead we follow a teenager called Katrina Nguyen, who is running away from home, having been badly beaten by her father, to the extent of having a black eye and a broken rib. She's been abused in this way because she is a trans woman, born male but convinced that she is really female. Her Asian family can't accept this in any way and so she has had to escape.

The other thing which is important about Katrina is that she's taught herself to play violin, again largely to the disgust of her father, who has already smashed one instrument. She arrives in Los Angeles to stay in a share house with a friend, but things aren't much better there, as the other people in the house treat her badly, too, if in different ways.

Katrina's situation is handled with great empathy and deep understanding, no doubt because the author herself is also a trans woman, and much of what happens to Katrina seems likely to have come from Ryka Aoki's own experiences. However that may be, the reader quickly develops a real sympathy and interest in Katrina's character.

But in Los Angeles, Katrina eventually comes into contact with Shizuka Satomi, who, you'll recall, is seeking the seventh and final violin student she can deliver to Hell to save her own soul.

You'd think that we'd see Shizuka as a completely evil character, but that's far from the case. She's tormented by what she's done, and her initial treatment of Katrina is gentle and kindly, eventually taking her into her own home and taking her to visit a violin repair shop to mend her violin, which has been badly damaged by the other people in the share house where she lived for a while.

There's a really nice sub-plot to do with Lucia who is the owner of the violin repair business, which is called Matia and Sons. Throughout her life she's been told that only men, only sons, can carry out professional violin repair work. But her grandfather and father are now dead, and her brother isn't interested in the business. But with Shizuka's support, she begins to gain confidence in her own skills, though she isn't a son but a daughter.

Oh, and what about the aliens? Well, that's a really interesting secondary plot, too. Through circumstances which would be too lengthy to explain, Shizuka becomes a frequent customer of the donut shop and starts to become very friendly with the female owner, Lan. Who happens to be both the captain of the hidden spaceship and the mother of a small family. This friendship between Shizuka and Lan develops and eventually becomes a romanic relationship.

Look, all of this does sound whacky, but it's handled brilliantly well. You have Katrina's character arc as she is slowly taught violin and gain confidence in herself, overcoming her feelings of shame and self-disgust; you have Shizuka's very interesting character arc as she struggles with her growing love for Katrina as though she were her own child, yet knowing that she must reach a point where she'll hand Katrina over to a demon; you have the concerns of the alien Lan for her family, not all of whom are integrating well with humanity, and constant fears of being discovered by the Galactic Empire.

Will Shizuka damn Katrina's soul? Will Lan and her family of aliens survive? Will Lucia conquer her doubts and become a violin repair maestra? The tension builds.

Look, as I say, I liked this all a great deal. Certainly not a book everyone will love, but I certainly did.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

This is the debut novel for this Australian author, and it’s very good. It’s historical fiction, set in China towards the close of the Yuan dynasty in the mid 1300s when China was ruled by its Mongol conquerers.

The book begins in a poor village in the middle of a devastating drought. Many people are starving to death. One of the villagers, whose wife has died, takes his son and daughter to see the local fortune-teller. The fortune teller examines the boy, whose name is Zhu Chongba, and is astonished. “This child has greatness in him… His deeds will bring a hundred generations of pride to your family name.” After her father and brother have left, the younger child, the girl, timidly asks the fortune-teller about her own fate. “Nothing,” says the old man.

Nothing. But when her father is killed by bandits and her brother grows listless, refuses to eat, and dies, the girl (whose name we never learn) is determined to seek his lost greatness for herself. Taking on his name and identity and pretending to be a boy, she sets off to walk to a monastery to which her brother had been promised entry as a noviate.

From there, we follow the fate of “Zhu Chongba” as she is trained as a monk (still concealing her gender) and then joining the Rebel Army trying to overthrow the current rulers. Her sharp intelligence and courage leads her from one unlikely step to another to seek the greatness promised to one of that name. She finds herself in continuing bitter conflict with a Yuan general, a eunuch called Ouyang, who is secretly pursuing an agenda of his own.

The story is mostly straight historical fiction, but it does have elements of fantasy. “Zhu Chongba” can see ghosts, for example, and the rebel army locates the Prince of Radiance, a child imbued with a visible spiritual glow—“The Mandate of Heaven”—and who remembers all of his past incarnations.

I liked it a lot, though some of Zhu Chongba’s actions, particularly at the end, are disturbing. Her ruthlessness in pursuit of her stolen fate is rather unsettling.

This, though, is the first book in a projected duology. I’m certainly looking forward to the second volume.

Footnote: One thing I think is worth at least noting, though I don’t want to dwell on it too much, is that out of the five Hugo nominated novels I’ve read, there’s not a single heterosexual relationship depicted, nor for that matter a single male relationship of any kind. To be clear I have absolutely no problem with LGBTI+ relationships being depicted in fiction, given how many, many years such relationships were hidden away in both society and literature. But weren’t we looking for an increase in diversity? There seems to be distinct lack of diversity of personal relationships in this set of Hugo-nominated novels at least.

Other Reading

How I’ve managed to fit in reading more books than the Hugo novels since the last issue, I’m not sure, but I have (though to be fair, I did read Project Hail Mary and She Who Became the Sun well before the last issue).

Frostquake by Juliet Nicholson

This book is subtitled: The frozen winter of 1962 and how Britain emerged a different country.

When I put this book on hold at the library, I had thought that it would just be a straightforward account of the bitter winter of December 1962 to March 1963. But it’s much more than that: a fascinating snapshot of a country and a culture in the process of radical change, and also a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s life during that period, very interesting in itself.

This period, and that winter in particular, is of direct personal interest to me, because I grew up in England and in December 1962 I was 11 years old, just about to start high school. I remember that winter in particular because one night my father, who was a telephone engineer, was trapped in some telephone exchange, unable to get home because the roads were impassable due to snow. That night, all of the electrical power failed in our neighbourhood and we therefore had no heating. My mother, my much younger brother and myself were forced to huddle close together in bed with every quilt we owned on top in order not to freeze to death. When my father finally got back the next day, my parents made up their minds to emigrate to sunny Australia, which we did less than two years later.

So reading Nicholson’s account of the extremes of that winter is of obvious interest to me.

But the author also fills the book with a really well researched account of the social changes which were happening at the time. She is three years younger than myself, which makes her eight years old during the period she describes, but she has bolstered her memories with solid, well-documented research. As well as extensive footnotes, there’s also an excellent index to the book.

Cultural change was in the air: the Beatles were just beginning to achieve popularity, touring the country endlessly despite the appalling weather to give live performances. One of their songs, “Please Please Me” hit the top of the charts in February 1963. A group of housemates living in a small flat in Edith Grove, led by a young man by the name of Mick Jagger, studying at the London School of Economics, started up a band called the Rolling Stones. A contact suggested to Jagger that “if you pretend to be wicked, you’ll get rich”. So that’s what he did.

During that same winter, a folk singer called Bob Dylan was brought to England to act in a drama for the BBC. Interestingly it was the poet W. H. Auden who had seen Dylan perform in New York and who tipped off the producer. When he reached England, however, it wasn’t long before the producers realised he couldn’t act. He couldn’t really sing, either, of course, but his songs were compelling.

A great deal of this information about the early days of pop music in Britain was new to me, and thus of great interest.

The designer Mary Quant was taking the fashion world by storm; the talented poet Sylvia Plath plunged into deep depression due to her husband Ted Hughes’ infidelity and took her own life; the Profumo Affair which led to the downfall of Harold MacMillan’s government was in full flight: at the March election, MacMillan was thrown out, the Labour Party under Harold Wilson took office and began making progressive changes.

It was a time of ferment, a very interesting period to live through, and Juliet Nicholson does a great job in tying it all together.

In addition to all of this, it turns out that the author is the grandaughter of the prominent writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson, and she describes many visits to their famous garden at Sissinghurst. Vita died a few months before this book begins, and the author describes Harold’s debilitating grief at her loss.

A fascinating book, highly recommended if you have any interest in this period in Britain.

The Girl Savage by Katherine Rundell

I bought this book for my granddaughter alongside three others by Katherine Rundell, because I’d really liked the author’s Rooftoppers. And of course I had to read these books before I passed them on to my granddaughter to make sure they were suitable for her age and reading level. Of course!

The protagonist of The Girl Savage is young Wilhelmina Silver (known by all as just “Will”), who has grown up in rural Zimbabwe on a farm where her father is the foreman. Her mother died of malaria when Will was very young, and she’s been allowed to grow up with little supervision, dressing roughly, washing infrequently, climbing trees, getting into scrapes, riding horses, speaking the native language fluently, with the farm’s native horse-boys as her closest friends. She is the “wild savage” of the title, but she loves this life and this place.

Then her father, too, succumbs to malaria and the elderly owner of the farm, Captain Browne, marries a cynical woman intent on outliving him and becoming a rich widow. It’s not long before Will and Mrs Browne are in conflict, and she’s packed off to a boarding school in England, a place she has never been. Though she’s been bought new clothes, Will burns these in furious protest. So she’s sent off in what she’s wearing and arrives in cold, damp England poorly dressed to withstand the cold weather. Arriving at the prestigious girls’ school where she’s been enrolled, she’s instantly the subject of mockery and the cruelty of other children.

When her misery overflows, Will contrives to escape and lives the life of a fugitive on the streets, hoping somehow to find a way to return to Zimbabwe.

Will’s boldness and courage in adversity make her a compelling character, and her story is very engaging. Though this is a tough read for a child (I’ll probably wait another year before giving it to my granddaughter), the book does eventually reach an unexpectedly happy ending which seemed impossible for quite a while.

I imagine that much of this book is based on the author’s own experiences, as I see from Wikipedia that she spent much of her early childhood living in Zimbabwe, where she attended school only in the mornings and never had to wear shoes. When her father, a diplomat, had to move to Belgium, Rundell by her own account suffered the same kind of culture shock that Will does.

The Girl Savage has won or been shortlisted for several awards, either under that title or under the title Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms. In Britain it won the Blue Peter Book Award, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Costa Children’s Book Award, and in the U.S. it won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction.

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

Another of the books I’ve purchased as a gift for my granddaughter. This one is a pretty good adventure story of a group of children whose plane crashes into the Amazonian jungle, and I’ll be giving it to her shortly. It does have some challenges for a young reader, though, such as a scene where the characters are forced to eat roasted tarantulas! Still, she’s read the first three Harry Potter books, which have some scary bits, so I’m hoping it will be OK.

Currently Reading

Waiting on the Shelf

A bunch of novels which were nominated for the 1969 Hugo Awards, to be featured in an upcoming episode of our podcast. We run a segment called the Hugo Time Machine in which we go back in time to a particular year and read some, at least, of the nominees. In 1969, the Best Novel nominees were:

Some good books there, let’s hope I can get through them all in time.

Whew! That’s going to have to be it for this issue. See you next time, which should be on Sunday, 7 August 2022.

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