Review: Hugo Awards Best Novellas 2020

I’m thrilled to say that I’ve completed my June #ReadersWithoutBorders challenge to read the 2020 Hugo Awards best novel and novella finalists! Thank you to all the lovely people who have donated and to @JDRoberts_SFF for organising this event. He has raised £57 for Doctors Without Borders over the month! was the first publisher I followed on social media due to their amazing selection of diverse SFF, a fantastic niche in fiction that feels like it was created just for me. They have also dominated the novella scene and brought the format back into popularity, which is how I first discovered awesome novellas like A Taste of Honey, All Systems Red, The Black Tides of Heaven, and Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach. While SFF fans tend to be divided in their opinion of shorter reads, often preferring to get lost in a lengthy novel that could double as a diligent doorstop or a self-isolation exercise weight, I am a total fan of the novella. This is pretty evident in my star ratings of these Hugos finalists – I honestly loved all of them. If you’re undecided about this corner of fiction, Rebecca Diem’s fantastic article about the new ‘Golden Age’ of the SFF Novella provides an idea of what to expect from this feisty format.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

There has been a lot of chat about Clark’s short fiction on social media recently, and for very good reason. This book is set in the same alternate Cairo as his 2016 novella A Dead Djinn in Cairo (follow the link for free read), and it’s an absolute masterwork of worldbuilding in an insanely short number of pages.

In 1912, Cairo is a city at the forefront of technology, magic and culture after a rift released magical beings into the world. Two agents from the Cairo Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities are called to investigate a haunted tram car and uncover the mystery behind its possession.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is vivid, strange, beautiful and completely unique. The story is an utterly original mashup of genres and cultures creating an immersive experience that might leave you wanting more. If you approach this read with the mindset of a an epic weekend holiday rather than an exploration of every nook and cranny of the city, you will love it too.

Clark has won a Nebula and Locus award for his previous work and this is his second time as a best novella finalist, so I think he’s in with a good chance of winning this year. I highly recommend all of his novellas. Check out a more detailed review of A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and Clark’s upcoming book Ring Shout over on

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Where The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is an impressive feat of worldbuilding, This is How You Lose the Time War challenges the limit of what can be done conceptually in 209 pages. It’s a love story about Red and Blue, two time-travellers and architects of the future, fighting on opposite sides of a war spanning thousands of years. They leave each other cryptic messages throughout time and space, becoming unlikely pen pals as they fight for opposing forces.

This book is beautifully written in a poetic style and is dramatically different to Clark’s visual storytelling.

While it is centred on a sapphic romance, I wouldn’t describe it as romantic fiction, so don’t let that put you off if it’s not your style. I didn’t feel overly invested in Red and Blue’s relationship, however journeying with them through the time war was fascinating and kept me reading. They influence the future by manipulating seemingly unrelated events in the past, and as they do so, leave each other messages encoded in reality itself.

Waiting to see how the next letter would manifest was what I enjoyed most about this book, much like watching the Final Destination films just to see the logistics of the next death. This book has already picked up a Locus and Nebular award, and while it might not be for everyone, I absolutely recommend getting a copy.

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In addition to Middlegame being shortlisted for best novel, McGuire has made the best novella list with a very different story, In an Absent Dream.

The only audiobooks that I’ve enjoyed listening to are her 5 (soon to be 6) Wayward Children novellas. They are disillusioned fairy tales written in a lyrical style, perfect for someone else to read to you. The series tells the story of children who don’t quite fit in, the Alices and the Coralines who find magical doors to other worlds that are as unique and diverse as the children themselves.

But these worlds also have rules, and when the rules are broken, the wayward children find themselves stranded back in the real world. Miss West knows that pain first-hand. Now older, she runs a school to help lost children find their door again, or otherwise learn to accept a future devoid of magic.

In an Absent Dream is the fourth instalment in the series and tells the story of Lundy, who appears in the first book as a teacher at Miss West’s school. As a child, Lundy is not the kind of girl to go running through magical doors. She is logical, mature and so very serious. But when she discovers the Goblin Market, a world of rules, debt and responsibility, Lundy knows its the place where she is meant to be. But in the market, everything has a price.

Putting an adult spin on fairy tale tropes is not a new idea, but McGuire has taken this tradition and run in a completely new direction. Her Wayward Children novellas are equal parts dark and humorous, tragic and hopeful. Each instalment follows a different child from Miss West’s school in their own unique world, and the result is that each book is surprisingly different in tone, with In an Absent Dream being the most unique. Many of the same characters appear in each book, though they don’t necessarily need to be read in any order. They are beautiful tales that celebrate diversity, individuality and the desire to fit in.

The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Deep tells the story of the Wajinru, descendants of pregnant African slaves who were thrown off American slave-ships to drown. Over hundreds of years, unborn children saved by the ocean have become a pacific society of sea-folk.

In order to preserve their calm existence, the wajinru have developed a short memory and have all but forgotten their tragic past. Yetu has been named Historian, carrying six hundred years of ancestral memory on behalf of her people. But when it is time for the annual Remembering ceremony, Yetu finds the burden too much to bear any longer.

This book is a beautiful and heartfelt story with a timely message of hope and community. The Deep is the latest in a fascinating collaborative project which you can read about in my full review over on The Worlds of Sci-fi & Fantasy.  

To be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In Becky Chambers’ latest book space travel has become a crowdfunded endeavour due to lack of government and private investment. As a result, humans are yet to leave Earth behind. But in typical Becky fashion we do get our unrealistically altruistic but loveable space crew with queer representation.

Ariadne and her crewmates have been sent to carry out ecological assessments of five planets in nearby systems.

With spaceflight technology still in its infancy, the mission takes place across decades, the crew sleeping in stasis between planetary visits and waking up each time with new biological features to help them survive each planet’s specific extremes. When Earth’s regular transmissions suddenly stop, the crew are forced to make difficult decisions about the future of their mission.

As with The Wayfarers series, the charm of To be Taught, If Fortunate is Chambers’ ability to draw out the quiet moments of humanity and sentimentality that are often overlooked in sci-fi; saying goodbye to an Earthbound family, having that first shower after years in stasis, the overwhelming emotion of stepping onto an untouched planet, or the thrill of finally discovering that microorganism. While the explanation of the human bioengineering leaves something to be desired, this human-driven space safari is a lot of fun.

To be Taught if Fortunate is a great introduction to Chambers’ writing style, or otherwise a quick hit for any readers needing their Becky fix.  

“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” by Ted Chiang

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Possibly my favourite novella on the shortlist was “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” from Ted Chiang’s story collection Exhalation. It’s a perfect example of how the novella format can be used to explore a specific concept in an incredibly effective way. This story explores the power of the decisions we make in the context of ‘many worlds’ theory.

A suitcase-sized device with a screen called a ‘prism’ has hit the mass market. When activated, a prism spontaneously creates an alternate timeline and allows owners to communicate with the alternate version of themselves through text, audio and camera.

But the technology is limited in that each prism has a limited memory capacity, and once used up, communication with that timeline becomes forever impossible.

This might not sound like a revolutionary invention given its constraints, but Chiang has thought out in detail how such a device would affect us on a societal and individual basis, and the result is fascinating. He even details how prisms containing a specific alternate reality would lead to a kind of microeconomy that is about as complex as Magic: The Gathering cards changing in value.

In the context of addiction, grief and loneliness, Chiang contemplates actions and consequences, and how we assign blame to ourselves and others. This is a stunning story that I can’t wait to return to when I read Exhalation in full.

And that is a wrap on my #ReadersWithoutBorders challenge! Not my most detailed reviews, but given the focused nature of novellas I figured it’d be a good idea to not to give away every aspect of each story. That and the fact that I had to start this blog from scratch three times because I can’t save a file properly, and so most of it was written in a quiet rage. That’s what I get for blogging on the job I suppose!

See you in July!

Professional Reader

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

So this is my final review of books shortlisted for the 2020 Hugo Awards best novel! Check out my June post for more Hugos reviews, as well as information about the #ReadersWithoutBorders charity readathon. There’s still time to donate for your chance to win a free book!

A vast battle ground is established between Earth and Mars as their tense relations devolve into war. The corporate superpowers of Earth employ imperfect faster-than-light technology to ‘drop’ their soldiers into military hotspots by converting their bodies into light.

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Lord Alfred Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

Following a tragic Martian attack on Earth, Dietz enlists in the infantry and in doing so becomes the property of an Earth corp. After gruelling military training Dietz completes their first drops on Mars with their squad, but soon realises they are experiencing the war very differently to the other grunts.

The Light Brigade follows Dietz struggling to fight in a war that changes inexplicably between each drop, and to control the ‘combat madness’ brought on by breaking down their body into waves of light.

I listened to an audiobook of The Light Brigade last year and since then I’ve decided to bump it up from a 3-star rating to a 4-star rating. After making a full recovery from a period of obsessive time-management, I realised that I don’t actually like listening to audiobooks and this was affecting the ratings I gave. Also, like the visual of floating meatball planets with hyperactive immune systems from The Stars are Legion, the concept of this book has really stuck with me even after almost a year.

The Light Brigade is a standalone military sci-fi story with some fascinating ideas about the nature of time and matter, and a unique take on FTL. It’s also a complex story, with reader and protagonist being kept in the dark for much of the book. I imagine it was a headache to write given the flagrant disregard for chronology, as well as the confused protagonist.

The Light Brigade feels more accessible than Hurley’s debut novel as it involves significantly less abstract body horror (but like, still some) and the commentary on war, grief and classist oppression connects in an emotional way. Hurley writes clear characters and then puts them through a whole lot of crap, but the drive of the story is Dietz unravelling the mysteries of wibbly wobbly timey wime.

Hurley omits Dietz’ gender until the very end of The Light Brigade. This is an interesting choice and isn’t as distracting as it sounds. I think this has either been done to draw attention to Hurley’s social commentary outside of gender, or has been used to depersonalise the character, positioning the reader to see Dietz as just another grunt wearing a helmet.

Much like The Stars are Legion, this book is bloody, punchy and relentlessly tense.

Professional Reader

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Rating: 5 out of 5.

For the #ReadersWithoutBorders June readathon I’m currently reading the finalists for the 2020 Hugo Awards best novel and novella. Check out The Worlds of SFF for more information and the chance to win a book or three!

You may not be surprised by my rating of Gideon the Ninth given the hype it has received. But I have to say, I am a little surprised. I mean, I’ve been admiring the cover art just like everyone else, and with a concept like “lesbian necromancers in space” I was anticipating a fun and uncomplicated read. But I wasn’t expecting it to be so well executed. Under the layers of blood, bone, rot and sarcasm, Tamsin Muir writes with a quiet intelligence and cutting humour that has me excited not only for Harrow the Ninth, but for all of her future work.

“…At least in the Ninth House, the way you usually went was pneumonia exacerbated by senility.”

Gideon Nav is an orphan, taken in reluctantly by the geriatric Ninth House, one of eight necromantic societies in the solar system, and probably the most depressing one. Once charged by the Emperor to seal and protect the ominous Locked Tomb, the Ninth House has withered away into obscurity, much like its aging nuns.

“Harrow’s face was bright with elation and fervour. Gideon would have sworn there were tears in her eyes, except that no such liquid existed: Harrow was a desiccated mummy of hate.”

Gideon is lacking in necromantic ability and so spends her time practicing the sword, plotting her escape, and stoking her hate-fire for Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter, arch nemesis and only other young person in the crypt.

“Where I’m going, I promise to piss fidelity all the livelong day. I have lots of fealty in me. I fealt the Emperor with every bone in my body. I fealt hard.”

When Harrow is given the opportunity to ascend to the position of Emperor’s Lyctor by completing a challenge with the other house heirs, her Cavalier Primary turns out to a be a mummy’s boy, and so she forces Gideon to accompany her as a secretly unqualified stand-in, bribing her with the possibility of escape. When they arrive at what I can only describe as a grim AF Hogwarts castle for necromancers, tensions begin to run high between houses as they compete to be the first to ascend.

“We do bones, motherfucker.”

While this premise will have you either bouncing with excitement or raising one, possibly two eyebrows (who wouldn’t raise at least one at titles like ‘Necrolord Prime’), Gideon the Ninth is completely aware of its own silliness and Muir is the first to point this out with her tongue-in-cheek wit. She’s a capable writer who has picked a fun concept for the sake of being damn awesome.

Gideon is the modern action hero you didn’t know you needed in all her sarcastic, dirty magazine-reading, aviator-wearing, great sword-wielding glory. She’s a great character choice to set the tone of this book and make it accessible, despite both her and Harrow being assholes (said fondly).

She also isn’t necessarily my favourite character in the story. Muir has created an impressive cast of 17 necromancers and their cavaliers, each having clear characterisation, something I can’t imagine is easy for a writer to achieve. Their individuality is facilitated by each of the 8 necromantic houses having their own traits, something you can choose to read into or not, however it does further enhance the experience. Luckily, I had the Illumicrate edition which came with 8 House reference cards, otherwise I think I would have been a little lost remembering all of the key players and their agendas (my short-term memory is atrocious).

While I casually enjoyed the first half of the novel and Muir doing her own weird thing, shiz hits the fan about halfway through, and this is when I really came to love her work. I was taken by complete surprise when this weirdo science fantasy story morphed into a murder mystery, then slowly degenerated into a horror fest with moments that definitely made me squeamish. The tension and complex relationships between the characters seemed to materialise out of nowhere, and there were twists and turns in the plot I hadn’t seen coming at all. 97% through the book I still had no idea what further mysteries would be solved, and Muir answered questions I hadn’t even thought to ask.

The tone of this book is distinctive in that there is a lot left unexplained – I have no idea why the houses are all on different planets, how they have spaceships when they essentially live in crypts, or where the hell all the people who aren’t necromantic warriors are hiding. While this may not be for everyone, and it may or may not be expanded on in the sequel, I found that I didn’t really mind being slightly confused as the book unfolded into its own unique thing.

I have no idea what to compare this book to… I guess maybe if Lesbian Vampire Killers had actually been a good film and it had received a book adaptation written by a woman with a penchant for 90s action/horror films… it would kind of but not really be like that. All I can say is that it included all the things I look for in a book – straight up escapism with a unique, imaginative concept that makes me wish I had thought of it first, an unpredictable plot and surprising moments of character depth.

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Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

For the #ReadersWithoutBorders June readathon I’m currently reading the finalists for the 2020 Hugo Awards best novel and novella. Check out The Worlds of SFF for more information and the chance to win a book or three!

Middlegame is an incredibly ambitious book that is universal in scope. I’ve been sitting on this review for weeks trying to decide exactly how I feel about it. Best prepare yourself for my book report-iest review ever, as there is a lot to explain in order to give you my thoughts.

In Middlegame, a whole mess of information is thrown at the reader very early on, and it doesn’t quite resolve into something sensical until later. The book opens with a scene from the final chapter, followed by an excerpt from a fictitious children’s book and three questionably related quotes before going back to chapter 0, which is still 100 years prior to the primary events of the story. To make things even more complicated, McGuire will soon be publishing said children’s book using the same pseudonym as the author in Middlegame.

Thankfully after the initial set-up the narrative becomes more consistent if not entirely linear or chronological, and McGuire’s piecemeal introduction resolves into the foundations of a complex story. If you would prefer to experience the thrill of untangling this for yourself feel free to skip the following synopsis (while spoiler-free it explains a fair bit about the first chapters), but do read the quote.

“… the Doctrine of Ethos, as described by Pythagoras, held that certain musical instruments and modes could influence the balance between Logos (rational behavior) and Pathos (emotional thought). Later alchemists came to see this as the interaction between the two halves of the human heart, and more, as the balance between language and mathematics: the two methods through which Man has always been able to influence and even command Nature. The Doctrine must thus be viewed as the most dangerous and most desirable of alchemical incarnations. The people who are first able to seize control over the Doctrine shall command all things.”

Asphodel is a talented alchemist who believes she has discovered how to incarnate the primary forces of the universe in human form, and that by doing so she can control reality itself in order to create her idea of paradise. Understanding that this will be more than a lifetime of work, Asphodel uses alchemy and spare body parts to create Reed, her semi-immortal successor who continues her legacy after her.

Before she dies, Asphodel publishes Over the Woodward Wall, a soon to be well-known children’s book that tells the story of Zib, Avery and their journey to the Impossible City. Through magic or alchemy or quantum mechanics – I’m still not sure which – the book’s successful existence paves the way for alchemical world domination and bends reality in a way that enables twins, one the embodiment of mathematics and the other of language (in loose reference to The Doctrine of Ethos), to ascend and together become the personification(s) of the universe and masters of reality.

Rodger and Dodger are one such set of experimental twins, engineered by Reed and separated at birth so that they can grow up independently, oblivious to their true purpose until they come into their abilities. But Rodger and Dodger are inseparable by their very definition, and they are able to communicate mind-to-mind from an early age.

The bulk of Middlegame follows Rodger and Dodger’s efforts to reconnect over the years, and Reed’s attempts to control them and thus claim dominion over the universe.

I had to do quite a lot of research to gain some context for this book as, in my opinion, it is first a work of concept before character or story. What I’ve decided is that Middlegame is to philosophy what steampunk is to technology. McGuire has dredged up alchemical theory, the precursor to modern chemistry, and Greek philosophy (specifically Pythagorean theory – its mentioned all the way through the book) to create a world where these theoretical frameworks turned out to be real. So instead of a steam-powered metropolis, we get mad alchemists-cum-scientists using a combination of alchemy, philosophical doctrine, quantum mechanics, humorism and even European folklore in their conquest of reality.

This is an incredibly fascinating idea for a book, and it certainly blurs the lines between fantasy, alernate history and sci-fi in a way that is fun to argue about and impossible to agree on. But therein lies my issue. McGuire did such a great job of throwing mathematics and chaos theory at me that I wanted to believe that this was a work of sci-fi – that it was feasible for twins with rhyming names to, through some sort of complicated physics that is over my head but nevertheless real, achieve an avatar state and control the fabric of reality. I guess it’s a testament to the author’s ability that I was duped by a piece of fiction?

For most of the book I patiently awaited a more detailed explanation from McGuire, but this never arrived. As a result it became easy to poke holes in the story, point out where the rules of McGuire’s magic (science) system were flexible and convenient to the plot, and to feel that the whole concept is diluted by too many references to real world ideas, to the point that it could be interpreted as elitist. For example, am I meant to already know that the book title is a reference to chess, or that the hand on the cover is a Hand of Glory from European folklore, or be familiar with ancient Greek paradigms of musical theory? Perhaps McGuire just wanted to mess with my head by making her magic system sound as science-y and history-y as possible. In which case well done, you.

SO. All of that being said, I’ve decided that I do like this book, even though I was left feeling a little confused and disappointed by what I perceived to be a lack of follow-through. It’s an incredibly unique work of fiction and is absolutely something I could see the Wachowski sisters adapting to the big screen. I’ve landed on 3.5 stars as, while I’m likely to recommend this book to other people out of appreciation for the concept, it wasn’t a wholly satisfying reading experience for me.

Particularly in the case of this book I feel like my experience was a unique one. I would suggest going into this book expecting a work of pure fantasy with a very technical underpinning, or otherwise read up on Pythagoras!

Coincidentally, I stumbled across a song while looking up The Doctrine of Ethos that explains the book rather well, I don’t know if it was a source of inspiration but I later realised it too is quoted in the book.

Trigger warning: suicide

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Professional Reader

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

By now you’ll know that I’m participating in the #ReadersWithoutBorders June reading challenge. I’m spreading my posts out a bit but I’m now reading the final best novel finalist before I dive into the 6 best novella finalists! Its been a varied experience so far, perhaps because I’ve had quite high expectations for all of the novels.

If you haven’t already please consider donating to the Doctors Without Borders Just Giving page for you chance to win one of 3 books!

Despite my rating, A Memory Called Empire isn’t a bad book. Martine can certainly write. But having been at the top of my TBR for some time, my experience of this read was definitely flavoured with disappointment that it didn’t turn out to be what I had hoped. Given the almost entirely positive reception the book has otherwise received, feel free to read my review with a pinch of salt!

Mahit is a stationer, born and bred on Lsel. Stationer space has so far avoided occupation by the Teixcalaanli empire, and clings to its independence by mining nearby asteroids and trading metals. When Teixcalaan requests a new Lsel Ambassador without providing any explanation, Mahit finds herself thrust into the role and travelling to the centre of the empire. However when her imago – an implantable recording of her predecessor’s mind – malfunctions, Mahit finds herself navigating Teixcalaanli politics alone.

This book has a LOT in common with Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy – an intergalactic empire at the height of its influence, an emperor seeking immortality, a new and unknowable alien threat, government ambassadors, annexation gone wrong, questionably inhuman soldiers, and a protagonist recently cut off from their technological greater ‘self’. The last is a shame, as the imago technology is the most interesting thing about the book (although also done before, notably by Yoon Ha Lee), but is almost immediately cut out of the story.

Even minor details are familiar from Imperial Radch – the concept of civilised vs. uncivilised humanity, citizens undertaking aptitude testing to determine their occupation, the political and social significance of poetry, wearable political motifs and a penchant for formal tea services. Martine didn’t have the Radchaai social aversion to having their hands exposed in public, instead Teixcalaanli don’t show their teeth but smile with their eyes.

I don’t know if I’ve incorrectly assumed that this combination of elements originated with Leckie or if it’s some kind of sub-genre of sci-fi, but the result is that nothing felt quite new for me.

Originality aside, Martine is a good writer. Unfortunately, her ornate prose tends to oversell the content of the story. What is intended to be a thrilling political mystery full of conspiracy and espionage is a fairly straight-forward story with relatively few twists or surprises, the main element of suspense being provided by Mahit’s untimely handicap. Conversations that are depicted as a thrilling standoff of intellect and cunning are mostly rather pedestrian.

If I was less frustrated by this, I would perhaps admire the choice of Mahit as a protagonist; despite all of her competency testing she behaves like someone who walked off the street and into the book, and does the same things that I probably would have done in the same situation… I guess like, check my emails and arrange a few meetings with the first important people I hear about, then… see what happens? A bold choice of character, but for me not necessarily an exciting one.

In fairness, the last 20-30% of the book did hold my interest, and depth was added to both the characters and the plot. I had a similar experience with The City in the Middle of the Night, however in this case it didn’t quite redeem the book for me. Having said that, I am curious to see what Martine will do with the second book in the duology, and if she expands on her ideas.

Regarding representation, Mahit’s predecessor was bisexual, which adds depth and emotion in the later chapters and was one of the plot points that piqued my interest. Mahit herself could be anything between lesbian, ace or pansexual. It isn’t really explored in any detail, which makes me wonder why it was mentioned at all, unless to make a point that sexuality and labels shouldn’t matter in the greater narrative.

I had to refer back to my own rating guidelines as this one felt a bit harsh, but at the end of the day I don’t think I would recommend this book to someone unless they’ve already read Ann Leckie and they’re craving something similar.

I do appreciate that this is a debut novel and Martine’s writing style is commendable. I will be keeping an eye out for reviews of her sequel, as I think her voice became stronger towards the end of the book.

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The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’ve had Ten Thousand Doors of January for months but postponed reading it as I’d recently finished Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series and felt my portal fantasy quota had been met for the year. However I’m glad I picked it up as part of my Hugo Award readathon for #Readerswithoutborders, as it’s a completely different take on magical doorways.

If you haven’t already, please consider donating to the Doctors Without Borders JustGiving page for your chance to win a book! So far we have 4 supporters and 3 books to give away, so your chances of making your money back are very good!

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is set after the turn of the 20th century, in a time of peace and progress when trade and exploration highlight the vastness of the world while simultaneously making it feel smaller. January is the young ward of Mr William Cornelius Locke, living on his Vermont estate while her father is paid to travel to remote parts of the world, seeking rare and exotic items to add to Mr Locke’s collection.

“When you travel with money, you follow a smooth, well-worn path through the world. Wood-panelled train cars lead to shiny black cabs, which lead to hotel rooms with velvet curtains, each step effortlessly following the last.

While January grows up living a comfortable life and is often permitted to accompany Mr Locke on his business trips, she has a wild and imaginative spirit, impatient for bigger adventures, and so struggles to maintain her patron’s idea of a perfect society girl.

When January finds a mysterious book containing stories of portals and a woman who bravely travels between them, it inspires her to finally embrace her imagination and her true self, triggering a series of events theat will reveal just how much she shares with the woman and her magical doors.

The hour-dragons stalked me. They grew larger as the sun set, multiplying in the shadows.

Harrow is a master of metaphor and simile. She uses glittering prose that speaks to all five senses and dry, whimsical observations that often put a smile on my face.

“My dress that year was a shapeless froth of pink ribbons and frills that made me look like a rather sulky cupcake.”

This book is worth a read purely to experience her writing style.

At first I thought this was going to be a period book to enjoy leisurely, perhaps while sitting under a parasol on a grassy knoll, eating fresh cucumber sandwiches. But what begins as a simple story about the desire for freedom of expression becomes about so many other things; love, greed, control, and the power of change. Vivid characters bring a truthful perspective to childhood, parenthood, fatherhood, motherhood and even interdimensional ‘hoods.

One of very few problems I had with this book is that the depiction of 20th century racism seemed slightly gauche in the absence of any other devices used to reflect the time period of the book, apart from lists of historical events at the beginning of the early chapters. Harrow’s dialogue feels anachronistic in comparison to books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell or The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which have a more authentic rather than modern vibe. Having said that, I know that Harrow is a historian in African American history and has the knowledge to support writing accurately about these topics, and it makes sense to write what you know (edit upon publishing post: I wrote this last month before Black Lives Matter was frequently talked about on book blogs and Twitter. I’m in the process of educating myself, and I understand that white authors can still write validly about racism, and that its better that Harrow chose to be historically accurate about racism if not other aspects of the novel, perhaps even doing so to bring these themes into the spotlight).

I also wish there was a more stylistic distinction between Harrow’s narration and that of her characters’, given her choice to include entire chapters from January’s book, and to use multiple POVs from characters with very different backgrounds. These were minor observations that only held the book back from being a perfect experience, perhaps spawned in the fog of nightshift-grumpiness through which I read it.

Overall, like many other readers I adored the Ten Thousand Doors of January. It’s such a fantastic and emotional journey, and includes one of the most realistic, moving and gender-stereotype-free romances I can recall reading in fiction.

See that capital ‘O’? Like the yawning mouth of a portal to another world, summoning you to an adventure? I suggest you step through it.

Trigger warning: Please note that this book contains cutting/self-harm

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The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Rating: 3 out of 5.

As I mentioned in my June TBR post, this month I am participating in the #ReadersWithoutBorders readathon organised by @JDRoberts_SFF over at The Worlds of Sci-fi & Fantasy, raising money for Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Check out his event post to find out how you can participate, or to donate to the Just Giving page. You’ll even go in the running for one of the free books that are up for grabs!

My readathon goal is to read all of the Hugo Award 2020 finalists for best novel and best novella. I may have cheated a little by starting this in May, however I did also manage to squeeze in a review of debut novel Stormblood, mostly because I realised too late that the publish date was 4th June and *not* 4th July.

Last year I had the privilege of attending a talk with Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz (probably the coolest couple ever) hosted by the London Post-Apocalyptic Bookclub, so I wanted to kick off my #ReadersWithoutBorders posts with Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night.

“This whole town is engineered to make you feel like you’re always running out of time.”

On a tidally locked planet where one hemisphere lies in permanent darkness and the other is scorched by a too bright star, humans have established a tenuous existence in the twilit strip between two extremes. Sophie is a university student from Xiosphant, a city that has compensated for the absence of day and night with Stepford-precise timekeeping. After mixing with a crowd of student revolutionists, Sophie encounters trouble with authorities and is banished from the city, only to return in secret with the help of an unlikely ally from the Night. As tension in Xiosphant grows under the weight of relentless routine, Sophie’s quiet existence is compromised by a group of strangers who pull her into a journey that will change the course of history.

The City in the Middle of the Night doesn’t read like a typical sci-fi novel. Aside for some creative far-future linguistics there are no lasers, hydrators, fabbers or black holes to worry about, making it a great pick for readers who would normally shy away from genre fiction, or for those who enjoy sci-fi but are turned off by excessive space-jargon.

With this unique setting of environmental extremes I had anticipated this book to be fast-paced action, something like The Chronicles of Riddick (minus the hyper-masculinity). Instead, Anders plops humans into eternal dusk and experiments with how this would shape a society. She has some fascinating ideas and ruminates on the concept and perception of time, memory, tribalism, and even meditation. That’s not to say that this book is dry, as there is plenty of action, booze, swashbuckling and alien megafauna.

After the initial chapters I found the writing style a little inconsistent tonally, making it difficult for me to connect with the story and characters. I didn’t feel overly invested in the relationship betwen Sophie and Bianca despite a lot going on, with Sophie’s secret romantic feelings and their unresolved conflict. Perhaps it was not intended to be a relatable dynamic that they shared, or perhaps I just couldn’t relate to it from my own experiences.

“To join with others to shape a future is the holiest act.”

This being said, Anders really hits her stride in the last 100 pages of the book, which were equal parts disturbing and heart-wrenching. As her prose becomes notably more visual her brilliant imagination shines through, and a lot of the story comes together in a satisfying way. If the middle of this book had been edited down, or if more time was spent on the ideas that Anders explores towards the end, it would have been a 4 or 5 star read for me. As it stands, despite my uncertainty about the writing style I recommend you give this book a read, if not just to experience the final chapters.

In terms of concept The City in the Middle of the Night is unique and stands apart from other books I’ve read, so it’s difficult to compare it to similar stories. If you enjoyed the pacing and bio-weirdness of The Stars are Legion, the alien evolution in Children of Time or the space-punk of Becky Chambers, this book may be up your street.

As a side note, I think this is the first time I’ve ever read a book where a main character suffers from anxiety, and I think it’s pretty cool that this was handled so realistically.

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Professional Reader

STORMBLOOD by Jeremy Szal

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Even if you’re not into military sci-fi, don’t make the mistake of overlooking STORMBLOOD, an epic debut novel from Jeremy Szal. Perhaps more accurately described as a sci-fi mystery/thriller, this is an incredibly well thought out, multi-faceted sci-fi story written with an emotional intelligence that can be lacking in the genre. Since I started reviewing ARCs a few months ago, it’s the first book I’ve come across that I can’t wait to re-read!

STORMBLOOD is set two years after the brutal war between Harmony and Harvest came to a violent end. Harmony, the galaxy’s military organisation, gained the upper hand when they created Reapers, stormtech super soldiers developed with hasty bioengineering and DNA from an extinct alien species. Reapers possess a dark passenger that integrates fully with their physiology, giving them enhanced abilities in response to the aggression and threat associated with battle. While stormtech won Harmony the war, it left Reapers emotionally and physically broken – addicts withdrawing from adrenaline and craving violence. 

“We’ve all seen the alien monstrosity fused forever into our bodies for what is really is. The stormtech gives us wings, but takes the sky away.”

Fukasawa is one of the lucky ones, an ex-Reaper who made it through rehab and established a life for himself on the asteroid nation of Compass. But stormtech has made its way into the illegal drug market, and now ex-Reapers are turning up dead after using stock that has been tampered with. When his brother is implicated in these deaths, a reluctant Fukasawa agrees to help Harmony one last time in order to uncover the truth.

“We survived because we trusted each other with our lives, through every bloody step of the screaming, unflinching darkness of the Reaper War.”

STORMBLOOD is incredibly hard-hitting and Szal pulls out all the stops but none of the punches. It is set after the end of the war and focuses on how it has affected Fukasawa and his family. Brotherhood, both familial and found, is a central theme in the book, and it pulls ALL the heart strings. Szal also addresses other issues like addiction, mental health and radicalisation, each explored in a mature and powerful way.

There is a lot of violence in this book, though it is often harrowing and at times uncomfortable rather than glorified, making it impossible not to be moved by the atrocities of the Reaper war and the consequences of Harmony’s actions. Fukasawa’s flashbacks to the battlefield also provide gradual insight into his struggle to maintain relationships while clinging on to his humanity.  

Being one of the more intense books I’ve read, there are also memorable moments of humour and friendship, and Szal’s worldbuilding is both fascinating and unique. For me, the setting of Compass is up there with Bas Lag and the Tower of Babel as a favourite fantasy/sci-fi location – it’s an immense asteroid containing tiers of massive cities and microenvironments like a vast, cosmic layer cake (for the sake of the simile it’s a very ugly layer cake). Szal also describes an interesting ethnic evolution, with intersystem colonisation having isolated and mixed together nationalities, overtime birthing new cultures. He writes with a visual language that hints at inspiration from cinema and gaming; in Compass, people stomp around in space armour of varying shapes and colours, and the story develops in various locations almost like levels in a game. As someone who was obsessed with Halo growing up, the one scene where Fukasawa goes shopping for new armour was just as magical as Harry’s first visit to Ollivander’s. I feel like Szal has brought to life my favourite Xbox adventures in a fun, shockingly human and meaningful way.

STORMBLOOD covers a surprising amount of thematic ground but it all fits together well, something that is emphasised when the meaning behind the book title becomes clear. I’d consider it a must read for any sci-fi lover, or any reader looking to be punched in the gut with words. Fans of John Scalzi will be thrilled to know they can find their new favourite author just a little to the right on the shelf.

Thank you to Gollancz and Netgalley for an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review, and congratulations to Jeremy Szal for an epic debut novel!

STORMBLOOD was published on 4th June and is available in eBook, hardcover, paperback and audiobook formats

Trigger warning: Domestic violence

Professional Reader

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Jebi is a Hwagugin artist and somewhat of a pacifist, struggling to make a living in a country recently incorporated into the Empire of Razan. When Razanei racism threatens Jebi’s livelihood, they accept a job at the Ministry of Armor, using their artistic skills to harness the mysterious magic that gives life to the automata, machines that are enslaved to the empire. Jebi is soon drawn into government plots and forced to confront the brutality of the Razanei colonisation, with the help of a dragon automata.

Readers of fantasy who get excited about new magic systems will enjoy Phoenix Extravagant as much as I did. Lee has some fantastic and original ideas, incorporating magic into his story in an important way. He intertwines it with myth, culture and art in order to frame the moral struggle of the main characters – to remain true to themselves, their heritage and their family.

Phoenix Extravagant features a non-binary protagonist and a society where sexual orientation is inconsequential. Lee writes about this in a sensitive yet critical manner, and in doing so liberates his chosen themes from binary gender stereotypes in an effective way.

I’m hard pressed to think of an infallible (human) character in this book, however Lee is unbiased in his storytelling and each character feels relatable. I was fascinated by Jebi’s relationship with their sister Bonsunga throughout the story. We’re told more than once that Jebi believes art is about the inner nature of things, and accordingly Lee’s writing is a study of core human values with this ensemble.

I loved Lee’s writing and thought this was a beautiful, nuanced story. I cannot WAIT to have a physical copy [edit: it finally arrived! It’s even signed!!!] so I can stare at that stunning cover. I have high hopes that Rebellion will release a line of merch that includes a matching bedspread.

Phoenix Extravagant releases in the UK on 15th Oct 2020 and is available for pre-order. In the meantime, Lee’s sci-fi trilogy Machineries of Empire is available for purchase.

Thank you to Rebellion Publishing, NetGalley and Yoon Ha Lee for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

Professional Reader

What’s up, June?

Initially I had planned to keep my blog quite minimal and stick to only posting book reviews (I’m sorry if I’ve ignored your blog event!), however I’ve realised that there is enough happening next month to warrant an update post. So please, read on!

@JDRoberts_SFF from The Worlds of Sci-Fi & Fantasy has organised the #ReadersWithoutBorders June Readathon in order to raise money for Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a humanitarian aid organisation that provides emergency medical aid in over 70 countries.

Check out The Worlds of SFF website to find out how you can participate, and please consider donating via the Just Giving page – you’ll be entered into a raffle to win a book!

I will be participating by completing a readathon challenge and writing a guest review on Worlds of SFF.

With the first ever virtual Hugo Awards taking place on the 1st August, I decided that for my #ReadersWithoutBorders reading challenge I will read the 12 book that have been nominated for best novel and novella this year.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Hugo Award is administered annually and recognises outstanding science fiction and fantasy writing.

While I’ve already made a start with reading these, I’m glad to have the extra motivation!

Best Novel

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir ( Publishing)

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire ( Publishing)

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)

Best Novella

“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, by Ted Chiang (Exhalation (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf; Picador))

The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga Press/Gallery)

The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark ( Publishing)

In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire ( Publishing)

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Saga Press; Jo Fletcher Books)

To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)

June is also Pride month, an annual event that commemorates the Stonewall Riots of 1969, seeks to raise awareness, and improve relationships with LGBT+ people. It seemed fitting in a month that celebrates diversity to read the Hugo award finalists, as the majority of this year’s nominated books are written by women and include LGBT+ representation. In celebration of Pride month my guest review at Worlds of SFF will be one of these books.

And finally, if I somehow get through all of THOSE books, I’m excited to have ARCs of the following waiting to be read:

Thank god my Netgalley feedback ratio has dropped to 55%, I can’t be trusted with that website. I’m looking forward to reading at a more relaxed place once I’ve caught up!

Professional Reader