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Well, none of these were terrible. And some were excellent.

6. Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee
In the sequel to Ninefox Gambit, which was nominated last year, Jedao finally enters the phase of open rebellion against the hexarchate.
Well, it kept me turning the pages, but I liked Ninefox Gambit better. I find Cheris a more interesting character than any of the viewpoint characters here. It was pretty slow in places. And while some books go overboard on the infodumping, this is a case where after reading two short stories and two novels set in this universe, I still only have a hazy idea of what their technology is and how it is used [1], though it certainly sounds interesting, and so I wish I understood it better. Most of the characters do very little to advance the plot except what Jedao arranges for them to do, and most of the actions that are actually driving things take place off the page [2]. So yeah, hmm, meh.

5. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
Six clones on an interstellar ship are awakened surrounded by the dead bodies of their previous iterations.
It's a fun premise (though, actually, uh, rather reminiscent of one of my stories) as the six try and figure out what happened and dig up the secrets the others are hiding, but I found it a bit rough around the edges. It's pretty infodumpy at times, slow at other times, and the denouement felt a little forced.

4. Provenance by Ann Leckie
A young member of a political family on the planet of Hwae implements a scheme for getting an advantage over her equally ambitious brother, but things don't go entirely according to plan.
This may suffer primarily in comparison to the Imperial Radch trilogy. Breq from those books is one of my favorite characters ever written, but in comparison Ingray in this volume is small-minded and mundane, with petty motivations. There is some good character development over the course of the book, but I didn't really start to get invested until about halfway through. I wanted to be awed by this, but it was merely good.

3. The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
As the Flow streams allowing travel across an interstellar empire begin to destabilize, the people in charge must decide what to do.
Yet again this kept me turning the pages, but… I feel like I've read essentially this same book at least five times already. I'm also getting a little impatient with our cultural obsession with stories about monarchs and noble bloodlines. But perhaps what annoyed me the most about this book is that when I got to the end I really wanted to read the next one.

2. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Inhabitants of the Met building in drowned Manhattan get involved in a variety of converging socioeconomic intrigues.
Well, I rather adored this. This is one of those futuristic SF books that is really about the present. This one in particular seems to be a call to arms, whose thesis might be summed up most concisely by the statement "the invisible hand never picks up the check." It resembles 2312 in that it feels more like an extended world-building exercise (or extrapolation of present trends) than anything else (it is certainly driven by setting more so than character or plot), but it is a potent warning about where we're headed. One thing I love about KSR is how he manages to do extended infodumps in a way that seems in harmony with the flow of the story. Maybe it's just the engaging style he uses to do it. I love this book specifically as one of those rarities that actually changed my thinking about things, or at least helped clarify it. In a normal year this would probably be my top pick.

1. The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemison
Essun and her daughter head for a potentially world-ending clash in the third and final novel of The Broken Earth trilogy.
This one really got to me. The mother-daughter clash is well laid-out and poignant [3]. You can empathize with both sides so clearly it hurts. It's also a fine trick to get the reader to feel such empathy for someone trying to destroy the world, even as you are still horrified at what they are trying to do. The way the high stakes and Death-Star-level power come in to play at the end is also deftly handled. Done poorly such showdowns feel dull and hackneyed (the world is always ending in SFF, and some hero always has to obtain godlike power to stop it), but the fine web of character development and gradual stakes-raising constructed over the course of the trilogy means the final battle inescapably ensnares. I also liked that Jemisin was much more explicit about theme in this volume. I saved a number of quotes from it, but the most pithy summary is probably "Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don't lament when those worlds fail. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place" [4]. This book shattered me in the best way. It deserves the award [5].

[1] So like, you have to use fancy math to come up with a calendar of remembrances, which are large-scale ritualistic torture and/or commemorations of such, and everyone has to… do something to mark the occasion of these remembrances, and if that happens then you get magical powers and FTL spaceships and stuff, but if heretics try and stop the remembrances or set up a completely different calendar, it all falls apart, so you have to kill them, or something?

[2] I wonder if that's because they're so huge that the author would be hard-pressed to actually explain how Jedao pulled them off, and decided it was easier to just say "welp, yeah, he's a genius, so I guess he figured something out."

[3] The fact that I finished it the day before Mother's Day, my wife's first, certainly added to the emotional urgency.

[4] I don't think it's an accident that we might say something similar about, oh, I don't know, the Confederacy. Though it is an interesting irony that Jemisin is responsible for building this particular world.

[5] I'm vaguely annoyed at this, since the last two books in this series won the award (though I didn't rank either of them number one), and this book has already won the Nebula and Locus awards, meaning it feels like these books have been lauded enough, but… This absolutely deserves to win. And almost certainly will.

See also:
Short stories


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January 2019


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