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May 08

Week 18: More effing awards – but seriously I love them – and two books I liked but didn’t love

Books Read

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The Night Clocks by Paul Meloy

The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken

Currently Reading 

In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker

(1)

This week my review of Tade Thompson’s award-winning and fantastic début novel, Making Wolf, was published on the Strange Horizons’ website.  Here’s a quote from my piece just to give you a sense of the novel:

If it isn’t already clear, Making Wolf is a crime novel hyped up on performance-enhancing drugs sourced either from Quentin Tarantino or Sam Peckinpah. For a great deal of the book Thompson follows the conventions of noir, introducing both a love interest whose life is threatened and a femme fatale whose astonishing looks ultimately seduce our hero:

It was as if she was so slight that reality parted to let her exist, but only barely [ . . . ] Her skin shone, glowed with an inner light that was attractive. Given a strong wind, she might take off.

And then there’s the over-the-top violence, in sudden moments of brutality that are genuinely shocking. In particular, there’s a rape scene (I’ll skip the details) that does feel like a gratuitous step too far. And yet I don’t want to leave the impression that Making Wolf is just another ultraviolent crime novel where the hero’s hands are steeped in blood and women are just objects of lust to be dispensed with in the most awful ways possible. There’s a great deal of smarts driving this book, especially in the way Thompson uses the conventions of the genre to comment on sexist and violent attitudes toward women.

I’m proud of the review, but feel free to skip it and read Making Wolf instead.

(2)

It’s hard to still give a crap about the Hugo nominees when we’re being swamped by finalists and nominees from other awards.  This week saw the announcement of the Shirley Jackson and Locus Award nominees.

First up – the Shirley Jackson Award, but more specifically the nominees for best novel:

  • Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press)
  • Experimental Film, Gemma Files (ChiZine Publications)
  • The Glittering World, Robert Levy (Gallery)
  • Lord Byron’s Prophecy, Sean Eads (Lethe Press)
  • When We Were Animals, Joshua Gaylord (Mulholland Books)

Observations

  1. It’s fantastic to see Eileen nominated, a novel with a dark, moody and dangerous quality that I think Jackson would have admired. Go read it!
  2. Experimental Film by Gemma Files has been on my TBR list since I read Nina Allan’s great review of the book.
  3. And while the other three nominees are writers I’m not familiar with, that’s what makes their presence so exciting. The wonderful thing about the Shirley Jackson award is that whether intentionally or not the nominees often bridge that divide between literary and genre, much like Jackson did herself, what with “The Lottery” first being published in The New Yorker.  It’s why out of all the genre awards, it’s the SJA that I look forward to the most.  It speaks to my interests and my reading habits.

Next we have the Locus Awards.  Here are the nominees of the four novel categories:

SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL

  • The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi (Borzoi; Orbit UK)
  • Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Seveneves, Neal Stephenson (Morrow)
  • A Borrowed Man, Gene Wolfe (Tor)

FANTASY NOVEL

  • Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear (Tor)
  • The House of Shattered Wings, Aliette de Bodard (Roc; Gollancz)
  • Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (PS; Open Road)
  • The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

YOUNG ADULT BOOK

  • Half a War, Joe Abercrombie (Del Rey; Harper Voyager UK)
  • Half the World, Joe Abercrombie (Del Rey)
  • Harrison Squared, Daryl Gregory (Tor)
  • Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older (Levine)
  • The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett (Harper; Doubleday UK)

FIRST NOVEL

  • Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (Ace; Macmillan UK)
  • The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (Saga)
  • Signal to Noise, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris)
  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury US; Bloomsbury UK)
  • The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com)

Observations

  1. I’ve read six of the 20 books nominated, most of those in the Fantasy category
  2. Nice to see Aurora get a nod after being ignored / forgotten by the major genre awards this year.  On the other hand it would have been nice to have seen Adam Roberts, Dave Hutchinson and Ian McDonald nominated for their respective novels.  Yes, I’m aware they’re UK writers who either do not, or may not have US distribution.  I’m also aware that I’m suggesting the addition of men to a list that’s already 80% male.  I could blame gender bias on my part or more accurately the fact that I haven’t read many science fiction novels published by woman in 2015.  That’s not to say they weren’t published, I’m aware of novels like Planetfall by Emma Newman and Genevieve Valentine’s Persona and Radiance by Cat Valente.  I just haven’t read them, though I very much intend to.
  3. Anyway, of the 14 books I haven’t read I intend to look at 8. They would be… actually I’m not going to list them.  You’ll find out in the coming weeks… assuming I read all eight.  Feel free to guess though.
  4. Gender issues aside (specifically in the Best SF and Best YA category), it’s nice to see a decent representation of POC’s – mostly (and possibly more importantly) in Best First Novel.

(3)

Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers is set on a world (I assume Earth) affected by climate change.  Most people – referred to as “damplings” – live and die on the sea.  Only a select few enjoy the privilege of living on what land still exists.  North is a dampling, part of a circus troupe that tour a nearby archipelago, surviving off the hand-outs of the land dwellers.  North’s particular brand of entertainment involves a bear whom only she can totally control.  Separate from North and her circus adventures is the story of Callanish, a girl who administers shore side burials for those who die at sea.  She tends the birds, or graces, that form part of this culture’s burial rituals.  Callanish connection to North – at least initially – is that she remembers, as a girl, watching a circus performance that ended horribly after two of the performers died at the hands of a raging bear.  These performers were North’s parents.  Callanish’s enduring memory of the tragedy is the small girl – North – still dancing with her own bear.

While a number of secondary characters are given chapters of their own, including the circus master Jarrow and his scheming wife Avalon, the focus is very much on North and Callanish.  They don’t actually meet until a third of the way through the novel, but the immediate acceptance they have for each other sees them share deep secrets – North explains how she became pregnant, Callanish shows North the webbing on her hands, a “disfigurement” that would see her buried alive if she lived on land.  While their meeting is fleeting their obsession with each other – thoughts regularly gravitating to what it would be like if they could be together – feels natural and organic.  It’s the strongest part of the novel.

Unfortunately the Gracekeepers is let down by the two plot strands that occupy the book’s narrative, that is the survival of the circus and Callanish’s decision to head back home and reunite with her mother.  Starting with the circus, Jarrow’s commitment to provide North and his son with a home over the wishes of his wife, Avalon, does result in a level of tension – especially since North doesn’t have any wish to live on land.  But even after Avalon discovers that North is pregnant and not with Jarrow’s son, she does very little with the secret.  North herself is never really placed in the uncomfortable position of betraying Jarrow’s trust.  In fact the decision of what she and her bear would do if Jarrow evicted them is taken out of her hands when Avalon decides, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, to burn the circus down (or the boats that form it).  This one act does increase the stakes but it happens so late in the novel that it feels like a throwaway moment of drama then something the novel has led up to.

The same goes for Callanish’s story.  Her sudden decision to return home to seek her mother’s forgiveness for leaving seems a bit out of character.  Given how seriously she takes her responsibility out on the water, I couldn’t get my head around her dropping everything, even if it was a decision mostly inspired and motivated by her brief meeting with North.  It’s not helped that she puts her life in the hands of a man who she barely knows and who sees her as a sex object.  But even with all that, not much of note happens to Callanish, I never felt that her life or her mission were under threat.

While I did like the prose and some of the world building – in particular the Revivalists who travel from island to island looking to convert people to the one true God – the lack of drama or tension meant I never truly engaged with North or Callanish’s story.

(4)

With his début novel The Night Clocks Paul Meloy isn’t frightened to go full batshit cosmological as he introduces concepts such as Dark Time and Autoscopes and Firmament Surgeons and the Night Clock itself, a group of 12 men and women who stand against the darkness probing at our dreams.  While the neologisms come thick and fast and there’s a hand wavy haziness to some of the concepts (it was never entirely clear to me why one of the characters was carrying around a fetus in a jar called Doctor Natus) overall the mythology on display is exciting and vibrant.  We have locked off pocket Universes (called Quays) and an unborn baby named Chloë learning about the mysteries of the Universe and insectoid like horrors ripping their way through the fabric of our nightmares into reality.

I have a soft spot for this sort of cosmological craziness, even when it seems like the author is flinging insanity at the wall.  I liked the fact that the novel never stood still, that the focus was always moving providing the narrative with a sense of urgency and foreboding and danger.  Unfortunately, that frenetic aspect also proved to be the book’s major weakness.  While the main character is ostensibly Phil Trevana, a psychologist whose patients have this tragic knack of committing suicide, he constantly gets pushed into the background as the stories of Daniel, a Firmament Surgeon, or Chloë, an unborn child living in pocket universe, or Alex a young man discovering the wonders and horror of Dark Time, take precedence depending on the needs of the plot.  It meant that I didn’t really care much about anyone, or for that matter the growing threat posed by the Autoscopes.  Or more to the point, once the novelty of Meloy’s mythology wore off, there’s not much – at least character wise – holding the book together.

I’m also uncomfortable with books that link mental illness with the supernatural.  While Meloy isn’t so crass to blame depression and mental illness on the machinations of the Autoscopes, these creatures do take advantage of those who are ill.  Meloy isn’t the first genre writer to make this link between cosmological horror and mental illness (hello Lovecraft) but like that eponymous monster who feeds on OUR FEAR, it’s a trope I could do without.

Yet I do like the ambition on display here.  I like that The Night Clock does neat things with structure, like opening with a bizarre scene that only makes sense once you’ve read to the end and how its seamlessly transitions from balls to the wall horror to a storybook moment between a talking dog and an unborn child.  And I know that critiquing the book for not being more focussed is contradictory.   But I suppose I want to be excited by the ideas and still care about the characters.

(5)

I’ll publish my thoughts about Hugo Wilcken’s The Reflection next week.

1 comment

  1. Mike Glyer

    I don’t see any awards for effing here! Fraud at polls! 🙂

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