The Hugo Award winners were announced at the beginning of August, but some of us are still reading! Six novels were shortlisted for the award of Best Novel, and I am (slowly) reading all six. In this Part 1 post I’ll be reviewing the following: Gideon the Ninth, A Memory Called Empire and The City in the Middle of the Night.
I know, of course, that any book shortlisted for a Hugo will involve complex space stories and fully fleshed-out characters, but it is different to see this in writing, and very fun. I decided to read these six novels because I wanted to rekindle my love for sci-fi, having dropped soley into the F of SF&F recently. This definitely did that!
The similarities across these three books are more or less what it says in the title. Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire both follow singular female protagonists navigating a completely new society. For Gideon, this is a gothic space station populated by the heirs to eight other planets, all of whom are competing against her and the heir she is there to protect, Harrowhark, for a prize to be bestowed by the Emperor. Mahit, the protagonist of AMCE, is an ambassador from a space station called Lsel, sent to the City, the centre of the formidable Teixcalaanli Empire. The City in the Middle of the Night also has a female protagonist – actually, it has two. First there is Sophie, a student, and there is also Mouth, a smuggler from a group of nomads, all of whom were wiped out when she was a child. They too navigate the politics and societies between the two cities on the planet of January, where they live, and their narratives are differentiated in interesting ways.
So what about the second part of the title: slow intimacy? Each of these three books has a burgeoning romance, although romance is not enough to describe how closely entangled our protagonists are with specific people. AMCE, for example, deals a lot with memory. A part of the culture of Lsel Station is implanting an ‘imago’ into a person’s mind – essentially the consciousness of a now-dead person. This is how the people of Lsel keep their culture alive, through a long line of memory machines, bringing each past into the constant and immediate presence – one’s mind. So Mahit has to deal with her own feelings as well as those of her imago. The romace in Gideon the Ninth is absolutely inevitable, but the protagonist is slow on the uptake and honestly this is half the fun of the book. In TCMN, on the other hand, intimacy is a mix between these two. Part mind connection, part physical closeness. There is also the question in all three books about intimacy with other people than a singular love interest, about connecting with people who you did not expect to connect with. This means side characters are all fully fleshed-out and given backstories even if irrelevant to the protagonist, and this is undoubtedly a massive part of what makes all three books so alive.
Gideon the Ninth – If you’ve read any of the Hugo Best Novel Shortlist, it’s likely this one. It received cult status very quickly, most likely for its irreverent protagonist and the inescapably fun mix of fantasy and sci-fi. The plot of this book follows the titular Gideon, an orphan who has grown up on quite an isolated planet, where her only companions were the sword (yes, the author does make reference to the ‘I studied the blade’ meme and it is glorious), a rotations of nuns and priests who worship, as far as I can tell, the dead, and also the dead. Her nemesis is a girl of her own age who is the heir to the rulers of the planet, Harrowhark, and the story follows the two of them as they accept a summons from the Emperor to a haunted, gothic castle on a planet where they meet eight others heirs and swordspeople, ready to fight to the uh, death.
A Memory Called Empire – Interspersed with interludes following characters from Lsel Station, this book is about Mahit, an ambassador from Lsel Station to the centre of the Teixcalaanli Empire, which has slowly and steadily been expanding its reach across the universe. Mahit is summoned to this new role because her predecessor has been killed. The interesting thing is she also has her predecessor in her head: a personality made up of memory who inhabits a permanent space in her cortex, hopefully to help her navigate a court that might want to kill her.
The City in the Middle of the Night – This story begins with Sophie. She is a young student at the university in the city of Xiosphant. She has made her way there against all odds, coming from a part of the city where people are poor, and she is entranced with Bianca, her roommate, who seems to be everything she is not. The story really begins, however, when Sophie is exiled as punishment. Xiosphant is a city balanced in the brief stretch of light that breaks up the freezing cold darkness that covers the rest of the planet where everyone’s ancestors decided to settle down, away from Earth. Sophie’s experience with what’s out there in the darkness, and her subsequent meeting with Mouth, whose narration Sophie’s is interspersed with, is what the story follows.
For the sake of the fact that there are three incredibly full books here, I’m going to keep these reviews short. Hope you appreciate my sacrifice at not speaking endlessly about *clenches fist* complex worldbuilding.
Gideon the Ninth – Tamsin Muir
The aspect that carries this book to greatness, for me, is the character voice. It is narrated in third-person POV and follows Gideon. In the beginning, she is undertaking a very complex plot to try and leave the planet she has been on since she was young (and which, also, she hates). The author understands humour well, which seems strange to say but I sometimes find that books that are great on world building sometimes lack on uh, fun. (This is more for classic sci-fi, however.) But not so here! Gideon is an absolutely hilarious character. All she likes is swords and looking cool, all she hates are her nemeses and having to paint her face with a skull every day in accordance with the rules of the Ninth Planet she’s from. It is a long book, so discovering the world Muir has created through Gideon’s POV is a nice way to spend it. She has remarks on everyone she meets – mostly in accordance of how badass or not she finds them – which makes you feel a bit less of a spectator and much more involved. Her character voice also makes it easier to get through parts of the plot that have a lot going on.
I mentioned this a little in this post, but in contrast to all the gushing I’ve just done about the world building, it is also my biggest issue with this book. On the whole, by which I mean when you reach the end, you can understand why the story drops you straight into the action and does not really let up for exposition, especially considering who the narrator is. But it also makes the story difficult to follow. I spent a lot of time confused about what was happening, about all the different terms Muir uses throughout and about what, exactly, the end goal was for any of the characters. This last point in particular sort of marred the ending for me. I wasn’t exactly excited about events at the end of the book, mostly because it seemed the plot picked up pace very quickly, which is fine, but it contrasted with the slower pace of the rest of the book. I liked the slow pace! Getting to know the characters and the gothic house and all the weird space politics was undoubtedly my favourite part of the book. This also allowed backstory to unravel slowly and that is my absolute favourite way to read backstory – getting hints and pieces that are revealed right before the Boss arrives or whatever. All this to say, I will be reading the sequel, because I do want to know what happens next and I am ready to be happily surprised at more genre-breaking writing.
A Memory Called Empire – Arkady Martine
This is the kind of book that’s easy to love because the summary sounds amazing and then every moment of it lives up to that. It is both what it says on the tin and not. Yes, there is political intrigue and maneuvering, requiring a protagonist who is both very apt in social situations and a huge nerd. However, the reason this book feels so encompassing is because it’s about empire. Idk about you, but empire is a dirty word, and this book absolutely does not shy away from that. Part of that is I think because of the writer’s background. It feels visceral anyway, the ways in which Mahit is constantly struggling between wanting an assimilation into the overwhelming culture of Teixcalaan, where the word for ‘city’ is the same word for ‘world,’ and wanting to retain her heritage strongly. It feels like a story talking about every moment of assimilation, everywhere, from real-life immigrant stories to real-life stories about empires that existed, about enjoying something that you don’t really have a choice in enjoying. This is continuously depicted in human ways and I just really like how there was no clear-cut answer at the end of it. The people Mahit befriends in the City are not evil. She is not evil for wanting to be part of their world. But is it wrong? Reader decides.
The other reason this book is excellent is because of the poetry. Omg the poetry. Admittedly, sometimes it feels like the book gets caught up in its own mythos about political maneouvring and all that. I think somewhere in the middle I was a little tired about how much of the plot seemed to be about sidestepping political intrigue. I also think the story is a little too sympathetic to the ruling class, which is a whole other point about how I’m just not sympathetic to emperors! But the poetry makes up for a lot of it. It is the way Teixcalaan remembers what it is, as it becomes larger and larger, and also becomes a status signifier. Poetry is also used as a way for Mahit to feel both accepted and an outsider – she has spent her life studying it, but she is also not a natural in the way others are. This idea haunts her. For example, she quickly becomes close with her cultural liaison, but as much as they understand one another, there is also this whole system of an empire between them. There is a planned for this book so I am intrigued to see what we get – more ordinary people, hopefully! There was certainly a hint in this one we’ll see more. But I think sometimes the book spend so much time embroiled in loving Teixcalaan it, too, wants to love it more than the reader.
The City in the Middle of the Night – Charlie Jane Anders
Anders has an extraordinary talent for throwing you into the middle of a story and making you understand all of it. Part of what I enjoyed so much about this book is the pace – it’s quick, but there is no world building sacrificed for this. In fact, this method of both dropping you in the middle of the story and giving you exposition is what I find doesn’t work in many SF books, and I’m usually left enjoying the story but confused. Or understanding the world but finding the story boring. The careful balance in this book works really well and I think makes this an excellent book if you’re new to sci-fi, especially. A lot of this book is also about an interplay with time. For example, in Xiosphant, the city where Sophie is from, everyone is concerned with ‘timefulness,’ in a way which seems sadly like our own world. Time is always running out, the whole day is run according to strict segments of hours and moments. This begins a fascination the story has with the past. There are a lot of morals in this story, about otherness and immigration, but the largest one is about how power is always embedded within history: personally and socially. Mouth, the other POV character, is consistently concerned with recovering the history of the Nomads she spent her childhood with, desperate to discover herself through that act. These characters are always looking ahead – perhaps necessary for settlers on an inhospitable planet – but it also makes the story of the past precious in ways only few of them grasp.
“The lack of Timefulness here only makes everything appear more temporary. Like, without small units of time, I’m more aware of the big units of time, the city inhaling the sun-spiked air and exhaling decay. The only thing that never disappears is the past.”
So much of both cities is built on who does and doesn’t have power. People’s lives are decided on how useful they were on the Mothership that brought them to this planet. Sophie’s ancestors were not privileged. In fact the opposite. But Bianca’s were – and Bianca is the girl Sophie is in love with from beginning to end in this book. So much of Sophie’s story is wound up in Bianca, which is clear from I think the very first page. The love stories in this book seem just as, if not more important, than the actual plot (makes sense if you consider Anders’ essay on the importance of relationships in stories). I loved the diversity of them, but also their similarity: all of them are about loyalty and what we owe to each other — and at what point loyalty has to stop. Sophie’s narration, perhaps because it is first person, is at times very heart-wrenching. The primary goal of her drive always seems to be Bianca — she wants something she cannot verbalise herself. And the story really changes when Sophie’s focus switches away from Bianca, likely for the absurdity of it. I think its a nice way to show no matter what society or city these characters live in, some things stay – irreparably – the same.
I have three more shortlisted novels to read. Maybe I’ll even post the review before the end of the year! Have you read any of these three? What did you think?