Back in August, the winner of the Hugo Best Novel was announced, and I posted a review of three of the shortlisted books. Now, I’m finally back to round off that six-book long shortlist with the remaining reviews. In this part two, I’ll be reviewing the following: Middlegame, The Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Light Bridage.
To read part one click here.
The reason I decided to read these six novels was to expand upon my own reading of science fiction. While in part one, the books I reviewed centred around space travel and forming new civilisations, this half of books is more focused on time.
A large part of this is about second chances. Middlegame and The Light Brigade are stories following a similar path: the former is about diverting something awful, the second about creating a better world altogether. In both cases the onus of this change is on the main characters, but the interesting thing was it’s not just about these protagonists, as both books include characters whose goals align with the good. The time-focus in Ten Thousand Doors is less about time travel and more about the setting of the story: the midst of the twentieth century, in America, where Progress (yes, the capitalised kind) is the word on everyone’s lips. The time of the US’ great empires and ideas of Manifest Destiny. It’s curious then that the story does not want to stay in this place, in a time period regarded for its invention and internationality but rather edges sideways, travelling through space to worlds that are completely different, with different values, where the brown and black protagonists dont have to be stuck with a localised version of racism, for example. Again: second chances. It really does feel a lot like time travel, despite not being so, largely because of the differences the author creates in each world presented to the reader.
Middlegame This story has an omniscient third person narrator, meaning it dips in and out of various POVs, but the central story follows a set of twins: Roger and Dodger, as they discover they have a mental connection to each other, despite never having met. The story follows these two as they discover their relationship with each other and their quirks – Roger is extraordinarily gifted with languages, Dodger is a mathematical genius. Alongside this runs the subterranean darkness of a powerful organisation of alchemists, the people who aim to control the twins’ lives and through them, the world.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January The titular character, January Scaller, lives as a ward of the wealthy collecter Mr Locke, wandering around the huge house filled with curiosities pilfered from every corner of the world. Her father is in Mr Locke’s employ, doing the collecting of these treasures, and January, as she grows up and into the odd space left for her by society – not white or wealthy or male enough – realises she would rather be out there, in the midst of an adventure. Despite her discovery of a Door into another world as a child, she does not find this journey so much as it is thrown at her when she has no other choice.
The Light Brigade This story follows the character of Dietz in a first-person narrative as she joins an army to fight in the Earth’s war against the Martians, prompted by a mass killing of everyone in São Paulo – where her entire family lived. By proving herself, she could also gain citizenship by the Corporation who controls where she lives – formerly having been a ghoul, someone without statehood and its protections. But when she does finally join combat, Dietz encounters something strange: time moving, without her.
Middlegame – Seanan McGuire
Synopsis: Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story. Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math. Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it.
Publisher: St Martin’s Press
This quote is from the beginning of the book, where Reed, who is a person created by magic, is convincing people to invest in his startlingly cruel plan that makes children into something else. An investor says: “You’ve shown us wonders, but those wonders aren’t marketable, Reed. We can’t transform all the world’s lead into gold without destroying the economy we’re trying to control.”
I think that pretty much sums up the villainy of this book. People with too much power trying to control a world. People who could make the world a better place, except then they wouldn’t have anything to control. The set-up of this story is about Reed and the plan he has to, essentially, grow two children with power. The two kids in this book – who become adults as you read – are Roger and Dodger. Like most complex, dimension-spanning and time-hopping stories about fantastical people, this one gets better the more you read.
The introduction is a little tricky. There is a lot to offer, after all. Not only about Reed but a series of children’s stories that act like a Wizard of Oz type road to wonderland. The story also jumps around a bit in time at the beginning, which can be confusing initially, but coalesces to form a complete story. Another thing that bugged me at the start were the overly wordy chapter titles. But I will admit I was very fond of them by the end. Although the set-up may be a lot, it also means the payoff of the story is better at the end. The story slowly grows with the twins but that means we do too, as readers. It means you can get excited as the ending draws near, having invested into the character arcs and flaws, strengths and desires without question.
There is also a very deliberate line of humour in this story that takes the edge off it being too difficult to get into. There’s a constant sense of impending doom, but it’s weirdly fun to read. For example this quote: “Rogers laughs. He doesn’t say anything: he just laughs, helplessly, sinking lower and lower in his seat, until his head is almost level with the top of the booth.” This is in the middle of a very dire situation, but the image here is so clear, and very much ‘*chuckles* “I’m in danger”‘ that I couldn’t help but laugh. (Sorry if you don’t know the meme…) I find a book that is very plot-heavy does a lot better when it’s funny. And I haven’t even talked about the truly excellent sibling dynamics between Roger and Dodger – yes, even their hilariously kitschy names – yet!
The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow
Synopsis: In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr Locke, she feels little different from the artefacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored and utterly out of place. But her quiet existence is shattered when she stumbles across a strange book.
Publisher: Little, Brown
In many ways, this story was what I wanted from The Starless Sea. It’s about falling into magical worlds through books and the ongoing importance of stories. I really enjoyed, for example, the way that certain plot points were conveyed not from a narrator but rather from a book we and January, the main character, read at the same time. I also found in-universe books were spaced out well, not too long or short that they distracted from January’s story. In effect, it conveyed the magical effect you expect. And Ten Thousand Doors itself follows the steps of a standard, fantasy adventure novel: a heroine, her obstacles, her overcoming and her future. I don’t think this is particularly a spoiler, as there is an expectation, once you begin this book, that you already know the ending. I quite enjoyed this. It conveys a weighty certainty to the importance of stories, that this one follows the rules.
However, January also does not follow the rules, in many ways. One of the standout things about this novel, for me, was January herself. She is absolutely a believable character, halfway between fearless and fearful, magically skilled and quite naive. She also inhabits an ‘in-between’ place in her life, as a ward, not daughter, of a powerful man. She doesn’t entirely have a place that fits. These are all strengths. As the title says, these books are all about capitalism and its unquenchable thirst to own everything. I really enjoyed the refreshing nature of an author being completely unsubtle about pointing out how so many of the bad things in society are common and everyday. I also enjoyed that instead of a complicated set-up to explain race oppression to her readers, Harrow just… has characters of colour. She conveys how they experience the world, and how other worlds, without the prejudice of 20th century America, are therefore far more appealing.
This book is not overly complicated, but I wouldn’t call it simplistic either. Occasionally it does feel moralistic, but it is an easy story to enjoy and get caught up in, highs and lows, tragedies and victories. The set-up, and January’s world and life, is anything but simple, but the story manages to make you feel like it is.
The Light Brigade – Kameron Hurley
Synopsis: The Light Brigade: it’s what soldiers fighting the war against Mars call the ones who come back…different. Dietz, a fresh recruit in the infantry, begins to experience combat drops which don’t sync up with the platoon’s. And the bad drops tell a story of war that’s not what the corporate brass want the soldiers to think it is. Is Dietz really experiencing the war differently, or is it combat madness?
Publisher: Watkins Media
The anti-war message of this book is not shy. Again and again, Dietz is told to ignore any pinging morality in the back of her mind and follow the brief, do as she’s told, fight the war. It is, in many ways, a chilling look at the kind of world we can allow to happen with indifference and an every-man-for-himself individualism. The world is separated off into parts owned by Corporations, each with a different name and exactly the same MO. Dietz signs up because they are at war, and she wants to play her part. It is only as she starts participating in that war that things begin to edge themselves out of order, not add up.
I am sure the title of this book, an obvious echo of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Charge of the Light Brigade, makes the war message obvious. Tennyson’s poem is a patriotic ode to a failed – doomed to fail – military action by the British forces in the Crimean war. Just like the war in this book is doomed to fail? Or is it pointing out the useless sacrifice of hundreds of people for a war and an enemy they know almost nothing about? Tennyson’s poem, after all, paints the soldiers involved as heroes, for their unquestioning following of orders. Consider the following quote from the book:
“The ground must be carefully prepared, often for generations. Corporations had been chipping away at the authority of governments for a century before the Seed Wars. They experimented with company towns, and then outrageous benefits for employees. As health care became more expensive, one didn’t even have to offer private transport and free meals. Simly helping pay the cost to cure grandma’s cancer was enough to ensure blind obedience. That’s how you keep them loyal. Foster district in the democratic governments that are actually accountable to them. Show them that only the corporations can save them from themselves.”
Doesn’t that quote sound a bit too plausible? There is lots I can say about this book that won’t do justice to reading it. For example, the construction of Dietz’s narrative as she begins to experience time differently to everyone else, and how you are still able to obtain a linear order of events. Or the quiet sense of doom created when we, the reader, knows what is going to happen because Dietz has already experienced it. Like the previous two books, the message here is quite in-your-face, but what’s also glaring is the hope the author tries to foist upon the reader, that change is possible, that collective is stronger than a few. Dietz is quite an ordinary character: nothing special about her. You can choose to view this as her simply being a filler character for the author’s intent, or again, as a symbol of how important the ordinary is.
I have really enjoyed reading all six of these books. I think it’s totally reignited my love for sci-fi, especially because this shortlist features stories that differ wildly from one another. The excellence of women’s writing is also on display, as all six shortlisted authors are women, and writing about women — also with female love interests. The standard of writing is also truly excellent and, I think, has spoiled me for any books I’m going to read now! That’s what you get with the Hugos I guess? Next year I’ll read the longlist!!
Have you read any of these SF&F offerings? What did you think?