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Sunday, July 20, 2014
Hugo Awards: Warbound
Warbound is the third book in Larry Correia's Grimnoir Chronicles, and (finally) the one that was nominated for this year's best novel Hugo. Because I tend to take a completist view of this sort of thing, I read the first two novels in the series, Hard Magic and Spellbound, and generally enjoyed them. Correia has mashed up a number of genres - action, noir, fantasy, even a little steampunk, etc... - and made it work. This is no small feat, and I suspect many attempts at this sort of thing do not work anywhere near as well. And Correia is a telented storyteller as well. There are things set up in the first two books that pay off here, indicating a thoughtful approach. Plus, it's just fun. This is a quality that I suspect is lost on a lot of people, but not on me! Even though this particular genre mashup is not exactly in my wheelhouse, I appreciated the series as a whole.
So I basically knew what I was in for in this book, and it delivered on all the promises made by the first two installments. As an individual entry in the series, I'd say it's about on par with the rest of it (perhaps better than the second installment, but only because middle stories in a trilogy tend to be incomplete).
The story picks up right where Spellbound left off. Heavy Jake Sullivan is trying to mobilize a force to face the Pathfinder, a scout for the great Enemy that will devour the world if the Pathfinder is successful. Meanwhile, Faye Vierra is coming to terms with being the spellbound and must seek out help to ensure that she is not corrupted by the power that "curse" has granted her. When Sullivan and Faye find out that the Pathfinder has been more successful than it seemed, the planet is about to be plunged into a great battle against the Enemy. You might even say that Earth was warbound. Heh.
The plot is a bit broken up here, with Faye's story almost completely isolated from Sullivan's, and with some prominent characters from the first two books making an appearance, but otherwise sidelined for most of the book. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's another indication of how loose the series has been. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, and it's clearly not as bloated or flabby as something like The Wheel of Time books that I've read so far, but I do find myself thinking that these books could stand to be a bit shorter.
As per usual, Sullivan and Faye take the brunt of character work, and they're both likable protagonists. Toru is also the type of character that grew on me as time went on. As always, there's a colorful cast of supporting characters, including some new faces (I was a fan of Wells, the alienist - a slightly less creepy version of Hannibal Lecter).
As I mentioned in the previous two reviews, one of my problems with stories about magic is how overpowered the magic becomes as the story progresses. The stakes are continually rising, and because it's magic, it's tempting to just keep making the magic more powerful. For the most part, Correia has pulled it off in this series. In part, this is because he set up some very clear rules, and used logical extensions of those rules to find new powers. By the end of this book, things were getting a bit too overpowered, but then, this is also the last book, so I think some leeway is required. I'm pretty impressed that Correia was able to balance everything out this well.
I guess this is a spoiler, but not really - Faye saves the world (as she did in the first two books), but on a larger scale. Faye is basically the main protagonist, and she's a bit terrifying. This is partly because she is so powerful, but also because she seemingly kills hundreds if not thousands of people throughout the series, but feels not a single pang of guilt towards it. For that matter, Sullivan and the rest of the Grimnoir are similar in that way, so perhaps that's a Correia thing. But in this book, there is at least an acknowledgement that such wanton bloodlust will lead to disaster. Faye is the spellbound, which means that she can absorb the power of magical actives when they die. This is why she is so powerful. But such power can also corrupt, and the previous spellbound became consumed by his quest for power and became a mindless killing machine (basically driving this alternate history's version of WWI) Faye spends a good portion of the novel trying to come to terms with the fact that she could easily be corrupted in that way, and she catches herself thinking things that would lead down that path. I was glad to see this tacit acknowledgement that all this death and destruction wasn't really a desirable thing, even if Correia seems to revel in the violence and action of it all.
And finally, a word on the audiobooks. Even though Baen very thoughtfully included all three novels in the Hugo Voter's Packet, I listened to the audiobook for all of them. As it turns out, the book is read by Bronson Pinchot. Yes, that Bronson Pinchot. And he's really fantastic (supposedly, these books have won him awards), seemingly able to handle a multitude of accents and vocal registers (given the worldwide scope of these stories, there are a lot of foreign accents required). From Audible, it seems he has 144 titles available, which is a pretty impressive body of work.
This wraps up all of the fiction awards that I'm voting for. My ballot for best novel is basically as predicted, with this one falling right smack in the middle, behind Neptune's Brood and Ancillary Justice, but ahead of Parasite (that ending has really curdled in my mind as time goes on) and The Wheel of Time. In the end, I probably wouldn't have read all three of these books if left to my druthers, but I have had no real issue with them either. They're a ton of fun, and I may even be tempted to check out some of Correia's Monster Hunter books if I get in the mood for something like that.
Obligatory note of all the controversy surrounding the nomination of this book. I've already (briefly) discussed it elsewhere, but I tended to concentrate more on reading all the nominees. Now that I've read all of Correia's "Sad Puppy" slate of nominees, I'd say it was a pretty mixed bag in terms of quality. Then again, so were a lot of the nominees overall, but that's just the way of populist awards. I appreciate reading some things outside of my comfort zone, and this was a good way to accomplish that. I get the consternation around this, but I was ultimately pretty happy with this whole experience.
From your perspective, only a few more Hugo posts to go. I am reading The Great Hunt (the second book in the Wheel of Time series), so I'll probably review that when I finish (short story here is that I like this better than the first book, but it's still ridiculous that this series got nominated as a whole. I'm reading this book because Tor very thoughtfully included the entire damn thing in the voter's packet. But according to my kindle, I have about 266 more hours of reading to go before I finish the series, which ain't going to happen by the end of the month). There are definitely some awards that I won't be voting for (how am I supposed to vote for Editors?), and I have some other assorted thoughts about the whole process as well. I'll post my final ballot when I get the chance as well. Then I'll have to find something else to write about, because I'm sure my readers (all three of you!) are getting pretty sick of this Hugo stuff.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Hugo Awards: Best Artists
The are two awards for artists in the hugos, one for Pro Artist and one for Fan Artist. The line between these two categories seems to be blurring every day, with some publishers trolling the likes of DeviantArt to get their book covers and whatnot, but there are two categories, and so here we are. The voter's packet comes with sample works for most of the Pro Artists and only a few of the Fan Artists. This is a little strange, as I'm not sure how much to weight the packet works. In general, I tried to base my decisions on what was included in the packet, though I also tried to check out their websites.
For Pro Artist, 5 out of 6 nominees included stuff in the packet, so I'm mostly basing my decisions on that, though I did look at each website as well.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
Hugo Awards: Best Dramatic Presentations (Long Form and Doctor Who-Form)
So now we're getting into some of the more obscure awards categories, and these seem to be a true outlier, as they cover forms that are well covered outside the Hugos. There are some who don't see the point in these categories because of that, but given how little respect genre filmmaking tends to get, I'm not as gloomy. I love movies, so Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form tends to be a pretty easy one for me. Of course, the issue I have with the category this year is that my preferred #1 pick (Upstream Color) was not nominated (another reason I should have nominated this year)... In any case, here's my tentative ballot. In all honesty, once you get past #1, I could probably swap a lot around depending on how I feel at the time, but this is where I'm at for now:
And now we come to the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, which is also basically known as the "Best Doctor Who episode of the year" award. Year in, year out, this award is dominated by Doctor Who episodes. They usually comprise 3-4 of the nominees, and one of those has won the award 6 out of 8 times. There are 6 nominees this year, and 4 are Doctor Who related (though two of those are more meta-Doctor Who stories than actual Doctor Who episodes). I also fully expect one of these episodes to win.
As someone on the relative outskirts of Doctor Who fandom, this was not a terribly exciting category. I definitely remember watching old-school Doctor Who on PBS when I was a youngin, but the only real episode that I remember was a Tom Baker one called State of Decay, and honestly, I haven't seen it in over 20 years. I have been very slowly working my way through the modern-era series (currently on Season 3), and I am seeing distinct improvements as time goes on (season 1 was a real slog though). So I think I generally had enough context to watch these episodes, even if there were some bits that I was clearly not getting... That being said, here's my tentative ballot:
Wednesday, July 09, 2014
Hugo Awards: Best Fan Writer
This is a category about writers who publish non-professional work. This can appear in appear in a number of venues, but all of this year's nominees are actually bloggers (there is some consternation about some of these non-fiction categories, as they seem to maintain a lot of legacy publications, like "zines", which have generally moved onto the web these days. Not being that familiar with the history here, I'll refrain from commenting further, except to say that it seems like some reform might be wise at this point). The writer in question may actually be a professional, but the publication cannot be so. For example, John Scalzi (winner of last year's Hugo for Best Novel) won this award a few years ago for his blog.
Other than that, the criteria here is a bit on the vague side. From my perspective, the name of the award indicates that the author should be a fan of something. And since this is about Science Fiction and Fantasy, that fandom should probably relate to works in those fields. This does not preclude them from writing about other things, or from a particular perspective, but one of the things I found this category is that many authors are preoccupied with a single topic that has little to do with actual Science Fiction.
Of course, this notion of reviewing authors who review SF does feel a bit awkward. I am nominally a part of this field, though I'm nowhere near as talented as these authors. But then, I'm not a particularly good fiction author either, and I've got enough hubris to think my opinion matters there, so what the hey? Let's get to it. My ranking as it stands now:
Sunday, July 06, 2014
Hugo Awards: Novellas
Another category that is dedicated to stories that are not long enough to be considered a "Novel", nor short enough to be a "Short Story" (or, as we must apparently consider in SF, a "Novelette"). As such, these tend to be quick reads, somewhere on the order of 2 hours each (give or take). This year's slate is an odd one. I find myself waffling on how I should rank my votes. This is also a category that makes me wish I submitted a nomination ballot, as I'd really love to be voting for Ian Sales' excellent novella The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, which would be near the top (if not the top) of my ballot. Alas, it was not to be. Here's where I'm at right now, though some of the middle votes may swap around a bit.
Wednesday, July 02, 2014
Link Dump: Hugo Award Fellow Travelers
It turns out that I'm not the only one playing along with this year's Hugo Awards, and since I know none of you are sick of the subject (right? RIGHT!?), I figured you'd want to see what other people think. Where possible, I'm linking to a relevant category on their blog, because some of these folks are prolific and write about many other things...
Update: It seems that CiaraCat had already undertaken to find blogs covering 2014 Hugos, and so I've added a few links to the above (I think our lists are now aligned somewhat)...
Again Update: Moar additions! Thanks to Reading SFF for three of them, and I found another that seems to have ambitious plans, but has not posted much yet...
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Hugo Awards: Spellbound
Spellbound is the second book in Larry Correia's Grimnoir Chronicles. The third books, Warbound, is nominated for this year's Hugo ballot, so being the completist that I am, I figured I should read these first two books. I enjoyed the first book, Hard Magic, enough that I'm not finding this to be a chore, though I have to admit that I probably wouldn't have been inspired to proceed through these sequels if it weren't for the third one being nominated this year.
After an introduction set at the close of WWI, this book picks up where Hard Magic left off, with the Japanese Imperium having suffered a defeat at the hands of newfound Grimnoir knight Sally Faye Vierra, with assists from Jake Sullivan, and a diverse crew of magical "actives." The American government, led by FDR, is trying to align around how to handle actives, possibly leading to registration and reeducation camps and other such dystopian nightmares (which, as established in the previous book, is how the Soviets and Japanese Imperium are handling the Actives). A sudden uptick in terrorist attacks seems to be driving this strategy, and the Grimnoir are being set up. Even more troubling is that Okubo Tokugawa - the fearsome chairman of the Imperium who was thought dead after the Grimnoir victory at the end of Hard Magic - appears to be alive and well. Oh, and the alien being that everyone derives their magical powers from? It has an Enemy, and the Enemy's scout, called the Pathfinder, is on its way.
So there's a lot going on in this book, and it very much reads as a sorta middle part of a trilogy to me. Hard Magic set up the world and the magic system, but basically told a self-contained story. This book introduces several elements that are unresolved at the end of the book, though it doesn't quite end on a cliffhanger either. Again, this seems to be a common thread amongst trilogies, so who knows where it's going from here. In that way, the plot is a bit more flabby than it was in Hard Magic (which wasn't exactly tight either), but I'm also reasonably confident that Correia will manage to tie things together in the third book.
As I mentioned in my review of Hard Magic, one of the challenges that any book with magic faces is this sort of escalation of power that is needed to continually up the stakes in the story. This worked well enough in Hard Magic, but it did get a bit excessive towards the end of that book. As such, I was a little worried that this book would just keep escalating, but Correia has shown an admirable restraint. What's more, he even manages to explain how and why the escalation of power happened in the first book, and he does so in a way that is natural and satisfying. It's clear that Correia had thought all this through and let that guide the first book without actually explicitly laying out why, for example, Faye has seemingly endless reserves of power. Indeed, after her heroics at the end of Hard Magic, she spends a good portion of this book significantly weaker in power.
I didn't spend any time going over details of the magical system in the previous review, but it's worth discussion a bit here because it does naturally lend itself to the story. Each Active has the ability to pull magical power from an alien being, but they are generally limited to a single ability. So Jake Sullivan has the power to manipulate gravity (increasing, decreasing, or shifting the direction of gravity) and he's referred to as a "Heavy." Faye is a Traveler, and she has the ability to teleport herself and others (she also has the ability to map out the world in her head, so she can avoid teleporting into other objects, etc...) There are Healers, Cogs (who have supernatural intelligence), Brutes (guess!), Voices (they can do Jedi mind trick manipulations), and so on. The Power seems to be in another plane of existence, and its comprised of all sorts of fancy geometric shapes. If you can see the Power, as some folks can (like Sullivan or Chairman Tokugawa), you can copy some of those geometric shapes and leverage the magic those areas represent. These shapes are kinda like spells, and if you carve them onto yourself, you can gain new powers (for example, many have Healing spells on their body). Of course, it's a painful process and one person can only take so many spells...
So this is all well thought out and reasonably well balanced. There are still some situations where the magical powers escalate, but Correia is pretty good at keeping it all grounded and reasonably well balanced. There are powerful villains, and you will fear for our protagonists, but Correia is able to come up with solutions that are reasonably satisfying.
The expansion of story threads has also lead to an expansion of characters. We still have our core Grimnoir Knights from the first book, lead by Sullivan and Faye, but we also get another cell of Grimnoir, some more of the Grimnoir elders, a whole group of villains at the OCI (a government organization that is being set up to take control of U.S. actives), a woman named Hammer (sorta freelance), and even an Iron Guard from the Imperium. For the most part, I was very happy to return to the characters from the first book, and that's usually a good sign. The structure of the magical powers sorta lends itself to a large ensemble, kinda like the X-Men, so it's good to know and like many of these characters.
Ultimately, this was a fine sequel, even if it felt like it was setting up a lot of things that wouldn't be resolved in this book. Correia can spin a good yarn, but I'm find it to be a little too loose. This is probably a matter of preference, and I'm sure there are many who love these characters so much that they want to spend as much time as possible hanging out with them, but I find that these books don't necessarily need to be as long as they are. So what we have here is a well executed sequel, and I am looking forward to seeing how some of these threads are resolved in Warbound, which I am starting this week. Given what I've read so far, I can't really see Warbound taking one of my top two votes, but it's got a pretty darn good chance at snagging that #3 slot in my Best Novel ballot.
In other news, I've knocked down 3 out of 5 Novellas and am hoping to finish that category off this week. After that, I've got to finish Warbound, and then I'm done with the fiction categories. I'm looking at a few of the other categories (Dramatic Presentation, Fan Writer, Zines, etc...) though there are definitely a few categories I don't think I'll be voting on (how does one vote for the "Editor" categories?) So yeah, I hope you're enjoying these Hugo posts, because we've got several more to go!
(Oh, I almost forgot: Obligatory note of all the controversy surrounding the nomination of Correia's book. I've already (briefly) discussed it elsewhere, but for now I'm concentrated on actually reading the books and stuff. I may get around to doing something in more detail about it, but then, I may not, because who cares about that sorta Inside Baseball crap when I could be reading about how Faye is going to kick the crap out of this Enemy Pathfinder thing we keep hearing about?)
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Hugo Awards: The No Award Conundrum
Since I know you're all curious about the voting system for the Hugo Awards, I thought I'd spend some time babbling about it, just for your edification. Believe it or not, voting systems have a lot of interesting pitfalls, not the least of which is that there isn't a particularly great solution to discerning the preference of a large community of individuals. Every system has its flaws, even something as simple as Plurality voting (i.e. the choice with the most votes wins).
Fortunately for you, I'm not going to babble on about this too much (and you don't want to get me started on the Electoral College, our misunderstood friend), I'll just note that the Hugo Awards uses an Instant Runoff System. In other words, I don't just vote for my favorite novel, I rank all the nominated novels in order of my personal preference. When it comes time to vote, unless there is a clear majority favorite, most winners can't win based solely on the voters who ranked the winner #1. There is an additional wrinkle in that there is an option available in every category called "No Award", which means that you think that no one should be awarded for that category (or that the category should be abolished). There are some finer points to the voting process, and this has already been discussed to death in other venues so I won't belabor the point.
Add in a particularly controversial ballot this year, and I think the voting process is going to play a particularly big role, especially when it comes to the Best Novel ballot. When the awards were announced this year and the entire The Wheel of Time series was nominated for Best Novel, there were a number of people who seemed to think that it was a shoe in to win the award. Given the Hugo Award's populist nature and just how popular The Wheel of Time series is (despite it's length, it's got more readers by at least an order of magnitude), that's probably a fair supposition... except that I think Instant Runoff Voting will squash any hopes that it will win.
While I assume the dedicated fans of the series would vote for it in the #1 position, I suspect few will rank it at #2 or below... and many have already expressed the notion of voting for it below No Award (or, as the link above notes, not include it on the ballot at all). Some will do this because they actually hate the books, but many will be doing this as a sorta protest of the obscure rule that allows multiple books to be nominated as one.
Personally, while I recognize the need for the No Award option (and the ability to leave options off the ballot), I'm also hesitant to deploy it except in extreme circumstances. The No Award option makes me a little uncomfortable. I mean, I am voting, so I'm obviously considering my opinion to be worthwhile, but on the other hand, the No Award option feels sorta petty, except in extreme circumstances. I'm even a little on the fence about the Wheel of Time situation, though I think I'm leaning towards ranking No Award above it because it is ridiculous to nominate a 14 book, 11,000 page, 4.4 million word work for a best novel award. The only other situation I'd consider deploying No Award is when a nominee is not at all Science Fiction or Fantasy. Given the fuzzy nature of genres, it would also have to be an extreme case, but in this year's Novella category, we have a great example: I'm sorry Wakula Springs, but there is nothing even remotely science fiction or fantasy about this story (except insofar as all fiction is a fantasy, I guess). We could quibble about a couple lines in the story, but this is ultimately historical fiction or maybe literary fiction. It's a fine story, but I have no idea what it's doing on the Hugo ballot, except that it was published by Tor (a genre imprint).
So there you have it. I'm still pondering, and obviously I'm not done reading all the stuff, so maybe I'll turn around on the No Award option in some other categories. I'll be sure to post my final ballot once I submit it (probably towards the end of July, which is when the deadline is...)
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