One of the challenges of an award like the Hugo is how to handle sequels. One of the nominees this year is Warbound, by Larry Correia... but it's the third in a series of books. Do I need to read the first two books in the series in order to give the third a fair shake, or are all bets off when an individual entry gets nominated? Being something of a completist when it comes to questions like this, I decided to start from the beginning. As luck would have it, Hard Magic (the first book in the series) is a fine book, and I've already begun the second book too. It does seem like these books are relatively self-contained though, which is good (I'm still glad I started from the beginning, but I'm guessing you wouldn't have to...)
This series, called the Grimnoir Chronicles, takes place in an alternate history version of the 1930s. It's a universe where magic started appearing in the mid-nineteenth century, and has slowly but surely become more common. Many differing attitudes about "actives" (folks with magical power) exist, from the Japanese Imperium (who kidnap active children and train them in scary "schools") to the German war machine (who leveraged an active to raise zombie armies) to the Americans, who seem to sway back and forth in their democratic ways (this seems to be something that will be tackled in later books, but is introduced here). Jake Sullivan is an active, a war hero and ex-con working for the government. He quickly runs afoul of a secret society called the Grimnoir, actives who seek to ensure that magical powers are used only for good (or something like that), and a plot by the Imperium to assemble a super-science doomsday weapon. Will Sullivan and his plucky allies fend off the dreaded Imperium?
This books is attempting an interesting balancing act, mashing up many different sub-genres, including urban fantasy, pulpy noir, gritty action, and even a bit of steampunk for flair (really just a bunch of dirigibles, but hey, that's steampunky, right?) For the most part, Correia makes this mixture work, which is impressive - this combination of elements was far from a sure thing, but he manages. The only thing I was hoping for that I didn't get much of is some fantastic noir turns of phrase, but then, it's hard to hold something like this up to the standards set by folks like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler (but then, the setting does sorta beg the comparison).
One of the things I find frustrating with fantasy stories is the way magic is handled. All too often, the magic is described in such vague ways and with few limits, leading to an escalation of powers that can get tedious and strain credibility. Correia manages to design a system with some limits and logical extensions, and he does treat the subject consistently, but there is still that escalation of magical powers that gets difficult to swallow. It never gets too ridiculous, and the limitations of the system are clear and well balanced, but it's still magic, so it can also, at times, get to be a bit much. I do wonder how well Correia will be able to swing this in future books, though I guess I'll find out soon enough.
The characters are, for the most part, a compelling bunch. Sullivan makes for a good hero, a huge physical presence who is nevertheless deceptively clever, we discover much about the magical system through his eyes. His gang of allies also has some bright spots, in particular Faye, a young teleporter who has seemingly endless reserves of magical power and a fast thinking mind. This being alternate history, we're also treated to some historical figures like General John "Black Jack" Pershing and John Browning (this works, but I'll also say that Neal Stephenson did it better in Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle). As villains go, the Chairman of the Imperium is imposing and while his powers are seemingly infinite (there's that escalation of magical power I was talking about), Correia comes up with a believable way to "defeat" him (spoiler, I guess!) Sullivan's brother Madi is also a formidable foe (and again, we get some escalation of powers to make him so).
What you end up with is a well executed mashup that is a very fun read. Correia can spin a good yarn, and while I will say that this isn't something I'd have sought out on my own, I'm glad I read it and will have no problem getting through the next two books. I found this one a tad on the long side, but again, I had no major problems getting through it, and it was a lot of fun. Since this isn't actually one of the nominees this year, I shouldn't really be ranking it, but it feels like something that would come in towards the middle of the pack. Assuming there's not a drastic uptick in quality or something in the nominated work, I can't see it unseating my top two votes (which remain Ancillary Justice or Neptune's Brood). Again, this is blatant speculation, but I could see Warbound coming in third (ahead of Parasite and The Wheel of Time). I'm currently reading Spellbound (the second book in this series) and have started reading the other fiction categories (look for a recap of the short story ballot next week).
(Incidentally, I've left out all the controversy surrounding the nomination of Correia's book. I've already discussed it elsewhere, and will probably bring it up again at some point, but for now, I'm concentrated on actually reading the books...)