SF Book Review, Part 21: Hugo Prep Edition

I read a lot of books last year, but I'm way behind in reviewing them, so in an attempt to catch up, here are some thoughts on a few Hugo Award related books. Last year I went out of my way to seek out stuff that would be eligible for the Hugos. This year: not so much. But I've read a few things that could qualify, so here goes:
  • Lines of Departure by Marko Kloos - This book was nominated for the Hugo Awards last year, but Marko Kloos withdrew the book due to the whole Puppy kerfluffle (thus clearing the way for the eventual winner, The Three-Body Problem). As a result, Kloos emerged mostly unscathed from the whole affair, and many pledged to purchase and read his book anyway. For my part, I really enjoyed the first book in the series and thought it showed a lot of promise, so I was inclined to check out the sequels anyway. This book starts off with humanity in pretty bad shape. Already suffering from a civil war and overpopulation, a new and relentless alien race (referred to as Lankies) has seemingly targeted human colonies throughout the galaxy. Our intrepid hero, Andrew Grayson, is right in the thick of it. After some disastrous operations, he gets scapegoated and assigned to a tiny, ice-bound colony in the middle of nowhere. Naturally, that situation ends up in mutiny and treason... and then the Lankies show up. I liked this well enough, but it also felt a little like the series was treading water. The first book was a little derivative, but well executed and it set up some interesting dynamics. This one is also well executed and moves the ball forward a bit, but not very far. The Lankies still remain inscrutable, which could wind up being a good thing, but what we do know about them is straightforward and not all that "alien". Grayson and pals are competent and likable, but there's some discomfort with the whole treason thing. The military here is presented as incredibly dysfunctional, especially when you move higher up the ladder (the grunts are all pretty honorable folks). Depressing, but certainly a valid extrapolation of current political trends. The book ends with a desperate counterattack against an invading Lanky ship. They use a tactic that's treated like a breakthrough, but that any reader even remotely familiar with space combat tropes already knew about. So what we're left with is a reasonably well executed MilSF novel, entertaining, but not mind-blowing.
  • Angles of Attack by Marko Kloos - The third of Kloos' series sees our intrepid heroes marooned on that tiny, obscure planet that's been cut off from supplies. Lankies are getting closer and closer to Earth at this point, and human institutions are breaking down. Again, we've got some well executed Military SF here, a capable enemy and competent heroes. Kloos is good at action, and the stakes are certainly higher here. Our heroes wind up striking an alliance with former civil war enemies (the Sino-Russians) and defending the Earth from disaster. There's still no real insight into what's going on with the Lankies, and this book feels, again, like we're treading water. I understand there's a fourth book coming out this year, which I'd hope would move closer to a resolution or at least understanding. I feel like I'm being pretty hard on these books; I've enjoyed each of them quite a bit, and I'll probably end up checking out the next book. There's a possibility that this will get nominated this year, but I'd rank it as more of a dark horse than a lock. I don't think I'll be nominating it, but it's worth checking out.
  • Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold - A novella set in Bujold's Chalion fantasy universe, this one concerns a young man who accidentally contracts a demon. Demon possession is rarely considered a good thing, but in the Chalion universe, it can be a manageable thing and if you can control it, you will get a fair amount of power. Penric is a likable young chap, and I love the way this story treats the relationship with his demon. I won't go into too much detail, but this was a fantastic novella, one that doesn't require any familiarity with the other stories in this universe, and will definitely be on my Hugo ballot. Check this one out, it's short and very good.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik - Agnieszka is a clumsy, homely girl who loves her little village, but the corrupted Wood, filled with monsters and evil presences, has slowly been encroaching on the territory. The Dragon, a magician who is assigned to the area, holds the Wood at bay, but requires an assistant from the village. Each assistant is a young girl taken by the Dragon and serves for 10 years before being freed again, usually moving away from the area afterwords. Agnieszka assumes her best friend, the beautiful and talented Kasia, will be taken, but of course it turns out that Agnieszka is chosen. At first, she seems singularly unsuited to the task, and can't even learn simple spells. But it turns out that she has a knack for a more intuitive form of magic. Soon, the Wood starts to become emboldened in its attacks, and Agnieszka and the Dragon must find a way to counter the offensive. This is a wonderful little fantasy book. It's got some flaws. I wasn't a big fan of the romance and some of the conflict is rooted in profound lack of communication. Some people like that sort of thing, but the Dragon's initially terse relationship with Agnieszka was frustrating for me, and indeed, a lot of the initial confusion and conflict would have been resolved had he spent a few seconds explaining some things. Similarly, the rigid way all the magicians in this universe treat magic seems unlikely, especially when Agnieszka starts showing them her more intuitive version. Those minor complaints aside, this is a well constructed story, with an ominous and cunning enemy and some interesting allies. Novik manages to cultivate a good sense of dread throughout the story, and when the shit really starts to hit the fan later in the novel, it's much more effective because of that slow buildup. You could say that the ending is a bit rushed and convenient, but one thing I really love about it is that this feels like epic fantasy, but it's not 7 books of 800 pages. Novik builds a complex, interesting world here and tells a complete story, and I like it more for that. I will probably be nominating this for next year's Hugo, and near as I can tell, it's a frontrunner. Recommended for fans of fantasy!
And that's all for now. I'm not completely caught up at this point, but I'll get there someday! In the meantime, the Kaedrin Movie Awards will be kicking off soon enough, so stay tuned!