2014 Hugo Awards ballot

I’m not attending the Worldcon, but I most certainly am voting the Hugos this year, and moreover I am publishing my ballot with one-paragraph reviews of everything I voted on. If you care about this sort of thing you probably already know why. If you don’t, the short version is: Some of the works nominated this year allegedly only made the shortlist because of bloc voting by Larry Correia’s fans, he having published a slate of recommendations.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with publishing a slate of recommendations—don’t we all tell our friends to read the stuff we love? In this case, though, the slate came with a bunch of political bloviation attached, and one of the recommended works was written by Vox Day, who is such a horrible person that even your common or garden variety Internet asshole backs slowly away from him, but nonetheless he has a posse of devoted fanboys and sock puppets. A frank exchange of views ensued; be glad you missed it, and I hope the reviews are useful to you anyway. If you want more detail, Far Beyond Reality has a link roundup.

I value characterization, sociological plausibility, and big ideas, in that order. I often appreciate ambitious and/or experimental stylistic choices. I don’t mind an absence of plot or conflict; if everyone involved is having a good time exploring the vast enigmatic construction, nothing bad happens, and it’s all about the mystery, that’s just fine by me. However, if I find that I don’t care what happens to these people, no amount of plot or concept will compensate. In the context of the Hugos, I am also giving a lot of weight to novelty. There is a lot of stuff in this year’s ballot that has been done already, and the prior art was much better. For similar reasons, volume N of a series has to be really good to make up for being volume N.

With two exceptions (both movies I didn’t get around to) I at least tried to read/watch everything mentioned below, and where I didn’t finish something, that is clearly indicated. This is strictly my personal strategy for this sort of thing and I am not putting it forward as right or wrong for anyone else.

Links go to the full text of the nominated work where possible, a Goodreads or IMDB page otherwise.

Note to other Hugo voters: I’m making pretty heavy use of No Award. If you mean to do the same, make sure you understand the correct way to use it:

If you want to vote No Award over something, put No Award at the end of your ballot and DO NOT list the things you’re voting No Award over.

The ballot below (unlike the ballot I submitted) includes line items below No Award, so that I have a space to explain my reasons.

Best Novel

  1. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

    Let’s get one thing out of the way first: this book features the Roman Empire (with aspects of Persia and China and probably a couple others I missed), IN SPACE! That was out of fashion for quite some time, and rightly so, on account of having been done to death. However, it has been long enough that a genuinely fresh take is acceptable, if done well, and I happen to think this was done very well. It does not glorify conquest, but neither does it paint the conquerors a uniform shade of Evil; it depicts a multitude of cultures (more than one on the same planet, even!); it has realistic-given-the-setting stakes and conflicts of interest, and believable characters both human and otherwise. I might not have chosen to tell the story out of temporal sequence; one does spend an awfully long time wondering why the protagonist’s goals are as they are. But I see why Leckie did it the way she did it.

    Nearly every review of this novel talks about the thing where the protagonist’s native language doesn’t make gender distinctions and so e is always picking the wrong casemarkers, pronouns, etc. when speaking languages that do. I kinda wish they wouldn’t focus so much on that, because it is just one aspect of a larger problem the protagonist has: e didn’t used to be a human being and is, over the course of the novel, having to learn how to be one. E doesn’t know how to handle eir irrational attachment to Lieutenant Seivarden either, and eir problem-solving strategies start out much more appropriate to the entity e used to be and progressively become suited to eir current state. It is also neither the most unusual nor the most interesting thing about Radchaai culture. I don’t believe I have ever before seen Space Romans with a state religion, a system of clientage, or a plot driven by a political quandary that the real Romans (as far as I understand) actually had.

  2. Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross

    This reminds me of The Witches of Karres, in a good way. Distant-future setting, check. Packed to the gills with ideas, check. Self-contained storyline, check. Extraordinarily high stakes, check. Hardly anyone has any idea what’s going on, but they don’t let that stop them, check. It’s technically a sequel, but it might as well be a standalone novel, which is fortunate, because I bounced off Saturn’s Children really quite hard—the protagonist here is more congenial company, and the society depicted, more plausible. The plot is fundamentally a MacGuffin hunt, but played in a novel and entertaining manner.

    Strictly in terms of the story, this is neck and neck with Ancillary Justice, but it falls short on writing technique. There was a great deal of infodumpage, paired with excessive showing of work—at one point the first-person narrator actually says I am now going to bore you to death with $TOPIC. I like geeking out about political economy, but not at the expense of the narrative. (Continuing with the comparison to The Witches of Karres, Schmitz was much better at giving the reader just barely enough detail.) The ending is almost Stephensonian in its abruptness, and a little too pat—it sounded good at the time, but half an hour later I found myself unconvinced that the MacGuffin would have its stated consequences. Finally, there’s an irritating and frequent stylistic quirk, in which multi-clause sentences are, incorrectly, punctuated with colons instead of semicolons.

  3. Parasite, Mira Grant

    You know how the movie studios sometimes do A/B testing to decide which of several different edits of a movie to release as the finished product? I want to do that with this book. Specifically, I want to find out whether or not it’d be a better book if there weren’t page-length quotations from in-universe documents at the beginning of each chapter. These documents make it much clearer what is actually going on, which is a good thing in that the reader might be completely lost without them, and a bad thing in that the reader can (as I did) figure out exactly where the plot is going by the end of chapter 2.

    It’s reasonably well written, modulo some clumsy infodumpage in the middle, and it is a credible attempt to write a stock type of thriller novel (exactly which type would be a spoiler) without making the science completely laughable. Bonus points for actually being familiar with the geography, traffic headaches, and cultural diversity of the San Francisco Bay Area. However, it is, in the end, a stock type of thriller novel, and may not appeal if you don’t already like that sort of thing. (If you get to the end of chapter 2 and find yourself thinking ugh, this is clearly going to be about X … yeah, you can go ahead and put the book down.)

  4. No Award

  5. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

    The rules need to be changed so that completed gargantua-series are their own category, or perhaps some sort of special award, considering there might or might not be any completed gargantua-series in any given year. I’d be showing up at the business meeting with a revision proposal if I were attending the Worldcon.

    Perennial latecomer to cultural phenomena that I am, I didn’t even notice that these novels existed until there were about seven of them, at which point the consensus on USENET (yeah, it was that long ago) seemed to be that they were not terribly inventive and the plot had ceased to make forward progress. So I didn’t bother picking them up. The Hugo voters’ packet contains the entire thing in one giant e-book file. I am on the last leg of a long plane flight as I type this, and I have just finished the first 8% of that e-book, i.e. The Eye of the World. I enjoyed it well enough, as it happens, and will probably continue reading the series as further long plane flights, sick days, and similar present themselves. If I don’t get too fed up with the plot failing to make forward progress, I may even finish it someday.

    However, based on that volume plus the aforementioned USENET commentary and what I’ve heard from other people since, it is not Hugo quality, for three reasons. First and foremost, as I was told so long ago, it is not at all inventive. The setting is exactly what was being skewered by The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Worse, the plot of the first novel is Campbell’s monomyth, verbatim. (Well, the first few stages of it.) It escapes Extruded Fantasy Product territory only by virtue of having a whole bunch of characters who, at this point anyway, are all three-dimensional people with plausible motivations and most of whom are entertaining to watch. Second, I don’t have a lot of patience for whiny teenagers who spend much of the book refusing the call to adventure, distrusting the adults who actually know what’s going on, or both simultaneously. Yes, they’ve spent all their lives hearing stories starring the Aes Sedai as villains, but c’mon, Moiraine repeatedly saves everyone’s life at great personal cost, it could maybe occur to you that there might’ve been a bit of a smear campaign going on? Third, Jordan’s tendency to pad the plot is already evident in this one volume. It did not need to be 950 pages long.

  6. Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles, Larry Correia

    Noir-flavored urban fantasy, set in an alternate 1930s USA where people started developing superpowers (of the comic book variety) in roughly 1880. I would love to read a good detective noir with superheroes and/or fairy tale magic. This, however, is yet another jingoistic retread of the Pacific theater of the Second World War, shifted into the middle of the Great Depression, with The Good Guys (USA! USA! with superheroes) versus The Bad Guys (Imperial Japan circa 1934—an excellent choice if you like your Bad Guys utterly evil, I’ll admit—with supervillains) and a secret society trying to emulate Charles Xavier and failing at it because they’re too busy arguing and scheming. I almost gave up fifty pages into volume I because no sympathetic protagonists had yet appeared. Fortunately, someone whose story I was interested in did appear shortly thereafter, but it was still pretty slim pickings all the way to the end. This is not a case of bad characterization; it’s that most of the characters are unpleasant, petty, self-absorbed, and incapable of empathizing with people who don’t share their circumstances. Additional demerits for setting the story in the Great Depression, and then making nearly everyone we’re supposed to like, wealthy.

    Ironically, one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire trilogy is the leader of Imperial Japan (known almost exclusively as The Chairman)—I think this was because Correia knew he needed a villain who wasn’t cut from purest cardboard, but it didn’t occur to him that he needed to put as much work into his heroes. And by the same token, it did not occur to him that he had failed to convincingly refute his villain’s philosophy: if your villain espouses the rule of the strongest, and is then defeated by superior technology, intellect, and strength of will, that in itself only demonstrates that force of arms is weaker than those things.

    Regarding Larry Correia’s recommendation slate, all I care to say is that his taste in writing by others reflects the flaws in his own writing.

Best Novella

  1. Wakulla Springs, Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages

    Apart from a few unexplained-and-might-not-even-have-happened phenomena near the very end, this could be historical fiction with no speculative elements. Wakulla Springs is a real place and they really did film Tarzan and The Creature from the Black Lagoon there, and they really did turn various animals loose in the Florida swamps when they were done. However, if you squint at it a different way, it’s a fairy tale moved to the twentieth century, not any specific fairy tale but the bones of them all, with movie stars standing in for kings and princes, and rubber-suit monsters standing in for, well, monsters. And the characters are all just fun to be around.

  2. Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne M. Valente

    This is overtly a fairy tale, specifically Snow White, moved to the nineteenth-century Wild West and shook up in a blender with the style and the form of the stories of Coyote. The first half of it is compelling, and the third quarter works okay, but the conclusion is disappointing. The problem is that if you’re going to retell Snow White, either you have to stick with love conquering all in the end (and you have to set that up proper), or you have to jump the tracks before Snow White eats the poison apple. And if you’re going to set Snow White up as a mythic hero after the fashion of Coyote, maybe you should give her at least some of Coyote’s miraculous ability to get back out of trouble? Valente deliberately avoided doing any of those things and so painted herself into a corner.

    Having said that, I’m still giving this the #2 slot because I really like the concept, and it only fails by not executing successfully on its grand ambitions, which is a thing I am prepared to cut an author some slack for.

  3. Equoid, Charles Stross

    Marvelously creepy cryptozoological meditation on unicorns, their life cycle and role in the ecosystem, and why they must be exterminated. In the Laundry Files continuity, and does not stand alone terribly well. Also, stay away if you dislike body horror.

  4. No Award

  5. The Chaplain’s Legacy, Brad Torgersen

    Remember what I said above about things that have been done already? This is a retread of Enemy Mine, breaking no new ground itself. Characterization is flat and style pedestrian. Not so boring as to make me put it down in the middle, and thankfully didn’t go for the cheap moral that I thought it would, but on the whole, disappointing.

  6. The Butcher of Khardov, Dan Wells

    An extended character study of an antihero of the most boring, clichéd, and overdone type: mistreated due to his size and strength, doubly mistreated due to his uncanny abilities, learns from betrayal to take everything personally, believes the only thing he’s good at is killing people, and in his secret heart, just wants to be loved. Overflowing with manpain. Told out of chronological order for no apparent reason, causing the ending to make no sense. Vaguely folktale-Russia setting (with steampunk and magic) that a better writer could have done something interesting with; I am given to understand that this is in fact the WARMACHINE tabletop wargaming setting. I do not object to tie-in fiction, but neither will I cut it any slack on that account. For instance, the Butcher himself is an official WARMACHINE character; I don’t know if Wells invented him or just got tapped to flesh out his backstory; regardless, I do not consider that a valid excuse for any of the above.

Best Novelette

  1. The Waiting Stars, Aliette de Bodard

    This one is difficult to describe without spoiling it, so I’ll just say that it’s a clash-of-cultures story, set in the extremely far future, and I liked how the two cultures are both somewhat sympathetic despite valuing very different things and being legitimately horrified by the other’s practices. The ending may be laying it on a little too thick, but I don’t know that it can be toned down without spoiling the effect.

  2. The Lady Astronaut of Mars, Mary Robinette Kowal

    Elma, the titular Lady Astronaut, was on the first manned expedition to Mars; that was thirty-odd years ago, and she is now semi-retired, living on Mars, and torn between getting back into space and taking care of her husband, who is dying. Apart from the setting, this could be mainstream literary fiction, and a type of mainstream literary fiction that, as a rule, rubs me entirely the wrong way. This one, however, I liked. The characters all seem genuine, and the setting throws the central question of the plot into sharp relief, forcing us to take it more seriously than we might otherwise have.

  3. The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, Ted Chiang

    Philosophical musing on the nature of memory and how technological aids change that. This used to be a professional interest of mine, but I didn’t think Chiang did all that much with it here. Told in two intertwined narratives, of which the story of the Tiv is more compelling, or perhaps it is just that the first-person narrator of the other half is kind of a blowhard.

  4. No Award

  5. The Exchange Officers, Brad Torgersen

    Near future plausible geopolitical conflict in low Earth orbit, POV first person smartass grunt-on-the-front-line. Entertaining, but neither memorable nor innovative.

  6. Opera Vita Aeterna, Vox Day

    This isn’t a story; it’s an object lesson in why publishers reject 95–99% of the slush pile. The prose is uniformly, tediously purple, and nearly all of it is spent on description of rooms, traditions, and illuminated manuscripts. The characters haven’t even got one dimension. Nothing happens for the first two-thirds of the text, and then everyone in the monastery (it takes place in a monastery) is, without any warning, murdered, cut to epilogue. To the extent I can tell what the author thought the plot was, it could be summarized in a paragraph without losing anything important, and it would then need a bunch of new material added to make it into a story.

    I’ve seen several other people say that this is bad but not terrible, comparing it positively to The Eye of Argon, and I want to explicitly disagree with that. If I may quote Sarah Avery, The Eye of Argon has characters; in the course of the story, something happens; several somethings, even, with some detectable instances of cause and effect; and it has a beginning, a middle, and (in some versions of the text) an end. It’s clichéd, sure, and and crammed full of basic grammar and vocabulary errors, and that’s what makes it bad in a hilarious and memorable way. Opera Vita Aeterna, by contrast, is bad in a boring and forgettable way, which is worse.

    There is no doubt in my mind that this is only on the ballot because it was included in Correia’s recommendations and then bloc-voted onto the shortlist by Day’s fanboys. To them I say: if you did not realize it was unworthy, you should be ashamed of yourself for being so undiscerning; if you knew it was unworthy and you nominated it anyway, you have committed a sin against Apollo, and may you live to regret it.

Best Short Story

These are all good enough that rank-ordering them is hard; I’d be happy to see any of them win. They are also all floating somewhere around the magical realism attractor, which is not what I would have expected.

  1. The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere, John Chu

    Tell a lie, even a white lie, or even fail to admit the truth, and water falls on you from nowhere; this just started happening one day—otherwise this is a story of ordinary people and their troubles and their connections to each other, and the magic is used to explore those things. Very elegant in its use of language; bonus points for making use of the ways in which Chinese (Mandarin, specifically, I think) describes family relationships differently than English does. Emotionally fraught, but satisfying.

  2. Selkie Stories Are for Losers, Sofia Samatar

    I always did wonder what happened to the children after the selkie went back to the ocean. Not so much the husband. The husband got what was coming to him, which is the point of the selkie story itself; but the daughter, who usually is the one to find the skin that the husband’s kept locked in the attic or wherever; she didn’t have it coming, did she?

    A kind storyteller might have it be that the daughter goes down to the ocean every Thursday afternoon, while the husband is out fishing, and her mother comes up from the waves and they have tea. Sofia Samatar is not a kind storyteller.

  3. The Ink Readers of Doi Saket, Thomas Olde Heuvel

    Based on a real Thai festival, Loi Krathong; in the story, the paper boats that are floated down the river contain wishes for the new year. The villagers of Doi Saket consider it their duty to collect the wishes and send them onward to Buddha in paper lanterns … and some of them, somehow, come true. Is it the intervention of the river goddess? Is it all just coincidence? Is it a scam to line the pockets of the village chief? It’s hard to tell. You will reach the end of this story not being sure what happened, and you will reread it and still not be completely sure. But it’s a fun read anyway.

  4. If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love, Rachel Swirsky

    A very, very old theme, here, but a take on it that would have been impossible not so long ago. I’m not sure it’s a story, though. More of a love poem. Or a curse poem. Bit of both, really. Still, it’s going to haunt me.

Best Graphic Story

  1. Time, Randall Munroe

    Back in 2005 I doubt anyone would have guessed that the new nerd-joke webcomic on the block, xkcd, would still be around in 2013 (over a thousand strips later), let alone that it would run a 3101-panel epic starring two stick figure people who are building sandcastles on the beach … really elaborate sandcastles … meanwhile discussing why the ocean level seems to be rising up … and then setting off in search of the source of the river, since presumably that’s where the extra water is coming from … and it just keeps elaborating from there. It was presented in an inconvenient format (the link goes to a more accessible compilation), but it’s got everything one could want in an SFnal epic: engaging characters (it’s amazing how much characterization Munroe can pack into pithy dialogue among stick figures), a carefully thought-out setting, the joy of discovery, the thrill of the unknown, a suitably huge problem to be solved, and, of course, Science!

  2. Saga, Volume 2, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples

    A love story against the backdrop of an endless galaxy-shattering war, sung in the key of gonzo, and influenced by the best bits of everything from Métal Hurlant to Tank Girl to Tenchi Muyo! It’s hard to tell where it’s going; what we have so far could be summarized as Romeo and Juliet IN SPACE! Neither of them is a teenage idiot, they’re determined to survive, and their respective sides are coming after them with as much dakka as they can scrape together on short notice. The A-plot may not even have appeared onstage at this point. One thing’s for sure, though: Vaughan and Staples mean to put on one hell of a show. For a more in-depth description I refer you to io9’s review.

    Strictly in terms of the content, I could just as easily have placed this in the #1 slot. Time gets the nod because Saga is not quite as novel, because the subplot with The Will and The Stalk seemed icky and gratuitous, and because volume 1 won this category last year.

  3. Girl Genius, Volume 13: Agatha Heterodyne & The Sleeping City, written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright

    I love Girl Genius, but it’s won this category three times already (in a row, yet!) and this volume, while continuing to be quality material, is nonetheless more of the same.

  4. No Award

  5. The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who, written by Paul Cornell, illustrated by Jimmy Broxton

    What if the Doctor fell through a crack in time and landed in this universe, where he is a fictional character? Not a new conceit, but one with legs, and I think you could build a fine Doctor Who episode around it; unfortunately, this is not that. It is too heavy on the self-referential and meta-referential, to the point where I think it only makes sense if you are familiar with the show and its fandom. The story is rushed so that they can pack in more in-jokes, and the coda takes a turn for the glurge.

  6. Meathouse Man, adapted from the story by George R.R. Martin and illustrated by Raya Golden

    I think this was meant to be a deconstruction of the notion that for everyone there is a perfect romantic partner out there somewhere, just one, and all you have to do is find them and your life will be perfect forever. Which is a notion that could use some deconstructing. Unfortunately, between the male gaze, the embrace of the equally-in-need-of-deconstruction notion that men cannot comprehend women, the relentlessly grim future backdrop, and the absence of plausible character motivations, what you get is not deconstruction but enforcement by inversion: The only thing that can fix a man’s shitty life is the perfect romantic partner, but he will never find her, so he should just give up and embrace the hollow inside. (Gendered words in previous sentence are intentional.) I regret having finished this.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  1. Gravity, written by Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón, directed by Alfonso Cuarón

    This is probably as close as you can get to the ideal golden age hard-SF Protagonist versus Pitilessly Inhospitable Environment story in movie format. (I have actually seen this abstract plot done with precise conformance to the laws of orbital mechanics: Lifeboat, by James White. But storytelling suffered for it.) There are places where they go for the cheap wrench at your heart, but then there are places where they don’t do the obvious and clichéd thing, and this movie isn’t really about the plot, anyway, it’s about the spectacle. Clearly groundbreaking in terms of cinematography, also; I look forward to future use of the technology they developed. For more, please go read my friend Leonard’s review, as he is better at critiquing movies than I am.

  2. Pacific Rim, screenplay by Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro, directed by Guillermo del Toro

    It’s a giant monster movie, but it’s a really well thought through and executed giant monster movie. (Except for the utterly nonsensical notion of building a wall around the entire Pacific Ocean, which let us pretend never happened.) And I like that the scientists save the day by doing actual experimental science. Bonus points for not going grimdark or ironic or anything like that. Yes, earnest movies in which there was never any real doubt that the good guys would win were worn out in the 80s and 90s. But bleak movies in which there aren’t any good guys to begin with, and nothing ever really changes, certainly not for the better, are worn out here in the 2010s. Further bonus points for a close personal relationship between a man and a woman which does not turn into a romance.

  3. Iron Man 3, screenplay by Drew Pearce & Shane Black, directed by Shane Black

    Marvel continues to crank out superhero movies which do interesting things with established characters. (I particularly liked, in this one, that Potts gets her own independent source of superpowers and does not require rescuing, and that Stark is forced to work out his overprotectiveness issues on his own time.) However, in the end, it is another superhero movie with established characters. I said to someone on a convention panel back in 2001 that I wished Marvel and DC would allow their superheroes to come to the end of their stories, and I still feel that way.

  4. (my official vote for this category ended at this point)

  5. Frozen, screenplay by Jennifer Lee, directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

    I didn’t get around to seeing this; I’m sure it’s another respectable installment in the field of Disneyified fairy tale, but I can’t really imagine its breaking new ground.

  6. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, screenplay by Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt, directed by Francis Lawrence

    I didn’t get around to seeing this either, and I’m frankly more than a little burnt out on YA dystopia.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

I have to abstain from this category, because I watch TV shows ages after everyone else does; I imagine I’ll get to current Doctor Who episodes (for instance) sometime in 2024.

I wanted to vote this category, but I have run out of time to read things, so I have to skip it as well.

Best Semiprozine, Best Fanzine, Best Fancast, Best Editor, Best Professional Artist, Best Fan Artist, Best Fan Writer

And these categories, I have no idea how to evaluate.

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Several of the qualifying works in this category are head and shoulders above everything that was nominated in the regular categories! I will definitely be looking out for more writing by Samatar and Gladstone, and maybe also Sriduangkaew.

  1. Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olondria)

    A form I haven’t seen attempted in some time: the travelogue of a fantastic land. In this case, Olondria is a great city, perhaps the greatest in the world, filled with merchants, priests, and books, and the traveler/narrator is a humble farmer from the islands in the south, come to Olondria to sell his peppers, as his father did before him. Well, that’s what everyone back at home expects him to do, anyway. In truth he has fallen in love with the literature of Olondria and, through the books, the city itself, and never had all that much interest in the family business to begin with. And then the plot catches up with him: there are two sects of those priests, and both wish to use him to advance their own interests: for you see, he is haunted by the ghost of a woman of his own people, whom he barely knew, but whom he was kind to in her last illness…

    This has got everything one could possibly want in a work of SF and everything one could possibly want in a work of capital-L literature; the form is elegant and fitted precisely to the content; the characters are engaging, the narrative flows smoothly, one does not want to put it down. As I mentioned above, Sofia Samatar is not a kind storyteller; this book is painful to read in places. But, having completed it, you will not regret the journey.

  2. Max Gladstone (Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise)

    Alternate-Earth (and you have to pay close attention to realize that it is Earth) fantasy. All gods are real, but many of them are dead; the wizards (excuse me, Craftsmen) made war on them and slew them, claiming their power in the name of humanity. That was some hundred years ago, and the world is still finding a new equilibrium. Each of these books shows a different piece of that, with very little overlap. Plotwise they are both mysteries, of the investigation of a small incident leads to something bigger … much bigger … type, which I liked; it allows the stakes to be appropriately high while avoiding all of the overused quest fantasy tropes. And it works well for showing the readers lots of little details that illustrate how this is not the world we know. Gladstone is also excellent at characterization; even the NPCs who are only onstage in a scene or two feel fully realized.

    The only complaints I have are that the way the magic works kinda squicks me out a little (this may have been intentional) and that the ending of Two Serpents Rise didn’t quite work for me (in a way which would be too spoilery to explain here).

  3. Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Fade to Gold; Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade; The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly)

    These are short stories. Fade to Gold is a variation on a Southeast Asian folktale, starring two people trapped by their natures and the demands of society; creepy, sorrowful, tragic. The other two are far-future magical-realist meditations on the nature of family, loyalty, and history in a setting where everyone’s memory is remotely editable. All are good, but the far-future ones may not be to everyone’s taste: e.g. if you don’t care for magical realism, or for stories where it’s not clear exactly what happened even after you’ve read all of it.

  4. Ramez Naam (Nexus)

    Near-future technothriller in which an elixir of brain-augmenting nanomachines, street name Nexus, offers people the chance to become posthuman…or could be abused to enslave humanity. Three different organizations are struggling to control it, and the protagonists, who just want to be left in peace to experiment on their own minds, are caught in the middle. Generally a fun read; occasionally clunky prose (particularly in fight scenes); overspecific about gadgets in use (lots of technothrillers do this and I don’t understand why). I am a little tired of cheap drama achieved by poor communication between people who are nominally on the same side.

    Brain-augmenting nanomachinery, and the United States of America sliding into police state-hood, seem to be in the zeitgeist right now. I’ve seen both done with a lot more nuance: this gets obnoxiously preachy in places. (Recommendations in this category with more nuance: Smoking Mirror Blues, A Girl and her Fed.)

  5. No Award

  6. Wesley Chu (The Lives of Tao)

    I gave up on this after three chapters. The story concept could have been interesting—two factions of immortal, nonphysical aliens, battling in the shadows of Earth’s history, possessing humans and using them to carry out their plans—but it’s got major problems on the level of basic storytelling craft. Those first three chapters are one page after another of unnecessary detail, repetition of information the audience already has, grating shifts in tone, boring conversations about trivia, and worst of all, self-spoilers. Maybe two pages’ worth of actual story happened, and a good chunk of that probably shouldn’t have happened on stage (because it was a self-spoiler). And I had been given no reason to care what happened to the characters.