Reading for the Hugos 2016: Three novels, one of them graphic 8/25

A few weeks ago, I came upon several mentions of The Gracekeepers by Scottish author Kirsty Logan while preparing a Station Eleven readalike list for work. It turned out the audiobook was checked in at the library, so I figured I’d give it a chance while waiting for my other holds to arrive. It wouldn’t otherwise have been my first choice: the cover art on the American edition alone, although lovely, didn’t really suggest that I was the intended target audience, but I decided to give it a try regardless. And so very pleased that I did. I adored this book.

The plot of The Gracekeepers admittedly moves quite slowly and Logan leaves quite a few elements of her world only vaguely explained, two things I noticed criticized by reviewers on Goodreads but which worked well for me on both counts: Yes, the plot develops slowly, but Logan’s prose is so lush and gorgeous I really didn’t care. And, yes, there are elements of her world that Logan never fully explains, but I actually love that kind of worldbuilding. A world with vague hints of the alien and fantastic goes much further with me than a world in which everything is fleshed out in detail.

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

I also enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s novel Signal to Noise, which I felt was a solid debut, with good plotting and a novel take on some classic themes about adolescent friendships spinning out of control and the regret that later comes with mature reflection. As far as reading it with next year’s Hugos in mind, unfortunately, it reads a lot like a YA novel. That, for me, is most definitely not itself a criticism, but YA novels just don’t do well among Hugo voters.

Finally, I finished The Sculptor by Scott McCloud, which is quite a tome by graphic novel standards, nearly five hundred pages in length. Scanning through the reviews, the book seems to have evoked strong feelings on both sides of the spectrum. Some of the criticisms do seem justified – the one major female character is a fairly textbook manic pixie dream girl, and the book can get a bit navel-gazey at times – but I love graphic novels that take on weighty themes like this one, and I’d still place it among the better graphic novels I’ve read this year.

Great Library Ideas: Experience Bags

Experience Bags
I thought this idea from Laurel County Library was pretty clever, and unlike some of the other Great Library Ideas I’ve mentioned here, also cheap for a library to implement. Laurel County’s Experience Bags are curated collections of books and other media, selected according to a particular theme like “Weekend with the Undead” or “Going Back in Time: The Roaring Twenties.” There are more details available on the library’s blog.

Reading for the Hugos 2016: Link Vomit 8/10

I’ve now got quite a backlog of things I’ve been meaning to review here in some detail, but I also am more than capable of accepting when I’m in over my head. So here, all at once, with mini reviews too perfunctory to reflect accurately the merits of the works, is most of what I’ve recently enjoyed reading:

Low, Vol. 1: The Delirium of Hope
Low, Vol. 1: The Delirium of Hope

Low, Vol. 1: The Delirium of Hope by Rick Remender, art by Greg Tocchini (graphic story)

In a distant future, humanity has fled the surface of an Earth irradiated by a growing sun, and built massive radiation-shielded cities far below the ocean’s surface. Although Low is set on earth, it feels much more like space opera in the tradition of Dune or Star Wars (complete with plucky underdogs and evil tyrants). But against all that complicated backdrop, it’s really the story of a broken family doing what they can to pull the pieces together. Some of the best world building I’ve seen in a graphic novel in recent years .

The Divine by Boaz Lavie, art by Asaf and Tomer Hanuka (graphic story)

A supernatural adaptation of a real-world story of child soldiers in East Burma, The Divine takes place in the fictional country of Quanlom, where America explosives experts Mark and Jason are fulfilling a lucrative contract to blow up a volcano for its mineral content. The pair soon discover, however, that the volcano is protected by a group of child soldiers, one of whom wields uncanny supernatural powers. The two American characters, unfortunately, are awkwardly one-dimensional, but an ambitious and memorable concept despite the flaws.

The League of Regrettable Superheroes by Jon Morris
The League of Regrettable Superheroes by Jon Morris

The League of Regrettable Superheroes by Jon Morris (related work)

Jon Morris’ survey of “half-baked heroes”  features a selection of the most cringeworthy superheroes from comic book history. There are plenty of laughs to be had here at the expense of the goofy superheroes of the past, like Fatman the Human Flying Saucer or The Eye (who is, quite literally, a giant floating eyeball), and Morris’ commentary is largely focused on poking fun. But on a more timely note, a number of these superheroes remind us that superhero comics have never been apolitical, and it’s interesting to read these in the context of current debates about representation in comics.

And, now, a quick list of short-fiction: I found the novella Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds a solid, entertaining read, albeit a bit predictable in parts. I also thoroughly enjoyed the novella “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Pakistani author Usman Malik and the novelette “An Evolutionary Myth” by Korean author Bo-Young Kim. Besides being fine stories in their own right, both were vivid reminders of one reason diversity is vital for the future of fantasy fiction: Because, frankly, rehashing and remixing the same inbred set of mythologies makes for damn boring reading, and it’s refreshing to have something different, especially if it’s as well crafted as these two are.

And finally, the short story “When Your Child Strays from God” by Sam J. Miller is a clever first-person account of an Evangelical mother who begins to question some of her assumptions when the use of an experimental drug opens her heart to empathy. Not likely to be on any puppy ballots, I’m sure, but for me, a story that manages both to be light-hearted and profoundly affecting, which I imagine isn’t easy to do.

Anyway, that at least makes a dent in the backlog. Onward!

 

Reading for the Hugos 2016: Visual Art Edition 8/3

So, I bought a copy of Women of Wonder: Celebrating Women Creators of Fantastic Art arrived last week, and it’s a gorgeous collection. The book is eligible for the 2016 Hugos in the Best Related Work category, and I would be very pleased to see it turn up the list of nominees.

women_of_wonder

I’ll admit, artists working in SFF publishing weren’t really something I really paid much attention to prior to taking more of an interest in the Hugo Awards vote. I’ve always appreciated good illustration but never really thought about it much beyond “hey, pretty cover.” Thinking about artists in terms of potential Hugo nominees, though, has required a lot more thought and research, especially since the eligibility requirements for the two Hugo artist categories are – it has to be said – fairly convoluted for someone who’s coming at this from a fan perspective rather than as a professional.

There are two artist categories in the Hugos, Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist. As I understand the eligibility requirements, an artist has to be able to produce three works published in the year of eligibility that fall into one or the other category. The distinction between professional and fan art adds another wrinkle, as Worldcon’s definition of what’s professional or not is somewhat technical: “A professional publication either (1) provided at least a quarter the income of any one person or, (2) was owned or published by any entity which provided at least a quarter the income of any of its staff and/or owner.”

So, yeah, not exactly easy for a newbie Hugo voter to figure out.

Time Salvager cover art by Richard Anderson
Time Salvager cover art by Richard Anderson

There is some help out there: In the past, the Hugo Award Eligible Art(ists) blog has compiled list of qualifying artists in both categories, and hopefully, they’ll be continuing that for next year’s awards as well. The semiprozine directory at Semiprozine.org is likewise useful for determining whether art appearing in a periodical is eligible under the professional category (in the case of professional periodicals) or the fan category (in the case of semiprozines and fanzines). And if you’re trying to figure out whether an artist has the requisite three works in the year of eligibility, The Internet Speculative Fiction Database is also an invaluable tool, though, I’ve found, not always comprehensive.

Anyway, my list of artists who I’ve been following is much too long for an already long post, so just two this time: Richard Anderson has produced a lot of my favorite covers this year, including cover art for Time Salvager (pictured above), The Dinosaur Lords, Echopraxia, Empire Ascendant, and The Providence of Fire. I’m particularly impressed by Anderson’s range – it seems some SFF artists just concentrate on landscapes, or figure art, or spaceships, or whatever, but Anderson does all of those quite well. And I like how he, even when he’s doing pretty conventional SFF scenes, uses broad impressionistic strokes, a nice break from the more photorealistic look commonly found on SFF book covers.

Karen Memory cover art by Cynthia Sheppard
Karen Memory cover art by Cynthia Sheppard

I was also quite impressed by the cover art for Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory (above), created by artist Cynthia Sheppard, and was pleased to discover that she has at least two other book covers this year, enough to make her eligible in the Best Professional Artist category: The Iron Assassin and the forthcoming A Daughter of No Nation. She’s also done a lot of work for Magic the Gathering, which I now realize is where I initially recognized her style from. I love her palette choices in particular, and I hope to see more book covers from her.

Anyway, I still have quite the list of artists whose work I’ve been following, so perhaps more next time. The list of short fiction I’ve liked recently has also gotten a bit unwieldy, so I’ll have to work that into a future blog post as well. Back to reading!

Reading for the Hugos 2016: Graphic Novel Update 8/1

I’ve read quite a few graphic novels this last week. Some of them – Thor: Goddess of Thunder, the second volume of Sex Criminals, and the second and third volumes of Ms. Marvel – are likely to have plenty of advocates come next year’s Hugo nominations. But there was another book that I thought a pleasant break from the usual run of superhero comics, both in story and in visual style.

apocalyptigirl_cover

Andrew MacLean’s Apocalyptigirl: An Aria for the End Times is the story of Aria, a solitary survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, accompanied only by her cat Jelly Beans and a rusty nonfunctioning mech named Gus.

I thought MacLean’s writing demonstrates an admirable range of register and tone, switching effortlessly, for example, between Aria’s casual dialog with herself and some almost poetic explication of the mythology of Aria’s world. And MacLean also does an excellent job of building up, within only a couple scenes from Aria’s post-apocalyptic life, a character of surprising complexity.

I was initially a little disturbed, though, by how MacLean handles the other humans in the book. The area’s two warring tribes, the Blue Stripes and the Grey Beards, both speak in “garbled-up languages” that are unintelligible to Aria and represented in the book only with dingbat-like characters. This language barrier seems intended to emphasize Aria’s isolation, but it also has the consequence of helping render the tribes as dehumanized, undifferentiated others that can subsequently be shot, dismembered, and otherwise dispatched by Aria with casual ease.

But the more I mull it over, the more I suspect the discomfort I felt was no accident. One minute, Aria is singing opera, playing “gotcha nose” with her cat, reveling in freshly picked apples; the next, she’s slaughtering her enemies in exaggerated and slightly comical fashion. She even insists, early in the book, that she’s no killer, and yet, it soon becomes clear that she’s more than capable of killing, and doing so with practiced skill and expertise.

apocalyptigirl_excerpt

MacLean highlights these internal contradictions, in fact, by setting off Aria’s narration in two ways that are distinct in both content and visual appearance: the first, set off in speech bubbles, is her breezy casual banter with herself and her cat; the second, in internal monologue captions, her more sophisticated reflections on her world, with the two sometimes coming into conflict and Aria quite literally arguing with herself.

Stories of kickass heroines struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world are hardly new territory – indeed, it’s been a recurrent theme of late – but I suspect there’s also something subtler here, a subtext about the psychology of violence and survival and the things we tell ourselves to keep ourselves sane in horrible circumstances.

And in that respect, I think this is really a standout book, despite appearing at first to be visiting well-trodden ground. It’s not a perfect book by any means – the conclusion of the book felt rushed, with several twists that I found less than wholly satisfying – but it was certainly a nice break, both in terms of subject matter and in visual style, from the superhero comics that I expect will feature strongly in next year’s Hugo nominations.