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Penric's Demon (Bujold) - I read this before and haven't read it since. Slight, cute story about a boy and his demon. I mean… even average Bujold (which this is) is pretty darn good writing. Maybe this will take my first vote.

Binti (Okorafor) - So — there's a lot here to like (interesting narrator and worldview and cultural connotations)… I kept running aground, though, on the math. Binti is supposed to be a really great mathematics student, thus winning her entry to the celebrated Starfleet Academy Oomza University as a math major (I guess this is THE university to be in the galaxy; the others don't really register at all??) — apparently this manifests by her and her fellow students understanding the concept of tessellating triangles. And possibly being able to perform simple geometry/coordinate-transform calculations. I… was not particularly impressed by their mathematical prowess. Also, she goes into a "mathematical trance" at one point that sure looks to me like a mostly regular sort of trance; I'm not very sure what is mathematical about it. Anyway, I kept being thrown out of the story every time the word "math" was used, which was really too bad. (Compare Jemisin's Fifth Season, where the science just all seems so much more grounded and real.)

Perfect State (Sanderson) - I mean, if you've read some Sanderson before, you know how it goes. Epic Epic fantasy - check. Complicated magic system - check. Lots of Annoying Capital Letters - check. Gary Stu Hero of Everything - check. And then Huh. ) Voting for this above No Award for sure.

The Builders (Polansky) - Grimdark Wind in the Willows. There, now you don't have to read it. You're welcome. Seriously, that was it, that was the entire content of that novella. I did appreciate the author's note in which he totally acknowledged it was a one-note joke. Voting under No Award.

Slow Bullets (Reynolds) - Okay — so, as SF this was actually pretty cool (military transports wake up in cryogenic pods and must unravel the mystery of what is going on in the ship and the universe) and the plot was probably the best of the five. Up until the end. The resolution of the plot made me super side-eye it. Spoilers! ) Not sure whether I will vote this above or below No Award; depends on how crotchety I'm feeling, I suppose.
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4/5. Wow, you guys. This was amazing. And I'm speaking from the point of view of someone who really didn't like Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and who suspects that in general Jemisin might not exactly be for me? But this book is amazing. Jemisin has really got a handle on her writing (which IMO she didn't have in 100K); this thing is super ambitious and it manages to pull it off.

So, first of all: all the trigger warnings in the world. I mean, this is a book that begins in the first chapter with a baby killed by its father. Also: apocalypse, all the time.

Relatedly, it's a very angry book, which turned me off at first. And in my opinion 100K Kingdoms got over-the-top with the anger without sufficient character justification — but here it is much better handled. (I did find it a little… something… that apparently mild and disturbing spoilers for both 100K and 5th ) It didn't make my eyes roll here in the same way, though, because here it wasn't "ooh, let's do this at a party because that's what we do for fun because We Are Evil," but rather arose much more naturally out of the power structures of the society.

One of the things I really loved about it is that it's…science fantasy? Like, it's got clear trappings of fantasy (although there are hints that there might be at least a pseudo-scientific basis for it, which by the way is super cool), but if it's fantasy, it's fantasy that's rooted in science, and she seems to have a good grasp on earth science (as I'm not an earth scientist I couldn't tell you for sure, but it's got that feel to it, if you know what I mean, of someone who's comfortable with the science). I was totally unsurprised to read at the end that Jemisin had been part of a consortium where writers and scientists communicated, because it's really got that feel.

There are some parts where I felt like the human reactions were a little off. Mild spoilers. )I feel like it was manipulation by the author to manufacture reader outrage and justify the book's anger. (Manipulation that worked, honestly, because Jemisin's writing is so powerful and raw in this book; it wasn't until after I finished the book that I started thinking about these things.) (And yes, I understand it's all metaphorical too, but it also has to make sense within the story.) This was probably my biggest problem with the book. There's enough to be angry about without piling things on.

Slightly larger spoilers. )

I have another quibble — this one is extremely minor, much more minor than the others, but what is this journal for if not to vent about minor quibbles -- along these lines. Mild spoilers, again. ) I am giving her super kudos for correctly identifying the timescales, and I understand the scientific correctness sort of painted her into a corner here, but… heh.

Anyway! I keep waffling about what to put on the top of my Hugo ballot. I think on the whole Uprooted, because I thought Uprooted had deeper things to say and its flaws didn't bug me as much as in Fifth Season or Ancillary Mercy, but both of those are great as well. I'm pretty happy with this selection of (novel) nominees. (Next up: Novella!)
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4/5. I said a while back that I thought this would win at least one of the Nebula and Hugo, and, well, I was right (and in my opinion, now that I've started reading more of the nominees, I expect it'll win the Hugo as well, unless Seveneves fanboys take that). K asked why quite a while back, and I started thinking about it, and then I figured I'd just word vomit talk about it here. Some of the reasons are orthogonal to why I think it's a good book. First, Novik is a known and popular author, and a presence in fandom (holy cow, see the popularity data; I knew Uprooted would be popular, but wasn't expecting it to be that much more popular!). Second, some of its rivals have their own issues, Jemisin's Fifth Season ending on a cliffhanger, Ancillary Mercy being the third in a series, or Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown being Heyer-romance pastiche and probably not being taken as seriously by some as a result) (I wrote this bit before nominees came out, and Cho is, as you probably know, not a nominee).

Another mostly-orthogonal reason: Uprooted is pretty clearly (but not overwhelmingly so, as the Cho) homage/pastiche (here of Robin McKinley rather than Heyer); there are clear and deliberate echoes of McKinley stylistically (and of course the little Luthe Easter egg in case you didn't grok it). There is a certain generation and class of readers, of which I am one, that grew up with McKinley, for whom Hero and the Crown and/or The Blue Sword (Hero for me) were pivotal, deeply meaningful books, and you can bet that Uprooted pushes all those buttons and pushes them hard. (Only it's better than McKinley, because then plot starts happening a lot!)

One of the non-McKinley things I loved about Uprooted — let me digress for a bit and tell you a story. Over Christmas we saw my family at my sister C.'s house. My parents had just given their grand piano to C., as my parents have moved and she's the only one in our family now who has room for it. So one of the things C. and I put on the schedule was a Christmas concert — C. got out her violin and I got on the piano bench and we played "Gesu Bambino," which is our traditional Christmas song (we used to play this every year at church).

I can't even tell you how amazing this was, you guys. It's more so than it might have been otherwise, because lately I've been doing a lot of crap accompaniment work (because I never have time to learn the music) with a lot of super random people from church who are usually music beginners — but in any case, C. and I have played together for years and years, we know each other's playing like we know our own mind inside out; it's a seriously heady thing to play with someone else in that kind of partnership.

— And Novik captured that feeling so well, in her descriptions of magic, of magic collaboration. (Although I had to kind of smile indulgently in the way it turned into a romance. First because, well, I've done that with my sister, not my love interests; but also in the back of my head is the part from L'Engle's Severed Wasp where there's a conductor who has a super crush on Katherine and wants to run away with her, and she schools him by making the analogy of how they play really well together as conductor and pianist, and then they leave and play with other pianists/conductors and it all works just fine.)

The other thing I loved a lot about it — and this elevated it above the other stuff I've read this year — is the subtle but visible critique of what, for want of a better term, I shall call genderified conflict. (I don't like this term because it's not actually a breakdown by gender, as Uprooted in fact notes, not least by using the super awesome character of Alosha, but it's perceived to be.) Implicit and thematic spoilers. )

I should say that I don't think this is a perfect book, by any means. One of the ways in which I think it is weakest is the character of Kasia; she's a large part of the book, she's integral to plot and motivation, but I didn't feel like I got a good handle on her character as a real person with major things happening to her even though we see a bunch of her in the book. I would have liked for her character to be fleshed out a little more — she got, oh, two pages of really good character delineation, and then, what, that's it?

And I think it would have been better without any romance at all, but at least the romance we got wasn't treated as True Love or anything. I thought it was rather refreshing, actually, that it was treated as almost an afterthought.
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3/5. I was too unenthused to buy it or even to put it on hold at the library, but interested enough to check it out once it appeared on the New Books shelf at the library. And, I mean, it was fine? I had been thoroughly warned about the Babieeeees theme and the Bujold Thinks She Can Do Romance theme and the This Has No Plot property, so those didn't bother me overmuch.

Cut for mild spoilers, although, I mean, this book has no real plot, so… )
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(Uh, yeah, surprising no one, this is a bunch of words not solely about the Chernow bio, but a rather a lot of opinions on how Chernow's bio relates to the musical.)

4/5. I FINALLY finished the Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton, not just so I could write this post on it, but I could easily have taken another month otherwise. It's a very good and readable book, but it's also a very chewy book — it's not dense, I didn't have to read things twice or wait until I was in a super cognitive mood, like I did for Hild, but it's definitely the kind of book where I could read a couple of pages and then either go on or put it down for a couple of days.

Anyway! It was awesome and I totally understand how Miranda put this book down and was like "…surely someone's written a musical about this guy, right? Right???? No? I'm not going to throw away my shot Then I'll do it."

Chernow is clearly a fan of Hamilton, but this doesn't extend to thinking Hamilton can do no wrong. Chernow doesn't make excuses or try to rugsweep when his subject does something incredibly stupid — indeed his frustration is almost palpable. But more of that later on.

It's really really interesting to read after being obsessed with the musical. You know how Alexander Hamilton, in the musical, is this sort of archetypal hero who starts from nothing, gets caught up in all these Events, attains the pinnacle of success, and then falls from it? The historical Alexander Hamilton is all these things turned up to eleven. I mean, Miranda didn't exaggerate. If anything he downplayed Hamilton. If he'd also added that the boat Hamilton took to America literally caught on fire (I laughed out loud at this) and that, far from being a little gawky and awkward as an adolescent as he is in the musical, he was in fact possessed of an extreme poise and confidence, we wouldn't even have believed it, right? He would have come across as a complete Mary Sue, right? …And yet.

Is anyone surprised that this got long? No. )

Anyway! Highly recommended, whether or not you like or have any interest in the musical. If you are a huge fan of the musical-as-history, I would go so far as to say that this is a must-read so that you don't go around telling people that Alexander Hamilton punched the Princeton bursar (he didn't) — although the good folks at genius.com have annotated the lyrics so that you can get a pretty good idea for what's history and what's not.
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Oh man, I'm getting totally bogged down on this Chernow post. So here, have Library of Mount Char instead.

(Also, it being February, I'm going to try to put a quotation in every post I make. Let's see how long that lasts.)

3+/5. The book begins like this:
Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78. Most of the librarians, Carolyn included, had come to think of this road as the Path of Tacos, so-called in honor of a Mexican joint they snuck out to sometimes. The guacamole, she remembered, is really good. Her stomach rumbled. Oak leaves, reddish-orange and delightfully crunchy, crackled underfoot as she walked. Her breath puffed white in the predawn air. The obsidian knife she had used to murder Detective Miner lay nestled in the small of her back, sharp and secret.

She was smiling.

And, I mean, it is a great introduction, it certainly drew me in to where I really wanted to know what was going on and what happened next! It also is a great introduction in that it pretty much tells you what the book is going to be like.

It's going to be weird; it's going to be fantastical; and it's going to be violent. I'd in fact categorize it more as horror than as fantasy. There's a lot of carnage, a lot of death, a lot of torture. I don't really get into horror that much, so I, uh, fast-forwarded through a lot of the more gory scenes (and there are a lot of gory scenes).

Also, it's about the Librarians, a set of young adults who grew up together as not-really-siblings under "Father." Father appears human but clearly is not, has all kinds of superhuman powers, appears to be protecting this Earth from malevolent forces, and subjects them to over-the-top physical and emotional abuse that is more accurately described as (literally) torture, turning at least one of them into a psychopath and driving at least one more insane.

This appears to be in the service of giving each of them some of his knowledge to master; one can bring back people from the dead; one is a master of warlike arts; Carolyn herself can speak many languages, including the languages of beasts. At the beginning of the book, Father is missing and there is the possibility he is dead, which of course is a problem given the malevolent forces previously mentioned, but also raising the question of where he is, who is responsible for it, and how that plays into power struggles among his "children."

It's a fascinating book. It was definitely riveting and held me to the end. There are a lot of neat fantastical aspects. One of the best characters is a sentient lion. There's a super awesome character who's a war hero who has gone civil.

In my opinion it did not stick the landing. I really liked the idea of the ending, which was certainly satisfyingly climactic and earthshattering, but the execution didn't quite do it for me.

Book-destroying spoilers. You might as well read them if you don't think you want to read this book. )

Book-destroying spoilers for both Library and McKillip's Riddlemaster trilogy; if you have any expectation of ever reading the Riddlemaster trilogy and don't want to be spoiled, don't read this. )

Anyway… it was well-written, well-plotted, and had a lot of interesting things going on. I'll be interested to see what Hawkins does next… but I might not read it unless he cuts down significantly on the gore. On the other hand, if you like your SFF with a big dollop of horror (or at least don't mind it), you may well really enjoy this.

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