I have already covered the Hugos’ short fiction categories: Best Short Story, Best Novelette, and Best Novella. Now it is time to wrap up the prose fiction nominees by looking at the contenders for Best Novel…
The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
Having previously given us spooky goings-on against a grimy urban landscape in The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher takes us to a very different milieu with The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first book of his new series The Cinder Spires.
The novel takes place in a world in which humanity exists in gargantuan towers, each tower being a nation unto itself. The dominant form of transport is a variety of airship that owes something to steampunk iconography, except that instead of steam, these ships are fueled by crystals. The aeronaut referred to in the book’s title is Captain Grimm, a man whose mysterious past involves a dishonourable discharge. In the hopes of getting his battered airship back in good working order, Grimm accepts a mission for Spire Albion: A mission that will send him, along with aristocrat Gwendolyn and soldiers Bridget and Benedict, against the hostile tower-nation of Spire Aurora.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass is an adventure yarn that does not scrimp on derring-do with its characters swashbuckling their way against rival aeronauts, dastardly magicians, and hideous insectoid beasts. The action is accompanied by a generous helping of whimsy. Butcher’s writing here is comparable to Diana Wynne Jones or Neil Gaiman. Like them, he realises that the magical can be mundane and the mundane magical. His characters are, by and large, portrayed simply as people going about their daily lives–it just so happens that their daily lives take place in a world of fantasy. Consequently, the novel benefits from a humane touch. When a central character is forced to blast an antagonist’s face off, it is not a casual act of violence; it is a life-changing moment comparable to Jim Hawkins’ shooting of Israel Hands.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass does not appear to have been marketed as a young adult novel, but much of its invention derives from a specifically juvenile flavour of fantasy. As is often the case with fiction geared towards younger audiences, youthful enthusiasm is given priority over intellect and experience. The story directly equates wisdom with dottiness–its magicians being eccentric to the point of addle-headedness–while young and sheltered Gwen is revealed to be an engineering prodigy who manages to teach the ship’s gruff mechanic a thing or two. Indeed, Gwen is the true audience identification point of the story, rather than the more obviously grown-up Captain Grimm.
One aspect of The Aeronaut’s Windlass is particularly reminiscent of children’s fiction and at the same time, is the single most charming element of the story. The world’s primary non-human race is the cat, which is portrayed as a sapient species, albeit one that can only be communicated with by those who have learned cat-language. The cat characters (who have convincingly feline names, such as Rowl and Mirl) are portrayed as, by turns, aloof observers, demanding companions and savage fighters: All traits that any cat owner will have no trouble recognising.
On the whole, the novel’s world-building is simple and often quite utilitarian. Butcher sometimes comes up with a striking concept, as when we learn the reason humanity is living in spires: The land has become infested with dangerous beasts, and the surface is now imagined by society in the same manner as we would think of a shark-infested sea. But such promising ideas are not fully developed and are instead–presumably–being left for later books in the series to explore. I get the general impression that, having created the grimy world of The Dresden Files, Butcher is making a conscious effort to craft a breezier, more straightforward fantasy landscape in The Cinder Spires. The adult concerns of Harry Dresden are largely absent in Gwen and Bridget’s adventures, replaced with a wide-eyed, childlike thirst for unabashed adventure.
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
The Fifth Season takes place in a richly-developed techno-fantastic world marked by its periodic destruction and recreation. The seasons alluded to in the title are not divisions of the year, but divisions of eras that exist between cataclysms. The fifth season in the cycle is always the most devastating, and only recently has society found a way to survive this periodic upheaval.
The turbulent world of the novel is home to orogenes, a caste of individuals who have the power to manipulate the earth itself and are consequently feared and persecuted by those around them. I hasten to clarify that The Fifth Season should not be confused with X-Men. The abilities of the orogenes are not the stuff of adolescent power fantasy; Jemisin portrays their wild talents with a genuinely poetic touch, depicting a fantastic blend of human and nature.
The novel alternates between multiple plot threads. One tells the story of Essun, a teacher whose husband has murdered their son and fled with their daughter. Another introduces us to Syenite, a woman who was forced into the world’s centre of civilisation as a child. She is mentored by Alabastar, a more experienced orogene.
Jemisin never uses the orogenes to create an exact analogy, instead allowing codes of race, gender, class, and sexuality to blur in and out of each other. Nor does she describe a straightforward story of the persecuted rising up against their persecutors. Her characters’ relationships form complex webs of oppression.
The guardians in charge of younger orogenes can get away with abusing their powers–“No one will demote him for anything so trivial as perversion or abuse. Not if his victim is just another orogene”–and Syenite is forced by the authorities to have sex with her guardian Alabaster for purposes of breeding. But Alabaster should not be seen as a rapist. The mandatory experience is portrayed as being joyless for him, as well. Like many of the characters, he appears to accept inequality as a way of life.
In Jemisin’s description of the sexual act itself, the keynote is boredom:
In the morning they copulate. There are no better words she can use for the act—vulgarities don’t fit because it’s too dull, and euphemisms aren’t necessary to downplay its intimacy because it’s not intimate. It’s perfunctory, an exercise, like the stretches she’s learned to do before they start riding for the day. More energetic this time because he’s rested first; she almost enjoys it, and he actually makes some noise when he comes. But that’s it.
The inequality between the inhabitants of Jemisin’s world is sustained in part because the full extent of the orogenes’ persecution has been kept from them. Those in power have rewritten history, to hide what those in power are afraid of confronting.
The construction of cultural narratives and the status of those left outside said narratives form major themes in The Fifth Season. Essun finds that her cultural upbringing did not prepare her for her family tragedy: “There is nothing in stonelore about husbands killing children.” Syenite initially hates Alabaster “not because he is more powerful, not even because he is crazy, but because he refuses to allow her any of the polite fictions and unspoken truths that have kept her comfortable, and safe, for years.”
By its end, the novel has constructed a sophisticated portrayal of a minority culture, the members of which must maintain a constant balancing act. They are sometimes tolerated, but are always mistrusted.
Jemisin employs a distinctly colloquial style in writing her novel. The narrative voice will often break off mid-chapter, distracted by a sudden thought. Meanwhile, for reasons that are established only at the very end of the story, one plot thread is narrated in second person, with the reader being placed into the shoes of a specific character. Some would call this technique gimmicky and unnecessarily distracting. I do not agree.
Throughout the past few decades, and reaching a height in our current era of CGI, literary fantasy has been impacted by the visual fantasy of film, television, and video games. A full analysis of this would require a whole article in itself. Suffice to say that prose fantasy, that would have been striking to earlier generations, may well seem commonplace and unremarkable to an audience weaned on George Lucas. A good fantasy writer will find new ways to surprise and engage their readers with their imagery, even if they are using well-worn materials.
To see Jemisin’s way of handling this issue, consider the scene in which a dog-like creature turns to stone:
Its eyes have become glass, its claws crystal, its teeth some sort of ochre filament. Where there was movement, now there is stillness; its muscles are rock-hard, and that is not a metaphor. Its fur was just the last part of its body to change, twisting about as the follicles underneath transformed into something else.
You and the commless woman both stare.
Really. That’s what you’re thinking. You’ve got nothing better. Wow.
From Greek mythology through to The Hobbit, a person or creature turning to stone is one of the oldest fantasy images in the book. Yet, by taking on the tone of a breathlessly excited storyteller and placing the reader at the centre of the action, Jemisin keeps it engaging. The second-person format also encourages the reader to bring their own viewpoints to the table.
The Fifth Season is a novel about prejudice and persecution, but it avoids preaching and takes a more sophisticated path than mere allegory. Having conjured up an imaginary minority group and placed them within a credible social structure, Jemisin encourages the reader to interpret the fictional oppression through their own experiences.
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, which began with the Hugo-winning Ancillary Justice and continued with the Hugo-nominated Ancillary Sword, concludes with Ancillary Mercy. In this novel, Breq–the artificial intelligence who was once a hive mind, but now inhabits a single human body–finally confronts the emperor whose regime created her. Based as it is around the hero going head-to-head with the villain, Ancillary Mercy has a clearer and more conventional structure than the previous two volumes. The consistently offbeat tone of the series remains, however.
Above all, the Imperial Radch trilogy offers a curiously dainty vision of futuristic warfare. Its space-faring soldiers spend much of their time drinking tea and discussing their feelings. It is little wonder that Leckie’s novels divide opinion. Although a clear favourite at the Hugos, the trilogy is a pariah in Puppy circles.
Ancillary Mercy expands the series’ main cast. Breq is now joined by both an alien life form (who develops an obsession with eating fish) and a second spaceship-AI-turned-person, although this one retains stronger traces of their previous incarnation and prefers “it” as a pronoun to the otherwise ubiquitous “she.” The central conflict of the story involves the blurred boundary between a human being and an AI inhabiting a human body. Leckie does not give this concept a full philosophical interrogation, but rather uses it to motivate her character-driven drama. As with Ancillary Sword, the novel really does rely on the reader having already been fully convinced by the first volume in the series.
The trilogy ends on a conflicted note, with the characters looking forward to a brighter future, but not entirely sure how to bring it about. As they sit down for one more supper together, it becomes clear that–for all the expanses of space and time covered by the Imperial Radch series–Leckie is ultimately writing about a family and a home.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Near a quiet village lies a vast, dark forest. This wood has malignant supernatural properties, and anyone who ventures into its shadows risks becoming corrupted by evil forces. A local wizard known as the Dragon defends the village from the encroaching forest. For payment, he demands that the village must present one of its maidens to act as his servant for ten years, after which he will replace her with another maiden. The villagers expect his latest choice to be the beautiful Kasia, but to everyone’s surprise, it is Kasia’s homely friend Agnieszka who must spend a decade of her life as the Dragon’s servant.
Naomi Novik states that the novel was inspired ultimately by a Polish fairy tale that she loved as a child, and it is easy to recognise widespread folktale archetypes in Novik’s narrative. Shades of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice are discernible, as are elements of Beauty and the Beast when the Dragon turns out to have a softer side.
At its beginning, Uprooted takes place in a world of fairy tale clarity, and the reader could be forgiven for expecting the kind of robust but simple story beloved by Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen. However, it soon becomes apparent that Naomi Novik has something more sophisticated in mind. Whenever the plot appears to be heading into a certain direction, it’s not long before Novik tugs it along a different path. A minor character turns out to be a key player in the narrative, for example, or a throwaway background detail ends up dictating the course of the next few chapters.
The gentle, monsters-under-the-bed spookiness of the cursed forest suddenly erupts into body horror, as giant insects slaughter and mutilate the royal army. The peaceful fairy tale kingdom turns out to be the home of the most brutal politics with the king deciding to have his wife executed so that he can enlarge his kingdom by marrying a foreign princess. And yet, through all of these twists and turns, Novik remains entirely true to her fictional milieu as it is established. All of the story’s development derives from elements that are laid on the table in the earliest chapters.
Uprooted gives the impression that, at its core, it is a bedtime story told to a child. A child who eagerly suggested additions that became vital aspects of the narrative in later retellings. A child who grew up and added a new layer to the story, one that takes account of adult concerns such as politics, warfare and sex. By the time this process has finished, the bedtime story is a bedtime story no more–it is an entire world.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
The moon has exploded (“without warning and for no apparent reason”) and split into seven fragments. These fragments then begin to hit each other, breaking off into yet smaller chunks of rock. Scientists deduce the inevitable outcome of this process: Dirst the White Sky, a cloud of dust surrounding Earth, and then the Hard Rain, a bombardment of debris that will wipe out all life on the planet. The only way mankind can survive is by fleeing into space. A space ark carries a tiny percentage of the world’s population away from the calamity, but even after surviving the Hard Rain, the people on board will face an uncertain future.
Seveneves is nothing if not ambitious. Beginning with the last days of Earth as we know it, the novel progresses through mankind’s wilderness years in space before finally depicting a rebuilt society on a post-apocalyptic Earth. In following this plot, Neal Stephenson frequently shifts focus. The first stretch of the novel, leading up to Earth’s demise, alternates between two distinct narrative approaches: One emphasises the poignancy of the situation, as the few survivors bid farewell to their doomed loved ones back on Earth, and the other describes the nuts-and-bolts processes of space travel, which Stephenson details at great length. A similar split carries on through the midsection of the novel, with the survivors’ descent into barbaric acts of torture and cannibalism sitting alongside in-depth descriptions of the crafts’ mechanical processes. I noticed from online discussion that a number of readers found this frustrating, but I suspect that a conflicted mood is precisely what Stephenson was trying to generate.
Stanley Kubrick made stretches of 2001: A Space Odyssey dull and monotonous to convey the dullness and monotony experienced by the space faring characters. By the same token, the structure of Seveneves seems designed to reflect the emotional states of the characters. They may at times reflect on the end of the world and all that it implies; they may also have doubts about their mission–whether they really stand a chance of ensuring humanity’s survival, or whether their whole operation was merely a ruse to placate Earth’s population, one last lullaby before the big sleep. None of this, however, prevents them from carrying out their assigned tasks. They simply knuckle down and get on with it.
Seveneves recalls some of Isaac Asimov’s novels, which show a similarly erratic structure. Plotting and characterisation turn up in fits and spurts until the author suddenly sweeps everything aside to develop his latest idea, which he then concentrates upon with infectious enthusiasm. But if Stephenson takes an Asimovian approach, it is an Asimovian approach suitably updated for the twenty-first century. The characters use social media (“Spacebook”) and create viral videos with the novel taking time to explore how such concepts would operate in a space borne society.
The story’s rather ramshackle construction is most evident when we reach the final quarter or so of the novel, which takes place thousands of years after the preceding narrative. This sequence hits on a number of interesting ideas when exploring the repopulated Earth. It depicts a world in which the crew of a spacecraft have achieved the status of Adam and Eve or Noah and Ham, with legends being built out of one man’s web-browsing habits. Inevitably, however, the final portion of the novel is so totally separated from what came before in terms of timescale that the story loses its momentum. This last quarter comes across more as an epilogue, and yet, it goes on for long enough to fill a modestly-sized novel by itself.
But while a demanding novel, Seveneves remains a rewarding one. Stephenson has chosen to grapple with some weighty concepts, and a reader sympathetic to his narrative voice should find plenty to appreciate.
Out of the four prose fiction categories, Best Novel is the one with the least Rabid Puppies influence. Only two of the nominees, Seveneves and The Aeronaut’s Windlass, were boosted by Vox Day’s bloc-voting.
I appreciated all five of the nominees, although two struck me as rather weaker than the rest. While I thought Ancillary Justice was a worthy winner, nominating both of its sequels seems like overkill. The Aeronaut’s Windlass, meanwhile, was an entirely competent opening to its series, but not remarkable enough to warrant an award.
That leaves Uprooted, Seveneves, and The Fifth Season. Each book is a worthy contender, but I personally would pick The Fifth Season. This is because it passes a very simple test: out of the three, it is the one that I am most eager to re-read.