Welcome back to the series reviewing the prose fiction in the running for this year’s Hugo Awards! With Best Short Story, Best Novelette and Best Novella covered, all that remains is Best Novel. Here are the first three finalists in the category…
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, but the family business is not thriving. Her father is overly generous to his customers, and so struggles to earn a profit. Miryem decides to take over as moneylender, and makes a point out of being rather more ruthless than her father – after all, she argues, the locals took advantage of her family, so she should feel no qualms about taking advantage of the locals.
Her sacrifice of empathy pays off, and she successfully turns her father’s business around. She publicly boasts that she can spin silver into gold – a claim that reaches the Staryk, an elfin people who have power over ice, and the Staryk king decides to take her at her word. Elsewhere, an aristocratic girl named Irina is wedded to the tsar at the behest of her father. But her regal groom turns out to be abusive – and, on top of that, is in league with a fiery demon.
Irina is not the only person dealing with domestic violence and arranged marriage. Miryem’s sometime servant Wanda is ordered by her father to marry a man named Lukas; when she refuses to go ahead with the plan, she triggers a brutally violent streak in her father. She is forced to run away from home with her brother Sergey.
The paths of these characters end up crossing, and the young women – although limited in power individually – find that they can solve problems by working together. In particular, Miryem and Irina develop a scheme that will pit their personal foes – the Staryk of ice and the demon of fire – against one another, but doing so will involve some daunting moral quandaries.
With its intricate power politics, varied character viewpoints and snow-swept setting, Spinning Silver invites comparisons with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The similarities are superficial, however. The novel is a spiritual successor to Naomi Novik’s earlier Hugo finalist Uprooted, and like that book, its origins lie in fairy tale tradition.
The basic plot is a reworking of the Brothers Grimm’s story of Rumpelstiltskin, albeit with a large number of liberties. As well as expanding the cast of human characters, Novik replaces the gnomish Rumpelstiltskin with the Slavic demon Chernobog who is in turn joined by the icy Staryk king – a character with more similarities to Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen. Indeed, with its themes of cold-heartedness and the sacrifice of empathy, the novel has as much in common with Andersen’s fable as it does the Grimm story.
The novel frequently switches between different character viewpoints, each one granted first-person narration (an inattentive reader can easily become lost) and in doing so builds a multi-layered fantasy society. But while the world of Spinning Silver is the stuff of fairy tales, Naomi Novik does not shy away from real-world concerns, such as the anti-Semitism that Miryem’s family is faced with. Novik is able to convincingly weave historical atrocities into her fairy tale world, without one element detracting from the other:
My mother said softly, “Two years ago, outside Minask, a band of Staryk went through the countryside to three towns, towns not much bigger than this. They burned the churches and the houses of rich men, and took all the gold they could find. But they rode past Yazuda village, where the Jews lived, and they did not burn their houses. So the people said the Jews had made a pact with the Staryk. And now there are no Jews in Yazuda. Do you understand, Miryem? You will not speak of the Staryk coming to our house.”
Spinning Silver once again shows Novik’s skill at building dense fantasy narratives from the familiar material of fairy tales. It is a worthy successor to Uprooted, but also stands on its own as a self-contained novel.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
In the future, America has been hit by ecological disasters. Two thirds of the country are now submerged by rising sea levels. Some areas have escaped this fate, however, and one of these is the Navajo Nation. But life is far from easy for the Navajo survivors: as well as depleted resources and corrupt legal officials, they must cope with supernatural beings, once consigned to folklore but now showing themselves to be all too real. Fighting off these monsters is a fearful job, but one that somebody has to carry out.
Enter Mags Hoskie, a young woman who, while a mere mortal, knows a thing or two about the supernatural. She is an apprentice to Neizghání, an immortal monsterslayer of legend. She is also on speaking terms with Ma’ii – or Coyote, the trickster. And when a fight turns dirty, she benefits from an all-consuming bloodlust that can drive her to victory – even if it leaves her morally repulsed.
Trail of Lightning is an enjoyable mixture of the comfortably familiar and the stimulatingly innovative. Much of the territory explored by Mags has been seen before: chunks of the novel’s worldbuilding are recognisable form Mad Max, I Am Legend and sundry urban fantasy sagas, while Mags’ personal arc is from the standard hero’s-journey model, complete with a mentor in Neizghání and supernatural aid from Ma’ii. Yet, despite all of this, the novel does not lapse into cliché. This is due in significant part to Rebecca Roanhorse’s use of Navajo culture.
Tawdry Hollywood treatments of Native folklore – cobbled together from skinwalkers, wendigo and assorted stereotypes – can be safely set aside. Trail of Lightning depicts a living, breathing world of fantasy, where beings from age-old folklore walk the dusty grounds of Roanhorse’s post-apocalyptic milieu. Rather than being exoticised, these creatures are introduced and explained in a manner that makes them seem immediately familiar and understandable even to a reader with little knowledge of Navajo folklore:
In Navajo, the souls of the dead are ch’įįdii. They are the residue, the evil deeds every man and woman leaves behind at the moment of death. They can possess the living, causing drowning sickness. Drowning sickness can be a slow death, a sinking into melancholy and depression until you forget to get out of bed, forget to eat, and eventually, forget to breathe. Or drowning sickness can be aggressive, an attack that feels like you’re suffocating being pulled under and into the grave. Quick or slow, either way, ch’įįdii kill.
The more materialistic aspects of the novel’s world are also handled well. The backstory of the post-apocalyptic America – which includes not only mass flooding but conflict and bloodshed, recalling the near-apocalypse endured by Native Americans in real life – is credible. When the characters sample the rare luxury that is coffee, it is genuinely poignant.
The story plays with genre conventions. At times it borrows from the Western, with Mags noting the irony of a “cowboys and Indians” conflict existing amongst Navajo. Elsewhere it pokes fun at some of the more frequently-ridiculed aspects of urban fantasy iconography, with Mags’ fashionista friend Clive making her a comically skimpy outfit because, well, that’s what monster-slaying heroines wear. However, the story never becomes a self-parody; instead, these moments serve to make Mags’ exploits seem more real than those of so many genre counterparts.
Above all, Trail of Lightning is a well-structured novel. Its worldbuilding occurs at a good pace, and the plot revelations happen in an order that keeps the narrative feeling fresh even when the basic plot is fairy conventional – for example, it is some time before the reader learns of Mags’ initial vision of Ma’ii, despite this moment being the call to adventure which, per Campbellian tradition, would have been placed at the start of the narrative. Mags’ relationships with the other characters – including her grandfather Tah, her mentor Neizghání, her tricksterish guide Ma’ii and her weather-working pretty-boy companion Kai – are richly ambiguous, with plenty of room for the themes of trust and betrayal to be played out.
Between its convincing world and engaging protagonist, Trail of Lightning is an extremely strong start to an ongoing series that has already received a second volume in Storm of Locusts. Urban fantasy fans who want something a little unusual, along with those who never got into the genre in the first place, should give Mags’ adventures a look.
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series has been a fixture at the Hugos for a good while now. The previous novels Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem were finalists in 2017 and 2018 respectively; this year, not only is the sequence a whole up for Best Series, but the concluding novel in the trilogy is a contender for Best Novel.
Readers whose recollections of the previous novels are a trifle fuzzy may be relieved to know that the protagonist Jedao has found himself in a similar position. He starts the story having lost all memories since his time as a teenage cadet, and is bewildered to find himself an adult soldier.
Despite this amnesia, Jedao has been assigned a vital mission. The hexarchate is in a state of disarray, having split into two factions: the Protectorate, which sees itself as a successor to the old order; and the Compact, a more radical body. Jedao, so his superiors believe, is the right person to take part in this battle because at one point in his past – a period established in previous novels but now absent from his memory – Jedao lost his mind and committed a massacre. In the midst of an intense conflict, this is just the sort of brutality that could turn the tide.
The elaborate worldbuilding of the previous novels remains intact in Revenant Gun. The series takes place in a universe where technology is affected by dates of the calendar; change the calendar, therefore, and technology will change in turn, rather like a game being affected by changes in its rules. This is the basis of the series’ intrigue, with alterations to the calendar both fuelling and, potentially, ending the conflict.
Beneath the worldbuilding mechanics of Revenant Gun lies the theme of identity. To the mentally-rejuvenated Jedao, his past actions – particularly his near-legendary massacre – seem like the work of a different man. He is troubled not only by the fact that he once was that person, but that he may be forced into becoming that person again: it is, after all, his past bloodlust that makes him a military asset. The novel spends much of its time coming up with ways to probe the concept of identity – sometimes in a literal manner, as when a clone of Jedao turns up as an antagonist to the series’ original protagonist Cheris; and in more figurative, playful terms. The characters’ exploits have already become sufficiently legendary to be adapted into fiction, and Lee has fun contrasting his story with the stories-within-the-story. The presence of robotic servitors within the cast adds still more avenues to explore the themes of identity and duty.
As a space opera, Revenant Gun wraps up all of its themes in a series of spaceship battles. Lee gives this aspect of the novel the same intricacy as its politics. The series reaches a satisfyingly cerebral conclusion as the sprawling, spacefaring society ends up looking inward on itself.
To Be Continued
This series will conclude with a look at the remaining three books in the running for the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel.