Learning to Love a New Type of Story: Hugo Nominated Novelettes

There are many benefits to reading short fiction: it’s a way to fit a little reading into your day even when you’re crunched for time, a quick intro to a new writer you’re thinking of checking out, a short break between reading longer books… Short fiction also has the ability to really pack a punch in a way that longer works don’t always manage; in short fiction, when every word counts, the complexity and richness of good writing can have a much more profound impact.

I used to read short fiction like so: I kept a book of collected short stories by Ursula K. LeGuin or Angela Carter or James Joyce by my bed and read one story before sleep each night. I secretly hated it. Although it seemed like an ideal way to read some more of my favorite authors’ shorter works, I often was a little too sleepy to appreciate a really impactful story. And then there were the novelettes… I was frustrated by a story that was too long to read in a few minutes while I was half asleep, but too short to treat like a novel. In my mind, they interrupted the flow of the short stories I thought I had signed up for.

Then I started reading the Hugo nominees – I kept one story open on my phone at all times, and whenever I had a little downtime while standing in line at the coffee shop or in between appointments at work, I read a little bit. The stories floated in and out of my head throughout the week, immersing me in their daydream. I even found other novelettes that I loved, such as The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon. I stopped worrying and learned to love the novelette. I think this is a great way to read shorter works, and I am looking forward to reading more in the future.

Here are my quick thoughts on the novelettes that were nominated for this year’s Hugo Award:

“Bots of the Lost Ark” by Suzanne Palmer – A bot’s-eye view of maintaining a malfunctioning ship.
This was very cute. It took me a second to get into – perhaps because I never read her previous story “The Secret Life of Bots”. Regardless, I found the end very charming, and a little humorous.

“Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim – A painter’s model wants to have success as a painter in her own right – so she seeks to be made immortal.
I found this to be a thoughtful reflection on art, the self, and im/mortal relationships.

L’Esprit de L’Escalier” by Catherynne M. Valente – Maybe, Eurydice didn’t want Orpheus to bring her back…
This had a really interesting concept of dealing with the return from death, the disconnect that happens in a relationship after trauma, the dissatisfaction in a relationship that was once passionate but is now empty. And I love retellings of myths (seriously *loved* Circe by Madeline Miller,) but this time I found that I got tired of the repetitive description of all the gods as modern stereotypes.

“O2 Arena” by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki – In a future where humans have destroyed the planet, people have to fight for air – literally.
Okay so my first impressions of this and my thoughts about it after talking with other readers are polar opposites. I thought it was somewhat brutal and very Human which is what I liked about it. On a rapid read I was left with only a raw impression of pain and struggling that came from a very real core and stuck with me. But several months later, all I remember is a lot of kind of ham-fisted description of the world and a weird subplot about a creepy professor that didn’t seem to fit. Ekpeki is a disabled man, and I found myself wondering how much of the story was inspired by personal experience. It is crushing, a frightening black mirror. This story won the Nebula for best novelette this year.

“That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell – Anton escapes the house where he has been staying with Mr. Bird and stays with a friend, but is scared Mr. Bird will find him.
Weirdly, this is another story where by opinions of this story completely flipped over time. This is a very well-written story a story about abuse and moving on… but found it very uncomfortable and didn’t understand the ending, so initially I didn’t like it. Eventually, I came around to the sort of amorphic ending and really appreciated how the structure of the story reflected and reinforced the themes of learning to live again after trauma. I looked up a couple other stories by Wiswell (“For Lack of a Bed” was nominated for a Nebula award this year,) and found that he consistently writes about tough subjects, and consistently is extremely skillful in translating that to science fiction in a way that feels very relatable.

“Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde – A moving dress shop shows up in town, and Sera learns that she has a connection to the magical tailors.
This had a very magical feeling to it, but ultimately I felt uninspired and found it forgettable.

Getting Back into Reading: Hugo Nominated Short Stories

So, as you have probably picked up from the last two posts here, I had a baby within the last year. I realized partway into my first trimester that working on book reviews and blog posts simply wasn’t enjoyable for me anymore. With the nausea and fatigue I was experiencing I didn’t have much energy left for following the other blogs I’ve found here, either. So I stopped. I’m finally starting to feel interested in writing again, so I am slowly dipping my toes back into the world of blogging.

I had partly expected that having a baby would leave me with no time at all to read, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are actually still lots of little moments I can squeeze in some reading during the day. (Sometimes at the expense of the mountain of dishes or laundry, but still!) A few months ago, I realized that World Con would be in Chicago this year and since this is not a far distance for me to travel, I decided it would be a lot of fun to read all the nominees for the Hugos this year and go to World Con! I have never read all the nominees for any award before, and I am discovering a lot of pros and cons to doing so.

Pro: I feel really accomplished. It has been a lot of fun checking off books as I go. I am also using my library a lot more which has been wonderful and exciting.

Con: I am getting burnt out on sci fi/ fantasy. Specifically, SFF that is popular among Hugo voters. There are a lot of different styles of sci fi out there, but each award has a different “taste” so to speak. I am getting somewhat tired of this flavor.

Pro: I am now reading more short fiction than I ever have before. I have discovered new writers that I adore who I might never have found before this, because I always paid attention only to writers who wrote novels. I am so glad this is a mistake that I am learning to correct!

Here are my thoughts on the short stories that were nominated for this year’s Hugo Award:

“Mr. Death” by Alix E. Harrow – A Grim Reaper finds he has a hard time taking the soul of a child.
This was a hard subject – especially with just having a kid this past year, reading about child death was a little iffy. However, it was written sincerely. It felt almost a little reminiscent of Good Omens to me at the end, but although I liked Good Omens, I personally don’t go much for the guardian-angel type stuff. I’ve seen some people on reddit calling this “award bait” and I see why, but that doesn’t make it any less good.

“Proof by Induction” by Jose Pablo Iriarte – A son spends time with a computer recreation of his deceased father in order to solve a math mystery.
There was a lot of math jargon in this one, and I don’t know enough about math to know if any of the theorems mentioned are real or made up. This was the second story in a row about death, which means even though it is very different from the first story, I inevitably ended up comparing the two. I found it very poignant that every time Paulie visits, his dad says “thank you for visiting, Paulie” and you know Paulie just wants to hear him say “I love you,” but he never, ever will.

“The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente – A sin eater tries to take on the sins of a nation and becomes a scapegoat.
This was extremely well written. Catherynne M. Valente is a writer that I had never read before, but I am really in love with after doing this Hugos read. This story was a little too uncomfortable to really enjoy, but it was thought-provoking.

“Tangles” by Seanan McGuire – Apparently, this was a Magic the Gathering fanfic. It doesn’t really require any knowledge of MTG, but perhaps the reader might get more out of it if they are familiar?
I thought this was an okay story of learning a lesson from a new friend and a neat description of a moment in time that is many moments.

“Unknown Number” by Blue Neustifter – This was actually originally posted on twitter as bunch of created screen shots of a conversation between a trans woman and herself from an alternate timeline.
Who hasn’t wanted to have a conversation with themselves? I thought this was an interesting way to present the story, and the subject was handled well, but but something about the dialogue just didn’t work for me.

“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker – This story was formatted like a comments thread on a lyrics website. (Raise your hand if you used to spend a lot of time on songmeanings.com!) It includes a link to a youtube recording of “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker’s band The Stalking Horses.
This story is a mystery/horror story that manages to have recognizable characters, humor, and an engaging plot all within the comments thread of a creepy folk song. I loved this story a lot. Hands down my favorite one.

The Call of the Wild

When I was little, I had an abridged version of The Call of the Wild which I read repeatedly. It had beautiful illustrations and I felt like I came to know all the many different canine characters well. Along with an old battered book on Balto it helped to perpetuate a love of dogs which I think I shared by most children. However, something about the word “abridged” on the front of the cover made me assume that the original text was long, dense, and unapproachable. I considered for many years picking up the full book, but always shied away, stopped in part by my childhood impressions of difficulty.

A couple weeks ago, I visited my parents for the first time since before the pandemic started to see my dad after he had shoulder surgery. As I lay on the pull-out bed in the basement, I looked at the random assortment of books on one of the shelves. Among them was The Call of the Wild – the full-length version. I figured now was as good a time as any and picked it up for some bedtime reading. I was somewhat surprised to find that it was actually a light and quick adventure story and I finished it in only 3 sittings.

The events and characters came back to me as I read; I remembered Buck’s quarrel with vicious Spitz to be lead dog, Curly’s death, the three city slickers who mistreat the dog team, Buck pulling a sled out of the frozen ground for the love of his human, and Buck eventually leaving behind his life with humans to join a wolf pack in the Yukon. I didn’t really remember how much the book had felt like a lecture on primitivism, the fragility of civilization, and on nature vs nurture. At every chapter, Buck sheds some other aspect of his life in “civilization”, learns to survive and lead a pack, has increasing ancestral memories of living as a wolf with a primitive man, and eventually returns to the wild after the death of his beloved owner. Most of Buck’s actions seem very exaggerated or implausible – including the idea of being drawn to an ancestral memory. This time around, I found the book a little too moralizing.

On top of everything else, the ending of the book is uncomfortably racist. While Buck is out roaming in the woods, his owner is killed by a group of Native Americans called who are portrayed as cruel and stupid. Buck wreaks violence upon them, and they fear the “ghost dog” forever after. The “Yeehats” are not a real tribe, but a collection of harmful stereotypes. Using such a stereotype of brutal and superstitious Native Americans as a shoehorned plot device is both lazy writing and a damaging perpetuation of racist ideas. As a result, I could neither appreciate the ending nor can I heartily recommend the book.

Although I still have fond memories of reading my illustrated copy of The Call of the Wild, I will not likely return to reading this book again.

Finding a New Normal in My Reading Habits: Yeshiva Girl by Rachel Mankowitz

Like many people who love reading would insist, books are a comfort to me. I think a great weekend would be spending hours at a time reading a whole novel in one sitting. I do hold onto many of my books and sometimes I even am comforted simply by sitting in front of my bookshelf and observing the many shapes and colors of the spines or taking one book off the shelf and feeling the grain of the paper and the smell of its pages. And yet, even in reading it is important to sometimes branch out of my comfort zone. Leaving my comfort zone means I can earn a reinvigorated enjoyment of my comfort reads once I return to them. It also means I can learn and explore new ideas and sometimes even find more things to enjoy that I hadn’t expected.

Yeshiva Girl is not the type of book I normally read – my reading “home” often includes castles in idyllic natural settings, magic, swords, and plucky characters boldly facing what challenges them. These are the things that I return to over and over. Books with themes about sexual assault usually fall more into the category of “dentist office” – I go there because it can be important, even though it’s uncomfortable. That’s not to say I dislike such books. Lolita, for example, is a beautiful piece of literature which I adore even though I had to take lots of breaks while reading it to cope with the subject matter.

I picked up Yeshiva Girl because I follow the author, Rachel Mankowitz. I stumbled across her blog years ago with her post “Harry Potter et Moi” and since have continued reading her weekly posts about life, her dogs, her Jewish faith, and more. I often find that her posts contain beautiful nuggets of insight that are thought-provoking; her writing feels dynamic – always moving fluidly from one point to the next. She published the book a while ago, but although I knew I wanted to read it, I delayed a little due to it having what is for me a “dentist” topic. Ultimately though, I found that reading Yeshiva Girl was a rewarding experience, not one to fear.

Yeshiva Girl follows Isabel, a teenage girl who is suddenly transferred to an orthodox school in the midst of an inquiry into her father for sexual contact with a student. The novel reads a lot like one of Mankowitz’s blog posts; the writing moves quickly and is told in intimate detail from a first-person perspective. There are a fair number of musings about Jewish precepts that she also has written blog posts about, such as “Embarrassing a Person is Like Killing Them,” and “Be a Mensch.” I found many of these insights into Jewish life and religion interesting and thought-provoking.

Isabel is smart and inquisitive, and she also deals with anxiety, disordered eating, and a dysfunctional family life. Experiencing life from Isabel’s point of view as she navigates teenage relationships, growing into an adult, and coming to terms with her own abuse as a child feels deeply personal. Although these are all YA themes and although the book is marketed as being for teenagers, I couldn’t help but feel that that book was really meant for an adult audience. This is for two reasons: firstly, Isabel’s story, although told from a 15 year-old’s point of view, is sometimes told with the clarity of retrospect to such a degree that it feels like an adult reminiscing about what it was like to be 15. Isabel may be confused and in turmoil, but her voice is sure. The feeling of reminiscence is driven home by the second reason: the technology level described in the book is that of perhaps 20 or more years ago. Although I dislike it when other novels conspicuously emphasize current technology, the way a modern teenager would interact with others has been fundamentally changed to the degree that a modern teen might even categorize this as “historical fiction.” Isabel’s friend must pass on the message to her boyfriend when Isabel stays with her grandparents for a weekend so that said boyfriend can call her on her grandparents’ landline instead of her parents’. Isabel is occasionally bullied at school, but there is no hint at all of bullying extending to online interactions – in fact, no one uses a computer or cell phone for the entirety of the book, even when the absence seems glaring. This is not a problem for me (I sometimes miss the pre- smart phone and social media days!) but may be a small barrier for a current YA reader. Although it is a very real portrait of a brilliant character, I do not feel like I just connected with a modern teenager, but rather I am left with the distinct impression that this story is perhaps from an old high school friend, confessing to me the distress they went through that I was oblivious to at the time…

Interestingly enough, by reading the book as a confessional, I feel *trusted* by Isabel, which also makes me feel motivated to be someone who is *trustworthy* and more open to being a better friend to those who may need my support. It is said that reading novels makes people more empathetic, and this underscores the importance of continuing to read things outside of my comfort zone and growing better able to understand the mindset of the people around me on a daily basis.

I am glad I read this book for the insight into various aspects of Jewish life and for opening my eyes to the way some people may cope with childhood trauma. Mankowitz’s writing is engaging to the effect that I read this in only a week, which is much faster than my average rate of reading! I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys books about people handling tough situations or thought-provoking discussions of religion – and I recommend it even more for those people who find it a step outside of their comfort zone.

Hugo and Nebula Classics: Peace and War

The finalists for the Nebula Awards and the Hugo Awards have both been announced for this year! Many of the books listed have been floating around my awareness lately, so I am excited to read some of these including Mexican Gothic, Piranesi, and The City We Became. Although I like following plenty of book awards (The World Fantasy Award and Pulitzer Prize are two of my favorites), I am not one of those wonderful people who finish reading all of the nominees for an award before the ceremony. Although in more idyllic days, I was able to keep up with and occasionally outpace my to-read list, at my current stage in life I’m happy if I read two books a month compared to the two books a week I used to enjoy. I decided a good start would be to read all of the joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula. In my experience Hugo winners tend to have an engaging plot, Nebula winners tend to have good writing, and the joint winners are the total package. So far I have read 12 of the 25 novels, the most recent book being Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman.

Joe Haldeman actually has two novels that are joint winners, The Forever War, and Forever Peace. Despite the similarity in names, one is not a sequel to the other, although they do form a thematic pair; if The Forever War showed us the horrors of war, Forever Peace asks “how can we stop this from happening again, and worse?” Haldeman is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and received a Purple Heart. Keeping that in mind while I read The Forever War several years ago made the book much more poignant and reinforced the absurdity of war and the difficulties that soldiers have when readjusting to life at home. The Forever War entranced me while I was reading it and has stuck with me over the years. Because I enjoyed reading it and found the book so powerful, I was excited to read Forever Peace, as well.

In Forever Peace, a soldier named Julian Cass remotely controls a robot for war by being “jacked-in” neurally to a remote link and to the other members of his team. When he is made aware of a scientific experiment that could be turned into a doomsday device, he agrees to participate in an attempt to “humanize” every person in the world so that no one will have the capability to commit violence against another person again.

I had an interesting experience after reading Forever Peace, though. I absolutely loved the book while I was reading it; several times I said out loud “Joe Haldeman is such a great writer!” to my husband… or my cat… or an empty room… just because I was fascinated by what I was reading. I enjoyed the play with the concept of “jacking-in” and sharing consciousness with another person. How would merging minds affect your personal views, your relationships, your sex life? The more time that passes, however, the less I recall any of the things I liked about the book and the more I recall the gripes I had: mostly the major plot holes around whether or not an experience of empathy can truly “humanize” people, the ethics of forcing people to undergo “humanization,” and that (even if possible) such “humanization” was unlikely to be hereditary as it is portrayed.

The thing I wondered the most was – what about people who are “violent” from a distance? Who kill by neglecting to care that their actions hurt others, or by forcing others to do their will? Even if “humanization” makes an individual unable to physically attack another person, I can think of many people in this world who start or perpetuate evil without ever lifting a finger in themselves. Without removing stress, hunger, fear, greed how could we truly remove the things that drive humans to violence? Although I was not satisfied with Forever Peace’s answer to the question of how we can end war, I still think it is a highly important question to ask, and to continue striving for the solution.

I would highly recommend reading Joe Haldeman’s work for his insight and his writing skill. Although The Forever War had more staying power with me than Forever Peace, everything I have read by him so far has been valuable.

African Classics: Things Fall Apart

“No man can understand another whose language he does not speak (and language here does not mean simply words, but a man’s entire world view).” I found this quote by Chinua Achebe while reading about the author of Things Fall Apart. Although it was in response to critics of his work, I liked the quote in relation to his most well-known novel, because in some ways it is the central idea of Things Fall Apart. While reading the book, I was immersed in the worldview of Okonkwo – a strong, but flawed Igbo man who strives to earn respect in his village. Achebe’s use of language makes this a powerful book by portraying an intimate look at Igbo (or Ibo) culture and an unflinching portrait of a man whose contempt for all things feminine leads to his downfall.

I enjoyed learning about Chinua Achebe after reading Things Fall Apart. Finding out about his background made the book feel even more personal. Achebe grew up in Nigeria with both Christianity and traditional Igbo religion. He did well in school and won a scholarship to study medicine at university. However once there, Achebe was so disturbed by literary portrayals of Nigerian characters as either savages or buffoons that he left his studies of medicine to instead become a writer. Achebe was active in politics and in teaching and was also an Igbo High Chief. Although he spent his later years living in the United States, he always held his home culture in love and pride. Achebe’s background and his love for his home is evident throughout the novel.

Things Fall Apart is divided into 3 parts: the first introduces the strong man Okonkwo. By depicting his life in the village of Umuofia “feared by all its neighbors[…]powerful in war and magic”, Achebe creates a portrait of Igbo culture before the arrival of Europeans. The second part surrounds Okonkwo’s life in exile and the third part deals with the fundamental change of their culture with the arrival of white missionaries.

Igbo words, phrases, stories, and traditions are woven throughout the story to relate the reality of village life. Achebe does not try to explain or justify Igbo culture for a Western audience – he just shows how things are in such a straightforward manner – it simply is. The sights and sounds of the village, festivals, religious rites, and daily rituals begin to feel almost familiar, despite being so very different from my own daily life. I appreciated the book’s ability to make me feel “at home” in a place I have never been. This is important because when Christian missionaries start to appear, they immediately felt strange and out of place to me, as they might to someone who had never seen a white man riding a bicycle before. Although because I know how missionary work often hurt despite “good intentions,” I also felt a sense of foreboding.

It would be erroneous to say that the book is only about colonialism, though – the center of the book is Okonkwo, his rise and fall. Okonkwo’s father was lazy and unsuccessful; although he owed debts to nearly everyone, he was loved by most for his loving attitude and his skill with music. However, Okonkwo is ashamed of his father, and in all things strives to be his opposite. Whereas his father never earned a title, Okonkwo is determined to earn as many titles as he can to become a respected leader. There are rigid gender divisions in Umuofia – social and religious roles are limited by sex, certain crimes are described as being of “male nature” or “female nature”, and even crops are divided – Okonkwo will only grow yams “a man’s crop,” not cassava which is for women to grow. Okonkwo is prideful, detests the feminine, insults other men who he does not deem manly enough, and beats his wives at times. Sometimes his neighbors chastise him for being too harsh on others, but they continue to recognize his skill at wrestling and his hard work as a farmer. However, Okonkwo’s fear of being perceived as weak leads him first to participate in the execution of a boy he loved as a son and then to forbid himself from mourning the boy’s death or dealing with his own guilt. Although Okonkwo is highly respected, it is clear his hatred of anything feminine leads to his own suffering and the suffering of those around him. Although Achebe could have portrayed Okonkwo as “bad” due to his violence and refusal to deal with attachment or emotions, he simply shows how Okonkwo’s sexism (and what we would now call toxic masculinity) are part of him – he is a whole person and his flaws exist as part of the whole. Achebe examines Okonkwo without piling judgement on him for his issues with masculinity, yet still demonstrates how destructive those tendencies are. I appreciated the completeness of his characterization – because we know Okonkwo and his worldview intimately, we can see his poor actions without casting him as a villain.

When Okonkwo accidentally kills a man in celebration at a wedding, the inadvertent killing is judged to be a “female crime” – a violation against the earth goddess. For this he and his family are banished for seven years and his home is burned down. He goes to live in the village where his mother was born and although he is well-received there, Okonkwo resents this. He spends his time planning how he can regain renown and return with a flourish to the more war-like Umuofia. This includes telling his daughters not to marry so that he can use their marriages more favorably when they return. By the time he returns, the Umuofia has changed because of the influx of missionaries, and Okonkwo is angry to find out that the other men do not intend to fight them.

The missionaries do not understand the Igbo culture, but they try to change it. Because the first two parts of the book made the Igbo culture feel like a natural way of life to the reader, the attempt to mold it into something else feels like a violation. “Does the white man understand our customs about land?” asks one Igbo man. “How can he when he does not even speak our tongue?” his friend responds. As with Okonkwo himself and his way of life, Achebe does not pile heavy judgement on the missionaries – he continues to simply show things as they are, and the reader is able to feel the tension between the desires of both groups. Although Achebe does not foster hatred toward the missionaries, he does show the catastrophe in Umuofia that results in part from colonialism.

By the end of the book, Okonkwo has spent his life aggressively pursuing status and molding himself to a hyper-masculine version of the ideals of his society, but when his village is changed unrecognizably by colonialism, he is unable to survive. “Okonkwo is paying the penalty for his treatment of women, that all his problems, all the things he did wrong can be seen as offenses against the feminine,” said Achebe. His anger leads him to fight even when it is unwise and ultimately this anger turns inward on himself causing his own destruction and the destruction of everything he worked for.

It would be easy to say Things Fall Apart is about how missionaries caused the collapse of a village’s culture, or about issues of masculinity, but really it is an intimate study of the worldview of two main characters: Okonkwo and his village, Umuofia. Both are flawed, but both are beautiful in their own way. This book is one that continues to unfold with more and more meaning as I continue to think about it, even well after I have finished reading – a trait that is common to all my favorite novels.  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys thought-provoking and character driven works.

Book Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and There There

At any given point in time, I am simultaneously reading a fiction book, a non-fiction book, a graphic novel, and (occasionally) a book of essays as a bedtime read. Non-fiction still takes me a long time to read. I can never shake the feeling that I have to remember everything – as though I have a test to pass afterwards – and sometimes it is difficult for me to really get into non-fiction. It actually took me several *years* to finish reading A People’s History of the United States, and a full 6 months to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It doesn’t always happen that the fiction I am reading pairs with the non-fiction, but I happened to read the novel There There at the same time that I was reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Bury My Heart is subtitled “An Indian History of the American West” and is one of the most well-known histories of Native Americans. There There is the Pulitzer-nominated novel following a large cast of Native American characters in Oakland. It was interesting for me to get both the factual presentation of the Indian History of the American West, and an emotional portrait of the Indian present in the United States at the same time.

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The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie

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The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie made a lot of waves when the books were first released. Ancillary Justice was the first book to win all three of the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clark Awards (along with numerous other awards), and every book in the trilogy won a Locus award along with piles of nominations. They are well deserved for the writing which uses the unique point of view of a thousand-plus year old AI looking for revenge, and for the story which follows the complex political maneuverings throughout a massive space Empire ruled by the many clones of a single leader. At the outset, Ancillary Justice in particular received attention for the way it handled artificial consciousness and gender awareness.

I first read Ancillary Justice about 6 years ago and initially found it challenging. At the time, I was out of practice of reading science fiction, so being plunged into a world with new rules (and no hand-holding from the author*) was confusing. However, after the first 3 chapters or so I was hooked and by the end I was completely blown away. I was very eager to read the next book, but unfortunately it took me until now to do so. While being quarantined at home waiting for the results of a COVID test, I had the pleasure of re-reading the first book and then reading the next two back to back.

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Award-Winning Fantasy: Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip

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Patricia McKillip is an author I’ve been interested in checking out for a long time. She has won the World Fantasy Award for best novel twice, and was also given the Award for Life Achievement in 2008, in addition to multiple Mythopoeic Awards, and the Locus Award. I was very eager to read Ombria in Shadow and after finishing it, I am glad I did not let this one pass me by! Ombria pulled me into its dream-world almost immediately. I was fascinated by its doorways and reflections and fell completely in love with its characters. The strange metamagical twist ending gave me the same head-turning “what just happened?” feeling that I got when reading Fire and Hemlock in middle school. I was so absorbed in Ombria that I read it in a matter of about 4 days – but it wasn’t until later that I realized that the city of Ombria is really the main character, although we can only see its nature through its image in others.

Ombria in Shadow follows the death of the king of Ombria and the political and magical intrigue that result. Lydea, the king’s mistress wants to protect his heir, the young Prince Kyel, from his domineering great aunt. Along the way, her path crosses with those of Mag – a child made from wax by a sorceress who lives beneath the city, and Ducon – the bastard nephew of the dead king. It wasn’t long before I felt great affection for the characters. Lydea, Mag, and Ducon are unlike many fantasy protagonists – they are often unsure of themselves and they don’t always act wisely, but they are fascinating and – above all – endearing.

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