Welcome to another Review Amnesty. This time with some of the novella nominees for this year’s Hugo’s. I’ve already reviewed Daniel Polansky’s The Builders and the winner Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, but here are the remaining three. I’ve developed a fondness for the novella format, because I’ve found it is a great way to get acquainted with an author’s writing without feeling as if you’re committing yourself to a huge time investment. Especially if you’re dealing with a very established author such as Lois McMaster Bujold, who have written a gazillion books and it is hard to know where to start. Conversely, it’ll leave you wanting to read even more books if you like an author. *looks mournfully at to-be-read shelves* All of these novellas were part of the Hugo Voter Packet 2016.
Lois McMaster Bujold – Penric’s Demon
On his way to his betrothal, young Lord Penric comes upon a riding accident with an elderly lady on the ground, her maidservant and guardsmen distraught. As he approaches to help, he discovers that the lady is a Temple divine, servant to the five gods of this world. Her avowed god is The Bastard, “master of all disasters out of season”, and with her dying breath she bequeaths her mysterious powers to Penric. From that moment on, Penric’s life is irreversibly changed, and his life is in danger from those who envy or fear him.
Set in the world of her Chalion novels, of which I’ve only read Chalion’s Curse years ago, Penric’s Demon was a charming tale that has reminded me that I need to read more Bujold. I really enjoyed the interaction between Pen and his demon. They bicker and spark of each other, but they build a real attachment and the climax of the story was fantastic and heart-touching. Pen comes into his own and with his demon is given the gift of a life greater than he had imagined for himself.
As I said, I’ve only read one book set in this universe and that years ago, so my memories of it are vague to non-existent, but that didn’t impact my enjoyment or understanding of the novella at all. In fact, I’ve seen this story touted as a great starting point into this world. It’s certainly whet my appetite for more.
Brandon Sanderson – Perfect State
God-Emperor Kairominas is lord of all he surveys. He has defeated all foes, has united the entire world beneath his rule, and has mastered the arcane arts. He spends his time sparring with his nemesis, who keeps trying to invade Kai’s world.
Except for today. Today, Kai has to go on a date.
Forces have conspired to require him to meet with his equal—a woman from another world who has achieved just as much as he has. What happens when the most important man in the world is forced to have dinner with the most important woman in the world?
Perfect State was an entertaining read, but one that in the end didn’t quite convince me. As per usual, Sanderson’s world-building is excellent with an intriguing premise and interesting problems for the main character to solve. Even if, once I start thinking to hard about the actual mechanics of the world, I’m left with some pretty basic questions. Such as, how do Liveborn procreate, given their situation and who are the Wode? But those questions only came after having finished the story, they didn’t impact my enjoyment of the world while reading.
However, I had a hard time connecting with the protagonist of the story, Kai. While his story arc does make him more palatable towards the end, I found him more annoying than sympathetic. I did very much like his steward Beske who reminded me a bit of Iron Man’s Jarvis, who I love. I also enjoyed Sophie, even if she is more a plot device than a character with agency.
Overall, while I enjoyed Perfect State while reading it, the story didn’t convince me and left me feeling rather ‘Meh’ about it once I started thinking about it.
Alastair Reynolds – Slow Bullets
A vast conflict, one that has encompassed hundreds of worlds and solar systems, appears to be finally at an end. A conscripted soldier is beginning to consider her life after the war and the family she has left behind. But for Scur—and for humanity—peace is not to be.
On the brink of the ceasefire, Scur is captured by a renegade war criminal, and left for dead in the ruins of a bunker. She revives aboard a prisoner transport vessel. Something has gone terribly wrong with the ship.
Passengers—combatants from both sides of the war—are waking up from hibernation far too soon. Their memories, embedded in bullets, are the only links to a world which is no longer recognisable. And Scur will be reacquainted with her old enemy, but with much higher stakes than just her own life.
Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets was a fascinating novella and while not the first of the author’s fiction I’ve read, it certainly has been the longest piece. The premise of a prison ship turned repository for the remembrance of mankind was brilliant and Reynolds’ world-building was great. But was really stood out to me was the voice of the story’s narrator and protagonist, Scur. Scur is an incredibly layered and complex character and even in the limited scope of a novella she was fully developed and she shone.
Sometimes you read a novella and you just wish that it could have been a novel or that it will be succeeded by a novel. Sometimes a novella can feel like a bloated short story. Slow Bullets is a perfectly contained novella, it tells a full story without padding and while there are some questions left at the end, I wasn’t left wishing that it had been a novel. I did leave me feeling as if I should reread it a couple of times so I could get all of the nuances and details from it, that I probably missed in my first reading.
Slow Bullets has made me want to explore more of Reynolds’ writing, because Scur’s story has definitely whetted my appetite for more.