Two days remain until this year’s Nebula Awards Banquet, and it’s time for the final installment of the Informed Voter Project covering the finalists in the novel category. I had read four of the six books before I decided to start this project; in fact, my enthusiasm for them is what made me decide this would be a fun series of posts to write, and the ones I hadn’t read yet turned out to be just as much fun as the ones I had. But I might be biased; places invariably turn out to be my favorite characters, and while I suppose you can’t write fantasy or science fiction without doing some worldbuilding, not all fantasy or sci-fi is rooted in place the way these books are. It makes for my favorite kind of reading.
Here we go.
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, Sep09)
Sometime in a not-too-distant future of bio-engineering and bio-terrorism, Thailand is one of the last outposts of the world not entirely controlled by calorie companies. The calorie companies’ agents are there, though: men like Anderson Lake who pose as less-threatening things like factory owners while they look for ways to exploit the relative bounty still to be found in Thailand. There are also a few “New People” like Emiko, a creche-grown woman abandoned in Thailand by her Japanese owner and now employed as a sex worker. Like the gene-hacked cats known as Cheshires, New People are just another example of the rampant bio-engineering that also causes the constant blights that threaten the world’s food supply, and as such, they are reviled in Thailand. But Bacigalupi’s Thailand is on the cusp of change, like it or not. The premises that form the foundation of this novel–the calorie monopolies and their machinations, and the results of so much bio-engineering, both for basic foodstuff and for humanity, are absolutely terrifying. The uncertainty of Emiko, who knows she was created but cannot bring herself to accept what she was created for, cannot stop hoping that she will find a way to function as a real person, is both frustrating and heartbreaking. The way that this world warps honor and dignity are both sad and horrifying. And yet, there is hope, and maybe even rescue, in the strangest of places.
The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)
Set in present-day Japan and peopled with locals and expatriates, citydwellers and country folk, Barzak’s novel is structured like a collection of vignettes on the subject of love and unexpected connections. Each is told from the perspective of a different character or group of characters, but each is linked to the rest as, for instance, a briefly-mentioned character from one story becomes the narrator of the next, or the girl wearing the fox costume on the subway in one vignette turns out to be the childhood friend whose memory has never stopped haunting character we follow through another tale. A subtle magic realism infuses this imagining of Japan, folklore and myth blending with modern elements like love hotels, suicide clubs, and karaoke. It’s a difficult book to summarize without resorting to a list of critical scenes–the final moments of a suicide club, for instance; or last the desperate act of a girl who believes she is trapped in the shape of a human–but it tells a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of the selfishness, sacrifice, loneliness and strange moments of connection that make up what we think of as love.
Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)
The magic of this world is inspired by vinification, the making of wine. In the mythology of the Lands Vin, in times gone by the power to craft spellwines belonged to the prince-mages until the rampant abuses of power caused the man known as the Sin-Washer to break the vine from which spellwines were crafted, resulting in different vines and different grapes that, centuries later, can only be crafted into wines of power by Vinearts (who are forbidden to hold positions of power themselves). For long years the balance of power between the Vinearts and the princes has held, but now things are changing–just in time for the apprentice Vineart Jerzy to find himself an unwitting part of intrigues he barely understands. It’s a tremendously well-drawn world, and the idea of magic being crafted this way just works on so many levels–and I think that would be true even if I didn’t really love reading about wine. Jerzy is a strange and fascinating protagonist whose true character is still developing and (not to belabor the metaphor) but gaining complexity even at the end of the book, much like the conspiracies being set into motion in the world around him. The second installment of the series, Weight of Stone, comes out in October.
The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May09)
Two very different cities occupy the same space somewhere at the edge of Europe: Ul Qoma, shining and modern; and Beszel, dark and decaying. The story opens on a seemingly-routine murder case being investigated by detective Tyador Borlu that quickly turns out not to be routine at all. Revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, unificationists, and scholars piecing together evidence of a vast conspiracy complicate the matter at every turn, to say nothing of the fact that it’s no simple matter to cross from one city to the other when it starts to look like the evidence points from Beszel, where the murder appears to have taken place, to Ul Qoma. The mystery of the murder is interesting, but it’s the fractured city that’s the whole point of this book, and the most fascinating thing about it: Beszel, Ul Qoma, and what’s known to exist between them–and maybe something else that’s existed there, too, more or less unknown and unremarked, all along.
Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)
Seattle, 1879. The Civil War is stretching on, and most of the city has been enclosed in a wall to hold in the disastrous effects of a blight gas loosed by the Boneshaker of the title. (Sixteen years ago, Leviticus Blue built and tested the Boneshaker, which was intended to expedite mining in the Klondike. Instead, it tore through the underpinnings of the city, releasing the Blight, which turns those who breathe it into flesh-eating undead “rotters.”) Ezekiel Wilkes, son of Leviticus Blue, is desperate to redeem the memory of his father, and finds a way into the enclosed city to search for something to prove Levi wasn’t the monster history has made of him. His mother, Briar, goes in after him when she discovers him missing. What follows are spectacular and deadly hijinks in a nightmarish landscape peopled not only with zombies but those who have, for one reason or another, chosen to make the deadly heart of Seattle their home. It’s a tremendous adventure, and although both Briar and Ezekiel are wonderful, it’s the scrappy survivor that is blighted Seattle that the author brings most vividly to life: a place that is at once hellish and awesome.
Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)
The third installment of VanderMeer’s chronicles of the city of Ambergris (following City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek) opens on a city ravaged by war. The creatures known as gray caps control Ambergris now, with the questionable assistance of “partials,” former humans who have chosen an existence midway between man and fungus. Detective John Finch is a human and former revolutionary keeping his past carefully hidden. When he’s called upon by his gray cap boss to investigate a double murder, Finch finds himself at the center of the city’s final descent into anarchy. It’s noir, horror, and spy thriller all wrapped up into one–and, while the book can be read and enjoyed on its own (according to my husband, who wasn’t particularly into the first two Ambergris books), speaking as someone who was into those first two, I think Finch makes a terribly satisfying third chapter–although also a terribly sad one, if you happen to be a fan of the city you will watch being brought to its knees.
I feel like I should write some kind of serious wrap-up here, but it’s after 2 a.m. and I gotta go to work in the morning, so without further ceremony, I declare the Informed Voter Project complete! This Saturday, 5/15, the winners will be announced beginning at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, and this year the awards ceremony will be streamed live (you can watch it here). Thanks for reading, and massive amounts of congratulations to all the finalists. Good luck! I’ll be rooting for you.