Nebula Reading, Part the First: One Plus Two Plus One Plus One

That post title is funny to me because I’m hungry and I’m having coffee instead of food. Whatever.

Today, with less than two weeks left of the Nebula nomination period, I am finally getting around to writing up some of the wonderful stuff I am hoping gets some Nebula love. Today I have for you ONE adult novel I pretty much totally adore PLUS TWO young adult delights (well, in at least one case “delight” is really not an appropriate choice of words, but it’s a truly wonderful book), PLUS ONE young adult novel that is officially next on my to-read, PLUS ONE thing I must do before the voting deadline (February 15th).

Thing the First: one adult novel I pretty much totally adore and am hoping I am not alone in my adoration of is Aurorarama, by Jean-Christophe Valtat.

Aurorarama takes place in the arctic metropolis of New Venice, one of the most wonderful city-characters I’ve ever had the joy of encountering. There is geekery aplenty here: scavengers who wear bird-beak masks, secret police called “The Gentlemen of the Night,” strange clubs where nefarious things happen, magicians (of the stage variety) who are not to be trusted, political intrigue, shamanism, anarchists, a black airship of unknown provenance and a rabble-rousing pamphlet whose author the Gentlemen of the Night are closing in on. This is, in short, my own personal favorite kind of fantasy: high-concept, literary speculative fiction in a bizarre city I’d give a pinky finger to be able to explore. There are steampunky details used the way I like them best, by an author intent on creating his own world rather than trying to make his world fit any particular style or genre. The whole thing is just strange and wonderful and addictive.

This is Valtat’s first novel in English. It’s the first of a series, although it reads like a stand-alone. It’s also way smarter than I am, by several degrees of magnitude, and I’ll almost certainly read it at least twice more: once more to make sure I really understand everything that’s going on and once after that just because I really, really loved this book. Reading it, I was constantly reminded of the things I love most about reading Thomas Pynchon, with none of the things that drive me crazy about reading him. And unlike when I finished Against the Day, I put Aurorarama down and immediately started pining for a follow-up. And that’s enough gushing from me.

Things the Second and Third: two young adult titles I would love to see as finalists for the Andre Norton Award are Leah Cypess’s Mistwood and Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men.

Oh, how do I love these books. Allow me to tell you about them.

Firstly, Mistwood. I’ve done about three events with Leah, and apart from being a supernaturally awesome human being, she is a hell of a writer. Mistwood is set in a castles-and-magicians fantasy world, and it’s the story of a young woman we’ll call Isabel–only she isn’t a woman and Isabel isn’t her name. She’s an ancient shape-shifter bound to serve and protect the royal family; she has been everything from and advisor to an assassin in the long years of her life. But when she is summoned from her home in the forest to serve the current prince, she is disoriented, almost amnesiac, and worst of all, she is, for reasons she cannot understand, unable to shift. She’s stuck in the shape of a human girl.

What follows is a tale of political intrigue, tested loyalties, and deep questions of identity, self, and obligation. When I talk about this book I always wind up comparing it to The Last Unicorn, if Amalthea was substantially more badass and the story generally was a bit more thrilling (and I say this having loved The Last Unicorn). Guys out there, don’t be intimidated by the lavender cover and the girl’s face. Buy it in hardcover and ditch the jacket. This is a book boys should love as well as girls. Really.

Monsters of Men is the third volume in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy. Now, I have no idea if Andre Norton voters care as much as, say, Newbery or Printz voters appear to care about whether a book can be read on its own. This one can’t. The series begins with The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer and concludes with this one, and that’s absolutely how you have to read them. And, if I may make a suggestion, it’s really best to buy all three at once. Each book wrings you out and leaves you hanging, desperate for the next part of the story.

My wish for Norton love for this book has actually less to do with Monsters of Men itself–although it is tremendous–and more to do with the series, which hopefully will get massive attention as readers of The Hunger Games start prowling the teen section in search of something else to systematically demolish and astound and emotionally beat them up. I have gotten into the habit of telling random people I see reading Hunger Games books on the subway about the Chaos Walking series. I sent the first two books to my little brother and then got chewed out via text because I hadn’t sent him the third (not my fault, Phil, I borrowed it from somoebody else). The series is that good. And, if you hadn’t already gathered as much, this is the one it probably isn’t okay to call a “delight.”

This is how the series starts: on a colony planet, the men of Prentisstown are the only survivors of a virus released by the indigenous and unfriendly Spackle. The virus, which killed the women, gave the men the ability to hear each others’ thoughts, which they refer to simply as noise. Todd Hewitt has grown up with the noise of Prentisstown, and it takes superhuman effort not to be driven mad by it. The thoughts of the survivors are angry, ugly, awful. Then, shortly before the birthday that makes him officially a man of Prentisstown, his guardians smuggle him abruptly out of the village. Suddenly on the run for reasons he doesn’t understand, Todd finds two things in the swamps outside of Prentisstown: evidence that there are still Spackle on the planet, and, even more shocking, a girl named Viola, herself the only survivor of a recent shuttle crash.

From there, everything Todd knows and believes about Prentisstown and the planet itself is systematically cast into doubt. It even turns out the men of Prentisstown aren’t the only humans who survived the virus and the warfare with the Spackle, and the rest of the survivors (which includes plenty of women whose noise the men cannot hear) regard Prentisstown and its men with something between distrust and hatred, and with good reason. The next wave of colonists, the fleet Viola’s ship belonged to, is on its way. Prentisstown, lead by its unutterably evil Mayor, is on the march after Todd and Viola, taking by force every little town they pass through, in an effort to take charge before the new colonists arrive. It’s a brutal trilogy that confronts issues of communication, fear, xenophobia, mob violence, sacrifice, and terrorism (and oh, boy, does Ness not pull any punches with that one). Monsters of Men doesn’t stand alone, but the series deserves some outrageous recognition. Read it, but again, don’t start it if you can’t sit and finish it, and definitely don’t finish one without the next ready to go.

Thing the Third: today I brought home Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens. Apart from sounding outrageously awesome, how do you say no to this cover?

Thing the Fourth: one thing I must, absolutely must do before the voting deadline is read some short fiction. Apart from novel and YA novel, there are three short-form categories and I have  been utterly negligent in my short-fiction reading this year. Like usual. Time to get cracking.

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