Jordan: Comments on the 2022 Best Novel Hugo Finalists: Part 1

[Introduction: In Part 1 of her overview, Michaele Jordan reviews half of the Best Novel Hugo finalists: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers, Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki, and A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark.]

By Michaele Jordan: Like many of you, I’ve been immersed in my Hugo reading. (I don’t always manage to get to Worldcon – I am hugely excited about being able to vote!) Last week I was discussing my readings with a friend and they suggested I share my views here. They said, “You’ve been thinking so hard about the books you read. You really should write it all down, and post it!” And they’re right – do think hard about what I read. Why else would I read it?

You may be wondering why I am working so hard to justify writing a post about the Hugo nominees. Truth to tell, I’m a little afraid of how you’ll all take it.  

When I was a kid, everybody in my family was an addicted reader. And since we all lived together, we couldn’t afford to get angry whenever we didn’t agree on a book, i.e., all the time. Instead we debated – explaining our views, dissecting the points of opposition, and searching for common ground got to be more entertaining than TV (except on Twilight Zone or Star Trek nights).

But fandom isn’t like that. It shocked me to my soul the first time I said at a con that I didn’t care for a book and a supposedly fellow fan snarled, “Well, that’s just stupid,” and stalked off. Sometimes flame wars even erupt just because two fans disagree, not on a book, but on their favorite character in the book.

So I hereby state, firmly and unequivocally, that I know I am just one fan, that I have no authority to tell others what to read or think, and that I am merely expressing my personal opinions. I bear no ill will to, and pass no judgement on, those who disagree with me.

That said, I’ll start with The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager / Hodder & Stoughton) because that’s the first one I read.

I found this to be a high-end mid-grade novel. I admit I tend to expect award nominees to be better than mid-grade, even high-end mid-grade. But I am not saying that this was a bad book, just more formulaic than I care for.

We’ve all seen the formula many times. A group of travelers collects at some common point – a bus stop, a hotel lobby or a police station, – where for some reason they are temporarily detained. Each detainee has their own story, which includes a personal issue in need of a resolution. In the privacy of their mutual anonymity, they reveal their secrets and face—or conclusively decline to face – their demons, and they make decisions. Then they are released to go their separate ways, with most of them changed, for better or for worse.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within does not deviate from this outline by a hair. Three space travelling aliens are gathered at stopover facility between wormholes, which is owned and operated by a fourth alien. They become temporarily trapped by a technical difficulty in the transport system. They are all in a hurry (except the host, who has a terminally cute youngling) with plans that cannot withstand extended delay, not to mention uncomfortable political divisions.

One alien has a frail companion waiting for them on their ship, another is racing to a forbidden lover, and a third is in hiding from dangerous enemies. The host frets that they cannot make everybody happy, and the youngling is terribly injured in a foolish mishap resulting from misguided curiosity. But not to worry – it all comes right in the end.

The book’s greatest strength is its detailed visual depiction of its aliens, who may have perfectly comprehensible human-like emotions but are extremely peculiar to look at. The description of the youngling lumbering across a room with a tray is laugh-out-loud funny, and the giant caterpillar was so convincing it set off my insect phobia. The complete absence of humans (barring one off-stage) was a nice touch.

From there, I moved on to read Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki (Tor / St Martin’s Press). This book was more intriguing. Things happened that I had not seen coming. (Some people always want to know what’s going to happen next, may even want it so much that they’ll skip ahead and read the last chapter first. I’m not one of them.)

For starters, Light From Uncommon Stars offers an interesting blend of science fiction and fantasy. (The only time I have ever seen these two so inextricably intertwined was in Charley Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky.)There are aliens from another galaxy, and there are demons negotiating for human souls. And it all circulates around a Southern California donut shop with a giant donut mounted on the roof.

On the one hand, we have Shuzuki Satomi, a brilliant and beautiful violinist who has not performed in many years. Instead she teaches. Her last six students have gone on to the highest pinnacles of international acclaim. And unhappy ends. Very unhappy ends. Hellish, in fact. Now she is searching for a seventh student. But she is hard to please, and has turned down numerous ambitious and gifted young musicians. Instead she inexplicably takes in Katrina, a troubled transgender teen with no formal training, on the run from an abusive father.

On the other hand, we have Lan Tran and her family of refugees, who run the above-mentioned donut shop. It used to be very popular, but since Lan Tran acquired it, its customers are drifting away. It’s not that the donuts aren’t good. Just the opposite, they are just as good as they used to be. Just exactly as good. Down to the last molecule. Because she copies it, molecule by molecule in her replicator.  So it lacks that tiny sparkle of home-made originality.

The hand shake between these two scenes occurs by accident. Lan Tran’s family is secretly building a space portal inside the giant donut – but not so they can return home. Just the opposite. It’s so they can persuade the forces of the empire to stay away. And when the engines are being tested, they make beautiful music, which Shuzuki happens to overhear. Beautiful music is the only thing that really matters to Shuzuki. It is her only refuge from the demon she made a deal with, and from the memories of the six students she fed to that demon to keep it away.

Katrina does not need galactic empires or hungry demons to require a refuge from pain. Her ordinary human life has given her all the punishment this world has to offer. She pours her misery into her clunky old pawn-shop violin, playing tunes from video games, and finds more strength than she ever dreamed of possessing.

Light From Uncommon Stars is not a flawless book. There are a few little problems: Katrina’s gender issues are so overwhelming they tend to belittle the pain of a drunken, abusive father; her ability to master Bartok without any classical training, or even familiarity, whatsoever, is a bit too much of a stretch. But those are nits. It is a fine book. It shows us that, superhero fiction to the contrary, the victory of the human spirit is neither easy nor cheap, and certainly not inevitable. But it is possible. The weight of the world is overwhelming, but it can be endured – and that, in itself – is a great victory.

And then I turned to A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tordotcom / Orbit UK). Heavy sigh. This is the book that made me worry if I dared be honest with you. For me it was a DNF. I tried. Really, I did. After all, it was a Hugo nominee. Maybe I didn’t have to love it, but I certainly had to give it serious consideration. I don’t usually give a book more than thirty pages to capture my interest. I may even toss it down the basement steps after ten pages if the opening is stupid enough. But for the sake of my responsibility to the Hugos, I gave A Master of Djinn a hundred pages, before I gave up.

I can almost hear you protesting, “But it won the Nebula.” I know. It won the Nebula. And while I am trying desperately to remember that everybody is entitled to their opinion, I still can’t help but feel that’s a gross miscarriage of justice.

So what was so wrong with it? I promise to keep this civil. To give P. Djèlí Clark full credit where it’s due, the setting – modern Cairo in an alternate history world – is excellent. His choice of the turning point in the alternate history, and its consequences were intriguing. He describes a colorful combination of historic streets and architecture (which, I presume, is reasonably accurate since he went to so much trouble with it), and a modern (sometimes bizarrely so) infra-structure.

I am also confident that his presentation of the hierarchy of magical beings and the Egyptian pantheon is accurate; certainly he knows more of them than I, after only a little dabbling, do. I understand he has written a number of short stories set in this world, and he knows it well.

The story is a magical mystery which, I regret to say, I found pedestrian. In the opening scene, the original murder was impressive and mysterious, but he revealed the magical methodology – by far the most interesting element of the crime – very early on, leaving the reader to slog through all the usual whodunit clues. But this, in and of itself, would not have caused me to give up on the book. After all, there might be a last-minute clever twist.

An author friend of mine once told me, “If you just give one character a limp, another character an accent, and make the third use a lot of big words, everybody will say you’re a genius at characterization.” That appears to be Mr. Clark’s approach. Characters are portrayed primarily by the outfits they wear. One woman is strident and mannishly but stylishly dressed. Another is very feminine, and gushes and blushes. I cared nothing for either of them. But this did not cause me to give up either. Perhaps they would develop later.

In the end, it was Mr. Clark’s inadequate English skills that did me in. There were awkward phrasings on every page. Actual grammatical errors were almost as frequent. He mixed up ‘who’ and ‘which’. Occasionally his syntax and vocabulary were so tortured that I simply could not figure out what he meant. His attempt to describe a hexagon, without calling it a hexagon, was mind boggling. (At least I think he meant a hexagon.)

But in the end, that didn’t matter. Reading is (or should be) a pleasure, a matter of surrendering to the rhythm of the words. But if you have to stop every couple of paragraphs to reconstruct incomprehensible phraseology, reading becomes a chore, even a burden. So I gave up. My apologies if you loved it.

This post has gone on longer than I expected, so I’ll draw to a close. I’ll be back soon, if you’ll have me, with my thoughts on the rest of the nominees for Best Novel. So please keep an eye out for Part 2!