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Painted Space

2021 Hugo Reviews: Novels

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

Note: I'll try to avoid major spoilers here, and will talk generally about the stories nominated for the 2021 Hugos. You may intuit some plot points as I do so.


Current Novels List:

#1 - The Relentless Moon – Mary Robinette Kowal

#2 - The City We Became – N.K. Jemisin

#3 - Network Effect – Martha Wells

#4 - Black Sun – Rebecca Roanhorse

#5 - Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

#6 - Harrow the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir



Overall Thoughts

Another amazing entry in the Lady Astronaut universe! Following a different character in this story gives us some great new perspective on other characters, and develops some people who were secondary characters in the first books. It's also very interesting to have a different (older, female) protagonist with her own personal challenges to get over. I think Kowal is one of the only writers who can reliably get me to tear up at some point in every book she writes. I'm ready for more exciting Lady Astronaut adventures!


Setting

This book has the advantage of building on two other “Lady Astronaut” novels as well as a couple short stories. That said, Kowol weaves together and engaging alternate history of what might have happened if a catastrophic event pushed Earth to band together in a space race to save humankind. The alternate history is very well researched, and Kowol makes sure to go to real sources such as astronauts for space research and lots of history books for how the space race started. Kowol also tackles such weighty problems as racism, women’s rights, segregation, civil rights, and addiction and depression without the book becoming preachy or overburdened.


Character

Elma had been the main character in the previous two novels, but here the focus switches to another lady astronaut: Nicole Wargin. This again shows Kowol’s skill in writing many types of characters. Wargin is so unlike Elma I actually didn’t connect with her right at first, but by the end of the book, I was totally enthralled by her deep well of experience and trauma.


Plot

The other two Lady Astronaut stories so far were about the race to space and staying right at the top of technological progress to help mankind survive. This is not that sort of book. Yes, there are still space-related technical challenges, but this is a full-on thriller/mystery, on the moon. Just like the best mysteries, this one keeps the reader guessing until the end. Plus, there are cyphers to solve!

Rating: 1 of 6


Overall Thoughts

I see a lot of conflicting reviews on this book, simply because it is so weird! I'm going to fall on the "like" side. This is an amazing response and criticism of the Lovecraftian mythos, and especially to the racism and colonialism inherent in that whole genre. So yes, there is a fairly blatant message in several parts of this book, but that's also sort of the point.


Now, that doesn't even get into the great story and characters contained in this book. I really don't want to spoil a whole lot because once you get into it, there are some really big ideas included, as expected for otherworldly plots. I thoroughly enjoyed this and I'm really looking forward to another in this series.


Plot

Ok, now a slightly deeper dive, and there will be a few spoilers in here because it’s almost impossible to talk about the story without doing so. You have been warned!

The plot, as usual for Jemisin, is intricate and compelling. Five people representing the boroughs of New York are drawn together because of events far beyond their control. There are POVs from all those characters and more, layering on different views of what’s happening and how events are perceived in different way. It’s an awesome ride.


Character

Jemisin’s characters are all fighters, in different ways, and I love the amount of diversity on show. Many of the cast is POC, female, and queer. They’re all broken in different ways, but there is also someone nearby who is willing and able to help them heal. We get to see the Call to Adventure and the Refusal, and Acceptance played out in multiple ways, making the second half of the gripping as we see everyone come together.


Setting

This is the section where I’ll have to reveal some spoilers, just because Jemisin has invented an absolutely amazing universe, drawing from the Lovecraftian mythos (and even mentioning it by name) while subverting it and returning the concept to many of the people Lovecraft hated. The big thing here is the concept of cities as living beings, and not only that, but people acting as their avatars when they “awaken.” I can’t say too much more without getting into major spoilers, but Jemisin knots these concepts together seamlessly as New York itself awakens, leading to a climax that made me think about the universe in a different way.


Rating: 2 of 6


Overall Thoughts

A word of warning here. I have not read Network Effect, as I haven’t read the two books previous. I have read the first two novellas in the series, and based on how much I enjoyed them, this is the position I’m putting this book in. I will try to get the other two novellas and this book read before the Hugos, but no promises!


Rating: 3 of 6












Overall Thoughts

Roanhorse's worldbuilding is consistently great. I loved the Native American non-colonized civilization displayed here, as well as great LGBTQIA inclusion including several other genders. I also really wanted to like the story more than I did. As I said, the worldbuilding is fantastic, but I had trouble getting invested in the plot. This was similar to my reaction to Trail of Lightning. I just didn't have a great connection to the characters’ movement through the story. Especially with trading between several different characters in the first few chapters, I wanted a little more immediate punch to the story.

I am, however, very interested in how the story unfolds from here. I can't say much without spoiling, but the story is definitely not conventional!


Plot

This is the part I where have the biggest problem with Roanhorse’s works. I just wasn’t as engaged as I wanted to be. I can see characters moving from one place to another, and even though there was a ticking clock in this story in the form of days to an eclipse, I never felt an urgency to the plot. Several climactic events happened, but I felt like they had the same importance as all the other sections of the book. I’m not sure if this is a prose problem, or pacing, or editing, but it affecting my reading of the story.


Setting

On the other hand, I absolutely LOVED Roanhorse’s Native American-inspired world, bringing aspects of Quechan, Incan, Aztec, Mayan, and other Native American people’s cultures. There is a large focus on creation myths and animal gods, a city built into a massive cliff, where people are separated by a sort of caste based on height, and ritualized magic using tattoos and powders. I’m very much looking forward to a second book where some of these aspects might be expanded.


Character

The characters are so intriguing here I really wished the plot did them justice better. A lesbian/bi quasi-mermaid pirate ship captain. A voluntarily blind celibate martial priest who literally has a god bound inside him. A third gender assassin who is so skilled they can disappear from a council meeting with no one the wiser. A noble son who has a mental connection with a gigantic raven. There’s just so much cool stuff here, and the arcs for at least two of the characters are barreling toward an ending you hope won’t happen but know can’t be avoided.


Rating: 4 of 6


Overall Thoughts

I waffled whether to give this three or four stars, but finally settled on four just because the writing is very evocative. I think is one of those books that either makes a big impression on you or doesn't. For me, it didn't really. There's a mystery in this story, but because of how it's narrated, it's pretty easy for the reader to unravel and then they are forced to follow a protagonist who is unable to rationalize simple clues laid out before them. It's interesting to see the mind of the protagonist develop, but only for so long. In the end, I felt this book could have been about 25% shorter, and not covered some of the aimless wandering that happened between revelations. That said, the writing is well done and I know there are readers that enjoy this type of story, so YMMV.


Plot

The plot here is actually fairly simple, though it’s unclear where it’s headed right from the beginning. Because the main character is shortly revealed to have some sort of memory loss, there are only a few places the plot can go. Either he can find out more about his old self, or stay stagnant. I’ll let you guess which happens.


Setting

Clarke’s setting is one of the best parts of this book. Almost the entire story takes place inside what appears to be a giant house, filled with an infinite number of rooms, each holding countless statues in evocative or descriptive poses. There is weather, rain, and tides in the house, and there are birds that make nests and scavenge for food. We learn more about the house during the story, and eventually why it exists and what it is in general, but by that point it’s almost not important.


Character

This is my largest problem with the book. The main character, called Piranesi, has very definite memory loss, to the point where he imagines common words, places, and items from our world to be fantastical in nature. It’s both interesting to watch him piece little bits of information together in the right (and wrong) order, and at the same time incredibly frustrating. The reader can easily make the conclusions that Piranesi stumbles over, so much of the plot is spent urging him to just get on with it and figure it out. Once a few other characters, without memory loss, make an appearance, it’s fairly easy to deduce what’s happening from their words, and so in the end I wished this was a little shorter just so the reader doesn’t have to wade through the same confusion Piranesi does when we already know the answer.


Rating: 5 of 6


Overall Thoughts

Sooooo....this is a hard review to write, because this is an incredibly hard and frustrating book to read. I'd probably give it 3.5 stars, because it works REALLY hard in the last quarter of the book to redeem the first three-fourths. Does it do it? I'm still not sure. I'm still annoyed at it, so maybe not.


This would have been a really good first book, because it basically rewrites the entire first book in addition to ignoring the romance developed until way past when you've decided it's never going to be addressed. I almost would have preferred this be half again as long and taken the time to develop the emotions it did in the first book to shore up the story in this one.


Several friends of mine either DNFed it or were similarly annoyed, so I was at least warned that there might be things I wouldn't like, so if you want to read this, be warned that it takes an effort to get through the story. The ending is really good, but I'm not sure it's good enough to make up for the first half to two-thirds of the book.


Plot

If you’ve read the first book, you’re likely a fan of Harrow and Gideon trampling through the tests to become Lyctors. Well, much of this book is spent denying and rewriting that gleeful romp with, instead of the instantly likeable character of Gideon, the dour and fawning Ortus, from the first book. Yeah, remember him? Me either. This is continued as Harrow learns more of how to be a Lyctor, as well as sparring with the much older and variously corrupted previous Lyctors of the Emperor, as well as the Emperor himself. There are absolutely NO hints to the complete turnaround about three fourths of the way through the book and darn it, I really enjoyed the triumph. But if I was not as determined to finish books that I start, I would have given up long before that.


Setting

This is one of Muir’s strong points, with awesome gothic space architecture, dying planets, a ghostly plane of existence, necromantic legions, and even hints of what’s going on outside the reach of the Emperor. We get to see the full decaying might of this interplanetary organization, rather than just one house. The setting is one of the main reasons I would even attempt to read the next book in the series, because it’s so original.


Character

Again, Muir has fascinating, broken, healing characters. Harrow is as curmudgeonly as ever, but without the irreverent humor of Gideon, it often starts to spiral into nihilism. The other characters around her are all very very old, and their outlook is often just as gloomy as hers. Added to the confusion of the plot in the first half of the book, I really wanted to hear just from Gideon again and recapture the tone of the first book. But this one is very different, and while I did enjoy it in the end, I didn’t like it nearly as much as the first book.


Rating: 6 of 6

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