Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: "The Litigation Master and the Monkey King"

"The Litigation Master and the Monkey King"
Ken Liu
Lightspeed: August
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novelette

Tian closed his eyes and thought about Yangzhou, with its teahouses full of indolent scholars arguing with singing girls about rhyme schemes, with its palatial mansions full of richly-robed merchants celebrating another good trading season, with its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants happily praying for the Manchu Emperor’s health. Did they know that each day, as they went to the markets and laughed and sang and praised this golden age they lived in, they were treading on the bones of the dead, they were mocking the dying cries of the departed, they were denying the memories of ghosts? He himself had not even believed the stories whispered in his childhood about Yangzhou’s past, and he was quite sure that most young men in Yangzhou now have never even heard of them.

Now that he knew the truth, could he allow the ghosts to continue to be silenced? 

What is heroism?

There is a conversation midway through the story between the titular characters about heroes from the past, how people are never just one thing, and, though it is left directly unaddressed, how much strength is required for an "ordinary" person to push down all of his fear just far enough so that he can stand up and act.  It is only a small section, and it likely plays out in any number of stories written as long as stories have been told, but it is absolutely vital and Ken Liu plays that scene perfectly.

I don't know if this is the central point that Liu is making with "The Litigation Master and the Monkey King", or it has to do more with facing history with honesty, or if it is something else entirely, but this is what I have latched on to.  No matter what else this is a story about, this is a story about heroism and doing something that is right, to hell with the personal consequences.

It hurts.

It makes you question.

It makes you question, not just history, but also the present.

I was curious, having read this story, how much of the historical events referenced had actually happened. They had. Perhaps not the exact story of Tian Haoli, but the massacre happened. The document referenced is real. These are details that reader knowledgeable of Chinese history would not have to question, they would understand the references.  Western readers without that background can be stunned by those referenced events, but there is actual history referenced here. 

This is a difficult story to read, and the closer to the end, the more emotionally wrenching the act of reading becomes.

Tian sat down and closed his eyes. “I’m just an old and frightened man, Monkey. I don’t know what to do.”

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

New Octavia Butler stories!

Via, two newly discovered stories from Octavia Butler will be published in June. They will be released in an ebook titled Unexpected Stories, which is an apt title. Octavia Butler is one of my favorite authors, and I am absolutely thrilled that there are two more of her stories coming to light. She passed away too soon at the age of 58.  The two stories, "A Necessary Being" and "Childfinder", were written in the early 1970's. 

The End of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the Beginning of the EU

Some interesting news came out on Friday, and for those who are and were fans of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, though it was not unexpected, it was also not entirely welcome. 

While not perfect, and occasionally stretching the notion of having everything actually tie together, the various writers and editors working in the Star Wars Expanded Universe has done a very good job in having all of the fiction fit within the framework of the movies and build together to tell ongoing stories where events in a novel by one author would play off of those in a novel or comic written by a different author years prior.

With George Lucas having no stated intention to make additional Star Wars movies set after Return of the Jedi, the authors have been able to play and build and flesh out the the universe over decades, with the children of Han and Leia take major roles, having Luke marry and produce a son, with the death of a major character, and seeing the heroes of the original trilogy age and grow and (mostly) develop.  Readers had the chance to see what happened after the Emperor was defeated, and how a group of rebels could begin to build a Republic.  Truly beginning with Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, the Expanded  Universe has grown to over one hundred novels and numerous comics and it has, as best as the authors and editors could do, been a reasonably coherent whole.

Until Friday.

Lucasfilm has announced how, in the light of the new series of movies being filmed, the Expanded Universe would work.  Given that  Episode VII is set after Return of the Jedi, one of two things would have to happen.  One, JJ Abrams and his writers would have to find a way to fit the movie into the existing framework of the Expanded Universe, of which there are so many stories.  Two, the Expanded Universe would have to be pushed aside and, whatever the new movie turns out to be, it would would contradict much of the existing work.  That was always the risk.

As the press release mentions,
While Lucasfilm always strived to keep the stories created for the EU consistent with our film and television content as well as internally consistent, Lucas always made it clear that he was not beholden to the EU. He set the films he created as the canon. This includes the six Star Wars episodes, and the many hours of content he developed and produced in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. These stories are the immovable objects of Star Wars history, the characters and events to which all other tales must align.

This could be seen with the Prequel trilogy.  Writers had been instructed to stay away from the time of the Clone Wars because there was still the potential for Lucas to make those movies, and he did.  Where the books contradicted the films, the movies won and those books had to be ret-conned to explain the differences. 

The press release continues,
In order to give maximum creative freedom to the filmmakers and also preserve an element of surprise and discovery for the audience, Star Wars Episodes VII-IX will not tell the same story told in the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe. While the universe that readers knew is changing, it is not being discarded. Creators of new Star Wars entertainment have full access to the rich content of the Expanded Universe. For example, elements of the EU are included in Star Wars Rebels. The Inquisitor, the Imperial Security Bureau, and Sienar Fleet Systems are story elements in the new animated series, and all these ideas find their origins in roleplaying game material published in the 1980s.

Up until Friday, all of those books set after Return of the Jedi were part of the official canon of Star Wars.  They happened, and they counted.  They were considered a B-Level canon, in that Lucas could (and would) change anything that happened in those books in the movies.  The movies were always the official A-Level canon of Star Wars, and later the Clone Wars Animated Series.

Given how popular the Star Wars Expanded Universe is, the books will still exist and will continue to be published.  They will just be published with a "Legends" banner, denoting that they are not the "real" Star Wars.

What this means for the novels and comics that were set before Return of the Jedi is unknown, except that since Star Wars Rebels will air in the coming years as a follow up animated series to the Clone Wars cartoons, Rebels may also push other, pre-ROTJ under the Legends banner.  My guess is that any and all Star Wars content created before Friday will be Legends.

Future novels, beginning with  John Jackson Miller's A New Dawn, will be part of the official Star Wars canon and Official Star Wars Expanded Universe. 

The real question that I have is whether there will be new books published under the Legends banner, continuing the ongoing stories and the EU that readers have been enjoying for more than two decades. It would now be as an Alternate Universe, sort of like the occasional Infinities told one-off alternate universe stories that didn't actually count.  While it makes sense for Lucasfilm and Del Rey to focus on the new EU, there are a lot of readers out there who would very much like to continue with the particular storylines they have grown up with.

Time will tell. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler
Marian Wood: 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novel

In her review of the novel in the New York Times, Barbara Kingsolver wrote, "To experience this novel exactly as the author intended, a reader should avoid the flap copy and everything else written about it. Including this review." It is fair warning, though, because the narrator of the story, Rosemary Cooke, is intentionally holding back a significant piece of information until midway through the novel in order to build up the reader's expectations and image of what is going on before gently subverting it. That reveal is important, and as Rosemary suggests, understanding that what the reader knows will shape how certain facts are viewed, the reader would not accept certain truths the way that she sees them if they were presented in a straightforward manner.

If all of that sounds intentionally vague, it is.  The difficulty in talking about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves lies in the nature of that very secret. If, like most other reviews written about the book in newspapers, the reviewer chooses to reveal that secret, writing about the book becomes easier but the reader loses the ability to discover that secret and, as Kingsolver wrote in her review before doing exactly that, "to experience the novel exactly as the author intended."  However, this is not a "spoiler" that is revealed in the first two chapters of the book, which I believe are fair game, because those early events are things on which entire novels are predicated.  This novel has something which the narrator (and the author) has chosen to hide, in order to alter the reading experience.

This is a lot of time spent talking around something that I have no plans to reveal within the bounds of this review.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is Rosemary Cooke's story, and narrating from the present day, she jumps back and forth in time to tell it, alternating between her childhood, school years, and college years.  The childhood and college years are the most important here and, as such, get the most time.  In her freshman year of college, Rosemary realizes that she has had the weirdest family, but unlike those potential new friends, she is reluctant to talk about it so she can escape so much of the stigma she dealt with growing up.

Her family: scientist parents, a brother who ran away and is wanted by the FBI, and a sister who disappeared. And Rosemary herself.

How Karen Joy Fowler tells this story through the eyes of Rosemary is nothing short of masterful.  The reveals change how we read the novel and the construction of how Fowler builds the story is wonderful.  Rosemary is a narrator with a specific point of view, and as we get closer to the end, we see that she also has an agenda and it is tied into the larger central secret of the novel. Of course, everything is. It permeates the novel.

This is a novel about memory and family, and yes about the secrets that people keep, even from themselves.  It is quietly beautiful and sad.  Fowler challenges the expectations of readers, both in what they think about the novel but also what they think about in general.  It is quite a challenge.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

On Merit, Awards, and What We Read

Since the Hugo Award nominees were announced on Saturday, I have read whatever I came across that talked about the nominees. I love the conversation and getting the pulse of what people are thinking and saying about the awards. This isn't specific to the Hugo Awards, I do it for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, I pay attention to other non-genre awards, and I plan to get more involved in reading about one or two other annual awards.  This is what I'm interested in.

When I wrote about my Preliminary Thoughts on the Hugo Awards, I did mean what the title implied: those were my preliminary thoughts. Not quite a snap decision, but without yet having read deeply into the short list of nominees.  I mentioned at the time that I wished to follow what John Scalzi had said about judging the individual works on their own merits. It made sense to me and still does. Regardless of how a particular story is viewed to have on the ballot, and regardless of one's personal views of any author who has a story on the ballot, the story is on the ballot. If we are to do honest justice to the process, to respect the award, we should fairly evaluate the story and the story alone and then compare that to the other stories nominated in a particular category. That makes sense to me.

Since then, however, I have read more and more commentaries on the nominees and the more I have read, the more I have had to think about - to the point that I am writing this in an effort to work out my own thoughts.

There are a couple of controversies which have come out of this year's Hugo short list.  The first seems to me to be the lesser controversy. For the past several years, Larry Correia has been running a small campaign to get himself and others of his esteem nominated for a Hugo Award. This year it began with a comic he drew, it continued with several update posts, and ended with the slate of who he was nominating with his membership. Not a huge deal, ultimately, though it has been construed that Correia has been exhorting his readers to purchase memberships and follow his lead in nominating that particular lineup.  One author, Vox Day, likewise endorsed what Correia was doing, and then added his own recommendations.

While I feel there is a subtle difference between this and authors simply listing what works they have that are eligible, where the difference is in the tone and the explicit goal of Correia, I concede that the difference may not be much more than semantics. While it may be considered unseemly to talk about how much one wants an award or to campaign for such, because the cost of a supporting membership to Worldcon is relatively low and so few people actually nominate, it doesn't take all that many nominating votes to make the final ballot. All it takes if 5% of the vote, and to be in the top five (except for ties) of those receiving nominations. In the of the Novelette category, there were 728 ballot submitted, so a minimum of 36 or 37 nominations is all that is required (depending on rounding).  A motivated group of fans could (and did) easily secure enough nominations to place their choices on the ballot. Hopefully, that motivated group is also acting with integrity and selecting only those they felt were truly the best. But, that is almost besides the point. In the corner of the internet which I sit, that is coming across poorly, but I see it as less of an issue because this was also a possibility based on how the rules are set up.

The real issue and controversy at hand is that of Vox Day and his nomination. This is less so because of the relative quality of the story, and much more so about the quality of the man.  Vox Day is the pseudonym for Theodore Beale. I missed this when it went down in mid 2013 when I was much less plugged in to what was going on inside this genre that I love, but the abbreviated version is that N.K. Jemisin was Guest of Honor at Continuum in Australia and she gave a powerful speech dealing with racism and in which she also called out, not by name, Theodore Beale for being "a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole." Amal El-Mohtar details the response Beale, writing as Vox Day, had for Jemisin.  It was disgusting and it was racist. El-Mohtar called for the expulsion of Beale from the SFWA, something which eventually occurred. Foz Meadows had an angry, but well reasoned (in my opinion) response to Vox Day.

There were numerous other responses to this, as there tends to be, but to a large point, the story would have ended there except that in part due to the mobilization of the fans of Larry Correia and Vox Day, a story by Vox Day is on this year's Hugo ballot. 

This is where the conversation changes.  This is where I have run into a number of essays which have led to my confronting my opinions on evaluating based on merit.  Rachel Acks writes "There is a point at which I can no longer separate the art from the living artist. I cannot escape the fact that my support of their art, however miniscule in relative scale it may be, implicates me in what they then use their platform to do and say. It makes me complicit, if only peripherally, in the harm they choose to do." Rose Lemberg, however, takes a different perspective than Acks, though both end up in the same place,

It is my opinion that such conciliatory voices from prominent personae who are 1) power brokers in our communities and 2) considerably less marginalized than the diverse fans and authors they are championing – are not helping the cause of marginalized and othered Diversity Age authors and fans. In these statements there is often an embedded tone argument, an entreaty to Diversity Age fans to play nice with people who explicitly or implicitly dehumanize and more yet, threaten violence against them. Such conciliatory language from power brokers suggests story lines for the whole community to align with – storylines whose buzzwords are “reason,” “respectability,” and “merit.”
Natalie Luhrs, who after expressing her opinion that Correia and Day gamed the spirit of the awards with how they ended up on the ballot was attacked in the comments of her blog, had this to say in a follow up post:

After that, there was an insistence from both the trolls and other parties that I should judge the nominated works on their merits alone. These works do not exist in a vacuum and the context in which they are produced is, for me, relevant. The personal is political. I am not going to waste my time reading books written by people who hold me, my friends, and my family in contempt–and Larry Correia and Vox Day do. They have made this abundantly clear through their own discourse as well as through the discourse they allow and encourage to flourish in their comments.
All of this is reasonable. All of this makes sense. It is also a personal decision because I want to extend this a little bit beyond Vox Day and into a more general thought.  Also, I believe where a line is drawn will depend both on the reader as well as on who the writer is and how the two intersect.  How much does who the artist is matter in our enjoyment or appreciation of the art?  How much should it matter?  Does time and distance matter? 

Can we watch a Woody Allen movie knowing the credible accusations of molestation against him?  Do we view Annie Hall or Manhattan differently, or do they remain major works of art?  Does it change how view his new work?  Is Ender's Game a lesser work because Orson Scott Card is openly homophobic?  Rachel Acks can no longer read Card's work, despite having admired it deeply before she learned of his homophobia.  Does reading a particular work suggest support for the personal views of the artist even if those views are not evident in the work itself?  Does it matter if the artist is still living?

I don't have a good answer to those questions.  I can still read and recommend Ender's Game even though I abhor Card's stance on homosexuality.  I often do not think about Card the man when I read his book, I just enjoy the book. But then, am I expressing tacit support for Card the man when I support Ender's Game? 

Vox Day is only the latest in this conversation, the latest bigot to make the rounds into my small corner of the world and show a contemptible side of humanity.  I understand what Acks and Lemberg and Luhrs and so many others are saying about taking ownership of what we want the Hugos to be about, and that regardless of the relative merits of his story, if we are able to separate our personal thoughts of the author from the story and find the story to be of sufficiently high quality to move to the top our ballots, what, if anything, does it say about the Hugo Awards and this small part of science fiction and fantasy fandom that would recognize that author who was removed from the SFWA because of the combination of the ugly things he said and the way he used SFWA social media to broadcast those words.  Can we, in considering the winners, separate that a worthy story may have won from the fact that an unworthy person won?

Does it matter who creates the art?

Am I writing from a place of privilege when I ask that question?  I am a heterosexual cisgendered white male.  I am not a writer, and I don't have a professional stake in this.  I feel that I am a member of one small part of a larger community, and I want to think through this, but my perspective will always be shaped by who I am and where I sit, and that perspective can be significantly and substantially different because there are all sorts of things that I just don't have to deal with in my life.  My privilege. 

The only possible answer that I have, which is not much an answer at all, is that the individual must decide what is acceptable and if they are able to separate art from the artist and in what circumstances they are able to do so.  It is a completely valid position to take that, in the case of Vox Day, the hate is too virulent and it cannot be tolerated and that any art is irrevocably lessened by the who the artist is.  Or, in the case of Woody Allen, Orson Scott Card, or anyone else. 

Examining art is ultimately a personal act and if it has long been my opinion that half of reading and interpreting a story is in what the reader brings to the table, then part of what the reader brings to the table is how they view the artist and in many cases, it cannot be separated.  Nor should it be. 

I do still plan to analyze each story and novel as they are presented (as much as what I do could be construed as analyzing), but I fully accept and understand that others are not able to nor find it desirable to consider the art without also considering the artist.  What I don't know is if, in this case, I will be able to do so myself. 

It is possible that I will read the nominated story from Vox Day and find that it is so good that I would need to find a new way to talk about it, to figure out how to get across that the story is utterly brilliant that I expect it will still be read in fifty years and will be included in anthologies covering the best science fiction stories ever written.  It's possible, but right now I am stuck in the position that no matter how I may feel about the story in the future, what I know about how the man conducts himself online and, as such, in public, is sodisgusting, offputting, and worthy of censure that I am finding it difficult to reconcile the idea of merit as fully independent from the artist. On the other hand, perhaps it won't matter in the end.  The only way to find out is to try.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters"

"Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters"
Henry Lien
Asimov's: December 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novelette

I am called familial name Jiang, personal name Suki, although I prefer to be referred to as Her Grace, Radiant Goddess Princess Suki, and I think this is the stupidest essay ever assigned and I think that Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters is the stupidest place under Heaven.

You wish us to to write this essay about what we have done and learned during our sentence here at Pearl Colony. You have "Wicked Girls Return as Good" carved over the entrance gate. You think that girls can be humiliated into excellence. You think that we can be shamed into preparing for the examination for the Pearl Opera Academy next year by making us say that we are lazy and ungrateful. Think whatever you want.

That's the opening to Henry Lien's Nebula nominated story, and it is definitely a statement opening that causes the reader to pay attention.  Is this story about to be the full essay of an entitled young woman ranting her way through what she has learned during her forced time at the Pearl Colony?  It is difficult to tell, because shortly after that first passage, the tone shifts from the forceful first person perspective of the essay into a more standard first person perspective of "just" a story.  Which begs the question, is the meat of the story part of the essay Suki has written or is the story telling of Suki's time self narrated but more of an interlude?

I'm not quite sure how much it matters, either to me or at all.  The way I choose to read the main narrative is that it is part of Suki's essay and that at the very end, when the tone shifts back to what we see in those first paragraphs and Suki reveals what she has learned, it is coming out of her revealing what her perspective on her experience at Pearl Colony was.  The only trouble with this reading is that there is a significant tonal shift.  While the entire story is full of Suki's personality ("Normally, girls get kicked out for smoking sinkweed or violating curfew or getting caught with boys in their rooms, but this one is so uptight she probably wipes her ass with lace scarves") and her exclamations ("Piss me off to death"), I was surprised when the story moved into a more traditional storytelling style and away from the informal essay style of the opening paragraphs. 

That shift likely allows "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters" to be a much more successful story than it would have been if it had retained the informal essay format of those first paragraphs. Suki details, from her perspective, the horrible treatment all of the ungrateful daughters have received, beginning with the first day where the students start with three hours of a toe kicking drill without bathroom breaks, followed by six hours of jumping drills.  The question here, of course, is whether Suki can be considered a reliable narrator.  If this is her essay, is she exaggerating her experiences? Does her obvious anger at having to go to this "school" influence how we read the character and her relative honesty in telling her story?

The final thing I want to mention is that in this story, there is something called Wu-Liu.  Wu-Liu is this odd melding of ice skating (except that the skating is a surface made of pearl) and kung-fu.  It is baffling and completely awesome. Even more awesome, Henry Lien has a forthcoming novel (The Taming of the Pearl) which is a sequel to this story.  I can't wait to see more from Lien.  This was a fantastic story and one of my favorites, so far, of my Nebula reading.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Steerswoman, by Rosemary Kirstein

The Steerswoman
Rosemary Kirstein
Del Rey: 1989

What, exactly, is a steerswoman anyway?  It's an odd title, not so much for the book as it is for the character of Rowan.  From what I can gather, a steerswoman is an itinerant scholar, one who has a true vocation for traveling the land, asking questions, and trying to gather (and share) as much knowledge as possible.  A tradition for the steerswomen is that anyone can ask them a question, and they must answer the question honestly.  In return, if a steerswoman asks a question, that question must be honestly answered, otherwise that person will be blacklisted by the entire order and no steerswoman will ever answer questions from that person again.

The concept makes sense, mostly, but that is as far as it goes.  We know what a steerswoman does, and why (mostly), but as Ian Sales mentions in his review from several years ago, they are not fully explained.  On the other hand, perhaps it is as simple as if someone had no concept of teachers and tried to understand parts of our society.  "So, there's this organization of people who are paid by one group to impart knowledge to another group who doesn't pay them?"  Of course, how do steerswoman make money?  Maybe they hire themselves out when they aren't collecting knowledge.

Regardless, Rowan is a steerswoman trying to learn what she can about a blue gem she found. It seems to have no use, no more than any other gem, but it is the starting point for the novel and is what appears to have the minions of a wizard intent on killing her.  Wizards and steerswomen don't get along much because wizards are protective of their knowledge and their magic and tend to refuse to answer the questions of steerswomen. 

What's so damned cool about this book is that it is set up as a fantasy novel, but the deeper Kirstein takes us, the more we start to suspect that this might actually be a science fiction book.  The initial assumptions that we make may not be at all correct.  There are wizards and magic and it is clearly a low tech world, but didn't that wizard very early in the book just install streetlamps that don't require fire?  And, are those really magical charms like the character thinks they are, or is it something so much simpler that the reader would understand but the characters do not?

Rowan is seeking knowledge, and while she has an understanding of how her world works, she seeks to enlarge that understanding and that is the journey the reader is taken on.  It is fraught with danger to Rowan's life, as well as to the lives of Bel and Will, the two traveling with her.  There is action, a whole lot of exploration, but also some discovery and the use of basic scientific principles of understanding.  There will be some stuff that Rowan learns that she is only beginning to grapple with the implications of which will cause the reader to stop and think, "oh, well, if that's true..." and follow that thought to the logical end.

Which simply means that I must read The Outskirter's Secret and I'm going to have to keep reading after that.  I had fun reading this book, waiting for Rowan to catch up with what I was figuring out and waiting for Kirstein to reveal a bit more.  There are four books published in this sequence with three more planned.  But, unfortunately, writing is not Kirstein's day job and these books apparently didn't sell quite enough to get Kirstein to write them faster. Despite that, I highly recommend The Steerswoman, which can also be found in the omnibus edition The Steerswoman's Road. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Preliminary Thoughts on the Hugo Award Nominees

So, the nominees for the 2014 Hugo Award were announced this weekend.  You can find a list of the nominees right here, with links to as many of the nominated works as I can find. That list will be updated as more works are published online. Winners will be announced on August 17, 2014.

As with any year, there are controversies and excitement and disappointment and disgust and pretty much any other emotion that comes with stuff that people care about.  Everyone has particular perspectives they bring, works they value higher than others.  But, due to the nominations being announced during Easter weekend and the various family events and obligations I have had, I have not been in a position to actively engage in the first rounds of conversation on the nominees.  Sarah at Bookworm Blues is intentionally stepping back from the conversation so she can focus on the works and not the arguments.  There are arguments.

This is a long preamble to the fact that I am rather pleased, for once, that I had unplugged from genre conversation for a couple of years prior to rengaging this year.  I understand and have vague understanding that there have been various issues with Larry Correia and Vox Day, and that there are specifically some very strong opinions on Vox Day.  

But, all of that doesn't matter so much to me at this moment.  However any of the works made it on the ballot, they are on the ballot.  I wish to follow the thoughts of John Scalzi and take the works for what they are and consider them as such.  My goal in the coming months is to discover, understand, and discuss the relative merits of the actual works nominated. That's it. Now that this is the ballot, let's talk about the ballot itself.

Because of my reading for the Nebula Awards shortlist, I have read a number of the nominated works, so I am excited see the nominations for Rachel Swirsky, Sofia Samatar, and Aliette de Bodard in the fiction categories and I am even more excited to see how the nominations for Fan Writer and Fanzine have shifted. I have been arguing for years that the modern fanzine is the blog and the various fan writing that occurs in the online communities we see today, and that the more traditional 'zine format, while not dead by any means, does not necessarily reflect what is going on in genre today. Seeing today that most of the nominations for Fanzine and Fan Writer are for blogs and writers who are best known for the writing they have done online is remarkable and a relief.  At least in this part of the ballot, there has been a major shift in who fandom is recognizing.

This may be a good time to point out an obvious truth. Each award, whether it is the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, or the Pulitzer, is reflective of who it is that nominated and votes on the awards. The World Fantasy Awards are a juried award, the Nebulas are voted on by members of the SFWA, and the Hugos are nominated and voted on by those who have either purchased a membership to attend Worldcon or have purchased a supporting membership which provides nominating and voting rights. So, despite being the most visible of all genre awards, the Hugo Awards are reflective of the opinions of those who have memberships to Worldcon.

The other point to make is that if you look at previous years, it takes a relative few number of nominations to actually make the final ballot and the margin between making the ballot and not making the ballot can be extremely tight.  

One of the more interesting nominations on the ballot is that of The Wheel of Time as a single work, rather than the final volume A Memory of Light.  I remember reading commentaries earlier this year talking about how, because no previous volume had been nominated, the series as a whole was also eligible to be nominated and, obviously, sufficient people did, in fact, nominate it.  I'm not sure how I feel about that.  It works from the perspective of enough fans wanted to honor Robert Jordan for a series that they passionately love, but on the other hand, there are fourteen volumes in the main series, plus a prequel.  I'm not sure one can truly compare fifteen books to Ancillary Justice, but that is now what we are asked to do.  Or, other people are being asked to do this because I do not have a supporting membership this year (I expect to have one next year).

As a whole, I am interested to take the measure of this lineup of nominees.  I love awards season. Let's consider Sofia Samatar and not be bothered by shenanigans and just be in the zone with our books.  It's a good thought.  I like it. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

2014 Hugo Award Nominees

(Via SF Signal and the rest of the internet)

Below are the nominees for the 2014 Hugo Awards.  Congratulations to all the nominees.

Best Novel (1595 ballots)
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (Ace / Orbit UK)
Parasite by Mira Grant (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia (Baen Books)
The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books)

Best Novella (847 ballots)
The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells (Privateer Press)
“The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
Equoid” by Charles Stross (, 09-2013)
Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press)
Wakulla Springs” by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (, 10-2013)

Best Novelette (728 ballots)
“The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013) (audio)
The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal (, 09-2013)
Opera Vita Aeterna” by Vox Day (The Last Witchking, Marcher Lord Hinterlands)
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013)
The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky, Candlemark & Gleam)

Best Short Story (865 ballots)
If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine, Mar-2013)
The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (, 04-2013)
Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, Jan-2013)
The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu (, 02-2013)

Best Related Work (752 ballots)
Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It Edited by Sigrid Ellis & Michael Damian Thomas (Mad Norwegian Press)
Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary by Justin Landon & Jared Shurin (Jurassic London)
We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative” by Kameron Hurley (A Dribble of Ink)
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer, with Jeremy Zerfoss (Abrams Image)
Writing Excuses: Season 8 by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Jordan Sanderson

Best Graphic Story (552 ballots)
Girl Genius, Volume 13: Agatha Heterodyne & The Sleeping City written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colours by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
“The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who” written by Paul Cornell, illustrated by Jimmy Broxton (Doctor Who Special 2013, IDW)
The Meathouse Man adapted from the story by George R.R. Martin and illustrated by Raya Golden (Jet City Comics)
Saga, Volume 2 written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples (Image Comics)
Time” by Randall Munroe (XKCD)

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) (995 ballots)
Frozen screenplay by Jennifer Lee, directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee (Walt Disney Studios)
Gravity written by Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón, directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Esperanto Filmoj; Heyday Films; Warner Bros.)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire screenplay by Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt, directed by Francis Lawrence (Color Force; Lionsgate)
Iron Man 3 screenplay by Drew Pearce & Shane Black, directed by Shane Black (Marvel Studios; DMG Entertainment; Paramount Pictures)
Pacific Rim screenplay by Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro, directed by Guillermo del Toro (Legendary Pictures, Warner Bros., Disney Double Dare You)

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) (760 ballots)
An Adventure in Space and Time written by Mark Gatiss, directed by Terry McDonough (BBC Television)
Doctor Who: “The Day of the Doctor” written by Steven Moffat, directed by Nick Hurran (BBC Television)
Doctor Who: “The Name of the Doctor” written by Steven Moffat, directed by Saul Metzstein (BBC Television)
The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot written and directed by Peter Davison (BBC Television)
Game of Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere” written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by David Nutter (HBO Entertainment in association with Bighead, Littlehead; Television 360; Startling Television and Generator Productions)
Orphan Black: “Variations under Domestication” written by Will Pascoe, directed by John Fawcett (Temple Street Productions; Space/BBC America)

Best Editor: Short Form (656 ballots)
John Joseph Adams
Neil Clarke
Ellen Datlow 
Jonathan Strahan 
Sheila Williams (Asimov's)

Best Editor: Long Form (632 ballots)
Ginjer Buchanan (Ace Books)
Sheila Gilbert (DAW)
Liz Gorinsky
Lee Harris 
Toni Weisskopf (Baen)

Best Professional Artist (624 ballots)
Galen Dara 
Julie Dillon 
Daniel Dos Santos 
John Harris 
John Picacio
Fiona Staples

Best Semiprozine (411 ballots)
Apex Magazine edited by Lynne M. Thomas, Jason Sizemore, and Michael Damian Thomas
Beneath Ceaseless Skies edited by Scott H. Andrews
Interzone edited by Andy Cox
Lightspeed Magazine edited by John Joseph Adams, Rich Horton, and Stefan Rudnicki
Strange Horizons edited by Niall Harrison, Brit Mandelo, An Owomoyela, Julia Rios, Sonya Taaffe, Abigail Nussbaum, Rebecca Cross, Anaea Lay, and Shane Gavin

Best Fanzine (478 ballots)
The Book Smugglers edited by Ana Grilo and Thea James
A Dribble of Ink edited by Aidan Moher
Elitist Book Reviews edited by Steven Diamond
Journey Planet edited by James Bacon, Christopher J Garcia, Lynda E. Rucker, Pete Young, Colin Harris, and Helen J. Montgomery
Pornokitsch edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin

Best Fancast (396 ballots)
The Coode Street Podcast – Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe
Galactic Suburbia Podcast – Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts (presenters) and Andrew Finch (producer)
SF Signal Podcast – Patrick Hester
The Skiffy and Fanty Show – Shaun Duke, Jen Zink, Julia Rios, Paul Weimer, David Annandale, Mike Underwood, and Stina Leicht
Tea and Jeopardy – Emma Newman
Verity! – Deborah Stanish, Erika Ensign, Katrina Griffiths, L.M. Myles, Lynne M. Thomas, and Tansy Rayner Roberts
The Writer and the Critic – Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond

Best Fan Writer (521 ballots)
Liz Bourke 
Kameron Hurley
Foz Meadows 
Abigail Nussbaum 
Mark Oshiro 

Best Fan Artist (316 ballots)
Brad W. Foster
Mandie Manzano 
Spring Schoenhuth 
Steve Stiles
Sarah Webb 

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (767 ballots)
Award for the best new professional science fiction or fantasy writer of 2012 or 2013, sponsored by Dell Magazines (not a Hugo Award).
Wesley Chu 
Max Gladstone*
Ramez Naam*
Sofia Samatar*
Benjanun Sriduangkaew

*Denotes finalists in their 2nd year of eligibility.

There is also something called the Retro Hugos, being given out for works published in 1938, but you can see the SF Signal link for those.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: "The Waiting Stars", by Aliette de Bodard

"The Waiting Stars"
Aliette de Bodard
The Other Half of the Sky
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novelette

Two stories. 

The first, that of Lan Nhen searching through what is an interstellar boneyard of derelict ships that have been attacked and abandoned.  She searches for her great-aunt's ship, a Mind Ship, which science fiction readers will recognize as being code for a sentient ship of some sort, whether it is a human mind controlling the ship or something similar one of Anne McCaffrey's brain ships that are alive in their own right.  Either way, a derelict Mind Ship is a horrible thing to contemplate, but Lan Nhen is hoping to restore and rescue the ship. 

The second is Catherine, a young woman who was rescued as a child "so that you wouldn't become brood mares for abominations."  She lives in the Institution, which seems to be a rehabilitative center to transition the children from the lives they once knew into citizens of the Galactics. That they were being made safe.  But, this also has the ring of American history and the treatment of Native American children being forced to give up their language and "savage" culture in the Americanizing schools in the late 1800's and early 1900's.  This isn't, by any means, a stretch of a comparison.  Given that Catherine and her fellow students / captives / dorm mates are described as being "smaller and darker skinned" and that "one only had to look at them, at their squatter, darker shapes, at the way their eyes crinkled when they laughed", the story of Lan Nhen suggests that these children were "rescued" from the more southwest Asian heritage of the Mind Ship families. Is there a similar history with the Vietnamese compared to the Native Americans?  Or, is the comparison too easy because of what I bring to the table as an American reader?  

While the two stories seemingly remain separate, it doesn't take long for the reader to see what de Bodard is doing here, how she is weaving the two together while letting the two stories run separately.  The two story strands make a much stronger whole than if either strand was the entire story.  

"The Waiting Stars" is a fantastic science fiction story, heart rending as the gradual reveal is given of what is going on with those children, now grown, are living with and dealing with. With what is left buried that is eating them from the inside out.  "The Waiting Stars" is good and it is smart. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Quoted: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, pg 13

"There was an odor in the air, a strong amalgamation of beer, cafeteria lasagna, bug spray, and piss." - Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, pg 13

I am only 50 some pages into this book and I want to quote something from nearly every other page.  This one, though, just sticks with me.  I can almost smell and choke on the odor. Such a perfect description.

Monday, April 14, 2014

2014 Pulitzer Prize Award for Fiction: The Goldfinch

The Pulitzer Prizes winners have been announced for 2014

The winner of the Pulitzer for Fiction is The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.  Other finalists for fiction are The Son, by Philipp Meyer and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis.

At this point, I have read 49 of the 87 Pulitzer Prize winners.  My quest goes ever on.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni
Helene Wecker
Harper Collins: 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novel

New York City, 1899. A golem arrives on a steamship and escapes to find her way, masterless, in the city.  A jinni, trapped in a copper flask for one thousand years, is released by a tinsmith. 

From the author's website:

Each unknown to the other, the Golem and the Jinni explore the strange and altogether human city. Chava, as a kind old rabbi names her, is beset by the desires and wishes of others, which she can feel tugging at her. Ahmad, christened by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, is aggravated by human dullness. Both must work to create places for themselves in this new world, and develop tentative relationships with the people who surround them.

Helene Wecker posits a world in which cultural mythology is real, where the Jewish mysticism and magic that allows someone to create a facsimile of life out of clay is possible, and where intelligent spirits of fire really do exist out in the deserts of the Middle East.  She has done so, and then she places these two creatures in the turn of the century New York City and surrounds them, initially, with caring individuals who welcome them into their lives.  This is important, because it provides the opportunity for the reader to become immersed in the various immigrant pockets of the city and into the lives of the Golem and the Jinni as they, respectively, figure out who they are and how to exist in this world so far from what they know. 

The conflict here, however, is much more than these two beings passing as human and the inherent struggle that presents when one is a creature of fire in a city surrounded by water and the other doesn't breathe, can hear thoughts and desires, and has only been alive for several months.  Though, that by itself is enough to tell a story.  It's just not all that Wecker is doing with this novel.  There is more, and it begins to set up fairly early in the novel, but saying more about how Wecker weaves all of this together is to lessen the impact. 

But, lessening the impact of seeing how everything fits together is also a minor concern because the true impact of The Golem and the Jinni is how beautifully written and constructed this novel is.  It is easy to get lost in this early New York City, and while we may believe that it is fraught with peril and dirt and grime of industry, it is also beautiful and haunting and full of the promise that is the new world and a second and third chance for the immigrants coming to find something new, different, or better.  That exists in The Golem and the Jinni and it comes across well. 

The Golem and the Jinni is surely one of the best novels published last year and the most remarkable thing about it is that this is the debut novel from Helene Wecker. It is a stunning work of fiction, beautiful and moving and all of the other superlatives I could come up with to pile on top. I say this in April, but this will be one of my favorite reads of the year. I have no doubt.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: "They Shall Salt the Earth With Seeds of Glass"

"They Shall Salt the Earth With Seeds of Glass"
Alaya Dawn Johnson
Asimov's: January 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novelette

I want a novel length version of this, or at least set in this world.  I want to know more, so much more.

No one knows what they really look like. They only interact with us through their remote-controlled robots. Maybe they’re made of glass themselves – they give us pregnancy kits, but won’t bother with burn dressings. Dad says the glassmen are alien scientists studying our behavior, like a human would smash an anthill to see how they scatter. Reverand Beale always points to the pipeline a hundred miles west of us. They’re just men stealing our resources, he says, like the white man stole the Africans’, though even he can’t say what those resources might be.

The title refers to bomb fragments the aliens, the glassmen, have dropped. The bombs look like little jewels waiting for a child to pick them up, except picking it up is death by explosion.  Are the bombs just bombs, like seeding a road with land mines?  Do they have another purpose?  Does it matter?  I don't know, but this setting of a ruined future is so perfectly created that I am left with the desire for more and more.

The story itself is of two sisters and the new challenge provided by the pregnancy of the younger woman.  Her desire for an abortion in a society where so many services have been destroyed by the glassmen is the driving force of the narrative, and it is a well told story that moves the sisters through this world and into parts of the land they had not been to.

The wonder here is in trying to piece together what happened to this America (and, presumably, the world at large), what the glassmen are and how they interact with humans.  Nothing is ever fully explained, but the reader comes away with a fairly solid idea of how this all pieces together.  It's fascinating and, beyond just the story that Johnson is telling, it leaves the reader wanting more.  Maybe more of these two sisters, maybe more of the "terrorists" the glassmen are concerned about, maybe just more of everything. 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

More Eternal Sky!

I'm not going to mess around here. The big news of the day is that as part of a Big Idea post over on Scalzi's Whatever, Elizabeth Bear announced that there will be at least three more Eternal Sky novels coming down the pipeline in the future. 

Today is release day for the third book in the Eternal Sky trilogy, The Steles of the Sky.  I am sad to report that I have, so far, only read the first book: Range of Ghosts (my review). Range of Ghosts, however, is stunningly good and I will be quickly moving onto to the following two volumes. 

Bear had this to say:

While Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky comprise a complete story arc in and of themselves, I can now reveal that Tor will be publishing at least three more books in this world. We came to an agreement late last month, and I can tell you this–here, exclusively:

This second trilogy, The Lotus Kingdoms, will follow the adventures of two mismatched mercenaries–a metal automaton and a masterless swordsman–who become embroiled in the deadly interkingdom and interfamilial politics in a sweltering tropical land.

Look for them starting in 2017.

You should read these books, and everything else that Bear has written (she's that friggin good).  We have a bit of a wait, given that we are three years out from the first Lotus Kingdom novel, but that's plenty of time to build up some solid anticipation.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Cover Art: The Steles of the Sky

Since tomorrow is Book Day for The Steles of the Sky, let's look at the gorgeous cover art from Donato Giancola. There is so much going on in the cover, look at the mountains in the background of the swirls. Look at the plains.  Look at everything. Stunning, and it gets better the deeper you look.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: "Paranormal Romance", by Christopher Barzak

"Paranormal Romance"
Christopher Barzak
Lightspeed Magazine: June 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novelette

Witchcraft, love potions, werewolves, and bad dates. At a quick glance, that's some of what "Paranormal Romance" contains, but that's a gross simplification and it's borderline inaccurate because it suggests something else, something lesser.  What we actually have here is the story of a woman who happens to be a witch and who creates temporary love spells for her clients and who has a mother who is concerned about her daughter's lack of a romantic life, even if the daughter is not.

That still makes the story sound trite.  It is not.

This desire for normality also explained why Sheila wanted to kill her mother after she opened the door that evening to find a man dressed in a black leather jacket, tight blue jeans, a black v-neck shirt, and work boots, sporting a scraggly goatee, whose first words were, “Wow, you don’t look like a witch. That’s interesting.”

“Probably the least interesting thing about me,” said Sheila. She tried to restrain herself, but couldn’t refrain from arching her eyebrows as a cat might raise its back. 

This is just the story of a woman. That's it.

While this is a pleasant and enjoyable story and one which I enjoyed reading, I'm not quite convinced this will be near the top of my Nebula list for the novelettes. With that said, I would happily read more stories Christopher Barzak happens to write about Sheila the witch. Or, more about Corinne.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Last King of Osten Ard

Via Bookworm Blues, Tad Williams is set to return to his world of Osten Ard and will write a sequel trilogy to Memory, Sorrow, Thorn set thirty years later.  The three volumes in the trilogy are titled The Witchwood Crown, Empire of Grass, and The Navigator's Children.

I needed several attempts to get into The Dragonbone Chair, but once I got into the meat of the novel I was impressed by the story Williams was telling.  It was traditional kitchen boy fantasy, but it was solid work and by the end of the trilogy, he was twisting the readers expectations in a way that I found satisfying and fresh (at the time, I last read this in 2006 and the last book was published in 1993). 

Except, then after the ending of To Green Angel Tower, there was a little bit of a coda or an epilogue that I felt betrayed absolutely everything that had just come before and pissed me off to no end.  I might still be pissed off, I'm not sure. 

So, I'm not certain exactly how I feel about this news.  I know plenty of fantasy fans with be thrilled by this (Aidan, for one).  But, man, that coda just obliterated so much of the good will Williams had gradually built up over that trilogy. I expect that I'll give it a shot anyway. 

For the curious, here are my reviews of the trilogy.
The Dragonbone Chair
Stone of Farewell
To Green Angel Tower

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Books Read: March 2014

Below is a listing of the books I read in the month of March.  All links go to my reviews.

1. Kill Shot, by Vince Flynn
2. Requiem, by Ken Scholes
3. Six-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M. Valente
4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
5. Before They Pass Away, by Jimmy Nelson
6. Lone Survivor, by Marcus Luttrell
7. Sheepfarmer's Daughter, by Elizabeth Moon
8. Sunrunner's Fire, by Melanie Rawn
9. The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (unfinished)
10. My Dog: The Paradox, by The Oatmeal
11. Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell
12. Zombie Baseball Beatdown, by Paolo Bacigalupi
13. A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar (unifinished)
14. Fool's Errand, by Robin Hobb

Best Book of the Month: Zombie Baseball Beatdown.  This was almost also the discovery of the month, and while there were a number of other excellent books I read this month, the book I keep coming back to as something that I want to recommend to people is Zombie Baseball Beatdown. I was delighted and I was charmed.

Disappointment of the Month: Requiem.  This really has to do with expectations. I was impressed with Lamentation and Canticle, but I struggled with Antiphon to the point that I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue with the series.  But even then, I had hopes that I would enjoy Requiem as I did the first two books and it would live up to the expectations I had for the series. Perhaps my expectations are misplaced, but I failed to care about or engage with nearly anything that occurred in this book.  I'll still read Hymn when it is published, but my expectation is going to be significantly lowered.

Discovery of the Month: Before They Pass Away. This is a ridiculously large photography book of various native tribes throughout the world.  The level of access and trust that Nelson acquired is stunning.  The beauty of the photography is amazing.

Worth Noting: Sheepfarmer's Daughter is a fantastic novel, but My Dog: The Paradox is heartfelt and touching and recommended for all dog owners and lovers. It was originally a comic on The Oatmeal, but my wife recently ordered the book to round out an Amazon order I was making. Wonderful choice.

Previous Months

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Fool's Errand, by Robin Hobb

Fool's Errand
Robin Hobb
Bantam Spectra: 2001

In the hands of a lesser writer, the opening to Fool's Errand would push away many potential new readers to the series away.  Hobb spends over one hundred pages reintroducing FitzChivalry to the world, letting readers gradually feel and understand the pain he has been in over the last fifteen years since the end of The Farseer Trilogy.  Fitz, a former royal assassin for the Farseer family and rulers of The Six Duchies, has been living isolated from all that he was and all that knew him.  He sacrificed much, not the least of which was his body, mind, and so much of what he loved.  Now, raising an orphan boy from the war, Fitz is otherwise alone and still struggling to find peace. 

Those first hundred pages are the gradual intrusion into that difficult and only occasional peace the man has been able to find.  A minstrel and occasional lover visits.  His former mentor, the man who trained him to be an assassin, seeks to have Fitz rejoin them back at Buck because his work is needed again.  A friend, known as the Fool, requires Fitz's help.  These are familiar characters from the first trilogy, but also aged and changed by time.  No more than Fitz, now going by the name of Tom Badgerlock. 

But time and distance and the beginning of a new trilogy will not let Tom Badgerlock stay hidden, because his mentor and the Fool and Queen Kettricken have need of his help and his loyalty to the Farseers will not let him turn away. 

What Robin Hobb does so expertly here is take such a slow opening and build it in such a way that returning readers are rewarded for knowing what it is that Fitz has been through and for picking out some details from the Liveship Traders series in Fitz's discussion of his journey before settling into his quiet life, but that new readers should not feel lost.  The slow build gives the new reader an opportunity to feel as if they have known Fitz for longer than the have, and that even not knowing what all came before, they know enough about what happened without the weight of backstory bringing the whole book to a crashing halt.  It is a delicate balance and Hobb accomplishes it well. 

This is a gradual book, otherwise known as a Robin Hobb book.  She seems to build atmosphere and tension through non-action and the reluctance to act.  Though there is plenty of action in the second half of the novel, Fool's Errand is as much an examination of growing up and the consequences of choice and service.  In many ways, Hobb does not paint a pretty picture and those with power and privilege seldom are given any more slack than the most humble of peasants.  Life is hard and it is difficult and the challenges faced are many. 

The writing is wonderful and immersive and this is Robin Hobb at the top of her craft.  While I would normally suggest that readers start with the earliest published book (Assassin's Apprentice, in this case), I say to forget that. If you're new to Robin Hobb, this is as good a place to start as any.  Top notch fantasy.