31 August 2018


Our son was due in mid-August, so for the last weekend of July (pushing it, I know), we'd planned a party to encompass our birthdays (both in late summer), our impending baby, and a belated housewarming. The day before we spent doing various things needed to get ready, cleaning and organizing our unclean and disorganized house. (Moving in takes a long time.) That evening, Hayley reported a fluid coming out of her... at first we weren't sure what it was, but it soon became obvious her water had broken, and she called the midwife.

We met her at the birthing center in about an hour. The issue is that she wasn't having contractions yet, and the longer you go with a ruptured membrane, the higher the risk of infection. So we had to see if we could help the body and the baby along. It was almost anticlimactic, I think, to realize that within a day, the baby would be there or at least coming. Like, that's it? It's happening? The midwife gave us some tasks to perform-- we needed to adjust the baby's position slightly if we could, and we needed a laxative-- and we had some tasks of our own to perform-- we had never finished putting together the "go bag" of materials to bring to the birthing center!

The natural way to induce a birth, it turns out, is laxatives. Your colon and your uterus are next to each other. Giving birth can cause you to poop, but pooping can also cause you to give birth. So we bought some castor oil and some ice cream, and I made what I assume was not a very good milkshake.

The awkward thing is that Hayley had tested as Group B strep positive, which meant she needed to take regular antibiotics once labor started. So every four hours we had to go back to the birthing center for an injection, and our first trip there had been around 6pm! Thank goodness we live only 10-15 minutes away; there was a couple in our birthing class who lived about an hour away. I was able to get some sleep a few hours at a time that night, but Hayley didn't sleep at all.

The castor oil did work. Overnight, while I mostly slept, contractions developed and intensified. Hayley was sort of on the cusp of active labor when we checked into the birthing center around 6am Saturday morning. I'm not sure if we technically qualified, but I think the midwife was starting to feel bad for us. The birthing center has a couple bedrooms where you can give birth, complete with shower, tub, and toilet. We spent a lot of time experimenting with various ways of helping labor intensify, including using a breast pump and walking around a lot.

My mother got there that day; I'd called her the previous night because my wife had asked her to be there for the birth if possible.* We also had a doula in training. Hayley had actually made arrangements with a different one who turned out to be out of town that weekend, and another one agreed to fill in for her. I spent a lot of time recording contractions on an app on my phone, but it soon apparent that the contractions were petering out, becoming less and less intense, and more and more infrequent.

So around 3pm, the decision was made to transfer Hayley to the midwife practice at Tampa General. One thing the birthing center required was that you bring a high-protein meal to eat after birth, so when we'd arrived at the birthing center, I'd thrown the ingredients for chicken and rice in a crockpot. We chowed down on this, and then headed out.

Things never move quickly in hospitals. They move agonizingly anti-quickly at times. We sat there for ages waiting to see the hospital midwife, but finally we were admitted, and Hayley was given pitocin to help induce labor at around 6pm. By 9pm she was experiencing mild contractions, and we were doing laps around the floor. By 11pm, they were getting regular.

Hayley and I were up all night, as was the doula; my mom was the one who actually got some sleep. I think I had ten cups of coffee across twenty-four hours. The contractions kept getting stronger and stronger, and Hayley rapidly began to feel like she couldn't go on. She was checked around 2am, and told she was only dilated to about 5 cm, and she was just in a complete state of despair. She'd been in labor for about twenty-four hours, and active labor about three, and she was barely halfway there!

The doula was awesome. I'm not a very encouraging person by nature (!), so she was really great for keeping Hayley going, often asking her to just do a few more contractions in a new position, giving Hayley a concrete, short-term goal when she felt like she couldn't go on. Most of the time, Hayley labored on her hands and knees in the hospital bed. I don't think it was comfortable, so much as the least uncomfortable position. Hayley told me later that if it wasn't for the doula, she probably would have given in and asked for an epidural, but she managed to hold off, and got through the entire process without one. Mostly I just timed the contractions and got her whatever she needed. (The nurse was impressed by our meticulous hours-long log of contractions.)

I actually found the whole Tampa General Labor and Delivery experience really great. We had easy access to food when either Hayley or the rest of us got hungry, including a coffee machine, and the night nurse was incredibly attentive and helpful, one of the best nurses I've ever encountered. Alas, it was her last day of work!

Things got tough, though, when around 5am Hayley started to feel like she wanted to push, but she was not yet dilated enough to allow it. The doula kept telling her to breathe through it, but this was clearly not easy, especially as the longer it went on, the more she wanted it to be over with.

It was around 7am when she was finally told she was allowed to start bearing down. I was surprised with how emotional I was at this moment. Hayley had been working so hard for so long, and she had done it. She was ready to have the baby. Relief washed over both of us. It had gone on forever, but it wasn't forever, and now the end was in sight. I was so proud of her. Birth is clearly hard work, the hardest she'd ever done, and she did it.

I was certain I did not want to catch the baby, but I did stay behind Hayley (still on her hands and knees) with the midwives as she delivered the baby. I wanted to get a peek of that head with its red hair coming out. The midwife kept using a flashlight on her phone to get a better look, and eventually asked me to hold it. Then her phone started acting up, so I substituted my own. That was my big contribution to the birthing process as our son was finally delivered at 8:18am Sunday morning, the culmination of thirty-one hours of labor.

* * *

A friend asked me what the biggest change being a father was. At this point, my son had only been alive less than a week. I know that my life will be reshaped in many concrete ways, large and small, but most of these haven't really set in yet. As I write this, I'm still between semesters, my wife is on parental leave, and we've had and continue to have a bevy of family here supporting us, which means that many of the practical considerations of child-rearing have not yet manifested. We'll see what I think when Hayley's mother is gone and we're both back to work!

So so far, in a sense, not much. But in another sense, it's been really jarring. I was once not a father and now I am a father, two totally different things. The only comparable experience I have is being in romantic relationships, but that's gradual. Like, it's weird being a husband, but you don't go from being single to being a husband. You're single, then you're a boyfriend, then you're a fiancé, and then finally you're a husband. So things scale up gradually. But with fatherhood, one minute you're not a father and the next minute you're a father. And you have a son! What's going on? How did this happen? Who am I? I don't know when I will finally process this; it's still ongoing. I'm a person now I wasn't last month.

* * *

Things moved very quickly once he was out, all blue-skinned and cone-headed. They immediately put him on Hayley's chest for skin-to-skin, but they were also reaching inside her trying to get the placenta out, which made Hayley incredibly uncomfortable. It wasn't clear to her or us why they were rushing this so much, and Hayley kept asking them to please explain what they were doing before they did something. It quickly became apparent that Hayley had torn, she had a fourth-degree laceration and needed to be sewn up and fast.

The baby was transferred to me so that I could do skin-to-skin. Thankfully one of the nurses saw how uncomfortable I looked (I had held precisely zero newborns in my time) and was able to talk me through a good way to hold him. He peed on me as I sat there while an army of medical professionals handled the surgery. There was a lot of blood on the floor of that hospital room by the time it was done, but everything happened so quickly I didn't have the wherewithal to be frightened.

The rest of the day was a little tricky. Hayley had lost a lot of blood, though they decided not so much that she needed a transfusion, and was high on adrenaline, and she shivered fiercely despite being covered in blankets and the heat being cranked up all the way. By about dinnertime, though, we were finally transferred out of labor and delivery, into the postpartum wing, and we were beginning to experience parenthood.

* * *

Like I said, I still don't quite know what to make of parenthood. I never know what to make of anything all at once, so I suspect it will take a lot of time and reflection for me to be able to say anything meaningful.

I do know, though, that birth seems to be an incredible process, unlike anything else. H. G. Wells (yes, I can always bring it back to H. G. Wells) believed that women ought to be compensated for being mothers by the state, because it was the one disparity between the sexes that could never be rectified. Watching Hayley go through all this, it was hard for me to disagree, but I'm in position to pay her with anything other than love and admiration, and by being the best husband and father I can.

* An early version of this post claimed it was my mother's idea to be there; she corrected me, "Actually, until it happened, I wasn't sure that I did want to be there."

30 August 2018

Review: Believing Is Seeing by Errol Morris

Trade paperback, 310 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2011)
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2018
Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography)
by Errol Morris

Morris's book is pretty easily explained by the title: we see things because we want to believe them. He explores this concept through a few different case studies: Roger Fenton's "Valley of the Shadow of Death" photographs from the Crimean War, Sabrina Harman's photographs of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, Dust Bowl photojournalism from the 1930s, combat zone photography from Palestine, and the case of Amos Humiston's Civil War photographs. The book is okay, but it is not 300-pages okay. Morris has some insights, but they are often buried in minutiae; his processes of uncovering the truth behind Fenton, for example, goes through more tedious detail than is needed to arrive at his point that every photograph is posed.

This is, of course, a point John Berger made on (I believe) the third page of Ways of Seeing back in the 1970s. Morris writes like someone who believes himself charting new territory, even though he must know better, as he cites people like Susan Sontag and talks to a lot of experts in photography. (It's these conversation that pad out the book.) The story of Fenton, an injustly-maligned man, is the book's best part, but it didn't need to be seventy pages to make its point. The chapter on Sabrina Harman, on the other hand, is pithy and focused and interesting. This book could have been a couple focused essays (and I think it was at some point? I believe these all started as New York Times columns), but instead they're stretched out in order to yield mostly banal insights. It feels mean to say it, but I suspect the book is best used as a source of anecdotes, rather than something you should actually read yourself. I'll happily tell you the Roger Fenton story in about five minutes myself.

29 August 2018

Hugos 2018: Summer in Orcus by Ursula Vernon

Trade paperback, 261 pages
Published 2017 (originally 2016)

Acquired May 2018
Read June 2018
Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

Summer in Orcus was technically a finalist for the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book, but I'm not sure it's YA per se, for two reasons. One, the protagonist Summer is 11, which skews a bit more middle-grade, and two, T. Kingfisher (a.k.a. Ursula Vernon) actually wrote the story for an adult audience, namely herself and her Patreon backers.

But anyway, it's the story of Summer, who's sent into a fantasy world called Orcus by Baba Yaga and ends up going on a quest, meeting a number of distinct and vivid characters on the way. I grew up reading portal-quest fantasy, and I love the stuff. This isn't quite my flavor: Orcus feels more like a mythology and less like a place, if that makes any sense. Like, I like those fantasy lands where one draws maps of kingdoms and continents, like Oz and Middle-earth, or at least could do so, like Narnia. Orcus is more a collection of mythologies, which I don't like quite as much.

Still, that's picking too much at something that's basically a whim of preference. I really enjoyed this. Summer is a good protagonist, the daughter of a single mother who sometimes feels oppressed by her mother who ends up travelling to another world and meeting a variety of travelling companions, including a werehouse (a wolf that transforms into a house) and, my favorite, Reginald, a bird who is a bit of a fop; if you imagine him being voiced by Hugh Laurie in his Wooster mode, it works perfectly.

The book is filled with a lot of charm, a lot of clever concepts, some metafiction, and a lot of jokes. I really liked how things resolved. Summer, like a lot of child portal-quest protagonists, succeeds through being nice and attentive (I'm thinking of Baum's characters here), and I enjoyed her attempts to decode what her role in events was, and respond to the needs of those around her without being duped. Like I said, I liked Reginald, and I also enjoyed the entire visit to his family's estate and the associated civilization. Kingfisher does some nice extrapolation: Baba Yaga's walking house becomes the basis for a land filled with walking houses, where houses you have to build yourself are inferior. The villains are well-drawn and interesting and have relatable motives. Summer herself has read Narnia, and those books are occasionally invoked as she tries to work out what's going on, and often the narrator will deliberately subvert your expectations of the genre. And as things like "werehouse" indicate, there's a good line in puns (one of the things the narrator makes fun of, actually), but there's also some gentle character humor in the way the members of Summer's weird little group interacts.

The end promises a sequel; I would definitely read it if it was written, and I think the deepening of the land by coming back years later would even rectify my primary objection.

28 August 2018

Review: Transformers: Salvation by John Barber and Livio Ramondelli

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2017
Acquired and read August 2018
Transformers: Salvation

Written by John Barber
Art by Livio Ramondelli
Letters by Tom B. Long

I have basically given up on John Barber's Transformers, but given I'd read the first two installments of the "Redemption of the Dinobots" trilogy, and given each is only forty pages long, it seemed worthwhile to finish it off.

This was a very predictable page-turn moment.

Well, maybe it was or maybe it wasn't. I like the idea of the Dinobots, bred for war, trying to find their place in a postwar universe, and I like the idea of them finding that in defending Cybertron's first field of new sparks. But the actually story here is disjointed and confusing, and like too many Transformers tales from the late IDW period, revolves around an ancient evil coming back to haunt the present. Like, the emotional meat of the story is not that! Give me the Dinobots! Instead, they feel lost on the edges of a story that's got too much going on for its page length.

Next Week: Meanwhile, also on Cybertron... Starscream finds himself swept up into an unexpected belief that he's waiting until Till All Are One!

27 August 2018

Review: Hawkworld by Timothy Truman and Enriqué Alcatena

The usual notice: my review of Bernice Summerfield: Venus Mantrap, where Benny's pants play a key role in an unfolding nuclear crisis, is up now at Unreality SF.

Comic trade paperback, n. pag.
Published 2004 (contents: 1989)

Acquired and read May 2018

Written and Pencilled by Timothy Truman
Inked by Enriqué Alcatena 
Colored by Sam Parsons
Lettered by Tim Harkins

Hawkworld is definitely of its time. Like Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters (1987), Black Orchid (1989), Adam Strange: The Man of Two Worlds (1990), Twilight (1990-91), and probably others I don't know about, Hawkworld was a miniseries of three double-length issues that dusted off a slightly moribund character (or characters) for a new era, by going darker and more intense. All of these series except Man of Two Worlds resulted in follow-ups, if not ongoings, so clearly something about this formula worked.

Hawkworld is a little different from the formula, though. Longbow Hunters, Black Orchid, and Man of Two Worlds all acknowledge the history of their characters, even as they tweak it-- they're more what we might call re-origin stories, crucibles that take pre-existing characters and give them a new set-up for ongoing adventures. Hawkworld, however, presents a new origin for Katar "Hawkman" Hol. In fact, strictly speaking, there's no superheroics in this book at all, as Hol adopts no secret identity; the book is entirely set on his homeworld of Thanagar.

Make Thanagar Great Again.
from Hawkworld vol. 1 #1

I don't know much about Hawkman, to be honest, but this is the most intrigued I've ever been by him, and I found the depiction of Thanagar much more interested than what was seen in some of the 2000s space comics I've read. Thanagar is the capital of an interstellar empire, but one where cultural rot has set in. It's a morally complex set-up: our protagonist is the one who's afraid of outside cultural influences! The Thanagarian elite no longer produce anything worthwhile themselves, but depend on other worlds for their food, music, and entertainment, especially mind-altering drugs. They also import slave labor, but when the laborers have served their purpose, they get dumped onto the surface, the "Downside" away from the towers where the elite fly. Katar is a Thanagarian police officer, the son of Thanagar's foremost scientist, who asks for a job patrolling the Downside even though he could have had a cushy desk position. Unlike others, Katar cares about the history of his people-- a consistent mark of the story are monuments to Thanagar's past that only Katar cares about.

Well at least someone is.
from Hawkworld vol. 1 #2

As you might imagine, Katar discovers more and more about the rot of his civilization, even as he rots himself, tempted into taking alien drugs by the attractive Shayera, the intriguing daughter of one of his father's friends. The story itself is pretty standard stuff, to be honest, but writer and penciller Timothy Truman elevates it by telling it well, with lots of details of writing and art alike. We actually don't know a whole lot about Thanagar beyond the broad strokes, but it feels like a fully lived in, real world. My only real objection is that Katar's principal opponent, Byth, seems a little conveniently too responsible for all the evils of an entire decadent civilization. Though one of the things I did like is the extent to which Katar himself is shown to be culpable, and how he spends a long time coming to terms with that culpability and making restitution for it. Until he's forced to fight again, Katar doesn't want to take down the government or anything; he wants to supply medicine and food to the inhabitants of the Downside.

I don't think she uses that nickname in the Hawkworld ongoing, but she sure comes up with her fair share of other ones.
from Hawkworld vol. 1 #3

The story ends with a set-up for new adventures; Katar and Shayera learn Byth has escaped to "some small green planet far beyond the borders of the empire." It also ends with Katar attempted to improve the plight of the Downside by working the society from the inside. All of this was followed up on in the Hawkworld ongoing; I've read the first issue thus far, and I look forward to seeing how the world introduced here is developed, though I'm disappointed that Katar heads off to Earth in issue #1, as I'd like to see more of this Thanagar. I know Hawkworld is notorious for its continuity issues, but as a story on its own merits, it's a solid re-imagining of a character I didn't care about, and I can see why a follow-up was commissioned.

24 August 2018

Review: Transformers: Lost Light: The Plotters' Club by James Roberts, Jack Lawrence, Priscilla Tramontano, et al.

Issues #8-12 of Transformers: Lost Light (which roughly correspond to volume 2 of the collected editions) contain two stories, both kind of side stories but clearly also contributing to the long game of this comic book: a two-parter without an overarching title and a three-parter with two different ones.

"An Axe to Break the Ice" and "Chasing the Infinite" is about Nautica and Velocity going to a market planet, ostensibly for information, but actually because Nautica wants to bring Skids back to life; they're accompanied by new characters Anode and Lug, who get into hijinks of their own, before it all comes together. I wanted to like this more than I did. The problem is that the Nautica/Skids friendship and/or romance was never really at the forefront of More than Meets the Eye, so the depth of Nautica's grief never quite comes off. What does work, though, is the Nautica/Velocity friendship, which has been a strongly consistent element of these characters since they were introduced back in Dark Cybertron. The bigger plot elements here a little confusing, but I assume they'll become clear in time and/or the Transformers wiki will explain them to me.

The Plotters' Club takes us back to the Lost Light for the first time since Getaway stole it from Rodimus at the beginning of volume 10 of More than Meets the Eye; First Aid and the "Protectobots," who left the ship during Combiner Wars, finally make it back, only to discover there's been a change in management since they left. At first, things seem pretty chill-- under Getaway's leadership, the Lost Light is actually making progress-- but the longer they stay on board, the more suspicious things turn out...

This is another strong installment of MtMtE/Lost Light, undermined only by the fact that it focuses on some of the lesser characters, and I still find it difficult to distinguish unfamiliar robots from each other even after three years of reading Transformers comics. Like, when Ambulon came back, I wouldn't have known who he was without the TFWiki. But this is one of those James Roberts stories that blends interesting concepts, crazy antics, and chilling darkness into a coherent whole. The descent of Getaway into madness is fascinating, and I like seeing First Aid-- a guy I'd never given much thought to-- start to stand up to him. There are a lot of callbacks to earlier issues (Froid and Star Saber both return), and by and large they tend to work. It's another dozen-or-so issues before this series comes to an end, but things are clearly accelerating into the endgame at this point.

Also there are some good Thunderclash jokes, which I always appreciate.

Next Tuesday: Meanwhile, on Cybertron... the Dinobots are once again searching, this time for Salvation!

"An Axe to Break the Ice" and "Chasing the Infinite" originally appeared in issues #8-9 of Transformers: Lost Light (July-Aug. 2017). The story was written by James Roberts, illustrated by Priscilla Tramontano, colored by Joana Lafuente, lettered by Tom B. Long, and edited by Carlos Guzman.

The Plotters' Club (also known as The Mutineers Trilogy) originally appeared in issues #10-12 of Transformers: Lost Light (Sept.-Nov. 2017). The story was written by James Roberts; illustrated by Jack Lawrence (#10-12), Alex Milne (#11), and Andrew Griffith (#12); colored by Joana Lafuente (#10-12), Priscilla Tramontano (#11-12), and John-Paul Bove (#12); lettered by Tom B. Long; and edited by Carlos Guzman.

23 August 2018

Review: St. Bernard's: The Romance of a Medical Student by Edward Berdoe

Kindle eBook, 286 pages
Published 2014 (originally 1887)
Read December 2017
St. Bernard's: The Romance of a Medical Student
by Æsculapius Scalpel
To analyse a rose is a poor way of learning the sweetness of its perfume; to master the language of a country is of the first necessity to knowing anything about its people. (176-77)
Published under the unlikely pseudonym of "Æsculapius Scalpel," Edward Berdoe's "romance" is a critique of scientific medical education of the late nineteenth century. It's funny in part, but Berdoe is not a very good writer: it supposedly has a main character, but he disappears for chapters at a time in favor of long rants about the evils of scientific medicine. The book is replete with what we might now call "perverse incentives": the nature of teaching hospitals mean that the longer a disease lingers, the more people can study it; they mean that the more untested a treatment, the more someone's name can be made by applying it. So going to one is possibly worse than not going to one, because someone's liable to do an amputation you don't need just so they can get an article out of it.

The book is funny at times-- I read several passages aloud to my long-suffering wife-- but very earnest at others, which is harder to take. And I couldn't help feeling it would have been funnier and horrifying if we'd seen the protagonist actually witness/experience the evils of scientific medicine the narrator goes on about, instead of having the narrator describe them in general terms.

There's even a couple women with scientific interests. The narrator says of them, "If a young woman wants to shield herself from the arrows of Cupid, there is no better defence for her than a wall of books, a science or two, some ologies, and a taste for writing. Behind these bulwarks her pretty face, her figure, her youth, her grace, and her accomplishments are comparatively safe" (233). I haven't quite decided if I would count them as scientists, though; to use Richard Kargon's distinctions, they remind me more of the early nineteenth-century intellectual dilettantes for whom science is one of many interests than the "scientific devotees" of the mid-century, or the late-century professionals-- whom the entire novel rails against.

You might guess that Berdoe was anti-vivisection, but like Wilkie Collins's Heart and Science, the novel treats vivisection not as an anomalous result of the scientific mindset, but as a particularly pernicious instance of it: "What was pain (in other people), if science could be advanced? What was suffering (in patients), if anything could be added to the sum of our knowledge as to the causes of their suffering? To cure the disease, to cut short the malady—ah, no, too often that was to extinguish alike the discomfort and the interesting course of phenomena that accompanied it" (53). Vivisection is mentioned only a few times, but passages like this one describing the self-serving scientific mindset fill the novel. Dull, but interesting (if you have my interests).

22 August 2018

Hugos 2018: Paper Girls 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Comic trade paperback, 125 pages
Published 2017 (contents: 2017)
Acquired October 2017 

Read June 2018
Paper Girls 3

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Colors: Matt Wilson
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher

The third volume of Paper Girls is the best yet, as Vaughan and Chiang continue to deepen these characters and broaden the scope-- yet also this one feels more focused, and as though it tells a discrete story of its own. Clearly each volume of Paper Girls will place the paper girls in a different time period; in this one they materialize in the Pleistocene, and 1) must hunt down a time machine, 2) encounter a cave woman and her child, 3) encounter a future woman born in 2016, 4) discover still more time portals and the strange objects that have come through them, 5) see the future, and 6) deal with the complicated feelings of, um, blossoming womanhood. While volume 2 focused on Erin, volume 3 places more emphasis on KJ.

It's great work. The characters feel more real with each passing chapter, and Vaughan and Chiang do some neat stuff with the comics form. Loved how the vision of the future was rendered, loved the two-page spread when KJ is on the run from the cavemen. A good combination of art, character, and story in each case. This book is strong, and it promises more strength to come. The Hugos forced me to catch up to volume 3 of Paper Girls, and I look forward to reading volumes 4 and 5 soon.

21 August 2018

Review: Transformers: Till All Are One, Volume Two by Mairghread Scott, Sara Pitre-Durocher, et al.

I've got another review over at USF: Professor Bernice Summerfield experiences Absence! Daniel O'Mahony is a treasure.

Comic PDF eBook, 114 pages
Published 2017 (contents: 2016-17)
Acquired and read April 2018
Transformers: Till All Are One, Volume Two

Written by Mairghread Scott
Art by Sara Pitre-Durocher and Naoto Tsushima
Colors by Joana Lafuente
Additional Colors by Priscilla Tramontano
Letters by Tom B. Long

Till All Are One, Volume Two picks up from the events of Titans Return-- at the end of that crossover, a massive army of undead Titans was summoned to Cybertron. In this story, Windblade and Starscream have to unite the disparate factions on Cybertron into a cohesive defense against the zombie Titans.

The art in this series has always been good, but I think Sara Pitre-Durocher really pushes herself to new levels in this volume.
from Transformers: Till All Are One #8 (art by Sara Pitre-Durocher)

It's heavier on the action and lighter on the character than Mairghread Scott's previous Transformers work; I was always surprised when an issue ended because I didn't feel like twenty pages of things had really happened. I like where this storyline pushed Windblade, though, as she increasingly is forced to compromise her own morality in face of the bigger picture of Cybetronian unity, and at this point, her and Starscream are almost always on the same page. (Starscream is still too obviously slimy-- like, who does like him?-- but in this volume he's better than most.) I look forward to seeing where this all goes in the series's final volume.

This Friday: Meanwhile, in space... trying to track down the Lost Light!

20 August 2018

Review: Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Small note: here's my review of Fire with Fire, the first Star Trek: Prometheus audiobook from Big Finish.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2016 (contents: 2015-16)

Previously read June 2017
Acquired June 2017

Reread October 2017
Monstress, Volume One: Awakening

Writer: Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda 
Lettering & Design: Rus Wooton

When I read volume one of Monstress through the Hugo voter's packet, I liked it enough to pick it up in hard copy as well as any follow-ups. A reread didn't actually clarify the fuzzy parts of the story for me: there is a lot to keep track of, a lot of people after Meika, the rogue Arcanic with a terrifying god hidden inside her somehow, all with their own agendas. But that's not what you read Monstress for (and by "you" I mean "me"). Its central character is kind of inscrutable and not really my type, but I love the issues she raises: the various ways the bodies of the culturally undesirable get used and transformed and exploited by the powerful. Meika is a slave (or others would make her a slave, anyway) in more than one way. Liu and Takeda create a complicated, historical, lived-in world, with multiple fantasy races, but minorities and conflicts within the races, too, and amazing visual designs for everything and everyone.

Ren Mormorian: not as badass as he hopes.
from Monstress #2

I almost said that Meika is exploited on the basis of gender above, but that's not actually true as far as I can tell. This is a feminist story, not in the sense that Women Are Awesome, but in the sense that it passes the Bechdel test-- and fails, I think, the reverse Bechdel. Almost every significant character, hero, ally, and villain, is female. Even the people exploiting female prisoners for sex are other women.

Ren Mormorian: more cuddly than he'd like.
from Monstress #4

Outside of the world, the art, and the feminism, what carries me through the book are Meika's two sidekicks: Commander Ren Mormorian, the feline nekomancer, and Kippa, the naïve vulpine Arcanic. Mormorian is awesome, a powerful, cynical guy... with all the disadvantages of being cat-sized in a world of humans. And Kippa is just adorable, an innocent foil to Meika's anger and guilt. I could fill this review with a dozen scans of Ren moments, but I'll restrict myself to just a few.

Ren Mormorian: as foul-mouthed as he needs to be.
from Monstress #1

17 August 2018

Review: Transformers: Lost Light: Dissolution by James Roberts, Jack Lawrence, et al.

As I worked my way through my digital More than Meets the Eye trades (mostly from Humble Bundle), I began to be convinced that 1) this was the best ongoing comic book there was, and 2) I didn't want it to be my fault if it was cancelled. Well, in a sense it already was cancelled, because after Revolution, it was relaunched as Lost Light, but the point stands. So I started subscribing to it in floppy format with August 2017's issue #9, hunting down the first eight issues as well. If it was cancelled, it wasn't going to be my fault. (As it turns out, by the point I finally got to reading Lost Light #1 in April 2018, it was announced that the series would be cancelled with September 2018's issue #25. Oh well.)

Lost Light picks up shortly after volume 10 of More than Meets the Eye, where various members of the Lost Light crew were stranded on the Necroworld after a ferocious battle with the Decepticon Justice Division... and then the planet exploded. Well, it turns out that the planet did not explode, but was instead shunted into an alternate universe, one created during the time travel shenanigans of volume 7. In this timeline, there is no Megatron, meaning that the Great War never happened... but instead the totalitarian Functionist Council eventually overthrew the Senate, turning Cybertron into an isolationist dystopia. "Team Rodimus" teleports to Cybertron only to find they're in this alternate world, and of course things go south quickly once they arrive.

A big part of the story resolves around Rung's apparent uselessness. Because no one know what Rung's alternate mode is for, he's an ideological thorn in the side of Functionists, who preach that every Cybertronian has one purpose and one purpose only. When Team Rodimus arrives on Cybertron, the Functionist Council claims they've finally figured out what Rung is for. To be honest, I didn't always follow this stuff, but the whole thing climaxes with a giant-sized Rung battling a moon, so I think it's pretty valid to say it worked for the awesomeness, and that's all I really require.

The real heart of the story in the Functionist universe is Megatron, still attempting to live up to his vow of pacifism, but now trapped in the horrors of a universe where he didn't start a war. At the end of the story, Megatron stays behind to lead the resistance against the Functionists. Megatron doesn't want to, though, showing the extent to which his time on the Lost Light really has changed him. He tells his friend Terminus, "If I stayed behind-- if I went back on my word-- I wouldn't be the person you think I am. And the person you think I am... that's the person I want to be." Terminus is someone Megatron hasn't seen since before the war, someone who never knew Megatron the monster. Terminus tricks Megatron into staying behind on the Functionist Cybertron; when Terminus claims Team Rodimus purposefully left Megatron behind, saying "They've given you a second chance," Megatron replies, "They'd already done that."

I was a Megatron-skeptic when he was introduced to More than Meets the Eye back in volume 6, but Dissolution shows how well he'd integrated himself into the series. I got chills with the line above, and in an earlier sequence, where Megatron expounds his new Autobot philosophy: "The opposite of Functionism isn't lack of Functionism. The opposite of Functionism is choice. It's about doing what you want-- regardless of what you were born to do, or what you're told to do, or what society expects you to do. No one can decide how to live your life except you." The second-last page, with Megatron lecturing to his new followers, is charming ("Peace through empathy."); the final page, where it seems like this might be the one reality where Megatron and Orion Pax can be friends, is heart-warming.

This was a satisfying end to the Megatron story. If he had ended up acquitted for his crimes because of a technicality like he'd originally planned, that would have beggared belief. But as told here, he genuinely comes around to the Autobot philosophy, and then is given an opportunity to put it into action. But I also like the tragedy that several of the Lost Light crew, in particular Rodimus and Ultra Magnus, end the storyline convinced Megatron never really did change, and was playing them the entire time. (Rodimus because of his own ego; Ultra Magnus because he can't stand ambiguity.) What was done with Megatron in season 2 of More than Meets the Eye and Dissolution shows the validity of IDW's approach to the Transformers universe. These are the stories you could only tell outside of the usual straightjacket of Autobots-versus-Decepticons, and they're all the better for it.

There's also a couple side plots about what's happening on Necroworld, which is mostly 1) the introduction of a new character, Anode, on whom I am currently agnostic, and 2) the deteriorating relationship Cyclonus and Tailgate. All the feels about the latter, of course; I look forward to seeing where both storylines go, as they're clearly more about setting up concepts for the run of Lost Light now that it's tied off some of the biggest plots of season 2 of More than Meets the Eye.

Next Tuesday: Meanwhile, on Cybertron... Windblade must fight evil giant robot zombies Till All Are One!

Dissolution originally appeared in issues #1-7 of Transformers: Lost Light (Dec. 2016–June 2017). The story was written by James Roberts, illustrated by Jack Lawrence, inked by John Wycough (#7), colored by Joana Lafuente (#1-7) and John-Paul Bove (#1), lettered by Tom B. Long, and edited by Carlos Guzman.

16 August 2018

Review: A Plunge into Space by Robert Cromie

Hardcover, 240 pages
Published 1976 (originally 1891)
Borrowed from the library

Read June 2018
A Plunge into Space by Robert Cromie
Alas! that it is always thus with the brilliant, god-like science begotten of organic life. The touch of a baby's finger, the falling weight of a hair, and it bites the dust before the demon wrath of inorganic force. (238-9)
It's hard to read this book and not conclude that H. G. Wells was inspired by it when he wrote The First Men in the Moon (1900-01): a wacky, abstracted scientist builds a sphere-shaped spaceship because he's figured out something about gravity, and uses it to travel to another world where he interacts with the inhabitants, and the whole story ends with the spaceship destroyed (as the above quotation refers to). But apparently Wells's Moon story was not inspired by Cromie's Mars one. In any case, as always, Wells's is the much better book, and as always, Cromie blandly operates in the subgenre that Wells questions the assumptions of.

The plot of A Plunge into Space is pretty straightforward. Henry Barnett works out the secret of gravity; his explorer pal Alexander MacGregor recruits a group of people to go on a mission to Mars with them, consisting of a financier, a literary man, an artist, a politician, and a reporter. They go there and spend the middle of the book learning a lot of boring stuff about the supposed utopian society of Mars (Cromie clearly thought that attempts to restructure the Earth's political system were doomed to failure); also one of the group's members falls in love with a Martian woman. Then they go home, but the Martian woman story away so she has to be jettisoned into space so the oxygen doesn't run out. Her lover is so overcome by grief that he destroys the ship, killing Barnett.

This makes the whole thing sound more exciting than it is. I liked Cromie's future-war novel, The Next Crusade (1896), a decent amount because it had actual character stories, but A Plunge into Space is characteristic of mediocre early sf, filled with flat characters (each member of the expedition has exactly one personality trait corresponding to their occupation; the financier is greedy, the politician is self-aggrandizing, and so on) and boring descriptions of a boring utopia. Whether Wells read Plunge or not, his reworking of it was vastly superior and much more delightful. Thank God he came along and upset the genre to its everlasting betterment. Plunge is an interesting historical curiosity but little more; it didn't even give me very much new material for thinking about scientists in Victorian literature.

15 August 2018

Hugos 2018 [Prelude]: Paper Girls 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

Comic trade paperback, 125 pages
Published 2016 (contents: 2016)
Acquired October 2017 

Read June 2018
Paper Girls 2

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Colors: Matt Wilson
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher

Some comics read quickly because nothing happens in them. Paper Girls moves quickly, but because Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang construct the whole thing as non-stop action, each scene efficiently moving you into the next. Nothing feels wasted or padded; this comic just propels you along. You have no desire to linger because you always have to see what's next.

Paper Girls is clever and well put together. I wish I remembered the characters better (it's been a year since I read volume 1) as they'd kind of blended in my mind, but this volume does have a nice focus on Erin, as the girls travel from 1988 to 2016 and meet Erin's older self, now forty years old. It's an interesting balance of being able to follow what's happening to the girls, but the wider context of what's happening still being pretty obscure. I wish it felt like the girls were learning something; right now it seems like there's a simple action story and a big time travel story, but they don't quite go together.

There are some good jokes and some great character moments. Some bits will make you go all soft inside. I've like Cliff Chiang since his Green Arrow and Black Canary days, and this is some of his best work, slick and stylish and full of character. But as well put together as it is, I wish it lasted longer.

14 August 2018

Review: Revolution: Transformers by John Barber, Mairghread Scott, James Roberts, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n. pag.
Published 2017 (contents: 2015-16)
Acquired January 2018

Read April 2018
Revolution: Transformers

Written by John Barber, Mairghread Scott, Nick Roche and James Roberts
Art by Andrew Griffith, Naoto Tsushima, Alex Milne, Corin Howell, Kotteri, Josh Burcham
Colors by Thomas Deer, Joana Lafuente
Letters by Gilberto Lazcano, Tom B. Long, Chris Mowry

This volume collects three Transformers-focused Revolution tie-ins, as well as the Transformers Holiday Special. Since I already reviewed the latter on its own (wish I'd known it was collected here before buying it!), I'll just be reviewing the Revolution tie-ins.

Basically, each of the Transformers ongoings gets a story that takes place during Revolution, expanding on some story details and crossing over with one of the non-Transformers titles. The subtitle-less series formerly known as Robots in Disguise tells a story about Tundercracker and Marissa Faireborn battling Dire Wraiths (from Rom); Till All Are One features Windblade on a journey to the Microverse (from Micronauts); and More than Meets the Eye has the Scavengers teaming up with a G.I. Joe member and encountering a lone Dire Wraith.

Has any IDW artist outside of E. J. Su been good at both humans and robots?
from Revolution: Transformers #1 (script by John Barber, art by Andrew Griffith)

They're, uh, they're okay, I guess. The Transformers one confirmed that I am tired of John Barber's take on Thundercracker, the Decepticon-gone-native-who-has-a-dog-and-wants-to-write-screenplays-and-apparently-is-crushing-on-Marissa-Faireborn. What could have been an interesting character has Flanderized into a one-note joke.

The Till All Are One one is pretty flimsy. Windblade is summoned to Earth to communicate with Metroplex (explaining why she's there in the main Revolution story), she does so, she journeys into Microspace where she meets some people, she goes home. I think this set up something about the Micronauts or Rom in the main Revolution story, but by the time I read this, I'd forgotten most of what happened when I read Revolution. The story is pretty detached from the setting and ideas that actually drive Till All Are One, aside from Windblade herself. I guess it does point toward some growing discontent from Windblade with Optimus's leadership.

I'm down with anything that makes fun of M.A.S.K. Like, why are they even called that? They don't wear masks, or anything, their power is driving cars.
from Revolution: Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #1 (script by Nick Roche & James Roberts, art by Alex Milne)

Finally, the More than Meets the Eye one doesn't have any of the Lost Light crew (how could it, they died six months ago when their planet blew up?), instead focusing on the Scavengers who come to Earth so one of their members can go on an Internet date. It's a pisstake of the whole concept of Revolution (one of the characters keeps chanting about "the Brand"); the best bits are MP3, the world's worst G.I. Joe member, and the two Scavengers pretending to be members of M.A.S.K. It's not James Roberts and Nick Roche's best work, but I enjoyed it well enough and laughed several times. Which makes it the best part of Revolution. (Which is damning with faint praise.)

Crankcase accurately summarizes the plot of Revolution.
from Revolution: Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #1 (script by Nick Roche & James Roberts, art by Alex Milne)
This Friday: Meanwhile, in space... we return to the Lost Light!

13 August 2018

Review: Ghost in the Shell: After The Long Goodbye by Masaki Yamada

I have a review up at USF (as always): Camille Corduri introduces Jackie Tyler to the Doctor Who Short Trips in "The Siege of Big Ben"!

Hardcover, 196 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 2004)

Acquired September 2016
Read October 2016
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence: After The Long Goodbye
by Masaki Yamada

While recovering from surgery, I took the time finally watch the most recent incarnation of the anime franchise Ghost in the Shell, Arise, as well as the new movie it leads into, the creatively titled Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie. When I realized The New Movie's final scene echoed the opening scene of the original Ghost in the Shell film, I rewatched that, and that caused me to finally pick up this novel, which bridges the original Ghost in the Shell with its sequel, Innocence.

It was odd reading Masaki Yamada's After The Long Goodbye. Normally my rubric for character in tie-in novels is the extent to which I can imagine the actors speaking the dialogue, but I watch Ghost in the Shell subtitled, which means it's difficult for me to imagine Akio Ōtsuka as Batou speaking any of the translated-into-English lines here. That said, I think Yamada captured Batou's essence: Batou is usually silent and competent, but here we get access to his internal monologue, and it turns out that silence and competence is backed by intelligence and rumination and an increasing need to feel love. Mostly this book is about Batou trying to get his kidnapped basset hound back; like almost all incarnations of Ghost in the Shell, I didn't entirely understand the conspiracy aspects of the plot but I enjoyed it regardless for the characters and the concepts. (The reason the dogs are kidnapped is a really neat sci-fi idea.) This prose extension of Ghost in the Shell fits perfectly into the universe of the anime, and has me looking forward to rewatching Innocence with this new background in mind to complete my Ghost in the Shell journey.

(The insight provided by the afterword, a conversation between Yamada and Mamoru Oshii, writer/director of the first two Ghost in the Shell films, was a nice bonus.)

Two Years Later Addendum: I actually never did get around to rewatching Innocence. Oops.

10 August 2018

My 2018 Hugo Awards Ballot: Book Categories

This final post covers my votes in the three of the Hugo categories for book-length works: novels, YA fiction, and nonfiction. If I did a full review of a work, I'll link to that here. I only did that if I owned the book: I didn't do it for anything I read an e-version of from the Hugo voters packet, or borrowed from the library.

Best Novel 

7. The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Based on what I've read of both authors, I don't think even the best John Scalzi novel could surpass the worst N. K. Jemisin novel. Scalzi's character work, world building, and prose style are all basically nonexistent-- whereas Jemisin's are astounding. So even though I didn't like The Stone Sky a whole lot, I'm quite comfortable placing The Collapsing Empire below it, as it's clearly not the best John Scalzi novel.

6. No Award

If The Stone Sky won, I would chalk it up to differing tastes and move on, even if I don't particularly think it should win. But if John Scalzi wins another Hugo, and wins it for this, I will be deeply embarrassed at the taste of the Hugo voters, so below No Award it is.

5. The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

I was nowhere near as into this as I was the first book of the Broken Earth trilogy; it did not have The Fifth Season's emotional power. And I still really liked The Obelisk Gate. But I found this installment more tedious than anything else, alas, with too much focus on aspects of the story that the book wasn't able to make me care for. I suspect Jemisin will win again, but if so, it will be in spite of my vote.

4. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

This book has an excellent elevator pitch-- locked-room murder mystery with clones in space!-- and whenever I describe it to someone, they get pretty excited. The actual book, though, isn't as good as its premise. The Stone Sky might be a better book, to be honest, but I am legitimately worried that Jemisin will be the first person to score three Hugo Awards for Best Novel in a row for a book I don't think really deserves it, so I'm ranking Six Wakes higher. Is that unnecessarily negative reasoning?

3. Provenance by Ann Leckie

I thought this book was basically fine. Ancillary Justice was a thrill; Leckie's first novel outside the Ancillary trilogy isn't bad, but isn't anything special either. It's probably pretty comparable to Six Wakes in that it starts strong, but doesn't maintain that, but it holds together to a greater degree than Six Wakes, and I was pretty uninterested in Six Wakes by the time it wound down, but this maintained my interest.

2. Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

I was surprised how much I ended up enjoying Raven Stratagem, given I ranked the book to which it is a sequel sixth on my 2017 Hugo ballot! But whether the book was better or I just adapted to the wacky math-based space opera antics of the Machineries of Empire series, I ended up enjoying this a lot. If the ending had felt less anticlimatic, I'd've ranked it above New York 2140, but I still would be happy to see this win.

1. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

This isn't a great novel, I don't think, but I did really enjoy it, and though near-future isn't my usual kind of sf, the book does do the kind of things I like my sf to do, which is to say it's full of neat ideas about "another world" while revealing truths about the world we live in. It's clearly the best of the finalists this year.

Best Related Work

6. Crash Override: How GamerGate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight against Online Hate by Zoë Quinn

The first half of this book is a memoir: Zoë Quinn was the woman at the heart of the so-called Gamergate controversy, who for the crime of cheating on her boyfriend was subjected to an Internet harassment campaign supposedly concerned with ethics in games journalism. There's some background on Quinn, on her relationship, on the actual incident, and on the follow-up-- it basically destroyed her life and relationships for years. At times, it's surprisingly light on detail, because Quinn has little desire to relive it, and because she doesn't want to feed the trolls. The second half is a more general discussion of Internet harassment and her efforts to combat it; I had known the outline of Gamergate itself, but I did not know about Crash Override, Quinn's anti-harassment support organization. The book is mildly interesting, but not great. Quinn's treatment of events in which she herself was involved lacks emotional weight, and there are times I found the insights banal. The real deciding factor in my ranking, though, is that it's just not that relevant to science fiction and fantasy, and so ends up at the bottom of by ballot. (I think this might be inconsistent with the position I adopt toward No Time to Spare below, but oh well.)

5. Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal

This book is a collection of essays about Octavia Butler, mostly in the form of letters to her. It's okay. I'm sure the letters were all deeply, individually meaningful to write, but reading a number of them becomes a bit samey, as not many of them are imbued with lots of specifics. I also have a suspicion that the number of them that revolve so much around the election of President Trump will age badly. Or maybe that's more of a hope, though it does indicate to me that I need to read Butler's Parables books. Anyway, I did enjoy several of the essays (I had a slight bias toward the academic ones, perhaps unsurprisingly), but on the whole I didn't find this book essential, and don't feel I learned a whole lot about Butler from it.

4. A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison: An Exploration with Extensive Interviews by Nat Segaloff

Two coincidences influenced my reading of this book. The first is that Harlan Ellison died about three weeks before I began reading it, making me aware of how little I'd read of his work (the only complete book being the I, Robot screenplay). The second is that a week before I began it, I was perusing the archives of the Science Fiction Research Association Newsletter, where I found this comment by Bob Collins in a 1988 issue: "In the case of especially prickly authors like Harlan, the price of an 'authorized' critical biography may well be the total compromise of the critic's integrity." Now, A Lit Fuse specifically disavows being critical or a biography; it's more like an autobiography, as Segaloff primarily strings together a number of interviews he's done with Ellison into a narrative of sorts, and doesn't really do a lot to render other perspectives on Ellison, or have any kind of objective stance. Segaloff is clearly a big admirer of Ellison, and his faults are usually rendered in an admiring way, too. Which is fine, I guess, but this book as a result, this is definitely more a book for the Ellison devotee than the general sf fan. All that said (and there's many more quibbles one could make; I thought the depiction of the incident where Ellison allegedly grabbed Connie Willis's breast was particularly poor), even though I had more interest in the Octavia Butler book going in than this book, I was still pretty much entertained throughout. Ellison knows how to tell a story, and even if many of them aren't true, or put him in an inaccurately flattering light, I enjoyed reading the book. It's not a great book, and possibly not even a good one, but it is interesting enough.

3. Sleeping with Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy by Liz Bourke

This volume collects short pieces by Liz Bourke, (mostly) book reviews that were (mostly) previously published on-line, (mostly) at Tor.com. They're very short, usually 2-3 pages long. Bourke is an okay reviewer. Several were really interesting and made me want to read the books in question, and I scribbled down some titles on my "To buy" list. Sometimes, though, I finished the review without a strong sense of why she had liked or disliked it. I think there were only two reviews of books that I had read already: Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (2013) and Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant (2015). The latter of these was one of my favorite pieces in the book; a strongly worded negative review that made me reevaluate my take on the book, even though I really liked it myself.* (It's also the only book by a male author she reviews.) On the other hand, there's a long section where Bourke mostly reviews epic fantasy and/or sword-and-sorcery, genres that hold little appeal for me. It's clearly in the middle tier of this year's related works, but I struggled to rank it versus A Lit Fuse. There are things I definitely found more enjoyable about Lit Fuse, but I ended up deciding that Lit Fuse is not the best Ellison biography that could be written, but this is inherently the best collection of Bourke's reviews that could exist, so it succeeds at what it aims to do more.

2. No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin

In a sense, this book's connection to science fiction is tenuous-- Le Guin talks about it very little-- but I enjoyed almost every minute of it, and we'll never see Le Guin's like again. So even if this book isn't about sf, sf brought me to Le Guin, and that's a related enough "Related Work" for me.

1. Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid

Related works can be trickier to compare to each other than works in, say, the prose fiction categories; what No Time to Spare and Iain M. Banks are trying to do is very different. This book is an academic monograph covering the entire sf corpus of Iain Banks-- a man whose work I have read distressingly little of (just The Bridge, The Wasp Factory, and The State of the Art). Despite that, I could tell that this was a strong piece of literary criticism, providing a couple threads that pull you across Banks's work; Kincaid emphasizes the Culture as a society, Banks's experiments with form, and Banks's anti-great man reworking of the space opera genre, among other things. It made me even more distressed at how little Banks I have read. I might have enjoyed No Time to Spare more, but I feel like this is more what this category should be about, and the kind of thing I would like to encourage. Though maybe I'm just biased as a monograph-writing academic myself. (Also, there was a citation of Bill Hardesty, an undergraduate professor of mine partially responsible for my graduate school career, so that was nice.)

Best Young Adult Book (Not a Hugo)

6. The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

This isn't a bad book (none of these are bad books), it's just very much not my thing. All the other YA finalists take place in magical worlds of sort, whereas this book is very much grounded in our world with a single, somewhat small, fantasy element. The main character is anorexic, but the more he starves himself, the more superpowers he gains. Most of the story is about teen love and self-image, and it's well done, but it's just not want I want out of YA fiction. (Incidentally, it is one of two books on the YA ballot to feature queer, nerdy, culturally Jewish redheads falling in love with their school's biggest jock.)

5. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Fundamentally, I enjoyed this book, but am not sure I would rank it highly in the stakes for an award. Which is to say, I enjoyed it as a cozy return to a familiar world, but am not sure we should be handing out awards to cozy returns to familiar worlds.

4. Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

I struggled ranking this versus La Belle Sauvage. Both were good, even very good, but neither quite knocked my socks off. In the end, I decided to reward innovation over familiarity. Okorafor might be working with familiar tropes, but she has done interesting things by placing them in a (to me) unfamiliar world, while Pullman has really done no such thing, as charming as a return to Lyra's Oxford is.

3. Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

This isn't a perfect book, but it is a really charming, well executed portal-quest fantasy. I can imagine reading this aloud to my child someday, and I'd happily see it win, even though I feel like the author's short prose fiction is stronger-- but maybe being as good as "The Tomato Thief" is an impossibly high standard.

2. A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

What one wants out of award-winners is always tricky, of course. I feel like in a genre-based award, one wants some level of innovation in the genre, or at least perfection of it. Though I enjoyed all the books ranked lower than this one, I can't claim any of them did that. Like, I liked them, and they did do interesting things, but they're all familiar in their own ways. A Skinful of Shadows, on the other hand, is captivating and clever, and the kind of thing that I feel ought to be winning awards.

1. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

Of course, one of the best YA books turns out to be one of the ones I didn't buy. In Other Lands starts out funny, with a snotty kid moving into a fantasy land. Like Summer in Orcus, the book consciously riffs on the genre's conventions, with the main character one who has read portal fantasies and thus having some ideas of what he's in for, only he doesn't want to be a "child soldier" or to solve conflicts with battle; he wants to be a diplomat. Elliot, age 13, falls in love with a beautiful elf woman from a matriarchal society, and also ends up falling in with Luke, who Elliot thinks of as a jock; Luke is the scion of a noble family in the Borderlands, and basically the coolest kid in school, the antithesis to everything Elliot stands for, but Elliot needs his help to woo Serene. All three of them are students at a training camp dedicated to defending the Borderlands from real-world incursion, where students can train as soldiers or diplomats, who are in theory of equal status, but really it's all about the soldiers. There are a lot of jokes (an early sequence where Serene can't understand why humans find topless women scandalous is a particular highlight). The book also critiques many of the conventions of the YA fantasy genre, through Elliot's determination to find another way. At one point, he also self-identifies with Eustace in Narnia, which of course won him over to me. If the book was like this all the way through, I'd probably be ranking it second or third here, on par with Summer in Orcus, which does (as I said) similar work. But it's also deeply emotional, especially in a sequence about halfway through. The book covers five years, with a different over-arching issue each year; in one, the Borderlands actually go to war! One summer, Elliot is at a party at Luke's family's house, and the emotions are painfully real depictions of what it's like to be fifteen and lonely and uncertain about your place in the world. As soon as I read that bit, I knew the book would get my top spot as long as it stuck the landing. It did. The whole novel is apparently a prequel to a short story in Kelly Link's anthology Monstrous Affections (I was telling my wife about the book and she went, "This all sounds familiar!"), so I'll have to seek that out once I've made it through all my Hugo reading.

Overall Thoughts

Last year, I wrote, "I'd be pleased if anything in my top four won in Best Novel." I could not write such a sentence this year. Indeed, if my top choice for this year, New York 2140, had been on last year's ballot, it would not have even cracked that top four! A good book, but not a great one-- as a top six of the year in science fiction and fantasy, this set left something to be desired, alas. Oh well, I suppose these things happen.

On the other hand, the very first WSFS Award for Best Young Adult Book (Not a Hugo), soon to be the Lodestar Award probably, is a smashing success, with two excellent books and four good ones. In Other Lands was certainly the best work I read for the Hugos in any category, and A Skinful of Shadows was probably the second book. Either one, I would give Best Novel to over what I did give it to. A diverse array of interesting reads, the only thing I didn't like is that none of them were science fiction, they were all fantasy. I like fantasy, of course, but I read very little YASF, I think because there is very little YASF, and it would have been nice to see the genre get a look in. (I nominated an sf book myself, M. T. Anderson's Landscape with Invisible Hand.)

I struggle to know what will win in any of these categories. I suspect it will be Jemisin for the threepeat in Best Novel, but only because no other finalist sticks out that much. I bet Le Guin gets it two years in a row for No Time to Spare; fandom does love Le Guin. (Iain M. Banks is too academic, I suspect.) I have no sense of what Worldcon fandom's YA preferences are, so I find that category very hard to judge. Maybe nostalgia will give it to Pullman, but Okorafor and Kingfisher are very popular in fandom as well, and perhaps the obvious quality of In Other Lands will clinch it. My only real guess here is that it won't be Art of Starving.

* That said, I do find it weird that the original blog post has been updated to acknowledge that Dickinson is not a straight cis man, but the review as reprinted in Sleeping with Monsters still calls him that.