The Campbell award is open to the best new writer, and is judged over their output regardless of length or quantity. Usually, the main thing to comment on is that it is not really a Hugo,1 but the interesting wrinkle of the Campbell award this year is that you can be eligible for it twice. The Campbell competition is often my favourite, because it usually the most diverse and novel category. This year however, five of the six nominees are in the second year of eligiblity, and four of those were on last years slate.2
Previous Years Entrants.
The place to start is with last year’s ballot, and provide the relevant list of candidates from this year:
- Katherine Arden
- Rivers Solomon
- Vina Jie-Min Prasad
- Rebecca Roanhorse (Winner)
- Jeanette Ng
- Sarah Kuhn (Inelegible this year)
After a year, Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts has receded in my memory, as has Prasad’s A Series of Steaks, while I still have a huge fondness for her Fandom for Robots. Looking at it now, I would swap the two in my rankings.
Looking at the current slate, Solomon and Arden have included the same works in the packet as last year, while Ng and Prasad have included a couple of extra short stories each. In contrast, while Katherine Arden has only included Bear and the Nightingale in the packet, but has subsequently completed The Winternight Trilogy3 When nominating this year, I complained that none of Arden’s novels had fallen in the eligibility period for this year’s Hugos (December 2017 and January 2019 respectively), so she doesn’t just remain the one to beat in this category, but has extended her lead over the rest of last year’s nominees.
A year has has not softened the faults of Pendulum sun, so it would take a phenomenal effort to lift her up the rankings.
Archetype of the Haunted House (Essay)
An architectural demystification of the Winchester Mystery House.
An interesting short essay about how the strange and influential features of the Winchester Mystery House are actually perfectly explicable if you know the history of the house and its occupant’s interests; rather than spooky it is the ultimate expression of the id of one woman. I particularly think Ng is onto something with the observation that Americans are not as used to structures with layers as Europeans are, and this leads to a sort of pareidolia.
How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carpace of Plastic (Short Story)
The history of an region told though the tale of its idols and its wishing tree.
I love the Just So Stories – I remember being read them as a child, and I introduced my wife to them before we were married. From the title to the use of “Best Beloved”, and the moral at the end, it has the trappings of Kipling, updated to a more modern story. And I quite enjoyed How the Tree of Wishes Gained its Carapace of Plastic, as it provided an elliptical history lesson of its unnamed region while nominally telling the story of a plastic wishing tree.4 Taken on its own merits, it is a very good story. Unfortunately it lacks the thing I loved most about the Just So Stories, the meandering poetic language, that begs to be read out, and while it is no sin to not be as good a writer as Kipling, it is risky to beg the comparison.
A story that is better than Just So, but not as good as a Just So story.
Science of the Pendulum Sun (Essay)
Literally the science of a pendulum sun.
I’m getting old. 20 year old me would have checked the math to see if it was correct, 30 year old me would probably have done some order of magnitude calculations in my head to make sure it was more or less right, and today’s me just let it wash over me. I found it really heartening that Ng obsessed over this one detail so much, in what is otherwise a gothic horror fantasy novel, and this (plus the Haunted House and its obsession with architecture) reminded me of the things I liked about Under the Pendulum Sun.
Vina Jie-Min Prasad
A pair of supersoldiers find their way in the world
An offbeat little story about finding love and being more than your function, that didn’t quite land for me.
Portrait of Skull with Man
Model available, brings own skull
It’s certainly not an original idea, and it’s not even clear if this is SFF, but it’s short, fun and has excellent execution.
Prasad continues generating offkiler and interesting scifi stories. Neither is as good as last years couple, but Portrait of Skull with Man still packs good bang for your buck.
The Poppy War (Novel)
To escape poverty, a war orphan studies for the exams, but success will lead her to a world of privilege and mystery beyond her expectations.
A lot of fantasies start with a character in an underwhelming village before going out in their world. Kuang might be the first to really make that village a believable shit hole. From the provinces to the capital, Kuang’s Nikan never hides a terrible underbelly or its crushing inequality.
But I should back up a bit, Nikan is a fictional nation primarily inspired by China, and the story has strong parallels to mid 20th century Chinese history, albeit in a world with cannons and fireworks, but not personal firearms.5 Kuang does a masterful job of breaking the book into episodes, with each showcasing a different region of Nikan, and this provides amble opportunity to delve into the history and people of the continent.
The first arc starts in a poor rural province, where Rin’s only hope of escaping servitude and marital rape is to perform flawlessly on the bureaucratic exams and escape to the capital. Indeed Rin starts off as an almost antihero – a character who has been driven to criminal behaviour by a harsh and terrible upbringing. From there it moves onto the now ubiquitous academy tale, but one focused on class differences, and with a martial rather than a magical bent. It is also here that our heroine gains her support cast, from the bookish best friend to the pampered but dangerous rival, which in turn expands her character beyond a victim of circumstance. Indeed the episodic structure works so well for the story that when the fantastic aspects start coming out, they feel as much a surprise to the reader as the character. By devoting a full ‘episode’ to the magic, we are eased into it without the need for exposition dumps, like any good lesson there is both showing a telling.
Which means when war finally comes, and Kuang changes up the world again, it feels earned, like a rabbit pulled out of a hat. Indeed, the drastic escalation of magic, combined with street fighting feels like it should lead to the climax of a conventional novel. I would rage about the caricature inhumanity of the Japanese in everything but name enemies, except of course, their actions are based on real historical antecedents. As well as showing the effects of war on the populace, the advantage of setting the beginning in a military academy is that it gives an excuse to keep pulling the characters together, and show how they have been changed.
Here be spoilers
It is only with the final arc that the story comes into focus, thought the seeds have been planted throughout the book. Ultimately, The Poppy War is a book about revenge. As the book plunges into full grimdark fantasy, Rin comes full circle to embracing the antihero. The story certainly earns this turn: by providing us with an unflinching look of the faults of Nikan, they are presented more as the lesser of two evils, and given where Rin starts the story, it is not surprising that she responds to brutality with brutality. Kuang is even careful to provide us with a character who articulates exactly why Rin’s actions are morally wrong, providing a sense of confliction rather than triumph to her actions. In the denouement, the story clearly sets up for a sequel or series that builds on this turn, and I can imagine many will be drawn to a complex examination of an antihero. Unfortunately almost the entirety of the last arc left me cold. The betrayal was almost too telegraphed, and the ultimate actions at the end still had a feel of morbid wish fulfillment that may not have been intentional but just soured the story for me. This is a very good book by a very talented author, but like the story itself, I came away more conflicted than anything else.
A nuanced and dark fantasy retelling of the Chinese early 20th century that may have been too much of both for me.
City of Brass
A young healer in Napolionic Cairo accidently calls a djinn.
It can be harder to write about a book you liked than a book you hated. When I try to put my finger on why I liked City of Brass, it comes down to a series of good decisions by the author. Egypt under Napoleon is such an ephemeral moment in history to feel so important, and it makes Cairo a fascinating place with Old Egypt, Ottoman and French influences jostling for control. It provides a great backdrop to introduce a character, and Chakraborty takes full advantage of it to establish Nahri, a magical healer who wants to help others, but is forced to rely on psychic cons and some light thievery to survive. It also means that when the story escalates its fantasy aspects, she reacts in believable ways grounded in her character.
The story gets even more vibrant when it becomes a two hander. Ali is a complex character in a complex city: a compassionate prince who is also a zealot in a city where the ruling class holds power by playing off religious and ethnic minorities. From his introduction, we expect him to be a sympathetic hero, but as the story rolls in, he is constantly exposed as a smart but naive, and Chakraborty makes as strong a case for the pragmatists thwarting him not out of malice, but just in an attempt to keep the peace. Indeed the machinations of the fantastic world are a major draw of the book, and it gives the supporting characters additional depth, as they are all given the opportunity to be more than one thing.
I’ve barely even touched on the fantastical aspects of the book, and yet the magical cosmology of the world grounded in pagan and islamic beliefs is as rich as the characters or the politicing. Indeed, With two strongly developed yet different point of view characters, and extremely vibrant mundane and fantastical settings, City of Brass is just an entertaining read.
Pragmatism and idealism battle over a city of djinn divided by race and religion.
- Katherin Arden
- S.A. Chakraborty
- Vina Jie-Min Prasad
- Rivers Solomin
- R.F. Kuang
- Jeanette Ng
Last year I described Ng’s story as excellent, undermined by a weak resolution, but well worth a readers time if they were interested in the topic. If this is the floor of the category, then it is a damn good selection of authors, any of whom could win. As for the new books, I could describe The Poppy War in an almost identical fashion to Under the Pendulum Sun, though I gave it the preference in that the resolution wasn’t so much weak as not to my taste.6
At the other end, I could make an analogy between Arden and Chakroborty’s work, in that they are both historical fantasy, but the former is more concerned with the history, while in the latter it was more a shade of the setting. In the end I ranked City of Brass second because it was something different with interesting characters and a great setting, and just made an enjoyable read.
- Despite being voted on at the same time, by the same voters, and being awarded at the same ceremony – you know the adage about ducks.
- With the only dropouts being the winner, and someone who is ineligible this year as last year was their second year. Note the extra candidate in their second year of eligibility is Chakraborty, who apparently missed out on last years ballot by one vote.
- Of which at least the middle book also falls in the eligibility period.
- Unamed, but certainly not unidentified.
- I’m going into the setting a bit more than I usually would because I experienced a bit of cultural disorientation, apparently while I’ll happily immerse myself in a European melange setting, and there is one here, my knowledge of Greater China is patchy enough that I kept pausing in the narrative to try to identify what was China, what was other Asian influence, and what was made up. This is absolutely not a fault of the book, as it feels absolutely cohesive, more an observation of my personal cultural biases.
- Indeed, I suspect this will be the category winner, though I am notoriously bad at predicting the hugo voting.