Saturday, June 22, 2013

Reading Notes: After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall and The Emperor’s Soul

This post is part of my commitment to read and review as many nominated works in the Hugo Awards (Science Fiction Awards) as possible before the prize announcements in early September.   Today I am looking at two of the five nominated novellas: After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications) and The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Publications. 

I read Nancy Kress's After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall some time ago, when I was making a very half-hearted attempt at  reading Nebula Awards nominees. I have long been an admirer of Kress's work - Beggars in Spain being one of those stories that stays with you forever - so I was looking forward to this novella, and expected to like it.

It was therefore a surprise to me to find that I actually didn't end up liking it all that much. Certainly I didn't hate it, but I found it underwhelming, and I was very surprised that it won the Nebula, nominated as it was against at least two clearly better works (in my opinion, anyway) - Aliette de Bodard's On a Red Station, Drifting and Robert Reed's Katabasis.

I am slightly perplexed, even now, as to what it was about this post-apocalyptic time-travel tale that I found so ... meh. It's classically constructed, well written, with fairly strong characters (although not, I thought, particularly sympathetic or relatable ones - maybe that was part of the issue for me). The plot devices are smoothly executed, the logic is internally consistent, the description is tight and evocative. So...?

In the end, I can't express it other than by saying - it read, to me, like an old-style moral-message-under-the-cloak-of-story tale. The conclusion beats home with a heavy hammer the "lesson" of the entire book - Humans are a cancer on the earth. This must be fixed. It's not that I necessarily disagree with the uber theme, but I am not keen on being force-fed it in what I found to be a remarkably unsubtle way.

Brandon Sanderson's novella, on the other hand, was a very pleasant surprise.

I have never read anything by him before, so I came to this with no preconceptions. This self-contained and beautifully executed story, of Shai, a thief and a Forger, who's tasked with doing the impossible - Forging (or in fact recreating) the soul of the Emperor, whose brain has been wiped clean following an assassination attempt.

I am not always a massive fan of highly complicated magicks in stories; the pay-off has to justify my investment in wrapping my head around the internal rules of the system and how it works. Sanderson gets away with this, I think, for two reasons.

Firstly, the palette and landscape of this story is severely contained (with more than three-quarters of it taking place within a single room). This allows a seamless concentration on understanding the process and magic of Forging - this is the story, so to speak, rather than an adjunct to it. Secondly, Sanderson makes excellent use of the well-worn but effective narrative technique of "exposition via conversation between expert and bystander". There aren't many ways to as efficiently and non-boringly elaborate a complex system, and Sanderson doesn't drop the ball with it - the explanation flows naturally within the story.

All in all, I found this novella to be a really good read, and I'd recommend it. I believe it is set within the same world as Sanderson's Elantris books, which I may also be hunting down now!

Unfortunately I couldn't find either of these novellas legitimately free on the Internets - I bought both of them on Kobo. They were cheap, though - about $5 each.


So - two novellas and five novels to go, plus all the novelettes! Next up will be Redshirts: A novel and three codas on The Shake next week, then the remaining two novellas, both of which I've read, probably next week sometime. After that I think I'll do the novelettes as a set - all 5 if I can get hold of the last one, or the 4 I have found if the elusive "Rat-Catcher" remains unobtainable.

Other Hugo reviews can be found here:
Short stories (all)
On a Red Station, Drifting (novella)

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