Today’s reviews are about two books on the Nebula Award finalist list. The Nebula Awards recognize the best works of science fiction and fantasy published in the United States as selected by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
Amberlough is a difficult-to-categorize book. I was expecting science fiction or fantasy and what I got was more 1930’s intrigue, just placed in an imaginary world. The book was a bit slow to start, and a bit confusing with all of its secrecy and back-stabbing. But what emerged was a beautifully written story with fascinating characters, in a world very similar to our own.
The book centers around two characters, Aristide and Cyril, and a nightclub called The Bee, in a world called Gedda, divided into four or five loosely connected states. In one of those is Amberlough City. Cyril is a government spy and Aristide is a smuggler and performer at The Bee. The third main character is Cordelia, a dancer at The Bee who comes to work for both Cyril and Aristide.
Aristide and Cyril are lovers who are also subtly (or not so subtly) investigating each other; that is, until a greater threat looms. Amberlough is a part of Gedda known for its diversity and tolerance. In another part of Gedda, nationalists are threatening to subvert an election and take control, which would result in oppression and maybe worse.
Aristide and Cyril are fighting for their own survival, for each other, and for the very survival of the Amberlough they know and love. Cordelia was particularly interesting for me, as she’s mainly just trying to survive in a harsh world – Amberlough may be an ideal for Cyril and Aristide, but Cordelia gets by any way she can. Over the course of the novel she finds her strength, and her principles, tested.
This is Donnelly’s first full-length novel. She takes time to build her characters, so at first it was a little bit of work figuring out who everyone was, who they worked for, and who they really worked for. But once established, I never stopped rooting for our three heroes.
This was a beautiful, sexy, and sometimes brutal story, and once I was hooked it never let me go. It’s a fantastic fantasy, an LGBTQ love story, that vividly evokes not just the 1930s but the world we live in at this very moment.
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
Also nominated for a Hugo award, this novella has a highly original premise with great diversity of characters. It’s an entertaining read, but I never felt the characters were well-developed.
Gailey’s book is based on a factual premise: around the 1900’s Congress considered importing hippopotamuses into Louisiana and creating hippo farms. Gailey’s book is set earlier, in the late 1800’s, and features Winslow Houndstooth, a former hippo rancher and now gun for hire, who’s hired to clear feral (man-eating) hippos out of part of the Mississippi river. Houndstooth is bent on revenge against a wealthy casino owner who owns everything in the area they’re clearing. He hires a band of outlaws for the job – an arms expert, a con woman, a sharpshooter and an assassin. All are diverse in some way except for Houndstooth – Hero, the arms expert, is gender-neutral; Adelia, the assassin, is a very-pregnant Latina; Archie, the con woman, is overweight. I don’t actually recall much about the sharpshooter, except that he’s got a gambling problem.
Diversity aside, this novella, while entertaining, never really brings you into its world. Yes, the hippos are cool, although it’s less clear whether they are food, transportation, or weapon (but I suppose they can be all of the above). The characters are each introduced in an interesting way, but once together I found it more or less impossible to tell them apart (except for the use of gender neutral pronouns, etc.). Similarly, there’s a love story but it just feels there rather than really developed. It feels like Gailey decided she wanted to show a romance between a hetero character and a gender neutral one. Okay, box checked – but she doesn’t explore the feelings between these two characters AT ALL.
I was amused by how absolutely inept the hero is in this story, but I’m honestly not sure how much that is intended. I expected swashbuckling adventure, and it’s there, except Houndstooth is the stupidest man in this story. Every assumption he makes is wrong, and everything he tries fails. Though at least he knows enough to hire people that are smarter than he is.
I’m not a huge fan of novellas, in general, because I want the plot and character development you get in a novel. But I do think there’s a way to write short fiction that develops the characters and story (the Binti novellas, for example, feel rushed at times but never short on plot or character). I think Gailey is telling a story that needs a novel.
So unlike Amberlough, where I went in a little mixed and came out wowed, I expected to love this story and came out meh. Though I’m interested to see where it goes in the second novella.