Finally I am back to having some time to read and to write for this blog. With the voting deadline for the Hugos coming up on the 15th, I decided that I wouldn't have the time to read all the books in their entirety, and would instead just read far enough to get a feel for the style. That's risky, as a plot twist near the end might well improve my view of a story greatly, but at the same time, it really should grab me from the beginning and not take hundreds of pages to draw me in. The goal of doing it this way would obviously be to allow me to still have a decent basis for a vote in all the categories I haven't yet voted in, despite the little time that remained.
So I began once again working my way up to the novels, this time reading the novellas.
This Census-Taker by China Miéville was the first of the novellas I dug into. I really enjoyed Miéville's writing style in UnLunDun, Kraken and Railsea, and I enjoyed it here too, as I did the cryptic hints about the dangers of the census-taker's job and the secrecy and cryptography he has to employ. The parts about his childhood are sad and fascinating at the same time. However, the story definitely has a strange and slow start, so it was easy to move on.
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson sets up a nice inversion right from the beginning - for once, the civilization of the protagonist is the African-style civilization, while the Roman-style one is the foreign one, come to visit. The world-building is exquisite and introduces the fantastical elements very subtly and naturally. The main plot is told in a well-executed anachronistic manner and is manages to be sweet like honey without becoming kitschy or looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses. I didn't finish it yet, but I expect it to take a rather darker turn eventually, tough not entirely too dark.
Then I picked up Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire and didn't put it back down until I was done. It tells the story of some of the kids who've gone to a different world. Whether they ended up in Candyland, a Netherworld, or somewhere else, they came back changed. Eleanor West runs a boarding school which takes in these kids and helps them find a way to cope with being back in the real world. At first it isn't clear whether they had actually gone or whether they had some sort of mental breakdown, but the different characters are so well written that I had to read more and see what would happen to them. It's a dark story, but ultimately hopeful and the characters are all very sympathetic in my view, which combined with the amazing writing style to make this one of the best stories I've read.
Victor LaValle wrote the other novella I finished in its entirety, The Ballad of Black Tom and in it he accomplishes quite an impressive feat. He takes one of the worst, and certainly most racist, stories of H.P. Lovecraft, The Horror at Red Hook and turns it into a coherent and interesting story. He does so by flipping the perspective and following Charles Thomas Tester, a hustler of the occult from Harlem, for the first part of the story. By the time that the story switches to the original protagonist, Detective Malone, I had gained a lot of insight and sympathy for Black Tom, which makes the ending very bittersweet.
The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe is another take on Lovecraft, this time by way of the extended Cthulhu Mythos. Vellit Boe is a resident of the dreamlands, a professor at the women's college of the university of Ulthar. One of her students has run off with a dreamer, someone from the "Waking World" - our world. Soon she finds out that retrieving her student is even more important than she imagined at first, and her quest takes her back to her past, back when she travelled the dreamlands herself. Kij Johnson paints a wonderful picture of the dreamlands, dangers and all, building them into a fascinating fantasy world filled with inhabitants for whom this is the real world and does so naturally through the character of Vellit Boe. Definitely something I will finish, as I want to know what happens to Vellit.
Last but not least comes Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold. I like what I've read so far and it's entertaining, but it is also easily the most conventional story on this list. That's not a bad thing, of course, but it also meant that the story didn't stand out as much as some of the others. However, it was a lot more fun to read than This Census-Taker.