Blogging the Nebulas: C.L. Polk’s Witchmark Deftly Balances Character and Worldbuilding

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 18, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The pitch:

From the very first page, Witchmark drops readers into the thick of it. Dr. Miles Singer is just finishing up a long shift at the veterans’ hospital, contemplating a directive that he discharge 16 patients by week’s end, whether they are healthy or not. Aeland’s war with Laneer is over. The victorious wounded are heading home to the imperfect care of their homeland, displacing other soldiers just as damaged. Miles was a soldier himself, which is the overt reason he’s so good at healing the mental injuries of war. The covert reason is that Miles is a magic user—a witch—who has a talent for healing that he must obfuscate and a dangerous past that requires him to live under an alias.

His rueful contemplation is interrupted by a dying man, Nick Elliot, brought into a hospital ill-equipped to provide emergency care. Nick asks for Miles specifically, though he uses Miles’ name from the life he escaped. The dying man also has the aura of a witch and tells Miles that he has been murdered—poisoned—and entreats him to find the killer. Watching their interaction is the man who brought the dying Nick Elliot to Miles, one Tristan Hunter. Miles’ conversation with Nick exposes his magical abilities and his past. After Elliot’s death, Miles fully expects to be blackmailed by Tristan, but that’s not precisely what happens. Hunter has his own inscrutable motivations, and he pushes Miles to uncover the motive for and methods of the man’s death.

The very next day, as bad luck would have it, Miles runs into his estranged sister, Grace. Miles was born into a life of both privilege and servitude: his sister is a Storm-Singer, able to control the weather to the benefit of all Aeland, and he is her Secondary. The Secondary may have skills of his or her own, but they are treated like batteries by the powerful Storm-Singers, used to strengthen their more dominant magical abilities. When assisted by Miles, Grace has the magic to affect the climate on a mass scale; alone she is not nearly as powerful.

Storm-Singing is a practice the secretive, aristocratic Hundred Families have been performing for Aeland for at least a century: turning the storms and mitigating all severe weather, even while Aeland at large persecutes anyone with magical abilities as a matter of policy. Miles didn’t want to live his life under magical duress, so he ran—first to med school and then to the front, faking his death and sequestering himself in the veteran’s hospital upon his return to Aeland. Grace wants Miles to return to fold; their father is sick and needs Miles’ medical attention.

Miles then pursues both matters independently—the murder mystery and the contact with his family—though the plotlines soon begin to collide and converge. His relationships with his sister and the mysterious Tristan Hunter draw Miles out of the penitential cell of a life he’s built for himself, forcing him to confront his past and maybe even start building a future.

The setting is something like Edwardian England just after the ravages of the Great War, but twisted with magic that encodes the colonial subjugations of the British Empire. Miles is both privileged and subjugated. In solving the murder of Nick Elliot, reacquainting himself with his sister, and doctoring to his fellow soldiers, he pulls strings that cause his hidden past and the needs of the empire to intersect in dangerous and volatile ways. The world of Witchmark is complicated and cool, but the story never falters in its attention to character.

Why it will win:

Witchmark is so deft in its balance between worldbuilding and character, it’s hard to believe it’s Polk’s first published novel. The information about the world unspools deftly, never leaving the audience behind nor handholding overmuch. Though I don’t have anything like statistics on whether it matters (see below), the book is told in a lovely first-person voice, the kind where the narrator’s tics and avoidances are as integral to the plot as his desires and needs. It’s not that the world bends to him, more that he bends to the world.  The magic system is complicated and the setting suggests a dense history, but Polk seemingly effortlessly makes what is important clear to the reader while maintaining a briskly plot (bicycle chases are a prominent feature). I can see other writers rewarding the tight craft of the novel; they are, after all, the Nebula voters.

This is more stray observation than anything else, but I went looking to see if there was any preference in past Nebula winners for first or third person voice, if only because Witchmark’s first person is so arresting. Prior winners suggest no particular pattern: Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is in third-person, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is in first-person, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice are both in first-person, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is in third-person. Last year’s winner,  N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Skywas partially in second person, though technically there is a first person narrator hiding behind the “you” narrative. There seems to be no evidence that point of view factors in who takes home the prize, which makes sense to me: different writers have different strengths in that regard, just like they do for tense or any other technical aspect of writing. That Witchmark is told in lovely first person doesn’t necessarily factor, but the skill at which Polk carries it off certainly does.

Why it won’t win:

Alas, I don’t think either historical science fiction or fantasy tend to be favored by Nebula voters, and historical fantasy is an especially hard sell. Which is to say: while I recognize that Witchmark isn’t exactly a historical novel—it’s not precisely about Edwardian England and WWI—it has enough signifiers of the literature of the time to make it historical-adjacent. There are a number of recent Nebula nominees in this half-historical place—Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough, Tina Connolly’s Ironskinbut none of them took home the prize. Blackout/All Clear, which was largely set in WWII, picked up the Nebula in 2011, but that was more science fiction than fantasy—and also by a writer as beloved and accomplished as Connie Willis. Witchmark is on solidly magical terrain.

Witchmark is also Polk’s debut. All things being equal (and with notable exceptions), Nebula voters tend to lean toward established writers. It’s an industry award on some level, and though that industry is the arts, one’s connections within the industry do matter. Established writers also have had time to hone their craft; Witchmark is a very accomplished novel, but there are a couple dropped threads in the narrative. It’s entirely possible they’ll get picked up again in the sequel, Stormsong, but the award is for the novel, not the series.

That said, I can assure you I will be reading the hell out of the series. Polk is an author to watch, and I’m very much looking forward to what she writes next.

Follow along with this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series here. See previous years’ entries here.

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Blogging the Nebulas: Blackfish City Carries the Zeitgeist on the Back of a Whale

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 18, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The pitch:

As the title suggests, Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City is as much about a place as it is about any given character. Its chapters cycle through four point-of-view characters: a messenger, a civil servant, a fighter, and a scion of great wealth. The perspective of the fifth character, the city of Qaanaaq, is told in chapters taken from “City Without a Map,” a mysteriously-sourced chronicle of a built city floating on open arctic water somewhere east of Greenland, north of Iceland.

As the book opens, we’re somewhere midway through a climactic apocalypse. Every nation you can think of has fallen (often several times), or changed irrevocably, or disappeared beneath the waves. Qaanaaq—a municipality run by artificial intelligence and owned by anonymous founders—gathers up the flotsam and jetsam of a drowning world.

While reading the first couple chapters, I did something I don’t usually do: I sketched a map of the floating city. It’s an eight-armed starfish of a place, and each numbered spoke has its own particular flavor: the wealthy enclaves of one and two; the slums of seven and eight; the docked ships off of five, where gangsters hold court. Each character pins themselves to the place—or places—they are from, or are going, or where they want to go. Qaanaaq is as callous and as kindly as any city, beholden to the tides of wealth and influence, but still carved out with shifting cultures that owe nothing to the systems of governance.

Qaanaaq’s fragile equilibrium is upset by the arrival of a woman on skiff. Alongside her vessel swims an orca; on the prow sits a polar bear in chains. She’s rumored to be many things, a figure of gossip and myth. Though everyone seems to have heard tell of the orcamancer, her exact location is hard to triangulate, her origins are mysterious, and her motives are opaque. Meanwhile, the city moves to its own rhythms: a young man learns he has a fatal, mentally withering disease; a zipline messenger makes a play for a different life; a brain-damaged fighter upsets his place in the criminal hierarchy; a woman tries to free her mother from a prison in everything but name.

Blackfish City is a peripatetic novel, ranging over the city of Qaanaaq—into its past, into the pasts of its characters, into the larger world and its complicated, strangling history. Its name is a palindrome, and we read it backward and forward in time.

Why it will win:

This may be an odd argument to make, but hear me out: I think Blackfish City is the novel that best encapsulates the zeitgeist of 2018.

It’s a cli-fi novel that isn’t preachy or (necessarily) a bummer, equally hard science-y and character driven. Though a lot of the overt action and submerged backstory is bleak, there’s a tremulous sense of optimism wending its way through the story. The fact of Qaanaaq—this impossible metal starfish clinging to place in the bitter north—makes it an object of wonder. So too is the orcamancer, though the repercussions of that wonder are harsh, if not fatal. Qaanaaq is a patchwork place, both made up of the histories of other places and the trauma of their fall. Like the novel that took home the Nebula in 2016, Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, Sam J. Miller’s first novel for adults has an indefinable quality: it is a story that best encapsulated the weird right-now.

Moreover, the Nebula is an industry award, and Miller has the requisite chops—often a factor in who wins. Last year he picked up the Andre Norton Award for The Art of Starving. (Not too be too reductive, but the Andre Norton is akin to a Nebula for young adult science fiction and fantasy.)

Why it won’t win:

Per usual, I can take the reasons why I think this novel will win and read them backward as I argue why it might not. The novel I thought was the best finger on the pulse of 2017, Amberlough, didn’t take home the Nebula; the award went instead to N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, the absolutely devastating conclusion of a juggernaut of a trilogy. Though Miller does have a well respected YA novel under his belt, Blackfish City is still only his second novel, and his first for adults. And though this may be a little outside the purview of this series, neither did Blackfish City pick up a Hugo nomination. While there is imperfect overlap between the Hugo and Nebula winners, the winners do tend to be taken from the pool of novels nominated for both.

Arguments aside, I fairly loved Blackfish City. Its themes and concerns are right smack in my wheelhouse. Any novel that starts me scribbling notes on a self-drawn map is one that has hit me hard. Reading through the nominees every year introduces me to books I would have otherwise missed. Even though this is a somewhat dippy thing to say, the nomination ends up being its own reward, for me anyway.

Follow along with this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series here. See previous years’ entries here.

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Charlie Jane Ander’s The City in the Middle of the Night Is Science Fiction at its Most Human

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

There’s a hell of a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winner Andrew Sean Greer adorning the cover of The City in the Middle of the Night, the new novel by Nebula Award-winner Charlie Jane Anders. The book is “a breathtaking work of imagination and storytelling… making the cast for Anders as this generation’s Le Guin,” he writes. That’s high praise. The highest praise: Ursula K. Le Guin’s legacy is based not only on her reputation as one of the most influential science fiction and fantasy writers of the last century, but on the deep humanity of her work, which brilliantly explores, with fantastical trappings, transcendent truths of living within and outside of society, and in your own head.

To lift Anders up as Le Guin’s heir is not only bold, it’s also entirely reasonable. Certainly Anders is one of the most visible figures in the landscape of modern sci-fi and fantasy, and not without good reason: consider her years running beloved geek website io9, the accolades she’s received for her short fiction, the Nebula she picked up for her first adult novel, All the Birds in the Sky. Anders had made a name for herself through her work, which tends toward the thoughtful, exciting, and off-kilter, and never fails to challenge readers to dig deep within themselves to explore themes of identity and the intersection of challenges both personal and societal.

In my review, I praised All the Birds in the Sky for its voice, imagination, and boldness: “Imagine if Wes Anderson and John Hughes co-wrote and directed Interstellar, replaced the space travel with a magic school, and hired Lev Grossman to write the novelization.” Her followup, The City in the Middle of the Night, is both equally exceptional and a quantum leap forward for the author. It’s a remarkable piece of science fiction: in one sense cozy and easily recognizable as a hero’s journey, but in another, quite daring—full to the brim with the weird and the fantastical, ideas so big and thoughts and themes that crawl so deeply into your brain, it’s impossible to feel comfortable or complacent as you ingest them.

“Xiosphant is the city of dawn, but Argelo is the dusk city.” This simple snippet of prose, found midway through The City in the Middle of the Night, is ultimately illustrative and telling. The novel takes place on January, a tidally locked planet bifurcated into split halves of ultimate darkness and annihilating sunlight, with a small band of habitable equilibrium in-between. That is where the human colonists have staked their tenuous claim, and where our protagonists, Sophie and Mouth, search for meaning in their hostile world. When their paths collide in the regimented city of Xiosphant, they begin an unimaginable journey that will take them to the hedonistic city of Argelo and beyond, into the endless night.

Duality. Balance. Shifting power. Two sides to every coin. Everything in this novel seems to come in opposing pairs, and Anders wastes no effort in dissecting how these dichotomies affect people on levels personal and societal.

The two cities are light and darkness, dawn and dusk. Traveling through them alongside Sophie and Mouth is startling and revealing. Anders asks the reader to engage with both of the cities’ bright and dark sides—a bone-deep examination of the pros and cons of strict, marxist Xiosphant, where no mouth goes hungry, but time and duty are strictly enforced and the police rule with an iron fist; and free-flowing, libertarian Argelo, where time has no meaning and freedom reigns, but the gap between the haves and the have-nots is a gaping chasm.

The characters exist in duality as well. When we first meet Sophie, she is the equivalent of a scholarship student at the gymnasium, the school churning out the next batch of the Xiosphant’s elite. There, she is besotted with her classmate Bianca, a child of privilege for whom the plight of the downtrodden seems an injustice, but an abstract one. Bianca’s reformer’s idealism is driven by her intellect; Sophie’s, who grew up in poverty, feels it in her bones. Nevertheless, Sophie makes a choice early on to take the blame for a thoughtless act of protest committed by Bianca. Because Sophie doesn’t matter to those in power, her act of compassion is met with the harshest of sentences. It is this act that ultimately propels her on her world-changing journey, but she will continue to linger in Bianca’s orbit throughout the novel. Sometimes clinging to the familiar is more seductive than seeking justice for all.

Mouth, who grew up a nomad, saw her people die out, and has since made a living with a group of wandering couriers, is at odds with everything is Xiosphant, a city that operates on the idea that all life can be scheduled and controlled. Where Sophie is outwardly reserved, but driven by inner passion and empathy, Mouth is a brash and loud, hardened by a difficult life and the loss of her past. While Anders’ exploration of societal struggles might be the novel’s most enduring aspect, recalling foundational works of political SF like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, it works just as well as an action-packed bildungsroman for these women, who are similarly at odds.

Central to the characters’ journeys is the search for something new, something better. A way to fill a hole within them that has no definable shape. Fictional coming-of-age stories are often too neat to be useful, but Anders’ seems to realize there is no easy answer to self-actualization. There’s no keystone moment that will define a life, resolving the messiness of existence into a clear picture of purpose. “Eventually, though,” Mouth considers, “you could get used to something different, if you weren’t careful.” What answers exists are found, perhaps, exactly when you’re not looking for them.

“Maybe you don’t get to choose how you make peace, or what kind of peace you make,” Mouth’s fellow courier Alyssa says, challenging her. “You count yourself lucky if peace doesn’t run away from you.”

Anders is also a master of voice and description. She paints a picture of January with such a stark hand that it’ll take your breath away many times before Sophie and Mouth finish their harrowing journeys. Sophie’s encounters with the Gelet (January’s sentient native creatures, who the human settlers have long, and incorrectly, regarded as simple beasts) provide particularly emotive imagery of the beautiful, hostile planet:

We live in a great city, far from here, under the crust of the night. Cliffs of ice, deep fissures, towering structures of stone and metal, and wheels turning far beneath us, fueled by underground rivers, and furnaces hotter than the touch of the sun. At the heart of our city, tiny creatures who look like us hang in a mesh of warm, dark threads, helpless and spindly. They cry out, their tentacles and pincers still too tiny to communicate properly, but we can feel their distress, and our blood runs thin.

The way Anders uses these encounters to at once introduce Sophie and the reader to the immensely unusual landscape of January and its equally alien inhabitants, but also empathetically bind Sophie to the Gelet, is a testament to the author’s economical storytelling skill and her understanding of the tenuous nature of cultural exchange—between different societies, different races, different species.

Like Le Guin, Anders is adept at taking the ordinary—the ideas, emotions, and conflicts of daily life—and revealing them in a new light, through an alien lens. But even that strange view is really just about showing us more clearly something truly human. Her stories take place on faraway planets, in distant futures, within cultures and societies that feel like the refracted light of our own, but they are really about us. Here. Now.

The City in the Middle of the Night is about the fluidity of identity, the confines of societal expectations, about chasing new beginnings and banishing the ghosts that haunt you. It puts a human face and heart to society’s greatest problems: class inequality. Prejudice. Thoughtlessness. Environmental indifference (especially this last).

All the Birds in the Sky was a masterful story about the end of the world, and exposed many of Anders’ thoughts on love, and the way we cling to one another as we all hurtle toward the inevitable. The City in the Middle of the Night is of a piece, even as it reveals the depth of her skill—it is not a retread, but a whole new beast: less whimsical, more structurally ambitious, more disciplined by an order of magnitude, but no less heartfelt. If All The Birds in the Sky was raw potential, The City in the Middle of the Night is refined, realized.

Is Charlie Jane Anders the new Ursula K. Le Guin? No. She offers too unique a voice, and to profound a vision, to simply be someone’s heir. She is the next Charlie Jane Anders, and The City in the Middle of the Night sees her reaching new peaks. Already, it is one of 2019’s best novels.

The City in the Middle of the Night is available now in a signed edition from Barnes & Noble.

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