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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Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books with a Powerful Message of Social Justice

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

From The Time Machine to Kirk and Uhura‘s unprecedented kiss, speculative fiction has long concerned itself with breaking barriers and exploring issues of race, inequality, and injustice. The fantastical elements of genre, from alien beings to magical ones, allow writers to confront controversial issues in metaphor, granting them a subversive power that often goes unheralded.

On this, the day we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., let us consider novels that incorporate themes of social justice into stories that still deliver the goods—compelling plots, characters you’ll fall in love with, ideas that will expand your mind.

The Patternist series, by Octavia Butler (Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, The Patternmaster)
Most of Octavia Butler’s books could probably find a place on this list. Arguably the most prominent, most widely-read African-American sci-fi writer, themes of race and power recur throughout her novels, including her breakout work, 1979’s Kindred, which saw a young black girl travel back in time to the darkest days of American slavery, a witness to how much had changed, and how much hadn’t. We’d also highlight the four-book Patternist series, published between 1977 and 1984, which sketches out an alternate history stretching back to ancient Egypt, exploring efforts by an immortal alien being to create a new race of humanity through selective breeding. Wild Seed in particular uses abduction as a metaphor for slavery, as the telepathic, undying mutant coerces a West-African woman (herself an immortal gifted with seemingly supernatural abilities) and brings her to the U.S. in the 1700s.

Iron Council, by China Miéville
Miéville is a member of the International Socialist Organization and wrote his doctoral thesis on Marxism, so it’s no surprise that his sci-fi and fantasy novels, in addition to being deeply weird and incredibly imaginative, tackle questions of  economic and social inequality and speaking truth to power. This is most evident is his celebrated Bas Lag trilogy, particularly Iron Council, about a group of revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the corrupt powers that control and oppress the citizens of the twisted city of New Crobuzon. Though his work has been lambasted by some for being too overtly political, its narrative drive and potent imagery make it as unforgettable as literature as it is provoking as argument.

Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson
This coming-of-age novel by Jamaican-Canadian writer Hopkinson was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. Written entirely in Caribbean patois, it tells the story of a Tan-Tan, a young girl living on a colony planet where there is a great economic divide, the lower class is under constant surveillance, and crimes are met with banishment to an alien world called New Half Way Tree. After her father commits an unforgivable offense, he flees with Tan-Tan to New Half Way Tree, where she must eventually learn to forge her own identity among the indigenous alien population while struggling to come to terms with sexual abuse. The core of the novel considers the ways marginalized individuals must act out to escape from cultural oppression.

The Imperial Radch Trilogy, by Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy)
A common way science fiction addresses contemporary social issues is, of course, to shift the lens to focus on a speculative subject that has both nothing and everything to do with today. Ann Leckie’s celebrated space opera/military SF trilogy, beginning with the Hugo Award-winning Ancillary Justice, picks a few good ones. Most obviously, the rights of artificially intelligent spaceships to self-determination, but also, the efforts, both deliberate and accidental, of dominant societies to erase the cultural values of those people it has dominated, whether economically or with military might, and the rights of those people to choose to exist with autonomy within those colonizing societies, or to be forced to conform and serve it (quite literally, in this case, in the form of zombified, mind-wiped soldier bodies). Yes, yes, there are lots of awesome chase sequences and space battles as well (and tea…so much tea), but, well, sometimes a sentient starship is more than just a sentient starship.

The Bartimeaus Sequence (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate, The Ring of Solomon), by Jonathan Stroud
Though ostensibly a middle grade series for readers looking for their next magical fin after finishing Harry Potter, Stroud’s Bartimeaus series (a trilogy and a prequel) hides powerful, deeply progressive messages about colonialism, civil rights, and inequality within a thrilling, cheekily humorous adventure story. As the first book opens, the title character, a 5,000-year-old immortal djinni, is bound by magic to serve the whims of 12-year-old Nathaniel, the generally good-hearted apprentice to a middling magician. With the unwilling help of the supernatural being, who will suffer terrible pain if he refuses the boy’s commands, Nathaniel uncovers a plot to overthrow London’s ruling sorcerer class. But by the second book, Nathaniel has become a part of the machine himself, and the focus shifts to a group of young people fighting against the entrenched powers that be. As a whole, the series is as much about prejudice, injustice, and the fight for equality—sorcerers aren’t inherently powerful; they just have the money required to purchase magical equipment, artifacts, and education—as it inventive battle sequences between supernatural beings.

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander
This slender novelette crams in an enormous amount of real and alternate history worldbuilding in telling the story of downtrodden creatures—laborwomen, a circus elephant—fighting back against the capitalist systems that view them as less valuable than the fruits of their labor. Marrying the real injustices heaped upon both the “Radium Girls” who developed horrific cancers after being knowingly exposed to dangerous radiation in their jobs painting glowing watch dials, and the “troublesome” elephant named Topsy, publicly executed as a spectacle, the story explores an unlikely cross-species sisterhood that arises to combat an unjust system.

An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
The remarkable debut novel by Rivers Solomon, extrapolates our history of prejudice and division into a future context, as the last remnants of humanity flee a ruined Earth onboard the generation ship Matilda. Three hundred years out, society on the ship has come to resemble a pre-Civil Rights era America (and, more than a little, the America of 2017) as a white supremecist ruling class controls the ship on the back of slave labor by its darker-skinned passengers. Aster is a motherless child aboard the ship Matilda, on which lowdeckers like her work on vast rotating plantations under the weak light of Baby, their engineered nuclear sun, living lives of trauma and subject to the cruel vagaries of upper deck guards. We meet Aster as she fights to save a child’s life. omeone—probably the Sovereign, their god-benighted ruler—has cut the heat to the lower decks, and the child has something like trench foot, the limb frozen and rotting. Aster is apprentice to the Surgeon General Theo Smith, despite her low status, and is learned in the skills of medicine. When she is called by the Surgeon Theo for help to save the poisoned Sovereign, Aster is righteously defiant.She hates the Sovereign, as all the lowdeckers do—he is the exultant face of their oppression. As one ruler falls and the next is enshrined, the equilibrium of Aster and Theo’s lives, and the lives of all Matilda’s lower decks, are are violently upset, as the spectre of civil war appears on the artificial horizon.

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho
Like the Bartimeaus series, Zen Cho’s debut novel (which receives a sequel, The True Queen, in a few months) uses comforting tropes of magic and romance to hide the bitter pill of her narrative, which is really all about racism, gender politics, and the fear of the other. In a version of Regency Britain ruled by a council of sorcerers, Zacharias Wythe has been named the next Sorcerer Royal—but not without controversy. Though he is the greatest magician of his generation, he is also dark-skinned and a former slave, and more than a few bigoted magicians have blamed the recent troubles on his rise to power. Facing internal opposition at every turn, Zacharias attempts to solve the mystery of why England’s stores of magic are drying up, enlisting the help of half-black girl who cleans the rooms at a magic school for young noblewomen (this being the Regency era, the school teaches women to suppress their magical talents rather than hone them), yet may be more magically gifted than any of them. In addition to being a delightful romance and an intriguing mystery, Cho’s novel explores the fight for racial and gender equality in a class-conscious society that is both at a few centuries remove, and not all that different from our current reality.

The Binti Trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor’s recent, Hugo-winning Binti Trilogy fits nicely here; the protagonist is a woman from a marginalized human tribe who is the first of her people to be offered a chance to study at a the galaxy’s most elite university, but doing so will require her to give up her identity—but it is ultimately that uniqueness that will help her to save her own life and form new bonds of understanding across a vast cultural divide. But if you can stomach something unremittingly darker, the World Fantasy Award-winner Who Fears Death also applies. Set in a post-apocalyptic future Sudan where a light-skinned race oppresses a darker-skinned one, a girl of both societies, born out of violence and gifted with magical abilities, sets off to murder her father. Incorporating scenes of barbaric female genital mutilation and the use of rape as a weapon of control, it is a harrowing, angry novel about a woman who refuses to be a victim.

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The fight for social justice is one that is as much about economic inequality as it is about racial inequality. LeGuin’s landmark dual Hugo and Nebula winner slots into the former category, considering the relationship between two disparate, symbiotic planets, one that embodies logical ends of extreme capitalism, and one that operates by spare, socialist ideals. The novel’s subtitle is “An Ambiguous Utopia,” and it is tough to figure out where that perfect society exists within it, or if it is possible for one to truly exist anywhere (even in fiction).

The Necessary Beggar, by Susan Palwick
This is the refugee immigrant narrative writ large: after one of their own commits a crime of passion, a family is banished from their homeworld through a mysterious interdimensional gate and finds itself in the contemporary U.S., where they must learn to shed their cultural identities or risk ostracization, imprisonment, or even death. Haunted by the past (literally), they must learn to forge a new future without losing all of themselves. Palwick’s commentary on the U.S. immigration debate (still relevant even a decade after it was first published) is not exactly subtle, but it never overwhelms what is, in the end, a heartbreaking, human story.

Return to Nevèrÿon series, by Samuel R. Delany (Tales of Nevèrÿon, Neveryóna, Flight from Nevèrÿon, Return to Nevèrÿon)
Openly gay, African-American Delany has long been counted among sci-fi and fantasy’s most progressive, provocative writers. Though best known for the dense, difficult Dhalgren, this fantasy series, published between 1979 and 1987, deserves equal consideration for the way it works to undermine deeply entrenched cultural narratives. Ostensibly a series of barbarian stories in the sword-and-sorcery tradition, it flips around the narrative to place power in the hands of a dark-skinned civilization that enslaves a pale-skinned one. Within this environment, Delany explores such then-controversial issues as homosexuality and the AIDS crisis.

The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky)
Jemisin’s three-time Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy is a ragged scream of rage at the injustice that racism and inequality brings. In the opening chapter, a man uses magic to break the world because the world has shown him it has no cause to treat him like a human. A woman cradles the broken body of her son, murdered because of what he is, and what he represents, rather than anything he did. A government treats immensely powerful but subjugated magic users, who have the innate power to move the earth, as animals, little better than tools, breaking their will and their bones in order to keep them compliant and ensure the continuity of the society that oppresses them. That some of these people, so-abused, choose to destroy everything in their anger, perhaps we can forgive them for lashing out. That some of them still see beauty in the broken earth speaks to their humanity more than anything else. Across three novels, Jemisin makes you understand what might drive someone to shatter the world rather than continue to live within an unjust system (“No voting on who gets to be people.”), and keeps the hope alive that something better might rise of the rubble.

Octavia’s Brood, edited by Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown
This powerful collection of “visionary fiction” (a term meant to represent sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, and horror) was inspired by the work of Octavia Butler, and seeks to explore the connection between fantastical writing and real-world movements for social change. In these stories, unnatural occurrences reflect social ills and injustice, as in “The River,” by the collection’s co-editor Adrienne Marie Brown, in which the Detroit River comes to embody the violence of gentrification and displacement that has been visited upon the residents of the city. Including essays by Tananarive Due and Mumia Abu-Jamal, a roster of exciting new writers, and a few familiar names (including LeVar Burton and Terry Bisson), this is a vital, visceral, and essential collection.

What work of science fiction or fantasy changed the way you view the world? 

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