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.

The post Blogging the Nebulas: C.L. Polk’s Witchmark Deftly Balances Character and Worldbuilding appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

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The New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2019

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

We’re done looking back at the best sci-fi and fantasy, horrorcomics, and manga of 2018. Now we turn our gaze to the year ahead: here are the new sci-fi and fantasy books coming in 2019 that our team of bloggers and reviewers can’t wait to read.

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir (September 10)
Hello, I am cheating, because I read Tamsyn Muir’s buzzy debut back in September, but I can’t think of another recent (or forthcoming!) book I’d rather experience again for the first time. It’s the story of snarky, smart-mouthed young necromancer Gideon, drafted against her will into a game of galactic intrigue that quickly turns into a meme-filled Agatha Christie murder mystery in a sealed off, decrepit space castle. With skeletons! I loved it so much I blurbed it (“Gonzo fantasy. If Gene Wolfe, Mervyn Peake, and Ray Harryhausen collaborated on a novel on Reddit, the results might be half as mad and a quarter as entertaining as Tamsyn Muir’s necro-maniacal debut.”), and you will too. Love it, I mean. – Joel Cunningham

The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling (April 2)
I’m cheating here too, since I’ve read this one, but you don’t want to miss it: Starling’s tense and exciting debut follows a cave-diver astronaut on an alien who discovers horrors underground. I read it all the way through, barely taking any time to breathe. A must read for thriller fans. – Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

Empress of Forever, by Max Gladstone (June 18)
The Craft Sequence established Max Gladstone as one of the most innovative voices in fantasy. Now he is turning his considerable talents toward a universe-spanning space opera featuring time travel, space empires, and a swashbuckling team of far-future renegades. I have only the faintest idea of what to expect from a book billed as “a feminist Guardians of the Galaxy crossed with Star Wars,” but I know that anything from Gladstone’s word processor will be wildly imaginative, devastatingly smart, and like no space opera I’ve read before. – Kelly Quinn-Chiu

The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft (January 22)
Erstwhile headmaster Thomas Senlin has been climbing the Tower of Babel, on the hunt for his lost wife Marya, for two books. Inching ever upward through grotesque Ringdoms, he’s amassed a motley and charming supporting cast. So, I can’t wait for The Hod King, which promises to give some of those characters (fearsome Iren, mischievous Voleta, and capable captain Edith) far more of our attention. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll hear from Marya, too. – Nicole Hill

Dark Shores, by Danielle L. Jensen (May 7)
Two continents divided by impassable-but-by-magic seas, a badass pirate princess of color, a monstrous scion of nearly forgotten gods, and a legion commander with a dark past from an Empire set on world domination? Sign me up. I’ve been longing for a sweeping epic that takes me out of the traditional psuedo-European model and into more exotic territory, and Dark Shores looks like it fits the bill, with the added bonus of what I hope will be a critical eye on colonialism and a complex emotional sub-plot to keep me engaged in this global saga. Yes, it’s billed as YA, but it has all the signs of being just as nuanced and adventurous as Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy, which I couldn’t get enough of. – Ardi Alspach

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James (February 5)
I’m so excited about Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which has been blurbed as an “African Game of Thrones”: a fantasy national epic more based on African history and folklore. The brutal, bloody politics, roster of disparate characters, and sheer freaking scope of A Brief History of Seven Killings (for which he won the Booker prize) suggests James will crush epic fantasy. – Ceridwen Christensen

Collision: Stories, by J.S. Breukelaar (February 19)
I read Breukelaar’s novel Aletheia earlier this year, and she blew me away with a story that took unexpected turns and seduced me with its vivid prose and flawed, compelling characters. It’s a book I still think about a lot. Since I love short fiction, I really can’t wait to read this collection and see what dark and magical dreams she’ll bring to life there. – Maria Haskins

Empire of Grass, by Tad Williams (May 7)
Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is a classic for a reason. Twenty-five years later, Williams has returned to the land of Osten Ard with The Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, a direct sequel to his famous series, picking up with many of the same characters, themes, and locations fans know and love. The first volume, The Witchwood Crown was a brilliant reintroduction to the series, and Empire of Grass looks to continue Williams’ run as one of our generation’s greatest fantasists. It’s got everything you love—from plucky heroes to mysterious magic, a beautiful world, rich and full of life, but also ancient and barreling toward a new, unforeseeable future. – Adian Moher

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley (March 19)
I’m an unabashed mark for military science fiction that has an ethical core rather than a Physics degree. Hurley’s work is never less than impressive and this story of soldiers discovering just how they’re being deployed, and the temporal price they’re paying for it, looks fantastic. – Alasdair Stuart

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (July 16)
I’ll read pretty much anything with the words “time war” in the title, description, or randomly on page 42, but with these two authors involved, it’s doubtless going to be pretty awesome. Especially since it all kicks off with someone finding a letter on a desolate battlefield marked “burn before reading.” Both Gladstone and El-Mohtar have earned more or less my blind allegiance, but honestly, they had me at the title. – Jeff Somers

Ancestral Night, by Elizabeth Bear (March 5)
A return to space opera after a number of years for Bear. An engineer, a pilot, an AI and a booby trapped derelict ship that leads the pair into a chase with interstellar governments, pirates, and oh yes, the black hole at the center of the galaxy. In an era where space opera is big again, I’ll be very glad to hear Bear’s voice resounding once again in one of my favorite subgenres of SFF. – Paul Weimer

Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig (July 2)
I’ve adored Chuck Wendig’s gritty, creepy writing style since his first Miriam Black novel dropped. He’s written about a zillion works since, but I’m dying to get my hands on this post-apocalyptic jewel. Perhaps because this book, teased as Station 11 meets The Stand, gives off literary-level vibes that imply Wendig is really upping his game on this one—without losing his signature penchant for the darker side of the genre. – Emily Wenstrom

Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky (May 14)
I’m being slightly lazy with this pick, in that Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time was my favorite book of 2018. That self-contained book didn’t demand a sequel, which makes it all the more exciting that we’re getting one—though I might be a hair disappointed if it’s not just the further adventures of hyper-evolved spiders. I expect I’ll love it regardless. – Ross Johnson

Permafront, by Alastair Reynolds (March 19)
Alastair Reynolds is one of my favorite authors, and this novella sounds poised to deliver on a great premise —what if you could travel back in time and make a slight adjustment that meant humanity avoided global catastrophe, but would leave all of recorded history intact? A no-brainer, huh? What could possibly go wrong? – Tim O’Brien

Stormsong, by C.L. Polk (February 11)
Witchmark was one of the best books I read in 2018—a beautiful, romantic, and immersive story and a breath of fresh air in a year that was pretty freaking awful. I nearly cried with joy when I heard there was going to be a sequel; I need to know what happens to everyone. Stormsong will focus on Miles’ sister, Grace, who must deal with the horrible consequences on what they put in motion in Witchmark. Storms threaten to tear their city apart and the book will probably tear my heart apart. I have a few months to get mentally ready and it still probably won’t be enough. I can not wait. – Meghan Ball

Thorn of Emberlain, by Scott Lynch (???)
Just because it doesn’t have a release date, or might not be technically finished, doesn’t mean I can’t anticipate it. It’s been almost six years since The Republic of Thieves was released, and I’m raring to get back to the world of Gentlemen Bastards—a place where the mages are ruthless, the humans are devious, and even priests and children swear like sailors. While Scott Lynch takes his time with books, his “when it’s done” approach never fails to deliver, and I’m looking forward to seeing him follow on from the devastating conclusion of book three. – Sam Reader

What’s your most-anticipated SFF book of 2019?

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