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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5 Recent Novels That Blend Sci-Fi and Horror

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Horror and science fiction often go hand in hand. Fear of the unknown, encounters with the alien, life in a world that can be tipped upside down in a single moment: the two genres are often entwined, gifting a dose of fear to sci-fi and a dash of wonder to unknown horror. Below are five books and series that are made more effective by their blurring of the lines between the scary and the speculative.

The Luminous Dead, by Caitlin Starling
Caitlin Starling’s debut novel is set on an alien world, but its core of psychological horror comes less from the fear of the extraterrestrial monsters lurking in the dark than the all-too-human ones we carry around in our own minds. Caver Gyre Price has been hired to descend into one of the most dangerous underground systems on her colony world, guided only by a single handler, Em, who treats her with little respect and is actively keeping secrets from her. Though she is supposedly the only one active down below, Gyre’s grip on reality begins to fray as her mind unravels from too many hours spent alone in the blackness. As she encounters alien lifeforms, uncovers information about Em’s true mission, and begins seeing things, the facts of what is real and what is not are called into question. Starling keeps the tension high and reality slippery enough that you’ll be as in the dark as Gyre, right up until the end.

Annihilation (The Southern Reach trilogy), by Jeff VanderMeer
While the whole Southern Reach trilogy belongs on this list, the first book in VanderMeer’s incredible series sets the tone for the two that follow. Four woman are sent into the mysterious Area X, a bubble of land that has been touched by something alien; the previous expeditions have either never returned, or they’ve come back changed. Together, these four women must do their best to understand what Area X is,  what it wants, and how it’s changing them. VanderMeer’s work is delicate but unceasingly intense, only increasing the tension as we slowly learn what lies within Area X, and see the effects the place has on both the women exploring it and the land it encompasses. There is beauty in the horror, as we see first-hand the evolution of the familiar world into an alien landscape; by the end of the novel, your notions of what makes us human, who (or what) deserves dignity will be thoroughly tested.

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders
Nebula-winner Charlie Jane Anders’s latest novel is a stunning, cleverly constructed journey across a tidally locked world unfit for the survival of humans, who have nevertheless done just that by gritting their teeth, innovating systems to keep themselves ordered and alive, and carving out an existence on a sliver of land that barely tolerates life at all. Xiosphant, one of the main cities on the planet of January, has no night or day; its time is regimented to the second, and all of its citizens must live by that established clock. Likewise, they must always be on constant guard against any number of terrifying creatures that exist outside its boundaries, called by all-too-friendly names any human from Earth would know (bison, crocodile), but exceedingly alien, and often exceedingly deadly. Gods help you if you wander to either side of the twilight, where you’ll either freeze to death in minutes on the one side or burst into flames on the other. Anders’s world is a hard and terrifying one, but her novel champions our ability to adapt and survive, even as it questions whether the systems we build to do so are worth the horrors they may encompass.

Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar
Jakub Procházka is going to be the first Czech in space; not only that, but he’s going straight to Venus. Given the chance to escape the planet and possibly atone for the crimes of his father, Jakub leaps, and leaves behind his life on Earth—including Lenka, the woman of his dreams. However, on his solo mission, disasters crop up at every turn, starting with the massive alien spider named Hanus who stows away in his shuttle (the two soon become friends of a sort). Kalfar’s debut is a fascinating mixture of absurdism, humanity, and horror; soon after he sets off on his mission, Jakub grows increasingly unsure of whether he’s losing his mind or communicating with a higher or possibly extraterrestrial power. As the narrative moves back and forth between the past and the present, the horror—of isolation of being stuck in space, on a collision course with an uninhabitable planet, and partnered with a massive spider—only intensifies, and Kalfar milks it for all its worth. Jakub’s mission becomes one of survival, not just against the void of space, but his own mind.

The Centenal Cycle, by Malka Older
Let’s round out of list with an unconventional choice: while not specifically a work of horror, Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle trilogy does touch on chilling aspects of paranoia, fear, and the dangers of power being placed in the wrong hands. Across three books (Infomocracy, Null States, and State Tectonics), Older introduces us to a near future world order in which the majority of governments have splintered into smaller, manageable districts called centenals, whose citizens get to choose their governments exactly specified to their minutiae and preferences. All of this bureaucracy is overseen by Information, a worldwide data gathering service that not only monitors the massive communications server, but also helps facilitate the elections that determine which government will hold a Supermajority across all the centenals. While we’re firmly with the characters who could be considered the good guys throughout the books, Older doesn’t shy away from exploring the side effects of such an omnipresent, data-dense surveillance systems, forcing us to consider the terrifying implications of a quasi-utopian vision of the future.

What boundary pushing sci-fi/horror novels do you love?

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Dip Your Toes Into Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Delightful Big Book of Classic Fantasy


Sci-fi and fantasy lit fans are well familiar with the works of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer; among their many accolades, she’s a Hugo winner for her work on Weird Tales, and he’s the bestselling author of Annihilation. But did you know they’ve also spent decades collecting and preserving fantasy stories?

Read more…

7 Impossible Fantasy Cities Worth the Visit

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The Ingenious cover by John Coulthart

Modern cities are vast, wondrous, awe-inspiring things. The soaring heights, the play of light over the buildings, the constant energy in the streets—and each with its own unique ambience. But isn’t all good: cities contain secrets, and pain, and hidden pockets of rot and disrepair—whether through abandonment or willful neglect by the powerful, there are places that carry a much darker energy than the bright lights and bustling streets would have you think.

This dichotomy is what makes a city such a wonderful fantasy setting: introduce speculative elements to my mixture described above, and suddenly you can birth an impossible city, rife with shifting architecture, secret passages, and strange surprises. Here are seven of our favorite impossible cities in fantasy books—wonderful to visit, probably too strange to live in.

Athanor (The Ingenious, by Darius Hinks)
Floating outside of time and space and only coming to rest once a year for the annual Conjunction—during which it adds new districts to itself—Athanor is a massive living city controlled by a secretive group of alchemists known as the Curious Men. While the danger of the place is immediately obvious within two chapters of Darius Hinks’ new novel—its lower levels are ruled by a twisted gang of mutants, the cops know how to hide a body way too well (and also all wear cultist uniforms), and one of the Curious Men has been straight-up murdering people with a skin-shroud so he can take control of and literally bend reality. At the same time, the place feels vibrant and alive in a way few fictional metropolises do, literally pulsing and teeming with life as it travels through and around spacetime. Its constantly changing nature gives it the sense of a wild, beautiful, protean place, its danger as seductive as it is horrifying.

New Crobuzon (Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville)
Built in the ribs of an ancient, madness-inducing eldritch abomination and home to several gods, impossible monsters, and just all-around upsetting people, New Crobuzon is another city both terrifying and, at the same time, weirdly compelling. Miéville’s gods and monsters lend the city an epic air, a feeling that anything that can possibly happen does, and a great many impossible things too (but that’s what happens when you’re home to a trans-dimensional spider-god that crawls across the web of reality, cutting threads and making changes will-nilly). Even the most horrific of horrors are kind of morbidly compelling at a remove—wouldn’t you like to see the gigantic robot god that uses a corpse to talk to humans? To book a lunch meeting with the Ambassador of Hell? New Crobuzon is a terrifying place for those living in it, of course, given that the government is a fascist nightmare and the citizens are at the mercy of numerous, sometimes dream-consuming monsters. Visit its twisting streets, sure. But book your return ticket in advance, just in case.

The City (Doña Quixote and Other Citizens, by Leena Krohn)
Krohn’s unusual prose slowly builds a city out of encounters between Doña Quixote and the various other residents, and in her weird interactions with the city’s various locales, like the strange tower in the middle of the park and a carnival house of mirrors that reveal odd secrets about those who look into them. It’s one of the most livable cities on this list, given that it’s basically a magical-realist version of Krohn’s own Helsinki—with the addition of Doña Quixote, who seems to change the landscape and even the nature of the people she encounters. While a little disorienting, the city and its strange citizens aren’t actively hostile, and Dona Quixote seems like a pretty good person to know, even if the tenor of her interactions with others tend to vary wildly. On top of which, the glass sculptures scattered everywhere must make for some gorgeous evening ambiance.

Ambergris (City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer)
Not many cities can claim their own freshwater giant squid. It’s pretty much just Ambergris and Lake George, if we’re being honest. But while that alone would put it ahead of the pack, Ambergris also has numerous living saints, artists, cafes, religions, and bookstores (the most prominent being the Borges Bookstore, named for one of Ambergris’ major inspirations). But while there’s a weird dreamlike atmosphere and wonderful aesthetic to Ambergris, there’s also something supremely off about the place, whether it’s the riotous festivals that cause fatalities, the extra-dimensional refugee in the city sanitarium who claims he wrote the entire city, the invasions by the indigenous fungus-people the metropolis displaced, or the ongoing uprising against foreign occupation—an incident that features one of the more cheerful mass poisonings in literary history. These contradictions are part and parcel to enjoying Ambergris, a city weird and wonderful in equal measure—even if its more horrifying elements would be best experienced on the page.

Dayzone/Nocturna/Dusk (A Man of Shadows, by Jeff Noon)
The first novel featuring perpetually out-of-his-depth private investigator Nyquist, A Man of Shadows’ gigantic city is actually three cities layered on top of each other, each neighborhood experiencing a different hour of the day: the bright Dayzone, perpetually lit by artificial bulbs representing sunlight; the moody darkness of Nocturna; and the eerie Lynchian Dusk, wrapped in perpetual fog and filled with abandoned art-deco theaters and oddly empty streets. But, lest this be thought of as simply an aesthetic, the city isn’t just lit for different hours of the day but actually seems to be comprised of them, requiring special medication and constant watch-resetting to traverse, as it’s common to experience time-slippage. Despite this, the city(ies) seems like a friendly enough place if you can adjust, though watch out for falling lightbulbs.

The Tower of Babel (Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft)
While not the weirdest place on this list, the Tower (which feels more like its own world, with its various and diverse “ringdoms,” ecosystems, and bodies of water) is still definitely up there. A clockwork sphinx watches over the various demesnes, and the place has a decidedly wild aesthetic, reminiscent of all the best weird weird fiction yet still entirely its own thing. Through the eyes of flustered everyman Thomas Senlin, the tower seems even more bizarre, its byzantine culture often hindering him as much as it helps him ascend further up the tower in search of his missing wife. Bancroft adds a nice juxtaposition to Senlin’s tour in the form of the cheerfully unhelpful Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, a travel book that’s advice stands in stark contrast to the horrors and wonders of the impossibly high metropolis.

Eth (Viscera, by Gabriel Squailia)
Eth is built on the organs of dead gods. I feel like I should get that out of the way ahead of time. It’s home to a death cult that gets high off of gigantic poisonous bugs and is building an army of flesh-golems out of guts, and was once known for being stunningly progressive—before the riots and constant revolutions meant everyone competent ruler was strung up by their entrails so the revolutionaries could briefly put a dog on the throne… before getting overthrown themselves. That this only scratches the surface of the metric ton of violent weirdness that happens in Eth says something about the city, whose numerous weird happenings are outlined in Squailia’s twisted and highly enjoyable novel of identity, revenge, and wholesale evisceration. Viscera‘s setting never distracts from the complicated, messy, and very human heart underneath all those entrails.

What impossible city would you most like to explore?

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