Satisfying standalone fantasy, and Nebula nominees

My favorite in this reading pile was Carol Berg’s Song of the Beast, closely followed by Brandon Sanderson’s debut novel, Elantris. They’re both standalone traditional fantasies, with rich detailed worlds, complex characters, twisted plots, action, and politics. I chose both because they were traditional fantasy, but unashamedly standalone. Perhaps because these books didn’t attempt to start a series or multi-book story, they were so satisfying. Both had well-defined systems of magic and a touch of romance. Carol’s protagonist twisted my emotions so much that I could barely stand to put the book down—making this one of my "perfect" reads.

Carol’s The Spirit Lens had beautiful language and every word is selected with care, to evoke the correct emotion and memory. It was a pleasant read, although I didn’t relate to the protagonist as strongly as I did in Song of the Beast.

Flesh and Fire, by Laura Anne Gilman, and Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest, completed all the 2009 Nebula Nominee reading I could do before votes were cast (see Miéville’s The City and The City and Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl in previous posts). For each nominee, there was always something that kept the book from being perfect for me:

  • Flesh and Fire had enjoyable sensory descriptions (a must for a magical system built upon wine making). Unfortunately, the novel felt like an introduction and, at the end, I knew something’s "wrong" in this world. But I knew that from the opening. I also didn’t identify with the young protagonist, since he seemed a bit slow on the uptake for a previous slave who should have a finely-honed sense of survival. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant read.
  • I wanted to like the steampunk Boneshaker but I put it down at least four times in the middle of the story to pick up something else. I like dirigibles, pirates, and poison gas (a lot!) but the first half of the book felt random, like the two main characters were just ricocheting from encounter to encounter. I couldn’t empathize with either the mother or the son she was rescuing until a potential antagonist came on-stage, someone who may or may not be the boy’s father. Finally, I was engaged.
  • The City and The City seemed to be more gritty police procedural than SF. It had a wonderful premise, but it didn’t deliver (from an SF perspective).
  • The Windup Girl was darker and more dystopian than I like. However, it had a detailed, plausible, and consistent world. Paolo Bacigalupi also delivers on everything promised: the intertwining politics and agendas are laid bare, and he resolves the conflicts. It certainly deserved winning the Nebula in the Novel Category — congratulations, Paolo!

Any opinions?

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