James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes
Mira Grant, Deadline
George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons
China Miéville, Embassytown
Jo Walton, Among Others
My first reaction, upon seeing this shortlist, was "well, at least there's no damn talking horses," although I suppose the alien civilization in Miéville's novel comes somewhat close to that description. That reaction was followed by a "meh" sound, a feeling that hours later still lingers. I have read all but the Grant on this list (it is the sequel to last year's Hugo-nominated Feed, whose zombie storyline did not interest me when I received a review copy). I reviewed the Martin and Miéville books last year and will be reviewing the Walton within the next month.
These novels, for the most part, are "safe" choices. They are works for the most part by well-established authors, with two being middle volumes in multi-volume works (Grant and Martin) and another being the initial volume of a space opera series (Corey). Miéville and Walton published standalone novels after each previously had written several other novels. Corey (or rather Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is perhaps the least well-known, relatively speaking, of the shortlisted novelists.
Yet veteran writers can still occasionally surprise readers with imaginative works that veer in unexpected directions. However, this is not the case here with these books. Among Others is a reflective piece, set at the beginning of the 1980s, is a nostalgia-driven piece. Although I believe it is the most accomplished of the finalists I've read in regards to its construction and execution of thematic elements, there is nothing innovative about Walton's story. It is a well-told reiteration of other reflective novels that contain traces of fantastical elements. There is nothing really original about it, but it was a revisitation that also had very few narrative flaws.
Miéville's Embassytown I found to be an uneven work that is the latest in a line of Miéville's works to frustrate me. Miéville has the ability to be one of those transcendent writers who can meld vivid imagery and memorable characterization into a work that would seethe with imaginative life. Yet he never quite connects the pieces; his narratives are sloppy. A main narrative theme here in Embassytown, that language can be shown to be a tool of imperialist hegemony, is weakened by the implausibility of the natives' "pristine" linguistic state (where Saussere's signifiers and signifieds are melded into one and no true semantic metaphor can exist) and the haphazard way in which this state is altered by the appearance of a fractious Ambassador duo. The reader's main point of view portal, Avice, likewise is not a fully-realized character. While some may find her character to be a realistic portrayal of a mostly passive observer, I noticed that there were times in which her actions did not suit this plausible character role, making for an inconsistent narrative/action sequencing, particularly for the second third of the novel. It is very tricky to craft a smooth, well-fitting characterization and narrative structure around the thematic issues of language and imperialism. Miéville's novel has too many exposed joins and leaking caulk for it to be a nearly-perfectly realized work. It is not a "bad" novel, per se, but instead it is a sloppy narrative, which to some is about as damning.
Martin's A Dance of Dragons is the fifth volume in a best-selling epic fantasy series. When I reviewed it last year, I found that I liked this prose, particularly in the scene with Tyrion and others sailing down a haunted river, really captured that elusive, horrific quality that heightens reader senses as they read a well-written passage. The problem with this novel is that it has to do so much over its 1000 hardcover pages. Series fans have complained about the "pace," by which I presume they mean how quickly they can get to "the good stuff" with their favorite characters, but for me the larger issue revolves around the fact that there is so much to cover that there are no true resolutions here. Martin seemed to be trapped in a corner, having already had to divide the narrative in two with his previous 2005 novel, A Feast of Crows, with the consequence that both novels lack a cohesiveness that the first three volumes contained. The plot has moved to the point of massive events poised to occur, but nothing really does here, at least in the sense of a true or even false climax such as those contained in a beheading, a battle, and a betrayal in the first three volumes. This weakens the effectiveness of the scenes that appear here, as they come across as being (mostly necessary) set pieces that will not truly be at play for one or even two novels hence.
Grant's Deadline I cannot say anything on, as it is highly unlikely I will read the first volume, Feed, much less this second volume in her zombie series. Not knocking the author, only noting that I am disinterested in reading this series.
I have a love/hate relationship with space operas, trending more toward the hate side in recent years. Too often am I left feeling there is a false grandiosity to these tales. Galactic or, if set "earlier," solar system civilizations that focus on macro-level issues with rather bland, utilitarian characters who seem to exist only to further some narrative point are another sticking point with me. Leviathan Wakes reminded me of those elements that I despise in space operas. I found the writing to have pretensions of saying something profound and eloquent, without the technical mastery to make either happen. The characters were bland and seemed to be oriented more toward fitting in with role expectations associated with prior space operas than with anything that really felt "alive." The plot was a retread and the execution was competent but nothing worthy of "best of year" status to me. It took me months to finish reading this on my iPad after I received an e-galley as a bonus to my purchase of Abraham's The Dragon's Path (which was a superior novel to Leviathan Wakes, despite my reservations about the "lightness" of the setting and themes) because it was hard not to feel that I had read such reprocessed writing elsewhere.
Despite my mixed to negative comments on these shortlisted novels, I cannot say that I am surprised that they are on here. I knew the Martin and Miéville books were very popular with many people and despite my criticisms, I can understand why many would love them enough to vote for them. Cannot comment on Grant/McGuire's writing, as I have not read much past the cover blurbs, but she seems to have a passionate fanbase as well. I know Abraham has his supporters (and I did like his previous fantasy series, which is what led me to even read this collaborative space opera) and Walton generally receives critical praises. Yet this lack of true surprises I find to be disappointing. Obviously, one cannot "fire" membership voting (even if it would be a folly to do this even with panel-selected works with which you disagree vehemently over a period of years), but one certainly can question if what is produced from these "fan" votes is as much an acknowledgement of something brilliantly written than a symbol of common denominators that will produce shortlists that hew closely to a certain "formula." As long as there isn't an active critical base within these genre fandoms that make readers question what they are reading more and seeking out more than just reiterations of familiar, beloved works/genres, "safe" shortlists like this will continue to be produced. Only caveat that I would add is that erstwhile critics better be aware of the social climes, or else they risk being just as "out of touch" as those voters with which they may tar with that brush.