Book Reviews Nebula Readathon

Nebula Readathon 2011: Blackout, Ship Breaker & Behemoth

Welcome everyone, to The Book Smugglers’ Nebula Readathon 2011! In honor of the annual Nebula Awards, we will be hosting an interwebs readathon, in which we will attempt to read all of the titles on the Best Novel and Andre Norton Award for YA ballots. You can see the full details, schedule, and related posts HERE.

Today’s nominees are Blackout by Connie Willis, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, & Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld.

Blackout by Connie Willis

In her first novel since 2002, Nebula and Hugo award-winning author Connie Willis returns with a stunning, enormously entertaining novel of time travel, war, and the deeds—great and small—of ordinary people who shape history. In the hands of this acclaimed storyteller, the past and future collide—and the result is at once intriguing, elusive, and frightening.

Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place. Scores of time-traveling historians are being sent into the past, to destinations including the American Civil War and the attack on the World Trade Center. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser, Mr. Dunworthy, into letting her go to VE Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. And seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who has a major crush on Polly, is determined to go to the Crusades so that he can “catch up” to her in age.

But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments for no apparent reason and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, unexploded bombs, dive-bombing Stukas, rationing, shrapnel, V-1s, and two of the most incorrigible children in all of history—to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

From the people sheltering in the tube stations of London to the retired sailors who set off across the Channel to rescue the stranded British Army from Dunkirk, from shopgirls to ambulance drivers, from spies to hospital nurses to Shakespearean actors, Blackout reveals a side of World War II seldom seen before: a dangerous, desperate world in which there are no civilians and in which everybody—from the Queen down to the lowliest barmaid—is determined to do their bit to help a beleaguered nation survive.

Ana’s Take: It is no secret that I have become a huge Connie Willis’ fan in the past few months and was ecstatic when she was nominated to the Nebula Awards and even more so when I got to read it for the Readathon . Blackout/All Clear is One-Novel-Published-In-Two-Parts and I will be talking about Blackout only, today and about All Clear next week (even though, really, this is one book split into two – thankfully the duology was nominated as such).

These books are part of a series of standalone novels that deal with time travel historians from Oxford University travelling back in time from the mid of the 21st century to observe History as it happens. I wouldn’t say you HAVE to have read the previous books in the series (To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book and the novella Fire Watch) BUT I found that enjoyed this one more knowing about the previous books not only because some of the storylines somewhat intersect with those that came before but also because two of the main characters from Doomsday Book, Dr. Dunworthy and Colin, have Really Important Roles to play here. And now that we have this intro out of the way…..


It’s the year 2060 and three historians are getting ready to take on their different assignments but are growing increasingly frustrated when their team leader, Dr Dunworthy keeps changing where and when they are supposed to go. Their assignments are shifted around and the three end up being sent to different months in 1940: Mike Davis, who is studying Heroes is sent to observe the evacuation of Dunkirk; Polly Churchill is to go to London to observe the Blitz (an aside: our Colin, who is 17 now, is completely in love with 25 year old Polly and asks her to wait for him to “catch up” which he plans to do by doing assignments that would last years and then going back to the same point where she is. He also promises her that he WILL get her out if something happens to her. This is your first clue that Something Bad Is About To Happen); Merope Ward, the youngest and the most inexperienced of the trio is sent to Warwickshire to observe children evacuated from London. Parallel to those three, we also get to see a few other historians a few years later, also observing the World War II (the relevance of those parallel stories only becomes clear in the second volume).

Now, it is part of the internal logic of these books that in theory, the continuum will always, ALWAYS prevent the past to be altered by the historian and it save-guards itself typically with what is called slippage: a shift in the time target. For example, all three historians experience a certain slippage of a few hours when traveling to the point in time they were supposed to go (this is your clue #2). Anyways, the three proceed to do what they are supposed to do, with some success but then THE SHIT HITS THE FAN when some of them find themselves in situations time travelers are not supposed to and then it gets worse when their drops do not open AT ALL and it seems that the three are trapped in the past, in one of the darkest hours of history.

What is going on? Why are the drops not working? Can they try and find each other in the chaos of World War 2? The stakes are high, the tension builds and build but this particular crisis and plight however, is nothing compared to what the contemps are going through and this is what makes Willis’ books so freaking awesome and relevant. The mission is to observe facts and events but they are also amazing observations of people, how they deal with the horrible things happening to them, how they survive in face of adversity. It is about love and loss and hope and death. And I can’t begin to express how amazing it was to read a book set during the Blitz (and Willis’ did extensive research and it shows) and now I want to go and read/watch everything about the period that I can get my hands on. But I digress – this is another incredible Willis-Book. It is full of interesting facts which are vividly incorporated into the narrative not to mention the appealing characters from the three main characters to the secondary ones (including the two impossible street urchins Alf and Binnie; a Shakespearean actor and even Agatha Christie) and those impressive internal spiraling thought-processes that only Time Travelers can understand.

Suffice it to say: if you already love Connie Willis, I don’t see how you can’t love this book (at least to one extent or another). But do yourself a favour, you must – and I can’t stress this enough – have All Clear on stand-by. You will need it as soon as you finish Blackout.

Is it Nebula worthy? I will refrain from answering this question until I talk about All Clear next week. (But I bet you can already guess what I am going to say).

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Full Review HERE

In America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota–and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: Strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life. . . .

In this powerful novel, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers a thrilling, fast-paced adventure set in a vivid and raw, uncertain future.

Thea’s Take: Dystopian titles (the more post-apocalyptic, the better) are the soup du jour of the Young Adult world at the moment. I love dystopian novels, and have read them since I was a wee thing myself – I think I fell in love with the subgenre after reading The Giver for the first time in fifth grade, so it is immensely cool to see how popular it is becoming today. That said, not all books are created equally, and I’ve become increasingly disappointed with the bizarre “romantic” SF/dystopias that have been released over the past year or so.[1. Check out some awesome posts people have been writing about this incredibly irritating phenomenon.]

Enter Ship Breaker.

Mr. Bacigalupi’s first foray into the Young Adult genre is made of awesome. It’s unflinchingly brutal, set in a world post-oil, in which salvage rats like Nailer make a hard living by breaking into the rusted, dangerous ruins of old tankers, looking for lost depositories of black gold. In a world ravaged by climate change (resulting in huge, unpredictable hurricanes, flooded coastlines and the like) and with such a huge disparity between the rich and the poor controlled by corporations, Ship Breaker is a stark look at an all-too-possible future America. It’s a harrowing read that doesn’t have an idiotic forced love at first sight drivel that seems to be so popular in YA dystopias these days (really – the world is falling apart – do you have time to think about how hawt and dreamy such-and-such dude is?), and instead is a straight-up harrowing, violent, unforgiving read. The protagonists are children, yes, but this could easily be an adult book, a companion novel to The Windup Girl. That’s not to say there isn’t any hope for Nailer, Pima, and Nita – but it’s done realistically and is tempered throughout the book.

The characterizations are fantastic, from Nailer’s toughness and troubling moral choices to his father’s franky terrifying, violent, merciless tendencies.

THIS is the YA dystopian novel that people should read. Screw that other crap. Ship Breaker ranks right up there with The Giver on my list of favorites in this subgenre. Absofreakinglutely recommended.

Is it Nebula Worthy? Oh HELL yes. Not only was Ship Breaker an amazing read, but it also made my Top 10 Books of 2010. I loved it more than I loved his much-praised, multiple-award-winning adult novel The Windup Girl! YES. If there were bets being placed on these awards, Ship Breaker would be my call for winner of the Norton.

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
Full Review HERE

The behemoth is the fiercest creature in the British navy. It can swallow enemy battleships with one bite. The Darwinists will need it, now that they are at war with the Clanker powers.

Deryn is a girl posing as a boy in the British Air Service, and Alek is the heir to an empire posing as a commoner. Finally together aboard the airship Leviathan, they hope to bring the war to a halt. But when disaster strikes the Leviathan’s peacekeeping mission, they find themselves alone and hunted in enemy territory.

Alek and Deryn will need great skill, new allies, and brave hearts to face what’s ahead

Ana’s Take: I loved Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and though that Behemoth was a more than worthy-sequel. This series is quite possibly one of my favourite ongoing YA series not to mention the only one I consider to be REAL Steampunk. In the words of one of the main protagonists: it is barking awesome.

Behemoth picks up right after Leviathan , in this version of World War I as the airship Leviathan is making its way to Constantinople (or Istanbul) on a peacekeeping mission to patch things up with the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire after Churchill ahem, “borrowed” one of their warships. The mission is important because the Ottomans seem to be close to siding with the Clankers ( ie the Germans). Inside the Leviathan the two protagonists, Deryn and Alek deal with their own problems. Both are still hiding their true identities with Deryn pretending to be a boy and Alek pretending to be a commoner.

Fast-paced, full of action sequences (and a lot of them from Deryn’s point of view, where she totally saves the day several times), political intrigue and an imaginative world with creatures and machines, Behemoth is a tremendously fun book but without losing sight of greater, deeper explorations of patriotism, friendship, religion and ethics. Not to mention the incredible art by Keith Thompson.

Is it Nebula worthy? Oh yes!!! It is definitely Nebula worthy (although probably not my favourite, but more on that when the time comes). It was definitely one of last year’s highlights for me and I am happy it has been nominated for a Nebula.

So there you have it! Our reactions to the first two titles on our Nebula Readathon ballot. Now it’s YOUR turn to join in the discussion. If you’ve read either of these books, let us know what you think! Leave a link to your review below, or feel free to start discussion here in the comments.

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  • SonomaLass
    April 2, 2011 at 12:39 am

    Yay for all three of these books! I haven’t read Behemoth yet, so I’m glad to hear you thought it a worthy sequel. I loved Leviathan; as you say, that’s real steampunk. Bacigalupi is a really fine writer, and I must make time for this book.

    But oh, Connie Willis! She is flat-out amazing — I squeed all over Twitter when you said you were reading her for the first time. I am impatiently waiting for All Clear from the library, having foolishly read Black Out six months ago. Didn’t know it was two books until too late! After your Nebula reads, you should read her novel Bellwethwe. It’s a quirky favorite of mine.

  • Kerry
    April 4, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I foolishly read “Blackout” when it came out and “All Clear” was months away.

    But it turned out all right in the end, as I simply reread it once I got “All Clear” and read the two back to back.

    I simply loved them both.

    I haven’t read either of the other two books, although I have read “Leviathan” and will get to “Behemoth” when I have some time.

    I’m not sure if I can manage “Ship Breaker”. It sounds terribly grim and that tends to scare me off, even if it is really good.

  • Jodie
    April 8, 2011 at 2:51 am

    I read both of these in time, but still have to post about them. I agree they’re both Nebula worthy winners. Also in ‘Behemoth’ the Deryn/ Lilit kiss where I think it’s made pretty clear that she knows that Deryn is a girl – win. Wouldn’t you absolutely love a spin off about her journey now that she’s lost her father?

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