Hi readers, I had a good time reading all the Hugo nominated novels this year and just wanted to share my thoughts. Here's my ranking, created according to CSF principles, which tend to reward novelty/plausibility/optimism more than other factors.
All these books are clearly above average, as evidenced by their nominations. I felt there was a pretty clear delineation between the top three on my list and the bottom three, though — the top three ranked fairly high on all the axes I care about the most, while the bottom three were types of fiction I generally don't read. I'm grateful that I did read them, though, and I'll talk more about that later.
There will be some spoilers here, but no major plot reveals.
I loved this book, and wrote a review about it
when the book came out. Revisiting the book this year, I think some of the situations felt a little more agressively contrived than when I first read it, but I still felt it edged out A Desolation Called Peace on my combined novelty/plausibility/optimism scale.
This was a truly excellent novel, and if I were to bet I'd pick this one to win the Hugo. I think it has a broader appeal than Project Hail Mary, and Martine writes better prose than Weir (sorry Andy, style and character are not your strong suit).
is the sequel to A Memory Called Empire
, which won the Hugo for best novel in 2020. I actually think Desolation
is a superior book, and it touches on several themes that are near to my heart (first contact, alien intelligences, interstellar conflict, and novel social structures, among others).
One thing that separates Memory from Desolation is the POV characters — the former is mostly all free indirect discourse with Marit, but the latter swaps POV characters every chapter. The POV characters are very good, and I especially enjoyed the new fleet yaotlek (admiral).
The thing the book has me thinking about more than I usually do is culturally mandated behaviors that denote when a person is part of the "in" group. In the empire it's all about certain types of lyrical language and body language, but it all seems to be fairly codified. In the US at the present time we don't have unifying behaviors like that across the board, but they do exist in various forms. How these behaviors evolve is complex and interesting.
The book is so good at discussing body language that a friend of mine said "The book made me want to go into the bathroom and practice smiles in the mirror".
The actual plot itself wasn't super novel, although I think it treats hive minds with a little more respect than most stories that use the trope. The thing where the aliens kill a settlement because they don't think they're people reminded me strongly of the Ender's Game series, even though the type of hive mind in that was very different. I'd have liked it if they talked a little more about the reasoning behind the settlement murder from the aliens' perspective.
I also thought Martine did a great job of conveying how military officers are required to make significant decisions without enough data, and how that results in a drastically different worldview than that of an academic.
And finally, the prose was wonderful. Little things like "You think these aliens are offensive; your word for offensive is 'wasteful'". Just so good. I highly, highly recommend this novel.
This one is the fourth book in a series of novels by Becky Chambers, so it's going to be hard to do a fully standalone review, but I'll give it a shot. I read the first book in the series (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
), which was a pleasant romp through the galaxy with a kind of found-family Star Trek vibe. This book has a similar vibe, but takes place within a planetary environment and is even more cosy.
The book was aggressively slice-of-life — the framing device of the orbital ablation cascade was not really a plot at all, but the author pulled it off.
It was wonderful how Chambers wove together so many different stories about culture clashes and philosophical differences in such a concise package.
These days I'm always a sucker for stories that pull on my parental strings, and there was a mother/child subplot (Roveg/Ouloo) that touched me particularly deeply.
There was also a deep argument between two of the characters (Pei and Speaker) that felt very true-to-life, and left me thinking about the line between respecting someone's difference of opinion and writing them off as a dangerous nutjob.
Since this is CSF I'd be remiss if I didn't touch on plausibility. This series of books is not strong on science/engineering realism, and I knew what I was getting into with this book and so tried to adjust my suspension of disbelief accordingly. But really, a methane-breathing species being able to eat the same foods as creatures with human catabolic processes? that one was too much for me, even more so than the clarketech "slap patches" that are capable of remote cellular-level manipulations of neurons via some unspecified force(s). But that's not really what this series is about, so it didn't severely impact my enjoyment of the book. Highly recommended.
This was a straightforward fun fantasy mystery adventure about a world where magical creatures exist — the book is set in Egypt, so the regional magical creatures are Djinn, but each geographic area of the earth has its own set of magical creatures from local storytelling traditions. The book was well-executed and polished, but telegraphed everything so far in advance that it took some of the fun out of the story.
I also felt there was a lot of "OK, this is a showdown, we're ending this fight here and now" throughout the book. The fight scenes just felt a little goofy.
I liked the world-building a lot. I'm not generally into steampunk, but this seemed like a top-notch example. All the nations having their different types of magical storytelling traditions and having that reflected in their magical abilities was great, I'd have liked to see more of that — the German goblins, the French fae, etc.
I also didn't realize this was not the first story set in this universe with these characters until they started talking about the angel portal death machine or whatever, so I looked it up. Turns out there was a tor.com short with Fatma that precedes this book, called A Dead Djinn in Cairo.
This book doesn't rank high on my novelty/plausibility axes, but it seems like a solid example of its genre and what it's trying to do.
I actually had a very long self-contained review of this book that I somehow lost (I know, how does that happen in this age of autosaving everything?!). I'm not going to re-write that review, but I will say that I felt this book was very uneven, with flashes of greatness. It's also mostly fantasy, so is outside my purview a little.
The book was eye-opening in some ways. The main character is an abused trans girl, and having that perspective was novel to me. The discussions of music and portraits of high-achievers in the world of musical performance were excellent.
All that being said, mixing actual demons from hell with stories about immigrant extraterrestrials is a dicey proposition, and the book ended up feeling too absurd to take seriously.
I'd still recommend the book if you're interested in a novel protagonist and enjoy discussions about Bartok.
This is a fantasy story set in ancient China. The story is aggressively emotional, but all the emotions are negative. NK Jemisin is an example of an author who is good at believable sustained negative emotions, but in this book it just felt like the author was repeating the words "Anger. Disgust. Hate. Jealousy" etc over and over without much real effect. Maybe there just wasn't any counterbalance? With essentially no positive emotions at all, there's no real contrast in the book.
The book also has a lot of "Law of Attraction" type nonsense about the main character succeeding merely because she wants to succeed more than everyone else, and so there's a continuous chain of deus ex machina stuff that happens in support of the idea: 10,000 enemy soldiers dying because somehow a gong and loud yelling caused a rockslide which caused a tsunami, the main character seemingly being able to assassinate the governor of a well-guarded walled city and then somehow get the old governor's window to seize power and turn over the city without a fight, somehow they constructed a bomb that made a hole "as deep as a ten story pagoda" and then never used it or even mentioned it again, etc. etc.
Ultimately I think the main reason the novel didn't hit was because every event seemed implausible. This was clearly an intentional choice by the author, to demonstrate that this world is ruled by fate (but also you can change your fate if you want it enough?). It just didn't work for me.
The icing on the cake at the very end of the book was the main character Murdering a child in cold blood and then his kind-hearted wife being like "OK, that was bad, but let's move on". The book was just too agressively dark for me to recommend to CSF readers.
That's it for now! I plan on sending more regular updates going forward, and recommending a mix of short stories and novels. Take care,