My rankings of the 2023 Hugo Best Novel nominees by Joe Stech

Hi friends, it's been a while! What with rebuilding our burned down house (context: Revisiting the Marshall fire’s devastation one year later), two young kids, and a company acquisition at work, it's been a busy year. Our house is nearing completion, though, with any luck we'll be moved back by the end of the year.
I had a great time reading all the 2023 Hugo Best Novel nominees. I have a ranked list to share, same as last year. As a reminder, I try and keep the CSF vibe consistent, rewarding novelty/plausibility/optimism more than other factors.
This was a fantasy-heavy year for nominations. Before we get to the reviews, here's my ranked list:
  1. Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher
  2. The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal
  3. The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi
  4. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  5. Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree
  6. Nona the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

1. Nettle & Bone

It might be a surprise for me to rank a fantasy book number one here, but the story was just extremely well-executed. Great pacing, characters, unique worldbuilding, nice style. The vibe is dark, but there's great humor in the book as well, as the main character embarks on what amounts to a magical heist quest with mostly old ladies and a bone dog.

2. The Spare Man

The Spare Man is really the only nominee this year that appeals to Compelling Science Fiction sensibilities. It's fairly hard science fiction, in the sense that it's all extremely plausible — the book takes place on a luxury space cruise liner shuttling between the Earth and Mars. It's primarily a murder mystery, and I loved both the setting and the concept. The only things that damped my enthusiasm were the low stakes and a little bit of weird pacing; the book takes a little while to get rolling.

3. The Kaiju Preservation Society

John Scalzi wrote The Kaiju Preservation Society very quickly, and it shows. It's a really fun, novel story though, and is full of Scalzi's signature quippiness. If you're on-board for the quips and the fact that all the characters sound the same, the book is a fun romp through an extra-dimensional wilderness preserve full of monsters that need protecting (and containing).

4. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

This lush re-imagining of Doctor Moreau is set deep in the Mexican jungle. Instead of animal vivisection like in the original novel, this time around the doctor is making genetic animal-human hybrids. These hybrids are the only friends of the titular character, and the setting shapes her worldview in a convincing way. The pacing on this one also felt a little weird to me and the book is full of the kind of coming-of-age angst you might expect, but it was an enjoyable book nonetheless.

5. Legends & Lattes

All I can say about this one is that it's feel-good fun in a D&D setting. An orc starts a coffee shop — there's literally nothing else you need to know. It's a quick read, and I recommend it.

6. Nona the Ninth

Absolutely my most controversial ranking. People who love Nona LOVE Nona. I think the book was incredibly ambitious but that its reach vastly exceeded its grasp. This is the third book in the Locked Tomb series about space necromancers. This third entry felt like an extended aside, and was almost incomprehensible even though I had read the first two books, due to an unreliable narrator and the fact that the story was mostly unconnected to the first two novels until very, very far into the book. I feel like you'll either love this one or wonder why others love it so much. I'm in the latter camp.
That's it for now! I'm always interested in hearing other perspectives, feel free to send me a reply with your favorite nomination and why you loved it. I hope you're having a great weekend!

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