Hugo Finalist Reading: Best Novel (2018)

Time for something a bit different! As many readers may know, for the past couple of years I’ve been taking an active part in the Hugo awards, one of the major literary awards given to science fiction and fantasy open to anyone willing to spend $40-$50 for a supporting Worldcon membership (and, if nothing else, there’s usually free ebooks involved that make that a worthwhile investment). For some reason, despite the fact I love reading other people’s thoughts on the process each year, I have yet to get off my bum and put my own thoughts down in any consistent way. Until now!

Ratings

Because almost everything that gets nominated for the Hugos is excellent (and, recent political dramas notwithstanding, I have to assume all of it is excellent to someone), I’m going to be using an absolute rating system alongside my rankings, reflecting even the “bottom” of my ballot is contains some excellent stuff. This year in particular, you can’t go far wrong with anything nominated in the fiction categories, and taken as a whole the ballot represents a wide range of storytelling styles, diverse voices and genre niches which is very exciting to engage with. The system is:

  • Meh Tier: Things where any awesomeness that got them nominated has passed me by entirely 😦 I’m not sure I’m going to be using this for any of the categories I’m writing about, though.
  • Good Tier: Things I enjoyed, but didn’t get the extra “spark” that makes me excited for them to win. Not things I’d nominate myself, although I won’t particularly mind if they win.
  • Great Tier: Things I really appreciated, top quality work. Even if it’s not in my favourite sub genre or style, I can objectively see why it impressed enough people to go on the ballot; or it might be something that really . My own nomination ballot included things I’d put in this category.
  • Awesome Tier: The best of the best in each category, and the stuff that grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go. Things I really, really want to win.
  • Everyone Else Go Home: Here is the hill I will die on. It may not be entirely rational, or explainable, but it is happening. Quite rare (in books. Not that rare in real life.)

So, without further ado, here is:

Adri’s Best Novel Hugo Rankings 2018

Good Tier

299391606. The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. It’s safe to say that while I enjoy John Scalzi’s writing, both on the internet and in the fiction I’ve read, he’s never going to be one of my favourite authors. This is OK, because the vast majority of successful authors have got where they are without becoming one of my favourites, and by all accounts Scalzi is doing extremely well for himself without this kid’s help. The Collapsing Empire actually might be my favourite book of his so far, and I’ve preordered the second half – but ah, there lies the problem. I don’t think this story actually holds up as a complete novel in itself, even within the tradition of closely-knit series; the book seems to stop just as the plot actually kicks in. What story there is, is great, with a range of fun, wise-cracking characters – and Scalzi is a really good author to pick up if you’re new to Science Fiction, by the way – but this wasn’t one of my best books of 2017.

Great Tier

RAVEN-STRATAGEM5. Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee. Let this be the first of many times I say “how am I ranking this so low?”! Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy – which is coming to a close this month with Revenant Gun, reviewed earlier on this very blog – is a weird and wonderful series set in a future where mathematics and reality-warping magic are effectively the same thing, and a galactic empire has been built off the calendrical system of an oppressive, caste-driven society called the Hexarchate. Once you get past the sheer weirdness of the politics and technology in this series – and, believe me, some of it just never makes sense – it’s a fantastic read, with the backbone being the disgraced, disembodied and ageless general, Shuos Jedao, who is occasionally woken from his eternal imprisonment to inhabit the mind of a subordinate officer and win difficult battles against “heretical” political dissidents. Raven Stratagem is the second book in this series and it’s a worthy continuation of Ninefox Gambit, but it’s not getting above fifth on my ballot because in some ways it’s a bit “middle book-y”: missing the shiny newness of an opening volume or the powerful impact of a good series close (and believe me, Revenant Gun delivers on that front), there’s just a certain nebulous something that’s not quite present here. I’m glad this series is still very much on the voter’s radar, though.

51LwIyIsWhL4. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. This is the only finalist that I hadn’t read before the ballot was announced (interestingly, I’ve seen a lot of people say the same thing), and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it despite my initial reservations. This is a big book which meanders through the lives of a cast of pleasant if slightly flat characters living in the titular city during the titular year, after climate change has massively raised the sea level and turned all but the upper portion of Manhattan into a semi-aquatic metropolis with its own. The musings on the nature of New York itself were well done but of minimal interest to me, but the climate fiction aspects came together really well and despite being quite a slow book, it never felt like a slog to read. I still don’t think I’d have nominated this if I’d read it earlier, but I don’t regret spending time on it.

289629963. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty. Luckily, I was able to have this excellent space mystery delivered to my favourite bookshop in Bangkok last year, and have therefore been ahead of some other UK voters in sourcing what is officially a US-only title. And I’m glad I did, because this is a tense, interesting locked room mystery which absolutely deserves its place on the final ballot – I actually removed it from my nominations at the eleventh hour, but if I’d had one more slot it would certainly have been for this book. Strong characters, a compelling, tense plot and lots of interesting revelations all make this a really good choice, and one which I wouldn’t be surprised (or disappointed) to see win overall. (Full review)

Great Tier+

Provenance

2. Provenance by Ann Leckie. This is one of those awkward books where I feel I have to apologise for loving it as much as I do, even though objectively I know that apologising for the things you love is stupid and unnecessary in almost all cases. No, Provenance isn’t quite as good as Ann Leckie’s previous trilogy, but that’s because the Imperial Radch books – especially Ancillary Justice – is some of the best SF ever written, and not even a writer as brilliant as Ann Leckie has a 100% hit rate when it comes to genre defining novels.

Anyway. Evaluated on its own merits, Provenance combines superb worldbuilding – both humans and aliens have diverse, unique cultures which make for equally interesting interactions between them – with a hero, Ingray, who really resonated with me for being realistically out of her depth and making a lot of terrible decisions, but then having the resourcefulness and work ethic to figure things out and get it right in the end. She makes for an unusual lead (especially as a female character for whom readers might be less inclined to handwave away mistakes or poor decisions like they might do for equivalent male characters *cough* Miles Vorkosigan *cough*) and one that I fell in love with. In a different year I’d be backing Provenance all the way, but this year it’s going to have to settle for just being very highly recommended because there’s something rather special at number one. (Full review)

Awesome Tier

stone-sky-by-nk-jemisin (1)1. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin. So, confession time. Despite celebrating when each of the first two books in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy won this very award in the last two years, I didn’t actually put either of them top of my ballot – those honours went to Ancillary Mercy and Ninefox Gambit respectively. As observant readers may have noticed, Leckie and Lee are on the ballot again this year, but even for those fabulous authors it would have taken something really spectacular to budge the Stone Sky off my top spot. Jemisin’s bleak, brilliant trilogy, set in a world where extreme seismic activity is an ever-present threat, comes to an end in this book with a clash of ideals between traumatised orogene (an ostracised wielder of stone magic) Essun and her estranged daughter Nassun, in the process diving into past mistakes and atrocities and asking hard, unanswerable questions about the nature of oppression and fear of the unknown. It’s a fitting end to a very necessary series, and it’s the best thing on this list.


 

What I think will win: My money is on N.K. Jemisin taking home a historic three out of three for the Broken Earth, and The Stone Sky has already won the Nebula (although, to be fair, that hasn’t been a Hugo predictor for the last two years). While there are some other top authors represented here, I don’t think any of the other titles have the consensus behind them to overtake the Stone Sky – although if anything did, I’d expect it to be Six Wakes, as probably the strongest non-series entry here.

And, for the record, these were my original nominations:

  • The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
  • Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
  • In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
  • Provenance by Ann Leckie
  • Jade City by Fonda Lee
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6 thoughts on “Hugo Finalist Reading: Best Novel (2018)

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