Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Reviewing the Hugo Nominees: Best Novel

Reviewing the Hugo Award Nominees: Best Novel:

This is the big category (not that the other categories are insignificant to the people up for them of course) and will of course be the one with the most votes.  As usual, Puppy influence is minor at best (Best Novel gets enough votes that even two years ago when the puppies had the strongest influence, they only managed to get three works on the ballot), and we have an assortment of varied SciFi and Fantasy works of critical repute.

I managed to read every nominee this year before the nominations were announced except for A Closed and Common Orbit (Yes I know I'm hipster bragging here lol).  This wasn't exactly difficult, as all six nominees were books of some critical repute and/or were pretty hyped by the people I pay attention to, and several were sequels to similarly hyped books.  The nominations contain four works that would be worthy winners in my opinion, and two that, while I am ranking them below No Award, are incredibly ambitious in scope and I can see why they made the list.

Without ado, my rankings after the Jump:

7. Death's End by Cixin Liu (Translated by Ken Liu)

Review on my twitter account Here:

Death's End is the finale to Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem trilogy (Yes I know that's not the official name for the trilogy, but it's what most people will use for it).  The Three Body Problem was a deserving Hugo winner, and I really enjoyed its sequel The Dark Forest, which I felt was a better book in terms of story/concepts, although it had a problem of fridging a female character.

Death's End doesn't work.  Neither of its predecessors were known for character work, although both contained at least one great character in policeman/wiseass Da Shi, but Death's End's characters are basically paper-thin.  The book wipes out the happy ending of The Dark Forest quickly with a retcon, and then proceeds to throw a billion ideas and concepts at the reader.  The book is incredibly ambitious - really, too ambitious, several of the ideas don't get time to breathe before hte book moves on to the next one.  And without really interesting characters, the ending has no impact.

Oh and the gender issues the prior book had continue here even worse.  It's a shame, but this book doesn't work.  So it ranks below No Award for me.

6. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer 

Review on my twitter account here: 

Too Like the Lightning is also an incredibly ambitious book, telling a tale of politics and philosophy in a fascinating future world whereby the world has changed drastically into a new supposedly peaceful organization.  I've actually read both this book and its sequel now in the series (Seven Surrenders) and reviewed the sequel for this blog.

The problem however is that TLTL is half a book.  Regular followers will know that I sometimes ding books for cliffhangers as they can leave the ending of a story unsatisfying.  TLTL goes beyond that - the book describes itself (there is some fourth wall breaking) as the "First Half of Mycroft Canner's history" and it really is just a first half - the Climax of the story doesn't happen until the second book.  Nothing really starts happening in this book until the very end, at which point, it's just the beginning of actions finally taking place.

It's a shame really, because the climax, which is contained in Seven Surrenders, is phenomenal and had the two books been combined, this would've been easily my choice for the award.  But the two books are separate, so alas, I have to rank this book below No Award (and won't be ranking the sequel probably in my top 5 next year.)  

5. No Award

4. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers 

Review at the blog here: 

The Sequel to A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is one of two nominees this year that is lighter more-fun fare.  Like its predecessor book, this is a very character-focused story, although this book leaves behind the protagonists from book 1 on the Wayfarer to focus instead on mainly two side characters from that book - Pepper and the AI Sidra (formerly Lovelace).

The book isn't quite as great as ALWtaSAP, which had one chapter that really ranks among my favorite things I've read in the past few years, but it's still a VERY good yet lighthearted (mainly) story.  Good character work is hard but Chambers does it very well, and books that can make you smile are really appreciated.  This would be a worthy winner and thus ranks above No Award.

3. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

Review on twitter here:

The Sequel to last year's worthy Hugo Winner, The Obelisk Gate is almost certainly not going to win this year due to sequel bias (Just being upfront about this).  That's not to say it wouldn't be a deserving winner - it totally would (and as Jemisin might be my favorite modern author, I'd be quite happy with that).  But it's hard for a sequel to a winning work to win unless it's truly mindblowingly good and/or very different to its predecessor (Think Speaker of the Dead winning the year after Ender's Game).
The Obelisk Gate is truly great....but doesn't transcend The Fifth Season, so I don't expect it to win and am not voting for it #1 myself.  This is a dark book at times - expected of a book dealing so heavily with themes of oppression and racism in a fantasy world - but Jemisin is a master at having that work and creating a vivid set of characters in Essun, Nassun, Hoa, et al, as well as the world itself.  That said, I do ding this a little bit for the cliffhanger ending not being incredibly satisfying (Nassun's storyline will payoff next book obviously, but I wish it had some smaller payoff in this one).  I'm really looking forward to the conclusion later this year, but for now, this is #3 on my ballot.

2. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Review on twitter here:

All the Birds in the Sky is the other lighthearted book amongst the nominees, and is a pretty big favorite to take the award - having taken the Nebula and being the biggest seller of any of the books in question.  Like A Closed and Common Orbit, this is a tale of two really great characters - Lawrence, the Mad Scientist, and Patricia, the Witch, who grow up as friends as children, meet up again as adults as their fields clash in a conflict that could of course threaten the world.  (Oh and some love may also be involved).

This is a pretty good example of a book where the plot is kind of secondary, and what's really great are the characters, and everything adds up to end in a way that makes everyone happy.  The plot ends in a kind of deus ex machina, but at least it's foreshadowed enough to not feel unfair.  This would be a pretty damn worthy winner, except for the book that tops my list....

1. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Review on twitter here:

Disclaimer: I've just finished this books sequel (Raven Strategem, review forthcoming next week), and will try to separate the two books since its fresh in my mind.

Ninefox Gambit is a book that is Challenging to read.  Whereas other books might try to infodump explanations of how extremely complicated made up SF or Fantasy worlds work, Ninefox Gambit just drops you right in the world, made up terminology and all, and trusts you to figure it out on your own.  It's probably a bit too far in this direction honestly - a short story in the same universe for example explains a little bit more and there's no reason this book couldn't have done the same - but if you can get past it, the result is just phenomenal.

This is a universe where calendars followed are of maximum importance, where mathematical calculations allow for armies to create devastating attacks on a battlefield, and where immortality may be very possible.  This book deals largely with the efforts of a mathematical genius but otherwise standard infantry soldier getting stuck with an undead general in her head - an undead general who is both brilliant and known for massacreing his own forces.  The interplay between them, as well as how the world works around them, results in a truly fantastic book.

This is one of those books that will have you going back after your first reread to find out things you might have missed, and to see how things read after the reveal later in the book. The book isn't light in tone - the dominant government relies on ritual torture to keep its technology working for example - but it is absolutely gripping if you can get past the terminology at the start and contains some pretty strong themes of the values of freedom, justice and sacrifice.

I suspect it'll come in 2nd in voting, but this has my vote.

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