Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Reading the Hugos: Novel

Our Hugo Award coverage continues with a look at the Best Novel category. While there are other categories remaining which contain individual works from my nomination ballot, the Novel category is the last which the majority of the finalists match up with what I nominated. Four out of the five finalists were also on my nominating ballot, which is historically very high. While I would like to believe that the only reasonable supposition here is that, at least for this category, the other nominating fans will now forever more be aligned with my tastes, I think this more likely to be a one time fluke than it is a new trend.

Whichever happens to be true, let's take a look at the finalists for Best Novel, shall we?

The Aeronauts Windlass, by Jim Butcher (Roc)
Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

The Aeronaut's Windlass: Butcher's novel is the only finalist not on my nomination ballot. Prior to last year, I was completely unfamiliar with Butcher's work. I knew that it existed, but until Skin Game's nomination, I had never read anything Butcher wrote. Happily, Skin Game was a solid read and one that I vastly preferred over the eventual winner, The Three-Body Problem. The Aeronaut's Windlass is the first volume in a steampunk epic fantasy series from Butcher. I like it more than Skin Game, and I'm happy to be getting in on the ground floor of the series rather than jumping in at Book 15 like I did with the Dresden Files. The setting was fantastic (airships and insanely tall towers), but what drew me in was the characters. Gwen, Benedict, Brother Vincent, Bridget Tagwynn, Rowl, Captain Grimm, and pretty much everyone across the board are what sold me on this book. These are characters I would love to spent more time with.

This is one of those spots on my ballot that I could realistically swap positions with the next one up. I think Seveneves is an overall a better book, but I enjoyed The Aeronaut's Windlass just about as much as I did Seveneves, just in different ways. They are two very different sorts of novels, and I'm down for more of Butcher's Cinder Spires series, but Seveneves gets the nod today.

Seveneves: "The moon blew up." That's how Stephenson chose to begin Seveneves and I was hooked from that moment. Seveneves is a big, heavy science fiction novel focused on the survival of the human race with the understanding that most on the planet will not even be given a chance to survive. It is 3/4 of a nearly perfect novel (for me) and then jumps 5000 years in the future and while that section works for me, it doesn't work in the same way or have the same sort of tension. This isn't necessarily a strike against it because this aspect is quite obviously a significant part of the story Stephenson is telling, but it does hold the novel back from being truly great. For other thoughts, please see Zhaoyun's review.

Ancillary Mercy: Is there anything that can be said about Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch novels that hasn't been said? How about this: Ancillary Mercy brings Leckie's trilogy to a strong and satisfying conclusion and it isn't the novel you thought you were getting. Where Ancillary Justice, and even Sword, seemed to be promising a very large galaxy spanning conflict, Ancillary Mercy brings the story tighter to a planetary level while still hitting the major issues of identity and self determination AND flat out telling a good story. While Ancillary Mercy is tonally different from the previous two novels, it is a crushingly good book that closes out Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy. I was in awe of just how much I loved this book, the characters, the setting. While I always wanted to know just a little bit more about what was going on in other places of the universe, the story kept me rooted and grounded and focused. I loved it.

Uprooted: This year's Nebula Award winner for Best Novel is one of my favorite novels of the year, though it is not quite my top choice. Uprooted has a strong and relatable heroine, takes standard fairy tale tropes and makes them seem both fresh and familiar. And because it's easier sometimes to just quote myself rather than restate what I said better several months ago, let's refer to my review: "Fairy tales are for kids, right? Uprooted straddles that line. It is both very much a novel that adults can, should, and will appreciate. Adults will recognize many of the things that Novik is doing in tweaking some of the conventions of fairy tales, but will also enjoy the novel simply for what it is. Older kids will enjoy Uprooted for simply being a kick-ass book with an awesome heroine and an exciting story for which they simply must know what happens next.  Naomi Novik has a little bit for everyone in Uprooted."

The Fifth Season: As much as I enjoyed Uprooted, Ancillary Mercy, Black Wolves (sadly not on this ballot) and any other book published last year (and in many other years), none of them can quite hold a candle to how much I loved The Fifth Season. While, I do think that  my review says most everything I have to say and I would just be repeating myself at this point, but I'd like to point out the closing line of the review: "The Fifth Season is a gut punch of a novel: uncomfortable, unbelievably wrenching, and stunning. Brilliant."

My Vote:
1. The Fifth Season
2. Uprooted
3. Ancillary Mercy
4. Seveneves
5. The Aeronaut's Windlass

Looking back at the finalists from previous years where I've read enough to have an opinion on the short list, this is one of the strongest short lists we've had in a long time. Granted, what I mean by this is that the list of finalists more closely aligns with my personal taste, but isn't that what we usually mean when we're talking about the overall quality of a list of books? If I think they're all crap, it's a pretty weak list. If I think they're great, it's an incredible list. I think this is a fantastic list of novels and if there's anything here you haven't read yet, you really owe it to yourself to give some of these novels a shot.

Also, feel free to check out our coverage of the Dramatic Presentation Long Form category

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004. Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.