Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Reading the Hugos: Novel

Welcome to the first article in our Reading the Hugos series, 2019 edition! I often joke that the Hugo Award Season is eternal and that is only half of a joke because there is only a small breath between the announcement of the winners in August and the end of the year when we start thinking about what the best books of the year may have been, and that leads directly into submitting our nominating ballots and the cycle begins anew.

Today we are going to take a look at the six finalists for Best Novel. This year three of the finalists were on my nominating ballot and I had named The Calculating Stars my top novel of 2018.  This is also a rare year in which I have already read all of the novels on the ballot before the finalists were announced, which is awfully convenient for me to put together my own Hugo ballot.

In a sense, this year's Hugo race is wide open because after N.K. Jemisin's Best Novel trifecta, she does not have a novel on the ballot, though everyone except Mary Robinette Kowal and Rebecca Roanhorse have been Best Novel finalists before. Kowal, of course, has three Hugo Awards in other categories, Roanhorse has one, and both Kowal and Roanhorse are previous winners of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Suffice it to say that this category is stacked.

Let's take a look at the finalists, shall we?

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan)
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Record of a Spaceborn Few: I dig that each of Becky Chambers' three novels have reasonably been standalone stories. Record of a Spaceborn Few focuses on that segment of humanity that took to the stars, but then never left the ships when so many then spread to new stars. A tightly contained story, Record of a Spaceborn Few deals with the responsibility of the individual to a community. This is slice-of-life science fiction. It could be set anywhere, but is far more interesting when in a more austere environment, especially one which failure for everyone to do meaningful work could cause the failure of a system.

I thought this was a much stronger novel than A Closed and Common Orbit (A Hugo Award finalist in 2016) and a pure delight to read. The only thing Record of a Spaceborn Few has working against it is that this is an incredibly stacked ballot.

Space Opera: Space Opera has been described as Eurovision in Space and as a spiritual successor to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is a hell of a lot of expectation to live up to. For the most part, Catherynne Valente hits her mark. In some ways, I admired Space Opera more than I loved it. It's been a while, but I remember the opening of the novel to be a touch longer to get going than I was looking for. Once it does and we get to that Intergalactic Grand Prix, though, Space Opera is a pure delight through and through. (my review)

Revenant Gun: Yoon Ha Lee's Hexarchate novels are a looser trilogy than I would have expected. There is a larger story in play, but Revenant Gun picks up some nine years after the events of Raven Stratagem and shifts the viewpoint to Shuos Jedeo (the infamous dead general) reborn as a seventeen year old with no memories of who he would become - which is interesting because it raises a question about whether inherent genius is enough to accomplish a goal or whether it is the sum or later experiences that exploits and develops that genius.

Revenant Gun is a strong ending to a truly unique series. In some ways the closest comparison I have is Ann Leckie's Ancillary novels, but that doesn't line up exactly. This is a fascinating novel and extremely strong conclusion to the trilogy. I'd be curious how well Revenant Gun would stand on it's own. It's one of two third novels in a series, but the only one that is not a true standalone (Record of a Spaceborn Few is a standalone in a series). It may not fully standalone, but Revenant Gun is a standout. (Adri's review)

Trail of Lightning: I've mentioned this before, but if "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience" was the announcement of Roanhorse's emergence on the scene (it did win all of the awards after all), Trail of Lightning was the exclamation point confirming that she was a major talent. It also marks a rare appearance of urban fantasy on the Hugo ballot and a well deserved one.

Trail of Lightning is a badass novel, full of driving energy and it was a raw delight to discover Roanhorse's Sixth World. (Paul's review)

Spinning Silver: Despite being a fairy tale retelling written by Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver shares almost nothing in common with Uprooted. Tonally, thematically, and stylistically, these are distinct novels as different from each other as they can be. The one thing they truly share is that they are excellent and one of the best novels of their respective years.

As part of her review, Adri wrote "As a technical accomplishment, it's excellent (except for the awkwardly stereotyped autistic-presenting character), hitting a perfect fairytale tone that weaves multiple character's lives together in a compelling way. There's plenty of kindness and positive relationships, especially between women and across cultures, to keep a reader company even during the story's darker turns. I recommend picking up Spinning Silver with eyes open and critical faculties engaged: much like that dark forest at the edge of the town, its not a place to be taken lightly, no matter how lovely it may look from the outside." (Adri's review)

The Calculating Stars: When I wrote about The Calculating Stars last year, I said that "More than just achieving a sense of wonder, the science of The Calculating Stars is magic. Kowal brings the dream of spaceflight beyond the page and into readers' hearts." There were plenty of excellent novels published last year and every novel on this ballot is worthy of recognition and are among the best of the year. For me, for my money, The Calculating Stars is the class of the field.

Also from my review, "It's not just Elma overcoming everything stacked against her that makes The Calculating Stars such a fantastic read, it's the completely thrilling mundanity of a countdown towards a launch. It's the checklists and the waiting. It's tremendous and exhilarating. We've been on this journey with Elma for some four hundred pages and The Calculating Stars is beyond a sense of wonder. I'd say that it's magic, but it's science. It's near perfection." (my review)

My Vote:
1. The Calculating Stars
2. Spinning Silver
3. Trail of Lightning
4. Revenant Gun
5. Space Opera
6. Record of a Spaceborn Few

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.