Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Adri and Joe read the Hugos: Best Series

Adri: We’re here, at the biggest (by material covered) category on the ballot: Best Series!

I think both of us had a pleasant surprise when the ballot came out this this year, when it turned out that we’d already read most of the books in Best Series. I had to catch up on my Daevabad and engage with The Relentless Moon (and I’m quite behind on my October Daye short fiction too), but in general this feels like a very familiar ballot: Chakraborty and Kuang are new Hugo finalists but Kuang won last year’s Astounding Award for debuting with the Poppy War series, so only Daevabad feels really new to the Hugo family.

As a relatively new category, with a more complex set of eligibility requirements, there’s plenty of discourse to be had on The State of Best Series and what level of overlap with Best Novel (and other categories) is “acceptable” for the category to have its own identity. I’d say there are two pretty significant overlaps this year: Lady Astronaut already won for The Calculating Stars and is nominated again for The Relentless Moon, and The Murderbot Diaries has two Best Novella wins and a nomination for Network Effect. The Interdependency also had a nomination for the first novel in the series, which means 50% of this ballot has direct overlaps with individual works nominated in other categories.

The other way to think of this is that 50% of the ballot is totally unique to Best Series! Seanan McGuire has had a Best Series nomination every year since the category began, because she’s prolific enough to bring out a book per year in each of her two long-running and well-loved series, plus a significant amount of short fiction. October Daye’s nomination this year covers 14(!) books in the series to 2020, and it’s very much greater than the sum of its parts at this point. Both Daevabad and the Poppy War are popular trilogies that finished last year and are definitely works that I see more discussed as a set than as individual novels, so it feels right to see them here.

So, on the whole, I think this is a good ballot and a great category. I love the “unique to series” works, I respect the overlaps (I nominated Murderbot in this category!) and I think it makes for a really interesting category to judge.

Joe: I was thrilled to see this year’s Best Series ballot and you’re right, there is a very interesting intersection between Best Novel (and Novella) and Best Series and what sort of series is nominated in this category. 

There has been overall less overlap in Best Series than I had expected year over year and I think the difference that I see is that for the most part the ballot isn’t stuffed with best novel finalists, and that’s how I like it. Like you said, there are two current Best Novel finalists represented in Best Series this year, which as a concept doesn’t excite me but individually it seems hard to argue against the inclusion of Murderbot and Lady Astronaut. 

Anything else I have to say is probably just going to reiterate what you’ve already said so I want to start out talking about October Daye because in so many ways that a series that represents exactly what the Best Series categories can and should be all about. 

Listen, I love the October Daye novels. I’m working on a re-read of the full series, or at least of the novels. They are an absolute delight and a thrill and a hell of a whole lot of fun. Spoilers, but this is my top choice for the category. But, I don’t see a future where an individual novel in this series gets nominated for Best Novel without something potentially weird going on. 

You said that October Daye is very much greater than the sum of its parts and that is exactly right. No matter how good any individual part is (and they are generally quite good), it is the larger story of October Daye that is why it belongs in Best Series. As a collected (and ongoing) whole, this is a bloody fantastic series that is among the best the genre offers. 

There are a number of series, often in the general category of urban fantasy, that are unlikely to sniff Best Novel but absolutely belong in the conversation for Best Series and a long running series is very much a different thing than three tightly connected novels that are being recognized as individual works. 

: Agreed! I probably wouldn’t be reading the October Daye series if it hadn’t had that first Best Series nomination and it’s now pretty much the only long-running series (plus the Expanse) that I’m actually good at keeping up with. The character dynamics and the evolution of the fae world are the things that keep me reading. The actual inciting incidents for each book can get a bit same-y, like, there’s a lot of kidnappings to keep straight, but the way those plots build out more elements of the world and the influence that Toby’s actions have on her society are full of interesting twists and turns that build up over books, rather than chapters.

While we’re talking about series that unfold indefinitely, rather than confined trilogies, we should also talk about Murderbot. It feels like this series was pretty much waiting to be at qualifying word length, and since we got the novel Network Effect last year, here it is.

Joe: It’s always been a matter of time for Murderbot to make Best Series and, frankly, as a superfan of October Daye, I’m afraid that Murderbot is going to take the category and that makes my fae heart sad. 

On the other hand, Murderbot is wonderful and a delight and I think has been an incredible balm for a lot of people in the years since it was published, especially over the last two years. These are the stories of a reluctant security unit that calls itself Murderbot but would rather watch its shows than deal with people and do its job. Many of us can relate. 

Adri: I would not be sad at all to see Murderbot win this year - I think it’s a stronger prospect in this category than Network Effect is in best novel - but it does touch on two of the weird elements of Best Series: first, that it can be given for a work in progress, and to all intents and purposes the “Best Series” label still applies to works that come out after the nomination, and second, that once a work is nominated, there’s a threshold of new material that has to come out in the series before it can be nominated again, unless it wins, in which case it permanently becomes ineligible. 

That introduces the potential question around when the “ideal” time for a series to be nominated is and while I don’t think we’ll ever see any significant collective tactics around this (Charles Stross did request his fans to hold off on voting for the Laundry Files for a year so he could compete in Dublin, but it didn’t get hi the win) and we don’t know what the future holds for any of these works, I do think that Murderbot potentially winning at a significant transition point for the series would be quite interesting. Not that it wouldn’t be well deserved, or that I think anyone should hold off because we don’t know what the future holds. It’d just be interesting, from the perspective of the kind of person who writes this sort of analysis (i.e. you and me).

(The more interesting question this year is whether The Expanse, last year’s winner on the strength of 8 of the 9 books in the series, will stick the landing when the finale is released in a couple of months. I know we’re both invested in that for a lot of other reasons, though.)

The Lady Astronaut series is in a similar position, with the shift from Elma’s point of view to a broader set of perspectives (although the short fiction was already doing this before The Relentless Moon!) I’ve offered my perspective on this series when we discussed Best Novel and it would really be overkill to repeat my grumpiness here, so why don’t I let you chat about one of your faves instead!

Joe: The Expanse is the exact series I would bring it up in terms of when *should* voters recognize it with a Hugo. I didn’t nominate The Expanse last year because I wanted the recognition to come after Leviathan Falls was published and we saw just how awesome the ending was. It was almost, but not yet, a complete story after Book 8. 

I can’t argue (much) with the voters who did nominate The Expanse last year and once it was on the ballot I ranked it #2 behind Incryptid because Seanan McGuire and I do think it was an eminently deserving winner that in years to come when nobody but the two of us remember (or care) that it actually won after book 8 instead of book 9, the fact that it did win Best Series is going to show how that category gets things right. Except for Leviathan Wakes, this isn’t a series with continual recognition in the Best Novel category but it is exactly the sort of thing this category is for.

But - Lady Astronaut. I don’t have this ranked nearly as high on my ballot as you’d probably expect given how much I love and admire these novels - but this is a strong year for Best Series (though they tend to all be good years so far) and I’m not mad. 

I know there are plans for at least one more Lady Astronaut novel and this is the sort of setting that is so open ended that Kowal could tell stories in it for decades - so there is no natural place to wait to nominate the series. Becky Chambers Wayfarers was that sort of open end series and this year’s The Galaxy and the Ground is apparently the last novel in that series - so it’s tough to argue Chambers winning in 2019. She would not have had another chance. 

Which is a way to say - what if the next Lady Astronaut novel turns out to be the last one and due to category rules this year is the only chance it has at the ballot?

The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky were two parts of story of Elma York (and both were great, thank you very much and also Hugo voters recognizing The Calculating Stars as Best Novel in 2019). We talked about The Relentless Moon already as part of Best Novel - but in thinking about Best Series as a category it is the right sort of novel to get this nomination because it steps away from Elma York and opens up the setting to a wider open ended universe and that’s cool. Plus, I really like the novels and short stories in the Lady Astronaut universe. I so clearly remember reading The Calculating Stars and feeling that sense of wonder and amazement about Elma going into space. Kowalk really got across the emotion of space travel, of realizing that dream. If the word count was high enough, I’d have nominated the Lady Astronaut series for The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky, and the short stories - The Relentless Moon is just a cap on that excellence.

We’ve talked about three open ended series so far (and you just let me monologue), but Daevabad, The Poppy War, and The Interdependency are each tight trilogies. Do you want to go super heavy or a little bit lighter next?

Let’s take the middle and go for Daevabad next, because I feel I have the most to say about it. I read City of Brass back when it first came out and for some reason it didn’t really gel with me. I think I was probably just not in the mood for it, but something about the “Cairo con artist turns out to secretly be magic” plot and the way Nahri gets swept along with it rubbed me up the wrong way. Since then, the trilogy has captured a lot of people’s hearts and so I’ve been really interested to pick it up again after the nomination.

The trilogy as a whole is about a woman who finds out that she’s actually part-Djinn, and not just any Djinn: she’s from the family who used to rule the Djinn capital of Daevabad, before they were deposed and most of their line wiped out. Nahri finds this out after a meeting with an ancient warrior bound to her family line, and after the two of them travel to Daevabad, she ends up trying to navigate in a fractured city where those in power have an interest in using her to maintain their own rule (and oh no, one of them is rebellious and also very hot). To complicate things still further, Djinn culture has a highly oppressive relationship with people who are part human (shafits), and that prejudice was led by Nahri’s clan.

There’s a lot of dramatic reversals, political plots, ancient all-powerful beings, and magical get-out-of-jail-free cards with awkward catches and/or unexpected consequences, with lots of interesting, nuanced character work and a bittersweet but satisfying climax. It’s great stuff, although the trilogy sometimes moves at a glacial pace, particularly in the final volume where a lot happens and somehow it still felt like I was getting nowhere through the 700-odd pages. I’ve rarely been so divided about whether I actually “enjoyed” reading a book, but on balance I’m really happy I persevered with it and this series does excellent things with its world and characters, so it’s a solid contender for me.

Joe: I was the opposite on The City of Brass - I absolutely loved it from the start. I was about to say that I was slow in picking up the next two books, but I checked and it turns out I read each book a year apart so slow is only relative to not mainlining them like I did with October Daye. 

That said, I get what you’re saying about how the books are packed with action and plotting and general *stuff* and still somehow feeling like you’re not making much progress. The Kingdom of Copper and The Empire of Gold weren’t quite as satisfying as The City of Brass was for me, for no particular reason that I can point out except maybe that maybe it was that sense of wonder and discovery in the first book that wasn’t lacking in the next two but rather that now Daevabad was familiar and somewhat comfortable when it wasn’t in flames in the third book. 

But look, I’m picking nits right now because I really liked this series. It was on my nominating ballot (one of three in this category that made it). It’s fantastic and, as I’ve already mentioned when talking about October Daye - this is exactly sort of series that should be on the Hugo ballot. It’s a big fantasy trilogy. The first novel wasn’t among the top 15 nominees for Best Novel, nor was the second. Chakraborty was a finalist for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, but that really only means that we thought she was a strong writer from the start. Daevabad is an increasingly heavy series and I’m glad it is a finalist. It absolutely deserves to be here. We’ll talk about that later, but it’s in the top tier of my ballot.

To move onto something relatively lighter, John Scalzi’s The Interdependency - a series filled with wit, warmth, humor, fantastic characters, and Scalzi's trademark snappy dialogue (if I may be allowed to quote my own nanoreview). I’m a bit more conflicted regarding this series because I loved, LOVED, the first two novels in this series and then the third fell off a bit for me. The first book, The Collapsing Empire, was such a delight that I finished it in the car on the way to the airport before leaving for a vacation because I didn’t want to wait on those last few chapters and I don’t like bringing hardcover books on a trip. 

The Last Emperox didn’t hang together as a satisfying ending for me. I probably do need to re-read the series at some point because I wasn’t quite able to figure out if The Last Emperox didn’t work for me because of the book itself or was it “that perhaps reading a novel dealing with the impending end of civilization as that universe knows it may not play as well during the time of a global pandemic when I am concerned about the future of employment, childcare, of the general state of life right now.”, if I may be excused in quoting myself in consecutive paragraphs. I read The Last Emperox in April 2020, which was just as the coronavirus was ramping up in the United States for the first time. This isn’t a pandemic novel or series, thankfully, but the collapse of the flow is apt at a time (even now) where supply chains are severely disrupted and impacted. 

Adri: Quote yourself as much as you like!

I don’t have much to say about the Interdependency, except that I think you’re absolutely right that the conclusion felt weak: without going too far into spoiler territory, it feels like it redefines the central purpose of the series from “the flow is collapsing and this is very bad on innumerable levels” to “I am politically hated and if I was politically loved then this problem would be trivial, how do I do that”. And… it’s not wrong, and when I put it like that then sure, there’s plenty of set-up for that dilemma, but the assumptions in it make my governance professional’s eye twitch.

Where we differ is that even before book 3, I wasn’t particularly invested in this series. Scalzi writes enjoyable books, and if I was stuck in a mountain hostel without my kindle I’d be delighted to find him on a bookswap shelf, but after sticking out this series I feel very little motivation to seek out anything else he writes unless the Hugo voters compel me to (which they often will.)

That means we’ve saved the grimmest and - I think - the best for last. R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy reimagines the events of the Chinese “Century of Humiliation”, the Sino-Japanese War and the Communist-Nationalist conflict in a secondary world with dangerous god-magic, cute but terrible boys who also happen to also be mythological figures, and the relentless, grinding story of a character, Rin, living through awful times, in a terrible situation, who also is just kind of a bad person who makes bad choices. It’s grim as fuck, in a way that’s hard to look away from because so much of that grimness is part of the historical record that the book is drawing from.

The use of historical events makes things a little bit weird at times, but there’s no denying their impact, or how well Kuang builds on them to tell her own story. It’s a trilogy where we desperately hope people might catch a break at some point, but we know, realistically, they never will. It’s grim as fuck, not a story for everyone, and I think it’s an outstanding game changer and a trilogy I won’t soon forget.

Joe: I’m not familiar with the historical reference, so how Kuang plays with history in this secondary world is something that flows past me - though to be fair, I probably wouldn’t pick up on direct inspirations of significant moments of American history that I am familiar with so I’m just going to move right along from there. 

The bottom line, or perhaps the only line, is that The Poppy War is friggin fantastic (and, as noted, grim as fuck). The first novel starts out with what feels like a fairly standard opening of a girl escaping a dead end life in a rural village and gets out by winning a scholarship to the Sinegard, the prestigious military academy. It’s the story of an outcast who is often better than everyone around her but has to work twice as hard - but the story isn’t exactly that and then war comes and the novel turns on its head and goes twice as brutal (and it was brutal from the start). 

The Poppy War (novel and series) is just incredible. This is the future of epic fantasy and it’s everything I want even as Kuang kicks nails into my heart and soul with every turn and every compromise and every betrayal. Even more impressive (and in contrast to the could not be more different Interdependency), Kuang sticks the landing of the series. I cannot wait to read her next novel. 

The Poppy War is right there at the top of my Hugo ballot and the only reason it isn’t ranked first is that October Daye is the series of my heart and I really want to be in the room when Seanan McGuire wins her Hugo for Best Series. I might even “woo” if that happens.

But - if October Daye doesn’t win, The Poppy War and then Daevabad are right there next on my ballot. It’s a really strong list of finalists and I would love, love to see R.F. Kuang or S.A. Chakraborty win a Hugo Award here. Both would be absolutely deserving. 

What’s on your ballot? 

Adri: I’d also like to see October Daye win this at some point, but on this year’s ballot The Poppy War has to be my first pick, for the reasons I mentioned above: it’s an outstanding series that sets itself an unusual brief and meets it with intense, powerful style. It’s pointless to start comparing “this series will get another chance while this other one won’t”, but that also plays into my decision a bit.

My other top three contender for this year is Murderbot, and while Network Effect isn’t a top pick novel for me, I’d be delighted for Martha Wells if she became the first to take Best Series and Best Novel in the same year. In principle, I love variety in Hugo winners, but I sure do like Murderbot too.

That’s all we’ve got to say on Series - next up, video game!

The Ballot:

The Daevabad Trilogy, S.A. Chakraborty (Harper Voyager)
The Interdependency, John Scalzi (Tor Books)
The Lady Astronaut Universe, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books/Audible/Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction/Solaris)
The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells (
October Daye, Seanan McGuire (DAW)
The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)