Monday, October 9, 2023

Adri and Joe Read the Hugos: Novel

: I don’t want to oversell what’s going to go down here, but I almost began this by cracking my knuckles and neck like we’re about to scrap. Not that I actually know anything about scrapping, but I’ve seen movies and I’ve read books and that’s almost like the real thing, right?

I’ve been looking forward to talking about the Best Novel category since right around the time we started making our Hugo predictions (we were both terribly wrong) because even then you were salty about one of the books that eventually made the shortlist and you’ve become even saltier about what is currently sitting at the top of my ballot.

Adri: You’re entirely too excited about this, but: yes. We had some surprises on both sides about how we ranked certain books, but my overall feeling about this ballot is “ugh”.

To clarify my exact level of saltiness: I have three books sitting below No Award on my final ballot, and I don’t feel like this is an overreaction to the works we’ve been presented with this year. 50% of these novels are fluffy escapist confection, with little deeper quality or meaning to them, and I simply don’t think that this is the best the genre has to offer. Yes, it’s 2023, we’re exhausted, the pandemic ruined many of us for “deeper” reading, but “I wanted to read fluff in 2022” and “I think the best genre writing of 2022 was fluff” are two different statements and the fact that voters have gone in on the second one is really quite disappointing to me.

I also want to say that sticking my head above the parapet on fluffy fiction is nerve-wracking, not least because one of the (very established!) authors on this ballot has gone very “I’m not mad, please don’t print in the newspaper that I got mad” about folks who think his book isn’t good, to the tune of multiple thousand word blog posts and a customised t-shirt. There’s a “who are you to say what’s Hugo worthy over and above the actual voters” element to saying a work isn’t good enough, and everyone is encouraged to take all such opinions with a grain of salt (I’ve got plenty of spare!). But, fundamentally, saying that your book is unquestionably award worthy because it’s been nominated for an award makes as much sense to me as saying a person has unquestionable leadership qualities because they get elected to run their country, and I’m just going to leave that there and move on to the actual critique.

Let’s start at the height of 2022 fluff: Legends and Lattes. I’ve said everything I needed to say about this book, except that I wish I’d encountered it in a non-award-ballot capacity. But you’ve just read it, so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!

: I do think the three books under No Award is a bit excessive, but I tend to use No Award in a very surgical manner. Or, more likely, I can be a fairly basic person and I generally like most things that meet a relative level of quality - whatever that means to me on a given day.

We do need to talk offline about whichever author is so incredibly thin skinned, though, because my gradual weaning myself off of social media means that I completely missed the side entertainment / drama of whatever that was. There aren’t any books that I’m expecting to tee off on, though most years there aren’t. Sometimes it would be more fun if I was just angry about a book making the ballot, but at most I get mild parental disappointment at the other voters.

Which brings us to Legends and Lattes.

We are mildly closer in how we view this book than you might think - but mostly in the sense that I wouldn’t have nominated it even had I read it before the nominating deadline.

Legends and Lattes is an absolutely delightful book and I fully understand why people fell so hard for it, loved it, and likely nominated en masse to the point I expect that it’ll be on the most nominating ballots of all the finalists, possibly by a large margin.

Legends and Lattes is absolutely fluff, though I do think it’s high quality fluff and it reads as having just about all of the trappings of epic fantasy and epic fantasy seldom makes the Hugo ballot because epic fantasy is often part of series work and also I don’t think is quite the flavor of the typical Hugo voter - though at the same time Legends and Lattes isn’t really *epic* fantasy. It is secondary world fantasy (often a trademark of epic fantasy, but not exclusively). The epic, in my opinion, is generally in combination with the idea of secondary world fantasy with a large “epic” story or quest that could shape the world

This is not that. This is a small, quiet, cozy story of an orc opening a coffee shop in a part of the world that has never experienced coffee (which makes Viv a coffee evangelist as well) and while the stakes are high and deeply personal to Viv they’re pretty low stakes overall. Legends and Lattes is also low conflict, in that there is conflict and struggle in getting this small business off the ground but that conflict and struggle is exactly that, the struggle of a small business owner.

I expect one of your complaints is going to be that everything comes very easy to Viv, and yep, some of the overcoming is pretty handwavy. Overcoming the struggles isn’t exactly a struggle. It’s….cozy.

Adri: Overcoming the struggles sometimes involves giving a crime boss some cakes, and overlooking any ethical questions about whether befriending the crime boss while she happily extorts your rivals solved anything in a meaningful way. But sure. Cosy.

Joe: Hey, we all have to live in the world we’re born in.

But here’s the thing - Legends and Lattes is absolutely delightful and charming and I didn’t want to put it down. It’s not an ambitious novel by any stretch of the imagination, and I’d like to talk next about an ambitious novel that I think really didn’t hit the mark, but Legends and Lattes is a book that is exactly what it was aiming to be: a cozy, pleasant, quite-kind fantasy novel.

Now, whether it should be on the Hugo ballot is an entirely different conversation and the root of what this is all about - and that’s where I’m always a lot easier on the finalists than you are here. In comparison to all of the other finalists, how does it compare and how would I feel about it winning? For Legends and Lattes it’s pretty solidly in the middle of my ballot. It’s above a fairly ambitious novel and a disappointing work from a favorite author. It’s behind more technically accomplished and impressive work, and one that I found utterly delightful and stronger overall that we’re going to argue about quite a bit.

Since I’m using way too many of my words: I liked Legends and Lattes, have requested Bookshops and Bonedust, would not have nominated it and I’m perfectly fine with it being on the ballot. I think it’s a perfect representation of the shape of the genre in 2022. We can also revisit some of the stuff we lament not being on the ballot later, too.

Adri: There’s far too much high quality, thoughtful work from last year for me to call this the “shape of the genre”, regardless of how effective its fluff is.

Joe: See, I’ll disagree with that, but mostly because I didn’t intend to suggest Legends and Lattes was the entirety of the shape of the genre last year, though I can definitely understand how it could be read as such.

: Before we get to this long teased fight, let’s talk about the cosy work that disappointed you and actually surmounted the (admittedly low) bar I had for it. The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal is a murder mystery set on a space cruise ship, in which a ludicrously wealthy heiress’ incognito honeymoon is spoiled by an inconvenient death on the ship, for which her husband becomes prime suspect. Tesla Crane is “cover your eyes and peek between your fingers in horror” levels of awful, in ways that I’ve disliked Kowal protagonists for before: on a surface level, she’s aware of her privilege, but she doesn’t let that awareness stop her from bulldozing and ask-for-the-manager-ing her way through every interaction. While the book gives her a chronic illness and PTSD to manage, it also allows her to abuse her medical aids in ways that seem like they should have consequences, but never do. The dog is amazing, but it’s also a yappy little Westie so I’m not even giving full marks for that.

The reason this worked better than the later Lady Astronaut books for me is because it’s fluff, and therefore I don’t have to take it seriously as a social justice narrative. Everything in The Spare Man is set up to tell a particular kind of locked room mystery, in which folks who are used to having more resources at their disposal have to figure out an initially baffling crime. That aspect of The Spare Man is really very enjoyable. I will also admit, though I’m not proud of this, that “wealthy, skilled heiress bulldozes and outwits everyone around her” is a more enjoyable form of wish fulfillment for me than “burned out mercenary opens small business, makes friends” or “insecure gig worker takes job they are massively overqualified for, makes friends, sees cool stuff”. If you embrace the fact that Tesla is awful, and meeting her in real life would be a miserable experience, it becomes quite entertaining to watch her solve the mystery.

It’s still a no award for me, but it’s the highest of my no awards.

Joe: For those keeping score at home - The Spare Man isn’t the aforementioned fairly ambitious novel, but rather the “disappointing work from a favorite author”. Most recently, I absolutely loved The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky (though maybe a little bit less The Relentless Moon) and farther back, I’ve been a fan of Kowal’s short fiction and transition into novels with the first of the Glamourist Histories, though I haven’t read them all (or Ghost Talkers, which I always meant to) - which is a long way to say that I really dig Kowal’s work and The Spare Man really didn’t work for me.

I couldn’t be more disappointed that this is at the bottom of my Best Novel ballot. I’m not using No Award this year, but The Spare Man isn’t it. Thankfully, this isn’t a novel truly dealing with the troubles of the extraordinary wealthy and elite because Tesla Crane’s troubles aren’t specifically that of wealth. Wealth is the tool she uses, often as a bludgeon, to get her way and I am absolutely shocked that it didn’t piss me the hell off. It should. It’s a testament to Kowal’s generally soft touch that Crane is generally sympathetic even as she’s railroading everyone around her into submission.

My problem is that the central mystery wasn’t that interesting to me and the quirks of Tesla Crane aren’t nearly as charming as those of Elma York in the first two Lady Astronaut novels. I get what you’re saying about not taking the social justice aspect as seriously as you might otherwise because The Spare Man is fluff, but therein lies the problem. It’s heavy handed fluff and while Kowal’s handling of how Crane used her wealth and position was softer than one might expect, the rest of the novel - the social justice aspects and the mystery storytelling, was just clumsy.

: Which leaves us with fluff-novel number three: The Kaiju Preservation Society. I know you loved this one, and that this is where our foreshadowed showdown takes place, but: I just don’t have much to say about this book, except that it was a resounding failure on every level for me. The plot was basic and weak, the humour felt like something from the 2000s, almost every character sounded the same (to the point where other characters have to point out “oh, you’re the less snarky one” and “oh, you’re the REALLY snarky one” among the main group for you to notice any difference), and the kaiju go basically undescribed so the action scenes are impossible to satisfyingly visualise. It’s readable, sure! If I was stuck in a remote mountain hostel without my kindle and this was the only thing on the book swap shelf, I’d have a diverting couple of hours with it. But I have nothing nice to say about it beyond “it’s readable”, and it feels like a significant step backward for Scalzi after The Collapsing Empire.

Now you can tell me why I’m wrong!

Joe: You’re just keeping me from complaining about Nona right now. You know that, right?

You’re wrong!

Actually, you’re wrong about the significant step backwards since The Collapsing Empire as much as you are wrong about this not being good, because The Last Emperox was the significant step backwards and I’m really confused about the 7/10 score I gave it three years ago because the lasting memory that book gave me was just a sour note over The Interdependency. I thought I hated it way more than that.

But The Kaiju Preservation Society was just a damned delight.

Listen, if you’re not down with the basic conceit of a dude stumbling his way into a job he has no frame of reference to understand and the whole thing turning into Scalzi’s version of Jurassic Park, I really don’t know what to tell you.

The Kaiju Preservation Society is VERY Scalzi. The only thing that might be more Scalzi is his next book, Starter Villain. And I know you’ve been on board with Scalzi in the past, but I’m just confused because absolutely everything works here.

I read it when I was coming off watching 30+ Godzilla movies in relatively short order and while missing the commentary of the original Godzilla - The Kaiju Preservation Society is an absurdist Godzilla movie, it’s Jurassic Park when we get through the gates and the music swells, it is absolutely full of that sense of wonder I’m looking for.

Where you didn’t get a sense of the kaiju, I did. I felt their enormity and whether I could fully visualize one didn’t matter because I *felt* them. They are real, and they are spectacular.

Adri: Surely this is just nostalgia and projection in the place of good writing, though. Sure, you can hum the Jurassic Park theme tune to yourself because the setting is a bit like Jurassic Park, and that feels great because the Jurassic Park theme is banging. You can imagine the kaiju from the 30+ Godzilla movies when the writing says “there was a kaiju ahead, it was very, very big, no, bigger than that, really humongous like the mountain”. (not an actual quote). But that feels like a pretty shallow form of storytelling to me, and it doesn’t do anything to convince me this is a good novel.

A comparison that springs to mind is Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant: a novel which has also been compared to Jurassic Park, and takes plenty of beats from monster thrillers, but which takes the time to establish the variety of characters populating this world (or, in this case, ship), and to make it clear exactly what is hunting them down (mermaids). It doesn’t rely on “hey, you know what mermaids look like from all those killer mermaid movies? Well, imagine them doing a thing!” - to be fair, it can’t, but it also makes it a much better book.

Joe: Into the Drowing Deep was a staggeringly good novel that should have received all of the acclaim and I dearly want more of *that*.

Scalzi is a commercial science fiction writer and The Kaiju Preservation Society hits the mark for being that fast paced entertaining book that landed at just the right time, especially given that I read this in late 2021 when Covid was dropping another wave on the United States - so I needed what this book was laying down. But, beyond that, with the exception of Lock In (and maaaaybe Fuzzy Nation), this was a different sort of novel than what John Scalzi had written before at novel length. He’s off the sweeping space opera / military SF and into, well, I don’t know, a rip roaring friggin dinosaur book?

But, where The Spare Man is Mary Robinette Kowal doing Mary Robinette Kowal things not nearly as well as she’s done in the past, The Kaiju Preservation Society is John Scalzi doing very John Scalzi things at a really high level.

This is #1 on my Hugo Ballot.

Adri: It’s a piece of fluff, and iif it ends up winning - or if any of the above do - we might have to put these conversations on hold until I regain my respect for the Hugos again.


That’s a very long time complaining, and I want to move on to less disappointing works - but here I run into problems because even though I think we’re firmly in Hugo worthy territory with the rest of the ballot, I did run into some personal disappointments with two of the three books remaining here.

I reviewed Nona the Ninth last year and to say this book was hyped is like saying the ocean is a bit damp. The Locked Tomb has picked up a huge fanbase by this point, and tor dot com has been very happy to capitalise on that with ALL the marketing. This is a series that pulled a frankly ridiculous stunt in its second book in the way it messes with the first book’s canon, and that created my one of my favourite books ever in Harrow - but the similarly jarring perspective shift from Harrow to Nona unfortunately didn’t captivate me in the way it seems to have worked for others. Nona the Ninth presents us with an intricate, complex plot full of returning characters in unexpected circumstances and new characters who seem to have more going on than we realise. However, it presents these things from the perspective of a clueless ingénue whose entire character can be summed up as “just happy to be here”, and despite all of the marketing to the contrary, I did not love Nona. Unlike Harrow, where the misdirection and canon confusion made me desperate to keep reading and find out what was going on, the first half of Nona is quite a slow experience, and it’s only in the second half that things start to get wild in the way that this series thrives on.

That said, the Locked Tomb continues to be amazing and nothing about the way Nona the Ninth unfolded makes me less confident about the series as a whole. Hopefully I will go into Alecto and realise “oh, that’s why Nona the Ninth had to be that way”, and there are plenty of elements (John, ugh, John) that have stuck with me in a good way. This would be a weird winner, though, since I do think it’s the weakest of the series so far.

Joe: I do think you are right about Nona being explained by Alecto. If I remember correctly, Nona was born out of Tamsyn Muir writing Alecto and realizing the supposedly smaller “Nona” opening section of the novel was turning into a much larger work and Tor dot com said “yes, we like money” so The Locked Tomb Trilogy became The Locked Tomb Quartet and Nona the Ninth became a full length novel.

This is my “fairly ambitious novel” that didn’t work for me. Like you I loved Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth. I was blown away by how effectively Muir pulled off the twist, or the stunt as you called it, in Harrow. Muir had moxie to spare and no shame and she absolutely pulls it off.

Nona the Ninth is no less ambitious than Gideon or Harrow, possibly all the more so because it obviously upends everything we know of the series and whatever we expected from Nona - this isn’t it. Nothing makes sense. Nona, the character, doesn’t make sense. Her place in the world doesn’t make sense. I know it’s intentional and I trust Muir to deliver this story, but the amount of questioning I’m doing and trying to figure out who the hell Nona is (because there’s no way she’s *just* a cipher) was taking up more of my energy that should have been spent falling into the narrative.

I really need to read Alecto to see how Nona fits. I think how we ultimately view Nona will depend fully on how well Muir pulls off Alecto.

But that’s where I struggled because where I was onboard with Harrow’s mystery and thought that story was perfectly told, Nona didn’t quite feel like it belonged to the same overarching story and I had a very difficult time accepting Nona on its own….not quite merit, but as its own thing.

Adri: Still, I love that this series has captured the Hugo voters’ imagination, along with the hearts of a million Gideon/Nona-avatarred Tumblr/AO3 kids. Muir has done well to bring that unholy alliance together.

Joe: Each of the novels we’ve discussed up until this point were not Hugo surprises, at least to me. We disagreed on the Hugo odds for Legends and Lattes, but even though this wasn’t the line up I necessarily predicted, they are not unexpected.

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau and Nettle and Bone were unexpected, though you were less surprised by T. Kingfisher than I was. My thing is that, with the exception of new authors, until you make the Hugo ballot I have a hard time predicting you for the Hugo ballot. Authors who have built a reputation of writing quality work but not making the Hugo ballot are tough to predict to make the ballot unless they have a real breakout novel. Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame was that novel after being nominated up and down the rest of the ballot for years, but until that novel broke out I’m not predicting McGuire for Best Novel.

Adri: Give or take a few Mira Grant nominations, but I agree that those are different.

Joe: On the other hand, you have Elizabeth Bear, a two time Hugo winner for her shorter fiction (and a two time winner in Fancast) who writes novels I often consider the best of the genre and the best of the year and whom I may never predict for Best Novel because until she breaks through in that category I don’t think she’s breaking through.

That’s where T. Kingfisher fell for me - she’s a hella prolific writer who is consistently good and has an impressive following. She’s been on the ballot three times before, winning once as T. Kingfisher (as well as winning a Lodestar Award) and twice more as Ursula Vernon - but she was never a finalist for Best Novel.

Until Nettle and Bone.

What isn’t a surprise is that Nettle and Bone is good!

: Nettle and Bone is indeed very good Kingfisher - practical women and unsentimental fairy tale telling with some solidly creepy stuff thrown in for good measure. Supernatural dogs are a fast way to my heart, and “Bonedog” was already in my skinny white whippet’s nickname rotation (as was “Noodle”, the name of the dog from Nona the Ninth - it’s a very Zag heavy ballot!), so that was a winner. Like much of Kingfisher’s work, this is a book that spends time on the margins of political power but focuses on the kinds of people who don’t want to wield it - in the case of Princess Marra, this is partly a requirement of her position, but Nettle and Bone is pretty firm on the moral toll of wielding fairy-tale-monarch power and makes it clear that this is no sort of happy ending for a woman who values her integrity.

I didn’t get around until reading this until it landed on the Nebula ballot, and even if I had read it during nominations I’m not sure it would have cracked my top five, but it’s my favourite of the works here, and I think it gives Kingfisher a great shot at her first Best Novel Hugo to go on her already well-populated award shelf.

Joe: I liked it a lot. It was a reminder that I should read more Kingfisher / Vernon because I’ve been delighted with just about everything she’s written.

Adri: Which leaves the final book on the ballot, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. I’m a huge fan of SIlvia Moreno-Garcia and I happily follow her into genres I wouldn’t normally have much to do with, but I put this one off because I’ve never actually read the H.G. Wells story that it’s based off. It turns out that’s not a big problem, since Wells’ work is archetypal enough to make everything obvious as long as you’re familiar with the concept. This story does what Moreno-Garcia does best, which is to ramp up the tension between people in a very claustrophobic environment (whether the characters are actually isolated, as here or in Mexican Gothic, or more emotionally isolated like Velvet Was the Night). That isolation is punctuated by glimpses of the outside world - through the arrival of Eduardo Lizalde, the dangerous son of Doctor Moreau’s patron, and through the shadowy threat of Maya rebels lurking deeper in the jungle - but most of the drama comes from interpersonal relationships, and the actions of Carlota Moreau, the titular daughter.

Unfortunately, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau didn’t do it for me in the way that Mexican Gothic and Gods of Jade and Shadow have, and I suspect that’s because the world here is too darn interesting for the souped-up love triangle between Carlota, Lizalde and Loughton (Moreau’s overseer) to be an interesting focus of attention. I know that keeping the wider politics of the Yucutan is a deliberate choice in this story, but it’s one that I found myself railing against for much of the novel, and it left me with less enjoyment for the actual story. Also, while Moreno-Garcia’s reimagining of Moreau’s experiments - and their undeniable personhood and agency in this story - are interesting from a literary standpoint, they aren’t particularly interesting from a science fiction angle. It adds up to something that feels like a cool literary experiment, but not like a top novel of 2022. Still, I’m absolutely delighted that Moreno-Garcia is getting noticed by the Hugo awards at last and I don’t begrudge this being the novel that finally does it for her. It’s in a solid second place for me.

: I also have The Daughter of Doctor Moreau in second place on my ballot, we just have very different #1 picks. Moreno-Garcia was another surprise Hugo finalist for me. Not because this novel isn’t worthy or that Silvia Moreno-Garcia hasn’t deserved a place on a Hugo ballot for a number of years, because it is and she has - but simply because I didn’t see Moreno-Garcia as an author who receives Hugo recognition. I’m happy she has.

I want to say The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is probably the most technically proficient novel on the ballot, but I’m afraid that’s going to suggest the “literary” quality of a book gives it more merit than - say, the easy commercial properties of John Scalzi or Mary Robinette Kowal - and that’s not quite what I mean because writing smooth, fast reading prose that propels a story can be as technically difficult as writing “serious literature”. I also don’t want to fully launch us off topic here.

What I am trying to say, though, is that The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is working hard to exist within the science fiction trappings of the original story of The Island of Doctor Moreau, but to reframe it away from a shipwrecked Englishman discovering Moreau and towards a tale of colonialism, family, and identify - while still very much being a Doctor Moreau story. It’s incredibly well done and it feels more “accomplished” than many of the other works on the ballot, for whatever that means. Sometimes I only have these vague ideas of how and why I’m slotting work together on a Hugo ballot. We’re ranking novels for an award and none of the finalists are anything like the rest.

Adri: And I think that brings us to the end of a marathon discussion! We’ve already talked about favourite books and omissions from this ballot a few times this year, so I don’t want to retread old ground too much, but it does disappoint me to think of all the things we could have had on this ballot but don’t. Of course, we’re late enough in the year that plenty of those books have been recognised already, but I wish I had more to look forward to when it comes to best novel announcement this year. I’ll have to hold my excitement for other categories.

Joe: It was a year! These extended Hugo seasons are weird, because I feel like I should be reading next year’s work and we’re still talking through last year - so let’s push on.