Hugo Best Novel Roundup

Best Novel nomination list

  • 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)

OK, first things first I am going to address the elephant in the room here. If you have been reading my reviews of the nominations for Best Novel you may notice that I have only done reviews for four out of six. This is because I failed to finish Space Opera, which I will explain a little about later on. I have not yet read Revenant Gun because I have only read the first in the series and I want to read some of the other categories in full before I make any attempt at the series, which means that for now I am leaving it off my list to prioritise other things.

So onto explaining about Space Opera. I tried reading this book, the premise sounded absolutely fascinating and honestly I haven’t read much science-fiction comedy in a long while. People likened it to Douglas Adams’ books and I am a big fan of those so I really expected to like it.

Unfortunately I found the language use really put me off. The long paragraphs and overly wordy sentences managed to lose some of the humour for me as I kept having to re-read things to try and work out what the actual intention was, which was basically like having someone explain a joke to you and really does kill the humour. I gave it a good few chapters but in the end I decided that since I was not enjoying it and therefore very unlikely to vote for it, I was better abandoning it and moving on to other things and I honestly do not regret that choice. I am not saying that the book is awful and no one will like it, I am saying that this book is most definitely not for me.

That leaves us with four books left. If you have been paying attention to my ranking system you will note that both The Calculating Stars and Trail of Lightning received four stars from me, which means that much as I really enjoyed both books they are not getting my vote in this category (it was a good field though).

Which leaves it between Record of a Spaceborn Few and Spinning Silver. Much as I am a huge fan of Becky Chambers and her writing. Her characterisation is absolutely excellent and her stories are just so warming to your core in ways that I honestly don’t experience enough these days, I think for me I will have to put Spinning Silver over it. The use of language, the way Naomi Novik weaves the plot, it was just so superbly done that I cannot but wish to see it win.

My winner: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik.

Spinning Silver (5*)

Book: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

spinning silver“But the world I wanted wasn’t the world I lived in, and if I would do nothing until I could repair every terrible thing at once, I would do nothing forever.” 

Another one in my series of Hugo reads. I actually bought this one in paperback when I finished it because I loved it that much.

The story starts off following Miryem, the young daughter of a moneylender whose father is too kind to collect on his debts leading them to live in poverty. When her mother gets sick she takes over collecting to ensure she can actually care for her family.

It turns out that she has a knack for it and she turns around the family business, commenting that she can turn silver into gold. Unfortunately for her this boast is overheard by a race of creatures bound to the winter and hungry for gold who want to use her abilities for their own ends.

The book actually has a number of different narrators, mostly women, adding more voices as the story goes on. If I have any complaint at all about the book, it’s the fact that some of the narrators didn’t entirely feel necessary to me and at one point it actually took me a moment to work out whose point of view we were seeing things from, which threw me out of the story for a moment.

But mostly what I loved was that this book gave us several very well realised female characters, with their own problems, motivations and story arcs and the crossover between them was handled very well. She managed to balance showing us the troubles that women of the time might go through, without making them perpectual victims and also whilst still sticking to the very well done fairytale atmosphere of the book.

“There are men who are wolves inside, and want to eat up other people to fill their bellies. That is what was in your house with you, all your life. But here you are with your brothers, and you are not eaten up, and there is not a wolf inside you. You have fed each other, and you kept the wolf away. That is all we can do for each other in the world, to keep the wolf away.” 

I was very impressed at how she blended a feeling of realism in the way the characters acted and how the setting works, especially how well she conjures up a sense of cold (and deprivation at times). I felt entirely swept up into the world she created and it was honestly a book I struggled to put down at points.

Previously I have only read the first of the Temeraire books (which I did very much enjoy), but this is so much better than that. I have been told by others that Uprooted is even better and if that is the case then it really must go up my priority list to read because honestly this was such an excellent book. I must admit I am a sucker for modern fairytales (well written in the modern era in this case) so this book was entirely up my street, the feminist leanings just made it even better.

One of the other main things I feel I need to mention is the clever way that she twists the stereotypes of the Jewish moneylender and actually does something positive with it. Given the loaded history of such characters and how often they have been used to harm the Jewish community, it was really pleasant to see them reclaimed in this manner, especially given that anti-semitism seems to be once again on the rise at the moment. A timely book and well deserving of its place in the Hugo nominees.

Trail of Lightning (4*)

Book: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

trail of lightning

“Everything you’ve done, your past, it’s all just a story you tell yourself. Some of it is true, but some of it is lies.” 

Continuing on with my Hugo reads, this is one that I have wanted to read for a while since I heard the premise of it so I was pretty pleased that doing Hugo voting has given me a chance (as far as I know it’s not out in the UK in paperback yet and I don’t buy e-books).

The book follows Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter and a supernaturally gifted fighter. When she helps a small town deal with a monster problem is sets her on a chain of events to uncover who created the monsters and why.

She teams up with Kai Arviso, a medicine man, and together the two of them need to unravel this mystery and Maggie will also have to face up to something from her own past that she would rather avoid.

One thing this book does do is use a lot of Navajo language words from the start, but it does it in a way that you can understand them easily enough from the context of what is going on so I felt that they added, rather than subtracted from the story. Especially for this one where the characters are likely dual language so them thinking in two different languages for different terms makes a lot of sense and adds to atmosphere.

“We were safe. Safe from the outside world, at least. But sometimes the worst monsters are the ones within.” 

In terms of the overall premise this does seem on the surface like a fairly standard urban fantasy just one based in a culture we might not often see stories told in. For me it does go a bit deeper than that, looking at not only questions of belonging but also at what makes a monster and what makes a hero. Whilst looking at these questions is also not entirely revolutionary the book deals with it really well and overall produces an excellent story that has you guessing at what is going on.

It plays a lot with the idea of are people what they appear to be on the outside, the main character dealing with issues which makes her think that she is a monster or could easily become one. Her loneliness and isolation is shown quite clearly from the start of the book and how much her own trauma has harmed her in her relationships with others.

My main complaint with this book is whilst there are some other female characters within the story, the main focus is with Maggie and her relationships with male characters and that did frustrate me a lot. I do have reason to think from how things end that this may change going forward in the series so we shall have to see.

I am hoping that the nominations that this book has achieved will lead to the author’s books becoming more easily available in the future because I know that this book is just the beginning of a series and I am quite fascinated with where it will lead.

The Calculating Stars (4*)

Book: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Continuing my catch-up I am moving onto The Calculating Stars which I read as part of my book club, I can’t remember if it was before the Hugo nominations were announced but I know it won the Nebula between it getting nominated for book club and our meeting about it.

calculating“Without a plane, what was I supposed to do? Math the problem to death?”

This is the story of Elma York, a mathematician and pilot who ends up training as one of the first female astronauts. It’s strange to classify this book as science-fiction because in some ways that’s not entirely accurate, it’s an alternate history rather than anything else. The story is centered around a meteorite which crashed into the Earth in 1952, which starts a chain reaction which will ultimately wipe out humanity from the planet so they look to go to the stars as a way out.

I have to say that the story comes across as being genuinely well researched. I heard the author talk on her podcast Writing Excuses about the book and that she talked to real astronauts about it and got them to correct any mistakes she had made and that works to create an amazing sense of realism in regards to what they are actual doing in the book that works very well.

One of the things I loved in the book is how it shows the mysogyny of that time period very well without forgetting that racism was also very much a thing and not something that the white main character really thinks about until it is pointed out to her and that was done splendidly. As a white person I know how much I have had to educate myself on this (and still am) and it was important to me that they made a point of showing that intersectionality needs to be a thing in the advancement of women.

But anyway, getting off my feminist high horse for a moment one of the other main things I wanted to mention was the fact that other than the death of the planet, there is another antagonist to the story in the form of one of the male astronauts who is very against women joining the programme. He is very well done as he is not portrayed as a mistachio twirling villain but a very realistic person. He can be kind to people, he clearly does care a lot about what he does and yet on the other hand he can be horrible too. This is so important since a lot of people assume that if someone is nice to them then they cannot be a “bad guy” and this book shows very clearly that it is not the case.

“Nathaniel and I were a healthy young married couple, so most of the stars I saw were painted across the inside of my eyelids.” 

Honestly my main complaint about the book is the fact that there is a lot of sex in it. And if it wasn’t a story told in first person, I might not have minded so much, but instead it feels like someone’s memoir of their time getting to be an astronaut and for some weird reason they decided to include a lot of details about their sex life with their husband. Maybe it’s my asexuality shining through (though honestly I am quite a fan of a good written sex scene so I don’t think it’s that), but I think it’s more likely the constant rocket/penis comparisons that made me cringe so badly that it did end up detracting from my enjoyment of the story. I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler since the book practically opens with her talking having sex with her husband when the meterorite struck, but yeah, something to bear in mind.

Still, I do think this is a very good book, well told and deals with an interesting subject in a really good way. I haven’t read some of the other Nebula nominees, so I cannot say whether I feel it deserved the win, but I definitely do rate it highly and I shall be endeavouring to pick up the sequel when I can.

Wayfarers Series (5* overall)

Books: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

So as I am going to WorldCon I get to vote in the Hugos! This is very exciting to me as it’s my first WorldCon and I have not done voting like this as well so I am doing a lot of reading for it.

To start with I am reading my way through the Best Novel category and since I have already read all of the Becky Chambers books I thought I would start things off my catching up on some outstanding reviews as part of all of this. Since the series is up for an award along with the third book it seemed a good start to do all of them at once.

long wayThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (5*)

“Do not judge other species by your own social norms”

The plot of the book follows the crew of a ship whose job it is to help create what are basically wormholes between two points in space. To do so there needs to be two points to make one between and then the ship has to punch through to create it, but they need to punch from the destination and since that doesn’t already have a way to get there quickly they need to go the long way to the planet (hence the name of the book).

It should be said that the plot is not really the main point of the book, the book is made on the characters and the interactions between them. The setting is really detailed and well thought out and you learn about it through the characters learning about each other. I love the diverity of voices in the characters and how relatable a lot of them seem to be (even if you don’t like them).

Honestly this book felt like a warm hug to me, the characters ended up feeling like good friends and I cared what happened to them throughout the story. There is adversity and disaster in this book and it’s generally used as a means to drive the character’s stories and relationships rather than the plot itself necessarily being something you overly care about (it’s just not the focus of the story).

I think the only thing that saddens you about going on from the end of the book is finding out that the rest of the series follows different people so you don’t get to see more of their lives. This book sucks you in, fills you with all of the emotions and leaves you desperately wanting to read more.

common orbitA Closed and Common Orbit (4*)

“Perhaps the ache of homesickness was a fair price to pay for having so many good people in her life.” 

The second book follows Lovelace, an AI who we met in book one and her friend Pepper (who appears briefly in book one as well). Lovelace (or Lovey) is trying to adjust to her new life and Pepper is doing her best to help. The book also gives us flashbacks into Pepper’s past and how she got to where she is now and why helping Lovey is so important to her.

One of the things I loved about this book was it’s focus on relationships was were not sexual. Pepper seems to have a QPF with the person she is living with and there is never any real sign that Lovey is interested in much other than perhaps romantic relationships and as an asexual this sort of representation is often meaningful.

I could have a small gripe about how AIs are one of the typical things used to show asexuality and how that can be a negative thing when non human representations are one of the only things you see, but this is done well and representation of all sorts of relationships are the core of these books so it does not feel like it was done with that sort of thing in mind so I enjoyed it a great deal.

Another excellent and heartwarming character driven story that perhaps didn’t quite tug on some strings the way the first one did, but overall is really quite excellent and I loved it.

spaceborn fewRecord of a Spaceborn Few (5*)

“From the ground, we stand. From our ships, we live. By the stars, we hope.” 

Now we come to the one up for a Hugo for best novel. This book follows a few specific inhabitants of one of the Earth colony ships that took them out into the stars and whilst many humans have moved on elsewhere to colonies and other worlds, some have stayed on the ships to try and retain the culture that they developed on their long journey in space.

Like the first book this one follows a group of people so we see far more perspectives than the second book and honestly it seems to be something of a strength that Becky has in weaving those narratives together in interesting ways, especially in this case when the people do not have the tight interconnectedness of being on the same ship and some of them are far more loosely connected.

Still, she shows us a fascinating culture that has developed on these colony ships and how the people left on them are trying to keep the old traditions going whilst dealing with the fact that many people leave to go elsewhere and they sometimes feel more and more obsolete.

I was absolutely swept up into their lives and I felt so much for them in their individual troubles and hurts, which is where she excels. You weep with these people, you love with them, feel joy with them and that is a beautiful thing to inspire in a reader.

I am not sure if she is going to write more books in this setting, but even if she doesn’t I look forward to seeing what she comes up with in the future so I can fall in love and be heartbroken for a whole new set of characters.