A thing I’ve enjoyed doing, on and off, is reading all the Hugo nominated novels. For this year’s nominees, I’d already read the Becky Chambers (pleasant enough, but not something I’d think of as award-caliber) and the P. Djeli Clark (enjoyable enough, but not his strongest work), which left me with four to read.
First up was Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun. This is apparently a fantasticized version of real history (I say “apparently” here because my knowledge of Chinese history is super light, and I don’t actually know anything about the period it’s retelling). But in addition to the explicitly fantastic elements, it’s also somewhat of a secret history, because the main character is here a girl pretending to be a boy (well, pretending at first, and then eventually growing into a more complicated gender identity), which is not apparently true in reality. The book has a tragic character to it—most of the main characters can see their dooms coming from a mile away, and the reader can see the dooms of the rest of them—but it’s also got that fun “fantasy of competence” thing going, where a character’s skills and determination propel them to a fast rise. I think pretty much anyone who likes epic fantasy, and at least some people who don’t, would enjoy this book. Definitely award quality.
Next up was Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary. This isn’t a sequel to The Martian, but it’s doing the same kind of thing: Setting up a premise where Our Clever Hero is stuck alone in space and needs to use ingenuity and science-themed wits to solve a series of puzzles whereby he’ll survive and achieve his goals. The prose is terrible, with writing so bad it made me cringe to read it. The protagonist is annoying. The book is structured around this implausible and awkward flashback structure where the protagonist gradually remembers things leading up to how he got where he is. But… the puzzles are kinda fun, and they feel fair, and it’s fun watching the character solve these obstacles to move on to the next thing. Really, this feels like the transcript of an old text adventure game. It’s got the main character with amnesia, the character in almost total isolation, the mechanical manipulation puzzles… it’s all there. Lightly recommended to people who think they’d like it, but definitely not award quality.
Then there’s Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace. I avoid spoilers, but I’d still somehow absorbed that this was a let-down from the first novel, which I quite liked, so I went in without high hopes. But… it wasn’t a let-down for me, and I liked it a great deal. There’s still a ton of Imperial and Stationer politics in it, but here it’s all happening in the context of a first contact. I’m always a sucker for first contact stories, and love the thing where two alien races with nothing in common try to build a shared understanding of the world; the series of problems that needed to be solved here were interesting (although one of the biggest ones should have been waaaaaaaaaay more obvious to the characters than it was, and it was genuinely implausible how long that remained a mystery to them). Recommended, and also award quality.
Finally, I read Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars. This was the only one of the nominees that was a genuine “what?” to me, as I’d never even heard of it, or indeed the author. And so as I started it, I was dismayed to see that it’s about performing music—I basically never like fiction about music, because it always feels so precious, with characters caring a whole lot about something that doesn’t seem all that important. And then it also started getting surrealistic, with e.g., characters who are demons and also characters who are space aliens and run a donut shoppe. I was expecting to dislike it. But in fact, I liked it a lot. Probably this is because it’s more about the characters than anything else, and the characters are great—both the young trans protagonist (this is extremely a trans story) and the older characters as well. Recommended, and probably highly recommended to those who are more interested in stories about music. This is also a legit award nominee.
At the end of reading all of these, I think this ends up being a reasonably solid slate of nominees. If I were voting, my ballot would be (in order), She Who Became the Sun, A Desolation Called Peace, Light From Uncommon Stars, A Master of Djinn, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, with Project Hail Mary bringing up the rear. (I’d probably drop in No Award ahead of the last one if I were feeling saucy, but not if I were feeling a bit more generous.)