So a thing I’ve enjoyed doing the last few years is reading all the Hugo novel nominees; I often feel like I’m not as connected to the wider field of SF/fantasy as I used to be, and reading the award nominees at least helps me understand where the genre (or at least one part of it) is at. So this year, I’d already read T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone; I’m going to wait to read Tamsyn Muir’s Nona the Ninth, as everything I’ve heard tells me that I should read this series all at once if I want to have any hope of understanding it. And that leaves four more books.
First up is Travis Baldree’s Lattes and Love. This is the story of an orc adventurer who sets up a coffee bar after retiring from the adventuring life. It’s pure fluff, one of those books with low stakes and little conflict, where the protagonist gathers a found family of misfits who realize that they all love each other. It’s a quick, light read, and well done as fluff goes. But I’m baffled at the idea that this is an award nominee—multiple award nominee, as it was also Nebula nominated! Enjoyable book, recommended on its own terms, but I hate this nomination.
Next is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. This takes the Dr. Moreau story and puts it into a remote estate in Mexico. I’ve loved Moreno’s earlier work, particularly Mexican Gothic, a horror novel set in a similarly isolated house. This one, I didn’t like quite as much—it felt like a more straightforwardly conventional plot, without the richness and surprise of her earlier works. I didn’t read this and think “oh man, this is incredible, this needs to win awards,” but it’s a respectable nominee.
Less respectable is John Scalzi’s The Kaiju Preservation Society. I understand why it was nominated (Scalzi is popular), and the book has some merits, mostly around the world-building—the relationship the kaiju have to Earth (and their ecosystem overall) is genuinely interesting. But it’s really more of an airport book than anything else. The characters all talk in identical Scalzi snark (a mode of dialogue I really don’t love), the plot is ridiculously obvious with “shocking twists” that literally every reader will have seen coming from half a book away, and it’s just not doing anything even remotely ambitious. Scalzi himself seems to have viewed it, based on the afterword, as something of a post-Covid/Trump palate-cleanser. In the context of the Hugo, this reminds me of nothing so much as when Robert J. Sawyer would get nominated for these shitty action SF thrillers. I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now.
But that’s not my least favorite of the Hugo nominees; that prize goes to Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Spare Man. This book legitimately made me angry. The writing has a weird, off-putting style—it feels like it’s trying to do a hard-boiled detective thing and failing badly. The world-building is incredibly bad; we’re allegedly in a world where people take interplanetary luxury cruises, and yet everything about the society is basically the present day, except in space. Every social attitude, every social controversy, is lifted straight out of the 2020s, to the point that when one character does some retrograde pronoun usage, the protagonist chides them for being out of the 1980s, a comment that genuinely left me puzzled, as there was no hint prior that this was an alt-history instead of the future. (Oh, and a popular show is Zero Gravity Dancing With the Stars, a name that is so obnoxious for how of-five-years-ago it is, but also how lazy it is. Not Dancing Among the Stars or something, just literally we’re making it futuristic by throwing the adjective “Zero Gravity” in there. Ugh.)
But it’s maybe the characters who are the worst part of all, because they’re rich assholes who go around being wilfully stubborn and throwing their money and power around to get their way all the time. I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to be cheering for them getting their revenge on the officious security officers who are oppressing them, but it honestly reads more like rich people having a tantrum. The only reason they’re the protagonists at all is that their opponents are cartoon villains. (Imagine a world in which cruise ship private security rent-a-cops would viciously beat and assault rich passengers! It’s absurd.) The only saving grace of this book is that its central mystery is interesting, and I wanted to find out what happened. But even though I kept turning pages, I hated every moment of reading them. Obviously, I don’t think this should have been nominated at all.
Last year’s nominees were a solid slate, but this year’s aren’t. If I were a voter, I’d give the award to Nettle and Bone more or less by default, with the Moreno-Garcia novel being my second choice. I haven’t read the Tamsyn Muir thing yet, but on the strength of Gideon, I suspect it belongs up with these two. But after that, I’d put No Award, and then layer in the last three—Baldree, Scalzi, and then Kowal at the very bottom.