The 2016 Hugo Awards were handed out at Worldcon over the weekend. I didn’t have a vote, but this is the first year I’ve read all of the nominees for best novel. This wasn’t carefully planned on my part; it was more a matter of having read three of the nominees before the finalists were selected. I figured I might as well catch up with the rest of the list and be able to have an opinion on the winner. I picked a good year to jump in as all of the nominees were enjoyable reads this year. The winner was The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin, a choice that I heartily support and the book that I would have voted for. Here are my thoughts on the finalists:
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
This is an epic fantasy story that takes place in a geologically hyperactive world, revolving around people who can magically control tectonics. The universe building is fantastic, featuring an unusual landscape, amazing and diverse characters, a healthy dose of badassery, and a unique magical system. Much of the emotion of the story is drawn from fantastic racism against orogenes, those with the ability to control the earth. There are multiple characters who struggle against oppression and unfair circumstances, including, but not limited to, the end of the world. I think this book is a perfect example of how diversity can be included in storytelling. Characters are of various races and genders, even setting aside non-human creatures, but that diversity comes from the setting rather than through conscious casting. It was very easy for me to step inside the character of a middle aged black woman mourning the death of her son, and I am way, way not a middle aged black mother. You can hear my long-form thoughts about this on the Novel Ideas podcast.
Suggested audience: People who like good things. I didn’t attach a letter grade or a ranking system to these reviews because this book would break any scale I could think of. Actually, the Moment Magnitude Scale would work pretty well, but I have trouble thinking in logarithms. This is currently my favorite book, leaving in its wake a trail of white dude science fiction authors, fingers confusedly fumbling at the spot on their heads formerly occupied by a crown.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Seveneves has exactly one thing in common with The Fifth Season: it prominently features the end of the world. In this case, that world is Earth after something (we never get to find out what) fragments the moon. The people of Earth frantically launch a colony into space in an attempt to save the human race. The book is highly technical, with the first half focusing on how people could try to survive long term in orbit using the technology of the very near future, and the second half focusing on the society that results from that effort. The meat of the book is aimed at NASA fans and anyone who has speculated about what (guided) human evolution might look like. My main takeaways were that the body count was very high and that epigenetics are to biology what quantum is to physics for science fiction writers.
Suggested audience: Hard SF fans and whichever Buzzfeed writer ends up posting the “Which Eve are you descended from?” quiz.
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
This is the third, and presumably final, book in the Imperial Radch trilogy. I reviewed the second book for Minerva’s 2015 Hugo preview. The series is about a starship that becomes a person and the first two entries were excellent—the first book won nearly every science fiction award there was to win. I believe that the third volume lives up to the promise of the first two, examining prejudice, privilege, cultural norms, and what it means to be human against the backdrop of interstellar civil war and the possible destruction of the human race. The world building in this universe is focused on the culture and history of the Radch empire and the viewpoint character who is struggling to live in a single body after hundreds of years controlling thousands of bodies at a time. I also appreciated Leckie’s depiction of the Presger, who are alien and unknowable in a way that can be simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, especially compared to the rubber forehead aliens that populate most fictional universes.
Suggested audience: The cerebral reader who likes subtle conversations where an ocean of angst exists in the subtext beneath the polite exterior conversation. A bit of a “Jane Austen if she wrote socially conscious science fiction” vibe.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Out of the five finalists, this was the one that most exceeded my expectations. A young girl is taken to live in a tower, where she will spend the next ten years as a servant to a powerful wizard. Novik takes care not to allow this premise to get super creepy. She saves that for elsewhere. The wizard is also protector to the local villages, bordering a cursed forest. This is where the creep factor comes in. The book really shines not through the plot and characterization, which are basically what you would expect from the set up, but through the fleshing out of the cursed forest. I found the nature of the curse disturbing and the scenes involving cursed creatures and unfortunate villagers were sometimes terrifying.This book has less originality in plot and characterization than the other finalists, but the universe building is excellent and the execution of familiar tropes is done well.
Suggested audience: People who enjoy goosebumps. Anyone who wants to challenge their skepticism on whether livestock can be demonically terrifying. Those who don’t mind a romance that is, for reasons of [spoiler redacted], Twilight-esque.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
Followers of Novel Ideas know I’m a big Jim Butcher fan—I believe I’ve read every book he’s published, including all 400 entries (approximately) in the Dresden Files. Windlass is probably his strongest novel to date. The setting is steampunk fantasy, with a healthy dose of etheric magic to go along with airships, black powder weapons, and badass longcoats. As with his previous work, Butcher excels in writing exciting action scenes with realistic battles (adjusting for the magical setting, of course) where everybody involved gets the crap kicked out of them. The airship battles in particular combine the best elements of Horatio Hornblower and Star Trek. Fans of his previous work will recognize certain character types, but they feel more three dimensional in this book than in his others. There is also a larger role for women—three of them feature in the main cast, and the two arguably most important characters are tough, kickass ladies. The world of snark feel of the Dresden Files is also toned down considerably, without eliminating it entirely. All in all, it’s a well balanced, more mature work from a writer that I already liked.
Suggested audience: Me and people who look like me. Anyone looking for a swashbuckling adventure. Those who don’t like when the inevitable triumph of the heroes is too easy.
Featured image via Goodreads.