Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Novel

Once again, we have reached the Big One. The Hugo Award for Best Novel.

You can find my tentative ballots and thoughts on the other finalists here:

This year, I had only read three out of the six finalists, although two of the unread ones were already on my TBR. The sixth was a book I wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been nominated. And that just goes to show how valuable the Hugo Awards are because I ended up ranking that book pretty damn high for something I wasn’t even interested in…

2020 was an insanely good year for SFF publishing. The finalists could have included 15 additional novels and it would still have been a fantastic ballot. Seriously, this was the first time I felt bad because I had to leave several worthy books off my nominations ballot as only five works can be nominated. Now as for ranking the ones that made it… oh boy.


The Finalists for Best Novel

When the finalists came out, I thought I had them all figured out. I expected to hate Harrow the Ninth, I may have loved Piranesi but it doesn’t feel like a Hugo book to me, and Network Effect has now won both a Nebula and a Locus, so I could rank it a bit lower without feeling bad. Roanhorse and Kowal were the big unknowns for me. But then Harrow turned out to really get its hooks into me, Black Sun – although it can’t stand on its own and reads more like half a novel – impressed me enough to keep floating around in my mind and all of that just leaves me stumped. I can’t possible compare these books, much less rank them!

Nobody is more surprised than I am at Harrow the Ninth turning me into a fan. A reluctant one, sure, but a fan, nonetheless. I still don’t like Muir’s writing style, I don’t see its merit for the story and/or characters, and I simply don’t enjoy reading it. BUT. Pretty much everything else about Harrow the Ninth was super fun. The crazy magic system, the puzzling nature of everything in this book, how nothing makes sense until it suddenly does… I even got quite emotional at times and that’s something that was completely missing in Gideon for me. Reading this book felt like work a lot of the time and it made me shout “What the hell is going on?” many, many times, but I keep thinking about it, I keep making up theories, I keep wishing for the next book to come out soon because I have to know how it all ends. And that’s just amazing to me and pushed this book up on my ballot.

With Network Effect, I’m taking an approach that not everyone may agree on. I adore Murderbot as much as the next person and I was very fond of this full-length novel in a series otherwise comprised of novellas. I nominated it myself and it would originally have ended up as number 2 on my ballot. But – and here’s my controversial voting strategy – I would much rather see Murderbot win Best Series because I think the series as a whole is better than its individual instalments and also more than just the novel on its own. I mean, the novel won a Nebula and a Locus Award, both absolutely deserved, but it makes me kind of want the Hugo to go to another book. 2020 was such a great year for SFF and the awards scene shouldn’t make it look like Network Effect was the one and only great book we got. So yeah, these are the reasons why I’m ranking this brilliant, heartwarming, action-packed book that I loved, quite low on my ballot.

N. K. Jemisin may feel like a similar case. After doing what nobody has done before and taking home three consecutive Hugos for her Broken Earth Trilogy, it would feel a bit… repetitive to give her another Hugo. But then The City We Became is going in a completely different direction, showing her amazing genre-busting skill. It was the first 2020 publication I knew I would nominate and it feels like it should be number 1 on my ballot. My opinion of it is colored by the amazing audiobook version which turned the book into a proper event. Out of all the books on the ballot, I read this one the longest time ago, and yet I still remember certain scenes vividly, I still have the character voices in my head, and I still loved the story arc. So it has to go in my top three at least, but maybe not in the number one spot anymore?

Rebecca Roanhorse’s new series starter, Black Sun, didn’t impress me all that much while I read it. Most people unabashedly love this book and I found it fun to read as well. I liked the characters, I loved the world building and the set up, but I found the story quite predictable and derivative. You could tell where each story line would go from the very beginning, so, much like her Urban Fantasy, the only thing that set this apart from other stereotypical books of that sub-genre, was the setting and the character diversity. As these are two things I value greatly, I believe we can commend Roanhorse, but does that make her novel worthy of an award? Add to that the fact that Black Sun isn’t even the kind of trilogy opener that tells a full story and only leaves a handful of questions open, no no, it actually just stops mid-tale. If I didn’t know there were more books coming, I would be majorly pissed that this is how the book ends. Because it doesn’t, it just pauses. To me, this makes it a much more fitting contender for the Best Series category (depending on how good the sequels are, of course). I will be reading the next book and I look forward to it. But I don’t believe that Black Sun has enough to offer to merit a Hugo Award.

My last read was The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal because I first had to catch up on the second book in the Lady Astronaut series. In hindsight, I regret not reading it sooner because I would have nominated that for a Hugo last year! Now this third book took me a while to get into, mostly because of the change in protagonist, but then Kowal worked her magic again and I was caught in the world of scientists and astronauts, of a sabotage plot with a hint of spy mystery, of deeply human characters with believable relationship. And I ended up loving it so much! This book is making voting harder not just in this category but also in Best Series. Because the series is getting better and even though you can read the books as standalones, it’s so much more than the sum of its parts when you follow the series as a whole.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Mary Robinette Kowal – The Relentless Moon
  2. Tamsyn Muir – Harrow the Ninth
  3. N. K. Jemisin – The City We Became
  4. Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
  5. Martha Wells – Network Effect
  6. Rebecca Roanhorse – Black Sun

Maaaaaan, this is a difficult year! I don’t think I’ve ever had such trouble ranking the Best Novel finalists. The only book I’m sure about is Black Sun in my last spot (again, not because it was bad, but the other stuff is just better). I’ll probably also keep Network Effect at number five because it’s already won so much and I’m ranking Murderbot higher up on my Best Series ballot.

But 1-4 are a complete mess that I have changed about fifty times by now and I’m never quite happy with my ranking. I’ve been debating putting Harrow first but then Jemisin’s newest book was so much nicer to read and Kowal’s Relentless Moon hit me really hard emotionally… And Piranesi was brilliant even if I think it’s not a typical Hugo book. So you see, the ballot I’m posting here could stay the same or it could change a hundred more times before the voting period ends. Your guess is a good as mine.

The great thing about this is: I would be happy for any of my top 5 books to receive the Hugo Award. As much as I complain about difficult choices and rankings and blah blah blah, it’s a truly wonderful year when we can’t decide what should win because everything is so damn good.

Up next week: Best Series

4 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos 2021: Best Novel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s