Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Series

Here’s my last instalment of the Reading the Hugos series for this year. I’ve done better than ever before in this category but disclaimer right here: I didn’t even get close to reading all the books in all the nominated series.

For my thoughts and rankings (currently) of the other categories, go here:

This is probably the toughest category for me (and many others) to judge. While a Best Novel or Lodestar nomination may happen for book two or three in a trilogy, it rarely happens for part 12 of a long-running series. Which is the entire reason this category exists! So that book series can be honored even when their first book(s) didn’t garner a lot of acclaim or weren’t as well known yet. Sometimes the tale grows with the telling, sometimes it’s only after a few books that characters really get to shine, and sometimes a trilogy in its entirety is just so much more than the sum of its parts.

The Finalists for Best Series

I’ve been gushing about The Winternight Trilogy ever since the first book came out. While the first is still my favorite, simply because its fairy tale vibe and atmosphere is so dear to my heart, I can’t deny that Arden actually got better with every book. The Winter of the Witch was a worthy and beautiful ending to a pretty epic story. I loved it to pieces, I nominated the books for Best Novel every year, so it would warm my heart to see the trilogy as a whole take home a Hugo. While the first book could be read as a standalone, the trilogy definitely tells a larger tale that is well worth exploring. Full of atmosphere, great multi-layered characters, and Russian history, it’s the perfect trilogy for reading on a winter night.

I started The Wormwood Trilogy from scratch and was very impressed with the first book. Yes, the reviews are right – it is a confusing book, jumping between different timelines, different levels of existence and dealing with a lot of fresh ideas. Kaaro is a former thief who now works for a special branch of the government as an interrogator. It’s not the kind of interrogation you might think, though. Kaaro is also a sensitive – one of the people who got some sort of mind reading powers from the alien biodome around which Rosewater is built – so he can just go into a prisoner’s mind and have them spill the beans on whatever the government wants to know. And although that’s already a lot, there’s even more to discover in this book. It’s a wild ride with crazy ideas and while I definitely struggled to keep the timeline straight in my head, it was a great experience.

Emma Newman’s Planetfall surprised me in many ways. I had only read her previous fairy-inspired series and didn’t much like it. Not only did Newman create a fantastic science fictional world here but her writing is also just phenomenal There was not a single second in the first book, Planetfall, where I was bored. Renata lives on the one and only space colony on a distant planet. She and others followed Lee Suh-Min to this place in order to find God. However, Renata and the Ringmaster Mack have a secret, one that involves the colony’s religious ceremonies… When a stranger arrives at the colony, things are put into motion and Ren’s many secrets are revealed over the course of this novel. This was exciting, filled with awesome ideas about life on a different planet, and Ren is one of the most intriguing protagonists I’ve ever read about. It’s hard to say much without spoiling but just do yourself the favor and pick this book up!

Although the cover screams that this isnot for me, I did give InCryptid by Seanan McGuire a try. After all, I quite like her October Daye series, so why not try her other urban fantasy? Well, now I know why. Because of all the things I dislike in books, McGuire picked most of them and threw them all together. A super-perfect heroine, a plot that doesn’t start until a third of the book is over, and that third being filled with info dumps and mentions of how great the heroine is. I hated Verity from the get go because I just don’t like Mary Sues without nuance or flaws, and a girl shooting someone while wearing heels doesn’t impress me. When she does something intolerably stupid (although she is supposed to be so perfect), that was it for me. The final nail in the coffin was the forced love interest that is the opposite of organic and feels like it was just thrown in there because you have to have romance in your urban fantasy. As I didn’t care for anything in this book, I finally DNFd it at 34%. This book is the definition of Not My Thing.

When I started reading Luna by Ian McDonald, I knew very soon that I wouldn’t be able to be super fair to this book. It can be summed up as a Mafia story set on the moon – and how cool is that? – which puts it in the uncomfortable position of being compared in my mind to Jade City by Fonda Lee. I know that’s not fair and I know I should keep those books separate in my head but I am only human and that’s just how my brain works.
Mind you, although it’s tough for any book to be as great as Jade City, I still enjoyed this one. I didn’t think the character work was quite as well done, but as to not be even more unfair, I tried to focus on the worldbuilding. This is science fiction about a society living on the moon, ruled by the Five Dragons (old families running big corporations). There is no criminal law, only contracts. If you can’t pay for air, well, that’s too bad. The plot had massive pacing problems (or just… non-existence problems) but the writing was great and the ending had me reading with my mouth gaping open. Not my favorite but I will continue the series someday.

The series I feel most uncomfortable ranking is The Expanse. I read the first book shortly after it came out but I just haven’t kept up with the series. We are currently at seven volumes, so even if I had managed to read Caliban’s War in time, I wouldn’t have been able to judge the series fairly. My hope is that it will be nominated again in a few years and I’ll have caught up by then. As long as the series is still ongoing, there’s still hope. And I don’t have to feel too bad for ranking it based solely on its first volume.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Katherine Arden – The Winternight Trilogy
  2. Emma Newman – Planetfall
  3. Tade Thompson – The Wormwood Trilogy
  4. The Expanse
  5. The Luna Trilogy
  6. No Award
  7. Seanan McGuire – InCryptid

As mentioned above, I took the next best approach to reading all the books in all the nominated series, which is to at least read the first volume in each series and continue on with those that interested me the most – if the first book doesn’t capture my attention enough for me to want the second book, then the series will proably not be my top choice. Even if the series in general gets better after book 3 or 5 or whatever, I’m not going to like it as much as a series that was great right from the start. At least that’s my reasoning. I also hate when people justify long series by saying things like “Oh, it really gets going around volume 4”. Why do I have to force myself through three mediocre or even bad books to get to the fun part? Shouldn’t the series have started with the fun part?

That’s why I only read the first book in the InCryptid series and I won’t be reading another book of that series even if it inevitably gets nominated again. I am going to vote for No Award in my sixth slot because, try as I might, I don’t see any reason why this could be deserving of an award. Considering the other finalists, this book just shouldn’t be here. It offers no original ideas, the writing is the laziest version of Urban Fantasy trope-land, the protagonist is plain bad, and the plot didn’t promise anything new. Yeah… I really hated it. But even apart from my personal taste, I think it is objectively not a great book that shouldn’t be in the company of these other finalists.
Luna and the Expanse might still switch places on my ballot. It’s been so long since I read Leviathan Wakes. On the other hand, Luna was the last book I read. I enjoyed both but one was definitely more fun and one had more ambitious science-fictional ideas. And I don’t know how either of their sequels handle characters and world building, so I’m pretty much just ranking them by gut feeling.
As for Emma Newman and Tade Thompson, both first books were utterly stunning, so I definitely need a second one to make a final decision on where to rank them. Unfortunately, time is  running out. I definitely plan to finish both these series, but when I had to decide on which one to continue first, Planetfall won. So this, and this alone, is the reason I am ranking it above Rosewater (for now). I am going to start the sequels for both of these books today and I may still finish them before voting closes. But with the decision making power I have at my disposal at this moment, this is where they go on my ballot.

And this is it for my Reading the Hugos series. I’m sad I didn’t get to the finalists for the Astounding Award or Best Related Work. I read half of the Astounding finalists but I definitely won’t catch up on the rest before Hugo voting is over. And, to be quite honest, I look forward to just reading whatever I want again.

Reading the Hugo finalists has been incredibly rewarding and led me to discover some truly fantastic books and probably even new favorite authors. But now that I’m done, I feel relieved that I can pick up a book by mood and catch up on 2020 releases. There’s an entire Murderbot novel waiting for me! And I got a gorgeous hardcover edition of Octavia Butler’s Parable duology that wants to be read.

I will be nominating and voting in the Hugo Awards again next year. And if everything works out well, I may even do another Reading the Hugos series. 🙂

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novel

And here it is. The big one. The Hugo for Best Novel is the one I’m always most excited for, even though the other categories offer plenty of amazing stories.

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

Just like last year, I had already read four of the six finalists for Best Novel when they were announced. Catching up on the final two was easy enough.
In general, I really like this ballot. There is one book that I personally disliked but as a representation of what was most talked about and got the most acclaim from fans last year, it definitely deserves its spot on the list. Even the Seanan McGuire (I’m biased because her fans nominate everything as long as it’s written by her) was a pretty good book, although I would have preferred to see something different in its spot, like Black Leopard, Red Wolf (which I’m still in the middle of but which would so deserve to be nominated).

The Finalists for Best Novel

Oh man, this is so hard! My top two spots are fairly easy but having to rank one above the other makes it a lot more difficult. I’m talking about A Memory Called Empire and The Light Brigade, of course. Both of these books blew my mind, although in very different ways. But only one of them also got me hooked emotionally, so I’m going with that one as my top choice.

A Memory Called Empire is a debut novel (all the more impressive) that has so many layers, it’s hard to pick a favorite bit. It’s about a space empire and one little space station that’s still independent. That station’s embassador has died and so Mahit Dzmare is sent to the capital as his replacement. It turns out he’s been murdered and Mahit wants to find out why and by whom. So far for the basic plot, but there’s so much more to discover. The cultural aspects, the technology, the relationships between the multi-layered characters, the language conventions, I just loved everything about this book. And then it’s well-written too! I can’t wait for the sequel to come out because this is such an immersive world with fresh ideas by a great storyteller.

Close on its heels is The Light Brigade, the first fiction I’ve read by Kameron Hurley. And what a gorgeous mind-fuck it was! I love stories that are also puzzles and this is a perfect example. It’s a military sci-fi novel very much in the vein of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers but clearly in conversation with the MilSF that came before. Dietz goes through gruelling military training, becomes a soldier and jumps via super cool technology to fight on Earth, on Mars, wherever the supervisors send them. But something’s not right. Dietz ends up returning from missions nobody has heard of or is sent on missions that don’t have anything to do with what the briefing was about…
There are a lot of things to figure out in this book and you definitely have to keep track of what’s going on when and where. But it is so rewarding and the ending was so fantastic that I couldn’t help but love it. The only reason this goes below Arkady Martine’s book on my ballot is that I wasn’t as emotionally involved with the characters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a book whose idea impresses me more than its execution. It’s all there, all the little things I love best about books and stories. The promise of adventure and magic and secret worlds behind doors. What we get is half a novel about a passive protagonist doing pretty much nothing. Then come some snippets of a book within a book that were brilliant, and a slightly more exciting third act to finish things up. So it’s a difficult book to rate. I loved some aspects of it so very much, I thought others were trying hard to achieve something they couldn’t – the lyrical language didn’t feel natural, it felt like Harrow pondered over every word, trying super hard to make it sound poetic. And January just isn’t a very good protagonist because she is so bland and passive and takes ages to become interesting. But once the story gets going, it’spretty great. And as for the book within the book – I absolutely adored it and would have gladly read 500 more pages of it. Also, this novel actually grew fonder in my memory the longer it’s been since I read it. I am totally undecided where to put it so it goes somwehere in the middle.

Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame is a pretty ambitious work with a great premise. Two engineered twins – one with a gift for language, the other a math prodigy – are separated as children to grow up in different families. The two of them combined embody the Doctrine of Ethos, something that basically gives them control over the world. But all Roger and Dodger want is friendship. They can communicate sort of telepathically and spend their lives trying to get together and being separated again.
With an overdrawn, slightly ridiculous villain and sloppy world building, this book still offered characters I rooted for and a plot that kept me turning the pages. Sure, there’s a lot of handwaving going on, none of the magic/science is ever explained or makes much sense, but there are great ideas here. It’s also a book of missed opportunities when it comes to the writing style and the anticlimactic ending. But overall, I enjoyed reading it. I probably wouldn’t give it an award but I’d recommend it to a friend.
ETA: I just had a thought when I was looking at the novella and series ballot and now I can’t let go of it. Seanan McGuire is so damn prolific, she publishes like 5 things every year. If she had spent more time on this one novel and not continued her various series in 2019, this could have been an entirely different beast! There’s so much potential here that it could have been a clear winner. But I guess if you churn out several full-length novels, a novella and a bunch of short stories in seven different universes, you just don’t have the time to spend on re-writes or thinking every aspect of your novel through. Maybe, one day, I’ll get my wish and see what McGuire really is capable of.

I was so excited for The City in the Middle of the Night because Anders’ first novel, All the Birds in the Sky, was right up my alley. She took quite a different route in this SF novel, set on a tidally locked planet that can only be inhabited by humans on a small strip of land between night and day. And while I really liked the book by the end, it took a long time for me to get into it. And I thought that Anders tackled maybe a few too many themes for one novel. She executed some of them brilliantly, others not so much, but I wanted just a bit more. I also didn’t connect with the characters for a long time. Again, by the ending, I was all in it, but that doesn’t change that I struggled during the start of this book. And that’s why it’s so hard to rank. On a pure enjoyment level, this book goes below Middlegame. On an ideas and skill level, it is above Middlegame. Where McGuire has only a little to say about humanity as such, Anders brings in the big guns, holds up a mirror to society and makes me think!

I’m one of the three people in the world who hated Gideon the Ninth. You guys, I like the idea of “lesbian necromancers in space” as much as the next person, but when I don’t get what I’m promised I get pissy. Instead of lesbian necromancers in space, I got 50 characters who aren’t distinguishable from each other, in a locked castle, sometimes doing some cool magic shit, sometimes doing cool sword shit (but nut nearly enough of either). Gideon may be a lesbian but other than her remarks about other women’s sexiness, this has no bearing on the plot. Which is also a mess, by the way. This book didn’t know what it wanted to be when it grew up so it just became a bit of everything but none of it well. Other than Gideon and Harrow, nobody had personality (I dare you to tell me any of the other House’s names or personality traits), the plot jumped from one thing to the next, never finding its focus. The end battle went on waaaaay too long. But the action scenes involving magic were pretty cool, as were the puzzles Gideon and Harrow have to solve. Is that really enough for an award? For me, no. It’s a mess that’s more obsessed with its own aesthetics than with good storytelling

My ballot (probably)

  1. Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire
  2. Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade
  3. Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January
  4. Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  5. Seanan McGuire – Middlegame
  6. Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth

I will most likely change spots 3 through 5 a lot in the next few weeks. I’m already struggling with my own ratings and how to decide which book is more deserving of an award than the others.

The top two books are easy. They did what they set out to do so well and they entertained and engaged me on many levels – what more can I want, really?
But then come the books that had one or two things going for them but didn’t do so well in other aspects. Now how do I decide whether a book that was more fun but maybe less accomplished should get an award rather than a book that takes risks but is a bit more of a struggle to read? I may have posted my ballot here for you to see but I very much doubt it’s going to look exactly like this when I hit that save button before voting closes.

Up next week: Best Graphic Story

A Forever War: Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade

It’s been a long time since I read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers but I remember being really impressed at the time. Now this book here is like an answer or maybe more a story in dialogue with the classic Heinlein novel. But then Kameron Hurley also adds multiple layers to her military science fiction story and tries her hardest to break her readers’ brains, in the best of ways. So in short: This was a pleasure and one of my top reads of the year so far!

THE LIGHT BRIGADE
by Kameron Hurley

Published by: Saga Press, 2019
Ebook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First line: They said the war would turn us into light.

The Light Brigade: it’s what soldiers fighting the war against Mars call the ones who come back…different. Grunts in the corporate corps get busted down into light to travel to and from interplanetary battlefronts. Everyone is changed by what the corps must do in order to break them down into light. Those who survive learn to stick to the mission brief—no matter what actually happens during combat.
Dietz, a fresh recruit in the infantry, begins to experience combat drops that don’t sync up with the platoon’s. And Dietz’s bad drops tell a story of the war that’s not at all what the corporate brass want the soldiers to think is going on.
Is Dietz really experiencing the war differently, or is it combat madness? Trying to untangle memory from mission brief and survive with sanity intact, Dietz is ready to become a hero—or maybe a villain; in war it’s hard to tell the difference.
A worthy successor to classic stories like Downbelow Station, Starship Troopers, and The Forever War, The Light Brigade is award-winning author Kameron Hurley’s gritty time-bending take on the future of war.

This story begins in the same spirit and with many nods to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Dietz, a young person joining the military to fight against Mars, goes through boot camp training. I will say right away that Dietz’s gender remains unknown throughout the novel. That was the first thing that caught my interest. With a platoon composed of all genders, I kept trying to guess whether Dietz was a man or a women or non-binary, only to find out soon enough that it really didn’t matter and had no impact on the story. So I let it go and simply let the story sweep me away.

The weeks of boot camp are as grueling as you’d expect. They are well written, made me cringe several times, and also do most of the groundwork for Hurley’s world building. We find out why this future version of Earth is at war with Mars. Mainly because Martians blew up part of the moon. And, oh yeah, they zipped a ton of people into nothing, leaving only devastation and grieving friends and family behind. So of course there has to be a war. This future is also not run by governments the way we know them, but by corporations (which, to be honest, isn’t much different from our governments but at least we keep up the pretense…). And people are far from equal. Much like in Heinlein’s story, in Kameron Hurley’s future, a person can earn citizenship through military service. Which would get you voting rights, access to better health care and so on – things any human being should have a right to, but it’s the future and it’s grim.

I have covered only the first few chapters of this book and you see that there’s already so much to discover! Once training is done, it’s time for Dietz to take on their first actual mission. In order to get to Mars – or wherever the next battle is supposed to happen – the soldiers are turned into atoms and sent there as beams of light. So far, so cool. Except Dietz’s very first drop is… weird. Everybody keeps telling them to stick to the mission brief but what if the mission brief is something completely different than the situation you currently find yourself in? It’s not a spoiler to say that this is exactly what happens to Dietz. Again and again. Dietz is sent on one mission, finds themselves somehow in the middle of a completely different one, returns home to find friends missing, is interrogated by a psychiatrist who also seems to know more than she lets on, and things generally don’t make any sense.

It is exactly this mystery that makes this book so enticing. Sure, the mission drops themselves are fun to read too, and they definitely help you figuring out the larger secret. These missions also make Dietz question more and more who they are really fighting against and for whom they are really fighting. If you like reading something that introduces a world only to turn it upside down, twist it around, and put it back together in a new way, then this is for you. I loved looking for snippets of information, for little hints here and there to find out what the hell was going on. I am also glad I didn’t figure it all out for myself (because that would be boring), but there are enough hints to at least point you in the right direction. For someone like me, who loves a good riddle or puzzle, this was enormous fun.

But that’s just the plot part of the book. There is yet more here hidden underneath the surface. While Dietz is almost the only character whose personality we really get to know – due to others dying during the war, disappearing, or simply not being prominent enough characters – Hurley paints a pretty clear picture of the world. Everything may be shit for most of Earth’s population, but apparently one’s sexual preferences aren’t interesting anymore. It is so refreshing to read a book where people can just be together or make out or have sex, no matter their gender identities. Dietz has sex with at least one man and one woman throughout this novel. There are married people in this book who sleep with people of a different gender than their marriage partner. Everyone seems to be just who they are, nobody seems to care, and it was just so damn nice to read about a world where that’s possible.

I won’t say any more about the plot because it really is worth discovering for yourselves. The ending, however, was amazing. All the puzzle pieces fall together, things from the very beginning of the book suddenly make sense and gain a significance you didn’t know they had. The interview scenes that are strewn between regular chapters also take on a different light. So although I am usually very focused on characters and this book really only had one well-developed character, I enjoyed this immensely and recommend it to everyone who can get their hands on a copy.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Damn excellent!