Hugo Nominees: Best Novel

Okay, well, I’m doing (slightly) better than I thought I might at reading SOMETHING in each fiction category, but it’s pretty obvious at this point I’m not going to read every nominee in the novel categories. I don’t have time. Voting closes August 11th, which is coming up super-fast. I don’t know whether I’ll vote in the Best Novel category at all – if I don’t read at least a couple of them, I probably won’t. That does mean that the openings of the novels matters a lot. If a nominee isn’t engaging practically at once, I’m almost certainly going to move on to something else.

So let’s take a look at the openings!

A) The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

There’s a prologue, but the first paragraphs there are very setting-heavy. Let’s take a look at the opening of the first chapter instead

When Speaker awoke, Tracker was nowhere in sight. This was to be expected. Tracker was always the first to be up and about. As egglings, Tracker had been nearly free of her shell by the time Speaker had started to crack through her own – a fact neither twin remembered, but one their relatives relayed time and again. Speaker had never known a life without Tracker in it, nor a morning when she’d awoken with her sister still in their bed. As such, it was not the sound of a busy sibling which roused Speaker than morning, but instead, the loud chime of a message alert.

Okay, this is an interesting example of opening in the point of view of an alien species. This is worth noticing as an example of the writing craft. Something that many prospective writers struggle with is doing this smoothly – revealing to the reader that the point of view protagonist is not human, doing it in a way that doesn’t seem strained. This works well, I think.

I will add that I read the full prologue and the entire first chapter and didn’t find this novel as immediately engaging as I have others of Chambers’ novels. I love well-drawn aliens. Nevertheless.


B)  The Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Shh …

Yes, it hurt. It was definitely not just a bruise. Yes, she was scared. Her throat was raw from screaming.

Cautiously, Katrina Nguyen felt under her bed.

Girl clothes. Boy clothes. Money. Birth certificate. Social security card. Toothbrush. Spare glasses. Backup battery. Makeup. Estradiol. Spironalactone.

Katrina had made an escape bag the first time her father threatened to kill her.

I’m not drawn in at all. I get that we are opening with conflict, but I am not in the mood for conflict; or at least not this kind of nasty family conflict. She’s going to run away, obviously, and it sounds like it’s about time, but I’m not very interested in following along.

As far as craft goes, notice how every paragraph is super short. This is a way of speeding up the pace, and that does work. I think this is an effective opening. It’s just one that immediately pushes me away. However, I would go on and see if we succeed in immediately escaping, leave this family behind, and get into a better place. If that happens fast enough, I could be drawn in.


C) A Master of Djinn by P Djeli Clark

Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs. With their ludicrous lengths, ever leading up, as if in some jest. There were times, he thought, he could even here them snickering. If these stairs had eyes to see, they would do more than snicker – watching as he huffed trough curling auburn whiskers, his short legs wobbling under his rotundity. It was criminal in this modern age that stairs should be allowed to yet exist – when lifts could carry passengers in comfort.

He stopped to rest against a giant replica of a copper teapot with a curving spout like a beak, setting down the burden he’d been carrying. It was shameful that someone of his years, having reached sixty and one in this year 1912, should suffer such indignities. He should be settling down for the night with a stiff drink, not trotting up a set of ruddy stairs!

This mannered, tongue-in-cheek style could hardly be more different from the above nominee. This is a much lighter tone, something that suits me much better this year. Right now, just looking at these three nominees, this is the one that is most immediately appealing. The author isn’t asking me to take this novel all that seriously, at least not yet. It’s a relaxing style. I like it.

It’s also interesting because saying “he thought” is distant third, but everything else is close third. This plus the setting is making me wonder if the narrative is actually going to turn out to be omniscient, because it’s got the nineteenth-century feel to it.


D) She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

I looked at this for the Astounding Award. I feel this time it’s best to take a much better look, so rather than just the first few lines, let’s take a look at a couple of full paragraphs:

Zhongli village lay flattened under the sun like a defeated dog that has given up on finding shade. All around there was nothing but the bare yellow earth, cracked into the pattern of a turtle’s shell, and the sere bone smell of hot dust. It was the fourth year of the drought. Knowing the cause of their suffering, the peasants cursed their barbarian emperor in his distant capital in the north. As with any two like things connected by a thread of qi, whereby the actions of one influence the other even at a distance, so an emperor’s worthiness determines the fate of the land he rules. The worthy ruler’s dominion is graced with good harvests; the unworthy’s is cursed by flood, drought, and disease. The present ruler of the empire of the Great Yuan was not only emperor, but Great Khan too: he was tenth of the line of the Mongol conqueror Khubilai Khan, who had defeated the last native dynasty seventy years before. He had held the divine light of the Mandate of Heaven for eleven years, and already there were ten-year-olds who had never known anything but disaster.

The Zhu family’s second daughter, who was more or less ten years old in that parched Rooster year, was thinking about food as she followed the village boys towards the dead neighbor’s field. With her wide forehead and none of the roundness that makes children adorable, she had the mandibular look of a brown locust. Like that insect, the girl thought about food constantly. However, having grown up on a peasant’s monotonous diet, and with only a half-formed suspicion that better things might exist, her imagination was limited to the dimension of quantity. At that moment she was busy thinking about a bowl of millet porridge. Her mind’s eye had filled it past the lip, liquid quivering high within a taut skin, and as she walked she contemplated with a voluptuous, anxious dreaminess how she might take the first spoonful without losing a drop. From above (but the sides might yield) or the side (surely a disaster); with firm hand or a gentle touch? So involved was she in her imaginary meal that she barely noticed the chirp of the gravedigger’s
spade as she passed by.

Yeah … still don’t like this. It’s just so unhappy! I’m amazed those of you who love this book got past this grim beginning.


E) A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

I’m stepping past a short prologue and starting with chapter one. But I like entries from imaginary books and things, so sure, I’ll include those.

. . . INTERDICT SUSPENDED—for a duration of four months,
extensible by Council order, the interdict regarding Teixcalaanli
military transport through Stationer space is suspended; all
ships bearing Teixcalaanli military callsign are permitted to pass
through the Anhamemat Gate—this suspension does not authorize Teixcalaanli ships, military or otherwise, to dock at Lsel
Station without prior visas, approvals, and customs clearances—
MINERS (DARJ TARATS)—message repeats . . .
—priority message deployed on diplomatic, commercial,
and universal frequencies in the Bardzravand Sector,
52nd day, 1st year, in the 1st indiction of the Emperor
of All Teixcalaan Nineteen Adze

Your Brilliance, you have left me with all the world, and yet I am
bereft; I’d take your star-cursed possessing ghost, Six Direction,
if only he would teach me how not to sleep.
—the private notes of Her Brilliance the Emperor

Nineteen Adze, undated, locked, and encrypted NINE Hibiscus watched the cartograph cycle through its last week of recorded developments for a third time, and then switched it off. Without its pinpoint stargleams and Fleetmovement arcs inscribed in light, the strategy table on the bridge of Weight for the Wheel was a flat black expanse, dull-matte, as impatient as its captain for new information. There was none forthcoming. Nine Hibiscus didn’t need to watch the cartograph again to remember how the displayed planet-points had winked first distress-red and then out-of-communication black, vanishing like they were being swallowed by a tide. No matter how thickly laid the lines of incoming Teixcalaanli ships were shown on that cartograph, none of them had advanced into the flood of blank silence. Beyond this point, Nine Hibiscus thought, not without a shimmering anticipation, we are quite afraid to see.

I think the writing here is MUCH more appealing than any of the others. I really like this! I know it’s book two of a series, I know it’s supposed to be pretty grim, I don’t plan to read it right now, but I have to say, based solely on this opening, I’m far more likely to eventually back up and look at the first book.


F) Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

“What’s two plus two?”

Something about the question irritates me. I’m tired. I drift back to sleep.

A few minutes pass, then I hear it again.

“What’s two plus two?”

The soft, feminine voice lacks emotion and the pronunciation is identical to the previous time she said it. It’s a computer. A computer is hassling me. I’m even more irritated now. “Lrmln,” I say. I’m surprised. I meant to say “Leave me alone” – a completely reasonable response in my opinion – but I failed to speak.

Interesting to compare this one to (B), above! This is the second nominee with very, very short paragraphs. Does it work? Yes, certainly. This is really almost always going to work in the sense of at once providing a sense of speed, in getting the reader into the novel at once. This is far more likely to do that than long paragraphs about the setting or about panting up flights of stairs or, in fact, long paragraphs about anything. Even good paragraphs. Of course, it depends; sometimes you might want to start with long paragraphs anyway.

For me, this situation is more engaging than (B) because it’s a puzzle rather than an immediate look at a hurt girl escaping from a toxic family. I don’t know much about the book – I read the description, but it was a long time ago and I don’t remember it now. I imagine this is someone being woken up from cryosleep or something like that. That’s a very standard SF trope, not that there’s anything wrong with that. What I’ve actually heard is that this book is okay, but not as excellent as The Martian. Of course, sheer regression to the mean implies that this would be the case, plus practically any other SF novel Weir wrote would probably make use of a more ordinary plot than The Martian, so that’s not surprising.

The publisher didn’t do this book any favors; it was only added to the packet in pdf form with, I kid you not, HUGO NOMINEE stamped across every page in hard-to-ignore letters. The pdf looks terrible on my Kindle and worse on my phone. So … I probably won’t read this before I vote. Which is surely going to be the case for lots of voters! Bad decision by … ah, a division of Penguin/Random House. Well … I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. I feel bad for Weir. I don’t think he has a chance and this ridiculously bad presentation in the Hugo Voter’s packet is one reason why.


Okay, picking just one to go on with, I find, somewhat to my surprise, that I’m more interested in (C) A Master of Djinn than anything by a more familar-to-me author, and a LOT to my surprise that the most appealing nominee is actually (E) A Desolation Called Peace. The title is such a turnoff, but nevertheless.

I think I’m currently more in the mood for (C). That’s because it’s a novel that has a lighter tone; a more mannered, affected tone – less immediate, less stressful. I think that appeals to me partly because I just read Novik’s Scholomance books and A Master of Djinn presents an extreme stylistic contrast, which I like. If I waited a month and looked at these novel openings again, I suspect my response might be different, but that’s where I am right now.

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8 thoughts on “Hugo Nominees: Best Novel”

  1. I really loved the first wayfarer book, but I’ve liked each subsequent one less and less – not sure if I want to check this one out or not.

    The Weir one seems appealing – too bad they flubbed the PR.

    My brain is apparently too tired for anything too mannered or unfamiliar, style-wise right now, so had trouble reading a couple of the other samples, through no fault of theirs. Maybe some other time…

  2. I’m not doing Hugo voting this year, but I had the opposite reaction to you to A Master of Djinn, I ended up giving up on the book in a couple of chapters. If you do end up reading farther, I’d be curious to see what you think.

    Other than that, I’ve read the Chambers and the Weir. I don’t think there’s anything bad about the Chambers, it’s more of the same, but I probably wouldn’t keep reading the series because some of the cultural assumptions in it are starting to get annoying. I think it’s supposed to be the last one in the series, though.

    I really enjoyed the Weir, I think it’s a little better than the Martian because he’s getting better at writing characters and relationships. The cool science is still there.

  3. I’ve read F & C, rejected B & C after the first page or so, and now doubt I’ll get around to A & E — which I admit is not really fair to them.

    Weir may possibly have a chance if enough voters read PHM outside the packet — that’s what I did, several months ago. I’m putting it first: it’s not flawless but found nothing in it as annoying as a major plot flaw in AMOD.* The science a lot more speculative than The Martian, of course, but it’s also notably more scientific where The Martian was really more about engineering: I enjoyed that aspect of it quite a bit.

    * And that wasn’t a deal-breaker, either: it stays on my ballot, just not in first place.

  4. On She Who Became the Sun, I recommend just skipping ahead until the protagonist shows up at the monastery. The opening is brutally dark–much more so than the rest of the book. I think that’s an unfortunate choice as it will cause many readers to stop at the starting gate. The only reason I didn’t DNF it in the first chapter was Linda recommending it to me. All you need to know from the opening is that 1) her brother was prophesied to be very important, 2) she was prophesied to be nothing, and 3) her childhood was one of slow starvation followed by brutal bandits, with her brother laying down and dying after her father is killed.
    I enjoyed the Djinn book more, but if I were voting this year, I’d vote for She Who Became the Sun. That is, I found the Djinn book more enjoyable because I liked the tone and the world, but I found the craft of She Who Became the Sun substantially better.
    I got about a third of the way into the Chambers book and DNFed it. Surprised me because I generally like her stuff. Nothing particularly turned me off. I just didn’t think it was very good or engaging.

  5. I think you would probably like A Memory Called Empire/A Desolation Called Peace, they are very in the Cherryh mold in tone and style though by way of the Imperial Radch trilogy and other recent space opera like de Bodard’s Xuya stories and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire, they have a sharper focus on themes of empire and its detrimental effects. A Desolation Called Peace is focused on how one might _avert_ said desolation of total war though there are of course some twists and complications along the way, even if I am not quite sure it stuck the landing for me I liked it enough to keep an eye out for the author’s future work (this is a duology but I think more works in the setting are planned).

    I’ve not yet read Light from Uncommon Stars, but my impression from friends who have is that it is a hopeful book about finding one’s place and community so I would expect the bleak beginning is for contrast.

  6. Off topic: how is it I only now realized the map of “Iskryne” (Icecrown) from “Companion to Wolves” is Antarctica, albeit way out of position?

  7. There is a map at the beginning of book 3. And it is quite obviously Antarctica, with the Antarctic Penninsula hanging off to the south. Even the mountain range is roughly correct. (In reality, there’s a gap between two ranges.)

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