Initial Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Nominees

The 2021 Hugo Nominations have been announced. I’m pleased to say I was involved this time as a paying member and got to help nominate. It was a ton of fun, though I absolutely agonized over my choices for best novel. I wanted to talk about the shortlist now that it’s been announced and highlight a few things.

Best Related Work

I start here because one of the selections truly blew me away. Finding new things that I’d never have thought about before is THE reason I read through lists of any sort. Well, when the nominees were announced, I saw “The Last Bronycon: a fandom autopsy” from Jenny Nicholson, a YouTube video pop up. I know a couple bronies, and my kids love the Friendship is Magic show, so I’ve seen glimpses of it here and there. I figured, what the heck, I’ll watch this video. It’s a bit over an hour long and I was just enthralled the whole time.

First of all, Nicholson is an engaging speaker. She blended humor, personal experience in the community, and a critical eye into a genuinely wonderful piece. It would be easy to make videos mocking bronies or asking why people are how they are. Nicholson has enough firsthand experience to love the community and acknowledge its faults. It was an incisive look at how the fandom rose up around My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and how some parts could be quite toxic while others were wonderful.

The video also made me want to watch My Little Pony much more than I have with my kids watching it in the background. I think it’s always fun to join new fandoms, though trying to navigate the unfortunate (and sometimes, it seems, inevitable) toxicity and gatekeeping makes it tough to get on board.

As a related work, though, what a great work “The Last Bronycon” was. It offered insights into the subject while also calling on viewers to experience the joy and love that Nicholson herself had/has for both the community and the content. I highly recommend you watch it. (Fair warning: some adult content, language, and discussion.)

I love this thumbnail, it’s so great!

Just another quick note, I was tickled to see the article “George R.R. Martin Can Fuck Off Into the Sun, Or: The 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony” by Natalie Luhrs on there. The 2020 Hugo Awards ceremony was certainly an interesting thing to behold, but I only watched it intermittently. This analysis helped me see more of the problems with it. I confess I’m a huge Silverberg fan as far as much of his fiction, but the searing he got in this article may have been deserved too. Whether it was or not, I do think that articles like this that help make us aware of potential problems in fandom are helpful.

Best Novel

This is probably the category with the most buzz, and, as I said, I agonized over my own choices. There was so much fantastic speculative fiction released last year. The nominees are

  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse (Gallery / Saga Press)
  • The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tordotcom)
  • Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tordotcom)
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
  • The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books)

I’ve read most of these, but not Harrow the Ninth or The Relentless Moon. I did a deep dive into some Mary Robinette Kowal recently, though, reading the entire Glamourist Histories series, which was fabulous, along with some shorter fiction. I need to go back and read the whole Lady Astronaut series. As for Harrow–well, I did not enjoy Gideon much at all, but since I try to read every single Hugo nominee for best novel, I’ll be giving the series another chance. I genuinely think Harrow will win regardless. The first book had so much hype and this one seems to be getting just as much. The other four novels, which I’ve read, would each be deserving in their own way. So far, out of these (and excluding by default those I haven’t read), I’d probably pick Network Effect, but they’re all great choices.

I gotta say I was shocked that To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini wasn’t on this list. I thought it was a shoe-in for at least getting a nomination. It was one of the biggest surprises of last year’s reading for me, and I wrote about it in longer form already. I loved it. Given Paolini’s big name from the Eragon books (which I admit I didn’t like much, having only read the first), I figured he’d be on it for sure. Goes to show how much I know!

Best Video Game

I believe it’s the first year for this category, and the nominations are all over the board. A few are expected–Animal Crossing and the Final Fantasy VII remake (which I still need to play, come on PC release!), while others are surprises. Like Blaseball? I’ve never even heard of it, but apparently it’s a browser based horror baseball game? Uh, I’ll be giving that a try.

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko should win this. It’s one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in years. I loved it so much, and I encourage you to go read it as soon as possible! I keep seeing A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking showing up places–I need to read it. I wrote a review of Raybearer if you’d like to check it out.

Astounding Award for Best New Author

The choices here are:

  • Lindsay Ellis (1st year of eligibility)
  • Simon Jimenez (1st year of eligibility)
  • Micaiah Johnson (1st year of eligibility)
  • A.K. Larkwood (1st year of eligibility)
  • Jenn Lyons (2nd year of eligibility)
  • Emily Tesh (2nd year of eligibility)

This is an incredibly solid list. I personally lean towards Simon Jimenez because his The Vanished Birds is a spectacular debut work. Found family, shades of “Firefly.” Check it out.

Best Fanzine

I am so pleased to see the “Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog” ed. Amanda Wakaruk and Olav Rokne on there. I enjoy their presence on Twitter so much, as they both interact so kindly and also help highlight so many works. They’re great at signal boosting others and I just love that.

Other Categories

I’m sorry if I didn’t comment on your favorites, but I’d love to read your thoughts! Let me know what you think in the comments, please! I love talking about this stuff. I also tried to avoid commenting on anything I just hadn’t read or didn’t know enough about to comment upon. Congratulations to all the nominees!


Announcing the 2021 Hugo Award Finalists– Tor dot com’s post about the finalists, a convenient place to view them all.

Science Fiction Hub– I’ve discussed past Hugo Awards extensively, and would love to chat about them and hear your own thoughts! I have several posts discussing entire years’ worth of nominees/winners for best novel as well as my own choice for a winner. Check out all my posts on science fiction (and some fantasy!) at this hub.

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“To Sleep in a Sea of Stars” by Christopher Paolini- An epic space opera that feels fresh

I mean, who wouldn’t love this cover?

I have some confessions to make as I start this review. First, I tend to scorn hype for books, afraid that I’ll be disappointed by them. Second, I didn’t really enjoy Eragon all that much. Third, I was mostly excited about this book because of the cover art. There, did I confess enough crimes against general readership? (I have many more.) All of that said, I absolutely adored To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini. I’ll try to avoid them, but fair warning for SPOILERS in this review.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this novel, but I can fairly say that it subverted basically every expectation I ended up having as the novel went along. Each time I thought I’d figured out the next twist or the next turn in the story, I was surprised anew. And none of these were in ways that were annoying or contrived. Paolini has created a stunning space opera that constantly delights.

Perhaps the best part of the book is how frequently Paolini uses what seems a trope or theme from science fiction and then brings it to a surprising conclusion. Early on, when our protagonist Kira Navárez is living on a colony in love, I thought this might be a simple work of exploration and colony life. Wrong. I thought that the alien artifact discovered had many similarities to, say, the film “Life,” Wrong. Time and again, I saw inspirations from many sources of science fiction, even explicit references (a character named Ivanova as a nod to Babylon 5? I’ll take it!). Other references aren’t so explicit, but may still be there (is Kira Navárez perhaps a nod to Kira Nerys?). Despite all of these inspirations, the book never beigns to feel derivative Paolini handled them deftly and created his own huge narrative that never seems to drag despite approaching 900 pages in hardcover.

It is hard to avoid simply comparing the book to so many science fiction inspirations, because it does draw on them so frequently. A major part of the book features Kira with the crew of the Wallfish, a delightful collection of personalities and inside jokes that cannot help but bring to mind the delightful “Firefly.” But, again, it’s not as though that television series is the first or only to have an intrepid crew taking on somewhat shady jobs in space. Writing a review, though, how do I avoid making so many references? I can’t. In fact, part of the delight of the book is seeking out some of those references and debating whether they are intentional or not.

Paolini, though, is not content to give readers the warm fuzzy feelings of recognizing implicit or explicit references to other works of science fiction. No, there’s an incredible tale in this novel that continues to throw plot twists at the reader each time one gets settled in. Think that a major revelation wraps up most of the conflict in the book? Think again! What’s astonishing to me, though, is that none of these major twists reads in a way that is unbelievable or contrived. No, they make sense within the overall flow of the novel, and continue to drive the reader on. I was amazed as I read the book (and then immediately listened to it on audiobook afterwards) that I never felt the plot meandered or had pacing issues. It’s a huge book, and some lulls are inevitable, but none of these made me want Paolini to pick up the pace. The lulls were welcome respites in between the heady, galaxy-defining events happening.

The novel is also chock full of themes worth exploring. What does it mean to be a self? A certain alien species surprises when they reveal that they don’t mind their “selves” going off and dying, because an original copy exists back home. Once again, a subversion of a somewhat common sci-fi theme, but it also begs the question: how would the sense of self change if we could extend ourselves through the stars? Or, what if we could extend our physical bodies in new ways? What about moving on from significant loss? When and how is it okay to do so?

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a magnificent achievement. Paolini has created a space opera worthy of any fan of the genre reading. For readers just wanting to enjoy the ride, the impressive cast of characters, inspiration from other science fiction works, and timely injections of humor will continually delight. For those looking more deeply, there are enough themes to keep one entertained for hours afterwards. I highly recommend it.

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