2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel: My Reviews

I read as much sci-fi/fantasy as I can get my hands on, and have been working through the backlog of all the Hugo winners and nominees for best novel for some time. The 2020 Nominations were announced recently, and I wanted to read them all so I could review them and talk about/debate them with fellow fans. Without further adieu, here are my reviews!

[Edit: The Hugo Award for Best Novel went to “A memory Called Empire,” which is a truly deserving novel that I also loved. 2020 was a great mix of works showing a wide variety of speculative fiction. Let me know what you thought of this year’s nominees!]

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders- Grade: C
There are some cool ideas here, and a strong inspiration from classics like 1984 (the government determining times, for example). However, I felt the whole thing was hampered by a lack of enthusiasm from the main characters which led to me not caring very much about the stakes. Moreover, the strangeness of motivation behind some of their acts throttled my suspension of disbelief. Perhaps there are some metaphors or analogies happening here that simply went over my head. I’d love for someone to explain if I did miss some things of import here. Anyway, the whole thing ended up feeling kind of surreal in an off-putting rather than enthralling way. 

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (Winner)- Grade: A-
I attempted to read this book four times. I say attempted because each time I got sidetracked by something else. It’s dense, and my life circumstances were such that I couldn’t concentrate on it as deeply as I’d have liked to. Finally, it went on a great sale and I grabbed the audiobook along with the ebook. Listening to the book was a great experience, and let me concentrate on it better than reading it on paper. The bottom line for A Memory Called Empire is this: How well do you like complexity in your sci-fi?
A) The more Machiavellian, the better! I want names that I have to write down to keep track of! I want political intrigue I need to chart to follow! 
B) I enjoy complexity quite a bit, but don’t want to inflict pain on myself for trying to follow a story.
C) Complexity is fine, as long as it is spoon-fed to me.
D) I admire the handiwork, but I don’t like it.
Whichever option you chose is basically what I anticipate your grade for this book being. There are names that are nothing like you’d expect. There’s mystery throughout. There are political maneuvers, thrusts, and counter-thrusts. It’s all there. This book is like a combination of the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie with some Iain M. Banks in it. The book has a phenomenal payoff for the investment of energy, as well. The last 40% or so of the book has all the political machinations that you could desire to go along with the central mystery. I love it, but I also had to work to love it. I can’t wait to see what the next in the series does to me.

Gideon the Ninth by Tasmyn Muir- Grade: D+
I don’t know that I’ve experienced as much hype surrounding a book as this one before I’ve read it. I also try to avoid being one of “those people.” You know who I’m talking about: the type of people who talk all loud and proud about how “I read that super hyped thing everyone loves and found it was just mediocre at best.” So instead, I’ll try to focus on real, substantive critique rather than posturing. First, I do not like pop culture references in my sci-fi/fantasy. Veiled references? Sure. If they make sense for the story? Absolutely. But straight up pop-culture references in a novel that doesn’t have a very good explanation for how they come into play for the main character? Hard no. Second, the novel ends up reading exactly like it sounds in the blurb: it’s a sci-fi space necromancer with a sword and cool tattoos and a lesbian who kills stuff and cusses and doesn’t care but maybe she does care more than you know and there’s magic and space castles and everything that’s awesome like skeletons and badassery and it’s there! Whew. There’s no such thing as too much cool stuff thrown together. I firmly believe that. But it has to actually work together, and here we somehow have all of that cool stuff in it without ever having a main character or interesting enough main plot for me to care whatsoever. Moreover, since the cool stuff is being hurled at the reader at a breakneck pace, one cna never really sit back and just absorb how awesome it should be before you’re getting confronted by the next thing. There’s a gothic space palace! What more do you want!? I know: I want to actually have that described to me. I want to envision how gothic it is. I want to feel its movement through space–or the mechanization that keep it in place. I want to read about all of these awesome ideas, not just have them pitched to me as one-liners and then thrown onto an increasing heap of ideas that are never fully realized. And this is what I think made the book so terribly disappointing to me. It had so many cool ideas–it oozed with them–but it never really cashed them in. 

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley- Grade: C
I am so torn about this book. I love so many of the ideas in it. There’s a foreboding sense that aspects of Hurley’s vision of the future are not far off from the reality we may experience if we let greed continue unfettered indefinitely. The trauma of war, the pervasiveness of changing reality through the way that news can shape people’s minds, and the like are all explored here through what is, ultimately, a character piece about a soldier, Dietz. But Dietz is not, to me, particularly likable as a protagonist, and there’s a kind of paper-thin quality to not only Dietz but every other character in the book that made me start losing interest. There are so many cool concepts here, but I don’t know that we ever get to enjoy them as well as we should. It’s a thrill-ride, but one that may not have enough meat on the bones to sustain the interest of all readers. For me, it was a middling read, though I may go back to revisit it sometime. 

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (My Winner)- Grade: A+
Seanan McGuire is one of my favorite authors, and she did not let me down with this sprawling epic about the twins Roger and Dodger and the strange, weird, magical world they–and we–inhabit. McGuire is a master of peeling away layers of reality so that it seems like you, the reader, haven’t actually thought about everything yet. Maybe there is magic just around the corner. Perhaps there’s a strange, disturbing creature lurking just under that rock. Witches may have a coven over in that moor. These things seem so possible in McGuire’s deft hands, and Middlegame is one of her best efforts yet. The central plot and characters are riveting, to the point that I basically didn’t put this book down until I’d finished it. McGuire writes with a tone that is somehow both light and dark, conspiratorial and friendly. You want to love the characters from the outset, and by the time the action really gets intense, your heart is racing along with theirs. I don’t know if McGuire will explore the world she created in this standalone (so far) novel, but I’d go back in a heartbeat. 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow- Grade: C+
I loved so much about this book. It’s one of those books that is a book about books for people who read books, and those tend to be right up my alley. Harrow created January, a fantastic main character whom I love and for whom I rooted the entire time, but then didn’t really… seem to do anything with her. Throughout the whole book there were echoes about how there are these ten thousand doors and so many possibilities and so much more to reality than we expect, but then that infinite set of possibilities never seemed to get realized for me as a reader. I felt let down by the payoff, which didn’t really even begin until about 60-70% into the book. By the end, I found myself reminiscing about the earlier portions of the book, when I had a character I adored and the anticipation that something big would happen. The prose is lyrical and endearing. Ultimately, I felt the book was merely okay, due to the main plot stumbling along, but it shows immense promise. I will absolutely seek out the next thing Harrow writes, because she has the gift.


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