The Hugo Award for Best Series: 2021 Reviews

Reading the nominations for the Hugo Awards for Best Series takes dedication. I have read at least the first three books of every single one of the series and given the series a grade and review based upon that reading. If I have not read the entire series, I have noted it in my review of the series. I would love to talk about these series with you, dear readers, and want to know what you think about them. Which is your favorite? Have you read them all? This year’s nominations are a pile of excellent books, so it’s worth diving in.

S. A. Chakraborty: The Daevabad Trilogy- Grade: A (The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper, The Empire of Gold)
There’s an allure about this whole series that stays with the reader all the way through. Chakraborty does such a fabulous job of building the world that the sights, smells, and sounds of the trilogy stick with the reader long after the books are closed. The different tribes of the Djinn make for some surprising conflicts and even protagonists and antagonists. The shifting nature of allegiance throughout the series means readers have to pay close attention even as they admire the prose and movement of the stories. It’s somewhat rare to see the final volume of a trilogy be the strongest, but I personally thought that was the case here, with The Empire of Gold providing a truly wonderful conclusion to the trilogy that had been building throughout. Chakraborty will most certainly be on my list of authors to read more

John Scalzi: The Interdependency– Grade: B+ (The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, and The Last Emperox)
Scalzi is endlessly entertaining. Every one of the books in this trilogy made me grin and even laugh out loud at times. Reading his novels can sometimes feel like reading an entertaining blog post that happens to go on for hundreds of pages. It’s not the strongest prose, but it’s captivating and always fun. All of that said, the story of this space opera felt alternatively epic and rushed. The premise is that there’s a way of travel that connects an entire empire together, and that way of travel is collapsing. The powers that be must then figure out what to do to secure their power or run into the night before the inevitable doomsday for all society. It’s a great premise, and it, along with the entertainment factor of Scalzi’s writing, carries the series on its back. The characters here aren’t as strong as some of the other works on this list, and the plot of the last book, The Last Emperox, feels extremely rushed. It’s unfortunate, because the series does have that sense of the epic at times, but as the events spiral too quickly, it loses it. Scalzi walks that fine line space operas must so often walk between being so huge they get overdone and rushing events too quickly, and he leans over to the “rushing” side with some frequency. All of that said, the series is immensely enjoyable top to bottom simply because of his writing. It also features one of my all-time favorite book dedications with The Last Emperox: “To the women who are done with other people’s shit.”

Mary Robinette Kowal: The Lady Astronaut Series- Grade: A+ (The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky, The Relentless Moon, and several short stories)
Kowal is a master of characterization, and this series demonstrates that beyond measure. An alternate history in which an asteroid strike smashed off the east coast of the United States and forced humanity to look to the stars for hope in colonization sounds like a pitch that would play out somewhat differently than it does. The thrust of these novels is much less about the impact of this asteroid strike on civilization than it is about following a few characters caught up in the work to become (lady) astronauts and explore space for the sake of all humanity. I have not read any of the shorter stories in this series, but did read all the novels, including the first one twice. Anyway, the first book, The Calculating Stars, won the Hugo Award for best novel a few years back. It touches on issues of racism, sexism, and more, all while couching it in familiar 1950s-60s vibes and culture. Kowal did her research and historical notes at the end of each book gives some fascinating insights into the novels. The second book, The Fated Sky, gives surprising insight into the characters we grew to love (and hate) in the first book, and it has launched itself in among my favorite science fiction novels. The third novel, The Relentless Moon, is also a nominee for best novel this year, and it follows one of our lady astronauts on the home front as others are on the way to Mars in the second book. Each novel is fantastic, and the series as a whole is as well. Fans of science fiction and/or period pieces will eat this up, and the series is a clear frontrunner for best series.

Martha Wells: The Murderbot Diaries- Grade: A- (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy, and Network Effect)
The star of this series is the titular Murderbot, a security robot whose busted its programming and sometimes fantasizes about the murder it could carry out but mostly spends its time instead on protecting those close to it and binging TV shows. It’s a solid setup that allows for Wells to bounce from one-off to one-off while developing longer character arcs here and there. The first four works are novellas, and they move with the intensity and action of their format. Network Effect is the first novel in the series, and it has gotten a Hugo nomination (and a Nebula Win) under its belt already. The hugely popular series is popular for good reason: they’re just plain fun to sit down and read. Time and pages fly past when you read these largely escapist books. Wells weaves a few hints at our own political and societal concerns into the series as well for readers looking something deeper. The series is also continuing, as Wells signed a contract for several more works in the series with Tor Books.

Seanan McGuire: The October Daye Series- Grade: A (Rosemary and Rue, A Local Habitation, An Artificial Night, and many more novels and stories)
A huge series with 15 (and counting) novels and a host of shorter works to go with it, the October Daye series follows our half-fae character, October (Toby) Daye and her adventures intersecting the realms of fairy and our own. Whether she’s solving a murder, getting involved in kidnappings, or fighting demonic fae, the series brings action and whimsy together in delightful story after delightful story. These are quick reads, but they are more robust than you might think based on that description. McGuire has a way of worldbuilding that continues to work on itself, block after block, in ways that surprise and delight. The wild thing about this is that this isn’t even my favorite series from McGuire, but her writing is just so good that I keep coming back regardless of what she’s writing. I recommend you give it a try, too, because it’s worth finding out if you, too, can have another author that you plan to read everything from at the earliest possible moment. I love it. I read the first 5 novels before writing this, and plan to read the rest forthwith.

R. F. Kuang: The Poppy War- Grade: B- (The Poppy War, The Dragon Republic, The Burning God)
Kuang’s first book, The Poppy War, contains some of the absolute most gruesome and horrific descriptions of violence I have ever read in any book, whether fiction or nonfiction. I believe that is on purpose. However, I found the extreme amount and brutal details of gory violence to genuinely eat away at my enjoyment of that novel. It was especially surprising because early on, the book feels a bit like a Young Adult novel. I am not at all critical of something being YA. I love YA. I think rejecting something just because it’s YA is the height of stupidity regarding reading habits. I’m only saying it felt YA because it read like a “hey we’re going to school to learn how to fight” story that dominates a lot of YA fantasy at times. Then, it got so supremely dark that I almost felt sick to my stomach reading it. Such extreme violent could be pointless–and it almost feels like it here–but it’s also true that Kuang seems to be emulating some real life events, whether it’s an examination of Japan’s atrocities on China’s mainland in the second World War or more modern events (like the casual violence of running someone over to ensure you don’t have to pay for disabilities after an accident). These are themes worth exploring, but the extreme nature of the violence is so intense that I found it taking away from my enjoyment of the novels. Maybe, on some higher literary plain, there’s a sense that novels aren’t for enjoyment and that they can be for instruction or activism. I don’t disagree, but I also wonder whether the level of description was necessary. Regardless, I did read the whole series and I think the central plot is good, and sometimes surprising. I admit I started to skip over whole sections of text when I discovered more violence coming, though.


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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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