I am a supporting member of Sasquan, which is the location of this year's World Science Fiction Convention. Because of this, I am eligible to vote in this year's Hugo Awards. In the Best Novel category there were three really excellent nominees, one mediocre nominee, and one pretty terrible nominee. Of the three nominees that I ranked above "No Award", the difference in quality between first and third was quite small, while the gulf between them and the remaining two novels was quite large. My ballot in this category was as follows:
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu) (actual finish 1st): A hard science fiction novel that starts in the chaotic maelstrom of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that moves on to incorporate conspiracies, musings about big scientific ideas, a computer simulation of a confusing reality, and finally, the human response to an impending doom carried by an alien invader, The Three-Body Problem is simply brilliant. It does have some serious flaws insofar as the characters are generally incredibly stiff and somewhat two-dimensional and some of the science seems somewhat ill-thought out, but the excellent parts of the book far outweigh these minor foibles. The novel is made even more interesting by the fact that it is a Chinese novel written by a Chinese author with Chinese sensibilities, a set of facts that give it a distinctly unique feel that is very different from most books that a typical American science fiction fan will have previously encountered.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (actual finish 2nd): In sharp contrast to The Three-Body Problem, this novel is entirely character driven, with the narrative pushed forward almost entirely by the personal development of the titular character and his relationships with the other members of the elvish court. The novel has been criticized as slow and being somewhat short of fantastical elements, but those are minor, and I think off-base criticisms. The plot of the novel recounts the return of a despised half-goblin child who assumes the throne of the elvish empire after most of his family is killed by an act of sabotage. Addison weaves together multiple political elements to create an intensely gripping tale of courtly intrigue centered on a confused and uncertain protagonist that is laced through with just enough magical elements to give it an otherworldly feel.
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (actual finish 3rd): The sequel to last year's Hugo-, Nebula-, Locus-, and Clarke-Award winning novel Ancillary Justice, I liked Ancillary Sword a little bit better than its predecessor. So why, despite the fact that I think Ancillary Justice deserved every single one of the many accolades bestowed upon it, am I ranking this novel third in my voting? The answer lies in the fact that it is the second novel in a trilogy, and like most novels of this sort, it suffers a little bit from middle book syndrome. I found the novel to be excellent, but I had read the novel before it, and so the plot threads that carried over from the previous volume didn't bother me at all. Looking at it from the perspective of a new reader, this novel might have too much left over from the previous installment, and too much left hanging for the next, and so I ranked it slightly lower than the two novels listed above.
4. No Award (actual finish 4th): If none of the three books listed above win the Hugo for Best Novel, I simply don't think that either of the other two should. Both are at least competently-written novels, but one is of indifferent quality while the other is simply weak and both are simply not good enough to win a Hugo. Everything below this mark simply got left off of my ballot as not being worthy of the Hugo Award.
Skin Game by Jim Butcher (actual finish 5th): Skin Game is, at its core, a disposable urban fantasy heist novel with a wisecracking protagonist, scheming villains, and a kitchen sink approach to world-building. It is also the fifteenth book is a series. It is an entertaining book, but that is really all that it is. To be worth a Hugo win, a novel has to be exceptional, and while Skin Game is a reasonably diverting pieces of fluff, it is nowhere near exceptional. It is, in a word, mediocre. Being a competently written adventure romp makes for decent beach reading, or something with which to while away the hours of a long flight, but it doesn't make for a novel that is good enough to deserve a Hugo Award. I briefly considered ranking this one behind "No Award", but then realized that it wasn't really good enough for even that.
The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson (actual finish 6th): While Skin Game is merely mediocre, The Dark Between the Stars is downright terrible. The book has competently written sentences, but that is about all of the favorable things one can say about it. The characters are one-dimensional, the villains aspire to be cartoonish in sophistication, what little plot there is evades the story for the first two hundred pages and then turns out to be incredibly thin and dull, while the tiny amount of science in the book is often ridiculously wrong. At seven hundred and forty pages, this novel barely has enough actual substance for a book half that length, and even if it were cut down that much it would still be a plodding snoozefest.
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