Might as well start off with the big one, no? This isn’t a terribly strong group of nominees, but that has probably been true for years now. There is only one book that I really think doesn’t belong but unavoidably so. I see a striking gap between three good books and two very good ones (no truly great ones this year, I think). I feel pretty confident about saying so despite a group of nominees that is very diverse in a lot of ways.
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
I wrote a glowing release day review of Ancillary Justice on Amazon, I nominated it for a Hugo last year, and while I didn’t ultimately vote for it (slotting it below The Wheel of Time and, I believe, Warbound), I was hardly sad to see it win. I had high hopes for Ancillary Sword. It is unfortunately a big step down, abandoning most of what made the first book so good. I really don’t think it belongs on the ballot, but there is a massive built-in advantage to the sequel to the previous year winner.
- The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Unlike Ancillary Sword, I wouldn’t be particularly disheartened (although I overstate my personal stake in the Hugos by implying I would find any result would be particularly disheartening) to see The Goblin Emperor finish better than I have it slotted. I can see why people would find the main character and the setting endearing, and don’t disagree, although the plot is ultimately too lacking in tension or surprise.
- The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson
I struggled the most to decide whether to put The Goblin Emperor or The Dark Between the Stars at #3. I enjoyed both books but neither is exceptional. And they are very different. One is high fantasy, the other space opera. One has often long chapters, the other extremely short chapters. One is told entirely from one POV, the other has dozens of POV characters. One is a standalone work, the other is the first act in a trilogy. The Dark Between the Stars gets the edge, I think, from presenting a more interesting world and from simply being less of a slog.
- Skin Game by Jim Butcher
Jim Butcher looks like this.
Jim Butcher walks into the Roc offices. He is wearing a flannel shirt over a wife-beater and a pair of stonewashed jeans. He throws down a manuscript typed up on WordPerfect and printed on continuous form paper on his editor’s desk, punctuating the act with a declaration that “I’m here to chew bubblegum and deliver a kickass story and I’m all out of gum.” As his editor sits speechless, Jim flips his hair and saunters off. Outside, he hops Dukes of Hazzard-style into his T-Top Trans Am and roars off blaring Metallica.
He came like the wind, like the wind kicked ass, and like the wind was gone.
- The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
Crazy to think that The Three-Body Problem almost didn’t make the ballot. But then it had a built-in disadvantage as a work first published in another language. It’s also a wonderful example of why we ought to pay more attention to such works. Not only is a great story by any measure, but it is the epitome of what speculative fiction can be: fresh and interesting, exploring the depths of human nature while remaining hopeful, and asking the big What If.