I’ve finished* reading the Hugo finalists for Best Novel. Now it’s time to decide how they compare with each other and figure out which one I liked best.
These novels were so very hard to stack rank. They’re all so different and so good. It’s like trying to pick a favorite type of berry. All berries are awesome. Don’t make me pick a favorite. I want all of them.
But, alas, one of these novels will be selected to win the Hugo later today. So, before the awards are announced, I’m going to think it through and figure out which one I’d pick.
My current ranking:
- Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
- The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
- Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
- Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
- Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
- Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
Here’s my rational for why I ranked these the way I did:
First off, let’s talk about Space Opera vs. Record of a Spaceborn Few. One I ranked at the top of the list, and one I ranked at the bottom. Both of these novels introduce a lot of alien culture world building. From that angle, these are two of the most similar of the bunch, and therefore maybe the easiest to compare. The first main difference between them was that Space Opera focused more on the weird aliens while Spaceborn Few focused more on the evolution of humanity after humans killed their planet and fled to space. In both cases, humanity is somewhere near the bottom of the ranks of the multitude of galactic sentient species. Both books also definitely have a message to convey (more so than the other books on this list), about living in harmony with each other and with those not like us. While I enjoyed both of these, I devoured Space Opera while I merely slogged my way through Record of a Spaceborn Few. I think this is because Space Opera had a unifying plot while Spaceborn Few did not. Also, I liked the humor/voice in Space Opera better. So, I ranked Space Opera above Spaceborn Few, but why did it get ranked first on this list?
Let me first say that I’ll be shocked if The Calculating Stars doesn’t win the Hugo this year. That said, why did I rank Space Opera above The Calculating Stars? This may come down to me being a bit ornery. See, The Calculating Stars is a crowd pleaser of a book (which is why I think it will win). The main character is delightful. She has a loving relationship with her husband. She’s fighting the good fight to get women (of all races) into space. It’s a pretty straight-forward, science based, research heavy, hard sci-fi story where you can root for the underdog. It’s great. I loved it.
Now, when you look at that compared to Space Opera, you realize that Space Opera is downright weird. Just look at the Goodreads reviews. They’re incredibly polarizing. People love it or they DNFed it out of frustration. But somehow, comparing this to The Calculating Stars, this is the book that I’m still thinking about weeks and weeks after reading it. This is the one I want to own so I can re-read it. Meanwhile, despite having the second book in the Lady Astronaut series on my Kindle, I haven’t been super motivated to start reading it. So, as much as I enjoyed The Calculating Stars, I have to rank Space Opera higher on my list.
That leaves me with three more (also great) novels that I need to decide where to place: Trail of Lightning, Spinning Silver, and Revenant Gun. These are all set in really unique worlds with excellent world-building and compelling characters. They’re also all very different novels. But, because they all had plots in addition to well crafted characters and worlds, I immediately liked them all more than I liked Record of a Spaceborn Few. Sorry. Please don’t think I’m dragging Record of a Spaceborn Few. I really liked it. I just also really like plot and, as good as it was, that book didn’t have one. Does that make it “literary sci-fi?” Maybe? But that’s not what the Hugos are about, so I’ll leave that discussion to the literary experts. I’m just here to explore which ones I liked best and why.
I also didn’t love any of these three books more than I enjoyed Space Opera and The Calculating Stars. That’s how they all ended up in the middle of my list. But, trying to decide how to stack rank them against each other was a much more difficult task. To determine a final ranking, I decided to rate them on how much I liked them based on the three pillars of storytelling: character, world-building, and plot. Plus a bonus (tie-breaker?) fourth component: structure.
Trail of Lightning shines in the world-building department. It’s a very unique take on dystopian that relies on a lot of Native American legends. Plus, it’s #ownvoices. So, that’s awesome. The plot and characters were good enough to make this a page turner, but I didn’t love it enough to want to continue with the series. The main reason this one is getting bumped higher than the other two is because there was nothing annoying about the structure. (See, I warned you that structure was going to be a tie breaker).
The world-building in Spinning Silver is equally as good, and rooted in the Jewish culture of (I think) Eastern Europe. I really enjoyed the three female lead characters in this book. The males were well-written but universally awful until a couple of them managed to (satisfyingly) redeem themselves at the end of the book. There were a lot of characters to manage in this story, but they were all unique, well-rounded, and ended up with solid character arcs, which is saying something given the number of point of view characters.
Even though I liked the characters in Spinning Silver more than in Trail of Lightning, I had to take some points off for plot and structure. I loved the first third and the last third of Spinning Silver. The middle third is where this book fell down a bit for me. That had a little bit to do with the plot (sagging middle syndrome) and a little bit to do with the structure (too many point of view characters). It’s almost as though the first third had one plot (turn silver into gold) and two primary point of view characters (Miryem and Wanda), while the last third had an entirely different plot (destroy the demon and the Staryk King), that’s not really even hinted at in the first half of the book, and traded one primary point of view character for several others. Once the first plot was resolved, the book sort of floundered for me (around the part where two of the characters are hiding in a creepy “witches” cottage) until the next part of the story kicked in.
* So, that leaves Revenant Gun. In the spirit of transparency, I’m going to note that I’m just over halfway through this book. I’ll update this post when I’ve finished reading, if my opinions have changed.
Revenant Gun is the third book in the Machineries of Empire series, which makes it even more difficult to rate it against the others which are either first in their series or stand-alone books. If you picked up this book without reading Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem first, you’d probably be completely lost. Hell, when most people (myself included) pick up Ninefox Gambit (the first book in the series), they are completely lost. I LOVED Ninefox Gambit after I finally gave up trying to understand all the new world-building terminology and just let myself enjoy the story and figure it out as it went along. This is one of those series where you have to really suspend your need for info-dumps (since I hate info-dumps, I love this style of writing). Some stuff just doesn’t get explained and that’s totally fine.
I really love the world-building in this series. It believably incorporates food and fashion and politics and pastimes and prejudices and pop culture into a far-future, space-faring world. It’s not at all “realistic” in the hard-sci-fi sense of the term. Not like Spaceborn Few or Calculating Stars. And yet, the world is rule-based and logical, birthed from the mind of a mathematician. Plus the characters are great. I love all of them. They all feel very unique and have colorful personalities. They may not have traditional character arcs, necessarily, but that’s in line with this sort of military/adventure sci-fi sub-genre. The plot has plenty of satisfying twists and turns and shocking (but inevitable) reveals. Even though this final book in the series did a little weird “nine years ago” interspersed with “present day” thing with the structure, it was necessary to the story and only slightly confusing. Less confusing than Spinning Silver got, at times with all that POV switching.
As much as I enjoyed this series, how do you rank the last book in the series against a field of books that are first books or stand-alones? I was sorely tempted to just not rank it at all (especially because I’m not 100% done reading it, yet). But it’s a good series, and (so far, at least), I like this last book more than I liked Spinning Silver or Trail of Lightning. So, I decided to rank this book third, behind my two faves. It’s highly unlikely that Revenant Gun will take home the Hugo, but I have my fingers crossed that maybe Machineries of Empire will win the completed series award.
Now I’m going to get myself a bowl of popcorn and tune into the Hugo livestream. I am really excited to see if I’m right about which novel will win this category and to see who else will take home a Hugo this year. Best of luck to all the finalists. They are all amazing authors, and I really enjoyed reading all these books.
Let me know in the comments if you read any of these books and which one you think will win.