Our journey through the 2021 Hugo Awards ballot finishes with the most prestigious of categories: Best Novel. A final six consisting of five Hugo winning-authors and a sequel to a Hugo finalist might’ve disappointed those hoping for some new blood, but it’s hard to complain too much about a category with this kind of quality at the top. My ballot broke into three tiers and created perhaps the toughest choice of any category for my first-place vote.
Seventh Place: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
I am openly holding the sequel status of Harrow the Ninth against it, as Harrow sets up a fairly interesting puzzle storyline of the sort that I would ordinarily like to reward in award voting. The problem is that, in order to understand the first thing about it, you have to read more than 400 pages of setup in Gideon the Ninth, plus however long Harrow spends in its own setup before the ultimate payoff. I was intrigued by the main story, but I did not enjoy the pacing and structure of Gideon, and an early decontextualized (and thus boring) action sequence was enough to suggest I could expect more of the same. I didn’t finish this one, and no matter how good the payoff ultimately is, it’s hard to imagine it’s worth 1.5 books of wait.
Sixth Place: No Award
Fifth Place: Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
I admit being puzzled by the hype around Black Sun. I was surprised to see it nominated for Best Novel, and I was shocked to see it listed among NPR’s 50 best sci-fi and fantasy books of the decade. I enjoyed Black Sun, and that alone is enough for me to keep it above No Award. But in opening a new epic fantasy series, it fails to deliver a single satisfying intermediate plot arc. It sets up an interesting, fresh fantasy world with plenty of intrigue delivered by likable characters bound for different sides of a conflict. That was enough for a solid four-star rating and a plan to pick up the sequel when it comes out. But it’s all promise, no payoff. Consideration for Best Novel demands a much better ending than Black Sun delivers. For more, see my full review.
Fourth Place: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
I’m not sure there’s a writer in the contemporary genre with Jemisin’s combination of creativity, readability, and prose quality, and every bit of it is on display here. But, while it’s unfair to compare a new release to a three-time Hugo-winning series, The City We Became doesn’t come together quite like her previous work. There are too many perspective characters to really sink into any one in particular, and there’s one that at times feels painfully credulous (though the real-life inspiration suggests perhaps not unrealistically so). But the biggest flaw here is that Jemisin introduces a pair of plot points that feel genuinely devastating and then dismisses them with a wave of the hand. The City We Became has plenty of selling points, but ultimately, it just doesn’t have an ending that’s able to deliver on the difficulty and ambiguity promised in the setup. For more, see my full review.
Third Place: Network Effect by Martha Wells
Network Effect won the Nebula and may be the favorite for the Hugo, and it’s not hard to see why. Murderbot is an absolute delight, and the character develops from book-to-book so well that, to the fan of the series, every book seems better than the one that preceded it. And this fifth installment not only brings back the series’ best side character, it also provides Murderbot with a lot more opportunities to interact with humans, which shows off its character development and is generally just a whole lot of fun. I really loved this book, but there are two things holding me back from voting it #1. First, the action sequence that closes the novel doesn’t maintain the quality of the rest of the book. It’s not bad, it’s just not up to the extremely high standard of the novel to that point. Second, The Murderbot Diaries is a series that’s more than the sum of its parts. For the Best Series category, that’s a plus. But when trying to evaluate the fifth book for Best Novel, I can’t help but think it’s not quite as great without four novellas of backstory. It’s still great, mind you. But something has to be at the back of my first tier. For more, see my full review.
Second Place: The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Relentless Moon has nearly everything you could want in a novel. There’s an utterly compelling lead, who battles persistent mental and physical ailments while still managing to serve as the linchpin to a thrilling espionage story. There’s a plot with plenty of twists and turns that’s almost impossible to put down. There’s plenty of competent women overcoming social prejudices, and there are sympathetic villains—while remaining villains, mind you—that feel tremendously relevant to the world as it has been in the last couple years. It’s gripping, it presents a truly flawed protagonist who is nevertheless hard not to like, and it hits important and relevant themes. My only real complaint is that it feels very much like a story from 2020. And if this award is the best story that feels like it’s from 2020, it should win. But in a novel that’s set in the 1960s, it sometimes feels jarringly contemporary. That’s not a major complaint, amidst all the positives. But it’s enough to hold it out of my top spot. For more, see my full review.
First Place: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
If The Relentless Moon feels too contemporary, Piranesi is the opposite, feeling entirely timeless. It’s a tough book to describe, with an epistolary format and a nameless protagonist without a shred of modern sensibilities. He’s extremely likable and possesses the mind of a scientist, but he lacks so much of the context available to the reader, so that the reader begins to see the plot unfold while the lead is still in the dark. It makes for an unusual reading experience and a novel that feels both quieter and more uplifting than one might expect from the subject matter. But it’s an absolute joy to read, and with a top three that’s incredibly tough to distinguish, I’ll go with the one that delivered such a fresh reading experience (that or the one that isn’t already part of a Hugo-winning series—pick your preferred tiebreaker, they come out the same). For more, see my full review.