2022 marks my second year voting in the Hugo Awards for the best science fiction and fantasy published in the previous year. Today I will be looking at Best Novel, for works greater than 40000 words.
Last year’s Best Novel shortlist was my favorite of any category, with three different novels that I absolutely adored. This year’s group isn’t quite as strong at the top, but it still produced a top tier with three books I rated five stars, and the inclusion of three debut novels—two by authors who had never previously been Hugo finalists in any category—injected some very welcome fresh blood into the shortlist. And while there were a couple books that I didn’t necessarily think were award-worthy, everything on the list was worth the read. Overall, I enjoyed the category quite a bit, and there are multiple candidates that I’d be happy to see take home the prize. Like with Best Novella, I’ve previously reviewed all six works, and I’ll include links to full reviews in the appropriate headers.
Sixth Place: A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
While it may be a debut novel, A Master of Djinn takes place in Clark’s existing magical steampunk Cairo of the Dead Djinn Universe. It’s lauded for its worldbuilding, and for good reason—the world is both vibrant and incredibly detailed, but without feeling like the story exists only to support the worldbuilding. I particularly appreciated touches like Cairo serving as a haven for Black Americans fleeing Jim Crow. But the central murder mystery was unexceptional, with a culprit that wasn’t especially hard to guess and a plot that devolved into a series of action sequences. It’s a perfectly entertaining read if you enjoy action-heavy speculative mysteries, but in spite of the excellent worldbuilding, it doesn’t reach the level of the rest of the list.
Fifth Place: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
I’ll be very curious to see how Project Hail Mary does in the ultimate voting, as it’s drastically out-of-step with recent Hugo trends, but it has far-and-away the most popular recognition, especially outside genre spaces. If there’s a wild card on this year’s ballot, it’s right here. Weir’s newest novel reprises key elements from his hit book-turned-film The Martian, with an irreverent science nerd trying to solve problems while isolated in space. And those aspects are a whole lot of fun, with plenty of danger and an endearing relationship between the lead and another jokey science nerd. Unfortunately, the main story is punctuated by a series of flashbacks showing how the lead came to be trapped in space, and these sequences cast the lack of variety in characterization and dialogue into painful relief. Everyone in the flashbacks sounds the same, and while the main story was good enough to elevate it to fifth place on my ballot, the poor quality of the flashbacks kept an otherwise extremely fun story in my second tier.
Fourth Place: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
Light From Uncommon Stars put so many balls in the air that it’d have been nearly impossible to land them all in a satisfying way—there was a deal with the Devil, a trans runaway violinist trying to find a place of acceptance, and intergalactic refugees running a donut shop, and that’s not even mentioning the woman trying to live up to her male ancestors in violin repair. It’s a lot, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the ending papers over a lot of nuance and doesn’t have quite the power to put this in my top tier.
But what we see before the ending is really tremendous. The character work is exceptional, with several well-fleshed-out secondary characters and an uncanny ability to drop the reader straight into the mind of the lead—whether that be her anxiety about the judgment of others or her love of her instrument. Throw in a description of the setting that makes you feel like you live there, and it’s an incredibly immersive story with a ton of heart. The ending may keep it out of my top tier, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the breath of fresh air on the ballot, and I really considered giving it its own tier between my top and bottom groups.
Third Place: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers
Becky Chambers has been thoroughly lauded for her brand of cozy sci-fi, with several Hugo nominations, a win for Best Series after the publication of her first three Wayfarers novels, and what I expect to be a second win for Best Novella with 2022 finalist A Psalm for the Wild-Built. But of the three of her books that I’ve read, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is her best. It’s tightly character-focused, with four lead perspective characters—none of them human!—that all get enough page time to really come into their own over the course of the book, and with struggles to get to know and to try to help each other during a crisis that feel extremely real. But one of my favorite things about this book is that it leaves some problems unsolved. The characters all make strides in their relationships with each other, but there are some problems yet too big to solve, or too difficult to confront, and their existence doesn’t negate the small wins. It makes for a happy ending that feels within reach, where neater conclusions might’ve rung false by papering over the deeper difficulties. I know it didn’t work for everyone, but this is the book that made me understand why people like Chambers’ work so much. That wasn’t enough to put it in my top spot-–and given that her past two Wayfarers nominations have finished in the middle-of-the-pack, I don’t expect it’ll be enough to win-–but it was enough that I very seriously considered it.
Second Place: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
The speculative elements may be the weakest aspect of this historical fantasy, but the character work is strong enough to more than make up for it, with a pair of antiheroes trying to make names for themselves despite not fitting into their society’s conception of masculinity (and thus, of leadership). She Who Became the Sun glosses over some of the political details in order to zero in on an absolutely fascinating exploration of gender and of what people are willing to do to achieve their goals. This opens a duology, and there’s a lot of setup for the second book, but it still packs a punch on its own and would be a worthy winner.
First Place: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine
A Desolation Called Peace finishes the duology started by A Memory Called Empire, which won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2020. I didn’t think the first book was quite award-caliber, but the sequel improves in almost every respect. The addition of a first-contact plotline certainly brings it closer in line with my own tastes, and the expansion from one major perspective character to four gives a more well-rounded picture of the empire at the center of the duology—diving deeper into both the appealing aspects of their culture and the blatant hypocrisies—while significantly improving the overall character work. The new point-of-view characters are excellent, and having four perspectives instead of one opens up new storytelling avenues that allow each more agency in their own stories. This wouldn’t have been my top choice in last year’s stacked field, but it’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and comes in a half-step ahead of the other top-tier contenders. Given the Hugo already awarded to its predecessor, I wouldn’t mind seeing the award go to She Who Became the Sun or The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, but I’m not going to hold a series’ past success against it, and so A Desolation Called Peace will have my vote.