2023 marks my third year voting in the Hugo Awards for the year’s best science fiction and fantasy, and while a compressed schedule that happened to coincide with a very busy season of real life meant I wasn’t able to dive as deep into certain categories as I would’ve liked, I was able to make it through my four categories of primary focus: Novel, Novella, Novelette, and Short Story. The writeups may be more rushed than in the past (and I may even combine categories into one post), but that doesn’t mean I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about them.
Today, I want to look at the Hugo Award for Best Novel, awarded to single-volume works of more than 40,000 words. Unfortunately, after really enjoying the Best Novel shortlist in 2021 and 2022, I found this year’s to be a bit of a disappointment. Nothing on my favorites list made the ballot, and I really only had one pleasant surprise in my Hugo reading for this category. That one pleasant surprise did somewhat redeem the category as a whole, but it still felt like an uninspired list in a year that was chock full of fantastic work.
So, with that somewhat discouraging introduction aside, let’s dig in.
Unranked: Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
The third entry in the Locked Tomb series is notoriously incomprehensible without having read the prior entries. Unfortunately, I found the prior entries a bit of a slog, and this series is a pretty firm DNF at this point. I have nothing against Nona the Ninth as an individual book, but the series DNF continues to apply to each subsequent entry.
Unranked: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
This novel was intended to be relatively shallow but a whole lot of fun. The shallow part came through loud and clear, but the fun was very hit-and-miss. There were moments that had me smiling, but also moments that made me want to ragequit–particularly when the smarmy Create-A-Villain opened his mouth at all. I’m just not one for explosions and poop jokes, by and large, and so this one was always going to be a struggle for me. It was. Full review here.
Note: because items left off the ballot are automatically added to the bottom, I am leaving both this and Nona the Ninth off my ballot. While my Locked Tomb DNF is enough to convince me I’d have both books below the rest of my ballot, it’s not enough to determine relative positions between the books in my third tier.
Fifth Place: No Award
If you read the last three paragraphs, you knew this was coming. I just don’t have much love for either entry.
Fourth Place: Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree
Legends & Lattes suffers from a problem that I often associate with action-heavy works: too much happens before I have reason to care about them. This is about as far from an action-heavy work as I could imagine, but the characters just start solving coffee-related problems before I have any investment in their fortunes, which leads to a bit of boredom.
On the other hand, it is an extremely easy read, and there are some endearing side characters and a few moments that produced some smiles. I may find the characters a bit lightly sketched and the background world hard to swallow at times, but I never really wanted to just give up on this one.
That’s not exactly a glowing review, and it left me teetering on the edge of including this in tier three. But I do think this may be the most influential novel on the shortlist, and insofar as the Hugo Awards are meant to provide a snapshot of the state of the genre, Legends & Lattes well deserves its place as a key figure in the popularizing of cozy fantasy.
Third Place: The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal
Mary Robinette Kowal is a very talented writer, and she manages to suck me in to pretty much any story she cares to tell. But while this was quite a page-turner, and I really enjoyed the cocktail references sprinkled throughout the story, I’m not quite sure it totally came together specifically as a mystery. The mystery subgenre has its own conventions, and I don’t think The Spare Man stayed true to them. So while it was a fun read, it never really hit that higher level that I want to see from a Best Novel finalist. A totally pleasant read, and not much more.
Second Place: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
In a lot of ways, my reaction to Nettle & Bone was similar to my reaction to The Spare Man. Kingfisher is a talented writer, and she doesn’t seem to have much trouble drawing me into her tales. But while Nettle & Bone built a lot of heavy themes into the backstory, it mostly just turned into a quirky adventure. And it was certainly a fun quirky adventure, but I didn’t think it did justice to the thematic work it began in the early chapters. For me, it stayed firmly in the good-but-not-great category.
First Place: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I probably wouldn’t call this the best novel of 2022, but it’s one that absolutely justified its place on the shortlist, and I have absolutely no qualms about slotting it at the top of my ballot. It’s a riff on The Island of Doctor Moreau (which I haven’t read), set in a lushly described 19th century Yucatán Peninsula. The plot–sheltered beauty runs into trouble when suitors come around–may not be especially unfamiliar in period pieces (though is a bit of a breath of fresh air for someone reading mostly genre works), but it’s well-executed, and the characters are extremely compelling.
But in addition to being a really entertaining story, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau offers a fascinating study of the problem of evil, with the godlike stature of Doctor Moreau on his estate inviting the question of whether a good creator would create beings only for them to suffer. And sticking with the subject of religion, the book was one of the few I’ve read that really examines religion both as a tool of control and as a source of freedom. Doctor Moreau would twist biblical passages to keep his creations under his thumb, yet his daughter grew into a genuine faith that saw her father’s manipulations for what they were.
It’s a fascinating and entertaining work, and it would be well worthy of winning this year’s Best Novel. Full review here.