Time to do my annual reviews where I relate everything back to Pokémon. In a normal year, the Hugo Awards would be over and done with by now, but this year it got dragged out due to certain world events. In this post I will be reviewing the nominees for Best Novel, but since this is the Big Award of the lot, I do something special here. I combine my love of books with my love of Pokémon. There are six nominees for this award, and six Pokémon in a team. So get ready to see not only what I think about the nominees for this years Hugo award for best novel, but also which Pokémon I think the nominees would be.
I enjoyed all the finalists this year. Most of them were ones I read last year and voted for. All in all, there were 441 books nominated, and I’m curious about which other books came close. As good as these six books are though, there is something I am a bit apprehensive about. Five of the six books on the ballot are part of a series, with Piranesi being the only standalone. Two of these series were also nominated in the Best Series category. I don’t think it’s a problem this year, but given how trilogies and series often get a bit more love, I worry that in the future these two categories could get much larger overlap. Hopefully the fact that a series can only win Best Series once will mitigate this a bit, but I still worry that standalone books may not be getting the love they deserve. Maybe a rule similar to how the two dramatic presentation categories treat TV shows (i.e. an entire season is eligible in long form, and individual episodes are eligible in short form, but can’t have both on one ballot) would prevent too much overlap in the Novel and Series category and allow some standalones to get more love.
For now though, it’s time to give the current nominees some love.
By Rebecca Roanhorse
Published Oct 2020 (Saga Press)
I went into this book with no idea what to expect, and found that I was not ready for how brutal that first chapter was going to be. But even if you get queasy easy, keep at it. This book is not a long gore fest, and you’ll be rewarded with a rich fantasy inspired by pre-Colombian American Civilizations and an engaging story about vengeance, prophesy and magic.
Roanhorse has created a fantasy world that really stands out from all the alternate euro-centric fantasy worlds and the newer wave of Asian Inspired fantasies. Black Sun features a fantasy world inspired by Native American and Mesoamerican cultures written by an Indigenous author who understands and respects such cultures. The cities, the war college, the great sea, every aspect of this world has grandeur and complexity. The political situation in Tova, with the clans, the priesthood and the underground is particularly intricate, and Roanhorse manages to explain all this information without weighing us down with too many info dumps. There are also a number of queer characters in this story, including one of the protagonists, Xiala. Xiala is bisexual and also a ship captain, and through her travels we see that people in different cities have different cities have different views on sexuality, religion, and mythology. You know, just like a real world. Roanhorse makes the Meridian feel like a real place; even when magical crows and merpeople are doing there thing.
I don’t think I can fully say if I enjoyed this story or not at the moment. Not only does Black Sun end on a cliffhanger, but there are a lot of unanswered questions and loose ends waiting for the next book. I won’t be able to have a proper opinion on the story until I read the sequel, but as the start of a duology this book is amazing. I am hooked. I am very invested in the characters and am looking forward to seeing more of this world. The next book, Fevered Sun, is expected to be released in April of 2022.
If this book was a Pokémon, it would be a Honchkrow. Because this book isn’t just obsessed with crows; it gives us the big crow boss-god. Which is pretty much what Honchkrow is. But I want to use pictures from my own gameplay, and I can’t get a Honchkrow right now. So instead, Black Sun is actually just a little Murkrow.
The City We Became
By N.K. Jemisin
Published March 2020 (Orbit)
A couple of years ago, N.K. Jemisin published a short story called The City Born Great, about a homeless man who becomes the avatar of New York as the city comes to life. In this continuation (or rather, expansion, since most of the original short story is still contained at the start of this book) we see the aftermath of New York’s violent birth, where the newly awakened avatars of the five city boroughs must come together and fight a powerful Lovecraftian enemy that is determined not to let any cities come to life.
I’ve never been to New York, so a lot of the ‘love letter to New York’ elements didn’t pull me in they way they will for some people. They added to the world-building though, and to the anti-gentrification message. Mostly though, I was here for the regular people coming together and fighting Lovecraftian horrors using the logic of city magic. We have a scene early on where throwing money at evil tentacles in Manhattan keeps them away, and there is a really epic car chase scene that involves avoiding evil Starbuckses. This book has a fun magic system that works in tandem with the worldbuilding, which in turn shapes the characters, whose personality and skills influence how they engage with the magical elements of the story. This is a fantasy where every element snaps together to create a tight, logical package that is super engaging no matter how crazy any individual plot development may be or how little regard this book has for normal genre boundaries.
The City Born Great is a modern Lovecraftian tale, and like many modern Lovecraftian tales it gives a big middle finger to a lot of Lovecraft’s beliefs and themes. The most obvious subversion is that the cast are almost entirely persons of colour and/or queer, and the Enemy – both in human form and in shadowy monster form – is always coloured white. There is also a scene in the art gallery where Lovecraft’s comments about China Town are referenced and called out. The main subversion though is the fact that these Lovecraftian monsters are being used to attack xenophobia, whether in the form of gentrification which harm black communities in big cities, or the personal attacks of everyday people and right wing groups. I felt at some times that the message may have been a bit heavy handed, especially with Aislyn’s storyline. But then again, what little I know of Staten Island, perhaps her arc is realistic.
To represent this book, I went looking for the creepiest most Cthulhu-like Pokémon. A lot of the monster scenes in this book are really creepy, and you know what? So is Malamar. Malamar also has tentacles, like any self-respecting eldritch abomination, and it can use its strong hypnotic powers to control people, which is something the Enemy in this story can do. Pokémon aren’t supposed to be evil, but an evil Malamar does appear in the XY series of the Anime, so I feel this guy fits right in as a representation of the Enemy in The City We Became.
Harrow the Ninth
By Tamsyn Muir
Published Aug 2020 (Tor.com)
I have a lot of feelings towards this book. So much feels, that I have already given it its own very long post earlier this year. Click this link to see my entire review.
My main take on this book is that the more time goes by, the more I like this book. The good parts of this book were amazing, and the last 30% of the story was one wild, crazy fun ride that has been one of my favourite book experiences of the year. I want to say this was one of the best books of the year. I have to keep reminding myself that the first 70% of the story was a slog and that at one stage I was considering giving up on it.
Looking back on this story months later, I still say that Harrow the Ninth is a great book. It expands the world and makes us love the characters, and uses second person perspective and fanfiction tropes in really clever ways. The problem with this is that if you do not like fanfiction or second person perspective, this book will be very annoying. Even if you do, this book spends a lot of time gaslighting you about the ending of the first book in the series, Gideon the Ninth. I found the payoff of all these contradicting stories really good, but you need to really be committed to this series to get the same satisfaction. If you did not really love Gideon the Ninth, I don’t think you’ll be able to put up with Harrow the Ninth.
Originally, this Locked Tomb series was going to be a trilogy, with the third book being titled Alecto the Ninth and given a 2022 release date. Earlier this year though Alecto was pushed back to 2023, and a new book, Nona the Ninth, was announced for 2022, meaning we have a quartet on our hands now.
When choosing a Pokémon that perfectly represents this book, there was one thing I had to keep in mind: bones motherfucker. Marowak, a Pokémon with a skull for a head, that evolves from a Pokémon that wears the skull of its dead mother. I used Kanto Marowak last year when Gideon the Ninth was a finalist, because it was a perfect fit. My first thought for Harrow the Ninth was to just go with an Alolan Marowak, since it still has the bones, but now has a ghost typing for extra necromancy. I ended up going with Mandibuzz though. Partly because the way Mandibuzz wears decorative bones reminds me both of how Harrow dresses, and how the setting of this story is a space station full of skeletons. Also, Mandibuzz is in New Pokémon Snap, unlike the two Marowaks. This means that I am able to get a much better picture to go alongside this review.
By Susanna Clarke
Published Sep 2020 (Bloomsbury)
This is the only fully standalone book on the ballot this year. Coincidently, it is also the only finalist I didn’t listen to as an audiobook. I haven’t yet read Susanna Clarke’s other book, the Hugo Award winning Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect coming into Piranesi. After a very confusing start, I soon found myself unable to put this book down.
Piranesi is a small, strange book about a man in an empty flooded house full of statues and birds. It is a surreal setting and a captivating puzzle of a story, which I think may be better the less you know going in. Since I don’t want to give away too much, this review will be pretty short.
The character Piranesi lives in The House. The House is the whole world, and he spends his days exploring the endless halls of the house. Every week he meets up with ‘The Other’ to discuss his search for the Great and Secret Knowledge, and he also spends a lot of time scavenging and fishing for food and supplies in the flooded parts of the house. Most importantly though, Piranesi is a meticulous journal keeper, and it is through these journal entries that he tells us about the House and his adventures within it. It is also by going back and looking up old journal entries that Piranesi starts to realise that something doesn’t add up about the House and his life within it.
Choosing a Pokémon to represent Piranesi was difficult. There are no satyr or minotaur Pokémon, which would be the obvious choices. There are Gogoats and Tauros though, which could work, but are difficult for me to obtain at the moment. I decided to approach this differently and ended up choosing Articuno, due to its resemblance to an albatross. In his diaries, Piranesi dates all the events currently happening as being in The Year The Albatross Came to the South-Western Halls, so it seems fitting. Besides, I have been getting sidetracked from the Crown Tundra DLC in Pokémon Shield, so it will be good to have motivation to finish it so I can get an Articuno.
By Martha Wells
Published May 2020 (Tor)
Network Effect is the fifth entry in the Murderbot series, and the first novel. It follows on from the story that was concluded in the first 4 novellas, so could theoretically be read as a standalone. But, why anyone would want to do that is beyond me. Without reading at least novella 2, you miss out on a lot of backstory, but I guess it could be done. You’d be missing out on a lot of really good story if you do skip straight to this novel though.
The Murderbot Diaries is about a cyborg killing machine that hacks through the programming designed to keep it servile and use its free will to do a half-assed version of its job while binging space Netflix. This goes on for many years, until it works as security for a group of researchers who actually treat it with basic human decency before evil corporate agents start trying to kill them. This leads Murderbot to go on some action-packed violent adventures to protect its humans, and along the way it makes even more friends. Network Effect takes place after Murderbot has saved its humans and earned some degree of freedom. In this story, Murderbot is working out what it wants to do with its new life, and ends up taking a job with some of its human friends on another research expedition. On the way back, a certain Asshole Research Transport comes back into Murderbot’s life and drags the whole crew into another messy adventure.
I think plotwise Network Effect may be weaker than the four novellas, but it more than makes up for it with the character moments and the growth that Murderbot goes through. There is also plenty of action, making this book hard to put down, and Murderbot’s snarky, sarcastic humor is also present and accounted for.
I probably could have thought of a better Pokémon than Golurk for this, but I like taking pictures of them in New Pokémon Snap. Golurk, like Murderbot, is an artificially created being, made to serve people as a labourer and protector, similar to SecUnits like Murderbot. It also has pew pew energy weapons in its arms, just like Murderbot. Golurk also has a seal that when removed causes it to lose control and go around indiscriminately attacking people, which is the way media portrays SecUnits in universe. Actually I take back what I said before: Golurk makes a pretty good Murderbot.
The Relentless Moon
By Mary Robinette Kowal
Published July 2020 (Tor Books)
Since The Relentless Moon is a Lady Astronaut novel, I went into it very excited. There was also a bit of trepidation, since this is the first novel of the series to not follow the Lady Astronaut Elma York. Still, I dove in, listening to the audiobook version because I really enjoy listening to Kowal narrate her own works, and I loved everything about this one.
The Relentless Moon is a conspiracy/mystery story set on the luna colony in an alternate 1963 where a deadly world-destroying meteorite has spurred humanity to throw nearly everything into a global space program. Meteorite aside, the Lady Astronaut world feels so much like what our efforts to explore space could have been. Kowal has done a lot of research on both spaceflight and the era these books are set in. Everything has the feel of a real, fully possible history.
The star of the Lady Astronaut series is Elma York, a pilot and math genius who campaigns for the space program to allow woman astronauts. The first two books in the series, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, follows Elma as she becomes an astronaut and flies to the Moon and Mars. The Relentless Moon takes place at the same time as The Fated Sky, while Elma is busy flying to Mars. With Elma out of the way, protagonist duty falls to Nicole Wargin, a fellow Lady Astronaut friend of Elma’s. Nicole is in her fifties and struggles with an eating disorder. Neither of those facts are her defining feature. Like Elma, she was a pilot in WWII, though it appears that Nicole learnt other skills during the war as well, which become useful when a saboteur pops up on the moon. Whilst she is using her technical and political skills on the moon, her husband, senator Kenneth Wargin, is considering running for President of the USA.
I love Nicole as a character, I love her relationship with Kenneth, and I loved reading about her and the rest of the crew from the previous books solving mysteries and kicking ass on the moon. The Relentless Moon is a wonderful book and can be read as a standalone if you are not up-to-date with the Lady Astronaut series, although it does contain some spoilers for the other two.
I was originally going to use Lunatone to represent this book, since it is a rock shaped like the moon. But Clafairy is supposedly from the moon, and I can get photos of them in Pokémon Snap, which is more fun for this page. Besides, using a moon rock for every story to take place on the Moon is a bit of a cop out.
This is the second year in a row where all the finalists in the Best Novel category have been by women authors. Its also only the second time ever that all finalists in this category have been female, as opposed to twenty-four times when all the finalists were male. I was also interested in stats for how often finalists for this award are standalone vs part of a series, but I am not feeling like doing that level of number crunching right now. I did look back and found that the last time there was only one standalone was in 2017, which happens to be the year the Best Series category started. Interestingly, there was no overlap between the two categories that year, which is encouraging, considering my worries about over-representation. I don’t think we’ve had any year where more than two books were part of both categories, so maybe I am just overthinking things.
On the Pokémon side of things, I don’t think I’d like to use this group as a team. Four of these Pokémon are weak to the Ice Type*. So, I guess if we complete the analogy I am making between books and Pokémon, a book about a snowy place or a harsh winter would destroy team Hugo Finalist 2021. Also, the fact that I have three flying Pokémon would make the Stealth Rocks entry hazard very annoying, not to mention that I have two not fully evolved Pokémon on the team. I don’t think team Hugo Finalist would work too well together.
As a series of books, I really enjoyed them. The books that are part of series are all series that I am eager to continue with, and Piranesi was just impossible to put down and stop thinking about. Like all the other prose categories this year, the competition for this award is strong. Network Effect is looking like a favourite, considering that it has already won this year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, but I wouldn’t count any of these finalists out. The City We Became has also won a Locus Award this year (for Best Fantasy Novel.)
Voting for the Hugo Awards closes on November 19, and the winners will be announced during Worldcon between Dec 15-19. There are still a few other categories where I plan to read more nominees, but from what I have read so far I am excited for the awards.
*Assuming I have Galarian Articuno instead of Kanto Articuno