ARB Guide to the ’21 Hugos: Novels

Jake Casella Brookins


The Best Novel Award is usually talked about as “the big one” of the Hugos. Some of the awards are mostly internal to the professional/fan community, and I’m not sure what impact, if any, the Hugos for film and television have. The Hugo for best novel, by contrast, has a big and long-lasting effect outside the voting fandom community: even people who aren’t at all invested in Worldcon, or even science fiction generally, often have a vague idea that “the Hugo novels are the important SF books”, and it gives the books a real edge.

As discussed in the introduction this guide, the Hugo slate is created by the members of Worldcon—members of both the 2020 and 2021 cons had nominating rights for this list, and the top choices were compiled out of a total of 1249 nominating ballots. The full nominating data isn’t available yet, but for an idea of what might have been on the longlist, I’d suggest checking out the 2020 Locus Recommended Reading. (Two titles that I had on my tentative Hugo list—Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds and Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds—instead put their authors on the list for the Astounding award for best new writer, so that’s rad; I remain a little depressed that Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future didn’t make the shortlist, but them’s the breaks.)

For each of the 6 nominees this year, I’ll give a quick summary, some context, and then a tiny personal review, along with my terribly unscientific guess as to their chances. Enjoy!

***

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

An action-packed secondary-world fantasy drawing heavily on elements of pre-Columbian American culture and mythology, Black Sun follows several different characters on different sides of a long ethnopolitical conflict. There’s magic, ancient prophecies, loads of intrigue, and some cool giant creatures. Roanhorse has previously won a Hugo for a short story; her fantasy novels set in the American Southwest and using Diné (Navajo) traditions, starting with Trail of Lightning, were much-discussed and nominated for many awards.

I found Black Sun quite the page-turner, more balanced than Roanhorse’s (also good and entertaining) previous novels. It’s a compelling and imaginative world, doing some interesting work with gender and generational trauma, and has some massively fun big set-piece-type action scenes. One complaint I have is that I found it hard to root, ethically, for the main players—caught up in prophecy and old power structures and their attendant atrocities, and not really trying to break out of that. Another is that this is less a “novel” than a “pilot” on the plot level: it’s setting up a cool series, but feels unfinished considered as a single story. That said, it’s a strong Hugo contender, and might be my best guess (if not my personal top pick) to win this year.

***

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

A fantasy novel set in present-day New York, The City We Became reveals that cities are magical entities that imbue “avatars” with a range of powers to safeguard their interests; furthermore, the souls of these cities are threatened, particularly when they’re young, by mysterious otherworldly forces. The novel follows the avatars of NYC (one from each borough) as they awaken to fend off one such attack, which combines aspects of corporate capitalism and Lovecraftian white supremacy. Jemisin is a titan in the SF world, having won a Hugo for every novel in her Broken Earth trilogy, authored multiple well-received fantasy series, and is an outspoken member of the writing community.

I was personally quite underwhelmed by The City We Became. I don’t particularly like overly-mechanistic magic systems, but the supernatural forces at play in this novel felt incoherent, ad-hoc, so I had no sense of what the stakes or possibilities were from scene to scene. Also, and trying not to go too far afield here, I was rubbed the wrong way by some of its basic ontological assumptions and localized patriotism—without wanting to deny that communities are real, the concept of a “real New Yorker”, like that of a “true fan”, is a problematic one. Still, that’s just my take, and this is only the beginning of the series. It’s a book everyone’s been reading, it’s doing a lot of interesting and inclusive things, and I’d never put money against Jemisin winning a Hugo.

***

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Mixing space-operatic science fiction with magic (and healthy doses of horror), Harrow the Ninth follows its protagonist, the eponymous Harrow, as she joins her God Emperor and fractious fellow Lyctors to battle vast inhuman threats to the empire. The real story, though, is a puzzle-box of altered dreams and memories, as Harrow pieces together her past. Harrow is the sequel to Gideon the Ninth, which was nominated for a Hugo last year. The youngest author on the Best Novel slate this year, Muir has also been nominated for the Shirley Jackson award for her short fiction.

I was a big fan of Gideon and blown away by Harrow. Building on an already-preposterous premise, Muir is doing some masterful, meta-fictional work here, the kind of intricate cleverness that is kind of jaw-dropping when it lands. More serious and psychologically-horrific than its predecessor, it’s still one of the funniest novels on the list this year, powered by snark and sniping frenemies. Harrow also wears its fan-fictional connections on its sleeve, playing around with those tropes and conventions very consciously. Based on the highly-scientific metric of “how much fanart and cosplay about this work have I, personally, in my idiosyncratic use of social media, run across”, it’s clear that Gideon & Harrow have won the community’s attention by a country mile; however, Gideon didn’t win the Hugo last year, so I’d be (pleasantly) surprised if the sequel takes it.

***

Network Effect by Martha Wells

Part of Wells’ Murderbot series, Network Effect continues the story of a rogue security cyborg as it navigates insidious corporate threats and, even more challenging, relationships with friendly humans and AI. In Network Effect, Murderbot is reunited with an old friend as they attempt to rescue some of their humans from a mind-controlling alien contagion and its minions. This is the first novel-length entry in the series; previous Murderbot novellas have won multiple Hugos (Wells actually declined the nomination for the third and fourth novella), and the series is also up for the Best Series Hugo this year. Prior to Murderbot, Wells was most known for her intricate, sprawling Raksura fantasy series.

The most eloquent review of this series I can give mostly involves banging on a table and chanting “Murderbot!” To expand on that slightly: Wells uses simple plots and an almost off-the-shelf universe as a backdrop to an astonishing narrator. Murderbot is a cynical, misanthropic creature, made remarkably compelling: a potent and relatable figure for any number of outsiders. Much of the real story is its exploration of its own preferences and boundaries, and its conspicuously and winsomely artificial attempts at understanding human behavior. Plus, these books have loads of action-movie violence, and are really quite funny—Murderbot’s acerbically ironic, parenthetical commentary is the kind of thing that could easily turn obnoxious, but it stays consistently charming and entertaining. Absent other context, I’d give low odds on Network Effect winning the Hugo—plotwise, it’s not at all standalone, and probably doesn’t work if voters haven’t read the earlier installments—but, given the series’ popularity and previous wins, I think this is a strong contender.

***

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Lady Astronaut series is an alternate history in which an asteroid strike in the 1950s, and accompanying climate change, prompt a race towards space colonization. The Relentless Moon departs from the series’ usual protagonist, instead following astronaut and politician Nicole Wargin as she deals with saboteurs and complications on both Earth and the nascent Moon colony. Like other works in the series, the novel addresses issues of mental health and racial and sexual discrimination. Kowal has previously won Hugos for two “Lady Astronaut” works, and the series as a whole is also up for a Best Series Hugo this year. She has been open about the collaborative nature of these novels’ creation, which involved much consultation with various experts, including actual astronauts. As a SFWA president, frequent con-organizer, and audiobook narrator for big names in the field, Kowal is very well-known in the scene. As noted in the introduction, she stepped in to chair this year’s Worldcon after a string of departures—her position is walled off from any Hugo decisions, but I wonder if she might have retracted her works if she hadn’t had to step in after voting was already open.

The Relentless Moon is good, but not doing much different from The Calculating Stars or The Fated Sky; shifting the narrative to Wargin does allow the larger political maneuverings to come more into focus. Something that’s changed for me in the eight or so years since Kowal’s series started is that I’ve soured on the “Earth is in trouble, time to leave!” narratives that SF frequently takes up. The core message is still one of inclusively addressing a collective threat, which is good and relevant stuff—but, when Kowal’s elite space forces are battling the foolish masses who want to spend resources on Earth instead, I can’t help thinking of Musk, Bezos et al nodding in agreement. Hard to figure a Hugo bet on this one: the series has been quite popular, but I’m not sure The Relentless Moon is going to beat out the other nominees this year.

***

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Strangely empty of memories, Piranesi is a man wandering a vast and mysterious House, chronicling his expeditions and introspections in a series of journals, and occasionally assisting “the Other”—the only other person Piranesi knows. Over time, Piranesi begins to learn more about his past, eventually learning of other people within—and perhaps outside—the House. Piranesi is Susanna Clarke’s first novel in 16 years; her debut, Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell, won the Hugo and was adapted for a BBC miniseries.

If someone jumped out of an alley and demanded I pick the best novel of this bunch, with no time to quibble about definitions of “best”, there is no way I’d pick anything other than Piranesi. Like the statues that line the House, this book feels carved out of marble: perfectly polished, full of compelling detail, intriguing and deceptive. With a strong narrative voice, dreamlike setting, and masterful unfolding of the plot, this was a delight to read. At less than 300 pages and not riding any serial connections or set-up, it’s also more approachable as a novel than anything else on the list this year. Piranesi feels rather more “arty” or “literary” than the usual Hugo fare, but I mean, Chabon took home a Hugo not that long ago. Hard to weigh its chances, but I wouldn’t count Piranesi out.

***

That’s it for the novels! Join me next week as I dive into novellas, and possibly novelettes and short stories, too. Hugo voting ends in only 3 weeks!


Originally from the Pennsylvania Appalachians, Jake Casella Brookins (he/him) now lives in Chicago. He is an SF reviewer and independent scholar, and runs the Positron site for speculative fiction book clubs and other literary events in the Chicagoland area. When not making coffee (professionally), he is probably riding his bike (amateurishly). Book ramblings and occasional bread experiments can be found on his blog.


Transparency Statement

This series was commissioned by an internal pitch among the ARB editors. Review copies were not arranged by ARB; access to some titles was provided by the Hugo Voter’s Packet, which the author had access to through their personal Worldcon membership.

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