In recent years, I’ve read all novels nominated for the Hugo Award as a way to explore new authors and keep up-to-date on what’s going on in speculative fiction. The 2023 award has not been determined yet, but as the observant reader might have noticed, the title says 2022, not 2023. This is because while I read all the nominees last year, I did not write about them. This article is an attempt to rectify that!
Here are the 2022 nominees in random order:
- Arkady Martine – A Desolation Called Peace
- Shelley Parker-Chan – She Who Became the Sun
- Ryka Aoki – Light From Uncommon Stars
- Becky Chambers – The Galaxy, and the Ground Within
- Andy Weir – Project Hail Mary
- P. Djèlí Clark – A Master of Djinn
Like last time, I have reviewed each book below, with the lowest rating first and my personal pick for the award last. Finally, I offer some general thoughts and reflections about this year’s batch.
6. Andy Weir – Project Hail Mary
Andy Weir seems to divide readers into two camps: one who says he’s a great author, knows his stuff and puts the science back into science fiction, and one who says he’s a mediocre author who mostly got lucky with The Martian. I’m not in either camp, because I have only read Project Hail Mary, even though I have watched the film version of The Martian. I have also seen many horrible, and quite credible, reviews of his novel Artemis, and I would probably not have read Project Hail Mary if it hadn’t been nominated for a Hugo.
The premise of Project Hail Mary is classic, so classic that I wrote a role-playing game scenario with the same basic idea when I was sixteen (this is not a good sign, by the way). The protagonist wakes up on a spaceship with two dead crew mates and has no memories of who he is, who they are and why he’s here. He needs to use his superpowers Logic Thinking (TM) and Scientific Reasoning (r) to figure out his mission and succeed.
I won’t summarise the plot beyond that, because it isn’t very interesting. While I haven’t read The Martian, I assume that the problem-solving bits are similar, so if that gets your heart racing, you will probably like this novel too. You should look elsewhere if you’re after anything else, such as an intriguing plot, fascinating characters or inspiring language. To be brutally honest, this book feels like a teenage boy wrote it without much perspective. It might have been cool if it was written in the 1980s, but this is the 2020s and I expect more.
To bring up one particular example, which also connects with another nominee further down, is how he deals with alien language. Slight spoiler here, but our hero encounters an intelligent space alien, and the way this interaction plays out makes the author look like a caricature of an engineer who thinks that a Fourier transform and some frequency analysis is all you need to master a language.
I could rant about this a lot more, but since other people have already done that, I’ll keep it brief. Here’s a good quote: “I pull the jumpsuit on. I’ve decided today is the day. After a week of honing our language skills, Rocky and I are ready to start having real conversations. I can even understand him without having to look at the translation about a third of the time now.” Wait, what, really? I mean, that would be impressive if the other guy was a human speaking Spanish, but now it’s a five-limbed spider creature that communicates with sonar. A bit later, the protagonist can convey the meaning behind the English word “grace” to the space alien.
Okay, I’m a foreign-language person, but this heavy focus on engineering and hard science while being completely ignorant about what makes sense in other areas is annoying. I assume this is done for dramatic effect, but it seems weird to care a lot about realism in one area while completely ignoring it in another. Compare this to how communication with aliens is dealt with in A Desolation Called Peace, which is both more realistic and ten times more interesting (the communication-with-aliens bit, not the novel itself).
Anyway, to round this review off, I found Project Hail Mary moderately interesting and disappointing. Parts of the plot were interesting, but others were not (especially not the flashbacks to before the mission was launched). Overall, this felt like science fiction from at least a generation ago and not in a good way. It’s an average engineering adventure in space.
5. Becky Chambers – The Galaxy, and the Ground Within
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within tells the story of a number of people who find themselves trapped in a tiny settlement on a remote planet only noteworthy because of its strategic location next to a transport hub. As all the satellites in orbit around the planet experience a technical failure, the protagonists are isolated from the rest of the galaxy and only have each other for company.
You might have expected an extra sentence there, something to build up suspense for what might drive the plot forward, but no, the novel is about these strangers interacting with each other while they’re cut off from the rest of the galaxy for a few days.
The book is meant to be interesting because of the unique characters, their different cultural backgrounds (they are from completely different species) and how they navigate the minefield of inter-species communication. The plot is almost non-existent, although there is some minor suspense towards the end.
The problem for me is that the characters and the interactions between them are not interesting enough to carry the novel. As someone who’s quite interested in intercultural communication, it’s not for a lack of interest in the themes discussed that I didn’t like this book, I just fail to see why people seem to like this book so much. I also didn’t like the feel-good nature of the novel, where everything is a little bit too cute and where all problems can be solved if you’re just open-minded about them.
I liked Becky Chambers’s earlier novels a lot. The first book in her Wayfarer Series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, was great, and the sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit was good, although not as good. Unfortunately, the next two books confirm the downward spiral. I didn’t find Record of a Spaceborn Few too interesting, and the nominee for the 2022 Hugo Award, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within didn’t impress either.
4. Arkady Martine – A Desolation Called Peace
I reviewed the first book in this series, A Memory Called Empire, last time, but to summarise briefly, it looked awesome from a distance but turned out to be merely good. I won’t summarise the plot of the follow-up A Desolation Called Peace, because I honestly don’t remember much of it, except that it was disappointingly predictable. After reading about one-fifth of the book, I thought “I hope it won’t develop as I think it will, because that would be too predictable”, and then it did exactly that.
This novel is not bad, so if you liked A Memory Called Empire (which is still an awesome title), you should probably read this one too. There are some nice bits, such as communication with the aliens (in contrast with Project Hail Mary above). However, I only somewhat liked the first novel, and I’m very sensitive to “more of the same” and “too predictable”, especially if served in combination, so I can’t give A Desolation Called Peace a passing grade.
3. Ryka Aoki – Light From Uncommon Stars
This book is hard to introduce without any spoilers, but I’ll limit myself to things that are revealed early on to set the stage, but if you want to be able to read it without any expectations whatsoever (like I did), you should skip the rest of this review.
Light From Uncommon Stars weaves together three strands that usually would belong in different books, and these books might even be put on different shelves in your local library. First, we have Satomi, the world’s best violin teacher, who has a legendary ability to turn ambitious, young violinists into shining stars that later meet tragic ends. She’s able to do this because of a deal she has struck with a demon, where the soul of each violinist is sent to hell in exchange for fame and stardom.
Satomi needs to send seven souls to hell and thinks she’s found the seventh soul in the second main character, Katrina Nguyen, a transgender teenager trying to find her place in the world. She has left home with little more than her beloved violin, and Satomi finds her and takes her in.
Here’s where a more sensible author would have stopped as these two threads are already enough to create an interesting story, but no. The third thread focuses on space aliens running a doughnut shop that Satomi frequents and where she befriends the doughnut shop owner/spaceship captain Lan Tran, fleeing from war and plague.
To be honest, I didn’t like this book much when I first read it. I think there are some interesting aspects, especially regarding the music, Satomi’s deal with hell, and the interaction with Katrina, but there are also other aspects I don’t like so much. The space alien thread works better than it should, but I can’t help thinking that it feels tacked on. I also think the ending is a little bit too rosy to be interesting, making the whole book read like a thinly-veiled pep talk for people who don’t fit in. Don’t get me wrong, that’s nice, pep talks are needed sometimes, but they don’t make great novels.
That being said, the year since I finished the book has improved my opinion of it. I remember much more of this book than some of the others reviewed here, and the good things mentioned above stand out while the less interesting things are washed away. I probably wouldn’t have put this book as high on my list if I had reviewed it right after finishing it, but I think it does deserve third place, and I understand that some rank it even higher!
2. P. Djèlí Clark – A Master of Djinn
What would the world be like if the magic of the djinn had returned to the world and made Egypt a world power in the early 20th century? That’s what P. Djèlí Clark explores in A Master of Djinn, a steampunk novel full of mystery, action and adventure.
The story focuses on the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, where agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi tries to find out who murdered a group of followers of the legendary al-Jahiz, the Sudanese mystic who brought back the djinn some fifty years ago.
A Master of Djinn has several things going for it. I like the setting and how it’s introduced to the reader, along with most of the characters that populate this alternative version of Cairo. The author does a good job of making the setting come alive and feel real, and the setting itself is interesting enough to carry the book’s first part.
My only complaint is that I don’t find the sum total of characters, plot and setting interesting enough to carry the book to the end. If you’re after a fast-paced action/mystery novel in a cool setting, you’ll probably like A Master of Djinn. I did like it, but I can’t help feeling that something is missing and that the novel could have been even better.
1. Shelley Parker-Chan – She Who Became the Sun
Among all the nominees for the Hugo Award that I’ve read, not just this year but in total, very few are set in a historical context. Naturally, there needs to be some kind of speculative twist, such as the story being framed by a time-travel status (Connie Willis, for example), or a fantastic element, otherwise they wouldn’t be eligible for the award. She Who Became the Sun is an example of a historical novel with a fantastic element, albeit one so weak that it often does not feel like fantasy at all. And this is a good thing.
There are many good things about this novel, and I struggle to identify any serious flaws. The story is a re-imagination of the events leading up to the rise of the Ming dynasty in the 14th century. The setting is either historically accurate or at least believable to casual readers, with only one fantastic element: The Mandate of Heaven (a political doctrine in ancient China where the mandate to rule is granted by heaven to a virtuoso ruler ) is a literal presence in the world, shaped like a flame.
The story starts with a fortune teller divining the future of two peasant siblings: a boy and a girl. The boy is told he will achieve greatness, but nothing will become of the girl. Soon after, bandits kill their father, and the boy simply gives in, withers away and dies, but the girl fights on, borrowing the name of her dead brother, Zhu Chongba, and pretends to be him. Without going into too much detail to avoid spoiling the story, she then takes refuge in a monastery, working her way up through the hierarchy and onward, eventually aiming for the imperial throne, all the while maintaining her disguise.
This sets up one of the main themes in the novel. On the one hand, Zhu thinks that as long as she stays within the role she has assumed and acts like her brother might have, she will be able to achieve the greatness that ought to have been his, but if she deviates from this path to do what she herself desires, heaven might take notice and revoke the good fortune bestowed on her brother.
As mentioned above, I think this novel has many merits and few severe flaws. It’s competently written with a decent plot, focusing on interesting themes. The pacing is appropriate for the story and the narration doesn’t dwell where it doesn’t need to. A side effect of this is that many of the characters that aren’t Zhu are somewhat sketchy and that some events are glossed over, but I think the book is roughly as long as it should be (416 pages). Considering this is the author’s debut novel, I’m quite impressed!
Thoughts and reflections
Writing about these novels a year after I read them was an interesting experience. I did take simple notes after finishing some of them, and in most cases, I haven’t changed my mind too much, except for Light From Uncommon Stars, which I like more in hindsight than when I read it. It’s also interesting that things that stand out a year might not be the same as what I thought of right after finishing the book.
On average, I think the 2022 batch of Hugo nominees was average or maybe a notch above average. The bad books were not truly awful, but the good books were not brilliant either, a clear contrast with the year before, when the good books were excellent and the bad ones were terrible, even though my average rating might have been the same.
So, did the right book win? Here’s the final result (complete record available here):
- A Desolation Called Peace
- The Galaxy, and the Ground Within
- Light From Uncommon Stars
- A Master of Djinn
- Project Hail Mary
- She Who Became the Sun
Last year, I mostly agreed with the final result and only needed to swap two books to get a ranking I was okay with. This time, an inverse list would have been better than the actual one. The only novels that are roughly where they “should” be are Light From Uncommon Stars and Project Hail Mary.
I’ve read some reviews of the books I liked, but others did not (such as She Who Became the Sun), and those that I didn’t like, but others did (such as A Desolation Called Peace) to try to understand the discrepancy, but the only thing I can come up with is that I like novels that are not like other novels and that are not too predictable. I want to like A Desolation Called Peace, but I can’t like a sequel to a novel I also wanted to like but failed to, especially not when the plot is even more predictable than in the first one.
Now that I’ve finally reviewed all the nominees from 2022, it’s time to turn to 2023. I just finished Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, which was the last one in that batch, so expect another article about Hugo Award nominees shortly!