For fans of fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction, the Hugo Awards shortlists offer an excellent way to find new favourite writers. There are award categories for novels (classed as stories of 40,000 words or more), novellas (17,500 to 40,000 words), novelettes (7,500 to 17,500 words), short stories, graphic novels, fanzines, and various other literary forms and roles. T. Kingfisher won the Best Novel category for her “dark fairytale” Nettle and Bone. And there’s another standout winner, not officially named: Tor Publishing, whose imprints published five of this year’s nominees in that category.
The shortlist this year was dominated by personal stories: a cosy fantasy, a murder mystery, the downfall of a secretive household, a domestic story from an otherwise epic trilogy, and an explicit exercise in pandemic escapism. Kingfisher’s winning book centres on one woman as she struggles through an indifferent and often cruel world. Here’s a brief overview of all the novels that made the final shortlist: the books that more than 1800 members of the World Science Fiction Society collectively declared the best sci-fi and fantasy novels of 2023.
Travis Baldree’s Legends and Lattes
Travis Baldree is the only debut author that made the shortlist for the title of ‘Best Novel’, and was also declared the winner in the ‘Best New Writer’ category. Legends and Lattes is a cosy low fantasy in a secondary world, in the cosmopolitan city of Thune, where magical inhabitants of all species are commonplace. We follow Viv, an ogre looking to change careers, as she opens a coffee shop and attempts to convert the denizens of Thune to the delights of coffee and cinnamon buns. Threats from personal vendettas fuel the tension, while a gentle romance and a cast of unlikely friends provide the real delight.
As Baldree told me, “I wrote this as someone who did the same job into their forties and decided they didn’t like it, moved to a new city, started a new career, and discovered a whole group of people.” This is a novel about ogres and succubae, but it is mostly about finding a balanced and meaningful life. And it’s funny. A warm hug of a book; must be read with baked goods. The audiobook is a particular treat, as Baldree—an audiobook narrator by trade—reads the book himself.
Legends and Lattes was acquired by Tor after initially being self-published, and it now has a sequel, Bookshops and Bonedust. (Seanan McGuire, when we spoke to her about the best urban fantasy books, confirmed that new book to be “delightful.”)
Mary Robinette Kawal’s The Spare Man
Mary Robinette Kawal won this award back in 2019 with The Calculating Stars, in which a meteorite strike forces colonisation of the moon and Mars. Here, in The Spare Man, space is already inhabited; the futurist technology of the spaceship setting is richly imagined, but it is a backdrop to the plot, which is entirely unconcerned with space exploration or species survival. Instead, The Spare Man is a murder mystery.
While some of the forward momentum derives from the need-to-know-who-dunnit, Kawal deftly holds readers’ interest through several mechanisms at once. The protagonist’s spouse is accused, building a powerful tension from the outset, and as the book unfolds the danger from both the true murderer and law enforcement mounts. This is intelligently crafted storytelling—as one might expect from one of the voices behind Writing Excuses, the writing podcast with a wealth of advice on plot and story drivers, which itself won a Hugo Award back in 2013 (for ‘Best Related Work’).
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
Previously, Moreno-Garcia riffed on Edgar Allen Poe; here she takes her inspiration from H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. At least, this is the most obvious inspiration. Moreno-Garcia herself has explained:
I was not just looking at Wells—I was also very interested in the work of Ignacio Manuel Altamirano and his 1869 novel Clemencia. […] Altamirano and other Latin American writers were trying to create a different kind of book at this time, something that blends European Romanticism with Latin American specificities. I was looking back at Altamirano as much as I was looking at Wells.
Moreno-Garcia’s novel The Daughter of Doctor Moreau takes place in Yaxaktun, Mexico, and follows two voices: Doctor Moreau’s daughter Carlota, and his mayordomo (household manager) Montgomery. The doctor is creating human-animal hybrids, claiming that they offer hope of medical advances—but he is also beholden to a patron, who hopes the experiments will ultimately provide cheap labour. The moral uncertainty is well-drawn, but takes a back seat to the human (or part-human) relationships. These feel real; there are no simplistic character choices made to serve romance or villainy, and the resulting relationships are unpredictable and compelling.
The story also gains verisimilitude from its historical setting, with fact and fiction deftly woven together. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau feels plausible, set alongside the complex politics of indentured and immigrant labour. Moreno-Garcia has said that she likes grounding her work in historical fact “because the truth can be surreal. You can’t quite believe the things you find in footnotes.”
Tamsyn Muir’s Nona the Ninth
Nona the Ninth is the third in Muir’s Locked Tomb series. Every installment so far has been nominated for a Hugo. Muir’s richly imaginative writing defies easy categorisation: of Gideon the Ninth, the Chicago Review of Books declared that “part of the delight of reading the novel is just how fearlessly it tosses together outlandish ideas with distinct elements from different genres. It’s a space opera about wizards; it shapes itself into cozy mystery; it slides into slasher-horror, then cuts its way free with musketeer-level swashbucklery.”
In Nona the Ninth, Muir steps seamlessly into more civilian, homely concerns. “Nona” has the body of Harrow, the titular character of the second book, and is suspected of having the mind of either Harrow or Gideon. Whoever she is, she is now amnesiac, and has a childlike mind in her older body. Forces far greater than Nona want her to be a weapon: she wants to play with a six-legged dog called Noodle. Family arguments and school days mix with necromancers and zombies, and with the potentially planet-destroying stakes that quite literally loom overhead.
The result, writes Paste Magazine, is that Muir’s ‘hilarious prose is full of dark subject matter… but tons of heart’. The terrifying stakes are part of child-like Nona’s normal world, and the close third-person voice relays them with a chilling innocence.
John Scalzi’s The Kaiju Preservation Society
Previous Hugo Award-winner (Redshirts, 2013) Scalzi returns with a sci-fi caper that begins in New York in the early days of the pandemic. The novel is, gleefully and explicitly, pandemic escapism – the book that Scalzi wrote when producing his intended brooding epic novel proved impossible. As Scalzi says in the author’s note: “It’s a pop song. It’s meant to be light and catchy, with three minutes of hooks and choruses for you to sing along with, and then you’re done and you go on with your day, hopefully with a smile on your face.”
Right before the pandemic, Jamie Gray loses his job. From this starting point, Scalzi deftly escalates the gravity of Gray’s situation, so that by the time he is offered a vague but potentially dangerous job with a highly secretive organisation, we are willing him to take it. This sets the stage for his induction into the Kaiju Preservation Society – the body responsible for researching the monstrous inhabitants of another dimension. And, importantly, ensuring that they stay in that other dimension. A very funny and enjoyable caper ensues.
Notably, no argument needs to be made here for an anti-extractive or environmentally cautious approach to the alien world. The good guys adopt this position as default; the bad guys are the bad guys precisely because they don’t, and the stupidity of this is treated as self-evident. The earlier arguments of writers like Ursula Le Guin have set the moral parameters.
And the winner: T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone
Ursula Vernon—writing under her pen name T. Kingfisher—scooped the title of ‘Best Novel’ for the first time this year, but has previously won awards in the Graphic Story, Short Story, Novelette, and Series categories.
Nettle and Bone follows Marra, the third and least important princess of a small kingdom, who is sent to a convent following her sister’s marriage to a powerful prince—he doesn’t want her producing any rivals to the throne. The tone is set: this man is trouble. When Marra understands just how much trouble, and how dire her sister’s situation is, she sets out to enforce justice. The journey is packed full of familiar motifs. She must accomplish three impossible tasks, visit a goblin market, encounter a necromancer-witch and a fairy godmother, and descend into labyrinthine tombs. Between these set-pieces and archetypal characters, we find a dazzling array of detail: a demon that is also, emphatically, a chicken; a woman voluntarily controlled by a horrifying wooden child; a crushing wheel of dead souls…
This is fairytale fantasy. The magic is chilling and under-explained, considered supernatural even within the uncanny world of the book. And, as in fairy tales, that world is not universally good or kind. As the Chicago Review of Books has observed, Kingfisher’s novels “stand out from the particular trend in the speculative publishing industry to push for narratives that are more optimistic, agentive, and hopeful.” But Nettle and Bone is also very funny; as noted in Strange Horizons, Kingfisher “understands that humour and horror are twins.” Kingfisher herself has written of the need for humour and hope in heavy themes: “If a book can make you feel better and stronger and wiser, instead of paralyzed, then you can do something with that.”
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