Saturday, June 27, 2015

Quick review of Ancillary Sword, plus my best novel vote

I kicked off my reading of the 2015 Hugo nominees with the biggest but also potentially the most pleasurable job - the novels. See here for some thoughts on an overall approach to reviewing the Hugo's in light of this year's controversy.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie is the final book on the shortlist for the Best Novel Hugo and was not on a voting slate. Having read it at the tail end of last year, and still having a lot of ground to cover reading the Hugo nominees, I don't propose to review it in full here. 

What I will say is that I enjoyed it a great deal, although it lacked the shock of the sorta new that it's prequel Ancillary Justice had, as well as its driving heartbreak-n-revenge narrative.

Where Ancillary Sword does build on its sequel is in its detailed, Austen-like presentation of ritual and convention in its gender-blind far future. Take that away, and what you've got is a superior take on the traditional new starship captain wins round crew narrative.

Old wine, new bottles: some thoughts on the short-list

For me, none of the novels on the shortlist present the kind of leap forward that would supercede all other considerations. Best I can tell, there's no equivalent of Neuromancer here. 

With the exception of The Three Body Problem, all of the nominees are ploughing well-worn furrows - revisionist or not - in the usual sub-genres of space opera, high fantasy and urban fantasy. And Body's novelty lies more in its new arrangement of well-worn SF parts to ask some big questions, rather than in the parts themselves. 

Furthermore, while I don't always look for literary or sociological experimentation in my genre reading, I do like it when I see it. Yet only Ancillary Sword and Body really make small gestures in this direction, the one repeating the pronoun-blending and many-bodies-one-mind tricks of its predecessor, the other including some neat virtual reality sequences with a deeper purpose.

None of this is to conclude that these books aren't up to scratch. I merely point out that several of the things I hope for in my genre reading are to some extent absent and that this is therefore a good shortlist rather than a great one. 

But what about story, Tim? What about character? 

Although there is a great deal of craft on display - even from my least favourite entry - none of the contenders present such a startling feat of storytelling that they pull strongly ahead of the pack. Indeed, that's where The Three Body Problem to some extent squanders its earlier advantage.

A brief geek-out about voting systems

The Hugo voting system is similar to the one used for the mayoral elections in London and elsewhere. You have to express a first preference for a winner - but you can also express a second, third, fourth and fifth preference if you so choose.

Where it gets interesting is that you can also rank a sixth option - No Award - if you feel that some or none of the shortlist deserves a Hugo. Some people have argued that the best response to the gaming of the nominations process by the voting slates is to put No Award above everything on those slates.

Personally, I'm using No Award as a system of quality control, slate or no slate. If I rank something below it or don't cast a vote for it at all, it doesn't necessarily mean that I think it's a bad piece of work. I just don't consider it good enough for a Hugo. And as I said at the start of these reviews, I want to read everything I can before reaching a decision.

My vote for Best Novel

Since my vote is going to be a finely balanced judgement between front-runners rather than an emphatic yes, I'm glad of the opportunity to rank the nominees. So here we go...

1. The Goblin Emperor
2. The Three Body Problem
3. Ancillary Sword
4. Skin Game

Abstention, but nevertheless a tip of the hat - The Dark Between The Stars

Allocating first and second place was very close, but ultimately I felt that The Goblin Emperor was the more complete package - very well written, with a great deal of psychological and social depth, and bringing unexpected new life to the high fantasy rites of passage novel. 

Much, I might add, to my own surprise.


Eagle eyes will note I have ended up ranking the two entries from the voting slates behind the rest. This is purely because I not only enjoyed the top three more, I felt they were better books. However, I do think Skin Game is a perfectly respectable nominee and isn't miles behind the medal positions as I conceive it. 

I am still imagining an alternate timeline where a signal-boosting campaign to 'get Harry Dresden a Hugo' would have raised some interesting points about the value of more traditional genre fiction, without the need for the slates or the resulting mess.

But I also find myself asking that, given that to my mind The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Sword are examples of pretty traditional genre fiction, what exactly the line being drawn by the slate proponents is?.

But, I still have many more categories to go. So onwards it is - there'll be plenty of time for more reflection on these questions and others as we proceed.


  1. The nominee pool does seem to be a little shallow. A lot of the stuff is easy reading stuff, Dresden is the Dirk Pitt pf the fantasy world, enjoyable, but not really what i would consider Hugo worthy stuff.

  2. The Hugo's tend to lean populist to some extent, because both the nomination and voting process are open to anyone who buys a supporting membership for the Worldcon. Though as we've seen this year, the nomination stage can be gamed by a relatively small group of voters.

    But on the other hand, that's populist in genre terms. A look at the nominees for Best Novel since the turn of the millennium suggests a broad spectrum from YA fantasy (Harry Potter) to your Greg Bears and Vernor Vinges on the hard-ish wing of SF.

    I will be interested to see what novels were nominated, but were in the top 15 rather than the top 5 - this data gets released after the Hugo Awards for people to geek out about. Were there some overlooked gems just below the cut-off point?

    In Jim Butcher's defence, my understanding is that the Harry Dresden books have gotten more sophisticated over the course of the series.

  3. List of Hugo Awards for best novel plus nominees -