I just realized today that I've read all the nominees! Woohoo!
Well, let's have a look, in no particular order.
Mira Grant's Blackout came out early last year, and I read it on the spot. It's number three of her "Newsflesh" series, an innovative and fun zombie thriller that follows the lives of a team of professional bloggers. In book three, a number of reveals have already happened, and the one that remains is unmasking the conspiracy that has been driving the zombie infestations. The heroes bring it off, although they can't avoid a tragic death.
John Scalzi's Redshirts is a fantasy about getting writers of TV shows to give their characters a bit more thought. The title makes fun of the observation that many Star Trek fans have made that characters who join the captain on a mission, but who wear a red shirt, have a terrible life expectancy. Well, Ensign Dahl is quickly clued in how to avoid falling prey to bad writing, but tragedy still strikes. Dahl contrives to journey to the Real Worldtm, where he and his friends confront the people responsible for their meaningless lives.Lois McMaster Bujold's latest entry Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is another addition to her "Vorkosigan Saga." It concerns Captain Ivan Vorpatril, an easygoing fellow her fans met earlier in A Civil Campaign, who once again gets unwillingly dragged into an adventure by Byerly Vorrutyer, whom fans also met in the earlier book. Ivan is the sort of guy all guys wish they could be - competent, cool under pressure, able to see through mind bending plots - and apparently is being shoved into a bit of a screwball romantic comedy in this case. There's some danger to life and limb, especially towards the end, but as long as we get the requisite happy ending, it's all cool.
Kim Stanley Robinson's decidedly hard SF entry 2312, set, obviously, 300 years in the future follows a handful of characters around the solar system, a place that's at the same time exotic and familiar, well settled and filled with intrigue. The story starts with a death, and intimations are that the death wasn't entirely natural. When that event is quickly followed by what appears to be a sophisticated terrorist attack, our characters head off in various directions with varying levels of purposefulness to try and nab the bad guys.
And, finally, there's Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, a Dungeons and Dragon-esque adventure in the world of One-thousand-and-one Arabian Nights. Wizard Adoulla, with the help of a holy fighter and a shapeshifting desert girl, faces down an evil wizard who has designs on the khalif's throne. The story has a number of battles and finishes with a battle royal at the khalif's palace.
I had a soft spot for Blackout. The second book in that series, Deadline concerned itself with several interesting philosophical questions, and I thought Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) just rocked the zombie world with a refreshing take on the science of becoming a zombie, and on the politics that might arise in such a world. Sadly, her conspiracy driven finale fell short of my expectations. Conspiracies are difficult things to write well, and I got the distinct impression that she was letting herself get sloppy, when compared to the tight plotting of the first two novels. Still, it was an excellent book.
John Scalzi writes some cracking good yarns, and Redshirts was a fun read, as well, but it was more a fannish love letter to Star Trek and the like than it was what I would think of as a serious SF&F story. Yes, the story had to be written, and, yes, I'm glad I read it. I compare it favorably with many stories. But because it's mostly an in-joke with some thinly disguised advice to writers, I think it falls short of my admittedly idiosyncratic requirements for a Hugo nominee. That it got nominated is more due to the love fans have for Scalzi the author, I think, than for the quality of this book.
Lois McMaster Bujold's "Vorkosigan" series has such a strong following, that she pretty much only has to publish another book in the series, and her fans will push her into the short list. That's not a slam, but it means that she's had some fairly weak offerings get nominated, like her novel Cryoburn, which I reviewed a few years ago. Happily, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is a much stronger book than Cryoburn, though setting is still a bit weak, giving us generic city scapes with only a little better sense of place than she managed in the earlier book. But the characters are more fleshed out, and even the somewhat one-sided female characters she introduces are given more stage time. Still, this book falls short for me.
I reviewed Saladin Ahmed's Kingdom of the Crescent Moon earlier. When I describe it as a Dungeons and Dragon-esque adventure, I don't mean it as a slam, but the tropes are transparent enough that anyone familiar with the game will recognize it. What made me happy about the story is that here I had a sword and sorcery fantasy that was not set in a Euro-centric medieval world. We need more like that, and I'd be happy to see this book win for that reason.
However, Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 is a true tour-de-force. This is a book with well thought out and well fleshed out characters. It's got plotting, oh heavens it's got plotting. It's got setting, yessir, complete with surfing the frickin' rings of Saturn. And it's hard SF. OK, I'm told the market for hard SF is a fraction of the market for fantasy. That only makes me love this book more: Robinson has not knocked off just another copy of write-by-the-numbers novel. I know all authors pour a little bit of their very soul into their books, but with this book, it shows. Yes, 2312 also won the Nebula this year, but, hell, it deserved it.