So close! These books were all nominated but failed to win the Hugo.
Beginning in 1996, the World Science Fiction Society created the concept of “Retro-Hugos,” in which the Hugo award could be retroactively awarded for 50, 75, or 100 years prior. In 2001, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was nominated (for the year 1951), but lost out to Robert A. Heinlein’s The Farmer in the Sky.
The Ill-Made Knight is another example of a Retro-Hugo, and was nominated in 2019 (for the year 1941), but lost out to A. E. van Vogt’s Slan.
Lancelot, despite being the bravest of the knights, is ugly, and ape-like, so that he calls himself the Chevalier mal fet—“The Ill-Made Knight.” As a child, Lancelot loved King Arthur and spent his entire childhood training to be a knight of the round table. When he arrives and becomes one of Arthur’s knights, he also becomes the king’s close friend. This causes some tension, as he is jealous of Arthur’s new wife Guinevere. In order to please her husband, Guinevere tries to befriend Lancelot and the two eventually fall in love. T.H. White’s version of the tale elaborates greatly on the passionate love of Lancelot and Guinevere. Suspense is provided by the tension between Lancelot’s friendship for King Arthur and his love for and affair with the queen.
I devoured all the Dragonriders of Pern books I could get as a kid. The White Dragon was nominated bin 1979 but lost out to Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake.
Never in the history of Pern has there been a dragon like Ruth. Mocked by other dragons for his small size and pure white color, Ruth is smart, brave, and loyal—qualities that he shares with his rider, the young Lord Jaxom. Unfortunately, Jaxom is also looked down upon by his fellow lords, and by other riders as well. His dreams of joining the dragonriders in defending Pern are dismissed. What else can Jaxom and Ruth do but strike out on their own, pursuing in secret all they are denied? But in doing so, the two friends will find themselves facing a desperate choice—one that will push their bond to the breaking point… and threaten the future of Pern itself.
Middlegame was nominated in 2020, but lost out to Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire.
Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.
Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.
Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realize it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.
Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.
Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.
“This is a fascinating novel by an author of consummate skill.”
―Publishers Weekly, starred review
Gideon the Ninth was also nominated in 2020 in the hotly contested Lesbian Necromancers Explore A Haunted Gothic Palace In Space category.
The Emperor needs necromancers.
The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.
Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead nonsense.
Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as arcane revenants. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.
Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.
Of course, some things are better left dead.
“Deft, tense and atmospheric, compellingly immersive and wildly original.”
—The New York Times
The Goblin Emperor was nominated in 2015, but understandably lost to the excellent The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu.
The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.
Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.
Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend . . . and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne–or his life.
“Addison has built a completely believable world, with its own language, customs, and history, but there are tantalizingly familiar elements.”
Perdido Street Station was nominated in 2002, but lost to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
This book borrows from steampunk, cyberpunk, fantasy, and a few other genres that couldn’t run away fast enough. Its worldbuilding is impressively imaginative, though the prose can be a little overwrought and its characters aren’t as believable as the city they inhabit.
Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores. In New Crobuzon, the unsavory deal is stranger to no one—not even to Isaac, a brilliant scientist with a penchant for Crisis Theory.
“Miéville’s canvas is so breathtakingly broad that the details of individual subplots and characters sometime lose their definition. But it is also generous enough to accommodate large dollops of aesthetics, scientific discussion and quest fantasy in an impressive and ultimately pleasing epic.”
The Aeronaut’s Windlass was nominated in 2016 (a great year for SFF) but was edged out by N. K. Jemisin’s blockbuster The Fifth Season.
Since time immemorial, the Spires have sheltered humanity. Within their halls, the ruling aristocratic houses develop scientific marvels, foster trade alliances, and maintain fleets of airships to keep the peace.
Captain Grimm commands the merchant ship Predator. Loyal to Spire Albion, he has taken their side in the cold war with Spire Aurora, disrupting the enemy’s shipping lines by attacking their cargo vessels. But when the Predator is damaged in combat, Grimm joins a team of Albion agents on a vital mission in exchange for fully restoring his ship.
And as Grimm undertakes this task, he learns that the conflict between the Spires is merely a premonition of things to come. Humanity’s ancient enemy, silent for more than ten thousand years, has begun to stir once more. And death will follow in its wake…
“Butcher opens the imaginative Cinder Spires series with this sweeping fantastical epic…[It’s] a fascinating, adventurous, and intricate story. Butcher brings a fresh and exciting perspective to secondary-world steampunk, giving the reader a thrilling ride.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
All the Birds in the Sky was edged out in 2017 by N. K. Jemisin and her second entry in the Broken Earth series, The Obelisk Gate.
Written by the editor-in-chief of io9.com, All the Birds in the Sky defies easy classification. It’s a combination of fantasy, sci-fi, and dark humor.
Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during middle school. The development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine certainly complicated matters.
But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them.
“Into each generation of science fiction/fantasydom a master absurdist must fall, and it’s quite possible that with All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders has established herself as the one for the Millennials… As hopeful as it is hilarious, and highly recommended.”
—The New York Times Book Review
Uprooted was also nudged out of the winner’s circle in 2016 by N. K. Jemisin’s blockbuster The Fifth Season.
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests, and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
“Breathtaking… a tale that is both elegantly grand and earthily humble, familiar as a Grimm fairy tale yet fresh, original, and totally irresistible.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This, my favorite Harry Potter book, was beaten by Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky.
N. K. Jemisin, oddly not winning a Hugo, was beaten by Connie Willis’s Blackout in 2011.
Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. When her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.
“Multifaceted characters struggle with their individual burdens and desires, creating a complex, edge-of-your-seat story with plenty of funny, scary, and bittersweet twists.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review