I’ve got my head in the Nebulas: Nebula Award for Best Novel 2024

In March, finalists were released for the 59th Nebula Awards, quickly followed by awards from British Science Fiction Association (BSFA), kicking off an exciting season of sci-fi and fantasy awards. Winners of the Nebulas will be announced at the Nebula Conference in California, 8-9 June.

I've been reading the shortlist for Best Novel. These are diverse offerings, characteristic of the Nebulas where science fiction, horror and fantasy genres are all judged together.

The Saint of Bright Doors

...Fetter discovers that gravity finds him slippery, as if oiled. It is easy to fall upward... He finds a terror in his yearning for the open sky, the call of falling up and up forever. Looking up makes him feel like he's standing on the edge of a precipice, and the urge to throw himself away is immense. 

This is an amazing first book. The Saint of Bright Doors will pull you in like a portal full of monsters. With colourful imagery, highly original world-building and a relatable protagonist, author Vajra Chandrasekera imagines what it means to have godlike qualities.

Fetter is one of the unchosen: demigods once destined for greatness then discarded for one reason or the other. Fetter's not bitter, he's just trying to keep his feet on the ground (literally). HIs mother's bitter though and raises Fetter to assassinate his estranged father - a kind of messiah, able to reshape the land and its history. When he reaches adulthood, Fetter escapes to the big city of Luriat. But his destiny isn't done with him.

Luriat is a clash of modern and ancient architecture, authoritarianism and socialism: a dystopian city ruled by a hard hand with a penchant for executions. Doors in Luriat, if left shut, transform into portals. What's on the other side, besides a cold, bitter-smelling wind? Intrigued, Fetter, joins a team studying them. When he observes a devil coming through, he's not willing to acknowledge that he can see them - especially to the devils.

Chandasekera, who hails from Sri Lanka, is one to watch. His philosophy runs deep, with dualisms of identity/colonisation, classism/segregation, social distancing/quarantine, detention/incarceration, the Pathed/unPathed, the weighted/light, refugees/child soldiers, histories lost and peoples manipulated by religion, authoritarian control, or their parents.

There are two levels to every utterance. There is surface, and then there is depth. (The Perfect and Kind). Status is a rainbow on a proud soap bubble, inflated to its uppermost.

The Water Outlaws

He was power. She was nothing more than a mouse, one to be batted about and then discarded.

Opening with a fight scene, S.L. Huang writes an action-filled tale with women as lead protagonists; a 'genderspun' retelling of the Chinese classic, Water Margin (Shui hu zhuan).

Lin Chong is the Master Arms Instructor for the Imperial Guard in the City of Bianliang, seat of the Empire of Song. Her best friend, wealthy and high-born Lu Junyi is ambitious for women to assert even more power in this already quite modern city, to the point of pushing men from their pedestals of power.

Providing comic relief is the unruly Lu Da, the 'Flower Monk' - a big drinker who loves fighting and feasting. She possesses great stature and girth, and a magical god's tooth.

I loved Sister Lin the moment I met her...she's so impressive...If it turned out her farts stank of perfume I wouldn't even blink once.

When Lin Chong is deposed from her lofty position after rejecting the advances of corrupt Grand Master Gao Qiu (by punching him on the nose), she's marched off to a work camp. With her life in danger, she's assisted by the bandits of Liangshan, otherwise known as the Water Outlaws.  

There are gender fluid characters in this story, people called 'sixteen winds' who dress as men or women, according to choice, not gender. In this way Huang explores identity and the struggle of women to be recognised for their achievements and thinking, instead of held back by their sex.

Almost like a movie, this story is a visual feast, full of bruising action, lyrical language and humour - with women dishing out and receiving the punishment.

Small bites must be taken carefully, lest the whole meal be snatched away. A tidal wave spread over many generations becomes a gentle flow, and either one gets to the end.

Translation State

Belonging isn't about whether your genes match. Family isn't about that.

The lauded Ann Leckie imagines a future when humans have taken their place among nations of the universe: inhabiting many planets. 

Translation State is a unique book with some weirdly visceral parts to it - as you might expect from a story about aliens. Two of the three points of view are alien characters, Qven and Reet, with an urge not only to 'match' with their peers, melting stickily into one shared being, but also in opening them up, looking inside them - and eating them.

The other character, Enae, is an inexperienced diplomat and insular human who prefers tea and biscuits.

There are strong themes here about identity and belonging, while Leckie employs non-binary personal pronouns such as sie, hir, e, er, and em.  

Disinherited by hir aunt, who has sold the family name to another, Enea is offered a mission off-world to find a missing translator. Qven is a Presger, raised to be a Presger/Human translator: a dangerous race to negotiate with. Spooked by the prospect of being matched and eaten by a senior member of his 'clade', they long to escape. Reet is adopted and finds, although he is part human, he might be related to the ancient and extinct Presger family of Schan, believed to have been wiped out.

The paths of these characters, all unlikely heroes, are destined to converge at a conclave to discuss the future of a treaty between humans and the Presger; their decisions affecting the future of all. Who is the missing translator, and what will Enae do with this information? Will sie even live long enough to find out?

The Terraformers

...the basalt walls gleamed with blue-green light from bioluminescent plants growing out of the ceiling, and the floor was softened with a thin layer of foam that made it easier for the humans and moose to find their footing. ...they came to a halt at the mouth of a wide lava tube. Ferns and rubber trees grew in full sun beneath an irregularly shaped skylight...sealed with a one-way camouflage filter that shimmered faintly.

Annalee Newitz writes inspiring science fiction and nonfiction looking at how technology affects culture. 

The Terraformers is a story of planet-forming for profit and pushback against this ethos from workers in the environment. Beings created to 'keep the balance' of ecosystems, the inhabitants of Spider City and the Environmental Rescue Team (ERT), fight to uphold this philosophy. The planet's owners, Verdance, violate the concept of balance once the planet is ready to be sold for habitation - a process that takes thousands of years. Is this a vision of eco wars in our future? 

The Terraformers is cleverly conceived with excellent future science, clever world building, spectacularly visual imagery and engaging characters that advance through thousands of years of developing the planet Sask-E (or Sasky as the locals call it). Everything is 'grown' - buildings are made with live trellises, and there's even a living train! 

There's so much to this story: bots and animals 'decanted' with the ability to vocalise, discriminated into places in society by intelligence assessment ratings ('InAss', lol); socio-politics, war, revolution and lessons to consider when colonising other planets. Verdance abbreviates to VD. Draw your own conclusions.

Best bit? Animals, insects, worms and bots are perceived as persons. There's some hot interspecies sex, and many ways to describe poop.

COLONIALISM: Definition: turning bodies into cages that no one has the keys for (dedication).

Destry glared at the hologram (Ronnie). She thought about the concession that Spider City had agreed on and allowed herself to imagine what Sasky would be like if it really became a public planet. a place where every person could vote, and access to the watershed wasn't just for rich clients.

Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon

Reminiscent of American Gods, Wole Talabi's first novel, Shigidi, is a wild and exciting ride, with some pretty hot sex. When your business partner and love of your afterlife is a succubus, sex is an occupational hazard - but only for the victims, lol.

Shigidi is a retired nightmare god - he's quit a corrupt spirit organisation in favour of better conditions with his business partner Nneoma, who's sworn never to get caught up in company politics. But caught up they get, in a fight for control and an impossible quest to repay a debt owed to someone high up in the pecking order.

Shigidi is bursting with action and imagery. The lead character's disillusion with his employer is solved by Nneoma, a succubus who gives him the body of her dreams. But does she love him? Can you expect true love when you fall for a succubus? And is Shigidi's association with spirit companies who've commercialised the consumption of souls really over?

Enter a rollercoaster of a tale rushing full speed through Lagos to Nigeria and London. With a soliloquy from none other than Aleister Crowley, Talabi flexes his impressive knowledge of world mythology, using Nigerian words in context without translation.

This story is brutally physical, funny and poignant. Will Shigidi and Nneoma survive to steal spirits another day? Shigidi and Nneoma pique the reader's sympathy deep into the night and it's unputdownable.

She projected her essence out into the room, manipulating the potent sexual desire he was emitting so that it resonated more powerfully...he would be so intoxicated with the taste of her lips that it would erode what was left of his resistance.

If you gaze long enough into the eyes of a succubus, the succubus gazes back into you.

Witch King

Waking was floating to the surface of a soft world of water, not what Kai had expected. Reaching out in that darkness, he found a cold, black sea ebbing and flowing, dropping away like a tide rolling out. Something was wrong with his body, everything was impossibly distant. He reached out a thought and called, Ziede?

Martha Wells is so versatile. In Witch King she demonstrates her skills in high fantasy with a style of writing very different to the Murderbot Diaries. She also stepped down from a novella nomination this year to give others a fighting chance.

From minute one Witch King is exciting and filled with original imagery and ideas. Kaiisteron, a demon prince who can inhabit the bodies of the recently dead, wakes up with his consciousness drifting somewhere above his recently deceased body. It's been imprisoned, along with his friend Ziede, in a tower filled with water - which is anathema to a demon. Kai quickly retrieves the situation, with the help of the body of some grave robbers and an overly ambitious expositor (a kind of magician) and leaves the scene on a whale with a huge shell on its back. Wow!

Kai must work out who did this to him, when, and why. As he figures things out, the story moves between memories when he inhabited another body, during the rise of the Hierarchs.  The story dips in and out of the mortal plane and the demon world of 'underneath' where Kai no longer has a demon body. What happened to it? All is revealed in this brilliant and addictive story.

These excellent reads are more than enough to keep us reading during the winter months. The finalists for Novella are excellent too. I've no idea who will win, they're all amazing!

Check out my post on the Ray Bradbury Nebula Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation finalists and look out for the Locus Awards (22 June), the Hugo Awards (11 August), and the SFFANZ Sir Julius Vogel Awards (7 July), which gives Pip Adam's Audition another chance for an award, after the Ockhams.  

Find more

SFWA Nebula Awards