My OP will focus only on the Novel category, as that's the only one I am familiar with the nominees, but feel free to dive into some others.
In case anyone needs a quick reminder, the five nominees for Best Novel are:
A Dance with Dragons by GRRM
Among Others by Jo Walton
Deadline by Mira Grant
Embassytown by China Mieville
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
I recently read the non-ADWD nominees and re-read ADWD. Some quick thoughts on each book.
ADWD: We need not re-litigate its many pros and cons here. If you must, at least put it in the context of ranking against the other four.
Among Others: A touching story of a young nerd girl trying to fit in with new people. Despite the presence of fairies in the story, this is actually the most mundane of the nominees, with much of it focusing on pretty normal human reactions, like suddenly having to get to know an estranged dad and being shipped off to boarding school by crazy spinster aunts. (Although, parts of it are set in Wales, so in that sense it's the biggest work of fiction imaginable.) Lots of references to the catalog of SF/F works that had been completed by the time the book is set (late 1979/early 1980), proving to me that my knowledge of this old-school stuff is not nearly as strong as it could have been. I felt like I was missing a lot by not being able to connect with that nostalgia.
Deadline: Second book in a zombie trilogy; the first was a nominee last year. I liked Feed well enough, but I found Deadline to be a mess. The first book was much more tense and action-packed, and the plot moved more evenly. Deadline is much more inconsistent. The zombie threat disappears for our protagonists for most of the novel. Too much relies on the evil conspiracy villains being just dumb enough to not be able to thwart the poorly-conceived plans of the crusading protags. The narration of Shaun of the Dead Mason is pretty static in the themes it harps on, only seeming to make a tiny bit of progress towards the end, just in time for a surprise plot twist in the epilogue to remove any emotional investment for the reader.
Embassytown: Out of the five nominees, this is the book that most made me think, "Damn, I wish I could have written this." I was surprised by this, because I have not tended to enjoy Mieville's fantasy-ish offerings. This book is just plain cool, with its far future with a distant "Terre" that some people don't even believe ever existed, its evolution of Christianity into some vaguely recognizable form (where the surprised exclamation is "Christ Uploaded!"), and its system of cloned humans who are developed to communicate with an awesome alien race that somehow makes a language out of two voices speaking simultaneously. A book like this is why people read SF, to see normal human problems play out against fantastical, futuristic backdrops.
Leviathan Wakes: I wanted to like this, I really did. I was all primed from the GRRM cover quote that said something like, "it's been a long time since we had a good, kick-ass space opera." I felt like it was treading on ground familiar to me, with a kind of space-as-western-frontier thing going on in the vein of shows like Firefly or Cowboy Bebop, but the problem with that association is that it never really broke out of that mold. The assorted crew members feel like they are stock characters. It may be that subsequent books will take this in a much different direction, in a Joe Abercrombie kind of way, in which case I will have to revise upward my opinion of Leviathan. Much of the plot of the book relies on the reader caring that Earth and Mars may be forced into a war, but the reader is never given much reason to care about either Earth or Mars.
A Dance with Dragons
Rationale: If the Academy can give Martin Scorsese a make-up Oscar by having him win for The Departed, then I'd say the Hugos owe GRRM a make-up Hugo. Were I forbidden from choosing Dance, I'd say Embassytown is the clear winner.
What do you think? Flame on! Many actual Worldcon attendees/Hugo voters may actually read this thread, so be persuasive.
Edited by Mack Kilimaro, 04 May 2012 - 12:00 PM.