Generally the contenders for the Nebula Award are fairly easy to identify on the Nebula Reading List at the SFWA Website. The way this list works is that authors/editors/publishers/agents can provide copies or links to works for the SFWA membership to read and recommend. Often the recommenders leave their names, which is interesting because you can see who likes what. Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky was an early favorite. The page is down now, but this novel ended up with 18 recommendations, which I think put it at the top of the list. Lee’s Ninefox Gambit fell much lower, with 7 recommendations as far as I can tell through the Wayback Machine. Jemisin’s novel put in a strong showing, too, but since she won last year, voters might have discounted this year’s follow-up as more of the same. That leaves Ninefox Gambit as the outstanding contender.

If you look back through my reviews, you’ll see that I thought Anders’ novel was just average—I gave it three stars. I rated Lee’s Ninefox Gambit at four and half, which means I thought it was above average. Both these authors are strongly diverse, and this was the first novel for both. So why was Anders’ book such a strong favorite? Let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of the novels again.

Anders’ novel starts off very strong with a presentation of how talented children are bullied and persecuted. In Part II, it abandons this theme to present an apocalyptic situation where nature and science are at odds and the humans end up impotent. The ending is predictable. The writing is interestingly quirky and absurdist, but the novel sags badly in the middle and never recovers. What it ends up saying is murky, maybe that we are at odds with nature and on a path to destruction.

Lee’s novel starts off with a space battle clearly based on an alien system of reality. The protagonist works her way through an understanding of the politics related to who will establish the reigning system, and ends up finding herself attached to a highly talented, dead subversive. Besides having a strong plot, a strong action line and a twist ending, this work also has excellent characterization, imagery and artistic effects. The question it asks is about the nature of reality. It has a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality that detracts, which is all that kept me from giving it 5 stars.

In my humble opinion, Lee’s novel is the more entertaining. It has a great plot and a strong action line. The underlying philosophical questions and the world-building are first rate. It’s highly professional as a first effort, and should hold up much better in the coming years. So why was it passed over? Does Anders’ work look to be more important?