Another of this year's Hugo nominees, and another good read. The setting is an alternate present where a large chunk of Alaska was colonised by Jewish refugees after the Second World War, and the Israelis lost in 1948 - there are other differences too, but those are the major ones. Now, sixty years on from those events, the Alaskan territory is within weeks of reverting to US control and its inhabitants face displacement again.
Chabon's viewpoint character is a memorably seedy and depressed detective, trying to solve a murder which appears to be linked to chess and a Messianic Jewish sect, and at the same time dealing with his own professional and family dilemmas. The tenuous society of Sitka is well depicted at all its levels. In places it's terrifically sad. I was a bit dubious about the portrayal of conspiratorial politics at the highest political level, but perhaps that was part of the point.
However, it's not going at the top of my Hugo list; I don't think it is sfnal enough. Apart from the ahistorical setting, there is no sfnal content (well, a couple of miracles are hinted at, but I'm not sure that counts). The genre of this novel is detective, not sf; the setting is not much more counterfactual than Agatha Christie's country houses, or Lindsey Davis' richly imagined and researched Rome, or Ellis Peters' medieval Shrewsbury (which also gets the very occasional miracle, but that doesn't make it fantasy).
Don't get me wrong: I liked the book enormously. The setting seemed to me a very thought-provoking response to the history of Jews, in America in particular, since 1940, far better than the other attempts I've read recently. I'll probably end up ranking it ahead of the other two nominees which I haven't yet read and of which I don't have huge expectations. But, while in a lot of ways it may be the best novel of the three I've read so far, it lacks the sensawunda that I got in spades from both Halting State and Brasyl, so loses my vote on that account.