It has taken us way too long to finally create a (not-a-) Hugo Award for YA fiction! Sure, technically YA or MG novels could have been nominated in the Best Novel category but that has happened rarely with even fewer wins (one for Harry Potter, one for Gaiman’s Graveyard Book). Plus, there is so much great stuff being published that having six finalists just means more fun and reading goodness for everyone.
You can find my tentative ballots and thoughts on the other finalists here:
This may have been the category I was most excited for because although I had already read half of the finalists, the other three were all high up on my to read list. Hearing nothing but good things about them may have helped.
The Finalists for the Lodestar
- Jordan Ifueko – Raybearer
- Darcie Little Badger – Elatsoe
- Tracy Deonn – Legendborn
- Aiden Thomas – Cemetery Boys
- Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education
- T. Kingfisher – A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
First things first, this is a great ballot with not a single bad book on it. It’s also impressively diverse! Not only are authors of all sorts of different backgrounds represented, but the stories range from contemporary fantasy in a college setting to secondary world fantasy to a parallel Earth inspired by Lipan Apache myths… The characters are also vastly different from each other. I really appreciate this mix and the many perspectives I got to experience while reading through the ballot.
The one book I nominated in this category and still my absolute dear-to-my-heart favorite is Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. Man, did I fall for that book. I didn’t even expect to love it so much when I picked it up, I just thought it would be a nice story with an enemies to lovers trope in an African-inspired fantasy world. But once I started reading, it turned into an all-the-feels kind of novel that offered impressive characters and world building and had a lot of fun playing with tropes and turning them on their head. None of the tropey things I was expecting came to pass exactly as I expected them. Either they didn’t happen at all or they were twisted around to form something completely new and beautiful. I adored Tarisai, I adored many of the side characters, the found family, the super high save-the-world stakes and that ending! I actually re-read it before finishing the duology with Redemptor and it holds up on a second read as well.
T. Kingfisher‘s books are always, always fun and A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking was no exception. In fact, I felt that it was even better than last year’s finalist Minor Mage. Kingfisher’s humor really works for me and if a sourdough starter named Bob or a teenage girl whose magical abilities only work on bread don’t make you giggle, then I don’t know what to tell you. Young magical baker Mona discovers a dead body in her aunt’s bakery and then stumbles into an adventure that grows bigger the more you read. It is a super funny book that has serious moments as well. Mona is a great protagonist who knows what’s right and important and who I fell in love with so much I wanted to hug her. And then Kingfisher managed to deliver a pretty epic ending that got me all choked up.
A big surprise for me was Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. Not that the book didn’t sound interesting – it did! – but I liked it despite the fact that the mystery was super obvious and I had it completely figured out by the middle of the book. Normally, that takes out a lot of fun for me, but in this case, I didn’t mind. Because while the murder mystery is interesting, it’s not what makes this book great. With a trans boy as a protagonist, a dead gay ghost, a vegan witch with pink hair, and a lot of heart, this story was great even without the twist being in any way shocking or surprising. Yadriel’s everyday life was fun enough to follow. His family doesn’t quite understand how to handle him being trans, his Latinx grandmother cooks way too much (oh, that food sounded so delicious!), the other brujxs don’t treat him like he really belongs… and then there’s this boy that makes him feel all warm inside. Aiden Thomas definitely did something right in this book because I adored every page and it made me immediately want to pick up another book by this author.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn I was very unsure about. It has a cool cover, but King Arthur was never something I particularly gravitated toward and so I didn’t think a modern twist on Arthurian Legend could interest me. But again, this book has a lot more to offer than just that. In fact, some of the most interesting aspects didn’t have to do with King Arthur at all. This is about dealing with grief, trusting people, making new friends in a strange and new environment (in this case: college) and, of course, fighting monsters and doing magic, because that’s how we roll at the Hugo Awards.
I can’t say that I was particularly impressed with the magic system or the way Arthurian Legend was incorporated into the story but I just had so much fun reading it. I even liked the romance and how some side characters could surprise me after I had made my mind up about them. It wasn’t my favorite book but I liked it well enough and I will read more by Tracy Deonn. Probably even the sequel to this book.
The one book I expected to love but ended up feeling mostly indifferent about was Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger. This promised to have everything I love. An Earth that is almost but not quite like ours because it has magic, mythology that is real, Lipan Apache myths (which are new to me so I was excited), and a murder mystery. Add to that illustrations by the amazing Rovina Cai and you have a recipe for a new Dina’s favorite. But just like some books can positively surprise you, the opposite can also happen.
Not that I hated this book, not at all. It was nice enough, but it never really touched me. It started with the protagonists reading like 12-year-olds instead of the 17-year-olds they were supposed to be. There was such a disconnect between what I was told and what I actually saw happening on the page that I couldn’t properly connect with Ellie. I also really liked the myths that were woven into the story but the way it was done felt clumsy in retrospect. My favorite part was the murder mystery, the way it gets solved, and especially how clever the killer is (nobody likes a stupid villain, the smart ones are way more interesting). However, as it was all written in this cutesy, rather childish way, this book simply can’t keep up with the competition.
Lastly, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik was a book I probably enjoyed more than many other people, at least judging from reviews I’ve read. Although this book has many flaws, it was kind of fun. I still don’t know how to explain it. There is very little plot, the world building is done in strange ways – too many info dumps at first but leaving out many super important bits – and the characters aren’t exactly perfect. I feel like I shouldn’t have liked this book but for some reason I just did. I plan to read the sequel and hope that this gives me more clarity. However, I won’t consider this book for the Lodestar ballot. You can find my reasons below.
My ballot (probably)
- A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
- Cemetery Boys
A Deadly Education
A Deadly Education was not the least enjoyable book of this bunch and it isn’t unworthy of an award in general. It is, however, unworthy of an award for YA/MG fiction, especially when it was on the shortlist for the Alex Award which specifically awards adult books with a crossover appeal to a younger audience. ADULT books. Those are not what this category is for, those go in Best Novel if they get enough nominations or Best Series if they’re part of a well-loved series.
And the thing is, Naomi Novik is well-established, she has previously been nominated in Best Novel, she won a Nebula. She’s the only really big name on this ballot and doesn’t need the awards boost. Her books sell just fine.
Whether you think it’s in bad taste that she even accepted the nomination or the Hugo administrators should have caught the fact that this is an adult book in a YA category, I definitely feel that it shouldn’t win a Lodestar. That’s just not the right award for this book. So while I technically enjoyed reading it and would have ranked it differently had it been in the correct category, I am leaving it off my ballot completely.
I love the Lodestar and I’m so happy we finally have a YA/MG category in the Hugo Awards, so I really, really don’t want to see adult books take up the space meant for those books just because they technically can be read by a younger audience. This category was hard won and I mean to defend it!
When it comes to my ballot, I am firm on my first and last places. After T. Kingfisher’s Andre Norton AND Locus YA win for Defensive Baking I am debating ranking her book a bit lower. While I am super happy for her and have wanted her to win for years, I just loved Raybearer so much! Now that Kingfisher already has two awards for her book, I feel like Jordan Ifueko or someone else should get this one. At least in my head, that’s the dream outcome.
That said, I would be happy for either of my top books to take home the Lodestar. Sure, my hope is All The Awards for Raybearer but the Hugos are a democracy after all and we’ll see how my fellow voters decide.
Up next week: Best Novel