Reading the Hugos 2021: Lodestar (Not-a-Hugo)

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

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)

  1. Raybearer
  2. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
  3. Cemetery Boys
  4. Legendborn
  5. Elatsoe
  6. 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

Cute but Kind of Distant: Darcie Little Badger – Elatsoe #WyrdAndWonder Book Review

Ah, making my way through the Lodestar finalists has been a great pleasure so far. With only one book left to read (T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking), I can already say that this year offers a brilliant ballot and ranking these books will be a tough job. Elatsoe was different from the other finalists in that it reads more like a Middle Grade book than YA. I don’t know if that was intended or if it’s just my personal impression but it didn’t make the book any less charming. But maybe a tad forgettable?

ELATSOE
by Darcie Little Badger

Published: Levine Querido, 2020
eBook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Ellie bought the life-sized plastic skull at a garage sale (the goth neighbors were moving to Salem, and they could not fit an entire Halloween warehouse into their black van). 

Imagine an America very similar to our own. It’s got homework, best friends, and pistachio ice cream.

There are some differences. This America been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these forces are charmingly everyday, like the ability to make an orb of light appear or travel across the world through rings of fungi. But other forces are less charming and should never see the light of day.

Elatsoe lives in this slightly stranger America. She can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her beloved cousin has just been murdered, in a town that wants no prying eyes. But she is going to do more than pry. The picture-perfect facade of Willowbee masks gruesome secrets, and she will rely on her wits, skills, and friends to tear off the mask and protect her family.

Ellie is seventeen years old and can call animal spirits back from the dead. Her ghost dog, Kirby, is her constant companion and not only a Very Good Boy but also quite useful when it comes to sensing bad stuff happening. After Kirby has a freak-out, Ellie and her family find out that her cousin, Trevor, has died in a car accident. But Trevor visits Ellie in a dream/vision and tells her that he has, in fact, been murdered by a man named Abe Allerton from Willowbee. He asks her to protect his wife and small child and to bring justice to Allerton for what he has done. So Ellie’s murder investigation/adventure begins…

First of all, let me say that I grew to like this book a lot but I found it hard to find my way into it at first. Sure, the synopsis says this particular version of America is only similar to ours, but has magic and stuff. But it took me a while to find my footing with the world building because it wasn’t quite clear how much or what kind of magic. New mythological creatures or fantasy elements kept coming up whenever appropriate or convenient for the plot and there didn’t appear to be any rules. There’s ghosts and vampires, suddenly there are also fairy rings (which are used for transportation across the country and that’s super cool, if you ask me), but then there are different kinds of magic as well that were never mentioned before.
I know this isn’t supposed to be an Epic Fantasy but I still like a little bit of foreshadowing or at least a mention or two of an element that will be important later. Darcie Little Badger just went with the flow and told her story and whatever magic was needed at a certain point would be introduced and explained at that point, and not before. It doesn’t make the book bad, by any means, but it is a matter of personal taste. And I wasn’t a fan.

I was, however, a fan of the story in general and the murder mystery in particular. The solution to the mystery is impossible to figure out – because the author doesn’t give out any information that could let us deduce anything – but I still found that things fell into place quite cleverly. Ellie and her friend Jay research Abe Allerton and try to find a way to convince the authorities that he’s a murderer, and during that research, they collect a whole lot of interesting information, newspaper clippings from the past, anecdotes, pictures, and so on. When Ellie figured out what’s going on, it gave me this “of coooourse” moment, like I should have seen it coming. As mentioned above, I couldn’t have seen it coming but the magical and real world aspects fit together so well that I found it utterly satisfying anyway.

As for the characters, they were… mostly cute. I wouldn’t say they are the book’s strongest suit. Ellie, although said to be 17 years old, reads like a much younger girl. I kept picturing her as a 12-14 year old. It’s not so much that she is particularly immature or anything but her interests and the way she talks and behaves just came across as super innocent and young. The same goes for her friend Jay. They are a team of adorable young sleuths but definitely didn’t feel like 17-year-olds. I think the dialogue is partly to blame for that. I found most of the dialogue – not just between the teenagers but also between Ellie and her parents – a bit unnatural. Ellie’s parents were weirdly okay with her dangerous plans and ideas, and at times it felt like she was the parent in that family, making the decisions, and her mom just got to follow along for the ride and occasionally express concern. The dialogue was usually comprised of short lines and probably more what people would actually talk like. Unfortunately, the way people talk in real life doesn’t make for good reading. For example, repeating something your conversation partner has just said may happen a lot in real life, but in a novel, it feels strange and wrong.
The good thing about the short lines is that it makes the book super easy to read and follow. It was also only throught the dialogue that any humor came across. The character’s don’t really get all that much personality so I found it refreshing whenever Ellie would make a joke. Ellie, Jay, and Jay’s soon-to-be brother in law (and also vampire) Al were the most fleshed-out characters. Ellie’s parents are just there but don’t really do much until the end and I got the feeling the author didn’t quite know how to get them out of the way for the kids to have their own adventure. That said, the good guy characters were all easy to like, the villain was so evil that he was easy to hate and sometimes it’s nice to read a book with such clearly divided camps, where good can triumph over evil.

But despite these weaknesses, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the book, because I really did! I am, of course, automatically comparing it to the other Lodestar finalists which is probably why my inner wannabe critic is acting up. It’s a great story that incorporates mythology in intriguing ways, but it also feels rather childish and simple, and resolved almost too easily. Which again makes me think it might be intended for a younger audience.
Ellie (which, by the way, is short for Elatsoe) and her family are Lipan Apache and although this is not a very big thing in the book, it is part of who she is and comes up several times, and for good reasons as well. But mostly, we get to hear stories about Six Great – Ellie’s six-times great grandmother and something of a legend – and her adventures and feats. These stories were lovely and so are the illustrations by Rovina Cai! Some of the stories are told by Ellie’s mother, some Ellie remembers for herself, some come up in her dreams, but they all show how important family is to Ellie and how knowledge and magic has been passed on over many generations. And while Ellie has a ghost dog named Kirby, Six Great had a whole pack plus a woolly mammoth. Again, I had hoped for more world building because I’d really like to know where that mammoth goes when it’s not called by Six Great – does it slip back to the Underworld? Does it have to physically (although invisibly) find a place here on Earth to go and wait? Ah, this is not the kind of book that spends any time answering those questions. It’s about a girl solving a murder with the help of her family and friends.

As cute as this story was, because the characters are kept quite vauge and the world building changes is a bit haphazard, I never really felt immersed in the story. I appreciated the ideas, especially when it comes to the way magic is used, and the rituals to make sure dead humans stay dead and don’t come back as vengeful ghosts. And I had fun racing through the pages, watching Ellie bring justice to the bad guy. But rather than be on this adventure with Ellie, I watched from the outside. We’ll see how the book holds up in my memory but I have the suspicion that, because of my lack of emotional connection, it will end up as a fun little adventure that I won’t remember very well in a few months.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good