Reading the Lodestars: Not-A-Hugo for Best YA Novel

I’m still reading the nominated works for this year’s Hugo Awards. It’s just that challenges and readathons took preference recently. I won’t be able to finish all the books I intended to read in time but then again, I knew that going in. I have read all of the Lodestar nominees except for one. My top spot was clear very early on and hasn’t changed after catching up on the other nominees.

The Nominees for the Lodestar Award

  1. Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road
  2. Holly Black – The Cruel Prince
  3. Justina Ireland – Dread Nation
  4. Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
  5. Peadar O’Guilín – The Invasion
  6. Dhonielle Clayton – The Belles

My top pick by a large margin is Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. It’s a very special kind of book that takes the reader on a journey both literally with its protagonist and figuratively, while reading. Although it’s a quiet book that focuses on character growth, there’s always something happening. I grew to love Tess fiercely and I also found myself caring for the people she met on her journey. Hartman’s world building is intriguing and as someone who hasn’t read the Seraphina books, made me want to go out and read everything she’s written. The writing is beautiful, the message is amazing, this was really a wonderful book that I can’t recommend enough.

The only bookI had already read when the nominees were announced was The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. I liked that book, especially the way its characters were definitely not black or white, and the world building and complex political intrigues felt like Holly Black trusted her young readers to be smart enough to get it – I always appreciate authors who write YA as if their readers had a brain. 🙂 The only thing it was missing was a plot that could hook me throughout. It was a good book and I’ll continue the series, it just felt like this book mostly set up everything for the rest of the series. That ending, however, had one of the most twisty twists that truly surprised me. And because it’s a book that I have kept thinking about ever since reading it (right when it came out), it gets the second place on my ballot.

The next two books may yet switch places on my ballot because they were both good but not great, they both had certain things really going for them, but others that I felt needed a lot more work. For the moment, my number three is Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. When I think about this book, the first thing that comes to mind is the voice of its wonderful protagonist. She’s a cheeky one, I love how she tells her story, and that made the entire book a joy, even when the plot kind of meandered. Which is also the novel’s biggest flaw. Former slaves, now sort-of-freed (but not really because people are assholes), are trained to fight against the zombie hordes that started rising up during the Civil War. The plot starts one way and made me expect certain things, but then stayed kind of put and focused on a small side quest. I assume, the bigger plot will be the story of the entire series and I’ll probably read the second part to see if I’m right.

My number four is probably lots of people’s number one. Whether it was the massive hype that biased my expectations or the gorgeous cover (I won’t pretend I’m immune), Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone was a bit of a letdown. It was truly a fun ride, a great adventure story with some interesting world building and particularly cool magic, but the story was just so predictable. As soon as the group arrived at a new place, I knew where it was going. And inevitably, the plot did go that way. The same goes for the romances. They were very obvious from the start and while that’s not a bad thing (because they were very well done), I was hoping for something a little more original. With all the rave reviews out there, I thought this would have a plot twist or two, would surprise me. But except for the very ending, I kind of knew the entire story before it happened. It was fun enough, however, for me to continue the series.

The only book I didn’t get to yet, but hopefully will before voting ends, is The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilín. I did read the first part of this duology, so I have some idea of the author’s style and world building. I liked The Call well enough. Mostly, it kept me reading for the sheer horror of what’s happening in this version of Ireland. Sometime during your teenage years, you will be whisked away to the Grey Land (a dark sort of Fairyland) where you’ll have to survive for 24 hours – only a few minutes in our world – or be killed by the fairies hunting you. Even the people who do come back alive are changed, physically and psychologically. It was a thrilling book that could have used a few more pages spent on character development, in my opinion.

My least favorite of the bunch was The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. Here, the supposed plot twists were even more obvious than in Adeyemi’s novel. But it also didn’t have much else going for it. The writing itself was okay, it was a quick read, but I thought the villain was over-the-top, and the story didn’t manage to get me interested. My biggest pet peeve was probably the world building because I’m generally willing to suspend my disbelief (I read mostly fantasy, so obviously) but this world just didn’t make sense. Sure, the protagonist is a Belle and so only sees a certain part of her world that has to do exclusively with beauty and appearance and royalty. But nowhere is it mentioned how this society would even work and I kept asking myself very often where food comes from, how poor people live, and so on. It was not a bad book but it wasn’t a very good one either.

So this is the current state of my Lodestar ballot. Depending on how good The Invasion is, places may change yet. The last category I’m tackling (and won’t finish) is the Best Series nominees. There will be one series of which I haven’t read a single book, but with the others, I have at least read one book or novella. I honestly don’t think that’s enough to form a proper opinion on the entire series, but  it’s the only thing I have to go on. And I have the suspicion that if The Laundry Files or the October Daye series don’t win this year, they will be back next year. At least I’ll have a head start for then.

Beauty with little substance: Dhonielle Clayton- The Belles

So far, my Hugo Awards reading has brought me a lot of joy. This is the first book (nominated for the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Novel) that I’m not overly excited about. It was an entertaining book, overall, but there were a lot of things that simply didn’t work. At this point – having read three of the nominated 6 YA books – it’s at the bottom of my list.

by Dhonielle Clayton

Published by: Disney Press, 2018
eBook: 448 pages
Series: The Belles #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The God of the Sky fell in love with the Goddess of Beauty after the world began.

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.
But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.
With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

This was a strange reading experience. One the one hand, I have a number of problems with this book, the world-building, the set-up, the “twists”, and the characters. On the other hand, I can’t deny that I was well entertained. The only reason I picked this up is because it is currently nominated for a Lodestar Award (Not-a-Hugo) and I want to support this new-ish Hugo category as well as make a well-informed decision on how to vote.

The story is set in an alternate (or maybe future?) Orléans, ruled by queens officially, but really ruled by beauty. The underlying myth of this world is that some goddess or other did something stupid so now almost all people are born ugly. That means, they have pale grey skin and red eyes. The only exception are the Belles, girls not only gifted with otherworldy beauty, but also with magical blood that gives them the ability to turn others beautiful. Camille grows up as all Belles do. Learning how to use her magic, learning the rules of beauty – symmetry, colors that go well together, flattering clothing, etc. etc. She and her sisters compete in a competition to become the Favorite, the Belle who lives and works at the royal court.

Here, the first problems with world-building arose. The Belles are kept extremely secluded, aren’t allowed reading material that isn’t approved by their care takers, and generally don’t know anything about their world that doesn’t seem to come out of a Youtube make-up tutorial. I was willing to suspend my disbelief enough to say that these girls don’t know anything else, so of course they don’t question this way of life. But what about the rest of the world? The Queen is the official ruler of Orléans, but what exactly does she do? There are not even throwaway remarks about how the country works. I don’t need an academic paper on Orléan’s economy or social structure but if I’m put into a secondary world by an author, I’d like some idea of how it works. Alas, no such luck. The focus remains firmly on Camille and her beauty work.

This beauty work consists in taking appointments for the aristocracy and royalty, making them pretty with the Belles’ magic. Changing hair colors, getting rid of wrinkles, making a nose smaller, breasts bigger, hips wider… you get the idea. That is Camille’s job. It’s the exact same job all of her sisters have, regardless of their status (only one can be the Favorite, after all). While the descriptions of Camille’s beauty work were engaging and fun to read, I kept asking myself again and again what the point was. The entire story takes place within the confines of the palace or places only rich people can go, so everyone is beautiful. The poor can’t afford beauty work, so people’s looks are a clear status symbol. But nobody ever mentions living conditions, where people’s food comes from or what their jobs are.

As for the plot, it was definitely fun to read, but I saw the twists from miles away. The Belles’ secret is obvious very early on in the story and the other mystery becomes incredibly clear as you read along. So the moments that were probably meant to shock me fell flat. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some shocking scenes in this book – beauty work is painful for the person receiving it, and the more you change, the more it hurts. There were moments that made me cringe because while I thought the plot was weak, the writing is actually pretty good.

The ending makes clear that this was always meant to be the first book in a series. While some plot strings are resolved in a way, many others are left open. I don’t know if Dhonielle Clayton plans to open up this world in the second book or if the world-building as such will get better but I probably won’t continue this series. Camille was a nice character to follow but I wasn’t all that interested in the idea of the novel to begin with. Now that the execution of it didn’t impress me, I see no reason to read the second book.