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.

A Predictable Adventure: Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone

I steered well away from this book when it came out because it’s clearly one of those books that get hyped based on a (gorgeous!) cover and a cool description alone. Flocks of people swear it’s fantastic, simply because it looks great and the premise sounds nice. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the kind of book that usually disappoints. While I didn’t think this was completely disappointing, it definitely isn’t the book that the interwebs say it is but instead a mostly thrilling, albeit very predictable, adventure story in a cool setting.

CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE
by Tomi Adeyemi

Published by: Henry Holt, 2018
eBook: 544 pages
Series: Legacy of Orïsha #1
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: Pick me.

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.
But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.
Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.
Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Zélie lives in Orisha, a magical version of Nigeria, but her life there isn’t easy. As a diviner – a young person who should get magical abilities by the age of thirteen but hasn’t – she belongs to the lowest caste of people. Although not explicitly slaves, diviners are kept down by the monarchy and forced even further down by ever increasing taxes. If they fail to pay these taxes, they are sent to the stocks where hard labor eventually kills them. So… “not an easy life” is an understatement.
Amari is a princess, living in the palace, and her life naturally differs a lot from Zélies. Unlike her father, the king, Amari is sympathetic to the diviners because her maid is a diviner and also the only person she could call a friend. Clearly not made for princesshood, Amari struggles with the rules her mother imposes upon her. When a magical scroll appears in the palace that is supposed to give diviners their magic back, however, Amari takes action, defies her father, and runs away with the scroll.
Amari’s brother Inan may currently be Captain of the Royal Guard, but he will be king someday. His driving force is making his father proud and proving he has what it takes to rule the kingdom. Which, in his father’s eyes is mostly cruelty and a complete disregard for human life – if that life belongs to a diviner, at least…
When Amari and Zélie are thrown together by fate, and Zélie learns of the scroll’s powers, the two girls and Zélie’s brother Tzain set out on a quest. Which leads them to another quest to bring magic back to Orisha and restore power to the diviners so they can finally fight back against a monarchy that wants to keep them down at all costs.

There were many things I liked about this book, but there were also many things that I found grating. The constant repetitions made me roll my eyes a lot! Yes, we get it, Zélie’s mother was executed during the Raid (the time when magic was eradiated and the maji were killed, leaving their diviner children without magic). There’s really no need to mention it in every single chapter. The prologue does such a good job in describing the horrors Zélie felt when she saw her mother captured. Constantly mentioning it again and again takes away from that, and even blunted my feelings as a reader. Similarly, an event that happened between Amari and her brother Inan keeps coming up over and over again. Please, dear authors, trust your readers enough to believe that they can remember the horrible things that happened to your characters. We won’t forget even if we’re not reminded of it for a few chapters.

The thing that bothered me the most, though, was how flat the characters were. There are four protagonists, three of which get POV chapters. Zélie, Amari, and Inan are almost indistinguishable in voice. While Inan at least follows a different path and is out to destroy magic, the two girls could have been the same person in different circumstances. When I put the book down mid-chapter, I sometimes had to check whose POV I was in to figure it out. Good characters have their own voice and you don’t need chapter headings to know who you’re following at any given moment. I hope this improves in the author’s upcoming books.

One thing this book was praised for was the setting and the world building. Now, I’m all for setting fantasy stories in places other than medieval Europe, and I loved reading about characters with dark skin and – in the diviner’s case – white hair. Adeyemi’s descriptions are quite good and would make for an excellent movie. Both the ryders, huge animals like lions and panthers with a few extra horns, and the people are described in a way that I found stunning. The magic system is kind of based on the elements – there are maji who can control water, fire, etc. but also ones like Zélie whose powers have to do with the dead and their souls. Although it’s nothing new, I really liked how magic was used and the powers it gave its wielders. As for the world as such, I found the world building rather weak. That’s another thing that could get better in the upcoming sequels.

Finally, the plot was so very, very predictable. Not only were the romances obvious from the start, the bigger events weren’t even trying to be interesting. They run away with the scroll, get some information on how to get magic back, and then they just… go and try to do that, I guess. Thank goodness, things don’t go smoothly. Because even though you know what’s going to happen, the way battles and various adventures are described is just thrilling. It’s like watching an action movie where you know the heroes will make it out alive and well and nothing’s really at stake, but it’s fun to watch anyway. And, to Adeyemi’s credit, the ending – although kind of a stupid cliffhanger – does hold one little twist in store that made me curious for the rest of the series.

Now I’ve made it all sound way worse than it was but I’d actually recommend the book. You just have to know what to expect going in. You’re not going to get an N. K. Jemisin style exploration of race or a Brandon Sanderson-esque world building. You’ll simply get a fun adventure story with a nice (if predictable) romance.
I’ve been thinking a lot about book hypes and Goodreads ratings while reading this novel.  My conclusion (based on no research whatsoever but simply my own musings) is that a good cover has a huge impact. Certain buzz words, character traits, or settings add another layer to the hype – and by then it doesn’t really matter if the book is any good, because enough people are talking about it which makes others buy it which makes at least part of the people who bought it read it and then the whole thing starts over again with the sequel – which in the case of this series has an even more stunning cover to offer.
By this I don’t want to say that this is a bad book. It’s not. It’s a totally fine book that I read quickly and that entertained me from beginning to end. But I definitely don’t think there’s anything groundbreaking about it. The plot was predictable, the developing romance(s) could be guessed from very early on, and the characters were cardboard. But the adventure is thrilling, the magic is cool, and when I’m in the mood for a light Hollywood-type fun story that doesn’t require too much thinking, I’ll be back for the sequel.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good