I am a Hugo voter this year (you can be, too, by paying the fee) and I have set off to try to read everything that was nominated in the awards so that I can more fairly vote for what I believe are the best works of the year. The Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book is not technically a Hugo Award, but it is awarded at the same time for the best YA novel of the year in the genres of science fiction or fantasy. I have read all the nominatees for this year and given them reviews and scores below. I’ve also chosen my winner. Let me know what you think!
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn- Grade: A-
A retelling of King Arthur in which a magical society made of white people is enlisted for help fighting demons by Bree Matthews, a black woman. Racial tensions loom large in this story that has a number of refreshing themes that spin off the Arthurian core in surprising ways. I ate it up in a lengthy afternoon read. My main complaint is that the book, weighing in at almost 500 pages in hardcover, felt like it was just as long as it is. It’s got a bit too much exposition crammed in between the covers for my liking, but once it gets going, it goes. Matthews is an intensely likable protagonist and the theme found throughout the book make it resonate with today in challenging ways. It’s a great read.
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (My Winner)- Grade: A+
Raybearer is a story that subverts expectations time and again. It starts with The Lady assigning our protagonist, Tarisai, to a task of befriending and killing the crown prince. As a reader, certain expectations got built in to what I thought would happen based on that. Some played out, but many didn’t. Even those expectations that were fulfilled went in ways I didn’t foresee. But Ifueko’s talent for subverting the narrative isn’t the only great thing about this novel. Her prose is beautiful; the plot remains compelling throughout, the system of magic used is intriguing, and the world is captivating. Raybearer reveals Ifueko as a remarkable new talent, and I will most definitely be reading everything she puts out in the future.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik- Grade: B-
I love Novik, and this novel has some of her strongest work. The reason I didn’t rate it higher is because it truly takes somewhere around 200 pages for me to start liking any of the characters. The reasons for this are extreme spoilers, but suffice to say that I’m convinced you’re not really supposed to fall in love with any of the characters early on. However, that means that the book relies on its worldbuilding for those first couple hundred pages to keep you going. The worldbuilding is quite strong–strong enough to carry the load–but it doesn’t make it entirely enjoyable. That said, this is a series I am waiting for the next book with supreme eagerness.
Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger- Grade: B+
Elatsoe is a triumphant tale of a young Apache woman who’s able to summon the spirits of dead animals. It’s got noir aspects, some elements of horror, questions of racism, and some good art mixed in. The novel reads a bit like a travelogue to me, which feels wrong to type because it isn’t one. It just reminds me of the spirit of the older travelogue-style speculative fiction. Elatsoe is a fun character, and I love her interest in fossils. This is a perfect read for a freezing cold day indoors next to a fireplace. This isn’t a cozy mystery, but it had some of the same comfortable elements as cozy mysteries I enjoy, with a character in Ellie/Elatsoe who carries the story with her spirit.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher- Grade: B+
A wizard with powers of baking animate bread has to fend off an attack on her home city and all wizardkind. Defensive Baking is a fun fantasy romp combined with a mystery. Fun is a simple word, but it seems like the right one to describe this book. It’s just a delight to read. That said, I think the plot bites off a bit more than it can chew. I loved the first half with its blend of mystery and wizard baking, but when it came to the actual defensive baking, it felt more generic. I would definitely read more set in this same universe.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas- Grade: B-
A latinx school/urban fantasy that includes necromancy, LGBT+ affirmation, and teen drama! Cemetery Boys is full of interesting ideas, but suffers from major pacing issues. The opening scene and story concept take far too long to develop for what isn’t a very long novel. Then, the rest of the story rushes quickly past in a blur. It slows down again near the end, only to stuff a bunch of fulfilling plot points in at the very end. It felt a bit like being jerked along on a chain. That said, the core concepts that are there–teen drama, finding oneself, and a splash of dark magic–made it a fast and fun read.
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