We’re skipping down the ballot today
because Adri hasn’t finished reading for series or BRW yet and technically leaving official Hugo territory to look at the new World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) Award for Best Young Adult Book. Before I dive in, let me say a huge thank you to the people who worked to get this recognised against what sounded like a lot of inertia (to put it politely). Set up as a “not a Hugo” award to get around the problem (your mileage may vary on how much of a problem this actually is) of the same writing being nominated in two separate Hugo categories, it’s likely to be known as the Lodestar award from next year. However, because of administrative shenanigans the award was approved one year ahead of the name, hence the rather convoluted this time around. Like I say, I’m really grateful to everyone who goes the extra mile to push for change on the administrative side, because frankly it sounds grim.
I feel it’s also important to note that having a YA award voted on by a largely Old Adult base (and I include my not-yet-30 self in that category) means that, inevitably, what’s recognised is going to reflect tastes outside the target demographic. While I don’t think that’s a problem as such (and certainly not a problem exclusive to this award), it’s worth bearing in mind that my reviews are coming from the perspective of a chronological grown up who is primarily into SFF rather than YA more generally.
If you haven’t been following my posts, I’m employing an absolute ranking system alongside indicative ballot positions. It’s really nitpicky because, hey, we’re dealing with some of the best books of the year and all…
- Meh Tier: Stuff I either didn’t like or take specific issue with.
- Good Tier: Works I liked but wasn’t wowed by.
- Great Tier: Works I was impressed with, but which don’t quite hit all my buttons.
- Awesome Tier: Except in special cases (see below), these are the most award-worthy nominees for me.
- Everyone Else Go Home: Those rare works that make it all worthwhile.
Adri’s WSFS Young Adult Award Rankings 2018
6. La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. I might be being unfair to this book. It’s a good read, and I appreciate the addition to the original trilogy, but it was very much a book of two halves in more than one sense, and everything that made the first part enjoyable for me got washed away (pun intended) in the second. I didn’t want or need the biblical allegories, or the tonal shift from tense political interest to straightforward juvenile adventure, and I really started drifting off when that became the main thrust. Pun intended. Also, while I don’t think it’s affecting my view on the text, I am unreasonably irritated about the fact that the series is called “The Book of Dust”, and is printed in huge writing on the front cover, and the book is called La Belle Sauvage but I keep calling it the Book of Dust because I’ve been Taken In by some sort of marketing decision or something and why would a series call itself a book, I ask you? On the bright side, this is the first of two books on this list which prominently feature Oxford, and I did get to relive memories of 7am rowing sessions up near the Trout Inn, not that that’s helped it in the rankings. Grumble grumble.
5. The Art of Starving by Sam Miller: Matt is a gay teenager whose problems seem to keep multiplying: his sister has left their small town abruptly and under mysterious circumstances, his mother is on the verge of losing her job at a struggling slaughterhouse, and his crush Tariq is part of a shady gang of boys who are bullying him at school. In fact, the only thing Matt thinks is going well for him is that if he stops eating, he seems to develop superpowers. This is an Own Voices story: Miller is gay and, according to the afterword, his own struggles with teen anorexia initially went unrecognised because he was male. The narrative certainly doesn’t shy away from the grim reality of having an eating disorder, while the slipstream fantasy elements make it difficult to figure out what’s actually going on with Matt’s powers: the SFF reader in me was inclined to take it on face value, but his eating disorder makes Matt an unreliable narrator and I can certainly see how one would read it as delusion. It’s impossible for me to judge how successful this is as a story for its intended audience, having been straight-passing at school and never suffered from anorexia, but obviously any recommendation comes with content warnings for depictions of anorexia and a recognition that for a lot of ED sufferers/survivors, any realistic content can be triggering, so this may be a book to approach with caution. Stylistically, this comes across far more as contemporary YA than fantasy, and that alone puts it in the liked-but-didn’t-love category for me.
Good Tier +
4. A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge. Hey, this book features Oxford and the English Civil War, making it very relevant to some of my more obscure interests! I’ve only really discovered Hardinge recently and this is the third book I’ve read from her, all of which have featured resourceful, compelling heroines in sticky situations. In this case, it’s Makepeace, a girl who grows up in a Puritan community with a secretive mother, only to discover on her death that she’s an illegitimate member of an unpleasant family of nobles whose genetic talent is seeing and “taking in” recent deceased spirits. Being unpleasant early modern English nobility, they use this talent to allow the old men of the family to effectively become immortal and take over their descendants, and when Makepeace finds herself next in line for this procedure she winds up on adventure that takes her across battle lines and into the orbit of some very interesting characters. It’s great fun, although it never rose to the level of The Lie Tree for me.
3. Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor. Published as “Sunny and the Mysteries of Osisi” in the UK and Nigeria, this is Okorafor’s second entry in a series where magical families live secretly alongside ordinary people, hiding their talents and their own magical society from view. What sets this apart from other stories with a similar premise (Harry Potter is the obvious one, and Chrestomanci also springs to mind) is that this magical society is very much rooted in Igbo traditions, and is set in Nigeria. The Nigerian-American protagonist of the series, Sunny, discovers that although her family are non-magical, she is a rare “free agent” born with magical talent anyway. Cue induction into the magical world of the Leopard People, full of spiritual awakenings, currency that falls from the sky when people learn new things, fantastic creatures, fun new friends and — most importantly — fantasy football. Akata Warrior builds on the worldbuilding and relationships of the first book to great effect, expanding the story, introducing new places and people, and adding depth to Sunny’s struggle to balance her new life as a Leopard Person with her family relationships. Sunny herself is a wonderful protagonist and Okorafor does a great job bringing her to life as a girl caught between multiple identities and worlds, who has to fight hard to have her talents recognised but is often rewarded with success and recognition in ways that are still disappointingly rare for black girls in media outside Okorafor’s writing.
2. Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher, illustrated by Lauren Henderson. Remember how I said this is definitely a YA award by and for adults who read YA? Well, Summer in Orcus is probably the most transparent example of this in action, seeing as how it’s explicitly advertised as “a portal fantasy for adults who are angry with the portal fantasies of their youth”. I reiterate that this isn’t necessarily a problem, and I’m especially willing to accept it if it brings more Vernon-as-Kingfisher onto the ballot. Anyway, Summer in Orcus was originally posted chapter-by-chapter to Vernon’s blog in late 2016, with the illustrated edition – which this is a nomination for – Kickstarted and released in 2017. Summer, a girl struggling to support her difficult, emotionally needy mother while dreaming of freedom and adventure, finds herself thrust into a fantasy world by Baba Yaga with nothing but a weasel in her pocket and promptly discovers that going on an adventure in a land where the queen is trying to hunt you down is all a bit grim, actually. Featuring some magnificent fantasy creations (like the Werehouse: wolf by day, house by night) and a plot which doesn’t shy away from tricky emotional realities while never getting overwhelming or grim, this is definitely one to check out. The illustrations are icing on the already very delicious cake.
Everyone Else Go Home
1. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan. This is not just my top pick for this ballot, it’s my favourite book published in 2018, full stop. Like Summer in Orcus, In Other Lands is a portal fantasy for the discerning and perhaps more chronologically advanced YA reader, but it brings a very post-Harry Potter sensibility to its militarised magic school setting that totally eviscerates the structure of magical dynasties, default humans in a world of diverse sentients, and teenagers as world saving heroes that those books instilled into my generation as core fantasy. It also features Elliott Schafer, who could so easily have been the most irritating character ever (yeah, I acknowledge that to some people he is…) but whose prickly, take-no-prisoners attitude is balanced by a narrative voice that shows us just enough about his insecurities, the impact of his upbringing, and the good things that he’s actually doing and then lying to himself about to make that endearing and forgivable (and frequently hilarious) rather than The Absolute Worst. The mermaids are perhaps not quite as present in the narrative as they are in Elliott’s head or the publicity, but otherwise this worked out perfectly for me. And, as a bonus, it might be the only book on this entire ballot that had me actively invested in a romance! That’s rare.
What I think will win: In Other Lands is the thing I’m backing hardest across all categories, so it’s honestly quite hard for me to make any kind of call that suggests I don’t think it will happen. I could find reasons to back anything, though: Miller took the Andre Norton award, Okorafor took the Locus YA, Kingfisher is a strong favourite among Hugo voters (as evidenced by Summer in Orcus reaching the ballot despite initially questionable eligibility), and Philip Pullman and Frances Hardinge are pretty big deals in general. Surely it’s got to be In Other Lands, though. I mean, it was objectively the best book of the year. (Not really, but… really.)
What I nominated
As you can probably tell from my ballot, I was disappointed at the lack of April Daniels on the final list. Dreadnought and Sovereign were both great books, and hopefully we will have more from Danny Tozer aka Dreadnought in the not too distant future. If I’d known the illustrated version would make Summer in Orcus eligible, I’d probably have nominated it over one of the others here.
- In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
- Dreadnought by April Daniels
- Sovereign by April Daniels
- Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Grey
- Weave a Circle Round by Kari Maaren