Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Reading the Hugos: Lodestar

This is the second year of the Lodestar Award for Best YA Novel and, from the perspective of a reader who isn't much of a YA reader, the Hugo nominators have done a solid job each year in finding a worthy lineup of finalists.

For reasons of time and priority, the only novel from last year's ballot I read was the one I had already read prior to the announcement of the finalists (Philip Pullman's La Belle Sauvage, for those keeping score at home), but I made a point this year to read the full ballot.

Unsurprisingly, the novels here are consistently excellent.

I do wonder a bit about the choices I make as a reader. I don't want to make this more of a general point, so I'll keep the focus squarely on what I can speak to. As a general rule I am not a YA reader, mostly because there is so much I am interested in reading and even though I read somewhere between 100 and 150 books in a given year (sometimes more, seldom fewer), I still need to make choices as to what to read and there is just so much I am excited to read in the adult SFF sphere that doing any sort of deeper dive into YA is something that would take away from the other other books I am looking to read.

Generally, it takes a novel that breaks out of the YA spaces and gains visibility in some of the more SFF communities that I engage with (see, Children of Blood and Bone) or has some aspect that catches the attention of those communities (see, Dread Nation) or are beloved by commentators I deeply admire and respect (see, Tess of the Road). Also, I almost said the "wider SFF communities", but that would not have been correct because YA publishing and readership is absolutely huge and has a significant overlap in science fiction and fantasy that should not be understated.

This is all to say that I was familiar with three of the novels on the ballot, and I was excited to read everything here to see which novels would break out into my list of new favorites. At least one, and let's find out which.

The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton (Freeform / Gollancz)
Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt / Macmillan Children’s Books)
The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black (Little, Brown / Hot Key Books)
Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray)
The Invasion, by Peadar O’Guilin (David Fickling Books / Scholastic)
Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman (Random House / Penguin Teen)

The Invasion: The novel least on my Hugo / YA radar is also my least favorite of the Lodestar finalists. The Invasion is the second volume in a sequence began with The Call, and I went into The Invasion blind. O’Guilin gives new readers enough to pick up what the story is and how everything fits together well enough that even though there is surely nuance and important references missed, The Invasion stands fairly well on its own despite being very much a continuation of a larger story. It’s a mixup of Irish mythology, survival horror, and faerie. It happens to be one of two novels on the Lodestar Shortlist dealing with faerie. Unrelated to the awards, I’ve read a surprising number of novels this year touching on faerie.

The Invasion is a solid novel, and one which I would normally be interested in reading more of, but this is a really solid class of novels on the Lodestar ballot and The Invasion doesn’t hang with the others. It is also perhaps not surprising with this year’s Worldcon being held in Dublin that a number of voters from Ireland would nominate a novel from their country, which is as it should be.

Tess of the Road: I was nervous to read Tess of the Road because I know how passionately Adri loves the novel, how hard she has championed it not just for the Lodestar but also as a potential contender for Best Novel. What if I don’t like it? What if I hate it? It’s not that our reading tastes line up perfectly anyway (she doesn’t love The Calculating Stars and I don’t understand), but still. So, with a small amount of trepidation and a moderate amount of excitement, I started to read Tess of the Road. Friends, I didn’t love it. It was only because of Adri’s enthusiasm that I pushed through beyond the midpoint of the novel because those first chapters, even up to nearly the first half of the novel, were not working for me. I had decided to not re-read Adri’s review of the novel because I didn’t want to have someone else’s take fresh in my mind, but I was curious what she saw in Tess of the Road.

I kept reading and something changed around the point we got to the road crew and the old nun. I think it was where we saw more of Tess’s change, where Tess had fewer moments of raw desperation to survive or escape and more time forming into the woman she would become. That’s where I began to be sold on the novel. The first half of the novel is necessary for the second half to have meaning (or to even be understandable), but I was fully engaged and excited during that second half and completely disinterested in the opening section of the novel. I do recommend you read Adri’s thoughts on the novel for another perspective. Also, there is a moment very late in the novel that functionally amounts to a recounting of most of what Tess did during the novel and it shouldn’t work. It’s a summary in the form of conversation, and it’s a beautiful capstone to Tess of the Road, a novel that I appreciated far more by the end than I ever thought I midway through the story.

The Belles: It is a sign of the strength of the Lodestar category this year that The Belles ranks as far down my ballot as it does, because Dhonielle Clayton's novel was engaging and a painful delight. As a general rule, I appreciate and enjoy YA novels which feature some alternate world with a major societal change to divide citizens in some way - Uglies, The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. The Belles is that sort of novel, one where Beauty (capital B) is vital - most people are drab and gray, but the power of the Belles is transformative - defining beauty standards and changing drab gray individuals into vibrantly bright realized humans. The Belles is over the top, like Effie Trinket on steroids and multiplied hundreds of times.

The novel is a commentary on beauty and how the external becomes self worth, told through the lens of an absurd concept of a society and magic system and it is absolutely delightful.

Children of Blood and Bone: One of the biggest novels of 2018 was Tomi Adeyemi’s epic fantasy debut Children of Blood and Bone. It’s a YA novel and, from my perspective, much of the conversation lived in YA circles until the novel’s momentum and importance on the year had built so much that it could not be ignored by the more “traditional” genre sphere. I put “traditional” in quotes because I think that is becoming an increasingly outdated way of looking at genre conversation and I also recognize that I may also be inadvertently be considering the small space that I occupy and can see from as “traditional” and others that I’m not aware of as not part of the usual / historical places that genre conversations are occurring and I suspect there is a good chance that I was wrong. With that said, it still *feels* to me that Children of Blood and Bone broke into the genre conversation from a YA base.

Of course, we are considering Children of Blood and Bone as a finalist for the Lodestar Award for Best YA Novel with a need to decide how it stacks next to the other finalists in the category. Children of Blood and Bone is the only finalist I had read prior to the announcement of the ballot and it remains a favorite of mine and a very strong debut for Adeyemi. The novel is inspired by West African mythology, though more than that I can’t say, and hits hard on racism, oppression, and slavery. With that, Children of Blood and Bone is very much an epic fantasy with a quest and it hits those familiar and welcome beats for fantasy readers. It’s a strong debut and I can’t wait to see what Adeyemi does with the follow up.

The Cruel Prince: Holly Black is the most accomplished writer of the finalists for the Lodestar Award for Best YA Novel. She is the author of nine Young Adult novels (including The Cruel Prince) and co-author to some fourteen middle grade novels (including the Spiderwick Chronicles), if my count is at all accurate. Black is a previous winner of the Andre Norton (Nebula) Award for Best YA Novel. The Cruel Prince is the first book of a new trilogy (The Folk of the Air) that is related to a previous series which began with the novel Tithe. No knowledge of those previous novels are required (nor did I have any), though I suspect long time Holly Black readers will nod familiarly at old friends and enemies appearing in this volume.

The Cruel Prince is a very engaging novel, though as with many stories of faerie, not a very pleasant one. Jude and her sisters are brought to faerie when her parents are murdered and they are raised by the murderer (the father of Jude’s oldest sister). The Cruel Prince is a novel of betrayal after betrayal, trickery and plots, of rebellion and desperation to belong. It’s delightful, which is a word that I over-use when describing things, but The Cruel Prince is an absolute delight to read. Jude is an engaging protagonist, as relatable as can be for a character now younger than half of my age. Her relationships with her sisters, with Cardan (the presumed “cruel prince” of the title), with another character better left discovered, are all so well done and well written that Jude is a fully realized character. Children of Blood and Bone may be the more important novel in the long term, but The Cruel Prince is the better book. Holly Black is a master storyteller.

Dread Nation: The American Civil War did not end with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It ended because the dead rose during the battle of Gettysburg and fighting a zombie uprising was more pressing than fighting the living. Slavery has been abolished, but in its place is the Native and Negro Reeducation Act and other laws like requiring non-white children to attend “combat schools” to better learn how to more effectively kill the dead.

Justina Ireland is doing so much work in this novel, and likely so much more than I can even recognize as a comfortably upper middle class white male approaching middle age. I fully recognize there are parts of the novel that aren’t written for me and that I don’t have the lived in experience to even see, let alone viscerally feel to my core that other readers will. Dread Nation is a post apocalyptic zombie novel that deals with race, gender, class, and I have no idea what else. There is action, ass kicking, violence as near ballet, violence as dehumanizing brutality, a clear recognition that slavery isn’t dead but just going by a different name, surprising allies, expected enemies, continued legal oppression, and a searing rage permeating the novel.

Dread Nation is absolutely spectacular. If I had read it earlier, it may well have found a slot on my Best Novel ballot. This is as good as it gets.

My Vote
1. Dread Nation
2. The Cruel Prince
3. Children of Blood and Bone
4. The Belles
5. Tess of the Road
6. The Invasion

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Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.