Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Reading the Hugos: Lodestar

Welcome to what is likely the final entry in Reading the Hugos this year. As I noted last year, from the perspective of a reader who is not plugged in the YA scene and isn't a YA reader, the Hugo nominators did a good job again this year.

I do always wonder about visibility and this award. How widely are Hugo voters reading in YA? I tend not to nominate much for the Lodestar for that reason (this year I nominated Catfishing on Catnet and Anne Ursu's excellent The Lost Girl), but that is also an argument that can be made for Graphic Story or, if we're feeling nitpicky, the entire ballot. The Hugo Award (and the technically not a Hugo Lodestar Award) is representative of the tastes and opinions of those Worldcon members who take the time to nominate and vote. That's part and parcel of the process, which I suppose makes this paragraph somewhat excessive.

This year I was only able to read five of the six finalists. I missed out on Deeplight, which is the second time I've missed reading Frances Hardinge for the Lodestar. This year I have a good excuse - I was reading all of Seanan McGuire's Incryptid stories included in the Voter Packet (oh, my heart after reading the last of the Johnny and Fran stories).

Let's look at the finalists, shall we?

  • Catfishing on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)
  • Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)
  • Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee (Disney/Hyperion)
  • Minor Mage, by T. Kingfisher (Argyll)
  • Riverland, by Fran Wilde (Amulet)
  • The Wicked King, by Holly Black (Little, Brown; Hot Key)

Riverland: I haven't read much of Fran Wilde's fiction, far less than I would have expected given how well regarded her Bone Universe novels are (start with Updraft), but I have fairly consistently bounced off each story of hers that I have read. Whether it is The Jewel and Her Lapidary, "Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand" or The Fire Opal Mechanism, I have a growing suspicion that I'm just not a Fran Wilde reader. That, no matter how good or how well regarded, these aren't the stories for me. It also means that I am unlikely to give Updraft a go, but that is a different point.

I had hoped that Riverland would be the book to buck that trend. It is completely unrelated to her Gem novellas, it's YA rather than strictly written for adults, it's a portal fantasy novel dealing with domestic violence. Riverland is beautifully written for those readers able to dive in and work their way through Wilde's storytelling. I know Adri gave Riverland 5 Stars on Goodreads, so there's at least one editor here who strongly disagrees with me on Riverland (this is not likely to be our only disagreement in this category) - but Riverland really locked down the idea that unless Fran Wilde is on an awards ballot I am actively reading for, I probably won't be reading more of her work. It is worth noting that this is written before I read any of the Short Story finalists, which does include a selection from Fran Wilde, so there's one more chance for me to connect with Wilde's fiction this year.

Dragon Pearl: Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire trilogy of novels are simply excellent. Each book was a finalist for the Hugo Award (as was the series as a whole), and justifiably so. I thought the series got better as it progressed, and it was pretty darn good from the start. I could not wait to see what Yoon Ha Lee would write next and what was next was Dragon Pearl, a YA novel from Rick Riordan's publishing line. A bit of space opera and adventure.

I absolutely love the idea of Dragon Pearl, of the novel's set up of a girl with hidden magic desperate to find and clear the name of her brother who is accused of desertion from the Space Forces. I loved how Min used her magic, how she cons her way into getting to the heart of what happened to her brother. So much of Dragon Pearl was absolutely delightful and weeks after finishing the novel I'm still thinking about the relationships Min made. Dragon Pearl is a wonderful novel of friendship.

That's what makes it so difficult to put my finger on why I didn't love Dragon Pearl as much as I expected. The individual parts are so excellent, but they somehow don't coalesce (for me) into a novel that reached the heights it should have. All the ingredients were there, the meal just didn't quite come together.

Minor Mage: I have much less to say about T. Kingfisher's Minor Mage, but it was an absolutely charming story of a boy who was training to be a magician but has far too much responsibility for his village compared to his age and training. Minor Mage is a quest story and I would have loved to have another hundred pages of it (Minor Mage is more a novella than full length novel). I look forward to reading it to my kids when they are older.

The Wicked King: When I wrote about The Cruel Prince as part of last year's Lodestar ballot it was my runner up, behind only the superb Dread Nation (The Cruel Prince placed fourth, Dread Nation was the runner up). Where The Cruel Prince was the first book in a series related to other books it did not require any familiarity with Tithe and the other Modern Tales of Faerie. The Wicked King, on the other hand, is the direct sequel to The Cruel Prince and if readers who don't remember the relationships in that first book will be at least half lost in this book, though Holly Black is a skillful enough writer that new readers will be able to keep up, just without some of the nuance.

I wrote last year that Holly Black is a master storyteller and that remains the case. The Wicked King is exactly the continuation of The Cruel Prince one might hope for, though this is not a series for the faint of heart or those who don't want bad things to happen to good people. Black does not pull punches.

Catfishing on Catnet: When Naomi Kritzer won a Hugo Award in 2016 for her story "Cat Pictures Please" (also a Nebula Award finalist) I assumed it was a one-off. "Cat Pictures Please" was a delightful story of an A.I. (artificial intelligence) who wants to help people and look at pictures of cats. Catfishing on Catnet is more than an expansion of that story, it's a complete reworking using that same central premise. Most impressively, it's seamless. Kritzer is not expanding a smaller idea into a shape it doesn't fit, she has a big idea that is bigger than just the one novel (good thing there's a sequel coming next year).

Catfishing on Catnet is a smart and warm hearted thriller that deals with internet privacy, personal identity and rights, friendship, stalking, and social networks - it is an absolute delight. In a category where some of the finalists don't quite work for me - Catfishing on Catnet is a favorite. This is as good as it gets.

My Vote 
1. Catfishing on Catnet
2. The Wicked King
3. Minor Mage
4. Dragon Pearl
5. Riverland

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.