As the voting period winds down, I am continuing my series of posts giving my ballot and reasoning for various Hugo Award categories. Back in the spring, I explored Best Short Story and Best Novelette; earlier this week, I examined Best Novella; and today, I’ll be looking at the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Novel. This is a category that caught my eye when the finalists were announced—I had already read and enjoyed four of the six and had nominated three of them myself—and while there’s a seventh book I would’ve loved to see among the finalists, the six we have were still a strong group that forced some tough decisions.
Not every category shakes out so neatly, but in my eyes, this year’s Lodestar finalists fell into three tiers, which corresponded exactly to my three-, four-, and five-star ratings. But this is not to say that there weren’t difficult decisions within the tiers. Additionally, though I did find one entry a noticeable cut below the other five, there is not a bad book in the bunch, and I did not feel the need to rank No Award. So let’s look at my ballot.
Sixth Place: Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Cemetery Boys has had plenty of hype in my circles, with a fun central romance and a gay, trans lead in a story centered around Día de los Muertos. But despite intersectional representation and excellent chemistry between the two focal characters, it doesn’t really rise above the average YA novel. The prose is average, the plot is predictable, and it lacks the thematic nuance of some of the other finalists. It’s a perfectly enjoyable read for those who enjoy YA fantasy, and it’s doubtless important for people who don’t often see themselves represented in fantasy, but it just doesn’t hit the heights of the other five. For more, see my full review.
Fifth Place: Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
I could see (and have seen) arguments for Raybearer winning outright, so its position as fifth on my ballot really illustrates the depth of the finalist group. The plot—featuring a girl who is raised from birth to ingratiate herself to the Crown Prince before using that relationship to murder him—hits hard and fast, and the thematic breadth is outstanding, with the novel taking on toxic relationships, gaslighting, misogyny, and a host of other social injustices, tying them together so intricately that it never feels overstuffed. Indeed, Raybearer would’ve had an argument for Tier One, if not for an ending that’s far too neat to do justice to the rest of the story. It’s still a very good book, and the ending isn’t by any means bad, but in a crowded field, the late wobble is enough to push it down to fifth on my ballot. For more, see my full review.
Fourth Place: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
If my Tier Two books are characterized by having myriad strengths marred by one or two notable missteps, nothing encapsulates that more than A Deadly Education. Appreciation of the strengths will vary somewhat by reader, as it features an extremely strong narrative voice, with a first-person POV heroine whose stream-of-consciousness is prone to infodumping and oblivious to any and all overtures of friendship. But if you enjoy distinctive voices (and I do), there’s a whole lot of terrific action and some compelling character work in the dark magic school novel, with monsters aplenty and a prickly dark sorceress learning how to make friends. There’s also a premise that feels a bit thin and a shallow diversity that seems to reduce various cultures to language and food preferences. This was easily the most bingeable of the finalists, and it was plenty good enough to interest me in the sequel (which takes at least a couple steps forward, in my opinion), but the shortcomings were enough to keep it out of my first tier. For more, see my full review.
Third Place: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
Like Raybearer, Elatsoe tackles some hefty themes while telling a fun and compelling story. Also like Raybearer, it wobbles a bit at the end. But I found Elatsoe to be consistently just a little better, hence its position at the head of my second tier. It stars a Lipan Apache teenager, and the weaving of Apache lore into a supernaturally-charged America gives the world freshness and depth. The characters have such wholesome and supportive relationships among family and friends that they haven’t had to grow up quite as quickly as many YA protagonists, but those relationships are a breath of fresh air in a subgenre often characterized by absent or hostile families, and seeing the characters in the context of those relationships makes them feel delightfully real. The plot is engaging, and tense when it needs to be, and the anti-colonial themes are strong and well-executed. Elatsoe doesn’t quite have the ambition of my top choice, but the execution would’ve been good enough to challenge for Tier One, if not for an odd perspective change that robs the ending of some momentum. I still really enjoyed the read, but that late wobble was enough to drop it to the top of the second tier. For more, see my full review.
Second Place: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
I might argue that A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is pitched more toward middle-grade readers than young adults (and I’m not sure the author would disagree), but it’s an absolutely tremendous book that has plenty to offer older readers as well. It follows 14 year-old Mona, whose exclusively bread-based magic feels insignificant until she finds herself the only one in a position to defend against attacks on people with magical ability, and the narrative keeps an impressive balance between action, humor, and a surprising thematic depth.
A Wizard’s Guide has a lot to say about the significance of those who feel insignificant and about people being forced into an unfair amount of responsibility due to others’ abdication. It feels like a book shouldn’t be able to tackle those themes while maintaining humor and a tone appropriate for middle-grade readers, but it does, and with aplomb. The ending suffers slightly from a twist that experienced readers can see coming a mile away, but it’s a minor complaint set against some genuinely epic moments, never mind a handful of delightful relationships and that perfect narrative balance between the funny and the poignant. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking has already amassed quite a collection of awards—led by the Andre Norton Award—and even though I don’t have it in my top spot, it’s hard to say that such a wonderful book doesn’t deserve another. For more, see my full review.
First Place: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Legendborn received noticeably less hype than any other Lodestar finalist, but I was glad to see it pick up enough momentum to reach the Lodestar finals and to win the Ignyte Award. Because for my money, this was the best young adult novel of the year, telling an absolutely gripping story while handling so many weighty topics with grace and nuance. Legendborn sees a Black teenager stumble upon a secret society of mages claiming descent from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and they may have something to do with her mother’s tragic death. And so begins a story of secret magic and romance and shadowy threats and personal grief and hundreds of years of racism all tied inextricably together into a single narrative.
There are a couple aspects that don’t work perfectly—a bit too much infodumping about the secret society and a villain who launches a monologue during the big finale—but Legendborn just does so many things so incredibly well. The plot is gripping and hard to put down. The relationships feel real, so that even when the lead clashes with her friends and family, we can see her struggling to make good. The reckoning with tragedy, one that isn’t conveniently hidden in the distant past, as it is in so many other works, is heart-wrenching. And the weight of racial prejudice woven through the entire thing ties it all together with remarkable nuance and absolutely breathtaking power. We see stunning flashbacks into the lives of ancestors, how past abuses echo in the present time, undeterred by feeble and incomplete reckonings. And we see a lead who has earned every ounce of her strength and her anger, fighting for recognition and fighting for justice. It’s an incredible debut, and my small critiques aren’t nearly enough to push it out of my top spot. I loved A Wizard’s Guide, but I hope to see Legendborn take the Lodestar. For more, see my full review.