We continue the journey through the Hugo Award ballot with the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Unlike the other categories, these nominations do not rely on any one particular work (a debut novel, for instance) but rather an author’s body of work in the first year or two of their career. Because I have limited reading time, I did not read every single work under consideration, although I did read at least one from each finalist. Several of the finalists debuted in 2020 and only had one work under consideration, but this may affect my opinions of second-year nominees Jenn Lyons and Emily Tesh. My apologies to them, but I’m trying to work within my limitations.
Anyways, my ballot ended up relatively stratified, with three rough tiers but only one decision that I felt in any way difficult. So let’s get right to it.
Seventh Place: Lindsay Ellis (1st year of eligibility)
Having read Axiom’s End, Ellis’ debut novel, I was honestly a bit puzzled as to how she appeared on enough ballots to become a finalist. It’s a perfectly acceptable sci-fi/political thriller, but there’s just no aspect that feels noteworthy. Neither prose, plot, nor characters are above average. She does a reasonably good job keeping the pace moving, but it’s a dime-a-dozen novel without any element that suggests an exciting new author. She certainly has room to develop, but her early work is not award material. For more, see my full review.
Sixth Place: Jenn Lyons (2nd year of eligibility)
Jenn Lyons burst onto the scene with a thick epic fantasy series that was hyped to high heaven and included three releases in two years. And I’ve had quite a few blogger friends tell me that the second and third books are very good. Sadly, my time is limited, and the first book is not. There were certainly flashes of promise, with an engaging prose style and a quality setup, but the story got so bogged down in the little details that the last half became a slog. Those promising aspects are enough to keep her out of seventh place, but promise or not, The Ruin of Kings is a rough debut that makes far too many little mistakes. If she wins the award based on her next two books, I won’t complain. But what I’ve read is third tier material. For more, see my full review.
Fifth Place: No Award
Fourth Place: A.K. Larkwood (1st year of eligibility)
Larkwood’s debut has similar strengths to Lyons’, but without the missteps. The Unspoken Name opens an epic fantasy series with compelling lead characters, plenty of magic, and an opening that completes significant plot arcs even while it leaves others for future books. Like in The Ruin of Kings, I had some trouble connecting in the second half, but in this case, there weren’t any obvious mistakes holding the story back. It may be that I was having an off day, it may be that I just don’t prefer especially involved gods in my fantasy epics. But Larkwood clearly demonstrated the qualities that make her an intriguing new writer, whether or not I was blown away by her debut. For more, see my full review.
Third Place: Emily Tesh (2nd year of eligibility)
Second and third represents my only really difficult decision on my Astounding Award ballot, as the next two authors offered similar profiles, with enthralling prose styles and stories that had moments of true excellence but didn’t totally come together in the end. In Tesh’s case, Silver in the Wood perfectly captures a cozy, small-scale atmosphere of magic in an English country wood. But the introduction of a major antagonist feels somewhat jarring, and the final act accordingly rushed. I have not read Drowned Country to see whether those issues improve, but the strength of the opening is plenty good enough to send her to the top half of my ballot. For more, see my full review.
Second Place: Simon Jimenez
Like Tesh, Jimenez’ debut offers some exquisite prose and astounding scenes in a story that doesn’t really rise above the sum of its parts. The Vanished Birds is a literary space opera, with a veritable tapestry of perspectives that range from main characters to one-off bystanders—more than one chapter felt like it could’ve been an award contender as a standalone short story. But while Jimenez often dazzled with the small-scale tales of those on the margins of his world, the main plot was less interesting and the ending unexceptional. Ultimately, I have him above Tesh because The Vanished Birds showed more ambition and the constituent stories more variety than Silver in the Wood, but both have demonstrated a command of language and storytelling that make them authors to watch closely going forward. For more, see my full review.
First Place: Micaiah Johnson
If “best new writer” is meant to be judged on potential and flashes of brilliance, I could see an argument for Jimenez at the top. But nobody else on the list has demonstrated the kind of finished product of Micaiah Johnson. The Space Between Worlds is an outstanding multiverse thriller with a compelling lead and an unusually strong attention to details about the far-reaching consequences of various actions. The prose may not be quite at the level of Tesh or Jimenez, but it’s good, and The Space Between Worlds has its share of memorable passages. But the overall crafting of a story from start to finished is unmatched by any other work I’ve read by an author on the Astounding ballot. She’s earned an award, and I’m looking forward to whatever she writes next. For more, see my full review.