Obligatory bit of throat-clearing: I opposed the creation of the YA award because I am keenly aware of the extra burden every new category places on the Hugo administrators. But I have to admit that pound for pound, the YA and now Lodestar finalists are on par with the Best Novel finalists for the Hugos, and the extra degree of quality added to the awards as a whole justifies the extra resources required. (I do not feel the same way about Best Series, but we'll get to that.) Having said that, this year's finalists are a bit weaker
6) Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn. Second paragraph of third chapter:
Lights flash blue and red against the night sky, and dread, heavy and sour, fills my stomach. A Durham County Sheriff patrol car has pulled into the lot, and my friends are standing beside it talking to a deputy holding a notepad.
Dear God, King Arthur and the Round Table turn up in Chapel Hill as university students. I'm sorry, I know the writer was also saying important things about race and class, but I can't get past the silliness of importing a very specifically English/Welsh legend to North Carolina. Did not finish. You can get it here.
5) Cemetery Boys, by Aiden Thomas. Second paragraph of third chapter:
They passed by some brujx still looking for Miguel.
Similarly failed to grab me. Again, I know that the writer was saying important things about gender identity and Latinx culture, but the plot turned out to be complete cliché. (Though this time I did keep reading to the end, in the hope that it wouldn't be.) You can get it here.
4) Raybearer, by Jordan Ifueko. Second paragraph of third chapter:
“I told you travelling by lodestone was a bad idea,” Kathleen snapped at Woo In as she emptied my sick bowl out the window. “We should have taken camels. Lodestones are nasty powerful. She's never been exposed to magic before.”
Deeply imagined world with clear roots in West Africa; our protagonist is an unwilling part of a dynastic magical plot by her (frankly awful) mother, set up to kill the young ruler who she is also advising, and struggles to escape her destiny. All nicely put together but I wasn't totally convinced by some elements of the world-building – is there a means of replacement if one of the ruling magical Council dies or resigns, for instance? And the magic seemed (as so often) to be just sufficiently strong for the plot point it was supporting. You can get it here.
3) Elatsoe, by Darcie Little Badger. Second paragraph of third chapter:
Kirby hopped off the bed. He’d been curled at her feet all night, entertained by who-knows-what. When ghosts fell asleep, they went back to the underworld, so he clearly didn’t dream. Maybe Kirby contemplated squirrels and cheese for seven hours.
I quite liked the set-up – an alternate USA timeline where the supernatural is an accepted part of life and our Apache protagonist has brought her own dog back from the dead as a ghost; and they confront ancient evil in a Texas town. However there's quite a lot of infodumping throughout, and I felt the author lost the run of herself in the concluding chase through the evil haunted mansion. You can get it here.
2) Really difficult to choose between the top two; I thought that they were both excellent. However, you have to put one second and one first, so my #2 vote goes to A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, by "T. Kingfisher" [Ursula Vernon]. Second paragraph of third chapter:
There was a new man in the bakery, and he didn’t look like he was interested in tea or sweet buns. He was wearing dark purple robes past his ankles, and the hems weren’t dusty at all. The street sweepers do a good job, once the snow’s melted, but not that good. He definitely hadn’t walked here.
Well thought out if slightly silly fantasy world where those who have magic can only manifest it in a particular way, and our protagonist manifests hers through magical baking, through which she is called on to save her home city, all the other magicians being conveniently unavailable (or traitors). As usual with this author, a cracking pace that keeps you engaged. You can get it here.
1) And my top vote this year goes to A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik. Second paragraph of third chapter:
The next morning Aadhya knocked to get me for showers and breakfast company, which was nice of her. I wondered why. A drill was valuable, but not that valuable. Thanks to her company, I was able to take my first shower in a week and refill my water jug before we headed to the cafeteria. She didn’t even try to charge me for it, except watching in turnabout while she did it, too.
I mean, in general the wizardly boarding school setting was already a bit of a cliché even when Ursula Le Guin did it, never mind J.K. Rowling. But Novik takes a couple of interesting new turns. First, the school is infested by evil magical creatures which in a normal year eat or otherwise kill a large percentage of the students. Second, our protagonist is deeply cynical, rude to everyone, and doesn't even try to be a good girl, just alive. Third, the brutal outworkings of the class system in determining who lives and who dies are a crucial element of the plot. On top of this there's the usual plot of classroom politics and teenage angst, and one slightly wonders about all the parents who send their kids to a boarding school where their chances of survival are so low, but I liked it a lot. You can get it here.
2021 Hugos: Best Novel | Best Novella | Best Novelette | Best Short Story | Best Series | Best Related Work | Best Graphic Story or Comic | Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form | Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form | Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist | Lodestar | Astounding