Astounding Award final ballot 2021

In some past years, the Campbell Award, now the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, has presented the conscientious voter with difficulties, due to the different formats of submission from different authors – how can you judge the talent displayed in three short stories against a fantasy blockbuster? This year, fortunately, all of the finalists are asking to be judged on their novels. Not all of them were supplied in the Voter Packet, but really, folks, it doesn't cost much to buy them for yourself the way we used to in the olden days. So here, judged by the novels provided, is my ranking for this year's Astounding AwardThe Unspoken Name cover

6) Jenn Lyons: The Ruin of Kings. Second paragraph of third chapter:

The figure on the right was female; tall for a western Quuros, but average for most Doltari, or eastern Quuros. The figure on the left was tall—very tall. He or she towered above the others, at least a half-foot taller than the next tallest person (which was me). The center figure, the one who seemed hunched and old, hobbled forward toward my escort, a Kishna- Farrigan eunuch slave master named Dethic. The stooped figure held out its hand, gloved in black silk.

I'm afraid I rather bounced off this last year. A very long book about eldritch sorcery and elite conflict; by the end of it I was thoroughly confused about who was really related to who, and exactly how sorcery was supposed to work n this universe. I think it shows promise, but didn't really work for me. You can get it here.

5) Lindsay Ellis: Axiom's End. Second paragraph of third chapter:

“Mind if I come in?” asked Kaplan, ignoring the yappy Thor. Demi shook her head like she’d just snapped out of a spell, and she looked at Cora. Olive stilled, looking like a frightened gerbil. “This won’t take a few minutes.”

I should have liked this a bit more than I did – an alternative 2007 where the US government is concealing contact with aliens, and our plucky heroine is the only human who can communicate with them (and even then only with difficulty). Lots of good ideas but I felt lost the run of itself around half way through. You can get it here.

4) Micaiah Johnson: The Space Between Worlds. Second paragraph of third chapter:

“Obviously,” I say back.

Parallel worlds with a difference, where you can't visit another universe in which your parallel self is still alive. It's a neat idea, and there's lots of other good stuff here about politics and race, but even so I felt not completely convinced by the setup. You can get it here.

3) Emily Tesh: Silver in the Wood. A novella with only two (long) chapters; second paragraph of third section of first chapter:

The cry was coming from somewhere outside. Tobias groaned softly as time sped up again to let him hear it. The wound in his thigh was aching, and not with the dull throb of healing pain. Who was disturbing him now? Hell, who was there left who even knew his name?

Short and sweet. Lovely fantasy story of contemporary England with m/m romance told from the point of view of the Green Man himself. Won the World Fantasy Award, but I still rate the other two (slightly) better. You can get it here.

2) Simon Jimenez: The Vanished Birds. Second paragraph of third chapter:

It was her mother’s doing. As one of the figureheads of the post-vanity movement, her mother requisitioned for Fumiko an off-kilter nose, crooked teeth, a slight overbite, eyes spaced close together, and satellite-dish ears too large for her small, heart-shaped head. Later, when Fumiko was famous in her own right, and interviewers would ask her why she didn’t undergo facial reconstruction to undo the damage her mother had done, Fumiko would tell them two things: first, the question was offensive, and second, this was her face, the only face she knew, and she would have none other. But after those interviews, when she returned home alone, she would remember how desperate she was as a child to be as pretty as the other girls in the park, who danced under falling cherry blossoms with their faces perfect in their symmetry. She would remember shame.

Totally grabbed me in the first chapter, a decades long love story between a villager and an interstellar visitor which sets up the plot for the rest of the book, finding the secret history of an abandoned child. I was sure I was going to vote for this most of the way through, but felt it slightly ran out of steam at the end. Still very good though. You can get it here.

1) A.K. Larkwood: The Unspoken Name. Second paragraph of third chapter:

“Must you be so slow?” snapped Parza. “You cannot travel to Qarsazh and talk like this, unless you want them to think you are a barbarian and laugh in your face. Again. We covered this last week. If-only-I-had-travelled-to-the-town,” he chanted, tapping the cover of his lexicon in time with the words. The point of his beard bobbed up and down like a bird pecking at a worm.

I think this is the longest of the books apart from The Ruin of Kings, but I found it really grew on me – a total sword and sorcery saga with young protagonists in deadly magical combat while also exploring their own sexuality (in a totally discreet way); loyalties shift for entirely understandable reasons, even villains turn out to have depth and complexity, and by the end I was very ready for more. Larkwood gets my vote. You can get it here.

Axiom's End cover Space Between Worlds cover Silver in the Wood cover The Vanished Birds cover The Unspoken Name cover

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

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