The Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction is a little different from other Nebula awards because it is not based on length; in theory, a short story could win.
In practice, the nominees are almost always novels, perhaps because of the sparse outlets for shorter fiction aimed at younger audiences.
Let’s talk about the five nominees (spoiler warning).
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
Raybearer is young adult afrofantasy, a subgenre that is becoming extremely popular these days. It tells the story of a young woman who’s father is a Djinn, and who was literally born to assassinate the heir to the empire.
Needless to say, things don’t go as her mother planned. This is a story about magic, gender (it’s a very traditionally feminist fantasy in that it goes into women gaining power reserved for men, but with a stronger reclaiming sense than most), growing up, and family expectations. Above all it’s about finding oneself and overcoming the limitations every family puts on their kids.
And it is so beautifully written. There’s obviously going to be at least one sequel.
Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
The title character, Elatsoe, is heir to an indigenous bloodline of ghost trainers. In Elatsoe’s world, you can raise the ghosts of dead animals and train them just as if they were still alive.
Human ghosts, on the other hand… Human ghosts, when they happen, are essentially spirits of vengeance, hungry and destructive.
This is a classic ghost hunting story with an indigenous flavor, an asexual protagonist (Raybearer also has some solid ace rep), and a cute ghost dog. It is also beautifully illustrated by Australian artist Rovina Cai. Get this one for your kids and then read it yourself…it’s incredibly cute.
A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
The conceit here is incredibly amusing — after a traitor kills or drives out every magic user in the city, the only ones left are our protagonist, Mona, and a crazy woman. And magic in this world is highly specialist. Each magic user can do one thing or work with one substance.
And Mona’s one substance? Bread. Her familiar is her sourdough starter and the story ends up with gingerbread golems (and golem is used more correctly than most). It’s funny, dark, and sends a great message about being creative with what you have.
Unfortunately, Kingfisher “goes there” with the uniformly evil Carex mercenaries. An evil mercenary corp I would be fine with, but she has to make them an ethnicity. I don’t care if they’re coded white, we all need to stop with that trope. The book would have worked perfectly well if they’d just been nasty mercs who would do whatever they were paid to do. Which is a shame, because this is otherwise a really good book, but I found it very hard to get past that.
A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese
Last year, the abuse book in the YA realm was Fran Wilde’s Riverland. This year, it’s A Game of Fox & Squirrels. This one is aimed at a younger audience than Riverland.
It’s a good book, but I had a very personal issue with me: For some reason, it reminded me of a book I read as a kid that I’ve never been able to track down. This would have been a good thing if said book hadn’t been my introduction to my least favorite trope ever: “It was all a dream.” It reminded me of that book so much that I wasn’t able to trust the author not to have all the fantasy stuff turn out to be in the protagonist’s head. I’m so sorry, Jenn, it’s not your fault!
Spoiler: It’s not all in her head.
But this book takes a different and fresh angle on the abuse book. This is about the kid who thinks her abusive family is normal and healthy and has to be taught otherwise. This book needs to be sneaked into grade and middle school libraries, because it might help somebody.
I just couldn’t fully enjoy it myself because baggage. Baggage sucks.
Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar
This is the “oldest” of the nominated work, clearly aimed at older teens. It has romance, but it definitely isn’t a romance.
Sheetal, our protagonist, is the daughter of a star, but when she loses control of her powers she accidentally puts her mortal father in the hospital. The only thing which can save him is the blood of a star, and hers isn’t strong enough. So, she has to go to the celestial court…
…where she gets embroiled in politics, drama, and a talent show that will determine the future of the stars (and incidentally of humans). Her celestial family is utterly dysfunctional, her boyfriend is drawn to the celestial court because his cousin is competing in the contest…
I found this honestly the weakest of the books (which isn’t to say it’s not good) because it didn’t quite pull its themes together in a coherent manner. That said, Sheetal is an awesome character who is trying to work out who she is and I suspect she will speak to mixed race kids more than to me.
This was a diverse slate of books and they all deserved to be there and I’d give any one of them to a child or teenager in my life.
My pick ended up being Raybearer because I’m honestly a sucker for secondary world fantasy that doesn’t read like the next Tolkein or Game of Thrones. But Elatsoe was close.