The 2021 Dragon Award Finalists Take Another Big Step Towards Mainstream Respectability

As always in August, when you’re busy with other things, the finalists for the 2021 Dragon Awards, have been announced. The Dragon Awards are a fan award given out by Dragon Con, a massive SFF media con in Atlanta, Georgia.

This is only the sixth year of the Dragon Awards, but they have gone through quite a bit of history since then, as recounted here by Camestros Felapton. You can also find my previous posts about the Dragon Awards and their tangled history here.

The finalists for the 2021 Dragon Awards were announced today and the ballot looks pretty good with hardly any WTF? finalists and a lot of popular and well regarded works. This confirms a trend that we’ve seen in the past two years, namely that the Dragon Awards are steadily moving towards the award for broadly popular SFF works that they were initially conceived to be, as the voter base broadens and more people become aware of the award, nominate and vote for their favourites. It’s a far cry from the early years of the Dragon Awards, where the finalists were dominated by Sad and Rabid Puppies, avid self-promoters and Kindle Unlimited content mills with a few broadly popular books mixed in.

So let’s take a look at the individual categories:

Best Science Fiction Novel

We have a range of broadly popular novels here, though they tilt more towards hard SF than the Hugos are Nebulas normally do. Machine by Elizabeth Bear is one of those good SF novels that made neither the Hugo nor the Nebula ballot, so I’m glad to see it recognised here. A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine is the sequel to the popular and Hugo winning (and excellent) A Memory Called Empire. Ernest Cline, Cory Doctorow, Andy Weir and Kim Stanley Robinson are all popular authors, so I’m not surprised to see them nominated, though personally I don’t care for their work (and no, it’s not because they’re male, but because I don’t care for their flavour of science fiction). The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is also a book whose absence from the Hugo ballot surprised many, so it’s good to see it recognised elsewhere. And the pop culture and gaming focus of Ernest Cline’s fiction seems ideally suited to the Dragon Con crowd. The only surprise in this category is Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. Not because it’s not a good or popular novel – it absolutely is (and also coincidentally the only finalist in this category that’s also on the Hugo ballot), but because it’s unambiguously fantasy. This is clearly a case of “The Ways of the Dragon are inscrutable”.

Diversity count: 2 women, 4 men, 1 writer of colour, 1 international writer*

Best Fantasy Novel including Paranormal

Here we have another selection of broadly popular books. Jim Butcher and Brandon Sanderson are both massively popular, so I’m not at all surprised to see the latest books in their respective series here (and in fact, I’m surprised that the Dresden Files didn’t get a Best Series nod at the Hugos this year). Butcher is also a Dragon Con regular. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is one of the most discussed fantasy novels of 2020 and has also been nominated for every award under the sun, so it’s no surprise to see it on the Dragon Ballot. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab and Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow are two more highly regarded and popular novels. Charles Stross is another one of those authors whose work is not to my taste, but he’s popular and has also been nominated for a Dragon Award before.

Diversity count: 3 women, 3 men, 2 international writers

Best Young Adult/Middle Grade Novel

This is another very good ballot. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher, Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger and A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik are all popular YA novels (even though Naomi Novik’s novel was marketed as adult fantasy), which are also on this year’s Lodestar ballot. I also enjoyed both A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and Elatsoe very much, A Deadly Education less so. The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke got a lot of buzz, when it came out earlier this year. Jeff VanderMeer is better known for his adult SFF, but his foray into YA A Peculiar Peril got good reviews. The only real surprise in this category is The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira by Lou Diamond Phillips. Of course, I know Lou Diamond Phillips as an actor, but until today I didn’t know that he also writes YA SFF.

Diversity count: 3 women, 2 men, 1 non-binary, 2 writers of colour

Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel

This is still the category which looks most like the early years of the Dragon Awards and is dominated by Baen Books and indie publishers. It’s also the only all male category. But then, military SFF is a rather conservative subgenre, which is heavily dominated by Baen and indie books. Marko Kloos, Christopher Ruocchio and Larry Correia are all popular authors, though I’d classify Christopher Ruocchio’s Sun Eaters series as space opera or science fantasy rather than military SF. Larry Correia’s co-author John D. Brown was unfamiliar to me. He appears to be mainly a thriller author, but has also written epic fantasy.  Walter Jon Williams is one of those great, but perpetually underappreciated authors. Plus, he writes military SF that I actually enjoy, so I’m thrilled to see Fleet Elements here. Rick Partlow, Jonathan Brazee and J.N. Cheney are all popular indie authors of military SF. Sentenced to War by Jonathan Brazee and J.N. Cheney also has a striking cover, which is a far cry from the usual exploding spaceships in space covers that dominate this subgenre.

Diversity count: 8 men, 1 writer of colour, 3 indie writers

Best Alternate History Novel

While the military SFF category still looks very much like the early days of the Dragon Awards, the alternate history category looks a lot more mainstreamy these days. S.M. Stirling and Eric Flint (plus co-author Charles Gannon) are highly popular alternate history authors and frequent Dragon finalists in this category, even if their work is not to my taste. Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon is the third novel in her popular Lady Astronaut series and also a double Hugo finalist (for Best Novel and Best Series) this year. Lindsay Ellis is a popular YouTuber and also a finalist for the Astounding Award this year. P. Djèlí Clark is one of the most exciting newer voices in our genre and I’m very happy to see his alternate history mystery novel Master of Djinn nominated here. Charlaine Harris, finally, is the sort of author for whom the Dragon Awards were made, hugely popular, but overlooked by the Hugos and Nebulas, because most of her works are in series and in subgenres like urban fantasy or here alternate history that don’t get a lot of attention elsewhere.

Diversity count: 3 women, 4 men, 1 author of colour

Best Media Tie-in Novel 

This category is a mixed bag this year and also demonstrates the broad spectrum of media tie-in novels these days. There are two Star Wars novel, including one by Timonthy Zahn, a Firefly novel, a World of Warcraft novel, a Warhammer 40000 novel and a tie-in novel for the new MacGuyver series. Fans of the latter apparently ran something of an online campaign to get it nominated (which is perfectly acceptable in the Dragon Awards), as Doris V. Sutherland found out. Interestingly, I couldn’t find out anything about Eric Kelley, one of the two co-authors of the MacGuyver novel (the other co-author is Lee Zlotoff, creator of MacGuyver) except that someone with the same name has written several cook books.

Diversity count: 1 woman, 6 men, 2 international writers

Best Horror Novel

The horror category at the Dragons has generally been very good (we will forget the first year, where a misclassified religious space opera novel won) and 2021 is no exception. The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones has already won every horror award there is to win, so it’s only fair that Jones gets a crack at a Dragon as well. Paul Tremblay is another very popular horror author and a regular on horror awards ballots. T. Kingfisher makes her second appearance on this year’s Dragon ballot with her horror novel The Hollow Places.  T. Kingfisher a.k.a. Ursula Vernon is a perennial favourite of Hugo nominators, but it’s good to see her popularity extend to the Dragon Awards as well. Michaelbrent Collings is a popular indie horror author, though his nominated novel Synchronicity appears to be a science fiction thriller rather than horror. True Story by Kate Reed Petty received a lot of acclaim, when it came out last year. However, it appears to be a thriller rather than a horror novel. The Taxidermist’s Lover by Polly Hall is a modern gothic novel that also seems to have gotten a lot of acclaim.

Diversity count: 3 women, 3 men, 1 writer of colour, 1 international writer, 2 indie writers

Best Comic Book

Here we have another category full of popular finalists. Monstress, Invisible Kingdom and Once & Future are all Hugo finalists this year as well and very good. Meanwhile, X-Men, Immortal Hulk and Daredevil hold up the flag for traditional (Marvel) superhero comics. DC is not represented, which is interesting.

Diversity count: 3 women, 9 men, 5 creators of colour, 9 international creators

Best Graphic Novel

This category is a truly mixed bag, but looks very good overall. We have a traditional superhero collection with Green Lantern: Season Two, a comic tie-in to Lev Grossman’s popular Magicians series, Pulp, a great graphic novel about a pulp writer who gets drawn into his own stories, that was also on my Hugo ballot this year,  Dracula, Motherf**ker, a psychedelic horror comic about Dracula and his brides reappearing in 1970s California, which sounds actually awesome, The Magic Fish, a sweet story about a Vietnamese-American kid and his magic fish and The Book Tour, a surreal graphic novel.

Diversity count: 3 women, 8 men, 1 non-binary, 2 creators of colour, 5 international creators

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy TV Series

This category is full of popular TV and streaming series. WandaVision and Loki both made a big splash and were also hugely popular, though I’m a bit surprised that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is missing. The Expanse and Star Trek Discovery are both perennial favourites in this category. The Nevers got some bad press, largely because of various unsavoury revelations about showrunner Joss Whedon, though most people seem to have enjoyed the series itself (and Whedon is out as showrunner anyway). Resident Alien was somewhat under my radar and seems to be more of a cult hit. Shadow and Bone surprises me a little, because not a lot of people seem to have enjoyed this YA fantasy adaptation. But then, it might be popular with Dragon Con’s younger members. Notable by its absence is The Mandalorian, but then there are a lot more good SFF TV series than slots.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make TV series

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie

Considering that theatres were closed during much of the eligibility period, this is a surprisingly strong ballot. Better than the Best Dramatic Presentation Long ballot of the Hugos IMO. Due to the pandemic, there hardly were any superhero movies this year, but Wonder Woman 1984 and Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of Justice League hold up the superhero flag here. Regarding the nomination for Snyder’s take on Justice League, I wonder whether to treat director’s cuts as new movies or re-edits. The Dragons obviously went for option 1, while I would have gone with 2. I enjoyed The Old Guard, which is basically an updated take on Highlander with a bad arse Charlize Theron and the world’s sweetest and deadliest gay couple, a whole lot, so I’m very glad to see it here. Tenet was one of the few bigger movies to actually come out last year, so it’s no big surprise to see it here, even if Christopher Nolan has never made a movie that I like. Bill and Ted Face the Music is the belated sequel to a beloved series and also a very sweet movie. In fact, I’m surprised that the Hugos overlooked it. Godzilla versus Kong has two big monsters fighting each other, so what’s not to love? The South Korean space opera Space Sweepers is a bit of a surprise, since it’s a smaller film and subtitled, too. However, it’s also delightful, so I’m happy to see it here.

Diversity count: 2 women, 5 men, 3 directors of colour, 2 international directors

The Gaming Categories

I’m still not a gamer, so I can’t say much about these categories. I have heard of most of the PC/console games. I’ve seen ads for the Harry Potter: Puzzles and Spells mobile game, which were bloody annoying. I’m also fascinated that there apparently is a mobile game based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And Peer Sylvester, who’s a boardgame designer, points out that half the finalists in the board game category are not actually SFF.

All in all, the Dragon Awards continue to improve and are moving increasingly towards what they were supposed to be, namely an award for broadly popular SFF works. This is partly due to Dragon Con paying more attention to the awards and promoting them more to their audience as well as due to effforts such as the crowdsourced Dragon Awards eligibility spreadsheet created by the Red Panda Fraction.

The Dragons have also become a lot more diverse. There’s only one all male category, though the Dragons still skew male, and plenty of international writers and writers of colour are represented.

I still wish the Dragons were more transparent with regard to how many nominations and votes were cast and who the administrators are, but they’re on the right track.

Reactions

So let’s take a look to the reactions to this year’s Dragon Award finalists, especially among those quarters who used to consider the Dragons Awards their territory.

Camestros Felapton, who along with Doris V. Sutherland and myself, has probably written the most about the Dragon Awards without wanting to win one, shares his thoughts on the 2021 ballot here. There’s also some discussion going on in the comments.

ETA: Camestros Felapton has also done a gender breakdown of Dragon Award finalists from 2016 to 2021.

Over in Puppyland, Larry Correia is happy to be nominated for a Dragon Award together with his co-author John D. Brown and also has some praise for the rest of the category. He has little to say about the other categories, except those where friends of his are nominated.

Declan Finn, who has been talking up his preferred works of SFF for the Dragon Awards for several years now, shares his thoughts on the 2021 Dragon Award finalists and mostly demonstrates his complete and utter ignorance about contemporary SFF.

A friend of this blog who shall remain unnamed (because he hates being named and mentioned, since that is somehow silencing him) shares his thoughts on the 2021 Dragon Awards finalists and also shares what he voted for. Like Declan Finn, he found nothing to vote for in multiple categories.

Doris V. Sutherland has also dug up a couple of reactions from puppy adjacent folks on Twitter.

Of course, what’s really happening here is not that the Dragon Awards have become a joke – in fact, they’re much less of a joke now than they were when they started – but that the Dragons better reflect the broad spectrum of SFF fandom and its tastes. And it’s notable that even the puppy and puppy adjacent commenters still found works to vote for.

*International writer means “not from the US” in this context, so British and Canadian writers count as international.

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1 Response to The 2021 Dragon Award Finalists Take Another Big Step Towards Mainstream Respectability

  1. Pingback: A Mixed Bag: Some Comments on the 2021 Dragon Award Winners | Cora Buhlert

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