The 2019 Dragon Award Finalists: Mainstream Respectability at Last?

The best thing about the Dragon Awards, an SFF prize given out by DragonCon, a big convention in Atlanta, is that the finalist announcement enlivens the dead period between the close of the Hugo nominations and the start of WorldCon. And even though this year’s announcement is a day and a half late, the Dragons did not disappoint once again. The full list of finalists is here or, in less eye-searing design, here at File 770. Camestros Felapton also has some commentary here.

For those who’ve been following the Dragon Awards saga these past four years (my previous posts about this may be found here), the most notable thing about this year’s ballot is how much like the ballot of a regular mainstream award it looks. There are very few “Who the hell is this?” finalists – indeed, even the Nebula ballot looked odder this year than the Dragon ballot. So it seems as if the Dragon Awards are finally maturing, so sadly we still have no info about the number of ballots cast, let along any voting breakdowns, longlists or the like. We also still don’t know how the finalists and winners are determined, because the rules still state that the administrators can decide finalists and winners, if they want. Not saying that they do – those clauses are an artifact of the Dragon Awards cribbing boilerplate rules from internet sweepstakes.

The growing respectability of the Dragon Awards is at least partly due to the efforts of the Red Panda Fraction, a group of Atlanta area fans and Dragon Con attendees, who want to see the Dragon Awards become what they were intended to be, Dragon Con’s award for broadly popular SFF works. The Red Panda Fraction have created an open eligibility spreadsheet for the Dragon Awards, modelled after Renay’s Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom. Given the odd eligiblity period for the Dragon Awards, this spreadsheet was enormously helpful.

So let’s take a look at the finalists:

The best science fiction novel category is entirely full of finalists by mainstream publishers (though not big five, because Solaris and Baen are not big five), most of them broadly popular. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is one of most discussed space opera novels of the year (in a year that has an embarrassment of riches in the space opera genre). Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers is a Hugo finalist by a popular author. Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey is the latest installment in the hyper-popular The Expanse series. Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson is another novel by an author with a big fanbase and one I wouldn’t be surprised to see on the Hugo longlist. Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson is a bit of the odd finalist out here, because while Dave Hutchinson’s Europe series is popular in the UK, it’s much less known in the US, whence most Dragon Award attendees hail. Europe at Dawn is also more of a Clarke Award or BSFA Award book than a Dragon Award book. It’s also near future dystopian fiction, whereas everything else in this category are various flavours of space opera, hard science fiction or military science fiction. Finally, we have A Star-Wheeled Sky by Brad Torgersen. This might be considered the requisite puppy finalist, except that I’m not sure if it is. Because A Star-Wheeled Sky was published by Baen who traditionally have a big presence at Dragon Con. Not to mention that Brad Torgersen still seems to be popular with the Analog and Baen crowd. Finally, some Amazon reviewers are grumbling that there are too many female characters in this book, which is interesting, given the author.

Diversity count: 5 men, 2 women (James S.A. Corey is two people), 1 writer of colour, at least 1 LGBTQ writer

Best fantasy novel is another category entirely full of broadly popular books by mainstream publishers. We have the highly popular Hugo and Nebula finalist Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik and Ann Leckie’s highly anticipated foray into epic fantasy The Raven Tower, which was also my pick in this category. Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett is another popular fantasy novel that got a lot of buzz last year and will probably pop up on the Hugo longlist. Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovich is the latest installment in the highly popular Peter Grent urban fantasy series. House of Assassins is the second or third book in Larry Correia’s sword and sorcery series. Again, I wouldn’t call it a pure puppy finalist, because Larry Correia does have a big fanbase, though his books aren’t to my taste at all. Also, I’ve heard that his sword and sorcery books are more palatable to readers outside his gunlover fanbase than the Monster Hunter books. So again, it’s not exactly a surprising finalist. Though according to this comment at File 770, Larry Correia explicitly asked his fans not to nominate him. I’m sure he’ll be devastated. Meanwhile, the most surprising finalist in this category is Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys, her spin on the Lovecraft mythos, which is more horror than straight fantasy.

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

In past years, Best Young Adult/Middle Grade book was the Dragon Award category with the most mainstream books and winners. This year, it looks less mainstream than the science fiction and fantasy category, which is certainly interesting. That said, Archenemies by Marissa Meyer, Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard and Imposters by Scott Westerfeld are all broadly popular YA novels. The YA horror novel Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand got a lot of buzz as well, though in horror and thriller circles rather than in the broader SFF community, and is a Bram Stoker Award and Lambda Literary finalist. None of these are in any way surprising finalists. The Pioneer by Bridget Tyler is a book I’d never heard of. It’s a YA science fiction novel published by HarperTeen, a mainstream publisher. Judging by its Amazon ranking and review count as well as the number of Goodreads rankings and reviews (which offer only a snapshot), it doesn’t seem to be hugely popular, but maybe Bridget Tyler has a small, but engaged fanbase or is otherwise well known among the DragonCon crowd. This brings us to the two offbeat finalists. Armageddon Girls by Aaron Michael Ritchey is post-apocalyptic YA and was published by an outfit called Shadow Alley Press, which appears to be an indie author collective. I know nothing else about them and have never heard of any of their authors, though they do mention that one of their authors (not Ritchey) will be appearing at DragonCon. Meanwhile, one of Aaron Michael Ritchey’s previous books was published by Kevin J. Anderson’s WirdFire Press and Anderson is of course popular with the Dragon crowd. Finally, we have The King’s Regret, a YA Steampunk novel by one Philip Ligon. The King’s Regret was published by Russell Newquist’s Silver Empire Press, who are affiliated with the Superversive SF movement and also publish premier Dragon Award champion Declan Finn, who included Ligon’s novel in his Dragon Award recommendations. I haven’t been able to find out much about Philip Ligon beyond a bare bones website and this interview from 2017. That’s a nice cover BTW. And kind of familiar.

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

So let’s take a look at best military science fiction/fantasy. As Camestros Felapton said, this is the most Dragon Award looking category on this ballot. The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley, which was also my pick for this category, got a lot of buzz earlier this year, though it is not your typical military SF novel and indeed has made puppies cry. Uncompromising Honor by David Weber is the latest novel in his hugely popular Honor Harrington series, plus Weber is very popular with the DragonCon crowd. Joshua Dazelle is a very popular indie author of military science fiction and if I’m not mistaken, I featured his Dragon nominated novel Marine in one of my new release round-ups. Order of the Centurion is the first book in a subseries of Nick Cole and Jason Anspach’s Galaxy’s Edge series. Nick Cole is the one puppy-affiliated author whose indie novels with Jason Anspach have broken out of the puppy bubble into the broader Kindle Unlimited readership, probably because Cole and Anspach write the sort of crash boom bang military SF that KU readers like. Finally, A Pale Dawn by Chris Kennedy and Mark Wandrey and Sons of the Lion by Jason Cordova were both published by Chris Kennedy’s publishing outfit and are both part of Kennedy’s Omega War series and linked to his Four Horsemen universe. We’ve seen Kennedy and friends at the Dragon Awards before. So in short, we have two broadly popular and wildly different mainstream novels and four popular indie books in this category. And considering that military science fiction is extremely dominated by indie authors these days (and traditionally published military science fiction like Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade or Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy or Elizabeth Bonesteel’s Central Corps series, while excellent, doesn’t deliver the sort of white dude wish fulfilment fantasy that habitual readers of the genre want), that is not exactly surprising.

Diversity count: 1 woman, 7 men, 1 writer of colour, 4 indie writers

On to Best alternate history. In many ways, this has always been the oddest Dragon Award category, because alternate history is such a tiny subgenre. Which makes this year’s very mainstream finalists in this category even more surprising. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is extremely popular, a Hugo finalist and Nebula and Locus Award winner. Lavie Tidhar is a highly regarded author and Unholy Land is alternate history set in a Jewish state in East Africa. Though Lavie Tidhar strikes me more as a Clarke Award and World Fantasy Award author than a dragon Award finalist. The Black Chamber is a WWI alternate history novel by S.M. Stirling, a popular author of alternate history. The Iron Codex by David Mack is WWII alternate history by an author best known for his Star Trek tie-ins. Holding up the indie flag is The World Asunder by Kacey Ezell, a cold war alternate history novel with psychic powers set in Berlin. Kacey Ezell was also nominated in this category last year and is published by Chris Kennedy’s outfit. Finally, we come to what has to be oddest Dragon Award finalist of all time and given the history of this award, that’s saying a lot. I’m talking about Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan – yes, the Booker Prize stalwart who vehemently insisted that his book isn’t science fiction, even though it absolutely is (and also definitely alternate history, set in a 1980s Britain with advanced AI due to Alan Turing not taking his own life because of general homophobia). The highly touted Machines Like Me did not make the Booker Prize longlist this year, though four other literary SFF novels did, so now Ian McEwan gets a Dragon Award nomination as a consolation prize, which is sort of a tradition with this award. Though I suspect Mr. McEwan will be very puzzled by his Dragon Award nomination and even more puzzled, if he wins. I’m almost tempted to vote for him, just because.

By the way, one thing I noticed is that all of these alternate history novels are set in the 20th century or beyond. We have WWI, the ever popular WWII, the Cold War and the Space Race, the 1980s and Unholy War, whose setting seems to be contemporary/near contemporary. I’m not sure what to make of this. Are writers and readers simply less interested in alternate history with pre-20th century settings? Is this the result of the extreme 20th century focus in history classes in many countries?

Diversity count: 2 women, 4 men, 2 international writers, 1 indie writer

Best media tie-in is exactly the sort of thing the Dragon Awards were supposedly created to honour, books that are very popular, but often overlooked by other awards. And so we have several big and popular franchises such as Big Damn Hero, a Firefly tie-in by James Lovegrove and Nancy Holder, The Darkness on the Edge of Town, a Stranger Things tie-in by Adam Christopher, The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack, a Star Trek Discovery tie-in, two Star Wars tie-ins, Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray and Thrawn: Alliance by Timothy Zahn (I continue to be baffled by the popularity of Grand Admiral Thrawn, since I didn’t even care for him all that much when Heir to the Empire came out 28 years ago). The sixth finalist is rather baffling, since it’s our friend Chris Kennedy again with The Replicant War, which appears to be a LitRPG novel, though it’s difficult to tell what media it ties into. Okay, so it is listed in the media tie-in category at Amazon, but that can happen also to non-tie-in books when you use keywords like “TV”, “cartoon”, “toy”, etc… Blasters of Forever, Cartoony Justice and The Faulty Television Receiver have all been listed in the media tie-in category at Amazon, even though none of them are tie-ins to any existing media. Looking up Anticipation Press, the publisher of The Replicant War, doesn’t help either, because it leads you to two other books sold in Baen’s e-book store. According to Doris V. Sutherland commenting at Camestros’ blog, The Replicant War ties in to a videogame called Turbolance, which I’ve never heard of either. Still very odd.

Diversity count: 3 women, 4 men, 3 international writers, 1 indie writer

On to Best Horror: We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix is a rock horror novel that got a lot of buzz and awards love. Robert McCammon is a popular horror author and Cardinal Black is the latest novel in his popular Matthew Corbett series. Little Darlings by Melanie Golding is an extremely popular book that got a huge amount of buzz – however, it’s usually classified as a psychological thriller rather than horror. Riddance by Shelley Jackson is a literary ghost horror novel that got a lot of critical acclaim. Shelley Jackson is also the ex-wife of Jonathan Lethem. 100 Fathoms Below by Steven L. Kent and Nicholas Kaufman is submarine horror by a popular horror author and an author better known for his military science fiction. Zombie Airman by David Guenther is a self-published zombie novel. To my knowledge, Guenther is not affiliated with any of the groups of indie authors we have encountered at the Dragon Awards before.

Diversity count: 2 women, 5 men, 1 international author, 1 indie author

Best comic book is dominated by popular and well regarded comics. We have two Batman books, a Spider-Man book, Mister Miracle, perennial awards favourite Saga and the Eisner Award winning Black Hammer.

Best graphic novel is more of a mix with Hugo finalists Monstress by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda and On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden (which is lovely BTW, and which I nominated), an X-Men book by ed Piskor, I Am Young by M. Dean, a graphic novel about the relationship between two Beatles fans, one of them a second generation Iranian immigrant (Do I hear puppies crying?), in Scotland, Hey, Kiddo by Jarret J. Krosoczka, a graphic novel memoir about a boy growing up in a family of addicts (more puppy crying), and Berlin by Jason Lutes, a historical graphic novel set in Berlin during the dying days of the Weimar Republic. Interestingly, the last three of those don’t seem to be SFFnal at all.

Best TV series is a ballot full of highly popular series with Game of Thrones, Lucifer, The Orville, Star Trek Discovery, Good Omens and The Umbrella Academy. Absolutely no surprises here.

Best movie is not surprising either with a bounty of comic book adaptations. We have a Marvel trifecta with Avengers Endgame (well, it only is the highest grossing movie of all time), Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far From Home, another Spider-Man film with the delightful Hugo finalist Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and Aquaman. The biggest surprise in this category is Alita: Battle Angel, which was generally not well received and got middling to bad reviews. But then, even badly reviewed movies can do well, as the huge grosses of those completely superfluous Disney live action remakes of animated classics show.

I can’t say much about the game categories, because I’m not a gamer. But I see a lot o big names like Assassin’s Creed, World of Warcraft, Red Dead Redemption (Is this weird western? Cause I thought it was plain western), Elder Scrolls, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Fallout, Magic: the Gathering, Call of the Cthulhu and Warhammer 40000.

So the Dragon Awards finally seem to be moving towards what they were supposed to do, namely reward broadly popular works in a variety of genres. Indies and eager self-promoters can still grab slots in the less popular down ballot categories, but except for military science fiction they no longer dominate any one category. Chris Kennedy still managed to grab a few slots for his publishing outfit, but then maybe he is one of the few who still care. Meanwhile, the 20Booksto50K/LMBPN Publishing folks are notable by their complete absence. There are a few puppy/puppy adjacent authors, but most of them have fanbases beyond the puppy bubble. And indeed, Camestros Felapton dug up Brad Torgersen’s reaction to the ballot and a list of which finalists he considers the relevant ones. It’s about the names you’d expect except for Philip Ligon, who’s notable by his absence.

Sadly, the Dragon Awards are still lacking on the diversity front, but then popular vote awards often default to the straight, white and male, because books by straight white men still get more promotion. Of 48 finalists in the fiction categories 17 are women, that’s 35 percent. Not too bad, but still much lower than what we see in other awards, especially considering that some of the most popular and highly acclaimed SFF authors of today are women. Only three writers of colour, all of them Latino, managed to get nominated, that’s a pitiful 6.25 percent. There are also eight international authors nominated for the Dragon Awards. Six of them are British, one Australian and one Israeli respectively. The comparatively many British Dragon finalists are surprising, since DragonCon is a very American dominated convention.

There is also more than one decent finalist to vote for in every category – in several categories there are five or six good finalists. This is a huge improvement. Whether this is organic or carefully curated by the Dragon Award administratos we will never know.

So that’s it for the 2019 Dragon Award finalists. Who will win? We’ll see in September.

ETA: File 770 lists the number of Goodreads ratings for the Dragon Award finalists, which offers some clues regarding their wider popularity.

ETA 2: Camestros Felapton has made a gender breakdown of the Dragon Awards in the fiction and comic categories and notes that the gender balance is much better this year, though far from even.

ETA 3: Camestros Felapton has also done a breakdown of publishers to see how the big five publishers, medium publishers like Baen or Kensington, small presses, author collectives and indie authors are doing in the Dragon Awards.

ETA 4: Camestros Felapton offers some speculations based on some vague stats in a press release about the Dragon Awards.

ETA 5: Richard Paolinelli, Dragon Award finalist in 2017 (I think) is still pissed off that I linked to his post about the Dragon finalists last year, because that apparently means that I want to silence him, as he keeps tweeting at me every week or so. No, I have no idea why linking to someone’s post is silencing them either. However, in his periodic reminders that I haven’t silenced him yet, Paolinelli also pointed me to his post about the 2019 Dragon Awards, where he lists his nominees and what he will be voting for. The link goes to archive.org, just in case poor Richard thinks I’m trying to silence him again.

ETA 6: Larry Correia is happy to be nominated for a Dragon Award and still can’t help to get in a dig at File 770, because he believes that the posters there are angry about his nomination. Of course, absolutely no one at File 770 has any issues with Larry Correia being nominated for a Dragon Award, because he has a big fanbase. But then I suspect Larry Correia is only happy when he can feel persecuted.

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