The 2019 Dragon Awards successfully manage to evade full respectability for another year

You’ll have to wait a bit longer for my WorldCon and Hugos post-mortem, because DragonCon, a big convention in Atlanta, Georgia, that is a curious mix between massive media con, inclusive cosplay con and conservative con for wargamers and military SF fans, took place this weekend. DragonCon is also the home of the Dragon Awards, whose development I’ve been chronicling since the beginning. So I feel duty-bound to report about this year’s Dragon Award winners, too.

But let’s start with the other fiction award given out tonight at Dragon Con, namely the 2019 Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction. The winner was “When We Were Starless”, a lovely novelette by fellow German Simone Heller, which was also a Hugo finalist this year. A highly deserved win.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Dragon Awards proper. To recap, the Dragon Awards have had a short but rather eventful history. Supposedly conceived as an award to reward the sort of widely popular works that are often overlooked by other SFF awards, they became basically consolation prizes for Sad and Rabid Puppy affiliated authors during their first year, struggled with withdrawals by big name finalists during their second year and were invaded by popular self-published authors and Kindle Unlimited content mills during their third year. Compared to previous years, the announcement of the finalists for the fourth year of the Dragon Award seemed to point at increased mainstream respectability. There were lots of big names books and authors among the finalists, which suggested that the Dragon Awards would maybe finally do what they had set out to do, namely reward broadly popular mainstream works. Credit for this largely goes to the Red Panda Fraction, a group of Atlanta area fans and DragonCon attendees, who created a handy eligibility spreadsheet to make nominating easier.

However, compared to the finalists, the actual winners this year seem like a step backwards. So let’s take a look at the individual categories:

A Star-Wheeled Sky by Brad Torgersen wins best science fiction novel in what must be one of the most baffling Dragon Awards wins since the first year. Why baffling? Because if the Dragon Awards are supposed to honour popular, you’d expect the most popular books to win. However, according to admittedly flawed criteria like Amazon, Goodreads and LibraryThing ranks and ratings, A Star-Wheeled Sky is at the lower end of the popularity scale among the finalists in this category, as Contrarius explains in the comments to this post on Camestros Felapton’s blog. Meanwhile, the most popular finalist in this category by a wide margin is Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey, followed by Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers, which was also my choice. Of course, Brad Torgersen has been actively promoting the Dragon Awards and asks his fans to vote. And while Torgersen is mainly associated with the Sad Puppy disaster of 2015 in wider fandom these days, he is popular with the Baen and Analog crowd and Baen is traditionally strongly represented at DragonCon, plus A Star-Wheeled Sky is a Baen book. However, Tiamat’s Wrath has the advantage of being connected to the hugely popular The Expanse TV series and DragonCon is a multi-media con. Though Brad Torgersen has finally won an award, which should make him happy, while Becky Chambers got to take home a Hugo this year and Daniel Abrahama and Ty Franck are crying all the way to the bank.

The winner in the best fantasy novel category is another Baen book and another name that will be familiar from the Sad Puppy fiasco, namely House of Assassins by Larry Correia. Nonetheless, this is a less surprising win than Torgersen’s, because Larry Correia does have a big and very engaged fanbase and is also very active in promoting the Dragon Awards, though he supposedly asked his fans not to nominate him this year. That said, I’m sure he’ll be devastated at his third Dragon Award win in this category in four years. My own vote was for The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie, BTW.

The Dragon Award for best young adult novel goes to Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard. No real surprise here, it’s a popular novel by a popular author. And indeed, the YA category is where the Dragon Awards come closest to doing what they set out to do, namely rewarding highly popular works. My own vote was for Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, BTW.

The winner in the best military SFF category is Uncompormising Honor, the latest Honor Harrington tome by David Weber. Again, this is not a huge surprise, because both David Weber and the Honor Harrington series are extremely popular, though apparently quite a few fans were disappointed with Uncompromising Honor. David Weber is also a frequent guest at Dragon Con and has won in this category three times to date. However, Uncompromising Honor likely also profited from the fact that the other finalists in this category were several indie published books which – while popular – may not be all that well known outside the Kindle Unlimited eco-system. And while the other traditionally published finalist in this category, The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley, is a great book (and was my personal pick), it’s also very much not what habitual readers of military science fiction are looking for and in fact, many military SF fans actively hate this book. For example, here is a review which claims that Kameron Hurley hates the military science fiction genre and is out to destroy it.

The winner in the best media tie-in category is Thrawn: Alliances, a Star Wars novel by Timothy Zahn. This is one win that’s not at all surprising, because the Thrawn character is hugely popular among Star Wars fans, particularly old school Star Wars fans, though personally I never saw the appeal, not even back when I read Heir to the Empire, when it first came out. Of the characters Timothy Zahn added to the Star Wars canon, I’ve always liked Mara Jade a lot, but never much cared about Thrawn. Still, lots of Star Wars fans obviously disagree. My own vote was for The Way to the Stars, a Star Trek Discovery novel by Una McCormack BTW.

The Dragon Award for best horror novel goes to Little Darlings by Melanie Golding. It’s a very popular novel, though more psychological thriller than horror novel. But considering that the readership for psychological thrillers is a lot bigger than the horror readership, I’m not surprised that it won. My own vote was for We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix BTW.

The winner in the best alternate history category, finally, is Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling. Now Stirling obviously is popular with the Dragon Awards crowd, since he has had several nominations in various categories so far. Nonetheless, I’m surprised that he managed to beat what is by far the most popular book on the ballot, which also won the Hugo and Nebula Award for best novel, namely The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. Of course, the war gamer contingent is strong at DragonCon and Black Chamber is very likely more to their taste than The Calculating Stars. Or maybe The Calculating Stars had too many girl cooties. Meanwhile, what was probably the most mainstream finalist on the whole Dragon Award ballot, Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan, lost out as well, so the Dragons have successfully fended off the Booker Prize crowd. Now I have to admit that I was secetly rooting for Machines Like Me, even though I voted for Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar, if only because Ian McEwan’s reaction to DragonCon and the Dragon Awards would have been so worth it.

The film and TV categories offer no real surprises. Avengers: Endgame wins best film – after all, it is officially the highest grossing movie of all time – and the hyper-popular (and lovely) Good Omens wins best TV series. My own votes were for Captain Marvel and Star Trek Discovery respectively.

The comic and graphic novel categories offer no real surprises either. The hyper-popular Saga wins best comic book with its latest tear-jerking arc. Coincidentally, Saga was also my pick in this category. X-Men: Grand Design – Second Genesis by Ed Piskor wins best graphic novel, which again isn’t very surprising, for even though the X-Men are no longer as popular as during their heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, they’re still one of Marvel’s bigger guns. My own vote was for On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden.

I never vote in the gaming categories in the Dragon Awards, because I’m not much of a gamer. This year’s winners are Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, a Pokemon Go type augmented reality game, which likely also profited from the continuing popularity of Harry Potter, Red Dead Redemption 2, a western themed PC/console game so popular that even I have heard of it, the board game Betrayal: Legacy and the Call of Cthulhu: Masks of Nyarlathotep Slipcase Set role-playing game. None of these winners strike me in any way as unexpected or unusual.

In general, it’s notable that while indie published authors or author collectives can get Dragon Award nominations, they don’t win. For example, Chris Kennedy’s publishing outfit had four finalists on the ballot this year and also made a strong showing in 2017 and 2018, but so far they haven’t won. Ditto for other indie authors. Meanwhile, Baen continues to do well at the Dragons. This year, all of the three Baen books on the ballot won in their respective categories, but then Baen is very active in DragonCon’s literature track and apparently, they do have a sizeable fanbase at DragonCon. It’s also notable that in two categories, best fantasy novel and best military SFF novel, the same author (Larry Correia and David Weber respectively) won three out of four years. Yes, I know that both Weber and Correia have big fanbases at DragonCon, but a bit more diversity would be nice.

As with the nominations, the Dragon Award winners continue to be heavily male dominated. Of seven winners in the novel categories, only two are women. If you include the non-novel categories, you get another female winner with Fiona Staples in best comic book. The winners are also overwhelmingly white, though Larry Correia identifies as Latino as fas as I know. Besides, as Camestros Felapton points out in his post here, to date all ten winners in the two headline categories, best science fiction novel and best fantasy novel, have been men. Somehow, I doubt that those who wring their hands that the winners in the fiction categories at the Hugos and Nebulas were all women in the past three years, will be at all bothered by this.

According to the Dragon Awards’ official rules and regulations, the administrators have the right to pick winners and finalists without taking the will of the voters into account, though there is no evidence either way that they are exercising that right. And indeed, we have nothing in the way of voting and nomination data for the Dragon Awards, which makes the results difficult to analyze.

But once again – and I know I say this every year – the Dragon Awards have to decide what they want to be. Do they want to be the award for broadly popular SFF that they set out to be? Do they want to be an award for conservative leaning SFF? Do they want to be the best Baen book award? Do they want to be the best indie published SFF book award? None of these options are necessarily bad, though it would help if DragonCon were to settle on one of them. This year, however, the finalists pointed at option A, while the winners seem to point at options B and C.

On the other hand, the odd inconsistency of the Dragon Awards may also be linked to the inconsistent nature of DragonCon itself. Cause from what I’ve heard – I’ve never been there myself – DragonCon is a huge multi-media convention, which has a big contingent of young, diverse and overwhelmingly left-leaning media fans and cosplayer, but also a conservative leaning literature track catering to older military SFF fans and wargamers. In many ways, the Dragon Award results reflect this split.

So after an encouraging step forward in the 2019 nominations, coupled with a step back in the actual winners, the question is where will the Dragon Awards go in 2020?

ETA: I already linked to Camestros Felapton’s take on the 2019 Dragon Award winners above, but in the meantime he has also dug up a Dragon Award cheating allegation from the usual suspects, which begets the question how on Earth one can cheat in the “anything goes” Dragon Awards short of hacking the nominations/results. There is also quite a bit of discussion going on in the comments of both posts. Camestros also has a third Dragon Awards post, in which he goes a little deeper into the probabilities of the Dragon Award winners in the best science fiction and best fantasy category being all men.

And at Women Write About Comics, Doris V. Sutherland offers her take on the 2019 Dragon Award winners and also notes the Baen dominance.

ETA2: Richard Paolinelli also felt the need to share his take on the Dragon Awards and displays his usual issues with reading comprehension. To clairfy some points, I specifically said that “Larry Correia identifies as Latino”, because not all people of Portuguese ancestry do. And there were ten winners, all men, in the best science fiction novel and best fantasy novel categories over the four years of the Dragon Award, because two winning books were written by co-author pairs. James S.A. Corey is actually two people, Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, and Larry Correia and John Ringo are two people as well.

Comments are closed. Awards posts inevitably bring out the trolls.

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