The 2020 Dragon Award Finalists Go Full Tilt Towards Mainstream Respectability

I’ve been following the saga of the Dragon Awards, an SFF award handed out at Dragon Con in Atlanta, Georgia, since their inception in 2016. During these five years, the Dragon Awards went from puppy award that was conceived as an alternative to the Hugos that puppies could actually win to award for Kindle Unlimited content mills to the mainstream popular award the Dragons were supposed to be and back again.

So what would the 2020 Dragon Award ballot look like, considering that the official website couldn’t even be bothered to update the nomination ballot for ages?

Well, the finalists for the 2020 Dragon Awards have been announced today and the ballot looks…. actually pretty good. You can find the whole ballot here on the official site and in a less eye-searing format at File 770.

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

Best Science Fiction Novel:

This finalists in this category are probably the biggest surprise, because they are all popular mainstream science fiction novels. Not a single “Who is this?” nominee to be found among them. There is also a lot of overlap with other genre awards ballots, which isn’t normally a thing with the Dragons.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow and The Rosewater Redemption by  Tade Thompson were all Hugo and Locus Award finalists, Gideon the Ninth and The Ten Thousand Doors of January were also Nebula finalists and one of Tade Thompson’s Rosewater novels won the Clarke Award.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is this year’s Ian McEwan, a literary SFF novel that winds up on the Dragon ballot. And of course, The Testaments is last year’s Booker Prize winner (together with Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo) and was a Locus Award finalist. Unfortunately, Dragon Con and the award ceremony will be virtual this year, so we will be deprived of Margaret Atwood’s reactions to Dragon Con.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig was a Locus and Stoker Award finalist, The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz was on the Hugo longlist and I’m pretty sure that Network Effect by Martha Wells and The Last Emperox by John Scalzi will show up on several awards ballots next year.

It is also notable that John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig are two writers whom puppy types flat out hate and Margaret Atwood writes to sort of books that make puppies cry. So for them to make the Dragon ballot in the Best Science Fiction Novel category, while none of the puppy favourites is anywhere in sight is remarkable.

Of course, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is actually fantasy and Gideon the Ninth is science fantasy, but then the Dragons have played it fast and loose with genre classifications since their inception, including a fantasy novel winning Best Science Fiction Novel and a space opera with religion winning Best Horror Novel in 2016.

Diversity count: Five women, two men, one writer of colour, three international writers

Best Fantasy Novel

The finalists in the Best Fantasy Novel category are another bunch of broadly popular mainstream novels with not an outlier among them.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia was a Nebula and Locus finalist. Jade War by Fonda Lee, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern and Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer were all Locus Award finalists. The Burning White by Brent Weeks is the only Dragon finalist in this category that didn’t show up on other awards ballots, but then Weeks is a hugely popular fantasy author, so his presence here is no surprise.

Notable by his absence is Larry Correia, who has been a fixture in this category since the inception of the Dragon Awards and won several times. However, I seem to recall that Correia recused himself.

In odd genre classifications, I could have sworn that Dead Astronauts was science fiction, insofar that any Jeff VanderMeer novel is only one genre. And Leigh Bardugo is normal a YA author.

Diversity count: Four women, two men, two writers of colour, two international writers

Best Young Adult/Middle Grade Novel:

This category has always been the most mainstream literary Dragon Award category since its inception and this year upholds the trend.

CatFishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer not only won the Lodestar Award and  the Edgar Award, it was also nominated for pretty much every other SFF and crime fiction award in existence and now Naomi Kritzer gets to add a Dragon Award nomination to the list.

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett is a well regarded and bestselling feminist teen dystopia (Is that the sound of puppies crying I hear). Cog by Greg van Eekhout was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award this year. The Poison Jungle by Tui T. Sutherland is a novel in a bestselling middle grade fantasy series that I have to admit I never heard of.  Force Collector by Kevin Shinick is a young adult Star Wars tie-in novel and author Kevin Shinick is a TV and comics writer and Emmy winner. Bella Forrest is a hugely popular SFF indie author and Finch Merlin and the Fount of Youth is the latest in a popular series.

So in short, these are all very popular books. With regard to odd genre classifications, I’m surprise that Force Collector was not nominated in the Media Tie-In category, but I guess in this case target audience trumps the fact that it is a tie-in.

Diversity count: Four women, two men, two writers of colour, one international writer, one indie author

Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel

The Military SFF category has always been the most typical Dragon Awards category (and the Dragon Awards are the only genre award that has a separate category for military SFF) and indeed, it looks more like the Dragon Awards of old this year than any other category.

Aftershocks by Marko Kloos, System Failure by Joe Zieja and Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio are all popular mainstream military science fiction novels. Aftershocks is also the only Dragon Award nomination for an Amazon imprint (47 North). And though Howling Dark was published by DAW, Christopher Ruocchio works for Baen Books, which has traditionally done well in the Dragons. And Joe Zieja is not just a writer, but also a popular anime voice actor, which I for one didn’t know.

Savage Wars by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole is a novel in Anspach and Cole’s highly popular Galaxy’s Edge series. Josh Hayes is an indie author who has collaborated with Jason Anspach, Nick Cole and Richard Fox, all of whom we’ve seen on the Dragon ballot before. His nominated novel Edge of Valor was published by Aethon Books, an indie press run by Rhett C. Bruno, who was a 2018 Nebula finalist, and  Steve Beaulieu. Aethon Books also published Defiance by Bear Ross, a novel I for one had never heard of before.

So we have three traditionally published finalists (lumping in Amazon under traditional publishing here) and three indie/small press finalists, which looks about right, considering that military SF is very indie dominated.

Diversity count: Six men, one international author, three indie authors.

Best Alternate History Novel

This has always been an odd category that mixes mainstream and indie works, probably because alternate history is a tiny subgenre. This year is no exception. In addition to the military SFF category, this is probably the category that looks most like the Dragon Awards of old.

Witchy Kingdom by D.J. Butler is the third in a series that Dragon Awards nominators clearly like, because both previous volumes have been nominated as well. It’s also the only Dragon Award nomination for Baen this year.

Revolution by W.L. Goodwater is the second in a series of Cold War with magic novels that have found more attention in the crime/thriller world than in the SFF world, though they’re published by Ace.

Up-time Pride and Down-time Prejudice by Mark H. Huston is a tie-in to Eric Flint’s popular 1632 series that was published by Flint’s own imprint. Of course, Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, 180 years after the time during which the novel is supposedly set, but then quibbling about the historical accuracy of the 1632 books would be a lengthy endeavour.

The Girl with No Face by M. H. Boroson is a small press novel that sounds pretty interesting actually. As Our World Ends by Jack Hunt is a self-published post-apocalyptic novel that probably ended up in alternate history, because the Dragon Award category for post-apocalyptic fiction was discontinued a few years ago. A Nation Interrupted by Kevin McDonald was published by Braveship Books, an indie author small press in the vein of Michael Anderle’s LMBPN Publishing and Chris Kennedy’s indie press, both of whom are notable by their absence on the Dragon ballot this year.

Also notable by his absence is S.M. Stirling who was a fixture in this category every single year.

Diversity count: Six men, between two and three indie authors, depending on how you classify Eric Flint’s imprint.

Best Media Tie-In Novel

No real surprises in this category. We have Rebecca Roanhorse’s Star Wars novel Resistance Reborn, two Star Trek novels, a Firefly novel and an Alien novel.

Diversity count: Two women, three men, one author of colour, two international authors

Best Horror Novel

This is another Dragon Award category that has always been dominated by popular mainstream novels, even if the first ever winner was an indie novel which wasn’t even horror.

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky (author of the hugely popular novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower), The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher a.k.a. Ursula Vernon, The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North a.k.a. Catherine Webb a.k.a. Kate Griffin and The Toll by Cherie Priest were all Locus Award finalists in the horror category this year, though there is no overlap with the Bram Stoker Awards at all. Michaelbrent Collings is a popular indie horror author and multiple Stoker Award finalist, though his Dragon nominated novel Scavenger Hunt was not nominated for the Stoker Award.

So in short, we have a lot of popular horror authors and novels here.

Diversity count: Three women, two men, one international author, one indie author.

Best Comic Book

Dragon Con is a big media con and so the Dragon Award categories for comics, graphic novels, film, TV and games have always been dominated by popular mainstream works. This year is no exception.

And so we have three time Hugo winner Monstress, three mainstream Marvel superhero comics (Avengers, Immortal Hulk and Spider-Woman) and two Image Comics (Bitter Root and Undiscovered Country). No DC, though they show up in the Graphic Novel category.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make comics.

Best Graphic Novel

Again, there are few surprises here. Mainstream superhero comics are represented by Batman Universe, Mister Miracle (DC) and Black Bolt (Marvel). The other finalists are a Battlestar Galactica tie-in, Something is Killing the Children, a horror comic published by Boom! Studio, who also publish the Hugo winning La Guardia, and Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang, a bestselling graphic novel author. Though I wonder what Dragon Hoops is doing on the Dragon Award ballots, since it seems to be an autobiographical story about basketball with zero SFF content. Maybe it was the name.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make comics.

Best TV Series

The Mandalorian, The Witcher, Watchmen, Star Trek Picard, The Expanse, Lost in Space and Altered Carbon are all highly popular SFF TV series and none of them is even remotely surprising as a finalist.

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

Best Movie

There are a few more surprises here, if only because the 2020 movie season, which normally would have generated several Dragon Award finalists, has been cut short by the pandemic.

That said, the Dragon Award nominations for The Rise of Skywalker, Terminator: Dark Fate and Joker will surprise no one. I am a bit surprised by the nominations for Ad Astra and the live action Lion King, since both had middling to bad reviews, when they came out. That said, Disney’s live action remakes of their animated movies always make a lot of money, even though you never meet anybody who admits to actually watching them.

One finalist that is a real surprise is Fast Color, an indie dystopian superhero movie with a largely black cast. Fast Color completely flew beneath my radar, though it sounds like the sort of movie I should love.

No diversity count, too many people are needed to make movies.

The Game Categories

I’m not a gamer, so I can’t say much about these categories, except that they are full of games even I have heard of, so they must be popular.

I’m a bit surprised The Last of Us 2 wasn’t nominated, but then it came out very close to the nomination deadline.


This is the most mainstream Dragon Award ballot we’ve seen so far. Lots of broadly popular works, lots of overlap with other genre awards, very few “Who the hell is this?” finalists and half of those turn out to be well known to someone, just not to me.

There are also a lot more women and writers of colour nominated this year. The only fiction categories, which are all male (and all white and mostly all American) are Military SFF and Alternate History. These are also the only categories which have several indie author finalists.

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at what we don’t find on the 2020 Dragon Award ballot: For starters, there are no puppies and puppy adjacent authors. The only exception are Nick Cole and Jason Anspach, since Cole used to be affiliated with the puppies (never heard anything about Anspach). But then, Cole and Anspach’s Galaxy’s Edge series has found an audience beyond the limited puppy realm.

Baen, who have traditionally done well at the Dragons (probably because Baen always sends several of its authors to Dragon Con), only have one finalist this year plus two (Christopher Ruocchio and Mark H. Huston) who are affiliated with Baen, but not published by them.

Michael Anderle and Craig Martelle’s LMBPN Publishing and Chris Kennedy Publishing are also notable by their absence. And Chris Kennedy always had multiple Dragon Award finalists in previous years. Aethon Books and Braveship Books seem to be following the LMBPN/Chris Kennedy model of an indie author press, but both are new to the Dragons.

This ballot has surprised pretty much everybody who pays attention to the Dragon Awards (basically Camestros Felapton, the Red Panda Fraction and myself). There are a few suspicions what may have happened.

For starters, it seems as if there was less Dragon Award campaigning by the usual suspects. The fact that the nominations opened very late and that the ballot wasn’t easy to find probably didn’t help either. There also are suspicions that there was a change in the administration of the award or that Dragon Con applied pressure on the awards administrators to cater less to special interest groups.

This press release about the awards, which Doris V. Sutherland found, also mentions that Dragon Con cooperated with various public libraries in the Atlanta area to get the word out about the awards, which may also have tilted the ballot towards broadly popular works.

However, it seems as if the Dragons are finally becoming what they were supposed to be, a people’s choice award for broadly popular works. Campaigning still has some effect in smaller, specialised categories like Military SFF and Alternate History, which is why those categories look most like the Dragons of old. But in the bigger categories, regular nominators drown out special interest and bullet nominators, which results in a ballot that looks very much like other genre awards.

So far, there are no reactions from the puppy camp. Though I did come across this post from a “friend” of this blog who shall remain unnamed, because he dislikes unapproved people linking to him (which is why this is an link), in which he declares that award winning works should be judged on their own terms rather than based on the race, gender, ethnicity, etc… of the author. The Dragons and the author’s own private awards do this in his opinion, the Hugos and Nebulas don’t. He then does on to rant about N.K. Jemisin, John Scalzi and Jeannette Ng*, who apparently vy for the title of worst ever SFF author in his opinion, and the Retro Hugos, because people have been saying mean things about John W. Campbell.

In short, there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen a hundred times before, but what makes this post interesting is that it was posted August 10, i.e. one day before the Dragon Award ballot was announced. I shall be very interested to see what he makes of this year’s Dragon Award ballot, if only because it very much disproves his point.


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6 Responses to The 2020 Dragon Award Finalists Go Full Tilt Towards Mainstream Respectability

  1. Laura says:

    The puppy camp has now started to react and it’s pretty …let’s say…entertaining.

    I notice that Locus put Dead Astronauts in fantasy as well. But I can’t imagine anyone who actually read Ten Thousand Doors would consider it science fiction. Ninth House was marketed as Leigh Bardugo’s first adult fantasy, but I’ve seen it called New Adult. So apparently at least slightly older characters than usual — I haven’t read it.

    (CatFishing on CatNet won the Lodestar — the other Not-a-Hugo.)

    • Cora says:

      Looks like a round-up of Dragon Award reactions is in order, so my ConZealand report with anything but the Hugo ceremony will have to wait a bit longer.

      Ten Thousand Doors is a lovely book, but clearly fantasy. Regarding Leigh Bardugo, I have to admit that I never read anything by her, though I recognise her name as a popular YA fantasy author. Though I notice that Locus seems to think Ninth House is adult fantasy as well, so it probably is. Might be an edge case like Sarah J. Maas whose adult books don’t read all that different from her YA books to me.

      Thanks on catching the Lodestar/Astounding mix-up. I’ve corrected it now.

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