Last Thursday we got to celebrate the best speculative fiction books of 2020 at the Aurealis Award ceremony. For the second year running it was done via Zoom, which unfortunately meant the social side was a little more difficult, but even seeing a bunch of familiar faces on the screen was fantastic.
What I wanted to do though was discuss a few texts that didn’t win, specifically, stories that I really enjoyed. To be clear, this is not an ‘I think X should have won instead’ post. All the winners are hugely deserving, and having judged for a few years now, I know how hard it is when there’s a competitive field. In 2020, looking at the category that I was on the panel for and also seeing the shortlists, it was an INCREDIBLY competitive field. This post is just a personal opinion on some really good stories that didn’t win, that I’d recommend to just about anyone who will listen.
On the topic of ‘win’. . . (and hoping the pronunciation is the same so the segue words. . .)
Bonnie Wynne’s The Ninth Sorceressis the first in the Price of Magic series, and I was enthralled from start to finish. It has all the dark, bitter characters I love in any story, along with a narrative that is full of action, subtle world-building, and deliberately inserting questions throughout that left me wanting to dive further into the story and find out the answers. This is a story that stayed rent-free in my mind for months after I read it, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a gritty, magical, and dark tale of a girl coming into her power, those who want to use (or smother) it and her, and the consequences of her control over it.
Grace Chan’s Jigsaw Children is another one that I’ve raved about to friends for a long time. Well, for at least a year. What I love about this short story is that it explores genetics and how they will impact the future of humankind from a perspective unlike any I’ve read before. We start with Lian as a nine year old visiting her second-mother’s mother – rejected by modern society for being born ‘the old way’. Through a child’s viewpoint (though a child old enough to comprehend, and an advanced child in almost every way), we start to understand what this version of the future looks like, before jumping in time to see snippets of Lian’s life.
I enjoyed Jigsaw Children as much for what is not said, as much as what is. There are all sorts of themes hinted at, and it can be read a thousand different ways from questions on politics, peer pressure, body autonomy, to seeing populations as products and little more, and the importance of understanding a history. All the consequences, benefits (?), and impacts to the world because of embracing a single idea. The end is perfect, and I cannot recommend this highly enough
A shortlisted book in two categories, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Aurora Burning is a fantastic follow-up to Aurora Rising (which took home two awards in 2019), and I’m not surprised at all it got shortlisted again. Squad 312 go a little more epic in this one, and we meet my favourite character of 2020, Saedii. Non-stop action and a great cast – another one that I picked up and couldn’t put down this year. There are heists, relationship dramas, level-ups, great escapes, and a heck of a cliffhanger. Everything to guarantee a great YA sci fi read.
The Attic Tragedy, by Joseph Ashley-Smith. I honestly don’t know what to say about this one as it blew me away in ways I can’t describe. I downloaded it on my phone, expecting to read it on my Kobo later. To be clear, I read on my phone sometimes, but usually I’m not a fan. Too many notifications, a screen really not made reading, and when I’m looking at my phone, people tend to assume I’m not doing anything and have no issues with interrupting me. Still, I wanted a peek, so I just read the first few pages. Then a couple more. Then, next thing I knew, I was completely enthralled by the George’s journey, by the way they were finding themselves, and my heart was breaking as I saw Sylvie follow a tragic path with parallels to schoolyard bullying that she seemed unable to recognise. I finished in a single, timeless sitting without ever opening my Kobo, because I was so entranced by the writing that I didn’t even realise that putting it down was an option.
As a final note, because I’ve already gushed over Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women here, it isn’t on this list, but I absolutely loved it and highly recommend the anthology. Also, I was super excited to see anthology-buddy Louise Pieper win for her short story ‘Truth Be Told’ in Unnatural Order.
As a final final note, these are just a few of the ones I enjoyed this year. I can’t think of a single category though in which the shortlisted titles weren’t incredibly tough to pick a favouite out of. It’s great to see, as it shows how strong Australian speculative fiction is these days. A big part of the reason I volunteered to be on a judging panel back for the 2018 awards was because I wanted to see what what out there beyond what I normally read. I found a bunch of new favourites, and have thoroughly enjoyed discovering more every year.