Atlanta’s Dragon Con was one of many science fiction and fantasy conventions to become a purely online event for 2020, but — just like the Hugo Awards at Worldcon — its annual Dragon Awards went ahead as scheduled this Sunday. Decided via a free online poll, the Dragon Awards recognise science fiction and fantasy novels, comics, films, television series and games. According to an official statement from Dragon Con, more than 8,000 people cast ballots for the award.
The Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel went to John Scalzi’s The Last Emperox, which concludes the trilogy that began with The Collapsing Empire. The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern’s story of a magical underground world, was named Best Fantasy Novel. The winner of Best Horror Novel was The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher, an author otherwise known as Ursula Vernon.
Two long-running independently published series received honours this year. Finch Merlin and the Fount of Youth, the tenth volume in Bella Forrest’s fantasy saga, won in the Best YA/Middle Grade category. Meanwhile, Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel went to Savage Wars, an entry in Nick Cole and Jason Anspach’s Galaxy’s Edge series. Nick Cole was the only repeat winner in this year’s novel categories, having previously won a Dragon Award in 2016.
Baen Books, which performed well last year, had only one book on the ballot on 2020. Still, the book in question — D. J. Butler’s Witchy Kingdom — succeeded in winning the award for Best Alternate History Novel. James Lovegrow’s Firefly book The Ghost Machine won Best Media Tie-In Novel, the first time that a franchise other than Star Wars has won in this category.
Marvel Comics and Dynamite Entertainment continued their domination of the Dragons’ comic categories, winning Best Comic Book and Best Graphic Novel respectively for Avengers by Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness and Battlestar Galactica: Counterstrike by Jackson Miller and Daniel HDR. The Avengers win marks the second Dragon Award for Jason Aaron, whose run on Thor won in 2018.
While Star Wars lost the award for tie-in novel, the galaxy far, far away nonetheless did very well in the audio-visual categories: The Rise of Skywalker won Best Movie, The Mandalorian took Best TV Series and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order earned Best PC/Console Game. Bucking this trend was the award for Best Mobile Game, which went to Minecraft Earth.
In the tabletop gaming categories, Stonemaier Games’ Tapestry won Best Board Game, while Wizards of the Coast won the Miniatures/Collectible Card/Role-Playing Game award for the Magic: The Gathering expansion Throne of Eldraine, marking this venerable franchise’s third victory in the category.
Presented at the same time as the Dragon Awards – but decided by jury rather than public vote – was the Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction. This went to “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll, a story of a poet’s cat battling against Satan that was also a finalist at this year’s Hugo Awards. Two other prizes usually handed out at Dragon Con, the Julie Award and the Hank Reinhardt Fandom Award, were cancelled due to the pandemic.
A new development this year was an arrangement between the Dragon Awards and local libraries. The library systems of Atlanta’s surrounding Fulton County and the adjacent Gwinnett and Cobb Counties helped to encourage participation in the awards, with staff at various libraries recording video reviews of selected books and the Fulton libraries’ Overdrive site assembling a collection of nominated novels.
Right-wing backlash: past finalists unhappy
The Dragon Awards actively encourage authors to campaign for votes on social media, and over the years many independent authors have taken advantage of this. As a result, the Dragon ballots have historically featured a large proportion of small-press or self-published work. Most notably, a circle of right-wing authors that previously participated in the Puppy campaigns at the Hugo Awards his shown keen interest in the Dragons: in the awards’ inaugural year of 2016, six of the seven winning novels tallied up with the personal choices of Rabid Puppy leader and alt-right figurehead Vox Day, who was himself a runner-up in 2017.
In recent years, however, independent authors have had a harder time gaining representation at the Dragon Awards. 2020 had some indie successes, including Bella Forrest’s winner in the YA category, but for the most part independent novels are confined to the niche categories of Alternate History and Military Science Fiction or Fantasy. The right-wing circle is still present here — Nick Cole, co-author of Savage Wars, has previously worked with Vox Day’s publishing company Castalia House — but some of its members have shown a considerable amount of anger over the 2020 Dragon Award ballot.
Declan Finn, who was a runner-up in 2016 and 2017, was among the most vitriolic. “I saw the 2020 Dragon Award ballot and wondered who the fuck any of these people were”, he posted on his blog. “Seriously, what sort of shit show is this?” Finn‘s loudest objections were reserved for those who ignored his personal book recommendations: “I FUCKING WANTED PEOPLE TO DISCUSS BOOKS FOR THE DRAGONS. WHAT DID EVERYONE THINK I WAS DOING IN 2018 AND 2019? COMPILING EVERY ELIGIBLE BOOK BECAUSE IT WAS FUN? I DID IT FOR MY HEALTH? THAT WAS EXTRA WORK I DIDN’T NEED TO DO.”
Kai Wai Cheah, a 2017 runner-up who previously declared that “John Scalzi cannot be allowed to win an award”, was also unhappy with this year’s Dragon contenders. “That which is not explicitly right-wing will be infiltrated and subverted by the left” he said on Twitter, later adding that “Either we constantly show up where it matters or we cede ground to those would burn and salt everything we hold dear.”
Brian Niemeier, who won a 2016 Dragon Award for his self-published novel Souldancer, blamed the perceived flaws of the 2020 Dragon ballot on the ongoing pandemic. According to Niemeier’s assessment, the lack of a physical convention meant that “normal people tuned out” while a “Death Cult” that also holds sway over the Hugo Awards “took advantage of the drastically reduced voter base to pack the ballot”. Niemeier claims that this movement is literally in league with Satan: “the Death Cult witches lie constantly in the manner of their father below”.
Best Horror Novel winner Ursula Vernon expressed amusement at these accusations: “I did not find out I was even on the nomination list until my husband said ‘Hey, you’re up for a Dragon!’ so whoever is in charge of Death Cult Communications is falling down on the job!”
Come the day of the awards, Niemeier’s theory regarding voting numbers turned out to be wrong. While the official number of “more than 8,000 ballots” marks a smaller turnout than the 10,000-11,000 ballots cast in the previous two years, it is the same number as was given by the award administrators for 2017, and twice the number provided for 2016.
In reality, of course, there is no need to attribute the shift in the Dragon Awards to either COVID-19 or the machinations of devil-worshippers. As far back as 2017, when Brian Niemeier lost to James S. A. Corey and Declan Finn lost to Victor LaValle, it was clear that the Dragons were outgrowing the grip of any politicised clique. Rather than the year of the pandemic, the real odd-one-out year of the Dragon Awards’ history is clearly their debut in 2016 — the year in which they had their lowest turnout.
The voting base might be marginally smaller than in 2018 or 2019, but on the whole, 2020 gives every indication that the Dragon Awards are continuing to shape up. As is to be expected from a popular-choice award, the winners range from big-publisher talent like John Scalzi to indie stars like Bella Forrest. Meanwhile, the awards’ partnership with local libraries is a positive sign of efforts being made to broaden the voter-base.
The clique of right-wing authors who once hailed the Dragons as representing true fandom may be turning their backs on the fiery red trophies, but the evidence shows that the Dragon Awards will get along just fine without them.