The Subjective Chaos Kind of Award winners 2021

Black and white photo of some pebbles, each painted with text: Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards

We identified a stand-out shortlist of 2020 nominees. We have read – and discussed – and read some more. We have examined our hearts and torn out our hair to choose our winners. This has been the most closely-contested year yet, but it’s time to reveal our 2021 Subjective Chaos Kind of Award winners.

The Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards are always an epic journey, and 2021 has been no exception. Whatever its other faults, 2020 produced an exceptional field of genre releases, and every step from nomination to picking winners has been fraught with tough decisions. Before I share the outcome, I want to take one last chance to cheer on the team of readers who have turned themselves inside out to pick the Subjective and Chaotic best of last year: Matt the Runalong Womble, Kris of Cloaked Creators, Adri and Sean of Nerds of a Feather, LA of Aquavenatus, Fabienne of Libra Draconis, Jonny of Parsecs and Parchments, Lisa of Dear Geek Place, Noria of Chronicles of Noria, Arina of Wyrm’s Worlds, and Sun. Thank you all for being a pleasure to discuss books with.

Now, let’s get to it: time to reveal our winners. Drumroll, please….

Best Short Story

We added Best Short last year, and it returns as the first of several close-run categories.

WINNER: You Perfect, Broken Thing – CL Clark

Cover art by Nilah Magruder: Uncanny Magazine issue 32 - Jan/Feb 2020

CL Clark has a knack for sharp-edged depictions of societal unfairness and the cost of struggling against it. Here, what could be an incredibly bleak tale is rendered hopeful through the determination, sacrifice and compassion of her characters, who keep supporting one another in the face of constant, overwhelming struggle. A powerful, challenging, necessary tale.

Best Novella

This year’s novella nominees were all deeply-felt explorations of social injustice and change that left me wrung out in the best way and thoroughly deserve your eyeballs. Choosing a winner was agonising – this was once again the toughest category in terms of each panellist deciding how to cast our votes.

WINNER: The Empress of Salt and Fortune – Nghi Vo

In the final count, Nghi Vo squeaked ahead for the impressive achievement of crafting an epic tale in miniature: a mosaic of moments and manipulations that resolve into a bigger picture of rebellion.

Book cover: The Empress of Salt and Forrtune - Nghi Vo

Best Novel: Debut

A new category introduced in 2021, which almost (inadvertently) doubled as Best YA Novel. After a close first round, we had 3 finalists here – while all garnered much praise, this was a rare category where we soon identified a clear favourite.

WINNER: Legendborn – Tracy Deonn

Book cover: Legendborn - Tracy Deonn

With a young woman discovering magic at an elite school, Legendborn could have felt like we’d read it all before. Instead, the panel were impressed with how Deonn combined familiar tropes and well-known legends into something different, avoiding the obvious to deliver a tender exploration of grief and Black girl magic in a richly crafted world touching on slavery, privilege and secret societies.

Best Novel: Science Fiction

Our two SF finalists featured determined women facing down entrenched power structures and realising they must face down their pasts if they are to forge a fairer future.

WINNER: The Space Between Worlds Micaiah Johnson

Micaiah Johnson’s debut looks at the intersection of capitalism and parallel realities in a ravaged future where you can travel to worlds that are similar to your own – if your alternate self is already dead. Johnson picks apart the unpleasant implications whilst delivering a solid thriller and a compelling romance that explores social inequalities. A personal favourite.

Book cover: The Space Between Worlds - Micaiah Johnson

Best Novel: Fantasy

In a Subjective Chaos first, our Fantasy panel was split down the middle. With pretty much everyone agreeing that both books were brilliant and subjective favourites delivering a tie, we’re embracing chaos and awarding two winners.

JOINT WINNER: The Once and Future Witches – Alix E Harrow

Book cover: The Once and Future Witches - Alix E Harrow

Alix E Harrow delivers an alternate history that embraces and reworks fairytales into a stirring feminist narrative of witchcraft, family and suffragettes. Harrow’s delectable prose and embrace of class within her narrative both came in for praise from the panel.

JOINT WINNER: The Midnight Bargain – CL Polk

Not just a wonderful story about witches in a richly imagined Regency-style setting, but a clever exploration of reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. Polk delivers a thoroughly modern and political book masquerading as a gorgeous escapist fantasy, and that makes it a fantastic read.

Book cover: The Midnight Bargain - CL Polk

Best Novel: Blurred Boundaries

Usually our Most Chaotic Category (but not this year, thanks to Fantasy), Blurred Boundaries delivers a second rock for eclectic author Silvia Moreno-Garcia, previously winner of Best Novella in 2019.

WINNER: Mexican Gothic – Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Book cover: Mexican Gothic - Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This stylish thriller blends Gothic tropes with 50s noir and body horror to comment on an array of very modern themes. Expect themes of prejudice and complicity in an unapologetically creepy tale of controlling families and psychedelic fungus.

Best Series

We consider series completed the previous year – no works in progress, although if authors are chaotic and add to them later that re-opens eligibility (chaos rules). This year’s finalists examined themes of power, resilience, loyalty and colonialism in richly reimagined worlds.

WINNER: The Poppy War – RF Kuang

When I presented the rock for Best Blurred Boundaries to Jen Williams in our inaugural round of Subjective Chaos, Rebecca Kuang exclaimed I want one! I’m delighted to confirm that Kuang’s reimagining of 20th century Chinese history as epic grimdark fantasy has snagged her this year’s rock for Best Series.

Book cover: The Poppy War - R F Kuang (gloriously beautiful black and white illustration of an archer)

That’s it for this year’s Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards. Watch out for announcements of next year’s panel and nominees early in the New Year. In the meantime, if you’ve got thoughts on what 2021 releases we shouldn’t sleep on, drop them in the comments!