The 2015 Sunburst Award, Shortlist Edition

It was a spectacularly hard list to whittle down, but we hapless jurors have finally released our shortlist for the 2015  Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Having to balance many genres under one umbrella, we were entrusted with balancing the pros and cons of submissions that ranged from fantasy to science fiction to horror to combinations of some or all genres to books that I’ll deem “unclassifiable.”

The official press release for the 2015 Sunburst Award may be found here. Should you dare not deign to click a link, below are our choices, with accompanying reasoning, for the Adult and Young Adult awards, plus three honourable mentions each.

I’d like to thank every author and publisher who submitted. It was, by all accounts, a truly spectacular year for submissions, and my only regret is that couldn’t declare a ten-way tie. Damn you, rules of competition!

Adult Shortlist
The Troop, by Nick Cutter (Simon & Schuster)

The Troop is a suspenseful horror tale of the old-fashioned variety, written in eloquent prose that is the equal of any great fiction writer. Nick Cutter (a pseudonym) makes the horrific seem plausible by setting his novel on an island off the coast of Prince Edward Island and populating the story with believable characters in situations that feel so familiar we sympathize with, and fear for, them. Cutter crosses genres with masterful confidence, creating a pastiche of William Conrad’s Lord of the Flies, Robert McCammon’s A Boy’s Life, and Stephen King’s “The Body,” among others, and arriving at something wholly original unto itself. The Troop is a fast-paced, fantastical novel that will satisfy most literary tastes. It’s like one of those tales we tell each other when we are twelve, in a tent on the longest night of summer, with flashlights beaming beneath our chins — if only to scare the daylights out of each other and then try to sleep, pretending the worst couldn’t really happen.

The Back Of The Turtle, by Thomas King (HarperCollins)

A compelling tale of our ongoing ecological and economic crisis, The Back Of The Turtle is also a comic myth which reminds us that, in First Nations traditions, there is still hope for the future. A mix of near-future narrative and timeless fable, the novel tells the story of a corporate malfeasance resulting in environmental disaster and protagonist Gabriel Quinn’s search for redemption for his role in this disaster as a scientist working for the responsible corporation. Moving adroitly between past and present, the legacies of colonial history and the promise of a world beyond corporate greed, The Back of the Turtle explores how our actions are entwined with the stories we tell ourselves about our origins and urges us to think about family and futurity in expansive ways.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (HarperCollins)

With crisp, spare and lovely prose, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven explores a world of dichotomies and coincidences, and makes us privy to a place we yearn to belong to while, alternately, making us glad we do not. Through the author’s deft swirl of past and present, the foundation of the novel vacillates between the underlying sadness and overwhelming beauty inherent in the familiar world before it changes and the incomprehensible loss and terrible freedom that accompanies the post-apocalyptic reality. Like the novel’s few survivors of the pandemic that wipes out most of the earth’s population, the reader seeks solid footing and finds it only fleetingly, for it disappears with our very next step onto the next page. As with the best post-apocalyptic fiction, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Stephen King’s The Stand, this is a skillfully rendered, empathetic and truthful look at who we are and likely will become — a work of art that stands in praise of art and as an incisive assessment of what it means to be human.

My Real Children, by Jo Walton (Tor Books)

Jo Walton’s beautiful meditation on the possibilities of the road not taken provides us with two profoundly imagined lives. Bifurcating at the crucial decision of whether or not to wed her college boyfriend, Patricia becomes housewife Trish in one world and travel writer Pat in another. No simple morality tale, Walton gives us two full versions of a life, each with pleasures and pains, triumphs and losses. An engrossing and carefully crafted novel, My Real Children flickers between Trish and Pat’s experiences so that readers feel the sadness and beauty of both lives simultaneously. In the background of Patricia’s memories, Walton also unfolds two alternative worlds with their distinct political landscapes, reminding us of contingency and possibilities in our own lives. A magnificent portrait of compassion and love, My Real Children is an elegant portrait of a remarkable woman.

Will Starling, by Ian Weir (Goose Lane Editions)

A mad scientist hybrid of Frankenstein, Great Expectations, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Alan Moore’s From Hell, Ian Weir has crafted a gloriously Gothic reproduction of 19th century England, replete with dangerous streets, thickly-tongued slang, and wit as dark as the coal smog which permeates every scene. The adventures of the “wery umble” eponymous hero, a surgeon’s assistant in London’s Cripplegate district, Will Starling is a spectacular Dickensian trek into a world of medical wonders, unanesthetized amputations, actors, doomsday men, resurrections, and murder. Weir’s peerless gift for wordplay keeps his tale irresistibly delightful even as the plot careens through the pitch-black themes of scientific perversion, classism, and death (or the refusal thereof). It may wear its influences on its sleeve, but Will Starling is a brilliantly original trek into madness.

Honourable Mentions, Adult
The First Principles of Dreaming, by Beth Goobie (Second Story Press)

An unsettling and unnerving erotic exploration of a young woman’s psyche, Beth Goobie’s mix of sexuality, morality, and religious fundamentalism is a coming-of-age tale unlike any other.

Gifts for the One Who Comes After, by Helen Marshall (ChiZine Publications)

Helen Marshall’s eclectic short story collection is a funny, original, and emotional journey through a literary landscape so dark and profound it would make Neil Gaiman proud.

Echopraxia, by Peter Watts (Tor Books)

The latest novel of dark futurism by Peter Watts is more than a polished, literary sequel to his controversial Blindsight; it’s a meticulously-crafted narrative of biological determinism where paranoia and neurology are the true protagonists.

Young Adult Shortlist
The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier (Amulet Books)

Trees have rarely seemed so laden with dread as in Jonathan Auxier’s suspenseful tale of intrepid orphans, decrepit manors, and all varieties of evils. After two destitute young siblings find work as servants in a mysterious country house, they soon discover it to contain more than a weirdly off-putting family, but also a sinister tree that offers wish fulfillment while also draining the life from anyone who happens nearby. Replete with engaging language and literary allusions, this creepy Victorian ghost story is a lovely allegory on the dangers of greed and the innate power of storytelling.

Tin Star, by Cecil Castellucci (Roaring Brook Press)

Tin Star is a gritty, compact science-fiction novel that travels far beyond the usual orphan tropes of much young adult fiction. Tula is a teenaged girl overwrought with thoughts of revenge after her parents are murdered. Left behind on a shabby space station populated with all manner of alien life, Tula must learn to fend for herself if she is to survive. Castellucci handles notions of cultural difference with a deft hand, moving Tin Star beyond the sort of human-centeredness typical of traditional space operas. The spare prose paints a vivid picture of Tula’s struggles between her desire for vengeance and her yearning for a life beyond grief, and her refusal to view human manners as a default form of “normal” is reminiscent of the best of science-fiction such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. A powerful, melancholy, and ultimately surprising work, Tin Star is a coming-of-age tale that will resonate with any reader with a pulse.

A Breath of Frost, by Alyxandra Harvey (Bloomsbury Press)

Alyxandra Harvey’s A Breath of Frost brings feminist sensibilities to a magical coming-of-age story in which three cousins, Emma, Gretchen and Penelope, discover their magical heritage and learn to accept the responsibilities it entails. Part Harry Potter adventure and part Regency historical drama, A Breath of Frost gives us a lush magical world as sensuously realized as Christina Rosetti’s classic poem “Goblin Market.” Her witty protagonists outsmart their enemies with the self-reliance and sharp tongues of a Jane Austen heroine. This rich fantasy world gives us the resilient and courageous female characters who chart their own path.

Sophie, in Shadow, by Eileen Kernaghan (Thistledown Press)

As with her previous novels, Kernaghan again sets her story in the past, in a firmly realistic place and time, and builds upon this framework through mystic and fantasy elements. When Sophie Pritchard — orphan survivor of the Titanic — begins a new life with relatives in India, she finds herself welcome in their Calcutta home. But she is troubled with visions that go beyond her memories of the shipwreck to reveal to her dark moments from the past and the future. As Sophie learns to find peace of mind, Sophie, in Shadow proves itself a gripping novel of international spies, intrigue, kidnapping, magic, and terrorist conspiracies.

The Door in the Mountain, by Caitlin Sweet (ChiTeen)

Caitlyn Sweet’s dark reimagining of Greek mythology results in a thrilling yarn that is unafraid to challenge the reader’s expectations. Contrasting the lives of an entitled princess and her female slave — each born lacking a “godmark,” a special gift or ability bestowed by the Gods — The Door in the Mountain is as much a mediation on the evils of jealousy as it is an epic adventure. Sweet has fashioned a gorgeously dangerous world ruled by equal parts beauty, magic, violence, and the whims of gods.

Honourable Mentions, Young Adult
Sea of Shadows, by Kelley Armstrong (Doubleday Canada)

In a year when fantasy novels of various styles are abundant, it’s a pleasure to discover that Sea of Shadows meets all the expectations of a reader.

Child of a Hidden Sea, by A.M. Dellamonica (Tor Books)

With luscious world-building and a beautifully-written protagonist at the helm, A.M. Dellamonica has crafted a politically intricate fantasy tale on the high seas that will leave readers craving more from the world of Parrish and the adventures of Sophie Hansa.

The Boundless, by Kenneth Oppel (Harper Trophy Canada)

An absorbing tale where setting is as much a character as the protagonists, The Boundless treats the reader to an exquisitely drawn evocation of 19th century Canadian rail travel through the eyes of labourers and gentry alike, as one boy whose fate is tied to a fantastical train works his way towards the engine in a bid to save his father’s life.