The most disturbing statistic from this year’s Hugo ballot is that 3 of the 5 novel nominees were marketed as YA books, with the voters passing up hard SF heavyweights like Baxter, MacLeod, Bear, Egan, Haldeman and Banks in favor of more lightweight fare. Is this cause for concern? Are YA books more appealing now that there are more entries by big-name authors, coupled with shorter length and less clanky plots? Stephenson and Stross, both the antithesis of this approach, still made the ballot, so the sky wouldn’t seem to be falling yet, a couple of Harry Potter nominations at the beginning of the decade weren’t a harbinger of doom either.
Anyway, this is one of the YA books, written by this year’s Guest of Honor, which would seem to give it a leg up in that you’ll have that many more people who don’t normally do Worldcon’s coming just to gaze upon his personage and touch his raiments and maybe take a crack at the Hugo voting too. The story concerns a boy named Nobody, or Bod for short, who survived the murder of his family as a baby and ended up being raised by the denizens of a nearby graveyard. The attacker, referred to as the “man Jack”, still intends to finish the job, so the graveyard is as much as a refuge as a school and nursery for Bod while he grows up learning more about the ways of the dead than the living. Gaiman makes the idea of living in a cemetary almost appealing, giving it a sense of adventure without being too horrific, although there are obvious shortcomings, particularly in Bod’s limited contact with the outside world.
He meets a girl about his age named Scarlett who lives nearby, but she soon moves away. Years later she comes back, and sets about to help Bod find out about his family with the help of a neighbor, Mr. Frost, whose real identity I must say was pretty obvious given the small number of characters, at least living ones, in the book. There’s a big dust-up and everything works out well for Bod, he can’t live in the cemetary forever, there’s a nice bittersweet Gaiman-esque sequence near the end as Bod has to watch his childhood friends, including his adoptive parents, become inaccessible to him one by one.
The story moves along, even given its somewhat episodic nature, I think Gaiman has conjured up an original idea and kept it original while integrating into a Harry Potter-style milieu of witches and night gaunts and so forth. There are no great truths to be worked out here, but that’s not the point. It could be argued that many of the great early sf books were written for an equally young audience and some of those won Hugos, but I would counter that the genre has moved on. On its own terms its a perfectly serviceable story, memorable enough and self-assured in its style. Still it’s a children’s story, moreso certainly than Coraline, so while I can enjoy it and remember it, I’m not going to vote for it.