The Nebula awards are long over, but I've just now gotten to the last book--and the winner Naomi Novik's Uprooted. And there's no doubt in my mind that they made a good call.
The base of the plot is a coming-of-age story, and it is set up very directly. A wizard called The Dragon comes every ten years to the valley he serves to take a seventeen-year-old girl into his castle to serve him. There's a lot of speculation about what he does with them, most of it untrue--he seems simply to refine them and give them a good start in life. But they never want to come home again.
The Dragon is a dour soul, respected but not loved or liked. One comes to understand that dourness as we learn about the major driver to this story--the malevolent power of the Wood. It is a constant evil presence for the people of the valley, extremely dangerous to enter and poisonous to be anywhere near. The Dragon has volunteered to be near the border to hold it off.
His latest assistant is Agnieszka. She didn't think she'd be chosen, since her friend Kasia was clearly the shining star of the lot. But she turns out to have a talent for magic, and The Dragon is forced to take Agnieszka instead.
From there Novik builds a fantastic synergy between the cunning malefic influence of the Wood and the strictures of how magic works in this world. The Dragon's path to magic is the dominant one--very precise and rule based, and very powerful. But there's another, older, more feeling magic that turns out to be Agnieszka's strength. The reconciliation of these strains, and how they come together to fight the Wood, are handled masterfully by Novik.
The story also has a very strong and satisfying conclusion. Novik could revisit this world, but she doesn't have to--the story is beautifully self-contained.
I'm contrasting this with what I thought was missing from Grace of Kings, another strong entry. Grace of Kings is a fine story but the magic has little to do with the plot. In Uprooted, the characters (particularly Agnieszka) are the center of the story but the magic is truly integrated into the plot.
I give this a strong four stars and recommend you go right out and read it if you have not yet done so. It's absolutely gripping.