A month ago, when I started the process of reviewing the David Gemmell Legend Award shortlists, my goal was to examine the notion of "celebrating" fantasy. The award is consciously set up for this purpose - "to celebrate the history and cultural importance of fantasy literature" - and the engine for that celebration is a public vote.
The DGLA is unique with this mechanism, but it makes critical evaluation more or less impossible. The more people who take part, the further diffused and re-interpreted any sort of criteria becomes. The result is, as billed, a celebration - with the most popular books becoming, by virtue of their popularity, the "best" books of the year.
I'm in no way proposing to reform the DGLA's voting process. I like that there's a popular vote and I like that there's an award that specialises in epic fantasy. In general, the more awards, the better. They're recommendation engines, and you can never have too many recommendations. This is a fun award, people enjoy it and it gets fans involved. Bring it on.
What I would like to address is the mistaken notion that the DGLA exists because no one else is taking epic fantasy seriously.
First, as noted a month ago, epic fantasy has popped on the shortlists of many juried and organisational awards in the SF/F community. These include the Hugos, the Locus Awards and The Kitschies. The British Fantasy Society reformed its own award format because, amongst other things, it felt it wasn't representing fantasy enough. These evaluations are out there. If epics are feeling slighted by literary awards like the Booker, well... stand in line.
Second, when epic fantasy is critically evaluated, the response should never be, "well, it is just entertainment" or "you're reading too much into it". It doesn't work both ways. Granular examinations for consistency, for racefail, for gender issues... that's what happens when a reviewer takes a book seriously. Speaking for ourselves, we at Pornokitsch don't claim to be right, but we respect epic fantasy enough to put it under the same brutal spotlight that we shine on everything else. That's what taking fantasy seriously means.
Treating a book as "pure entertainment" does it a disservice. Enjoyability is, of course, important (it is one of our three Kitschies criteria), but it isn't an excuse. Don't blindly celebrate books - talk about them, address their flaws, and use that discussion as a platform towards getting even better books.
So, 10 books, 5,000 pages and 17,000 words of review later, where did I come out on the DGLA shortlists?
Let's start with the debuts:
Morningstar Award (Best Debut):
- Songs of the Earth- Elspeth Cooper (Gollancz)
- Among Thieves - Douglas Hulick (Tor)
- Prince of Thorns - Mark Lawrence (Voyager)
- The Heir of Night - Helen Lowe (Orbit)
- The Unremembered - Peter Orullian (Tor)
Although all of these books had their flaws, the debut list isn't looking for a perfect novel. I see this as a search for potential. All of the books were ambitious, and, to various degrees, succeeded in communicating some sort of new vision or interpretation of fantasy.
The Unremembered took a bit of a beating in my review, and I stand by that. It was perhaps the least ambitious and most enthusiastic of the list, a hectic regurgitation of existing tropes. It was also, by far, the most reactionary of all the finalists, with worrisome depictions of women and the boring umbiguous evil.
Songs of the Earth and The Heir of Night felt very similar to me. They're both traditional fantasies with predictable stories, but the authors tried for something new. Ms. Cooper toys with the aesthetics of fantasy, and I'm still delighted by her (rather poetic) description of magic and her consideration of how pro- and anti-magic factions perceive one another (in stark contrast to Mr. Orullian's work). Ms. Lowe is almost the reverse. Aesthetically, it is almost entirely by-the-numbers, but she gracefully parts from tradition with the way she addresses gender - positively and effortlessly.
Prince of Thorns is the most philosophically aggressive. I didn't enjoy it - but, as mentioned above, entertainment is only one way of evaluation. Mr. Lawrence has taken a daring approach to fantasy and possesses the talent to execute it, but I find some of the novel's issues (especially regarding female characters) problematic. This is a provocative book and, although this may sound counter-intuitive, I recommend it, for both consideration and discussion.
Still, Among Thieves was a Kitschies finalist for a reason, and is a book that consistently impresses me. It takes existing archetypes and moves them forward: telling a story that could only be told in a secondary world, while avoiding the traditional pitfalls of the same. It also brings the idea of the un-Chosen everyman into fantasy, an adventure featuring the empathetic rather than the charismatic, a concept that no other finalist addresses.
Although Mr. Hulick gets my vote, the Morningstar list holds up overall. I think The Unremembered is the one weak link, and given the derth of positive reviews around the internet, I'm actually slightly surprised it is even on the shortlist. Although there are no conspicuous absences, other epic fantasy debuts I read that I would have preferred in its place include The Emperor's Knife (Williams), The Straight Razor Cure (Polansky) or Suncaller (Liddles).
Which brings us to the Legend Award for Best Novel:
- The Heroes - Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz)
- Blackveil - Kristen Britain (Gollancz)
- Blood of Aenarion - William King (Black Library)
- The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss (Gollancz)
- The Alloy of Law - Brandon Sanderson (Gollancz)
What the hell happened here? There's about 30,000 feet of clear air between The Heroes and its closest competitor, and then it drops even more steeply from there. Unlike the Morningstar list, this shortlist isn't just indefensible, it is utterly baffling.
I have opinions about The Wise Man's Fear, but I have more or less resigned myself to its frightening popularity. Its ill-considered, pedophiliac, genocidal poverty porn has swept through fandom like a gentle summer storm.
Blackveil is an improvement on the above, if only because it is forgettable, not regrettable.
The Alloy of Law, from last year's winner, Brandon Sanderson, is, again, an example of the author's technically proficient storytelling. I believe that no author's works represent the status quo more aptly than Mr. Sanderson. Although successful at being entertaining, his books not only discourage interpretation, they often suffer from it.
With Blood of Aenarion, we finally reach a finalist for "best novel" that's worthy of a place on the list. The very format of the book comes as a breath of fresh air: it is short, unpretentious and self-contained, three virtues previously absent from this list. Mr. King tinkers with the notion of the Chosen One, portraying a world where prophecies are so commonplace as to be bureaucratically processed. Blood of Aenarion also provokes the discussion of imperialism and decline; it portrays a decadent empire, struggling with the dawning recognition of its own obsolescence.
Finally, The Heroes, a book as far beyond Blood of Aenarion as Blood of Aenarion is above the other three. Of all the books on this list, only The Heroes exceeds the expectations and context of the category to be genuinely amazing literature.
The Heroes exceeds analogy. It doesn't reflect real world issues (as Blood of Aenarion does), but it discusses them in ways that only fantasy could do. A year ago, I compared The Heroes to the Iliad, a pairing that seems even more apt with time. Mr. Abercrombie uses the freedom permitted by the genre to examine the meaning and consequences of war in new ways: heroism and fear, identity and self-awareness, political ambitions and human connection. Despite my many problems with the Legend shortlist, this one is right: The Heroes actually is the best epic fantasy of the year.
To return to my opening point, not only do people take epic fantasy seriously but, if, this were the purpose of the DGLA, it would be seriously undermined by the critical quality of this year's Legend shortlist.
The Heroes and Blood of Aenarion aside, I'd happily take a golden axe to three of these and replace them with options from dozens of other authors, like Sam Sykes, Pierre Pevel, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Chris Wooding or Mark Charan Newton. And that's just limiting myself to the appropriate sub-genre. Even as a pure popularity contest, this is a stunning result - where are The Crippled God (Erikson) and A Dance with Dragons (Martin)? I'm not advocating that the DGLA abandon its public voting, but results like this year's shortlist highlight a need for better transparency, if not voting security.
Despite the presence of The Heroes, the Legend list is a poor reflection of the actual quality of epic fantasy. Or, at the very least, a poor reflection of what that quality can be.