Since August 12th, I've reviewed all nine books on this year's David Gemmell Legend Awards shortlists. A huge thanks to everyone that joined in the discussion - over 75 comments (as of writing this), plus all the chat on Twitter and Facebook. It has been a lot of fun, and I hope you've enjoyed it as well.
Given that voting is closing in a few short days, I suppose I should probably make up my mind. As you'll see below, I've found it easy in two categories and difficult in the third. Regardless of where I come out, I urge everyone to vote - the DGLA is one of the largest popular awards in genre fiction and your vote is a measure of support. It has some flaws (although, needless to say, I don't think any literary award is perfect), but I'm glad it is there.
So, let's get to the discussion, shall we?
First up - the Ravenheart Award for "Best Fantasy Book Jacket". This category has six shortlistees. Three of which are spill-over in the other categories (Weeks, Abercrombie, Kristoff) - fans that voted the party line. The other three are, um, also books. Let's take a peek at them:
Red Country continues the 'map-jacketing' approach that helped Abercrombie leap off the shelves from his first book (back in 2006). I still like this, but I'm not sure it feels as brave as it did 7 years ago. I also actually like both Besieged and The Black Mausoleum quite a bit - they're fun, melodramatic and they have a sort of... cheesy epicness to them. I prefer the tilted dragon on the Deas, but only because Besieged is a little too... Danerys Targaryen.
Stormdancer is fine, the cover continuing the text's fine tradition of lifting the most convenient elements of Japanese culture. Meanwhile, The Blinding Knife is kind well... it is what it is. But then, Weeks is so readily identified with "hooded men" that, well, why mess with a good thing? (And I do like the blast of rainbow colors in the center.) Finally, The Legion of Shadow. Which. Golly. I guess it is going for nostalgia, to match the "choose your own adventure" style of the book - but the danger of this category is that nostalgia is still the status quo, and an attempt at hipster-chic can very easily be mistaken for a godawful eyesore. Just saying.
My vote: The Black Mausoleum. When in doubt, pick the biggest dragon.
Who will probably win: Red Country. I can't see how it won't, but I've been (very) wrong before.
Next - the Morningstar Award for the best debut. This category has five nominees ranging from sword & sorcery to quasi-historical fiction to yong adult. Here's a picture of our contenders:
Irenicon and Throne of the Crescent Moon are my two clear favourites here, and by a healthy margin. I still maintain that Throne does everything it should, but much more - however, after reading the complete shortlists, I've realised that books like this are a minority and sadly not the status quo.
The Red Knight spurred a lot of discussion, and I can (kind of) see what people like it in. It is detailed, meticulous and complex, and, much to my delight, it occasionally has something interesting to say. Somewhere in this book is a great novelette, screaming to be let out. Malice is also a curious one - "gripping" (if you'll excuse the cliche) but cliched (if you'll excuse the... oh). Unlike The Red Knight, I can actually think of a situation in which I would recommend this book - but, even then, as a family-friendly gateway fantasy, not an example of the year's best. (I am also still baffled by the GRRM-style positioning.) And Stormdancer is Stormdancer.
My vote: Irenicon. The book has flaws, no doubt, but there's a hearty gap between Irenicon and Throne and then the three others. Irenicon has an interesting, well-developed setting, great (if sprawling) plot hooks, loads of scheming and an emphasis on accomplishment and hard work over predestined victory. Throne is probably more polished, but I think Irenicon tackles bigger themes - and, especially in the debut category, I like the idea of rewarding ambition.
Who will probably win: Throne of the Crescent Moon. I'm ok with that too.
Finally, the main event: the Legend Award for the year's best fantasy novel. Here are the contenders:
We've got three front runners: Weeks, Abercrombie and Lawrence are all popular within the voting crowd. Helen Lowe won last year's Morningstar, so she can't be discounted; even if she seems an underdog - clearly her fans are motivated to vote. And Stormdancer is ubiquitous. In the rare absence of a Rothfuss/Lynch/Martin/Sanderson release, we've got a surprisingly open year, with no obvious favourite.
In fact, in the absence of those epic names, it would be easy to say that this wasn't a banner year for epic fantasy - but, actually, there were a lot of great titles: Mark Charan Newton, Tom Lloyd and Sam Sykes all finished their series, Elizabeth Bear and N.K. Jemisin both started new ones (the latter's The Killing Moon made the World Fantasy Award shortlist, with good cause), plus new books by Daniel Polansky, K.J. Parker, Elspeth Cooper, James Maxey, China Miéville (does Railsea count? I'd think so), Frances Hardinge, Gaie Sebold, Rachel Hartman,* Stephen King (The Wind through the Keyhole!), Max Gladstone, Robert Jackson Bennett (The Troupe is epic fantasy) and Mary Gentle. Most of these were not even submitted.**
So... actually it was a pretty good year for epic fantasy, but then, my definition of "good" seems to be at odds with the collected DGLA votership's definition of "best". So be it - let's not cry over spilt Longswords of Wounding +5, and get on to the tricky task of picking this year's "best novel".
Red Country may not be Mr. Abercrombie's best, but it is still very solid. As he is wont to do (and I am equally wont to reward), he strives to add a layer of thematic text into the book - I think Red Country's genre mash-up didn't work quite as well as it did with The Heroes, but it did allow Red Country to talk about fate and instinct and destiny and progress and stuff. Let's also not forget that Mr. Abercrombie's two point of view characters are a young women and a person of colour. Bonus points for not playing on the default settings, and having a better book because of it.
King of Thorns is the only other book that strives to achieve something more than entertainment alone. Again, this is not a book I like. But this is a book I can respect - it has a lot to say, even if I don't agree with it. Setting aside the thematic content, this is a clever book, but, as noted, not without its problems. I think the sexual politics border on the atrocious and the ending is a led-down. But... there's a lot to be said about how King of Thorns' is using the tropes of epic fantasy to tackle sticky social and philosophical questions, and that's the sort of aggressive ambition I think risks "greatness" instead of settling for "good".
The Blinding Knife is perfectly happy being "good" and, in fairness, it is damn, er, good at it. This is a book that features an out of shape nerd who discovers he's really, really good at the live action equivalent of a collectible card game. And his out of shape nerddom is rewarded by a) being special, b) being the best, c) being the object of female affection and c) being special and the best. It is fun, blockbuster entertainment aimed squarely at epic fantasy's (current) demographic heartland. Like The Way of Kings (the winner two years ago), this is a fantasy that does everything we already know fantasy can do: provide escapist thrills for fantasy's traditional readership.
The Gathering of the Lost is a representative of a type of fantasy that, above and beyond everything else on this list, I don't really like. The Tolkienate tradition of long, silly names and magical secrets and layering quests and choseny-chosens is one that I've never enjoyed as a reader, so I have a hard time judging this one with any sense of objectivity. I think it is fair to say that Ms. Lowe does a lot right - especially as regards gender roles - although whether or not that's enough to make up for the clumsy prose, I'm simply not sure.
And Stormdancer is Stormdancer.
Ok - a bit more. We see three books on these shortlists that take place in non-Western European cultures. Joe Abercrombie's Red Country takes from the Wild West, and, although it bites off more than it can chew in places, it does a generally sympathetic, intriguing job of incorporating the setting into the plot and (especially) themes of the book. Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon succeeds by taking its Middle Eastern location "for granted": it assumes (correctly) that readers are completely and utterly fine with non-medieval-European-analogues as long as the story is good. Stormdancer is only "Japanese" in the sense that it adds cosmetic touches with no sense of consideration or belonging. It neither takes the setting as a given (like Mr. Ahmed) nor uses it for thematic depth (like Mr. Abercrombie) - the book leverages another culture's heritage for the sake of cheap thrills. That's cultural appropriation at its most shameful. And, as mentioned in my review, it is boring.
My vote: Red Country. And not without hesitation, but, going through this shortlist, I can't see how any of the other books could stake a better claim for being the "best of the year", no matter how you define the term. King is more 'ambitious' and Blinding Knife (god help me) more fun, but Red Country runs a close second to both - plus, despite a few fumbles, it is as 'progressive' as Gathering due to the way it tackles race and gender. Plus, after two years of having much better books defeated by far inferior ones (Sanderson over Best Served Cold and Rothfuss over The Heroes, ffs), there's a certain appeal to throwing my vote his way.
Who will probably win: Red Country. And I hope I didn't jinx it. Ultimately, I do see this being a three-way fight with Lawrence and Weeks, and, all things being equal, Red Country is the end of a series, and not a middle volume. I know that hasn't mattered historically (see: last year's win), but, who knows... It is high time that the UK's biggest epic fantasy award went to the UK's most epic fantasy author. BRING IT HOME, JOE.
So. Who are you voting for?
*This is only scraping the surface of young adult epic fiction. A note for a different day: Maybe the DGLA - like the Hugo - needs a YA outreach program?
**There is no longlist - I'm sorry to rain on everyone's parade, but the "longlist" = "the books that were submitted", same as the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Pet peeve.