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Fiction: "The Ruins of San Francisco" by Bret Harte

Reviewing the DGLA: Introduction & Criteria

AxeHere we go again! For the third year running, I'm going to try to review all ten books on the David Gemmell Legend Award shortlists.* 

Here are this year's finalists - and congratulations to all of them. A huge number (17,000!) of votes were cast, so making it this far is no small achievement:

Legend / Novel

Morningstar / Debut

Ravenheart / Cover:

  • Benjamin Carre for the cover of The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch (Gollancz)
  • Jason Chan for the cover of Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence (Harper Collins UK)
  • Cheol Joo Lee for the cover of Skarsnik by Guy Haley (Black Library)
  • Gene Mollica and Michael Frost for the cover of Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan (Orbit)
  • Rhett Podersoo for the cover of She Who Waits by Daniel Polansky (Hodder)

There are a few new twists and turns this year, plus some lessons learnt, so I'm going to start with the ground rules.

First, there are only six weeks between now and the close of voting. I am going to try my damndest to read and review all ten books, as well as come to some sort of decision before the voting closes.

That said, I reserve the option to slow down at any point. I'm not going to pretend that my personal deliberation is a meaningful part of the DGLA process, and I'd rather discuss the books thoroughly than break my brain getting this done to a self-imposed deadline.

Second, this series is about reviewing the booksThis is really important, as it is easy to sidetracked by reviewing the award. I'll set up a separate post where we can all discuss the DGLA as a process/entity (as part of the 'Poking at Awards' series, I think.) Also, as is inevitable when a popular vote is involved, there's a tendency to review the authors. But we're here to review texts, not people. Please respect this guideline in the comments as well.

Third, some stuff I've learned from previous years, that I'll try to include in the reviews:

  • Definitely have some sort of reviewing framework (e.g. summary, good stuff, bad stuff, conclusion)
  • I think, as noted above, when the book is part of a series, that needs to be taken into account. The voters have spoken (repeatedly), and I think that's a fair reflection of the way epic fantasy books are meant to be read: not as stand-alones, but as one itiration in a sequence.
  • Do this in order. But I'll be reading them in alphabetical order, alternating between Morningstar and Legend nominees. Mostly this helps if people are interested in joining in.

Fourth, and this is really fun, this year we have criteria! Whereas in previous years, the DGLA was about "excellence in the field", we do have slightly more specific terms of engagement this time around:

Traditional, Heroic, Epic, or High Fantasy and/or in the spirit of David Gemmell’s own work 

and explicitly excluding

Horror, Slipstream, SF, Urban (‘real world’ i.e. Buffy or Twilight) or purely Historical (as opposed to well-researched Fantasy) (from Criteria page)

From this, I think we can derive a set of key questions - what I've tried to do is take the attributes of the criteria and filter them through a lens of "the spirit of David Gemmell":

  • Is it in a secondary world? (This seems to be a pass/fail, so shouldn't really impact the reviews)
  • Is it traditional? Does it utilise familiar or recognisable tropes, features or themes?
  • Is it heroic? Does it have a strong moral compass? Is there a clear understanding of good and evil?
  • Is it epic? Does it convey grandeur or stature? Does the central quest have repercussions for failure?
  • Is it high fantasy? Is there an established and coherent system of magic? Is the fantastic integral to the atmosphere, setting and plot?

So, for example, Gemmell is notable for using certain anti-heroic (or at least, non-chivalric) characters. Yet, despite their brutality or 'badness', they wind up on the side of the greater good. My definition of 'heroic' (above) has been adjusted accordingly.

I'd also like to add two other criteria, both in the spirit of David Gemmell and of the award's mission to promote excellence within the field (or subgenre):

  • Is it entertaining? Is it fun to read? Is it something the reader enjoys?
  • Is it innovative? I understand this will always be challenging within the confines of any specific genre (especially epic fantasy), but note that I'm saying "innovative" and not "inventive". This is a lesson learned from previous years as well. It is unfair - and unrealistic - to expect a book to create new tropes or elements for the genre. However, one of Gemmell's own great contributions to fantasy was to use existing tropes in new ways: as ways of creating discussion or tension, developing a different atmosphere, or even conveying a new perspective.

Finally:

  • Is it a reactionary piece of shit? As always, if a book is bubbling over with race- or gender-fail, I think we should call it out. This is a simply a matter of the award's dedication to excellence. I think many of the finalists over the past few years have demonstrated that epic fantasy can be suitably epic and fantastic and successful without pandering to the failmarket. 

I hate to end on that note, so - on a more optimistic note, the annual reminder. I do this not because I hate epic fantasy but because I love it. I grew up on it. I devoured it as a kid and as a teenager and I never stopped (nor will I). It is important enough to me - and to many, many millions of others - that I think it is worth taking seriously. I'm delighted that the DGLA exists as it gives us a focal point for this discussion, so... let's get to it!


*For reference: 2013 reviews and conclusions; 2012 reviews and conclusions.

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