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Reviewing the DGLA: The Best Epic Fantasy of 2013 is...

Underground Reading: [Sort of] War Master's Gate by Adrian Tchaikovsky

[This is part of a series reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards.]

War-masters-gate-cover-artAdrian Tchaikovsky's War Master's Gate (2013) is the ninth book in the ten volume Shadows of the Apt series. The official summary from the publisher goes as follows:

Relentlessly advancing towards Collegium, the Empire is again seeking to break down its walls. The mighty imperial armies have learnt from their failures, and Empress Seda will brook no weakness in her soldiers. However, Stenwold Maker has earned his title, and the War Master has strategies to save his city. His aviators rule the skies – but the Wasp Kinden Empire has developed a terrifying new aerial weapon.

Yet the campaign may be decided far from marching armies and the noise of battle. In an ancient forest, where Mantis clans pursue their own civil war, the Empress Seda is seeking lost magic. Some dangerous shadow of old night is locked up among these trees and she is wants its power. Cheerwell Maker must stop her, at any cost, but will their rivalry awaken something far deadlier? Something that could make even their clash of nations pale into insignificance. 

As my need to rely on the official blurb might signal, I'm not able to review this one. It isn't because it was bad (it wasn't!) or because I don't think it is a legitimate contender (it is!), it is simply because this is the penultimate volume in a long-running series. It doesn't stand alone, but nor is it meant to. Since I've not read the previous books, I'm in no position to say what's going on or what this means.

Voting is over, but if you're looking for a few good thoughts on War Master's Gate for comparative purposes - a very glowing review at Fantasy Book Critic (which, gratifyingly, also reinforces that this should be read as part of the series) and a generally positive and slightly-spoilery one from Superior Realities - the latter seems more handy for those already familiar with the series.

But I've got airtime to fill, so let's talk about this predicament for a second, shall we? Why is not being able to judge this book interesting? And what does this situation mean for awards in general?

Criteria are useful. What's amazing is that, despite not really understanding the plot or the characters or the significance - all stuff that would come out of the first eight books - I could still 'judge' this. The beauty of having a 'ticklist' of criteria means that I can still evaluate the book whether or not I understood it

But in the context of an award, the criteria are awfully handy. Thumbing through my DGLA checklist, I can tell that this book is in a secondary world, heroic, traditional, epic and high fantasy. Five 'yes's - whether or not I fully appreciate the world, heroes or magic system - that's almost irrelevant. It is a little trickier with my self-defined 'excellence' criteria. War Master's Gate is appealing enough that I've now bought the first three volumes of the series - so 'yes'. I can probably tick off 'innovative' as well - in this case, the fact that I couldn't immediately follow the plot says that it is unlike the other epic fantasies I've been reading. And, I'm pleased to say, this one doesn't seem to be problematic at all. Unless I missed something, we've got a second non-troublesome book. Whew.

So this is great - criteria do provide a level playing field.

Strictly adhering to criteria can make for terrible judging. This is also terrifying. The field we're levelling here is  'comprehension'. The idea that I can evaluate a book - for a major genre award, no less - without actually understanding it? In a sense, this is a tiny microcosm for the horrific direction that modern education is moving: schooling by rote - standardised testing rather than actual learning. To me, the lesson is about pairing the criteria with the mission. Use the former as a framework for achieving the latter. Perhaps - thinking out loud - this is where the broad mission statements such as 'best' come into their own: pairing an abstract goal with a concrete framework.

Perhaps a better contemporary example would come from the Hugo Awards, where the Wheel of Time series is up for 'Best Novel'. Absolutely, it fits every criteria - in fact, as I'll argue in a later post, there are lots of compelling reasons that it even fits best. But fundamentally, it feels pretty damn weird to argue that it is a 'novel'. Yes, absolutely, according to the laws and the rules it qualified. It is a legitimate candidate and one that I'll [spoiler] have in the top 2 on my ballot. But it does feel like the trees winning at the expense of the forest. More on all that later.

Mid-series books have a huge hill to climb. When we started the Kitschies, we took advice from someone who had judged on another juried prize. "How," we asked, "are we supposed to judge books in the middle of a series? Are they supposed to stand alone? Or do we read the previous volumes? Should it hurt them or help them?" The judge smiled and confessed that, for that particular prize, the rule of thumb was to judge the "first book or the last book - and ignore everything inbetween". 

And as a de facto or de jure rule of thumb, that is how most juried prizes tend to go. (I discussed this last year as well, while reviewing King of Thorns.) Prizes, with the exception of occasional flukes in the Hugo Awards,  look at single books. Points, not lines. And that's only fair: as soon as other texts get involved, things spiral out of control. What other influences should be included or excluded? What else is suddenly 'essential to understanding'? 

What it does mean is that books like War Master's Gate get, well... screwed. And nor is it the only mid-series book on this list. Would The Republic of Thieves be as good if I hadn't read the two preceding volumes? Sabetha wouldn't have meant anything. I never wouldn't known what Locke can do while healthy and capable; or how strong his friendship with Jean really was. Sadly, there's no way to test it - I can't un-read. And Republic, at least, was a self-contained story. Perhaps the better comparison is setting War Master's Gate alongside The Daylight War. Would anything in Brett's book - the exact middle of a series - mean anything to someone that hadn't read the first two? The 'present day' plot of it involved the resolution of the last two books' setup, and the 'past' plot focused on a character that was only truly significant due to her role in previous volumes. As part of a series, it plays a critical role. But it clearly isn't meant to be a self-contained story.

Concluding volumes, of course, have an advantage: they endEmperor of Thorns certainly wouldn't have the impact - or the significance - without its two preceding volumes. But if read on its own, I suspect people would have a few head-scratching moments, but, ultimately, catch on to the arc and the conclusion. Certainly that was my experience with A Memory of Light: despite only having a vague idea what happened in the first 13 volumes, the final volume had a definite shape, a clear conflict and a resolution. Mid-series books don't have those - nor do they need to.

...except in popular awards. To bring this back to awards, it is interesting that being a mid-series book doesn't seem to handicap awards like the DGLA or the Hugos. My suspicion is, in the absence of an appointed jury, individual voters don't hesitate to conflate the series and the book. I'm inclined to believe that a vote for A Dance with Dragons (finalist for the Hugo Awards in Best Novel that year) is a vote for A Song of Ice and Fire, not a strong opinion that George R.R. Martin's (slightly meandering) mid-series book is actually the best individual text of 2011. 

With a more critical hat on, I could also point out that both DGLA and Hugo Awards have a tendency - inclination? - to become cults of personality. But ultimately, that's the same thing: voting for an individual book because it is a member of a larger body of work. 

Being a warm and fuzzy person, I tend to write this down as another benefit of an imperfect system. Juried awards are biased in a way that devalues mid-series books. Popular awards are biased in a way that overvalues them. Until the perfect award comes along, I'll settle for this.

Epic fantasies are inextricably linked to the series format. They just are. Tolkien even tried to avoid it and failed. There's certainly something in the nature of the genre that makes sense for this - the progressive levelling, the ever-increasing challenge, the pure semiotic value of a book's heft and how it reinforces the importance of the content (books about the fate of the universe should be big). And, in a copycat industry, that's now the way things are - there's never been a DGLA nominee that wasn't part of a series.

To me, this isn't the problem, at least in the context of awards. It does mean that epic fantasies will always suffer in awards that have a broader genre remit, but, again, that's why awards like the DGLA are important. Where this creates a problem is within the DGLA shortlists, where I'm not comparing like with like. This year's shortlist is three mid-series books and two concluding volumes. Last year had one book that's first in a series, three that were mid series and one that was a standalone in an existing world.  2012: two mid-series, two standalones-in-existing-worlds and the first of a new series (also in an existing world). Just... messy. I suggested that the DGLA drop the 'debut' and 'novel' distinctions and split into 'starts', 'series' and 'standalones'. That's slightly tongue in cheek, but it does better reflect the reality of the epic fantasy landscape. This award celebrates a niche of genre that is otherwise unrewarded. Given that we know the other awards don't 'work' for epic fantasy, there's no reason to stick to their conventions and language. 

Meanwhile, back to War Master's Gate, which this is supposedly about. Or, at least, about not being about...

From what I could tell with War Master's Gate, it is a good book - a legitimately good one, not just a relatively one. I'm not so committed to doing this reviews that I'm going to do a bad review of a good book just for the sake of completion. Nor, more importantly, am I deliberately going to ruin my experience of a good book. I'm disappointed that I can't talk about it right now, when it would be relevant for me to do so - but that's outweighed by my excitement at finding a new epic fantasy series that I know I'll enjoy. (A long one! That has an end in sight! How great is that?!)

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