There are only a few days to go in this year's David Gemmell Legend Award voting. If you're interested in taking part, now's the time to strike. The difference between the DGLA's perspective on fantasy and my own is pronounced, which makes me a little distrustful of their shortlist each year.
It starts with the very structure of the award. Popular voting for awards is flawed; there's a fundamental problem with the elision of "best" with "most popular". The more voters, the more difficult it is to enforce any sort of consistent judging criteria. The more accurate the voting mechanic and the broader the voting pool, the more the results will simply reflect sales. (I'm also slightly scandalized by any award with typos in its shortlist or the wrong dates on its list of submission criteria. This is ruthlessly petty, but if you're aspiring to represent the "best" shouldn't this sort of thing matter?)
As a result, the David Gemmell Legend Award represents the fantasy that sells and not the the fantasy that should sell. It is a round of applause for the status quo rather than an exhortation to improve. And what does the shortlist say about the genre right now?* Without going into the detail, it is packed with well-crafted escapist entertainment. The unappreciated straight white male ubermensch inside me feels well-coddled. There are also deeply pernicious depictions of race and gender. Women are objects of romance, rape and resentment. The Chosen is invariably a white male; the evil Other is some sort of non-white or non-European analogue.
Into this quagmire of technically-proficient reductivism is dropped Pierre Pevel's The Alchemist of the Shadows, a book that I genuinely enjoyed and heartily endorse. Alchemist continues the adventures of the Cardinal's Blades - a group of swashbuckling adventurers in 17th century Paris that are inspired by the works of Alexandre Dumas. The book is stylish and entertaining with a poetic turn of phrase and flamboyant bursts of cinematic action. It is also, if you'll pardon the word, "safe" - not in that it lacks action or tension, but that Alchemist alone does not embarrass the genre with its representations of race or gender.
In short, the most progressive book on the shortlist is a pastiche of an author who's been dead for two hundred years.
I'm not aspiring to be the Adam Roberts of fantasy. In the absence of any defining fantasy award, there are a lot of half-right pretenders, and the David Gemmell Legend Award has thrown itself into the mix with admirable ambition. In a way, I'm genuinely pleased to witness the rare intersection of my taste with that of the DGLA.
If you are voting for this year's award, take a moment to think about what your selection means. The best fantasy book of the year should be an inspiration, not a celebration. Are you choosing the best that fantasy has to offer? Or just the most popular?
*I've not read anything by Markus Heitz, so he's off the hook. Although someone really should do something about that typo.