Underground Reading: [Sort of] War Master's Gate by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Friday Five: 5 Fighting Fantasy Favourites

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

hack hack hackTomorrow night, the winners of this year's David Gemmell Legend Awards will be announced. Which makes this the perfect to pick my own favourites. 

To cover all possible bases, I'm going to try and address each category in three ways: which book best fits the DGLA criteria, which book is my personal 'best', and which book I think will actually win. It is worth noting that the past two years have proven me to be the worst ever at predicting the DGLA voters, so if you're having a last minute flutter, you'd do well to seek advice elsewhere.

Please join in with your own favourites and predictions!

Before we get stuck in, probably worth a reminder of what I've (arbitrarily) selected as the DGLA criteria:

  • Spirit of Gemmell: Is it in a secondary world? Is it traditional? Is it heroic? Is it epic? Is it high fantasy?
  • Excellence: Is it entertaining? Is it innovative? Is is not a reactionary piece of shit?

The explanations for all these criteria, and how I derived them, are all here.

Enough of that, let's start swinging the axe... 

The Ravenheart Awards for Best Cover

Here are the finalists (the links go to a pop-up image of each cover):

Best fits the criteria: Not sure this works here. I think they're all suitably epic, traditional and heroic (even Skarsnik, although its hero is non-traditional). Hard to give the edge to any one of them. Pass

My 'best': I think She Who Waits, Emperor of Thorns and The Republic of Thieves are all genuinely good covers. And Promise of Blood ain't bad. All in all, this is - by far - the best crop of covers we've ever had in the DGLA's short history.

My pick is She Who Waitsthis is a thriller-inflected cover that captures an atmosphere that's not only reflective of the book but enticing as all hell. (Caveat! In the interests of transparency, this is a Hodder & Stoughton title and I think the editor is nifty. So there you go.)

Who will win: Emperor of Thorns. As an aside, the DGLA is Brandon Sanderson's stomping ground. So how bad must the A Memory of Light cover be to not appear on this list? Ah. This bad. 

The Morningstar Award for Best Debut

Here are the finalists (the links go to my review of the book):

Best fits the criteria: I think Headtaker is out, the book's structure isn't particularly epic, nor does it have clear heroism in the Gemmellian sense. And The Path of Anger also has its own, fairly divergent, spin on heroism and tradition, so it is out of the running too. Garden fails at the core criteria of actually being entertaining.

The other two are trickier. The Grim Company is probably the most superficially reflective of Gemmell -  see: aging warrior, one last fight, etc. etc. That said, I'm going with Promise of Blood here. Not that it matters, but it also ticks the 'superficial resemblance to Gemmell' box - there are a lot of similarities, with say, Legend: the desperate siege, the invading empire of evil, the jaded mercenaries. But as to the actual (imagined) criteria, Promise also has the traditional epic structure (big bad comin', clear good and evil), with a hint of innovation to it - good versus evil, couched as a feudal coming of age (a revolution vs the monarchy). Basically, a clear epic, entertaining as hell, with a slightly modern twist and an interesting new perspective - that feels like the DGLA bullseye for me.

My 'best': If I ranked them from top to bottom, it'd be something like this: The Path of Anger, Promise of BloodHeadtaker, The Grim Company, The Garden of Stones. The first two are a league ahead of the others, and those are the series I'll continue to follow of my own volition. 

In a way, both The Path of Anger and Promise of Blood are very similar - the core setting is based around a revolution that's overturned an age-old monarchy. They both deal with the toll that revolution took and the struggles of the fledgling republic. And, somewhere in the background, there lurks an epic evil. Yet Promise of Blood is more plotty - it is focused on the dangers to the country and the rise of the big bad. The Path of Anger is more character-oriented. The transition from monarchy to republic is almost incidental, and the protagonists are more driven by selfish or personal motivations. Both books contain a note of moral ambiguity: are these 'heroes' doing the right thing? But The Path of Anger is the one that is built around that ambiguity, providing conflicting perspectives that show the whole story, and not just the various facets of one particular side.

Neither book is perfect. Both, for example, are problematic in their treatment of women (as are all the other Morningstar finalists and three of the five Legend finalists - yeeks). And both have some rough edges in terms of rushed plotting (Path) and a 'surprise!' magic system (Promise). But these two books both have the ambition and the potential to be the start of great series.

Who will win: The wild card here is Black Library. In the past, the odds of a Black Library victory are directly proportional to the amount of shits they give about winning. If they've motivated their fanbase: Headtaker. If they've forgotten because, you know, other worlds to conquer: Promise of Blood.

The Legend Award for Best Novel

Here are the finalists (the links go to my review of the book):

Best fits the criteria: Republic is out - not nearly epic enough. And A Memory of Light is out for being too epic - I think it lacks any semblance of innovation; this is a book that makes Gemmell's work from the mid-1980s look daring and modern. Emperor isn't remotely heroic - so that's out too. I can't really comment on War Master's Gate. Which leaves one.

And, in fairness, it isn't just about the process of elimination - The Daylight War does best fit the criteria. It is entertaining, heroic, traditional, vaguely innovative and hugely epic. Yes, it is an appalling shambles in the way it treats women and race, but it still ticks more of the boxes, and more thoroughly, than any of the other books.

My 'best': Hmm. Trickier. 

The Daylight War will get my vote at approximately the same time that four pigs fly into my living room and bust out a barbershop quartet rendition of "Let It Go". A Memory of Light is more intriguing proposition. I'm very, very glad I read this book, and it will inform my Hugo voting decision (a discussion for another time), but... let's be honest, the main virtue of Memory is that I expected to hate it and I didn't. A double-negative is not, in this case, a positive. War Master's Gate was surprisingly good fun, and convinced me to start the series from scratch, but as noted - as book 9 of 10, I had no idea what was going on.

So it comes down to this: Scott Lynch's The Republic of Thieves vs Mark Lawrence's Emperor of Thorns.

First, it is worth looking at their similarities again, for, although there aren't many, they're important. Both books are strikingly non-traditional. Although there's a big quest buried in them both (more overtly in Emperor, foreshadowed in Republic), neither is approaching it in a predictable fashion. Both books feature paradoxical anti-heroes: Locke the moral rogue, Jorg the amoral knight. Both books feature protagonists that reflect upon and challenge the 'chosen one' role and mentality. And both, most importantly of all, use the trappings of epic fantasy to talk about bigger, more universal themes. In Republic, Locke and Sabetha use their experiences and, again the 'chosen one' role, as a springboard for discussions of agency, feminism and subconscious societal expectations. In Emperor, Jorg's every action challenges the reader to think about the very nature and definition of heroism - in a potentially nihilistic (and at best, utilitarian) way. Do the needs of the many outweigh those of the few? Do we tolerate monsters for the greater good? Where is the line between good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things? Provocative stuff. 

It is also worth noting that both of these books are extraordinarily well-written - nor would they work otherwise. They're difficult - they have Big Things to Say. In the hands of lesser writers Republic would be worthy and Emperor would simply be gory titillation. Both authors have engaging, distinctive voices, and the reader doesn't want to miss a single word. 

Yet the two books could not be more different: think of the names themselves - Emperor versus Republic. Republic of Thieves is an optimistic, positive book that challenges the reader to find and appreciate the best in human nature. This is demonstrated by Locke, Jean and Sabetha, who have morally uplifting conversations, make the hard decisions (often in a self-sacrificing way) and, despite the slings and arrows of fate, manage to cling to an inspirational path. Emperor is relentlessly grim: a dirty book featuring awful people. They have stark, nihilistic conversations, make the hard decisions (in a selfish way) and, despite the slings and arrows of fate, pursue a challenging path. If Locke Lamora shows that heroism can thrive in the most unlikely of places, Jorg Ancrath demonstrates that heroism itself is a myth, and instead explores the tension between what we want and what we actually need.

Emperor also has one advantage that Republic does not: it is the concluding volume in the series, and brings with it all the thematic weight of what has gone before. Republic certainly benefits from the reader's knowledge (and warmth towards) from the previous books, but the Gentleman Bastards series has been, so far, more episodic in nature. Would I think differently about this book if Republic were the final volume in a trilogy, rather than a part of an ongoing plot crescendo?

Republic is the book I enjoyed more and look forward to re-reading. It is an epic fantasy that carries within it conversations about larger themes. However, overall, I think Emperor of Thorns is the more powerful book. I may never read it again. Hell, I may not even like it, but my respect for it is immense, and, to me, it is the best epic fantasy on this list.

Looking back through my reviews, I think the strongest counter-argument against Emperor is whether or not it is problematic: whether the treatment of women within the book (or the series) is enough to disqualify it from contention as, well, 'good'. Honestly, I can see both sides. The entire Broken Empire series features unspeakably grotesque behaviour. Yet, the theme of the book relies on that behaviour: the character needs to be established as vile in order for the decisions he makes for good to provoke discussion. I chose to take the text as an experiment - an unpleasant one, but again, something along the lines of American Psycho or A Clockwork Orange. Across the ten books on these shortlists, eight treated women appallingly (Republic of Thieves and War Master's Gate being the exceptions). But of those eight, only one - Emperor of Thorns put that treatment into thematic context. This isn't a book that's problematic for entertainment purposes, or as a thoughtless default, this is a book that intentionally shows the worst possible behaviour. It is unpleasant to read, but it isn't unjustifiable.

Who will win: A Memory of Light. I would be genuinely surprised if this fell to anyone else. Then again, I've been wrong in the past. So who knows?

Sweeping conclusions

What have I learned about the state of epic fantasy, as demonstrated by these ten volumes? 

These are, of course, only ten books out of the genre's entire annual output. They hardly tell the complete story. There were some brilliant secondary-world epics published last year from folks like Elizabeth Bear, Mark Charan Newton, Amy McCulloch, Daniel Polansky, Django Wexler and Daniel Abraham... I could compose an alternate list of ten books that would paint a very different picture of the epic fantasy 'state of the union'. But the DGLA's lists are created by 17,000 people - this selection of ten is better representation of the taste of the epic fantasy reading majority.

nd based on these ten titles, we're in an interesting place. The five Legend finalists - all established series and authors - are all over the place. A Memory of Light is a fond farewell to an era that's now past; a generation of unambiguous heroism and unquestioned predestination. A Memory of Light is also 'fan service' - a book carefully engineered to give its readers exactly what they wanted. The Daylight War, we have one heir apparent: there is still the clarity of good and evil, yet with a filter of 'realism' applied. (Realism as 'unsubtle' - where nothing is too risque or violent to be hidden behind a curtain.) But there's no question to me that entertainment is still front and center for The Daylight War. From what I understand of War Master's Gate, it fits in a similar vein - although with considerably more, um, taste. Like The Daylight War, it is an imaginative, far-reaching world, and is very much constructed around providing the readers a lot of big, epic fun. The Republic of Thieves and Emperor of Thorns are wandering off in a different direction - challenging readers to fit them, rather than the other way around. But just to keep things extra-confusing, they're polar opposites.

So we have three traditions across five books: the classic, the neo-classic and some sort of revisionist or post-revisionist quasi-literary behaviour. Although it is impossible for me to draw any sort of pithy overarching conclusion, I find this sprawl comforting in its diversity.

Yet the debuts all feel staunchly conservative. Big worlds, big magic, big quests, true chosen ones and clearly delineated plots. The most innovative - The Path of Anger - is still based on an exceedingly traditional plot, it just applies a new perspective to the characters as they travel their appointed paths. There's some very good entertainment amongst these five books, it is hard to look at this batch and see the next Emperor or Republic in the making. Where's the revisionism? Where are the big themes? Are we back to A Memory of Light-style classicism again? Or is this all just a quirk of this year's finalists?

And, of course, judging by all the finalists, epic fantasy still has a lot of growing up to do. With extremely few exceptions, there were no positive female role models or even, for that matter, women with agency. One of the debuts didn't have a single female character... and it was still less problematic than several of its peers.Nor were any other forms of diversity on display. If anything there was a disconcertingly regression towards 'good European analogues' vs 'evil Asian analogues'; a hoary old trope that should've died a long, long time ago. In terms of being representative - much less progressive - the genre, as evidenced by these ten books, hasn't moved on substantially since J.R.R. Tolkien, much less David Gemmell.

On that cheering note, I'm calling it a wrap. Thank you for indulging me in my quest through this year's DGLA shortlists. I wish the very best of luck to all the finalists tomorrow night, and hope to see many of you at the ceremony.

Don't forget to leave your own predictions and favourites in the comments. Plus, what other great epic fantasies didn't wind up on the shortlists this year? Please share your reading recommendations!