...and the moment we've all been waiting for. Let's pick the winner of my vote! After 12 blog posts, 10 book reviews and 6,000 pages of reading, I can now announce who won approximately 1/7,000th of a Gemmell Award!
Ok, granted, the voting closed on 17 July, but since the official winner won't be announced until Saturday, I have two days where my 1/7,000th can feel particularly meaningful. Plus, I've got a lot of rambling to do.
Let's get to it.
Ravenheart Award for Best Cover
- Laura Brett for The Slow Regard of Silent Things (Gollancz)
- Mike Bryan for Half a King (HarperCollins)
- Jason Chan for Prince of Fools (HarperCollins)
- Sam Green for Words of Radiance (Gollancz)
- Jackie Morris for The Fool’s Assassin (HarperCollins)
Overall: Meh. Which is a 'meh' word, but, well, there you go. I like that the Sanderson books have a style, but I also think they look better collectively than individually. Prince of Fools and The Slow Regard of Silent Things are harmlessly generic, because, you know, fantasy. I think there's a thing going on with Half a King, but it is sort of half-Hunger Games-YA-iconic and half-grimdark-stark-fantasy and not really settled in yet. (Half the World and Half a War are both a ton better, and they, like the Sandersonsseseses look good as a collective style.) And Fool's Assassin is a solid historical fiction cover - classy, elegant, staid and several decades out of style.
It is an interesting year because, for all five books, I can point my finger and go AH HA! I SEE WHAT THE BRIEF WAS. But also an interesting year in that, despite an appreciation of the underlying strategy, none of the five covers are particularly exciting at all. They're all, yeah. Fine. Moving on.
My vote: I didn't.
Who do I think will actually win: No idea. This voting in this category is pretty bizarre, I can't even guess.
Morningstar Award for Debut
- Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell (Jo Fletcher Books)
- The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley (Angry Robot)
- The Godless by Ben Peek (Pan Macmillan/Tor UK)
- The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley (Pan Macmillan/Tor UK)
- Age of Iron by Angus Watson (Orbit)
Overall: We've got a spectrum that runs from pure pulp pleasure (Age of Iron) through well-crafted traditional high fantasy (The Emperor's Blades) through secretly cleverly traditional high fantasy (Traitor's Blade) through experimental quasi-literary Weirdness (The Godless) and all the way to a grimdark PhD thesis (The Mirror Empire). It is a pretty badass range, actually. However you like your fantasy, there's a fresh crop of it blooming on the shelves. And that's pretty heartening. This is, despite my relentless need to kvetch, a good crowd of books.
My vote: Let's check in with the criteria! If you'll recall, I scored on six metrics - Fantastic, Entertaining, Immersive, Engaging, Embarrassing and Different. (If you need definitions, check here.) Based on what I wrote in each of my reviews, I've assigned book a value of 0 ('nope'), .5 ('kinda') or 1 ('yes') for each one. All of them are positive, except Embarrassing, where that's a bad thing, and is therefore a negative number.
With the debuts, this was... inconclusive:
- Traitor's Blade: 3
- The Mirror Empire: 3
- The Godless: 3.5
- The Emperor's Blades: 3.5
- Age of Iron: 3
So, with a virtual five way tie, where's this leave me? Well, I can only vote once, so I need to find flaws in four books. Fortunately, I'm really good at finding flaws in things.
I think Age of Iron was the most enjoyable, and also, probably the least conventionally 'best' - it is pulp merriment. Conversely, I think The Mirror Empire actively strives for some sort of greater thematic significance - but is also the least fun. So, they're both out. Both are good in their own way, but I think we need a balance.
Traitor's Blade got my reading off to a very positive start, I'm indebted to it and, between us, I think it may be my personal favourite of the five. It is swashbuckling mayhem, and it also feels modern - a book that takes its cues from film and video games, as well as other books. I like that, and I like the now-ness. It is a good book, but for 'best', I need something that really differentiates it from the others.
Which, of course, leaves us with the two highest scoring books - arguably the most traditional and the most unusual - The Emperor's Blades and The Godless. The latter wasn't something I loved, but I liked and respected the Weirdness. The ''everything-and-the-kitchen-sink' approach to world-building reminded me of iconic and chaotic settings like Bas-Lag and Gormenghast. It was also casually, unpretentiously progressive as well. Like Traitor's Blade, there's something modern about The Godless - it feels like a debut that simply wouldn't have existed before 2014.
And then there's The Emperor's Blades, which is, conversely, totally timeless. A book that could've existed in fantasy at any time over the past fifty years, and still been equally enjoyable, equally successful. It is quintessential high fantasy and hits all the right notes - not unpredictable, but very enjoyable.
I suppose, when it comes down to it, this is the debut category - and for a debut, I think I am allowed to upweight the 'Different' category. What's someone doing that's new; that will surprise readers? Which means The Godless. It is ballsy and ambitious, and, even if it isn't a polished crowd-pleaser (yet), it is bringing something new to the table.
Fun fact: The only book with gods is The Godless. There you go.
Bonus fun fact: On the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, we have at least three (Traitor's Blade, The Emperor's Blades and Age of Iron) books that firmly espouse having a strong monarchy instead of devolving power to those pesky barons.
- Half a King by Joe Abercrombie (HarperCollins)
- Valour by John Gwynne (Pan Macmillan/Tor UK)
- Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence (HarperCollins)
- Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (Gollancz)
- The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks (Orbit)
Overall: Well..., here are some numbers:
- Half a King: 2.5
- Valour: 2
- Prince of Fools: 3
- Words of Radiance: .5
- The Broken Eye: 2
My first impression would be that the All-Star Game of this year's Legend shortlist was more Pro Bowl than Home Run Derby. That is to say, played at half-speed and not as high-scoring as I might have hoped.
Part of this comes from the way I set up the criteria. Non stand-alone texts are going to suffer by comparison, as the character-, world- and plot-building has been, presumably, established in earlier volumes.
But, there's also - for better or worse - a lot of 'regression to the mean' here.
That's not to say that these books are bad (well, one is) - they're just, if you squint a bit, of a type. A very traditional type. If we're using this list as a bellwether of the genre, epic fantasy seems to be cycling back about fifteen years. Across these five books, we can see very little diversity, a retreat from the grimdark "realism", zero non-Western aesthetics (2014 was the year Vikings replaced cowboys), extremely few influences from outside of the fantasy category, and very conventional Hero's Journey narrative and plot structures.
The most interesting two books - Abercrombie and Lawrence again - are interesting precisely because they are interrogations of these traditions. But they are, still, in and of themselves, traditional.
This is not me casting aspersions on traditional fantasy. I've long acknowledged that the DGLA voting reflects the status quo. What's intriguing is this shift in the status quo - of all the arguments for 'the death of grimdark', this selection of five books (six, counting the overwhelming popularity of the Staveley) is the most compelling I've seen.
If we take the DGLA voting as a representation of commercial success (which it is), then this is the stuff that people want. So... the next question is... why? Is it churn, people coming into the genre anew, and looking for the 'basic' stories? Are we burned out on Martin-clones and shock-value grimdark, and swinging back the other way? Is the economy better, so we're looking for happier books? This is fascinating stuff - why do we want our fantasy traditional again? I have no idea, but that's a fun thing to mull over.
What's also fun - and unsurprising, since this has been my own critical playground, complete with my own biases - is how the criteria have worked out. These numbers 'feel' right to me (probably because, again, they were all declared by me.) Words of Radiance disappointed. Valour and The Broken Eye are what they are - instalments in a series, fine for their particular audiences, and hard to grade as stand-alone volumes.
Half a King and Prince of Fools are, to me, the two go above and beyond. Some of this, as noted, comes from being the first books in their series. And the rest comes from the fact they're just good books.
For both books, the plots are simple and overt: Go to a place, do a thing. And neither world is much more fleshed out than that. Half a King is a fast-moving railroad of a narrative, trundling rapidly through its setting. Prince of Fools is less linear and more episodic, but still about 'pockets' of world rather than a holistic and detailed approach.
Even with their formulaic structures and character arcs, they're still the two books doing the most within that formula. Since these books prioritise character development, even if the journey is predictable, the reader enjoys their travelling companion. I recommend both of these books - as the best of this year's Gemmell crop, but, more importantly, as good fantasy novels.
A tiny criteria-based aside: if you're paying attention really closely (why?!), you'll see that Half a King was the only one of the ten books on the shortlist that didn't actually have any magic in it, and dropped a point for not being 'fantastic'.
Which, I guess, raises questions about my criteria - should the presence of magic have the same value as, say, 'are the characters engaging?'. In any other award, probably not - no. But these are the awards for epic fantasy, and magic is, arguably, a necessity. I could argue that 'fantastic' is a silly criteria, but then I could also argue that Half a King isn't even 'fantasy enough' to belong on the shortlist at all. I've forged my very own awards controversy! I'm proud of myself.1
Ok, I've dragged this out, as the numbers say - Prince of Fools.2
Thanks for sticking around!
1. There are a few other controversies: we've got two 'debuts' by previously-published authors, one novel that's overtly billed as YA, two that are functionally YA, one book that's definitely not set in a secondary world and another two that are seemingly set in fantastic/post-apocalyptic versions of Earth. If we apply any of the criteria from previous years, all of those books are ineligible. Which is all to say, you can always make controversy if you're in the mood for it.
The one controversy I feel pretty strongly about? The 'best of epic fantasy' is again represented by a buffet of white dudes. That's not the fault of any of the finalists, or, to some extent, the award itself - but this is increasingly awkward. I genuinely have no idea how to resolve this without changing the structure of the award. However, I do think it needs to be addressed somehow.
First, two of the award's goals are to celebrate 'excellence in fantasy' and 'promote writers in the field'. I think conveying the impression - or passively providing a platform to convey the impression - that epic fantasy is the exclusive domain of white men is detrimental to both those objectives.
Second, pragmatically, as far as the award is concerned, the lack of diversity also makes it harder for partners and media to get involved. Folks are increasingly aware that 'here's a list of dudes' isn't going to fly any more, and, even if it can be rationalised due to the award's mechanic, the - if you'll excuse the wank-word - 'optics' are terrible. With an award that's struggling to generate much conversation, this doesn't help. Something's got to change, even if it is only for the DGLA's own sake. ↩