Sunday, November 02, 2008

Thoughts on 2008 World Fantasy Award Nominees: Novels

Sunday, November 02, 2008
Territory - Emma Bull [Tor]
Ysabel - Guy Gavriel Kay [Viking Canada/Penguin Roc]
Fangland - John Marks [Penguin Press]
Gospel of the Knife - Will Shetterly [Tor]
The Servants - Michael Marshall Smith [Earthling Publications]

With less than a day to go I was able to get this in under the wire. This is a category with two standout novels, one that's not bad, and two which really do not need to be anywhere near this nomination list.

First off, The Servants. I had a difficult choice in picking which novel was least suited to be recognized as a nominee for the World Fantasy Award. I'll say now that it was really, really close. The reason The Servants was placed in the position of dishonor was the ending. The main thrust of the novel wasn't bad and got solidly into the head of a pre-teen boy, but the entire novel was undermined by the conclusion. Here is what I had to say about The Servants.

The main gripe here is that Michael Marshall Smith attempts to combine the two narrative elements in the conclusion and the moment Mark begins what is obviously the final actions of the supernatural element of the novel, it is more than obvious how this will impact the family drama aspect to the novel even though they are in no way connected up to this point. It is as if Smith looked at his manuscript and realized: “Shit, what the hell am I doing here? Combine, combine! Must end the novel and tie up all the loose ends”. I realized what Smith was about to do and it offended me as a reader.

The Gospel of the Knife also got into the head of a teenaged boy and I think Shetterly did this just as well as Michael Marshall Smith. Even the stuff that felt like the Skull and Bones society and the secret history and power of Chris (which I don't believe is ever hinted at in Dogland) feels natural to the novel. What fails, and what yanked The Gospel of the Knife down from a good story to a "what the hell just happened" is a sixty nine page outtake from an alternate Gospel story that while it applies to the novel, it just doesn't work or fit. Here's what I had to say (please note that the rest of the review wasn't this harsh).

Then we get to page 219 and Book Three and The Gospel of the Knife runs off its rails and loses focus. Yes, this was clearly a deliberate decision to include a 69 page retelling of the Christ story in a style / manner which fits the story Shetterly is telling but that decision grinds the narrative to a screeching halt. These 69 pages (ending on page 288 of a 319 page novel) absolutely destroy any momentum Shetterly had built in the first 219 pages of the novel.

This brings me to Fangland. This is the first of the novels to feel like a complete novel and to feel like the novel met whatever expectation the author set in writing it. John Marks takes the Dracula story to a modern setting and twists it a bit so that it isn't a simple vampire tale, but even so, it just wasn't good enough. Here's what I had to say.

Under the surface, and despite the World Fantasy Award nomination, Fangland scarcely stands out from a crowd of vampire novels, let alone fantasy. It is a well written novel that despite everything that Marks does well (writing characters, coming up with a modern way to re-write Dracula, showing what the working environment is at 60 Minutes, ahem, The Hour) is simply nothing special. Several chapters / scenes work exceptionally well (Evangeline escaping with the missionary…actually anytime Evangeline is together with the missionary), but as a whole, after any chapter and especially after finishing the novel, my reaction was generally, “Huh. That’s it?” Despite having something of a climactic “final battle” and the presence of some genuinely horrific moments, Fangland never quite delivers a fully satisfying experience. Fangland is a novel of great competence and was well thought out and well written, but just being good is not good enough.

Ysabel from Guy Gavriel Kay is one of two standout novels, one of two novels that is actually worth the time to read and that will not disappoint. Here was what I had to say about Ysabel as my ultimate impression regarding the novel.

Every so often I had to stop, close the book, stare at the cover, and marvel at how good Ysabel is. I have no idea how this novel compares to the rest of Guy Gavriel Kay's work, but Ysabel feels like it has to be a standout novel. If it isn't, then what that tells me is that Guy Gavriel Kay is one of today's masters and deserves to be read. On the basis of Ysabel, I can see why he earned the nomination for the World Fantasy Award.

Despite this praise, Ysabel is not my choice for the winner of the World Fantasy Award. My choice is Territory, from Emma Bull. Territory takes part of the Tombstone story with the Earps, Doc Holliday, the Clantons, and Johnny Ringo as major players in the novel. This is so much better than I could have hoped for and was my first exposure to Emma Bull's work outside of Shadow Unit. Emma Bull is the real deal and deserves any accolade she receives. Here is what I had to say about Territory.

Emma Bull makes Tombstone come alive in ways that the movies don't, and creates a visceral experience with Territory. Tombstone lives and breathes here. She also infuses the story with a special kind of magic that twists the Tombstone story into something else entirely.

So, that's it for my coverage of the World Fantasy Award nominees. With any luck Territory will win the World Fantasy Award for Novel and if it does not, Ysabel will pick up the award as a great second choice. If any of the other three nominee wins the award, I am simply going to have to conclude the jurors have taken leave of their senses. Nothing else comes close to these two novels.


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