The World Fantasy Award will be announced later this month at the coincidentally named World Fantasy convention. The Best Novel nominees for the award are:
- Richard Bowes, Dust Devil on a Quiet Street (Lethe Press)
- Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (Tor Books)
- Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow/Headline)
- Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press)
- Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni (Harper/Blue Door)
- Gene Wolfe, The Land Across (Tor Books)
Richard Bowes’ Dust Devil on a Quiet Street and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria are the two standout nominees. I reviewed Samatar‘s novel in September last year calling it “a masterclass in imagery, clarity and sense of place.” While it doesn’t necessarily do anything new with the fantasy genre – Olondria is a secondary world with the vaguest sense of magic and the supernatural – the way Samatar conjures up Olondria with gorgeous, poetic writing, gives the novel a distinct literary quality. A World Fantasy award would be an appropriate accompaniment to both the British Fantasy and Crawford Awards.
My favourite novel on the ballot,though, is Richard Bowes’ Dust Devil on a Quiet Street.. Just like Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Kirstyn and I will be discussing Dust Devil on the next episode of the Writer and the Critic podcast. It’s a mosaic novel that knits together Bowes’ autobiographical short fiction about his life in New York. It also perfectly blurs that line between the mimetic with the fantastic. It’s personal and sad and nostalgic and precisely the sort of fantasy novel that forces the reader to re-evaluate what the genre is capable of. While this is the book I’d like to see take home the bust of
Octavia Butler H.P. Lovecraft I don’t think it will.
However, if I was a betting man, my money would be behind Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End of The Lane. This is no great piece of speculation on my part. It’s a book written by probably the most popular genre writer working in the field, George R R Martin aside, and also happens to be a good, and at times excellent, piece of writing. If The Ocean At The End of The Lane didn’t work for me it’s because I didn’t connect with the novel’s protagonist, something I expound on in my review of the novel. But my issues aside, I would be genuinely shocked if this book didn’t win.
A bit like Neil Gaiman’s protagonist, I found little to care about the final three books on the ballot. Actually, that’s a tad harsh. Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is, for example, a fun novel with two very sympathetic main characters. My problem was with Wecker’s Disneyfication of Jewish mysticism, which led me to conclude that the book was all gloss, no substance.
On the other hand, Gene Wolfe’s The Land Across is all substance and layers but ultimately I didn’t care about any of it. The novel, which is this crazy mix of Kafka, Orwell and Lynch, features a European country that has a strict legal code, a possible haunted house, freaky mannequins and a travel writer protagonist named Grafton who’s quite the douche bag. It’s also, according to this almost hysterical review by Mordicai Knode, a Transylvanian novel. I’ve no doubt that The Land Across reveals more of itself on re-reads. But at the end of the day, even if I was interested in unpacking all the purported layers the book holds, Grafton is such an unlikeable prick I’d rather not spend anymore time in his head.
Talk of unsympathetic protagonists neatly segways into the weakest book on the ballot, Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent. While I acknowledge that in a man’s world Lady Isabella Trent had to fight for every achievement and discovery this doesn’t change the fact that, like Grafton, she’s an awful person to spend time with. She comes from a place of privilege, not only brought up in an aristocratic family in her world’s analogue of the UK but also marrying into money. And yes, as a woman she’s not meant to go on voyages to uncharted places to make world shattering discoveries. The fact that through will of personality alone she gets to fulfill her dreams is admirable. Unfortunately, in the case of this – the first book in her memoir – when she arrives in Vystrani, the destination of her first adventure, all she can do is complain about the weather and the superstitions of the locals. It’s snobby cultural imperialism and given that this is an old woman looking back at the adventures of her younger self, the lack of commentary regarding her elitist, imperialist opinions means that the less time I spend with Lady Isabella the better.
Added to that is the fact that the dominant religion in this UK analogue is something akin to Judaism, which is a cute idea but handled so poorly that I wished Brennan had gone the cliched route of making everyone a Christian. I wasn’t offended by the appropriation of my faith. I just don’t think it was done very well.
Overall, the WFA list for Best Novel provides us with mix messages. On one hand it extols the virtue of literary fantasy and left of field works like the Samatar and the Bowes and on the other hand the list is made up of populist novels, two of which mishandle the execution (the Brennan and the Wecker). If the list feels inconsistent, this might have something to do with how the ballot amalgamates choices from the judges and a popular vote. I personally don’t like this hybrid approach because it leads to shortlists that are, to coin the cliche, six of one and half a dozen of the other. Still, I can’t be too sour. Greater exposure to books like A Stranger in Olondria and Dust Devil on a Quiet Street can only be a good thing for the genre.