The OF Blog: Personal Rankings of the WFA Finalists for Best Novel, Best Collection

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Personal Rankings of the WFA Finalists for Best Novel, Best Collection

With the exception of three novels that I had read back in November and December of 2006, I have spent the past two months reading and reviewing each of the finalists (5 each) for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and for Best Collection. In my reviews (which may be found by clicking on the tags below), I did my best to note not just what I myself felt were the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, but I also tried to examine these stories from how the authors approached telling them and to what degree they managed to accomplish their apparent aims. So here are my "rankings" in order of preferred finish, with some commentary to follow:

Best Collection (Single-Author)

5. Glen Hirshberg, American Morons

4. Margo Lanagan, Red Spikes

3. Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

2. M. Rickert, Map of Dreams

1. Jeffrey Ford, The Empire of Ice Cream

With the exception of the Hirshberg (whose stories for the most part did not "work" as well for me as perhaps they might have for others), it was very difficult to rank #1-4. In most ways, the authors managed to achieve their apparent aims within most of the stories, so in the end it came down to inventiveness and substance. Lanagan came in at #4 more because of the shorter-paged stories than because of any perceived lack of talent or imagination, of which she has scads of both. Considering her "target" audience, the YA market, she has done very well with a difficult task.

I almost placed Clarke at #2, but held back due to this feeling that her stories were a bit too polished, that they lacked a sense of roughness and exploration that many of the finest SF and fantasy short story classics over the years have contained. Clarke does extremely well-drawn characters and situations, but there is a sense of "distance" that developed between me and the stories. Although I certainly could see her winning this award, I believe that the next two are even better in the sense of capturing a mood to which I could relate well.

I went back and forth between Rickert and Ford for the #1 and #2 positions. Each of these authors displayed a wide range of styles in their collections and I enjoyed virtually every single one of them. Rickert in particular captures that sense of people longing for something better in their lives, that belief that there is something "different," if not "better," around the corner. However, Ford not only shows these sorts of emotional longings as well, he also manages to depict human worries, motives, and uncertainties just a bit better than Rickert, and it is for this reason that I have chosen The Empire of Ice Cream as the best of the finalists for Best Collection.

Best Novel:

5. Stephen King, Lisey's Story

4. Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora

3. Ellen Kushner, The Privilege of the Sword

2. Gene Wolfe, Soldier of Sidon

1. Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden

It was a little bit easier for me to place these five books into a #1-5 ranking. While I spent some time elaborating within their individual reviews the degree of "award-worthiness" that I saw (while also trying again to take into account authorial intent and accomplishment of apparent aims), I shall briefly explain why I placed these in this order.

King was the easiest choice. While the writing style at times engaged, too often it was a bit clunky and just annoyed me. I felt the pacing was a bit erratic and could have been streamlined without losing effect. While the "personal" nature of the story was done fairly well, as a whole, the story just didn't "click" with me.

It was a tough battle between Lynch and Kushner for #3. In the end, I felt that Lynch's first novel in the planned seven-volume Gentleman Bastards series, while better than average for the caper subgenre of the heroic/epic fantasy branch, showed some weaknesses in style and in pacing. While I understood the point and need for the flashbacks to convey mystery and to help explain plot events using minimal print, they did interrupt the flow of the narrative a bit too much for my liking. It was a first (published) novel and with the usual rookie mistakes (which I feel confident will be addressed in future volumes as his writing matures and he develops his voice), Lynch maybe should not have appeared so quickly on the World Fantasy Award shortlist.

Kushner felt like a "safe" choice for nomination: Nice, fluid writing style, with characters who were developed quickly and yet were mostly well-rounded in this installment of her Riverside series. But "safe" is a two-edged sword here. There were no really daring chances taken with the prose, such as what Hal Duncan did last year with his WFA-nominated debut novel, Vellum, nor did it ever feel as though this "coming of age" story would ever approach the powerfulness of Haruki Murakami's 2006 winner, Kafka on the Shore. Kusher's book was solid, but only that in my opinion.

When I first read the final two back in late 2006, I debated for a long time in my personal ranking of my Best of 2006 which ought to be higher. There is much going for either choice. Wolfe is a master prose writer, in both the short and long forms. In this third volume of the Latro/Soldier series, he equals the mystery and the nuanced feel of the first two volumes. Latro is one of my favorite Wolfe characters and I found his development (such as it could be) here to be fascinating. There was a more palpable sense of urgency in Wolfe's story than there was in Kushner's, however it was trumped in my opinion by what Valente manages to achieve in her first major-release book.

Valente's prose is very poetic and flowing, but more importantly, her story was easily the most inventive of the five in regards to how the book was structured. Eschewing a linear approach, Valente takes The Arabian Nights as a model and then just mods the hell out of it, akin to what video game fanatics would do with their machines in order to fit in other appliances and thus applications. Valente's tales within the overall frame story structure begin as familiar motifs. Quickly, however, those motifs are torn apart and we are thrown into a wild and often unpredictable melding of Eastern and Western fables that have a multitude of twists. I came out of that with a very deep appreciation for the chutzpah that Valente displayed and amazed at how well she managed to accomplish all of that. For those reasons, I choose Valente as my #1 read out of the WFA finalists.

Books That Merited Consideration or Should Have Made It:

It is a very difficult choice for the judges to select among hundreds of books each year, and individual tastes will play a major role in determining which books are shortlisted each year. Doesn't mean, however, that reviewers and genre fans such as myself cannot provide a list of books that would have made good alternates for those ultimately chosen. So below are some of the books that I believe were deserving of at least consideration for the shortlists:

Jeff VanderMeer, Shriek: An Afterword. Out of the 2006 books that I read in 2006, this was my #1 choice for Best Read of 2006. VanderMeer expands upon a character introduced in his City of Saints and Madmen mosaic novel, the Ambergris historian Duncan Shriek, and this "afterword" of his life, mysterious disappearance, and his relationship with his sister Janice was told in a fashion that I found to be engaging and wanting more. It had just enough of a balance between the rather unique style of "edits" and backstory to make for a read that I felt was very "personal" in tone and thus one that has remained in my thoughts well after I finished reading the last page back in late December.

It is rather fitting that Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o's first novel in almost twenty years, Wizard of the Crow, is next, as it was due directly to VanderMeer's mention of it in a Locus Online article back in January that made me aware of a novel that already is one of my top choices for my Best Read of 2007 for a Prior Year. A "magic realist" novel set in an imagined African country (but which has quite a few parallels with Kenya's post-colonial history), it is in turns a comic and a heartbreaking novel about the corruption and grandiose dreams of those from the immediate post-colonial era whose desires for a different political reality became corrupted by the lure of power and wealth. The eponymous "wizard" is an everyman of sorts who manages to make his way through this land of torture, paranoia, and graft and it is his story that makes this tale a perfect complement for Dave Eggers' What is the What, which I hope to review shortly on my other blog.

I was surprised to see that Neil Gaiman's most recent short story collection, Fragile Things, did not make the WFA shortlist, especially since many of the stories contained within had won multiple awards in recent years. I certainly found it to be better than American Morons and I believe that a collection containing major award-winning stories such as "A Study in Emerald" and "Closing Time" (which I believe deserved their wins) ought to have been considered for this prestigious award. Surprising that it was not.

Campbell Award-nominated author Sarah Monette's second volume in her four-volume The Doctrine of Labyrinths series was a very enjoyable read whose dual first-person narratives within each chapter allowed for a greater ability to depict other characters and scenes while still maintaining the strong personality approach that makes the use of first-person narratives effective on occasion. Monette is a very talented writer and perhaps in the very near future, whether on her own or writing in collaboration with Elizabeth Bear, or perhaps for her own short fiction, I think she might develop into one of those authors who appear regularly on the awards shortlists.

M. John Harrison's 2006 UK release, Nova Swing, merits mention here because of its selection as the 2007 Arthur C. Clarke Award winner for Best Novel. Although perhaps it'll be eligible for the WFA (although I suspect that may not be the case) next year, after reading it recently after its recent release here in the US, I cannot help but place it on this alternate list. I'll try to write a review of it in the coming weeks, once I've given my mind enough time to process everything that happened within that excellent novel.

Since a secondary value for awards and their shortlists is the discussion value and the prompting of alternate selection mentioning, it is my hope that my comments on each of the shortlisted books/collections and this list of five alternates that I would have held up for consideration will be of some interest and perhaps benefit. Please feel free to share here what you thought of the books, my alternates, and perhaps post other deserving books that I too may have overlooked among the many excellent 2006 releases. I hope to have a similar list for the Best of 2007 coming up in late December or early January 2008.


Cheryl said...

Given that the Clarke is exclusively for "science fiction" and the WFA is exclusively for "fantasy" I would be highly amused to see Nova Swing nominated for both. But sadly it has already burned its eligibility window for the WFA due to earlier UK pubication so we'll never know.

Lsrry said...

Ah, yes. I had somehow forgotten that little bit. Guess I've been so wrapped up in other matters to remember such an important point! Thanks for pointing that out. But at least I can hold out a slight hope for it being considered for a Hugo next year, right?

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