Dragon Awards Reviews: Fantasy Worlds

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Having covered games and three of the novel categories, WWAC continues analysing the winners of the inaugural Dragon Awards. Join Doris V. Sutherland, Andrea Smith, and guest contributor Jennie Rigg as they review the winners of the Best Science Fiction Novel, Best Young Adult/Middle Grade Novel, Best Fantasy Novel, and Best Alternate History Novel categories.

Best Science Fiction Novel

Somewhither: A Tale of the Unwithering Realm by John C. Wright
Reviewed by Doris V. Sutherland

Ilya, a teenage boy who never quite fit in, finds out that his adoptive father belongs to a secret Catholic organisation that protects Earth from dangers posed by other universes. His crush, Penny, ends up a captive in a parallel universe where Abraham was slain by Nimrod and the evil empire of the Dark Tower reigns supreme. Like Isaac Asimov’s “psychohistorians,” the Dark Tower’s astrologers can predict the future with mathematical accuracy, but their calculations are thrown off by Ilya’s arrival. Fortunately for Ilya, he turns out to be immortal: he himself was born in a parallel universe, and his people ate from the Tree of Life. This is a great boon for his quest to rescue Penny and introduce the backwards world of the Dark Tower to the virtues of the U.S. Constitution.

Eric Flint once remarked that John C. Wright follows the Saudi School of Prose: “No noun may go out in public unless she is veiled by grandiloquence and accompanied by an adjective.” Somewhither comes across as a concerted attempt to shake off this old-time verbosity and deliver something hipper and punchier for the young adult audience. The results are, well, not entirely convincing.

Ilya, who acts as first-person narrator, makes extensive use of pop culture references throughout the book, even when speaking to a character who would logically have no idea what he is talking about. (“So you don’t have any Japanese on this world? Who draws your anime?”) Sometimes these riffs are fairly witty, as when Ilya engages in a lengthy digression about the biology of the Tin Man or ponders whether the alternate universe is home to “a parallel evil Virgin Mary who dressed in black and showed a lot of cleavage.” More often, though, they are merely tedious.

Wright gives the impression that he is uncomfortable introducing a fantasy concept without an accompanying pop culture comparison. When the heroes fight a vampire, Wright succeeds in portraying it as a genuinely demonic and otherworldly being, but then ruins things by having his characters launch into the now-obligatory discussion about sparkly vampires in Twilight. Elsewhere we are told that Nakasu, a being whose face is placed upon his otherwise humanoid torso, “had to lean back to look up, like the Tim Burton version of Batman.”  When a companion develops the ability to magically manipulate water, meanwhile, Ilya utters the immortal words “Cool beans, Katara.”

At times the references get caught in a pile-up as they dash out one after the other:

“A watchglass is a Geiger-counter for magic. It is built specifically to find unclean spirits… Mummies, vampires, werewolves, creatures from the Black Lagoon, and every other Universal Movie Monster Abbot [sic] and Costello ever faced. You’re something different.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Highlander was from Twentieth-Century Fox.”

Foster said, “I thought your people were more like John Carpenter’s The Thing.”

Wright had more than enough material for a good fantasy world without resorting to this constant nudging and winking. As well its rejigging of the Old Testament, the world of Somewhither incorporates the Blemmyae, Sciapods, Cynocephali, and Panotti of Greek and medieval belief; the Dreamtime of the Australian Aborigines; Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race; and a rather bizarre cameo from Captain Nemo. But even the most potentially fascinating fantasy concept loses its appeal when we are forced to view it alongside some dullard who refuses to shut up about his favourite ’80s movies.

Exactly what Wright hoped to achieve with these pop culture references is open to debate. Perhaps they simply reflect Somewhither’s camp sense of humour. After all, this is a novel featuring a character called Professor Dreadful who saw fit to name his daughter Penny. But there are also indicators that Wright is trying to make a statement about how popular fiction shapes our view of the world, as when Ilya lectures the reader on this very topic:

I sort of knew that the script writers oh-so-conveniently never let Star Fleet officers come across Hindus burning widows or Phoenicians sacrificing maidens or Nigerians performing ritual female genital mutilation on little girls without anaesthesia. And if the local custom required our snarky sci-fi hero to pleasure the wife of his Eskimo host, she was always willing, young, buxom, disease-free, and never smelled of rancid whale blubber. So in the front of my mind, I knew the morals of these little Aesop fables were bogus as a three-dollar bill.

You think something as frivolous as a TV show or a cartoon or a science fiction paperback doesn’t affect your thinking? It does. You just don’t notice. In the back of your mind, in that half-asleep corner where your imagination sows all the things you heard on television which only television people believe, there will be no images of any show named Star Civilization vividly showing you that barbarism is barbaric.

With Somewhither Wright is possibly making a dig at Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, which is likewise a reality-hopping fantasy saga with a message about the importance of storytelling, but one written from a specifically anti-Christian perspective. It can scarcely be coincidence that Somewhither’s evil astrologers are equipped with golden compasses.

Setting aside for a moment the message that it is preaching, does Somewhither work as didactic fiction? Well, not really.

As Ilya is too busy lecturing us to undergo intellectual growth of his own, and the story lacks a key part of any coming-of-age narrative. Wright establishes that the hero was homeschooled by a conservative family, and so—conveniently enough—already shares Wright’s personal values from the start of the novel. He is unmistakably a John C. Wright mini-me, grumbling about political correctness on television, speaking darkly of how his friends “who toyed with Ouija boards or fooled around with tarot cards” were opening the door to demonic influence, referring to black people as “Negros” despite growing up in the twenty-first century, and waxing lyrical about how “it was almost as if nature designed women to look good struggling in a man’s grasp.” For a Catholic kid he is bafflingly ignorant of the Bible (it takes him an absurd amount of time to realise that the Dark Tower is Babel), but aside from that quirk, almost everything he encounters on his adventure serves to reinforce his pre-existing opinions.

Compare this to how C. S. Lewis gets his message across in The Chronicles of Narnia. He allows the juvenile protagonists to make mistakes, such as Edmund falling for the White Witch’s Turkish delight or Eustace being corrupted by the dragon’s hoard. The children learn from these lapses and through their experiences adopt the Christian values that Lewis is promoting to the reader.

Somewhither, by contrast, fails to impart its message through its narrative and instead falls back on preaching. The above-quoted rant about Star Trek is one example, and there are others. In one of his characteristic digressions, Ilya talks about a sweet little girl he knew during his childhood who, as a teenager, got piercings and skull tattoos. “She looked like a cannibal squaw in National Geographic … she entered a world like this one: a place without romance. Without mystery, without love.” A modern update of Susan Pevensie’s nylons, lipstick and invitations, it would appear.

None of this is helped by the book’s glaring structural misjudgments. Ilya is motivated by his desire to rescue Penny; but as Penny’s abduction occurs so early in the narrative, and her plight is never shown directly until Ilya reaches her towards the end, the novel fails to convey her danger. Consequently, Ilya’s quest lacks urgency. As Ilya can regenerate from any wound, he is never in any convincing peril; Wright instead settles for subjecting his hero to various bouts of Hostel-like torture porn. Given the snarky tone, these sequences end up feeling like an overlong Itchy & Scratchy cartoon (“I managed to twist and drive the sharp end of my protruding femur into the young yellowish wolf’s eyeball with a dramatic squirt of eye jelly”).

At the end of the day, the plot seems like something out of a simple video game: a hero with infinite lives off to rescue a girl who is no more than a MacGuffin. Perhaps this was intentional. Between the SNES-level plotting and sub-Whedon pop culture references, Somewhither ends up looking like a rather desperate attempt to be down with the kids.

The Shepherd's CrownBest Young Adult/Middle Grade Novel

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
Reviewed by Andrea Smith

“Your candle will flicker for some time before it goes out—a little reward for a life well lived. For I can see the balance and you have left the world much better than you found it, and, if you ask me,” said Death, “nobody could do any better than that.”

The Shepherd’s Crown is Terry Pratchett’s last novel, published in August 2015, five months after Pratchett’s death. It is the 41st and last book in his wildly successful (and obviously very long) Discworld series, and the 5th in the Tiffany Aching subseries.

When the head of the witches, the formidable Granny Weatherwax, dies at the outset of the novel, Tiffany Aching inherits her title and with it responsibility for both Granny’s steading and The Chalk as a whole. Her job is made all the more difficult by the onslaught of the elves, who are desperate to reestablish power in the human world—by force, preferably—and who keep popping up and causing trouble all over The Chalk. It’s up to Tiffany, her new friend Geoffrey, and his amazing goat, to protect The Chalk and force the elves back to the world they came from.

I’m told in Rob Wilkins’s moving afterward that Pratchett never got the chance to finish this book the way he would have wanted, that he would have spent a few more months tweaking things to be just so, if he’d had the chance. I don’t find this hard to believe for a second. Although The Shepherd’s Crown is well-written and entertaining, it left me feeling a bit underwhelmed, as though it could have used a bit of a spit-shine before release.

It was a difficult book to get into, but I believe this to be entirely my fault. See, before The Shepherd’s Crown, I’d never read a Terry Pratchett book. Can you imagine picking up the last book in a 41-book series and being able to fully comprehend the immensity of what’s unfolding in the plot? Of course you can’t. I certainly couldn’t.

My friends who’ve read the rest of the Discworld novels unanimously adore this novel, whether because it’s genuinely good or because it’s Pratchett’s last, I can’t say. I did truly like The Shepherd’s Crown, but it didn’t have the impact that it should have. The last book in a series is an important thing, and when the climactic moments of this one were over, I was left wondering, “What, that’s it?” The Big Battle isn’t so big, and for a long-time Pratchett fan, who’s been following this story since its inception in 1983, that wouldn’t be a problem. For someone new to the series, who’s doing things in an incredibly backwards way, it is.

I enjoyed Pratchett’s writing, though, and I truly believe that when he died, the world lost one of its finest writers. I look forward to going back and starting Discworld from the very beginning. Maybe then, I’ll be able to grasp the immensity of The Shepherd’s Crown.

Son of the Black SwordBest Fantasy Novel

Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia
Reviewed by Doris V. Sutherland

Son of the Black Sword takes place in a solidly class-ridden fantasy society: a caste of rulers at the top, castes of warriors and workers below, and at the very bottom, the casteless ones who are not considered human beings at all. Ashoka, the protagonist, belongs to a caste of Protectors whose job it is to uphold this state of affairs. This he does with great power, aided by a sentient black sword which chooses the most suitable bearer.

Ashoka never questions his duties until he regains lost memories and finds out that he is himself one of the casteless and that his mother was killed; he avenges his mother’s death by slaying the person who killed her. As punishment for this act of rebellion, Ashoka is given the least honourable assignment imaginable: he is sent to a remote island fortress to protect the prophet of an enemy religion, thereby dooming himself to be seen as the lowest of the low by his society.

En route to this destination, Ashoka is taken in by the prophet’s followers. Meanwhile, the powers that be decide to take drastic measures to prevent any further uprisings: they begin working out a plan to exterminate all casteless.

There is precious little in Son of the Black Sword that will surprise anybody who has even the barest familiarity with the conventions of fantasy fiction. The protagonist works for a totalitarian regime, so we know full well that he will betray it. Said regime has banned all religion, and is at war with a faction of what it regards as religious fanatics—so we know straight off that the fanatics will turn out to be benevolent holders of forbidden wisdom. And given that the story involves a prophet, it scarcely needs mentioning that our hero is a Chosen One. The climax does make an honest attempt to spring something unexpected on the reader, with a disguised character and a misinterpreted prophecy, but this is too little, too late.

Heroic fantasy of this kind owes a clear debt to Robert E. Howard, but all too often lacks that author’s raw inspiration. Howard described his hero Conan as a subconscious amalgam of “various prize-fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen,” but it is hard to imagine Ashoka as anything more than a plastic figure on Larry Correia’s desk.

That said, you could fairly argue that Son of the Black Sword is just not the kind of book that is supposed to be particularly original. There will always be a place for potboilers; and just as fantasy cinema has Stephen Sommers, fantasy fiction has Larry Correia. Furthermore, despite its obviousness, Son of the Black Sword does have an essential sincerity that shines through.

In one plot thread, the young librarian Rada must sneak out in disguise so as to get help in her efforts to thwart the government’s genocidal schemes and does so using tricks that she has picked up in romance novels about lovestruck heroines visiting forbidden lovers incognito. The message we can glean from this is that even the most lowbrow of popular fiction has its value; a potboiler Son of the Black Sword may be, but it is at least a potboiler with a strong sense of self-worth.

The Dragon Awards purport to celebrate crowd-pleasing fantasy fiction, and—arguably alone amongst the winning novels by Puppy-affiliated authorsSon of the Black Sword is a reasonable contender when viewed in that light.

League of DragonsBest Alternate History Novel

League of Dragons by Naomi Novik
Reviewed by Jennie Rigg

I’ve been meaning to read some of Naomi Novik’s work for a while (Uprooted has been on my To Read Pile for a few months), but never quite got around to it, so when I was asked to review League of Dragons I jumped at it, despite it being the final book in a nine book series. I’m going to attempt to do this without being spoilery for people who, unlike me, have read the rest of the series.

The fact that it is the final book in a nine book series makes it a little more interesting. I worried that being the final book in a long series it might be impenetrable to a new reader; thankfully, this was not the case. While liberal reference was made to prior events, none of this got in the way of the plot of this book, which clipped along at a good pace and didn’t get bogged down in continuity at all. The lead character does seem to wrestle with himself a fair bit; whether or not this is in character I couldn’t say, but it sets up some interesting moral conundra for the novice reader.

The parallel world in which this is set is intricately built and full of detail. The geography is related to our world in believable ways. I am always a bit wary of books with maps at the start, having read far too many bad fantasy novels with them as a teenager, but in this case it actually helps to relate the shape of the world and how the various wars have affected things. I admit that I had to ask my napoleonic-era-history-geek partner about some of the geographical detail, but discussing books with one’s partner is a feature, rather than a bug.

The action is fascinating, the symbiosis between the human and dragon characters is a joy, and the build up to the final chapters is lovely. The narration of all the action scenes is clear and imaginative and makes the pictures form in one’s brain beautifully. Temeraire himself is a thoughtful and gentle creature, yet distictly and distinctively non-human. Several of the othe rdragon characters are similarly distinctive and well-drawn.

The language and dialogue is believable for the era, although I say this merely as a reader of literature from the time rather than an expert. The gender politics is also, sadly, believably for the era, and while there are (both human and dragon) female characters, most of the plot is driven and performed by male characters. If you’re looking for a feminist utopia (and I so often am) you won’t find it here.

All that said, though, I genuinely did enjoy this. I’d give it an 8 out of 10, and will definitely read more of her work. I was actually quite surprised, given my initial visceral reaction to the first few pages of the book (“eurgh, maps. Eurgh, faux historical…!”)

I would particularly recommend this to people who like Napoleonic era European history, dragons, and complex characters with interesting motivations.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.