I’ll admit to not being able to keep up with science fiction and fantasy awards, but I think the newly announced David Gemmell Legend Award has the potential to be something of a milestone. Why should that be, in the midst of swirl of awards for fantasy novels ranging from those the genre shares with science fiction, to the World Fantasy Awards and various regional awards, as well as the more specialist awards such as the Mythopoeic and Sideways Awards? Well, because this award actually takes its cue from heroic fantasy.
For those of you who may not know much about the late David Gemmell, he was a prolific and best-selling British author of some of the purest examples of heroic fantasy seen in the last thirty years. His first novel, Legend, was an instant hit in the UK and has never gone out of print since 1984. Gemmell went on to write some thirty more novels, nearly all of which are heroic fantasy. His style is fast-paced and concise, and he packs a huge amount into his books. Some of his novels contain more action than an entire trilogy of high fantasy, and this at a time when this later sub-genre dominates the market. Gemmell’s books, one of the big exceptions to the heroic fantasy glut, continue to sell like hotcakes.
The first David Gemmell Award will be given in the Spring of 2009 to the fantasy novel of 2008 that best exemplifies the spirit of David Gemmell’s fiction. This is where things get interesting, in my opinion; this is the point upon which the whole thing balances. Looking over the nominees for the award, and the rules for the selection process, leaves me speculating about a how these awards might take shape.
Specifically, I wonder if we will truly see an award with a distinctive ‘heroic’ criteria, or another generic fantasy novel popularity contest. Gemmell’s fiction wasn’t just about action and pace, but also about honor, sacrifice, and loyalty — and this I think is the real spirit of his tales. The organizers say as much on the Legend Award website, and I expect the judges will take those criteria seriously when they make their selection. The thing that has me somewhat apprehensive is just how the popular vote will go.
The top four novels, as voted by fans, will go to the judges for their decision — but they have to go through the fans first. Clearly, more popular works will have the advantage here — which is only natural, and not so bad a thing when one considers it was mass appeal that lead to Gemmell’s own success. But, leaving aside all those troublesome issues that online voting raises in the age of social media and e-fraud, can a popular vote make so fine a distinction as that between a good fantasy and a good heroic fantasy?
It’s impossible for me to guess. It is a good-looking list so far, lot’s of adventure style secondary world fantasy, and a whole lot of books that I’m already interested in checking out from authors I’m not familiar with. But some of the nominated books don’t really have much in common at all with David Gemmell’s work — although of course no one expects the nominating editors to perform self-censorship over what might qualify as in keeping with the spirit of the awards. But I do have to wonder if we couldn’t possibly get a situation where the top four books aren’t even close to being heroic fantasy.
And then there are yet finer distinctions, for a work can have many of the aspects of a Gemmell-style novel — grittiness, action, fast-pace, strong protagonists — but take a completely different attitude toward the values Gemmell expressed in his work. Will fans respect this distinction, or be aware of it? Will the voters even predominantly be fans of Gemmells work? Does it even matter?
I can’t say I’m certain that it does matter, or that I’m not being an elitist (an adventure fantasy elitist — imagine that!) by worrying if a popular vote can make the ‘right’ decision. I’m excited that the award exists, and I’m really pleased that it both honors a great writer of heroic fantasy and may even go some way in raising the profile of the genre. Those aspects alone make the Legend Award a winner in my book. But I also hope the awards are given to the books that best exemplify what Gemmell cared about — it is his name and legacy we are talking about, after all.
Ultimately, I suspect this line of reasoning may reveal a touch of anxiety on my part that may be shared by other fans of adventure fantasy. Namely, if the popular vote for a heroic fantasy award does not vote for novels that exemplify the genre, what then? What does it say about the success of David Gemmell? Far from his career being proof that heroic and adventure fantasy is what people badly want but haven’t been given enough of, wouldn’t it instead say that his appeal was a genre fluke? A success due more to his qualities as a writer, than about the qualities of the genre?
Or might it even suggest that the sub-genre distinctions that seem important to we of the spec-fic chattering class are imperceptible to the audience at large? And could that not actually be construed as a good thing, when one gets right down to it?
It’s probably still too early to speculate on any of this — perhaps even too early for me to feel anything but excited that heroic fantasy fiction is getting its own award. I don’t doubt that a good book will win the David Gemmell Legend Award; I just hope it’s the right book, and that it sends the right message, and that its selection does full honors to the man in who’s name it is given.
BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for Black Gate Magazine, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.