Monday, 5 August 2019

BFA Shadow Juror: Novellas

I thought it might be fun this summer to read as many of the British Fantasy Award nominees as I could, as a kind of one-man shadow jury. That is, reading the nominees that the actual jurors do and applying the same criteria to them that I would if I were on the jury, but posting my (spoiler-free) thoughts here for people to read instead of keeping them secret.

Last time I did something similar was with the best novel category back in 2009, and the surprise then was how few of the nominees featured any fantasy at all, let alone being what anyone would call fantasy novels. One was a London detective novel, and another was a historical novel about Vincent Van Gogh, both by authors with strong ties to the BFS and FantasyCon.

BFA juries use a lot of different methods to come to their decisions: the awards constitution doesn't set out a specific way. Here I'll use one that consistently seems to work well, where each member (after a group discussion of the nominees) rates each out of ten for how much they want it to win the award, taking everything into account.

"Everything" would include how good the item is, of course, but also whether the nominee fits the category (e.g. is an item nominated for best magazine actually a magazine? is a publisher nominated for indie press actually independent?) and whether it is fantasy, given that these are fantasy awards.

The BFS takes a wide view of fantasy, taking in science fantasy, weird fantasy, dark fantasy, literary fantasy, and so on. Fantasy, science fiction and horror get specific mentions in the society's constitution, which explains why the latter two show up in the nominees more often than you might expect for a fantasy award.

For me, certain types of horror count as fantasy, but others don't. Friday the 13th (last few minutes aside): not fantasy, because the killer is human. Halloween: fantasy, because Michael Myers is said to have no soul (and hence also I guess lives in a world where souls are real). I would regard aliens, ghosts, demons, elves, gods etc as fantastical elements.

Just in case a disclaimer is needed: this is entirely unofficial and purely for fun. I have no involvement in the real awards this year, other than as a member of the society and hence a voter. I have no insight into what the current juries are saying, the criteria they will apply or the way that they will come to their decisions.

Anyway, I've started off by reading the nominees for best novella. Here are my thoughts on how I would vote if I were on that jury:

The Last Temptation of Dr Valentine, by John Llewellyn Probert. The highly entertaining story of a serial killer with a flair for the cinematic, and the people trying to catch him. I loved its wit and its structure: a chapter will often act as a macabre short story focused on a particular victim. I enjoyed this as much as any of the other books on the shortlist: it was a pure, over-the-top audience pleaser. And I'll definitely be going back to read the first two Dr Valentine stories. But this is a fantasy award and this isn't a fantasy story. It's about a serial killer who adopts unusual methods; there are no fantastical elements at all. So for me this wouldn't be in the running. Also, the ebook version seems to be about 45,000 words long, and this category is for stories up to 40,000 words, so unless the initial print version was much shorter I don't think it's eligible. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 0/10

Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor. Third adventure of the girl who leaves her home in Africa to attend a university on another planet, and then comes back again with an alien friend. It's just as good as the others. I'll keep reading these as long as the author keeps writing them. I would have given this quite a high rating, because although it might be a bit impenetrable for new readers it's full of ideas and very good. But by my reckoning it's over 47,000 words long, so it's ineligible for this category. Blame people like me who voted for it in the wrong category without checking the word count. My rating: four stars. To-win rating: 0/10

Breakwater, by Simon Bestwick. Kind of an unofficial sequel to The Kraken Wakes, this very short novella scrapes into this category by a couple of hundred words, and feels very slight compared to the rest. Two women try to escape an undersea base following the latest attack by an unseen ocean species, while taking the time to comment on each other's bottoms, e.g. "Move that sexy bum of yours, Doc." It's an old-fashioned way of writing about women given a pseudo-progressive spin by having another woman say it. This isn't really good enough to be on an awards shortlist, but at least it's eligible. My rating: two stars. To-win rating: 1/10

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander. Elephants are more intelligent than in our world, and were made to work with radioactive materials. This was the second Tor.com novella I've read this year that presents terrorists attacking a civilian target as righteous and justified. The idea of more intelligent elephants is interesting (and can also be found in Binti: The Night Masquerade), and the prose is good, but there's very little distance between where the story begins and where it ends, and a big part of it is driven by an idea that makes very little sense: to make elephants glow when they are near radiation, to warn future generations of humans to stay away. My rating: two stars. To-win rating: 3/10

The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard. Sherlock Holmes and Watson recast in the far future as Long Chau and The Shadow's Child (the mind of a spaceship), team up for the first time to investigate a corpse found in the deep spaces. It's very good, though the mystery takes a back seat to the origin story of the partnership. I hadn't realised that the same author's In the Vanishers' Palace was also from 2018 when voting. This is good, and I'd be very happy to see it win, but that would have been an even stronger contender, being much more fantastical. My rating: three stars. To-win rating: 6/10

The Land of Somewhere Safe, by Hal Duncan. On a shortlist with four science fiction books and one horror novel, it's good that there is at least one outright fantasy novella. A boy and girl shipped out from London during World War II get involved in the adventures of a gang of eternal, archetypal urchins, mashing up Peter Pan, Narnia, the slippery slide from the Magic Faraway Tree and lots of other bits and bobs from children's literature. This author's Susurrus on Mars was my absolute favourite of all the novellas I read in the course of judging this category for real last year, but it didn't make the final shortlist. I'm glad this one did. But while the story is full of adventure and scrapes, derring-do and ideas, it's not an easy read, thanks to being told by one of the urchins, with a plethora of slang, phonetic spellings and neologisms. I thought it was worth the effort. I also thought it was the best of the novellas, and the one I would most want to win. My rating: four stars. To-win rating: 8/10

Will that book win the award? I don't know - bear in mind that even if I were on the jury, I would be just one person among five, and to win a book needs some degree of support from all or most of the jurors, and the narrative style of that one might put some people off. A previous Dr Valentine book won the award so that would clearly be in with a shout if it were eligible. I think my bet would be on The Tea Master and the Detective, but since two of the books on the shortlist seem to be ineligible we might well see two new novellas thrown into the mix before the jury makes its final decision.

Next up: comics and graphic novels!

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