Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Summary: 2011 World Fantasy Award Nominees

The World Fantasy Award for Best Novel has been awarded to authors who have demonstrated outstanding achievement in the field of fantasy since 1975. The awards are considered among the most prestigious in the speculative fiction genre. World Fantasy Award winners are chosen by a panel of judges, which differs every year. 

I’ve read all of the nominees for this year’s award and I’m going to predict which book I think most deserves the award, and the two others which I think are the stiffest competition.   I’ll update the post when the actual winner is announced!

I was really impressed by the freshness and variety represented by this year’s nominees, and I’m happy to see that the fantasy genre is very much alive and well these days.  There are a few interesting things to note about the nominees for the World Fantasy Award this year. 
First of all, the majority of them are from relatively new authors:  Zoo City is Beuke’s second speculative fiction novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is Jemisin’s debut, Redemption in Indigo is Lord’s first in the genre, and Who Fears Death is Okorafor’s first adult fantasy novel.  I think the presence of many impressive new voices in fantasy is a good sign for the hopes of many interesting novels to come. 
Another thing I noticed was how many of the nominees were not based in American/Western European culture, which I had thought tended to dominate stories in the fantasy genre.  Kay’s Under Heaven is based on Tang Dynasty China, Zoo City is set in modern-day(ish) South Africa, Redemption in Indigo is Caribbean, and Who Fears Death is set in post-apocalyptic Saharan Africa.  I loved the huge differences between each nominee, in culture, style, and tone.  And now to the nominees! 
Between Zoo City and her dystopian Moxyland, Beukes has quickly become one of my favorite new writers in speculative fiction.  I loved the idea of the ‘animalled’ in Zoo City  (people who commit crimes are marked by the shaming appearance of an animal companion), and the way it was used to explore guilt and how past actions never disappear.  I loved the main character, Zinzi, a woman with significant personal flaws, who was just trying to get by.  The writing was vibrant and descriptive, and it was easy to become immersed in the gritty lower community of Johannesburg.  Zoo City has already won the Arthur C. Clarke award, and I think it is the strongest candidate for the World Fantasy Award, as well.
Redemption in Indigo is a charming story told in the style of a folk tale.  It incorporates an actual Senegalese folk tale early in the story, and the narrator is a storyteller relating the tale to an audience.  It does have some more serious parts, but there’s a lot of humor and lightheartedness throughout.  I thought it did a fantastic job of reflecting the style of the folk tales I often read as a child, while weaving a tale at an adult level of complexity and maturity.
Who Fears Death was very unlike any fantasy I’ve read lately.  It was set in post-apocalyptic Africa, and it was full of wildly flashy and powerful magic.  While I had some complaints about the pacing, and the prophecy-structure of the adventure, I enjoyed the enthusiastic style of writing, the original setting, and the realistic portrayal of relationships among the main characters.  However, I think this book requires a trigger warning for its depictions of physical and sexual violence.  The story features a violent conflict between two races, where one (the Nuru) is determined to completely wipe out the other (the Okeke).  They often use rape as a weapon against Okeke women, and the main character, the sorceress Onyesonwu, is a product of that.  The sexual violence is not eroticized; I believe Okorafor intended the reader to feel intense revulsion towards the perpetrators and sorrow for the victims.
Other Nominees
Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven is a sprawling tale set in a fictionalized version of 8th century China.  While I appreciated the grandeur of the story, I was a little frustrated by some storytelling decisions and the general passivity of the main characters, who seemed to mostly serve as observers to the action of the story. Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land had an interesting, though over-used, central idea, but I didn’t feel like it had anything new to offer.  The characters were fairly generic, and the plot seemed stretched out, even for so short a book.  N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms seems more like a ‘traditional’ fantasy story, featuring the return to the capital city of an exiled possible heir to the leader of all the kingdoms.  Jemisin’s world had a complex and interesting mythology, and I enjoyed her world’s view of gods/humans, stability/change, and life/death.  The sequel to this one is already out (The Broken Kingdoms) and I intend to read it at some point. Sadly, I read The Hundred Thousands Kingdoms before starting this review blog. 
In general, I think this was a pretty good year for interesting, innovative, and unusual fantasy.  What do you think about this year’s World Fantasy Award nominees?


  1. I too find it interesting that the majority of the books nominated this year take place outside of standard fantasy settings, something that absolutely thrills me. Among the reasons I liked both Zoo City and Who Fears Death (though to different degrees and for different reasons) was the fact that neither were set in traditional fantasy worlds. Who Fears Death in particular felt utterly different, particularly in the magic field itself. Normally, even non-European style fantasies have familiar forms of magic and storytelling - Who Fears Death broke that model and trod on it. Even if I felt Okorafor's novel was flawed in other forms, I was endlessly impressed with its originality. Fantasy should have more diversity of this kind - I'm pleased to see it's getting some credit.

  2. Thanks for your comment! Yeah, I loved how different the magic system in "Who Fears Death" felt, compared to the usual types of fantasy systems. I really hope this kind of diversity and originality continues to characterize fantasy being written in the near future!