There was a lot of brouhaha (largely negative) around The Wheel of Time‘s inclusion in the Hugo Award nomination list for best novel. Due to some clause in the rules, The Wheel of Time series “was nominated as and ruled to be a multi-part serialized single work” since no individual novels had not been previously nominated. Panic gripped genre fandom and tempers clashed on various social media sites.
Some saw this as a loophole that needed to be fixed, but now that we are progressing through 2014, there are two novel series that I think are deserving of being included in next year’s ballot.
The first of these is Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. All three volumes were released this year and it would seem silly to nominate the first volume rather than the entire series. I am not sure if this series actually has the capacity to be nominated. It has many experimental elements rather than a chronologically commercial piece of fiction. But what it has going for it far outweighs the fact that it might not have as broad of appeal.
Like the TV phenomenon, Lost, the Southern Reach Trilogy is about unlocking the secrets behind an ecological habitat. Vandermeer succeeds where the TV show failed by having an ending in mind, even if many secrets still remain a mystery. Furthermore, Vandermeer’s writing is excellent at creating the right level of mystery and creepiness that accompanies such a story line. The characters are intriguing and even more fascinating is the slow and haunting reveal of the secrets behind Area X.
My quantity (and quality) of books read has been low for this year, given a major move overseas and a new job, but I think this series has a shot at being on the ballot. It certainly satisfied my reading tastes and I think many will enjoy it on both a fun and literary level.
A series that I think has an even better chance of making the Hugo ballot next year is the Eternal Sky Trilogy by Elizabeth Bear. The first book in this series actually came out in 2012, but the series has received such high accolades among many prominent voices in the SF blogosphere that it would be difficult to ignore.
First of all, Elizabeth Bear has such a high quality of writing that her prose alone almost merits its nomination. But even more importantly, she writes epic fantasy with a uniqueness that is long overdue in the genre. There are no white noblemen duking it out in a fantasized Western Europe. Instead, the milieu is largely inspired by Mongolia and the story refrains from making it a simple lowly hero’s journey to save the world or a quest for the crown. In her short novels (by epic fantasy standards), there is a history that grows far beyond its pages with clans and cults pitted against each other.
The challenge this series faces in getting nominated is the fact that it is not Western Europe. The negative in this is that her vast world building draws upon what is unfamiliar to most people. For those who love visiting foreign lands and learning about the peculiarities of a new world, this is an ample feast for the taking. But there are many (myself often included) who care least about setting and most about character and plot. The unfamiliar setting makes it more challenging on the reader’s imagination (*gasp*), but for those who are up to the challenge, it rewards them greatly. I usually shy away from epic fantasy, but Bear’s trilogy was well worth the journey.
I think one of the biggest challenges genre writers have is finding the right balance between blending the familiar and the unfamiliar. In the above two examples, I believe the authors I mention above struck a chord beautifully. But this is coming from a fan and blogger of genre novels. Authors like Hugh Howey, Stephen King, Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), and Blake Crouch (Wayward Pines) write stories that are 90 percent familiar with ten percent fantastical elements — and these seem to be the books that reach mainstream appeal. Even A Song of Ice and Fire is largely steeped in reality — as close to historical fantasy as one can get without having anything historical in it.
There are readers for each kind of author and I can appreciate the novels that try and do something experimental or new as well as enjoy books that are more straight-forward and familiar. But when it comes to awards, I like to see novels considered that achieve some semblance of literary quality and uniqueness. Both Bear and Vandermeer are successful in doing this and I hope these series will be considered when nomination season comes around again.