Gemmell Award Winner

Andrezj Sapkowski has won the innugural David Gemmell award for Fantasy fiction (Fantasy with a big F, as the organisers say).

There is a lot to like about the Gemmell’s. I loved David Gemmell’s novels as a teenager and was sad when he passed away. I can really enjoy a rollicking good heroic fantasy, mark my consistent praise of George R R Martin as evidence. And any award that harnesses popular opinion and gets 10,000 votes for its shortlist deserves mighty praise.

But all that considered the Gemmell’s have managed to score a mighty home goal when it comes to their aim of getting non-genre readers to take genre seriously. From the Guardian article:

“Genre fantasy is often dismissed as being simply gung-ho or macho, as people outside genre circles tend to imagine it’s all about epic battles, weapons and warriors – in fact, it is all of those things and so much more. Contemporary fantasy fiction is about far more than escape to other realities. Freed of the constraints and preconceptions of other kinds of fiction, it holds up a mirror to reflect on this world and time through the prism of vivid characters and enthralling drama that engage the imagination like no other genre.”

I would be the first to agree that there are many examples of contemporary fantasy that hold up a mirror to our world. Unfortunately the Gemmell shortlist are not among them. Thats not a condemnation of the books. They are good, exciting ‘F’antasy of the epic and heroic kind. I like Joe Abercrombie’s series particularly for its slightly knowing attitude to its subject matter and sense of humour. But these are not books of great reflection on the world as it is. And they are definitely not books to win over non-genre readers to the cause, as they will tend to confirm rather than dispell most of the prejudcies those readers hold.

The truth is that really great epic Fantasy, that creates an immersive secondary world and fills it with compelling characters and complex stories is VERY difficult to do well, and all to easy to do poorly. The great names of the genre like Tolkien, Gemmell and Martin each in their own way mastered the many tools that great fantasy writing requires. Unfortunately, the somewhat cynical way that publishers churn out epic Fantasy sagas means that much of the writing in the genre today falls very far short of mastery. Too many of these novels lack the great leaps of imagination that Tolkien achieved when he created Middle Earth. And where the imagination is present, the author lacks the years of experience George R R Martin accrued before turning his hand to fantasy. Certainly the ‘chuck it at the wall and see what sticks’ attitude of the publishers will turn up the occasional gem, but most readers will quite rightly not bother looking for them in the mess.

I will carry on searching for my next Fantasy fix, and if it holds up a mirror to the world all the better. But until the publishers of Fantasy take their books more seriously, its unlikely a broader readership will.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

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