This is the fourth and last segment of my Whitney finalist reviews, following earlier installments on general fiction, general youth fiction, and speculative youth fiction. I would have liked to do the other categories as well, but these are the genres that lie closest to my heart — and as many as I could get to by the voting deadline, which is this coming Monday.
All the regular warning: Story spoilers. My own opinions. Thanks to publishers of No Angel and A Night of Blacker Darkness for making electronic copies available. Please chime in with your opinions.
A final comment: Opinions about specific finalists and categories notwithstanding, I think the Whitney Awards fill an invaluable role within the community of Mormon letters, and very much appreciate the work that goes into them, including those who administer the awards and particularly the committees of judges. Thanks to all of you for your hard work.
The Alloy of Law: A Mistborn Novel by Brandon Sanderson
This book does a good job of being several rather different things. It’s classic otherworld fantasy, with a well-developed magic system. It’s steampunk. It’s an action-packed shoot-’em-up novel. It’s even partly an historical Regency-style novel (though I’m sufficiently unclear on the technical definition of “Regency” that I don’t know how well that applies, beside the point that on a world not Earth it can’t really apply at all). And it’s a story about conflicting loyalties, personal heroism versus social responsibility, love versus contracted marriage… all that sort of good stuff. There’s even a chase sequence on top of a moving train! Indeed, there’s part of me that suspects one of Sanderson’s motives for writing a book set in this milieu was to get a chance to write such a scene: not something that comes along all that often for writers who work in fantasy. In fact, by the end of the book, I was beginning to suspect that a lot of the motivation was the chance to rework beloved tropes from other sources, such as the last gunfight, the trusty sidekick, the lawman gone bad, and the helpful artificer.
I haven’t read any of the other Mistborn novels, so I can’t compare this book to those or talk about how the world has changed in the 300 years that supposedly transpired between the previous books and this one. I give Sanderson full credit for apparently taking into consideration that worlds and societies do, in fact, change over time — something fantasy isn’t traditionally good at acknowledging. I should also add at some point that I suspect there’s a sequel in the works, though a quick online search didn’t find any mention of one.
There’s more time spent on the intricacies of the magic system than I care for, though it’s on the level of annoyance, not significant flaw. While I concede the need to communicate a sense of limits, there’s part of me that says unless you’re the one playing the game, it’s not really necessary to keep being reminded of the rules. The book also suffers from Capitalization Syndrome (e.g.: “He couldn’t Pull on metals, only Push — he wasn’t some mythological Mistborn from the old stories, like the Survivor or the Ascendant Warrior,” p. 32), which I consider the irritating verbal equivalent of all those Hands Upraised In Awe And Wonder in the old Brothers Hildebrandt paintings. But these are minor elements of clunk in what is overall a clean and enjoyable style.
More bothersome was the sense that the main character was in a lot of ways pretty adolescent, despite being over 40. To some extent, this fits his backstory as someone who left the city and an aristocratic heritage to serve as a frontier lawman, then returned on his uncle’s death to take up his responsibilities — and is having difficulty readjusting to those social expectations. Beyond this, though, there’s a kind of simplicity to his thought processes that suggests either naivety or over-signaling on the part of the author. For example, after he discovers that the City actually has fewer lawmen per capita than the Rough, we read the following:
This land was supposed to be different. Protected. He’d put away his guns in part because he’d convinced himself that the constables could do their jobs without help. But don’t the Vanishers prove that might not be the case? (p. 90; italics in original)
I also don’t find the main bad guy (not the mastermind, but the revolutionary ex-lawman leader of the Vanishers) terribly convincing. Sanderson has done something admirable in using multiple points of view in addition to the main character, including a female as well as the main antagonist. Yet despite what is clearly supposed to be a certain complexity in the antagonist’s character, the pieces just don’t hang together for me.
A final point with respect to genre. According to the rules by which we judge such things, this is definitely a fantasy novel. But in essence, it’s a lot like a science fiction novel. In fact, it’s precisely a science fiction novel, with the only difference being use of a particular technology unknown to us. Fair enough; as Clarke’s law has it, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And this is a darn good story any way you slice it. If, however, there is something fundamentally different between science fiction and fantasy as literary genres, cases like The Alloy of Law suggest that we need to look deeper than specific rules of engagement with reality to find it.
I Don’t Want to Kill You by Dan Wells
I’ve written in a previous AMV post about Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver books, so I won’t go into any detail to talk about this one here, except to note that this is the third volume of a contemporary supernatural horror series with a teen protagonist that has been marketed both as YA and as adult fiction. It’s a very good series, with strong characterization, and this volume brings it to an emotionally devastating but ultimately positive conclusion.
The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card
There’s a reason why Card is the grand old man of Mormon sf&f, and this book amply displays it. As you typically get with Card, The Lost Gate features memorable characters, a vivid basic premise and setting, and a crisp storyline. Interestingly, the previous Card book this reminds me of the most is A Planet Called Treason (I don’t believe I ever read his later rewrite), though with definite echoes as well of The Worthing Chronicle, with its isolated compound to hide a talented family from the world. But The Lost Gate is better than both of those in its writing, worldbuilding, and characterization.
There’s a fair amount of potty humor and the like in this book, most of which is not, surpisingly enough, on account of Danny, the 13-year-old boy who’s the main character, but rather the older lowlifes he runs across. But Danny is definitely a smartass. My 85-year-old ex-English teacher mother, who read this book last week for non-Whitney-related reasons, found it darker than she liked. For my part, there were times I found the Danny-learning-about-life passages a bit tedious, mostly because there were so many of them so thickly spaced.
None of which prevents this from being one of the best Card books I’ve read, and a strong candidate for this year’s Whitney. There’s a reference in the author’s endnote to at least one future volume; I look forward to it.
A Night of Blacker Darkness by Dan Wells
Imagine a man, put in jail for a senseless act of forgery (practice for the real forgery he intends to commit). He bribes his way out of jail in a coffin, then opens the coffin in a graveyard, where he is heralded as a master vampire by the other vampires there assembled. He finds his way to a coach, where the passenger is a surgeon-poet — John Keats, in fact — who engages in rhyming conversation with the escaped convict on their way to London. And all that’s just in the first 20 pages.
If “And it came to pass” is the Book of Mormon’s trademark phrase, partway through I decided that the trademark phrase of A Night of Blacker Darkness is “Not knowing what else to do.” Improbability mounts on improbability in response to the main character’s perfectly reasonable (as he would insist) actions, in what Wells characterizes as “a farcical vampire novel set in Victorian times” (though in point of fact this book is set 20 years before Victoria’s rein, and even before her birth — just saying, Dan). Or perhaps the dominant trope is the continual disproving of the belief that things can’t get any worse — or any more ridiculous.
I can understand why this was originally self-published. Not that it’s at all lacking in quality. But who would know how to market it? It is, in fact, the perfect argument for self-publishing in e-book format, as Wells did. And a paean to doing what the muse bids, simply for the sheer fun of it. If this sounds like something you might like, I can only say that you’re almost certainly right, and that you should definitely get a copy and read it. Sadly, at the moment the only version available is an audio version. But fear not! I hear it will be available in e-book version again come May.
No Angel by Theresa Sneed
Jonathan Stewart didn’t care much for mortality when he was there. He’s perfectly content routing souls in the Heaven- and Earth-bound Department. In particular, he has no interest in an assignment as a guardian angel.
Which of course means that he winds up as one. At first he thinks his assignment to someone “marked for early death” means he won’t have that much to do. Little does he realize that his assignment will wind up teaching him a lot that his own life on earth didn’t.
While this book is wrapped around a skeleton of plot, it quickly becomes evident that it’s less a story than a vehicle for commentary on mortality. Sort of like a version of The Screwtape Letters from an angel’s point of view, crossed with the Middle English Pearl poem, told in the mode of My Turn on Earth. Except that it’s not as witty and insightful as Lewis, and not as lyrical as Pearl, and has much worse dialogue than My Turn on Earth. And no decent songs. And a lot of questionable though unmistakably Mormon theology, though I suppose a good deal of that comes with the territory of literalizing abstract concepts enough to turn them into the framework for a narrative.
(Okay, I admit: I don’t really know if the dialogue is worse than My Turn on Earth, since I never watched the musical. But I can say that the dialogue and characterization are worse than Added Upon.)
This is a work where the concept is everything. If you don’t find yourself interested in what Sneed does with the trope — a clueless angel seeing firsthand what mortality is really like, how people are tempted, and Sneed’s inventive but clunky mechanics of being a guardian angel, together with a long segment from inside an elaborated version of Lehi’s Dream — then there’s little else for you to like. Which, for me, made it something of a trial to read. In my view, this book, though innovative in its approach, isn’t well-written or interesting enough to be on the Whitney ballot.
General Comments and Observations
- Publishers: The Alloy of Law, I Don’t Want to Kill You, and The Lost Gate were all from national publishers. No Angel was from Walnut Springs (an LDS publisher), and A Night of Blacker Darkness was originally self-published by the author.
- Community: Three out of the four finalists (Card, Sanderson, and Wells) have strong ties to the well-established community of LDS practitioners of speculative fiction — a community which, unlike most other such communities, is not tied to LDS publishers or markets, but rather goes back to a shared base in the science fiction and fantasy community that historically has been centered around BYU. It’s an interesting phenomenon that I don’t believe has robust parallels in other genres. As such, it constitutes one of what I see as three major distinct communities of Mormon letters, together with the AML/literary fiction-centered group and the popular Mormon-market authors group (which I where I would put LDStorymakers, the sponsoring group for the Whitney Awards).
- Genre: The Alloy of Law and The Lost Gate are both fantasy, with The Lost Gate being a mix of contemporary and otherworldly fantasy, and The Alloy of Law pure otherworldly fantasy. I Don’t Want to Kill You is contemporary supernatural horror, and A Night of Blacker Darkness is historical supernatural horror farce. I don’t know exactly what to call No Angel: maybe devotional supernatural allegory. Does this shift toward the fantasy end of the spectrum, as opposed to science fiction, mirror trends in the larger publishing world in terms of full-length books? Don’t know.
- Point of view: I Don’t Want to Kill You and A Night of Blacker Darkness (both by Dan Wells) used first person point of view. The others used third person.
- Central conflict and tropes: There’s a lot about growing up and life lessons in both The Lost Gate and I Don’t Want to Kill You, which not coincidentally are also in my view the strongest finalists in this category. The moral of No Angel seems to be that if you will take the risk of caring about others, you’ll find your caring returned. The Alloy of Law seemed to me mostly a well-told adventure story with no overarching thematic thrust, while A Night of Blacker Darkness is sheer fun with as little to do with morals as possible.
- Gender: All of the main point of view characters were male, even in the one book (No Angel) by a female author. Which raises the question: how many strong female LDS writers are out there writing adult speculative fiction? Most of the best-known examples are male, especially if you count Twilight as YA.
- Mormon connection: No Angel is Mormon doctrine turned into a story. None of the others has a discernible Mormon connection, though in my review essay I made a case for Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver books as portraying Mormon themes, which are also evident in The Lost Gate, as in all of Card’s work. Nothing I saw in The Alloy of Law or A Night of Blacker Darkness made me think in Mormon terms.
- General assessment: This is another strong assortment (with the exception of No Angel) that shows a broad diversity of genres. I would wish for more new names — the inclusion of two titles by Dan Wells didn’t help in that regard, though I can’t begrudge him the slots, particularly since they’re such utterly different works. Perhaps we need an sf&f-focused set of Mormon awards to encompass other genres besides the novel? The community base is there, if anyone cared to organize it for such an endeavor.