Sunday 1 January 2012

The Wertzone Awards 2011

Yup, it's that time of year again :-)

Best Novels

1. The Islanders by Christopher Priest
Priest's first novel in a decade may not be quite his best, but it is still an impressive achievement. Taking the form of a gazetteer to a fictional archipelago of islands, this was a short story collection, novel and worldbuilding guidebook (but also very much a deconstruction of the notion of worldbuilding) all wrapped into one compelling whole. Especially notable for showcasing Priest's not-very-often-aired sense of humour. Inventive and rewarding.

2. The White Luck Warrior by R. Scott Bakker
Bakker's Second Apocalypse fantasy sequence (of which this is the fifth volume, and the second volume of the second of three trilogies set in the world of Earwa) passes its mid-point with Bakker's customary intellectual vigour, foreboding atmosphere and memorable scenes (the finale is stunning). He also brings back the massive battle sequences and more successfully manages the politics than the previous volume, returning to his top form.

3. The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie's best novel to date, with a strong focus on a single battle unfolding over three days. The battle may be pointless, but its outcome has huge ramifications for both the characters and also the world (not the least of which is the invention of the sandwich).

4. The Iron Jackal by Chris Wooding
The Tales of the Ketty Jay series is probably the most purely enjoyable fantasy series in progress at the moment, and this third volume is the best in the series so far. A succession of aerial dogfights and chases mix well with intrigue, a museum heist and an epic conclusion featuring a giant steampunk robot. An absolutely non-guilty pleasure.

5. The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan
After the interesting but unfocused Steel Remains, Morgan returns to his SF/fantasy hybrid trilogy with renewed focus and improved writing. Much more successful as a homage to pulp fantasy than its forebear, although it's the increasingly clear links to his Takeshi Kovacs series that have most impressed readers.

6. A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
Was it worth the six-year wait? Probably not, and the delaying of several critical climactic moments to the sixth novel in the series was a mistake (as was the problematic pacing of the Daenerys storyline). However, once these issues were take on board, what we were left with was often compelling: Theon's imprisonment at the hands of the Boltons is an excellent slice of psychological horror, whilst Davos and Bran's chapters showed that Martin could still do concise, effective storylines when required.

7. The Crippled God by Steven Erikson
The tenth and final novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence was much more of an effective finale than some fans were expecting. Erikson demonstrates how much control he did have of his often cumbersome-appearing narrative unfolding over ten thousand pages, wrapping up an enormous number of storylines, character arcs and thematic journeys with skill. That said, it was still a couple of hundred pages too long and the pacing was still too-often bogged down by turgid dialogue exchanges, but this novel still represents Erikson at his best form in almost a decade.

8. Daylight on Iron Mountain by David Wingrove
After the somewhat sedate Son of Heaven, Wingrove's new version of his Chung Kuo sequence kicked into overdrive with a novel that packed sociological change and full-scale global warfare into a modest page count. A fun, page-turning read setting the scene for the remaining eighteen (!) novels in this series.

9. Rivers of London/Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch
A new urban fantasy sequence arrives almost fully-formed, with fun writing and some solid concepts overcoming the familiarity of yet another take on vampires and ghosts.

10. By Light Alone by Adam Roberts
Inventive SF from Roberts, set in a world where people live by photosynthesis. His strongest novel to date and his most satisfying ending (a sticking point for me with his previous works).

Bubbling under: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, Embassytown by China Mieville, Manhattan in Reverse by Peter F. Hamilton, The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson, War in Heaven by Gavin Smith, The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, The Emperor's Knife by Mazarkis Williams, The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham, Leviathan Wakes by Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck, Fenrir by M.D. Lachlan and The Order of the Scales by Stephen Deas.

The Wertzone Special Achievement in SFF Writing Award 2011

This award goes to Steven Erikson for bringing the Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence to a worthwhile and fascinating conclusion, tying together an epic number of plot threads in a satisfying manner.

The Wertzone Award For Best Book Read in 2011 Regardless of Release Date

This one goes to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, previously the highest-profile author whom I'd never actually read. A gripping, thought-provoking read that more than lives up to its titanic reputation.

Best Games

1. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The Deus Ex sequence returns with its third game, an RPG that offers great gameplay, well-developed characters and tremendous freedom to approach any problem from multiple angles (some ill-considered boss fights aside). Fun and smart in equal measures.

2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Bethesda return with an open-world RPG offering huge amounts of freedom, as well as a metric ton of content, making for their largest game since Daggerfall. Fans of Bethesda's previous games may find the structure overly-familiar, but unparalleled atmosphere and evocative graphics make up for the occasional bugs and often lacklustre writing.

3. Space Marine
Not exactly the longest or most sophisticated game ever made, Space Marine nevertheless satisfies by allowing you to jet-pack into a horde of ravening orcs with a massive chainsword and unleash carthartic carnage on an epic scale. Throwing back your head and laughing like a lunatic whilst doing so is purely optional.

4. Shogun 2: Total War
I've only had time to play this briefly, but the Total War series seems to have lost a little of its shine recently. The graphics are phenomenal and the mix of real-time battles and turn-based strategy remains compelling, but the continued poor AI performance and an oddly cumbersome interface that throws away a lot of the streamlining of the last few games inhibit fully enjoyment of the title.

Not played (yet): Mafia II, Portal 2, Arkham City, Hard Reset.

Best TV Series

1. Game of Thrones
HBO's take on the Song of Ice and Fire novels is well-written and brilliantly-acted, overcoming some problems (inappropriately gratuitous sex scenes and clumsy exposition) to emerge as a genuinely impressive, game-changing TV show.

2. Top Boy
Channel 4's four-part mini-series about drug dealers feuding for control of a London estate may have resulted in obvious comparisons to The Wire, but its impressive cinematography and nuanced characterisation allowed it to also stand on its own as a well-acted, impressively-written drama. A second season will air in 2012.

3. Wilfred
A bizarre premise - a suicidal man is befriended by a dog which he sees as a person - gives rise to some hilarious antics and amusing references. The writers get bogged down a little in a limited premise, but towards the end of the season show some inventiveness in stretching the format.

4. Merlin
For its fourth and penultimate season, Merlin seriously upped its game, dropping the poor comedy episodes and scything down a number of recurring characters with surprising ruthlessness before bringing some of the more notable mythic Arthurian imagery into play. It's still a lightweight take on the legend, but a resolutely fun one.

5. Doctor Who
This year was a bit of a disappointment for Doctor Who, with Steven Moffat apparently keener on showing how clever he is than delivering reliably entertaining television. However, the excellent Neil Gaiman episode is worthy of the placement all by itself.


Bibliotropic said...

I regret that there are so many good books that I didn't get the chance to read this past year. I did manage to read "The Dragon's Path" and "The Emperor's Knife," but there are a quite a number on your list that I wanted to read but just didn't have the chance or time to.

Hopefully 2012 will be a better year, where that's concerned.

Anonymous said...

You know . . . I would take the recommendations implicit in the best novel list way more seriously if there was even one single female author on it. As it is, the list just makes me tired and sad.

Anonymous said...

Nice list. I would have put "The Crippled God" at number one, but I guess it’s a personal thing. It is really incredible that Erikson managed to give us so many great books in "just" 12 years.

Adam Whitehead said...

The lack of the women on the list is an issue, I agree. The problem is that I was heavily reliant on review copies being sent to me this year for my reading, and the number of books sent to me by female authors was almost non-existent. There was SONGS OF THE EARTH, which was an okay debut, and the latest SOOKIE STACKHOUSE (I haven't even read the first one yet) and not a huge amount more beyond that.

However, talking about books I read this year overall (not just 2011 releases), THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS was probably the single finest book I read this year. I should edit the entry to reflect that.

Joshua Lowe said...

Unless you purposefully only chose books by male authors then it really isn't a problem, just a coincidence. I assume these are just the books that appealed to you in 2011. The majority of the books I read are by female's, but there wouldn't be an outcry about that.

I'm seeing a lot of recurring titles in 'best of 2011' lists that I haven't even heard of in poor old Australia, so have made sure to chuck them on the list.

chris upton said...

Agree with you on LeGuinns Left Hand Of Darkness. Absolute masterpiece and my second favourite read of the year after Daniel Woodrells Winters Bone which was truely astonishing.
As for this year I'm expecting Avillion by Robert Holdstock to be the best read of the year if its half as good as Lavondys was.

Raquel said...

Excellent list, and a lot of new stuff for me to read.

Oz said...

I liked a Dance with Dragons and have enjoyed a song of fire and ice so far but in some ways it's starting to look like the TV show Lost. It's hard to keep track of everything that's happening plus I thought the end of the Jon Snow story was a bit to contrived, it just seemed forced to me.

Bill Moon said...

Hey anonymous, seeing someone get tired & sad over a best books list makes me feel tired and sad. Maybe you could send us some recommendations? B/c I can't think of very many good fantasy novels that were written by women that came out last year at all.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed by this list.

Personally I would push Erikson Crippled God on top of the list, not only for the special achievement. Ah, I see Anonymous#2 has the same opinion.
Even the "boring" dialogues have always hidden clues and are not written in a style every "listener" can grasp at first. If two characters know each other, not everything has to be said, because it is known between them. That's Erikson's style and that's why many think, his dialogues seem unnecessary.
Remember: Erikson never writes a word without reason. Some may not have understood the truth of that.
And also a great deal of these dialogues help to know certain people we may not have been interested in. We believe to know them, to know their motivations.

In your TV series list I miss "Breaking Bad" extremely. By far the best series the last years where not even GoT could stand equal. I think GoT ist still rising (there were too many unnecessary scenes and not enough battle scenes) though the setting and cast is/was incredible. Westeros is alive.
Also "Boardwalk Empire" could've been in the list.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous#1:

You may be write that more female authors are missing. But to be honest, I've not recognized a few handfuls of good/excellent fantasy books in the last year(s) written by female authors. Most of them are predictable or relying on cliche. Maybe N.K.Jemisin is an exception. Then they often tend to romanticism, mirrored in cheap covers. There may be many exceptions but women have their Robin Hobb, their Ursula K. Le Guin and then the line is thinning very fast.
I've tried Cherie Priest with here cycle beginning with "Boneshaker" but in my eyes this is a highly overrated and hyped inconsequent attempt with a variation of well known stereotypes, just in another setting, which, acknowledged, is a cool idea. But the writing and the story is average, nothing more, nothing less.

Maybe Adam or yourself can change that by an almost complete list of female fantasy outputs this year?
Maybe there are really some pearls we all would miss?

Adam Whitehead said...

Note that the list consists of things that I've actually seen/read/played in 2011, which is far from exhaustive. I haven't seen BREAKING BAD, JUSTIFIED, HOMELAND or Season 2 of THE WAKING DEAD, so couldn't really comment on them. As they arrive in the UK or on DVD, I'll get to them.

Likewise, I got a new PC (finally!) last month so I've been able to play a few 2011 releases, hence the very small list.

Regarding notable recent female fantasy authors, I've heard mixed things about N.K. Jemisin and haven't gotten to her yet. I'm way behind on Celia Friedman (I've only read the first COLDFIRE book). I enjoy Kate Elliott's work a lot, but have fallen behind her contemporary releases (I still need to finish the CROSSROADS sequence). I plan to get back to J.V. Jones's SWORD OF SHADOWS sequence when the next book comes out. I also have a couple more KJ Parker and Steph Swainston books to catch up on.

Wastrel said...

Here's a woman you've not mentioned: Margo Lanagan.

I've not read it, but I'm informed that she put out another short-story collection this year ("Yellowcake")

Four World Fantasy Awards, and nominations for the Hugo and Nebula, say that she's worth paying attention to. Locus have praised her "genius" and "effortless mastery".

She's also got at least book to be looking out for next year: Sea Hearts (in Australia), also called The Brides of Rollrock Island (UK, probably USA). It's based on a WFA-winning novella (I assume, given that they share a name). The publisher isn't pulling punches in the advertising blurb, not only promising "devastatingly beautiful prose", but even that after reading the book "the world will never seem the same". Even more impressively, the Daily Mail has censured her work, calling it "sordid wretchedness" - and recommendations don't come much higher than pissing off the Daily Mail!

And yet, in a travesty of justice, the poor woman still works three days a week, and is thinking about going back to a full-time job, her writing career is so unsuccesful. Makes you want to reject the very thought of ever writing anything, if one of the greatest living genre authors can't even make a living out of it.


On the topic of books by women that will be out next year (or THIS year now, I should say!) - Mary Gentle's back with "Black Opera". Apparently it involves apocalyptic blood sacrifices, and opera. Can't go wrong.

Elfy said...

Nice list and wrap up for the year. Mostly in agreeance, too. Especially your take on Doctor Who this year, you absolutely nailed my thoughts about this season.

denver said...

Hi Adam

now that DwD is long out, I for one would be interested in an updated review, with reflection on the long wait that was and the long one that awaits us.

Nero said...

Hello Adam,

That small paragraph you wrote about Skyrim doesn't make up a review.

So I hope you'll write a very thoughtful test of it in the following days/weeks (with funny remarks about getting arrows in the knee) ! ;-)

Kathleen said...

It's is so hard not to respond and derail the thread when I innocently tune in to a "best of" list and get smacked in the face with "I can't think of very many good fantasy novels that were written by women that came out last year at all". Sigh. Dude, that is your problem. And I feel sorry for you.

Thanks for the list, The Islanders looks great. You have to check out Portal 2. Really really fun gaming.

Adam Whitehead said...

The arrow/knee thing has already been done to death, to be honest. I'm 20 hours into SKYRIM, enough to form an early impression but not enough for a full review. That will follow in time (a couple of months, at this rate :-) ).

Jay said...

Bakker is someone I really need to get on my list I keep hearing good things there.

I read 50 books a year and I just checked my goodreads list for 2011 . 4 books from Marianne de Pierres and 3 from N. K. Jemisin. 1 from K. J. Parker but I never know if that counts. So 7-8 books out of 50 does look a bit slanted from a numbers perspecrive.

I have no interest in UF which seems to be heavily played with women writers. When it comes to hard scifi, space opera or 'gritty' fantasy what female authors am I missing out on? I do have 2 Kameron Hurley books in my 2012 pile but looking at 30 books already queued up, that's my only female author on the list.

Wastrel said...

Well, let me derail the thread for you. No, it's not his problem. Adam has no obligation to go out and find good books by women for him to trumpet in the interests of proclaiming the equal capabilities of the sexes. [If he were claiming that women COULDN'T write well, he would of course be obliged to canvass widely to support this. That, however, is different from happening not to have liked any books by women this year].

If a man is deluged with books by men and one or two or maybe three books by women, why is that his fault? Adam is not a publisher. If he can't name ten great novels by women in the last year, that's not his problem, it's a problem either of society (not producing enough good female writers), or the genre (not keeping enough female writers within the genre), or the writers (not being good enough), or the publishers (not doing enough to publicise their female authors). The reader is not under any obligation to meet quotas. Nor, had Adam met a quota of female authors read, would he be under any obligation to meet a quota of favourite books by women.

To put it on more concrete ground: Adam says he hasn't been given many good books by women this year, you think it's sigh-worthy and pitiful that he can't think of them. OK. Which books SHOULD Adam have arranged for himself to have heard about, and which books SHOULD Adam have considered among his top novels of the year?

Specifically, given the books Adam was given, which of the Sookie novel and 'songs of the earth' do you want him to have put on his list? I'm sure that if you sent him ten brilliant books by women this year that he otherwise wouldn't have recieved, he'd be very grateful!

So, given that the absence of women from the list clearly wasn't his fault (given what he had to work with), and that of all the people to whose detriment it is he comes fairly low down the list, how exactly is it "his problem"?

Greyweather said...

@ Bill Moon
I'm not anonymous, but here's a list for you:

Jo Anderton's Debris
Paula Brandon's The Traitor's Daughter
Jacqueline Carey's Naamah's Blessing
Jacqueline Carey's Saints Astray
C.J. Cherryh's Betrayer
Kate Elliott's Cold Fire
C.S. Friedman's Legacy of Kings
Alison Goodman's Eona
Elizabeth Moon's Kings of the North
K.J. Parker's The Hammer
Melanie Rawn's The Diviner
Catherynne M. Valente's Deathless
Martha Wells' The Cloud Roads
Jo Walton's Among Others

Russ said...

This is not the first Best Of 2011 list I've seen criticized for a perceived lack of diversity...

You know what makes me tired and sad? When art opinion is assigned a race, gender or religious quota.

Mad Hatter Review said...

Just a few 2011 books by women worth reading:
God's War by Kameron Hurley (The sequel Infidel is good as well)
The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern (It lived up the hype for me and many others. Almost like a Jonathan Strange-light)
The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells (It impressed the hell out of me)
Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine (A literary psycho circus)
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht (Not sure I'd consider it genre, but it is a masterful work)

Carl V. Anderson said...

I have the first two Woodring books sitting temptingly on my bookshelves. I really should pull Retribution Falls down soon and get tucked into this much praised series.

I'm thrilled to see several positive Deus Ex reviews as it wasn't on my radar. Now (when I finally tire of Skyrim, which I don't see happening soon) I'll know where to go next.

I enjoyed this season of Dr. Who. It was a step down, but I didn't see it as big of one as I had expected from the buzz I heard (I didn't watch it until it came out on DVD). And surprisingly while I loved the Gaiman episode and am a big fan, it wasn't my favorite of the season. But it was fun.