Oct 27 2008 1:03pm

The Competition

Territory is on the World Fantasy Award final ballot for best novel. So is The Gospel of the Knife. Since I’m married to Will Shetterly, who’s the author of The Gospel of the Knife, there’s considerable household glee over this, partly because we think it sounds like the seed of a plot for a sitcom episode (hilarity ensues!).

By the time you read this, this year’s winner has probably been announced. But if not, I’m going to leak the results. Yes, I’m going to tell you who’s winning the World Fantasy Awards this year.


When the final ballot was posted, with its five nominees for Best Novel, I read it with interest, because, well, you know. I spotted a novel I hadn’t heard of on it, by an author I hadn’t read. The Servants, by Michael Marshall Smith. Smith’s previous work has been mostly in the horror genre, which I haven’t kept up with; I can’t keep up with fantasy and science fiction, either, so that’s no surprise.

But if someone thought this book ought to win an award, well, that’s a reason to have a look at the thing, right? The reviews I found were encouraging. Some of them spent a good bit of space debating whether it was an adult or a young adult novel, which was interesting in itself.

So I found a copy, and read it.

In a small space, in clean, exacting prose with a point-of-view voice that never falters, The Servants gives the reader the rage and pain and fear and helplessness of an eleven-year-old boy who’s been uprooted from everything he thought of as normal by the decisions and conditions of the adults who control his life. It is, in its way, a horror novel. The protagonist, Mark, is a captive, fighting against opponents whose motives are unfathomable, whose power he can’t match.

Yes, that would be his parents. Specifically, his stepfather and his mother.

I’m not giving anything away, I think, by telling you it’s also a haunted house story—yet another piece of the novel’s horror pedigree. If you’ve read The Turn of the Screw, you may read this with expectations. There’s a darkness to this house. There are ghostly servants here, whose lives seem connected to those of the living residents.

But this isn’t a novel about looming supernatural evil—or about wicked step-parents, either. It’s about healing, how we resist it and how we achieve it, and the responsibility people have to help each other heal, if they can. It’s a novel rich in heart, but free of sentiment.

Is The Servants a young adult novel? Yes. It tells a young reader, “Your feelings are real, even when no one shares them, even when they hurt you. And even when it seems as if you have no control over your life, you have choices, and they’re important to you and the people around you.” Is The Servants an adult novel? Yes. For one thing, I’d give it to the parents I know and say, “The inside of your kid’s head looks like this. No, really, it does.” For those of us who aren’t has the same things to say to adults as it does to kids, because we never stop needing to hear—or read—those things.

I promised to tell you who wins the World Fantasy Award, didn’t I? Okay, here goes:


Because the point of a literary award is not that one work wins and the others don’t. Fiction isn’t a horse race. There’s no reasonable way to determine—objectively, scientifically, verifiably-—which of five good books is the best book. The point is that readers get a collection of signposts directing them toward fiction they might not otherwise have found. Writers get inspiration, and encouragement to take chances and do their best work. And the whole symbiotic organism of readers, writers, publishers, and booksellers can pause for a moment and be reminded why they got into this in the first place: because every good book makes a difference.

I’ve already won. The list of World Fantasy Award-nominated novels brought The Servants to my mental doorstep, and it’s a prize worth having. May you all win such awards this year, and for many years to come.

Joe Sherry
1. jsherry
Emma - I'm happy to see you posting here and I do agree that the real point (for readers) of awards is the exposure to work they may have otherwise missed. I'm fifty pages into Ysabel and I'm impressed. It's the first Kay I've read and so far it is really good. I probably would have read Territory eventually, but the WFA nomination pushed me a bit quicker to it.

I like what you said about The Servants in terms of the depiction of Mark as a real kid, but I can't possibly recommend the novel.

The ending is horrible. The supernatural element to the novel really has no connection to the family aspect of the novel and that connection and the ultimate kind of made me mad. I wasn't so emotionally invested to be betrayed, but that was a cheap ending.
Adam Lipkin
2. yendi
It's a little depressing that you (and presumably many others) think of him as primarily a horror writer. His first three novels -- Only Forward, One of Us, and Spares, are all sci-fi (and Only Forward won the PDK award, iirc). If you follow up The Servants by hunting those ones down, you've won even more.

(That said, although I liked The Servants a lot, I'd still rather see Territory win.)

I absolutely agree with you about how wonderful it is to discover new works as a result of nomination lists. The WFA list, in fact, got me to take Plots and Misadventures (by Stephen Gallagher) out of the library, and I wasn't disappointed at all.
[da ve]
3. slickhop
Yeah, I was surprised to hear him described as a horror writer. Those three books yendi listed are definitely worth reading.

Looking forward to reading this year's nominees, regardless of who actually won.
Justin Adair
4. Hobbyns
I would have to recommend Smith's Spares as essential reading in any SF reader canon. Before Richard Morgan and others in the hardcore SF-noir sub-genre, Spares was the definitive work, IMHO. His short stories are also very good.

Mostly it's nice to see him branching out and trying all types of fiction. He can only get better as a result. I'm looking forward to reading this latest work.
5. Thornae
I discovered Only Forward (thanks to my dad) in the same year that I read Snowcrash and Vurt.

I was never the same.
(It was a helluva year).

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