I guess tropical moisture brings allergies with it…my eyes sufficiently watery and my medication sufficently capable of making me spacey has prevented me from doing my best writing over the last few days. I’m a little late on even getting this one out before the Hugo ceremonies.
Anyway, here’s the final review essay, a day past being relevant
Ah, medieval fantasy. It’s easy to think of all the tropes that come to mind with those two words. Power-mad emperors, fire-breathing dragons, court alchemists, subpar writing with heavy infusion of camp…All of these are embraced (lovingly) by John Scalzi in The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue. It’s also got the most interesting history behind it: the story was written as an April Fool’s joke to introduce a new fantasy trilogy by a writer largely working within the subgenre of space opera.
And what a joke it was. Paragraph-long sentences. Vaguely Norse-sounding words used as descriptions. A mystery that should defy all rational explanation. All of the worst bits that immediately spring to mind when you think of a generic fantasy story, thrown in a blender and told through sketches that could have easily been derived from Monty Python sketches (complete with absurd, but consistent, internal logic).
Welcome to The Shadow War of the Night Dragons.
There’s not really a whole lot of substance to the story, being an April Fool’s day joke and being written mainly for humor purposes. It’s a loving pastache of generic fantasy fiction, and actually funny to boot, but nothing revolutionary here for the field of fantasy. The only thing of note about it is how divisive its nomination for the Hugo awards even was. So, let me weigh in with my opinion a day late on this. (Spoilers, it didn’t win.)
One of the main complaints I saw is that this story was written as a joke, so it shouldn’t have been nominated for the award in the first place. Well, why shouldn’t it be? If people genuinely feel it is one of the best stories of the year in the category in which it was nominated, why not nominate it, despite its origins? Does humor automatically disqualify a book from being good? One can easily point to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a counterargument to the opinion that humorous fiction can’t be good fiction. While H2G2 never won any science fiction awards, Douglas Adams’ delightfully absurd universe is generally agreed to be a work of science fiction.
And it’s not like humorous writing can contain an element of social commentary, either. Look at Voltaire’s satires or Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Poking fun at society and showing a reflexive self-awareness while doing so is not inherently a bad thing. It can be made bad, of course, but it isn’t inherently bad. That’s where the argument about whether or not The Shadow War of the Night Dragons should have been nominated really lies.
Another line of argument is the fact that the story was not really groundbreaking in any way, shape, or form. This idea hinges on the intent of the awards. Certainly, a groundbreaking story will almost always be considered to be good, but of the stories nominated for the short story award this year, I really see nothing else groundbreaking, either. I’m positive that if something groundbreaking had come down the pipes in the last year, it would have been on the shortlist. If that’s the feeling, then just go ahead and vote “no award”. Otherwise, the award breaks down to going to the “best” short story of the year. In that case, I certainly don’t see why this one shouldn’t be on the shortlist.
Not being very big on fantasy myself, I don’t really know if this is really the best fantasy short story of the year. But as a bit of writing, I liked it very much, both for its embrace of what bad fantasy writing is always thought of to be, and the humor it used to deliever its takedown. It’s certainly good enough to make a shortlist for an awards, and in my mind, it stuck with me a lot longer than a couple other stories.
So, seeing the results of the award ceremony, I was a little disappointed to see that Paper Menagerie took the award. While I generally was okay with the story, it really just didn’t seem all that memorable. However, I’m glad that neither of the “Hugo-bait” stories, Movement or The Homecoming, won. They just didn’t strike me as really even deserving of being on the shortlist simply because of their tenuous connection to genre. Say what you will about Shadow War of the Night Dragons also being on that list, but at least it was firmly bolted down to its genre.
My personal ranking of this year’s short stories:
1. Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees
2. The Shadow War of the Night Dragons
3. Paper Menagerie
4. The Homecoming
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.