Brandon Sanderson Wins David Gemmell Legend Award
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Brandon Sanderson won his second David Gemmell Legend Award this past Saturday for his massive novel Words of Radiance. Words of Radiance also picked up the Ravenheart award for best cover art, and Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades won the Morningstar for best first fantasy debut.
The Gemmell has two rounds of voting, and they reported 17,059 votes in Round #1 and 19,700 votes in the finals. I’m not sure that’s the total votes across all three categories or not. Either way, this number compares favorably to the Hugos, which had a record number of voters this year at 5,950 this year.
The Gemmell is an interesting award because its so focused (fantasy novels, just three categories) and because this is an open internet vote. We could get a sense of what the Hugo might be like if they removed their entry bar (i.e. the $40 entry fee).
Sanderson won because he is incredibly popular. Just look at the number of Goodreads ratings for the finalists as of 8/10/15:
57,770 ratings: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
14,524 ratings: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie
14,326 ratings: The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks
6,910 ratings: Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence
1,832 ratings: Valour by John Gwynne
Not much of a contest, is it? Sanderson has emerged as one of—if not the—most popular fantasy writer working today. While George R.R. Martin is still more popular (a hit TV show will do that), and there is an argument to be made for Patrick Rothfuss and J.K. Rowling (if she ever writes fantasy again), Sanderson has been far more productive than those writers over the past 3-4 years. This steady flow of novels has catapulted him to a lofty status. Part of the appeal about reading an author like Sanderson is that you’re reading the books everyone else is reading, which is a powerful pull for fantasy fans. That’s how things were back in my day with Dragonlance. You also get your Sanderson fix every year. No 3-4 year wait like Rothfuss, Martin, Lynch, etc.
Jared over at Pornokitsch has been leading the charge with some great analysis of the Gemmell awards. He’s particularly tough on Sanderson, although his analysis glosses over what Sanderson does well, which is setting up magic systems and worlds that work by clear rules. Sanderson then gives us near-endless (you have to if you want to write 1000+ page novels) scenarios involving those rules. Sanderson works well because he gives us fantasy worlds that aren’t cloaked in a shroud of magic; when you read Words of Radiance, you feel like you “get” the world. Compared to the hand-waving magic of A Song of Ice and Fire or the “we-always-find-the-magic-we-need” plots of Harry Potter or The Kingkiller Chronicles, it feels very organized. Sanderson does coherent systems better than almost anyone else working in the field today, and its those systems that drive readers through Sanderson’s somewhat pedestrian prose and meandering plots.
I think Sanderson pulls a lot of his style from gaming, particularly the tabletop variety. At times, the appendices in the back of the book feel like DM rulebooks; I don’t think it should be any surprise that a generation of fantasy readers that grew up with D&D, Baldur’s Gate, Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, etc., would be drawn to Sanderson. There’s a steady drip-drip of information through Sanderson, and it’s that revealing of the world’s rules (not the plot) that drives the action.
All of this raises interesting questions about what an award should be. Should awards go to the most popular novels? Don’t they already receive enough attention, being the “most popular” already? Or does bringing attention to Sanderson help draw casual fantasy fans into the field, who are likely to pick up and enjoy him? The Hugo and Nebulas have gone one route, the Gemmell another.