Barney Award for best main character equipped with claws, fangs or wings that isn’t a dragon (because obviously the dragons would win this award outright, no contest, because they’re just, like, AWESOME):
Fantasy depends on non-human characters; some are usually good guys (hobbits, dwarves, angels, elves) and some are usually bad guys (orcs, goblins, demons, zombies). A few are bad guys turned love interest (werewolves, vampires), which is slightly bizarre. Some are dragons, and dragons are so cool they make any story better (seriously; authors, take note, we need more dragons!). But how many of them are genuinely alien, and not simply humans with some odd characteristics: immortality, or the ability to hurl fireballs at moments of stress, or shapeshift into something or other? And how many of those are main characters, the plot-drivers? Vanishingly few.
I’ve read two books this year that rose above the welter of furred-and-fanged seen-it-all-before weirdo-fest. ‘The Demon of Cliffside’ by Nathan Fierro was one of those serendipitous discoveries that justifies (honest!) the endless hours trawling blogs and reading tweets. It was a casual query on the fantasy subreddit: anyone know any books with really original settings? And someone popped up and said: yes, my mate’s written this book set in a place with constant rainstorms. And so it was, but it was also much, much more. Because the main character (the unnamed and undefined ‘demon’, so called because no one quite knew what she was) was a fascinating and entirely alien creature. She’d been living there for thousands of years, and latterly humans had arrived and built a city around her. She’d adapted, as she always did, but the humans brought out a new aspect of herself. Since the book is alchemypunk, that leads to all sorts of brilliantly realised consequences. A fantastic foray into fantasy by an author who seems to have appeared from nowhere.
Martha Wells is a bigger name, and ‘The Cloud Roads’ is a book you might have heard of, and it is in many ways a much more conventional story. Main character Moon is an orphan, scrabbling to survive in a world where he’s an outsider. He knows he doesn’t fit in very well with humans, but he never suspects that the reason is that he’s not human. He’s a Raksura, a shapeshifter with one state that more or less passes for human, and another state that definitely doesn’t, and he spends his life suppressing the urge to shift every time he gets angry or loses control. It isn’t until he meets another Raksura flying around that he realises what he is. The Raksura are nothing like humans. They are socially organised creatures (like bees or ants) with queens and breeding males and worker types, and they settle disputes by fighting. Wells explores this ‘otherness’ in astonishingly realistic detail. There’s some great world-building behind the characters, and if there were a Barney for best aerial combat scenes, she’d have won that too. A terrific read.
Since I can’t choose between two such terrific reads, I’m going to declare this: a TIE!
Footnote: ‘The Demon of Cliffside’ is a self-published gem. I posted about some of my other finds of 2013 here.