When David Gemmell died on 28th July 2006, aged 57, his friends and colleagues sought a way to honour his life and work. The consensus was to create an award in Gemmell’s name; an idea first floated publicly by author David Lee Stone.
Why an award? Well, apart from commemorating a widely admired author, we felt there was a real need for a proper award for fantasy. By which I mean what you might call ‘pure’ fantasy – the kind Gemmell wrote – that, at least here in the UK, seemed unregarded. Science fiction, horror and other popular genres have their prizes, we reasoned, so why not fantasy?
We had a false start. Our initial efforts amounted to lobbying/haranguing other people and organisations in the hope that the idea would catch fire. I won’t weary you with the ins and outs of how that came to grief. Not that anyone was to blame. We were too many cooks, maybe, with too many diverse views about what we wanted to do, and how to do it. So the whole thing went into abeyance for a while.
Michael Moorcock once told me that in order for a group to achieve anything it needs what he called a ‘loony dictator’. He reckoned taking on that role was what made his 60’s reboot of legendary sf magazine New Worlds happen. It was another of Dave Gemmell’s friends, the writer Deborah Miller, who emerged as our loony dictator. (Not that I’m implying anything derogatory; in many ways Deborah was one of the sanest people I’ve known.) What she did was step up and say it was time to dump our somebody-ought-to-do-something-about-this stance and get on with it ourselves. More than anything else, her drive and determination was what got us going in earnest.
A core committee was formed, with Deborah as Award Administrator. Gareth Wilson, who has a good claim to be David Gemmell’s Number One Fan, came aboard as our Website Manager. Mike ‘Sparks’ Rennie, who’s provided the Tech/Logistics for numerous conventions, agreed to do the same for us; and Christine Harrison took on the role of Treasurer. My wife, Anne, took on editorship of the award ceremony programme book, among other things; and I had the honour of being offered the position of Chair which, after a brief period of trepidation and false modesty, I accepted.
Our initial decision was easy. We wanted to create an award recognising the best fantasy novel of any given year. What else could we call it but the Legend Award, after Gemmell’s first and most celebrated novel?
After that, things got a bit complicated.
Exactly how would we go about arriving at a winner? There were three options:
1) have a jury decide;
2) have the public determine a shortlist and a jury settle the final outcome;
3) have a completely open vote with no jury.
Every juried award, particularly in a specialist area like fantasy, has a perennial problem: finding suitable judges. In considering the juried option we felt it wouldn’t be appropriate to include anyone connected with publishers or literary agents. Not that we thought they’d be biased but because of an unfounded perception that they might be. How would it look if an editor or agent sat in judgement on a shortlist that included a writer they published or represented? What if said shortlisted author won? It’s a bit of a stretch, but the same could be said about using authors as judges when the shortlist could well include an entry with whom they shared a publisher or agent. Critics? How many are there who are sufficiently knowledgeable about the field and available to us, given that the requisite number of judges is usually considered to be five and should be refreshed every year? We mulled over the possibility of having a judging panel consisting solely of readers. But the massive amount of reading involved – our first longlist ran to over ninety titles – and the fact that we couldn’t reimburse people for their time and effort, made that a big ask.
Adopting the second option – part public vote, part jury – would boil the longlist down to a manageable number, but doesn’t solve the practical difficulty of finding suitable judges.
In arriving at the decision to adopt a totally open vote we weren’t in any way being critical of awards that choose the juried route. We’ve no doubt that their verdicts are reached honorably. But apart from the practicable considerations involved in mustering juries we have what might be called a philosophical objection to that way of doing things. Frankly, the idea of a small group handing down pronouncements about what deserves an award and what doesn’t strikes us as a little elitist, and against the spirit of our times. In an age when masses of ordinary people are using technology to topple despotic regimes and change government policies, surely they can be trusted to vote for a book award.
When our committee has to confront difficult decisions we have a rule of thumb that amounts to ‘What would Dave have wanted?’ Knowing the importance he placed on readers – the people who put their hands in their pockets and make authors’ lives possible – we’re sure Gemmell would have favoured as democratic a system as possible when it came to an award bearing his name. So we put our faith in the wisdom of crowds.
We caught some criticism for crowd-sourcing the award. In the same way that we would have been disparaged if we’d gone with a jury. The main objection was that readers would band together to vote for their favourite author. Our response was: so what? Unless people are being strong-armed into voting in some unimaginable way, then presumably they really do favour the writer they’re voting for, whether in unison with others or not. To suggest that people are so weak-willed that they could be influenced to vote for someone they wouldn’t normally vote for is plain insulting. And if some kind of partiality should creep in – though it’s difficult to think how it might – our contention is that a sufficiently large pool of voters dilutes it to the point of insignificance. We also felt that having the voting restricted solely to the internet wasn’t a disadvantage as just about everybody has access to it these days.
So this is how it works. A longlist is compiled from titles submitted by the publishers (the public are welcome to suggest additional titles they think worthy and eligible). The longlist is voted on and the five titles with the most votes forms the shortlist. A second round of votes determines the winner. (We have robust systems in place to prevent multiple voting.)
In our first year the Legend Award garnered almost 11,000 votes from 75 countries.
Simultaneous with working out how, we were looking for where. After investigating numerous venues, we settled on the theatre at The Magic Circle headquarters in London’s Euston. To say the place has character would be an understatement, and we loved its eccentricity and intimacy from the minute we stepped over the threshold. Securing The Magic Circle as the annual location for our ceremony was thanks to our sponsor Bragelonne, Gemmell’s French publisher, which supported us for our first five years.
With the how and where sorted, we turned our minds to what. We wanted something special as a trophy. Simon Fearnhamm of the Raven Armoury volunteered to supply the perfect solution – a half-sized replica of Snaga, the awesome axe wielded by Gemmell’s illustrious hero Druss. Simon’s Snaga is a truly beautiful hand-crafted artefact. With a price tag of more than £2000 when made to commission, we believe it to be the most valuable trophy on offer in the science fiction and fantasy fields.
With the permission and support of David’s widow Stella and the Gemmell family, and the backing of the publishing industry and speculative fiction communities, our first presentation took place at The Magic Circle on 19 June 2009. We were particularly pleased that Dave’s daughter Kate and son Luke were able to join us for the ceremony. It began with a spirited reading from Legend by author James Barclay, another of David’s friends. James’ opening recitations from Gemmell’s works, and his conduct of an auction of fantasy memorabilia that precedes the presentation, have became invaluable staples of our ceremonies.
Other ‘Friends of the Awards’ as we like to think of them – people not actually on the committee but who have proved unstinting in helping the process run smoothly – include, among others, Tiffany Lau (Deborah Miller’s daughter), Mark Yon, Nick Summit, Elaine Clarke, Anna Kennedy, Marianne Fifer and Rachel Oakes.
The first winner of the Legend Award defied expectations. It turned out to be Andrzej Sapkowski for Blood of Elves, a novel translated from Polish. The four runners-up each received a ‘mini Snaga’ by way of compensation.
Buoyed by the success of our initial ceremony we decided to add two new categories in 2010. The Morningstar Award honours the best debut novel, something we thought especially important as Dave Gemmell was noted for the help and encouragement he gave to many aspiring writers. The Ravenheart Award was designed to recognise the best fantasy cover art, an aspect of the genre we felt deserved acknowledgement. We were now officially The David Gemmell Awards For Fantasy.
That year the Morningstar went to Pierre Pevel for The Cardinal’s Blades and the Ravenheart to Didier Graffet for the cover of Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. The Legend was a surprise choice again but richly deserved. It went to Graham McNeill for Empire. 15,500 votes were cast overall.
2010 was also notable in that we welcomed SFX, the UK’s number one science fiction and fantasy magazine, as our media partner.
2011 saw the Morningstar awarded to Darius Hinks for Warrior Priest, the Ravenheart to Olof Erla Einarsdottir for the cover of Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts, and the Legend to Brandon Sanderson for The Way of Kings.
In 2012 Raymond Swanland was awarded the Ravenheart for his cover of Blood of Aenarion by William King, and Helen Lowe the Morningstar for Heir of Night. The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss, gained the Legend.
2013 was a time of great sadness for us. On 6th May of that year, Deborah Miller passed away. She had been battling breast cancer for some years, and went into remission several times. When the condition surfaced again she fought it with her usual resolve, but treatment proved ineffective. She passed peacefully, with her husband, Bill, at her side. Deborah faced her illness with courage and good humour.
Deborah wrote under both her own name and as Miller Lau. As Lau, her first novel was Talisker, published in 2001, the same year her breast cancer was diagnosed. That book began the Last Clansman series that continued with Dark Thane and Lore Bringer. As Deborah Miller her novels included Swarmthief’s Dance and Swarmthief’s Treason.
Deborah’s fiction and her dedication to the Gemmell Awards will stand as permanent memorials to an exceptional person, an indomitable spirit and a good friend.
On a happier note, 2013 marked a departure for the awards in that for the first time our presentation ceremony was held somewhere other than the Magic Circle. We were honoured to be invited to stage the ceremony at that year’s World Fantasy Convention, held in Brighton on England’s south coast. Didier Graffet and Dave Senior won the Ravenheart Award for their cover of Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country, while John Gwynne picked up the Morningstar for Malice. The Legend Award went to The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks.
We were back to our usual London venue in 2014, where Brian McLellan bagged the Morningstar for Promise of Blood and Jason Chan the Ravenheart for his cover artwork on Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. Emperor of Thorns itself won the Legend Award, marking our first “double-header”.
At time of writing (March 2015) we’re instigating some changes. Not least of these is welcoming three new committee members:
Juliet E McKenna is the author of a host of fantasy series, including most recently the Hadrumal Crisis, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution and The Aldabreshin Compass. She also regularly writes reviews and genre non-fiction, and her knowledge and passion for fantasy will be a major asset to our committee.
Sky Campbell lives in the USA and works in the field of endangered language preservation. A long time David Gemmell fan, he was the creator of the popular fan site www.legendreaders.com, and will be bringing that same online expertise and energy to the awards team, playing a vital role in managing the awards website.
Luke Arthur discovered both fantasy and David’s work from reading Gemmell’s novel Morningstar. He has a solid background in marketing, PR and event management, working for large organisations on an international scale.
2015 will see another change. Following our success at 2013’s World Fantasy Convention, we’re on the road again this year. Our ceremony will take place at Nine Worlds Geekfest in Heathrow, in August rather than our usual June. Nine Worlds, now in its third year, has rapidly established itself as one of the most popular and efficiently run UK conventions, and we’re proud to be a part of it.
One of the things that’s delighted us about the awards is their international flavour, with prizes going to authors and artists from France, Iceland, Poland and the United States as well as the UK. Proof, if it was needed, that the literary expression of the fantastic knows no borders.
As to the future, we hope to add further categories in due course that embrace other strands of the fantasy fiction sphere. A lesson we’ve learned is that nothing is so constant as change, and that in order to remain relevant we need to view what we do as organic. So expect more changes in times to come as we work to improve and refine the David Gemmell Awards For Fantasy.