Eyes Like Leaves: Tachyon trade paperback, February 2012, 313 pages, cover art by Lauren Kelly Small. Eyes Like Leaves advanced to the finals by defeating When We Were Executioners by J.M. McDermott in the first round, then The Scar by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko in the second round, and finally Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card in the semifinals.
Eyes Like Leaves is a secondary world fantasy in a land similar to ancient Ireland. The wizard Tarn and his mentor Puretongue, who have the ability to change shape, are attempting to defend their land against the forces of the Icelord, who wishes to bring an endless winter. So far, Tarn has met up with Carrie, a young woman unaware of her own magical abilities, and the two of them have been hotly pursued by various "stormkin." Meanwhile, Puretongue and another young protégé travel by sea to meet them.
Range of Ghosts: Tor hardcover, March 2012, 334 pages. Range of Ghosts got to the finals with wins over Jack of Ravens by Mark Chadbourn in the first round, then The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine in the second round, and finally And Blue Skies from Pain by Stina Leicht in the semifinals.
Range of Ghosts is the first volume of an epic trilogy in a setting inspired by the ancient Mongol Empire. Our hero Temur is in exile, after his brother was on the losing side of a war of succession against their uncle, but the uncle still wants Temur dead. Ghosts summoned by a sorcerer working for the uncle have abducted Temur's lover, and he has traveled to the "Range of Ghosts" to retrieve her. He is destined to meet up with Samarkar, a woman who has willingly undergone surgery leaving her barren, so she can train to be a wizard.
The Battle: I judge the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books a great success, because it resulted in me finding two excellent novels, both of which I highly recommend. Charles de Lint has long been one of the finest fantasists around, and Elizabeth Bear has joined him at the pinnacle of the genre.
Both Eyes Like Leaves and Range of Ghosts are exquisitely written throughout. Through the first three rounds, I've given numerous examples of the wonderful prose in both books -- click on the links above to read those samples. The sheer strength of the authors' writing has carried these two books to the finals. Because the quality of prose is so strong in both books, this battle will come down to which novel's story works best for me, now that I'm deeper into both books.
Both have engaging storylines, with appealing yet flawed main characters. I am enjoying both of them very much, and plan to finish them both. But, forced to choose, I must say that one of them is a bit more compelling to me, and I would be a bit more distraught if you pried it out of my fingers before I could finish. I think the difference comes down to two things.
First, while in Eyes Like Leaves, Charles de Lint makes effective use of Irish landscape and history and mythology, such as druids and shape-shifters, these are all story elements that are quite familiar to fantasy readers. Likewise, the evil lord seeking to bring an endless winter is a well-worn fantasy trope. It is to de Lint's credit that he combines these elements skillfully enough that the story never feels tired or derivative.
However, Range of Ghosts offers the more original fantasy world. I believe the main narrative is loosely based on the life of Timur, aka Tamerlane (1370-1405), but Elizabeth Bear has used his story as a springboard to create a unique landscape filled with unusual and fascinating fantasy elements. To take one of many examples, I love the way the moons in the night sky represent the heirs to the empire's throne, with a moon disappearing any time one of the emperor's descendants is killed -- and then suddenly all the moons disappear in favor of the single moon we know, when Temur crosses over the border to a neighboring land. Nearly every chapter has an interesting and unusual element like that.
Second, in Eyes Like Leaves, I love the main narrative thread involving Tarn and Carrie. There is a very nice sequence in the second hundred pages, for instance, where they have to shapeshift into the form of evil creatures to evade their pursuers, but then Tarn starts to lose himself in the role. But the sequences from the point of view of Puretongue and various side characters -- there are a surprising number of POV shifts in the second hundred pages -- are less compelling to me. In those other sequences, I was always anxious to get back to Tarn and Carrie.
There are no sections in Range of Ghosts that I feel any desire to hurry through. Over the second hundred pages, the novice female wizard Samarkar has emerged as just as important and engaging a character as Temur, with an interesting backstory. The sections from her point of view feature less action than Temur's, but they are equally absorbing. I'm also very interested in the glimpses of al-Sepehr, the dark sorcerer doing Temur's uncle's bidding, but clearly pursuing his own agenda. He is an intriguing, three-dimensional villain (or apparent villain), something that Eyes Like Leaves lacks.
Congratulations to Elizabeth Bear on a remarkable effort. I am confident that this time next year, Range of Ghosts will be on a very short list of my favorite novels of 2012. It is a most worthy winner in our inaugural bracket of the 2012 Battle of the Books.
THE WINNER: RANGE OF GHOSTS by Elizabeth Bear
Thank you to everyone who has stopped by to check out the Battle of the Books, and especially to the many participating authors who have commented here or blogged, tweeted, etc. about the contest.
If you've enjoyed this new format, you'll be happy to know that the review copies continue to pour in. We already have our next 16 books, and we will announce the bracket for the Spring 2012 Battle of the Books next week.