It’s not often you come across a new and interesting way to explore books, and for all I know this has been done before elsewhere, but the Fantastic Reviews blog’s Battle of the Books is fascinating.
The premise is this: take 16 books, pair them up, and then for each pair read the first 25 pages; out of that pair the winner is the book the reviewer most wants to continue reading at that point. In the next round we’re down to four pairs and the cut-off point is 50 pages; then in the semi-finals the cut-off is at 100 pages; and finally the last two standing are judged overall.
At first sight this is a bit of fun, lifting a game-show format and applying it to reviewing. But the reality is far more than that. For the successful books you have a step-by-step extended review, picking out various aspects of a book as they emerge, giving a wonderful insight into the reading of that book as it unfolds, rather than a review written with hindsight. It also provides a very interesting angle for each review; in the most recent entry, for example, my own Harmony (as published in North America; UK title alt.human) is up against China Miéville’s Railsea. Naturally enough, the focus is on how the two books portray the weird and, as the reviewer says, nobody does weird better than China. Earlier rounds have focused on the reader’s engagement with characters and a book’s sheer unputdownability (that is officially a real word: I just told my spellchecker so).
As a writer this whole process has been fascinating; for the reader it should be equally so, although as with any detailed review there’s the danger of spoilers, particularly in the later stages of the battle.
And as an aside, even after around 25 years as an author, it still surprises me when someone really gets one of my stories. That the reviewer in this contest gets Harmony so well is fantastic; that this comes in the week leading up to the announcement of this year’s Philip K Dick Award winner really brings it home. It’s not so much that I’m suddenly thinking I’m in with a shot (Harmony is one of seven on the shortlist, so I have around a 14% chance), but simply that it’s finally, after all this time, starting to sink through my thick skull that there are people out there – like the team at Fantastic Fiction, like the PKD judges – who really do get what I’m doing.
And that’s kind of cool.
Incidentally, it gives nothing away to be posting this: to reach the semi-final against a writer of China Miéville’s calibre, and for my novel to have received this kind of detailed attention, is pretty damned good, in my reckoning. For the results, and the excellent analysis, you’ll have to go to Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Semifinal :: Railsea by China Miéville vs. Harmony by Keith Brooke.