There are interesting parallels between these books. Both involve secret societies, they share essentially the same metafictional twist with respect to narration, squabbles between rival religious sects or disciplines play an important role in each, issues of race and social status are central, the stakes are quite high, and the novels start with great hooks but end with relative whimpers.
The differences are huge. The Book of Night Women tells the story of a green-eyed slave, Lilith, in Jamaica from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. It is narrated in Jamaican patois and involves incredible detail regarding violence against slaves. The book is not particularly easy to read, though it is certainly engaging. There is a distance between the reader and narrator, partly due to the use of patois and partly due to the historical setting. I do not think that is a bad thing, but necessary given what Marlon James has done and is trying to accomplish. The problem is, I was not convinced. I thought the novel came up too far short of its ambition to be a success.
Of course, Big Machine was not entirely successful with me. I think it was more of a success on its own terms. The book was included in the Los Angeles Times list of the Best Science Fiction of 2009. I cannot say it really qualifies as Science Fiction. It is more like Supernatural Fiction. But it is successful within its own terms and framework. It is not a framework that I found particularly satisfying, but that is my quirk, not the book’s. Besides that, LaValle had more memorable lines and observations about the world. Whether that was because he was writing in modern English or because he is the more gifted at crafting sentences does not matter. This is a tournament. Only outcomes matter.
While I picked The Book of Night Women to win before I had read it (but after I had read Big Machine), I think I was wrong on the merits. I enjoyed The Book of Night Women more, but I think Big Machine is the more well-written and successful book. It is not Victor LaValle’s fault that I am put-off by books that rely on the supernatural as a central feature or plot device. He deserves to win the match.