Category Archives: Books

A Rather Belated Best Books of 2017 Post

2017 was a great year for smart, ambitious novels, and for me it was a year about reading broadly within SFF. In hindsight, I didn’t read as broadly as I would have liked (and, but I did read a good number of excellent debut novels and fresh new takes on things in addition to continuing some of the great series fiction I’ve been following over the last couple of years. Here are my favorite novel-length reads of 2017, in no particular order.

Jade City by Fonda Lee

I’ve been sad for a couple of years now that Fonda Lee (whose short fiction I have enjoyed for some time) was writing YA during a time when I’ve been, for the most part, going off YA, so I was stoked when I saw that she was releasing a novel for adults this year. I got a little skeptical when I read about Jade City’s “The Godfather, but with magic” premise, concerned that the book would be inaccessible to readers who weren’t already familiar with that genre. I shouldn’t have worried. In Jade City, Fonda Lee has crafted a fully immersive, intricately detailed, obviously well-loved and lived-in fantasy world and peopled it with characters who, while they may be inspired by some mobster-fiction tropes, are excellent stand-outs in their own right. Each member of the Kaul family is distinctive and complex, and the book’s antagonists are nicely menacing, worthy adversaries for our heroes as they fight to maintain their family’s power and position in a quickly changing world.

In structure and pacing, Jade City reminds me a bit of Ken Liu’s 2015 epic, The Grace of Kings. Though there’s little overlap in the books’ subjects, there is some similarity in their themes as both feature powerful men with competing philosophies that cause them to struggle to work together for their common goals. Jade City also shares The Grace of Kings’ relative lack of women as well as the latter’s way of capturing a moment of social change which finds women actively moving into the positions of power once held by their fathers and brothers. Like Grace, Jade City ends with its women poised to play a larger role in the series going forward; I cannot wait to read what happens next.

P.S. Fonda Lee writes some of the best martial arts action scenes I’ve ever read, and she’s created a smart and thoroughly thought-out magic system that is described with great attention to visual details. I would kill to see this book get a movie or television adaptation.

Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

I almost skipped this book entirely because it seemed like just the sort of testosterone-fueled fantasy I largely try to avoid these days. The concept—what if mercenary bands were treated like rock stars?—didn’t immediately appeal, seeming generally unserious and prone to a kind of ironic jokiness that I actively dislike, and the adventure—middle-aged men getting the band back together in order to rescue the daughter of one of the members—had the obvious potential to be both unoriginal and sexist. Still, it was the last week of December after a garbage year, so I thought I’d give Kings of the Wyld a chance. And thank goodness I did, because it ended up being probably the most purely enjoyable title I read in all of 2017.

As for testosterone, while Kings is certainly a novel heavily focused on men and their relationships with each other, Eames has imagined a generally gender-egalitarian world and fills it with women who are interesting and influential in their own rights. There are women of all sorts in numerous roles big and small throughout the book, and while the central quest-plot is Clay Cooper and his band getting back together to go rescue the daughter of one of the bandmembers, there are no damsels in distress here. The protagonist characters all treat the women in their lives with respect and empathy, and even female adversaries are treated with dignity by both the characters and the author. Kings of the Wyld works as a model for how a male-centered book can be inclusive of women as characters and as readers, largely because Nicholas Eames seems so intent on eschewing toxic masculinity. (Sure, toxic masculinity makes an appearance or two, but as a decidedly bad thing.)

I simply couldn’t put this book down, and I devoured it over just a couple of days at the end of December. It’s a fun, fast-paced adventure that also manages to be smart and thoughtful and occasionally poignant in just the right proportions. The somewhat silly-sounding concept works marvelously, and Eames does a great job of exploring the humorous aspects of the idea without letting absurdity run rampant throughout the text. Overall, the book benefits from a slickly contemporary sensibility and a willingness to play with and subvert (and often outright ignore) traditional medieval fantasy tropes. Though I’ve seen it compared to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, it reminds me more, in tone, of things like A Knight’s Tale (a point highlighted by the timely publication of this piece on why that movie is a great medieval film). If you like your fantasy clever and action-packed and highly readable and inclusive, you need to read Kings of the Wyld at your earliest convenience.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

It seems unlikely that N.K. Jemisin (or any modern writer, really, considering the stiff competition) could win a Hugo Award for all three books of a trilogy, but then, The Stone Sky is an almost preternaturally wonderful conclusion to The Broken Earth. There’s not too much to say about it that isn’t spoiler-y, but I can say that this series ends every bit as powerfully as it began. While neither The Obelisk Gate nor The Stone Sky matched the inventiveness of structure that characterized The Fifth Season, with it’s interweaving, time-jumping points of view, there’s something more of that in this third book than in the second. The Stone Sky interweaves the narratives of mother and daughter Essun and Nassun with flashbacks to the distant past of their world as it uncovers some of the mysteries that have haunted the trilogy and reveals a path forward for Essun and Nassun to change their world forever.

The depiction of the difficult relationship between mother and daughter was personally impactful to me, as the mother of a teenage girl myself, and the overarching questions the book asks and answers regarding how to fix a broken and unjust world are always relevant and worthwhile to think about. The contentiousness of Essun and Nassun’s dynamic and the sensitive way in which Jemisin explores the ways in which mothers fail their daughters and daughters exceed their mother’s expectations forms a strong emotional core which ties together the broader themes of community and systemic injustice and environmental devastation and provides the epic story with a deeply personal center through which it can be understood and related to.

I’ve said in the past that The Broken Earth deserves to be as popular and influential as Lord of the Rings, and The Stone Sky only confirms the series’ significance as an exemplar of the kind of post-postmodern fantasy that is reinvigorating the genre in the 21st century.

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

Under the Pendulum Sun is the 2017 book that I’ve fallen in love with in stages and mostly in hindsight after I finished it. It wasn’t what I expected it to be, which made it a little bit not the right book for me to read when I did, but it’s the sort of novel that sticks with one long after you’ve closed the last page. It’s a brilliantly beautiful and highly ambitious novel, with lush, gorgeous prose that’s a joy to read, and the complex theology and mythology of it is fascinating enough that my thoughts have kept coming back to it months and months later.

I suppose one could correctly call Under the Pendulum Sun character-driven; Catherine Helstone is a compelling heroine. However, the novel’s real strength and power is in the Gothic atmosphere that Jeannette Ng has crafted so masterfully. Her prose is dense and descriptive, but never overwrought; the book’s fairy characters are delightfully strange and unsettlingly inhuman; and esoteric metaphysical questions and theological musings (including quotes from in-universe texts at the head of each chapter) work to heighten the psychological drama and tension that drives the novel.

Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

So, I have a thing for “unlikable” female characters, and the protagonist of Thoraiya Dyer’s debut novel is an iconic one. Unar perseveres through her adventures by having a bone-deep and instinctual sense of justice along with a doggedly stubborn belief in herself and her own great destiny. She’s prickly, selfish, and ambitious, and her coming-of-age story is a compelling character study wrapped inside a fantastic adventure that takes place in one of the most unusual and original epic fantasy settings in recent years.

Perhaps what I love best about Crossroads is the way in which its form follows its function. Early chapters that depict Unar as an inquisitive child are vividly descriptive and full of details that establish the initial setting. There’s then a time-jump after which we revisit Unar as a teenager and find her self-absorbed and ultimately cut off from the world to which she wants to belong. The remaining three quarters or so of the novel, then, focus on Unar’s journey from disconnection to understanding and self-acceptance as she undergoes many trials, and the way that Dyer’s prose style mirrors that journey and cleverly highlights the plot and themes of the book makes Crossroads one of the most impressive novels of the year, just on a craft level.

31189192Null States by Malka Older

I never managed to get around to reading Infomocracy in 2016. With a contentious US election going on, I just didn’t have it in me that year to read a book that centered on election-related shenanigans, and the results of our election in November didn’t put me into any better frame of mind for reading a political thriller. So it took me until mid-2017 to do it, and then only because I’d been lucky enough to receive and ARC of Null States that gave me the push I needed to make time for it. Reader, I am so glad I finally did. Infomocracy is a great book, and Null States is even better.

Though these books have been described as dystopian, I heartily disagree with that characterization of them. Rather, I found both of them, but especially Null States to be deeply, albeit pragmatically, optimistic, in many of the ways that I aspire to be optimistic, about the future, about humanity, about our political institutions, about the environment, and so on. I don’t always manage to be optimistic—it’s difficult—but the Null States, with its story about dedicated public servants trying their best to make the world a better place in whatever ways they have within their power, is exactly the sort of thing that helps me. As I wrote in my review of the books last year, it’s my kind of optimism:

“It’s not the optimism that there’s some perfect system of government that’s the silver bullet to solve all the world’s problems or that aliens are going to show up on the eve of a technological revolution and save us all. It’s the optimism that hard work and decency never go entirely out of fashion, that they pay off and that individuals can and do make a difference. It’s the reminder that the arc of history bends towards progress and that we don’t have to have all the answers in order to do some good.”

There’s a fantastic essay by Margaret Atwood in which she talks about the ways in which dystopias are always utopian for some people while every utopia is someone else’s dystopia—that utopias hide inside dystopias and vice versa—and the characters in Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle wrestle heavily with that idea. Sure, these stories have dystopian elements, but many of them are the same dystopian elements that we are all literally living with every single day, and it’s heartening to read about characters trying to harness the power of imperfect systems in order to improve the world and the state of humanity, however incrementally.

Book Review: Robots vs. Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Robots vs. Fairies is my first reading disappointment of 2018. I loved Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe’s first anthology, 2016’s The Starlit Wood, so I was very hyped for this one when it was announced. Unfortunately, Robots vs. Fairies is a bit of a sophomore slump for the editing pair, with a theme that feels more questionable the farther one reads into the collection, stories that largely feel a little too written to spec, and not enough that’s new and interesting to recommend it on those scores. It might work as sort of comfort reading for those who find its table of contents—filled with some of the hottest short fiction writers currently working in SFF—appealing, but if you’re looking for exciting, fresh, innovative work, there’s not much of that here.

To be fair, anthologies in general tend to be a mixed bag, and one’s enjoyment of any collection is heavily dependent on the degree to which the reader’s taste’s overlap with the editors.’ However, the concept for Robots vs. Fairies is both too specific to generate a lot of variation in styles and themes between stories in the collection and broad enough (or, rather, bifurcated) to inhibit a true sense of cohesiveness. If it wasn’t for the book’s introduction and the explanations following each story of which “team” (fairies or robots) the authors chose and why, it would be easy to mistake this for a somewhat random collection of mostly-middling stories about robots and fairies. The choice to bookend the collection with stories (by Seanan McGuire and Catherynne M. Valente) that feature both is smart, but it’s not quite enough to tie the whole thing together.

It seems that every story included here was solicited for this anthology, and this has allowed the editors to collect a veritable dream team of most of my favorite writers of short fiction. However, it’s also produced an anthology where many of the stories feel more like begrudgingly-finished assignments for a high school creative writing course than the sort of vibrant and challenging work that many of these authors have built their careers upon. It’s all just on the uninspired side. There’s not much here that’s ambitious or surprising, plots and prose are just workmanlike, and there’s nothing in these pages that surprised or excited me overly much. Perhaps it’s a shift in the reasons and ways I read short fiction these days—I’m often reading short fiction on the search for new authors and ideas—but I don’t think I’m the only one who will be disappointed by the overall lack of novelty here.

Still, none of this is to say that Robots vs. Fairies is entirely devoid of good, or at least enjoyable stories. The opening tale by Seanan McGuire, “Build Me a Wonderland,” is an interesting take on how fair folk might survive and carve out a place for themselves in a changing world. Tim Pratt’s “Murmured Under the Moon” features a heroic librarian and a sentient book, which are both things that are relevant to my interests. “Just Another Love Song” by Kat Howard has a banshee, a brownie and women helping women. In “Work Shadow/Shadow Work,” Madeline Ashby uses fairies and robots in a way that’s more heartwarming than particularly compelling, but is still a pleasant read. It’s a silly story, and admittedly a little trite, but John Scalzi’s “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind from the Era of Humans for the First Time” was the first story in the collection that truly delighted me; I laughed aloud at it more than once. Alyssa Wong’s bittersweet “All the Time We’ve Left to Spend” is the singular really superb story in the collection, but no one writes fairies like Catherynne M. Valente, whose “A Fall Counts Anywhere” may be a bit of a lowpoint for her but would still register as a standout piece of work from almost any other author.

It’s not that Robots vs. Fairies is a terrible anthology. It’s alright, and I’m sure if I did the math and compared it to most other anthologies I read, it’s within a standard deviation of the norm for anthology quality. Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect Wolfe and Parisien to knock one out of the park twice in a row, but I still can’t help but feel a little disappointed that they didn’t after I got so excited about the possibility. If you want some easy-ish comfort reading for a cold winter’s night and find that that this volume has all your favorite authors in it, be sure to check it out. If you’re looking for something new and exciting, perhaps think about looking for something from a smaller press or look to see what’s currently crowdfunding, as that’s where you’ll find innovation.

Book Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

So, I’ve finally figured out what it is about Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children that prevents me from really loving these books the way so many other people do. I just, on a fundamental level, don’t find the fantasy of this series to be an appealing one. I’m slightly distrustful of anything, in general, that smacks of radical individualism, so I’m just not especially taken with the idea that some people are just too special and different for the world they’re born into and must travel to an entirely different world to achieve self-actualization and fulfillment, with the finding and keeping of that world as their personal happy ending. It’s fine. I get it. I think I would have loved this stuff when I was a teenager. In my mid-thirties, however, I struggle with some of the broader implications of it, which impacts my overall enjoyment of the story. I don’t begrudge anyone else the escapist fantasy of a better world of their very own, but my own fantasies at this point in my life are less escapist and more about making this world a better, kinder and more just place for everyone.

All that said, Beneath the Sugar Sky is by far my favorite installment of the Wayward Children to date. Though the series may not, generally, be my cup of tea, there’s a lot to like about this volume, which both delves a bit deeper into the overall mythology of the series and gives the universe of the Wayward Children a welcome infusion of lightness after two installments that were decidedly darker in tone. Without losing any of the series characteristic gravitas and utilizing a refreshingly straightforward fantasy quest narrative, McGuire uses Beneath the Sugar Sky to explore a Nonsense world, Confection, that’s been built, layer after layer after layer, out of baked goods. It’s an altogether more purposeful-feeling story than either of the previous two books in the series, and that includes a stronger and more satisfying ending than its predecessors as well.

The book starts off by introducing a new point of view character, Cora, who has just recently arrived at Eleanor West’s school after a stint as a mermaid. She’s a likeable and engaging character, but she’s sadly not given much to do once Rini arrives and the quest kicks in to gear. If there’s any major craft problem with this novella it’s simply that there are too many point of view characters and none of them ever quite feel like main characters. At the same time, though, this ensemble quality is one of the things I enjoyed most about Beneath the Sugar Sky, as it works to offset the strong messaging about the importance of individuals and the value of individual identities and personal journeys to self-actualization. I would have liked more of Cora, mostly because I really, really like Cora, but I wouldn’t want to sacrifice a minute of time the book spends with Kade or Rini or Nadya, either.

The quest narrative and Nonsense setting makes this the most purely fantastical of the Wayward Children books yet, and it leaves behind almost entirely the mystery of Every Heart a Doorway and the Gothic-toned family drama of Down Among the Sticks and Bones. While Every Heart primarily dealt with the fallout after children are expelled from their worlds and Sticks and Bones delved into one of the doorway worlds, Beneath the Sugar Sky offers a full-on epic journey as Rini and her new friends search for the pieces of her mother, Sumi, and try to find a way to put her back together again before Rini is erased from existence. Straightforward as this quest may be, there’s still plenty of room for creative flourishes, twists and turns, and a couple of genuine surprises that let us know that McGuire isn’t sticking strictly to any storytelling formula. The worldbuilding is as at least as inventive as in the previous two books of the series, and there’s a delightfully joyous tone in McGuire’s descriptions of Confection that makes the chapters set there (and that’s most of them) great fun to read.

So, Beneath the Sugar Sky is fine. I’m still not sold on the whole premise of this series as a desirable fantasy, but I think that’s just me being curmudgeonly. Certainly, after this book, it’s started to grow on me a bit more. I like that this book is a standalone, albeit to a lesser degree than either of the first two as it deals with events from the first book in particular. Still, I’ll be recommending it to some of my similarly curmudgeonly acquaintances who weren’t enchanted by Every Heart, and I’m somewhat more excited to see what Seanan McGuire does next in this universe, especially if it involves more of Cora.

The SF Bluestocking 2018 Winter Reading List

I’m still plugging away at year-end wrap-up stuff from 2017, which I was procrastinating on a little during the end-of-year holidays and which has now been delayed by a very nasty head cold and the unfortunate news that our single-income family here is imminently going to be a zero-income family as my partner is losing his job. It’s not great, obviously, and I fully expect this to continue to affect things here at the blog over the next [hopefully not more than a] couple of months, so I’m not making any promises about how much I’ll be reading or what I’ll be writing about. My guess is “not nearly as much as I’d like” on both counts.

However, before 2018 took such a steep and immediate nosedive into horribleness, there was a ton of stuff I was (and, optimistically, still am) very excited to be digging into over the next three months.


I’m starting to scale back my reading goals and recommendations with the idea of focusing on quality rather than quantity as well as avoiding overwhelming myself with too-long reading lists. At the same time, I’m branching out again, looking to read more broadly, instead of sticking so strictly to sci-fi and fantasy (though, goodness knows, there’s more great stuff coming out in those genres than I can ever realistically read). This year, you’ll be seeing more literary, romance and horror releases, and I’m even going to experiment with reading some YA again after a lengthy break from it.

  • Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi – 1/23
    A US edition of a 2013 Iraqi novel. I love Frankenstein retellings of all kinds, and one of my goals for 2018 is to read more translated literature, so this is perfect.
  • The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory – 1/30
    I don’t read much romance, but I’ve been seeing this title talked up quite a bit over the last couple of weeks. It sounds fun, and would be a nice change of pace for me.
  • The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton – 2/6
    I haven’t been reading much YA over the last year or so, but I’m thinking of checking out a few YA titles in 2018. This is the first one on my list.
  • Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce – 2/6
    I’m not entirely sold on this series about Numair, to be honest, but I expect I will check it out anyway.
  • Blood Binds the Pack by Alex Wells – 2/6
  • Semiosis by Sue Burke – 2/6
    I’ve been increasingly into serious sci-fi lately, and this character-driven first contact novel is one that I’m very much looking forward to.
  • Moonshine by Jasmine Gower – 2/6
    sounds a bit like the 2016 novel A Criminal Magic, and that’s not a bad thing.
  • Echoes of Understorey by Thoraiya Dyer – 2/13
    Crossroads of Canopy was one of my favorite books of 2017, and it features a marvelously original fantasy world that I am extremely excited to dive back into.
  • Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel – 2/13
    Victor Frankenstein meets Mary and Kitty Bennet!
  • The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell – 2/27
    I have never gotten around to reading anything by Paolo Bacigalupi, but I’ve gotten pretty into Tobias Buckell’s short fiction over the last couple of years, so I figure I will give this novel a try.
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi – 3/6
    The description of this book hits pretty much all my favorite YA fantasy trope keywords.
  • Impostor Syndrome by Mishell Baker – 3/20
    The third book in the Arcadia Project trilogy. This series has been such a nice surprise, and I am very hyped for this conclusion. Publishing

As I’ve done for the last two years, I’ll continue to read all of’s novellas and novels. I still love the novella length best of all for pleasure-reading, and still puts out a pretty good selection of material. That said, their line-up for the first quarter of 2018 is fully sixty percent sequels, and with other folks catching on and getting into the novella game, is going to need to step things up and start delivering more great standalone novellas in order to keep my full attention. Still, there’s a lot to look forward to this winter.

  • Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire – 1/9
  • Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor – 1/16
    The third and final volume of Okorafor’s Binti Trilogy.
  • The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brook Bolander – 1/23
    Elephants and radium girls!
  • The Armored Saint by Myke Cole – 2/20
  • Starfire: Memory’s Blade by Spencer Ellsworth – 2/27
    The Starfire series is actually short novels, rather than novellas, and this is the last one, which I’m pretty sad about.
  • The Warrior Within by Angus McIntyre – 3/6
  • Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson – 3/13
  • Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear – 3/20
    A sequel/companion to her 2015 novel, Karen Memory.
  • Void Black Shadow by Corey J. White – 3/27
    I rather liked the first novella in this series, Killing Gravity, so I’m moderately excited for the second.


I’ve really gotten into short fiction in the last year or two, especially as a way of finding new-to-me writers and young writers at the beginning of, but I’m slowly coming to terms (more or less, anyway) with the fact that I can’t read everything. Last year, I didn’t come close to reading all the short fiction, especially in magazines, that I intended to at the beginning of the year, so this year my plan is to be less ambitious in my goals but more consistent in sticking to them. To that end, I’m only planning on regularly reading the publications I subscribe to:

  • FIYAH Literary Magazine
    If you are any kind of fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to subscribe to this quarterly publication that celebrates black-written SFF. Just in their first year (2017), they published almost two dozen new writers, an invaluable infusion of new talent to the genre.
  • Uncanny
    Even if you don’t subscribe to Uncanny, be sure to keep an eye out for their special People With Disabilities Destroy SF! Issue later this year.
  • Apex Magazone

Anthologies and Collections

  • Robots vs. Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe – 1/9
    I loved this pair of editors’ first anthology, 2016’s The Starlit Wood, and their second outing from Saga Press has been among my most anticipated 2018 reads since it was first announced.
  • The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg – 3/13
  • Dracula: Rise of the Beast edited by David Thomas Moore
    Five authors imagine Jonathan and Mina Harker’s son piecing together the story of Dracula decades after the events of Bram Stoker’s book.

Comic Books and Graphic Novels

  • Saga Vol. 8
  • Kim & Kim Vol. 2
  • Abbott #1 – 1/24
    A new original comic by Saladin Ahmed!


In 2017, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read one nonfiction title per month in the year, and I failed at it, pretty miserably. This year, I’m trying again, but I’m already not off to a great start: in the first three months of 2018, there’s only one nonfiction title that I’m already certain I want to read. Probably, a couple more will pop up, or I’ll revisit some of the titles I didn’t get around to reading last year. We’ll see, I guess.

  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo – 1/16
    I’m by no means a connoisseur of Ijeoma Oluo’s work, but I remember well her remarkable profile of Rachel Dolezal and I’m interested in this book about race in America.
  • Nonfiction I Have On My Nook and Haven’t Read (But Still Might):
    Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve/Ruin Everything by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith
    Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
    Hunger by Roxane Gay
    Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

The SF Bluestocking Summer 2017 Reading List Wrap-Up

So, 2017 is a year that just keeps happening, whether we want it to or not, and it’s now the end of summer. I didn’t read nearly as much as I’d have liked, and I certainly fell very short of all my writing goals, but it hasn’t been a total disaster, either. The things I did manage to read were mostly good, and there were some real standouts in basically every category. Here are my favorites.

Best Fantasy Novel – The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

To say N.K. Jemisin stuck the landing on this series is really an understatement; though, like the previous book, it doesn’t quite match the sheer sublime brilliance of The Fifth Season, this novel is nonetheless stratospherically fantastic, and if the Broken Earth trilogy doesn’t become a bonafide classic the genre, there really is no justice in the world. It’s a thoughtful, inventive and compulsively readable story, with strong world-building, a powerful message (or, rather, several) and a pair of iconic lead characters in Essun and her daughter Nassun.

Best Science Fiction Novel – Null States by Malka Older

I’m torn between being sad that I waited so long to read Infomocracy and its sequel and being happy that I was able to read them one right after the other (though that brings me back round to sad again that I’ve now got another full year before the next book comes out). As good as Infomocracy was, I think Null States is definitely the stronger book of the pair, and a lot of that is because of its main heroine, Roz, who was a minor character in the first book but moves to the forefront in this one, where she proves herself to be smart, tough, resourceful and empathetic. While these books have been described by some as “dystopian,” I disagree that the word applies to them at all. Personally, I found the series compelling, insightful and, above all, optimistic about the future.

Best Novella – The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

Both installments of JY Yang’s new novella duology from are well worth reading, and I can’t wait to read more books set in the Tensorate universe, but The Black Tides of Heaven is a perfectly conceived and executed introduction to an intricately lovely and highly entertaining new fantasy setting. The twins Mokoya and Akeha are well drawn and fully realized characters, the world in which they exist feels real and lived-in, and the conflict between magic and technology is both epic in scale and deeply personal to the characters. Also, just look at that gorgeous book cover. One of the best of the year, full stop.

Best Novelette – “Avi Cantor Has Six Months to Live” by Sacha Lamb

This sweet and tenderly charming novelette features a pair of trans boys, their loving families and a just enough magic to scootch the story into the category of fantasy, though one could make the argument that it’s more in magical realism territory. What I loved about i, though, is that it’s a story that is kind to its characters. Avi has troubles, but he’s also surrounded by people who care about him and wish him well. He’s going to be okay, and that’s nice.

35649628Best Magazine – FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 3, “Sundown Towns”

I am still slightly bummed that this issue didn’t have a vampire story in it, but it does have “The Last Exorcist” by Danny Lore, which is one of my favorite stories of 2017 so far. “Cracks” by Xen is another stand-out tale. It’s also got another incredible cover by Geneva Benton, whose vision for the magazine’s first year has gone a long way towards helping to establish the publication’s unique and distinctive identity. FIYAH just keeps getting better and better.

Best Comic – Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood

Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda continue to make magic together in this second collection, which includes issues seven through twelve. After the somewhat unrelenting darkness of Volume One, I was pleased that this one at least slightly less brutal. Volume 2 brings us a bunch of new characters and greatly expands upon the world introduced in the first volume over the course of a quest story line that enhances the overall epic feel of the series. Plus, the book itself is a thing of pure beauty; Sana Takeda’s sumptuous artwork for the series is as marvelously detailed and layered as its ever been, and every page is a joy to look at.

Best Non-SFF Read – What Happened by Hillary Clinton

Listen, I love and admire Hillary Clinton so much, and I don’t think I’ll ever not be incandescently furious that this woman isn’t our President. Her campaign memoir is every bit as erudite, well-researched, and thoughtfully put together as you would expect from Clinton’s public persona, and it’s also wryly funny and full of personal quirks and tics that provide a fuller picture than perhaps ever before of the real woman behind that public persona. I know I’m going to still be angry about the Trump administration and worried for the future of this country and the whole world for a long time, but reading this book is something of a healing experience, if only because it’s reassuring to know, well, what happened.

Best Awesome Super Hero Romance Novel – Heroine Worship by Sarah Kuhn

I binged this title and its predecessor, Heroine Complex, back to back over like a day and a half, and I loved every single minute of them. They’re whip-smart, funny, fast-paced and slightly sexy, but the real draw, for me, was the strong focus on the friendship relationship between Annie and Aveda. Each of the books is as much coming-of-age story as it is romance, and I loved reading about how these women level up together and learn to have a healthy adult friendship with each other.

Honorable Mentions:

  • The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang
    It’s got a lot of the same great stuff that its partner book has, but also dinosaurs.
  • Uncanny Magazine #18, Sept/Oct 2017
    This issue has a Catherynne M. Valente-penned Clockwork Orange and Cthulhu Mythos mashup.
  • A Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey
    More hippos, but also better character arcs and a more satisfying ending than River of Teeth.
  • An Oath of Dogs by Wendy N. Wagner
    Great worldbuilding and an interesting main idea.
  • The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
    I love monstrous women. This one fooled me a little with its cover, which looked a bit more literary than its contents turned out to be, but it’s a great read.
  • Provenance by Ann Leckie
    Ann Leckie is one of my favorite authors of space opera right now.
  • Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
    This is a very weird book, and I don’t think it was entirely successful, but I still kind of loved it.

The SF Bluestocking 2017 Fall Reading List

It’s that time again, where I grossly/awesomely overestimate the number of books and other things I’ll be able to read in the next three months, plus include a few things I almost certainly won’t get around to reading but that I still think other folks should read and tell me about.

One thing you may notice right off is that I’m not really reading YA any longer. I’m sure it’s a temporary thing, but I just haven’t gotten into any of the YA releases that were on my radar this year, so in the interest of not stressing myself out when I fail to get around to them, I’m just not even including them. It’s just been so long since I’ve really wanted to read anything YA, and there’s so much other great stuff coming out over the next three months (well, the next couple months, since December is an especially sparse time for SFF releases this year) that I just haven’t even been paying much attention to what’s coming out for teens.

The rest of 2017 is pretty heavily front-loaded with new releases. with eight titles I’m excited about coming out just on October 3 and several more Tuesdays in October and November with two to five releases. However, there’s nothing on my calendar past December 5, so I expect to be doing a lot of catching up on things that month, since on average I’m reading just a couple books a week and there’s a lot of stuff I’m excited about this fall. Publishing

I’ve, kind of necessarily, relaxed my stance on reading every single release over the last few months, skipping a couple of titles that didn’t appeal to me or that were part of series that I haven’t begun yet, but the next couple months are full of books that I’m looking forward to.

  • The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson – 10/3
  • A Long Day in Lychford by Paul Cornell – 10/10
    I’ve loved both of Paul Cornell’s previous Lychford novellas. The first, in particular, was a great seasonally appropriate read around this time a couple years ago, and I’m making sure to save this one for a crisp evening with a blanket a nice hot cup of tea or several.
  • Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders – 10/17
    I’ve read All the Birds in the Sky and enjoyed some of Anders’ other short fiction (her story in the John Joseph Adams anthology, Cosmic Powers, was fantastic), so I’m pretty hyped for this collection, each story of which is totally new to me.
  • Weaver’s Lament by Emma Newman – 10/17
    The sequel to Brother’s Ruin, which was a charming gaslamp fantasy.
  • Switchback by Melissa F. Olson – 10/24
  • The Sisters of the Crescent Empress by Leena Likitalo – 11/7
    I already read an advance copy this book right after I read The Five Daughters of the Moon, and it’s a beautiful conclusion the the duology.
  • Gluttony Bay by Matt Wallace – 11/7
    I’m certain that this penultimate Sin du Jour novella is going to be delicious.
  • Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska – 11/14
    I haven’t been lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy of this title, but it’s probably the release I’m most looking forward to this fall aside from Gluttony Bay. Certainly, it’s the most ambitious and unique sounding thing on their schedule in the next three months.
  • Starfire: Shadow Sun Seven by Spencer Ellsworth – 11/28
    Spencer Ellsworth’s Starfire trilogy is exactly the sort of high energy retro space opera adventures I want to be reading these days. Highly recommend.
Anthologies and Collections
  • Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Lucas K. Law and Derwin Mak – 10/8
    I will have a review of this anthology and possibly an interview with the editors coming out prior to its release date, but I’ll say here that you definitely want to read this book. Plus, a portion of the proceeds from its sales benefits Kids Help Phone, a Canadian counselling hotline for children.
  • The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen
    A collection of retold classics and fairy tales from a great author.
  • Mad Hatters & March Hares edited by Ellen Datlow
    An anthology of stories inspired by Wonderland.

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty – 10/3
I’ve been watching Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube channel (Ask a Mortician) for years, and I loved her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory. I’ve also been following her work with the death acceptance organization The Order of the Good Death for years, so I am super excited to read this new book about death traditions from cultures around the world.

  • The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera – 10/3
  • Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor – 10/3
    The long-awaited sequel to Okorafor’s 2011 YA novel, Akata Witch.
  • The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehenat Khan – 10/3
  • Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng – 10/3
    Early reviews of this gothic fantasy seem promising.
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon – 10/3
  • Star Wars From a Certain Point of View – 10/3
    40 popular authors (seriously, all my current faves are in here) telling 40 stories from the points of view of 40 different minor characters in the Star Wars Universe. It’s gonna be awesome.
  • The Stone in the Skull by Elizabeth Bear – 10/10
    The start of a new epic fantasy series in the same world as her Eternal Sky trilogy.
  • La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman – 10/19
    The first in a new prequel/sequel trilogy set in the world of His Dark Materials.
  • The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – 10/24
  • The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso – 10/24
  • Magic of Wind and Mist by Cassandra Rose Clarke – 10/24
    An omnibus reprint of a duology.
  • Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns – 10/31
    This book had me at “lesbian space pirates.”
  • Terminal Alliance by Jim C. Hines – 11/7
  • Jade City by Fonda Lee – 11/7
  • Artemis by Andy Weir – 11/14
  • The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty – 11/14
  • Creatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer – 11/14
  • Beyond the Empire by K.B. Wagers – 11/14
  • Winter of Ice and Iron by Rachel Neumeier – 11/21
  • Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew – 12/5
    Benjanun Sriduangkaew still needs to put out a collection of her short fiction, but I guess a queer take on the Snow Queen in novella form will have to do. (I’m so excited.)
  • The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer – 12/5
    The Terra Ignota series continues.
  • A War in Crimson Embers by Alex Marshall – 12/5
  • Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey – 12/5
    I mean, I still need to finish reading all the previous books, but I’m still looking forward to this one.

Book Review: INFOMOCRACY and NULL STATES by Malka Older

It took me a long time to read Malka Older’s Infomocracy. I couldn’t get into it right away when it came out last summer, and then the 2016 election happened and it was, perhaps understandably, just far too painful, upsetting and infuriating for me to even think about reading a book centered around election shenanigans for a good while. After a couple of false starts earlier this year, I picked up the paperback of Infomocracy and couldn’t put it down. Luckily, I had an ARC of Null States waiting for me when I finished it. The downside, of course, is that I have to wait another full year for the next installment of the series. The Centenal Cycle so far is a brilliantly clever, deeply entertaining, and extremely timely series full of great characters and smart insights into the back-end business of politics and governance.

Though it’s not hard to see how some readers may interpret the series as dystopian, perhaps my favorite thing about the Centenal Cycle is that it’s decidedly optimistic about the power of systems and public servants to achieve positive change in the world. Older recognizes the flaws in institutions and the people administering them, but in a profoundly (and refreshingly) humanist move she also recognizes the power of individuals to enact change, for good or ill. The micro-democracy depicted in the books isn’t perfect, but it’s an improvement on our current system of government, and Older does an excellent job of exploring both the possibilities and pitfalls of such a system. The global organization of Information is key to both the successes and challenges of micro-democracy, and Older’s nuanced look at the ways in which media affects elections and the ways in which information can be manipulated and controlled to achieve desired outcomes is as timely as it is erudite and insightful.

In a SFF landscape that reveres meticulously detailed worldbuilding, the world of the Centenal books stands out as an example of a setting that isn’t so much built as it is just perfectly realized. Every inch of it feels real and lived-in. They say one ought to write what one knows, and Malka Older knows a good deal about a lot of things (or at least did a lot of research to make it seem like she does), which makes for a pair of novels that work on every level. The technological advances she describes feel plausible, and the ways in which technology is used—for travel, surveillance, security, media consumption, and so on—make sense and are entirely natural-seeming extrapolations from current trends. A particularly nice touch is the names of political parties in micro-democracy. Groups like Heritage, Liberty, PhilipMorris and others are clear references to current political factions and business interests, and it’s easy to imagine how those power players would survive and thrive in the kind of political environment created by micro-democracy.

The greatest thing about these books, however, isn’t the political wonkery (though that is a quality I deeply appreciated); it’s the characters. Mishima is a consummate badass, and Ken is a perfect complement for her. They’re both easy to root for, and their intertwining stories as they work both apart and together to foil a massive conspiracy in Infomocracy are highly entertaining. The main protagonist of Null States, Roz, is something else, however. Like Mishima and Ken, she’s tough and smart and resourceful and principled, but Roz’s work in Darfur is very different than either Mishima’s or Ken’s. The stakes in Null States are, at least on the surface, less global in scale, and they’re certainly much more personal as Roz gets to know the people of the area. What’s most lovable about Roz isn’t her capability or strength but her capacity for empathy, and this quality is a driving force in her narrative. Much of Roz’s story is about the ways in which empathy, caring for others and openness to new ideas and different points of view is integral to public service, and I love that Malka Older imagined Roz to embody so many of those qualities, even if she does have to grow into them a little over the course of her book. Also, Suleyman is a babe.

The optimism of the Centenal Cycle isn’t obvious, judging by the number of people who call the books dystopia, but it’s my kind of optimism. It’s not the optimism that there’s some perfect system of government that’s the silver bullet to solve all the world’s problems or that aliens are going to show up on the eve of a technological revolution and save us all. It’s the optimism that hard work and decency never go entirely out of fashion, that they pay off and that individuals can and do make a difference. It’s the reminder that the arc of history bends towards progress and that we don’t have to have all the answers in order to do some good. And all that optimism is conveyed not with speeches or platitudes, but through the actions of Mishima, Ken, Roz and others. I cannot wait to find out what these characters do next.