Tag Archives: 2017 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.

Recent Reads: Space Opera, Cosmic Horror, Hippo Mayhem and More from Tor.com

Starfire: A Red Peace
by Spencer Ellsworth

Pub Date: 8/22/17

The first in a trilogy of short novels, A Red Peace begins with the ending of and intergalactic war fought between natural humans and the genetically engineered hybrids who have spent years being used as fodder for humanity’s wars and slaves for their industry and agriculture. It seems as if justice has won the day until John Starfire, the leader of the Jorian-cross rebellion, reveals his final solution to end the oppression that he’s dedicated his life to fighting. The book follows the points of view of Araskar, a high-ranking vat-grown soldier in Starfire’s army and Jaqi, a Jorian-cross who just wants a tomato but who gets roped into helping some strangers instead. Jaqi is whip smart and wryly funny, a perfectly reluctant and wonderfully competent heroine who’s a joy to read about. Araskar takes a bit more time to grown on you, but it’s easy to become invested in him uncovering the truth about his heroic leader and coming to terms with what that means for his own future. A Red Peace is a clever, fast-paced space opera with a classic sci-fi sensibility, memorable characters, big ideas and an even bigger heart. I can’t wait for book two, Shadow Sun Seven, coming out November 28.

A Song for Quiet
by Cassandra Khaw

Pub Date: 8/29/17

I want to say I loved this little book, the second in Cassandraw Khaw’s Persons Non Grata series, but the truth is that I am just Lovecraft-homaged-out these days, which made it a tough read for me. That said, A Song for Quiet is a definite improvement upon Khaw’s previous Lovecraftian novella, Hammers on Bone. It’s better paced, with a more interesting main character in Deacon James, and it does a much better job of capturing the sense of truly cosmic horror that Lovecraft was known for. There’s less of Persons in this one, with Deacon as the main point of view character and the one whose actions are of the most consequence in the narrative. Khaw’s prose is lovely as always, and the book tries to answer a worthy question: What fate does an unjust world deserve? I’m just ready for this new-Lovecraftian trend to have a rest for a few years. In the meantime, Khaw also has a delightful urban fantasy romance out from the Book Smugglers earlier this year. Bearly a Lady is nearly perfect.

The Twilight Pariah
by Jeffrey Ford

Pub Date: 9/12/17

The Twilight Pariah is either a somewhat tired paint-by-numbers ghost story or a solidly-written horror story with a nicely cinematic quality, depending on how many horror flicks you’ve watched in your time and how much you like the genre. Its collection of shallow characters go through the motions of a fairly standard issue plot without any in depth examination of their motives. The only characters who die are ones that don’t matter, and the “mystery” is fairly tidily explained at the end of the book. It would have worked as a movie, where the stock characters would have been played by unrealistically attractive young people and even low-end CGI could have been combined with some creepy music to make the monster feel menacing. As a book, not so much.

Taste of Marrow
by Sarah Gailey

Pub Date: 9/12/17

Sarah Gailey’s first Tor.com novella, River of Teeth, got a ton of acclaim, but I didn’t love it, overall. It wasn’t terrible, but it definitely felt unfinished to me. What I did love about it was the concept, however, and there were a couple of characters who I found myself getting attached to in spite of myself. Taste of Marrow both finishes the story that began in River of Teeth and focuses mostly on my favorite characters: Adelia, Hero, and Archie. Where River was a fairly straightforward heist-gone-bad story, Taste is a nuanced, character-focused follow up that’s all about consequences. There’s fewer hippos and less mayhem, but there’s far more depth of emotion and meaning in this story where everyone’s chickens come home to roost. Gailey writes her characters with a wonderful mix of tenderness and sharpness that works far better in this less frenetic book than it did in its predecessor. Still, Taste of Marrow is only one half of a wonderful whole. Obviously, you want to read this pair of books as soon as possible, but if you want to read them together you can also wait until the omnibus, American Hippo, comes out in May 2018.

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 Tor.com 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.

Tor.com Publishing

I’ve, kind of necessarily, relaxed my stance on reading every single Tor.com 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 Tor.com 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.
Magazines
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.
Non-Fiction

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.

Fiction
  • 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: An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

I liked Kat Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot, quite a bit and even more in hindsight, and I’ve enjoyed the several pieces of short fiction I’ve read from her since, but An Unkindness of Magicians is still a surprising book. Thematically, it covers a lot of the same ground as Howard’s other work, and like her previous novel this one deals heavily with family drama and magic. However, at its core, Unkindness is nicely summed up by the well-chosen epigraph, a memorable line from Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, with which it opens:

“Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.”

An Unkindness of Magicians opens with a singularly powerful image that introduces our heroine, Sydney, and gives us our first glimpse of the magic that fuels so much of the action in the book. Unkindness has been compared in some reviews to The Magicians, and though I haven’t read that book, it certainly shares some commonalities with the television adaptation. Like the magic in The Magicians, magic in Unkindness is often less about doing useful things and more about magicians putting on a great show for each other. Sure, characters use magic for some mundane tasks, but the big stuff is mostly theatrics until late in the book. The opening scene of Sidney’s impressive spellcasting as she auditions for a prestigious job is vividly described and immediately shows the reader what kind of book this is: smart, confident and beautifully written.

Howard’s first novel occasionally felt weighed down by its sometimes-heavy themes, but this one is a bit more structurally sound. It’s a good thing, too, as Unkindness is a good deal darker than Roses and Rot. One thing that helps this book immensely in this regard is the large ensemble cast. Sydney is definitely the fulcrum around which the main plot and all the other characters pivot, but with other characters capable of doing some heavy lifting, she’s never forced to carry the full weight of story or themes on her shoulders. The best part, though, is that, while characters like Laurent and Ian hold up their parts of the book quite well, Sydney is also surrounded by female characters who have stories and goals of their own while supporting Sydney and being supported by her in turn. Harper, in particular, is such a wonderful secondary protagonist that I can’t help but hope to someday read more about her.

The Unseen World is sexist and racist and classist, there are no fewer than three huge injustices (and quite a few smaller ones) being addressed in this book, and Howard does a great job of telling her story from multiple points of view that allow the reader a broad understanding of the world she’s crafting. That said, the villains in Unkindness only manage to be about two-and-a-half-dimensional, with motivations that aren’t always completely explicable. Miles Merlin’s fear of aging and Grey Prospero’s pathological desire to excel as a magician at any cost make sense, but there’s a certain level of “evil gonna evil” throughout the book. This makes more sense for Miles, who simply dehumanizes the people he hurts so much that he seems to genuinely not think he’s doing anything wrong; like all of the worst {X]-ists, Miles Merlin is nothing if not certain of his own moral rectitude.

This is less true of Grey, whose crimes are much more personal. Miles can tell himself that he does what he does for the good of all the Unseen World, but Grey is explicitly self-focused, intent on amassing personal power through his exploitation of others. Grey’s storyline (and Harper’s corresponding quest for justice) could be interpreted as metaphorical for rape and the difficulties rape victims face in trying to get justice; Grey’s violence is indeed gendered, and the way his privilege protects him is indeed reminiscent to many of the ways in which rapists are treated, but his degree of violence and the magical benefits he gains from it make it a flawed analogy at best. Howard makes her point on the issue, but without the finesse or the unambiguous success with which she accomplishes other goals in the book.

Any other criticisms of the book are simply quibbles. The New York setting has been praised by some as authentic and recognizable, but I found it somewhat generic-feeling. The naming conventions—Prospero, Merlin, Morgan—were a little on the nose, and it undercut some of the seriousness of the novel. Overall, though, it’s a highly readable book full of evocative prose, with a thoroughly lovely ambience, a snappy pace, several cleverly-plotted mysteries, and a conclusion suffused with the great catharsis of seeing justice done.

This review is of a review copy of the title received from the publisher.

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.

Review + Giveaway: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

The Guns Above is a whip-smart, fast-paced, and surprisingly funny military fantasy. I didn’t think that I was interested in reading stories about a woman having to overcome systematic sexism anymore, and I was double not interested in reading anything like a redemption arc for that woman’s sexist antagonist, but Bennis manages to breathe some new life into both of those stories. I’m very glad that I was interested enough in airships to read this book despite my misgivings, as it turned out to be a wonderfully readable, remarkably fun and ultimately optimistic (but not cloyingly so) take on its subject matter.

After an act of combat heroism, Josette Dupris gets a promotion that makes her the first woman to captain an airship in a military with strict limits on women’s service. This would be a tough enough challenge on its own, but Josette is also saddled with a spy, Bernat, a spoiled nobleman with no military or airship experience to speak of, but whose job is nonetheless to report back to his powerful uncle on any of Josette’s failings, real or imagined. It’s definitely the sort of thing that one needs to be in the mood to read, especially since there aren’t easy answers to Josette’s problems, but it’s also definitely worth reading. This isn’t a book about one woman smashing the patriarchy single-handedly, and in fact Josette is largely unconcerned with doing so; she just wants to do her job like she knows she’s capable of. The Guns Above is about the way in which an ambitious woman can exist and find ways to thrive in a sexist society, and it’s about the incremental changes and personal fights that slowly push the needle of progress forward. It’s also about gritty, action packed airship battles and snarky humor, which makes it a perfect light-ish summer read.

You need this book for the beach or next to the pool or out on the porch or inside an air-conditioned building or wherever else you’re reading this summer.

Luckily, courtesy of the publisher, I have a hardcover copy of The Guns Above that I’m giving away.

CLICK HERE ENTER THE GIVEAWAY – Ends July 16