Originally published at Rachel Swirsky. You can comment here or there.
This list is not comprehensive. It’s just a dash of things I liked.
This year, there were a number of novels that I found interesting, but also think I was an audience mismatch for. The books carry significant emotional weight through passions that I’ve never been particularly interested in: Silvia Moreno Garcia (vintage vinyl), Elizabeth Bear (westerns), Ken Liu (military strategy), Cat Valente (Hollywood glamour).I still enjoyed the books, though I think some of them faired better in the face of my ignorance than others. But they’re all interesting and I think the right audience will find them particularly compelling.
The Fifth Season* by N. K. Jemisin – I think this is one of my new favorite books. It takes place in the same world as last year’s short story, “Stone Hunger,” a really compelling setting where frequent apocalyptic events have forced humans to operate in a perpetual wary state, with stores of grain and preparations for martial law always at the ready. Among the population, there are magic-workers who can manipulate stone. They are blamed for the apocalypses and persecuted. One thing I really love about this story is the detailed layers of dead civilizations, where some were developed and technological and have left such ruins, while later ones operate on wildly different aesthetics and technological capabilies. The story is divided in three broad timelines/perspectives–one a young girl being enslaved to the empire because of her magic ability, one a magic worker laboring in service of the empire, and one a magic worker fleeing an apocalypse that has ruined her home town. The threads are brought together beautifully and intelligently in a way that makes it clear that each prior move has been deliberate. The book reminds me a bit of some Octavia Butler, like Parable of the Sower, which looks with an unsentimental eye at how humans react to instability and apocalypse. It also reminds me of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet which also has beings that manipulate the elements and resonances in terms of tone and plot development (it’s a sad series, but I recommend it). I see Nora as one of the most important novelists working in contemporary sf/f.
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard – In this setting, gods and magical beings inhabit the world. Around World War I, a magical disaster caused an apocalypse. The city of Paris has been mostly destroyed, overrun by gangs, and under the control of houses run by fallen angels. This is a very delicate novel with lots of intricate descriptions and observation. The world building is an unusual combination of fantasy and historical strains. (I admit the angel houses feel pretty similar to vampire houses, which some readers may not prefer.) It feels to me, in a way, like a very pretty snow globe, a sort of small scene of enclosed beauty. Along with those things, though, it felt like the thematic resonance of the story wasn’t too deep or broad; there was sort of a skimming feeling for me, particularly in regard to the characters. I never wholly felt emotionally immersed by them. I wonder now how the book would fare written if the main voice was from a different character, or if another perspective character had been added.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant* by Seth Dickinson – The daughter of a colonized people joins the empire’s ruling ranks in order to destroy it from within and avenge her people. In pursuit of the power she needs to do so, she must participate in the oppression of other peoples and do things that radically violate her conscience. Additionally, the empire, while in favor of some things our culture considers progressive like gender equality, is perniciously homophobic, killing or maiming those discovered participating in homosexual behavior. The main character, being a lesbian, must constantly work to conceal herself. This is an epic fantasy, largely concerned with politics and war, but anchored in the perspective of a single, dogged character. Baru Cormorant isn’t particularly likeable, but her ambition and determination carry the story. At times, the story did lag for me, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the long time cuts. I was also personally more interested in the empire and its strange world building than I was in the politics of the nation where she ends up, which looked more like things I’d seen before. This is a smart book. (Side note: I referenced Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet in conjunction with N. K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season (my favorite novel this year). Dickinson’s Cormorant doesn’t particularly resonate with the Jemisin directly, but it does resonate with the Long Price Quartet. Maybe I should interview Abraham and/or write about those books sometime soon. I think Baru Cormorant also resonates with Hurley’s God’s War.)
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Meche returns from Oslo to her hometown, Mexico City, for her father’s funeral. While there, she confronts memories of her teenage dabbling with magic which led to her hurting a friend she loved which set them both on lonely paths. Meche is obsessed with vintage vinyl. I was oblivious to the meaning of most of the music referents–which are the conduit for her magic, and the underpinning of her relationship with her father. However, I thought the book bore up well even robbed of those tools. The characterization is detailed over slow, meticulous scenes. Many of the turns were unexpected. Where I broke with the book is that I found Meche an extremely unpleasant character. I think the reader was supposed to see her that way, but perhaps I felt more strongly than I was expected to. Spoilers in rot 13: V sbhaq gur jnl gur bgure punenpgref sbetnir ure gb or ovmneer. Gur obbx frrzf gb or qenjvat gbjneq n gehr ybir pbapyhfvba, ohg V jnf zbfgyl yvxr “ab, guvf vf n onq vqrn, V pnaabg ebbg sbe guvf ng nyy.” Znlor gur obbx vf n pevgvpvfz bs gur vqrn bs sngrq ybir, naq n qrfpevcgvba bs ubj nohfvir crbcyr qenj crbcyr gb gurz? Vs vg jnf, V qvqa’g trg bireg fvtanyf sebz gur grkg gung guvf jnf gur vagragvba. Znlor V jnf ernqvat vg guebhtu na vanccebcevngr traer yraf. Anyway, the novel is interesting.
Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman – A xenoethnologist travels on an expedition to explore a planet that’s at a locus of unstable space where gravity doesn’t work as it should. They discover a lost diasporic group of humans underground, forcing the main character into an unexpected, unprepared-for first contact situation. (A second main character is making a study of consciousness and has some really interesting passages.) This was really interesting in a good traditional science fiction space opera way, lots of shifting from interesting idea to interesting idea. Carolyn’s prose keeps the story moving while knowing when to dwell on a pretty image (such as a disturbing, distorted forest of reflections and knife-like crystal leaves). It’s an effortless read because of Carolyn’s skill. The story lagged a bit for me in places, but overall, I was really into its ideas and explorations. I even wish Carolyn had gone further into the physics which is rare for me. Stipulation: a Muslim-inspired culture is abstracted into a symbol for patriarchy.*
Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal – Mary Robinette’s series the Glamourist Histories takes place in a Jane Austen-inspired world. The heroine, herself name Jane, can work magic by weaving folds in the ether. Her husband, Vince, who once filled the prideful (of pride and prejudice) role, is a magic-worker by profession. Of Noble Family is the fifth book in the series and, I am disappointed to discover, the last planned for now (although the ending is left open to possible future volumes). It takes place on an Antigua plantation. The book and series are worth more unpacking than a thumbnail review. I wouldn’t recommend that readers jump into book 5, but I wanted to mark it as one of the books I most enjoyed reading this year, and also to recognize the series as a whole. If the pitch sounds interesting to you, go start with the first, Shades of Milk and Honey. (Though I will note that this is the rare series that I think improves over the course of the first few books.)
King of Shards by Matthew Kressel – Daniel is one of the Lamed Vav, the righteous people who uphold the world in some mystical versions of Judaism. No one –including the pillars themselves — know who the lamed vav are, until a demon finds a list and begins killing them one by one in order to destroy the earth. Before she can kill Daniel, he’s rescued by an opposing demon, who kidnaps him down into the lower worlds — broken shards from God’s previous creations where there are different physical laws. Daniel himself was a tepid character for me (not in a terrible way, just in a transparent-lens way), but many of the other characters are dramatically interesting. My favorite thing about the book though was the world-building of the shards–Matt does these really interesting, creepy city and landscape things, with unusual imagery that sticks in the mind. There were a couple of typical fantasy tropes which appeared which I wasn’t interested in (I’ve decided I’m sick of harem slavery as a threat), and I also hope that (spoilers in rot13) gur perngbe tbqqrff, jub jnf gur zbfg vagrerfgvat punenpgre, jvyy or oebhtug onpx gb yvsr va gur arkg be yngre obbxf. The book is obviously of interest in the conversation about Jewish science fiction and fantasy, but it’s also a rewarding read with beautiful settings.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik – Our main character has grown up in a small village that exists in the shadow of, and under the protection of, the wizard’s tower. Every ten years, the wizard selects a girl to be his servant. This year, he picks our main character. She doesn’t know what to expect from him, but becomes his apprentice. (Later, she also becomes his lover, which was a little bit sketchy for me, but possibly only because I was reading the book as young adult.) It’s a fun, brightly written book, that is crafted with extreme skill within the territory it stakes out. The structure is well-done; the plotting is well-done; everything’s good. For me, it didn’t reach beyond that to something exciting, which is what I need for a book to be one of my favorites–but good, smart fun is good, smart fun, and I admire the execution. A good, appealing read. (Also, I think it did reach beyond that to something exciting for many readers.)
Beasts of Tabat by Cat Rambo – Cat Rambo has written about Tabat in numerous short stories. In the beautiful city of Tabat, sentients from non-human races are property, routinely lobotomized and treated as slaves. Beasts of Tabat is told via dual POV: Teo, a child and a non-human shapeshifter finding his way through the city while destitute, and Bella, a famous and wealthy gladiator who fights on behalf of winter every year in their annual games to see if spring can come early (under her tenure, it never has). One of the great virtues of this book is the detail in which Cat has laid out her city. Teo admires it, but Bella is in love with it, and that love is infectious. The city itself is interesting, and I find the plot about rights for non-humans compelling; it’s the sort of thing I’m natively interested in. Many of the interludes are really interesting: I love one where Teo stays with a photographer, and I also love Bella’s politically radical cousin a lot. At a few points, the book did lag a little for me. The ending is disappointing because it’s so abruptly cliffhangery, but it is an effective teaser. (After my mother read it, she wrote me to lament that she’d have to wait for the next installment to find out what happened.)
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear – In a steampunk wild west, soiled doves (with the help of a marshal and his backup) fend off an evil sadist who wants to take over the city. I think people frustrated with the portrayal of race (and gender) in typical westerns will like this. I’ve never had a particular interest in westerns which makes me suspect I’m not the ideal reader for the book and that readers who are will like this even more than I did. I enjoyed reading the book: great voice, interesting historical stuff, and characters developed in interesting ways–I just wasn’t personally interested in the plot.
Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi – Stipulation: I didn’t finish this, but I want to, and will probably go back. A depressing (well it IS Paolo) story of water rights in the west where California and Las Vegas monopolize the water supply, destroying cities like Phoenix. The prose is sharp with perfect diction, and the ideas are compelling. I had trouble with immersion and emotionally relating to the characters–I had the same problem with Windup Girl. Paolo’s young adult novels feel much more vivid for me for some reason. I don’t think I’m the right audience for this book (though I’m sure I will get interesting things from it), so I set it aside.
Grace of Kings by Ken Liu – Stipulation: I didn’t finish this, but I want to, and will probably go back. Another book that I don’t think I was the right audience for. This book tells a broad scale, epic story of political machinations and war. The setting is derived from Chinese history instead of western European. Some of the descriptions are strikingly gorgeous as one would expect from Ken. His description of the emperor’s pagoda, for instance, is an image that hangs in my mind. The story involves a lot of points of view, and with the volume, I started to get confused. That, combined with my relative lack of interest in military strategy, make me a poor reader for this novel. Readers who like to sink their teeth into those things should definitely pick this up.
Radiance by Cat Valente – Stipulation: I didn’t finish this, but I want to, and will probably go back. (Side note: great cover.) Presumably based on a Clarkesworld short story, “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew.” This is the one I really wish I’d finished. I didn’t put it aside on purpose: it was the last book I picked up, and I just ran out of A) time, and B) brainpower for dealing with novels. This novel takes place in an old-fashioned science fictional solar system where there are flowers on Pluto and oceans on Venus. A new Hollywood on the moon makes silent movies with title cards and raccoon-eyed makeup. The language is dense, disjunctive, and often gorgeous–I’m not sure it always works in service of the story, but I think I’d have to finish the book to fully make up my mind on how it functions in context. I do think the book would be enhanced by an interest in old Hollywood which I don’t particularly have. The novel is definitely unusual and ambitious.
*Because I’m sure someone will ask–and because there seems to be this persistent strain of thought from anti-feminists that feminists are a-ok with patriarchy in Islam–my objection to this is not to acknowledging patriarchal oppression in some Islamic cultures. It is that patriarchy includes more than Islam, and Islam includes more than patriarchy. Using one as a symbol to point to the whole of the other results in simplification, rather than deepening understanding. The history of equating these things amplifies the effect that gestures in this direction will have, thus making it even trickier to navigate in fiction.
Footnote one: Occasionally, I get confused about what year something comes out in, and end up reading something from the previous year for consideration. This year, it was Lock In by John Scalzi. This fun murder mystery about robots and revolutionary politics was really cool, and possibly my favorite of Scalzi’s book so far (I’d need to reread a coupe of the earlier ones). I like murder mysteries, but am usually dissatisfied by the way they are rendered in science fiction and fantasy. So that’s a double bonus for me. So, yeah — yay for Lock In, courtesy of 2014.
Footnote two: Spoilers involving the discussion that’s happened around The Fifth Season and The Traitor Baru Cormorant in rot13, particularly for people who are sensitive around queer issues: V haqrefgnaq gung crbcyr ner fvpx bs gentvp dhrrearff, naq obgu gurfr obbxf srngher vg, rfcrpvnyyl Pbezbenag. Vs crbcyr qba’g jnag gb cerff ba gung oehvfr (nf Nzny fnvq vg) naq jbhyq cersre gb nibvq gur obbxf sbe gung ernfba, gung znxrf gbgny frafr gb zr. Ubjrire, V qba’g guvax gung gentvp dhrrearff fubhyq or bss gur gnoyr nf n qrivpr. V whfg guvax gung, yvxr encr, vg fubhyq or eraqrerq qryvorengryl (nf bccbfrq gb whfg vapyhqrq sbe ynmvarff), gubhtugshyyl (jvgu erfrnepu naq pbagrzcyngvba), naq jryy (orpnhfr qryvpngr guvatf arrq gb or qbar jryy). V gubhtug gur obbxf cnffrq gubfr zrgevpf.