It’s time for my year-end wrap-up! Slightly late, alas, as it is now the new year, but then I tend to be late in most things. As always, these (generally) aren’t books that were published in 2016, since I make no effort to keep up with the times.
My goal for 2016 was to read more SF/F and graphic novels from female authors, since there were only ten women in my top 100 Most Read authors according to Goodreads at the start of the year — and one of them was Ann M. Martin, because I read so many Babysitters’ Club books as a kid. I managed to change the balance to 21 out of 100, but I still have only two women in my top 10 (25+ books read) — though C. J. Cherryh is closing in.
I read 344 books this year, though most were graphic novels or manga, but let’s see what was best!
The Doctrine of Labyrinths series, by Sarah Monette.
I went into this series expecting something a bit like what I and my friend used to read as teenagers: a pseudo-renaissance court-based fantasy of mages and politics and manners and treachery, with some sneak-thief/assassination business thrown in. So I was blindsided by both the harsh and graphic content (sex, violence, abuse, crippling injury) and my slow-developing but very serious attachment to the characters. Goddammit, Felix.
In the end, this felt like Monette had drawn as much from grimdark as from those mage-politics books, and the volume pictured TORE MY GODDAMN HEART OUT. Seriously, my head was ringing for a week after what happened. The strength of the story is in the characters and their relationships, from (goddammit) Felix Harrowgate, who can’t control his powerful, crazy, erratic self, to (poor deadly puppy) Mildmay who didn’t ask for this but is going to do his best anyway, even if it kills him, to people I can’t write about because I’ll be emoting all over the place even more. Tears, okay, actual tears, and it made me think a lot about my own work and how one of my characters would react to certain losses — and thus what he should do in my series, to fix a mistake he’s made.
So: inspirational? Check. Emotional and engaging? Check. A bit prurient? Yeeeees, we get very deep into these characters’ sexual and emotional lives, as they try to extricate themselves from their own history of abuses both given and taken.
The reason I didn’t give the fourth and final book (Corambis) a 5-star rating after the third book rang my fricking bell was that it felt like the first half was supposed to be the start of a new trilogy — a broader adventure in a new land, though starring the same characters — but the second half wrapped everything up in a way that made me think either the author got tired of the series and scrapped her plans, or some interference made her have to cut everything short. It still earned four stars because of the resolution she gave the characters; this is so character-driven that seeing them finally in a good place made it all worthwhile. I just feel like there could or should have been more.
An additional mention goes to Monette’s short story collection, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves, which was also fabulous. Big fan.
Rider at the Gate, by C.J. Cherryh.
I’m on a serious drive to push C.J. Cherryh into my top 10, and since I ran out of Foreigner novels to read, I’ve been branching out to her other worlds and series. Some have hooked me, some haven’t, but the most fascinating this year has been the two-book Finisterre series she wrote in the mid-90s, which feels somewhat like a tonic against Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books.
After all, in Valdemar, people of good heart are chosen by magical horses called Companions, who take them back to their country of shiny goodness to become bards and mages and whatnot and defend Valdemar against its enemies. In Finisterre, however — a sci-fi colony world — the psychic wildlife is resoundingly hostile toward humans, except for nighthorses which are in love with the perspective they get from human minds. The stronger-willed, the better, which doesn’t at all mean that they cleave to good people; the conflicts in this duology (Rider at the Gate and Cloud’s Rider) are largely based on selfish and vengeful people, one being a teen girl, who should NOT have been given the opportunity to bond with a nighthorse — because the nighthorses can broadcast human thoughts to each other and to humans in the area, so one person’s anger or madness or confusion can spread like wildfire through a whole town and make an opening for the voracious wildlife to get in.
It’s a harsh world and some hard lessons for the protagonists, but ultimately a very small world and a small story. A lot is travelogue, which is fine by me — I like survival/adventure nonfiction, and in fact the last book I read this year was Touching the Void by Joe Simpson — but might be less engaging for people who need more action in their novels. The small scale and unfinished feeling (where’s the third book?!) is what led me to give this duology a 4-star rating overall, but it was still one of my best reads.
Comics and Manga:
Unsounded, by Ashley Cope.
I actually discovered this series because of a piece of artwork I’d had floating around on my computer since…jeez, college? Probably not that long ago, but still — it had stayed in my Pictures folder despite several changes in computers because I like to collect artwork that reminds me of my own characters or inspires me with story ideas. And it had a URL on it, so one day, on a random whim, I decided to look up the artist.
And she draws a fabulous web comic — I mean PHENOMENAL, not content to stay within the usual page-sized boundaries but expanding into the margins whenever needed to further illustrate her fascinating world and magics. Story’s great, art’s great, characters are fabulous, everything is actiony and horror-tinged (both human horror and supernatural) but never so much as to be a true downer, there’s a lot of grey morality while still being mainly heroic…
And one of the protagonists, okay, is like a mage version of a character I’ve been working on for years for a series unrelated to my main War of Memory stuff. So it’s a little awkward to see a similar idea to mine being played out, but at the same time it’s inspired me and led me to think deeper about certain aspects of the character.
Anyway, I bought both physical volumes and am anxiously awaiting the third.
The Ancient Magus’ Bride, by Kore Yamazaki.
This is definitely the newest item on the list, the first volume being published in 2015 and more recent ones in 2016. I read a lot of manga, with a preference toward fantasy/adventure and horror, but even though I started a lot of good new manga series this year (One-Punch Man, My Hero Academia, Assassination Classroom, Tokyo Ghoul) and continued on or complete several old ones (Berserk, Bleach, Vinland Saga, Planetes, Library Wars, Lone Wolf & Cub), this was a stand-out for a quieter reason. One of my favorite manga of all time is Mushishi, which deals with the spirit world in an alternate Japan, and this gives me a bit of the same vibe — just focused on faeries and dragons and mages in an alternate Britain.
It’s a slow and quiet story so far, though there are hints of active danger in the background. Most of the trouble initially comes from the main character Chise’s own nature: she’s a type of magically-inclined individual who both absorbs and expends energy more easily than others, so she can become very powerful but she can also accidentally kill herself if she doesn’t train thoroughly and keep a close handle on her magic use. The skull-headed ‘ancient magus’ purchases her at the beginning of the first volume, because she’s being sold at magical auction after being given up by her relatives — but this sense of bondage and the whole ‘bride’ business doesn’t come out beyond mild comments, as she becomes his apprentice ahead of all else. So far it’s an interesting exploration of apprenticeship and humanity, with a backdrop of Cat Kings and ghosts and dragons and fae and alchemy and a world with waning magic.
And that’s 2016! I read a lot of stuff this year, but not all of it was up to snuff; there were many disappointments, not least the tag-end of the Hellblazer comics, which I’d been reading for decades intermittently but finally found a source to catch up — only to find that the quality declined precipitously across the last ten to twelve volumes. Likewise, the Fables comics dropped off a cliff in the last two volumes and Bleach ended badly, so my comics-and-manga reading as a whole was less than inspiring. Still, some shining lights, and prospects for more interesting stories in the year to come.
For 2017, my reading goal is threefold: I want to continue reading more female authors, I want to read more international authors (not counting manga), and I want to whittle down my To-Read list to 100 or less. I’ve made a start on that latter, mostly by reading the huge pile of Hellblazer comics that had been on the list since 2013, but I’ve also started chipping away at the novels there at the start…so hopefully I’ll make good headway.
Happy New Year!