Hey all! It’s time again for my rundown of my favorite reads of the year. As always, these aren’t books that were necessarily published within the calendar year; a couple of them are twenty years old or more, and I only wish I’d read them while they were coming out! I missed some great stuff because of my early blind spots.
This year I found myself reading (and enjoying) a lot of sci-fi, particularly some fascinating series by female SF writers. I had only ever dabbled in sci-fi before; for most of my life I read pulp fantasy almost exclusively. I just wasn’t in the mindset for SF, I guess. But boy, was I missing a lot. Last year was the year of CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series (which I infected my co-conspirator Erica Dakin with). This year, I read:
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold.
I really wish I’d started reading this back when it was first being written. I would have learned a lot about writing great female protagonists. Not that the series follows female protags much, it being mainly about the exploits of Miles Naismith/Vorkosigan, but the highlight of every book she showed up in was Miles’ mother Cordelia. Just…CORDELIA, you magnificent matriarch. Everything to do with Cordelia’s story is fabulous, from the very first book (Shards of Honor) where she meets Miles’ eventual father Aral Vorkosigan (who is just my type for a tragic-hero-romance-target, hi Aral!) to her exploits in the most recently published novel. Oh Cordelia, you’re fantastic.
And I guess you’re pretty good too, Miles, all told.
I also spent some time cleaning my mom’s old books out of the garage, where they’d languished since we moved here about…twenty-two years ago now? A lot of decrepit old paperbacks in there, weathered by relentless summer heat — but among those I discovered another series that’s fascinated me this year. And that is:
The Under Jurisdiction series, by Susan R. Matthews.
I’ve had a lot to say about these books to a couple of my friends — specifically D&D players — because I think this is a great example of Lawful Neutral or Good characters trapped in a Lawful Evil system. This is a space empire ruled not by the military or an autocrat but by the judiciary, which wields the military as a tool to pressure, conquer and subjugate planetary systems into its idea of law and order. The backbone of its intimidation tactics are the Ship’s Inquisitors, who serve on the military Fleet ships but answer to the Bench in their dual roles as ship’s doctors and state-sanctioned torturers. The overarching story follows Ship’s Inquisitor Andrej Kosciusko as he tries to find his way in the Fleet and through the intrigues of the Bench, while also coming to grips with his own responses to his dual role and the toll it takes on his psyche and his family.
The stories deal extensively with nasty subject matter like slavery and war crimes, with our protagonists nominally on the Bad Side but trying to do good despite it — however much good there remains to be done after so many horrors have occurred. It’s thought-provoking and harsh, and also showcases a system on the cusp of dramatic change as characters on all sides start to question whether the Inquisition process is worth it to keep the peace.
Of course, I didn’t just read big/old series books. I also read some fairly new and even standalone stuff, such as:
Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee.
Now, this isn’t standalone; I have the second book, Raven Stratagem, sitting next to me right now, waiting for me to get through my library books first. But it was one of my first books of the year, and by far one of my favorites for its commitment to a paradigm-based universe. Basically, the people of the hexarchate have created a paradigmatic technology that is nearly akin to magic, all based on the number six. They practice mathematical military rituals that trigger changes in time and space, and use these effects in their war against the heretics who use a seven-based paradigm — which can shred, warp or disable the six-based tech on contact. The protagonist, Cheris, is nearly heretical in that she works to adapt her math-magic-tech to better counter the enemy instead of just using it by rote; the higher-ups prefer their soldiers to die while using approved methods rather than survive with unorthodox ones. She gets sent off on a suicide mission with a crazed undead warlord in tow, and ends up running face-first into the reason the hexarchate and heptarchate are at odds.
This is another SF work that deals a lot with moral concerns, though more in a political/military-philosophy vein than with the Jurisdiction books. It’s also a book where the problems feel more intractable; the hexarchy’s way of life is anathema to the heptarchy, and vice versa, to the point where they literally battle for control of the laws of the universe (within their boundaries). Very high-concept, but I’ve loved stories about clashing paradigms since I started playing Mage: The Ascension in high school or college, so I was well primed to get the most out of this book. I have high hopes for the next — maybe it’ll be on my Best Reads 2018 list.
Meanwhile, in the realm of fantasy, I enjoyed:
War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull.
This is another old book (well, relatively, as 1987 is within my lifespan so I can’t say it’s -that- old, cough cough), and is one of the earlier works of urban fantasy, before that genre exploded all over the Fantasy shelves and slowly choked the rest of the genre to death. …No, I don’t have anything against UF, why do you ask?
Look, I do like a bit of Urban Fantasy here and there. Some wizards, some vampires, sure — I’ve read a couple dozen UF. But at this point in time, the tropes feel very established, and a lot of it is UF-romance, which I’m not into. However, War for the Oaks is a great subgenre-starter. Eddi and her Minneapolis rock band full of misfit mortals and faeries have a humanity and freshness — and ignorance of current conventions — that stands out from the special-witch/half-fae/vampire-hunter/secret-agent/godling-protagonist plus boyfriends and hangers-on cast that seems to be the way of UF series these days. Part of it might be that it’s -not- a series; WftO stands alone and so doesn’t need to set up ongoing enemies or storylines, or gather a Scooby Gang to go on a chain of adventures with the super-special protagonist. It doesn’t even have a super-special protagonist! Eddi is just a musician. It isn’t a perfect book, but having read enough modern UF to be really annoyed by it as a subgenre, this was a refreshing palate-cleanser.
Now exiting the SF/F scene, we come to my favorite nonfiction book this year:
The Black Count, by Tom Reiss.
This book was equal parts amazing and infuriating, the latter not because of anything the author or the subject did but just because Napoleon Bonaparte is SUCH A PIECE OF SHIT. Yeesh. Clearly I did not have enough French history in my high school classes, because I had only a vague awareness of Napoleon as a wannabe emperor who eventually got exiled and/or defeated and/or Waterloo? Never learned enough to know how I ought to feel about him.
Oh, I know now.
The Black Count is about General Alex Dumas, the father of the better-known Alexandre Dumas — he of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, et cetera. Alex Dumas lived during a tiny window of time where a young biracial man born of a French noble and his Dominican slave-mistress could be brought to France, join the army, and ascend to a General’s rank — then fall precipitously. He’s also an amazing example of a good man in a (sometimes) bad army, a FRICKING ACTION HERO (holding a bridge single-handedly against the enemy while his comrades went for reinforcements), and the clear inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo, as he languished in prison for several years while being ignored and un-ransomed by the leader (NAPOLEON YOU CRAP-ASS) who just wanted him to go away.
Look, I have a weakness for honorable military men who get abandoned or destroyed by their awful leaders. It’s a weird fixation to have, but it runs pretty thoroughly through my choice of favorite characters. So. General Alex Dumas, you’re not forgotten.
Finally, away from war (whether SF, F or real) entirely, my favorite manga of the year ended up being:
Gin no Saji/Silver Spoon, by Hiromu Arakawa.
This one was a real surprise for me — though coming from Hiromu Arakawa, who wrote the fabulous Fullmetal Alchemist, I suppose I shouldn’t have been that surprised. But this is just totally outside my typical manga wheelhouse: a slice-of-life semi-comedy about an agricultural high school.
Never underestimate Hiromu Arakawa. She grew up in an agricultural family, and she’s got a great eye for characters and a mind for absorbing plot, so even though this story is about a city kid who applies to agricultural school as a way to become (he thinks) a top student over all those dumb farm kids, it swiftly becomes an absorbing and emotional journey through the realities of animal husbandry, modern farming practices, food production, and all the difficulties small-hold farm families go through to stay profitable and keep their land. It even adds some commentary on Euro and American farming systems — not negatively, just pointing out differences in consumer preferences and pressures in such areas as organic food and pesticide use. And all of this in a conversational style, between characters, as the students both learn from their teachers and discuss amongst themselves. These farm kids are far from stupid; their families, livelihoods and property depend on them knowing the business. The protagonist, Yugo, will have to work hard and find his own agricultural passion if he wants to keep up with his classmates.
Really good stuff.
So what’s the plan for 2018?
Well, this year my major motivation was to get more female authors into my Most Read Authors list on Goodreads. It shows you the top 100, and at the beginning of the year I think I had…ten female authors on the list. As it stands, the male/female ratio is now 74 to 26 — getting better! But still not good enough, and I’ve discovered a lot of female authors that either haven’t written more than the 6-7 book cutoff that marks my top 100, or whom I just haven’t read enough from yet. There should be a lot more movement in 2018, as I read more from Pauline M Ross, Robin Hobb, Kameron Hurley, Ann Leckie, NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Cherie Priest, and Karen Traviss — among others.
I also plan to finish out some authors’ full catalogs: Terry Pratchett, CJ Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold, to name a few.
What were your best reads this year?