Since I failed to do a Best Reads for 2018, I am making a point to do one this year! Arghh! It’s probably been clear from my minimal posting that doing blog-related things is at the bottom of my list right now — which I wish wasn’t so, since I’ve enjoyed this. I just haven’t had the brain-space to devote to it. I hope to get back to it once I have the full rough draft of Book 6 hammered out and can stress a bit less.
Anyway! Since I skipped last year, I’ll add a few highlights from it, since some of them (series- or author-wise) do continue onto this year’s list. However, this was also the year where I saw some of my previously-favorite series, both old and new, trail off into things I didn’t like so much. I don’t really want to go into what I didn’t like and why, just to note this background feeling of dissatisfaction with a lot of the authors I used to favor.
All right! So this year I read (in sci-fi):
Hexarchate Stories, by Yoon Ha Lee.
Coming out the gate with some fangirl gibberish here. Looking back, I see that I blabbed about the first book in the Hexarchate trilogy in my previous Best Reads (2017), and I have only gotten more into this crazy series. I knocked out the second book, Raven Stratagem, in 2018 and the third, Revenant Gun, in very early 2019. Should have praised the series again on a 2018 post, but alas. I put myself on the pre-0rder for this short-story anthology as soon as I realized it existed (I follow Mr. Lee on Goodreads and elsewhere), but in the meantime I also read a couple of the stories that ended up being included in it both in Clarkesworld magazine issues and in other anthologies. I was rabid for more after the ending of Revenant Gun. And Hexarchate Stories did NOT disappoint me. Being this deep into the series, I can’t really say much about it that wouldn’t be massive spoilers, but on the non-spoilery side it taught me that an in-series short story doesn’t have to make outside-of-series sense. It can just be a vignette, nested among many other vignettes and scenes and novellas and other trace artifacts of a universe, for the enjoyment of readers who understand all the references without needing all the background. This helped me smash out my own short story (which I will get to posting here soon I swear, H. dammit just do it), which requires knowledge up through Book 3 but at least is out of my system. The end novella, Glass Cannon, ties up the series very nicely, leaving me a bit sad but very pleased by how it all shook out. Additionally, I read his kid-level novel Dragon Pearl (one of the benefits of having a library Day Job) and quite enjoyed that as well.
I also read:
The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells.
I charged through this set of four novellas (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy) very quickly, both because they’re short but also because they’re pull-you-along compelling. I’ve read and enjoyed Martha Wells’ fantasy before (though her characters have been hit-and-miss, and I’m very much a for-the-characters reader), but what I’d read hadn’t prepared me for this sort of security-bot rogue-AI hacking-and-unenthusiastic-espionage romp. Murderbot is a great character, making up for the thinness and shortcomings of some of the others — which is understandable as this is all about being in Murderbot’s head as it attempts to decide how it feels about humanity. Additionally, the universe it exists in belongs to the expanding roster of ethics-minded cultural- and gender-variant sci-fi universes that I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the past few years. Several other authors have leaned that way — notably Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch series) and Mr. Lee above — and I’ve seen it also reflected in fantasy, as I’ll note below. I have enjoyed it, however much the use of ‘they’ can make a sentence stumble, and have been trying to learn from it, since I also have gender-variant and gender-neutral characters who deserve more time to shine. Murderbot is definitely the star of its own show, though, and I look forward to the full-length novel expected to be out some time next year.
Next, my highlights in fantasy:
Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James.
Hargklhjfwhhhgl, insert desperate fangirl gibberish. Goddamn but it’s been a mixed-bag year, with some high 5-star items slamming the top of my list and some eagerly-awaited stuff sinking down into the depths. This one was a big surprise for me, for many reasons. There’s a scene around mid-book that is easily the NASTIEST thing I’ve read in a traditionally published novel, and made me go ‘what?? that can actually be printed?? should I stop editing my hideous monstering so much??’. I don’t think my alpha/beta readers would let me go so overboard, alas, but Mr. James handles that hideous little scene very well, so all respect to him. The story itself follows self-named Tracker through a rather Conan-era and Conan-brutal alternate Africa, full of monsters and magicians and culture-clashes and political conspiracies and…I should re-mention brutality. Because this story is harsh in every way, toward its protagonist and his comrades and his enemies and the bystanders and the few innocents and even toward the monsters. Tracker doesn’t care about the political side, he just wants to do the job, but between the enemies of his past and those determined to derail his present quest, he’s in deep shit. Beneath all that, though, it’s a story about figuring out who you are despite the wasp’s-nest of cultural strictures that try to sting you into submission. There’s also lots and lots of man-butt, so if you’re afraid of that, avert your eyes. I NEED the next one, which is evidently an alternate take on the events of the quest, from the pov of other characters. Fuck the gods, Tracker!
I also finished up:
The Broken Earth and Inheritance Trilogies (and novellas), by N. K. Jemisin.
Look. Look. Just so I don’t have to keep mentioning it, assume that I am in fangirl gibberish mode for this entire post. The Broken Earth trilogy kinda wrecked me. I knew pretty much what was coming (it was very well foreshadowed) but I still went NO! Noooooooo!!! periodically as the hammers came down. I still can’t think about this one scene without wincing. In addition to that, a lot of stuff in both trilogies cuts close to elements in my own work, so I had that piercing angst of self-comparison. Fortunately, there might have been similar aesthetics in places but they did not have similar underpinnings, and similar themes but without similar outcomes, so I don’t have to pitch myself down a well just yet. Instead I can learn, as always, about how the pros handle certain horrific story elements and consider how I might better my own work. ANYWAY. All these stories are, at base, about power and its abuses — including the abuse of those with power because of fear and hatred. They’re about brainwashing, enslavement to a hostile system, acts of desperation, the brittleness and inevitable collapse of the regime…and about families, found or otherwise, fighting sometimes amongst themselves but also struggling to persevere against the world that would crush them. The last of both series that I read, the novella The Awakened Kingdom, seems to me like the culmination of all of it (even though it’s not the last-written story). Rise and be free.
Meanwhile, in the field of graphic novels, I read:
The Electric State, by Simon Stålenhag.
This was recommended to me by a coworker, and he nailed it. Thanks Alan! This isn’t a standard graphic novel, with comic-book style panes and dialogue in speech bubbles. Instead, it has full-page images on one side and full-page text on the other, telling the story of an alternate past gone horribly wrong. Most of America has been subsumed by a sort of virtual reality nightmare, endlessly linked up to corporate towers and letting the world lapse into ruin around them. Through this rusting landscape, a girl travels to find someone important — and also a possible way out of the crumbling dystopia this world has become. Moody, oblique, and reminiscent of other VR-collapses-society stories I’ve read, it nevertheless stands out because of the deft and allusive artwork. Quite a lot of the storytelling exists in the images alone, the text providing background and context without touching on the revelations and mysteries of the visual journey. Highly recommended, and I’ll be looking into this guy’s other work.
I’m also a big manga fan, but I’ve mostly continued reading long-running series rather than started anything new this year. However, here’s a stand-out:
Cells At Work!/Code Black, by Akane Shimizu.
This series is a kind of…human biology edutainment manga, which may sound strange to Western readers — though I’m noting more educational graphic novels being printed for American kids these days — but are a long-time staple in Japan. You can get manga-style training in many a topic, from cleaning to economics to….aaaanyway. This is much more on the entertainment side, as it follows its red and white blood cell protagonists on their duties throughout the human body. Carrying oxygen to cells, removing waste — and fighting a wild array of germs, bacteria, parasites, allergens, and just general human bad habits. Wonder how the personified cells in your body react to smoking? They ain’t happy. Interested in liver function, lung function, digestion and all that business? Witness it through the struggle, grief and triumph of the billions of tiny people inside you! It may seem like an odd conceit, but it’s compelling to see the work that goes on invisibly inside of us all the time, and the extra stresses we put on ourselves without realizing it. Code Black is a spinoff of the main series, dealing with the dismal lives of the cells stuck inside a body in decline. Nastier, and with more fan-service (bleh), but either series will definitely make you look at your body and habits in a new light.
I also read a lot of nonfiction. This year’s highlight was:
Dr. Mütter’s Marvels, by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz.
I read a lot of books because they seem relevant to my characters. This biography of Thomas Dent Mütter, pioneering reparative plastic surgeon, spoke strongly to my (melodramatic jerkface) medical necromancer both for his work and for his attitude. In a time-period where patients’ suffering was considered to be just what they deserved for getting sick, Mütter not just helped repair injuries and deformities that other surgeons wouldn’t touch but also pushed forward the use of anesthetics during surgery. He was also a major proponent of STERILIZING HIS TOOLS YOU SONS OF BITCHES, during a time when that too was considered unnecessary. Energetic, enthusiastic, but doomed due to hereditary conditions, he blazed a trail through Philadelphia’s medical establishment in contrast to his great rival Dr. Meigs, who represented the old style of NOT EVEN WASHING HIS HANDS AND BEING AN OUTRIGHT ASSHOLE TO PATIENTS. AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A PROFESSIONAL? (Excuse me. Enkhaelen, get back in your box!) Even as Mütter faltered and faded, his style of medicine took hold, leaving Meigs and the old callous way to be consigned — mostly — to history. We all know that Meigs exists like a ghost in many a careless physician to this day, but so does the spirit of Mütter help us push forward with compassion and expand our ability to repair what damage and genetics might wreak upon us.
That’s it for the top tier. Finally, some Honorable Mentions:
The Wormwood Trilogy, by Tade Thompson. Strange alien dome in Nigeria becomes the centerpoint of a city, the source of strange new psychic powers, and the catalyst for a quiet war between worlds. Well…not so quiet, circa the second book. (For more alien strangeness in Nigeria, also see Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.)
The Tensorate series, by J.Y. Yang. A nonbinary silkpunk fantasy world populated by fantastical creatures both natural and created, magic and technology battling for the same niche, a leader clinging to her throne despite her rebel offsprings’ attempts to bring her down, and the eventual fall of it all. Told in short novellas, sometimes just adjacent to the main arc of the world, but interesting windows into it regardless.
Finally, the Bloodborne comics by Aleš Kot, for being feverish nightmares. I don’t even play the games, but these are….wow.
And that was my reading year in brief. Joy, disappointment, blood and madness. How about you? 😀