Meanderings and Maunderings on the Edge of Science Fiction and Fantasy
I love sff, but I don’t always read or write about it. In this world, pretty much everything’s science fiction, somehow or other.
I love sff, but I don’t always read or write about it. In this world, pretty much everything’s science fiction, somehow or other.
Alright, I’m going to do a “best of” kind of post, though nearly everything I read could be included on a best of, as I tend to be pretty picky about what I read. So I’ll break it down into a few categories, instead of just one big amalgam of reading.
Today it’s fantasy novels. Here are some of my faves from 2017. Remember, if you’re looking for awards recs, these are books I read in 2017, but I’ll include pub dates for stuff that’s from earlier.
2. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (Aug 2015)
3. The Black Tides of Heaven, by J.Y. Yang (Sept 2017)
4. The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden (Jan 2017)
5. Horizon, by Fran Wilde (Sept 2017)
Although the Season has progressed as most Seasons do–with the subtle variations wrought by how and where it began–everyone in the Stillness is slowly realizing, after the events of The Fifth Season, that, somehow, this Season is different. This Season may be the last Season. But how it will end, no one can say.
For Essun, it means finding a way to end all the Seasons, to let no one else die as she has watched so many in her life pass away from her. The tiny coincidences that bring old acquaintances back together continue in this follow-up novel, with just enough little discoveries to hint at what is really happening, but plenty of mystery still to be solved. Essun’s wanderings have ceased, in Castrima, but there is a new threat on the horizon–another Comm has decided to expand its territory and Castrima is in its path.
Essun has to learn how to work with people who know she is an orogene but don’t see the Fulcrum as the solution to orogenes, and she must find a way to solve the problem that Alabaster has brought back into her life–the question of the obelisks and what they can really do. Meanwhile, far to the south, Nassun and her father have miraculously escaped the worst of the quake and are making their way to a place Essun’s Jija thinks will somehow save Nassun.
Some of the most satisfying revelations in this novel surround the Stone Eaters and their history, as well as who is really telling this story, and why. Essun pushes closer and closer to the mystery until, finally, she reaches the solution. But of course Jemisin saves the biggest twist until the very end. Again, Jemisin’s prose stands out, blending storytelling and stark objectivity in a way that only she can. The space she allows for her characters to feel emotion–anger, sorrow, despair, and occasional joy–pull the reader in and make the story real, while her ability to twist, plot, and plan continue to impress. This is the kind of writing we should all aspire to.
Being the middle novel in a trilogy, The Obelisk Gate is where the magic happens–literally and figuratively. Though not as much happens, fewer personal histories are revealed, it is the pivot point for the story, refocusing the reader exquisitely from the ground, the bodies inhabiting and surviving and dying on it, to the sky in parallel with the people of the Stillness. Why is such a big question in this series, often asked in anger or frustration, and is, in its way, the greatest metaphor for the series. Why look at the sky when the danger is here, in the ground? Why care about that issue when there is this issue right here in front of us? We ask these questions all the time, and the novel, perhaps, is working through that with us.
I apologize, but I’m afraid this is going to be a male-heavy list this week. But then again, maybe there’s a reason for that. Anyway, I present you with some books I read, that were part of series, but which I never felt compelled to read, or didn’t finish, the next book.
This book was something about investigating an alien species, and there was a pseudo-vampire on board, brought for his super-human physical abilities. The aliens were more than they bargained for. Maybe some of the crew got home safe? Anyway, it wasn’t bad, just not compelling beyond the one reading.
2. Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson
You know, the premise and actual plot of this novel were pretty good, but I tried starting the next book in the series (both on audiobook, btw), Robogenesis, and I just couldn’t get into it. I guess it was just decent as a standalone. I would like to seek him out in future though, as he’s of Native American descent and has some interesting ideas.
3. The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen
There are slow burns, and then there are novels with a hodge-podge of things happening, but really no idea what they want to actually be. This was one of the second. Some brutality, a princess who’s “not like all the other girls,” and brief mention of a not so pseudo-medieval past in which ebooks and sundry other technology were in use. Boring.
4. A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas
Alright, I admit I read a SJM book. But in my defense, I didn’t know who she was, and there was an ARC just sitting on a shelf at my local indie, so I gave it a try. Writing was pretty bland, and the faery story felt more like author insertion that actual plotting. But now I know what I’m missing so, uh, I feel good about that, right?
5. The Summoner, by Gail Z. Martin
Also picked this up as an ARC a long, long time ago. It, and stories like it, actually inspired a novel I started working on for NaNo this year, the first time I tried it, in response to stories that feature the noble protagonist, wrongfully accused/deposed, who must venture into the wilderness, overcome superficial challenges, and for whom the plot basically builds a step-by-step to his goal. Boring.
Recently, I listened to the podcast version of Kat Howard’s story “The Green Knight’s Wife,” based on the early English tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Reading An Unkindness of Magicians made put me in mind of that story. I’m not sure what it means for a novel to be self-referential, but I think, through her short fiction, Howard has matured as a writer in a significant way since her debut novel Roses and Rot.
An Unkindness of Magicians is the story of greed, betrayal, and the price of the impossible. Played out through a magic-controlled contest called The Turning, it encompasses the events before and during a series of duels between magical Houses, the winner of which contest will reign as head of the Unseen World of magic based in contemporary New York City. The Houses–Merlin, Dee, Prospero–evoke all those fantasy stories on which we as readers have grown up, but magic, in this world, is not the whimsical force of good or mischief one finds in Harry Potter, or even the esoteric alchemy of Dee and Flamel and Shakespeare’s most famous sorcerer. Magic, in this world, cuts like a knife, and only those most willing to cut will survive.
Miranda Prospero has only recently begun putting her house in order since the death of her husband at the last turning; Laurent Beauchamps hopes to do well enough in the Turning to establish his own house; Ian Merlin switches sides for reasons only he knows. Into the fray steps a woman of unknown power, an unknown herself to the Unseen World, and yet she is obviously very familiar with it. Petty grievances will be exorcised, powerful magics unleashed, and beneath it all, trouble brews. Magicians may hide themselves from the non-magical, but someone is watching, someone knows too much. The question is, who will crack first.
Though the novel takes place over a relatively short span of time, the narrative jumps around a lot, through multiple points of view, stopping only for important events. There is no filler in this novel, which makes the plot feel even more razor sharp, colder, and unfeeling. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of feeling, only that they are left to the reader to find, rather than strung along metaphors of sentiment. Howard’s prose is sparse but, like her short fiction, precise; it evokes exactly the image it means to and is, in that way, satisfying to read. One knows, while reading this novel, that they are in the presence of an artist.
The denouement, though, leaves this reader somewhat bewildered. This is a novel of pain, of what selfishness and self-regard reap, and yet at the end of it all one wonders if there should not, in the end, be at least some healing. That the fate of the Unseen World is left in the hands of one who has suffered most at its beck is fitting, and yet does that person not deserve some amount of happiness? I suppose it is in the hands of each reader to decide.
So my in-laws gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card for my birthday. Not bad. I prefer to buy indie, but I’m not going to complain about free books. So here’s what I bought.
The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien
Between Two Thorns (Split Worlds 1), by Emma Newman
City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty
This is one of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction. The generation ship, usually huge, designed to house a colony, a society, of people for hundreds of years, often part of a pilgrimage or evacuation. Here are a few of my faves.
This series is feudalism meets genetic engineering. The exalted, angels, have been genetically modified to pilot the ship, and over the generations have become the ruling class. The unmodified are peasants, but not without their own knowledge of the huge ship that contains rivers, forests, and futuristic technology spaces. Will the two factions reach agreement? Will they find a new planet, and if they do, will they be able to live peacefully?
2. Revelation Space (3-book series), by Alastair Reynolds
I’ve written about this series before, and as I’ve said it was not only my first real introduction to the generation ship, but also to modern hard science fiction. This series deals with modified humans, kilometer-long ships with their own AI, and an alien species that once wiped out the universe and threatens to do it again if a few scientists and adventurers can’t figure out the historical clues they keep running into.
3. Noumenon, by Marina J. Lostetter
A generation ship full of clones whisks through dilated space towards a strange star cluster, there to gather research about it and then return within 300 years. And by the time they get back to earth, more than 1000 years will have passed, and will there even be anyone there to remember or care about this scientific mission?
4. An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
Humans board the great ship Matilda to escape a dying planet, but after a hundred years racial divisions have sprung up and what was once a utopic vision has turned into the enslaved and their nominal masters. Aster must discover the secrets to the energy drains that continue to threaten lives among the lowerdecks, and in doing so, can she foment a revolution that will bring justice to the enslaved?
5. The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley
Generation ships with bonus: generation planets! They’re ships, with both bio and non-biological technology, and they’re the size of planets, and they contain layers and tiers of different cultures, all the way to the center where the giant garbage collectors live, waiting for any waste to come down the chute for recycling. Zan, cursed with perpetual amnesia, wakes over and over to her lover, a secret plan she can’t remember, and knowledge that she has a mission. She must get inside another planet, but she doesn’t know how, or why.
There are many kinds of escape. Some stories tell of the escape from a dead planet, a dead end existence in which extinction is inevitable. Some novels describe the escape from childhood ignorance, or the oppression of ideas that hold back the soul. There are tales which pour into the imagination an escape from bondage or other force which dehumanizes, diminishes, plunders.
An Unkindness of Ghosts, as it happens is all of these stories, an more. From a purely narrative level, it is the story of Aster, of Q Deck, on the generation ship Matilda, 300 years from earth and yet not so far as to escape its ghosts. Just like the allegory The Cave, An Unkindness of Ghosts casts shadows of the past onto a future that is utterly unlike what we have known, and at the same time far too familiar. Aster is clever, Aster is special, Aster is exemplary, and yet Aster cannot escape the barracks, the guards, the overseers, and the constant cold of a ship whose masters care only for their own comforts and live in constant fear of a lower-class uprising.
Solomon’s masterpiece debut flips the script on familiar science fiction hero tropes, in which power is a mutable thing, a thing that can be seized, wielded, transferred. All Aster’s power lies in her mind, and in the tenuous connections she can forge between others on the margins of power. There is no hero, in this novel, only people who do their best, and those who do their worst.
In Aster’s world, words have become something else, nearly unrecognizable from their origins. Alchematics, botanarium, meema, surgeon general, these and more flow through a torrent of action and reaction, work, sleep, lockdowns, searches, doctoring, loving, living, and dying. Dead already is Aster’s mother, Lune, once a genius and now a ghost, haunting Aster through her journals and the stories others tell about her, dead soon is the Sovereign, whose symptoms somehow mirror Lune’s, 25 years ago, before she went, and may hold the secret to freeing Matilda.
With hints of Snowpiercer, touches of The Underground Railroad, and kinship with Who Fears Death, this novel is a necessary addition to contemporary science fiction, a conflagration of things lost and found and maybe, just maybe, hope.