SFF Books of 2017 I’m Excited to Read

Bear with me, these may not all be from this year, but I’m still excited for them!  I’m really bad with deadlines/pub dates.

  1. The Ship Beyond Time, by Heidi Heilig

The characters of The Girl From Everywhere really stuck with me, and I loved the way she plotted this time travel fantasy (I’m kind of a sucker for time travel), so I will definitely be checking out this sequel.  Plus the cover art!

2. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells.

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This novel has gotten awesome reviews from SFF fans I trust.  Plus it’s got robots, in space, with snark.  What’s not to love?

3. Provenance, by Ann Leckie.

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I finally acquired Ancillary Sword, which I mean to read soonish, and I loved Ancillary Justice for more reasons I can express in this teeny space, so anything she writes is on my auto-TBR list.

4. Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly.

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This novel makes me think fantasy noir roaring twenties.  It came out early in the year, but crops up on my Twitter feed from time to time, and every time I’m reminded I need to read this novel!

5. The Stone in the Skull, by Elizabeth Bear

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Bear is one of my favorite authors, in any genre, and this novel is set in the same world as the Eternal Sky trilogy, only taking place in a different kingdom.  Her superior skill with narrative and character make Bear both versatile and readable, as she’s published in multiple sub-genres, both in short and long fiction formats.

 

So that’s just a taste of what I’m looking forward to reading from this year.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty  more to add to this list before the year’s out!

Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer

When you live life in the sun, in the canopy of the great trees, your biggest fear is falling. Or so Unar thought, when she left her home to become a servant in the garden of Audblayin, one of the twelve deities of Canopy. She ran from a life of poverty, only to learn that even in the lap of birth and fertility, rot can fester.

Unar believes she has a destiny, and that despite her mistakes she can earn a place of power and authority in Audblayin’s Garden, and perhaps change things for the better. Unar is one of those rare unlikeable heroes that the reader can’t quite bring herself to root for, but nevertheless follows after curiously, just to see what the young woman will make of herself. She has real internal conflicts and occasionally does stupid things, for all the world just like the teenager she would otherwise be if not for her gift with growing things and ability to manipulate plants to her will. She’s selfish and often infuriatingly mercurial, but she also has a hard-learned sense of justice that will speak strongly to a lot of readers.

Beneath the unique setting of this novel, Daiyer has laced her story with layers of allegory and metaphor, which are its real driving force. What is the nature of godhood and why are the deities of the great forest so complicated? What is the long history that led to some people living in the canopy while others suffer and toil lower down, or even in the swamps at the feet of the great trees?   Slavery is a key point in the novel, and Daiyer’s treatment of it has its thought provoking moments, but even when it seems just a plot device her characters never waiver from being fully personified with agency and motivations of their own.

Readers who enjoy idea-driven speculative fiction will be pulled in by social and cultural world building of this novel. Those looking for a vivid and intriguing new fantasy series will like the unique physical world building. Daiyer has written a series debut that is by turns gripping and thought-provoking, and that bodes well for the next installment.

The Poison Eater, by Shanna Germain

In an isolated city in the middle of a vast desert, Talia waits, scraping together the vestiges of a normal life, friends, loved ones, knowing every day that it could be her last. When the moon comes, Talia must take the poison, and hope she survives.  But survival, sometimes, is the worst thing a person could experience. Especially when no one else does.

Having escaped the mire of the Blackweave, Talia has come to Enthait seeking a new life, or simply to die in another place, one not so full of memories.  What she didn’t expect was to find life, not simply a place to live, and people about whom she cared more than her own life.  It is a familiar story with a new ring to it, thanks to the steady hand of Germain, who imagines a fantastic city full of half-forgotten lore and amazing techanical creations, created by humans and creatures alike who have made Enthait their home.

Germain’s realization of Enthait is vivid, to the point that the reader can taste the dust in the air and murmurs of a living city like bees buzzing around the hive, and her ability to twist a story round history and half-dreamed memories builds the kind of novel that is tantalizingly missing just the right pieces to pull the reader in until the end.  The Poison Eater is written in third person limited, clinging close to Talia’s thoughts and feelings in a way that compliments the bleak and beautiful aspects of Enthait and Talia’s new life.

Readers who enjoy their fantasy and science fiction together need look no further than the mech-enhanced cast of characters in this alt-world fantasy story.  Like the work of Kameron Hurley, this novel is bleak, full of tough-as-nails women willing to do what they must to survive, yet tells a universal story that many fantasy fans will relate to.  Anyone who likes fantasy that hides far more than it tells will be intrigued by the mythology of Enthait and the mysterious and terrible Vordcha from which Talia is running.

Cloudbound, by Fran Wilde

Life in the sky means always looking upwards, always being ready to take flight; the greatest danger is falling, the greatest fear being weighted down.  But as Nat and Kirit discover, always moving up can also mean leaving things behind.  Life in the City is ruled by tradition, with everyone following the Laws for the betterment of the City.  But now the Spire is cracked, the Singers cast down, and the lore that they carefully guarded for generations is at risk of being forgotten in the name of progress.

In Cloudbound, Wilde builds upon the culture and history she only hinted at in Updraft.  Before, Kirit and Nat were revolutionaries, bent on revealing a horrible secret.  Now they must try to put the City back together after cracking open the Spire to reveal all the horrors it has held to itself, in the name of law and order.  But they are finding that heroes can be forgotten, when those seeking power come up with another truth that fits, or when the truths those heroes had to tell become inconvenient.

Cloudbound takes all the wonder of new and strange worlds expressed in Golden Age science fiction and breathes new life into it with a story of love, friendship, and community.  Living bone towers climb through sky meadows, stretch their way through the clouds themselves, illuminated in the foggy darkness by bioluminescent creatures.  But instead of Earth explorers coming to a new planet, the people of the City have their own story of exploration, revolution, and discovery.

Readers who enjoy second world fantasy that is just as smart as it is imaginative will love Wilde’s mysterious and skybound world.  Anyone looking for a novel that picks up the pieces of revolution and builds an entirely new narrative should dive straight into Updraft and then into Cloudbound.  Wilde has achieved the ambitions of Golden Age science fiction in blending science, exploration, and story in a way that will fascinate and excite.

Neither Here Nor There, by Cat Rambo

Dip into the many worlds of Cat Rambo in this collection of short stories, many originally published in themed anthologies, all glimpses into fantastic worlds of myth, legend, and memory.  Will you find yourself in the world of a hyper-intelligent mechanical man who runs on the energy of highly valuable phlogiston?  Or in the city of Serendib where anything is possible, trailing along in the wake of the Dark, once the most skilled assassin in all the world?  Or in another place entirely?

Whimsy connects these stories, no matter where they take the reader, even in the darkest haunts and most disturbing recesses of the human mind.  Rambo writes as though storytelling truly were a joy and a gift, reveling in the possibilities of fantasy and folklore.  Many of her stories are connected by the worlds in which they take place, such as the steampunk environment of Elspeth and Artemus, Pinkerton detectives seeking criminals in a world of werewolves, vampires, and other supernatural creatures.  In stories such as these, the everyday turns to horror; in other stories what is accepted is subverted—common points of view are turned inside out and power lies with those not usually given such luxury.

In Neither Here Nor There, Rambo shows skill in writing more mythic fantasy, distanced from the real world by both time and the pervasiveness of the fantastic, but also with more contemporary urban fantasy; such stories as “The Coffeemaker’s Passion,” “Elections at Villa Encantada,” and “So Glad We Had This Time Together” share a fascination with the mundane and prove that any story can become a fantasy story, with the right measure of imagination and skill. Rambo’s writing is reminiscent of such writers as Katherine Addison, Elizabeth Bear, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Catherynne M. Valente.

Readers looking for short bursts of high-concentration fantasy need look no further than Rambo’s newest short story collection.  Those who enjoy a wide variety of fantasy genres are sure to find their next favorite story in Neither Here Nor There.  This collection is a gift that keeps on giving, and would make a great addition to anyone’s fantasy shelf.

Bring Your Ladies Down to Camelot

“Beautiful women rarely work strong magic.” In the Night Garden, Cat Valente

They cross’d themselves, their stars they blest,
Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest.
There lay a parchment on her breast,
That puzzled more than all the rest,
      The wellfed wits at Camelot.
‘The web was woven curiously,
The charm is broken utterly,
Draw near and fear not,—this is I,
      The Lady of Shalott.’

The Lady of Shalott, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

This is going to be an odd one, so just bear with me.

Two things happened recently: I’ve been reading Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden and I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (MBFGW2).

MBFGW2 was nothing to get excited over.  I laughed at the funny stuff, cringed a bit at the overly gendered stuff, and was suitably heart-warmed at the revelation that one of the over-masculine male cousins is gay and has a long-term partner and his family is totally cool with it (and kinda knew all along but were waiting for him to feel comfortable telling them).  

As you might expect, it’s the cringe-y stuff I’m going to talk about today, mostly because all the gendered stuff was really, ridiculously focused on female gender expression and the idea that all women want, and ought to want, to be considered pretty.  One of the things I enjoyed about the first film was the fact that Toula’s “transformation” was as much an emotional, intellectual journey as it had anything to do with her changing how she looked.  

So let’s go ahead and talk about that in terms of something completely unrelated–two things, actually–Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott and Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden.  My Big Fat Greek Wedding had a bunch of stuff about how women ought to present themselves, but it also had a lot of women with different interests and roles within their own lives and families.  Toula was the odd one because she had no particular role; she was merely a follower, going along with whatever her parents said because the idea of pushing her own agenda was too… let’s just go with too much, at this point.

So, the Lady of Shalott lives up in a tower, Rapunzel-style, except there isn’t a prince to rescue her.  There is no rescue at all, in fact, because there is a curse that keeps her locked up in this tower, looking down on Camelot and everything it represents.  It is a beautiful tower, to be sure, but the Lady of Shalott has no real time to dwell on it, or enjoy it, because she has a web she must weave, never stopping, all her life, lest the curse fall on her.

Of course, there are numerous ways that this poem may be interpreted, but juxtaposed with the freedom and unadulterated beauty of Lancelot, one possible way to look at this is from the angle of female beauty, and expressions of female gender.  The Lady of Shalott is trapped in a tower she can never leave because she is doomed to weave a web–a maze of misdirection used to trap the unwary–for her entire life and giving up on it is life-ending for a Lady.

Many people like to look on the legends of Camelot–and, later, Robin Hood–as whimsical fantasy stories.  The Once and Future King is a notable example of this, not necessarily because the novel itself is whimsical–it can be read as extremely foreboding and pessimistic at times, in fact–but because our collective memory of it is influenced by Disney animated films and Richard Gere and all manner of modern stories based on those old tales.  

The Morte d’Arthur would seem to say it all though.  The Death of Arthur.  The story of how a great king comes to be and then dies, and the treachery that can be wrought because of so many uncrossable boundaries and unknowable truths.  The stories of Arthur may have been accepted as taking place in the distance past–to the Medieval poets who wrote them–but the stories were mired in the mores of the time, particularly the rules of the court and the demands of chivalry–by which I don’t mean simply holding open doors occasionally when you want to get brownie points for being not all men.

Men and women both, in Medieval France and England, were constrained by gender norms, but men at least could go out into the world.  Their expression was active; women’s was passive, could be no more than that.  The Lady of Shalott was a thing in a tower to be looked at, whose appearance in a boat at the foot of Camelot was so perplexing to the brightest of the court because she was not sitting, stationary, performing her feminine deceptions.  She was only herself, unadorned.  She had crossed an inscrutable boundary, and was in turn punished.

Toula, when the audience first meets her in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is in a different sort of tower, and one of her own making.  She lacks the confidence–for reasons that won’t be discussed here–to participate in the world around her.  Toula is the unknown quantity that the Lady of Shalott becomes when she has left her tower, she is presented as a monstrous woman, untouchable and alien to everyone, including other women.  This is where fantasy and fiction diverge.  Toula is part of a fictional world that can only mirror the world of the audience.  Her transformation, her decision to transform, is what gives her the power to become.

In Valente’s In the Night Garden, an astounding work of fantasy, it is the monstrous women, the ugly women, the women who don’t participate in the mores of feminine beauty, who have power.  Toula is intelligent and quick no matter what she looks like, but in the world of the film, she can’t find her power until she takes the step to interrogate beauty and its norms.  Until she confronts the monster in the mirror, the rest of the world isn’t able to see her either.  

I’ve always seen Toula’s transformation as more empowering than conforming, however there are plenty of issues inherent in the Cinderella story.  At the very least, Toula is shown experimenting with expressions of femaleness, rather than simply buying wholesale into the form she’s been familiar with her entire life.  She finds a level of expression with which she’s comfortable, and that meets her needs.  The web she weaves begins to free her from her lack of agency, instead of keeping her imprisoned.  But like all transformation stories, it can’t help but expose the fact that women are not seen until they look like women, that identity is still conflated with expression, and that the only power one has is in conforming.

The women of In the Night Garden often live outside society, sometimes come to violent ends, or are imprisoned by those who wish to take their powers, but in all of the tales, these monstrous, ugly, unfeminine women have agency, have a story to tell, and are an integral part of the greater tale.  The payoff of reading In the Night Garden is not the tiny stories that make up the greater whole–which never resolve themselves without outside help from other stories–but getting to the end and finding out how the lives of the many women carry through like bright lines to the end of the tale, how they interconnect, how they burn more brightly the more the reader dips into the world of the novel.

Then there’s MBFGW2, in which the lives of Toula and her extended family are revisited 20 years after the first film.  Everyone is older, except Paris who wasn’t born yet and is now a bright young–pretty–woman getting ready to leave her parents and go off to college.  And great care is taken in the film to emphasize how old the women are, how much they have changed, and how little they want to admit it.  

This time, Toula is ugly because she is participating too much.  She has forgotten how to perform womanhood because she is too busy being a mother–to both her daughter and to her parents.  It was an interesting concept at first, until the constant emphasis on how Toula looked overwhelmed whatever other sentiments the film may have been trying to express.  Her husband was pulling away from her, her daughter wouldn’t trust her, until she magically brushed her hair, and put on makeup and a fancy dress.  Then Toula somehow became assertive, confident, and with that gained a new desirability to society that allowed her to have stronger relationships with people.  

The juxtaposition of these stories raises compelling questions not only about the demands of beauty and societal expectations of gender expression, but about the nature of engaging with those questions at all.  How close should a work of fiction mirror the real world, especially if it intends to interrogate questions like how women are controlled through gendered behavior?  And how does one engage in discussions such as these with those so baffled by woman’s free expression that she would prove wholly inscrutable to their own inestimable wit?  

In the Night Garden, by Catherynne Valente

In
the most perfect garden in the world, a place of planned and controlled beauty,
a girl tells a boy tales, the kind that tell the story of what happens off the
beaten path, in the wilderness of life. 
She tells tales of monsters and princesses, and sometimes, monstrous
princesses.  She tells the story of
a world through the tales that the world has created.  She tells the story of life, the kind of life the boy would
give up nearly anything to hear.

Structured
as layers of lives, each creature encountered telling their own story, blending
with the overall tale the young girl whispers at night to the lonely boy,
Valente builds a world.  Rarely
does one encounter such a vivid world, or characters who shine so brightly,
with so little exposition.  Though
different cultures and creatures war with each other, each aspect of this world
blends together to create a tapestry of beliefs, peoples, lives, and deaths.  It is a complex ecosystem where a
single action, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time, can have great
ramifications for hundreds of years.

Valente’s
writing is stylized in the way of fairy tales, but also simple.  The narrative does not shy away from
what is ugly, or horrible.  It does
not shrink from the overwhelming ambition that leads sons to kill their
fathers, or that leads wizards to turn young women into deformed creatures in a
quest for immortality.  It also
allows the small and forgotten to forge a place of significance through
bravery, honesty, and every good quality that is best exemplified by the
insignificant.  It is a masterful
piece of storytelling.

Readers
who enjoy stories of the ‘once upon a time’ variety will find themselves
spellbound by Valente’s ever-spiraling tales.  Those who like fantasy that pushes the limits of
storytelling and world building will enjoy these tales that have so much to say
in so few words.  Anyone looking
for a complex narrative that combines a rich tapestry of folk and fairy tales
need look no further than In the Night
Garden
.