2017 Faves: Fantasy Novels

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.

  1. The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig (Feb 2016)

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2. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (Aug 2015)

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3. The Black Tides of Heaven, by J.Y. Yang (Sept 2017)

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4. The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden (Jan 2017)

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5. Horizon, by Fran Wilde (Sept 2017)

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The Tuesday List: Not So Medieval

Hurrah, it’s Tuesday again.  This week I’ve got some great SFF that’s alternative world without being based on the usual pseudo-medieval template that so many stories seem to rely on.  Take a look, and let me know what non-medieval fantasy you enjoy!

  1. The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

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The same could be said of The Fifth Season, the first in the Broken Earth series, as well, however The Obelisk Gate is where the world building really picks up, for me.  This series is a breath of fresh air, when it comes to imagining civilizations, using a form of proto-communism in which, when Season law is declared, every citizen of a community has a specific role, determined by their particular physical and intellectual traits, that is meant to help the community survive the deadly season caused by earthquakes and other tectonic miseries, which are so common on this unsteady continent called the Stillness.  Also the writing is, as always, amazing, and everyone needs to read this series.

2. The Bone Universe (series), by Fran Wilde

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Imagine a city in the sky, consisting of bone towers rising ever above the clouds, and people who move between the towers on wings made of silk.  Then imagine an ancient lore, passed down for generations in song, because the weight of books is dangerous and ephemeral.  Again, this is a story in which community is incredibly important, and is so interesting because of the conflicts that arise when tradition and change collide.

3. The Black Tides of Heaven (novella), by J.Y.  Yang

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Part of a duology, this novella imagines a world that, first of all, is reminiscent more of ancient Chinese or Southeast Asian civilizations and, second of all, is full of a magic called the Slack, which is used to perform many of the technological feats we take for granted today, but differently.  Also, it’s a world in which gender is both fluid and self-determined; people in the Tensorate choose their gender, when they want to, and then have it confirmed by society, rather than the other way around.  The characters and their motivations are compelling, a familiar story of children rebelling against a tyrant parent, but explored in new ways.

4. Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

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Though not explicitly stated, Binti comes from a tribal, semi-desert civilization which is reminiscent of some western African settings.  Of course, this is a future earth, and so it’s just as easy to imagine a post singularity future in which people of African descent are the dominant civilizations as it is people of North American or European descent.  That said, Binti comes from a world of space-farers, people who regularly travel across the galaxy and further for trade, education, and leisure.  Binti is leaving her homeland to go to Oomza University, an entire planet set up for education.  She deals with tribal beliefs that have to do with belonging and leaving, as well as the prejudices of outsiders, and then the added conflict of an alien species attempting to hijack her space ship.  It’s a great beginning to a novella trilogy and entirely refreshing in its world building and point of view.

5. Eternal Sky (trilogy), by Elizabeth Bear

I talk about Elizabeth Bear a fair amount; she’s one of my favorite writers.  This trilogy is both well-written and encompasses a world that, while having many of the same features as more familiar pseudo-medieval settings, is instead based on a Eurasian steppe/Middle East empire civilization.  It holds a particularly close place in my reading heart because it reminds me so much of the year I lived in Astana, Kazakhstan, surrounded by artwork that could practically have sprung from imagery in these novels.  It’s about a young man whose uncle attempts to wrest his birthright from him, and a princess-turned-wizard, who come together in unlikely circumstances to save the world.  Also there are horse, and a species of Cheetah people, and giant eagles.  Every novel needs giant eagles.

Maybe I’ll do a Tuesday List of giant eagle books next.

Happy reading!

The Tuesday List: Give Me My Amazing Action Film Series and No One Gets Hurt

But seriously, how did we get a Power Rangers remake before any of these brilliant series got make into films?

  1. Russell’s Attic, by SL Huang.  The story of math genius Cass Russell, who takes jobs and doesn’t ask too many questions, except when things start to get personal.  This series takes place mostly in Los Angeles, features a hard drinking, tough, loner, math whiz protagonist, and keeps the action going on every page.
  2.  Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott.  Empire, class, and privilege are the backdrop for this series about a young woman trying to do what she loves while following the stifling rules of her family society.  The Fives is a competition of strength, stamina, and skill, with competitors trying for a chance at fame, fortune, and the ruler’s favor.

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3. The Bone Universe, by Fran Wilde.  People living in bone towers in the sky, who get around by flying on beautiful and intricate wing sets.  Intrigued yet?  Oh, and they have a fascinating history, society, and then everything goes wrong and the two main characters, Kirit and Nat, must infiltrate basically everywhere and figure it out, and possibly save the whole world.

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4. Bel Dame Apocrypha, by Kameron Hurley. On an alien world, probably far in the future, a centuries-long war between two nations ruled by the same religion, but with radically different interpretations of it, featuring bug science, magic, and lots of assassination.

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5. Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds.  The only novel that’s not part of a series (yet, as far as I know, though GoodReads seems to want to believe otherwise), this novel is part steampunk, part Victorian values, all space adventure.  Featuring two sisters who run away from home to escape their father’s oppressive household and head straight into danger and adventure on a ship that makes its way by cracking open Baubles–long lost planets full of treasure–and selling them back in civilization.

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Top 5 Wednesday: 7/26/17

Series That Got Better

This is my first attempt at a group themed post, so here goes.  Mostly I picked it because I had a particular series I’d been wanting to talk about for ages.

118368  Top 5 Wednesday was created by Booktuber Gingerreadslainey, and the guidelines can be found on the Top 5 Wednesday GoodReads group.

 

1. Crown of Stars, by Kate Elliott

This series is very important to me as a fantasy reader.  Before I discovered it, I’d read the likes of Tolkien and Robert Jordan’s immense Wheel of Time series, and some other epic fantasy, but Crown of Stars was the first series I ever read where each book got better than the one before (and it’s seven books long), where the planning and research that went into these books showed with every plot twist, and where the series came to a satisfying and logical conclusion.  It was, in short, the series that made me realize that long fantasy series can get better.  They don’t have to start out with a cool idea and then just sort of peter out with more and more tenuous plot strings.

This series follows the stories of Liath, an orphan trying to discover her own history, Sanglant, mixed race son of the king trying to prove his worth, and a host of secondary characters representing the various kingdoms and races in conflict within this series.  The main drivers of the world are a monarchy reminiscent of the medieval monarchies of Europe (with corresponding technology and trade), a religion reminiscent of early Christianity, and overtones of imperialism and superstition that make these somewhat primitive nation states aggressive and riddled with domestic issues.

The thing that makes this series so great (and pretty much any series Elliott has written) is that she doesn’t lay all the major conceits and awesome ideas on the table in the first book.  She doles them out slowly for the reader to discover one at a time and add to their shiny collection of ideas and curiosities, to ponder over even while the drama of the story unfolds.  Also, Elliott is great at writing characters and subverting well-known fantasy tropes.

2. Eternal Sky, by Elizabeth Bear

Bear has written a lot of series, in a lot of subgenres of both fantasy and science fiction, so it’s no wonder, really, that her most recent trilogy should be her most successful.  In this story of an alternate universe where the stars and sky change depending upon which empire rules–and therefore which belief system rules–Temur, grandson of the Khan, who ruled the nomadic tribes of what could be Central Asia, and Samarkar, once-princess and now wizard of the Rasan Empire, must work together to stop a powerful sorcerer and his cult of death who wish to bring about the return of a god long thought destroyed and change the sky forever.  It’s a broadly sweeping story that gallops along like the horses so prized in Temur’s culture, that remixes the mythologies of various ages and cultures into something like them, but not.

I have to admit a lot of my enjoyment of this series comes from nostalgia over the year I spent in Central Asia, and how much reading these books reminded me of the endless steppes and towering mountain ranges, and of the feeling that the sky really could go on forever.

3. Bone Universe, by Fran Wilde

This series isn’t actually finished–book 2, Cloudbound, just came out last fall–but it is such an adventurous and unique series that I had to include it. The first book, Updraft, follows Kirit as she attempts to find her place in the sky-bound world of bone towers and rope bridges that make up the City.  In doing so, though, she make shake the foundations of everything her people hold dear.

Cloudbound takes place in the aftermath of Kirit’s discoveries, with citizens attempting to rebuild and look higher, always higher, but it becomes more and more apparent to Kirit and her friend Naton that they must look down, backwards, into the history that made their civilization.  This book took such a hard left turn at the end that I didn’t know quite what to think, but it reminded me of the Golden Age science fiction that so many people seem to be nostalgic about, the sense of wonder those authors had at the ability to create whole new worlds and universes, that I can’t help but include it in this list and look forward to the third and final installment of this trilogy.

4. Inheritance, by N.K. Jemisin

This series follows a world, and a pantheon of gods, more closely than it does a particular group of characters, which I think is a large part of why I liked it so much and why it improves with each book.  It’s a story that doesn’t stagnate, that doesn’t get bogged down in details or how characters continue to navigate in a world of fixed rules or magic or belief.  The first book follows Yeine and the ways in which she comes to terms with the gods who have made the world what it is, and, perhaps, subvert a system that has been dying under its own weight for generations.

The next book, though, barely remembers Yeine, and is instead the story of Oree, and artist who has come to live in Shadow, beneath the great city of Sky, in the shadow of the world tree that grew as a result of Yeine’s actions in the previous book.  Oree has her own encounters with the gods, must come to terms with the ways in which the world has changed since Yeine’s time, and what it means for her.  And finally, book 3, The Kingdom of Gods, is told from the point of view of one of those gods, returning to the royal city of Sky and the family that held onto power there for so long.  Again, this series is about moving forward by accepting the past, and Jemisin’s imagination and reinterpretation of creation mythology is top notch.

5. Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds

For m last series I’m going to a hard science fiction trilogy that’s also written by possibly my favorite male sf author.  This series gets better, I think, because of Reynold’s ability to imagine such far futures, when huge ships traveling close to the speed of light almost create separate timelines and humans and aliens alike modify their bodies in order to cope with the rigors of deep freeze and changes in gravity that come with long duration space journeys.  The story, again, is not told from one perspective through all three books, or in a completely chronological progression.  Instead, it is just as much mystery as it is space opera, and the reader collects the pieces of how an ancient alien culture was annihilated almost instantly, and whether it could happen again.  I like that Reynold’s doesn’t agonize over the question of whether aliens could exist and dither over first contact stories, but gets down to the business of crafting a story around people the reader can identify with, and setting up the possibility-laden concepts of aliens so completely different from everything we know that every discovery is not just a curiosity, but a revelation.

I’m also including this series because Reynolds is a writer I’ve followed for a number of years and I’ve enjoyed watching him consistently improve as a writer with each new novel, each new series.  I don’t read a lot of men, but I’ll always check out whatever he comes up with.

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.

Updraft, by Fran Wilde

Wilde’s debut novel, Updraft,
is a wild ride through a unique and compelling world of sky and wind and
danger.  Kirit Densira is preparing
for her final tests which will determine her path into adulthood, but there are
undercurrents to her life that threaten to push her over the edge and into a
world utterly different than anything she has known growing up.

In
the City, everyone lives on impossibly high towers above even the clouds, and
most people travel by flying from one tower to the other on carefully crafted
wings of silk and bone.  People
obey the laws and keep to their places, because that is what makes the City
strong and keeps people safe.  Updraft, beyond being a twisting
coming-of-age novel about a strong-willed young woman, is a well-crafted
interrogation of concepts of right and wrong, law, authority, and knowledge.  It brings to mind epic fantasy stories
in which evil is abetted by the silence and inaction of the just, while also
evoking the more freeform or complicated fantasy worlds created by writers like
N.K. Jemisin, K.J. Parker, or Ursula K. Le Guin.

Kirit’s
only desire is to be a trader like her mother, and it is regard for her mother
that sets her on her path, leading to laws breaking and worse, until she is
sucked into the very center of secrets she never could have imagined.  It is only through courage and a
willingness to understand the marginalized and powerless that Kirit is able to
help make changes.  Kirit is a
refreshingly unlikable character at times, seeming spoiled and impatient, but
she learns to find both her better self and to see through to the truth of her
world.  Updraft is a triumph not only of world building and storytelling,
but of empathy and family.  Updraft takes the best of heroic stories
like The Lord of the Rings and
tempers their oppressive focus on honor and goodness with a realism and
pragmatism that is at times visceral. 
The reader encounters many characters, but all of them are well-realized
and never feel as though they have been created just to advance the plot.  Everything has weight in this novel,
even the smallest of characters and actions.

Updraft is a fast-paced story that will
appeal to readers of fantasy looking for unique plot and world building.  Though the “deep secrets revealed”
narrative form is recognizable, Wilde’s characterization and relationships are
compelling enough to spark new life into an oft-used form and keep readers
interested from beginning to end.  Updraft is the kind of fantasy novel
that is satisfying as a standalone, but also makes one wish for a sequel to
delve deeper into this fascinating world and history.