The Tuesday List: New Beginnings

The coming of the new year is a time of new beginnings for a lot of people, as those of us who believe in them make resolutions and hope for positive change in the year to come.  Plenty of novels begin with a new beginning, but they’re not always as positive or pleasant as we might imagine for ourselves.  Here’s a brief list of novels featuring new beginnings in some way or another.

  1. The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

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Amnesia is its own beginning, especially when it happens over and over.  For Zan, finding the source of her lost memories may be just the start of a new world for herself and everyone in her small corner of the universe.  Along the way the reader is served up a hero’s journey of planetary proportions and plenty of gore an intrigue, as one would expect in a KH novel.

2. The Reader, by Traci Chee

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Stories are an integral part of Sefia’s world, reading itself is a skill long lost to time and empire.  But somehow a book has survived, and Sefia, on the run from the same people who pursued her parents and killed her father, is learning to read the book one slow letter at a time.  Will finally understanding the past set her free, and allow her to move forward into a future of her own making?

3. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

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Apocalypse is a special kind of beginning, and Station Eleven is one of the best executed post apocalyptic novels I’ve encountered.  It’s not just about learning to live without electricity or government, but the ways in which everything old can become new again, including art.

4. The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

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Sometimes a new beginning is an empire getting a new face, like when a kingdom of elves finds itself with a half-goblin emperor on its throne, after nearly the entire royal family was killed in a dirigible accident.  Being an outsider can sometimes be an asset, but it can also be a liability, and Maya has very little room to make mistakes.

5. Earthrise (Her Instruments #1), by MCA Hogarth

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The advent of interstellar travel didn’t do a Star Trek and get rid of capitalism, and for Reese Eddings, raised on the all-woman Mars colony, the getting beat down by fate and a series of bad trades can’t blunt her obstinate desire to explore and see everything the universe has to offer.  But eventually the money runs out, and she has to consider going home to ask her mother for help.  Until a mysterious benefactor comes through with an offer that seems to good to be true, and Reese just might get a break, after all.

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The Tuesday List: Imperialism, Boo

So this week is that favorite of holidays in the  U.S., Thanksgiving.  I say favorite because, of course, it’s predicated on the successful colonization of the North American Continent by mainly Puritan immigrants from the U.K., and therefore kind of a shitty thing to be celebrating.  Nevertheless, it persists.

In response, I’m going to try to put together a Tuesday List of books in which colonialism and imperialism are critically examined and generally come out the worse for it.  So here goes:

  1. Dominion of the Fallen books – House of Shattered Wings, House of Binding Thorns, by Aliette de Bodard

 

The setting is Paris after a magical war that all but shatters the city, and one of the main characters is a young man brought to France from Vietnam, a victim of former French colonization of Southeast Asia.  Cultures clash in these two books, between the fallen angels of the European religious landscape and the dragons of Southeast Asia and beyond.  These books deal with many topics, from intrigue and trust, to pain and resilience, to the ways in which humans use and exploit each other.

2. Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho

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Cho’s debut novel deals not only with imperialism, but with race-based slavery, as Zacharias is a former African slave, freed by his mentor when his magical abilities are revealed and held up as a superior example of his race.  On the other hand, Prunella Gentleman is the daughter of a woman of color most likely from Southeast Asia or the Pacific islands, and a white man from Europe.  Prunella’s journey deals with finding her history, while Zacharias’ is about dealing with the past that put him where he is and the present racism that keeps him from doing his job.

3. Imperial Radch series, by Ann Leckie

 

In a far future universe in which humans have solved long distance space travel and invented artificial intelligence, an empire exists whose sole purpose is to concur as many human systems as it can and bring justice, propriety, and benefit to all.  Of course, to do this the Radch must assimilate, force natives to change and accept the rule of a government far away, and above all defend its interests everywhere.  Though there are some benefits to being part of the Radch, such as an end to poverty, the loss of familiar traditions and beliefs, as well as the ways in which newly conquered systems are exploited, are at the heart of the trilogy, and among the motivations for Breq, a former ancillary in a human body who must learn to function now that she is no longer part of the massive AI of her ship.

4. A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

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Samatar’s debut novel deals with the conflicting vicissitudes of imperialism, beginning with the story of Jevick, son of a rich pepper merchant on the Tea Islands.  Jevick’s life, by colonial standards, is good, as he has access to wealth and learning, as long as he plays by rules laid out long before he was born.  But when Jevick desires to move beyond the small scope of his home islands, he learns that all the education and goodwill in the world can’t protect him from xenophobia and exploitation by powerful forces on the Olondrian mainland.  Jevick must learn to see through the glamour of knowledge and power and make his own decisions.

5. The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

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My favorite part of this novel is the steampunk workers’ revolt, where Maia, the half-goblin child of the dead emperor, finds out that the reason he ascended the throne was because a group of engineers tried to blow up the entire royal family and Maia just happened not to be on the air ship.  This novel is a well-written fantasy of manners about an outsider, half-goblin half-elf, trying to learn how to be the ruler of an empire of elves.  There’s plenty more going on, though, to make you want it to be part of a series.

 

 

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

For readers in search of a fantasy
novel that breaks from traditional high-fantasy, The Goblin Emperor provides a fresh interpretation of a lot that
has gone stale in recent years. It is the story of Maia, fourth son of the
emperor of the Elvish kingdoms, who becomes the unlikely ruler after the
emperor and his heirs are killed in an airship explosion.  Addison has built a world that deviates
from traditional high fantasy in that people rely on manners and ritual, rather
than physical strength and fighting skills.

From
a world building perspective, there’s a lot going on in this novel.  Rather than creating a setting and
letting the likes of Tolkien do the rest, Addison has imposed a social
structure and language on her world that elicits comparisons to the Elizabethan
world, to the age of the great European empires.  The novel’s elves and goblins are not the caricatures of
purity or darkness that one often finds in fantasy stories, but are instead
more like to sides of a coin.  They
have deep cultural differences that generally keep them as separate societies,
somewhat misunderstood to one another, and yet are obviously part of a shared
world history. 

Maia’s
story is that of the reluctant hero. 
Maia is good where others simply don’t consider goodness a requisite for
the right sort of life.  His is not
merely a battle of wits as stories of empire and maneuvering often are; it is a
fight for empathy where little has generally before been found.  Addison, however, walks a fine line
between the reluctant but noble ruler and a somewhat plaintive prisoner of
fate.  The novel may begin to have
a claustrophobic feel to some readers who don’t fully identify with Maia, as he
is the point-of-view character of the story.  Other characters whom he encounters seem only rough sketches
at first, often with unwieldy names and titles to remember, until they prove
themselves to Maia and he opens up to them, letting the reader find out more. 

Readers
interested in high fantasy, but not looking for a traditional heroic fantasy
story will enjoy Maia’s journey of self-discovery and fight to become a proper
emperor.  For those who love
stories with complicated mythologies and social structures, The Goblin Emperor has enough names,
titles, and belief systems to satisfy. 
Readers unexcited by traditional “elven magic” will delight in the ways
Addison has turned technology into the magic of the realm, reminiscent of the
production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as
a story of 20th-century empire building.