Welcome to Smugglivus 2011! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2011, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2012.
Who: Nora (N.) K. Jemisin, the multiple Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy award-nominated author! Ana fell in love with her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Thea did too), shooting the lovely Ms. Jemisin to the top of our Smuggler Favorite Authors list.
Recent Work: Nora is the author of the Inheritance Trilogy: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of the Gods.
Give it up for Nora, ladies and gents!
I haven’t had a ton of time to read this year. Cranking out five novels in a 3-year span will do that to a girl. Still, partly because my reading time is so limited, I’m very quick to discard a book if it doesn’t capture me immediately — so what’s listed here are the books that have swallowed me whole and only occasionally let me out for fresh air before swallowing me again. Consider everything here massively recommended, in no particular order.
And if there’s one perk of being a published author that I shamelessly take advantage of, it’s getting my hands on the good stuff early. So apologies in advance, but this list contains a lot of stuff that’s not out yet. More for you to anticipate!
Kate Griffin’s The Neon Court
First up is the latest in the Matthew Swift chronicles, a magnificent urban fantasy series from UK author Kate Griffin that started in 2009. (The series starts with A Madness of Angels; this is book 3.) I really don’t understand why this series hasn’t gotten more attention; the books have all the fun of the Dresden Files but are written with Mievillian (yeah it’s a word ’cause I made it up) magnificence of prose, and a level of imagination that I think is just pure Griffin herself. In this latest outing, Matthew Swift — itinerant and essentially homeless urban sorcerer who also happens to house a couple of other entities beneath his rather hapless skin — must stop a war between magical gangs in London. But meanwhile he also has to save his frenemy, the sorcerer-hating assassin Oda, who seems to be transforming into an entity of her own… and threatening to take all of London with her.
I love these books. For serious: I went to London last year to visit relatives, and while I was there I did my own personal “Matthew Swift” tour of the city. I love Griffin’s elegaic, brutal prose. I love the wildly imaginative magic; for example, in this book Matthew’s apprentice teleports him out of danger using postage stamps — yeah, she mails him with magic. Speaking of Matthew’s apprentice Penny, I love that these books are full of the true diversity of London — ethnically, racially, economically, and otherwise. Penny is not a background character, and she’s not a “sidekick”, there solely to reflect the hero’s brilliance. Oda is beautifully badass, as sympathetic as she is frightening — a real person, like so many of the women in these books. This is urban fantasy that defies the cliches and dubsteps all over the formulas. Book 4 (The Minority Council) is due out in March, and I’m already driving my editor nuts to try and get a copy.
Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker Series
(Note to self: avoid overuse of phrases like I LOVE THIS.)
I — uh. Hmm. OK. I like these books with the fiery ferocity of ten thousand raging volcanoes. Hope that gets the point across.
So, take the standard formula for European history. Usually consists of classical history (Greeks and Romans, Hannibal crossing the Alps, etc.) + some Dark Ages and stuff + colonialism + some wars and stuff. In this case, subtract everything after the classical era, replace the Europe-dominating-the-world colonialism with Africa-dominating-Europe colonialism, and multiply by spirit-world-dominating-real-world colonialism. Remember to factor the stuff in parentheses first: Malian mysticism times Celtic mythology dialed up to eleven. Then change “Europe” to “Europa” ’cause it ain’t the same anymore, add fire and ice magic, and shake (don’t stir).
The result is an utterly cracktastic cocktail in which an intrepid young woman must face off against tyranny in both the real and spirit worlds while trying not to fall in love with her husband-by-arranged-marriage and also dealing with her crazy relatives, one of whom is a horny were-cat. (Sabretooth, specifically.) If that’s not enough to interest you, try this: Warrior maidens! Hilariously vain well-dressed men! Napoleon (sorta)! Taino political drama! (Actually there’s all kinds of political drama.) Zombies! Griots! STUFF! BLOWING! UP!!!
Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura
I always want to bust out LL Cool J when I think about Martha Wells: Don’t call it a comeback/I’ve been here for years. Wells has had a long and distinguished career up to this point… and to my shame and horror, I never heard of her before this book. But that’s OK, because this book hooked me like a hooky thing and I’m now a raging fan. Next year, I imagine, I’ll have some of her older books to recommend.
But let me tell you about that moment of hook. I was stuck on a long flight from one country or another — France, I think — cranky, jetlagged, bored mindless. I’d bought the ebook of The Cloud Roads after reading a sample chapter and deciding it might be sufficient to keep me awake on the flight, but not really hoping for more than that. I started reading — and then suddenly, irritatingly, I was in New York and had to stop reading so I could get off the plane. WTF, who told the pilot to land? I wasn’t finished.
This is the kind of fantasy that made me start writing fantasy. I don’t mind the usual vaguely-historical-Europe setting — see above rave re Kate Elliott — but what I truly treasure about this genre is its potential to go, well, where no one has gone before. The science fictional allusion is apt here because there’s a skiffy quality to the worldbuilding: none of the people in the Three Worlds are human. (Wells uses a deceptively simple storytelling style that emphasizes their alienness in subtle ways while keeping them otherwise “human” and easily relatable.) What makes it solidly fantasy is that magic is plausibly built into everything: the ecology, the societies, the technology, the characters’ daily lives. It’s epic fantasy, but the stakes are nothing so paltry as the fate of a kingdom. Even as Moon and his people struggle to survive, they do so amid the ruins of dozens of other civilizations which have failed and whose people have gone extinct. It’s a deliciously Darwinian epic fantasy that reminds me a little of C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood series, multiplied by Miyazaki’s Nausicaa. And if that sounds awesome to you, that’s because it is.
I pestered the author ’til she let me read an advance copy of the second book, The Serpent Sea, which is due out in January, and I’m happy to report that it’s even better — the politics of empire writ in tooth and claw, delightfully twisty gender role shenanigans, a gaslight city on the back of a floating leviathan. Better still, Wells is working on the third book! I’m trying my damnedest not to hover around her blog and ask every 5 minutes, “Is it done yet? Is it? Huh? And can I see it when it is?” ‘Cause that would be, y’know, creepy.
Delia Sherman’s THE FREEDOM MAZE
I confess I don’t read many books in the middle grade range, and I don’t usually feel qualified to talk about them as a result. But I’m recommending this one because it wowed me, never mind who its target audience is.
I’m a New York girl these days, but I grew up in the American South — Alabama and Louisiana, specifically. Most families there have some version of this in their history: the child whose skin color hints at an unwanted intrusion somewhere in the lineage, sometimes generations forgotten, sometimes just the (figurative) other day. In my own case it was my great grandmother, who had blue eyes and straight hair and never, ever spoke of the man who had fathered her. In most families the story of this intrusion remains untold, except perhaps in whispers and snide remarks. Sherman takes this delicate, possibly-painful subject matter and not only exposes the story; she weaves it into quintessentially Southern trickster mythology a la Bre’r Rabbit. The result is beautiful, breathtaking, painful, and still fundamentally a fairy tale — one that’s powerfully perfect for our time.
Innocent Sophie, a white child growing up in 1960s Louisiana, knows only that her mother and grandmother constantly lament the texture of her hair and admonish her to stay out of the sun. Bored and obsessed with fairy tales, she encounters a strange creature who grants her wish to go on an adventure, and she is thus transported a hundred years into the past. In this time, her grandmother’s rambling old estate is a thriving plantation — and in this world, where no one politely overlooks Sophie’s obvious not-quite-whiteness, she is assumed to be a slave.
What follows is not a history lesson, although Sherman’s treatment is clearly well-researched and accurate. The story stays front and center, as Sophie is forced to grow up quickly and to see the world through very different eyes — her own eyes, that is, suddenly reduced to three-fifths of their original value. There are some none-too-subtle digs at the racial subtext of fairy tales, and at the whole portal-fantasy subgenre and its tendency to assume that any traveler to a fantasy world will be welcomed with honors and privilege. But ultimately I’m recommending this one because I couldn’t stop reading it, even when it made me cry.
Genevieve Valentine’s MECHANIQUE
I have no interest in the sub-subgenre of circus fiction, mostly because I’ve never liked circuses; as a child they bored me, and as an adult they disturb me on multiple levels. But the circus of Valentine’s novel is far stranger and more disturbing than anything that exists in our world — and way, way more interesting.
In the hazy future in which this story takes place, war has destroyed the world, yet the world goes on. The Circus Tresaulti travels through the ruins, bringing cheap, tarnished moments of beauty into the lives of shattered, beaten-down people — but the circus holds a secret. Its gimmick is that its performers are half mechanical — just ordinary people wearing made-up brass limbs and steam-engine shoulders. And brass-pipe bones, and clockwork wings that really fly, and bodies that never age or die. The members of the Circus Tresaulti family are people, with all the epic interpersonal dramas of any circus family — but they aren’t ordinary by any stretch. This becomes clear when they are threatened by “the government man”, a truly chilling adversary who realizes the circus’ secret and tries to claim it for himself.
This is a funhouse mirror of a novel: eerie and frustrating in fragments, surreal and entrancing as a whole. It was not an easy book to read; readers will have to work to engage with it fully. But if you put forth the effort, it will invade you, like hollow metal bones. It will remake you, a la China Mieville; it will take you somewhere very strange, a la Ursula Le Guin. And every moment of pain will be repaid by sheer beauty.
Check out Valentine’s short fiction too, when you get a chance. I recommended this one for a Nebula last year.
E. C. Myers’ FAIR COIN
Eugene’s in my writing group, and I’ll admit I probably never would’ve heard of this book otherwise — but that’s mostly because it’s not out yet. I got to read an advance copy of it and its sequel, Quantum Coin, and let me tell you — by next year you’ll definitely have heard all about this book.
In Fair Coin, Ephraim is a typical angsty teenage boy — obsessed with sex, obsessed in particular with hot-girl classmate Jena, struggling with his mother’s depression. He finds a lucky coin and uses it to make a wish only to discover that it actually works, changing his entire life for the better… but only when it lands on heads. I can’t talk about it much more than that — spoilers — but this one reminded me a lot of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies: realistic and compelling characters, a world whose creepiness only gradually reveals itself, awesome adventure. But don’t take my word for it: preorder it and read for yourself!
Saladin Ahmed’s THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON
While we’re on the subject of stuff by people in my writing group, I should also note that I’m looking forward to this book, which just got a starred review at Publishers Weekly. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read lots of Saladin’s Nebula-Nominated short fiction, so I’m very much looking forward to his first try at a novel. And look at that cover art! Can’t go wrong with ghouls (or ghuls, a la Arabian folklore), badass old monster hunters, badass female shapeshifters, and badass stiffnecked religious guys. You can preorder that one too.
Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy
I have a confession to make: I’m bored with zombies. Yeah, I watch The Walking Dead, laughed at Zombieland, read the classics as well as the new kids on the block. But really, after awhile all the libertarian survivalist fantasies start to feel old. I don’t even play the Resident Evil games anymore, and they used to be favorites (at least before they went off the rails into Failville, anyway). There’s just only so much you can do with the same material.
Which is why I was completely surprised by Mira Grant’s Feed. It’s not a zombie novel, despite the presence of zombies. It’s very much a post-9/11 novel exploring the political usage of fear, and the dangers of a co-opted media machine that plays games with the truth. Ultimately it’s a journalism drama — but what makes it work is its crew of intrepid bloggers who battle the military-industrial complex the way Buffy and the Scoobies faced off against the forces of evil. It’s snarky, frightening, and heartbreaking… and yeah, I guess it matters that there’s zombies. But the zombies are very much beside the point.
Another confession: this book and mine were competitors for the Hugo this year, and although neither of us won, when the final votes were counted Feed beat The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by a solid margin. And I don’t mind at all. Because I loved the hell out of this book, and who could mind losing (figuratively speaking) to something they love?
The second book of the series (Deadline) hooked me even more firmly into the universe, and now I’m waiting on tenterhooks for book 3 (Blackout). Hurry and catch up before it comes out!
::whew:: OK, that’s enough raving. Got plenty of work to do, after all, on my next novel. Speaking of which, anyone who comments on this post will get a chance to win an ARC of The Killing Moon, book one of the Dreamblood, my forthcoming duology!
Courtesy of the author, we are running a giveaway of an ARC of The Killing Moon. In order to enter, you must leave a comment here – contest is open to ALL and will run until December 17 2011, 11:59 PM (PST). Good luck!