Narratives from 2016 (and Beyond) with Compassionate and Complex Relationships

Welcome to Smugglivus 2016! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2016, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2017, and more.

On the last day of Smugglivus, our very last guest is no other than The Amazing Kate Elliott, purveyor of awesome books and stories, and writer of one of Ana’s top 10 books of 2016, Poisoned Blade, with a list of Narratives from 2016 with Compassionate and Complex Relationships


In an alternate universe my spouse and I went to see Rogue One (2016), a film about the daring, dangerous mission to steal the plans for the Death Star from the heart of the Empire’s most guarded archives facility. In this alternate universe, the opening sequence went slightly differently from the version you may have seen. (Warning: there will be spoilers for the first 8 or so minutes of the film, what I’ll call the child-Jyn sequence.)

On an isolated farm we meet child-Jyn, who lives with her father, a brilliant engineer who escaped from servitude to the Empire, and her mother, who was a stalwart Jedi-in-training before the Jedi were outlawed and killed. But the father’s past has tracked them down, and imperial troops and an impatient administrator behind on his timetable arrive to reel the father in to work for the Empire again.

Of course the administrator plans to hold mother and daughter hostage for the father’s good behavior, and of course the family has prepared for just this eventuality by building a secret tunnel out in the wilderness for them to hide in. So–in my alternate universe–Jyn’s mom Lyra makes the choice most mothers (or parents) would: In a heartbreaking scene she says goodbye to her beloved spouse and flees with the child, abandoning him to play for time while she and the child get away.

They hide in a tunnel until the stormtroopers give up on the search and then, in an exciting chase scene, Lyra outwits the remaining stormtroopers and with the use of the Force gets herself and Jyn safely off the planet. What awaits them no one knows, but Lyra’s fierce anger is a hint that she has not and will not give up on the hope of rebellion now that the Empire has stolen her husband from her. She pulls a blanket over her daughter, kisses her, and soothes her to sleep.

And the next scene opens with the now adult Jyn waking up in a prison cell.

How did she get there? What happened between Jyn and her mother? What if that conflict had driven the plot instead of what was for me a rather stale and not very well thought through daddy-daughter story?

The father would, of course, still have his part to play in the story, but as a viewer I fundamentally didn’t believe that (in the version as filmed) Lyra would throw away her shot on a hopeless situation for no better reason than to be double-fridged (see The Woman in the Refrigerator for an explanation of this term), first for the spouse and second for the daughter. It felt like a manufactured plot point shoehorned in for pathos.


I have read that Rogue One underwent multiple reshoots and that some significantly different versions of the film could be released if it were re-edited with cut footage, and I would totally go to see that, but I’m not sure that even with re-editing the problem of Lyra would change. On the whole I don’t generally trust mainstream film Hollywood to do interesting things with female relationships unless women writers or directors are involved (and we know how much of a struggle it’s been for women writers and directors in the film industry). It’s almost as if complex and meaningful relationships between women are invisible to a whole layer of creators.

When that happens it limits how relationships are created on a larger level as well, between and among all characters. As a reader and viewer my deepest level of engagement comes when I am fully invested in characters and their relationships. Solo characters charging through landscapes and violence, sans complex relationships to others, don’t interest me much. I have nothing to hang my narrative hat on, as it were. I seek the ties that bind, that make life messy, that make choices harder and defeats more heart-breaking and triumphs sweeter.

So here are a few narratives I read or viewed in 2016 whose compassionate and complex treatment of relationships worked for me.



This film (directed by the great Mira Nair) about a girl in a poor neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda, who is given the chance to learn chess and how she becomes a chess champion is lovely in every way. Based on a real story, the film is a surefire crowd pleaser but beyond that Nair directs with attention to the interplay of class, merit, and wealth, and never stints on nuanced details. The acting is excellent, and every secondary character is treated with such focus (however brief) and love that you can imagine them being split off into their own story. Highest recommend.

THE CODE: Season One (2014):


This Australian political thriller (a tv series with a complete story told in one 6-episode season) co-stars Lucy Lawless as a teacher in an isolated town who becomes suspicious about the events surrounding a mysterious accident and death involving two of her Aboriginal students. Lawless is fabulous, of course. But the main focus of the plot is on two brothers, one a journalist who gets involved in investigating the incident and the other a computer whiz and sometime hacker who is Aspergers. I can’t tell you if the treatment of Aspergers here is accurate or offensive but it felt respectful to me, and the complicated nature of the relationship between the brothers is examined with empathy and honesty. Late in the series a stranger acts with compassion in what would in most circumstances be a trivial way, but the simple offer of understanding in this case becomes a huge emotional moment that brought tears to my eyes. If you enjoy narratives about political corruption you may well enjoy this: after all, political corruption and the fight against it is a story that will never get old, not for as long as human beings have political institutions.

DANGEROUS GIFTS (2013) by Gaie Sebold.


Read BABYLON STEEL first (Dangerous Gifts is a sequel). Once upon a time if you’d told me someone could write sword and sorcery in which the MC is a sword-wielding badass who is also a prostitute and owner of a brothel I would have laughed at you. Ha! Haha! Impossible! But this is that series and I love it because it is about Babylon Steel (the eponymous MC) and who she is and who her loyalties are to and her relationships with other people, and it just somehow hits that sweet spot for me. The first novel, Babylon Steel, was one of two pieces of fiction I was able to read when my beloved dad was in hospice dying of esophageal cancer in 2013 (the other was the French graphic novel series AYA OF YOP CITY which gets my highest recommend). I have had Dangerous Gifts since 2013 but didn’t read it until election night 2016, when I needed it very badly. These two books and their relationships (and magic and swords and sex and magical creatures and hidden gods and oh, yes, political corruption) take their place among my comfort reads.

THE WALL OF STORMS (2016) by Ken Liu.


Okay, I gave this a quote, or if not this sequel then the first book in this epic fantasy series, The Grace of Kings, so you know in advance I think this is a fine book. This complex big ticket and very long epic fantasy digs into cultural and technological change and also how people negotiate those changes, for good and for ill. One of the important sub plots concerns a father’s realization that, in a patriarchal world, his daughter is the best suited of his three children (the other two are sons) to fulfill his legacy, and what that means. This subplot was a subtle story that to my mind built a far more interesting examination of a father-daughter relationship than, say, Rogue One.

THE BONE QUEEN (2016) by Alison Croggon.


This standalone prequel to Croggon’s Pellinor quartet is a beautifully written and deeply wise reflection on regret, loyalty, forgiveness, and valor in the face of evil. Please read it. It’s both lovely and profound.

MAKING WOLF (2015) by Tade Thompson.

Making Wolf

Ugh, I hate dude books about men and the pasts they are hiding from and the violence they get caught up in and the sexy women they encounter or make fools of themselves over. This is that kind of book, only I read it basically in one sitting. Thompson is a master of the telling detail and the vivid moment, which has the effect of making the whole story feel all too unpleasantly real. A compelling story, highly recommended.

PEAS & CARROTS (2016) by Tanita S Davis

Peas and Carrots

A contemporary YA about a girl in foster care who is sent to live with the family who some years ago adopted her younger half brother. Davis writes with compassion about people and their struggle to understand themselves and those around them (Mare’s War is a favorite of mine) and this book is no different. The POV switches between two teen girls, foster girl Dess and the foster family’s teen daughter Hope. I appreciated that in this novel the foster family is black and Dess, the fostered girl, is white, since it’s a dynamic that is rarely portrayed.

THE HIGH GROUND (2016) by Melinda Snodgrass.


This is old fashioned space opera (I mean that in the best way) whose pacing runs flat out without slacking through this, the first volume of a projected five, and which left me desperately wishing the second book is out already (it’s coming in July 2017). In a far future whose ruling class is loosely based on what might have happened had the Fortune 500 taken over as ruling class (hmmm) and installed a conveniently patriarchal society, the current emperor has sired only daughters. He has to make one of them into a suitable heir or the family will lose its imperial crown. This is the story of the chosen daughter. Snodgrass is clearly riffing in part on the arrival of the first female cadets at the US military academies and the Citadel. It’s a timely reminder of how recent these gains for women have been, and how easily they can be lost. Snodgrass is also playing a riff on the well worn and always appealing tale of the two people who are clearly meant for each other but whose stations and trajectories in life will keep them apart. Good stuff.

THE ROOT (2016) by Na’amen Gobert Tilahun

The Root

This novel is hard to describe. It is urban fantasy, featuring a secret government agency. It is portal fantasy (think San Francisco and its supranatural mirror city). And it is also the last thing you would expect: a biblical exegesis. Tilahun has stuffed this novel full of characters, multiple plot and point of view lines, bizarre landscapes, weird and creepy creatures, and a complicated history that intersects with our own. It’s got a few debut-novel rough patches but WOW is it a rich, emotional, and beautifully strange work centered on the lives of two young people and their respective journeys: Erik and Lil are each sensitively drawn and vividly portrayed. And really, in the end, that is what I’m here for.


For space reasons I have only touched on a few novels, and it pains me to have left out so much work I enjoyed and appreciated. I have tried to focus on material that hasn’t gotten as much visibility and press, which is why I haven’t mentioned (for example) some other of my favorite reads of 2016 like N. K. Jemisin’s THE FIFTH SEASON, the first two novels of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, Ben Aaronovitch’s latest Peter Grant mystery THE HANGING TREE, and Abdolqasem Ferdowsi’s SHAHNAMEH (The Persian Book of Kings). And yet more. It was a good year for me for reading. One of my goals for 2017 is to do a better job of putting up short reviews of what I’m reading, not just brief Twitter mentions. People can’t read it if they don’t know it’s there.


Finally, in terms of bravura world-building I want to mention Philip Reeve’s RAILHEAD (2015). I loved this YA novel. It’s like Thomas the Tank Engine turned upside-down and put through a hopper until it becomes a wildly imaginative space opera with sentient trains, god-like AIs, multiple worlds, a lone rebel with dangerous plans, and an ordinary thief who is about to get caught up in it all. The sequel, BLACK LIGHT EXPRESS, is out in the UK (2016) but not yet in the USA, where it is (I think) due in 2017.

Speaking of 2017, how excited am I for Cindy Pon’s WANT?!? Super excited! It’s a YA near future novel set in Taiwan and features a polluted world, a divided society, and a boy from the outside who meets a girl from the inside. (June 2017)

I’m also excited for the latest installment of Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour novella series (there will be seven in all), IDLE INGREDIENTS (Feb 2017), but you should start with ENVY OF ANGELS. Sin du Jour is about a catering agency that works for special and usually supernatural clientele. It’s a charming combination of gross, sweet, funny, violent, and heart-warming, and Wallace always keeps his focus on the relationships between the characters. He also knows cooking, and it’s a pleasure to read someone have so much fun with the kitchen. This series would make a great tv show, kind of a Master Chef meets Buffy only with a broader palate.


I’ve already read it and you should definitely seek out Aliette de Bodard’s HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS (April 2017). Brilliantly set in a ruined post-apocalyptic Paris ruled by fallen angels, this novel (loose but standalone sequel to 2015’s HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS) excels in the kind of complicated networks between people that reveal selfishness, altruism, cruelty, and loyalty, and all the other shades of human relationships. Catnip for me! And I hope for you too.

That’s what I look for: those deep, complicated, difficult, joyful, angry, messy relationships to anchor my narratives. It’s what I try to write, and it’s what I love to read and view.

I wish you a Happy New Year, and in the new year may you find all the great media you’re looking for. And maybe even a complex mother-daughter story set in a fast-paced adventure story with explosions. Wouldn’t that be great!


Happy New Year!


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  • Justine S.
    January 7, 2017 at 3:59 am

    So glad someone is mentioning Railhead…I think it was one of 2016’s most underappreciated books. Just brilliant:)

  • Sarah
    January 7, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    Thank you for these recommendations and new authors to love. They all sound wonderful and are now requested from my local library.

  • Fee
    January 9, 2017 at 11:16 am

    Thanks for expressing what I felt was wrong about the otherwise enjoyable Rogue One. I loved the bleak but hopeful ending, but I sat in the theater at the beginning and thought, she’s not going to be so stupid as to throw away her life and her daughter’s future for nothing, is she? Why yes, she is.

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