Welcome to Smugglivus 2017! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2017, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2018, and more.
Our next Smugglivus guest is Bridget of the excellent blog SF Bluestocking – for all your book reviews, television and film coverage + weekly link posts needs.
It’s a shame that 2017 has been such a garbage year for so many people in so many ways because it’s been a pretty excellent year in SFF media. Like many USian writers and creative types, I’ve struggled this year to stay motivated and productive, consistently falling short of many of my personal goals while focusing instead on calling my Representative and Senators, trying to plan for an uncertain future and, often, just working hard to get through each day without being crushed under the weight of current events. It’s been a tough time, and I have been thankful many times over the last few months for the stories that have helped me through it, made me laugh and cry and done their best to sustain my hope for the future. Stories matter; 2017 has created a mighty need for good ones; and publishers, film makers, game designers and artists of all kinds of have delivered in spades.
These are some of my favorite things of the year.
The Shannara Chronicles – The Gorgeously Diverse Fantasy TV Show of My Dreams
Terry Brooks’ Shannara books are unremarkable, obvious knock-offs—especially the early volumes—of Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t cracked one open in almost fifteen years by the time the television adaption was announced a couple years ago, and I initially wasn’t sold on the direction things seemed to be taking. Originally made for MTV, the show is created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who are also the creative force behind another of my favorite shows, AMC’s Into the Badlands. Unlike the darker fantasy of that show, however, The Shannara Chronicles brought a decidedly YA sensibility to its source material, focusing on youthful characters and reveling in adolescent epic fantasy tropes of both the 1980s and today.
It also brought diversity. The show’s Eretria is canonically bisexual. Manu Bennett was cast as the druid Allanon. Crowd scenes are consistently diverse in terms of race and gender. There are missteps, to be sure, in the first season. The majority of the main cast is still white, there’s an attempted rape that is handled poorly, and a black woman is killed somewhat senselessly. However, in season two, nearly every new character is played by a person of color; Malese Jow, Gentry White, Vanessa Morgan, Caroline Chikezie, and Desmond Chiam all have important roles, and the show manages to avoid the missteps of season one. Season two of The Shannara Chronicles also marks the first time I’ve ever seen a woman ask another woman to be her queen in a live action television show, and I’m willing to forgive quite a lot of silly fantasy tropes in order to see that happen.
Sure, The Shannara Chronicles isn’t perfect, and it occasionally tries to emulate Game of Thrones’ worst tendencies, but it never reaches that show’s level of nihilistic misanthropy. It’s exactly the sort of high fantasy entertainment I want to watch in these dark times, a smart mix of YA drama, nostalgia, and inclusive storytelling with a likeable (if unreasonably beautiful) cast.
The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente – The Rage-Filled Paean to Comic Book Girlfriends We All Need
Listen. I would read the phonebook if Catherynne Valente wrote it, but I’m glad she wrote this book instead.
Like much of Valente’s other work, The Refrigerator Monologues is an exercise in reframing well-known stories and looking at them from a fresh perspective, and Valente gives memorable new voices to beloved female characters who have spent far too much time being supporting characters in stories about powerful men. Here, she accomplishes the near-miracle of creating a wholly original world inspired by comics and populated with characters who take on a life of their own while still embodying the classic superheroes’ girlfriend tropes that inspired them. The women of the Hell Hath Club are kind, loving, brilliant, funny, sad and furious in turns. They’re also all doomed, but they aren’t going to go gentle into the night. It’s an essential read in a year that has become partially defined by the power of previously unheard and ignored women speaking their truths.
I always recommend that people read Catherynne Valente’s work aloud, and that recommendation stands for this book as well; it’s as gorgeously written as one can expect anything by Catherynne Valente to be. Read it to your kids, read it to your boyfriend, read it to the comic book fanboys at your local shop, read it to yourself in front of a mirror (I feel like that could be empowering or something). Or just buy the audiobook, I guess. The point is, these are words that deserve to be heard.
Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle – The Gold Standard for Smart, Optimistic Political Sci-Fi
I didn’t get around to reading Infomocracy right when it came out in June of last year, and by the time I got around to my first attempt at reading it, the 2016 election had already happened, and it was stressful and upsetting then to even think about reading a novel that centered around election shenanigans, so I put it off. I finally dove back into it this year shortly before the sequel, Null States, was set to come out, and I found myself absolutely hooked. I read both books in quick succession and fell in love. Far from being a depressing dystopian slog, these books offer a vision of a possible future that, if imperfect, is still better than what we have now. More importantly, Malka Older peoples her future with a cast of brilliant characters who are earnestly working to make their world a better place. I don’t know if I can explain my love for these books any better now than I did in my review of the series earlier this year:
“The optimism of the Centenal Cycle isn’t obvious, judging by the number of people who call the books dystopia, but it’s my kind of optimism. It’s not the optimism that there’s some perfect system of government that’s the silver bullet to solve all the world’s problems or that aliens are going to show up on the eve of a technological revolution and save us all. It’s the optimism that hard work and decency never go entirely out of fashion, that they pay off and that individuals can and do make a difference. It’s the reminder that the arc of history bends towards progress and that we don’t have to have all the answers in order to do some good.”
It’s the optimism that sustains and encourages me through these dark times and helps me find the energy to participate in some of the thankless drudgery of civic engagement.
Jade City by Fonda Lee – The Book That’s Made Me Most Excited About the Future of Epic Fantasy This Year
I didn’t think I was going to love Jade City because I have never seen The Godfather (don’t @ me). Fortunately, it’s not required to enjoy this book. Fonda Lee starts with a great classic story idea—organized crime families and their machinations against each other—adds a creative fantasy twist—everyone is skilled martial artists who gain supernatural abilities from wearing magical jade—and then builds an incredible secondary world and fills it will iconic characters. The Kaul siblings—brothers Lan and Hilo and sister Shae—and their cousin Anden make up the book’s principle POV characters, so it’s never confusing or disorienting in the way of so much other epic fantasy. Each character has a unique and distinctive voice and personality, and their perspectives feel as real and lived-in as the world they inhabit.
Jade City is a novel that was surprising, for me, in all the right ways. It’s vastly different from my usual tastes. It’s escapist, but not shallow. Smart and cleverly plotted, it’s nonetheless absent the arcane trivia that some epic fantasy authors obsess over. Fonda Lee’s background in business is evident in her attention to detail in describing the economics of Kekon and the Green Bone families, and her martial arts experience shows to advantage in her thrilling and meticulously crafted action scenes. It’s an altogether brilliantly conceived and gorgeously realized novel that perfectly balances the high stakes feel of a sweeping epic with the intimate feel of family drama and the characters’ internal conflicts.
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty – The Book That’s Exactly as Morbid as It Sounds (In a Good Way)
Death, it turns out, is a social justice issue, and that’s the central thesis of Caitlin Doughty’s life’s work. I first discovered her Ask a Mortician YouTube channel about five years ago, and I loved her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a fantastic, sensitively-written and very funny look at her first years in the funeral industry that questioned and criticized the ways in which we in the West have industrialized and commercialized death care. In From Here to Eternity, Doughty expands upon these themes as she takes a look at death care traditions and innovations from around the world. As in her YouTube channel and previous book, Doughty brings a pleasing lightness and sense of humor to her smart and sharply critical examination of death care. The reverence with which Doughty treats the people—living and dead—that she interacts with lends credence to her message about the importance of openness in talking about and dealing with death.
That said, my greatest takeaway from the book was that death care is an industry where unreasonable laws, lack of education, and protectionist industry regulations combine to be actively harmful to our collective psyche. The West’s culture of silence around death and grieving can be actively punishing for those outside the dominant culture at the same time as it fails and alienates many people who exist within it as well. Doughty’s activism in fostering dialogue and inclusiveness in death care is invaluable, but industry and legal reform is equally important to ensure that everyone has the freedom to find their own version of the good death. For more information about Doughty’s work and for more information and perspectives on death positivity, be sure to check out the death positive organization she founded: The Order of the Good Death.