Oh, gee-whiz. I’m terrible at these Year’s Best things. I don’t read, for Pete’s sake!
Still, I understand why it should look like I read now and then; I am, after all, sort of a writer. It looks bad if I just admit to the fact that I do nothing all day but sit in front of the TV with my feet buried in a baked chicken. (Yes, it’s cold in my house. And yes, I like my feet to smell like chicken. Don’t judge. You do weird crap sometimes, too.)
Okay, to be serious: I usually read far more science fiction than fantasy, but this year (and last year, honestly) have been very fantasy-heavy. I suppose that’s because I sold my own fantasy novel — or at least a novel that reads a great deal like fantasy – and as a result found myself far more interested in the magical genre than is usual. (I also found myself reading a lot of Night Shade’s books, because, well, they became my publisher.)
And you know what? I loved every minute. The works I read defied easy categorization. They were intelligent, efficiently written, and immensely entertaining.
Here are the five that stood out the most. Unfortunately, all but one was published in 2011, but each represents a series that extends into or beyond 2012:
Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Isles of the Forsaken (ChiZine; published 2011)
It’s no secret that I love ChiZine’s books, but this one took me by special surprise — largely because I didn’t really like it for the first third or so. In fact, I nearly put it down several times. I wasn’t all that crazy about the characters, most of whom have little enough virtue to recommend them. And much like Bradley Beaulieu’s debut (see below), Isles is a slow burn of a novel. It takes a good while to get into.
But once you’ve got your feet under you, it proves a great experience. This is a thinking person’s fantasy novel, relatively low on action and magic but heavy on speculation. In other words, this is not Peter V. Brett or Brent Weeks (not to say anything bad about either of those authors, necessarily). Gilman takes on the unenviable task of looking at native cultures and the effects of colonialism, and what she ends up saying is far from ethically tidy. In fact, it’s disquieting in its ambiguity.
I like that particular move in recent fantasy, away from pat statements of morality and toward the inexplicable or simple unjust. It’s, in many ways, a return to the kind of harsh environments that James Tiptree, Jr., Joanna Russ, and — particularly — Ursula Le Guin visited forty years ago. In this light, Isles resembles no other work as obviously as it does “The Word for World is Forest.”
Jeff Salyards’ Scourge of the Betrayer (Night Shade; published 2012)
I wasn’t too convinced when I saw the cover, or when I read the synopsis. You see, I’m not crazy into military fiction of any stripe. It’s just not my thing. Also, like many people, I’m getting right tired of the “gritty,” “grimdark” style of fantasy. I’m tired of reading about men’s men doing manly shit, spitting and cursing and all the time fucking and/or raping.
It’s getting old, already, its usefulness as a counterpoint to morally simplistic heroic fantasy long at an end.
But, but, but… When something’s done right, it deserves notice. (Not that Salyards needed any help from me this year. I watched Scourge receive so much positive press, it blew me away. It was encouraging to see a new somebody, published by my new publisher, making such waves.) The novel is a wonder of intimacy, honestly; it’s a close-up and personal sort of fantasy, violent and introspective by equal turns.
The funny thing is that it’s not really what it was marketed as — or maybe it is, and I just don’t see it. As I said, I’m not into military fantasy, but this reads little like Glen Cook or Joe Abercrombie. It reads like… Well, it reads like Salyards. It’s distinctive, and compelling, and utterly unique to speculative literature.
Jo Anderton’s Debris (Angry Robot; published 2011)
Oh, goodness, I was excited about this one. I love a very unambiguous mashup of science fiction and fantasy. I was a little weary of the steampunk label because, well, I don’t really like steampunk, but — to me, at least — Debris did not read much like steampunk at all. (Funny fact, though: Anderton told me that while writing it she very much considered it a steampunk story. Oh, well. Maybe I’m the crazy one.)
What it did read like was… I don’t even know, honestly. It stands out in my mind precisely because it was such an odd combination of factors: Russian names (and perhaps social constructs, though I’m acquainted enough with Russian culture enough to know), make-believe physics, and a weird city that never really comes into focus.
For all of its thrilling oddness, this last factor — a lack of descriptive focus — ultimately made Debris an anger-inducing frustration at various points. It could only be me who experienced this problem, but I had very little sense of place or of physical description throughout. Anderton failed, for me, in one of the most important tasks an sff author is charged with: to create vivid descriptions of all the weird shit being thrown at the reader.
It felt like I was in the dark throughout the book, trying in vain to see all the cool crap I desperately wanted to see. The fact that I wanted so badly to see her vision, however, means that I’ll probably pick up the second volume, Suited, hoping to see a bit more the next time around.
Bradley P. Beaulieu’s The Winds of Khalakovo (Night Shade; published 2011)
Oh, Brad, you’re so goddamn smart. That’s the first thing I thought when I started reading Winds. And I didn’t mean it as a dig — I meant it in that jealous way where you shake your head at someone else’s skill. Beaulieu is a craftsman. I can imagine him writing late at night, fitting all the puzzle pieces together, eschewing trends, writing for the pure act of it.
Don’t mistake me, though: His first book is not an immediate grabber, I think. I think, rather, it’s something that has to be osmosissed into your brain. You have to let go of all the worry that you haven’t got all the tricky names right and just read, hoping that it’ll all get organized as you read. And it does. The story, which is invitingly complex but never unclear, is filled with magic and violence, but never outrageously so.
It’s… tasteful, in a way that modern fantasy books rarely are. Beaulieu treats his characters in a way that is compassionate but never coddling: we are aware the entire time that disaster is but one step away.
Of course, how something can be as mannered as Winds yet as uncomfortably cognizant of the brutal reality is anyone’s guess.
Chalk it up to being disgustingly talented, I guess. Damn that Beaulieu.
Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura (Night Shade; published 2011)
This is fantasy in perhaps its most conspicuously fantastical form: There’s not even a human on the cover. It’s the kind of fantasy I think it’s hard for many people to take seriously because it’s so obviously of a fantastical nature.
It’s the kind of fantasy Wells takes very seriously, indeed. This is not your intellectually or emotionally stunted quest fantasy, full of unintentional phallic imagery and stupid-ass names full of improbable hyphens and apostrophes. It’s lush, and mature, and intentionally ambiguous. The exploration of gender roles is particularly exciting.
(If you’re the kind of person who can’t handle matriarchal societal structures, then you shouldn’t read this book. Or maybe you should…)
When I received a blurb for my own novel, No Return, from Martha, I nearly pooped myself in excitement. Much of the reason for that reaction comes from reading The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, and The Siren Depths. I respect the kind of sober artistry that she brings to the table.Read More...