Another year, another slew of amazing books! A ton of incredible fiction came out this year—and I read some older chestnuts as well. It was difficult to narrow the field to five particular favourites, but I have done it! (And of course, this doesn’t discount any of the other books I read).
In roughly the order I read them, here is…
What I Read and Loved in 2018
(For the sake of transparency, * denotes an author with whom I’m also friends!)
Leaving behind her fashionable West Coast life, Maggie Black comes to the Southwestern desert to pursue her passion and her dream. Her mentor, the acclaimed poet Davis Cooper, has mysteriously died in the canyons east of Tucson, bequeathing her his estate and the mystery of his life–and death.
Maggie is astonished by the power of this harsh but beautiful land and captivated by the uncommon people who call it home–especially Fox, a man unlike any she has ever known, who understands the desert’s special power.
So…I adore Terri Windling: her fiction, her art, and her blog. I knew I’d love this novel, too.
And I did. It is everything I love: myth lurking in the shadows, art, and stunning landscapes. This contemporary-yet-ageless-myth style of fantasy reminds me a lot of Charles de Lint (no surprise, they’ve worked together) and I am entirely here for it.
Firefly meets The Fast and the Furious in this science fiction adventure series that follows a crew of outcasts as they try to find a legendary ship that just might be the key to saving the universe.
A washed-up treasure hunter, a hotshot racer, and a deadly secret society.
They’re all on a race against time to hunt down the greatest warship ever built. Some think the ship is lost forever, some think it’s been destroyed, and some think it’s only a legend, but one thing’s for certain: whoever finds it will hold the fate of the universe in their hands. And treasure that valuable can never stay hidden for long….
Queer lady space pirates treasure-hunting and racing. There is a lot going on in this book, and it’s all great. I particularly love Alex’s work with characterization and it’s wonderful to watch them coming into their own. This is a strong book with a strong voice, and it’s getting well-deserved accolades!
PLUS, the sequel drops tomorrow!! Check out A BAD DEAL FOR THE WHOLE GALAXY!
While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.
Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.
Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.
As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.
Welcome to the Sixth World.
Wow. Just…wow. I absolutely loved Roanhorse’s story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM)” in Apex last year, so I was stoked to read her debut novel. And goodness, it was worth the long library queue. Gripping plot, steely characters with achingly nuanced relationships, and rich worldbuilding—this is a gritty, bloody world. So good.
THE ULTIMATE HEIST
Belisarius is a Homo quantus, engineered with impossible insight. But his gift is also a curse—an uncontrollable, even suicidal drive to know, to understand. Genetically flawed, he leaves his people to find a different life, and ends up becoming the galaxy’s greatest con man and thief.
But the jobs are getting too easy and his extraordinary brain is chafing at the neglect. When a client offers him untold wealth to move a squadron of secret warships across an enemy wormhole, Belisarius jumps at it. Now he must embrace his true nature to pull off the job, alongside a crew of extraordinary men and women.
If he succeeds, he could trigger an interstellar war… or the next step in human evolution.
Some stories have their authors’ personality and passion embedded into their DNA to such an extent, it’s like seeing them in book form. That’s how I felt about THE QUANTUM MAGICIAN. It’s just so…Derek.
Which is a good thing: Derek is a shining light in SFF in general and Canadian SFF in particular. This book doesn’t shy away from hard science and tough questions—but it’s also hilarious. Like, genuinely, incredibly hilarious…even as some of this world’s darker implications made me run cold.
An ancient society of witches and a hipster technological startup go to war in order to prevent the world from tearing itself apart. To further complicate things, each of the groups’ most promising followers (Patricia, a brilliant witch and Laurence, an engineering “wunderkind”) may just be in love with each other.
As the battle between magic and science wages in San Francisco against the backdrop of international chaos, Laurence and Patricia are forced to choose sides. But their choices will determine the fate of the planet and all mankind.
In a fashion unique to Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky offers a humorous and, at times, heart-breaking exploration of growing up extraordinary in world filled with cruelty, scientific ingenuity, and magic.
Okay, so I’m a little late to the party with this one. But I’m so glad that I’m here now. This is a delightfully charming book with a confident, playful voice. I love the interplay between magic and science, talking birds and talking AIs. This feels very much like Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series grew up, donned hipster glasses, and catapulted into the Millennial experience.
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a heart-wrenching alternative history by Brooke Bolander that imagines an intersection between the Radium Girls and noble, sentient elephants.
In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.
These are the facts.
Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
The bonus round is usually for short stories, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this novelette (that’s right—novelette, NOT novella). The writing is beautiful, the voice unwavering and lyrical. In relatively few pages, Bolander sketches deep characters and a deeper mythos. Haunting, gorgeous, and quivering with anger, this story will be rattling around my head for a while.
What did you read and love in 2018? Drop off your recommendations below!
What I’m Listening to this Week
I love writing to Arvo Pärt’s music. The mystic, minimalist feel is perfect for drafting – and since I’ve been working on a few new short stories, he’s getting consistent play lately!
I ran into an old friend yesterday:
There’s been a street festival running all weekend. And it’s a true neighbourhood street festival: the kind where Italian grandmas pull passerby into their dancing and magicians pull quarters from kids’ ears. The secondhand bookstore had its one-dollar boxes out – and there, staring at me, was Old Bear.
I stopped dead. The plot eluded me (as it turns out, the toys rescue Old Bear from his attic seclusion), but the characters popped up, vivid as they were in childhood.
Old Bear. Little Bear. Bramwell Brown. Rabbit. Duck.
I hesitated for the briefest moment – and then I bought it. You see, I have a belief about secondhand bookstores. They help the right books find you at the right time. You can’t always force it. And when they’re sending you a message, it’s best not to ignore it.
So now I’m reunited with a book I haven’t seen in at least twenty years. Partly, I just wanted it in my life again. And partly, I’m storing it for some future child – maybe my own, maybe a niece or nephew, maybe a friend’s child. “Look,” the instinct runs. “Look, this book held magic for me – maybe it will for you, too.”
Some magic is a private thing. Some magic yearns to be shared. Childhood books definitely belong in the latter camp, at least for me.
I got another book as well. This one wasn’t in the festival bins. It was inside, along the wall of fantastika. My heart leaped to see it. (This bookstore generally has a thorough collection of Andrée Norton, Robert Silverberg, A.E. van Vogt, and others of that vintage, but slightly less fantasy.)
Nineteenth century British fantasy:
Same message, same instinct. The right book at the right time, the perfect counterweight to my ongoing Southern Ontario Gothic ponderings.
Except it wasn’t a loonie. It was $25. Which – there’s a few upcoming books I want sooner than the library can get them. Trail of Lightning, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone…
So I put it back on the shelf, looked at the Tolkien editions beside it, and then circled around again. But it’s best not to ignore a bookstore’s message. At last, I took a deep breath and approached the counter.
“Great stuff in here,” the bookseller said.
“Yeah, for sure. It’s got Goblin Market.”
“It’s twenty-five dollars…” He hesitated. “Actually, today, it’s eighteen.”
Some magic yearns to be shared. Stepping back into the sunlight and the festival, I felt lighter. Sometimes, it is important to remember that such magic exists. And our instinct to spread it gives hope indeed.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Still digging the Holst and Vaughan Williams. This week it’s been “I Love My Love,” which has a very catchy melody and chilling lyrics. It’s one of those folk songs that’s a story set to music. The treble echoes around 1:30 and 3:30 are particularly haunting.
Between two internships, Stonecoast, and my own writing, it’s been a busy week. And it’s only going to get busier, because DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT is out on Tuesday!
I haven’t been this excited (or this obsessive) since the release of HAPAX.
About halfway through my stay in Virginia, Pip and Tee tossed me an ARC and said, “Yeah, you should probably read that.” Now, I’d been eyeing the giant flipping box of ARCs in the basement since the day I arrived, but I was too nervous to ask for one. But once it was in my eager little hands, I settled myself on the couch with a contented sigh.
“Whoa,” Tee said at one point, peering over. “You’re tearing through that.”
A while later, he cleared his throat. “So—let’s get back to InDesign. We can set up the templates for WEATHER CHILD.”
Or something like that. Eliza was enjoying her first real taste of American “hospitality,” which happened to involve a fight scene, and it was very exciting. I wasn’t really listening.
Tee sighed. “Here, what page are you on? Ok. When you finish that chapter, we’ll go down.”
“Don’t make me take that book away, young lady!”
So I finished the chapter and closed the book with a dramatic, exaggerated sigh. Of course, I was happy to do more layout work—I’d never actually be obstinate with my hosts and mentors. But still…those first five chapters had woken a weird, persistent itch. I’d left Eliza contemplating a new revelation, and she and Wellington needed to actually communicate with each other because the tension between them was driving me slowly but surely mad, and I was very aware of mines planted in earlier chapters that were waiting to go off later in the plot (metaphorical mines—it’s always a good idea to specify when dealing with Eliza D. Braun).
I needed to read more.
After dinner, instead of writing, I settled on the couch again. It was lovely and quiet, with Pip and Tee tapping at their own laptops and Sophia del Morte watching and plotting.
“Hey Katie, where are you now?”
The next day found me back in the same spot. Pip was writing on the couch opposite me. Suddenly, I stopped reading with a gasp. I put the book down and gaped at Pip.
“You guys had Edison [PLOT POINT REDACTED]?!”
She flashed a guilty smile.
There was another book that I was meant to be reading for Stonecoast. This is where I’m responsible, set DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT aside, and do my schoolwork, right?
Heck no! This is where I email my mentor saying, “Hello! I know you wanted me to write an imitative annotation this month…but can I write one on this book instead??”
Fortunately, she said yes. Which means that DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT was used in an academic paper before it was even officially released.
The rest of the day passed in a blur of hypersteam, explosions, historical personages, and crafty (figurative) Easter eggs. Here’s the thing, though: DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT is a lot of fun. No question about that. But there’s a real emotional heart to the story as well. During the big, climactic scene…well, my eyes got misty.
That’s right. I’m not ashamed of my tears. Although I did try to be subtle about them—after all, the authors were right there. And I’m also not ashamed to admit that I just looked up that scene for reference and instantly felt like I’d been stabbed again.
And for me, that’s the real strength of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences in general and DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT in particular. You care. You care about these characters and their world so damn much. I was nineteen when PHOENIX RISING came out, so while I haven’t grown up alongside Eliza and Wellington quite the same way I did with Harry Potter, I think that we have developed together—settling into our respective skins.
As the novel ended, I could almost hear the ominous chords, the rumble of oncoming thunder.
When the fourth book comes out, I’m not waiting. I’m diving into that box of ARCs the minute I see it.
Criticism is part and parcel of the writing life. It’s funny, though—I always assumed that my general anxiety around evaluations would be my biggest stumbling block as a writer. As I’ve gone along, though, I’m discovering that I’m…ok with criticism.
More than that, actually. Even though I still get nervous as anything, I also crave it. Editorial criticism, anyway. Reviews are a different topic; let’s save them for another day.
I had two larger critiques come in recently: one for the first half of my Interactive Text-Based Online Game (hereinafter codenamed “The Game”) and one for my first Stonecoast packet. By the time this post goes live, I will have already Skyped with my mentor about her comments on said packet.
In both cases, they seemed to approach the topic of criticism quite carefully. Naturally, that set Anxiety screaming, “The other shoe is going to drop! The other shoe is going to drop! Wait for it wait for it wait for it!”
And then it was fine.
By “fine,” I don’t mean, “Everything was sunshine and rainbows and unicorns and fluffy bunnies.” There are things to fix: mostly coding for The Game, mostly the main character in the Victorian Dark Fantasy. So, not necessarily minor things, but still—
That’s it? I’m not missing an extra page of critique? Because really, those are good things to know. Frankly, if an editor ever said that a piece was perfect and there was nothing to change, I’d get very nervous.
There’s always something to change.
Also, it’s never about you.
That’s the piece that I seemed to have learned, almost by accident. It’s that ability to step back and look objectively at a piece and say, “Yes. I see where this doesn’t work. Ok.” No different than someone saying, “Hey, one leg of that chair is a bit longer than the others.” Are you going to sit there on a wobbly chair denying it, or are you going to wobble for a minute, testing it, and then pull out the saw?
Of course, there are times when you whip out the measuring tape and realize, no, you’re right. Sometimes that happens. You just have to be sure.
(For instance, there was a query about fireplaces that sent me on a quest that was really fun – but also took way too long considering that all I did with my diagrams and photos was show them to my roommate.)
Caveat here: I’ve been lucky as a writer, in that all my editors and workshop members have mastered that balance of being respectful and kind and also not pulling punches. Personal attacks in critiques are not ok. I’ve never had that happen, but they kind of defeat the critique’s main purpose: making the work better.
Remember, it’s not about you. That goes both ways.
Like so many things, anticipation is usually worse than the actual event. I wish I could return to my 14-year-old self and say, “Hey, look! It’s going to be fine—honestly, it doesn’t hurt and you actually feel good after!”
Maybe the knee-jerk fear reaction never really goes away, but learning to love the whip makes it a lot easier to manage. As one of my Irish drinking songs says:
What would you do if the kettle boiled over?
What would I do, but to fill it again?
What would you do if the cows ate the clover?
What would I do, only set it again?
I can’t wait to get these pieces polished! 😉
When I was a small child, I never went anywhere without a book. In the car (even though it made me ill). At the doctor’s. At grandma’s. In the backyard. Under the covers. Though it makes me sad to admit it, I read for pleasure far more back then.
Part of it comes from the way I was reading. I remember all of these fantastic worlds being so real. I’ve noticed that when kids get into a book, they get really into it. There’s a sense of wonder when kids read: a willingness to engage with the story, almost as if they can slip sideways in just the right way, they’ll fall into the book’s universe.
I read the first Harry Potter at eight and bemoaned the fact that I would need to wait three years for my Hogwarts letter (my parents were torn between amusement and slight concern). By the time I started on Redwall, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere—and yet, somehow, I still have a solid grasp of the Abbey’s layout. Even now, when I squish a bug, part of me wonders if I’ve killed an Andalite or Animorph in morph.
Unless we’re very careful, we lose that wonder somewhere along the way. You experience Kit and Nita’s wizardry differently when there’s rent to be paid and deadlines to be met. Oh sure, you STILL really enjoy it, and read the book in a night, and love and cry for and adore the characters, but it’s not the same as when you’re a kid. The colours are just slightly faded, the edges slightly dulled.
It’s sad. For a writer, it’s terrifying.
I’ve been working to rekindle that sense of wonder. Given my line of work and field of study, I’m always reading to learn. But since finishing my undergrad, I can create my own syllabus. There’s still a lot of fantasy and SF (I’ve finally gotten around to reading Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows of Valdemar and I’m having a rollicking good time), but I’m trying to branch out-of-genre as well.
Slight digression: I got asked recently if I put myself into my writing. It took me a moment to answer. I don’t do self-inserts (“And then, the plucky young street urchin…named Caytee…went and did awesome stuff”) but I’ve noticed that my writing is always stronger when my actual, genuine emotions are in there: love, joy, grief, whatever.
Maybe that’s the way that books become real, whether we’re reading or writing them: we come to them with real emotions, real feelings. We’re not afraid to feel the emotions books create in us and we’re not afraid to transfer our own feelings onto the page.
Knowing how to spot symbolism, theme, allegory…these are all important things. Understanding the craft, appreciating a deft bit of characterization, or questioning an author’s plot choice…also important.
But entering the story on its own terms, opening yourself up to it…that’s not just important, it’s necessary.
What books enthralled you as a child? What books make your spine tingle and your eyes gleam now? What are the books that you close with a pang?