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!
Greetings, friends! So after some early flailing, the Beer Magic Novel seems to have kicked into gear. It’s about 16k at the moment and I can feel the momentum building (I miss it, when I’m not working on it). BUT it also hasn’t yet reached the critical threshold of, “I’m pretty sure this novel’s not gonna die,” so that’s all I’ll say about it for now.
For indeed, it is mid-December! It is time for all the yearly wrap-up posts!
Without further ado:
Some Things I Read and Loved in 2017
(In roughly the order I read them.)
Green Grass, Running Water—Thomas King
I’m only counting fiction here, but I read this shortly after King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. And I’m glad I read them in that order: King’s meditations in the latter helped me appreciate the former even more.
I loved the voice in Green Grass. I loved the blending of conventional novel structure and oral storytelling principles. It’s funny and honest and heartbreaking, and please just read it.
Strong, sassy women and hard-luck, hard-headed men, all searching for the middle ground between Native American tradition and the modern world, perform an elaborate dance of approach and avoidance in this magical, rollicking tale by award-winning author Thomas King. Alberta, Eli, Lionel and others are coming to the Blackfoot reservation for the Sun Dance. There they will encounter four Indian elders and their companion, the trickster Coyote—and nothing in the small town of Blossom will be the same again. . . .
Kiss of the Fur Queen—Tomson Highway
This one—we start with champion dog-sled racer Abraham Okimasis, and then follow his sons from early childhood to adulthood. It’s immersive and beautifully written and painful—and again, I’m head-over-heels in love with the voice, particularly that of eponymous Fur Queen.
Champion and Ooneemeetoo Okimasis are all too soon torn from their family and thrust into the hostile world of a Catholic residential school. Their language is forbidden, their names are changed to Jeremiah and Gabriel, and both boys are abused by priests.
As young men, estranged from their own people and alienated from the culture imposed upon them, the Okimasis brothers fight to survive. Wherever they go, the Fur Queen–a wily, shape-shifting trickster–watches over them with a protective eye. For Jeremiah and Gabriel are destined to be artists. Through music and dance they soar.
The Stone Angel—Margaret Laurence
Do you sense a theme here? The Stone Angel gets assigned to a lot of high school English classes. Mine missed it, but I’m glad I waited until adulthood. Basically, Hagar Shipley runs away to the woods and remembers her life—and pals, it’s devastating. Laurence’s characterization is superb. And it’s those little, tiny details that hit with the most weight.
In her best-loved novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence introduces Hagar Shipley, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction. Stubborn, querulous, self-reliant – and, at ninety, with her life nearly behind her – Hagar Shipley makes a bold last step towards freedom and independence.
As her story unfolds, we are drawn into her past. We meet Hagar as a young girl growing up in a prairie town; as the wife of a virile but unsuccessful farmer with whom her marriage was stormy; as a mother who dominates her younger son; and, finally, as an old woman isolated by an uncompromising pride…
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter—Theodora Goss
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this novel. It’s a well-curated collection of Victorian literature’s girl monsters. On one level, it’s a terribly fun romp. On another, it’s a very intelligent dance with Victorian literature. Of course, this is all up my alley.
Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.
But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.
When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.
A Green and Ancient Light—Frederic S. Durbin
I picked this up from the library on a whim. Early on, it says: “I won’t tell you my name or that of the village where I spent that spring and summer when I was nine. I won’t because you should realize there were towns just like it and boys just like me all around the sea…”
It’s a vague world, and yet complete. In a nutshell: boy, grandmother, and faun try to both protect a downed fighter pilot and find a long-lost door into Faery.
When I finished, I could only think, “This one is part of me now.”
It was that kind of book.
Set in a world similar to our own, during a war that parallels World War II, A Green and Ancient Light is the stunning story of a boy who is sent to stay with his grandmother for the summer in a serene fishing village. Their tranquility is shattered by the crash of a bullet-riddled enemy plane, the arrival of grandmother’s friend Mr. Girandole—a man who knows the true story of Cinderella’s slipper—and the discovery of a riddle in the sacred grove of ruins behind grandmother’s house. In a sumptuous idyllic setting and overshadowed by the threat of war, four unlikely allies learn the values of courage and sacrifice.
Bonus Short Story: “The Last Sailing of the Henry Charles Morgan in Six Pieces of Scrimshaw (1841),” by A.C. Wise.
This story is told through the registration notes that accompany museum artifacts; in this case, six pieces of scrimshaw. Look, I work at a museum. I’ve read these notes. Wise nails them. It’s an inventive form of storytelling and it is wonderfully, wonderfully creepy. This is the winner of the 2017 Sunburst Award for short story—and it’s easy to see why!
And that’s all I could fit into this one post! What about you? What did you read and love this year?
What I’m Listening to this Week
Oh my goodness, I’ve been obsessed with Purcell’s “Cold Song” this week. Actually known as “What Power Art Thou?” it’s from the King Arthur opera. This is the point wherein Cupid wakes the “Cold Genius,” or the spirit of winter.
Look at the way the vowels punch the same note repeatedly. It should be a half-note or whatever, but it’s been split into repeated eighths—because he’s creating the effect of shivering!!!!
I love it. I’m so down. I want to work the emotional resonance into a story somehow.
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?