Monday, August 26, 2019

Blogtable: Best of the Year So Far

Joe: We’re a little more than seven months into what is shaping up to be an absolute stellar year for science fiction and fantasy fiction and I wanted to check in with the two of you to see what you’ve been reading and what has stood out in a year of excellence.

Adri: Indeed! well for starters I lost my heart in the time war…

Paul: I, too, lost my heart in the Time War. Among many other places, but having recently finished that, it is strongly on my mind. I am Team Blue, Adri, how about you?

Joe: There have been some big books with a lot of pre-publication buzz, but This Is How You Lose the Time War really snuck up on me. I haven’t read it yet, but there’s no doubt that I need to.

Adri: I think we’re just on a countdown until that wins all of the novella prizes next year, to be honest. (Team Blue for the win!)

Joe: Wait, that’s a novella? I had no idea.

Paul: Is it just a novella in length? It did go quickly. This reminds me of when Brooke Bolander kept saying “What you think is a novella is really a novelette” with respect to The Only Harmless Great Thing.

Adri: In non time war news, though, it’s been an extraordinarily good year so far. My year in 2019
started off with an absolute bang with The Raven Tower and A Memory Called Empire, which I thought would set an unreachable bar for a lot of subsequent fiction - which a lot of stuff then met in style! Most recently they've been matched by Silvia M-Gs gods of Jade + shadow which ticked so many of my personal boxes for great characters and quest narratives and mythology and really stayed with me after I finished.

What have been the highlights of your year so far?

Joe: My top, absolute favorite so far is Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. It’s sooooo good and I have a difficult time imagining anything surpassing it. This isn’t an original thought (rather, the most common comparison), but there is a direct line from Starship Troopers to The Forever War to Old Man’s War right through to The Light Brigade and I think it has a real chance to hold up as part of that legacy of top notch military science fiction. It’s also probably as commercial as anything Hurley has written, not that that has anything to do with how good it is.

Adri: I was impressed by The Light Brigade too! As you say it's a book that's in conversation with a lot of previous mil-sf and it's also accessible - no small feat for a book with such a complex time travel element.

Paul: For me this year, there has been a strong mix of second books in series that have really worked for me. I thought Children of Ruin was a really strong sequel to Children of Time. A Choir of Lies is an amazing deconstruction of A Conspiracy of Truths. The Hound of Justice really followed up well on A Study in Honor. Queen of Crows is a deep, strong continuation of the world and central character of The Armored Saint. Priest of Lies is a deep and interesting followup to Priest of Bones. The Dragon Republic is a fantastic and unflinching sequel to The Poppy War. There are plenty of first in a series or first author books, too, but it’s the avoidances of the Sophomore Slump that strikes me this year.

Joe: Another novel I found exceptionally strong was The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders. My expectations were already high after All the Birds in the Sky, but Anders exceeded them anyway. The City in the Middle of the Night reminds me of a novel Ursula K. Le Guin might have written, in the best possible way.

Also of note is Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame. McGuire is a consistently excellent writer, but Middlegame is a notably ambitious novel and she absolutely nails it.

Paul: I need to read that, too.

Adri: in sequels, I was really impressed by "The True Queen" by Zen Cho, and "Winter of the Witch" by Katherine Arden was a really powerful close to the Winternight trilogy. I also really enjoyed “Glass Cannon”, the follow-up novella to the Machineries of Empire trilogy in Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate Stories, which brought back the best of the Cheris - Jedao dynamic with a rather different power dynamic to the original book.

Adri: Is there anything in particular that’s been on the “I should really read that next” TBR for a ridiculously long time for you? This year I have been in all the charity shops and book sales, stocking my physical TBR after a long time without easy access to english language books and… it might be becoming a problem…

Please also note that this picture was taken before Worldcon, and I’m not letting you see what happened next

Joe: I’m doing fairly well with my Most Anticipated list, though A Memory of Empire is probably the one novel that didn’t make the list that could have / should have and hits that mark. But really it’s Elizabeth Bear. I have Ancestral Night and The Red-Stained Wings on my night stand and I really, really need and want to read those. Bear has been one of my favorite authors for a long time now.

Paul: No worries, Joe, I have The Red-Stained Wings still sitting as yet unread on my pile, too, and
as above, again, that’s a second novel in a sequence. Also Storm of Locusts is mocking me from Mount TBR as is The Jade War. Books keep slipping and slipping as (no complaint) more and more interesting books keep showing up at my door, one way or another. The Gutter Prayer, the later novellas of JY Yang, Sherwood Smith’s The Sword of Truth, Gareth Powell’s Fleet of Knives, and a whole bunch of others. And given that the next book I am going to pick up is another ARC for a book coming out in a few weeks...I am not helping my cause.

Joe: You should absolutely read Jade War and Storm of Locusts. They’re as good as you want them to be.

Adri: I'm up to date with my Elizabeth Bear reading, and both are super strong - Ancestral Night in particular is a book that I hope is going to make a huge splash.

Not featured in my book pile of shame is my ebook of Air Logic, the long-awaited close to Laurie J. Mark's elemental logic series. I haven't been waiting as long as some as I only picked up this series a couple of years ago, but I'm looking forward to finally seeing this very unconventional series about the aftermath of invasion and political upheaval, with all its big non traditional family caring structures, come to a conclusion.

Paul: So let me ask the next question: What has been the most surprising and unanticipated books this year? Books that went a hard left when you expected a right, or defied expectations one way or another? I myself was really moved by The Curious Case of Robert Heinlein. I learned a lot more than I thought and it made me reassess my thoughts about the man and his work. I didn’t expect that.

Joe: I absolutely did not see Caitlin Starling’s debut novel The Luminous Dead coming. It’s a novel of a caving expedition on an alien world and it’s tense and occasionally terrifying and it’s on my long list of the best novels of the year.

It is well established at this point that Publishing puts out excellent novellas. Look at the
Hugo Awards and marvel at their dominance. Up until this year I’ve read almost everything they’ve published with very few exceptions, but for reasons I’m off of my Publishing reading game this year. One that I read with absolutely no expectations was Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You, by Scotto Moore. Friends, it was delightful.

Paul: Publishing does have a hammerlock on the novella market for the most part. I do hope more publishers will challenge them, and they can challenge each other and elevate the form. I am in a place where I assume a novella is from Tor until I learn otherwise, but I think I see cracks in their wall (the aforementioned This is How You Lose the Time War, for example, is from Saga)

Adri: I don’t think it’s unprecedented for a single publisher to take up most of the space in a category
for a while, especially short fiction, and I do think that while has led a resurgence in the novella genre - especially for audiences who otherwise skew towards longer fiction - there’s plenty of both standalone and magazine-length novellas being published that I expect people will increasingly discover. As well as Time War, there's also Becky Chamber's To Be Taught, if Fortunate; I also think Glass Cannon has a decent shot at being one of next year’s contenders, and that’s a novella within a collection.

I’m not sure I’ve had any really big individual surprises this year so far - everything I’ve been looking forward to, I’ve enjoyed, and I’ve been looking forward to a lot. My most exciting discoveries have probably been in short fiction, where the likes of The Dark Magazine, FIYAH and Anathema have really expanded my definition of what good speculative stories look like. All are publications well worth your time and, like many short fiction venues, I don’t think they get the attention they deserve from the wider community.

On a genre-wide level, I’ve also been reading more YA this year than in the previous two, and while I definitely still consider myself an adult SFF reader first and foremost there’s some fantastic stuff being published especially in that space between YA and adult fiction that I’ve really enjoyed. Particular kudos goes to Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight of Our Sky, a historical fiction about Malaysia, and Makiia Lucier’s Song of the Abyss, which snuck onto my reading list despite being a sequel and promptly won my heart with its seafaring adventures and kickass ladies.

Of course, I’ve no doubt that many of my favourite books of 2019 are those I haven’t even got around to yet. And with that, I better go make a dent in this devastatingly handsome TBR pile. Thanks for the chat, as always!

Paul: Thank you both

Joe: Thanks and happy reading!

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.

Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.