Best of 2021: My Favorite Books of the Year

I’m not going to lie, this has been a pretty shitty year. Dealing with this pandemic is starting to take its toll and I think you can tell from my reading choices when things got better and when they got worse. But reading was, in fact, one of the small comforts that accompanied me throughout 2021, so let’s focus on the positives and celebrate all the cool shit I read this year. ūüôā

To keep it organized (and to cram in more favorites, hehe) I’ve split this list into categories just like I did last year.


Favorite Books Published in 2021

Novels

Last year was absolutely insane when it came to SFF novels. This year felt like it’s keeping up rather well, with the only difference being that I’m way behind. There are quite a few books I think might end up being new favorites still on my TBR but here are the ones that I’ve already had the pleasure of reading and that all got 5 stars from me on Goodreads. Now that I look at them all in one place, I realize they couldn’t be more different!

All the Murmuring Bones by A. G. Slatter (Angela Slatter) was the first book that made me squee with joy in 2021. It’s part Gothic fairy tale, part family mystery, part coming-of-age female empowerment story and I loved it to pieces! Slatter has been a favorite of mine for a while now but this book, while keeping the fairy tale vibe her short stories tend to have, was a step in a new direction. It took me a while to find my way into the story but once I was there, I found it absolutely fantastic. I can’t wait for next year’s The Path of Thorns.

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey came next and I knew pretty early on it would be one of my top books of the year. The funny thing is that as I read it, every twist and surprise and every bit of character development cemented the book’s spot on this list. A not very likable protagonist, clones, questions of morality, how far science can and should go, questions of womanhood, a bit of light murder, and great twists until the very end make this one of the most exciting books of the year. It reads like a thriller but offers a lot of food for thought. And I just love Gailey’s writing and their complicated characters.

Nnedi Okorafor published a novella and a novel this year, the first of which (Remote Control) I liked but didn’t love. The novel, however, stole my heart. In Noor, we follow a young woman who has a lot of artificial/robotic body parts. This makes her something of an outsider and eventually she has to flee from the society she wants to be a part of. She meets with a different sort of outsider and together, they not only fight for their basic right to live (!) but also unravel a mystery of epic proportions. This book is short but it really has everything. Great characters, cool science and technology, a kick-ass plot, and deep emotional impact.

A Marvellous Light by debut author Freya Marske is something completely different. It’s a fantasy romance set in Edwardian England with one bookish protagonist and one sporty, impulsive one. But despite the romance being stunning (and quite, quite sexy!), Marske put a lot of effort into her world building and magic system as well. I loved the idea of cradling – magic spells require specific hand movements – and the way the magical society works in this story, and I especially love how women, who are considered too weak for difficult magic, use their powers quietly and show how powerful they really are. But, yeah, mostly I loved this for the romance, the sexual tension, and Edwin and Robin’s budding relationship. Can’t wait for the sequels.


Young Adult/Middle Grade

The Ones We’re Meant to Find¬†by Joan He was my first YA crush this year. I was already taken with the author because of the amazing¬†Descendant of the Crane but here she shows that she didn’t just get lucky with her debut but rather that she is someone to watch. This climate-fiction tale of two sisters who have been separated and are trying to find their way back to each other has layers upon layers and is hard to talk about it without spoiling. But believe me when I say that you’ll get great science fictional ideas, intricate characters with difficult emotions, many gasp-worthy twists, and a truly touching story about sisterly love. Plus a little bit of romance. Basically, it’s as amazing as the cover is pretty.

Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko didn’t get to me as quickly as the first book in this duology, but after reading for a while, I noticed how this tale of found/chosen family and heavy responsibility had sneaked into my heart again. I was struck by how well everything falls into place, how Ifueko managed to introduce a lot of new characters and made me love them as much as the old ones. There are still more surprises to discover. If you liked¬†Raybearer, you will also like this book. The ending was just beautiful and I will forever be a Tarisai fangirl.

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen stole my heart and ran away with it like the thief that narrates this novel. This was one of my late-in-the-year five star reads that I totally didn’t see coming. It’s a loose retelling/sequel of the fairy tale The Goose Girl but it very much brings its own ideas to the table. First person narrator Vanja is the best kind of cocky, there are a lot of cool ideas to discover during this tale, and there’s an effortless diversity of sexuality to be found, all with an understated lovely romance, a kick-ass heist-filled plot that piles on the trouble but somehow resolves everything by the end. I am glad that we will get a sequel in (probably) 2023. I wish I could read it right now!


Novellas

My favorite novella of the year comes from none other than¬†Catherynne M. Valente and it was The Past Is Red.¬†This post-apocalyptic story set on the Pacific Garbage Patch – known as Garbagetown – is devastating and hopeful, expertly crafted, with characters that break your heart, prose that sings and dances, and even a great twist. It gave me all the feels and I’ll cherish and re-read it forever. Tetley Abednego is a protagonist who sees beauty in dirt and reminds us that oftentimes the world could be so lovely if only we learned to appreciate it.

Secondly, we have the very different but just as stunning Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. Valente. Hey, it’s not my fault she wrote two brilliant novellas in one year, okay? This one is eerie and atmospheric and best enjoyed without knowing anything about it beforehand. Although the twist at the end is its climax, it has great re-read value because once you know what’s going on you can go hunting for all the clues that you missed the first time. And there are so many of them! Valente shows that she can jump between genres as if it was nothing, all while staying true to her beautiful prose.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow was another top novella, although it is much lighter than my other favorites. It’s Harrow spiderversing a fairy tale, in this case Sleeping Beauty, and it just worked although I think it will not be for everyone. The writing is easy and filled with references to pop culture and literature, the characters aren’t super deep, but the themes hit home nonetheless. Protagonist Zinnia suffers from a rare disease that will most likely kill her before she turns 21. When she accidentally lands in a parallel world where she meets an actual Sleeping Beauty type princess, things don’t go quite as expected. This was a fun romp, it had things to say about feminism and gender and choosing your own path and I unabashedly loved it even though I would have preferred it to be longer.

And let’s not forget Becky Chambers‘ latest novella,¬†A Psalm for the Wild-Built. This was both what I expected and also totally different, if that makes sense. The nonbinary tea monk protagonist felt so utterly relatable it hurt, and while their journey wasn’t filled with shocking moments or daring adventures, it was exactly the quiet, philosophical kind of book we’ve come to expect from Chambers. Then again, it also felt somehow new and fresh. The hopepunk setting, the slowly building friendship between human and robot, it all worked together beautifully and I need the sequel now.

Sadly, these are (yet again) all Tor.com titles and I was determined to have at least one novella from a different publisher among my favorites this year. If you have recommendations, please leave me one in the comments.


Favorite Books Published pre-2021

Once again, I have to thank all the people who nominate books and series for the Hugo Award. The Best Series category, which is still pretty new, has been a treasure trove when it comes to backlist titles that aren’t old enough yet to be classics but not new enough to be the newest hot shit that everyone is talking about. Many of those in-between titles ended up on my list and that makes me super happy.

The Poppy War Trilogy by R. F. Kuang¬†absolutely wrecked me and even though¬†The Poppy War was a re-read, I’m counting it in this category, alongside The Dragon Republic and The Burning God. Because, damn! That’s right, that is the summary of my feelings.
But seriously, I don’t know what impresses me most. The fact that Kuang entered the scene with an unbelievably great debut, that she tackled a very dark period of history, that her characters are multi-faceted and flawed and believable, that her world building is impeccable, her writing engaging… I mean, at this point I’m just describing all the elements of a perfect novel. But you get the idea and I am forever destroyed by what these books have done to my poor heart.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune¬†needs no explanation. Anyone who has read it will know why this heartwarming tale of found family ended up on my list, and people who haven’t read it have probably been told how this is a warm hug in book form a million times. It really is, though, and if you ever feel down and want a story you know is going to lift you up, make it this one. I can’t wait to pick up the book’s spiritual successor that came out this year, Under the Whispering Door.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler has convinced me that Butler will probably always end up on my Best of the Year lists, at least until I’ve read all her books. This is all the more impressive as the book in question is pretty much the opposite of the Klune in terms of atmosphere and vibe. Sure, Butler always conveys that shining bit of hope but the world and setting she uses in this duology is anything but nice. Still, one¬† of the most impressive and impactful books I read this year.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett¬†was not surprising in any way. It’s fairly early Discworld but it does exactly what Pratchett always does so well. It holds a mirror up to humanity, with humor and heart and respect. This book made me laugh and cry, ponder and wonder, and most of all it made me miss Terry Pratchett all over again. As it tackles religion, which can be a… let’s say difficult subject, we should be all the more impressed how Pratchett managed to make fun of certain aspects of it without ever, EVER, disrespecting people or their faith!

The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal is a bit of a departure from the first two books in her Lady Astronaut series. The plot happens parallel to the story of The Fated Sky, only this time we focus on Earth and the Moon colony as well as on a new protagonist, Nicole Wargin, pilot and politician’s wife and also super capable Moon survival person. This took a while to get going but once the story had taken off, I was reeling from all the amazing ideas. Whether it’s basic survival moves on the Moon or dealing with an eating disorder, or handling politics, it’s all there, it’s all done well and I ended up loving this book much more than I had anticipated.

The Interdependency Trilogy by John Scalzi was one of my biggest surprise hits this year. And my favorite volume of the three was probably the middle book,¬†The Consuming Fire. I usually put a lot of Serious SFF (TM) on here but that’s not the only type of story I love. So this year, I’m adding this hilarious space opera romp by Scalzi because, while maybe not dealing with the deepest philosophical questions of humanity, it was just pure and utter fun! I adore Kiva Lagos and her filthy mouth, I loved the idea of the Flow and I simply enjoyed following all these characters as they are trying to save the world.

The biggest surprise, without a doubt, was how much I enjoyed Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. You may recall how much I disliked Gideon the Ninth, how I found it messily plotted, with flat characters (one exception being Gideon herself) and told in unnessecarily convoluted prose. The prose is still overly verbose and showy, but everything else about Harrow has taken me by storm. Damn, I want to know what happens next, how all these crazy revelations impact the world, and where this story will lead us eventually. And so I find myself actually happy that the trilogy has grown into a 4-book-series and that we’ll get Nona the Ninth in 2022. Yay!

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers was just lovely! I had really liked Small, Angry Planet but I bounced off Spaceborn Few for a long while (the ending turned it around but overall, my opinion was rather meh), so I didn’t have the highest expectations. And then Chambers just goes and tells not one, but two hearbreaking stories in one novel. My eyes were perpetually wet as I listened to this on audiobook and it is now by far my favorite book in the series.


I am not feeling too great about the pandemic at the moment (not that I ever felt great about it, but you know what I mean) but at least I am happy with what I read in 2021.

Top of my TBR: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chen, Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune, Summer Suns by Lee Mandelo, The Chosen and the Beautfiul by Nghi Vo, The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

If you’ve posted a best of the year list, let me know in the comments. I love looking through other people’s favorite reads of the year. I’m especially interested in 2021 publications that I might have missed and should prioritize. ūüôā

Change Your Own Story: Alix E. Harrow – A Spindle Splintered

I’ve been following Alix E. Harrow’s career with much excitement because not only does she like the same books I like, but it feels like she wants to write exactly the kind of books that end up being my favorites. Heavily influenced by fairy tales and mythology, her tales are about nerdy characters, about underdogs, about true friendships and dreams come true. The fact that she started a “spider-versed fairy tale retelling” novella series feels like Christmas and birthdays and some other holidays all rolled into one.

A SPINDLE SPLINTERED
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
Hardback:
128 pages
Series:
Fractured Fables #1
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Sleeping Beauty is pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it.

It’s Zinnia Gray’s twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it’s the last birthday she’ll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.

Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia’s last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.

This story isn’t a fairy tale but it has a lot to say about them, particularly about Sleeping Beauty. Zinnia Gray has a rare disease – Generalized Roseville Malady – about which very little is known, except that most people suffering from it don’t make it past twenty-one. So the fact that she identifies with a fairy tale princess cursed to fall asleep on her birthday isn’t all that far fetched. Zinnia makes the best of her life, she lives fast, studies what she likes, and fiercly loves her best friend Charm who, by the way, is the absolute best friend ever in SFF fiction. Sure, you could say her savior/hero complex isn’t super healthy but she would do anything for Zinnia and reading about the way these two interact, their chat messages, the one-liners, the absolute trust – it’s pure friendshop goals!

So if you know the elevator pitch for this is “spider-verse a fairy tale” you won’t be surprised when, on her twenty-first birthday, Zinnia jokingly touches her finger to a spinnig wheel’s needle and – bam! – pops up in an alternate universe next to a real princess who wears a poofy dress and looks like she fell out of a Disney movie. It doesn’t take long to figure out what’s what and soon the two work together to try and break the curse. Instead of sitting around waiting for fate to catch up in the shape of a needle, they pack some stuff and go out to find that thirteenth fairy to convince her to lift the curse or bribe her or… something. And while they’re at it, maybe Zinnia’s “curse” can be healed as well..?

The strength of this novella is definitely its protagonist and her relationships to the people around her. Zinnia has a great sense of humor and enough self-awareness to not take herself too seriously, despite her pretty serious situation. As a fairy tale scholar, she is also the perfect person to fall into a parallel universe where the fairy tale is actual fucking reality, and try to both help the resident damsel in distress as well as maybe save her own life at the same time.
There is actually a cute little adventure happening in Fairyland (where Zinnia has cell phone reception, btw, which I somehow find absolutely hilarious) and even characters who only show up shortly get… maybe not fleshed out but they give off a sense of being more than we can see. Whether it’s Princess Primrose’s mother or the prince she’s betrothed to, there is more to them than their fairy tale nature lets you suspect. I loved that, just as I loved the actual adventure the two girls go on, including creepy marshes, a raven, and some blood because, hey, its a fairytale! There must be blood.

Perhaps a little too easy and on the simplistic side was the big picture world building and the resultant world-hopping. What first seems to be the big conflict – how to get back home to her own world – soon turns into a barely existing barrier. Zinnia tries out one idea which happens to work, and that’s it. From then on, world-hopping is possible with no real effort. By anyone. That took a lot of the magic out of it for me.

But then this story isn’t about the multiverse, or even discovering and comparing some of its worlds. It’s about the people who live there. Just like in the movie inspiration for this novella series, you get a few comical appearances with no depth but great plot moments, like 90s princess (not like other girls, short hair, you know the type), Viking Sleeping Beauty, and Space Princess with a laser gun. As important as they may be to the overall plot, the heart of this story is Zinnia, her best friend Charm, and Princess Primrose who also has a lot more depth than you’d expect from your stereotypical fairy tale princess.

I loved so many aspects of this little book, starting with its self-awareness and its sense of humor. If you don’t like plenty of references then this may not be for you. Harrow drops a lot of them, starting with Disney characters, movies, and songs, , moving on to the darker, earlier versions of the fairy tale, to other pop culture characters and books and authors. And I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into it but the fact that Zinnia’s disease is called Generalized Roseville Malady – GRM for short – and it kills lots of people while they’re still very young, made me think of a certain boob-filled book and TV series by an author with very similar initials who is known to kill off characters, even if they’re protagonists…

I wish briefly but passionately that I’d been zapped into a different storyline, maybe one of those ’90s girl power fairy tale retellings with a rebellious princess who wears trousers and hates sweing. (I know they promoted a reductive vision of women’s agency that privileged traditionally male-coded forms of power, but let’s not pretend girls with swords don’t get shit done.)

Alix harrow clearly has a lot to say not just about fairy tales but about women’s roles in stories and in real life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the women in this book instinctively work together, that they listen to each other, try to learn the other’s story before judging. And it just so happens that the vapid princess isn’t quite so vapid, the evil fairy may not be exactly what she seems, and Zinnia’s choices in life (based on the fact that it will be a short one) may not have been perfect. Harrow allows her heroines to be flawed and make mistakes while still remaining the heroes of their own story. And having a choice to change that story makes all the difference.

The ending could have been super sappy and messed the whole book up but, fortunately, Harrow didn’t go down that path. She left us on a satisfied note with a protagonist who has been changed fundamentally by the events of this tale, with a lovely side story for some side characters, and, most importantly, with the promise of more stories. More princesses who’d rather save themselves, more worlds, more versions of fairy tales to explore.
This was a very quick read and I do worry that it might not hold up on a reread, especially once a few years have passed. But only time will tell and until then, I’ll be recommending this fun, heartfelt novella with its excellent female friendships to anyone who likes fairy tales. Especially if they don’t behave as they should.

I’m already looking forward to the next book, A Mirror Mended, which will tackle Snow White.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

Best of 2020: My Favorite Books of the Year

What a year this has been. At times it felt like we fell into an actual science fiction novel. We lived (and are still living) through a pandemic, the US answered the murder of George Floyd and many others by protesting against police brutality and a broken system, the US also elected a new president, there was a terrorist attack on my city, my partner lost three family members, and we spent most of the year working from home, isolated from friends and family, and trying to keep it together somehow.

But 2020 also had its good sides and I think it’s important that we keep reminding ourselves and each other of that. People came together while staying apart in a multitude of creative ways, they stood together against violence, they used their democratic right to vote, we support and lift each other up, and those of us who are readers found solace in our hobby and the fantastical worlds into which it lets us escape.

I have read so many amazing books this year. Award season will be a horror show because how can anyone pick one favorite among so many brilliant, original, heartbreaking works? As every year, a few books stood out… except this year “a few” is a higher number than usual. This list will be rather long but it’s not my fault authors published such exceptional stories this year.


Favorite Books Published in 2020

Novels

This year has been phenomenal when it comes to SFF novels (even if everything else was pretty terrible). Granted, there are still many 2020 publications I haven’t read yet but out of the ones I have read, there was just a single one that I think of as merely good. All the rest were stellar and make me dread Hugo nomination time. Which ones do I leave off my ballot?

 

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin is an obvious choice. Jemisin has been producing brilliant work for years and although this is her first foray into Urban Fantasy, I knew I would love it. I just didn’t know how much. When the city of New York comes to life through avatars of its burroughs, they have to come together to fight an ancient evil. That may sound simple, but¬† Jemisin’s way of painting the city as a living, breathing entity, turns this into a proper adventure with diverse characters, lots of social commentary, and – as always – great writing.

Alix E. Harrow‘s latest novel The Once and Future Witches¬†took me a while to get into. Its three protagonist sisters had too many POV jumps for my taste, but Harrow found her rhythm eventuall and delivered a beautiful, heartwarming tale of sisterhood, the fight for women’s rights, and witchcraft. A love of stories and fairy tales and women working together permeates this whole book. And the way the characters are allowed to grow just made me warm and fuzzy inside. I may have started sceptical but I ended up adoring this book.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is the author’s long-awaited second novel after the mind-blowing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell although it has nothing to do with that book. Piranesi lives in a labyrinth of halls, lined with statues. This book is best read without knowing anything about it because it is a riddle and a mystery, poetically told, with a twist along the way. This is clearly an accomplished, amazing short novel but the emotional resonance is definitely fading over time.

The First Sister by debut author Linden A. Lewis wasn’t a perfect book. There were some character and plot aspects that could have been done better, but ultimately, I just enjoyed reading this so very much that I mostly ignored the things that didn’t make sense. An interstellar war between Gaeans and Icarii (Earth/Mercury people and Venus/Mars people) is shown through three POVs, who are all intriguing and face very big problems. Points for diversity (including the nonbinary audiobook narrator for the nonbinary POV character) as well as setting up a world I want to return to.

Another debut was The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. This multiverse story delivers plot twist after plot twist while we follow protagonist Cara as she visits neighbouring universes that are similar to ours but not quite the same. Her lower class status and her unrequited love for her superior doesn’t help but over the course of a very exciting Mad Max-esque plot, it’s wonderful to watch Cara grow and find her place in the world(s).

I’m so glad I loved Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia. I was in the minority finding her Gods of Jade and Shadow only okay but now I can finally join all the other fans in squeeing about her foray into gothic horror. Set in 1950s Mexico, Noem√≠ visits the isolated house where her cousin lives with her husband. Needless to say, strange things happen there and the family is anything but welcoming. I loved the atmosphere and the setting, Noem√≠’s character growth and the slow burn romance… Seriously, everything about this book was amazing and I highly recommend it for someone looking for a spooky read that offers more than just scary moments or monsters.

Is anyone surprised that Martha Wells’ Network Effect made this list? No? Didn’t think so. It’s the first full length Murderbot novel and while you get much of the same stuff we’ve come to expect and love from a Murderbot story, this one goes deeper. I particularly enjoyed Murderbot’s voice and its reunion with ART. What really made this into a favorite was the tender moments between Murderbot and its humans or even Murderbot and other AI characters. As much as it’s not human, it is through its humanity that we connect to Murderbot and care for it.


Young Adult/Middle Grade

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko is the kind of YA debut that every YA author should aspire to write. It defies the tropes I find annoying and plays with the ones I like. Young Tarisai has been raised by her mother who is only called the Lady, and she has been raised for one purpose only: To get close to the prince and then kill him. But Tarisai finds the prince totally nice and doesn’t want to kill a kid. The premise makes you assume certain things (romance between her and the prince, magical solution to this “you have to kill him” problem, etc.) but let me tell you that you will not see anything coming. Ifueko plays with the readers’ expectations, throws in a lovely found family, beautiful world building and an ending that promises an even more epic sequel.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson seems to be a divisive book. I wouldn’t have thought I’d like a witchy story set in a puritanical village at all, but Henderson’s story telling is so engaging and her protagonist so easy to like that I couldn’t put it down. For a debut novel especially, I was impressed with the way relationships between the characters were portrayed. I’m not a big romance reader either, but I adored watching the people in this book come together slowly and bond over important things. There’s none of the cheap YA tropes here. Plus, the witches are properly scary and the curses Immanuelle has to deal with are pretty gruesome. A perfect Halloween read.


Novellas

The standout novella for me this year is P. Dj√®l√≠ Clark’s¬†Ring Shout, a book that immediately grabbed me, kept me engaged and entertained throughout, and has a powerful story to tell. I was all the more impressed with how fleshed-out the characters were and how much world building was put into such a slim volume. Clark is definitely an author to watch and I hope this novella gets him a Hugo Award.

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings is Australian Gothic and captured me with its tark fairy tale vibe. Ignore that first over-the-top flowery chapter and just roll with it. You’ll get a tale of interconnected stories that seem very weird at first but all make sense in the end. This was an incredibly atmospheric read that shows how Jennings is not only a great illustrator but also a writer that I’m going to watch.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo doesn’t need any more recommendations. Everyone who’s read it loved it and for good reason. The way Vo chose to tell this story – in sort of flashbacks inspired by objects – is one reason it was so good. But the actual story it tells is also breathtaking. The plot itself isn’t all that epic but it makes you think about how we deal with history, whose stories get told (and whose should get told) and what happens to the people on the sidelines of a war.


Favorite Audiobooks

I swear it is a coincidence that all my favorite audiobooks of the year are written and narrated by Black authors and narrators. I didn’t even realize it until I listed them up here. My challenge to read more Black authors definitely contributed to me picking these books up, but this is where I want to share the amazing work narrators did with these stories.

N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became was one of my top books of the year but the audiobook turned it into something else. Not only does Robin Miles do a brilliant job when it comes to different voices and conveying emotions, but this audiobook also has a few sound effects and music mixed in. Don’t worry, it only happens occasionally but it did help me get immersed in the story. I would have loved this as a paper book as well but if you’re still unsure which version to go with, definitely pick up the audiobook.

In The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, we follow three very different female characters living in very different time periods and settings. I never thought I would love this book as much as I did but I should have known better. Hopkinson effortlessly weaves magic and Caribbean myth into her tale, and there’s even a real historical figure in this one. Bahni Turpin switches characters beautifully, which includes accents and timbre, and really helped paint a picture of this story in my mind.

Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is a challenging book for any narrator to do but Cherise Boothe did a brilliant job. Nnot only does she have to switch between characters of different genders, protagonist Aster is also neurodiverse and thus delivers certain lines in a manner that seems almost cold to other people. Yet Boothe managed to make Aster lovable while maintaining her speech pattern. It’s also just a great story.

Rosewater by Tade Thompson is a difficult book to follow because of its jumping around in time. Not having a paper book to read along makes this even harder, but Bayo Gbadamosi did his very best to help us keep the timelines and characters straight. This very different alien “invasion” story may not have the most likable lead character but I found it enthralling from beginning to end and I can’t wait to find out how the trilogy ends.


Favorite Books Published pre-2020

Without a doubt, the three books that touched me the most in 2020 were Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor and¬†The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I’m noticing a concerning similarity in my favorite books this year. Almost all of them managed to make me cry…

I read¬†Doomsday Book right whent he first lockdown started in Austria and when it hit home all around the world that this pandemic was, indeed, a global thing that meant nothing would be as it was before. The book is about an incredibly realistic epidemic (I could literally compare the fictional government’s reaction to real world goverments) as well as the plague. Time-travelling historian Kivrin visits the Middle Ages but things don’t go exactly as planned. Connie Willis made me fall in love with her characters only to put them through hell. At the same time, she shows the best of humanity and the reason there is always hope. I cried a lot reading this book.

The Sparrow was something else entirely. A first-contact story that sends Jesuit priests and scientists to an alien planet in order to find the creatures whose singing has been received on Earth. This beautiful tale of a found family sets you up for disaster right from the start. Told in two time lines, you follow the mission itself as well as its aftermath through the eyes of sole survivor Emilio Sandoz. I’ll be honest, I felt like crying throughout the entire book because it’s just got that tone to it. But by the end I thought I had prepared myself for certain things. I was not prepared. This story had me sobbing by the end and left me with a massive book hangover.

Much more hopeful, albeit also dystopian, was An Unkindness of Ghosts. This was one of my five star predictions and I must say, I totally nailed it. Aster lives on a generation ship that is organized vaguely like the Antebellum South. Social injustice, terrible conditions for the people on the lower decks, and Aster’s unusual personality made this an engaging read. Add to that fantastic world building, a mystery to be solved, and Aster’s relationship with her friends and colleague, and you’ve got a book that will stick with you. Rivers Solomon effortlessly adds discussions of gender and sexuality, neurodiversity and class difference into an exciting tale which – thankfully – didn’t leave me crying at the end, but rather with a sense of hope and satisfaction.

Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Fate was long overdue. If you’ve read the Tawny Man trilogy you can guess why I stopped reading after¬†The Golden Fool. I was a little worried that I had forgotten all the important plot points but Robin Hobb is a skilled writer who reminded me of everything important in the first chapter, all without info dumping. It was like I had never left. And so I followed these characters I already loved onto a quest that promised doom for at least one of them. I did cry when certain events came to pass but Hobb managed to deliver an ending that felt both realistic and hopeful – something that’s not exactly the norm for Fitz. No matter how many years pass between books or which series you follow, you just can’t go wrong with Robin Hobb. She is a master of the genre.

Now Kindred by Octavia E. Butler was only my second Butler book but it made me want to go and read everything she’s written. This story of a young Black woman who is randomly transported back in time to a slave plantation does everything you expect plus a little more. Butler doesn’t waste time exploring the time travel mechanisms of her story – they don’t matter – but rather focuses on character and setting. Dana suddenly has to deal with a time when people like her were seen as little more than animals, so this book is exactly as hard to read as you think. It was a powerful story, though, that showed all characters as faceted, believable human beings, as well as highlighting aspects of slavery that especially impact women. This was not a fun read but I can’t recommend it highly enough!

I’ve had some starting problems with Laini Taylor but this year, I gave The Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy another chance and promptly fell into it and read all three books.¬†Daughter of Smoke and Bone still wasn’t a complete hit but worked better for me on the re-read.¬†Days of Blood and Starlight showed that Laini Taylor can expand her fictional world without losing sight of her protagonists, and¬†Dreams of Gods and Monsters brought the tale to its epic, bittersweet conclusion. What I love most about this series is the feeling of myth and lore and history that pervades it all. Even though we learn a lot about Chimaera and Seraphim, it always feels like there’s more hiding just around the corner. The relationships in this story were amazing, both the romantic ones as well as the friendships and found families that are made along the way. Oh, and of course, it’s written in beautiful, lyrical prose.

I also used this year to finish the Strange the Dreamer duology by picking up Muse of Nightmares and, boy, did that book rip my heart out. Again, Laini Taylor expands an already intriguing fantasy world and shows us just how much more there is out there. She also adds some new characters that put me through an emotional roller coaster. What I love most about these two books is probably the villains – or lack thereof. There are antagonists but as we get to see the world through their eyes, it becomes clear they’re not Evil. For the entirety of the book, I was sure things would end in tragedy and there couldn’t possibly be a happy end. And I’m not saying things end all that happily (at least not for everyone) but again, there is a tone of hope as well as the satisfaction of having read a complete story. The prose is otherworldly. Serioulsy, I could put quotes from this duology all over my walls.

Francis Hardinge’s Deeplight swept me off my feet a little unexpectedly. I knew Hardinge was a good writer with very original ideas but then she just goes and delivers a YA novel with truly complicated characters and relationships, set in a world with dead underwater gods, with a deaf character, multiple twists, and an exciting plot? Count me in for more Francis Hardinge because this was a pretty perfect YA novel if you ask me. I’m still thinking about some adventurous moments from this book and then I’m impressed yet again at how well constructed it was.
The Lodestar Award went to Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer which I also adored, so shoutout to that book.

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He was a twisty emotional rollercoaster that definitely stands out from other YA novels in that it doesn’t focus on the romance, puts its protagonist through seriously difficult choices, and delivers great solutions to its core mysteries. If you want a fast-paced book that nonetheless takes time to develop its characters, pick this up. Unfortunately, it ends a bit abruptly and as of today, there’s no sequel in sight. Here’s to hoping we’ll get one eventually.


I don’t know about you, but I’m going to call this a pretty successful reading year. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many favorites, especially among the new publications. Many of these books will end up on my Hugo nomination ballot – I’ll post it when the time comes. And who knows, until then I may have caught up on even more awesome books.

If you’ve posted a best of the year list, let me know in the comments. I love looking through other people’s favorite reads of the year. I’m especially interested in 2020 publications that I might have missed or should prioritize. ūüôā

Sisterhood and the Fight for Freedom: Alix E. Harrow – The Once and Future Witches

I was so worried I wouldn’t like this book. Harrow’s debut novel¬†The Ten Thousand Doors of January was good, but not nearly as immersive or emotionally impactful as I had hoped. So I went into her second novel with a bit of scepticism. It took a little while to get going but then it turned into everything I had hoped and more.

THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Orbit, 2020
eBook: 525 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: There’s no such thing as witches, but there used to be.

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.
But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.
There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

Three sisters – James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna – meet again after seven years of being apart, in the city of New Salem. Through coincidence, or maybe fate. Their relationship is fraught, each feeling the betrayal of the others as keenly as if it happened yesterday. In their past lies a childhood spent with a violent, abusive father and only a loving grandmother and each other for comfort. Juniper, the youngest, was the last to finally escape and is determined to make it on her own. Her sisters, the ones who left her all alone with their father, don’t have to be in her life. After all, they left, didn’t they? And if the three Eastwoods are thrown together again through the suffragist movement, that doesn’t mean they have to love each other, right?

For a long time, maybe a third of the book, I felt that it would have been better served if we followed only one protagonist – June – instead of head hopping between the three Eastwood sisters. Because during the beginning of the novel, none of them ever got to shine fully due to the frequent switches between them. Whenever I’d feel like I was getting to know one sister, we’d jump to one of the others. Juniper was the only one who was intriguing from the start, but both Agnes and Bella stayed rather bland for quite some time. Bella, the mopey, quiet librarian who just wants to stay out of everyone’s way didn’t have much to interest me (except being a lesbian in a time when that was considered shameful). Whenever we’d see glimpses of her hopes and dreams and things got interesting, however, we’d promptly move on to Agnes. Her defining characterstic (at least at the beginning) is her pregnancy and the fact that she works in a mill under terribel conditions. She stays away from people and doesn’t want to bond with anyone because that means she could get hurt. Again, not much to aspire to and thus, not much of interest to me as the reader.

But things improve over the course of the novel, and they improve greatly! By the second half of the book, I felt like I knew the Eastwood sisters much better. It was mostly the bond between the three that helped them come to life. But their seperate story lines also started to shine. Bella’s infatuation with the Cleopatra Quinn leads her to discover a whole different part of New Salem, the Black community, which also has its own witchy ways and words and is fighting its own fight for freedom.
Agnes meets August Lee, a man who doesn’t just see her as a beautiful object but who acutally admires her spirit and capabilities. And Juniper grows up a whole lot throughout this novel. Her wild spirit doesn’t get dampened so much as she learns that her first impulse is not necessarily always the best course of action. Watching these three grow, each as her own person as well as in their role as sisters, was a thing of pure beauty!

Harrow also did a magificent job showing the utter unfairness of the time and setting. The Sisters of Avalon – an organisation of suffragist witches – want to gain voting rights for women with the help of a little witchcraft – which sounds nice and all, but becomes all the more tangible when you see what they’re up against. It’s not just that they have no rights currently, it’s how the system is rigged against them, how any grasp for the tiniest bit of power is immediately thwarted – and sometimes by the very people they are fighting for!
Gideon Hill is running for mayor of New Salem and while he is a bit of an overdrawn villain, his methods aren’t fantastical at all but all too realistic. Discrediting the opposition wherever possible, making them out to be sinful, evil, and deserving of severe punishment makes it harder for the Sisters to gain traction. They’re fighting for all women, yet women stand against them just the same as powerful men do. Out of fear, out of conviction… it doesn’t really matter. Hill’s blatant disregard for the law for his own personal gain reminded me a bit too much of our current situation. This book is set in the 1890s…

I also quite enjoyed the magic system if you want to call it that. In order to work a spell, you need the words and the ways (and the will but that one’s easy). The words could be a rhyme or a little song, the way may involve an item or a strong emotion – it may not be a strict magic system, but it felt real, and the words and ways always made sense and fit the respective spell.
What was so fascinating about it, though, was how these spells have been handed down through generations of women. Witch hunts happened and many of the spell books were burned alongside their witches, but that doesn’t mean witchcraft has died altogether. Women just had to become cleverer in the way they handed down their knowledge to the next generation. They hid it in plain sight. Discovering some of these witchy words and ways alongside the Eastwood sisters gave me so much joy!

One thing that could have been done better was the side characters. It was lovely to have a Black side character who shows us the time and setting from a different perspective – one even less privileged than our three white protagonists. But Cleopatra Quinn never quite makes it out of the sidelines, she’s always just hovering there in her function as love interest and as a mouthpiece for the Black community of New Salem.
What I found a real shame, however, was the last minute transgender character. That really felt like it was just thrown in for added diversity. And while I do appreciate that Harrow shows us all sorts of different women, this could have been done better or at least integrated into the story somehow. The way it was done is just that a character randomly announces that they’re a trans woman at the end of the book.

All that said, I love how diverse the cast of characters was. I did at times question that everyone is so immediately accepting of people who were not, at that time, generally accepted. Of course I want my protagonists to be good people without biases but I found it very strange that Bella was incredibly ashamed about her being a lesbian, yet had not a moment of doubt about falling for a Black woman. You could argue that the group of women thrown together in this story are all fighting for the same thing – for their rights and their freedom – and that racial differences, sexual preferences, or assigned genders don’t matter. Because they really don’t! But this book¬†is set in 1893 and that made the unquestioning acceptance a little anachronistic to me.
The same goes for the gender swapping of famous story tellers and collectors. In this universe, it was the Sisters Grimm and Andrea Lang who are renowned collectors of stories. Which is cute and all but not really believable. Who would publish books by women in a time when women had next to no rights? I mean, the whole book is about this issue, yet we’re supposed to believe that women authors are just as respected as men and would even have been published? I don’t know…
But all of that said, in the end, I reminded myself that this was a fictional story that also hat magic in it, set in a made-up place with more than one liberty when it comes to actual history. So I rolled with it and simply enjoyed reading about these women all working together in a beautiful way.

The story itself takes a while to get going and at least in the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to focus on. Harrow sets up several plot strings right from the start but her focus shifts throughout the book. You have the difficult relationship between June, Bella, and Agnes and you have the suffragist movement – which teaches June that there’s a lot more paperwork involved than she would like. But then something weird is going on with people’s shadows, Agnes is pregnant and not sure if she wants to be, and Bella is falling in love with a Black woman who may not be completely trustworthy. It’s a lot!
Give the book some time, it finds its pace and it definitely finds its heart. It’s a pretty long book so I’m surprised that I’m saying this, but it wouldn’t have hurt if the first half of it had been even longer. Instead of rushing through the set-up for all those plot strings, we could have spent more time with the protagonists, getting to know them a bit earlier, and getting a feel for this world. But no harm done. As I said, after a while, I was completely in the story, feverishly turning the pages, needing to know what happened next and if things would turn out okay.

By the end, Alix E. Harrow had me near tears on several occasions. I can’t tell you any of the specific moments without spoiling them but I can explain why they gave me such warm feelings. You see all sorts of women working together as a group for the greater good, despite terrible odds, despite enormous danger to themselves and their loved ones. There are no petty fights, there’s no jealousy, there’s simply weighing the cost against the potential gains. There’s loyalty and friendship and love. And magic, of course!
It’s not a spoiler to say that the Eastwood sisters do resolve their problems and grow together more and more over the course of this story, and this was another thing that brought me to tears several times. Harrow describes their bond in such a beautiful way and she doesn’t need flowery declarations of sisters love to do it. She lets her characters’ actions speak for themselves and I think that’s what made this book so powerful.

I started out with trepidation, slowly found my way into this story, and by the end I was all aglow and want to push all of you guys to read it too. So although The Ten Thousand Doors of January didn’t work for me 100%, I’m glad to say that Alix E. Harrow is still one of my favorite authors and that I’ll be watching closely for her next book. She’s going to spiderverse a fairy tale (Sleeping Beauty) with two Tordotcom novellas and I AM THERE FOR IT! But for now, I’ll simply enjoy that feeling after you’ve finished reading a truly great book that warms your heart and makes you feel like magic hasn’t completly gone from the world after all.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!

 

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Series

Here’s my last instalment of the Reading the Hugos series for this year. I’ve done better than ever before in this category but disclaimer right here: I didn’t even get close to reading all the books in all the nominated series.

For my thoughts and rankings (currently) of the other categories, go here:

This is probably the toughest category for me (and many others) to judge. While a Best Novel or Lodestar nomination may happen for book two or three in a trilogy, it rarely happens for part 12 of a long-running series. Which is the entire reason this category exists! So that book series can be honored even when their first book(s) didn’t garner a lot of acclaim or weren’t as well known yet. Sometimes the tale grows with the telling, sometimes it’s only after a few books that characters really get to shine, and sometimes a trilogy in its entirety is just so much more than the sum of its parts.

The Finalists for Best Series

I’ve been gushing about The Winternight Trilogy ever since the first book came out. While the first is still my favorite, simply because its fairy tale vibe and atmosphere is so dear to my heart, I can’t deny that Arden actually got better with every book. The Winter of the Witch was a worthy and beautiful ending to a pretty epic story. I loved it to pieces, I nominated the books for Best Novel every year, so it would warm my heart to see the trilogy as a whole take home a Hugo. While the first book could be read as a standalone, the trilogy definitely tells a larger tale that is well worth exploring. Full of atmosphere, great multi-layered characters, and Russian history, it’s the perfect trilogy for reading on a winter night.

I started The Wormwood Trilogy from scratch and was very impressed with the first book. Yes, the reviews are right – it¬†is a confusing book, jumping between different timelines, different levels of existence and dealing with a lot of fresh ideas. Kaaro is a former thief who now works for a special branch of the government as an interrogator. It’s not the kind of interrogation you might think, though. Kaaro is also a sensitive – one of the people who got some sort of mind reading powers from the alien biodome around which Rosewater is built – so he can just go into a prisoner’s mind and have them spill the beans on whatever the government wants to know. And although that’s already a lot, there’s even more¬†to discover in this book. It’s a wild ride with crazy ideas and while I definitely struggled to keep the timeline straight in my head, it was a great experience.

Emma Newman’s¬†Planetfall surprised me in many ways. I had only read her previous fairy-inspired series and didn’t much like it. Not only did Newman create a fantastic science fictional world here but her writing is also just phenomenal There was not a single second in the first book, Planetfall, where I was bored. Renata lives on the one and only space colony on a distant planet. She and others followed Lee Suh-Min to this place in order to find God. However, Renata and the Ringmaster Mack have a secret, one that involves the colony’s religious ceremonies… When a stranger arrives at the colony, things are put into motion and Ren’s many secrets are revealed over the course of this novel. This was exciting, filled with awesome ideas about life on a different planet, and Ren is one of the most intriguing protagonists I’ve ever read about. It’s hard to say much without spoiling but just do yourself the favor and pick this book up!

Although the cover screams that this isnot for me, I did give InCryptid by Seanan McGuire a try. After all, I quite like her October Daye series, so why not try her other urban fantasy? Well, now I know why. Because of all the things I dislike in books, McGuire picked most of them and threw them all together. A super-perfect heroine, a plot that doesn’t start until a third of the book is over, and that third being filled with info dumps and mentions of how great the heroine is. I hated Verity from the get go because I just don’t like Mary Sues without nuance or flaws, and a girl shooting someone while wearing heels doesn’t impress me. When she does something intolerably stupid (although she is supposed to be so perfect), that was it for me. The final nail in the coffin was the forced love interest that is the opposite of organic and feels like it was just thrown in there because you¬†have to have romance in your urban fantasy. As I didn’t care for anything in this book, I finally DNFd it at 34%. This book is the definition of Not My Thing.

When I started reading Luna by Ian McDonald, I knew very soon that I wouldn’t be able to be super fair to this book. It can be summed up as a Mafia story set on the moon – and how cool is that? – which puts it in the uncomfortable position of being compared in my mind to Jade City by Fonda Lee. I know that’s not fair and I know I should keep those books separate in my head but I am only human and that’s just how my brain works.
Mind you, although it’s tough for any book to be as great as Jade City, I still enjoyed this one. I didn’t think the character work was quite as well done, but as to not be even more unfair, I tried to focus on the worldbuilding. This is science fiction about a society living on the moon, ruled by the Five Dragons (old families running big corporations). There is no criminal law, only contracts. If you can’t pay for air, well, that’s too bad. The plot had massive pacing problems (or just… non-existence problems) but the writing was great and the ending had me reading with my mouth gaping open. Not my favorite but I will continue the series someday.

The series I feel most uncomfortable ranking is The Expanse. I read the first book shortly after it came out but I just haven’t kept up with the series. We are currently at seven volumes, so even if I had managed to read Caliban’s War in time, I wouldn’t have been able to judge the series fairly. My hope is that it will be nominated again in a few years and I’ll have caught up by then. As long as the series is still ongoing, there’s still hope. And I don’t have to feel too bad for ranking it based solely on its first volume.

My ballot (probably)

  1. Katherine Arden – The Winternight Trilogy
  2. Emma Newman – Planetfall
  3. Tade Thompson – The Wormwood Trilogy
  4. The Expanse
  5. The Luna Trilogy
  6. No Award
  7. Seanan McGuire – InCryptid

As mentioned above, I took the next best approach to reading all the books in all the nominated series, which is to at least read the first volume in each series and continue on with those that interested me the most – if the first book doesn’t capture my attention enough for me to want the second book, then the series will proably not be my top choice. Even if the series in general gets better after book 3 or 5 or whatever, I’m not going to like it as much as a series that was great right from the start. At least that’s my reasoning. I also hate when people justify long series by saying things like “Oh, it really gets going around volume 4”. Why do I have to force myself through three mediocre or even bad books to get to the fun part? Shouldn’t the series have started with the fun part?

That’s why I only read the first book in the InCryptid series and I won’t be reading another book of that series even if it inevitably gets nominated again. I am going to vote for No Award in my sixth slot because, try as I might, I don’t see any reason why this could be deserving of an award. Considering the other finalists, this book just shouldn’t be here. It offers no original ideas, the writing is the laziest version of Urban Fantasy trope-land, the protagonist is plain bad, and the plot didn’t promise anything new. Yeah… I really hated it. But even apart from my personal taste, I think it is objectively not a great book that shouldn’t be in the company of these other finalists.
Luna and the Expanse might still switch places on my ballot. It’s been so long since I read Leviathan Wakes. On the other hand, Luna was the last book I read. I enjoyed both but one was definitely more fun and one had more ambitious science-fictional ideas. And I don’t know how either of their sequels handle characters and world building, so I’m pretty much just ranking them by gut feeling.
As for Emma Newman and Tade Thompson, both first books were utterly stunning, so I definitely need a second one to make a final decision on where to rank them. Unfortunately, time is  running out. I definitely plan to finish both these series, but when I had to decide on which one to continue first, Planetfall won. So this, and this alone, is the reason I am ranking it above Rosewater (for now). I am going to start the sequels for both of these books today and I may still finish them before voting closes. But with the decision making power I have at my disposal at this moment, this is where they go on my ballot.

And this is it for my Reading the Hugos series. I’m sad I didn’t get to the finalists for the Astounding Award or Best Related Work. I read half of the Astounding finalists but I definitely won’t catch up on the rest before Hugo voting is over. And, to be quite honest, I look forward to just reading whatever I want again.

Reading the Hugo finalists has been incredibly rewarding and led me to discover some truly fantastic books and probably even new favorite authors. But now that I’m done, I feel relieved that I can pick up a book by mood and catch up on 2020 releases. There’s an entire Murderbot novel waiting for me! And I got a gorgeous hardcover edition of Octavia Butler’s Parable duology that wants to be read.

I will be nominating and voting in the Hugo Awards again next year. And if everything works out well, I may even do another Reading the Hugos series. ūüôā

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Novel

And here it is. The big one. The Hugo for Best Novel is the one I’m always most excited for, even though the other categories offer plenty of amazing stories.

You can find my tentative ballots and thoughts on the other finalists here:

Just like last year, I had already read four of the six finalists for Best Novel when they were announced. Catching up on the final two was easy enough.
In general, I really like this ballot. There is one book that I personally disliked but as a representation of what was most talked about and got the most acclaim from fans last year, it definitely deserves its spot on the list. Even the Seanan McGuire (I’m biased because her fans nominate everything as long as it’s written by her) was a pretty good book, although I would have preferred to see something different in its spot, like¬†Black Leopard, Red Wolf¬†(which I’m still in the middle of but which would so deserve to be nominated).

The Finalists for Best Novel

Oh man, this is so hard! My top two spots are fairly easy but having to rank one above the other makes it a lot more difficult. I’m talking about A Memory Called Empire and¬†The Light Brigade, of course. Both of these books blew my mind, although in very different ways. But only one of them also got me hooked emotionally, so I’m going with that one as my top choice.

A Memory Called Empire is a debut novel (all the more impressive) that has so many layers, it’s hard to pick a favorite bit. It’s about a space empire and one little space station that’s still independent. That station’s embassador has died and so Mahit Dzmare is sent to the capital as his replacement. It turns out he’s been murdered and Mahit wants to find out why and by whom. So far for the basic plot, but there’s so much more to discover. The cultural aspects, the technology, the relationships between the multi-layered characters, the language conventions, I just loved everything about this book. And then it’s well-written too! I can’t wait for the sequel to come out because this is such an immersive world with fresh ideas by a great storyteller.

Close on its heels is¬†The Light Brigade, the first fiction I’ve read by Kameron Hurley. And what a gorgeous mind-fuck it was! I love stories that are also puzzles and this is a perfect example. It’s a military sci-fi novel very much in the vein of Heinlein’s¬†Starship Troopers but clearly in conversation with the MilSF that came before. Dietz goes through gruelling military training, becomes a soldier and jumps via super cool technology to fight on Earth, on Mars, wherever the supervisors send them. But something’s not right. Dietz ends up returning from missions nobody has heard of or is sent on missions that don’t have anything to do with what the briefing was about…
There are a lot of things to figure out in this book and you definitely have to keep track of what’s going on when and where. But it is so rewarding and the ending was so fantastic that I couldn’t help but love it. The only reason this goes below Arkady Martine’s book on my ballot is that I wasn’t as emotionally involved with the characters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a book whose idea impresses me more than its execution. It’s all there, all the little things I love best about books and stories. The promise of adventure and magic and secret worlds behind doors. What we get is half a novel about a passive protagonist doing pretty much nothing. Then come some snippets of a book within a book that were brilliant, and a slightly more exciting third act to finish things up. So it’s a difficult book to rate. I loved some aspects of it so very much, I thought others were trying hard to achieve something they couldn’t – the lyrical language didn’t feel natural, it felt like Harrow pondered over every word, trying super hard to make it sound poetic. And January just isn’t a very good protagonist because she is so bland and passive and takes ages to become interesting. But once the story gets going, it’spretty great. And as for the book within the book – I absolutely adored it and would have gladly read 500 more pages of it. Also, this novel actually grew fonder in my memory the longer it’s been since I read it. I am totally undecided where to put it so it goes somwehere in the middle.

Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame is a pretty ambitious work with a great premise. Two engineered twins – one with a gift for language, the other a math prodigy – are separated as children to grow up in different families. The two of them combined embody the Doctrine of Ethos, something that basically gives them control over the world. But all Roger and Dodger want is friendship. They can communicate sort of telepathically and spend their lives trying to get together and being separated again.
With an overdrawn, slightly ridiculous villain and sloppy world building, this book still offered characters I rooted for and a plot that kept me turning the pages. Sure, there’s a lot of handwaving going on, none of the magic/science is ever explained or makes much sense, but there are great ideas here. It’s also a book of missed opportunities when it comes to the writing style and the anticlimactic ending. But overall, I enjoyed reading it. I probably wouldn’t give it an award but I’d recommend it to a friend.
ETA: I just had a thought when I was looking at the novella and series ballot and now I can’t let go of it. Seanan McGuire is so damn prolific, she publishes like 5 things every year. If she had spent more time on this one novel and not continued her various series in 2019, this could have been an entirely different beast! There’s so much potential here that it could have been a clear winner. But I guess if you churn out several full-length novels, a novella and a bunch of short stories in seven different universes, you just don’t have the time to spend on re-writes or thinking every aspect of your novel through. Maybe, one day, I’ll get my wish and see what McGuire really is capable of.

I was so excited for The City in the Middle of the Night¬†because Anders’ first novel,¬†All the Birds in the Sky, was right up my alley. She took quite a different route in this SF novel, set on a tidally locked planet that can only be inhabited by humans on a small strip of land between night and day. And while I really liked the book by the end, it took a long time for me to get into it. And I thought that Anders tackled maybe a few too many themes for one novel. She executed some of them brilliantly, others not so much, but I wanted just a bit more. I also didn’t connect with the characters for a long time. Again, by the ending, I was all in it, but that doesn’t change that I struggled during the start of this book. And that’s why it’s so hard to rank. On a pure enjoyment level, this book goes below Middlegame. On an ideas and skill level, it is above Middlegame. Where McGuire has only a little to say about humanity as such, Anders brings in the big guns, holds up a mirror to society and makes me think!

I’m one of the three people in the world who hated¬†Gideon the Ninth. You guys, I like the idea of “lesbian necromancers in space” as much as the next person, but when I don’t get what I’m promised I get pissy. Instead of lesbian necromancers in space, I got 50 characters who aren’t distinguishable from each other, in a locked castle, sometimes doing some cool magic shit, sometimes doing cool sword shit (but nut nearly enough of either). Gideon may be a lesbian but other than her remarks about other women’s sexiness, this has no bearing on the plot. Which is also a mess, by the way. This book didn’t know what it wanted to be when it grew up so it just became a bit of everything but none of it well. Other than Gideon and Harrow, nobody had personality (I dare you to tell me any of the other House’s names or personality traits), the plot jumped from one thing to the next, never finding its focus. The end battle went on waaaaay too long. But the action scenes involving magic were pretty cool, as were the puzzles Gideon and Harrow have to solve. Is that really enough for an award? For me, no. It’s a mess that’s more obsessed with its own aesthetics than with good storytelling

My ballot (probably)

  1. Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire
  2. Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade
  3. Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January
  4. Charlie Jane Anders – The City in the Middle of the Night
  5. Seanan McGuire – Middlegame
  6. Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth

I will most likely change spots 3 through 5 a lot in the next few weeks. I’m already struggling with my own ratings and how to decide which book is more deserving of an award than the others.

The top two books are easy. They did what they set out to do so well and they entertained and engaged me on many levels – what more can I want, really?
But then come the books that had one or two things going for them but didn’t do so well in other aspects. Now how do I decide whether a book that was more fun but maybe less accomplished should get an award rather than a book that takes risks but is a bit more of a struggle to read? I may have posted my ballot here for you to see but I very much doubt it’s going to look exactly like this when I hit that save button before voting closes.

Up next week: Best Graphic Story

Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Short Story

It’s Hugo Awards reading season! To celebrate all the amazing finalists, I thought I would do a series of short reviews for each category as well as show you what my ballot will most likely look like. Ballots are definitely subject to change, especially in categories where I had several favorites.
Every Monday, we’ll look at a different category until I run out of time – or out of steam. I’m still catching up with the finalists, especially in the series category, but I hope I can keep up this schedule.

  • Best Short Story
  • Best Novelette
  • Best Novella
  • Lodestar
  • Best Graphic Story
  • Best Novel
  • Best Series

I’m not a big short story reader. In fact, I almost only read short stories that are Hugo finalists because there’s just too much out there and I mostly don’t get a lot out of it. I usually want my stories bigger and meatier but there is something to be said for an author who can evoke an emotional response in the span of only a few pages. Here are six of them on one of my favorite Hugo shortlists ever.

The Finalists for Best Short Story

  • Alix E. Harrow – Do Not Look Back, My Lion
  • S. L. Huang – As the Last I May Know
  • Shiv Ramdas – And Now His Lordship is Laughing
  • Rivers Solomon – Blood is Another Word for Hunger
  • Fran Wilde – A Catalog of Storms
  • Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography ¬†on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island

This went differently than expected. I loved Alix E. Harrow’s winning short story last time, so I fully expected her story to be in my top spot again. But the competition is tough!

I didn’t like Fran Wilde’s YA novel Updraft at all, so I was surprised at how deeply I cared about the characters in A Catalog of Storms. The story is about the weather and yet it utterly engaged me! Sila, the youngest of three daughters, is the first person narrator who shows us how she and her family live. Storms have been ravaging their home, so much so that humans mostly stay inside and hide. That is, until the weathermen appeared. These people learned to name the terrible storms and thus control and fight them. To become a weatherman is a great honor, although they usually end up dissolving into weather themselves. When Sila’s sister shows signs of turning into a weatherman, the family has to deal with that loss.
I can’t believe how much Wilde packed into this short story! Not only did she make me care for all the characters but she also immersed me in a highly original world. I was deeply impressed!

Alix E. Harrow may not have written my favorite of the nominated stories, but¬†Do Not Look Back, My Lion was still very good. It’s about a warrior people who brand their babies right after birth to become fierce warriors. Eefa, husband to the legendary warrior nicknamed the Lion, has had enough, though. She is a healer and as such has very low social status. But she doesn’t want to watch her children go off to war and come back injured. Or maybe not come back at all.
While I loved the central relationship and the character growth in this story, I felt the world building just didn’t work for me. There were nice touches, like the gods of Life and Death, but to me the question of¬†why these people are eternally at war remained until the end. It’s not the point of the story at all but it kept nagging at the back of my mind.
But for the excellent character work and beautiful writing, I still loved this story.

I know S. L. Huang as the author of the Russell’s Attic series as well as the super-heartbreaking¬†The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist. I never read her trilogy but I know she can get me all emotional with her stories. But As the Last I May Know does more than that. It’s set in a future where weapons of mass destruction can only be used with the proper codes (so far, so normal), except these codes are embedded in a child who the president personally has to kill in order to get the codes. This idea alone was so mind-blowing that I wouldn’t even have needed the characters to love this story. But we do follow the ten-year old protagonist who is chosen to carry those launch codes and we see her spend a few years close to the president. Because there is a serious war going on and he may have to kill her in order to save his country…
I cannot put into words the emotional roller coaster this tale put me on. It’s a brilliant idea but we see it through such wonderful characters that every little change in the war physically hurts. It poses questions about ethics, about the value of a human life, about the Greater Good, and it kept me thinking a long time after I finished reading it. This is what all the best stories should do.

I loved Rivers Solomon’s novella, The Deep, and I was almost as taken with their short story,¬†Blood Is Another Word for Hunger. It has one of the best (and longest) opening lines I’ve ever read and the prose is just beautiful. It starts with Sully, a slave girl, slaughtering the entire family for whom she works, and then suddenly being struck pregnant and giving birth to a girl that grows up to be a teenager within minutes. The universe needs balance, after all, and with five people dead, it seems only fair that five others come back to life – in this case, via Sully’s womb. This way, a little family grows and they start to make a life for themselves.
While I enjoyed reading this story, I’m not quite sure what Solomon was trying to achieve with it. Obviously, a slave rising up to take control of her own life was satisfying enough to drive the plot, but the story as a whole and especially the ending left me a bit puzzled.

Shiv Ramdas’ story And Now His Lordship is Laughing is about an old woman in India who makes beautiful – and somewhat magical – dolls. When her craft attracts the attention of an English lord, she refuses to make a doll for his wife because that’s just not how things are done. You don’t demand a doll, you are given one as a gift if the maker so chooses. What follows is a period of poverty, terrible hunger (and death following that hunger) because the English take things from the people to supply their own armies. When eventually, the protagonist does agree to make a dool for His Lordship’s wife, it comes with a caveat. She wants to hand the doll over herself and show the English lady how to make the magical toy laugh.
I loved how this story managed to say so many things about colonialism, cultural differences and the ways we perceive them, and the cost of an empire. It’s a beautifully written story but, unfortunately, a rather predictable one. Satisfying as the ending was, it didn’t really surprise me. The one truly emotional moment for me happened much sooner and is the catalyst for what happens next. I enjoyed it and I want to read more by Ramdas but on this ballot, it will be ranked rather low.

The last story I read messed up my entire ranking up until that point. Ten Excerpts not only has important things to say but also does so by playing with its medium. Nibedita Sen presents her story just like the title suggests – as excerpts from a bibliography on the women of Ratnabar Island. Through these very (!) short snippets, we get a story that spans generations and continents! I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to write something like this. When colonists “discovered” the women of Ratnabar island, they took some of them with them to England for a “proper education”, starting something much bigger and more vicious than they probably knew.
I won’t say much about the plot, if you can call it that, but holy shit, this story was mind-blowing. It’s so easy to fill in the parts of this history without having to be explicitly told, and I loved how Sen presented excerpts from different sources that have varying opinions on Ratnabar Island and its inhabitants. Most striking were probably the excerpts from the now displaced second- or even third-generation Ratnabarian women living abroad. My gut reaction after reading this was: Yeah, this is my top spot.

My ballot (probably)

  1. S. L. Huang – As the Last I May Know
  2. Nibedita Sen РTen Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography  on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island
  3. Fran Wilde – A Catalog of Storms
  4. Alix E. Harrow – Do Not Look Back, My Lion
  5. Rivers Solomon – Blood is Another Word for Hunger
  6. Shiv Ramdas – And Now His Lordship is Laughing

You’ll see that the Nibedita Sen story is not in my top spot but that’s only because I have stewed over this ballot for quite a while. I may yet change the top two spots, depending on how I feel about these stories once a little time has passed after reading them. I am silmpy so very taken with Huang’s basic premise and her characters were the ones that felt most fleshed-out on this ballot that I don’t want to take it from my top spot at the moment.
I’m happy with Fran Wilde on my third spot, but after that, it gets difficult again.
I enjoyed all these stories and they all did interesting things, were written beautifully, and got some emotional reaction out of me.
The reason Shiv Ramdas’ story is currently at the bottom is simply because it was the most predictable one for me, so my pure enjoyment of it was just a tad less than with the other stories.
Rivers Solomon’s story was fantastic but I’m still not quite sure about the ending. And Alix E. Harrow’s story simply had standout character work. So nothing on this ballot is really secure, I may shift around a lot of things, but nothing will jump from the very top to the very bottom or vice versa.

Except for Wilde and Harrow’s tales, all the stories deal with issues of race, colonialism, or slavery and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these stories resonate so much with WorldCon members. These topics are more timely than ever and I am so grateful that I got to see them through the eyes of such brilliant, talented writers. There’s not a single bad story on here and I want to read more by each of these authors. So we’re off to a pretty amazing start when it comes to this year’s Hugo reading! And I believe can all use something to keep our hope and spirits up in these trying times.

Up next week: Best Novelette

Pretty yet disappointing: Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January

There was one book in 2019 that I had been looking forward to more than any others. I adored Alix E. Harrow’s Hugo-winning short story (“A Witch’s Guide to Escape”, her blog, her writing in general, and the synopsis of her first novel sounded so utterly perfect that I had it pre-ordered as soon as it was listed on Amazon. Then the rave reviews came in and I was sure I was in for a treat. But – and this is my theme of 2019, apparently – hypes around certain books are not to be trusted. This was by no means a bad book! But it didn’t deliver what was promised and that was enough to leave me disappointed yet again.

THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY
by Alix E. Harrow

Published by: Redhook, 2019
Hardcover: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: When I was seven, I found a door.

In the early 1900s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.
In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.
Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.
Lush and richly imagined, a tale of impossible journeys, unforgettable love, and the enduring power of stories awaits in Alix E. Harrow‚Äôs spellbinding debut‚Äďstep inside and discover its magic.

January Scaller lives in a big old house with Mr. Locke, the man who has taken her in as a ward and given her father a job hunting for archeological artifacts. As a girl who’s not white (although nobody is sure just what color her skin is and with which specific prejudices people should meet her) in the early 20th century, January is constantly reminded how lucky she is to have such a benefactor. January gets an education, has a myriad of odd things to discover in Locke’s house, and yet never feels quite right.

We meet January as a meek but curious (in the sense of interested) girl who is bound by the laws of her time and her benefactor. Be quiet, stay in the background, be polite, don’t show too much emotion, don’t try to grow above your station… those are the rules January has to live by and she knows they suck just the way I knew it when I started reading this book. So it’s easy to feel sympathy for our protagonist but despite that sympathy, I had a hard time truly caring about January. She was like a portrait to me. Distant, a specimen, a sketchy character study rather than a person who felt real. Early on in this book, we are told (sometimes shown, but on many occasions just told, in exceedingly pretty words) that January is bookish, yearns to belong somewhere, kind of misses and doesn’t miss her absent father, and kind of loves but maybe doesn’t really love Locke, who has been more father to her than her actual one.

But not totally feeling the protagonist is not a reason to give up on this book. The language – oh, the language – was so lovely, I thought it might keep me reading all by itself. Who cares about plot or character when there are such words, strung together to paint pictures in my mind. It turns out, I did care eventually. The writing style, though without a doubt beautiful and lyrical, also gave me a sort of… studied impression. I don’t know how to explain it better (I wish I had Harrow’s talent for words right now!), but I never had the impression that those gorgeous descriptions flowed organically, but rather that they were researched and thought about and put there precisely at the right point with a scalpel. That may not change anything about how beautiful the prose is as such, but it left a sort of bitter aftertaste for me.

As for the other characters, most of them felt as distant to me as January. We are told many things about the small cast, but for my taste, we didn’t see enough of their actions to truly get to know them. Even Bad, January’s dog, didn’t excite me – and I’m usually a sucker for animals in stories. Sure, I wanted the good guys to win and the bad guys to fail, but I wasn’t really in it. Speaking of the bad guys. If the revelations at the end of the book were supposed to be unexpected plot twists, they failed miserably. It was very obvious from a very early point that there is something wrong with certain people and it didn’t even take that much imagination to figure out most of the truth, minor details excluded.

Which leads me to the plot as such. It is slow! It takes a long, long time to truly get started because the book is so focused on producing pretty words to describe things that almost nothing happens for the first half of the book. Well, almost nothing. My favorite part of this story – and the part that should have been a whole entire book, if I had anything to say about it – was the book within a book. January finds a book called “The Ten Thousand Doors” one day and starts reading it. We get to read that book too, in alternating chapters (one chapter January story, one chapter book within a book), and while it also took me a chapter to warm to that story, I ended up really loving it. I cared about the characters in that story, I wanted to learn more about them and more about the world they come from. So, the actually fictional “Ten Thousand Doors” was a fantastic book for me, but sadly way too short, as it’s only part of the real world Ten Thousand Doors of January.

That title and the synopsis on the back of the book also imply things that are simply not delivered. Of course I didn’t expect to actually discover ten thousand doors into other worlds with our protagonist, but I was hoping for at least a few of them. We only really get to see one in any detail, and the world building for that had its own kind of magic that reminded me of Strange the Dreamer. It was everything I’d hoped for. Unfortunately, we spend most of our time in the real world, so this is more historical novel than fantasy (again, not a bad thing, but marketing led me to believe differently and I feel a little cheated). There simply wasn’t enough magic for my taste, at least during the first two thirds of the book.

Now, the last third finally got going. Every gripe I’ve mentioned above sort of goes away toward the end. January finally acts instead of just reacting to her surroundings, the plot turns into a thrilling ride with dangerous situations, plenty of magic and mythology, and I finally got the message of this story. It’s about love, spanning decades and worlds, about family and belonging, about finding out who you are and carving out your own place in the world. I really loved the ending of this book, but I can’t say it made up for the hours I spent reading just so I could get it done. I was bored for long stretches of this book and even the pretty writing didn’t help me get over my disappointment of finding something very different from what I had expected.

I know I’m pretty alone with that opinion and, believe me, I wish I was one of the many voices who raved about this book and gave it the highest ratings. I love Alix E. Harrow’s writing in general and I will definitely check out whatever she does next. But this book right here ended up being only okay for me.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

Reading the Hugos: Short Story

This seems to be a really good year for me when it comes to keeping up and catching up on books I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The fact that the Hugo nominees are stellar this year doesn’t hurt. While I’m currently making my way through the novelette nominees, I’m already done with the short stories and I’m pretty sure I’ve settled on the way I’m going to rank them on my ballot.

The nominees for Best Short Story

  1. Alix E. Harrow – A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Pratctical Compendium of Portal Fantasies
  2. T. Kingfisher – The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society
  3. Sarah Gailey – STET
  4. Sarah Pinsker – The Court Magician
  5. Brooke Bolander – The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat
  6. P. Djèlí Clark РThe Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

The only short story I had read before the nominee were announced also turned out to be my favorite – if only by a small margin. Alix E. Harrow‘s tale of a witch who works at a library (where else?) and who tries to improve the life of a young boy by putting just the right book in front of him when he seems to need it was moving and beautifully written. It made me remember those early reading days when I first discovered The Neverending Story or got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a present. Books have the power to change lives and Harrow uses that knowledge to weave a wonderful tale with just the right amount of magic.

My second favorite – and no surprise to me – was T. Kingfisher‘s tale of a group of¬† magical beings gathering to tell their woeful tales of a human girl who didn’t behave like she should. We all know when a handsome elf comes your way and makes you fall in love with him, the human should do the pining once he’s gone. But pesky Rose MacGregor won’t have any of it but flips fairy tale tropes on their head. This story was hilarious, refreshing, and features one of Kingfisher’s trademark practical heroines. I adored every single line, some of which made me laugh out loud.

Sarah Gailey’s STET is probably the shortest of the nominated stories but those few pages pack a punch! The story’s form is almost as interesting as its content, written as an academic paper handed in for review. The actual story comes to life in the footnotes (I love footnotes!). Whether this wins or not, I urge you all to read it. On just a few pages, this story made me gasp, think, sent me through so many emotions… Even though it’s not in my top spot, I’d be happy if it took home the Hugo.

Sarah Pinsker’s story was a strange one. I loved the atmosphere it created right from the get go, when a young boy, desperate to learn magic, is recruited to be the Court Magician – a job that takes much more than sleight of hand card tricks. The deeper this new Court Magician sinks into his job, the darker this story becomes. I really enjoyed it, sinister as it was, but while the ending definitely works, I felt there was something missing. So it’s only number 4 in my list.

Brooke Bolander wrote an impressive novelette (also nominated and currently on my number one ballot spot) but while this story was fun and cleverly written, it didn’t resonate with me as much as the others. You get what it says on the tin. The story of three raptor sisters, a stupid prince, a clever princess, some carnage, and a big adventure. I can’t say much more than I liked the story but didn’t love it.

The only story I really didn’t enjoy was P. Dj√®l√≠ Clark‘s tale. I see what he was trying to do, telling a tale for each of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington, but few of those tales were interesting to me, some of them were quite boring, and there wasn’t any payoff at the end of the story. I look forward to reading his nominated novella but this short story just didn’t do it for me.

Much like the nominees for Best Novel, this is a ballot filled with dramatically different stories, which makes it all the harder to choose a favorite. All of these tales are well written, so my judgement is based much more on personal enjoyment and taste than on quality. Had I read them at a different time in my life, in a different mood, I might have ranked them differently, but for now, I’m happy with my choice. I’d be really happy for either of my top 3 to win the award, but I also wouldn’t mind for my numbers 4 or 5 to take it home. A ballot with only a single undeserving story (according to my personal tastes, I know lots of people love Clark’s story!) is definitely a great one.

I’ll continue to read the nominees and let you know what I think of them. I’m almost done with the novels (one and a half books to go, yay!),¬† the Lodestar finalists (3 books to go), and the novelettes – 5 to go, but they are quick reads, so you’ll probably hear about them next.