Best of 2018 – Novels and novellas

It’s so hard to pick my favorite books. 

I mean, you read so many, right? Or, well, I read so many. If there were a monster that could only fill the deep gullet of its belly with words, then I would be that monster. I read a LOT. It’s like breathing.

So every year I try to keep a list of the books that make me smile or laugh out loud or weep uncontrollably and every year I doubtless fail. I know there are things that I will miss, books I really loved but that I can’t quite bring myself to put on my best of list and books that touched me despite not being my favorite and really, who am I kidding? I love all the books, unless I don’t. I’m not really a halfway kind of person when it comes to the written word, and so when I read a book I either love it or, more rarely, hate it. If it makes me feel sort of meh, I don’t finish.

Anyway, the point is that these books are happy, good, glowing things that are worth your time. There’s probably something on this list for everyone and if there is something you’ve read and liked and you want to know about stories like it, I can probably point you in the right direction. It’s a talent of mine.

Without further ado, my 2018 list for novels and novellas: 

In Other Lands

Urban Fantasy, Portal Story, Coming of Age, LGBTQ. This book has a lot going on. The pacing is good for the scope of the time that is taken up in this novel. It’s also a standalone, so don’t worry about getting into this and having to commit to some long series. Everything you need is contained within its cover from the beginning. 

I read this book early in the year and it read, for me, like a balm. It’s the story of a boy who is used to not being loved, and all the problems that he makes for himself because of that habit. And it’s the story of his friends, who stand by him despite his best efforts, and of the magical world they call home.  I hope you read it and love it and feel comfort.

The City of Lost Fortunes

I’ve mentioned this book before, but since it technically came out this year I need to mention it again. I met Bryan Camp at WFC in November of 2017, devoured his book, can’t wait for more. Also he’s a cool guy. This book is set in New Orleans, but unlike most of the similar books mining such a rich setting, The City of Lost Fortunes feels real and lived in. That’s probably because Bryan is a native, and a native with good attention to detail and a love for the city he calls home in all of its chaotic glory. Urban Fantasy.

The Stone in the Skull

Epic Fantasy. This book takes place in the same secondary world that Bear previously created for The Range of Ghosts. Because of that, it is easy to see just how far she has come as a writer. Range of Ghosts and the ensuing novels are solid, well-written, and inventive. The prose in The Stone in the Skull, however, practically leaps of the page. It nonetheless loses none of the excellent elements of the original world, expanding on them in ways that feel natural.

Some of my favorite books in secondary world fantasy have been written by this author. Her skill in research in writing is something I aspire towards. Also she’s a gem and she liked my dress at Futurescapes. It is one of the highlights of my life. So I hope you will read this book and enjoy it as much as I did.

Iron and Magic

You may remember a few years back when I discovered Ilona Andrews. This husband and wife team write the most excellent romance and magical action. This year I have read several of their works, since I’ve been in the mood for romance recently, but since I do love the world of Magic Shifts I decided to recommend this one. It is the start of a trilogy that can be read alone, but I wouldn’t waste the chance to read the recently completed Kate Daniels series, of which this story-line is a spin off. Romance, Urban Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic.

Glory’s Teeth

This is the only novella that made my list this year. I did read a few, mind, and there were some exceptional ones. But there is only so much space on this list and I’m kind of pushing it as it is with seven titles instead of my usual five or so. Luckily, you can read Glory’s Teeth as a standalone, though the author has other works in this world if you can’t get enough.

This book was an unexpected find. I actually saw the author post about it through someone else I follow on Twitter, proving that, occasionally, social media does sell books. The story made me absolutely sob. It’s about a girl who also happens to be a wolf destined to consume the world, the torment of feeling empty and alone, and the hunger to be alive. And it is so very, very delicious.  Urban Fantasy, Norse Mythology.

Trail of Lightning

Gritty, inventive, excellent – these are all words one might use to describe Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut release. And it is definitely gritty. The gore in this book is not to be underestimated. Nor is the refreshing approach to the world. Roanhorse uses her own Native heritage as inspiration in creating a dynamic, grungy world where myths come alive, and not always for the better. While it’s not necessarily a hopeful book, it is a solidly vengeful one, and it sets up nicely for future sequels. Action, Urban Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic.

Space Opera

Last but definitely not least, for those of you who haven’t heard of this wonderful book, we have Space Opera. Ambitious it may be, but this book sticks the landing, as Valente is wont to do. In a story reminiscent of Hitchhiker’s Guide but definitely it’s own, with aliens and absurdity and tongue-twisting prose, Valente takes us on a journey that seems to be about what makes good music but is actually about what makes someone human. Above all, this is a hopeful read. It’s the story you didn’t know you needed in 2018, the longest and shortest year on record, and I have it last so that you will remember it best. Science Fiction, Weird, Eurovision.

I hope you enjoy these reads, folks! Don’t forget to let me know if you’ve read one of these, I’d love to hear how you liked it.


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Labor Unions in space and hunting for mermaids

I loved Dune, surprising no one. I grew up on it, after all. But one thing that always bothered me about the story of the sandy Arrakis was the “divine right of kings” subtext throughout. If this also bothered you, you’re in luck. I’ve got a book with none of that going on.

Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells is the book, the first in a duology that concludes with Blood Binds the Pack. This is Dune if Dune were written by a pissed off feminist steeped in socialism, and let me tell you that I am here for that. Much like that book, the world-building in this short series walks the line between fantasy and science fiction. There is mining of special minerals that let people cross galaxies in a blink, and people tweaked and blended with those minerals that are used to pilot the ships across these vast interstellar distances. There is also native contamination by the same minerals, and otherworldly symptoms that come out of it.

That, though, is where the similarities end. No sandworms here. Instead, you’ll get biker gangs and labor disputes,  vision quests and corporate espionage. Also, found families and badass women abound. If this sounds like your jam, I encourage you to check out these books.

OtherLands

Changing pace a bit, let’s talk about a book that has made me laugh out loud more than any other both this year or last. In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is a clever book with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor perpetrated by a very sardonic protagonist. The only complaint I have about this book is that my ship is not canon. I won’t spoil what that ship was, but check this out if you like awkward teen romance done well, elves, mermaids, sword swinging, wonderfully bisexual and otherwise characters, and holier-than-thou brats of a scholastic bent. Also, lots of laughs. So many laughs.

Speaking of bisexual characters, allow me to recommend one last book. Into the Drowning Deep is by Mira Grant, and it is every horror movie you didn’t know you wanted to watch. This is a book with killer mermaids, naive scientists, and a trip out to sea. The main character is again bisexual, and a scientist, and perhaps too driven for her own good. I would certainly not have remained so composed with the mermaids who killed my sister coming for me as well. Expect to feel unsettled and a little iffy around water for a while with this one.


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Cities as Fantasy Settings: a panel retrospective

What a panel, friends. I am not kidding. I was so honored to share space with my co-panelists, Gary K. Wolfe, Kathleen Jennings, and David D. Levine. They were very passionate about the subject, and came to the panel ready to drop some serious knowledge.

I’m not going to get everything we talked about in here. It was 50 minutes of seriously dense conversation, so there’s no way I could condense all of it into one blogpost. However, I’ll endeavor to describe some of my favorite conversational highlights. The panelists also gave tons of book recommendations, and I’ve endeavored to include as many of those as possible in a list below.

To start, I asked the panelists a really simple question: what is a city? We were talking about fantasy settings, which is really just a shorthand way of saying speculative fiction settings in this case. Those settings can span a lot of different kinds of worlds. Accordingly, the definition of a city might change from one world to another. Various definitions of a city were discussed. A city could be considered a system, a place where collaboration and innovation were simplified because of relative population density, and a place the creates the illusion of anonymity. Overall, the panelists felt the city could best be described as a social experiment.

So with that nebulous definition, we jumped into the panel.

The theme of the conference this year was “Secret Histories”. There are a lot of assumptions we make when designing worlds, so I wanted to know was kinds of assumptions or inspiration was used in designing their fantastical cities. David started off by referring to how colony domes in space settlements could function similarly to the defensive walls of older European cities, and comparing that to the cities of the United States – often sprawling, spread wide by quick car traffic and flat, fertile lands. Kathleen pointed out that a lot of cities build upwards on top of themselves, each layer almost geological in nature. She mentioned the subterranean tunnels in New York City, sealed up in the early 1900s and forgotten until one was excavated just recently, which were used to bring cattle into the city to be slaughtered. When she was talking I couldn’t help but thinking of the city as a coral reef, building always on its own bones.

Gary pointed out that this building on a given city was something that you could also trace back in literature – it wasn’t just about the new physical layers of the city, but also the story-layers that had accrued. In his words, “When someone writes about New York, they are writing about everybody else who’s written about New York.”

This raised the question of the city as a living thing. The example that came most readily to my mind of a city embodied was “The City Born Great” by N.K. Jemisin, where the city is literally embodied in an avatar. Kathleen pointed out that there was a difference between a city as a person versus a group or people taking on the genius of a place. She saw the city as more porous, shaped by the people who passed through it as much as it shaped those people.

Discussion turned to other cultures that had inspired city settings in the fantastical, then. We talked, briefly, about how cities in Africa and Asia, for example, have drastically different architectures and designs because colonists often built over existing infrastructure. Cities in the United States, in comparison, and in Australia do not often have that base infrastructure to build on, and are relatively young because of it. The panelists felt that overall, writers are becoming better at depicting a variety of cultures because more material is available about alternate ways of living, thanks to things like the internet.

As might be expected, the topic of urban fantasy as a subgenre came up. After all, talking about fantastical cities inspired by real cities would inherently lead to a discussion of real cities pulled into the fantastic. Several great book recommendations came out of this conversation in particular. One interesting comment made by Gary posited that the city may have replaced the forest as the new wilderness or frontier, which was prominent in much colonial literature. The frontier being conquered, writers were forced to turn to either outer space or to the urban jungle. I personally felt a little uncomfortable with that statement, and asked if that implied an otherization of the city and its inhabitants. To me, describing the city as a frontier implies a certain feeling of antagonism toward the city that might have arisen out of the industrial revolution’s squalor and the collapse of inner cities in the 80s. What about the city feels unnatural or foreign? While we weren’t able to answer that question, I think that it would make a really good research paper, personally.

Anyway, please enjoy this list of recommendations below! I haven’t read most of these so I can’t speak to them, but if you want some of my personal recommendations, you can check out my post from last week. I plan to add quite a few of these to my reading list!


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