Over on Literary Twitter, there’s been a conversation in the past few days about The Canon, parts of which is being frequently RT’d.
Like many young sci-fi / fantasy readers, I attempted to read Asimov as a teen because that was The Rule. I gave up after about five pages and went back to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, virtually the only two authors I read in that genre until I was in my early 20s. Every time I found myself in a bookstore, I would flip open the best-selling fantasy novels, and they all read like terrible Tolkien fanfiction: just a list of names and quests and poorly-written prose.
But let not your eyes be deceived, Euripides of Falcor! Our enemy’s grasp of the Inception Power of Grayskull grows ever more powerful. If we stop him not before the Ides of Marchdoom, all the land shall perish! It is folly to think that a firemage alone can halt his evil shadow. We must journey to the Mountains of Flagwhosis, sometimes called Barbadune, and prevent a massacre like the Swordwielder’s Uprising of old.
Tragically, the garbage fire I just wrote above is better than a lot of the sentences I read in the books Barnes & Noble placed on its front-of-store kiosks for WAY too many years.
About a decade ago, something changed. Different types of stories became readily available–and advertised. Different voices were starting to be heard. I believe that Twitter has been an enormous part of that equation. The genre feels completely reinvented, and it continues to evolve. That shift benefits publishers, authors, and readers, specifically traditionally underrepresented populations–and perhaps most of all, little sci-fi-loving girls like Seanan once was. And so I thought I’d write a roundup featuring some of the sci-fi / fantasy novels by women and people of color I’ve read and loved over the past two years or so.
Zeroboxer – Fonda Lee
Fonda’s first YA novel (which is also her debut) follows Carr Luka, a rising zeroboxing star. Zeroboxing is essentially a combination of wrestling and boxing sans gravity. The Zero Gravity Fighting Association decides that he’s the Next Big Thing, so they assign him to Risha, a personal marketing strategist. Luka seems to have it all–fame, fortune, and love. But it turns out that due to interplanetary sociopolitical factors**, romance is fading between Earth and Mars, and he stumbles into a secret that could not only threaten everything in his own life, but might also provoke violence on two worlds.
**Not a phrase I was able to work into my Sociology 101 class.
Fonda’s background is in corporate strategy for sportswear companies, and Zeroboxer is heavily seated in sports marketing culture. As someone completely uninterested in sports, I initially feared that the novel might not hold my interest. I needn’t have worried. Much like Aaron Sorkin’s comedy-drama Sports Night, it’s a tale about sports while not really being about sports at all. And if you happen to enjoy boxing or other combative contests, well, that’s just a bonus.
You’re aware of London, friends. It’s a famous, densely-populated, and historically significant city. Were you aware, however, that there are actually four Londons?
The version known to us, Grey London, hasn’t contained magic in a very long time–but there’s also a Red, lush and beautiful and brimming with sorcery; White, a scorched hellscape where people suffer under the powerful and cruel; and Black, the sealed remains of a city torn apart by magic. Or perhaps not so sealed.
Kell is a royal ambassador and one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare ability to travel between Londons. He’s also a smuggler, a fact he keeps on the down low. As it happens, there are reasons why this is NOT a good idea when you’re involved with magical artifacts. The story features a few different POV characters including Delilah Bard, a thief whom Kell meets in Grey London. She robs him, saves him, and then forces him to drag her into something much bigger and dangerous than either of them understand.
I’ve read the first two books of the trilogy, and I can’t wait to follow these characters wherever they might end up, although things look grim for our heroes and heroines at the conclusion of Book 2. We’ve always heard stories about parallel worlds and sorcery and identity. Those aren’t new ideas, but V.E. Schwab combines them here in a way that makes them feel fresh.
The Parasol Protectorate – Gail Carriger
Although I suppose this is technically paranormal romance and leans comedic rather than serious, there are certainly elements of steampunk, sci-fi, and fantasy bouncing about. Alexia Tarabotti is soulless, which means she has the ability to negate the supernatural powers of others. Set in Victorian London, the five Parasol Protectorate novels see her dragged into a complicated web of werewolves, ghosts, vampires, and proper tea times. There’s also a spinoff series called The Custard Protocol, which apparently follows Alexia’s daughter Prudence (it’s on my To-Read list).
While I enjoy the interactions between her characters, Carriger’s strength is the tone she uses in addressing us, her audience. I was sold early on with sentences like:
Highland werewolves had a reputation for doing atrocious and highly unwarranted *things*, like wearing smoking jackets to the dinner table.
Ivy Hisselpenny was the unfortunate victim of circumstances that dictated she be only-just-pretty, only-just-wealthy, and possessed of a terrible propensity for wearing extremely silly hats.
To my delight, the series is often ridiculous. When our protagonist is attacked by a vampire in the opening chapter of Soulless, the first book in the series, her chief complaint appears to be that he fell onto the very plate of treacle tart she’d been looking forward to eating. I’m not familiar with treacle tart, but I know it’s a dessert of some type, so I can imagine Alexia’s emotional state and fully support it.
Ghost Talkers – Mary Robinette Kowal
Our third book / series in a row set in London, dear Reader. I did not plan to be so London-centric.
Ghost Talkers focuses on Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I. Ginger has possibly the fiercest job ever–she’s a medium for the Spirit Corps. She interrogates soldiers who’ve died immediately after they’re killed so that Britain has instant information about enemy troop movements.
Ginger soon discovers there’s a traitor in the midst. At the same time, the Germans learn about the Spirit Corps and are plotting to destroy it. Being a woman in the early 1900s, the generals don’t take her seriously–she has a small amount of help from her friends and indisposed fiance, but for the most part, she’s on her own.
Two things I really enjoyed about this novel: the fact that we actually have a story set in World War I, which seems to be forever passed over in favor or its successor, and the originality of the conceit. Spirit mediums on the battlefield! A hundred years ago! Who doesn’t want to read about that?
The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin
Frankly, there’s so much happening in this novel that I’m not sure how to adequately summarize it. I’ll simply say this:
I initially disliked the book so much that I tried to talk myself into stopping it. I didn’t understand what was happening. I couldn’t keep track of the characters or what they wanted or where they were headed (both emotionally and geographically). Every time I thought I understood something, I discovered soon afterwards that I didn’t. At about 75 pages in, I asked @jillwebb (who’d read it some months beforehand) if it improved. She recommended that I keep going. I begrudgingly agreed.
Reader, there’s a reason The Fifth Season won the 2015 Nebula, the 2016 Hugo, and several other sci-fi / fantasy awards. It’s brilliant. It engages in numerous practices that any fiction workshop instructor would tell you to aggressively avoid. In anyone else’s hands, the story would be an unsalvageable mess. Once I figured out what Jemisin had done, I yelled at my paperback for a full afternoon. It’s the kind of novel that shouldn’t work, but ends up working so well that it makes your head hurt.
If you haven’t read The Fifth Season, I highly recommend. You might not thank me for a while, but when you do, you’ll mean it.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers
I mentioned the Wayfairers two days ago, and Long Way is the first book in that series (as well as Chamber’s debut novel). A young woman trying to outrun her past signs on to an aging ship full of exotic aliens and intriguing humans. The crew gets offered a chance to tunnel through wormholes, a venture that’s both extremely lucrative and dangerous. Their course takes one year, and along the way, the reader vicariously visits homeworlds and spaceports, and dives into the personal relationships between the characters.
I’ve seen this novel described as “an amalgamation of both Farscape and Firefly,” and I think that’s quite apt. If you’re seeking an action-driven, space-battle fueled book with desperately high stakes where the Universe hangs in the balance, this ain’t it. Long Way is unquestionably a space opera, but on a small, familial scale. It’s much closer to Farscape than it is to Star Wars. And the ending will make you renew your vow to dust the room more often. I’m preparing you now.
Also, President Obama is into it.
The final two books on my list were quite possibly the two most moving novels I read in 2016, to a degree where I had custom charms of them made.
The Night Circus, Morgenstern’s debut, was published in 2011, but for some reason, the title popped up on my Twitter feed again and again in late 2015. I reasoned that if so many friends enjoyed or were interested in reading a particular thing, then surely I ought to check it out. It’s a strange book, centering on a competition between two young magicians, Celia and Marco. The circus is their venue, and their battle one of imagination, a skirmish they’ve trained for their entire lives. Despite their attempts to fight it, the two fall in love–unaware that the rules of the game dictate that only one competitor can survive.
I read the first chapter and I didn’t understand the hype…but I plowed ahead and realized very quickly how wrong I’d been. The Night Circus is beautifully written, and its genius is in the small moments, the tiny details. There are several different settings, but the majority of the scenes occur in–wait for it–Victorian London, to be unintentionally consistent with one of this post’s themes.
Both the film and television rights were optioned shortly after the novel’s publication, and IMDB has an entry for the film adaptation, although it’s currently classified as In Development, and no information is available. I sincerely hope that the project will be abandoned, as so many scripts are. I have no doubt that the special effects would be breathtaking, but the joy of this particular novel–at least for me–isn’t the plot points. It’s the description, the deep characterization that film doesn’t always allow for, the moments where you read sentences that are simply divine and would not translate in any other medium.
We close, dear Reader, with the latest book from my now-favorite author, someone I’d never heard of until I began the first chapter. I read the majority of Station Eleven last year while at sea, and fell in love.
If you’ve read my fiction, you know that in my written work, I favor a style that centers on language and character more than plot. It’s not a conscious choice; it’s just what comes out strongest. Although I read primarily sci-fi and fantasy novels, I also consume a fair amount of literary fiction, but I’d never found an author who, in my opinion, thinks the way I do, who writes in a manner to which I aspire.
I’m not sure if Emily St. John Mandel’s books are perfect, but they’re perfect for me. They’re the books I’ve waited my entire life to read. She’s published four, and I’ve completed three–The Lola Quartet is still on my shelf, and I’m afraid to start it–for if I do, there will be no others.
So…Station Eleven. The story itself–the first half of it, anyway–is one you’ve heard a thousand times. A virus kills most of the population. The survivors band together and learn how to exist in their transformed world. In the second half, the narrative shifts focus to a troupe of actors and musicians who roam the country, which is now a wasteland, trying desperately to maintain some sense of beauty and art, of humanity. Some of them were children when civilization ended and don’t remember much about the World That Was. The novel primarily follows five characters, exploring how fate twists and turns to connects them over a 15-year period.
If the plot sounds a bit too idealistic, too contrived, it is. And it doesn’t matter one iota. It’s what Mandel does what her language, the depth and odd diction, the unconventional dialogue, the flavor of it, if you will****.
****and even if you won’t.
I’ll gush about Station Eleven all day if you let me, so you probably shouldn’t.
Huzzah for sci-fi and fantasy, for representation, for an evolving marketplace.
I can’t wait to read what’s next.