Jan 19 2019

Hero at the Fall (Rebel of the Sands #3) by Alwyn Hamilton

If you’d told me after I read Rebel Of The Sands that this series would go on to be one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever enjoyed, I would probably have laughed in your face. The first book was pretty rough in terms of storytelling but had so much promise. The second book made good on that promise with a nuanced exploration of the politics of rebellion but even so, I did not expect this final volume to be as amazing as it was. Hero At The Fall was smart and funny and tragic and tender and I cried for pages and pages at the courage of our rebel army as they fought to free Miraji from oppression. So many people die for the cause, and HatF acknowledges the heroism of their deaths and the grief of the survivors so beautifully, without giving in to lazy rhetoric or cheap conclusions. Most importantly, HatF is a reminder of the power of storytelling and the legacies we leave.

I’m really glad I didn’t give up on this series after the first book, even as I’m amazed at Alwyn Hamilton’s ability to go from strength to strength. HatF isn’t a perfect book — there are still a few underwritten bits — but overall, it’s one of the finest fantasy novels I’ve ever enjoyed (with honestly one of the best love scenes ever written, in fantasy or otherwise.) Can’t recommend it highly enough!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/19/hero-at-the-fall-rebel-of-the-sands-3-by-alwyn-hamilton/

Jan 16 2019

Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix (Rise of the Empress #2) by Julie C. Dao

Wow, that was fucking terrible.

I mean, I’d been warned that this book would not be as brilliant as its predecessor Forest Of A Thousand Lanterns, a book so good that I put it in my Top 10 of 2018, but a lot of the (valid) criticism is that the main character, Jade, is extremely boring. That, in and of itself, is not a deal breaker, though it does give one pause: an unreservedly good/moral character need not necessarily be rendered boring, and having her be such usually points to a glaring deficiency of imagination. And yes, Jade, the Snow White figure in this East Asian retelling of the fairy tale is good, but she’s also unconvincingly uncomplicated. Raised in a monastery away from court, she and her nursemaid are summoned back shortly before her 18th birthday. She’s shocked, shocked I tell you, to learn that she’ll be used as a political pawn by her father the Emperor, who inherited the throne by marriage instead of blood, and her stepmother, who is the real power behind the throne. In a dramatic reversal from the court of the first book, everyone there loves Jade because she’s so plot device, I mean, nice! And she sees her stepmother doing evil in a dream so clearly the stepmother must be evil, because DREAMS are EVIDENCE in this ridiculous place so far removed from the hothouse setting of political intrigue of the first book. I’m not saying Xifeng isn’t evil, but really, a fucking dream?! I was also annoyed by Jade’s insistence on her right to rule due to her being of “real” imperial blood somehow reinforcing her claim as opposed to making her a snobby elitist brat.

You should probably stop reading here if you don’t want actual spoilers for the rest of the narrative, as I’m so incensed that I’m going to eschew the spoiler tags that I usually prefer to use, because this book was fucking terrible and deserves no respect in that sense.

So anyway, there’s a mostly inoffensive middle part where Jade flees the court and goes to collect a bunch of things that will help her defeat her evil stepmother, but I was irritated that she essentially falls in love with the first dude who’s nice to her after leaving the all-female monastery. It was cool that said dude isn’t your typical YA hero but come the fuck on.

And then that ending. You guys. What the fuck.

It’s all dudes! Dudes save the kingdom! The least offensive part is the resuscitating kiss (tho I scoffed at Jade conveniently explaining that it was the combination of romance with her mother’s love that saved her.) A dude puts together the stuff Jade quested for in order to raise the mystical army, and another dude kills Xifeng (and also strikes a mortal blow at one of the Serpent God’s avatars.) The badass feminist narrative of FoaTL is completely defeated by this bullshit Savior Dudeness. I nearly threw my Kindle down in a rage. The Crimson Army was cool in concept but the execution was terrible, which could be said about this entire book, unfortunately.

Also, wtf, snakes aren’t slimy!!!

I’m still furious with this novel, especially since it’s the follow-up to one of the most brilliant fairy tale retellings I’ve ever enjoyed. Kingdom Of The Blazing Phoenix was complete bullshit, and I’m going to try to pretend it doesn’t exist so that FoaTL can stay pristine in my mind. Wow, I just went back to read the review to FoaTL that I linked to up there and this goddamn book did everything I hoped it wouldn’t do. Wtf, Julie C Dao. Disappointing.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/16/kingdom-of-the-blazing-phoenix-rise-of-the-empress-2-by-julie-c-dao/

Jan 14 2019

Authority (Southern Reach #2) by Jeff VanderMeer

Whereas the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, the darkly beautiful Annihilation stands perfectly well on its own, Authority requires both a lead-in and a follow-up. It’s a creepy ass book about, well, part of the problem is that it’s not really about anything that makes sense independent of Books 1 and 3. Essentially, about a year after the events chronicled by The Biologist in Annihilation, a new director is sent by Central to oversee the Southern Reach. He’s kind of an overconfident dick, a spy/agent who washed out by virtue of that same overconfidence, and is now relegated to status of fixer (tho arguably a fixer is just as valuable as any other covert operative, IMO, but the spycraft in this book is fairly fungible.) The main reason he wasn’t cut loose altogether was his mom, who’s an agency hotshot and still pulling a lot of strings from behind the scenes.

The main resistance to John Rodriguez’s presence is Grace, the assistant director, who’s convinced that The Director is still coming back after the events of Annihilation, never mind the fact that everyone else came back weeks ago. Yes, this includes The Biologist, with whom John strikes up a weird not-quite-rapport when he interviews her about her experiences in Area X, the biologically anomalous region that the Southern Reach was set up to investigate and contain. As John tries to get to the bottom of what’s been going on in Area X and the Southern Reach, he slowly becomes aware that Central itself is resorting to unsavory tactics to exert its own authority.

My favorite part of the book was absolutely John finding the artwork in that hideously creepy scene. As an examination of lines blurring between the researcher and the researched, as well as a metaphor for the mind-numbing quality of life in a stagnant bureaucracy, this was a fairly good novel. As an explanation of Area X, it provided little further illumination than the first book. As a family novel, I found it lukewarm; as a romance, quite gross actually, particularly in comparison with Annihilation.

Idk how I feel about that ending. The last scenes at the Southern Reach were quite horrifying, and I was quite impressed with the twist regarding who The Director really was. But I didn’t really latch on to John as being someone to root for, much less invest in, nor did I feel similarly for The Biologist as she appears in this book. I’ll definitely be borrowing the third book in the series to see how it all plays out, but Authority was not a great book on its own. Still better than that dreadful movie adaptation of Annihilation tho.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/14/authority-southern-reach-2-by-jeff-vandermeer/

Jan 10 2019

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others left me cold, which surprised me for two reasons: first, because he has a reputation as an excellent writer, few stories but nearly every one a contender for major awards and often enough a winner; second, because I had enjoyed The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate so much. (That work won the Hugo in 2007 for best novelette.) Stories of Your Life and Others is his first collection, gathering work published seven stories published from 1990 to 2001 and adding an eighth, “Liking What You See: A Documentary.” A second collection, Exhalation, is scheduled for publication in May 2019.

“Tower of Babylon” opens Stories of Your Life and Others; it was Chiang’s first published story, and won the Nebula in 1991 for best novelette. The tower’s builders have a problem: they have reached the vault of the sky, and cannot break through to heaven. To solve the problem, the Babylonians have sent for miners from Elam and from Egypt. The story follows Hillalum, one of the Elamites fetched from his copper mines to the mighty city, and tasked to ascend to heaven itself. Babylon has been building the tower for centuries, and the Babylonians have developed a system for supplying the construction. Teams pull carts loaded with bricks along a path on the tower’s outer edge upward for several days’ journey, and then pass their bricks to another team that is waiting to receive them. In a vertical relay, each group of pullers goes back and forth along a limited stretch of the tower, but “there is a continuous caravan of brick going up the tower; thousands of bricks reach the top each day.” (p. 5)

Hillalum and the other miners will be going all the way to the top, taking most of a year to get there on foot. They will see far more than any group of pullers. As they ascend, Hillalum and his company encounter many strange sights, or at least things that seem strange to ground dwellers. Soon they are among people who never leave the tower, in time they come to layers where there is more rain and water than in dusty Babylon, eventually they meet people who live above the clouds, and then above the sun itself. “Tower of Babylon” bridges the mythic and the mundane; Hillalum, the miners, and the people they meet along the way are direct and practical, with earthy senses of humor. They are grounded despite the dizzying heights at which they live, and the cosmic nature of their project. And the cosmos of course is one in which the sun travels around the earth, the stars are small points of light, and the top of the sky is a stone vault.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/10/stories-of-your-life-and-others-by-ted-chiang/

Jan 08 2019

White Stag (Permafrost #1) by Kara Barbieri

There are a few things that would have turned this book from passably entertaining YA fantasy to a really terrific read, and I’m hoping that the fact that there are only a few things bodes well for the future career of Kara Barbieri. First and foremost is the lack of rigor, whether it be in the editing process or in the world-building itself. I’m not the kind of nitpicker who’s all “Well in Book 3 of the so far 7-book series, it was clearly stated that the minor village of Bludhaven burned down in 1831 and not 1832” (because also I have a terrible head for dates) but there’s a lot of disbelief I’m willing to suspend, especially in fantasy novels. What I could not get over in this book was the idea that our heroine, Janneke (or Janneka to her friends,) had been Soren’s companion for a hundred years but that they were only now having this thawing in their relationship. Hell, I couldn’t believe she’d been in the Permafrost for that long yet knew so little about goblins, when she’s supposed to be smart and resourceful and all that, and had been given plenty of opportunity, often explicitly so as with her role as cupbearer/spy when visiting rival courts, to learn about the beings she lived with.

Which also leads to the whole concept of goblins only being able to destroy and thus needing humans to create and how this makes no sense whatsoever in the way it’s selectively applied. Like, Soren’s hand is damaged by the Permafrost because he dares to braid Janneke’s hair at one point, to ready for The Hunt, but his lips don’t fall off after he kisses her out of love? Not that I wanted them to, but it bothered me that the “hard and fast” rules governing goblinkind were so arbitrarily applied. Which is a shame because the world building otherwise is quite fascinating, as Ms Barbieri draws from a wealth of obscure Norse mythology to tell her tale. I do think a more rigorous editor would have been able to demand more from her, as the richness of the tale sometimes turns patchy, particularly when it comes to describing locations — oftentimes, I feel like Janneke must have some sort of myopia as nothing more than 5 feet away from her ever seems to be described. There were also a lot of assumptions in the way that events were described as givens after the fact despite their being supposedly contemporaneous with and important to the narrative. It’s like Ms Barbieri just assumed we knew stuff she had in her head, which is a common rookie mistake that a good editor should have been able to help remedy.

I also found the whole “I know he’s a serial killer but he’s my serial killer and aren’t we all really serial killers at heart” romance trope wearisome. Fortunately, this was balanced with some excellent self-examination, with the message that sometimes it’s healthier to let go of the past and embrace your future. I wasn’t as much of a fan of the natural selection theme, however, finding it painfully ironic that a character who spent so much time rightfully and knowingly fighting for survival as a human among goblins should assume that others welcome or deserve death due to inherent weakness. Also, and this is going to sound weird, was Janneke’s rape ever actually named such? I felt it was referred to euphemistically too often, and I’m not sure why. Whose sensibilities are we protecting here?

I will probably read Book 2 because the ending and epilogue were actually pretty cool, and I’m willing to overlook debut novel mistakes as a fledgling writer makes her way into the world. There’s a lot of promise here, and I’m hoping that, as with Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel Of The Sands series, it just keeps getting better.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/08/white-stag-permafrost-1-by-kara-barbieri/

Jan 05 2019

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

I absolutely adored Marisha Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and was one of many fans disappointed and confused by her follow-up, Night Film (tho the multimedia aspect of that novel was really, really nice.) So I put her third novel, Neverworld Wake, on my to-read pile but didn’t feel any burning need to actually get to it. I’m so glad that I finally did.

And before I get to reviewing the body of the book, I have to say that I kinda sorta understand why it’s marketed as a Young Adult novel but I don’t really agree. Sure, NW is about five teenagers reliving a single night of their lives over and over before banding together to investigate the death of a boy who’d once been integral to their lives. And there isn’t any graphic sex, which seems to be the only thing that would have prevented the YA label. But the protagonists being teenagers doesn’t automatically classify it as a novel for not-yet-mature readers, IMO. Idk, book marketing is weird.

Anyway! Bee is our heroine, known as Sister Bee by her former classmates at the Darrow-Harker School for her unrelenting niceness. She was dating Jim, the songwriting prodigy working on a musical about the life of John Lennon, when his body is found in a nearby quarry just days before graduation. Bee’s grief causes her to flee Darrow-Harker even before the cops close the case as a suicide, but she knows Jim would never kill himself. For the next year, she goes about in a sort of trance as she tries to make sense of his death.

When one of their former circle invites her to a party, Bee accepts, thinking that if she can confront her old friends, they’ll help her find out what really happened that fateful night. But a car crash slips them into the Neverworld, a place where they’re forced to repeat the past eleven or so hours until they can all decide on which one of them gets to live while the rest slip forever into death.

So far, so many tropes, but Ms Pessl blends them all together into a really terrific, sensitively written meditation on youth and relationships that, above all, elevates friendship and the power of kindness and gratitude to change lives. I do wish there’d been a little more examining of Bee and Jim’s relationship after she managed to wake in Central Park, but I do think that overall it was a deeply satisfying novel, even if you do ache, as I did, for dorky, gallant Martha. The last scene in the Neverworld, especially, was incredibly moving.

Definitely a return to form for Ms Pessl. I can’t wait to see what she writes next!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/05/neverworld-wake-by-marisha-pessl/

Jan 04 2019

The Devourers by Indra Das

So there are some books where you finish them and you’re all “Well, I guess that wasn’t for me” such as, in my most recent experience prior to this, Marlon James’ A Brief History Of Seven Killings (and have you heard, he’s coming out with a fantasy novel! Despite my tepid response to prior book, I am excite! I only hope it isn’t the literature version of the upcoming Spawn movie, which we were promised would be, unbelievably, devoid of joy, as if that were a selling point. But I digress.) The weird thing is that lots of parts of Indra Das’ The Devourers did feel like it was for me. I’m totally there for tales of everyday lonely people getting sucked into bizarre realms that parallel our own. I abso-fucking-lutely love contemporary novels set in Asia. Weird family sagas, queer characters, sign me up!

But it’s just so unrelentingly violent and I get it, that’s how the shapeshifters are, but by the time the stranger confronts each parent in turn, I was just exhausted and numb and pretty much uncaring. Idk if each confrontation was meant to shock me out of said numbness, but they didn’t and I was just meh about it all. Logically speaking, given the personalities of all involved, everything had to happen the way it did, but it was all unsurprisingly, monotonously brutal, and I just didn’t care at that point.

Also? I felt that that last sentence of an ending was simultaneously twee and cynical. I loved the prior paragraphs with their sentence hurricanes tangling the various storylines together, but the last sentence felt like such an enormous cop-out given that Alok, with his obsession with names and labels, doesn’t claim his true self by saying it outright. Perhaps that’s the point, that labels don’t matter as long as there’s love, but let me tell you, if the book had ended in the stereotypically heteronormative fashion it had been hinting at earlier in the proceedings, I would have been infuriated. Claiming your identity matters. For a book about admitting who you are and being proud of it, it was a huge disappointment that it didn’t make Alok do the same. And, you know, I’m not one of those people who think that people should out themselves before they’re comfortable, but this is a fictional character in a book who’s just led you on a journey through his psyche and who ends the narrative with words that literally mean nothing instead of words that could mean something. As a coeur de cri from an author, as an essay, as a message from a real person to a real audience, it would be fine (see: outing yourself when you feel comfortable because the real world has real problems) but coming from a fictional character? Cheap.

Much as with Mr James, I’m looking forward to more of Mr Das’ work in future, even if I was tepid, at best, about their breakthrough novels. Hope springs eternal, especially when there’s evidence for the fertile soil of their imaginations and, honestly, technical prowess. I just hope for less dreariness and, in Mr Das’ case, more courage.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/04/the-devourers-by-indra-das/

Jan 03 2019

Looking Back on 2018

My compatriots here at The Frumious Consortium have guilted me into doing a recap post, gj, all.

Between here and my work for Criminal Element, I read (with a big thanks to Goodreads for crunching the stats for me; hey, feel free to be my friend there, if you’re reading this) 185 books in 2018, which is definitely my most exhausting amount since I’ve started keeping track. A lot of this was due to picking up more work for my publisher at CE, as well as through building contacts with other absolutely lovely people in the industry. I’ve never felt more happily overwhelmed by reading and reviewing books, one of my greatest pleasures in life. You can check out my full reading list via the Goodreads link above, but I figured I’d add a Top 10 list for the year here as well. In no particular order:

1. The City Of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty — A complex examination of politics and competing motivations set in fantasy realms inspired by Islamic mythology, this book was one of the first I read this year and still one of the best and most memorable. It’s got a strong heroine, twists at every turn and some really terrific writing. The author really knows her stuff, displaying the diversity of Islamic history and experiences and incorporating all of that seamlessly into a convincing, compelling whole.

2. There There by Tommy Orange — This contemporary novel follows the lives of several Urban Indians in Oakland, California during the lead up to the Big Powwow. It is probably the best written of the books on this list, effortlessly tying together multiple plot threads and creating a glorious tapestry that practically breathes immediacy. Moving and smart, it’s won a ton of awards for good reason.

3. The Arrival Of Missives by Aliya Whiteley — This is a book I want to make everyone read. It’s short, barely clocking in at 200 pages even with the inclusion of the accompanying short story, but it’s powerfully subversive, taking a fairly commonplace trope and exploding everything you thought you knew about the (sci-fi bildungsroman) genre. Deeply feminist, it’s a wonderful reminder for our times. I really hope Ms Whiteley writes more of Shirley, the heroine.

4. Spook Street by Mick Herron — The fourth (more or less) in his Slough House series, this is so far my favorite. I read almost the entire series this year and could not get enough of this team of misfit MI6 spies languishing in professional exile in South London. Things come to a head in this novel, when their chief, Jackson Lamb, must go above and beyond to rescue an old spy, burning essential bridges in the process. Filled with both humor and grim existential despair, this is my favorite spy series ever. Books 5 and 5.5 are waiting in my Kindle as a future reward, for when I finally have free time, whenever that is.

5. Now We Are Dead by Stuart MacBride — In the same vein as the darkly hilarious Slough House books are Mr MacBride’s Logan MacRae novels, which center on policing in Aberdeen. NWAD centers MacRae’s irascible, infuriating former boss DS Roberta Steele as she tries to stop the serial rapist she got caught fitting up from striking again. References to A. A. Milne abound but you don’t have to be a Winnie The Pooh fan to be absolutely charmed — probably in spite of yourself — by our horror of a protagonist.

6. Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett — Having already awarded City Of Brass the prize of being my Best Fantasy Novel of the year, I didn’t feel at all like I was shortchanging Foundryside by deeming it the best cyberpunk of the year. It’s a dazzlingly intelligent sci-fi novel dressed up as a delightfully meaty fantasy. Best of all, it’s unapologetically and gracefully diverse. I kinda wanted to have its babies.

7. Annihilation by Jeff vanderMeer — I wanted to read this book before watching the movie and am so glad I did! An ode to introspection, it was also the most compelling love story I’ve read all year. It won’t surprise you to hear that I found the movie greatly disappointing in comparison. Some of the stuff with The Biologist’s companions was neat but the rest of it was mainstream Hollywood garbage, a disappointingly exploitative adaptation of a delicately nuanced book.

8. The Warlock Holmes novels by G. S. Denning — I’m not ordinarily a fan of Sherlock Holmes pastiche but these not only kept me furiously turning the pages but also had me going back to the source material to examine the similarities. A hilarious occult take on the classic cases and definitely my favorite homages to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

9. Forest Of A Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao — An East Asian re-imagining of Snow White’s evil stepmother’s story, this novel is brutally honest about women and ambition and rivalry in a way that made my soul ache with familiarity, far more so than any novel set in the real world has been able to (tho Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive comes close!) I’ve heard not great things about the sequel that came out in November but plan on reading that soon, and will share thoughts once I do!

10. A Death Of No Importance by Mariah Fredericks — I read so many great novels this year, but for warning us of the perils of ignoring our history, this definitely took the prize. A rich examination of Gilded Age New York City, it was unafraid to draw parallels to modern American life while also presenting an intelligent whodunnit with an outstanding heroine.

Honorable mentions go out to Cornelia Kidd’s Death And A Pot Of Chowder which was unquestionably my favorite culinary cozy this year; Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, which Doug and I have gone on at length about; Victoria Thompson’s City Of Secrets, another socially aware historical mystery, and Jay Kristoff’s LIFEL1K3 with its gonzo post-apocalyptic android teens. Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson was another really amazing novel I read this year that I can’t put on this list because you should only read it after reading the first two books in the Stormlight Archives. Each installment so far has been over a thousand glorious pages but has also required that I go back through previous novels (or the Wiki!) to refresh myself on the who or what or why of certain things. Even so, I think I’m missing more stuff because I’m bad at remembering details of the Cosmere plus I haven’t read Warbreaker yet.

Special mention to the really terrific page to screen adaptations that came out this year, especially the ones that improved upon their subject material (so not you, Annihilation.) I was pleasantly surprised to be as besotted as I was by Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favor, both of which starred the delightful Henry Golding. Though I haven’t read Lynda LaPlante’s Widows, when I read that Gillian Flynn was doing the screenplay, I knew I had to watch the movie adaptation, which was definitely worth my time. I also binge watched the terrific first two seasons of Riverdale, based on the classic Archie comics, and am currently part way through its sister adaptation, The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. Amazon Prime served up two more excellent adaptations for me: The Expanse (based on a series I’m itching to read) and The Man In The High Castle, which is just outstanding in so many respects, not least in the way it circles back round to the source text.

It’s been a great year for me and the written word, and I’m so pleased to have been able to share my experiences with you. Here’s to more in a terrific 2019!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/01/03/looking-back-on-2018/

Jan 02 2019

Taking Stock of 2018

My amount of reading took a jump in 2017 with what I read to vote for the Hugo awards, and it stayed jumped this year. I finished the Discworld novels in early September, a couple of months sooner than I had expected. I had somehow missed reading them in the 1980s and 1990s, and only started picking them up when a business trip to Basel took me past a spinner rack full of Pratchett in the airport. Four years later, I’ve made it through all 41 the first time, and am much richer for the experience. I’m sure I will go back to some, particularly the Lancre witches and Tiffany Aching.

In 2018, I also finished my little Schiller project, which I thought would go more quickly than it did. Apparently my appetite for eighteenth-century drama is easily sated in a given year. On the other hand, several of the plays are great works of the imagination, worth reading all these years later and not merely of historical interest. The Maid of Orleans is definitely the best of the four I read this year. Love and Intrigue, Schiller’s last prose play, was terrific too, in a completely different register. It’s a brilliantly engineered train wreck, filled with characters who could avoid their fates if they would just step back and consider for a moment. It must be exquisitely excruciating in the theater.

I finished some series, started others, and chugged along in still others. I finished Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century set, and read all of Greg van Eekhout’s darkly magical California. I’ve read all three of Yoon Ha Lee’s calendrical warfare novels that he has published to date; if there’s another, I hope it has less Jedao. I read just one of the Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency books, so I am two or possibly three behind the author at this point. One Witcher book, three more to go. Happily, Boris Akunin’s Fandorin series has found an English-language publisher again; or more precisely, the previous publisher has decided to continue translating and releasing the series. I am in the middle of All the World’s a Stage, though I will probably not finish it by the end of the year, and I have Black City to look forward to.

Russia turned out to be a theme of the year, too. The two largest books I read — Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman and The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine — were both about Russia. Another eight or so of this year’s books were set in or otherwise concerned Russia, from Julian Barnes’ short novel about Shostakovich’s encounters with Soviet power to Wladimir Kamier’s mostly lighthearted reckoning with the disappearance of same, and from more bus stops to a powerful work about death in Russia.

Overall, I read five books in German, seven graphic works, eleven Discworld books, and ten works in translation, thanks to the middle child sharing some manga with me. (One was translated from Russian, one from Polish, two from Turkish, one from Chinese, one from German, and four from Japanese.) I re-read one book this year, Ellen Kushner’s perfect Swordspoint. I read fourteen books written by women.

I started to tally up the books written by persons of color, but soon ran into some difficulty. Who counts? Black authors in the United States, sure; I read three works from two authors. American authors of Asian descent? Ok, one. What about Asia Minor? If the author still lives there and is a member of the dominant ethnic group? Hm. Asian authors living in Asia? Again with the Hm. Russians? Jewish Russians? Yeah, it’s complicated. Then there are people like Wladimir Kaminer, a Jewish Russian immigrant to Germany writing in German about his experiences before and after relocating, or Steffen Möller writing in German and publishing in Germany about his experiences as a non-native resident in Poland. At least I didn’t read anything by Elias Canetti this year.

One thing I haven’t looked at before in these lists is when the books that I read in the course of the year were first published. The interplay between publishing and reviewing is tricky enough, and then economics and timing get added in, and it gets trickier still. Back when I was a bookseller and part of a large independent store’s advertising and promotions staff, I got to see publishers’ efforts to make a splash with a book when it first hit the market. That was more than 20 years ago, and even then people were talking about the Hollywoodification (horrible word for a horrible practice) of book publishing, sales, and promotion. From what I can tell, the trends have only intensified, with a lot of the effort transferred into pre-publication publicity and pre-orders.

Here on the other side of the desk, I’m not completely immune to the rush either. Wholly new books are exciting! The Frumious Consortium pushes out notices of what we write on social media; we wouldn’t be doing that if we didn’t want people to notice what we’re up to. Sometimes authors and publishers will notice what we’ve written and either briefly reply or pass the link along to their social media networks. It’s neat when that happens! It’s fun to feel a part of a larger conversations about books that I’ve cared enough about to read and write about. I sometimes feel a pull to go after more of that.

So how close to publication are the things I read this year? I mostly read books that are recent, but not brand new. (At the other extreme, I read four that premiered in the 1700s.) I read five that were published in 2018, 20 from the two years preceding, and another 20 from the rest of the 2010s. The only other decade to hit double digits is the 2000s, with 13; 1990s, two; 1980s, three; 1970s, also three; 1960s, zilch; and 1950s, two. I would not have pegged either of those as 1950s books — I would have placed Mani later and The 13 Clocks earlier. Shows what I know about the 1950s.

Translations jumble the publication dates a little bit. All four of the manga collections I read were published in the 2010s, so there is not a great gap even if the English translation appeared in the last two years but the original work came out earlier this decade. The greatest gap is for A Hero Born, which was published in Chinese in 1957 and in English in 2018. The fastest non-manga translation was for an unabashedly academic work, Soviet Mass Festivals. Others saw twenty-year gaps. Life and Fate had an even longer road. The author submitted it for publication in the Soviet Union in 1960. The censors rejected it and promptly confiscated not only all the manuscript copies they could find but also the very typewriter ribbons Grossman had used. He had managed to hide two copies, and these led to a Russian-language edition appearing in the West in 1980. Glasnost allowed its publication in the USSR in 1988. The English translation that I read was published in 2006. A translation of the prequel to Life and Fate, first published in 1956, will appear in 2019; I’m looking forward to it.

The best recollection of the 1980s was War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, the best Eurovision in space was Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, and the best riff on old pulp was Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. The best set of late Discworld books are the ones featuring Tiffany Aching, and I think I Shall Wear Midnight is the best of those, with Wintersmith a close second. Best nonfiction not otherwise mentioned was Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin, and best reminder of working in Washington was The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple.

Full list, roughly in order read, is under the fold with links to my reviews and other writing about the authors here at Frumious.

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Dec 31 2018

Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive #3) by Brandon Sanderson

I mean…

I knew this was going to be insane but I didn’t know how much. I cried at least twice, over several different characters, and I laughed out loud so many more times. On its own, it’s just a rip-roaring good time, well-written, great action sequences, terrific plot twists, incredibly well-thought out universe (and with really gorgeous illustrations!) It even explained the greatest failing of Book Two for me, the somewhat rushed ending. Honestly, the only bad thing about this book is that it is A Lot. You absolutely have to have read the thousand plus pages each of Books One and Two and hopefully have a lot of that tucked away in your brain still, or at least access to the first two books so you can look stuff up, as I totally did.

But more than any epic fantasy novel, Oathbringer really sits down and examines morality in a way that progresses beautifully from its predecessors. This is a book about what to do when you thought you were the good guys but you find out that you’re not (is that even a spoiler? I thought it was fairly obvious.) It’s a thoughtful parable of justice and retribution and how to work towards restitution. It’s not a perfect template of any of our earthly politics, but it does allude strongly to modern issues and suggest ways to solve them, without ever losing sight of its fantasy setting. It’s also a great parable for How To Be Good. It’s okay to make mistakes. What’s most important is accepting responsibility and then doing better.

It’s really hard to review this 1200+ page book with any coherence, but I really loved the fact that this was another installment in a series with such moral clarity that you could 100% use it as a template for living in the real world. I totes want to be a Knight Radiant (funny aside: I occasionally use a variation on the name Radiant when I’m skulking around the Internet, taken not from the alter ego in this book but from Magic The Gathering’s badass if possibly unhinged Radiant Archangel) but will settle for trying to be a Good Person.

That said, I still feel bad for Eshonai. Tho, I’m super happy that, unrelatedly, the nice guy won! Brandon Sanderson always chooses the right couplings, IMO.

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