This is the third in my genre-divided series of book recommendation posts, because I just read TOO MANY GOOD BOOKS last year! See previous posts for mystery and romance recs. Today we turn (at quite some length) to:
Sticking with the steampunk theme, this year’s requisite Elizabeth Bear book for me to tell you to read is Karen Memory. (Are you surprised? No, you are not.) It’s about a woman who works in a brothel in a steampunk version of Gold Rush-era Seattle. When a young woman shows up on their doorstep begging for help and the body of a streetwalker is found the next day, she and the other residents of the brothel get pulled into what looks like a murder investigation. Then a US Marshall shows up on the murderer’s trail, and it all turns out to lead to something much bigger. Saucy women! (Including some who are queer and trans!) Weird West hijinks on horseback! A robotic sewing machine that gets turned into power armor! What more could you want?
Also in the Weird West category is Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures. This one is less steampunk and more paranormal alt-history, but strikes me as a good read-alike to pair with Karen Memory due to its setting and distinctive first-person voice. The protagonist, Nettie, is a mixed-race genderqueer woman whose fondest dream is to become a cowpoke and break horses all day. But she ends up killing a vampire one night, mostly by accident, and discovers she can now see the monsters that hide among (and prey on) humans. Then a ghost slaps an old-school quest on her and she finds herself traveling alone clear across the desert to kill a monster the other monsters are afraid of, and maybe also find out something about the family that abandoned her as a child. Now all she has to do is find the allies and training she needs to complete the task. I don’t think this is the last we’ll be seeing of Nettie Lonesome.
To go a bit further back with the historically influenced fantasy, this year brought the end to Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories with Of Noble Family. (Bonus trivia: Kowal actually made the dress the cover model is wearing herself!) This one forces Jane’s husband, Vincent, to finally deal with his conflicted past involving his abusive father. It also takes our heroes to the West Indies, where readers are given a much clearer picture of England’s relationship to slavery. As I’ve mentioned before, these books are quite intentional homages to the works of Jane Austen, but being written in the modern day, Kowal is able to tackle the subjects of industrialization (addressed in Without a Summer) and slavery on British plantations much more forcefully, whereas Austen only very lightly touched on them in Mansfield Park. Anyway, whether you’re an Austen fan or not, the Glamourist Histories have been a delightful series, and while it’s sad to say goodbye to Jane and Vincent, this was a great ending. I did get to see Kowal on her book tour for this last book, and she read us an excerpt from the first book of her new series, which will be about a corps of mediums who receive military intelligence from recently deceased British soldiers at the front during WWI. I can’t wait!
Also on that same book tour was Marie Brennan, touring for her latest volume in the Lady Trent series, Voyage of the Basilisk. I’ve liked this series from the beginning, but let me tell you, they just keep getting better as Lady Trent’s past self gains more confidence, independence, and reputation to allow her pursue her intellectual passions and tell people who deserve it to shove off. (The acerbic wit of her supposedly present-day self writing the memoirs is a positive delight.) This book deepens the intrigue going on in the international scientific community around the potential use of preserved dragonbone, which I suspect anyone involved in real-world science publication will identify with, plus tropical adventure! Not terribly smooth diplomatic relations! Dragons! Hints about Lady Trent possible future romances (because she isn’t Lady Trent yet)! And Brennan read us an excerpt of the next book, so I know there is a character we will see again, and I need to read it as soon as possible! Also, did I mention both of these authors do their readings in period costume? They do. If either (or better yet, both) come to do a reading near you, GO!
Now let’s turn to some time-period ambiguity mash-up fantasies! These maybe should have been filed under urban fantasy, but I mentally reserve that for things that are more recognizably “our” world. Whatever. Genre classifications are extremely subjective.
First up, Devon Monk’s House Immortal books (House Immortal and Infinity Bell are what I’ve read so far, though it looks like the third book is out now, too). These are… how to explain? Futuristic high-tech dystopian alt-history fantasy with a special group of people brought back from the dead a la Frankenstein’s monster, known as the galvanized. Society is now organized into Houses, each of which controls a particular aspect of the global economy, and each House essentially owns at least one of the galvanized, now used as unkillable enforcers. All except House Brown, the unofficial House of the unaffiliated rebellious few who believe the House system is wrong and all people should be free. Our heroine is also galvanized, but was brought back by her brother in secret and hidden from anyone in power. But now her brother is missing and she’s been discovered. To protect everything she’s been raised to hold dear, she’s going to have to enter the world of high-stakes House politics and the world of the galvanized. If you’re looking for something unlike pretty much anything else out there right now, read these.
Similar in the sense of being futuristic high-tech fantasy, but with shapeshifting dragons, spirits, and scientifically applied magic instead of the galvanized is the second book in Rachel Aaron’s Heartstrikers series, One Good Dragon Deserves Another, sequel to last year’s Nice Dragons Finish Last. This book follows Julius (dragon) and Marcy (magician) as they try to establish their own magical exterminator service, but that quickly gets overtaken by further machinations from Julius’s extensive family. We get so much more Bob the Seer in this book! Bob is the best. We also meet some more of the mysterious older siblings from the beginning of the alphabet, including Amelia, the only surviving member of their mother’s first clutch. Why has Bob been so sure his mild-mannered baby brother Julius will be important, despite what everyone else in the family seems to think? Will Julius ever be allowed to access his true draconic form again? What is going on with this apparent war between Bob and the seer from the rival Three Sisters dragon clan? So many questions to be answered! And the ending is both satisfyingly climactic and leaves you eagerly anticipating the next book.
And then of course there is the latest in Max Gladstone’s stunningly inventive Craft Sequence, Last First Snow. I kind of wish I had gone back and done a reread of the entire series to date before reading this one, because there is so much world- and time-spanning politics to keep track of, but Gladstone himself says each book is self-contained and you can read them in any order, and indeed, if you’re reading them as they come out, you’re essentially doing that, because he’s writing them out of chronological order. By the internal chronology of the universe, this one is actually first, hence the “first” in the title. Anyway, these books. They’re about, uh, magical lawyers wielding a faith-based magic that was wrested away from the gods and turned into an economic system? They’re some of the most innovative stuff going on in sff right now, but hard to explain. This one takes place in a sort of a fantasy futuristic Aztecan Mexico, and offers an in-depth look at zoning laws, class politics, and the cracks in society that can lead to the downfall of a civilization.* With a giant magical battle scene. And dragons and old gods and mirror-faced soldiers and a priest who just wants to be able to worship quietly and be a good father and husband. So much happens, and it’s so well written! Go be amazed, seriously. When the last book comes out this year, I plan to reread the whole series by the internal chronology suggested by the numbers in the titles (this year’s book will be Book 4.)
* I can’t tell you how eerie it was to read this while also tutoring a high school student learning about the Aztecs and the fall of ancient civilizations around the world.
Okay, after those hard-to-define books, let’s wrap up with some more classic fantasy, eh?
To be honest, Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives isn’t really classic fantasy, but it at least has a more familiar “classic fantasy” vibe for readers. Here’s how she described it on Twitter as “Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior in a setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt” and really, how could anyone resist that? More seriously, it opens with four sisters living at home with their mother as they wait for their father to come home from his latest military campaign, but then it diverges from the Little Women influence pretty fast. You see, these sisters live in a society that’s sort of colonial Ancient Roman, except their mother is one of the colonized people and their father is a colonizer. Their parents aren’t legally allowed to marry, and the girls exist in a strange in-between state of being both upper class and mixed-race pariahs. The main character tries to forget her precarious position by throwing herself into practicing The Fives, an elaborate obstacle course sport (i.e. American Ninja Warrior) followed by everyone. She finally gets her chance to compete in the arena, but she can’t let anyone know who she is. No problem! Competitors are masked! Unless they win… She engineers her own loss, but gives herself away enough that she gets forcibly recruited into an elite Fives training stable, which should be a dream come true, if only her sponsor weren’t holding the fate of her entire family over her head. The book combines excellent examinations of colonialism, biracial/bicultural identities, and power dynamics (of gender, class, age, etc.) with a breakneck plot, culminating in a final climactic decision for the main character that is simultaneously simple and deeply complex. I can’t wait to see where this series will go.
Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is much more in the mainstream fantasy vaguely-medieval-Europe vein, though. It had been a while since I read anything like this, and I was worried I would find I had somehow grown out of it or something, but after seeing so many people talk about it as a definite award contender for the year, I decided to check it out. Fears allayed; it was definitely as good as everyone said! The main character, Agnieszka, is a young woman chosen as essentially a tribute/sacrifice from her village to the wizard who rules (and protects) their valley. But outdoorsy, perpetually untidy, accident-prone Agnieszka never expected to be chosen! Everyone knows her best friend, Kasia, is the most beautiful, perfect, and accomplished girl in the village. It was such a foregone conclusion that she would be chosen, her mother and everyone else in the village has been training her in every skill she could conceivably need to serve the wizard. But the wizard takes Agnieszka, because having at least some magical aptitude turns out to be more important than being beautiful. As it turns out, Agnieszka functions mostly as an enormous source of irritation for the wizard, as her magic functions much differently than his, but sometimes difference also brings strength. Good thing, too, because it inevitably falls on Agnieszka to save the wizard, her village, the valley, and her entire country. An amazing wizard’s coming-of-age/coming-into-power journey, with beautiful imagery drawn from Novik’s own childhood Polish fairy tales.
And finally, I must end with Terry Pratchett final Discworld novel, The Shepherd’s Crown. This novel, published posthumously, is a perfect ending to series, and a beautiful way for fans to say goodbye to both the author and his world. I can’t help but think that Pratchett knew this would be his final work, and wrote this as his final goodbye to Discworld as well. I can’t go into why this is such a fitting ending without giving away a major spoiler, but if you ever loved Discworld, do yourself a favor and read this (preceded by the other Tiffany Aching books, if you haven’t read them yet.) Be prepared to cry. It’s a beautiful culmination and celebration of the heart of Discworld.
Next up: Urban Fantasy! (which you may or may not be able to tell apart, division-wise, from this post!)