Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

And now, the last of the book posts from 2015! As I said in my stats post, I didn’t read very much science fiction this year, but what I did read, I liked.

AncillarySwordThis year I read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, and I fully intended to read Ancillary Mercy as well, but I ran out of reading time for the year before I got to it, so it may well show up in my 2016 reviews. Sword wasn’t the mind-blowing experience that Ancillary Justice was, but that’s often my experience with a second book in a series. However, in this case, Sword was intentionally a different book. The first book of the trilogy was very much a wide-ranging, time-spanning space opera. The second book, by contrast, zooms in to a much smaller scale, as we follow the main character on a mission to a single space station and its nearby planet. While this book’s story clearly has larger implications for the universe as a whole, the format is much closer to a mystery than a space opera. As Leckie said in an interview I proofread for Lightspeed:

I was definitely going for a different kind of vibe. On the one hand, I would love to give people more of the same who liked the book to begin with, but on the other hand, it would be kind of dull to write the same book a second time. Also, Breq’s situation is very different. She’s in the first book undergoing this huge tragedy and also looking for some kind of revenge or redress. In the second book, that’s already been resolved to the extent that she could do it and now her problems are a little bit subtler, a little bit different, and they’re going to be superficially quieter, at least for a while. So that really did require a different sort of book.

I have talked about the book with at least one friend who was disappointed in the change in tone, but personally, I liked it. (Then again, I like both genre mash-ups and mysteries in general quite a bit.) The other thing I liked about this book was its focus on the long-term, and much more personal, impact of extended colonial rule, especially with regard to class. (Writing these year-end reviews, I’ve noticed this is a cross-genre theme in my 2015 reading, and I definitely approve. I love seeing historical/societal issues being addressed by my friends in mainstream academia then picked up by fiction authors and applied to worlds of the imagination, because it both lends depth to those worlds and provides the reader with another lens through which to examine said issues, which has always been a strength of SFF.) I’m looking forward to seeing how Breq’s story continues to evolve in Ancillary Mercy.

RadianceSpeaking of playing with ways of telling a story, Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance provides a stunning example. This is perhaps the most original book I can recall reading in quite some time. First of all, it’s science fiction as if the retrofuturistic vision offered in Metropolis had come true. All the planets of our solar system have been settled by humans, who travel to them in rocketships fired out of cannons. It’s been termed “decopunk,” and I, for one, hope this is an aesthetic that catches on. Here’s Valente’s own attempt to sum it up at the beginning of this Big Idea piece:

Radiance doesn’t have a big idea at its heart.

It has about six. It’s a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller. With space whales.

At its core, it tells the story of the mysterious disappearance of a noted film director, Severin Unck, and chronicles her father’s attempt to come to grips with what happened. But since he’s also a director, the story is told through the medium he understands best: film and audio clips from the archives and multiple drafts of a script for a film he’s trying to write about her disappearance. The story is not very linearly told, which makes it all the more effective at communicating the confusion surrounding Severin’s disappearance (and presumed death.) The film and audio clips from the archives, which come between the main chapters, give the reader some idea of Severin’s true life and the facts that are actually known about her–quite a lot, really, since she grew up on a movie studio lot with a father obsessed with recording events. But the power of the camera and the director to change the shape of those events through the way the story is framed becomes evident as the main body of the novel begins to unfold in the form of supposed script for a new movie about solving Severin’s death. The main character will be a fictionalized version of her adopted son, hired as a private detective and sent to investigate his own mother’s long-ago disappearance. The first third of the book is framed as a noir detective story, but when that begins to break down for the director, the second third is presented as a gothic horror, which is then scrapped once again for a final third that’s more… adventure? By that time I was so invested in finding out what happened, I apparently didn’t register the exact genre shift. It sounds crazy and chaotic, and it is, except it’s amazingly beautiful at the same time (Valente excels at poetic visual descriptions), and it will make you think about the history of science fiction and space travel and film and the nature of storytelling.

PlanetfallIn other tales of travel to other planets, I also read Planetfall, by Emma Newman. I’d previously read Newman’s Split Worlds urban fantasy trilogy, so I thought I knew something about her writing, but Planetfall is completely different. From Regency-influenced faerie courts frozen in time, she now turns to a hard SF tale of a human colony on a far distant planet, scientists and adventurous explorers who have followed Suh-Mi, a semi-messianic figure, away from Earth in pursuit of an apparent invitation from aliens. The book is told from the perspective of Suh-Mi’s lover, Ren, the woman who believed in Suh-Mi’s vision enough to do much of the background scientific work needed to get a colony spaceship off the ground and all the way to its destination, now the colony’s 3D printing engineer. But now the colony has been on the planet of the vision for more than twenty years, and it’s soon clear to the reader that not all is right. The residents of the colony believe Suh-Mi is communing with the alien presence that called to her and will emerge eventually to tell them the message they all came so far to hear. But Ren and the other colony leader have a secret… and it could destroy everything if their lies are revealed. This book’s true strength is in the narration. Ren has an incredibly compelling voice, and watching the story unfold from within her perspective is eerily powerful. I can’t give away too much about Ren’s life and personality without revealing major spoilers, but I have rarely read a first-person narration that so completely pulled me in. Maybe Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree.

ThePeripheralI swear I don’t read with intentional themes in mind, but in trying to decide which order to talk about these books in, I find there is a tie from Planetfall to the next book, William Gibson’s The Peripheral: 3D printing. Both books envision futures where 3D printing has become so commonplace as to be a staple of everyday life. The Peripheral, though, offers us two visions of Earth, rather than transporting us to another planet. But as Gibson so often proves, life here is strange enough. This book features two storylines that become intertwined: one in far-future London, sparsely populated and full of enormous Shard towers; the other in a more mid-term future in the rural American South. How are they connected? Someone in future-London has figured out how to contact people in little pockets of the past, or history “stubs.” Said future people can affect what happens in their stub, but know that they’re doing so in a timeline unconnected to their own. It’s just a curiosity, a passing fad for the idle rich. But one of those idle rich hires a gamer from a stub’s version of the American South to fly a surveillance droid outside her apartment to keep away the paparazzi… and that gamer ends up witnessing a murder. Which leads to the main character from the mid-future timeline having to travel into the world of the far-future timeline via a telepresence robot (the titular “peripheral”) to help solve the murder, except of course the murder is part of a much larger political plot that ends up with extreme consequences for both timelines. Though I’ve seen a lot of fan response to this book’s vision of far-future London and the proliferation of telepresence robots, the thing I found most interesting about this book was how spot-on I felt Gibson’s vision of the futuristic rural South was. Lower middle class people in a small town making a living from illicit 3D printing of high-tech devices that they all casually use in the most everyday ways; retired army veterans who used to pilot droids (or were maybe piloted in some ways themselves) now reliving the war by playing MMORPG video games as hired gladiators for rich guys to lay bets on; complexly intertwined family and friend networks of gossip, news, and support leveraged to overcome international crime syndicates. It’s a prescient extrapolation of the future that I completely buy as what I’ll find when driving through eastern North Carolina in about 20 years.

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Now let’s turn to what I think of as unambiguous urban fantasy: stories in what is more or less the present day of our world, but with some sort of magic thrown in.

RedRoseChainFirst, of course, is Seanan McGuire. Have I not yet convinced you to read the October Daye series? If not, it can only be because I don’t talk to you enough because YOU NEED TO READ IT. Look: Book Smugglers even just posted an October Daye primer. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, every book in this series seems better than the last, and I’m not really sure how that is possible. McGuire continues to build this world and the growing central family (well, chosen family) of characters masterfully. This year’s installment is A Red-Rose Chain, which throws Toby into the role of diplomat–yes, Toby, whose preferred approach to diplomacy is to hit things until they stop being a problem–in the hopes of averting a war between faerie kingdoms. Thank goodness she has her friends to help her. In addition to taking us deeper into the politics of faerie, we also learn a lot more about Walther’s background. He turns out to be much more than a faerie chemist/forensic science whiz.

PocketApocalypseThis year also brought another installment in the InCryptid series, Pocket Apocalypse. This is the second book from Alex Price’s perspective, and while he’s not as outrageously fun and adventurous as Verity, his much more scientific approach to studying and protecting cryptid communities definitely has its own strength. This book has him following his girlfriend and fellow cryptozoologist Shelby to her home in Australia, which has its own very unique ecosystem… and a somewhat broken approach to dealing with its cryptid communities. Soon after they arrive, they find themselves fighting a werewolf outbreak, a potentially disastrous occurrence for an island ecosystem. Will Alex be able to convince the historically suspicious Australian cryptozoological community to follow his lead before it’s too late? And, even more importantly, what will the Aeslin mice think of Australia?

FoxgloveSummerContinuing in great new additions to ongoing series, Ben Aaronovitch’s latest book in the Rivers of London series: Foxglove Summer. This book sends the quintessentially urban Peter Grant out of London to look into the disappearance of two young girls in rural Herefordshire. Though the case doesn’t look obviously magical, Peter can’t shake the feeling something is going on, so he stays to help. This volume takes on much more of the feeling of a police procedural, a la Midsomer Murders, but with the addition of magic, of course. This book doesn’t do a lot to advance the question of what Peter and Nightingale will do about the shocking ending to the previous book, but I felt it deepened the world by showing us details outside of London’s urban context. (Don’t worry, Beverly Brook still shows up. He’s not that far from London.) I’m eager for the next book; I worry that the more relaxed atmosphere of this one was just lulling Peter and the reader into a false sense of security.

HalfResurrectionBluesThe new series I started in 2015 was Daniel José Older’s Bone Street Rumba series, which kicks off with Half-Resurrection Blues. As you may be able to guess from the series and book titles, the magic featured in this version of New York draws heavily from the African/Caribbean vodun traditions. The main character, Carlos, acts as an agent for the New York Council of the Dead. He is particularly suited to his task because he is an inbetweener, partially resurrected from a death he can’t really recall. He has no memory of who he was before. As far as he knows, he’s also the only inbetweener around. Until, of course, he meets a woman who seems just like him. What’s more, she seems to hold the key to all the disturbances going on in the spirit world of New York at the moment. I think this series pairs interestingly with the Rivers of London, in that both feature male characters who are a little out of their depth magic-wise, but who operate comfortably in the highly multicultural environment of two of the largest and most often fictionalized cities in the world. Bone Street Rumba, though, definitely has a darker edge than the Rivers of London, and I don’t feel like I have a good handle on the world yet, being only one book in. Then again, it doesn’t seem like Carlos really knows what’s going on either, so I clearly need to go get the next book to find out what more he can learn!

OneEyedJackAnd finally, I can’t leave without talking about Elizabeth Bear’s One-Eyed Jack. This is the latest book in Bear’s Promethean Age series, which is urban fantasy that spans from Shakespeare’s time to the present day, and is kind of hard to describe. Essentially the books describe an ongoing battle between faerie and a group of human magicians known as Prometheans, but it’s sometimes hard to tell which side we’re meant to be rooting for, an effect I can only assume is intentional. There is no obvious right or wrong in the previous two duologies of the series, one Shakespearean, the other modern. One-Eyed Jack, though, takes us out of the more classical European fey vs. human struggle we’d previously seen in London and New York, and now transports us instead to Las Vegas, where we are presented with a new, more modern mutation of magic: genius loci, media ghosts, and the spirits of new folktales. This book proved to me how far into the Cult of Bear I’ve gone, because there are so many references and in-jokes in this book, and I felt like a freaking genius every time I recognized one. There is a whole crew of characters in here, mostly the media ghosts (i.e., spirits of TV characters remembered so strongly by humans that they can manifest in our world), who are never actually called by name, and there is a rabbit hole of 1960s spy TV show Wikipedia articles waiting to welcome you in your efforts to identify them all. And the identity of the vampire, also never named, is delightful. Anyway, if you’re a fan of Bear already, read this! If you’ve never read Bear before, this is probably not the place to start.

Next up: Science Fiction!

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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:


KarenMemorySticking 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?

WakeofVulturesAlso 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.

OfNobleFamilyTo 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!

VoyageoftheBasiliskAlso 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.

House Immortal.inddFirst 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.

Heartstrikers2Similar 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.

LastFirstSnowAnd 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?

CourtofFivesTo 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.

UprootedNaomi 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.

ShepherdsCrownAnd 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!)

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Second post in my 2015 book review series, because doing it all in one big post was becoming impossible.


DuchessWarThis year I was following Sunil Patel’s* call for romance recommendations on Twitter, (read about his experiences with venturing into the romance genre here) and saw all the recommendations for Courtney Milan. As it happened, she was just releasing her Brothers Sinister series as an ebook boxed set, so I snapped it up when he retweeted it… and then read the whole series in less than a week while helping teach Barb’s temari class in the mountains. Never (as an adult) have I been so happy to have such a poor internet connection and therefore no excuse but to read what I had with me. The female characters in these books! They are the best! And the male characters, too, yes, they’re good. But the women all have such amazingly interesting lives and stories! There’s a chess champion, an intentionally socially off-putting heiress, a female biologist (and the man who presents her work to the public), and a suffragette newspaper editor. Plus the set came with all the side-character novellas already interleaved. I simply could not put them down. The intelligent and witty banter! The historical notes from the author! And then I went on to read everything else of Milan’s that I could, though I still think the Brothers Sinister series is the best so far. I want to read them again.

NineRulesOf course, now I wanted more romances like Milan’s, so I asked my friend Jennie for recommendations, and she suggested Sarah MacLean. I was instructed to start with Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, which I did, and oh, the wonderful hijinks that ensued! As if the title wasn’t a clue. These are again Regency romances with intelligent, dissatisfied women who decide to take their lives into their own hands. Each of the books in the Love by the Numbers series (titles starting with Nine, Ten, and Eleven) follow the romances of three siblings, but then chain to MacLean’s next series, The Rules of Scoundrels, which introduces us to the four owners of a notorious gambling hell through the first book’s romance, featuring the former fiancee of the last book in the previous series. (I mention this because I got impatient with the library’s hold system and read ahead into The Rules of Scoundrels series before I read Eleven Scandals… and while that’s not disastrous, it is less fun for picking up background connections. Read them in order and do not, under any circumstances, read a preview chapter for the last one, Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover, because there is a major spoiler.) I can’t wait to read the first book in the next semi-connected series, which just came out.

NightToSurrenderAlso in Jennie’s recommendations, and those of many other people, is Tessa Dare, who basically completes my top triumvirate of current feminist Regency romance writers. Dare’s main series is Spindle Cove, which features a small English coastal village functioning as a haven for women in need of refuge, whether it be due to scandal or spinsterhood or poor health or any other oddity, such as excessive independence of spirit. The ladies of Spindle Cove take healthful exercise and conduct salons and have target shooting practice, and everything is going swimmingly until the local title gets restored WhenAScotTiesTheKnotand the new lord is told he has to train up a functioning militia. I’m sure you can see where this is going. Strong-minded women and the arrogant men who love them! Or are infuriated by them, but then come to see the error of their ways. As you do. However, I think my favorite book of Dare’s so far may actually be the latest one in her Castles Ever After series, When a Scot Ties the Knot, (which can be read as a stand-alone,) because it features a young woman who establishes a career as a scientific illustrator after avoiding marriage by faking engagement to a soldier she made up… except all those letters she sent off into the void to sell the story to her parents actually went somewhere. So adorable! So hilarious! There’s even a romantic sub-plot featuring lobsters.

IronDukeMeljean Brook’s Iron Seas books I actually read before I started my mainstream romance kick, because I was coming at them more from the fantasy side. These are steampunk romances with a truly amazing amount of alt history worldbuilding, but the impression that stuck with me after reading them was that Brook was putting on an absolute master class in how to do character-driven plot. Nothing in these books is gratuitous. No detail of the world is ever revealed unless a character has a reason to be thinking about it, no interaction the two people involved in the romance has is done simply for the sake of drama. The people are the story–who just happen to also be police detectives and sky pirates and treasure hunters. These books also pick up on one of the things I liked about so much Kerry Greenwood’s mysteries in the previous post: the characters treat each other like adults. There may be some initial misunderstandings between the romantic leads, but given how often they’re traveling in the enclosed environments of airships (because steampunk), they simply are not allowed to avoid each other in a snit forever. Brook has also clearly put a lot of thought into the various power structures of her world, and while the books can be viewed through the lens of romping adventures on airships, she is also addressing serious themes such as the aftermath of slavery and colonialism, racism, ableism, and attitudes towards homosexuality. The ability of the former colonial power to literally control the colonized peoples’ minds draws interesting parallels with Netflix’s Jessica Jones (and I therefore urge you not to throw your book/ereader across the room during that one scene in the first book, because Brook does it on purpose, so just trust that this is a romance with an HEA.**) I was actually particularly impressed with the third book in the series, Riveted, which is the least connected to any of the other characters in the rest of the series, but also deals with some of the heaviest themes. I’m not sure if I’d recommend anyone jump right to that one, since I suspect they’d miss out on worldbuilding details established elsewhere, but I hope anyone who picks up these books will read that far, because I want people to talk to about it!

*Sunil is, among other things, one of the new book reviewers for Lightspeed, and his Twitter feed is an excellent place to get enthusiastic recommendations for all sorts of things, because when he loves something, he shares!

**HEA: happily-ever-after, i.e., some assurance that things will work out for these characters somehow

Next up: Fantasy!

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And now, the actual book reviews! I tried putting all the book reviews into one giant post, but it was WAY TOO LONG. So this year I’m chopping it into posts by genre.


Let’s start with mystery, since that was actually my dominant genre this year. And that is largely because…

QuestionofDeathThis year I discovered the novels of Kerry Greenwood. You probably know her, too: Her books are the basis for the amazing Australian period mystery show Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. (If you have not already watched these on Netflix, your life has been bereft.) While waiting for the third season of the show to make its way to the US, I started on the books in the Phryne Fisher series. There are currently 20 books in the series, plus a collection of short stories, and they are fantastic. They’re enough different from the show that I didn’t feel like I was repeating the same experience, but similar enough to feel like the show and books add depth to each other. The books usually have more than one mystery going on at the same time, which the show doesn’t have time to work in, so it was often interesting to see which bits the show chose to use and which got skipped. One thing I think the books definitely do to a much greater extent than the show is focus on racial relations in 1920s Melbourne, especially the position of Chinese immigrants. I’ve seen several people comment on how orientalized Phryne’s costume designs are in the show, and while that is definitely an artifact of time period in general, there’s a lot more of it in the books because of the much larger role Lin Chung, Chinese silk importer, plays in her life. (He’s in only two episodes of the show, due to her rather different relationship with Jack, which, just to be clear, I love.) Phryne’s collection of waifs and strays is also larger in the books, giving us a more varied cast of characters with all the associated greater opportunities to see into more varied parts of Australian life.

EarthlyDelightsGreenwood’s other series that I discovered this year was the Corinna Chapman series. These are modern, not historical, and feature a cheerfully inquisitive baker living in an amazing mixed-use apartment building, who, as you might expect, ends up getting drawn into mysteries and solving them through the power of gossip, friendship, and food. The thing that struck me most powerfully about this series, though, is that in contrast to so many other contemporary cozy mystery series I’ve read, the main character and her boyfriend have an actual adult relationship. There is no contrived love triangle here; she and her boyfriend meet in the first book, he is a private detective who realizes she is smart and can help him, he asks her for help when he needs it, and if they have a problem, they actually talk it through. She’s not perpetually sneaking behind his back to solve the case out of defiance, he’s not constantly forbidding her to do things, and they treat each other with mutual respect rather than like people who never grew out of high school. I hadn’t realized how tired I had become of those tropes until I felt such intense relief at their absence upon reading this series. (Also in the Phryne series, though I suspect all the delightful period details obscure it a bit.) These are again books with an ensemble cast, as the reader gets to know everyone living in Insula, the apartment building, and I really need Greenwood to write another one soon, because six books is definitely not enough. There’s also some interesting cross-over of themes from the Phryne books to these, so you get to see both modern and historical Australian takes on similar issues.

death at wentwater court_MECH_01.inddSince I was on kind of a 1920s kick coming out of last year with Rhys Bowen’s Royal Spyness series, this year I discovered Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple books, which make excellent read-alikes. Daisy is also semi-impoverished gentry, though fortunately less royal than the other series’ Georgie, thus freeing her to make a living writing articles about manor houses for Town & Country. Of course, in true cozy fashion, there is inevitably a murder wherever she goes, and the investigator from Scotland Yard is ever so handsome. These aren’t revelatory in the way the Greenwood books were, but they are solid and comforting reads.

DreamingSpiesAlso following in the 1920s mystery theme, Laurie R. King finally wrote the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes book I have been waiting for since I first read Locked Rooms back in 2011, in which she just tosses off a reference to having stopped on the way to San Fransisco to solve a little something for the Emperor of Japan and then never tells us anything else. I am clearly not the only fan who has been agonizing about this, given the highly anticipated nature of 2015’s release of Dreaming Spies. As far as I can tell, this book was written expressly for me: Russell and Holmes travel around historical semi-rural Japan, then come back to Tokyo and stay in Frank Lloyd Wright’s newly built incarnation of the Imperial Hotel. I’m not entirely sure how many more of my personal niche interests could have fit into one book. One of my friends did a reread of the two previous books bracketing the initial events in this one (The Game and Locked Rooms), and she noted that she didn’t think the mystery was as strong in this one, and I have to admit that in retrospect I agree due to things I won’t address here because spoilers, but at the time nothing could dampen my delight in all the other trappings of the story, because it was written for meeeeeeee.

Next up: Romance!


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