[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
With all of the blockbuster, bestselling titles out there, and so many quality stories available, it can be easy for other titles to be overlooked, so this week, we asked our authors and panelists:
Here’s what our panelists had to say…
Everyone talks about Kage Baker’s Company series, but it’s a long series that has to be read in a certain order, making it look almost as intimidating as McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga (or moreso, since very few people will tell you what The Company series is actually about). Want just a taste to see if The Company schtick is for you, not to mention Baker’s writing style? Plant yourself in front of the short story collection In The Company of Thieves for a handful of short stories that take place in the world of The Company. There are contemporary tales, a comedy of errors, plenty of history fiction, and even a steampunk story. I can’t think of a better way to get introduced to Kage Baker if you’re not familiar with her work. I always get a little sad thinking about this series, because there will never be another book written in it.
And speaking of long intimidating series and authors who have passed away, I was insanely impressed with Iain Banks’ The Quarry. Lack of the famous middle initial means this isn’t a science fiction novel. It’s just a novel about a man’s last weekend with all his old friends, and his socially handicapped son. We get the story from the son’s point of view. When you hear the name Iain Banks, it’s so easy to jump right to “oh em gee, the Culture novels! You have to read The Culture novels!”. But what if you don’t want to read a Culture novel? What if you tried and you didn’t like them? The Quarry is all the Banks snark with none of the WTF.
On a much happier note is an anthology I just finished the other day – Sidekicks, edited by Sarah Hans. It’s from a smaller publisher, Alliteration Ink, and has very few big names to brag about in the table of contents. But that subject! Everyone loves a superhero movie (or at least that’s what IMDB tells me), but what about their sidekicks, their partners, their helpers, the guy or gal who gets the supersuit dry-cleaned and picks up coffee on the way to the Batcave? Some of the heroes know they’re in a partnership with their sidekick, other hero/sidekick relations are much more complicated. With far more depth and far less spandex than I expected, it was a very impressive collection. The sheer variety of hero/sidekick relationships and types of stories included makes this anthology worth some more mainstream attention.
Wow, I’ve been reading a TON of short fiction this year! My final book that I read recently that I think should get more attention is Clarkesworld Year Four, which includes all the original fiction published in Clarkesworld Magazine. It doesn’t matter how much screen-reading I do, I’ll always prefer a thinly sliced dead tree in my hands. Unfortunately, my propensity towards print makes it difficult to keep up with the all the short story magazines I enjoy, such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Apex. Getting a copy of Clarkesworld Year Four opened my eyes to fact that many magazines publish annual volumes of all of the original fiction that was published in their magazine and/or on their website. Can you say Best of Both Worlds? I get award winning and innovative short fiction, and a book in my hands! All the annual volumes of the short fiction magazines should be getting more attention.
Funnily enough, I’ve just finished writing an essay on some of the childhood reading that influenced my writing, and I kept coming back to M. R. James, the great English writer of short supernatural fiction. James was a curious man: a medieval scholar who wrote stories about the dangers of intellectual curiosity; and a closeted homosexual at a time (the early decades of the last century) when homosexuality was not only frowned upon, but was illegal, and whose repressed sexuality – indeed, something of his fear of sexual contact – fed into his tales (they contain lots of hair, unpleasant moistness, and the occasional echo of a vagina dentata. His stories are profoundly unsettling, much more so than, say, those of Lovecraft, because James is both a better, subtler writer, and because he feels no urge to tie the horrors of contained in his stories to some kind of greater vision of the universe. He simply writes of elderly academics, fusty researchers, self-satisfied scholars, and puts them into a situation where all of their assumptions about existence are undermined by contact with a world beyond this one. What I love about James’s “ghosts” – although he called his tales “ghost stories”, they are much broader in scope than that name suggests – is that they are not ethereal: they can be touched, felt, and smelled, and they can touch and feel in return. They’re actively dangerous. Therefore I’d steer anyone who hasn’t yet read him towards Daryl Jones’s recent, and wonderful, Oxford edition of The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James.
In fact, I’ve found a lovely video – filmed in Trinity College’s Old Library – in which Jones discusses James. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite story of James’s, but I’d certainly steer a new reader towards “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad“, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”, “Casting the Runes” and “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book”. Oh, and once you’ve read him, hunt down the BBC’s brilliant TV adaptations of the stories – along with Dickens’s “The Signalman” – collected as “Ghost Stories for Christmas”.
Such a tough question! Most of the books I read come from recommendations by writers, agents, and editors on Twitter, which means that they’re already fairly well-known, or at least getting buzz. So I’ll focus on non-series books by writers mainly known for one big series. Maggie Stiefvater is best known for her Wolves of Mercy Falls, but my favorite book from her is The Scorpio Races, a lyrically written standalone YA about water horses that defies genre. Chuck Wendig is known for his Miriam Black series, but my favorite of his books is The Blue Blazes, with a creative and gonzo new mythology for the creepy things crawling underground. Charlaine Harris is known world-wide for her Sookie Stackhouse books, but I love her Harper Connelly mysteries. And while Deanna Raybourn hit list with her Lady Julia Grey novels, her recent standalone A Spear of Summer Grass has me dreaming of flappers and Africa. And I’m always surprised that people who love Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series haven’t discovered the Into the Wilderness series by Sara Donati, which I lucked upon in a bookstore thanks to Diana’s compelling blurb. The most intriguing debut I’ve read recently was Wild Card by Jamie Wyman, an urban fantasy about rogue trickster gods in Vegas, and I look forward to the rest of her series. Other favorites from the year by people you might not know (yet!) include Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore, The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee, and two comics, CHEW and Saga. I bet pretty much every author feels like they should be on this list… me included!
Emma Jane Holloway is the author of The Baskerville Affair, a steampunk fantasy involving the niece of Sherlock Holmes and talking mice. Ever since childhood, Emma Jane Holloway refused to accept that history was nothing but facts imprisoned behind the closed door of time. Why waste a perfectly good playground coloring within the timelines? Accordingly, her novels are filled with whimsical impossibilities and the occasional eye-blinking impertinence—but always in the service of grand adventure. Visit her at www.EmmaJaneHolloway.com
I like to cruise all kinds of bookstore sites, not just those in North America. Foyles in Britain is a favourite, because sometimes there are great reads that take a while to come our way—which was how I found The Ghost Hunters. At the time, it wasn’t available at Amazon.com, but it is now.
This book caught my interest for two reasons. I love ghost stories and, while I’d heard something about Borley Rectory, I wasn’t that familiar with the case. This was a chance to indulge myself and learn something at the same time.
Ghost Hunters is a fictionalized account of the adventures of Harry Price, who was a well-known paranormal researcher in the early twentieth century. He was a member of the Society for Psychical Research and exposed a number of fraudulent supernatural happenings, sometimes to the dismay of ardent spiritualists such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This story is primarily concerned with the rather spectacular haunting at Borley Rectory, located in an isolated village on the Essex border.
This is a perfect winter book, the type best read in a slowly darkening room with a mug of tea. It unfolds like a good British detective show—it’s less a straight-line charge through events and more a subtle layering of detail upon detail until sinister patterns begin to take shape. The language is lovely to read, well suited to the setting and subject matter. Subject to the book’s slow pacing, the horror elements of the book are less shocking than they are cumulatively creepy.
The principal narrator, Sarah Grey, is Price’s fictional assistant. She’s capable but limited by the era she lives in. At times her devotion to Price is confounding (he’s far from a model human being) until one realizes her attraction is symptomatic of a deep fracture in her psyche. This is where the book’s greatest strength lies. The real ghosts live inside the characters—in their pasts, their desires, their losses, and their failures. Though I wanted to shake Sarah sometimes, I really wanted to see her survive and flourish. The spooks crashing about the manor house are definitely interesting, but it’s the corporeal drama that kept me turning the pages.
I’m not an expert on the material and I can’t comment on how accurately the historical record is portrayed. However, the author details such matters in the end notes along with an extensive bibliography. Overall, this is an enjoyable read for those fond of a good old-fashioned haunting.
Faith Hunter here. Although they are well known among young adult readers, I have started a series that screams wonderful for adult readers too. That is the Cal and Niko Leandros series by Rob Thurman. The characters are so well sculpted and developed, and the series arcs are so well blended into the individual book story arcs, that they read like works of art. Fast-paced, action-filled works of urban fantasy art!
Admittedly, I focused more on the “read, fairly recently” part of the question than the “lesser known” part, but I thoroughly enjoyed each of my selections and that’s the #1 reason I think they deserve more attention. But each has its own strengths.
THE GOLDEN CITY by J. Kathleen Cheney
I loved the disparate mix of elements this book had to offer: selkies, sirens, and spies; unusual underwater artwork; grand houses, gowns, valets, and footmen; interesting magic, imaginative alternate history, and a diverse cast of characters. I found myself wishing I could take a submersible to see The City Under the Sea (without its macabre accoutrements), share a glass of Vinho Verde with Duilio Ferreira, and have Oriana Paredes as a friend. She is a loyal, brave, and sympathetic character.
CHARMING by Elliott James
James’ voice (or the voice of John Charming), the myriad references to various mythological concepts, the prelude, interlude, and asides the character/author takes to explain his world’s magic, and even the chapter names, some of which are a hoot, are all terrific. James’ inventive turns of phrase (bomb mot, sexist Sig, pre-moon syndrome, Venus guy trap…) are almost enough incentive to read this book on their own, but his cornucopia of lesser known supernatural creatures also nicely round out what could have been just another vampire/werewolf story. James’ breaking of the fourth wall repeatedly and intentionally was entertaining and well done.
BETWEEN TWO THORNS by Emma Newman
I loved Newman’s take on the Fae and the juxtaposition of her Split Worlds. Ordinarily, one experiences a mild tension imagining a faux pas committed amongst high society. Newman, however, manages to imbue a breach of etiquette with a sense of real fear. The magic is bloodless and yet, in Aquae Sulis and Exilium, there are genuinely scary consequences for bad manners, perceived slights, or just screwing up in general. As an American, I appreciated the British colloquialisms and I enjoyed the pop culture references to things like Xbox, Aliens, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Max’s gargoyle sidekick was first-rate and Cathy – plain, awkward, whip smart, and brimming with potential Cathy – has lots of room for future growth. I look forward to her impressing *me* in future stories.
I raise my hand and declare complete bias here, but there is some wonderful fiction being published by Australian small press at the moment. You may have heard of publishers like Clan Destine Press, Fablecroft, TwelfthPlanet and Ticonderoga Publications who are well and truly established in their niche, but there are some lesser known indie imprints as well, such as Satalyte Publishing, Coeur de Lion, Dark Prints Press and eMergent Publishing.
Here are offerings from some of these publishers that have caught my attention.
One Small Step- an anthology (I wrote the foreword for this one and the stories are broad-ranging, quality spec fiction. I recommend you check out the story, Always Greener by Michelle Marquardt)
Path of the Night by Dirk Flinthart (always wishing to see more work from this author)
Bone Chime Song and other stories by Joanne Anderton (author of Debris)
Ink Black Magic by Tansy Rayner Roberts (another Mocklore novel – YAY!)
Twelfth Planet Press
Trucksong by Andrew Macrae – check out his website. Whoa! That should whet your appetite for the book!
And any of TPP’s Twelve Planets novella selection. Honestly they are all SO good and too numerous to mention, save for saying that Margo Lanagan and Lucy Sussex are among the authors.
Wild Chrome by Greg Mellor (a writer after my own heart)
The Bride Price by Cat Sparks (Cat has won countless story awards over here)
Both of these are showcase collections for these great authors.
Coeur de Lion
Pyrotechnicon by Adam Browne (tag lines by Greg Bear and Jeff Van de Meer)
Clan Destine Press
Walking Shadows by Narelle Harris
Take the time to browse some of these catalogues over the holiday break and uncover the gold!
Michael Logan is a Scottish author and journalist, whose writing career has taken him across the globe. Apart from his homeland, which he left in 2003 at the age of 32, Michael has lived in Bosnia, Hungary, Switzerland and Kenya, and reported from many other countries. He wrote his first short story at the tender age of eight, but was distracted by his career as first an engineer, then a journalist for almost three decades before returning to fiction. His first novel Apocalypse Cow won Terry Pratchett’s Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now Prize. His short fiction has appeared in The Telegraph and literary journals such as Chapman. His piece We Will Go on Ahead and Wait for You won Fish Publishing’s 2008 international One-Page Fiction Prize.
He currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and is married with a young daughter and son. More information can be found on his website: www.freelancelogan.com
The book is set in a dystopian future, and as such contains a lot of tropes with which the avid reader of sci-fi will be familiar. Global warming has caused the polar ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise dramatically, which the author takes far beyond realistic scientific projections to create a Britain where only the peaks of the Scottish Highlands are above water.
A stripped ozone layer makes the outside world a very dangerous place for pale-skinned Scots. Communities live on floating platforms tied to the seabed in a collection of parishes known collectively as Port. An ultra-virulent disease called Sangue de Verde (nicknamed Senga, a nod to the Scottish name that is commonly used to refer to rough women from poor backgrounds) means real sex is banned, leaving those who survived the flood only virtual sex to ease their frustrations.
The plot follows the travails Paolo Broon, son of notorious criminal Diamond Broon, who lives in some luxury at Inverdisney Penitentiary—a private prison for rich prisoners run by an international corporation. Paolo, who works as a Cyberjanny (read Cyber Janitor), longs to free his wife Nadia from the life-support machine to which she is confined after contracting Senga from an affair with an initially unknown party. In order to cure her, Paolo needs a DNA sample from the man who infected her. Paolo’s search climaxes, after a long adventure-filled journey across Port, at But N Ben A-Go-Go—Diamond Broon’s luxury island lair.
The novel, like much sci-fi work, satirizes present trends through an exaggerated future, but one thing really sets it apart: it is written in Scots. Now, this may sound intimidating, and Fitt complicates matters further by making up his own terminology. However, if you’ve read Clockwork Orange you’ll find But N Ben A-Go-Go isn’t too dissimilar in that you will quickly get the rhythm and feel of the language and start to relish it.
To give you a wee preview, here is some text from the author’s website:
PAOLO STEVENSON BROON’S GENETIC code wis a direct haun-me-doon fae his maternal grandfather, Stevenson Klog.
The Klog faimlie pool wis a bree o grippie east coast insurance men an born again presbyterian fishwifes, lowsed by the lord fae prozac, sex an involuntary hame shoppin. Grandfaither Klog never bosied or beardied him when he wis wee but gart him staun in foostie cupboards in his sterile widower’s apartments whenever Paolo bairnishly havered Klog’s deid wife’s name.
Glowerin numbly throu the keek panel o Omega Kist 624 up on Gallery 1083 on the fifth anniversary fae the day his life pairtner Nadia wis Kisted, Paolo had nae choice but tae acknowledge his thrawn pedigree. The langer he gowked at the recumbent figure ahint the reekit gless panel, the mair he felt the Klog cauldness tichten roon his hert. As he watched fae the view gate in the Rigo Imbeki Medical Center high up on Montrose Parish, the threid-thin voice o his grandfaither kittled in his mind, an Paolo, yince mair, when confrontit by the weariest sicht imaginable tae him, foond himsel patently unable tae greet.
As for why you should read it: well, how often do you get the chance to read a sci-fi novel written in Scots, and one with a great story and strong satirical overtones at that? I believe we all have to step outside our reading comfort zones every now and then, and this book will definitely force you to do that. But it will be worth it, not least for the opportunity to come away with a whole new vocabulary of Scots words.
James Enge is a classics professor by day, a fantasy writer by night, and the only person I know who can use the word eucatastrophe in a novel without it sounding pretentious. He has been documenting the early life of his classic character Morlock Ambrosius in A GUILE OF DRAGONS and WRATH BEARING TREE. I can’t understand why well written, entertaining, funny, deep and interesting novels about the son of Merlin don’t get more play than they do. The first novel features Morlock’s upbringing and a Dwarf-Dragon War! The Second novel is the Morlock Ambrosius road show, crossing a landscape littered with Gods, Demons and the strangest and most interesting characters I’ve ever met outside of a Jack Vance novel. I liked the map and the world shown in WRATH BEARING TREE enough to make my own take on the map.
Laura Anne Gilman has been working in Urban Fantasy (and also side trips into other genres) for many years, but, again, she doesn’t seem to get the eyeballs that other authors do. Her most recent work, as opposed to her Cosa Nostradamus universe, is a fine duology based on the story of Tam Lin. In HEART OF BRIAR, her asthmatic, geeky, technophilic heroine ventures into faerie to recover her boyfriend stolen by elves that are anything but cuddly. In SOUL OF FIRE, the clock is ticking, and now Jan has to save the entire world, against a ticking deadline. Add in supernatural creatures of uncertain provenance who dislike the Elves but are not entirely trustworthy, and you wind up with a rich character net of interactions that firmly showcases the authors skills.
If you would rather have science fiction than fantasy, and short fiction rather than novels, then I cannot recommend the short story collection THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY enough. Edited by Athena Andreadis, the stories include brand new offerings from Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Jack McDevitt and more. Women belong in science fiction settings as much as men do, and that is this anthology’s guiding mission. If one or more of these stories doesn’t make the Hugo ballot for 2013, it will be a travesty of justice (and criminal lack of visibility of this fine anthology.)
I’m bending the rules a little bit here, because the books I chose are all part of a series, so while I will focus on the first book, I’m taking the opportunity to talk about the larger world of the series.
Cat Hellisen’s novel When The Sea is Rising Red (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is set in a world where fall-out from a magical war has changed the mundane into the magical—lions have become sphinxes, goats have changed into unicorns, and crocodiles are now dragons. That’s just one part. Another is the class divisions between the high-lammers, the low-lammers, the hobs, and the bats. Hellisen has built a rich and layered world that could be late 19th century England, except it’s so much more, with nooks and crannies that take you by surprise, scented and spiced with lyrical prose, and the muted roar of ocean surf ever-present in the background. The characters are prickly and flawed. The genders are fluid. The outcome is anything but certain. And what makes me happiest of all is that this book is just the introduction into her Hobverse series. House of Sand and Secrets (Folded Wherry Publications) continues the story of the main character, Felicita, as she navigates her way through the fall-out from the first book.
The Cloud Roads (Night Shade Books) is the first book in Martha Wells’s Books of the Raksura. And here is where I just make happy reader noises, because this, this is a book and a world and a series that I love to pieces. The main character, Moon, is a shape-shifter who knows nothing of his heritage and has spent his life hiding his nature. Then he meets Stone, who brings him back to a colony of people like him. It’s not that simple, of course. Wells has created a complicated and utterly fascinating society with the Raksura. Arbora serve as teachers, hunters, soldiers, and mentors. Aeriats (of which Moon is one) serve as consorts and warriors. Queens are the most powerful and deadly, and they rule the colony. Everyone knows their place except Moon, who needs to learn how to fit himself into this new society. There’s so much to love about this book, but what stands out most for me is how Wells has created sympathetic aliens that are more than humans with wings. When Moon shifts from groundling to aeriat, I can almost feel the change in his balance. When his spines flare, I can sense his anger. And yes, there is more than one book to love! The Serpent Sea and The Siren Depths continue Moon’s story with the Indigo Cloud colony, revealing more about the Raksura and about Moon’s own background. Read them. Read them all.
I first met Ekaterina Sedia several years ago at a convention. She’s a Russian native, but now lives and teaches in the U.S. I had not read any of her books (she had two prior ones out at the time), so I picked up her second one, The Secret History of Moscow. I’m not sure what I expected from it, but what I got was a look into a fully-formed fantasy world co-existing with our own, and based on fairy tales and folklore unfamiliar to me and thus constantly (and consistently) surprising. Imagine Once Upon a Time, if you didn’t know any of the fairy tales it was referencing. It put Sedia on my radar, and made sure I picked up each new book as it appeared.
But it was her third novel, The Alchemy of Stone, that really cemented for me the idea that she was one of the most original, and most under-appreciated, fantasy writers out there.
Falling vaguely into the steampunk genre, Alchemy is about Mattie, a porcelain-faced, sentient humanoid automaton who wants to learn magic at a time when her society is crumbling from civil war between the Mechanics, who believe in science, and the Alchemists. A wild card in this are the Gargoyles, who ask Mattie to help them stop turning to stone.
But the central relationship is between Mattie and her creator, the Mechanic Loharri. He holds the only copy of the key that winds her mechanical heart, and refuses to give it up. As long as he possesses it, she is bound to him.
“World-building” as a concept gets bandied around a lot in fantasy; certainly, thanks to the rise of gaming, in many cases it’s become an end in itself. But the best manufactured worlds serve to illuminate their characters, and Sedia does that wonderfully here. There’s nothing arbitrary in any detail, and it all pulls together to create a magnificent setting for the story she’s chosen to tell.
The most amazing thing to me, both as a reader and a writer, is that Sedia has the courage to follow through on her central concept. Too many writers lack the nerve to do this, especially if that path leads somewhere dark and irredeemable. I was left speechless and numb by the inevitability of the ending, something that’s foreshadowed as early as the first pages of the first chapter.
Which leads to something my wife said. She’s a voracious reader, especially of fantasy and science-fiction, and she said she found the book incredibly sad. I disagree. No doubt the story, and its outcome, are tragic, but they have the catharsis of true tragedy, like Shakespeare or Doctor Zhivago, not the simple depression of a sad tale like Pan’s Labyrinth. What Sedia has created is true folklore, with a moral dimension that compliments but never overwhelms the narrative, and it has that quality of folklore that causes it to stick with you long after you’ve read, it. Mattie’s ultimate fate will break your heart, but it will also confirm what your head is telling you: that you’ve just read a masterpiece.
One of the great and crazy things about living in the modern day is that there is no way—unless you’re Ozymandias and I mean the Watchman character here and maybe not even then—to keep track of everything out there that’s good to read at once. People (I) struggle to hold down the fort in individual genres, let alone All Media, which is this Yog Sothoth beast of incomprehensible dimension piping at the center of the universe. Anyway. My point is that works renowned in one medium aren’t often as visible to fans of others—and that’s the excuse I give for not having read John Layman and Rob Guillory’s CHEW until my friend Steve Sunu pushed the first hardcover into my hands and stood there glaring.
After I read the first page, he didn’t need to glare. This comic series, now approaching its fortieth issue, is brilliant, demented, gross, beautiful, mysterious, in-your-face, hilarious, terrifying, gut-wrenching and sexy and sometimes all of the above at once. The star of the show, Tony Chu, is Cibopathic—he can eat a sunflower seed and know the field from which it grew, see the face of the man who picked it, and feel the roasting fire. Or he can eat a piece of sausage and flash onto something else entirely. Tony is a detective. He works (sometimes) for the Food and Drug Administration, which following the Avian Flu pandemic that wiped out a significant fraction of the earth’s population is now the most powerful law enforcement agency on the planet. And chicken have been outlawed. And there are cybernetic animals. And the most dangerous entity on Earth is a very strange rooster. And… and… and…
Look, if you like science fiction, or fantasy, or procedurals, or good art, or—well—fun, you should be reading Chew. Unless you’re easily nauseated. Then you should probably find something else.
There are two books that I’ve read in the last few months that I think deserve a lot more attention. The first is RUSH by Eve Silver. It’s about a girl who is taken from her world and inserted into a game-like universe to fight these terrifying alien creatures called the Drau … only it isn’t just a game. There are real life consequences. This book was a thrill-ride from start to finish with non-stop action. The characters were solid and relatable, and the plot was exciting and different with a totally unique scifi mythology that caught me by surprise. As a gamer, the whole concept of this book was fascinating.
The second book that I think deserves a lot more attention is THE BEAUTIFUL & THE CURSED by Page Morgan. This is pure YA historical fantasy at its best. Set in the 1800’s, it’s a well-crafted, complex mythology and a totally unique story that had me at Paris and gargoyles. It’s about a girl who moves to Paris with her family into an old abbey, only to discover that her twin has disappeared. Thrust into a world of monsters and protectors, Ingrid Waverly has to find her brother before it’s too late. Page Morgan does an amazing job of creating a thrilling new mythology that took me into a dark, exciting world full of gargoyles, angels and demons. The writing is complex and interesting, providing rich, vivid detail at every turn, and the intricacies of each character kept me hooked. This was a book that left me with a lot to chew on–I thought about this one for days after I read it.