MIND MELD: Our Favorite SF/F/H Consumed In 2013
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It’s 2014 and that means it’s time to look back at all the SF/F/H available in 2013. Our panelists were asked this question:
Consumed being anything read/watched/heard during 2013, but not necessarily new in 2013. Here’s what they said…
My Best of 2013 has to be seasons two and three of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I missed this show in its initial run, but the enthusiasm of its fans convinced me to check it out last year. I caught up on season one, and then life came along and derailed me until recently.
Yeah, I’ve become an Avatar fanboy. The storytelling is ambitious, with a three-season arc with a number of unexpected twists. I love the worldbuilding: the different cultures, the history and beliefs, the architecture … so many well-thought-out details. The characters have depth and intelligence, and actually develop over the course of the series. The animation is gorgeous, particularly the different styles of bending (manipulating the four elements).
The show is set against a backdrop of world war, and it doesn’t hide from the realities of war. Aang is the last survivor of his people, the rest of whom were exterminated early in the war. Iroh, one of my favorite characters, lost his son in the war. That death changes him, and haunts him throughout the series. At the same time, the story never loses its sense of hope. Aang is a character who appreciates joy and fun and humor, though you see him struggle with despair as well.
My only complaint is that the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, seems to have lost a lot of the depth that made Avatar: The Last Airbender such an amazing show.
“Best” is always so difficult to define. My offering is going to be the book that I keep telling everyone to read, because it hit all of the buttons that make me happy. Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons felt like it was written specifically for me. It’s got a swashbuckling adventure, a young lady of quality as the main character, with dresses and tea and dragons. It has the sense of a mid-nineteenth century travel memoir but set in a secondary world fantasy. I adored it.
I don’t know if it was objectively, or even subjectively, the best thing I consumed, but the one book I think has had the most effect on me and stayed with me is Among Others by Jo Walton. I find it popping into my mind as an example of so many things I discuss regarding genre fiction. The character Mori thinks and feels so many things I think we’ve all felt, both as outsiders growing up, as well as fans of a type of fictions that is often misunderstood still by those who don’t read or don’t enjoy reading it. Some lessons I learned from it were a reset of perspective too. Mori doesn’t distinguish much between fantasy and SciFi much less hard SciFi, urban fantasy, or any of the other sub-genre labels we use. She just calls it ‘SF’ and loves it all.
My favorite part of the book, and maybe this is because I help run a book club, is the book club aspect of the story. Not just the parts where she describes the discussions, but the thoughts of a book club member that we hear from Mori throughout. She thinks like us. She is one of us. Finally, if nothing else, the book is a damned fine reading list. I wish I could pack in a few extra years along side the next one to read everything Mori did. Well one can always hope for a little time travel, or maybe some friendly elves.
Because I am on the advisory group for the Crawford Award, much of my reading for the year is debut fantasy novels. As always, I have discovered lots of interesting writers that I might not have read
Someone that I would definitely read, no matter what she wrote, is Michelle Tea. She’s mostly known for writing mimetic fiction about sex workers, drug addicts and the like. However, she has recently turned her hand to YA fantasy. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek draws upon the traditions of her Polish
ancestors, and contains a lot of Tea’s trademark gorgeous prose. I’m hoping it will do well.
Anther writer I would like to see do well is Jack Wolf, who lives here in the West of England. His debut, The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones, is one of those liminal books where you are never 100% sure whether the hero is actually being menaced by faeries, or is quite mad. There is a lot of good 18th Century history in there too. The book was shortlisted for the Polari Prize, which is for debut novels by LGBT writers, and is on the Telegraph’s Best Books of the Year list.
Both of those books are from non-genre publishers. The in-genre fantasy debut that most people are talking about is A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. It is indeed a very fine book, and all the more interesting for being set in a very different culture to most fantasy. Samatar is someone we will be hearing a lot more of. Mind you, she’s also very modest and kind-hearted. She pointed me at the oddest debut I have read this year.
Zombies are everywhere these days. All of the obvious books have been done, but there is always something new to be found. A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims is a zombie novel written by a disciple of David Foster Wallace. It is a character-focused meditation on the nature of zombiehood. Goodness only knows what the LitFic crowd will have made of it.
One debut that isn’t eligible for the Crawford is Gemsigns by Jamaican writer, Stephanie Saulter. That’s because it is a fine piece of social science fiction which uses the prospect of genetically modified humans to examine issues of race and religion in Britain.
Still with Caribbean writers, Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds is a very polished follow-up to Redemption in Indigo. It is a very different book, and like Gemsigns very much social SF, despite being set in the far future. I’m impressed by the confidence with which both Saulter and Lord tackle complex social issues.
Of course there are big name writers around as well. Two of the best books I have read this year have been The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay. You don’t need me to tell you that they are really good.
Someone who should be a big star, but perhaps misses out because she lives in New Zealand and her books can be hard to come by, is Elizabeth Knox. Her latest novel, Wake, has just become available internationally as an ebook. I’ve only just started it, but everything I have read by Knox has been brilliant and this looks like being no exception.
The book that everyone has been talking about this year is Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I am not in the least bit surprised. It is superb science fiction that does really interesting things with gender, AIs and galactic empires. I want to see this one on award ballots next year.
Nicola Griffith’s Hild contains only homeopathic quantities of fantasy. The central character is revered as a seer, and she may actually make actual prophecies. Then again, she’s very smart and very observant, so she might just been very good at guessing how things will play out. Whether it is fantasy or not, however, it is beautifully written and contains more quality world building than most fantasy novels, despite being based on actual characters and events from 6th Century Britain.
Afrofuturism has become a thing this year. My bookstore has seen good sales by two anthologies: Mothership from Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall; and We See A Different Frontier from Fabio Fernandes & Djibril al-Ayad. I’d also recommend a non-fiction book: Afrofuturism by Ytasha Womack, which does a fine job of surveying this exciting field in a range of different arts.
Talking of non-fiction, Adam Roberts has produced an affectionate and erudite examination of Tolkien in The Riddles of the Hobbit. He writes wonderfully readable academic books.
It is a bit cheeky to recommend one of your own books, but I had nothing to do with the creation of Adventure Rocketship #1. It was originally published as a paperback by a local small press in Bristol: Tangent Books. I liked it so much that I persuaded editor Jonathan Wright to let me do an ebook. The theme of the book is the intersection of science fiction and music. It contains some wonderful essays on subjects as varied as Delia Derbyshire, Michael Moorcock, George Clinton, and Janelle Monáe, plus some fine fiction from the likes of Lavie Tidhar, Tim Maughan and Liz Williams. I really want to be able to publish more of these books.
I read and watched a ton of SF/F/H in 2013, and a lot of it was great and some of it was excellent, but since I only get to pick one I’m going to pick a weird one: Season 2 of the TV show Alphas. I was a vocal (perhaps annoyingly vocal) fan of Season 1, based almost completely on my love of Gary, an autistic superhero so well written and well acted that I honestly consider him one of the best characters on TV. Then I moved overseas and missed the second season altogether until it showed up on Netflix this year, when I watched it with relish. Not only is Gary even better and more complicated than before, but some of the other characters have been revamped and punched up and I just love it all the more. Dr. Rosen, the soft-spoken, non-powered Professor X of the group, is a psychologist, and he acts like a psychologist, and he treats people in a way I’ve never seen a TV character treat other people; he’s a masterwork of meaningful characterization. Nina, one of the least-developed characters in the first season, is recreated in the second to show the emotional devastation that a life with superpowers could plausibly cause. The show still has its flaws, as all shows do, but I love some of those characters more than I ever expected to love a fictional person. Especially Gary. Can we start a kickstarter or something and get him his own show?
Best horror comic of the year is a split between Mike Mignola’s Hellboy In Hell and IDW’s new X-Files.
Best genre TV show: The Walking Dead and Revolution in a dead heat.
Best horror novel of the year goes to The Coldest Girl In Coldtown by Holly Black
I spent a lot of time at my local comic book shop in 2013. I devoured the adventures of Wonder Woman from the New 52 in graphic novel format, in Volume 1: BLOOD, Volume 2: GUTS, and Volume 3: IRON, written by Brian Azzarello. Art is by Cliff Chiang, Tony Akins, and others.
These books have reminded me why I adored Wonder Woman as a child. She’s depicted as a powerful and believable heroine both in the story and the art, as she searches for her past and the truth about her identity. The pantheon of Olympus has been brilliantly reinvented as the gods adapt to the new world. The old gods are not viewed as calcified and unchanging relics of legend, but as entities that continue to interact with humanity – on their own terms, of course. And Wonder Woman’s struggles as she bargains, fights, and allies herself with them are pitch-perfect.
2013 was the year I rediscovered science fiction. For at least the last four years, I’ve focused my reading on literary fiction and horror, but this year I really got into science fiction–probably because of James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series. On recommendation from a friend, I picked up the first one and then raced through all three books (thank goodness a fourth is due out this spring!). Then I devoured Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. I felt like Corey’s and Leckie’s books were all really enjoyable space adventures, and I’d definitely read any of them again. I also fell in love with Cloud Atlas, the book and the movie, and the utterly wonderful midgrade novel The Fellowship For Alien Detection, by Kevin Emerson, which was packed with enough scares and alien conspiracies to please any die-hard X-Files fan.
But out of all the SF I read or viewed, I have to say I best enjoyed Hugh Howey’s Wool. I started it on December 30th and had it finished by noon the 31st, so I just barely squeezed it into my 2013 reading list. I’m so glad I did! The characters were all compelling and the setting felt like a grown-up version of The City of Ember (which if you haven’t read, you really ought–it may be YA, but it’s an excellent SF novel). I am a sucker for mystery novels, so having a murder mystery wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in a post-apocalyptic conspiracy proved to be perfect reading for me. I also felt that the primary point-of-view character, Juliette, was the kind of tough, intelligent woman I’d really enjoy meeting.
I read many really good SF/F novels last year but for me three novels stood out. Together, they show how diverse today’s publishing is, and that a lot of different routes to publishing are available. I’ll take them in chronological order, since all of them are really good.
First out, Night Blade by J. C. Daniels ( aka Shiloh Walker). This is the second book in the Kit Colbana series and it is one of the best Urban Fantasy Novels I’ve read. The world is intriguing, the characters are great, the plot is fast paced, and the stakes are high. But what puts it on my Best of List is the fact that the author doesn’t coddle her characters. It is heart wrenching.
The second book is Heart of Obsidian by Nalini Singh. This is the 12th book in the Psy Changeling series, and it is one of the books I have been waiting a long time for. At times it felt like the whole series have built up to this book. I loved how Ms Singh managed to combine the sweet romance, the crackling world and healing of the characters scars.
Last, but not the least is Infinity Key by Chrysoula Tzavelas. I read and really liked Matchbox Girls, so when I spotted this on Netgalley I requested it. This book was pure fun. It was fast paced, with an intriguing setting and a fast paced plot. I liked how it contained both fun parts but also really sad parts. It is totally stand alone, but I appreciated how it cast some events in Matchbox Girls in another light.
I think much of the best SF/F I consumed during 2013 has gotten a lot of praise already, because I was lucky enough to spend the year consuming some of the best that 2013 produced: Myke Cole’s Fortress Frontier (Breach Zone imminent!), Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy, and Paul Cornell’s truly impressive London Falling. The only real exception is my favorite read of the year, The Incrementalists.
It’s hard to describe this book by Steven Brust and Skyler White, which may be why it hasn’t gotten the attention I think it deserves. Is it because, on the surface, one sees a simple love story complicated only by a strange power struggle? Is it because the action is divided so democratically among the cast of distinct characters that, besides leads and supports, there’s no easy way to categorize the players (and thereby identify with a single one)? Is it because philosophy isn’t just mentioned or debated or even threaded through but embedded in the very bones of the characters and plot? I don’t know.
I honestly didn’t know, before I bought it, whether to expect to like this book. But I loved this book. Really loved it. It’s the only novel on my bedside bookshelf, and it’s been there since I finished it. The love story isn’t too instant, the “magic system” too intricate, or the presentation too literary. There isn’t even too much poker. It’s not a story to be read as a series of events leading from one place to the next so much as a kind of trompe l’oeil that looks strange at first glance but makes sense after looking at a lot of angles. Since I’m still struggling to explain why I love The Incrementalists, let me just describe how reading it felt.
When I’m on the westward freeway crossing Wisconsin, I barrel along the road at the highest speed I can get away with, stopping for no one and nothing, for hours on end. But then I come over a certain hill. I can see the horizon, and the sky falls away into space. I slow down there, sometimes even stop, just to appreciate that moment when the sun and the sky and the trees and the land all situate themselves into splendor. I take a moment to take in the disparate elements, a little simple on their own, and the beauty they conspire to create in a certain light. That’s the kind of experience The Incrementalists gave me.
I hope this piece of 2013 still gets its chance to affect all of you, too.
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