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Special Needs in Strange Worlds: The Best Books of 2014

It’s a little late for this, and I apologize for that. Life has been crazy, and I haven’t had the time I wanted to make this list as extensive as I had hoped it would be. In fact, I was hoping to get together lists from about five people, but my health situation exploded and I only had a chance to ask two people. I’ve been sitting on their answers long enough. I figured it’s time to bite the bullet and let my list drop as-is. The bonus is, the two people I have asked have diverse tastes, and are incredibly well read. I truly appreciate the time they’ve taken to compile their lists for me. I’ve added a few of my book choices to the end of the post.

Since this list isn’t as large as I wanted it to be, I am hoping that you, dear reader, can help this list grow. Feel free to weigh in with some of your favorite Special Needs in Strange Worlds applicable books that were published in 2014.

Mieneke van der Salm

Mieneke van der Salm works as an information specialist at a university library in the Netherlands. In her free time she aims to create and read her own library at home and, together with her husband, raise two little geek girls. In July 2014 she was nominated for a World Fantasy Special Award: Non-professional. You can read more about her, and her wonderful reviews on her website.

When thinking of books that fit the Special Needs in Strange Worlds theme there were several that came to mind immediately. After taking out the books published prior to 2014 (Speed of Dark and The Glass Republic, I’m looking at you) the following five remained:

Joe Abercrombie – Half a King
The reason Joe Abercrombie’s first YA novel fits in on this list is because of its main character Jarvi. He is the titular half a king, dubbed thus because he has a malformed hand, which means he can’t be the warrior he is supposed to be as a son of the king. When he’s unexpectedly expected to take the throne, Jarvi needs to learn how to be a king and make people believe it without judging his hand. While not wholly unproblematic, I did really enjoy this novel.

Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith – Stranger
There are tons of reasons why Stranger would fit on this list, but the main reason is the fact that one of its main characters is missing a hand. He loses it in the first chapter of the book and part of his arc is learning to deal with the loss. Stranger is a poster child for the We Need Diverse Books movement and I really enjoyed this weird western, post-apocalyptic YA novel.

Corinne Duyvis – Otherbound
Possibly one of the books I burbled on about most last year, Otherbound is another YA title. Both of the viewpoint characters have disabilities. Nolan is missing a foot and Amara is mute. In addition, they share a connection that means that every time Nolan blinks he’s looking out of Amara’s eyes, leaving him suffering what strongly resembles a form of epilepsy and having to deal with the consequences of the resulting ‘absences’. Otherbound is a great adventure partly set in a fascinating secondary world and it’s a story that manages to incorporate the characters’ disabilities, and their connected abilities such as Amara’s sign language, in a way that made it part of the story without being gimmicky.

Stephanie Saulter – Binary
Sarah has sung the very deserved praises of Stephanie Saulter on previous occasions, and I’m adding my voice. Saulter’s Binary returns us to the world of Gemsigns. Most gems have some kind of physical change, some of them beneficial and others limiting them. Others have genetic disorders thanks to the engineering done by the gemtech companies. In Binary the strongest examples and my favourite characters were Rhys and Herran. Rhys suffers from seizures due to a genetic disorder and Herran has communication difficulties. I was rather reminded of him by Sarah’s description of Groot in this post on Bookworm Blues. Despite his trouble with communication, Herran is so very eloquent and I love how important he is to the resolution of the plot in Binary.

Jamie Schultz – Premonitions
Premonitions is a very fun heist novel, which earns its place on this list thanks to the precognitive powers of one of its protagonists. Karyn can see the future, but if not kept in check, her powers will overwhelm her and she’ll be lost in her visions. To keep her power in check, Karyn is dependent on medicine, much as people with diabetes or epilepsy are. I really liked the analogies Schultz drew between chronic illness and Karyn’s power and the way he structured the narrative around it.

Paul Weimer

Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

War Dogs by Greg Bear
Bear’s story of Michael Venn, Skyrine (Sky Marine), fighting on Mars at the behest of the alien Gurus who have provided technology to Earth is a story of a soldier who uncovers a far greater mystery in Mars. It is also clear, in the scenes set on Earth, that he is a soldier who has been traumatized and changed by those military experiences. Upon reflection, its pretty clear that he is suffering symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, and the story of War Dogs is not only in its central mystery, but a soldier coming to deal with his experiences.

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone
Gladstone’s latest novel set in his Craft Sequence universe is full of characters all struggling with change and special needs that have been thrust upon them,or that they have dealt with,sometimes in radical ways. From Kai, born in a body of a man and took the radical step to change that biology, to Izza, a thief-urchin  with a connection to a dead Goddess, the characters that navigate Gladstone’s world all have their special challenges to bear, even as events threaten to overwhelm them all.

Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
Kameron has a wide cast of nations, races, and characters in her first foray into Epic Fantasy. However, for me, the heart character, the center of the novel is Lila. Cast from her own world into another, living a life of drudgery, has both a bad leg and a severe case of asthma as permanent challenges that she has to deal with and work around in order to find her destiny. Hurley never soft pedals these issues, even as Lila makes her away across an insanely dangerous landscape.

Sarah Chorn

Lock In by John Scalzi
Lock In is set in a near future world, part mystery and a whole lot of commentary about disability, illness, health, independence, and the value of human life. This book examined a topic that rarely gets examined so closely in speculative fiction, and Scalzi did it with brevity, poise, and a depth of thought that truly shocked me. His is a world of extremes, and he makes his readers navigate through these extremes in some surprising ways. Scalzi turns the notion of “disability” on its head, and explores the concept in nuanced ways that will leave readers with plenty of important thoughts long after they close the book.

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory
This book really rang my bell. Another near future science fiction dealing with drugs, and their side effects. Addiction, mental disorders, withdrawal, and just about anything else you can think of is examined with depth here. What impressed me the most about Gregory’s book was the fact that a lot of what these characters deal with is incredibly realistic, and very emotions. However, he never really loses sight of the capabilities and abilities of his characters despite their struggles. I found the story he told to be incredibly compelling due to that. They struggle, but they are still capable. Gregory’s story involves drugs, but there’s a lesson in this novel that can be useful to us all.

Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop
This is the second book in Bishop’s series, The Others. Part urban fantasy, part alternative history (kind of), part dystopian, this series is its own animal. Featuring an interesting cast of characters that don’t really work well together (admittedly, that’s part of the pleasure of it), this series has been absolutely addicting from the start. Not the least of which is due to the protagonist, Meg Corbyn, a young woman with a shadowed and very abusive past, a dash of PTSD, and an addiction to cutting which allows her to see into the future. Murder of Crows grows quite a bit from the first book. Meg might function, work, and think a bit differently, but that doesn’t diminish her power and capability. She’s a protagonist that’s easy to get behind.

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory
Another Daryl Gregory book. Last year that man was on fire. This one is a novella, and it’s an incredibly powerful novella at that. We Are All Completely Fine follows a close circle of characters going through a few group therapy sessions. They have all had horrible events happen in their pasts, which has psychologically marked them in some pretty realistic, but rather uncomfortable ways. Involved in all of this is a mystery, and some of the best characterization I’ve ever read in a novella. It’s rather fascinating to see how the group dynamic unfolds, sometimes in uncomfortable ways, and how all of these people find answers in the parts of themselves, and their pasts, they’ve tried so hard to ignore, disregard, or sweep under the rug.

Hollow World by Michael J. Sullivan
Hollow World is set in the future, after a bit of time travel. The protagonist, Ellis, ends up fleeing into the future to avoid grueling treatments for a terminal illness. He lands in a future world thinking he’d know what to expect. Instead he finds a completely different kind of society. While there is a mystery that will keep you guessing, the really interesting part of this novel are the questions that Sullivan poses his readers. This future society has basically traded individuality for cures to disease, peace, and prosperity. And Ellis, a man with a terminal illness, finds himself in the middle of all of it. This is a book that will leave you with plenty to ponder long after you finish it.

1 Comment on Special Needs in Strange Worlds: The Best Books of 2014

  1. I’d love to get on this list for next year. My first book, Synthesis:Weave, (and the sequels I’m writing) has a disabled double-amputee protagonist, based on my disabled partner.

    Rather than doing what James Cameron did in Avatar, which was to replace the disabled body, my character overcomes his disability by creating a special prosthetic device. It has its flaws, and he still has to use a wheelchair in some circumstances, but it’s more about pushing the envelope of what can be done in a wheelchair.

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