I have not seen The King and I in many years, and I have fond memories of it– not quite at the point where I really have anything memorized, mind you, but I think about it more often than I think about a lot of things. At any rate, I have a puzzlement for y’all.
Those of you who are readers, and especially those of you who enjoy speculative fiction of some stripe or another: how good are you at ignoring bad and/or problematic aspects of a work and concentrating on the bits that you like? This may sound a bit more serious than I want it to; I’m not necessarily talking about anything like, oh, the racist and sexist elements of The King and I that will likely get on my nerves much more now than they did when I last watched it, probably two decades ago now, but more like a book with propulsive writing, interesting characters, and a plot that makes no Goddamn sense at all. Or, say, a science fiction novel that gets a lot of basic science stuff wrong, but not in a handwaves-it-away sort of sense, just gets it wrong. This is probably going to be something that’s going to be hard to answer in a general sense, but is there something (poor characterization, for example) that you’re generally able to put aside, or is there something that will always throw you out of a book that you’re reading even if you’re otherwise enjoying it without the troublesome part?
I will provide more context if I decide that the book I’m reading right now deserves a full review, but for right now I’m just curious.
(Snow day, again, today. We had an ice storm last night, and I woke up to a two-hour delay that became a full cancel just as I was getting ready to leave to take the boy to school. He had school. I did not. Video games and comic books all day for the win.)
I have praised Howard Andrew Jones’ writing here before– his The Desert of Souls was on my 10 Best list for 2017, and I also enjoyed its sequel The Bones of the Old Ones, although I don’t think I reviewed it here at all. So when I got a chance to land an ARC of the first book of his new trilogy, For the Killing of Kings, I jumped on it. This isn’t out until February 19, so when I’m done telling you you should pre-order it, you can just go do that and have it on release day in a couple of weeks! Great how this works, isn’t it?
The word “Conan” always comes up when I’m discussing Jones’ books, and his work always does a great job of scratching that particular itch for me– straightforward sword & sorcery full of magic and violence and cool worldbuilding and prophecies and scary villains and interesting monsters. Jones’ flavor of sword and sorcery is decidedly more modern than the traditional Conan model– you’ll notice that the woman on the cover is wearing clothes, for example– and not only is the main character a woman but so are several important members of the supporting cast.
That said, this series actually feels a bit less Conan-esque than his previous books, despite being set in a more European-style setting than The Desert of Souls and The Bones of the Old Ones, which were both deeply influenced by the Arabian Nights. In a lot of ways, For the Killing of Kings has the feel of a murder mystery for a decent chunk of its length– it’s not quite a true murder mystery, because the reader knows who did the killing, but the book splits its time among three distinct groups of characters, two of whom are pursuing the third, and no one really has the full story about what’s going on until close to the end. The characters are the best thing about the book, honestly; everyone who gets screen time has their own motivations and goals, and most of the time those motivations and goals don’t overlap perfectly with everyone else in the story, so the conflicts keep multiplying and mounting until all the sudden at the end of the book we’re pretty sure that the government all of the main characters are supposed to defend is at least partially the bad guys and oh by the way there’s a whole invasion thing going on and the scope of the book widens rather quite a lot. This is a great rollicking landslide of a book; every little plot-pebble that happens sends a bigger rock rolling down the hill, and Jones never lets up on moving the plot relentlessly forward.
It’s tricky, when writing a trilogy, to set up the first book so that it tells its own story but introduces story threads that will continue into subsequent tales, and For the Killing of Kings does a great job of keeping the scope smaller until the end and then abruptly pulling the camera way back and massively upping the stakes for the remainder of the series. I will be buying my own copy of this to put on the shelf next to my ARC. You should too.
This is one of those books that I really want to write a full review of, but if I talk about it too much I think everyone is going to think I hated it. The last time this happened was a little book called The Goblin Emperor that I had almost nothing but negative-sounding observations about but ended up being my second favorite book of 2015. If you look at Goodreads, the book doesn’t even have very high review scores, and in some ways I would not necessarily start an argument with someone who didn’t like it. There are, unfortunately, a number of bad reasons to dislike the book that I would very much start an argument about, but certain things I’d have to shrug and mumble something about different people liking different things at.
Just to give an example, this is the back cover copy:
The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach―but failed to notice a lurking darkness festering within the people. Now, their border walls begin to crumble, and villages fall to demons swarming out of the forests.
Away on the silver steppes, the remaining tribes of nomadic Qorin retreat and protect their own, having bartered a treaty with the empire, exchanging inheritance through the dynasties. It is up to two young warriors, raised together across borders since their prophesied birth, to save the world from the encroaching demons.
This is the story of an infamous Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali, a spoiled divine warrior empress, O-Shizuka, and a power that can reach through time and space to save a land from a truly insidious evil.
That description is missing what turns out to be a kinda important aspect of the book, which is that the whole damn thing is a love story, and the main characters are both women. You’ll note that there are no gender-identified words describing Barsalayaa, which is actually a little offensive but I know the author doesn’t write the back cover copy so I’m not going to make a thing out of it. Also, the entire book is fairly described as the setup to what we are told about above. So I wouldn’t necessarily be mad at you if you read that description and then didn’t like the book you got. Because the book you will get is not the book that that blurb describes.
The Tiger’s Daughter is basically an epistolary novel. O-Shizuka, Empress of the Hokkaran empire, receives a book from Barsalayaa in the first chapter and spends the entire book reading it. It is clear that she and Barsalayaa haven’t seen each other in a very long time. Curiously, the book she receives is telling her the story of her and Barsalayaa’s relationship together, so for the most part she’s reading a description of stuff she already knows. This is another bit where I won’t be angry with you if you don’t like it; you can either get past this or you can’t, because it is kinda strange.
Other than that, though, this is a remarkable Goddamned book and I loved every page of it. It’s the first book on my shortlist for 2019, and I’d be very surprised if it didn’t end up on my Best Of at the end of the year. The Mongolia-and-China-inspired world Rivera has created is multilayered and fascinating, and Barsalayaa and O-Shizuka are amazing characters that I don’t think I’m ever going to get tired of. The characters are a strength across the board, honestly. The writing itself is exceptional; there’s a lovely lyricism to Rivera’s wordplay that never overwhelms the story– she’s not writing to be clever or to impress anyone, which tends to make me nuts– and the story itself is unique and will keep you up past bedtime while you’re reading. I don’t want to spoil any of the actual events of the book, which begins (or at least the book-within-the-book begins) with the two main characters as children and …
Well, I spent most of the book worrying about how it was going to end, frankly, and it ends about as perfectly as it possibly could have. I have already ordered the sequel and will be getting to it very soon; I can’t wait to read it.
WE’RE BACK! I have a few posts that I generally do at the end of the year, or at least at the end of most years, but this post is the only one that I’ve written every year the blog was in operation. I’m reading my 105th book of the year right now, and will probably be at 106 by the end of the night tomorrow, but as both of those books are Walter Mosley mysteries they won’t affect the rankings any. That said, check out the Honorable Mention section at the end.
As always, “new” in this context means “new to me,” not “came out this year,” although for the first time almost all of the books on this list actually did come out in 2018. Also as always, don’t pay a huge amount of attention to where something shows up on the list– the top 5 in particular are really tight, although I’ve had a good idea what #1 would be for months now. Also also as always, you should be my friend on Goodreads, where this list gets constructed as I read throughout the year.
10. DOOMSDAY BOOK, by Connie Willis. This is the oldest book on the list, originally written in 1992. I went back and forth between it and another book several times before realizing that I could describe the plot of this book quite a bit more clearly than the other one, which is what tossed it the win– I read so many books every year that “I remember what this was about” is actually a pretty goddamn clear indicator of quality. At any rate: this is about the end of the world, which is gonna sort of be a theme today, only it’s about the end of the world in the fourteenth century at the beginning of the Black Death. It’s a time travel book, and the main character is a researcher sent from 2048 back to the fourteenth century, and then all sorts of things go wrong in the modern day, making it difficult for her team to pull her back out. I had some gripes about it when I initially read it, but the gripes all make the book more charming somehow; the author did not very well anticipate future technological advances from her lofty perch in 1992, and this is one of the most British books ever written. Let’s use the word “quirky.” You should read it.
9. THE ARMORED SAINT and THE QUEEN OF CROWS, by Myke Cole. The first of the Sacred Throne books is what got this book on the list, but I read them both this year, so I’m including both here. These are extraordinarily well-crafted, tight little books– both, I think, are technically novella-length, clocking in at barely over 200 pages, but Tor was confident enough in them that I own both of them in hardcover, and honestly I think it was worth it. The books are set in what initially feels like a more-or-less standard European fantasy setting, only with an Inquisition-style religious government in charge of everything, prosecuting the use of magic to the extent of scouring entire villages when they find a mage, and a decent chunk of steampunk elements– as you can probably see from the cover, the titular “Armored Saint” is wearing a suit of medieval power armor. She’s also a queer teenage girl, and she didn’t exactly mean to become, uh, sanctified, or lead a rebellion, or any of the other stuff she kinda tumbles bass-ackwards into over the course of, in particular, the first book. There’s a heavy “What if Joan of Arc …” thing going on here, but it’s well-told; again, Cole’s craftwork is what makes the series shine. I shoulda been taking notes while reading these.
8. THE ENDS OF THE WORLD: VOLCANIC APOCALYPSES, LETHAL OCEANS, AND OUR QUEST TO UNDERSTAND EARTH’S PAST MASS EXTINCTIONS, by Peter Brannen.
Hell of a title, innit? I didn’t read a ton of nonfiction (again) this year, but what I did was well-chosen, and you basically know what this book is about from reading the title: it’s a history of Earth’s multiple mass extinctions, with detours into both the geology behind figuring out how and when those extinctions happened and the social history around the science. Despite the title, it’s not really one of those “here’s a bunch of ways the planet is going to kill us!” books that leaves you convinced that everything is hopeless because the Yellowstone Caldera is gonna erupt any second now and we’re all gonna die. It’s mostly a book that’s going to leave you terrified of carbon by the end of it. Carbon sucks, guys.
At any rate, despite talking about sciences and eras of deep history that most folks don’t really have a lot of experience with, this book does a great job of presenting extraordinarily complicated shit in a clear and understandable fashion; this is science journalism at its best.
7. BECOMING, by Michelle Obama. I just wrote a full review of this a couple of weeks ago, so in the interest of not repeating myself too terribly much (it’s good! Michelle is awesome! Buy it in hardcover, because this book is weirdly fun to touch!) I’ll talk about how I’m an idiot, which is always a fun theme around here: I always make sure to caution folks to not take the actual rankings too seriously as they’re reading through this list, right? This book is exactly why. It’s one of only two nonfiction books on the list, the other one being the #8 book. And I swear to you, just now, as I was resizing the cover image so that it was roughly the same size as the others on the list, I thought “I can’t have this at #7! That puts the two nonfiction books right next to each other!”
Which … what? Stop that. Quit being stupid.
6. EMPIRE OF SAND, by Tasha Suri. This is the most recent of the books on the list; I just finished it on the 23rd and I read it in a day, which you’re going to notice will be a theme for most of the rest of the books on the list. The main character is Mehr, the daughter of a governor in a Mughal India-inspired fantasy world. Mehr’s mother is a member of a prosecuted and occasionally magic-wielding minority and she quickly finds herself in an arranged marriage and shipped off use her abilities to keep the Emperor alive and in power and his empire thriving early in the book. This isn’t a YA book despite the very YA-heavy themes, or if it is it skirts the edge of adult fiction enough that I barely noticed; the star here is Suri’s writing, which I couldn’t get enough of. The reviews of this one are surprisingly mixed and the main knock against it is that it’s slow to unfold; turns out you don’t notice that if you only put the book down once so that you can sleep while you’re reading it. The magic system is fascinating and the way the servitude to the Emperor is dealt with is also a highlight. This coulda been a top 3 book for me any other year; pretty much everything after this is absolutely stellar work.
5. FOUNDRYSIDE, by Robert Jackson Bennett. I have, I think, all of Robert Jackson Bennett’s books, and I’ve enjoyed his previous work quite a bit, but Foundryside is quite simply a massive level-up on his part; this book blew me away. The main character is a young woman by the name of Sancia Grado, a thief in a setting that is, to coin a word, magicpunk– sorta steampunky, but with magic instead of steam, if that makes any sense, and in this world magic actually imbues objects with a (mostly) limited form of sentience. Brandon Sanderson blurbs it and is the top review of it on Goodreads, and while I’ve soured on his work a little bit this book really does have a touch of a “What if Robert Jackson Bennett wrote a Brandon Sanderson book?” thing going on, and the answer to that question is awesome things happen. The characters are the highlight of this book, particularly Sancia herself and Gregor Dandolo, a city constable who starts off as an antagonist and is something else entirely by the end of the book. I can’t wait to see where this series goes next.
4. INTO THE DROWNING DEEP, by Mira Grant. Mira Grant, pen name of the ridiculously prolific Seanan McGuire, has shown up on these end-of-year lists before. She writes something like 97 books a year and I read as many of them as I can get to (That’s not a joke. I have, on more than one occasion, thought I was caught up on her new releases and then discovered she had more than one new book out that I was unaware of– and once it was an entire new series that I’d never heard of previously) but Drowning Deep is my absolute favorite of all of her books under either name. Cryptids are a favored theme of hers, and one of her series is explicitly about a family of cryptid hunters, but this one takes a tighter focus, following a boatful of oceanographers who are hunting for mermaids.
Mermaids are fucking terrifying, as it turns out. The book starts off with a ghost-ship mystery, basically, and there’s a lot of “Wait, really? Everyone was eaten by mermaids?” going on at first, and there’s a lot of very satisfying cryptid science going on– all of the characters in this book are very bright people with a wide array of academic specialties, and I’d love to know how Grant found the time to research all of this shit– and when the book turns into a slasher film for the last 40% or so (with an especially cool late-book twist) the momentum just builds and builds and builds and oh GOD would this make a great movie. I want a sequel to this book, bad, but I want to see it on the big screen first. Go read it.
3. THE POPPY WAR, by R.F. Kuang. This is another book that sort of starts off feeling like a YA book; I described it early on to my wife with something along the lines of “Harry Potter, only Hogwarts is a Chinese military academy and Hermione is the main character.”
And then Hermione deliberately burns out her own uterus because menstruation distracts her from her studies, and then everybody goes to war and it turns out that the Rape of Nanking is a big part of the inspiration for this fantasy series, and yeah when it goes adult it goes adult hard and it goes adult fast. In fact, this book really needs a bit of a content warning– R. F. Kuang does not fuck around, guys, and while I loved the book and can’t wait for the sequel there are some of you out there who aren’t going to be able to finish it because of the events of the story– genocide is absolutely a theme, and if you don’t know what the Rape of Nanking was you might want to click on that link and read a bit before you decide to get into this one. It’s a Goddamned brilliant book, but more than anything else on the list, it’s not gonna be for everybody.
2. TRAIL OF LIGHTNING, by Rebecca Roanhorse. The genre of this book is Navajo post-apocalyptic urban fantasy.
Navajo. Post-apocalyptic. Urban. Fantasy.
There’s no point to writing any more, because you already should have stopped reading this and headed off to Amazon or a local bookstore to buy the goddamn book, because that ought to be all you need. And, okay, it’s fair to say that a book needs to be more than its genre, but I get the feeling that Rebecca Roanhorse could write an 800-page book about the life cycle of a specific breed of orchid or some shit like that and she’d still produce something I wanted to read. I loved this book, I loved the setting, I loved the characters– Maggie, the main character, is a great example of a character who is an asshole but she’s a compelling and interesting asshole and she’s fascinating to read about; I had a couple of books this year killed by unlikeable main characters and this is a masterclass on how to do that right. You should probably brace yourself for Roanhorse’s general disregard for anyone’s discomfort with Diné orthography; if seeing words like yá’át’ééh sprinkled through a text is going to bother you … well, you need to get over that and go read the book anyway. This is yet another debut book of a series (GOD, was 2018 a great year for fantasy series debuts!) and I can’t wait for the next one.
1.JADE CITY, by Fonda Lee. Let me be clear about something: this 2018 list is the strongest top 10 I’ve had since I started doing this. 2018, for all its faults, was an absolutely phenomenal year for books, and I finished reading JADE CITY on February 2 and knew immediately that it was going to be top 3 if not one of my favorite books of the year. JADE CITY is a family epic; imagine The Godfather, set in Japan, written by George R. R. Martin and with jade-enhanced superhumans in it, and you have a decent idea of what’s going on here, only in this scenario the Five Families are also the government and the scope of the book starts getting aggressively multinational in scope by the end, to the point where if the second book in the series doesn’t have significant spy novel elements I will be really surprised. And the best thing about it was that I bought it effectively at random because I had a gift card burning a hole in my pocket. Everything about this book is great: the writing pops, the setting is refreshing and fascinating, the characters are all interesting people with understandable and well-drawn motivations; it’s great it’s great it’s great. It is the best book I read in 2018, and again: this was an outstanding year, so that’s higher praise than usual. Go read it right now.
(RANDOM NOTE, BECAUSE IT’S ANNOYING ME: That missing space after the period and the 1 up there is not a typo. It’s there because if I leave it out WordPress tries to convert the block to a fucking numbered list and indents everything, and if I then change it back to a paragraph it deletes the number. Rinse and repeat. I love that Gutenberg is still finding new ways to be Goddamned obnoxious.)
HONORABLE MENTION, in NO PARTICULAR ORDER: The Easy Rawlins mysteries, by Walter Mosely, which I’m blowing through at high speed but some of which are rereads and others new, thus making them ineligible for this list, AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon, DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland, CROOKED GOD MACHINE by Autumn Christian, THE OUTSIDER by Stephen King, BLACK WOLVES by Kate Elliott, VOID BLACK SHADOW and STATIC RUIN by Corey J. White, A STUDY IN HONOR by Claire O’Dell and THE CHANGELING by Victor LaValle.