The Top 15 New(*) Books I Read in 2020

And here. We. Go.

I am currently on book 137 for 2020, and depending on how much time I spend reading over the next several days I’ll likely be on 138 or maybe 139 by the time the year ends, but one of those is going to be a reread and the other is not super likely to set the world on fire, so it is officially Safe to Put the List Together, and write what has consistently been my favorite post of the year during the time I’ve been writing here. This is the second year I’ve gone to 15 books; it didn’t feel quite as necessary as last year but I figure honoring 11% of my favorite books at the end of the year instead of 7% isn’t going to end the world or anything.

As always, these are books that are New To Me, not necessarily new releases, although a lot of them did come out this year. Also, don’t take the rankings too seriously– if I did this again tomorrow they’d probably be in a slightly different order– and in particular the top five or so were tough. Basically, I know you got some gift cards for Christmas, hie thee to a local bookstore and pick something up; they’re all good.

Here are the last seven years’ worth of lists:

15. THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES: A BIOGRAPHY OF CANCER, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This is both the oldest of the books on the list, dating all the way back to the hoary days of 2010, and the first book on the list that I actually read. In fact, I started it in 2019, after last year’s list was written, but didn’t finish it until the first week of January. Siddhartha Mukherjee has shown up on this list before, with The Gene: An Intimate History coming in at #14 last year, and despite their relative positions I think Emperor is a stronger book. It is, as the title states, a history of cancer, or rather a history of cancers, as the book makes repeatedly clear that part of what makes this disease so difficult is that there are so many different types of cancer and it affects the body so differently depending on where and when it appears. It’s a fascinating piece of work; a little less technical (and thus a touch more accessible) than The Gene, which was already impressively accessible, and frankly everyone knows someone who has passed of cancer, so you’re going to feel a personal connection to this book while you’re reading it whether you want to or not.

14. DOCILE, by K.M. Szpara. There are a couple of books on this list that need to come with content warnings, and part of me kind of feels like Docile needs to come wrapped in brown paper with a big sticker on the back that says Are You Sure? on it. It’s a book about free will and brainwashing and capitalism and sex slavery, set in a future where debt has been made inheritable and people are literally signing decades of their lives (and sometimes their entire lives) over to the few remaining ultrarich to act as their servants in order to erase their family’s debts. They are given a drug that makes them into a Docile, which is basically a pliant, personality- and free-will-less drone who exists only to do the will of their masters. When they are released from their contracts, they remember nothing from their time as a Docile. And they don’t always come back right. The main character is Elisha, a young man who becomes a Docile but refuses to take Dociline, meaning that he is expected to perform exactly as the other Dociles but actually feels and remembers everything he is experiencing.

It’s a hard book to read, on a lot of levels, but this was another real early read in the year and it’s really stuck with me. I don’t know that I want a sequel or anything but I’m definitely in for whatever Szpara comes up with next.

13. ANGER IS A GIFT, by Mark Oshiro. I read two different books by Mark Oshiro this year, this and Each Of Us a Desert, and I went back and forth several times on which one deserved to be on this list more. I feel like Desert is a better book on a technical level, so to speak, but Anger is a Gift affected me emotionally far more than Desert did, so it gets the nod. This is another book that’s going to kind of beat the hell out of you while you read it; it’s the story of Moss Jefferies, a young man from Oakland, California who lost his father to police violence six years before the events of the book begin, and is still struggling with panic attacks and PTSD from the aftereffects of his dad’s murder. Now a high school sophomore, Moss is forced to deal with the increasing militarization of his urban high school and, as he finds himself drawn further into demonstrations and protests, has to reckon with police violence again. There is a sequence in this book that made me so angry I nearly tossed the book across the room, and it was harder to read it as a teacher than I think it might be for most people, because I spent a substantial amount of time very, very angry with the adults who are supposed to be protecting the kids in this school. This book is technically YA, the first of several on this list (I read a lot of YA this year) and it’s probably the most adult-feeling of the books on the list. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

(Disclaimer: Mark read, and enjoyed, The Benevolence Archives: Vol. 1 for his Mark Reads Stuff series on YouTube. I wasn’t familiar with him before this happened– someone else got him to read my book– and while I’m not going to lie and pretend that that series wasn’t the reason I picked up Anger in the first place, it’s not the reason Anger is on the list.)

12. YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN, by Leah Johnson. So, uh, compared to the rest of the books on the list, this one is maybe going to stand out a little bit? Y’all know me. I like speculative fiction, stuff with dragons and wizards and ghosts and unspeakable evils and laser guns and exotic alien worlds. Even when something is set in the “real world,” I like to see a tinge of the supernatural here and there.

You Should See Me in a Crown is basically a Disney movie set to prose. It’s the story of Liz Lighty, who ought to be a superhero, a young nerdy Black girl attending an ultra-rich Indianapolis high school. She has her entire life planned out– the college, the extracurricular activities, the careers afterwards– and then critical financial aid falls through and throws the whole thing into doubt.

So she decides to run for prom queen, which for some reason comes with a massive scholarship award at her high school, and she and her friends basically Voltron up to marshal the forces of all the not-traditionally-popular kids at the school and make Liz the prom queen.

It’s fucking delightful. Like, this book ought to have a giant blinking NOT FOR LUTHER sign on it, and it was bloody delightful. I loved Liz, I loved her fumbling, tender relationship with Mack, her girlfriend, and I even managed to buy into the high school being a real place by the end of the book. (Every so often I wonder if my high school was really weird or if every other portrayal of high school is nonsense. I was on the prom committee in high school. The “popular kids” were largely also the geeks and the nerds. It was a weird place.)

11. THE WEIGHT OF INK, by Rachel Kadish. Now, this book, on the other hand, should have come with a giant blinking FOR LUTHER sign on it. I was a Jewish Studies and Religious Studies major in a previous life, and have a Master’s Degree in Hebrew Bible, so if you hand me a book that’s basically about a couple of historians digging through a recently-discovered treasure trove of documents written by a female Jewish scholar and philosopher in London in the 1660s, I’m going to be halfway done with the damn thing before you actually get finished handing it to me. The book bounces back and forth between the two historians reading the documents in the modern day and the blind rabbi and the woman who is scribing for him (and, later on, writing her own treatises and corresponding with the likes of Spinoza) in the seventeenth century, and it’s probably the densest read on the list but Damn is it rewarding. This was recommended to me after a post where I complained about not really appreciating Literature, and this is the closest to Literature of everything I read this year, but don’t hold that against it. If you’re into history or really any kind of scholasticism at all this book will have something for you in it. Beautifully done.

10. THE VANISHING HALF, by Brit Bennett. We’re on a bit of a roll here, as both this book and the next one could probably be termed Literatures as well, but don’t hold that against any of them. The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational family saga, the story of a pair of inexplicably light-skinned Black twin sisters, born in a Southern town so small that it doesn’t appear on any maps.

On their sixteenth birthday the twins flee their home together, heading to New Orleans, and several years later one of them abandons her sister and runs again– to marry a white man who has no idea of her race or her background, and to disappear into wealthy white society. The other sister marries the darkest-skinned man she can find and eventually ends up back at home again.. Both women have daughters, and their daughters’ lives interact at various points throughout the story, neither of them having any idea who the other is or even that they have any cousins in the first place. The book starts in the Deep South and as it moves from the 1950s to the 1990s it widens its scope across the country. Bennett’s writing is lovely, and her characters feel like real people even when they’re placed into a setting that can at times feel a little metaphorical.

9. CONJURE WOMEN, by Afia Atakora. This book is a great example of something I was talking about earlier, a book that is mostly rooted in the real world and classy enough to be a Literature but works in just enough of the supernatural to keep weirdos like me interested. I read Conjure Women and The Vanishing Half pretty close to back-to-back, and they have a lot of similarities– both are family sagas to one extent or another, although this one doesn’t have literal twins in it, setting the relationship between an enslaved woman, her daughter, and their master’s daughter as the relationship it explores. The mother is a midwife and a healer, and her daughter Rue is reluctant about following in her footsteps, and is assigned as a playmate to the master’s daughter, Varina. Then the Civil War hits, and … well, things get interesting.

Take a close look at the cover, there, which isn’t initially as striking as some of the covers to books I enjoyed this year (random note: 2020 was a great year for book covers!) but is probably among the best covers of the year once you read the book and realize what you’re looking at. This and Vanishing Half are definitely an example of a situation where if I put the list together tomorrow they might flip places on the list. If you liked one, you’ll likely enjoy the other so get ’em both with that gift card I know you have.

8. THE GIRL FROM THE WELL, by Rin Chupeco. LOL, this one is about an angry murder ghost in case you thought I’d forgotten what kinds of books I usually read. You might look at the cover to this and think to yourself wait, isn’t that the girl from The Ring? And, well (heh), you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, as the ghost in The Ring and the ghost in The Girl from the Well are both based on the same Japanese myth. This book wins the Can I Eat This Author’s Brain and Claim Their Powers award for this year, as it’s the book I’d most like to have written myself of everything on the list. It’s actually told from the perspective of the angry murder ghost, and Chupeco’s prose is creepy and alien in a really remarkable way; the ghost really doesn’t feel human at any point in the book, and that’s something that I feel could get out of control and ruin the book really easily if the author isn’t careful and skilled enough. I also read the sequel to this this year, The Suffering, which does have the ghost as a main character but is told through the perspective of another (human) character from this book. I enjoyed it quite a bit but it didn’t floor me as effectively as this one; Chupeco’s voice in this book is outstandingly well-done, and this was easily the scariest thing I read all year.

7. THE BURNING GOD, by R.F. Kuang. Right about here is where it started getting really difficult to rank the books, by the way, and if anything this book got downrated a little bit by being the third book in a trilogy, making it a little tricky to recommend on its own. I loved the first book in the trilogy, The Poppy War, and had some trouble with the second, The Dragon Republic, at least in part because I didn’t remember the events of the first book as well as I should have. So I reread the first two books before reading this one, and … damn, y’all.

This series is another one that could stand for a trigger warning or two. One of the central events in the first book is modeled on the Rape of Nanking, and it’s absolutely horrible, and none of the characters are ever the same afterwards. The first book ends with a literal genocide, as an entire nation is set aflame. PTSD, rape and drug abuse and addiction are major themes of the series. But, my God, R.F. Kuang, who is somehow only in her early twenties, is a hell of a writer, and if you’re not someone who feels like they will suffer lasting psychological effects from reading this kind of book, in the final evaluation it’s one of the finest fantasy trilogies I’ve ever read. I didn’t give Dragon Republic enough credit when I first read it– which was exactly why I did the reread– and while placing seventh on this list might seem like a drop-off in quality when The Poppy War was third the year it came out … like I said, don’t read too much into the specific rankings. But read the books. Definitely read the books.

6. SPLIT TOOTH, by Tanya Tagaq. Okay, I promise after this one I won’t use the phrase “trigger warning” again, and I won’t make fun of myself for being bad at Literature again either, but I’ve gotta do both for this book. Tanya Tagaq is a Canadian Indigenous author, and I read an interview with her where she describes this book, set in Nunavut in the 1970s, as a “mythobiography,” and that’s as good of a description of it as I can imagine. It’s not precisely a memoir, and it’s not precisely an autobiography either– I don’t imagine that Tagaq thinks she was impregnated by the Northern Lights, which happens to the protagonist in this book– but the mythical and supernatural elements of the book somehow manipulate the “real” events of the book into being more shocking than they might have been otherwise. This book is beautifully written– the prose is among the best I’ve ever encountered and probably 15-20% of the wordcount is actually poetry and I loved the hell out of it anyway. Growing up poor and indigenous in Nunavut in the 1970s was no picnic, and this is another one to be careful with, as child abuse and neglect and sexual assault are definitely themes, but this is an amazing book and among the best surprises of 2020, as I effectively bought it blind when I realized I hadn’t read anything by indigenous women yet in my #52booksbywomenofcolor project and more or less grabbed it at random. I love it when that works out.

5. SAVAGE LEGION, by Matt Wallace. We are about to enter into a series of “first books of fantasy series,” as four of my top five books this year are Volume 1 of what will turn out to be at least trilogies if not, in some cases, longer. I just took a break for lunch, as I’ve been working on this post for three hours, and I swear to you that I sat back down and again considered rearranging the next set of books, so call all of them the best book of the year if you want. I won’t tell anybody.

At any rate, Matt Wallace’s Savage Legion is a hell of a book, and what was the most fascinating thing about it for me was the way it somehow manages to simultaneously absolutely bathe itself in tropes and cliches of the genre and come off as something fresh and new, and frankly that’s a hell of a trick to have pulled off. Legion employs the rotating-third-person-POV construct that’s become popular since Game of Thrones came out, but the really interesting thing about it is that you don’t figure out that several of the characters you’re reading about are the bad guys until everything starts slowly knitting itself together at the end. His characters are definitely modern, as he manages to knit together an interesting, diverse cast of POVs without succumbing to The Nation To The South Is Like This and The Dwarves Are Like That sorts of tropes. Also worth pointing out: one of the POV characters is in a wheelchair, which I think is the first time I’ve seen that in a fantasy novel. Generally when fantasy interacts with disability it’s to cut off a limb in combat or sometimes to have a character who is Blind But Not Blind, and I swear I wrote that before realizing that GoT does both. This is not that, and this book deserves a lot more attention than it got.

4. LEGENDBORN, by Tracy Deonn. Let us first take a moment to appreciate that cover, please.

Legendborn is not only the first of a series, it’s author Tracy Deonn’s debut as well, and … man, I loved it. I loved it. Much like Wallace’s Savage Legion and Kuang’s Poppy War, this book starts off feeling very familiar and very tropey. YA can get away with that to a slightly larger degree than books that are supposedly aimed at adults, but it’s still there nonetheless. The main character is not quite off at college, as she’s in high school, but she’s participating in a program that is located at a college and she lives in a dorm. And she’s off at a party and she Witnesses Something She Shouldn’t Have Seen, and then there are Secret Powers that Must Be Hidden, and there’s a Secret Society, and then like thirty pages into the book Tracy Deonn starts pinpointing exactly what you think is going to happen and gleefully curb-stomping the hell out of all of it, and yes eventually there’s a Powerful Boyfriend and a Smolderingly Sexy Antagonist who is the Boyfriend’s protector and best friend but hates the main character because of Secret Reasons, and this is one of those books that is difficult to describe properly because it sounds so clichéd but you just have to trust me that Tracy Deonn knows exactly what she’s doing and everything is going to be delightfully subverted by the end, and there’s even a Big Twist at the very end that I absolutely did not see coming and led to a fun bit of self-examination where I had to decide if I’d missed it because I’m white.

This is the third YA book to appear on this list, and as I’ve already said I read a lot of YA this year, but you absolutely should not let that get in the way of your reading this. Go get it and put it in your head now, please.

3. LEONARDO DA VINCI, by Walter Isaacson. There’s always at least a couple of nonfiction books on this list, but Leonardo da Vinci was the first one that was in serious contention for the top spot. This book is a combination of a biography of Leonardo himself and a book about art history, and it is filled with pictures of his artwork and detailed analyses of his paintings. This is the second book of Isaacson’s I’ve read, his first being a biography of Benjamin Franklin, and I will likely read his biography of Einstein sometime this year. Isaacson’s thing is that he really likes writing about geniuses, and the most notable thing about this book, above and beyond the fact that Leonardo himself is endlessly fascinating, is the sheer enthusiasm that Isaacson brings to discussing his subject. Art history is one of those things that I don’t personally know a whole lot about, but I love listening to and reading people who do know a lot about art talk about it, and both parts of the book were done exceptionally well. Descriptions of art can slide into the sort of half-gibberish that music reviews can turn into if the author isn’t careful, and I have to admit that a lot of the time I’m taking his word for it when he does things like describe facial expressions of the various subjects of a painting and such, but this is an amazing book about an amazing person and I very strongly recommend it even if you don’t necessarily think Leonardo is someone you want to spend 600 pages with. Because, seriously, you don’t want to read about Leonardo da Vinci? Quit being weird and go pick this up.

(Also, one more thing: this book wins for the best book as a physical artifact for the year. The paper is creamy and thick and the book feels great, and since it’s full of artwork that is begging for analysis the print itself is of a really high quality. I only spent like $12 on it brand new, and that’s ludicrous.)

2. BLACK SUN, by Rebecca Roanhorse. We’re back to Volume One of A Fantasy Series territory here, and Rebecca Roanhorse has become one of my favorite authors over the last several years, someone whose books get bought on release day and leapfrogged over whatever else happens to be in the queue at the time.

Anyway, let’s stare at the cover for a moment.

Black Sun is second-world fantasy, heavily influenced by Mesoamerican history and culture in much the same way that The Burning God is influenced by Japanese and Chinese culture. And you’re about to see another theme between this and the book that ended up being my favorite of the year, because the thing I loved the most about both books was the worldbuilding. I don’t know how many books are planned for this series but I hope it’s a million, because I could read about this world forever. It’s also one of those books where the ending kind of upends the status quo that’s been set up throughout the book, so we’ll see where Roanhorse goes with the second volume, which hopefully will be out really soon.

1. SCARLET ODYSSEY, by C.T. Rwizi. This has been the frontrunner for most of the year, and I did go back and forth a couple of times on whether I was going to have it or Black Sun as the top book of the year, but in the end it won out. And, well, there are some definite similarities between the two: second-world fantasy inspired by a culture that you typically don’t see a lot of in fantasy literature, this time being Central Africa rather than Mesoamerica, and absolutely outstanding worldbuilding. What ended up giving Odyssey the edge was slightly stronger characters and a more detailed (and math-based!) magic system, existing alongside multiple detailed religious systems and a complicated politics to boot. This book also features rotating 3rd person POVs, although it’s clear that 18-year-old Musalodi, a mystic who achieves a place of power and influence among his people and is immediately sent forth on an Important Quest, the actual purpose of which is to get rid of him, because men aren’t supposed to be Mystics and no one in his home really wants to deal with him. Genderflipping traditional roles is kind of a thing throughout this book, and Salo’s journey and the people he encounters along the way are all fascinating. There are also hints at another culture, possibly much more technologically adept, sort of on the outside of the events of the story but watching closely, and I can’t wait for the sequel, Requiem Moon, which comes out in March and which I’ve already pre-ordered. It is the best book I read in a year full of good books, and you need to read it.

HONORABLE MENTION, in no particular order: TERRA NULLIUS, by Claire G. Coleman, A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN, by Roseanne A. Brown, THE VANISHED QUEEN, by Lisbeth Campbell, MOON OF THE CRUSTED SNOW, by Waubgeshig Rice, THE FIVE: THE UNTOLD LIVES OF THE WOMEN KILLED BY JACK THE RIPPER, by Hallie Rubenhold, SPIDERLIGHT, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING, by Alexis Henderson, and DEATHLESS DIVIDE, by Justina Ireland.

#Review: TO SLEEP IN A SEA OF STARS, by Christopher Paolini

Gird your loins and adjust your expectations as necessary, because this is going to end up more as a review of Christopher Paolini than a review of his new book. I’ll start with something positive: take a look at that cover, and bask in its gorgeousness for a moment. Seriously, stare at it for a while; it’s probably the best thing about the book.

Now, understand this: Stars is eight hundred and twenty-five pages of story with another 53 pages of (utterly unnecessary) appendices, a glossary, a timeline, and author’s notes tacked onto the end. It is a massive book.

And the spine, which Amazon tells me is 1.74 inches wide, features the word PAOLINI on it in the largest font possible and nothing else other than the publisher’s mark.

I have thousands of books. Thousands. Books by people far more important and far more successful than Christopher Paolini. This is the only book I own that does not have the name of the book on the spine.

If I had bought the book from a bookstore, I very well might have put it back on the shelf, because this offends me to a degree that I’m honestly kind of surprised by. Before you even open the book, you know the main thing you need to know: Christopher Paolini is super fucking important.

This is, in case you don’t know, the guy behind the “Inheritance Cycle,” the series of books that started with Eragon and got longer and shittier with each successive book. I liked Eragon a lot when I read it the first time and by the end of the series I was completely done with it. And then Paolini didn’t release another book for, like, nine years until this one appeared on the shelves. I admit it; I bought it because I was morbidly curious about it.

Okay. I’m going to dial back a bit now. I three-starred this book on Goodreads. It’s not terrible. I’ve read a good number of objectively worse books this year. And I generally don’t write reviews of books I didn’t like. But To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is annoying in such a specific way that I couldn’t pass it up: this is the most arrogant book I’ve ever read, and the arrogance is so utterly unearned that it’s kind of shocking. A lot of Eragon’s sins got forgiven because Paolini was nineteen when the book came out and he’d started writing it at fifteen. That was, like, the guy’s entire hook— that he was super young and yet he’d written this big ol’ book. But I was convinced he was bored with the setting by the time that series ended, and the afterword to this book more or less completely confirms that suspicion. And by now, there’s no reason to cut him any slack any longer, as he’s a grown-ass man writing what is supposed to be a grown-ass book for grown-ass audiences.

Here’s the plot of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars: It’s the future. Kira, a boring woman, accidentally becomes Venom, and then there are aliens. Paolini writes action and fight scenes fairly well, and the entire book feels like a video game, right down to a big boss fight at the end and level-ups and additions to her powers over the course of the story. Did you play either of the Prototype games? Because I bet Christopher Paolini did.

The whole first half of the book is spent in search of a magical MacGuffin, and then they find it– spoiler alert, I suppose– but it’s broken, and then they basically never mention it again.

The name of the book is To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. Guess what the last seven words of the book are. Go ahead, guess. This is already the title you’d give to a fictional book if you wanted to get the idea across that the author was a bit of a wanker, and then the title is literally the last seven words of the book.

A bunch of the chapter names are in Latin, for no reason. The book is divided into six parts, and each part is also named in Latin, for no reason. Several chapter titles are repeated, for no reason. In the afterword, the author instructs you to look at the chapter titles for “some acrostic fun,” at which point I discovered that the titles of the chapters for some, but not all, of the sections are an acrostic for the first word of the first chapter’s name. Again, for no reason, and Paolini is proud enough of this bit of nonsense that he makes sure to point it out so that you notice how clever he is.

The aliens communicate through scent, which is actually kind of clever, and those scents contain markers for the name of the speaker, which is also kind of clever, because you can imagine the without such a thing being in a room with a bunch of aliens who were speaking would be … complicated. But it means that every bit of alien dialogue looks like this:

<Kira here: I am talking.>
<Alien here: I am talking too.>
<Kira here: I am replying to what you said.>
<There’s only two of us in this conversation, so this is the alien here again: I am replying to your reply.>

Every so often the human characters converse via text message. Every text message is signed.

<hello I would like to fuck. –Kira>
<I too would enjoy fucking. –Bill>
<When should we fuck? –Kira>
<Hey, a description of what happens when you try to masturbate might be cool. Also, use the phrase “inner parts” to refer to your vagina at some point. You’re being written by a man, it’s okay. –Bill>

There’s also the occasional rogue sentence that gets through that feels like it was written by a fifth-grader, or a weird parenthetical that any editor in the universe would have removed. Again, this dude hasn’t earned this. We all know Stephen King and George R.R. Martin aren’t getting edited all that damn much. The Inheritance books made a pretty good pile of money, and they had a painful flop of a movie made. But they weren’t so successful that, especially most of a decade later, this guy’s book should have been ignored by an editor like this.

It’s just … gah, it’s not terrible, I mean, I finished the damn thing, but it’s the Christopher Paoliniest thing Christopher Paolini could possibly have ever written, and I’m okay with being done with him now. There was a spark in Eragon that was extinguished by the time whatever the fourth book in the trilogy was came out. And there have definitely been examples– this year, even– of books I didn’t much like by authors whose future work I’m going to keep buying because of potential. But at this point I’ve got to be done with this guy.

Two book reviewlets

Two days ago I reviewed Rin Chupeco’s The Girl From the Well, a book that I enjoyed an awful goddamned lot, and I mentioned in the post that due to a screw-up where I ordered the sequel without realizing it was a sequel, I had it on hand already and would be going directly into it. Well, I burned through The Suffering almost as fast as I finished Well, and while I’m not quite jumping up and down and shouting read this read this read this the way was with the first one, it’s definitely still a good read. Call it four and a half stars to the first book’s five; the POV character moves from the ghost to the boy she is (newly) possessing, and the two of them have basically evolved into a sort of supernatural, psychic version of The Punisher, seeking out and messily taking apart murderers of the innocent. The majority of the book takes place in Aokigahara Woods, Japan’s “suicide forest,” and it absolutely continues the original book’s excellent level of creepiness, but I really loved the narration style that the ghost had in the first book and the tone shifts a little from supernatural vengeance ghost to something that, possibly not intentionally, scans a trifle more superhero-ey, and mostly because of those two things it’s not quite the triumph the first book was. Definitely read Well, and allow your reaction to that one to determine if you pick this one up. I suspect most folks will want to read both.


Jon Richter’s oddly-named Auxiliary: London 2039 is a book and not a bullet hell video game shooter from the late 1990s, and it’s another book that I was sent for free, on the condition that I review it for the site.

Let me boil this down for you in the quickest way I know how: are you interested in reading a book that features rape robots? If so, please continue. If not, read no further, and go nowhere near this book.

This was a four-star or so read until the last 25 pages or so, and I have never seen a book more effectively shoot itself in the dick before than this one does. I’ve got it at two stars on Goodreads right now, and I genuinely might bump it down to one. Because this book starts off interesting– a sort of Lock Inesque gritty detective story set in a near future that is probably a little bit too close to now to be realistic (hi, Skylights!) that is as much science fiction as it is a murder mystery. The book goes a little bit off the rails in chapter three, where the following events happen:

  • Our hard-boiled detective hero, Dremmler, creeps on a woman on the train. He is wearing smartglasses called Spex, which inform him of the woman’s name, her age, that she is bisexual, currently single, and that she has no criminal convictions. He “discerns”– the actual verb used– her “ample” breasts. He gets an erection. On the train. While sitting across from this woman.
  • He goes home, where he is greeted by his live-in maidbot, who is wearing a French maid’s outfit. She offers him a beer, which he accepts, offers to pour the beer, which he rudely declines, then offers him a blow job. He accepts that as well. So I guess she’s a fuckbot in addition to a maidbot.
  • That is the entire chapter. It is three pages long.

We know entirely too much about Dremmler’s erections throughout this book, and there is at least one place where another character decides to sleep with him for no reason at all that I can discern. But the mystery, which involves a pervasive, all-knowing AI and a prosthetic arm that murders someone independent of the desires of the person owning the arm, was interesting enough that I kept going. Then there’s a chapter where Dremmler has a nightmare that he is actually someone else who is actually basically roleplaying Dremmler in a simulation (shades of Ready Player One,) and that person actually uses the word “misogynist” to describe Dremmler before dying messily and, okay, I guess that was just a nightmare after all, and Dremmler is real? Sure, OK–

And then in the last 25 pages the Bad Guys literally use the impending gang-rape of Dremmler’s ex-wife, a woman responsible for the death of his child, by a bunch of misshapen sex bots (the first robot to do the raping has a “foot-long” penis and a hammerhead shark’s head) as a means of extracting information from Dremmler, and then there’s an enormous, AI drone-driven massacre of “thousands” of people, and then the book ends with either a cliffhanger or Dremmler’s actual death at the hands of the AI.

Spoiler alert, I guess.

I did not like this book; I was liking this book with some reservations (there’s something hinky going on with almost every female character in the book, a few too many of which are described as Asian in a way that feels weirdly fetishistic to me, and then there’s the erections) up until the rape bots, and if I hadn’t agreed to review this in return for the copy that would have been the end of it, the book nearly being finished be damned. I hate to say “this is not a good book and you should not read it” about something somebody sent me for free, but … this is not a good book, and you should not read it.

On the canon

Scalzi had– unwillingly, it must be pointed out– some interesting things to say today regarding the existence of a capital-C Canon as it relates to science fiction and fantasy. This was brought on by George R.R. Martin embarrassing himself and everyone else at the Hugo awards a week (? two? Time has no meaning) ago.

For the most part, I agree with him. There is no Canon, at least not of the capital-C variety, and it’s questionable at best about whether there ever was one. And a lot of what certain types of people think might be part of that Canon are books I probably haven’t read. I have never done anything but bounce off of Heinlein, for example. I don’t mind Starship Troopers but I don’t think I’ve ever finished anything else of his. I’ve read my share of Asimov but nothing I care to recommend to anyone. I have read several books by Philip K. Dick and Ursula le Guin; I can’t tell you a damn thing about any of them. No Bradbury or Silverberg, at all.

Honestly, I’ve read very little of the sci-fi Canon. I’m more widely read in fantasy, as that was my obsession as a kid, but I just didn’t read a ton of sci-fi growing up and most of what I’ve read as an adult has been much more modern.

So here’s the question: I don’t think there is a real Canon– there’s no work or set of works that someone having read or not read them would cause me to cast aspersions on their spec fiction bona fides– but what if there was?

In other words, if someone came up to me right now and wanted me to make a list of works of science fiction and fantasy that they needed to read, what might be on that list?

And that’s an interesting question. These will be in no particular order and I will absolutely forget some important books, so don’t take this as– heh– an authoritative list of canonical books. Let’s just say I’m starting a conversation and go from there.

  • The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which are probably as close as I’ll ever be willing to get to books that I insist any fan of fantasy literature must read, if only because that way you get it when people are trying to subvert them.
  • Dune. You can skip every single other Dune book other than the first one, but you should read Dune.
  • The Harry Potter series. Yes, I know, J.K. Rowling is cancelled, but there’s an entire generation of folks out there for whom these books were foundational and just because we’ve decided that they were magically written by no one is no reason not to read them.
  • Speaking of cancelled people, you really should read at least the first two books of the series that is actually called A Song of Ice and Fire but is known as Game of Thrones now. Read the third if you liked them. Do not read further than that.
  • The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, the only person to win Best Novel Hugos three years in a row.
  • Read Sandman. Yeah, I know it’s a comic book. Do it anyway.
  • Frankenstein. No, seriously, read Frankenstein. Like, do it anyway even if you generally don’t care about science fiction. It’s a better book than you think it is. Seriously. Try and find an edition with the extended ending, though.
  • Read something– I don’t care what– by China Miéville. Perdido Street Station, maybe, or The City and the City.
  • I will probably catch some crap for this, but read something by Lovecraft. Yes, he is a supreme asshole. But he’s dead, so he’s not going to get any of your money and a lot of his stuff is public domain by now anyway. Call of Cthulhu, The Shadow over Innsmouth or The Colour Out of Space, maybe. They’re short. Take a bath afterwards.
  • Orson Scott Card is a living utter asshole, but … man, Ender’s Game. Do it without spending money.
  • Watership Down. Which doesn’t have swords or orcs or spaceships in it, but does have talking bunnies and shocking violence.
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie’s most underrated book, and squarely in the realm of fantasy.
  • Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series could sub in for Heinlein, who is an obvious inspiration.
  • Read some Kameron Hurley. Really, just pick something, although if you pointed a gun at me I’d say something from her Bel Dame Apocrypha series.

And, like, I could definitely go on, and there are a ton of books that I think are magnificent but I wouldn’t necessarily put on this type of list (an example: the Expanse novels, which are brilliant but the series isn’t finished yet, and unlike ASoIaF I think you should actually read all of them) so obviously we could just keep adding things forever. But if this is a list of Where Should I Start, I feel like you could do worse than working your way through these.

What else is part of your fantasy/sci-fi canon?

(Also, I want to note, for the record, that I deliberately didn’t include Amazon affiliate links for any of these, because I feel like it would have been overkill.)

#REVIEW: Sixteenth Watch, by Myke Cole

Interesting phenomenon: I just looked at the Monthly Reads post I put up yesterday and realized that of the last fourteen books I’ve read (including A Memory of Empire, which I just started yesterday and isn’t in the pile,) all but three have featured main characters who were women. That’s certainly not something I did intentionally, although I suspect the 52 books by women of color series is skewing the numbers slightly, it doesn’t account for that level of disparity. And while I’m not going to name the specific books, several of the last half-dozen or so books I’ve read have featured MCs who consistently made terrible, horrible, no-good-very-bad decisions all the time, to the point where I noticed the trend, which was starting to get seriously on my nerves.

I’ve read one Myke Cole series in the past: the excellent Sacred Throne trilogy, which also happens to feature a female main character, but my understanding is that he’s always been primarily a military sci-fi guy, and Sixteenth Watch is a return to form. It’s another one of those books where I feel like I should just be able to state the premise and then get out of the way while you go buy it: it’s about the Coast Guard.

I’m waiting.

Wait, you’re not running. What, you don’t want to read a book about the Coast Guard?

Okay, it’s about the Coast Guard on the moon.

(Dodges the trampling horde)

The MC of this book is Admiral Jane Oliver, a lifelong Coastie (which is a word I’d never seen before, and I like it) who is sent to the America-controlled portion of the Moon to take charge of the Coast Guard’s contingent there, and along the way to train a group of soldiers in catching, breaking into and subduing enemy ships so that they can win a game show.

(That’s the “roll with it” part of the review; trust me, it makes more sense in context, which I don’t plan on explaining because this way is more fun.)

Oh, and along the way it would be cool if she was able to keep lunar border tensions between China and the US from erupting into a hot war, which would no doubt spill back down onto Earth. So this is both a book with a lot of action to it (and enough military acronyms that there’s a glossary in the back, which was absolutely necessary at several points) and a fair amount of politics as well, as Oliver both has to navigate several tense moments with the Chinese as well as keep the Navy and Marines out of her jurisdiction and off her back. Oliver is smart enough and good enough at what she does that she felt like a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of what I’ve been reading lately, but she’s not perfect and the upper brass in the book is only tentatively on her side, so there’s conflict all over the place and on all sorts of different levels.

There’s a lot made of the fact that the Coast Guard is the only branch of the military whose job is to save lives rather than fight wars, which is a really interesting perspective for the book to take, and one I’ve not seen previously in military science fiction. I already knew Cole was a good writer, but seeing him back in his wheelhouse was a really good time, and I was up way too late the other night finishing this one off.

I realized at about the 2/3 mark of the book that we actually have something called the Space Force now, and I sent Cole a tweet asking him about it:

One wonders if there will ever be any books written about the Space Force before the next president gets around to disbanding them.


3:49 PM (How the HELL is it nearly four already?) Saturday, May 2: 1,121,414 confirmed cases and 65,908 dead Americans. The world is about to pass the quarter-million dead mark.