Book – Breq is only a fragment of what she used to be – quite literally, in this case. Years ago she was Justice of Toren, the artificial intelligence of a starship of the Radch Empire. Back then she had hundreds of bodies, from the starship itself to her many ancillary soldiers, captured human enemies who were joined together as part of her vast intelligence, in the service of a high-status Lieutenant. But Justice of Toren was betrayed, although she isn’t quite sure how, by the many-bodied ruler of the Radch Empire, Anaander Mianaai, and Breq has a plan for revenge.
I picked up Ancillary Justice when it became apparent that it was going to be nominated for every major SF award this year. (Sure enough, it’s already won the Nebula and is on the Hugo ballot.) It deserves it. Breq is an unusual character, but a compelling one, and her world is utterly fascinating. In the scenes from the point of view of many-bodied Justice of Toren, Leckie does a great job of portraying the ship’s simultaneous multiple points of view without getting confusing; likewise the Radch’s complete disregard of gender is an interesting twist on a far-future society. I loved it, and I can’t wait for the sequel, Ancillary Sword, out in October.
Book – Patricia Cowen is confused. “Very confused,” it says on her medical chart most days. She forgets things. But she remembers things, too. She remembers Michael telling her “It’s now or never” and saying “Now” and getting married and having his four children. She remembers Michael telling her “It’s now or never” and saying “Never” and traveling in Florence and raising three children with Bee. She isn’t sure which one of them is right, or if both of them are, but she’s sure it means something.
My Real Children is one of those novels that could only be written by Jo Walton. It’s science fiction insofar as it’s about one woman and two different lives she could have had, both of them in worlds that are not exactly our own. (The split occurs sometime in the early fifties, and history progresses in sometimes surprising ways.) But the real story, the point of the story, is about Patricia – Trish in one lifetime, Pat in the other – and her life and her family. It’s a little bit about might-have-beens, but more about the small choices that you make that make big differences, both to yourself and to other people. I loved it, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Book – Short stories are funny things. They’re short, of course, which means you don’t spend very much time with them, but somehow they can pack even more emotional punch than a novel. Some writers can write beautiful novels and their short stories fall flat; some writers write incredible short stories but their novels meander strangely. For my part, I think of Angela Carter as the second type: her novels are deeply weird in a way I don’t enjoy, but her short stories are incredibly powerful.
This is an omnibus collection of Carter’s work, so there’s a lot of variety here. Some of my favorite stories are “The Fall River Axe Murders,” a narrative about Lizzie Borden; “The Bloody Chamber,” a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale; and “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” a story Carter wrote after someone argued that the only thing a story needed was for something to happen. (Nothing actually happens in “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter,” but it’s a moving story nonetheless.)
This is a big collection, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to read it all at once anyway – there’s too much going on. But if you’re looking for a little flicker of something brilliant, this is a good book to dip into.
Book – What would happen if, one day, all the humans on Earth simply vanished? What would happen to the planet, and what would happen to all the stuff we left behind? As a practical question, it’s not a terribly important scenario. All humans on Earth are unlikely to vanish all at the same time. But as an exercise in understanding the processes of the natural world and the durability of human creation, it’s completely enthralling. Be amazed at how quickly New York City would crumble into dust! Be horrified at just how long the Gulf of Mexico would burn if a spark hit an oil rig in just the wrong way! And be utterly humbled by the idea of a world without humanity in it at all.
I first picked this up to research a post-apocalyptic story I wanted to write. I was not disappointed – there’s enough material here to fuel hundreds of post-apocalyptic stories, no zombies required. At seven years old and counting, some of the science is probably getting dated, but it’s still a great read. For advice on avoiding an end-of-the-world scenario, try Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz, or, for a larger-scale apocalypse, The Life and Death of Planet Earth by Donald Brownlee.
Book – Maia may have been an emperor’s son, but he never expected to amount to anything. His older brother was the heir, after all, and Maia had been exiled from court when his mother died, so the chances of Maia ever leaving the backwater estate he’s grown up in are small. But when the Emperor – along with all of his other heirs – die in an airship crash, Maia is the only one left, and he will have to learn everything there is to know about the court before he suffers the same fate as his father.
Katherine Addison is the new pen-name of Sarah Monette, who I’ve already written about as one of my favorite authors. With The Goblin Emperor she switches gears from the dark, emotionally fraught stories she’s known for to a more optimistic mood. Maia has a hard life, but he does well in it, gaining confidence by leaps and bounds as the story progresses. This is a coming-of-age story that starts where most leave off (usually becoming Emperor is the reward at the end of the quest) and it’s an extremely satisfying one. I’m happy to call this already one of the best fantasy books of the year.
Book – A vagabond, a natural philosopher, a mathematician, and a harem girl meet in London, in the late Baroque period (as early as 1661), and the result is one of the most epic, sprawling series of historical fiction you will ever read. Stephenson is better known for his cyberpunk novels like Snow Crash, but Quicksilver has more in common with his other work than you might first imagine. He started writing it during the composition of his award-winning Cryptonomicon, which is also a thriller about politics, money, and computers. (Yes, computers: Gottfried Liebnitz was trying to invent a computer as early as 1671.)
Stephenson has become rather famous for big books, but his three-volume Baroque Cycle is definitely his biggest. Although it’s hard to keep track of any given plot thread over the course of more than 2,700 pages, the well-drawn cast of characters from all walks of life will keep you engaged anyway. Fans of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy will enjoy the grand sweep of history and wealth of historical detail, and fans of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon owe it to themselves to give this series a try.
Book - Family is everything in small towns, but Lucy Dane has a hole in hers. Her mother Lila disappeared when Lucy was just a baby, and people in town still gossip about her, suggesting witchcraft or something worse was behind her sudden appearance and disappearance in their small Ozark town. Then Lucy’s friend Cheri disappears, and her body is found in horrifying condition near the edge of town, and Lucy finds herself investigating the web of secrets surrounding these two women’s disappearances.
It’s not just the setting that The Weight of Blood has in common with Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, it’s a whole atmosphere, a paradoxical sense of claustrophobia in the wide-open, tight-knit rural world of the Ozarks. This is McHugh’s first novel, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she writes, as smooth and confident as any more seasoned writer, and with an excellent grip on her readers’ emotions. Set some time aside when you start this one – I ended up canceling my weekend plans to finish it!
Book – Awakening alone and thoroughly bandaged in a hospital room, Corey can’t remember who he is or how he got here. He is sure, however, that he really ought to get out. He manages to bluff his way through meeting two of his siblings before he confesses the truth of his amnesia, and they help him to remember: he is Corwin, a Prince of Amber, the only true world, and if he doesn’t act quickly, his hated brother Eric will crown himself king.
This is hardboiled fantasy, snappy, sarcastic, and to-the-point. If Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett got together to write a fantasy novel, it might have come out like this. Some of it is a little dated – everyone smokes almost constantly, and when was the last time you heard someone use “dig” to mean “understand?” – but hey, it was published in 1970, you have to make some allowances.
I was struck when reading this (for the first time since high school) at how much of a debt George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire owes to Amber. Sure, it’s all in one family instead of spread over several, but there’s just as much politicking, backstabbing, and fighting for the throne. If you like the one, I bet you’ll like the other.
Book – Capt. Will Lawrence of His Majesty’s Navy is very happy with his career. When he captures a French corvette transporting a rare and precious dragon’s egg, he takes responsibility for the egg, which means being there for its hatching. Unfortunately, the little creature – who he christens Temeraire, after the ship – has taken a liking to him, and that means that Capt. Lawrence is going to have to leave the Navy and enter His Majesty’s Aerial Corps, to fight Napoleon from the back of his very own dragon.
There are two kinds of people in the world: people who think that the Aubrey/Maturin series is great but would be even better with dragons, and people who think the first type are crazy. If you’re the first type, this series is for you. While the first book is a fairly straightforward adventure, later books explore more parts of the world and how the presence of dragons changes them from what you’d expect. As Temeraire (and Will) learn more about how the rest of the world does things, they begin to seriously question the society in which they live.
Book – Oscar is doing pretty well for himself. He’s found his way to Cambridge, working his way through his degree as an aide in a nursing home, where he meets the most interesting characters. He never loses his head, though, until he meets Iris Bellwether at one of her brother’s church services (he plays the organ). A little light church music isn’t all Eden Bellwether is interested in, though, and before he knows it, Oscar is drawn into Eden’s circle of admirers, accomplices and experimental subjects. Eden believes that his music has the power to heal. He might be right.
This spectacular Gothic novel by debut author Benjamin Wood sucked me in from the wonderful two-page prologue. It’s been repeatedly compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but as I’ve read neither of those, I couldn’t tell you how accurate the comparison is. I can tell you that I fell in love with all the characters, who are by turns symbolic and wonderfully genuine, and that the tense, surreal atmosphere was sustained well throughout the book. I’d recommend it for a book club – there’s lots to talk about.