Monday, December 9, 2013

Books I've especially enjoyed this year.

One of the things that kind of sucks about writing is I don't read as much as I used to. This isn't because I don't love reading as much as I ever did. I do, and in fact, I wish I could read more. I really do think reading is vital to writing, and whatever skill I may possess as a writer is at least partially down to the prodigious amount of reading I did as a kid, young adult and beyond. However, there are only so many hours in a day, and reading has been pushed into those times when writing's not really possible--when I'm at the gym, between classes at work, in doctor's waiting rooms, and a quick chapter or two before turning off the light to sleep.

 I've got a stack of books teetering on my nightstand, and more on my nook reader. I've got no hope of finishing all of them, and in fact, I probably won't even try. One side-effect of having so many books to read is that I've grown pickier about what I read. I'm focusing more on the genre I write in (fantasy, though an occasional SF title sneaks in), and I've been gravitating towards povs and narratives that are more relevant to my own writing--limited third and first. I've also been reading relatively recent books by newer authors and not revisiting my old favorites the way I once did (except I pull them down sometimes for reference).

Even so, there are a lot of misses. If a book doesn't grab me by the end of the last chapter, I tend to put it down and not pick it back up again.

I don't want to talk about the books I didn't like very much or why. I appreciate the amount of work that goes into writing a book, and I also appreciate that tastes vary, and something I think is "meh," may be someone else's best read ever. There's really no right or wrong. I know how icky it feels to be talking about some book or author you love and to have some else lay into them, or worse yet, lay into you for liking them. Writers can be particularly critical or scathing about what they don't like. We all try so hard to polish our prose, and we're all well versed in the shoulds and shouldnts of narrative and pov. Sometimes we can get a bit catty when we run across a book where the author was seemingly unaware of the perils of excessive use of passive voice, or filtering, or adverbs or whatever.

I'm just going to list a few of the novels (not counting works in progress I've helped crit) I read this year that I really enjoyed and recommend to my fellow fantasy readers and writers. These are authors I plan on reading more in the future. I may provide a more in-depth evaluation of some of these later.

Fade to Black by Francis Knight: A fantasy noir that takes place in an intriguing and non-traditional second world setting. A flawed but relatable protagonist with a clear, strong voice, and I just love the magic system. I've read book 2 in the trilogy and am starting the third. It's also one of the first fantasy novels I've read since the Wizard of Earthsea where the "default" character appearance is not white.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie: I didn't think I'd get pulled into this one, as I tend to like slightly more optimistic takes on the human condition. But I thought I'd give it a read as the author is writing with a multiple third-person pov. I found his characters fascinating. I don't think any of them are the kinds of people I'd want to hang out with in real life, but he's done a great job of pulling me into their world and perceptions and of making their actions and values believable and relatable. I look forward to reading the rest of the First Law books and to his other titles as well.

Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett: Interesting story with four different first person point of view characters. These authors also did a good job of making a character (Rook) who was initially unsympathetic into an interesting and relatable person and of weaving four separate stories into an integrated whole. The only disappointment, perhaps, was the lack of female characters.

Green by Jay Lake: An intriguing protagonist and story set in a fantasy world that is far from generic. There is some really nice writing here, and the author does a great job of getting inside the head of a young girl who refuses to become a tool and will zig just when you expect her to zag.

The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle: This is set in an Elizabethan England that's not quite like the ones in the history books. She's done a good job of bringing the setting alive and populating it with interesting people who have interesting problems in spite of their Tudor-era sensibilities. The third installment in this trilogy just came out, so I'll be reading it soon.

I haven't read widely enough to really be able to comment on trends in fantasy in general, but a few things I've noticed--first person points of view are becoming quite common, and more stories have gay and lesbian characters in them than in the old days. Or perhaps this merely reflects on my tastes and the kinds of stories I enjoy reading. Three of the five books on this list are written by British writers as well. I've been fond of British fantasy writers, of course, since my mom first read me the Hobbit.

In the upcoming year, I'm going to try and branch out more and read more novels written by (and starring) people who are not white.


  1. An interesting list. I haven't read any of the books, but Black, Lyle and Abercrombie are on my radar, and The Blade Itself is my scheduled next read. I'll check out the others.

    I know what you mean by having limited reading-time, but I think it can sometimes be useful to read outside your comfort-zone. I've found that reading books unlike the ones I write can sometimes help me find and use techniques that aren't often used in fantasy.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Nyki. Yeah, I've actually enjoyed a number of other writers (mostly classic literature or mainstream contemporary, but occasional mysteries or horror), and they do indeed add perspective to things. William Faulkner (and the more modern writer Barbara Kingsolver), for instance, wrote books with multiple first-person protagonists long before they made their way into fantasy (that I am aware of, anyway).

      I am impressed, though, at how much fantasy is branching out, with authors who write in very literary styles cheek by jowl with more standard narratives. I confess to preferring medium to deep first person or limited thirds narratives that are unencumbered by too many literary conventions, but even that is a relatively new approach to writing in the genre.