Sunday, March 20, 2016

Fantasy Novels I've Read Recently

We're already almost a quarter of a way through 2016, so I wanted to list some of the books I've read and enjoyed over the past two months or so. The last two, Updraft and Uprooted, were published in 2015 and are eligible for the 2016 Hugo Awards. If you're eligible to nominate for the Hugos this year (the March 31 deadline is rapidly approaching), I recommend you give these a read if you haven't already. I'd never tell anyone else what they should like, but I think both of these books are Hugo Worthy. 

The other titles on this list are excellent too, and I strongly recommend them.

Cover by Todd Lockwood
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. Tor 2013. I put off reading this book, because I thought it was going to be a fake reference book or something, but it's actually a delightful story, written memoir style, about Isabel, a woman living in a quasi-Victorian world that is very similar to our own, except that it has dragons. Fantasy elements are slight, and the dragons portrayed are very naturalistic--intelligent animals. The book starts with a the protagonist's childhood memories of dissecting a dead dove (and getting punished for it) and collecting specimens, and nearly being killed by a creature called a "wolf drake."

After Isabel marries a man with similar interests, she manages to get them a berth on a research trip to a mountainous country to study a breed of dragons called "rock wyrms." The narration is alive with voice and the protagonist's wry wit, and the tale kept me riveted until the end. I've just read the sequel, entitled The Tropic of Serpents, and it's every bit as good. These books definitely a change of pace from the style of epic fantasy I usually prefer, but I enjoyed them thoroughly and plan on reading the rest of the books in this series.

Cover by John Jude Palencar
Broken Blade by Kelly McCullough. Ace books, 2011. Aral, the protagonist, is a former assassin priest of a goddess of justice who has been murdered by her fellow deities. Robbed of both faith and identity, he's a tattered remnant of his former self who works as a blade for hire between bouts of drinking. The only thing keeping him sane is Tris, his shadow-dragon familiar. I'm a sucker for "hot mess" characters and for stories with animal companions and magical familiars, so this premise attracted my interest. The author's wonderful deconstruction of the "trouble walked in wearing a red dress" trope in the opening scene drew me in.

The book was entertaining, cleanly written, and well paced, and I liked the pov character's voice. If there's a flaw, it's that the author was a bit light on environmental and character detail for my tastes. I tend to favor leanness here, but I couldn't really visualize the kinds of clothes they were wearing, the style of architecture, and the appearance, coloring, racial characteristics of the characters, so my mind kept defaulting to "pseudo-medieval, European with everyone white," but I don't know if this was the author's intent. It's a small thing, though. This is the first book in a series, and I look forward to reading the next one soon.

Cover by Kris Kamikakushi
"Hunting Monsters" by S.L. Huang. Book Smugglers Publishing 2014. This is a short story, published as a stand alone. It's available as an e-book on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble online. Set in a fairy tale world (incorporating elements from "Little Red Riding Hood," "Beauty and the Beast" and other classic tales), this is a wonderful example of how a good writer can layer world building and history into a short story. Like many good fairy tale protagonists, the main character lives in a small cabin in the woods. On her fifteenth birthday, her mother is arrested for the murder of a grundwirgen, creatures that resemble beasts but are people in the eyes of the law.

The writing in this story is very good. I've always had a weakness for retellings and reinterpretations of fairy tales, and this one was a page turner.

Cover by Steven Martiniere
Updraft by Fran Wilde. Tor Books, 2015. This has to be one of the most unique speculative fiction settings I've ever encountered. Set in a world where people live in bone towers (which appear to grow from somewhere below the clouds) and fly on silk wings, it follows Kirit, a protagonist who wants to become a trader like her mother, but is manipulated into becoming one of the singers who protects her city safe from attacks by invisible predators.

As a singer in training, Kirit stumbles across multiple layers of intrigue and discovers a truth that could change her world forever. This story is fascinating and well written. If it has a fault, its that the alien setting and culture, along with the highly immersive approach to world building (it's told in a very "here and now" style of first person with not an info dump in sight) makes it hard to understand and relate to the characters' motives at times. This may be a fault in me as a reader and not the book itself, however, and I found myself increasingly pulled in as I read. I look forward to the sequel, which is coming out later this year.

Cover by Scott McKowen
Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Del Rey books, 2015. This story draws from Polish fairy tales the author remembers from her childhood, and it's beautifully written. Set in a village where a 17-year-old girl is taken every ten years by the wizard who protects it from encroachment by a cursed wood, the story has a strong female protagonist who is driven by her love for her best friend. The world is vividly drawn and simultaneously familiar and relatable yet fresh with many unexpected twists. I liked the way the author was able to create a sense of menace while remaining basically optimistic about human nature. Kept me guessing until the end.

This is a stand alone-novel, something that's probably too rare in fantasy. I love series and I understand why writers and readers of fantasy like sweeping epics and want to return to their favorite worlds for tale after tale, but it's also pleasant to be able to lose oneself in a book and to reach the end without feeling like there are plot threads that still need to be tied off.

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