Thursday, December 17, 2009
The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2009, Pt. 3: Cheryl Morgan
Best of the Year
by Cheryl Morgan
I haven’t got nearly as much fiction reading done this year as I would have liked. That has been mainly due to the fact that I spent hardly any time in the USA this year, and a lot of time somewhere where there’s no large bookstore and I can’t easily order online. Consequently I haven’t had the books available. I did read a few graphic novels, and some academic books which I talked about at SF Signal. Some of them you may find interesting, especially Farah Mendlesohn’s excellent collection of essays about Joanna Russ, and the Delany book on writing. But here I am going to try to catch up on fiction.
One of the best books I read this year is actually a 2008 book, having hit the bookstores in Britain late in December of that year. I’m hoping it will get US publication eventually, and thus another shot at a Hugo, because I was very impressed. The book is Spirit by Gwyneth Jones, and you can find my review here here. It is set in the same universe as the Aleutian Trilogy and The Buonaraotti Quartet and takes place after them.
Another book I felt warranted a full review was Eon (aka The Two Pearls of Wisdom) by Alison Goodman. This is a YA novel, and the first such book I have seen that includes a transsexual as a major sympathetic character. My review is online here.
Two books that will be on my Hugo ballot this year are Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest and China Miéville’s The City and The City. Both books are about the complexities of urban life. Valente’s touches on issues of immigration, while Miéville has a fascinating take on how people from different cultural communities in the same city can live alongside each other and not notice each other’s existence.
I’m still enjoying Sylvia Kelso’s fantasy series. Riversend is no more comfortable a read than Amberlight, but it certainly makes you think.
Kim Stanley Robinson caused a bit of a stir this year when he wrote in The Guardian that he thought the Booker Prize should have been won by Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia. “Adam who?” said the literati in unison, though they forgot so quickly that when the BBC caught up with the story they managed to mention the book without mentioning poor Adam’s name. I’m not sure that it is quite a Booker winner, but it is by far the best thing Adam has ever done. Just remember that he’s a British satirist, and such people earn their living by mercilessly pillorying others. My review is here.
Still with British writers, but this time with US publication, we have the debut novel from Kari Sperring, Living with Ghosts. As debuts go, this is quite impressive. It has a number of strong women characters and an interesting, espionage-filled plot. The central character is a gigolo and a spy. Also the setting is more 18th Century than medieval, which is a great relief as far as fantasy is concerned.
Liz Williams continues to produce wonderful books. It has taken a long time for her latest Inspector Chen novel to hit the stores, but it was worth the wait. If you are a fan of Chen and his various demonic friends you’ll love The Shadow Pavilion. The primary villain of this particular book is an assassin whose body is inhabited by both male and female spirits. As these are distinct personalities it is difficult to describe this person as trans by Western standards, but s/he may be seen as such in other cultures.
Daniel Abraham has finished his Long Price Quartet with The Price of Spring. This is one of the finest fantasy series ever written. I can’t recommend it highly enough. See my review of the final volume for more details.
Rob Holdstock’s tragic death this year leaves a huge hole in the UK fantasy landscape. Mythago Wood remains one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time. Some of the other Ryhope Wood books were not of the same standard, but this year saw the publication, at long last, of a direct sequel to Mythago Wood – Avilion. If you haven’t sampled Holdstock yet, those two would be a good introduction.
Some books leap out at me because they are really well written. Others leap out because they have dollar signs all over them. Naomi Novak’s Temeraire series produced that reaction, and so did Rosemary and Rue by debut Bay Area novelist (artist, filk singer and all-round talent) Seanan McGuire. The book is urban fantasy cut with a Chandleresque noir detective story, and it works very well. It isn’t going to win literary prizes, though it is by no means poorly executed, but it is already winning a lot of fans.
Talking of noir, Jeff VanderMeer has excelled himself with Finch. It is set in Ambergris long after the Gray Caps have taken control of the city. The hero is a police officer working for the occupying mushroom-men who has to walk a fine line between keeping his bosses happy, fighting actual crime, and protecting his fellow humans from the predations of their unwelcome overlords. Given that earlier Ambergris novels documented how the humans conquered the city and drove the Gray Caps underground, the book is anything but simplistic in its morality. Also, finally, we get to meet a character from the native human tribes who lived in Ambergris before the “civilized” invaders arrived.
Daniel Fox is a name that won’t be familiar to many of you, but if I explain that this is one of those mid-career name-change relaunches, and the author is actually Chaz Brenchley, you may be on more familiar ground. Dragon in Chains is the best Chaz book I have ever read. The story of fairly predictable – a young emperor with a domineering mother flees a civil war and ends up on a small island where he begins to build his personal power by interacting with the simple-but-honest locals. The writing, however, is lovely. The book is a real pleasure to read.
The book everyone seems to have been talking about this year is Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I read it pretty much in one sitting through the night having woken up at 2:00am due to jet lag, which speaks volumes for its page-turner qualities. I’m pleased to say that I very much liked it too, though I have a bunch of reservations I’ll get around to documenting when I finally produce a review. Books set in foreign cultures are always difficult, and personally I’d much rather see authors make an honest attempt and a few mistakes than whitewash their books, but I think Geoff Ryman handles south-east Asia better.
Finally I want to make brief mention of the book I’m currently reading. It is The Painting and the City by Robert Freeman Wexler. This is a UK small press publication and quite difficult to get hold of, but if you like the sort of heavy style and surrealism produced by people like Brian Francis Slattery then you should seek this out. I’m also pleased to see that, being set in present day New York, it features gay and lesbian characters as a standard and unremarkable part of society alongside the straights.
Cheryl Morgan is the former editor of the Hugo Award-winning magazine, Emerald City. Cheryl, the magazine and its web site have been nominated for a total of eight times, winning once. Cheryl and Emerald City have also been nominated for a Ditmar Award (three times) and a British Science Fiction Association Award (once).