My Best Reads of 2017

With the new year I’m feeling a little nostalgic for some of my great reads from 2017, so I thought I’d compile a few that I’d recommend to any SFF fans. Most of them aren’t exactly obscure books, or ones you won’t come across on any other list like this, but they were my best reading experiences of the last year and I love them so here goes:

1) Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted was an amazing book and was actually my first read of 2017. It follows the tale 9781447294146of a young girl taken hostage by the local village dragon, seems pretty standard right? Except the dragon is actually the name of the local wizard, and though he seems terrifying, the haunted forest creeping ever closer each year seems more so.

Okay so this book has everything you could possibly want from fantasy, it has interesting characters, believable magic, enemies on every front, stunning sub-plots, a royal family in distress, a young farm girl in even more distress, and some raunchy scenes. This is the first of Novik’s work I’ve read, but she also has a nine part historical fantasy series Temeraire about the Napoleonic wars, except with dragons, so obviously I’ve got the first of that. This year though she has another stand alone novel coming out; Spinning Silver based on the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale, which I am definitely looking forward to.

2) The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky  Chambers

This debut novel from Chambers was astounding. Despite it being her first book 20150213_long_way_1400Chambers has a brilliant awareness of her craft, and somehow manage to pull me away from my usual post-apocalyptic reads to a much more light hearted and comforting brand of SF that I never knew existed. The story focuses on the crew of the Wayfarer as they travel the galaxy creating wormhole super-highways through space with fraught political tensions only being half of their problems.

Fans of Star Trek or Firefly or any SF that has a plucky gang exploring space will love this book, and seeing as we all love plucky gangs exploring space you will definitely love this.

3) Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng

Back to some fantasy here, Under the Pendulum Sun follows Catherine Helstone as she underthependulumsun_covertries to find her missionary brother Laon. The only problem is Laon hasn’t travelled to Africa to spread the word of god, he’s travelled to Arcadia, the land of the Fae where a faerie queen has taken a liking to him.

This tale weaves folklore, history, and the gothic tradition into a tapestry of horror, unease and suspense that I just couldn’t put down, this combines with a beautiful insta-worthy cover meant it was definitely a big favourite of my year.

4) The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

I loved Ursula Le Guin from the moment I read The Left Hand of Darkness I thought there 51o2eg2qw2bl-_sy344_bo1204203200_was no better book on this planet. Of course I was wrong, The Dispossessed follows Shevek a young physicist as he leaves his anarchist utopian planet in favour of a planet much like our own, ruled by money, borders, and power-hungry governments.

The utopia Le Guin creates is unlike anything I’ve come across in my studies in that it is entirely believable, flawed, and somehow still a better option and still a utopia. The main character even willingly leaves the utopia because it is restrictive, only to find the alternative just as restrictive. Le Guin’s understanding of humanity and its flaws are unparallelled in the SF genre, and The Dispossessed is definitely a must read.

5) The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

18667112Jen Williams in general was an amazing find for me this year. I first heard about her work when she was interviewed on the Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast and knew I had to read her, she didn’t disappoint. This first installment in The Copper Cat Trilogy follows two sellswords and their mysterious employer into the citadel, a makeshift prison for the old gods, can you guess what they unleash there?

This book was fun, well paced and packed in so much brilliant stuff. I’ve already read the second book The Iron Ghost and have bought the first book in her new series Ninth Rain and I’m so excited to read more of her. Aside from her books though, Jen Williams is just a treat to follow on social media, you can find her delightful tweets @sennydreadful where you’ll become as addicted to her as her books.

So that’s about it for my list, I could go on but I’d end up telling you about every book I read last year which you can easily find out about on my goodreads if you have time to waste and for some reason want to waste it on me.

I hope at least I’ve helped you find some reads for 2018. Happy New Year!

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Sci-Fi vs Fantasy

Recently you may have noticed I’ve not been posting a lot, there are a few reasons for that. First of all I’ve started my masters course in creative writing, which is taking up a whole lotta time. Second I moved house, which basically means I’ve been reorganising my whole personal library (I have a tiny bookshelf just for my SF now I love it). And finally, I’ve not actually been reading that much SF.

Some SF

I spent about a month reading Jen Williams’ The Iron Ghost (review to come) and basically throwing myself into the world of fantasy a whole lot more, for a multitude of reasons but mostly because I feel way more comfortable with fantasy. For those of you that don’t know discovering SF was a fairly recent thing for me; About two years ago I took a module on SF literature and fell in love with John Wyndham, but for most of my life I’ve loved fantasy. My first favourite books were about witches, I had a healthy Harry Potter phase (though it’s yet to end) and I love nothing more than tucking into a new fantasy YA series. Though I love reading and studying SF it’s not really a comfort zone for me.

That’s not to say SF hasn’t always been a part of my life in some way, most nights I fell asleep to the sounds of Forbidden Planet, rainy days on holiday were dedicated to Star Trek and my dad’s classic SF box set. SF has always been there, but it’s not always been my focus. Part of why I set this blog up is so I’d read more SF and so I could get down my thoughts and feelings on it.

What’s changed recently is that I’ve started a new project. I might be a writing student but I have yet to ever finish writing anything novel length, but this summer I started writing a fantasy piece that I think could make it to a decent length and even be decent itself. But I hit a wall, as most writers do, and I realised that for all my fantasy knowledge I’m not that good at writing it.

Some fantasy

For years I’ve written in an environment that celebrates new and innovative thinking. I’ve studied SF, horror, weird fiction, poetry, even crime (which I hate), but I’ve never really studied fantasy. And though no tutor has ever told me this, I always felt like in academia fantasy was seen as overdone. Yes we studied the classics a bit, we looked at Ovid I’ve read some Chaucer and Beowulf but we never looked at the modern fantasy genres that came from that.

As I’m saying this I realise I’m lying, we did study some fantasy in my Cultures of Childhood module, but we looked at it as, primarily, something childish. At a time when I was struggling to show how grown up and mature I was this wasn’t the best message for me to start over analyzing. For a couple years I’ve proudly said that I only like Game of Thrones for the writing, that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was only picked up because it was set in York (where I studied), and that my fantasy YA series were just a hidden guilty pleasure. I still have yet to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy because I keep telling myself I’m not a real SF fan if I read Tolkien before I read Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

Yes I love these books, no I’m not ashamed!

If you have read this far into my whinging you’re probably wondering why the hell I’m complaining and what I’m so upset about. And in reality there’s nothing to be upset about. There’s a reason SF and fantasy get lumped together in Waterstones, it’s because people who like one will most likely enjoy the other. They’re both genres of wonder and intrigue and imagination. They’re genres multiple writers cross and blend and stitch together to make something amazing.

But there’s still something that irks me; Whenever I tell people “I like science fiction AND fantasy” somehow fantasy gets lost in translation. I can only assume this is because we’re all so naturally attuned to fantasy from fairy tales, Disney films, and children’s books that we just see it as part of the furniture now. I think we forget when we’re sitting on sofas and putting our books on shelves that someone had to make that furniture and that we chose to put it there.

‘Afrofuturism’ – Ytasha L. Womack

I came across the concept of afrofuturism and Womack’s book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture in an early episode of the Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast. Before this book I knew almost nothing about black writers in SF, and I still

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I love my Uhura bookmark

haven’t read much; I’ve read a little Octavia E Butler, some Nnedi Okorafor, I own one of Samuel R Delaney’s books, and I hadn’t heard of N.K Jemisin until she won her Hugo awards. Despite my limited knowledge I was interested, so I bought Afrofuturism and read it in two days, and I am fully dedicated to becoming more afrofuture-literate! If you need a way to beef up your TBR this book is the way to go, I have more books than ever that I want to read.

Womack’s book covers everything from art to music to literature to myths to history to science to explore this beautiful space in speculative fiction that black culture has carved out and reclaimed for themselves. I realise that up until this point I’ve not really explained what afrofuturism is, but really Womack tells you it all in her title; Afrofuturism is the world of black sci-fi and fantasy culture and it is amazing. Much like the collection of Chinese SF Invisible Planets that I recently reviewed, most afrofuturism has its roots in cultural heritage and myths in a way that makes it distinctive, in my experience Nnedi Okorafor is a great example of this.

img_2172However, afrofuturism isn’t just about speaking back to cultural heritage. Part of it is just about representation, we all know the story about Nichelle Nichols starring as Uhura on Star Trek snowballing into multiple careers being inspired. But it’s not always just about diverse characters either, it’s about diverse artists who aren’t always trying to make a political statement. For example here’s Butler talking about her short story ‘ Bloodchild’: “It amazes me that some people have seen “Bloodchild” as a story of slavery. It isn’t. It’s a number of other things, though.”

Though I’ve not mentioned this before, Butler didn’t get mentioned in my SF module at university. Butler was nowhere to be found when I traipsed through Hay-on-Wye for a weekend looking for secondhand SF. Butler didn’t come up when I checked the SF section at my library. Do you want to know how I found Butler? I got frustrated and googled black science fiction writers. This is why afrofuturism is important, I had to actively seek out SF that wasn’t white, and I’ve had to hunt for every scrap of diversity I’ve found since. Thanks to Womack I don’t have to seek it out any more, I have a map to find the diversity I crave.

‘Invisible Planets’ – Edited by Ken Liu

To give me some inspiration for my short fiction assessment for uni (obviously I wrote SF) I decided to read an SF collection and decided to read Invisible PlanetsInvisible Planets is a collection of short fiction from Chinese SF writers, collected, translated, and edited by Ken Liu. I had been looking forward to reading this for a while, so here comes the review.

img_2256This collection was a bit all over the place for me, in all honesty I didn’t like most of the stories chosen for this collection. But I think that’s a good thing, this collection isn’t pandering to what we already know, it’s a taste test of Chinese SF and now I know what writers I like and what sort of stuff to seek out in the future, so really it’s worth a read just for that.

The first author I found in the collection that really spoke to me was Xia Jia, whose pieces in the collection were ‘Tongtong’s Summer’ and ‘Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse’. Both stories are about robots, so obviously they appealed to me there, but Xia’s style was what really made them stand out. They were beautifully written stories and I came out of them feeling fulfilled and happy. I read a lot of very depressing SF so feeling happy after reading these stories was something entirely new and I loved it.

The second author, Hao Jingfang, wrote ‘Folding Beijing’ another beautiful story that really tugged at my heartstrings. This story follows a man smuggling love letters through the various levels of Beijing that fold over one another and take turns getting daylight with the working classes in the third level and the rich in the first. This was massively character driven, there’s no answers, no revolution, no solution to this disturbing world, but the characters are just wonderful and so real.

The collection ends with three short essays on Chinese SF that explore the influence of China’s culture and history on SF and where it fits in the canon. Honestly, it was amazing just to get a taste of something different. Every SF fan should read this book, you might find a couple new writers you love that you’d have never found otherwise.

‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ – Ted Chiang

I am currently taking a module in writing short fiction, and though we have some excellent set texts I wanted to branch out a little and read more SF, so having loved the film Arrival, I picked up Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Honestly I have some very mixed feelings about it, as is usual with a collection I suppose, not every story will be 100% to anyone’s liking, but instead of talking about each individual story, or even the ones I liked I want to try a different approach and talk about the collection as a single entity.

img_2253.jpgThe collection kicks off with a story about the Tower of Babylon. This was a bit of a shocker to me as I went into this collection expecting solely SF, nothing too religious, but religious themes crop up throughout the collection sitting comfortably alongside mathematics and physics. Though I didn’t enjoy these stories quite as much as the solid SF I really did enjoy reading them. One story in which angelic visitation is the equivalent of a natural disaster seemed reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters which (though I might be reading into it a tad) seemed like a lovely literary reference. What struck me though was that between the Tower of Babylon, angels, and even Golems the religious aspects seemed to take on more of an old testament spin. Just like the old testament they were steeped in violence and fire and brimstone but told almost clinically which brings me to Chiang’s writing style.

Almost all the stories had a cold, almost distant narrator whether that be an omniscient third person narrator or a focalised third person, they read much in the language of science. For me this added a layer of tension to the stories. Chiang gives us mind boggling and often terrifying ideas with the cool calm of Brian Cox in a BBC2 documentary telling us that matter doesn’t exist. The tension this creates is not a tension within the story itself, but more a tension between reader and narrator. I felt myself at odds with a previously suicidal man feeling almost nothing whilst trying to help his currently suicidal wife after her mathematical discovery discredits mathematics entirely, and reading about it made me feel wretched in so many ways that I could almost feel Chiang toying with my feelings through the page. It felt as though he had made the act of reading the story a whole layer of the story in itself. And like all the greats he made it seem so effortless.

What he also made effortless, was the science itself. In Story of Your Life (later to become the film Arrival) there was a monumental amount of physics that needed explaining to the reader, but Chiang managed to explain it with such skill that I found the heavy science was no barrier. The idea that writers can’t explain the science sufficiently is what puts people off SF in my opinion, but Chiang would dispel their fears immediately. I wouldn’t say I’m smarter for reading this book, but I certainly feel as if I am! If not in terms of physics, then at least I have learned what a beautifully crafted story really looks like.

‘The Copper Promise’ – Jen Williams

I know that in my last post I said I wouldn’t be writing on fantasy any more, I read it a lot more than SF after all and it will mean more reviews and more time. But I honestly can’t help myself, fantasy is such a big part of my life and my reading habits and I cannot stop thinking about Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise. So here goes.

img_2248The Copper Promise follows Wydrin of Crosshaven, Sir Sebastian, and Lord Frith as they delve into the forbidden citadel, a prison of the old gods. Of course this ends in them releasing an old god and eventually having to try and fix their mistake. All this happens whilst Sebastian struggles with his allegiance, Frith fights to regain his father’s seat of power, and whilst Wydrin gets up to some wild shenanigans. You will learn as this review goes on that I absolutely adore Wydrin as a character.

Though this book was a sort of sword and sorcery book there wasn’t the usual linear quest narrative which I quite liked. The quest the characters embark on ends in the first few chapters and the rest of the book is them dealing with the fallout (the fallout takes the form of an all-powerful dragon goddess and her army of her lizard children who mercilessly kill anyone they come across), which I found way more interesting.

The only thing I found a bit strange was the fact that the characters all split off for part of the book. Now the book itself is actually four novellas joined together, so the narrative isn’t entirely cohesive, but it seemed to tangent off and follow the individual characters in their own strange stories. Frith and Sebastian’s stories eventually related to the entire arc but Wydrin’s wasn’t really looked at again so I’m hoping her backstory is explored a little more in the second book; The Iron Ghost. 

I don’t really want to give much away but there is a subplot that involves an LGBTQ character and it’s so much more realistic and so much more satisfying than the usual LGBTQ fantasy story line. There’s not much more to say without giving anything away and though I usually post spoiler free reviews I would be really disappointed if I’d known all the twists and turns before I read this book.

This book honestly reminded me why I love fantasy so much, it’s the same feeling as slipping on a warm, worn jumper and drinking your favourite tea. This book was like coming home, and any fantasy fan would love it as much as I did I guarantee.

 

‘Home’ – Nnedi Okorafor

So I finally set aside a little time to do some non-uni reading and managed to read Home the second installment in Okorafor’s Binti series (I believe it’s going to be a trilogy but I’m not 100%). On a side note because uni is getting on top of me I’ll only be reviewing SF here on my blog rather than SF and fantasy. If you want to read my thoughts on literally every book I read – though I can’t see why you would – hit me up on my Goodreads and add me as a friend.

homeOkay so back to Binti and why she is quickly becoming an SF character I can’t keep out of my mind. As you know I loved Binti  and devoured it almost entirely. I loved the motif of her hair and her whole struggle with her identity, and those ideas have been artfully expanded by Okorafor in Home. In this novella Binti returns home with her newly acquired Meduse companion and her new tentacle like braids in place of her former (I imagine) beautiful hair. But it is during her return that she realises she is even more at odds with her family and finds a new family in her hidden heritage from a neighbouring tribe who accept her, whilst another neighbouring tribe begins rallying against her new alien bud. That’s basically the whole plot right there, it’s short but that’s what you get out of a novella.

What I really loved about this one was the discovery of Binti’s dual identity. As someone who is mixed race myself it is difficult to find my own struggles with identity reflected in literature, but there it was embracing me and telling me it was all okay. Not that I think the enjoyment of this novel is restricted to those struggling with racial identity, everyone struggles of course, but my struggles don’t get talked about often so I got a little giddy reading it. There is no definite answer to Binti’s struggle of identity throughout the series so far and I really admire that, there is no answer, harbouring dual identities is an ever-lasting life-long tug of war, and it’s presented beautifully here.

Another thing that blew me away about Home was that Binti’s spiritual connection with her mathematical studies and her number-loving induced “treeing” was explained so much better! In Binti it felt like an odd fact just thrown in as an attempt to add some subplot, but in Home the whole concept is really fleshed out and I really felt something. I’m not sure what I felt, but let’s say it was warm and fuzzy enough to keep me reading well into the night.

The final thing I want to address is the pacing of Home. Although it didn’t occur to me when reading Binti upon reflection I realised that the pacing was a little off. We weren’t given enough time to really connect with characters before tragedy befell them, and everything seemed rushed. This might be some biased judgement on my part as I do think it should have been a full novel but there you go. In Home thought Okorafor seemed to really hit her stride with her pacing and even when things did start to move too fast the characters acknowledged with a kind of fear that things were going too fast and that they were disorientated, which really helped deal with the shorter form.

Honestly, as much as I loved Binti, I feel like Home is where the story really comes together and I can’t see why it won no awards when its predecessor got a Hugo AND a Nebula. But what I really want to say is if you were in any way disappointed with the first book because of any reasons I outlined, know that it seems to be a series that really picks up as it goes along.