Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My Favorite Things in Books, 2016

The longer the live, the less I believe in objectively good literature. Even subjectively good literature is a concept deserving some scrutiny. When we listen to someone "love" a book, they're generally gushing about one part of it. Too Like the Lightning's plot twists, or Uprooted's dauntless quirkiness.

So this year I don't want to tell you about the "best books" I read. Instead, let's talk about my favorite things in books. Those things that define our memories of the book long after we've put it down. Come with me. Let's enjoy things together.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
There is this theory that all Secondary World Fantasy is told to us in translation. The people of Wizard of Earthsea and Sword of Truth don't actually speak English - they live on planets where there was never an England. So all such works are in a contrived translation to us. But that translation has almost always default to a nigh-facsimile of Proper British or Chicago Manual Style English. Thus Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is jarring because its dialogue is relayed entirely in levels of African American Vernacular. Consider:

“Y’all do what you want,” said Mosteyfa called Teef. “But this nigga here?” They called him that for the obvious reason: long, snaggled, missing… “Is going all the way to Olorum.”… pewter-black, moss-green, yellow… “My ass ain’t tryna go right back up to the desert.”… cracked, carious, crooked. “A nigga need some rest behind that motherfucker!”

Demane felt much the same, crudity notwithstanding. A unanimous rumble rolled across the gathering of brothers.

“Anyone?” said the captain. His right hand pantomimed a man walking away, left hand waving goodbye.

“Come this far,” said some brother, “might as well go on.”

“I ain’t never seen Olorum, noway,” said another brother.

“Silver full-boys, y’all!” said a third. “Much as we can grab, y’all!”

There is nothing any more contrived about any of this language than Lord of the Rings's Middle Earth having tobacco and potatoes, or all the Fantasy novels that use the words "aphrodisiac" and "volcano" in worlds where worship was never held for Aphrodite or Vulcan. Wilson mentions "volcanic" in his first chapter, which has to be deliberate. This is fiction highly informed by cultures ignored by too much of mainstream American Fantasy. And while it has great contents all the way to the monster stalking the heroic party at the end - and that monster is the freaking coolest Fantasy monster this side of Helene Wecker's Golem - it's the language that allows access to so much character and culture. After this and The Devil in America, Kai Ashante Wilson has proven one of the most promising voices in our genre.

Borderline by Mishell Baker

My airline sold me a ticket to a plane that didn't exist. I got through one security checkpoint, approached the second, and was ushered away by some very angry guards. Shaken, with no car or way out of the airport, I tried to find a way to go see my sick grandmother. There was a train, but I'd need a ride to it, and ultimately that meant waiting hours in a cramped little hub by the Delta desk.

It was then that I cracked open Borderline. G-sh was it ever the right book at the right time.

The first chapter is something every Fantasy writer should read. Millie is a suicide survivor who lost both legs and suffers from mental illness. She's so used to people violating her privacy that she doesn't realize the next woman who walks into her room is essentially a Wizard Temp Agent. It turns out that Millie's psychological problems make her capable of dealing with matters of the fae - but I don't care. In that chapter, what I bite down on is a girl who openly mocks the loony bin she's stuck in, who is flippant and profane, and who recognizes both ableism and the forces that make you pick your fights against it. Throughout it all, her disability is casually described. Millie's life feels lived in.

As someone who has too often been unable to stand up when an authority figure ordered me to, and that day, as someone who was stranded and becoming syndrome-sick from stress with an airline's dangerous incompetence, this all spoke to me. And that was just the first chapter.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Boy, Snow, Bird was marketed as a re-telling of Snow White, which is technically accurate but probably misled a lot of fairy tale retelling fans. It follows the Snow White template extremely loosely, opening with a long portion following “Boy,” a white girl who will grow up mistrustful of everyone in her life. By spending a third of the novel with this girl in bad economic times, surrounded by faithless people taking advantage of each other, we gain deep sympathy for her before learning her husband’s secret.

You see, her husband is a white-passing African American, as is his daughter Snow. When Boy bears a daughter, she is deeply black, and everyone in the neighborhood accuses Boy of infidelity. Boy's husband wants to keep his secret, and the safety of being perceived white. Once we shift to Snow’s point of view, she’s clueless as to why her stepmother resents her so much.

So you see, that’s not really the story of Snow White. The rest of the book really isn’t, either, but it uses the language of fairy tales for this keenly unusual end: to make us sympathize with why a stepmother might resent her stepchildren. Novels and film have seldom considered it. The stepmother is at best a generously loving figure in fiction, and much more often is a wicked stereotype. I love what Oyeyemi did in the face of it. I never would have thought to challenge it.

Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi
It's important to note that this one is Non-Fiction. I hate that Guantanamo Diary is more important at the end of the year than it was at the beginning. It's a book that I hate even exists, which is why I have to cherish it. It's the first testimony from an inmate at Guantanamo Bay, the illegal prison both George W. Bush and Barack Obama used and never closed, and that Donald Trump intends to fill up with more people next year. The book, written in Slahi's jail cell between torture sessions, was only released after his publisher sued the government to release it. The CIA redacted thousands of lines of the text to hide names of his torturers and some of their methods, and his publisher has included all of their black lines to show you exactly where the CIA forced them to omit the truth.

It is the story of a computer repairman in Africa who was abducted at a police station, and shipped to Jordan for torture, then to Afghanistan, and finally Guantanamo. He's been gone for over a decade and his family thought the police had simply murdered him. It is a nightmarish account of interpreters and torturers inventing criminal plots and abusing him until he misspoke enough to charge him. This should replace Orwell's 1984 in every high school classroom. It is immensely readable and deals with real things the U.S. government is doing right now. Real things our incoming president wants to do more often.

Solanin by Inio Asano
So our main characters are this going-nowhere band. They're really dorky friends that are using music as an excuse to stay close to each other. I’m a sucker for a good cast of friends (it’s a big reason why Final Fantasy 15 will wind up on my Games of the Year list), and this one uses them as a great access point to question whether fame is worth it. It’s not rich stars questioning why they sold out their lives for music videos. It’s about middle-wage earning artistic failures who love Nirvana. It’s about the common person’s desire for fame, and the conflict with what we actually want in life. Often such stories are deep dives into one person’s angst. It is much more profound watching the group of friends grapple with it together.

Lucky Penny by Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota

A Romantic Comedy between two very different kinds of nerds. Hirsh and Ota present us as not homogeneous at all: Walter Erikson is a D&D-playing clerk trying to hold a job at the community center, while Penny Brighton reads werewolf erotica while sleeping in her storage locker. If you want two characters to have fun friction as they fall for each other, you could study how Hirsch and Ota depict two people who share ostensibly the same pastime who have no idea what the other person sees in this stuff.

Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura

Blade of the Immortal is what I will measure every other Epic Fantasy against for the rest of my life. I finished the series this year, putting down Book 31. It is an amazing journey that refuses your petty pathos. Our premise was simple: Manji is cursed with immortality, tasked with killing a thousand wicked men before he could rest in peace. He was hired by Rin, a girl whose father was murdered by the leader of an opposing school of warriors.

It seems like a revenge story, and then Samura punches you in the nose with context. Maybe Rin’s father deserved to die – or harder to accept, maybe he was a good man who had to die in order for good things to happen. We become sympathetic to the killers we were hunting, learning of the political landscape they were struggling inside of, and just when we think Rin, Manji, and the villains should group together, the very establishment that they should all face down also becomes human. Lovingly paced, and drawn with some of the greatest style in the history of manga and comics, Blade of the Immortal is an achievement. It laughs at the shortsightedness of grimdark.

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
The mash-up I never knew I wanted. Aztec Fantasy in which the gods literally hear every prayer, from the point of view of a priest who must prove his brother is innocent of a murder. That's right: Aztec Fantasy Detective Fiction. Religious characters are flat and useless in too much of Fantasy, but here our self-loathing priest is shrewd, using social connections to suss out leads no one else can find. It's the finest blend of genres I've read since Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw put dragons in Downton Abbey, keenly balancing human emotion with threats made of sentient glass. The punchy structure of reveals that takes us to literally interrogate people in Hell is a delight.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

This might've turned me around on Dystopias. The big Dystopic Novels don't tend to work on me because they're about concepts too big to see in motion, and so authors rely on intense expository preaching. But Water Knife's Dystopia has a more accessible gimmick: water.

As global warming worsens, the United States will dissolve into states fighting each other for access. We follow a few working class people trying to find enough to drink and live, coming across papers that will grant the holder rights to an entire underground reservoir. Several states and companies will kill for it, but what's more interesting is what these individual people will do if they can get their hands on it. Will they deliver one state or neighborhood from drought? Or save themselves from the awful life that climate change gave them?

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence

Switch around to a real world dystopia: City of Thorns is a non-fiction book profiling lives in the world's largest refugee camp. Built on the border of Rwanda, it's home to over one hundred thousand people. There are grown men who were born there and have never seen anything but the endless row of tents that are their non-homeland.

By intertwining biographies of several occupants, we get to see what different men, women, children, teens, and the elderly experience in this place. There's the agony of hope that Australia will take more refugees next year, and illiterate parents desperately trying to teach their children to read so they might make the cut to get into Canada and send money back here. But there are also the stories of endless obsessions with soccer, and the odd jobs occupants create to stay alive in a makeshift economy. The most piercing profile is of a boy who was a child soldier before being rescued, trying to find stability in a city that isn't supposed to exist next year.

Spoilers for real world events: it's still there, and growing.

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

The Dandelion Dynasty Trilogy is my jam. I've put this book last because I don't want to accidentally spoil the first book for anybody, but it's impossible to talk about the second without the first. What I love so profoundly about Wall of Storms is that it is about all of the ramifications of Grace of Kings. No Book 2 has ever been a profounder reaction to its Book 1.

Now for some spoilers.

The emperor is dead and Kuni Garu has replaced him by force of arms, so the old world's paradigm of divine right of kings is broken. That means people's very reason for living is gone, and philosophers scramble to fill the vaccuum. Will we get the feminist revolution that started when so many men died that the culture broke and women became soldiers, and Gin Mazoti became the architect of victory? Will pragmatism, including schemes of how systems can motivate people into good behavior define the new government? Or moralism for morality's sake, obligating people to behave a certain way?

All of this is fascinating, even in the most expository scenes. But what makes Wall of Storms sing is all of those ideas are challenged by an invasion. The mythical culture that was trapped behind the literal Wall of Storms out in the ocean comes raiding the coast and wants what food and resources the islands have. Suddenly all the political maneuvers of people protecting their lineages or pushing their agendas get disrupted by having to defend their country from annihilation. It's such an intelligent challenge of what Fantasy usually presents as talking heads in the background of fight scenes. Liu writes amazing fight scenes, and has some even more creative forms of attack in this book than in Grace of Kings, but the novel never loses sight of all the people who had peace-time ambitions as their country is set aflame.

I adore the disabled strategist Zomi, and where the greatest general went after he abandoned the fledgling empire, and the lesbian monks, the the fire-spewing winged elephant things. But the above is the heart of one of the greatest middle-books in a trilogy I've ever read. I cannot recommend these books enough, and my heart rate speeds up just anticipating the final book's release.

So those are my favorite things in the books I read this year. What are yours?


  1. You have tempted me with rather a lot of these John. Thank you. Sigh on the Guantanamo Diary front. How I wish it was fiction. And far-fetched fiction at that.

  2. I'll have to look for Blade of the Immortal.

  3. Bookmarked this! I have so much catching up to do. All these titles (aside from Blade of the Immortal because I'm already familiar with it) are jumping to my Goodreads to-read list.


Counter est. March 2, 2008