So I guess 2018 is over now? And I have to try and make some judgements on the things I’ve read and enjoyed? This feels like a daunting task, despite keeping my most comprehensive reading records ever, which should theoretically make it trivially easy to sort out.
I’m on track to read 300+ things of novella length and above this year (a full breakdown will be forthcoming in a later post). This is… a lot to keep track of. For the last few years, I’ve found that the lens through which I look back on a book often changes after I’ve read it, either because I’m thinking about it or reading other things which influence how I feel about it or (quite often) taking in the opinions of others. To add to that further this year, I’ve been trying to develop my reviewing, which means I feel like I’m a different sort of reader at this point in the year than I was earlier on.
This is, of course, not to say that I don’t have a lot of opinions, and now that Hugo nomination season is on its way again, it’s the season for recommendations from 2018 in particular, and the wonderful genre works I’ve read in this year. (I do have a couple of non-genre recommendations too, most importantly Betraying Big Brother by Leta Hong Fincher, a searingly good read on the last few years of the feminist movement in China and the repressive state response to its rise).
I guess I should open this by doing a little bit of self promotion. I’m eligible in the fan writer category and while I have zero expectations on that front, I am pretty proud of what I’ve done this year (Here’s my favourite, for the record!). More importantly, I owe much of my current enthusiasm for reviewing to the team at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, who have made it feel super worthwhile and fun to keep writing as part of a fan community. Therefore, I’d be honoured if you like my writing enough to nominate it, but I particularly hope you can consider Nerds of a Feather for your fanzine ballot. I think the site has put out an enormous amount of worthy content, from regular columns like Thursday Morning Superhero to review projects like Frankenstein at 200 and Feminist Futures, through to the regular reviews and roundups of all things nerd that go up literally every non-holiday weekday (sometimes twice!). I’m very proud to be part of this team.
Best Novels of 2018
So far, I have read 47 novels published in 2018, nearly all of which were genre (the exception is Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, which is a contemporary YA). My feelings for most of them are very positive! I’ve had disappointments here and there, and a few books which I tried to be fair about but which weren’t for me. However, most of my reviewing scores are around 7-8 out of 10, which suggests a bloody great year overall.
I gave 2 perfect scores to 2018 novels:
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. this was my book of 2018, and it’s going top of both my novel and Lodestar ballots. It’s a follow-up to Hartman’s Seraphina duology, a secondary world where dragons and other sentient dragon-like species, with convincingly alien mindsets and cultures, exist uneasily alongside human nations. Tess, who is the cousin of half-dragon Seraphina from the first two books, is a smart, independent, thoughtful woman who has been brought up in a constricted environment, a combination which has led her to tragedy and trauma. In desperation, she runs away from the non-existent options her family and social standing leave her, and what follows is a beautifully crafted story of her journey, the people she meets, and her learning to process her trauma in a way that feels genuine and well-realised. It’s a coming of age story where the milestones aren’t necessarily about the experiences themselves, but instead about gaining the maturity to contextualise, learn from, and sometimes let go of those experiences; about forgiveness and generosity and how those can be applied to others without giving away too much of yourself. And it’s once again told with Rachel Hartman’s eye for giving every character their own story worth telling, even those who only briefly intersect with Tess’ own journey.
Before Mars by Emma Newman. My other top scoring book of the year is the third in the Planetfall series, Newman’s complex, human-centred set of linked (though not contiguous) novels set around a desperate, dying earth and its desperate attempts towards space. It follows Anna Kubrin, a geologist and artist who has just been sent to Mars, but who quickly finds out all is not as it seems. The narrative revolves around Anna’s attempts to uncover the truth behind the bizarre mysteries on the base – a warning note that appears to be written in her own hand, messages from home that don’t seem to line up with the ones she sends back, and a left-field attraction to one of her fellow crew – as well as coming to terms with her decision to come into space and leave her husband and young daughter behind. Technically, you can read these novels in any order, but I do recommend reading After Atlas first, as I think some of the events here will work better as a surprise in that one and a tense audience-knows-more-than-characters situation here. But regardless of order, I think this is an outstanding entry in an excellent series.
I also gave
six seven 9s, distributed throughout the year:
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. I’m a bit torn on this one. On one hand, there are many aspects of this Seveneves-meets-Hidden-Figures tale of a woman Leaning In to SPAAAACE that I was not on board with. I don’t believe that it achieves the radical representation that it should, and I find Elma’s need to have women of colour do all her thinking for her time after time to be… frustrating. However, I did also really enjoy the experience of reading The Calculating Stars, and I think the plot elements that really frustrated me (eg. buried gays, emotional arcs that end with befriending the workplace misogynist and sexual harasser) were far more prominent in its sequel, The Fated Sky. So, maybe this is still one of my best books of the year? I don’t know, it’s all very confusing.
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett. I’ve never smiled so much in the opening of a book as I did in this secondary world adventure, which starts with a highly unusual thief stealing a magic talking key, and just gets more enjoyable from there. That’s not to say that Foundryside is a lighthearted book – there’s plenty of heavy, political worldbuilding going on here full of exploitation and conflict and fantasy corporatism – but it tempers its seriousness with DOORS THAT TALK VERY OSTENTATIOUSLY IN CAPITAL LETTERS and fun character interactions and cool fighty bits, and it makes for a super compelling whole. This one is almost certainly going on my best novel list and I hope this new series gets all the love that it – and the Divine Cities before it – deserve.
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee. The conclusion to the Machineries of Empire series took the plot in a direction that could have gone horribly wrong (reincarnated youth version of your awesomest character? Really?), but instead went so very, very well. Lee’s take on spare opera takes science fantasy to the next level with an alternate-reality powered totalitarian empire and the individuals (human and robot) seeking to change or uphold it.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden. The Bear and the Nightingale was a great book but I thought this one was a step above. It continues the story of Vasya, a woman able to communicate with folk spirits in a highly patriarchal Russia where old religious ways are falling out of favour. Arden treads a really delicate line between portraying Vasya an effortlessly brilliant, talented young woman and showing the enormity of the challenge she faces to be accepted in her society. The first book in the series, The Bear and the Nightingale, got her nominated for the Campbell award (for which she is still eligible this year, I believe); this one might fall short of my eventual ballot but I’m already looking forward to seeing how the series finishes next year.
Impostor Syndrome by Mishell Baker. I loved Baker’s entire Arcadia Project trilogy, and it’s going to be one of my series nominations, and I definitely found this a worthy conclusion. In hindsight, it’s a little overshadowed by the strengths of the first two books, which stand out both for the solid, interesting take on fae alternate worlds and for the way protagonist Millie’s mental health problems (i.e. borderline personality disorder) are portrayed. I think this book moves away from some of the strongest elements of that mental health portrayals, but it makes up for that by providing an entertaining, tense ride through Baker’s weird Hollywood-adjacent Fairyland.
Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien. This one is probably going to hit my Lodestar list rather than competing directly with the adult ballot, but I was really impressed with this book, which combines a unique ice skating Asian Fantasy setting with some decent political plotting of both the high school and international varieties. Unfortunately, it doesn’t wrap up several of the latter plot threads, otherwise it would be even stronger than it is, but it does enough for me to be impressed.
In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard. The latest entry on this list is also the shortest, but this nearly-novella still holds its own against the other entries here, for sure. de Bodard’s eye for worldbuilding has always been excellent, but this postapocalyptic take on the Beauty and the Beast myth, in which both characters are women and one is a dragon, showcases a fascinating world of impossible palaces, precarious families, and long-departed world-breaking oppressors. Great plot, interesting characters, and while this story stands alone I’m really hoping for more in this universe.
- Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller
- Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
- State Tectonics by Malka Older
- Armistice by Lara Elena Donnelly
- Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce
Best Novellas of 2018
My novella reading has been enjoyable for the last few years, but some entries in 2018 really raised the bar:
The top of my list is The Descent of Monsters by JY Yang. This epistolary story hit all the high notes of Yang’s original duology and more for me, introducing a fabulous, uncompromising new voice in Investigator Chuwan and taking the themes and worldbuilding to some great new places. Very much looking forward to the next entry later this year, which I think is also epistolary?
Also very high is Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire. All three of the Wayward children novellas have worked their magic on me, but this is the one so far I’ve pointed at and gone, “yep, that was my door”, in Cora and the trenches. Cora’s story is wound up in the story of Sumi, a character from a nonsense world who never got the space she deserved in the first book; and Rini, her daughter, whose existence is threatened by what happened then. It’s the first real adventure we’ve had in the Wayward Children series, and it’s very well done.
Accelerants by Lena Wilson is a strong contender for me too, and one that I’d love to see get recognition both on its own merits and to demonstrate that novella quality isn’t just coming from tor.com at the moment. This is an unflinching coming of age novella that riffs on the idea of superpowers as an axis of marginalisation but puts it within a protagonist identity with other marginalisations and explores the intersectionalities between them. Coupled with worldbuilding that effectively includes prison camps for “mutant” individuals with powers, it makes for a very strong read with an ending that is brutal but earned. Sadly, now that Book Smugglers publishing is gone, this one will be near impossible to get hold of for anyone who doesn’t already have it 😦
Every River Runs to Salt by Rachael K. Jones. This is slipstream done so, so well; the story of a woman whose roommate is partly descended from a glacier god and has stolen the Pacific Ocean in a jar. Said ocean, humans, and various physical manifestations of other geographical places then descend on the university in Athens, Georgia, to make things right. The central story between the two women is what’s outstanding here, although the evocative fantasy elements and especially the journey to the underworld that it becomes are worthy fantasy elements in their own right.
The Murderbot Novellas – Martha Wells gave us not one, not two, but three follow-ups to last year’s outstanding, award-winning All Systems Red: Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy. Together, the four tell a single arc of Murderbot’s story, trying to learn more about the events of its past and untangle the conspiracy with GreyCris corporation which almost got its humans killed. I’m probably only going to nominate one of these, but it’s going to be super hard to decide which one, as each has its own brilliant moments. As I have to make a choice, though, Exit Strategy is probably the strongest of the three, bringing the novella series to a satisfying close (though not a permanent one – a Murderbot novella is scheduled for 2020.)
Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson. This is a dense, brilliant story of societal change, culture clashes and time travel, combining a post-scarcity future whose older inhabitants still remember harder times with a journey to a superstitious, mythological past.
The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This one might be slipping down my list a little bit but I still really appreciate it. Tchaikovsky’s fantasy-tinged science fiction deals with isolated individual who must learn to get by in a society where everything is biologically linked to operate as a collective. Its the kind of novella where the world could support so much more story, but what is here is certainly a good appetiser.
- Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
- A Glimmer of Silver by Juliet Kemp
Best Hugo-Eligible Series of 2018
Sin du Jour by Matt Wallace. This collection of 7 novellas, chronicling the misadventures of a group of caterers who specialise in the supernatural, is a textbook case of a series being more than the sum of its parts: none of the original novellas stand out super well on their own, but taken as a whole they build and develop into a series that manages something quite special without ever seeming to take itself seriously. Wallace handles his rotating cast of thousands and the escalation of the plot brilliantly. This is very much a series of now, and I recommend reading it while the references are fresh and relevant.
The Railhead Trilogy by Philip Reeve. The finale book in this series, Station Zero, wasn’t the strongest by quite a margin, but it finishes a YA series from the creator of Mortal Engine which I very much enjoyed as a whole. There’s just something quite lovely about sentient singing trains in space, and while Reeve has a tendency to slightly overplay the Not Your Grandmother’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl elements of his female leads, the relationship between Zen and Nova is actually quite lovely.
The Arcadia Project by Mishell Baker. This trilogy also deserves a great deal of love. As I note in my review above of Impostor Syndrome, Baker’s work deals brilliantly when it comes to confronting protagonist Millie’s struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder and PTSD, and the ways that she manages to address and overcome the symptoms of the illness. That’s not to say that the Urban Fantasy and thriller elements of the plot and world aren’t also extremely well crafted. I’d love to see more of this kind of thing.
The Centenel Cycle by Malka Older. This is a unique and fascinating series whose individual volumes have never quite hit the high notes I wanted them to, but put together they form a great feat of worldbuilding and plotting that mashes up a lot of recognisable elements from international bureaucracies, global data companies, the international development sphere and transnational democratic movements and transplants them into a world where the rise of a single reputable “Information” company has precipitated the creation of microdemocracies, where every 100,000 people elects their local government from a range of international options. Combining elements of mystery and thriller with a plot that always feels just out of the control of the characters, its a worthy trilogy and one I’d like to see recognised.
The Planetfall Novels by Emma Newman. Before Mars wasn’t the only Planetfall novel that blew me away this year; I also made time for After Atlas, the second novel released in the universe, and if anything it had an even more profound effect on me. The world in this series is so well-crafted and quietly, heartbreakingly destructive that it’s hard to look away, and I get the feeling it’s all building to something quite special.
And finally, I’m weighing up whether to nominate October Daye by Seanan McGuire again. On the one hand, it totally deserves it; but on the other, maybe it’s time for some other things to get some attention, especially as McGuire has been on the ballot in both years of the category to date.