The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson

Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson - Cover
Cover Design by Charlotte Stroomer

Ah, Rosewater. It’s not you, its me. I really wanted to like this book, which picks up the story of a weird alien incursion in mid-21st century Nigeria and its broader impacts on human society and politics. Unfortunately, although I read the book from start to finish, I’ve come out feeling like this story just… missed me. Still, this is a review copy and therefore a review you shall all have, and I’ll try to be as objective as possible about why I think this didn’t work for me and why you, dear reader, might have a different experience entirely.

The Rosewater Insurrection picks up basically where its predecessor left off, with the reveal that the mysterious alien dome around which the town of Rosewater has developed is not a new visitor to earth, but one which has been building its roots for a while. Unlike the original novel, which jumped around the life of its protagonist Kaaro, Insurrection instead follows a rotating cast of characters on various sides of the escalating tensions between “Wormwood”, the alien presence in the dome, and the human world, and within Nigeria where the dome sits.

The breakneck switches between points of view – and timelines – in the Rosewater Insurrection make it a tricky book to keep track of at times, and particularly in the second half it feels like there’s a tension between the escalating action and exciting plot movement, and the slow reading pace required to not accidentally lose track of who actually holds the narrative at any given time. I think, to be honest, this is where my particular reading style really struggled – I tend to breeze through books at the best of times, especially when there’s a lot of action or mysterious happenings that I want to get through, but to get the most out of the Rosewater series I think takes a more deliberate reader who is investing in every twist and turn as it comes. As it was, there were several plot threads in Rosewater – such as the position of Alyssa, a woman who wakes with no memories (to the frustration of her husband and child) and is tracked down by the agents involved in securing Wormwood’s future – which were objectively pretty crucial but which never managed to invest me in their developments. To me, what’s interesting about Tade Thompson’s worlds are the more macro political forces (especially because THE ALIENS DIDN’T EMERGE IN AMERICA, what a relief), but with the focus being on relatively few mostly behind-the-scenes actors, this is definitely more spy-type action than intractable political wrangling.

It’s not helped by the fact that the characters, like in Rosewater, weren’t much fun for me to be around. Alyssa’s plight, especially when it comes to dealing with a family who she feels she has no ties to and who don’t act in particularly helpful ways to her in the opening chapters, is sympathetic but Alyssa on her own never really engaged me, especially when she comes around more to her alien connections. There’s Aminat, Kaaro’s partner from the first book (and Kaaro also puts in an appearance later on), a writer coasting in the city on former successes who becomes (ultimately anti-climacticly) involved in the whole situation, and Anthony, a “Homian” (i.e. alien) consciousness who is charged with protecting the apparently dying Wormwood from threats. Perhaps my favourite character was Jack Jacques, the mayor of Rosewater who declares independence for his city-state, with predictable consequences, but even then I’m struggling to identify anything specific about him that I liked. I’m sure others will have different experiences with these characters – and my dislike for them is unsurprising given that I had similar frustrations with Kaaro in Rosewater – but it certainly made this one more difficult.

Despite the challenges I had with it, I have to admit that The Rosewater Insurrection ends in a super intriguing spot, setting up a new relationship between the alien and human forces and, with it, potential for a really interesting volume. If you’re a fan of weird science fiction aliens, meditations on humanity, consciousness and connection, and an Earth-based future that doesn’t take the USA as its jumping-off point, and don’t mind the potential lack of connection with protagonists or regular switches in time and point of view, Rosewater is definitely a series to look out for. In the meantime, I expect to continue enjoying Tade Thompson’s short work and the Molly Southbourne series, and I’ll be looking out for another opportunity to try out his novels in future, but this is probably my early jumping-off point for the Rosewater series.

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Still here! Back soon!

I doubt anybody following me here follows me here exclusively (if you do, go follow my Twitter updates for my other review work immediately!) so hopefully my dozen of adoring fans are well aware of everything going on.

But just to have it up here: YEP I’m still writing, just got back from holiday, have had lots of content up with Nerds of a Feather recently, including a couple of dialogue pieces with Joe Sherry which have been great fun, and there’s more on its way! Because of the holiday and some mild generalised burnout before I left, I haven’t been keeping up with the weekly roundups here and it might be a little while before they come back. For now that means you’re better off catching me on NoaF.

BUT this space is not dead and there are some things that’ll be up here in the next few months:

  • Hugo nominations are due soon and that means Hugo VOTING is coming up in the next couple of months! As with last year, I’ll be writing a series of category-by-category posts for all the categories I feel able, and I’d love to have you all along for the ride.
  • I still have a half-written post of reading stats for 2018 and I’m determined that March is not too late for us all to enjoy that. Seriously. I’d like to do this more regularly if I can muster the energy.
  • An actual review or two!

See ya soon, here’s a dog to share your waiting:

Reading Roundup 14 – 20 January

Good morning to you from the past, where it is a slow sick day Sunday for me following a week that’s been… pretty mixed (hence the “calming blue” header today), but with some exciting highs. You don’t need to know about the bad stuff so let’s skip straight to the fun!

So the most exciting thing that happened this week – for me, and also for you if you missed my long-form reviews over the past month – is that I’m published in Strange Horizons! I wrote a review about The Calculating Stars and the Fated Sky, which takes a fairly critical dive into how Elma York’s characterisation interacts with the wider themes of the novels, and the limitations I think the approach presents. I’m very pleased with it, so if that sounds like your kind of thing please do give it a look. (It also means that MY OWN WRITING is going to get delivered to my Kindle in my Strange Horizons subscription next month, which is just SO exciting!)

Also on the agenda was going to see Hamilton for the second time, which if anything was even more emotional and intense and wonderful. There were a couple of standbys performing in the main cast who did brilliantly, and some new faces since we previously saw it, so there were enough new moments and mannerisms to make it interesting while also being possible to catch things I’d missed the first time around.

Anyway, let’s jump into the actual books, shall we:

Books Read

Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns. I came into this audiobook expecting lesbian space pirates fighting robots, and I’m pleased to say that’s pretty much exactly what it delivered. This is the story of Adda and Iridian, recent graduates in a system where their only legal option is to indenture themselves into company contracts with no hope of paying off their student loans, with little hope of remaining together. The pair decide to forego those delights in favour of piracy, an option that Adda’s brother Pell has already taken up and recommended them. Unfortunately, it turns out Pell is less than reliable when it comes to these things, and Barbary Station – an old shipbreaking station now renamed after the pirate-related earth region – is under the thumb of a rogue AI which is trying to kill them and to prevent anyone from leaving. If I were being picky, I’d note that there’s not much in the way of surprises or worldbuilding depth in some of Stearn’s story – but it doesn’t detract from the central focus, which is smart women going up against impossible odds, in a setting with decent levels of novelty to see it through. 7 out of 10.

A Hero Born by Jin Yong. Friends, I was not expecting to like this as much as I did. It’s the first volume in the first translation of a 12 volume historical martial arts fantasy epic, originally published in the 1950s and 1960s, and I picked it up in the middle of last year when I still thought that translated works would form a significant part of my reading challenge for 2018. They did not, it languished, but after a bit of adjustment into the rhythms and style of this work – in my only-very-slightly-informed opinion, translator Anna Holmwood has done a good job of reproducing the cadences of Chinese fiction (especially dialogue) while doing enough to make it work in English – I found myself really invested in the fate of Guo Jing, son of a dead Patriot who finds himself growing up with Temujin’s (i.e. Genghis Khan’s) band on the steppes of Mongolia. Packed with characters (some more archetypal than others), this is full of epic battles, moments of soap opera emotion, reversals, betrayal, rematches against forces of evil, and a much higher proportion of awesome (though sometimes sadly infantilised) women than I was expecting given the time this novel was written – let alone the time it was written about. 8 out of 10.

Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett. This forthcoming novella is a continuation of the Tempest, which takes the story into super dark territory – if it wasn’t already! – with Prospero’s past and the ghosts which are awaiting Miranda on her return. I liked this a lot, although it didn’t quite capture my heart to the degree that the characters in Monstrous Little Voices did, and Miranda herself comes across as a bit of a passenger at times, although it’s understandable that she’s been taken very far out of her comfort zone and is trying to adjust to a very different set of circumstances. The f/f relationship is well played out and the plotting works well, seamlessly integrating quite a large flashback into the wider whole – up until the very end, which suddenly rushes the story into about four different potential conclusion points in quick succession. I don’t mind where it ends up, but it involves a lot of decisions which make sense for the protagonist but aren’t really seeded in a satisfying way. 7 out of 10.

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings ed. Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman. This is an anthology of Asian folk retellings by Asian authors, casting a pretty wide net with Chinese, South Asian, Vietnamese Filipino, Korean and other mythologies represented. I thought it was an outstanding collection with barely a dull note from beginning to end, and it’s put lots of authors on or closer to the centre of my radar than before. 9 out of 10. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender, North and South (Library Edition). This is the oversized, collected edition of the three part comic series, which I took out from the library. Unfortunately, I did not double check the volume order, and it turns out that I was missing two volumes between the ones I’ve read (The Promise and The Search) and this one, oops! It’s still amazing though – anything focusing on water benders is an instant win for me – and if there are spoilers for the other comics I didn’t pick up on them. Alas that my library doesn’t have the others I’m missing available though… it means there might be some quite large hardcover purchases in my future…

Currently Reading

The Deep and Shining Dark by Juliet Kemp. This is a book that’s been sat on my “read this month” list for an embarrassingly long time – three months, I think – and I’m so glad I finally made time for it. It’s about a city, Marek, where magic is more common than the rest of the world but which has mysteriously stopped working. Meanwhile, related machinations among the city’s ruling elite – who have just been freed from a rule on term limits for the council that their heads of family sit on – collide with the story of a young man from a seafaring culture who is trying to understand the weird visions that have plagued him and made his position in a notoriously magic-hating culture more precarious. It’s taking a while for me – there’s lots of interesting political machinations and worldbuilding which are interesting but seem to resist being blown through at my usual reading pace. Still, I’m enjoying it and I’m definitely keen to see where it goes.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley. So, true story: I just went on a twitter-timeline skim of Maria Dahvana Headley to figure out what she’s about and what she’s been up to in relation to this book that I should know about, and I discovered that she is to be responsible for a new translation of Beowulf this year! Which is highly relevant because this book, which I am listening to in audio (so get ready for it to be here for weeks), is a retelling of Beowulf from the perspective of the mothers involved, who now happen to be a suburban housewife and a traumatised military veteran who now lives in a cave behind said suburb with a son she doesn’t remember conceiving. Suburban drama is usually a tough sell for me but… yep, I’m totally into this one so far.

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman. This is the story of a group of people, the Natives, who have been utterly subjugated and forced into imprisonment by a group of Settlers who are attempting to civilise them through projects and programmes which only take into account their own version of civilisation. Thus far, there’s been nothing that does not line up exactly with the treatment of Aboriginal Australians by white settlers to that country, although I understand from the blurb and other reactions to it that there’s more going on here. It’s an unpleasant subject matter, taking square aim at the horrors and indignities that generations of Aboriginal Australians were subjected to by British and later independent Australian governments, but the writing style is beautiful and the subject matter is a story that needs to be told.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 269. I’m halfway through this, which means I’ve read the first story out of two. More thoughts later, I guess!

Acquisitions

Hey, I had a negative book week! Go me!

The Half-God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams. This is an intriguing looking ARC by a Nigerian-British writer, and exactly the sort of stuff I want to push myself towards reviewing in 2019. It’s about a boy who clearly has the power to manipulate rain, and who apparently is going to meet a lot of women who will take him down a peg over that. Let’s see how that goes!

If this Goes On ed. Cat Rambo. This is an anthology which, despite the picture of Abraham Lincoln’s statue on the front cover, is more about drawing on positive science fiction trends and ways things might get better than the deep dive into science fictional US politics that the image suggests (I hope).

Reading Roundup 7 – 13 January

Back to work this week, and I’m feeling the full weight of adulthood and of winter – with all its scheduled misery – setting in. I’m doing my best to fight it off, though, and this week has actually been quite varied in a lot of respects – I played Dungeons and Dragons in London for the first time, I went to every yoga class that I booked myself in for, I cycled to work at every opportunity and I edged closer to ticking off all the Marvel movies that I need to see before Avengers: Infinity War inevitably hits the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form ballot and I have to pretend to know what’s going on with all those dudes. None of those things are reading, of course, so it’s been a distinctly lighter week on that front, but that’s not unexpected.

I wrote about this in my 2018 roundup (which is going to be followed up within the next week, I promise!) but I’ll just reiterate here as the Nerds of a Feather Awards Eligibility Post went up this week: I’d love it if you considered us on your Hugo ballot, if you’re a nominator this year. I got a namecheck for Fan Writer in that post which was unexpectedly lovely, so I’ll also note for anyone who doesn’t know that 95% of my long form reviews go up over there – I keep these roundups going to make sure the lights are still on in this place (and I expect I’ll write a lot more for Hugo season) but that’s where I really flex my reviewer muscles.

Books Read

The majority of my reading this week involved most of the Rivers of London Graphic novel series, which currently stands at 6 trade volumes. My library had the first five, which I duly devoured:

  • Body Work. Haunted cars! Turn of the century rich boys doing silly stuff!
  • Night Witch. A lot of Russians in this volume, which involves Peter tracking down the kidnappers of a young girl after Nightingale also finds himself incapacitated. Contains the best Beverley scenes of all of these, which are otherwise unfortunately light on the river goddesses and their escapades.
  • Black Mould. And this one contains the best of Sahra Guleed,
  • Detective Stories. This was probably my least favourite, although it still covers a lot of interesting ground, because it’s more episodic and I quite like the way the full arcs build up in a way that didn’t have space to happen here. The framing story is that this is Peter’s promotion from officer to detective, which is referenced in Lies Sleeping and which is why I was so keen to pick these up.
  • Cry Fox. We return to the Russians and to a grim version of the British elite. Actually, maybe this one contains the best Guleed, and it’s also the first graphic appearance of Abigail Kamara, Peter’s fabulously deadpan, competent niece and practitioner in training.

I wouldn’t say any of the graphic novel material sets the world on fire, but I like how all the characters come across in this different medium (Lesley’s appearances, especially the flashbacks in Detective Stories, are particularly heartbreaking), and they provide some great moments with Peter, Beverley, Nightingale and Guleed and the rest of Aaronovitch’s fantastic version of the Metropolitan Police. I read on twitter recently the theory that Brooklyn-Nine-Nine is like a “Star Trek”-ified version of the NYPD, showing the institution as it might be in an ideal world as an inspiration for our own less than perfect iteration of it, and I think that’s a good way to describe this series too. I don’t believe in Peter Grant’s Met for a second, but I’m in love with everyone in it and adjacent to it, and the mysteries are satisfying without being too heavy (Black Mould is probably the strongest of the bunch, followed by Body Work).

Strange Horizons November 2018. Another month, another not-as-behind-as-it-looks collected issue of Strange Horizons read. I’ll be covering the fiction offerings from this one a bit later but I just want to draw your attention to the very well realised in-depth critique of Venom by Samira Nadkarni in the second week of November. Outstanding stuff.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. I’m not sure if I’ve outright mentioned that I’ve been L-U-C-K-Y with ARCs this quarter, and this is a big one! I’ll be reviewing it a bit closer to the time, but I will say that it demanded and rewarded significantly slower, more careful reading than I often employ, which is another reason why this week wasn’t particularly prolific for me.

Fireside Magazine, January 2019. General thumbs up in the direction of this one (and everything Fireside does, honestly).

Currently Reading

I levelled up my cycling last week to be able to safely listen to ebooks while riding! That’s good news for Barbary Station, which I still have 4 hours left on but am eager to get finished off in the next couple of days (I have been ACQUIRING on the audiobook front, folks)

In theory, I’ve also started A Hero Born by Jin Yong – this is the first volume of an extensive Chinese epic fantasy published in Hong Kong in the 1950s that is only just getting its first English translation. I’ve only got a couple of pages in and I haven’t formed opinions either way.

I’m between material on the Kindle and weighing up whether to go down the short fiction or novel route. I’d like to be making more headway than I currently am into the TBR, but it might be more productive to stay on top of my review commitments and last minute 2018 reads for now and worry about that later…

Acquisitions

You would not believe how much hunting around I had to do to find the last three Rivers of London graphic novels in the library… one was shelves with the teen graphic novels, one with the adult, and one (Detective Stories, no less!) I discovered by chance on a trolley near the children’s section. Wandering around the various odd points with graphic novels, I almost ended up with a Peter Grant monologue of my very own to narrate my adventures (and the – uninteresting – surrounding architecture) with.

The Mere Wife by Maria Davena Headley. Through an unexpected plot twist I found myself with one more Audible credit than I expected, and here’s what I bought with it! 

Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer. Another audiobook (my regularly scheduled credit this time), of a book that I’ve been thinking of for quite a while, and came quite close to picking up in Forbidden Planet last week. Crossroads of Canopy is first in a trilogy set in the treetops of a fantasy forest world, and it looks like a very intriguing worldbuilding experiment.

Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden. This is the conclusion to Arden’s wonderful Russian historic fantasy series, and I’m desperately hoping main character Vasya gets a fitting and optimistic send-off.

Seafire by Natalie C. Parker. Embarassingly, I’ve forgotten exactly where I saw this book recommended (it might have been Reading the End?), but it appears to be full of queer pirate ladies on the high seas, so it was a pretty straightforward impulse buy when I “needed” something to add to my Amazon cart for free shipping purposes.

Reading Roundup: December 31 – January 6

Welcome to 2019!  I’m back in London, ready (sort of) for my Christmas break to be over as of today, and I had a pretty sweet last few days of reading to kick off the start of the year.

Books Read

Strange Horizons October 2018. I promise I’m less behind on this than it looks, as the monthly ebooks for Patreon don’t come out until the tail end of the following month! As mentioned last week, I think De MotherJumpers was the strongest original fiction, and Directions by Judy Budnitz – a reprint – probably my favourite piece in the issue overall. As well as an interesting line-up of reviews, there’s also another instalment of Geoff Ryman’s 100 African Writers of SFF, a series which continues to broaden my horizons.

The Ingenious by Darius Hinks. This one is being reviewed at Nerds of a Feather closer to release time (I’m on a little break from the schedule there while I line up ALL THE DUCKS from late January onwards. So many ducks, reader. So very, very many ducks.)

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: Also a review in the making for this one, but I’ll say early that if you’re a fan of Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee or The Goblin Emperor, this is one you’ll want to clear your schedule for.

In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire. I promised myself a trip to Forbidden Planet in central London once I got back to town, and this latest entry in the Wayward Children series was top of my wishlist (no, it’s technically not released until Tuesday, but I’ve had regular luck with this shop putting imported books out before the release date!) This is the story of Katherine Lundy, one of the teachers from the original Every Heart a Doorway, who went to a “Goblin Market” world in which children can come and go, everything has a fair value, and getting into debt means giving up your humanity for something that, based on your perspective, may be better anyway. This didn’t rise to the levels of Beneath the Sugar Sky for me, with an ending that I suspect won’t be fully impactful unless you’ve read the first novella, but there’s still more than enough inventiveness and heartbreak to make it worth reading, especially for those who are already invested in the series. 8 out of 10.

Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young. This 2018 YA release has been sitting on my shelf for a while, because apparently I am very susceptible to buying books from fellow Adriennes. This is the story of Eelyn, a young woman whose tribe, the Aska, has been involved in a ritualised, pointless war with the neighbouring Riki for as long as anyone can remember. It takes Eelyn’s capture by the Riki and the discovery that her brother survived a mortal injury from years ago and has been living amongst them for her to begin to question the circumstances in which she’s lived her life. It’s a fairly straightforward story, but Eelyn’s voice is very well realised, and her slow burning romance with another member of the Riki camp is very sweet. 7 out of 10.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 268. There’s a pair of short stories in here to kick off the new year: an interesting post apocalyptic Company Town tale from Beth Cato (whose Breath of Earth series I need to get to this year!) and a similarly interesting tale of ravens and havens from debut author Morgan Al-Moor.

“The Emotionless, in Love” by Jason Sanford. This is a novella that Beneath Ceaseless Skies put out early in 2018, and a sequel of sorts to Blood Grains Speak Through Memories. It’s an interesting concept for a world: the “grains” of the original title are nanobots that have been released across the earth to protect it, whose AI has uplifted some humans to become protective “anchors” of pieces of land, while everyone else needs to constantly move from place to place to avoid being classed as dangers to the land and exterminated accordingly. Unfortunately, this continuation suffers from a slightly flat, infodump-heavy start, and a (deliberately) unlikeable protagonist, and I struggled to connect for those reasons. Still, it’s a great concept and I’ll keep an eye out for any further stories in the world. 6 out of 10.

Currently Reading

I made some progress with my audiobook, Barbary Station, and I’m hoping to get a bit more in over the next week. Its an odd setup, but I’m enjoying it so far!

I’m also working through Strange Horizons November 2018 issue, which opens with an heartwrenching near future SF story by Debbie Urbanski: Some Personal Arguments in Support of the BetterYou (Based on Early Interactions).

From the library, I picked up a selection of graphic novels, including the first two in the Rivers of London series, and I’m currently halfway through the first, Body Work, with the expectation that I’ll finish that off this evening.

Acquisitions

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. This was a very very welcome and lovely late Christmas present, and I’ve heard GREAT things.

Anathema Issue 6. The great thing about subscribing to something that comes out three times a month is that it’s always a bit of a surprise when it turns up!

Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson. I said I was done with this series after the first three books – only the second really moved the needle for me, and I only stuck out book 3 because I assumed it was a trilogy and I’d have it completed – but the whole series was (is?) 99p each on UK Kindle at the moment, so I’ve thrown this one onto Mount Tsundoku. Not sure I’ll ever get to it but for 99p, I may as well have the option!

Clarkesworld Issues 147 and 148. I subscribed to Clarkesworld on January 1st, hoping that it would bring me a full year of excitement from this super well regarded magazine. And it will, but technically I subscribed just a little too early to get the full 2019 from it. On the plus side, that means I now have double the ebook to be getting on with before I get hit with EVEN MORE in February.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 268. BCS has not yet inundated me with REGRETS ABOUT SUBSCRIPTION TIMING, just the one issue that I already got out of the way above!

In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire. As noted above, this was a treat from Forbidden Planet. Its a very pretty hardback, although I’m still a little put out that tor.com has chosen to price this series and the Murderbot books so prohibitively high in ebook that it pushes me towards more expensive options – audio or physical – just to get value for money (and I note that it’s the successful novellas by white women that get this treatment, and not, for example, Binti or the Tensorate novels…)

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman. This was my other treat to myself, an anthology of Asian fairy tale retellings with an amazing looking author line-up.

Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, February 1970. This is more of a curiosity than an addition to the reading list! I picked it up from one of my favourite second hand shops, which had a huuuge selection for this month only. It’s not usually my thing but I managed to find one with a Joanna Russ novelette, so now it is mine.

Also, I’ve got the Avatar: The Last Airbender North and South library bind-up, the second Rivers of London graphic novel Night Witches, and a YA novel from Claudia Grey, Defy the Worlds, out from the library at the moment.

Adri’s Mega 2018 Roundup, Part 1: The Best of 2018!

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).

My eligibility?

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.

Honourable Mentions:

  • 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.

Honourable Mentions:

  • 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.

Reading Roundup: December 24-30

Well, here we are at the end of 2018. I’ve finished up with family Christmas celebrations that were significantly harder work than usual, although it all paid off in the end; I’m now looking at one more, hopefully more conventionally productive week of leave before I have to go back to work on the 7th. Ideally, that productivity will include some of the ARC reading I wanted to get done before going back to work, but despite having several books that I’m theoretically extremely excited about, I’ve not been feeling too motivated to actually start any of them. Instead I’ve been spending most of my downtime playing video games – it turns out that Past Me bought Slay the Spire at some point, and present me has been really enjoying playing that through. And Into the Breach has proved just as entertaining as ever, and good for those moments where repetitive but satisfying strategy is the only thing that will do. 

That means it’s going to be a short one this week!

Books Read:

Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout. This middle grade read contained all the dogs promised, and very good dogs they were too. There might not have been too much in the way of sophistication or surprises, but it’s well written and nuanced and has a surprisingly punchy end. 8 out of 10.

Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis. This novella was exactly the cosy winter read I wanted, with its balance of interesting Regency-style worldbuilding, straightforward but satisfying romance, and gender politics with a heroine trying to make her own way in a society where only men can be magicians. I’m excited for the sequel, and even more excited to (hopefully) soon get my hands on the prequel story. 8 out of 10.

The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky. This is an ARC that I’ll be reviewing – a less cosy but much colder winter read.

Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield. This novella is first in a duology and unfortunately it shows. There’s a great time travel premise here, all built around agents trying to stop a mid 22nd century time war by altering the events of earlier centuries. When Prudence, an agent with a drastic plan to alter the rules of the war itself, comes up against late 18th-century Alice Payne and her partner Jane, her plans get significantly more complicated, while Alice and Jane are brought into a world of potential freedom that two romantically involved women (one Black) would otherwise never be able to access. It’s great, but it comes to a somewhat premature climax and we’re going to have to wait until 2019 to really find out where Alice’s story ends. 7 out of 10.

Canto Bight by Saladin Ahmed, Mira Grant, Rae Carson and John Jackson Miller. This Star Wars collection was released just before The Last Jedi came out in the cinema, and as you’d expect it revolves around stories of minor characters in Canto Bight, the space-Vegas casino city introduced in that film. Whether you love or hate the movie sequence (I’m a big fan of the entire movie, myself), it’s a more than worthy playground for these authors, who each bring largely separate narratives to the table. None of them are particularly elaborate, but they’re all satisfying, and Mira Grant in particular brings a great eye to bringing the location, with all its attractions and difficulties, to life. Moreover, the setting gives the authors an opportunity to put the war between the Resistance and the First Order into context, showing just how little it affects the day-to-day lives of most of the galaxy’s citizens (at least, until it’s too late). The sense of creeping fascism is an important component of this generation of Star Wars films and while Canto Bight doesn’t stand alone, it adds to that overall story very nicely. 6 out of 10 (but a fun 6!)

Currently Reading:

Again, not that much…

The Ingenious by Darius Hinks. One of the aforementioned exciting ARCs, about a group of political exiles trapped in a mysterious, impossible-to-leave city. I’ve not got far enough into this one to form a proper opinion so far but there’s something about fantasy city narratives that is very appealing at the moment.

Strange Horizons, October 2018. I think I put this on a previous roundup, but I’m honestly reading it this time – I’m halfway through and everything. Big thumbs up for De MotherJumpers by Celeste Rita Baker, and the two part review of Seven Surrenders and the Will to Battle by Matt Hilliard.

Acquisitions:

Very little. I got the Strange Horizons Fund Drive e-book as a reward for backing them, and Uncanny Issue 26 has been delivered too. I did get a fun bookish present in the form of the above book stamps, though, and I’m looking forward to eventually stamping ALL THE THINGS.