[Insert obligatory “well, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything for this blog” paragraph here.]
With 2018 finally complete, I thought it might be fun to take a quick look at the books I read last year. All of these are from my Goodreads profile, though I tend not to write reviews for individual books there.
Goodreads has a “reading challenge” each year wherein you can set a target number of books to read. In 2016, I hit my target of 34 books, albeit only by cramming both the SRE book and The Calendar of the Roman Republic (long story) on the last day of that year. Buoyed by success, I increased it to 38 books for 2017… and then got distracted by life and fell a bit short.
So, for 2018, I kept the same target as for 2017, and tried to not get distracted. A few weeks ago, I’d got a little bit ahead of that — woohoo me! — and decided it might be fun to put together a short review of each. So here are all the books I read in 2018, in (roughly) chronological order.
Robots vs. Fairies, various authors
Starting off 2018, an anthology of short stories: some about robots, and some about fairies. Definitely mixed, with a few really good ones, and a few that are… not so good (John Scalzi’s comes to mind as one of the latter, surprisingly).
The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1), N.K. Jemisin
So, this I definitely liked. It has a great premise, post-apocalyptic — or maybe just apocalyptic, given the intro — fantasy, good characters, and good worldbuilding, it won the 2016 best novel Hugo, and yet… I haven’t picked up the series again.
I’m not sure exactly why: perhaps because of the writing style (it’s present tense, partly in second person), perhaps because I was irritated by the way the writer withheld some key information the characters knew, or perhaps because of the incomplete ending. It’s possible that the sequels are brilliant, but I haven’t got around to finding out yet. Possibly in 2019.
Dark State (Empire Games, #2), Charles Stross
Continuing Stross’ reboot of the Merchant Princes series, a multiple-alternate-timeline spy/techno-thriller. Stross groks politics and economics (and technology), so this is actually a pretty good alt-history analysis as well as being a lot of fun. (Although if we could stop heading towards the dystopian timeline in real life, that’d be great, thanks.)
The Night Masquerade (Binti, #3), Nnedi Okorafor
Quoting from the one Goodreads review I did write: I was looking forward to this offering a conclusion to the series. Well, in some ways it does do that, and in some — quite important — ways, it doesn’t. I think I’d have been better just appreciating the great world-building here rather than the plot.
Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children, #3), Seanan McGuire
So, what if fairy tales were real? What happens when they’re over? That’s the premise of this series — in much the same way as Stross’ Equoid asks what it might be like if unicorns were real (spoilers: sharp horns, so blood, mostly).
This book is almost-standalone, with some of the children from earlier books going on portal-hopping adventures of their own. I liked this one a lot more than the second book in the series, which had a different focus, and was a bit more serious. Also, I’ve just realised that book #4 (In an Absent Dream) is out next week!
The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales, Yoon Ha Lee
A collection of flash fiction from Yoon Ha Lee, who’s also written some excellently weird science fiction and interactive fiction. Like Robots vs. Fairies above, I thought this was somewhat hit-and-miss.
The stories I enjoyed more tended to be those heavy on imagery and light on ‘plot’ (such plot as is possible with flash fiction), though The Stone-Hearted Soldier was an excellent inclusion, and an exception to that rule (but also one of the longer stories).
An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon
A dystopian space opera set around a study of oppression and segregation aboard a generation spaceship. The protagonists are incredibly varied and interesting characters, though the bad guys are unfortunately cardboard.
I remember this being something I wanted to keep reading (if challenging in parts), but I can’t actually remember any of the plot at this point. Minor issues notwithstanding, I definitely enjoyed this.
The Arcadia Project series, #1–3 (Borderline, Phantom Pains, Impostor Syndrome), Mishell Baker
From one set of neuroatypical characters to another. No spaceships here, but an urban fantasy/mystery that posits a link between fey and Hollywood celebrity. The whole series is great, the characters are believable and well-rounded (and self-sabotaging and dysfunctional). I was worried that I wouldn’t be that interested in a Los Angeles movie-town setting, but the characters and story won me over.
This series ties with Smoke and Iron (below) as my favourite read of 2018. Recommended.
The Gone World, Tom Sweterlitsch
So, apparently I liked this enough to give it 4/5 on Goodreads, but I can’t actually remember anything about it. It looks like it’s a time travel/murder mystery/apocalypse story? Perhaps I should re-read it.
Sleeping Giants (Themis Files, #1), Sylvain Neuvel,
Told via the medium of interviews and news clippings, in the style of World War Z, this is the story of how the discovery of a giant robot hand plays out politically. There is some sci-fi here, but mostly it’s the politics from Arrival that takes centre stage.
This was alright, but again, I’ve not picked up the next in the series. The journal/interview format makes it hard to get much in the way of interaction between characters, and the story seemed more interested in the politics than in the sci-fi/mystery aspect (which is fine, just not what I was looking for).
Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic
I think this is what you’d get if you boiled down Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information into practical advice and case studies, thirty years later. Definitely useful and interesting, even though this isn’t something I need to do on a regular basis professionally.
The Red Rising series, #1–4 (Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star, Iron Gold), Pierce Brown
Dystopian sci-fi. The blurb says “Ender’s Game meets The Hunger Games”, and I suppose that’s about right: the protagonist takes on the elite by infiltrating them and subverting them from within, only this time we’re talking about Mars, and later an entire solar system.
I enjoyed the first few books in the series, but somewhere around the third or fourth I started to get a bit tired of the diffusion of the story to uninteresting point-of-view characters, and also in the continuous faux-Roman melodramatics.
The first book is definitely good by itself, and maybe I’ll pick the series up again at some point.
Kindred, Octavia E. Butler
This is also sci-fi, or maybe fantasy1, but is probably simpler to think of as historical fiction. A modern progressive black woman is transported to early 19th century Maryland, deep in the antebellum American South.
With the caveat that “modern” here means the 1970s (the book being published in 1979), this is a fascinating story — if deeply unsettling at times — about how culture shapes behaviour, and how social hierarchies and systems can be justified and propagated by those within the system.
The Pliocene Exile / Galactic Milieu series (The Many-Coloured Land, The Golden Torc, The Nonborn King, The Adversary; Intervention; Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask, Magnificat), Julian May
An easy re-read. Julian May’s epic galaxy- and time-spanning series starts with a fantastic premise: as Earth has joined a galactic federation of sorts, and as humanity has begun to evolve psionic powers, a misfit group of disaffected/adventurous travellers escapes into exile via a one-way time wormhole that deposits them in France, in the Pliocene epoch, 6 million years ago2.
Without spoiling too much, the story shifts very quickly from science fiction to something closer to high fantasy (for the first series, at least; the second is in a more contemporary time period, and is more ‘regular’ sci-fi). Weaving mythology and an epic story, this is well worth the time to read.
A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair, Nicholas Fisk
This YA dystopia was fun to read when I was a lot younger (it was published in 1980; I probably read it sometime in the mid-1980s, along with a lot of other Nicholas Fisk), but it hasn’t really held up that well. The motivation behind the plot falls apart a bit on any analysis, and some of the technology is a bit dated now (explanations about miniature tape recorders, that kind of thing).
However, I do still like how the protagonist learns to interact with the other characters (both modern, and not-so-modern), and how their attitude changes over the course of the story, and I do still appreciate the swerve away from hard sci-fi that happens partway through. It’s flawed, but it’s still a classic.
The Lady Astronaut series, #1–2, plus the initial novelette (The Lady Astronaut of Mars, The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky), Mary Robinette Kowal
Alt-history in which the author bootstraps the space race a decade early via a meteorite-shaped forcing function. Post-steampunk, but pre-electronic-computer; the author describes it as “punchcard punk”. This is Hidden Figures meets Apollo 13, with a strong focus on the racial and gender discrimination of the 1950s3.
(The novelette was published first — winning the 2014 Hugo for best novelette — but is set some thirty or so years after the novels. I read it first, but you could easily read it after: it’s not directly connected to the novels.)
The novels suffer very slightly from telling two separate stories: one is a humanity-against-the-elements story (Apollo 13 or The Martian), while the other is a documentary about 1950s cultural attitudes. Both are interesting stories, but I found it a little frustrating when the story would focus tightly on the protagonist to the exclusion of the wider global impact (pun most definitely intended).
However, overall this is definitely worth reading.
The Labyrinth Index (Laundry Files, #9), Charles Stross
Well, we’re past the Lovecraftian singularity at this point, and it’s all about surviving while the transhumans play. One of whom happens to be inhabiting the Prime Minister at present, and who has opinions about foreign policy.
Mhari, who we met in her current incarnation in The Rhesus Chart a while back, is presently attempting to stay alive while said elder god is playing eleven-dimensional chess nearby. Meanwhile, the US appears to have collectively forgotten that the executive branch exists…
I liked this a lot. Mhari was interesting without being annoying, as I worried she might be (she was in some of the earlier books; deliberately so in order to annoy Bob, I think). Otherwise, this was pretty much exactly as I expected at this point in the series: a lot of fun.
Revenant Gun (The Machineries of Empire, #3), Yoon Ha Lee
Yoon Ha Lee’s conclusion about a 400-year-old immortal general and crazy magic that works because of a shared consensual reality. It’s military sci-fi, kinda?
I can’t really discuss this without spoilers, but while it did more hand-holding than earlier books in the series, it still featured a lot of creative worldbuilding.
Lies Sleeping (Rivers of London, #7), Ben Aaronovitch,
Like The Labyrinth Index above, by the time you get this far into a series, you pretty much know what to expect: in this case, a fun police procedural with magic and geeky in-jokes.
However, I did find it a bit hard to follow what was going on with the plot here, which seemed to be both a bit muddled and to reach back over the whole of the series. (I’ve also not read the associated graphic novels, which might have helped, though they’re not supposed to be necessary prerequisites.)
Side-note: an interesting article about intersectionality in the Rivers of London series.
A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr.
A classic (1959) post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale published during a high point in Cold War tensions. In the far aftermath of nuclear war, society struggles to drag itself out of a new dark age, and to rediscover and protect old knowledge. This is three distinct stories — originally published as such — separated by time (centuries), and vaguely connected by place.
This unapologetically puts forwards a Christian (specifically, Catholic) viewpoint, with the church to some extent a main character. It has some ironic humour, but also serious comment about ethics and human nature. With one exception near the end, I didn’t find it to be too preachy.
It made a big impact at the time, but is it actually a good story nowadays? Well, meh. I found it thought-provoking (and somewhat depressing) in turns, but I can’t actually say that the story exists much more than as a framework for the author’s viewpoints. Largely unsatisfying, and probably more important for the historical context now.
Smoke and Iron (The Great Library, #4), Rachel Caine
Okay, this is just brilliant. Along with The Arcadia Project series (above), this was easily one of my favourite reads of 2018.
So, why? Well, it’s got good worldbuilding, a fast-paced (and fun) plot, it’s got great characters and character development, and good writing.
The plot itself starts immediately after Ash and Quill, so talking about the plot directly would spoil the earlier books. In general, though, this series is a YA alt-history/fantasy in which the Great Library (of Alexandria) has become a ruthless worldwide power, tightly controlling both the dissemination of information and also the source for some of the magic/alchemy that’s available in this world.
On the writing: one section in particular has the viewpoint character magically hypnotized into believing that they’re someone else, and the author shifts the (tight third-person) text to match that impersonated character, having the viewpoint character not just act as another, but having the prose notice (and the character comment on internally) an entirely different set of things appropriate for the character they were impersonating. Subtle, but I liked it.
Murderbot is a fairly apathetic and introverted humanform security droid that just wants to be left alone to watch sci-fi soap operas, but stupid humans keep doing stupid things that stop it from doing so, or worse, are trying to interact with it rather than let it stand in a corner by itself (to watch soap operas again, probably).
This is a series of four novellas written with Murderbot narrating, and it’s delightful. They are short, so each has a fairly straightforward plot, but it’s great fun nonetheless.
Ra, Sam Hughes
On the one hand, Ra is excellent: it’s a hard sci-fi novel (novella?) with some really well thought-through worldbuilding. To some extent, it puts me in mind of Snow Crash. (It also has some really nice in-jokes, which I don’t think I can reference without being spoilery.)
It was published in chapters on Sam Hughes’ blog (at qntm.org/ra, where you can read it for free), and there are also a few EPUB versions, some of which you can choose to pay for.
So as a self-published story, it’s really rather good. Unfortunately, on the other hand, I think it could also do with some quite significant editing, as there seem to be two almost completely different stories here, and while they’re linked, the story switches at one point from something grounded (like Snow Crash) to something incomprehensible by Greg Egan, and while both are good, I don’t think they fit well together.
To sum up: I managed to read 40 books last year, almost all of which were fiction, mostly urban fantasy and sci-fi, to nobody’s surprise. (I also started and failed to finish a bunch of non-fiction books).
I think I did a better job of picking books with diverse protagonists this time round, and while most of the books I read were published in the last few years (40% were published in 2018), I managed to also seek out a few older ones (Kindred, for example, I’m really glad I got round to reading).
Onward to 2019!
I’d have called it sci-fi purely because it has time-travel, but I ran across an interview with Butler in which she points out, “Kindred is fantasy. I mean literally, it is fantasy. There’s no science in Kindred.” She has a point. ↩
… though from what I can tell, 6 Ma is squarely in the Miocene epoch, not the Pliocene. In A Pliocene Companion, Word of God resolves this by stating that, in-universe, the Pliocene is considered to start around 11 Ma (not 5.6 or 5.33 Ma, as in our reality). ↩
And to a large extent, discrimination that’s still present today: there’s a line where our heroine says that “people would ignore what I said until [my husband] repeated it”, which sounds familiar enough. ↩