That’s my reading sorted for this year

This is an awesome list of science fiction/fantasy novels coming out this year and I like Mahvesh Murad’s reasoning here:

There is a great deal of potentially excellent writing and brilliant storytelling to look forward to this year, especially from women writers of speculative fiction. A number of titles that I am looking forward to are from writers of colour, many with stories set outside of the usual Eurocentric/American diaspora.

Sure, you can make up any culture you like as a writer – as long as your worldbuilding is authentic and strong, we’ll buy it. But when you’re not from the mainstream, when you’re not a white, heteronormative writer from the UK or US, you’ll probably be bringing your own cultural background, your own myths, beliefs and baggage to your work and it will probably be a whole lot richer and more interesting for it.

By way of contrast, James Nicoll linked to what NASA thinks makes for good science fiction, fighting the cutting edge battles of the seventies.

Silver Princess, Golden Knight — Sharon Green

Cover of Silver Princess, Golden Knight

Silver Princess, Golden Knight
Sharon Green
342 pages
published in 1993

When I saw Silver Princess, Golden Knight in a second hand bookshop, it looked like a fun fantasy adventure romp, spiced up with a bit of romance to make it interesting. A quick scan of the first few pages seemed to confirm that impression. I’d never heard of Sharon Green, but it was on the strenght of this that I decided to buy this novel. It was only after I started reading it in earnest that I discovered what a piece of sexist crap it was. I can’t think of any other novel I’ve ever read which spends so much time undermining its own heroine, all but calling her a bitch at times for being so unreasonable as wanting to decide how to live her own life.

Princess Alexia (Alex for friends) has always been a disappointment to her parents. Strongwilled and disdainful of traditional womanly virtues, she instead has spent most of years out on the streets, having been taught how to fight by her father’s royal guard. After one ill thought out attempt to help those less fortunate than her, has landed herself in prison for horse theft, her exasperated father decides enough is enough and decides that she needs a man to keep her on the straight and narrow. What she thinks about this is immaterial, there’s going to be a contest for all unmarried individuals in the kingdom and she is going the prize for the winner. Alex however discovers a loophole in the competition rules and enters herself, to make sure she remains a free womam. Now had Sharon Green chosen to tell the story of how Alex out fought and out smarted her would be suitors that would’ve been awesome. But this isn’t that story.

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Can’t judge these books by their covers

Books wrapped in brown wrappers ready for a blind date at ABC

Here’s an interesting gimmick, from my local science fiction bookstore: books wrapped in brown paper, with only a couple of keywords to keep you guessing. Can you guess which books are hidden behind thes descriptions?

  • Fantasy, paranormal, suspense, Prague. Could be anything
  • Science-fiction, planet spanning shield, Earth is doomed, teleological engineering. Perhaps Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin?
  • Fantasy, Low Countries 1421, deluge of Biblical proportions, three conspirators. Dunno, but sounds interesting.
  • Fantasy, clash of civilisations, holy war, divided loyalties. Could be any epic fantasy novel
  • Fantasy, poker tournament, monsters and demons, underdog. ?
  • Fantasy, Mississippi, riverboat, pale gentleman. This could be George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream.

The Magician’s Guild — Trudi Canavan

Cover of The Magician's Guild

The Magician’s Guild
Trudi Canavan
465 pages
published in 2001

Trudi Canavan is an Austrialian fantasy writer who has been mostly writing epic fantasy trilogies and has become rather popular as a result. According to Wikipedia, her first series, The Black Magician Trilogy was ” the most successful debut fantasy series of the last 10 years”. The Magician’s Guildin the first book in that series as well as her debut novel, which I didn’t know when I picked it from the library to read. It was just that this was the only of her novels available that wasn’t part two or three of a trilogy when I decided to try and see if I would like her writing.

What also made me pick up this book in particular when skipping past seemingly similar fantasy books by other writers was the backcover blurb, which made it sounds like it was something more than the usual fantasy cliches in the usual medievaloid setting:

Each year the magicians of Imardin gather to purge the city streets of vagrants, urchins and miscreants. Masters of the disciplines of magic, they know nobody can oppose them. But their protective shield is not as impenetrable as they believe.

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Kari Sperring is fed up with the lack of attention to women writers in science fiction and fantasy and is doing something about it:

So, yesterday I decided to indulge in another round of that intermittent habit, poking the internet with a stick, but starting a hashtag — #womentoread — over on Twitter. I asked people to recommend sff by women. The response was astonishing: I’d hoped that some of my friends would pick it up, but… One of the very first to do so was Seanan Mcguire (Thank you, Seanan!) and it just took off.


But why now, exactly. I’ve done something like this before (last year with the fantasy by women thing). That’s part of it. I am an activist to my bones: it’s coded into me to try and do something when I see an injustice. And I know far too many really great women writers who are underrated, under-reviewed, under-recognised. I see male writers praised for doing things in books which women did before them, which women are doing as well as them — but the women are ignored and sidelined.

You can share the idea. You can write a review of a book by a woman. You can blog about a woman writer you admire. You can post a list of links to the websites of women writers you love. It doesn’t have to be ep;ic fantasy or even sff. It can be any genre. And then, please, go to twitter and tweet that link with the #womentoread hashtag. If you’re not on twitter, post the link here in the comments and I will tweet it for you.

Nina Allen took this idea and prepared a list of 101 women writers to read, which is a good start to look for new writers to try, as is James Nicoll’s list. This is not the first time of course that the lack of visibility of women in sf&f has come up; two years ago Nicola Griffith started the Russ pledge in a similar attempt to get more discussion of women sf&f writers going. Some people, like me, took her up on it but of course such grassroots attemps take time to perculate upwards. A new initiative like #womentoread may help get some more momentum behind the continuing struggle to get more attention to women.

What I want to do with this is not to set up my own list of women writers, but rather do some posts highlighting some of my favourite writers, perhaps on a weekly basis; I’m thinking Women Writers Wednesday. I’ve been trying to read more female writers in the past couple of years, but a bit more systemic attention won’t do any harm.

Anne McCaffrey again

Tom Spurgeon links to my review of Dragonquest and expands on it:

I think he’s right, but I actually think he undersells those core trilogies, which I think are pretty great for smart kids and teens. There are a bunch of reasons, including but not limited to: McCaffrey’s prose is ideally suited for younger readers, straight-forward and no-fuss; the plots are reasonably complex without being over-challenging in terms of adult themes, the Harper Hall trilogy is where I first discovered the boarding-school fantasy that the Harry Potter books utilize to even greater effect, and the good-guy/bad-guy elements are interesting in that the biggest threat is environmental rather than all-encompassing, directed evil. I was also fascinated by the fact that the two trilogies kind of wove in and out of each other, and by the concept of a civilization that declined rather than progressed. I’m very grateful to have read those books in my tweens.

All points I’d agree with, save perhaps for the declining civilisation; that’s the case in the first book, but by the second it’s clear there’s a renaissance of sorts going on.

Now I have to confess I’d actually never read the Harper Hall books, but by sheer coincidence I picked them up yesterday, meeting my father at Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein flea market. I just finished the first book, Dragonsong today; at less than 200 pages it’s not a long read. But my goodness, this was even more of a wish fulfilment story than the first Harry Potter book is. A girl on the edge of becoming an adult is denied her talent in making music, put down by her family and Hold, runs away and discovers that not only she’s able to impress more fire lizards than everybody else who ever tried, but has her musical gift recognised by the masterharper itself.

Dragonquest — Anne McCaffrey

Cover of Dragonquest

Anne McCaffrey
303 pages
published in 1968

Rereading Dragonflight/Dragonquest I realised something: Anne McCaffrey’s influence on modern fantasy is highly underrated. The Dragonriders of Pern after all was a bestselling series long before a Robert Jordan, J. K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer had even started writing, functioning as a gateway drug into fantasy and science fiction for a lot of young teenagers the way e.g. the Potter books do now. Yet she is rarely mentioned when we’re talking about the evolution of fantasy, with the potted histories of the genre usually starting with Tolkien, lightly touching on an Eddings or Brooks before getting to the fantasy boom of the nineties and beyond with Jordan, Goodkind, Rowling, Martin et all. Is it just because when the Pern books were first published fantasy was still science fiction’s poor cousin and they were therefore sold as sf?

Certainly the streamlining of genre history often has the side effect of erasing all the awkward, not quite fitting parts of it, in favour of a more teleological approach and too often these awkward fits are female pioneers like McCaffrey. More so than Tolkien she helped shape what modern epic fantasy looks like. The loner, young adult hero or heroine, in telepathic contact with his or her dragon, saviour of the world though looking extremely unlikely to be so at first, all taking place in a largely medivaloid world, that’s all McCaffrey. But there are differences with modern fantasy as well: her dragons were made by science, not magic.

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Faust Eric — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Eric

Faust Eric
Terry Pratchett
155 pages
published in 1990

Eric is a bit of an odd duck in the Discworld, out of place amongst the increasing sophistication of the last couple of novels coming before it, almost a throwback to the very first few books. It’s a lot shorter, a lot less serious and a lot more written for comedic effect than its immediate predecessors were. All of which can be explained by the simple fact that it was first published as an illustrated book, written around a series of Josh Kirby illustrations, which was later adapted into standard Discworld paperback format, losing most of its charm in the process.

A word about Josh Kirby is needed at this place. Kirby was of course the cover artist for all the Discworld novels up until his death, Thief of Time being his last novel. His work was incredibly caricatural in nature, with very exaggerated figures and bright colours, not really to everybody’s tastes. Some might have found it a bit childish even, but I always liked it. To me his covers were Discworld, especially the early novels when it wasn’t all taken that seriously yet even by Pratchett himself. Therefore it made perfect sense to do an illustrated Discworld story with his drawings, just like his replacement as cover artist, Paul Kidby, would do with The Last Hero.

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Guards! Guards! — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Guards! Guards!

Guards! Guards!
Terry Pratchett
317 pages
published in 1989

For me Guards! Guards! is the last novel you can describe as an early Discworld novel. From here on all the major subseries have appeared: Rincewind, Death, the Witches and now the Night Watch/Sam Vimes novels. It’s the first novel in which Ankh-Morpork becomes more than generic, somewhat over the top fantasy city, with the first extended cameo for the Patrician and the first insights in how he rules the city. Over time Ankh-Morpork and the Night Watch would come to dominate the Discworld series of course; every novel in the main series since The Fifth Elephant either set in Ankh-Morpolk or featuring the Watch or both, but of course we didn’t know that at the time. Back then it was just Pratchett taking the mickey out of yet another set of fantasy cliches.

In Guards! Guards!‘s case, he did that by importing another set of cliches, that of the hardboiled police procedural. Sam Vimes is a hero straight out of an Ian Rankin novel: the grizzled, older, cynical detective staying in the Night Watch because he has no other place to go. He remained in his post even as the watch has degenerated into a farce and he has become a captain of only three men: Fred Colon, a fat sergeant, Nobby Nobbs, a weassely corporal and a new dwarf recruit called Carrot Ironfoundersson.

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