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Books I read in 2019

Started: 2020-01-10 12:27:45

Submitted: 2020-01-13 00:08:13

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator reviews his reading list from 2019

2019 was a great year for speculative fiction. I spent the year reading through a bunch of great books; and now that the time has come for me (as an attending member of Worldcon in 2019 in Dublin) to submit my nominations for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, I'm going to walk through the list I read, sorted by author's name mostly because we shelved by author's name and I assembled this list by looking at our shelves to remind me what I read this year.)

(I'm not sure if we'll be attending Worldcon in New Zealand this year -- we have enough other things going on this year that it may be too much of a stretch to work it into our schedule. If we don't attend, I'll pick up a supporting membership so I can vote in the finals.)

Convention Centre Dublin model in Lego
Convention Centre Dublin model in Lego

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde: Jasper Fforde writes alternate-history fantasy set in England or Wales with world-building that sets up small but significant changes in the way the world works. He's best-known for his literary-fantasy Thursday Next series starting with The Eyre Affair. Here modern humans live in an ice age where humans have evolved to hibernate in the winter -- but society doesn't fully shut down over the winter so some people have to stay awake all winter long, to keep the hibernation equipment running. The people who stay awake during the winter tend to be misfits -- including our protagonist, a young man who has to figure out his place in society as he's trying to survive the winter and uncover a series of nested conspiracies. I enjoyed the book; it lacks the over humor Fforde included in his other work but keeps the author's sardonic sense of humor, here bent into a nihilistic gallows humor as the winter threatens to destroy everyone. This book was published in the UK in 2018 and in the US in 2019. Kiesa bought the UK edition last year, but I didn't get around to reading it until this year -- so I'm counting it on the list of books I read during the year.

Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey: I wanted to like this book more than I did, especially after meeting the author at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. The setting was interesting, a non-magical detective called in to investigate an incident at a magical prep school (obviously inspired by another popular magical high school in pop culture but with the serial numbers filed off, and moved to Northern California). The protagonist has to navigate her own antipathy towards magic, a plot device I found compelling, as she navigates high school politics, both between the students and the faculty. But the ending (and the resolution to the mystery that frames the central plot of the book) was too bleak for me. (It's not that I expect happy endings all the time, but I was hoping for an ending that wasn't quite so bleak, even if that's what probably would have happened with characters this flawed.)

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley: This book is a brilliant queer time-traveling Starship Troopers for the twenty-first century. (I'd suggest putting that quote as a cover blurb, except no one cares about my review.) It follows a soldier who enlists after a cataclysmic attack destroys her city. But as soon as she starts to teleport into battle she begins accidentally time-traveling; every time she drops she has to figure out where in the timeline she is, and enlist support from people along the way without giving too much away. (It's almost complicated enough that I wanted a spoiler chart of all of the jumps.) This is on my short list of nominations.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie: I was, I confess, bemused when this book launched in January, eleven months before the end of the year, making it less likely it'll be fresh in the minds of readers like me when we make their end-of-year lists. Though, to be fair, Ann Leckie already has a Hugo Award rocketship, so she doesn't necessarily need another, though this book arguably deserves one. This is a second-world fantasy, told from an unusual perspective (whose precise nature is kind of a spoiler so I won't discuss it here). The narrator, though, isn't the main character; most of the story is told in the second person, an interesting device that makes it easier (in the English language) to avoid attaching a grammatical gender to the protagonist. I enjoyed reading this book, and it's on my short list of nominations.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: I loved this book, the story of an ambassador of a small independent station on the edge of a interstellar empire. I was fascinated by the book, from the view of people who are just outside the empire and have not (yet) been subsumed by the growing empire -- with culture and linguistics and imperial protocol and intrigue thrown in. It's on my short list of nominations.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir: This is queer goth-punk horror, which is not really my thing, but it was so totally exuberantly fun that I couldn't help but enjoy it.

A Very Scalzi Christmas by John Scalzi: This was an amusing collection of (mostly humorous) Christmas-themed short stories, some of them written in the format of interviews with various people involved in Santa's enterprises. I bought the limited-edition hard-copy for Kiesa for Christmas, then read the entire (short) book while waiting for my plane to depart Seattle for Palm Springs (in which we taxied to the end of the runway, then the plane developed a maintenance issue and sat running its engines at speed (with the brakes set) before taxiing back to the maintenance ramp, where one or more humans visually inspected the engine before giving us the all-clear to depart).

The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross: This book, the latest in the long-running Laundry series, was published in 2018, but I didn't get around to reading it until this year. I continue to be amused/terrified to read what Stross thinks would happen in international relations if incomprehensible monsters from beyond space-time could be summoned by applied computational deamonology (which forced a rewrite of an earlier book when Brexit exposed the depths to which real-world British politicians stoop if they thought they could get a short-term advantage from it).

Through Firey Trials by David Weber: This book is another entry in a long-running series that was also published in 2018 which I also didn't start reading until the last week of 2019. (In fact, I started reading it while waiting on the tarmac to leave Seattle for Denver to go skiing two days before New Year's.) This book continues the Safehold series, showing the aftermath of the global Jihad. It covers more ground than the previous books in the series (and is even more of a doorstop as a result), but I couldn't help but think that its reach had exceeded its grasp as some plots were ignored for years. I found some plots boring and repetitive: the breakdown of the economy, the creation and dissolution of a central bank, and the eventual election of what I think is supposed to be a populist fascist regime in Siddamark were long and plodding; it seemed to be entirely scene-setting for a confrontation that never took place. Weber shines when he writes about military strategy and tactics, and the technological advances that change the calculations of war (and the manufacturing and supply chain that puts weapons in the hands of soldiers where they will actually have an impact on the battlefield); here he delves into economics, which doesn't go as well for his plot. The peasant revolt in Harchong, and the various warlords that emerged in the power vacuum, could have been the core plot of a very interesting book, but it got short-changed in favor of everything else happening on the planet. I feel like the book could have been at least 25% shorter without missing much of anything important. (It also seemed to me that this book had more sexual violence than previous books. Earlier books, I think, alluded to the possibility while armies were invading in various directions and the social order was breaking down; but this book made it a plot point, though the violence was always off-camera.)

Sun setting over Puget Sound
Sun setting over Puget Sound

2019 was a good year for speculative fiction. I'm looking forward to seeing the Hugo Award nominations this year, and to reading more great books in 2020.