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Monthly Archives: December 2018

Reading Summary, 2018

I’ve read 40 books this year, down from last year’s total of 59. Fewer were novellas, and one, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s Big Book of Science Fiction, was over 1000 pages long. Here’s the genre breakdown:

Fantasy: 20

Science Fiction: 9

Horror: 6

Historical Fiction: 1

Mystery: 1

Mixed Genres: 2

Other: 1

Fantasy was definitely the dominant genre this year, and I didn’t read as much horror as I have in the past. I read more sci-fi than usual but no nonfiction at all. In general, I strongly prefer fiction for recreational reading, but I usually try to read at least one interesting nonfiction book a year, so I’m going to try to get back to that tradition in 2019.

Favorite book: Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. As with her previous standalone novel, Uprooted, Novik’s new offering just blew me away. It’s almost certain to be at the top of my Hugo nomination ballot. Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside and S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass were top contenders as well.

Least favorite book: Jewel of the Heart, by Matthew Hughes. As with previous years, it wasn’t that this novella (published in Fantasy and Science Fiction) was bad. It just felt a bit generic compared to some of the other outstanding books I read this year.

“Foundryside” by Robert Jackson Bennett

By now, every seasoned reader of fantasy is familiar with the pseudo-medieval setting common to epic fantasy and the modern setting of urban fantasy. Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside takes place in a world between these two extremes. Magic itself has been industrialized, with factories (called foundries) churning out items that have been “scrived” for magical operation. There are magical streetlamps and thaumaturgical horseless carriages. And yet, it doesn’t quite feel like steampunk either. The unique flavor of the setting immersed me in the story from the get-go.

Bennett quickly makes the reader fall in love with his characters. The primary drivers of the story are Sancia, a thief who starts to suspect that her latest prize is far more than it appears, and Gregor, the scion of a wealthy merchant house who’s determined to bring some semblance of justice to his corrupt city. Both have some intriguing mysteries in their background, and one can see how their life experiences have shaped their outlooks and behavior. The secondary characters, who include a perpetually cranky researcher, his clever assistant, and a pair of disenfranchised would-be scrivers, are compelling as well. The only misstep here is with the voice chosen for a character who is implied to be ancient, since he speaks with a very modern cadence and vocabulary.

As with the best sci-fi and fantasy, Foundryside examines issues relevant to the real world. Four merchant houses have a stranglehold on the scriving industry. Because of the power in scrived devices and the importance of scriving to the city’s infrastructure, their control of the industry gives them control over society as a whole. There’s a clear allegory here to the outsized influence wielded by major corporations. Colonialism also becomes a major theme later in the book, as we learn more about one character’s past.

Foundryside is the first book in a trilogy. While it sets up the important conflicts for the next book, as well as a new mystery, it doesn’t leave the reader completely without resolution. There’s a satisfying climax and denouement that allowed me to feel like the first chapter in the story, at least, was finished. And it left me looking forward to the next one.

“The City of Brass” by S.A. Chakraborty

In S.A. Chakraborty’s debut novel, a young woman in 1700s Cairo accidentally summons a djinn. After getting over the initial shock that supernatural beings exist, she’s faced with one more: she herself has djinn blood. The last descendant of a line of powerful healers long believed extinct, Nahri finds herself drawn into an escalating political conflict in the djinn city of Daevabad.

The worldbuilding in City of Brass is wonderfully rich. Aside from the different tribes of djinn, there are other sapient beings inspired by Arab/Middle Eastern folklore: ifrit, peri, and marids. The different groups living in Daevabad each have their own culture, which makes the city truly feel like a bustling metropolis. The setting has a long and complex history, with the consequences of major events still being felt today.

This complexity extends to the political situation in which Nahri finds herself embroiled. The ethnic group of djinn to which Nahri and her family belong (the Daevas) once fought a war against the group currently ruling Daevabad (the Geziri). As tends to happen in long conflicts, both sides committed atrocities against each other at various points, such that both groups now have completely legitimate grievances. This sets up a situation in which there isn’t a clear good side and bad side.

The love triangle that emerges between Nahri, the Geziri crown prince Alizayd, and the legendary Daeva warrior Darayavahoush was also engaging. The two men are very different, but Chakraborty makes it understandable why Nahri would fall for each of them. Moreover, their antagonism towards each other puts Nahri in a difficult situation, and I was drawn into her attempts to reconcile two people that she cares deeply about.

City of Brass is the first book in a trilogy, and the end of the novel sets up a compelling cliffhanger. The second installment, The Kingdom of Copper, is due out in January 2019, and I can’t wait.

“The Tropic of Serpents” by Marie Brennan

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Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons introduced us to Isabella, a woman living in a society that resembles Victorian England and who rises to become the world’s premier expert on dragons. The Tropic of Serpents broadens this setting, taking the reader to new lands inhabited by new cultures of humans and new species of dragons. And as in the first installment, it’s not clear which one is more dangerous.

The characters spend much of this book in a tropical swamp—an uncomfortable and often dangerous environment, but one also bursting with life. Brennan vividly renders this setting with a host of detailed descriptions. She brings to bear not only visual imagery, but auditory, olfactory, and tactile details as well. Her writing style in these passages creates a wonderful sense of immersion for the reader.

The Tropic of Serpents also deepens the relationships between the characters. Isabella and Tom Wilker got off on the wrong foot in the previous book. While they don’t start off actively antagonistic here, there are still underlying conflicts and resentments that take time to work through. We also see Isabella developing a closer friendship with Natalie.

The end of the novel gives a tantalizing hint of where the next book, The Voyage of the Basilisk, might take us. I’m looking forward to the journey!