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Monthly Archives: December 2020

Reading Summary, 2020

Possibly due to the plague, I read more books this year: 58, compared to 2019’s 39. Genre breakdown:

Fantasy: 28

Science Fiction: 9

Horror: 17

Historical Fiction: 1

Mystery: 0

General Fiction: 1

Nonfiction: 0

Mixed Genres: 2

My reading this year was more horror-heavy than it has been in previous years, possibly due to my joining a horror-focused book club. Despite the higher count overall, I didn’t manage to work in any nonfiction or mystery stories.

Favorite Book: The Empire of Gold, by S.A. Chakraborty. The conclusion to her Daevabad Trilogy brings this complex, fascinating story to a satisfying close. I would love to read more work set in this world.

Least Favorite Book: The Nightjar, by Deborah Hewitt. I really wanted to love this, because a world where nightjars act as psychopomps and one class of magic-users derive their powers from birds is totally my jam. But the main character lacked agency, and her relationship with one of the other characters wasn’t convincing.

“Dawnshard” and “Rhythm of War”, by Brandon Sanderson

For fans of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series, November provided a bit of a relief from the awfulness of 2020, with the release of not one, but two new entries. Dawnshard was originally planned as a novella but expanded to novel-length during the writing process. Rhythm of War is a 1200 page tome that continues the main SA storyline. These two stories will have to tide fans over until the release of the next book, which Sanderson recently announced that he expects to come in 2023.

My discussion of both books will include spoilers, so it may be best to skip this blog entry if you haven’t read them yet.

Dawnshard focuses on Rysn and Lopen as its main POV characters. They, along with a few others, have been sent on an expedition to the mysterious island of Aimia in search of the Oathgate and other artifacts rumored to be there. As SA readers may remember, Rysn was paralyzed from the waist down when she fell from one of the Reshi greatshells in Words of Radiance. Much of the book deals with Rysn’s efforts to adapt to her disability. Sanderson had expressed a desire to handle this topic in a sensitive and accurate way, and to this end consulted with a paraplegic acquaintance while writing. The general opinion of the fandom seems to be that he handled this successfully.

We also get to see a lot of Rysn’s skill as a negotiator in Dawnshard. While there is a battle scene, the true resolution of the book’s main conflict comes through her hammering out an agreement with the enigmatic Sleepless. This makes it different from most mainstream fantasy novels (and even from most of the other SA books), and it was a refreshing read.

Lopen also experiences substantial character growth in this story. In the main SA books, he’s often been a comic relief character, but Sanderson gives him more depth here. From his empathizing with Rysn regarding the way abled characters treat her as an object of pity, to the nature and circumstances of his achieving the Third Ideal, we see another side of The Lopen here.

There are also secondary characters aplenty. Sanderson made me really like Rushu and Cord, and one of my small disappointments with Rhythm of War is that we didn’t get to see more of them in that book.

Like the much shorter Dawnshard, RoW is a character-driven novel. Kaladin struggles with his depression and tries to figure out what role he wants to play in the Knights Radiant going forward. Navani finds herself embroiled in a psychological rivalry with one of the Fused. Venli reckons with her actions and seeks a new path. All of these character arcs are compelling. I especially loved the interactions between Navani and Raboniel. Kaladin essentially inventing the concept of therapy was also wonderful.

I did find that the middle part of the book dragged a bit. But when the “Sanderlanche” came, it was something to behold. There were moments both heartwrenching and heartwarming, with a truly jaw-dropping event at the end of the book. And of course, Sanderson has raised a lot of new questions to keep fans speculating and theorizing until the release of Book 5. I was initially a little skeptical about the idea that there are only ten days in-world until the climactic duel between Dalinar and Odium’s champions. It doesn’t seem like enough time to tie up the loose plot threads and further develop the major characters, but I trust that Sanderson will pull it off in a satisfying way.

And finally, storm Moash.

“The Old Storms” published at MetaStellar

I haven’t been doing as much short story work recently because I’ve been focusing on the first draft of a novel. But I have managed to get a few short pieces written, and I’m happy to have a story, “The Old Storms,” published in MetaStellar!

“The Saturday Night Ghost Club” by Craig Davidson

Under his pen name Nick Cutter, Craig Davidson is known for writing novels that incorporate a fair amount of gore and body horror. The Saturday Night Ghost Club is a very different kind of book, and the ability to venture so far outside his normal style while maintaining high quality output speaks to Davidson’s talent as a writer.

SNGC is very much a coming-of-age story. One summer, Jake’s uncle Calvin comes up with the idea for the titular club, which will investigate supposedly haunted locations around their town. The club also includes Billy and Dove Yellowbird, siblings who have recently arrived in town, and Calvin’s friend Lexington. As the summer progresses, it becomes clear that the secrets they’re uncovering may be more personal than Jake had expected. The novel’s greatest strength is in how well it captures the bittersweet feeling of growing up. Some of Jake’s experiences, like the over-the-moon elation of his crush on Dove, are unabashedly positive. Others, like the revelation of a dark secret in the past of someone he loves, are sorrowful and disillusioning. While some of the specific events are more dramatic than what the average teenager goes through, the overall atmosphere will be instantly familiar—and nostalgic—for any adult.

The other thing that impressed me about SNGC is how much Davidson manages to pack into such a short book, in terms of both plot and emotional content. At a bit over 200 pages, it would have been easy to have the plot feel rushed or the characters like cardboard cutouts. But the emergence of past secrets occurs gradually, and the development of the relationships between Jake and Billy and Jake and Dove feel natural. Calvin, Dove, and Jake’s father are all complex characters. And as for Jake himself, Davidson doesn’t shortchange the confusing mix of feelings that come along with adolescence. This was an engrossing story, and I’d love to see Davidson do more work in this vein.

“The Best of the Best Horror of the Year”, edited by Ellen Datlow

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Ellen Datlow is probably the best-known editor of short speculative fiction and certainly the best-known in the horror genre. In addition to her many other projects, she’s the editor of the long-running Best Horror of the Year series. In this retrospective volume from 2018, she collects selected stories from the first ten years of that anthology. Some of the authors represented herein are heavyweights of the genre, like Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell. Some have achieved renown in more recent years, like John Langan and Laird Barron. Still others, like Suzy McKee Charnas and Jane Jakeman, were unknown to me when I picked this book up. In bringing them together, Datlow has created a truly memorable horror anthology.

In her introduction, Datlow pushes back against the idea that the famous monsters of horror fiction—zombies, vampires, werewolves—are worn out. “There’s a reason these tropes/monsters don’t go away,” she says, and several of the stories collected here prove her right. I’m personally not a fan of zombie stories, but the zombie stories included in Best of the Best—Stephen Graham Jones’s “Chapter Six” and “Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski—were among my favorite stories in the book. The reason is simple: neither of those stories is really about the zombies. Similarly, Nathan Ballingrud’s “Wild Acre” is a lycanthrope story that isn’t really about the lycanthropes. Instead, these tales are about the relationships between living humans: the stress that financial hardship can put on families, the power dynamics between mentors and proteges, the way society moves on (or doesn’t) after a disaster, the human tendency to simplify other people into heroes or villains when they might really be both or neither.

Speculative fiction is at its best when it has something to say about the real world. Several of the stories in Best of the Best are standouts in this regard. Although the anthology was compiled in 2018, and the stories were written over a period of ten years prior to that, Suzy McKee Charnas’s “Lowland Sea” felt very timely, being a modern take on Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Cody Goodfellow’s “At the Riding School” deals with gender politics and coming to terms with dark secrets in one’s family history. Brian Hodge’s “This Stagnant Breath of Change” is another piece that feels highly relevant today, with its focus on a resistance to societal change by the wealthy and well-connected.

As one might expect from such an anthology, there were a number of other excellent stories. I had previously read Laird Barron’s “In a Cavern, In a Canyon” and was happy to read it again. I usually prefer supernatural horror, but Stephen Gallagher’s “Shepherds’ Business” was wonderful despite not including any spectral goings-on. Simon Bestwick’s “The Moraine” is a great creature horror story. Ramsey Campbell’s “The Callers” shows why he’s sometimes described as Britain’s answer to Stephen King. Finally, the book ends on a strong note with Carole Johnstone’s superb “Better You Believe,” which manages the impressive feat of making an old trope feel fresh. Overall, this is an exceptionally strong collection of horror short fiction, and it should be on every horror aficionado’s shelf.