Tag: Lord of the Rings

Review: Arcadia

Originally intended for digital publication, Iain Pears’ Arcadia is a novel of multiple strands. In its app format, you could apparently choose to follow any one of a dozen characters through a series of overlapping storylines and timelines. Since the technology is only available for Apple products and I’m an Android gal, I’m stuck with the 600-page dead-tree version for now.

What under one interpretation you might call the “main” storyline is set in 1960s Oxford, following an English professor, Henry Lytton, whose chief/only hobby is writing a fictional universe called Anterwold. Not writing any actual narratives, you understand; just creating the world, the society, the customs. This is a specifically Tolkienian brand of sub-creation: no language work, but an emphasis on Story as constitutive of all experience and knowledge. (Also. Sometimes I think the only reason fantasy authors write about 1960s Oxford is to geek out about Tolkien and Lewis.)

One day, Rosie, the 15-year-old girl who feeds Lytton’s cat, finds a glowing portal in his basement that leads to Anterwold, where she becomes caught up in the Story and has all sorts of pastoral woodland adventures. The glowing portal belongs to Lytton’s scatty colleague Angela Meerson; which is also the name of a scientist working in a far-future dystopian Britain on a technology that could allow people to access alternate worlds. Angela flees to Lytton’s world when her superiors become hell-bent on stealing her work from her and potentially destroying all of creation in the process.

There’s a lot going on here, and yet…it’s hard to sort out what Pears is actually doing with it all, beyond the tissue of metafictional and literary references that don’t seem to go anywhere. He touches a little on history and how we reckon with it (Anterwold reveres the Story but rejects learning from the present; Angela’s dystopian future locks its historical records in a warehouse and basically ignores them); on whether post-apocalypse is preferable to dystopia (an interesting line of argument, but one which feels alarmingly fascist, especially in the less-than-nuanced form it appears in here); on cause and effect and time (though this is mainly handwaving).

I think this is the root of what I found unsatisfactory about Arcadia: it engages with a fair amount of stuff but none of it substantially. Reviews seem to suggest that the app is doing more work structurally: following separate characters’ timelines means you experience events outside the sequence of cause and effect, because of the time travel and the interpenetration of the three worlds that’s going on. I see that! But…if your book only works as an app, then why bother publishing it as a traditional book at all?

(The answer most likely has something to do with the cultural privileging of print-based media over videogames and other forms of interactive narrative, even though linear books can’t do some of the work that interactive narrative can.)

In other words. If you’re an Apple user and can afford £3.99 for the app, go for it! Otherwise, no.

Review: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

You know what kind of book this is: the kind of book that’s shelved under “humour” or “novelty” or “gifts”; the kind of book they stack next to the checkouts in case of impulse purchase.

It’s fine. It took me about an hour to read, cover-to-cover. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this, exactly; somehow I thought it might be meatier, or have a more coherent narrative.

Instead, it’s a collection of one-liners and anecdotes about dealing with bookshop customers:

Customer: Do you have that book – I forget what it’s called; it’s about people with large, hairy feet.

Bookseller: Do you mean hobbits? The Lord of the Rings?

Customer: No…erm – The Hairy Bikers.

Some of them are funny; some of them are disturbing (the customer who, on being told that the LGBT+ fiction is shelved with the rest of the fiction, looks suspiciously at the book she’s holding and sidles out); some of them shed light on the troubles independent booksellers are facing (customers asking for recommendations and then buying on line; customers asking for discounts). It’s perhaps a little nose-tapping, especially when it comes to the latter issues: “well, of course that’s ridiculous and I wouldn’t do that,” says the wise reader, but the fact is lots of people are doing that, or these anecdotes wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Anyway. It’s a diverting enough read. Borrow it or give it as a gift; probably not worth buying it for yourself.

Review: The Monsters and the Critics

The Monsters and the Critics is a collection of lectures and essays by J.R.R. Tolkien, very loosely themed around linguistic topics – that is, they range from “English and Welsh” which looks in detail at the linguistic relationship between those two languages, to “On Fairy Stories”, the famous essay in which Tolkien talks about what a fairy story is and relates their power to the story of Christ.

It is, as you can imagine, not exactly a light read – even for someone who voluntarily re-reads The Lord of the Rings every year. And yet, it’s also not as dense or difficult as you’d expect from its age and Tolkien’s own tendency towards archaism: academic writing tends not to age well at all, and the lectures here were mostly given as early as the 1930s. But Tolkien-the-essayist is quite instructively different from Tolkien-the-novelist; or, rather, the voice of Tolkien-the-essayist has more in common with the voice of the narrator of The Hobbit rather than that of The Lord of the Rings. He has decided opinions, which he expresses through logical and above all lucid argument, sprinkled with colourful and/or poetic metaphors like this one, from the title essay “The Monsters and the Critics”:

it is of their nature that the jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgy wood of conjecture, flitting from one tum-tum tree to another. Noble animals, whose burbling is on occasion good to hear; but though their eyes of flame may sometimes prove searchlights, their range is short.

It is this wry, imaginative wit that makes Tolkien-the-essayist such a satisfying companion: it’s easy to follow his argument because he knows how to do rhetoric. And his arguments are worth following because they shed light on his more famous works of fiction: in particular, “The Monsters and the Critics” offers a reading of Beowulf as a poem in which “Defeat is the theme. Triumph over the foes of man’s precarious fortress is over, and we approach slowly and reluctantly the inevitable victory of death.” That is one of the themes of The Silmarillion, in which Morgoth the Dark Lord will never be fully defeated; and it’s a mood that informs The Lord of the Rings, too, with its emphasis on death and decay and the passing of magic.

It is, perhaps, a shame that we only read Tolkien’s non-fiction in the light of his fiction. His Old and Middle English scholarship has largely been discredited (although it was always a thrill as an undergraduate to come across a reference to his work in an academic text). I never studied Beowulf, opting for the alliterative delights of Early Middle English instead, so I don’t know if “The Monsters and the Critics” has anything to do with modern thinking on the poem – but for a reader of fantasy like me, it is a reading full of potential and imagination, opening Beowulf back out from an object of antiquarian study up into an actual poetic work with reservoirs of deep meaning. It’s a reading that can be built on, in other words, rather than one that aims to give a single prescriptive answer, and I’ve always found the first kind of criticism vastly more useful and enjoyable than the second kind. In fact, I wish more academic writing was like this: logical and rhetorical at the same time; inventive, poetic and persuasive; solidly supported by a deep familiarity with the material. This is how to do it, surely.

2018 Roundup

Behold, from deep in the Valley of the Christmas Holidays, a roundup post…

I’m going to try and post a bit more regularly in 2019. Starting next week, that is.

My Favourite Things of 2018

Book: The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The Stone Sky made me cry in Stansted Airport. The last book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, it is not a happy book. It is not one I’ll return to for comfort or reassurance. It is just stunningly good.

TV: Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum. I’ve been really terrible at reviewing TV on the blog this year: it’s basically just been Doctor Who. But what a series of Doctor Who! Tsuranga encapsulates everything I love about it. It is hopeful, inclusive and searching, a story that asks us to reimagine what Doctor Who is and what it’s for.

Film: Jupiter AscendingYeah, the film reviewing has fallen a bit by the wayside this year, too. And I’m pretty bad at seeing films, anyway. So let’s go with Jupiter Ascending, a film from the Wachowski sisters that is absolutely bizarre, utterly gorgeous to look at and contains Eddie Redmayne.

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 76 books in 2018 – ten short of my total of 86, dammit.
  • The longest book I read was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, which at 1069 pages is technically three novels in one, and probably one of my favourite books of 2018. Meanwhile, the shortest was Jorge Luis Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity, at a slim and forgettable 105 pages. Overall, I read 30,048 pages – unsurprisingly not quite as good as last year’s 30,893 (although, not that far off…)
  • The oldest book I read in 2018 was Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, published in 1841. The average age of the books I read in 2018 was 42, down from last year’s 44. (I’m pretty sure this average is dragged down quite a lot by my annual Tolkien reread.)
  • Genre: The genre split of my reading has shifted quite a lot this year – I relied much more on the local library than I have in previous years, and the SFF section only goes so far. So: 36% of my reading was fantasy, down from 45% last year; 21% was science fiction, the same as last year. 17% was lit fic, significantly up from 9% last year, and 12% was non-fiction, again significantly up from last year’s 6%. The rest was split between historical, contemporary, crime and humour (all the annoying interchangeable categories, in other words).
  • 9% of the books I read in 2018 were re-reads – down from last year’s 11%, which is great.
  • 53% of the books I read in 2018 were by women – up from last year’s disappointing 46%.
  • And 24% of the books I read in 2018 were by authors of colour, another increase on last year’s 18%.

Review: A Game of Thrones

A couple of years ago I watched the first season and a half of Game of Thrones, and stopped because it was too sexist. I had no plans to read G.R.R. Martin’s series of novels, but one day I found myself in the library and the first novel was there looking all shiny and new and…well.

I’ve never been a major fan of epic fantasy, but I enjoyed it. It scratched an itch, wallowing in this cod-medieval world for 800 pages. The tale of two warring houses, the honourable Starks in the frozen north and the morally defunct Lannisters in the south, in the fictional land of Westeros, it’s told in alternating chapters from the point of view of characters on both sides of the feud: nine of them, according to Wikipedia, which gives you an idea of the scale of this 800-page doorstopper.

It’s also, famously, grimdark. Martin has form for killing off major characters, describing death and ‘orrible injury in graphic detail, and generally having nasty things happen. (Content warning for rape and general gore.) Calling it a reaction to Tolkien is such an obvious reading that it’s practically a truism.

And yet: I’m interested in how meaning and story is working in this novel, and particularly working for its characters. Martin’s particularly at pains to undercut idealistic notions of battle and chivalry, not just through general grimdarkness but also, specifically, by having chivalric narratives fail for his characters. So we have a singer, Marillion (sadly not the 70s rock band), volunteering to accompany the noble Catelyn Stark on a journey so he can sing about the deeds of her party, and then hiding behind a rock as soon as they’re attacked. Or there’s 11-year-old Sansa Stark, whose naïve belief in the true love of a noble prince (just like in the songs) is shattered far, far too late for her to do anything about it. Or her sister, Arya, who loves the heroes of legend, but is prevented from following in their footsteps by her gender. (Although it is worth mentioning that there are female warriors in A Game of Thrones – not in major roles, and they are clearly out of the ordinary, but they exist, pretty much as they would have done in real life in the medieval period.) These are people failed by stories, who go out into the world with the wrong information because of them – and I think it’s fairly obvious that Martin wants us to draw an analogy between them and us. Tolkienian fantasy fails us by not preparing us for reality.

(Incidentally, I don’t agree with him: I’m re-reading Tolkien at the moment, as I do every year, and it seems to me to have a surprising amount of relevance to the current political situation. A naïve reading of The Lord of the Rings is not the only possible reading.)

For me, the most successful part of A Game of Thrones was the magic, which is in short but significant supply: a dream here, an incantation there. A motif of note is an unspecified threat from beyond the Wall, a colossal barrier of ice separating civilisation from the wilderness in the north. In Westeros, by (I assume) some quirk of astronomy, summers and winters are decades long, and the novel is set as the world runs down to winter again. There are whispers of the Long Night, the Others and the white walkers. It’s effective precisely because it’s undefined, because these things are mysteries. And because everyone in power is ignoring them.

I’ve been thinking recently about the link between magic and meaning: in modern fantasy, I think, magic is meaning made manifest. Magic is a way of making literal our place in the world, our agency and our significance. So, these characters’ lives may be nasty, brutish and short, but the presence of magic – by which I mean real magic, shadowy, suggestive, mystical, random, never glimpsed full-on – tells them that, nevertheless, they have a place in the world, that there is a purpose to things, rituals to be remembered and performed, that there is somehow a right thing to do.

That reassurance is, I think, something we’re increasingly lacking in the modern West, where rationality reigns and even our relationship to the seasons has been driven out by produce available on supermarket shelves all year round. Which is, perhaps, one reason why Martin’s work is so popular at the moment, despite (or even because of) its grimness and gore. Life is random and unfair, but it still matters what we do, what we choose. It means something.

Which feels, I guess, like Martin having his cake and eating it: ostensibly taking away the consolation of Tolkienian fantasy while leaving us with a premodern sense of significance and grandeur. I’m hoping to read at least the next book in the series, and I’d like to trace this idea further when I do.

Review: Spinning Silver

Like much of Naomi Novik’s work, Spinning Silver does some familiar things very well. It’s a sort of spiritual successor to Uprooted (which I loved, although others had some good points to make about the uncomfortable dynamics in its central romance), in that, like Uprooted, it expands fairy tale into something that’s much more emotionally and morally complex while leaving it recognisably, well, fairytale.

The fairy tale in question in Spinning Silver is “Rumpelstiltskin”. Novik begins her tale with Miryem, the daughter of a Jewish moneylender who’s kind to a fault. When she takes over the business, she becomes so successful that she boasts of being able to turn silver into gold. And she’s taken up on that boast by the king of the Staryk, a violent, ethereal race who live in a realm of eternal winter. She must change Staryk silver into gold three times in return for the king’s hand in marriage – and, it’s strongly implied, the safety of her family. The attention of the Staryk is a dangerous thing to have.

Meanwhile, we also have Irina, the daughter of a nobleman, who’s about to be married off to the demon-king Mirnatius to advance her father’s standing. With her life in imminent danger, she needs to learn politics really fast, as well as avoiding the murderous intentions of her demon lover every night.

And then we have Wanda, who works for Miryem’s family as a way of paying her abusive father’s debt off. Her efforts to escape him are aided by the voice of her dead mother, who communicates with her through a white tree behind her house.

As is maybe already obvious, Spinning Silver is a novel that carefully, deliberately avoids traditional fairy tale morality. These three women are not trapped by any curse or character defect; they’re trapped by toxic masculinity, by men who seek to control them for their own ends. Accordingly, their only hope of escape is not magic or purity of heart but agency.

This is where Novik’s typical attention to characterisation and the interplay of personal motives becomes important. Agency in Spinning Silver means not only acting for yourself, it also means becoming yourself; identifying your own priorities and values and red lines, as well as, crucially, who you want to align yourself with. Who your community is. It means not conforming to the story.

So Spinning Silver’s morality is not singular. Each of these women makes decisions where the “right” path is not obvious, or at least not obvious to us; they have their own priorities and values and red lines that inform everything they do. (In particular, I liked Novik’s handling of Miryem’s religion, with the proviso that I know very little about Judaism or Jewish culture: it informs her identity in a very fundamental way without limiting it.) They sometimes act in ways that we may disagree with, and their decisions and motives conflict with each other. That’s one of the things Spinning Silver does well: it frees up these women to be as complex and interesting as male characters are allowed to be. It gives them meaningful choices, and in doing so gives this old fairy tale real depth.

The second thing Spinning Silver does well is connected to how it preserves the particular magic of fairy tale, that specific narrative resonance that’s always so hard to put your finger on but that has something to do with threes and names and promises. The Staryk are, I’d say, the major fairytale presence in this novel (Mirnatius strikes me as a creature who comes more from high fantasy than fairy tale), and Novik puts work into making their culture genuinely different from the human one. Specifically, for the Staryk, lies are punishable by death, which has some interesting effects on how Miryem is treated by their king: the definition of “lies” includes “unfulfilled promises”, for instance. That makes the power of words very real – and fairy tales are all about the power of words, all those promises and vows and secret names. Miryem has to learn how to navigate this web of words, and fast, just as Irina has to learn to navigate court politics, and Wanda the treacherous waters of public opinion.

Spinning Silver, then, is a really lovely book, full of the resonance of fairy tale and myth without being choked by it. It’s not doing anything radical, perhaps. In fact, on a sentence level, reading it is much like reading The Lord of the Rings, only not sexist or racist or classist. And, for me, that’s enough.

The world I wanted wasn’t the world I lived in, and if I would do nothing until I could repair every terrible thing at once, I would do nothing forever.

My Ten Favourite Top Ten Posts

  1. Top Ten Characters Who Struggle. This was a great opportunity for me to write about a whole bunch of characters who have emotional or mental struggles that don’t (necessarily) end when the book does. For whom worry and trauma and stress and depression are ways of being, not monsters that can be magically overcome. And they still get to be heroes. They’re still worthy. They’re still awesome. It would be great to see more characters like these ones.
  2. Top Ten Books for Steampunks. Steampunk is one of my current fascinations. Mostly because I find long swooshy skirts and waistcoats and pocket-watches and dirigibles and the whole aesthetic of Victoriana really cool. And yes! I know steampunk is culturally reactionary and a little bit late capitalist and quite colonialist! I can’t help it. But it does also seem to me that there’s a rebellious undertone to steampunk, that it’s in some way pushing at our notions of Victorian England. And that’s the tension that draws my overthinking overanalysing brain right in.
  3. Top Ten Queer CharactersIt was pretty surprising how hard this list was to write: I feel I’ve read a lot of books with a queer sensibility, if that means anything, but I couldn’t think of that many queer characters. And I kept coming up with characters I’d read as queer who maybe canonically weren’t (Frodo and Sam, Sidra in A Closed and Common Orbit, Stanley’s daughter in Told by an Idiot). I’m pretty happy with the final result, though.
  4. Top Ten Bookish Things I’d Like to Own. I feature this one not so much because of the quality of the finished post, but because of how much fun I had writing it and doing the equivalent of window shopping on the Internet. (I never did buy that Gormenghast print.) Plus, Jay Johnstone.
  5. Top Ten Bookish Characters I’d Like to Cosplay. Googling cosplay pictures is never a bad thing. Also, ooh, I’m now re-considering Steerpike for Nine Worlds (and not only because I could potentially reuse bits of last year’s cosplay…)
  6. Top Ten Favourite Book Quotes. I wrote this, dear gods, four years ago, so I’m not particularly proud of my flippant style, but as for the quotes themselves? Good choices, 19-year-old me.
  7. Top Ten Dystopias; Or, True and Accurate Representations of Post-Trump America. Oh, I remember how angry and depressed I was when I wrote this just after the American elections. FUCKING TRUMP.
  8. Top Ten Bookish Emotional Moments, or, All the Feels. My list would maybe look a little different now, but I do still love all these passages. (Well. Perhaps not the Thomas Covenant one, which strikes me now as a bit, uh, overwritten. And not in a good way.) And these are the moments I read for, after all: moments of visceral, terrible-wonderful empathy.
  9. Top Ten Books for Halloween. I just…like all the books on this list? And I think it’s one of my more successful theme posts, partly because almost nothing on here is straight-up horror (I don’t have the stomach for that shit, thanks very much).
  10. Top Ten Reasons I Love Blogging. Because these are all still true. (Especially the explodey bit. I have however somehow managed to find some more people IRL who will listen politely to my rants though. And really what more could you ask for.)

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. The Dark Tower series – Stephen King. A Dark Tower TV series is already in the works, but given it’s associated with the decidedly lacklustre film I have basically no confidence it will be any good. The whole series is crying out to be televised, with a prestige TV budget: the battle of Jericho! Blaine the Mono and the waste lands! The desert, and the man in black. Roland of Gilead weeping. It would be fucking fantastic. Someone get it done, please. (I can’t believe there wouldn’t be an audience for it, given King’s readership.)
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. Does Peter Jackson do television? Yes, I know he made an unholy mess of The Hobbit (STILL NOT OVER IT), but The Silmarillion is another kind of beast altogether: properly epic and wonderful in the way the Lord of the Rings films are. It wouldn’t work as a film (please don’t do this, anyone, or I will cry) because there’s like a million characters and no overarching plot except for “everyone dies and everything is shit”, but it could make for beautiful TV.
  3. Lirael – Garth Nix. Only, I’m imagining like a version where Lirael stays in the Library and has magical monster-of-the-week adventures with the Disreputable Dog and gradually learns to make friends and accept herself and it would be wholesome and wonderful and full of books.
  4. Perdido Street StationChina Mieville. I know, I know, I wrote a whole post a couple of weeks ago about how Mieville doesn’t work on TV and it should never happen again, but on a purely superficial level I think New Crobuzon would be amazing on screen, if it was done properly. Plus, the novel has that sprawling Dickensian quality that would give a TV series time to explore the world properly while, y’know, having a plot.
  5. The Discworld series – Terry Pratchett. There was a series called The Watch that was happening a while ago. Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge claims it is still happening. I’m hoping a) that it does happen and b) that it is not shit. (The films are fairly shit, but it is pretty fun seeing Discworld come to life, however underfunded it is.)
  6. A Madness of Angels – Kate Griffin. This is another one that would work really well as a monster-of-the-week show, carried by its wise-cracking protagonist and BBC special effects that are dodgy enough to look a little bit real. (See also Doctor Who.)
  7. Soulless – Gail Carriger. Steampunk and vampires and werewolves, oh my! (Seriously, this book is obsessed by scenery. If anything was written for TV it’s this.)
  8. The Temeraire series – Naomi Novik. Temeraire is adorable, and the books are really fascinated by relationships in a way that I think would work well on TV. You could flesh out the arcs of some of the supporting characters, and it would be like Downton Abbey but with dragons. And naval battles.
  9. Night Film – Marisha Pessl. For obvious reasons, this would work well on screen: I mean, it’s literally about film. And you could translate some of the novel’s narrative tricks pretty well into TV. I can also see how a TV adaptation could be disastrous, though.
  10. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. It would be like The West Wing, except with climate change! And lord knows climate change could do with raising its profile.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Characters I’d Like to Check In With

  1. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. I don’t think Goldenhand really works as a novel, but it was so lovely seeing Lirael again (and her adorable awkward romance with Nick). She’s just one of those characters who I really, really want to see happy. She deserves it, after all.
  2. Meg Carpenter – Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas. I have so many questions. Does she finish her novel? Does she get together with Rowan? Does she ever have the big screaming relationship-ending argument with Christopher? (I don’t want a sequel, though. The novel is perfect as it is.)
  3. Blue Van Meer – Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. I love Blue. She knows so much and is so lost at the same time. What happens to her when she goes to university? Does she ever find out the truth about her father? (Answer: probably not.)
  4. Frodo Baggins – The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien. Well, OK, I just want to know what Valinor is like. And what a hobbit even does all day in paradise. Yes, I know these questions entirely miss the point. Oh, also, I would love to see Sam and Frodo’s reunion in Valinor, which I am sure would be lovely beyond words.
  5. Frank Vanderwal – Green Earth, Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson never really says anything about the results of Frank’s brain surgery, I think for thematic reasons – but I’d like to know if his decision-making improves, and how things go with Caroline. (Still shipping him with Diane, though.)
  6. Sei – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. I’d like to hear about all her adventures on the trains. Palimpsest is always a wonderful world to visit, in any case.
  7. The Marquess – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente. It’s possible the Marquess resurfaces in The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, the last of Valente’s Fairyland books. I haven’t read it yet. She has such a fascinating backstory that I hope we do see more of her.
  8. Breq – Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. We left Breq just as she was beginning to feel at home among her crew, just as she was starting to develop relationships. It would be lovely to check in with her a few years down the line, and see where those relationships have gone.
  9. Rosemary and Sissix – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. I’m shipping these two so hard. That is all.
  10. Nutt – Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett. I have a huge soft spot for Nutt, who is kind, clever and very dangerous. Watching him making friends and proving his worth is one of the highlights of the novel – plus, I want to know what becomes of him and Glenda.

(The prompt for this post comes from the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I Read in the Last Three Years

I’m…slightly surprised by the list I’ve ended up with for this. I’m not even sure why.

These are books I read for the first time in the last three years. Otherwise you’d end up with a list full of Tolkien, and that would be boring.

  1. Railsea – China Mieville. Why is Railsea my favourite book of the last three years? Trains, storytelling, late capitalism, salvagepunk, ginormous flesh-eating desert moles, and a transcendent, revelatory ending that’s as sharply funny as it is perfect. And the sense, so rare in fantasy, that Mieville knows exactly what he’s doing with every single frickin’ word he puts on the page.
  2. The Melancholy of Mechagirl – Catherynne Valente. I read pretty much all of this on a train. I still remember how I felt when I got off that train: utterly entranced, like all the world had turned to Fairyland when I wasn’t looking. I still think it’s kind of problematic that this is a collection of stories about Japan by a white American author. But what stories they are.
  3. Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente. Oh, there’s gonna be a lot of Valente in this list. Palimpsest is gorgeous, baroque, labyrinthine, heavy with meaning and Valente’s honey-dripping prose. And really fucking weird to describe to other people: “Well, it’s about a sexually-transmitted city…” I’m planning a Palimpsest cosplay for Nine Worlds this year. That’ll be a fun day.
  4. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. Like. I think I fell for Our Tragic Universe as hard and completely as I did because it was the right book at just exactly the right time: in this case, a break-up. Or the beginning of one. I read this on a train, too. Its quiet and somehow wholesome hope caught hold of me, and didn’t let go.
  5. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. This is still one of my comfort reads. It’s just so full of people being nice to each other and looking out for each other’s emotional needs and generally rubbing along together. It’s another one that gives me hope – for our future as a species.
  6. Radiance – Catherynne Valente. ALL THE VALENTE. I actually think Radiance is a bit…self-indulgent? All that postmodernism that doesn’t quite go anywhere new. But I’m very prepared to ignore that for Valente’s lush Art Deco worldbuilding, her brilliant, crazy version of Hollywood-in-space, her prose like gleaming treasure you want to hug to your heart and never let go.
  7. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. I read this so quickly I almost don’t remember it; I only have impressions left. The stories in this collection are welcoming, inclusive, fairy-tale tinged as all of Oyeyemi’s work is, laden with a potent, elegiac mixture of hope and sadness.
  8. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin. This. Is. Astonishing. And devastating. The reason it’s this low on my list is because it’s such a tough read: it has a lot to say about trauma, and oppression, and institutional abuse. But it’s a big deal in genre at the moment because it’s smart and inclusive and formally tricksy.
  9. God’s War – Kameron Hurley. “Nyx sold her womb between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.” That’s all.
  10. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I haven’t read any Saga for a while because of my local library’s terrible graphic novel section and I always feel unreasonably twitchy about paying £12.99 for 120 pages, but the art and the world and the characters. I’m going to have to get back into it, aren’t I.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s meme Top Ten Tuesday.)