It’s that time of year again – the proliferation of the best of lists. Here I am, contributing my own – and posting on this blog for the first time in over a year, whoops.
Without further ado, let’s get to the list. Feel free to argue with me in the comments – by all means, suggest books I missed. I’m always happy to take more recommendations, and I’m never afraid to read backlist (though funnily enough, most of my best books this year were actually new releases).
The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
This book has been on my to-read list for a very long time – it was one of the earliest things I added to my Goodreads Want to Read shelf. I don’t remember why I did it – maybe it was recommended to me back in the day, or maybe I just saw it and thought it looked interesting, or maybe I knew that Guy Gavriel Kay was a big-ish name author that I “should” read. At any rate, it took me about four years to get around to reading it.
And it was not only one of the stand-out books of my year, it’s a stand-out book in my reading period. The setting – which is more or less “renamed Spain during the era of the Grenada War” – was one I hadn’t seen done before, but what really sold me on this one was a combination of the prose – which was beautiful – and the delicately drawn relationship between the three main characters: Jehane bat Ishak, Ammar ibn Khairan, and Rodrigo Belmonte.
Also, as Wikipedia puts it on their page for the book, it “contains a large amount of political intrigue and religious strife” – and we all know how I feel about those things in my literature. (They’re good.)
The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder
This book could legitimately be called “terrifying” – it was also really, really, good. I read it in conjunction with/in close proximity to Black Earth, which I also recommend, but this one is much more contemporarily focused. Specifically, it looks at the rise of totalitarianism in Russia and the United States through approaches to history – what he calls the shift from “politics of inevitability” to “politics of eternity.” He goes through the Russian invasion of Ukraine and tactics of propaganda, analyzing the philosophical history of the shift in Russian political thought after the Cold War, and examines how in America particularly the politics of inevitability can easily give way to politics of eternity. To wit:
Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.
It’s a smart and highly readable history of the present. You can read an adapted extract from the book itself here.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
This was another book that blew me away.
Myth retellings are a dime a dozen and I have to say I generally find myself disappointed. Particularly, unfortunately, the “myth retellings from a female point of view” genre – with very few exceptions, I’ve overall found them either frustrating or just uninspiring. The Silence of the Girls blew me out of the water. I found myself rereading quotes. I was sucked in, unable to look away – it’s a book that truly doesn’t flinch from the hideous reality of women in war, without being gratuitous or voyeuristic. It makes very clear the position of the women like Briseis who appear in the Iliad as pawns and tokens, moved back and forth by men without voices of their own. It is just…a well-written and incredibly powerful piece of literature that takes on familiar territory and gives it new skin to tell a wholly different story.
Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy – I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.
Pat Barker doesn’t pull her punches, and she shouldn’t. This is truly an exemplary book, and one I’m going to hold all Iliad retellings up to from this point forward.
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
I was wondering going into this book how Robert Jackson Bennett could possibly live up to, for me, the Divine Cities series (which shot into the ranks of my favorite books of all time, and hit several very specific preferred thematic nails of mine right on the head. I wasn’t sure about this book initially, but when I hit my stride with it it happened fast and didn’t stop, and once again Bennett combined a number of themes I will always love – power, oppression, colonialism, and a fascinating type of magic I only expect to become more interesting as the series progresses (as it’s only just begun to become clear how it works).
In short, Bennett absolutely has not lost his touch.
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee
Trilogies are hard, and when you start out of the gate with something as incredible as Ninefox Gambit then you’re going to potentially have a rough time finishing strong. But boy did Yoon Ha Lee finish strong and come for me, personally. This whole series was fantastic, and while I think the second book might be my favorite, this one also hit me like a punch. Imaginative, complex, thematically intricate and just…really stellar science fiction. And I don’t read science fiction that often – I’m a pretty hard sell on it.
But damn did Yoon Ha Lee bring his A-game. Remarkable.
Jade City by Fonda Lee
I’m always on the lookout for fantasy with new and interesting settings, and Jade City definitely delivered on that front – and on the front of premise and characters and plot. It surprised me several times with the turns it took – it’s a mixture of a book about fantasy and magic, family and loyalty, and the vagaries of power and politics. I plowed through this book almost without stopping – it’s propulsive and exciting but there’s also so much interesting world-building going on, global and local politics, and of course complicated family relationships.
I’m very excited for the sequel for this one coming next year, and I’m going to be watching closely what Fonda Lee does from here on out.
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
Much like retellings of the Illiad, retellings of folk/fairy tales are very touch and go for me, and yet something I constantly seek out. I was optimistic about this one due to the fact that I loved Uprooted, and had it recommended multiple times by trusted sources – and yet it still astonished me and swept me away. The best of Naomi Novik’s works yet.
This was a book that confounded my expectations in all of the best ways. Set in an Eastern European inspired setting, in a vaguely pre-modern time, this book is (very) loosely a retelling of the Rumplestiltskin story – but that really doesn’t do it credit.
I loved everyone in this book by the end of it. The texture of it was perfectly folktale-like without feeling constricted to that model, the characters were nuanced and complicated and infinitely sympathetic (even when you didn’t expect them to be), and the threads of the stories of the three main female characters (and one male POV character I was, unsurprisingly, deeply fond of) were beautifully drawn together. What a lovely, remarkable, work of storytelling.
Also, it’s always fun to have surprise Jewish characters turn up in my fantasy lit. (In two books on this list! Exciting.)
Denial: Holocaust History on Trial by Deborah Lipstadt
In the current political climate, this was a damn satisfying book to read – it is the account of the libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt for calling British “historian” David Irving a Holocaust denier (he was) in her book on Holocaust denial. It’s not only an engaging account of a legal challenge (and I admit I am a sucker for a good trial story), but also meticulously takes apart the supposed “evidence” of Holocaust deniers to dismantle some of the common myths that are perpetuated by historians like Irving (including the idea that Hitler didn’t know about the death camps, for instance). It was at times a difficult read – Lipstadt goes into some detail about the functioning of the death camps themselves and how the murder of Holocaust victims was executed – but the history of it, and the ultimate ruling in Lipstadt’s favor, were a resounding rebuke to historians like Irving.
Basically: not just a compelling read in terms of writing and narrative, but also a thorough history and argument against Holocaust denial historians. I really should read the book that spurred the trial in the first place (Denying the Holocaust) – I’m always here for historiography.
Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution by Menno Schilthuizen
This was one of those books where I learned so much while reading it that I kept bringing it up to people in conversation: “did you know that pigeons in cities tend to have darker feather pigmentation because it helps them better process heavy metal pollution?” and so on. It was fascinating, accessibly written, and introduced me to a subject I was vaguely familiar with (urban ecology) while making me want to learn a lot more about it.
That’s exactly what a nonfiction book should do, as far as I’m concerned, and this book’s thesis about the relationship between man and nature, and the future of urban ecology/what goals of urban planning should be with respect to the environment, were as interesting as the subject itself.
The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
The Traitor Baru Cormorant set a very high standard to follow, and while The Monster Baru Cormorant didn’t quite hit it for me, it was an immensely satisfying book in its own right and a devastating sequel, setting up what promises to be an explosive conflagration of a conclusion. The introduction of new characters alongside Baru, questions of responsibility to others and to oneself, and the continued exploration of at what point ends do or do not justify means – as well as the expansion of the world and setting itself, continue to show what makes Seth Dickinson one of my favorite writers currently working.
I can’t wait to see where we go from here.
That’s what I have for this year. Looking forward to next year and a brand new reading list – some old books, some new, probably some rereads (here’s looking at you, Lymond Chronicles). As far as new releases, I’m especially looking forward to The Peoples’ Future of the United States, The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie, Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone, and more…and maybe this will be the year for The Iron Season by Helene Wecker?
See you in 2019.