Thank you to everyone who attended our 4th Annual New Year, New Books meeting! As always, we enjoyed the hospitality (and the private room!) at The Celtic Knot, and got a rousing new list of recommendations from our fellow sci-fi/fantasy fans! Below are everyone’s recommendations for your reference, and I’ll also link to them in our Goodreads group and Facebook group.
Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo – This book is weird, but good. The premise is that the eight original secret societies of Yale are all involved in magic, and a ninth house watches over them. The heroine, Galaxy “Alex” Stern, is an outsider who doesn’t fit in, but has been recruited for her supernatural skills. It’s a dark, weird, messed up urban fantasy, but compulsively readable. (Lorena adds: it really gets interesting when the heroine gets MAD. Then, hold on to your hats!)
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire – Another strange but enjoyable story. It’s a standalone book, so you don’t have to commit to a series. The story focuses on alchemy in the modern world. It’s best if you don’t know a lot going in, and definitely merits a reread after you have gone through it once!
Laughter at the Academy, by Seanan McGuire – A book of McGuire’s short stories, which are all delightful and fascinating. They all leave you wanting more!
Robert is a fan of hard science fiction, and really enjoys the works of Iain Banks. In looking for similar books, he found the following to recommend:
The Bohr Maker, by Linda Nagata – This is the first book in a “nanopunk” trilogy, about genetic engineering and changing your body. There is also a second, related trilogy. The author is self-published, and also does military SF. The books all do amazing stuff with technology.
The Expanse series, by James S. A. Corey (starting with Leviathan Wakes) – There are 9 books in the series so far, and the TV series is also good. Although there are some changes between the books and show, the author is one of the executive producers, so the changes work (and must be approved)!
Invisible planets : Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu, particularly the story Folding Beijing, by Hao Jingfang (also available online here).
Robert also recommends the works of Gene Wolfe.
Tom, whose well-written and pun-filled presentation I cannot hope to do justice to here, recommends some works by Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis:
During Tom’s undergrad years, there was a wave of fantasy releases, which included Tolkien, but also C.S. Lewis, and the Conan the Barbarian books. He recently saw the one-man show “An Evening with C. S. Lewis,” where he learned about The Screwtape Letters, which sold well in America. Lewis also wrote the Space trilogy, which Tom is recommending now. The three books in the trilogy are Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Of the three, the last is the most rich and complex, but you need the backstory to appreciate it. The premise of the trilogy is that Earth is under control by interdimensional alien forces – some of which are the “gods” behind the old Greek & Roman myths. Arthurian legends also come into play. The aliens work through humans to pursue their own ends. It’s literary and literate, with nicely developed characters. Very British in character (written in 1943), and, as is typical with Lewis, his Christian theology shows through.
Undeterred by last year’s…vigorous…group discussion of Rendezvous With Rama, Tom is also recommending another Arthur C. Clarke book – Childhood’s End. This is hardcore sci-fi, where science drives the story throughout. This book comes from period when Clarke was interested in the paranormal, and there is a lot of sociology and psychology as part of theplot. It takes place in an alternate “future” (as viewed from the time of its writing, in 1953), where the US and USSR are in conflict over the space race, but alien spaceships show up and forestall the earthly competition. The aliens have a hidden agenda, and are functionaries of another power. They show particular interested in human stories of the occult. The book has Clarke’s typical writing style – short, crisp sentences, and short chapters ending with cliffhangers. The Syfy Channel did a production of this book in 2015, which Tom thinks is not very good.
Linda has spent the past few months immersed in the works of Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant since we read Into the Drowning Deep in September and Rosemary and Rue in October. She agrees that the Toby Daye books get better and better! She also read the Newsflesh series (which deals with zombies) and the Parasitology trilogy, and thought both were great. She’s still working on the Incryptid series, which changes protagonist every few books, which is not her preference. There’s still lots more! (Several members of the group enthusiastically recommended that Linda try the Wayward Children series next…the fifth book in the series was just released!)
Linda also recommends The Alchemist trilogy by Dave Duncan. Duncan is very prolific, and has written a lot. These three books (The Alchemist’s Apprentice, The Alchemist’s Code, and The Alchemist’s Pursuit) feature the same protagonist in the same setting – 16th century Venice – and the protagonist is apprenticed to Nostradamus. The genre could be described as historical mystery with some magic in it. While the history isn’t forced on you, you can’t help but learn something! In addition to the interesting history, mystery is also strong element in each book. They are well-written, drawing you in and pulling you along! Trigger warning for a little bit of torture (but not TOO much or too graphic). The magic element is subtle, and the predictions of Nostradamus are tied into the plot.
Lorena can’t help but tag along after Linda, and recommends all the works of Dave Duncan, who is one of her favorite authors! She particularly likes The King’s Blades series, the A Man Of His Word series, and The Enchanter General series that Duncan was working on at the time of his death, in 2018.
In addition, Lorena is recommending The Seventh Bride, by T. Kingfisher (who writes children’s books and graphic novels under the name Ursula Vernon)
The heroine of the book, Rhea, is a miller’s daughter of low birth, so she is understandably surprised when a mysterious nobleman, Lord Crevan, shows up on her doorstep and proposes marriage. Since commoners don’t turn down lords—no matter how sinister they may seem—Rhea is forced to agree to the engagement.
Lorena’s review: “I am agog at how good this book is. For one thing, a retelling of the Bluebeard fairytale has NO RIGHT to be this…funny? And yet it is, despite the obvious elements of horror (which are appropriately chilling and creepy). The writing was just genius. I loved every minute of it.”
T. Kingfisher has a number of other books out, including 2019’s The Twisted Ones, which is on a number of best of 2019 lists. Also check out her webcomic Digger, which won the Hugo for best graphic story in 2012, and is available free online. If you follow Ursula Vernon on Twitter, you also get the pleasure of following along with her occasional Twitter comic The Nameless Sheep.
Lorena also recommends Juliet Marillier, a New Zealand author who writes primarily Celtic fantasy. In particular, Lorena likes The Bridei Chronicles, starting with The Dark Mirror, and the Sevenwaters series, starting with Daughter of the Forest. Sevenwaters follows several generations of an Irish family, steeped in Irish mythology, while Bridei follows a king of the Picts, the original inhabitants of Scotland. Daughter of the Forest is a take on the story of the Six Swans, and the writing is moving and lyrical (although: trigger warning for sexual assault). The Dark Mirror is the story of Bridei, a young nobleman raised in a druidic household, and of Tuala, the foundling child (who may be a changeling) who may upset all the druid’s plans for Bridei’s future. While The Dark Mirror is a very good book, I would say it is best as a set up for the following two books in the series, which are spectacular, so read on until at least book two to get a real sense of where things are going! I would compare Marillier’s writing to that of Lois McMaster Bujold, Jacqueline Carey, or Guy Gavriel Kay, so if you are a fan of any of those authors, check her out!
Finally, in terms of books published in 2019, Lorena recommends Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsin Muir. This was a great deal of fun and a hell of a ride. To the typical “it’s lesbian necromancers! In space!” tagline, I would add “crossed with an Agatha Christie locked room mystery! And emotional gut punches! And all kinds of insanity you are not expecting!” It kept me up late because I had to finish it, and as we know, I am old and don’t do that much anymore.
Niki has a blanket recommendation for Ursula K. Le Guin. The recent “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin” documentary on her is well done, also (and can be streamed on various services). In particular, Niki recommends The Left Hand of Darkness, but also her two volume short story collection (The Unreal & The Real, Volume One and Volume Two) are full of lots of intriguing stories and thought experiments. Standout stories include The Wild Girls, about sisters trying to survive in a difficult situation, and Nine Lives, about a series of related clones who go to mining planet and get killed off. It explores what happens when you go from being a collective person to an individual, and has enough ideas to be a full novel.
Niki also recommends the novella Paradises Lost, in Le Guin’s collection The Found and The Lost. It’s a generation ship story about people who all choose to be the first to try a new type of space travel that bends time and space. No one is sure what reality is anymore, and each character’s perspective is different and gets progressively weirder. It’s like picking Le Guin’s brain!
(Speaking of clones…Dan recommends The Pharaoh Contract, by Ray Aldridge, which has a different take on the topic.)
Howard likes a lot of cyberpunk and military SF. He recommends the author David Drake, a Vietnam war vet who has a very realistic take on what war is like. Drake is known for the Hammer’s Slammers series. Drake was also a classical studies major, and the second book in the series, Cross the Stars is a retelling of the Odyssey, and book eight, The Voyage , is a retelling of Jason & the Argonauts. (You can get these two books as a duo, in a volume called Voyage Across the Stars).
Howard also likes Thin Air, by Richard K. Morgan (the author of Altered Carbon). It’s dystopian, hardboiled cyberpunk, about a corporate enforcer brought into an investigation on Mars, and the corruption he finds there. Howard is also excited for the new William Gibson book, Agency (coming out January 21!).
Evelyn came in support of Dan, and likes to listen to audiobooks and watch movies. She recommends the streaming service MHz, BritBox, and Criterion. [Note from Lorena: The Criterion Collection is available to stream for free for all Evanston Public Library card holders through Kanopy!]
Dan likes science fiction stories that make you think, and appreciates the incredible imaginations of science fiction & fantasy writers! He likes books where the names and language add layers of meaning to the story. One book that sticks in his mind is Foundling, by D. M. Cornish, which is the first in the Monster Blood Tattoo series. Cornish is also an illustrator, and does all of the drawings for his books, so the print versions are recommended to get the full impact of the artwork. The worldbuilding is unique and amazing, and compares favorably with Tolkein, Pullman, or Pratchett. The books are incredible and deserve more attention!
He also likes the works of Lindsay Buroker, who writes fantasy, space opera, and sci-fi romance. The protagonists of her books are almost always women, but the guys are not jerks.
Dan also recommends The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski, the Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold, and the books of Terry Pratchett (of whom he says “you would want this author to be your friend).
Luke also enjoys the Monster Blood Tattoo books, particularly Lamplighter, the second book in the series, which features multiple layers of maps.
Luke recommends Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City, in which the main character is a bridge builder trapped in a siege. It’s a rogue story, like Six of Crows or The Lies of Locke Lamora, but the protagonist is a military bureaucrat dealing with the underworld (and the aristocracy) as he tries to survive the siege, which is a fun twist on the trope. The story is told in the form of a report to his superiors. There are lots of surprising plot twists!
He also recommends Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence. It’s a little darker, story about a talented girl sold into slavery by mother, and ends up in a magical boarding school run by an order of battle nuns. The audio book is particularly good. It’s great for fans of Gideon the Ninth.
Meg is recommending The Necromancer Chronicles, by Amanda Downham, starting with The Drowning City. There are necromancers, pirates, and plotting! There is rich worldbuilding without excess purple prose, and lots about food & architecture. It also features unsexy vampires, which are very cool. The lead character is interesting and complicated, torn between her oath to to the crown on her own magic and her previous life before she entered royal service.
She also likes An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, which is classed as YA but is a LOT. There is a pseudo-Roman setting, with a scholar main character oppressed by the martial class, trying to rescue her brother. She becomes spy, which is a bad idea. Terrible things happen, and they happen so much! It’s a wild ride. Trigger warning for lots of blood and threatened assault. It’s a bad world, but a great book!
Finally, she recommends The Star-Touched Queen, by Roshani Chokshi. First, the cover is gorgeous! Maya is a princess, in a Mughal India-inspired setting. She is the daughter of rajah, who’s horoscope is cursed, and her marriage is doomed to be one of death and destruction. It’s weird and delightful, with lyrical writing.
Dyani submitted her recommendations in absentia, due to a cold. She says:
“I have one book in particular I’d really like to recommend: Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. It’s a historical fantasy set in 1920’s Mexico City during the Jazz Age merged with Mayan gods, and is mostly a coming of age story of the woman protagonist, a Cinderella-type character who throws out that story, and saves herself and a Mayan god in the process of delivering herself the liberation she deserves.
I also read The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison, and it was one of the most spectacular political intrigues I’ve ever read. Set in a Goblin Court, the main character becomes emperor without any training and has to maneuver in a court he’s only been to as a child, full of people who hate him, in order to find a way to care about people while still being an Emperor responsible for making the hard decisions. If you like politics, and like, I mean real actual politics, this is the book for you, because it’s chock-full of scenes of political learning and action as Mai learns what he’s doing. It’s great.
For the YA fantasy lovers, Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman, was one of the most breath taking books I read all year. It features Tess, the younger sister of Seraphina (who is the protag of the first book in this world — I have not read Seraphina, and did a quick look on the wiki page, but as far as I can tell you can read Tess without worrying about catching up, because it’s not a typical series sequel). Tess struggles in a world where she’s expected to marry well, and runs away from home. The story is told like a travel-memoir, with Tess’s history revealed bit by bit as she explores the world and the hardships of traveling on the road disguised as a boy. SPOILER but important if you have any related triggers (tw: rape), Tess’s healing comes from her understanding and coming to terms with her rape, and the whole book is an incredible exploration of healing and that process. It was heartbreaking and amazing at the same time.”
And so we come to the end of another set of recommendations! I hope you are all as excited as I am to add them to my list and start reading!