21 SF/F Authors Project: The Most Memorable Books

Books & Mags

My latest “official” reading project is over. It took longer than expected, but that’s ok – reading is first and foremost a pleasure for me, not a race.

There were several books that I liked a lot, and, as I hoped, I discovered many authors that I’ve already added to my “read more of” list (Hopkinson, Mohanraj, Shawl, Okorafor, Walton and de Bodard, for example).

Below are my “best of” picks from the project – the books that have stayed with me most insistently.

The Last Man by Mary Shelley (1826; full writeup here)

21 Authors The Last Man

Despite some problems and datedness (extreeeeemely slow beginning; inclusion of super-long monologues with pedantic-sounding language to modern readers) the end-of-days tension and horror were created effectively and without viscera.

Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin (1969; full writeup here)

21 Authors Left Hand of Darkness

LeGuin just rocks so much.

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold (1988, full writeup here)

21 Authors Falling Free

My introduction to the quaddies in her Vorkosigan universe.

Warchild by Karin Lowachee (2002; full writeup here)

21 Authors Warchild

Emotionally charged story with excellent pacing and reveal. Like The Last Man, also without graphic violence, yet with palpable tension.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 21: A Stranger in Olondria

Books & Mags

My latest reading project finishes with A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (2013).

21 Authors A Stranger in Olondria

Jevick is the second son of a well-to-do pepper merchant from the village of Tyom on Tinimavet. When it becomes apparent that his big brother isn’t capable of continuing the family business, Jevick gets the training and attention instead, including a private tutor from the northern land of Olondria. Jevick learns to speak and read Olondrian, and falls in love with literature, which is non-existent on his native island.

After his father dies, Jevick takes his place on the yearly pepper selling trip to Olondria. On this journey, his first foray out as a merchant, he attends the Feast of Birds celebration and becomes haunted by the ghost of a sick Tinimavet girl. Seeking a cure for her ailment in the north, Jissavet traveled to Bain on the same boat as Jevick but died some time after reaching Olondria. Unable to sleep due to the ghost’s presence, Jevick turns to Olondrian priests for help, but gets entangled and used as a pawn in a struggle between two religions.

Olondria is an unusual fantasy novel – no dime-a-dozen cookie cutter books here. It’s emphatically not an action- or plot-centered novel. Some dramatic events do take place, but they’re not described in an action-y way.

It’s a story about stories with stories that contain stories and refer to yet other stories. In other words, there are a lot of allusions to world-internal myths, poems, songs, books, etc. I’ve seen Olondria compared to a literary memoir, and the comparison sounds apt. The language is very lyrical, ornate, erudite and a little melancholy or nostalgic at times.

The novel is also about love, travel, encountering the wider world through books, different circumstances of people even within the same ingroup and about growing apart from your family or country through different experiences. It’s not a long book, per se, but a literary and dense one, and a great example of how to tell rather than show.

I’d say that any book’s ability to enthrall readers depends entirely on the kind(s) of reading that they most enjoy, or at the very least the kind of literature they are in the mood for. In the end, Olondria didn’t really fit the particular reading mood that I was in, but I admired the novel and appreciated the skill it took to create.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 20: On a Red Station, Drifting

Books & Mags

In 2016, I finished my 21 Authors project reading, but didn’t get to reviewing the last two books. So, here is the last but one: On a Red Station, Drifting (published in 2012) by Aliette de Bodard.

21 Authors On a Red Station Drifting

Prosper Station in the Dai Viet space empire is struggling to provide for its inhabitants and an ever-increasing amount of refugees fleeing the ongoing civil war. We see the story mostly through the eyes of two women: Station Mistress Quyen and her distant cousin, planetary Magistrate Linh who is on the run.

The station’s artificial intelligence, the Honoured Ancestress, is a mind originally born of a human womb that connects everyone and offers guidance and protection. But now the Honoured Ancestress is starting to malfunction, threatening the safety of the station.

de Bodard manages to cram an incredible amount of worldbuilding into her novella. There’s both macro and micro level politics (empire-station; station-personal), power struggles through snubs and protocol breaches, duty and personal integrity in face of dire consequences, examination of individual and family, tradition and ancestry, and, finally, an individual’s worth to the society.

On a Red Station, Drifting is a subtle story with a Vietnamese-Chinese (or Vietnamese-Confucian?) foundation. de Bodard spends most of her time fleshing out the main characters and concentrates on the painful, compellingly frustrating miscommunications taking place on the station. Almost a snapshot in time where the plot simmers in the background, Red Station omits obvious villains and instead adds heaps of human complexity. In fact, I rather suspect I was only able to access the very surface layer, and would benefit from one – or more! – re-readings.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 19: Among Others

Books & Mags

My latest reading project is almost over! Next up is Among Others by Jo Walton (published in 2010).

21 Authors Among Others

Among Others is set in Wales and Shropshire, England. We begin in 1975 with twins Morwenna and Morganna near their Welsh home, about to do magic at the behest of local fairies (who cannot touch physical items in our world).

The next chapter has fast forwarded four years. Morwenna is dead from saving the world from their mother’s evil magic; Morganna is crippled and, grieving, has started to use her sister’s name when she isn’t going by her nickname Mori (or Mor, or sometimes Mo).

After regaining some of her mobility, Mori ran away from her mother and sought refuge with her estranged father on the English side of the border. His three sisters sent Mori to a sports-heavy boarding school. Being unable to join in the sports, from an ethnic minority (Welsh) and an enthusiastic SF/F reader, it’s no surprise that Mori doesn’t find a ready acceptance at Arlinghurst academy. She struggles to keep in contact with her relatives in Wales and attempts to find a circle of like-minded friends.

Little by little Mori starts coming to terms with her new life and carving a place for herself. We also learn more of her grief, the crash that took her sister and of magic. Unfortunately, Mori’s magic-use draws the attention of her mother. Eventually the two face each other in a magical battle and settle things for good.

The novel is technically shaped as Mori’s diary, but the entries strongly resemble conventional novels: we get glimpses of both Mori’s everyday life, her thoughts and encounters with the world. One of the strengths of the novel is that we see Mori’s thinking develop from a child-like black & white dichotomy to a more nuanced way of seeing the world.

Walton also made a very interesting choice in designing this world’s magic: it’s very low-key, easy to miss and/or could be explained by normal events or coincidences.

There’s not much plot, and the final climax comes up a bit suddenly. I didn’t think these two features detracted from the experience, however. More than anything else, the novel is a character-driven love letter to libraries and books, especially science fiction and fantasy. Quietly powerful, Among Others grips you and won’t let go. Recommended!

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 18: Blackout / All Clear

Books & Mags

Moving on with my latest reading project. At 18, I have a double whammy: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis (both published in 2010).

21 Authors Blackout All Clear

Content note: references to war wounds and bombing.

Also, quite a long, ranty post. TL;DR – A time travel story from Oxford in 2060 to southern England during World War II that’s partly very clever, partly infuriating.

21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 17: Who Fears Death

Books & Mags

Book 17 in my latest reading project is Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (published in 2010), and so far the one I’ve struggled with most.

21 Authors Who Fears Death

Content note: references to rape, genital mutilation, slavery and genocide. This is also a very, very, VERY long post.

TL;DR – Who Fears Death is set in a post-apocalyptic, magical future with a melange of cultures, languages, relationships and themes fluently handled. A challenging but rewarding read if you’re not afraid of thought-provoking literature outside Anglo-American dime-a-dozen fantasy.

21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 16: Filter House

Books & Mags

Continuing my latest reading project with Filter House by Nisi Shawl. Published in 2008, it is a collection of 14 short stories.

21 Authors Filter House

The collection is mixed (sub)genre-wise: some of the stories are scifi, some fantasy, some speculative / weird. There are also a couple of tales influenced by or modeled on folklore or mythology. There’s also a variety of settings: from undisclosed to Detroit to exoplanets and pretty much everything in between.

The stories are about magic, race, power and relationships. Most are serious stories, even though some have humorous elements or events. Some (like “The Raineses’,” “The Pragmatical Princess” and “The Water Museum”) I’d love to see expanded into a longer work.

The name of the anthology comes from a house-like structure that larvaceans (small marine filter feeders) create to concentrate floating nutrients as a survival mechanism. I believe it’s meant as a framing device to unify the varied stories, but for me it’s the one feature that’s confusing about the collection and doesn’t quite work.

A number of the stories just threw you into the thick of it with little or no explanations. It took a mental adjustment, but it’s to Shawl’s credit how economically she’d get you acquainted with each setting after getting the stories going.

The stories were almost entirely hit or miss for me, and mostly the former; there were very few that I’m unsure about. Overall a polished, imaginative, quick read with many different voices. I’m definitely going to be checking out Shawl’s new novel Everfair.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 14: Bodies in Motion

Books & Mags

My latest reading project rolls on with Bodies in Motion by Mary Anne Mohanraj (published in 2005).

21 Authors Bodies in Motion

The collection turned out to be a kind of a family chronicle with interlinked or related short stories. Mohanraj herself calls it, aptly, a novel-in-stories. The stories follow the lives of two families over 60 years, but each piece focuses on different, occasionally recurring characters.

There are twenty stories, presented chronologically and grouped into six sections including beginnings, interlude and epilogue. The locations vary from Sri Lanka to England to U.S. and back again.

In the background, there are political tensions between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, with the threat of violence propelling characters to action in some stories. In the foreground, there’s the clash between family and individual, and/or traditional and colonial, and/or traditional vs. immigrant expectations and experiences, especially with regard to arranged marriages and finding love or fulfillment.

The individual stories are shortish, subtle mood pieces. Rather than concentrating on plot, Mohanraj offers us glimpses of her protagonists’ lives through their decisions and emotions. Occasionally we also see one event through more than one characters’ eyes, which was an interesting choice and convincingly carried out.

I was impressed how effortlessly Mohanraj created such distinct individuals. Even so, keeping track of the characters’ relationships to each other was sometimes difficult; the two family trees at the beginning did help.

Despite my general preference for novels over short stories, I found Bodies in Motion, like The Ship Who Sang, to be a very successfully built collection. However, when I chose Bodies in Motion for this project, I somehow missed that it isn’t SF/F or speculative. I didn’t mind, though, for I fell in love with Mohanraj’s writing pretty much immediately. Her language is sensual, beautiful and nuanced. The stories are also spiced (if you’ll pardon the expression) with detailed, tempting descriptions of Sri Lankan food.

An additional note: Mohanraj was born in Sri Lanka but has lived most of her life in the U.S. As an immigrant to the U.S. myself who’s moved here only relatively recently, I found the collection really interesting and helpful in fitting my personal experience into a larger context.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.