Thursday, December 16, 2010

Since Everyone Else is Doing a Fraggin' Top Ten List. . .

. . . allow me to jump onto the bandwagon!

I've been meaning to do some reviews for a bit, but NaNoWriMo and illness delayed them. So, I can banish two daemons with one incantation via a Top Ten List. These are the ten creative works (not all released in 2010) that I most enjoyed and admired this year.

The List, in no particular order:

---The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: A rich and provocative book that takes the fantasy tale and brings out new features for us to marvel at. I love the world-building and the care with which Jemisin put this book together. It is wonderfully written, enjoyable, and thoughtful all at the same time. I am looking forward to The Broken Kingdoms, which I just received, to see what happens next.

---Blood of Ambrose/This Crooked Way: I discovered James Enge through his story in the Swords & Dark Magic anthology, and I am so glad that I did. His work has rekindled my love for sword & sorcery through its combination of vigorous action, depth of character, and crisp prose. People who call his prose "slick" are missing some of its deeper pleasures, such as his economy of description, his deft characterizations, and a cavalcade of fascinating ideas that are woven together unassumingly into a cultural fabric that makes his work both warm and visceral. He takes the basic heroic mode of sword & sorcery and expands upon it even as he plays with it. His books have a classical heft to them, but are neither stiff nor dated. He refreshes the genre by taking old roads and then suddenly going off into the misty woods beyond, making new paths that wind in and out of our expectations. Really top-notch stuff!

---Haunted Legends (Tor, edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas): This is the best anthology of the year in my book. It is a collection of literate, evocative, well-crafted stories; even the few stories that did not appeal to me were well-done, just not my cup of oolong. What makes this collection so great is that many of the stories are not what you would expect; this is not a compendium of spooky ghost stories or tales of bloodcurdling horror. Most anthologies have a thematic that you expect will be directly reflected in the story. In this anthology, the theme is far more inspirational than that, and is taken in many different directions by the contributors.

The great pleasure of this anthology is that you find so much that is unexpected; stories that are not just about spooky monsters or strange folklore but about people, about regret and loss and wonder expressed and explained through parables and yarns of the unconventional and the painful. In many of these stories legends integrate anguish, the unnerving, and the inexplicable into our lives. Our trespasses against each other and the world, or those of others, becomes the stuff of chagrined, sad tales. Our feelings of suffering and powerlessness are explained by forces outside our control: our loneliness both revealed and, sometimes, combated by strange fables that integrate the cryptic and peculiar aspects of the world around us into something culturally manageable and socially connective.

---Agents of Atlas/Agents of Atlas: Turf Wars/Agents of Atlas: Dark Reign: These three volumes contain some of the best comics I have read in a decade. Writer Jeff Parker takes a group of forgotten characters and makes something fresh and lively out of reuniting them to help their erstwhile leader become reborn and deal with a family legacy that would make the Corleones flee in terror. It's consistently quirky, almost campy at times, but leavened with fast pacing, delightful twists, and genuinely likable characters. Comic-book soap opera is left by the wayside, as are most of the more tired cliches of the superhero genre. Parker instead goes for smart, punchy stories mixed with intrigue and humor. Leonard Kirk, Gabriel Hardman, and Carlo Pagulayan all do excellent work on the art, although Kirk is my favorite artist for the Agents.

---Farthing: Jo Walton is a treasure. She writes great books and perceptive criticism, and her love and critical appreciation for speculative fiction comes through in all of her writing. Farthing demonstrates this in a curious way: by reproducing an entirely different genre (the English country-house mystery) packed with speculative twists that are so well blended into the narrative that you feel transported into that other world. Her deep understanding of the genre comes out in the careful crafting of this novel, which is note-perfect in tone and consistently subversive. I don't like mysteries, but this book is much, much more than "just a mystery." It is an astute, engrossing novel that makes you think hard about what we take for granted.

---Who Fears Death: Nnedi Okorafor's book was a revelation for me, in ways that I am still pondering. As I wrote in one of my FoG columns, the book "mingles destiny, brutality, and liminality in the story of a young woman's coming-of-age in a harsh, dystopian future. Despite a few missteps, the book is 'without preachiness or didactic overkill,' and demonstrates both Okorafor's gift for storytelling and her ability to create deeply grounded stories out of folkloric traditions and speculative insights." It is a very hard book to read sometimes, challenging and discomforting, but consistently engaging and often poetic.

--- Wizardry & Wild Romance: This is a re-issue of Moorcock's extended ruminations on the history and state of epic fantasy. As I said in another review "Moorcock employs detailed discussions of older, sometimes obscure works and weaves them into larger literary trends and literary-historical forces to produce a critique of fantastic literature and its niche in Western cultures. Moorcock's analysis is fun to read and persuasive, and made even a devoted Tolkien fanboy like me start to question what I find so compelling about his work. What this book does best is get under the skin of both individual works and broader ideas and engage the conundrums contained within them. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, Moorcock makes a compelling case for viewing fantasy critically and productively that will help you read the genre with discernment and inquisitiveness." I am still chewing over this book, and will for some time.

---Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, And Society in Saga Iceland: This book is simply fascinating. William Ian Miller takes the sagas and legal codes of old Iceland and performs a stunning act of legal and anthropological interpretation on them. He teases out assumptions, inconsistencies, and deeper meanings in both story and conduct and outlines the interrelations between law, culture, and myth. It is an intelligent analysis that is also a joy to read, and that spends most of its time on the source material instead of theory. I learned a lot from this book that I am applying to some of my fiction.

--- Apex Magazine, Issue #18: This was the Arab/Muslim issue that came out in November, and Cat Valente did a stellar job of assembling and editing this issue. The three short stories were wonderful, and the implicit themes of identity and authority heightened the intensity of the works. The poetry was gorgeous and evocative, and the inclusion of a Turkish fairy tale rounded out the offerings and gave the issue a definitive continuity and context. Certainly the best single-issue periodical I read this year.

2010 was a good year for reading, personally. I read much more than I have in several years, and I feel that I read a lot of good work. Best of all, I found a lot of inspiration in what I read; not just ideas, but creative energy as well. I'm looking forward to tackling my big stack of To-Be-Reads in 2011.


montsamu said...

This is a great list; in a year full of good anthologies, your praise for Haunted Legends definitely has me bumping it closer to the top of the to-read stack.

The Erudite Ogre said...

Thanks for stopping by. I agree that there were some strong contenders this year, but what struck me about Haunted Legends was that the contributors did not just try to write scary Halloween stories, but mined the legends for their human value. And they are all well-written; I was quite impressed with the literary quality of the stories, even those few that did not resonate with me.

I considered putting Swords & Dark Magic on the list. but the stories in that collection, to me, were not as strong on the whole. There were several exceptional stories in it, but Haunted Legends inched it out for its erudition and ambition.

Carl V. said...

Thanks for the blog visit. I had actually popped over here last night from a link on Pyr's website but was feeling the weight of too many late nights to comment.

Jemisin's books seem to be cropping up all over and the positive buzz coupled with the fact that she has been blessed with a couple of the most eye-catching fantasy covers of the last few years assures me that these need to go onto my list.

I had not even seen the Haunted Legends book, and might have honestly passed it over anyway but I am intrigued by your synopsis and I am hopelessly enamored of short story collections/anthologies. And I've been impressed with Datlow's choices in past anthologies. Another to keep an eye out for.

I was really impressed with Okorafor's short story in Eclipse Three, I believe and she did appear to have a real gift. I believe I've also read some Jo Walton but always just glazed over the book. I like English country house mysteries and sf/f are by far my favorite reads, so any skillful blending of the two would be a 'must read' for me. And my wife is a big mystery fan and has been known to be convinced to pick up a sf/f book if it has some appeal to a broader audience. This sounds like one we might enjoy reading together.

I'm impressed with your list, in part because, as I mentioned in my post, it makes me want to pick up books that weren't necessarily on my radar. Damn you!!! :)

I'll be adding your blog to my SF/F Blogs tab at the top of my site so I can keep up with what you are doing/reading over here.

The Erudite Ogre said...


Happy New Year! Thanks for stopping by and commenting; I really appreciate it. Thanks for adding me to the blogs tab also.

I am always happy to extend others' reading lists, and have mine expanded as well!