Monday, December 31, 2012

Favorite Books Read in 2012

Recently Dominick Swennen of Fantastical Imaginations asked me and a bunch of other authors to share the top 3 novels they read in 2012 (and the three we're most looking forward to in 2013).  I've read so many great books this year that it was pretty hard to limit myself to just three - and in fact, for my answer I simply chose the first three novels that popped to mind as being exceptional in some way for craft, storytelling, or prose.  So here, I'm going to indulge myself in providing a more comprehensive list of the books I particularly enjoyed this year.  I'm splitting the list up a bit by sub-genre, just to make it more manageable, and within genre I'm going alphabetical by author.  Even then, I'm probably leaving books out, but I suppose this post will be long enough as is!

Favorite Secondary-World Fantasy Novels 

The Eli Monpress series (Rachel Aaron) - I read all five of Aaron's Monpress novels this fall, and thoroughly enjoyed the series.  The books start off very light and breezy, but get a bit darker as the series progresses.  My favorite was the fourth, The Spirit War, which is probably the most serious of the lot and pretty much pushed all my personal buttons as a reader (in a good way!).  I admit to hoping the fifth and final novel would get even darker and really put Eli through the wringer, but Aaron keeps the emotional consequences for him and the other characters on the lighter end of the scale, in keeping with the overall tone of the series.  The fifth novel does provide a rousing and satisfying conclusion to the main story arc, so no problems there!  

The Daemon Prism (Carol Berg) - third and final novel in her excellent Collegia Magica series.  If you haven't read them, you should.  I rave more about the book here.

Range of Ghosts (Elizabeth Bear) - oh gosh, I loved this one. Great characters, stellar worldbuilding, beautiful imagery, it's got everything I love best about fantasy.  I talk more about the book in a guest post I did for Stumptown Books.  

The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun (N.K. Jemisin) - terrific duology.  Much like the Bear novel above, these books have got it all.  (See my guest post at Stumptown Books for more discussion.)  I think I liked the first novel just a teensy bit more than the second, but they're both wonderful books that I highly recommend.    

King of Thorns (Mark Lawrence) - Sequel to last year's equally impressive Prince of Thorns.  I particularly admired the puzzle-box structure of the plot, and Lawrence's skill with juggling different narrators.  Plus, Jorg goes mountain climbing - what's not to like? (book rec post here). 

The Heir of Night and The Gathering of the Lost (Helen Lowe) - The first two novels in her Wall of Night series.  Classic fantasy with a neat sf-nal twist.  Just the thing if you're looking for a nice fat epic tale to immerse yourself in.  (book rec post here.)  

Sharps (K.J. Parker) - this one's a rarity: a secondary-world fantasy novel without the least hint of magic.  Usually that would turn me off - I do love stories with plenty of magic and wonder.  But Parker's writing is so sharply witty and the various characters so well-drawn that I couldn't help but find the novel fascinating.

Scourge of the Betrayer (Jeff Salyards) - solid, gritty, character-driven military fantasy that packs a real emotional punch at the end. (book rec post here)

The Siren Depths (Martha Wells) - third in her Books of the Raksura series.  I adored the first novel The Cloud Roads, and enjoyed the second (The Serpent Sea) nearly as much, but this one might be my favorite of the series to date.  I've got a huge weakness for characters with trust issues, and Wells really puts the screws to her protagonist Moon in the first half of this novel.  Moon's struggles with his past and Raksuran court politics might even have been my favorite part, above the adventure portion of the plot.  Just a really satisfying, entertaining read.   

The Emperor's Knife (Mazarkis Williams) - Introspective epic fantasy with plenty of intrigue, characters in shades of gray, and some very interesting magic and cultures.  (book rec post here) I'm really looking forward to reading the recently-released second novel in the series, Knife Sworn - so much so that I'm using it as my "carrot" for reaching my next wordcount goal on The Labyrinth of Flame.  Must...write...faster!

Favorite Alternate History and SF Novels

The Troupe (Robert Jackson Bennett) - after seeing multiple people rave about this one, I had to give it a try - and boy, I'm glad I did.  It's set in turn-of-the-century America, and follows a gifted teenage pianist who joins the vaudeville circuit to seek out his mysterious father.  Bennett manages to make the magic both creepy and numinous by turns, and both story and characters are thoroughly engrossing.  In some ways, it reminded me of a Stephen King novel (but without any bloat!).  

And Blue Skies From Pain (Stina Leicht) - second in her The Fey and the Fallen series. Historical urban fantasy set in 1970s Ireland; dark, gritty, and containing excellent characterization. (see book rec post here)  

The Alchemist of Souls (Anne Lyle) - first in her Night's Masque series (the second novel, The Merchant of Dreams, just came out).  Set in an alternate Elizabethan England, featuring plenty of intrigue and derring-do, plus an interesting alien/magical race; I really enjoyed the read.  I'm so sure I'll love #2 that (in similar fashion to Mazarkis Williams's Knife Sworn), I'm using it as a wordcount goal reward.  

The Coldest War (Ian Tregillis) - I enjoyed the first book in his Milkweed Triptych, Bitter Seeds, but this sequel really impressed me with its plot.  Alternate history set in the WWII era, with Nazi X-Men vs. British warlocks.  Clever and gut-wrenching by turns, with one of the creepiest, coolest characters I've seen in ages. (book rec post here)  

Osiris (E.J. Swift) - Dystopian SF with gorgeous imagery, and some very interesting ideas and narrative choices.  Don't expect an action thriller, but if you enjoy literary SF, you must give this one a try.

Favorite YA Novels

Black Heart (Holly Black) - third in Black's Curse Workers series.  Set in an alternate world in which magic is the province of mafia-style gangster families.  The plots are clever, the (male) protagonist is charmingly snarky, and while there is some romance, the focus is far more on fucked-up family relationships and the protagonist's struggle with difficult moral choices.  In other words, YA just the way I like it.

Team Human (Sarah Rees Brennan & Justine Larbelestier) - Sick of all the vampire romance novels cluttering up the shelves?  Enjoy some good snark?  Here's the book for you.  Brennan & Larbalestier poke fun at all the tropes of the genre, even while telling a surprisingly involving story.  It's even funnier if (like me) you've recently watched (and mocked) the TV show The Vampire Diaries.

Seraphina (Rachel Hartman) - Okay, so I've got a story about this one.  It was one of the novels in the bag o' free books handed out to all World Fantasy attendees.  I picked it up, saw it was a YA novel involving dragons, read the Paolini blurb prominently displayed on the cover, and nearly tossed the book straight onto the "freebie" table.  (I was, er...not impressed by Paolini's Eragon.)  Yet there on the back cover, amid a host of blurbs from other YA authors, was a highly positive blurb from famed editor Ellen Kushner - whose opinion I do highly respect.  So I decided, hesitantly, to give the book a try.  And, wow.  So glad I did.  Clever, witty, in places screamingly funny, with a really interesting take on dragons and a teenage girl protagonist who's intelligent and strong without needing to be a Buffy-style badass - it's a great read.  Just goes to show the power of blurbs, both positive and negative.  

The Scorpio Races (Maggie Stiefvater) - Atmospheric, compelling novel that I absolutely devoured.  Takes place on an island where people race murderous Celtic-style water horses, and follows two young protagonists (one male, one female) who each become desperate to win the race, no matter the danger, for reasons of their own.  The story isn't without flaws (some of the female protagonist's decisions/actions don't entirely ring true to me - e.g., we're told she loves her (perfectly ordinary) horse, yet she seems to brush off all concerns over the very real (even likely!) possibility of the mare being savaged and/or killed by the water horses, when she enters the race.  Maybe this was meant as a deliberate example of selfishness/obsession, but I wasn't quite convinced it worked as such.  It mostly made me go, "But...what?").  But those were niggling thoughts that came after finishing - while reading I was so absorbed in the book I was totally along for the ride.  I'm going to seek out more of Stiefvater's work, pronto.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy Holidays

Yikes, I can't believe it's only 5 days until Christmas. I had all these grand visions for a book rec post and a Thursday adventure post this week, but, had other plans.  But!  I did want to take the time amid the  pre-holiday rush to share a few things:

1) Think you can tell an author's gender from the prose alone?  Fellow fantasy author Teresa Frohock is running an interesting little contest over at her blog right now.  She's rounded up a gang of male and female SFF authors who've all provided scenes that will be posted anonymously.  Guess the gender right, and you could win a bunch of free awesome books!  The full contest rules are here, and the first contest entry post is here.

2) After the horrible murders in Newtown, I had the desperate desire to lose myself in a new SFF book, but I didn't much feel like reading something grim and/or dark - so I asked on twitter for recommendations of recent SFF that featured compelling characters and hope.  People provided a host of great recs!  Some books I've already read, some I haven't, but I thought it might be nice to collect all the recs in one spot (for my own reference if nothing else).  Here's the lot, with stars next to the ones I've already read:

The Bones of the Old Ones (Howard Andrew Jones) - #2 in his Dabir & Asim series.  Haven't yet read this one, but I've read and enjoyed the first novel, The Desert of Souls.
Existence (David Brin)
Spin the Sky (Katy Stauber)*
Adaptation (Malinda Lo)*
Pandaemonium (Ben Macallen)
Bitterblue (Kristin Cashore)*
The Emperor's Soul (Brandon Sanderson)
The novels of Marie Brennan
Raising Stony Mayhall (Daryl Gregory)
The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)*
The Merchant of Dreams (Anne Lyle) - haven't read this sequel to last year's excellent Alchemist of Souls yet, but it's definitely on my TBR pile!
The Iron Druid series (Kevin Hearne)*
The Nightrunner series (Lynn Flewelling)*

3) And one link that anyone who appreciates the beauty of mountains absolutely must see (thanks to Paul Weimer for tweeting it!): a billion-pixel image tour of Mt. Everest, put together by climber and filmmaker David Brashears.  

It'll be quiet around here next week, as I've got family in town for Christmas, but I shall return to posting soon.  I plan to share my list of books I read and loved in 2012, and show off a few more gorgeous pics of New Zealand - no better time, with The Hobbit in theaters, right?  (Haven't seen it yet, very much hoping to beg my mom to babysit for a few hours next week so my husband and I can see it together.  I don't care how many liberties Peter Jackson took with the source material, so long as he filmed plenty of stunning NZ scenery.)  So on that note, I leave you with one of my favorite pics from our hike on the Routeburn track in December of 2006:

Happy holidays!
May 2013 bring us all beauty, inspiration, and plenty of mountains to summit.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Thursday Adventure: Kayaking Milford Sound (New Zealand)

Chatting via email with New Zealand author Helen Lowe brought back memories of the wonderful time my husband and I had visiting New Zealand back in 2006.  If you've seen the Lord of the Rings movies, you have some idea of the spectacular scenery New Zealand has to offer, but believe me, the scenery featured in those movies is only the tip of the iceberg!  New Zealand is a gorgeous country with an absolutely stunning variety of landscape, offering everything from ocean beaches with golden sand and azure water, to rainforest, to towering snow-covered peaks.

Since we'd already spent a week in the Cook Islands and a week visiting my husband's family in Sydney, we only had 10 days to spend in New Zealand, which felt like far too little time!  But we made the most of it.  We went caving in the Waitomo area of the North Island, canyoning on the Coromandel Peninsula, sea kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park, spent three days hiking the Routeburn Track in the Southern Alps, and finished off with exploring Milford Sound by kayak.  Today I'll share a few pictures from that last adventure.  Milford Sound is a fjord in the southwestern area of New Zealand's South Island, one of the many in Fjordland National Park, and was called by Rudyard Kipling the eighth Wonder of the World.  Not surprising, when it offers views like this:

Morning mist around Mitre Peak
Most tourists take a short boat tour of the sound and either head off to their next destination or perhaps hike the Milford Track (a trail that runs between the sound and Lake Te Anau, near Queenstown).  We wanted to spend a bit more time exploring the sound itself, so we signed up for an all-day kayak trip.  My husband and I are far from experienced kayakers (not much call for kayaking in Colorado, unless you do whitewater kayaking, which we haven't yet tried), but experience isn't necessary on calm water in a craft as stable as a sea kayak - you just need just a reasonable level of fitness and the willingness to get a really good arm workout.

Our guide, Tracy, telling us about the history of Milford Sound
The really nice thing about kayaking the sound is you get to admire the views without being bothered by the swarms of biting sandflies that plague the sound's shoreline.  (Come on, you knew a paradise like this would be too perfect without a serpent in the garden!)  Soon as you paddle off the beach, the sandflies disappear: bliss!  Paddling out into the sound was quite a good workout, though, as there was a nice stiff breeze blowing against us.  But that made it all the more fun when we returned - our guide showed us how to use swathes of fabric as a "kayak sail," letting us zoom back to shore at high speed without the need to paddle.  (Sorry, no pics of that - was too busy hanging on to the sail ropes and making sure our kayak didn't flip!)

Paddling the sound

Looking back at the head of the sound
The whole area is just so spectacular.  Once we left the sound and boarded a bus to take us and our backpacking gear back to Queenstown, I spent the whole trip goggling out the windows, sighing over views like this:

Gorgeous mountain views on the bus ride back to Queenstown
We definitely intend to go back and spend more time in both Fjordland and the Southern Alps!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Want ebooks of Whitefire Crossing and Tainted City cheap? Quick, buy now...

A couple important bits of pricing news, in case anyone reading this might want to gift a friend the ebook versions of The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City for Christmas (you know you want to...):

1) Want a DRM-free copy in the format of your choice at Baen for only $6?  Then you'd better hurry...Baen's prices are about to go up, since they recently signed a deal with Amazon and as soon as it goes into effect (I've heard dates as early as Dec 15), they'll have to match Amazon's (usually higher) ebook prices.  The good news?  Baen will still sell ebooks DRM-free, so hopefully international folks will still have the option of buying my books in e-format there.

2) The Whitefire Crossing's ebook is currently only $3.99 on US Amazon...but I hear that's likely to end Jan 1, so if you want it cheap, buy it soon!

And to catch up on other authorial news, since I've been remiss about sharing lately:

1) I did two new interviews in the last few weeks, one at Fantastical Imaginations (in which I discuss my favorite books and share how much of my personal mountaineering experience went into The Whitefire Crossing, among other things), and the other at Only The Best SciFi (which features questions nobody else has ever asked - that always makes it  fun to answer!).

2) My writerly ego got an extra little boost when fellow fantasy author Helen Lowe (The Heir of Night, The Gathering of the Lost) enjoyed both Whitefire and Tainted City and reviewed them on her blog, and another excellent fantasy author, Blake Charlton (Spellwright, Spellbound), liked and reviewed Whitefire on Goodreads.  It's wonderful to hear that from anyone, but it's extra nifty to hear it from authors as talented as Helen and Blake. Warm fuzzies all around!  

I've got this enormous backlog of awesome books I've read recently that I'm dying to blog about, and I really meant to add in at least a couple to this post, but I'm trying to be good these days about saving most of my scant writing time for working on The Labyrinth of Flame.  So!  Soon, I shall do a mega-post with a whole slew of book recs.  After I finish this latest scene that's giving me fits.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Let it snow

Busy busy week this week, so no official Thursday Adventure post.  But in honor of my three year old putting skis on for the first time tomorrow - albeit at an indoor practice slope, not yet a mountain (best to let him first try skiing without having to deal with all the bulky clothing) - I gotta say: LET IT SNOW.  It's been one heck of a warm, dry winter here in Colorado so far.  Really hoping that changes.  Maybe if we make a few shrines to the snow gods...

Then maybe we'll get some epic snow, like the kind we had in Utah one Christmas...

Robert and I trapped inside the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird.  The avalanche danger during heavy snowstorms in Little Cottonwood Canyon is so high that everyone at the ski areas is forbidden to step outside.  Snow crews use artillery guns mounted on top of the buildings, firing shells at the canyon slopes all throughout the storm, trying to prevent the snowpack from building up to the point that slides could destroy the resort.  For a powder skier, there's nothing like hearing the whump of cannon fire all night long.  You know the skiing's gonna be EPIC.  

Our friend Jim enjoying an epic powder day.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What's with all the cursing in my Shattered Sigil books?

So the other day N.K. Jemisin put up a terrific blog post talking about profanity in fantasy, how it reflects and relates to worldbuilding, and how she comes up with appropriate swear words for her characters.   Reading it inspired me to talk a bit about the thought process behind my own use of profanity in the Shattered Sigil books – because yes, I did make a considered choice. 

As anyone who’s read even the first page of The Whitefire Crossing knows, Dev has quite the foul mouth.  He doesn’t use what I think of as “fake fantasy cursing,” either – no frak, frell, or other sideways euphemisms for English cursewords.  He uses plain, straight-up fuck, shit, and damn, in addition to a variety of phrases referencing gods and goddesses (“Khalmet’s bony bloodsoaked hand,” “Shaikar’s innermost hell,” etc.).

This bothers the heck out of some people, who feel that words like fuck and shit are too modern, and therefore jarring in a fantasy setting.  But I had my reasons:

   1.  I wanted a more modern feel.  My world is not meant to be medieval.  It’s equivalent to more of a 1800s frontier setting – except that in the presence of readily available, powerful magic, technology hasn’t developed and spread as fast as it did in our own world.  Ninavel natives don’t need lightbulbs and pistols when they’ve got magelights and magical weaponry.   Foreigners from countries like Sulania that lack strong natural sources of magical power do have more advanced technology than is seen in Ninavel, and use gunpowder, hackbuts, mechanical devices, etc.  (Alathia is somewhere in between…the Council is leery of the dangers of technology, just as they are of magic, and controls imports with nearly as heavy a hand.)

  2.  Fake cursing is a personal pet peeve of mine.  I hate frak, frell, and the other cutesy ways to dodge censors.  If the word is supposed to mean fuck, then have the guts to use fuck.  I mean, if you’re translating the characters’ real language into English, why wouldn’t you translate the curse words too? 

Granted, you should first consider (as Jemisin points out) whether or not your fantasy society would use sexual references as a curse at all.   In my case, I decided the answer was yes.  While Ninavel is relatively egalitarian in outlook (profit matters more than anything else, including gender and sexual orientation), the original laborers who built the city were immigrants escaping far more rigid cultures where bloodlines mattered a great deal.   Similarly, their concept of the afterlife does involve damnation and hells, so Dev and other streetsiders use damn and gods-damned quite freely.

  3.  There’s a visceral impact to “fuck” that you don’t get with a made-up word.  Dev is not only lower-class in origin, he spent most of his childhood and teen years in the company of criminals, and I wanted his coarse language to make that unequivocally clear.  By comparison, Cara, who was raised streetside but in a family involved in a stable, skilled profession (outriding), only curses when she’s genuinely upset.  And Kiran, raised in the highest strata of Ninavel’s society, never curses at all.  He never even uses a god’s name, since his master Ruslan doesn’t believe in any gods. 

Like any choice, mine has consequences.  Some people find Whitefire’s language offensive.  Others balk at the modern idiom.  That’s okay.  When I read a 1-star review that says the reader put the book down on page 1 when Dev dropped his first f-bomb, I’m not upset; it’s a perfectly valid reaction, and the review serves a useful purpose: to warn off other potential readers who may have a similarly negative experience.  But it’s a good illustration of a point that I think writers sometimes forget: you can make whatever stylistic choices you like in your book – but be aware that some choices will limit your potential audience.  Remember, too, that the readers who detest your choice aren’t wrong.  They just have different taste than you.