Friday, January 1, 2010

The Year in Review, pt. 7: Long Fiction

In this seventh and final installment of our “year in review,” lobster and canary offer some of our long-form favorites.

The novels that create all-encompassing worlds, that immerse us totally. The authors who transport us, so we come alive in the elsewhere and elsewhen. Those who give us the reading experiences we hunger for like children (the total abandonment discussed so well by Maria Tatar in this year’s Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood and Laura Miller in last year’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia).

As we have suggested throughout, we are happily drowning in a deluge of excellent fantastical writing and writing about the fantastical. We may, in fact, be in a new Silver Age.

[The lobster grimaces at the canary’s cavalier attitude towards time, but is overruled by his avian peer—as we have throughout, our “year” encompasses some entries going back into the middle of the decade, since we only started blogging in May, 2009 and feel the need to catch up.]

We have earlier this year posted on the following authors, but they deserve another round of mention:

Greer Gilman, Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales (2009). I stand by my earlier claim that Gilman is one of the most inventive writers in the English language since Joyce (to which I would add Nabokov). Her prose is layered, lyrical, allusive, revelatory. Conjures up the Green Man, the Moon’s Huntress and the Queen in the Wood without ever, ever falling into twee habits. As Heaney says in “Bone Dreams,” Gilman is able to “push back /through dictions,/ Elizabethan canopies/ Norman devices/...”

Catherynne Valente, Palimpsest (2009). If Gilman is the doyenne of the stylists, Valente is one of the younger cohort looking to continue that legacy.

Ken Scholes, Lamentation, and Canticle (2009), the first two books of the five-book Psalms of Isaak. As we said in our interview with Ken last year, we think he is one of the best new writers of speculative fiction in the past decade. He acknowledges the influence of Herbert, Leiber and Moorcock, but has already begun to plow new ground. His treatment of moral themes is sensitive and acute.

Laird Hunt, The Ray of the Star (2009). As I said in my interview with Laird, he is a marvelous talent who defies easy categorization, except to say that he is very good. In this novel, he wraps a depiction of great grief within surrealistic events. Felliniesque characters will live in your mind long after you finish the book: Dona Eulalia, the people on The Avenue of Living Statues, and—above all, lurking like spiders—the Connoisseurs.

Cindy Pon, Silver Phoenix (2009). A strong debut, a coming-of-age story with real dangers. As noted in our interview with Cindy, her painterly descriptions make for gripping reading.

Marie Brennan, In Ashes Lie (2009). A sequel to last year’s Midnight Never Come. Very well drawn historical fantasy. As I noted in my interview with Marie, her background as a folklorist richly informs her writing. I am also partial to her Warrior and Witch series.

Delia Sherman, The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen (2009). A sequel to Changeling. We believe in the New York Between she limns for us.

Now to some other recent favorites:

A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book (2009). Magnificent. Deborah put it well when she said it is like reading a new E.M. Forster novel. Language so rich we feel like we’re eating chocolate. “I love the words that go into fairy stories,” Byatt says in a BookForum interview (Sept-Dec., 2009), “and the way in which Edwardian ones had different vocabularies from modern ones. [...] ...fairy tale is another layer of narrative, an alternative to ‘realism,’ something necessary to human beings.”

[Our first confession: we have not yet read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia. But we did read again The Other Shore last year.]

David Anthony Durham, Acacia: The War with the Mein (2007). Durham is a world-builder par excellence. He is exploring moral issues, difficult choices, the need of individuals to meet societal demands, the impact of power on individual lives. He deftly paints on an epic scale, while also managing to engage us in the inner workings of key characters. I am partway through the sequel, and am keen for the final volume of the trilogy to appear.

Amy Foster, When Autumn Leaves (2009). A charming debut that deserves a wide audience among folks who like Alice Hoffman, Charles de Lint and Anne Tyler. Foster is a natural storyteller.

Malinda Lo, Ash (2009). Another strong debut, an innovative take on the Cinderella story. Lo captures the eerie feel of the Other Folk, and she portrays budding love beautifully.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions (2008). A glorious reinterpretation of the Mahabharata, focusing on the princess Panchaali. As Banerjee Divakaruni says in an interview on BookBrowse, she grew up listening avidly to her grandfather tell her stories from the Mahabharata, but wondered why she heard little about the many female characters: “ Perhaps, I thought, my grandfather had forgotten the stories about the women friends. He was an old man, after all, though a wonderful old man. Perhaps because he was a man he had not considered these stories important enough to remember. When I was older, I vowed, I would search the epics for myself and find them.” This novel is the result.

Naomi Novik, Victory of Eagles (2008). It’s not just that Novik has the language perfectly right, or that she writes battle scenes and derring-do better than most. No, it is above all the love between Temeraire and Laurence that keeps us coming back book after book...and yearning for the next installment, due in 2010.

[Our second confession: We have not yet read Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword, but we did recently re-read Thomas the Rhymer.]

D.M. Cornish, Lamplighter (2008). Achingly beautiful, full of action, written brilliantly, this is the second volume of the Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy. Cornish is a worthy successor to Peake (including the fact that he illustrates his own books). Such strange characters in the world of the Half-Continent, starting with the orphan Rossamund Bookchild—Cornish’s world feels very alien, the thoughts of its inhabitants not wholly comprehensible to us. The third book comes out in 2010—we’ll learn then what happens to Rossamund and to Threnody of Herbroulesse.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008) and Catching Fire (2009). These are riveting page-turners...while also exploring serious questions about power, authority, wealth and poverty. Chilling, gut-wrenching, all too believable. The third book in the series is due in 2010.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007). What other novels repeatedly kept me in bed reading them cover to cover? Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Collins’s Hunger Games. No others come to mind. I raced my nephews each time—they always won because they bought each volume at the midnight launch, and thereby gained 8 or 9 hours headstart on their sleepy uncle.

Jay Lake, Mainspring (2007). A clockwork world! Angels, The Key Perilous, airships, "God's word and dark magic from the Southern Earth and the timeless power of stone walls and spreading oaks." Lake has a capacious imagination. My favorite here is the Equatorial Wall, which is more than a conceit, and becomes a character of its own. I have the sequel, Escapement, on the towering heap of books by my bed.

Elisabeth Hand, Generation Loss (2007). A thriller unlike any you have read, something along the lines of Patti Smith meets Robert Bloch. Gritty, unrelenting. Characters that are hard to like but for whom you do ultimately feel compassion—an extremely difficult thing for any author to pull off, but Hand does so.

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel (2008). Endlessly clever and diverting, a rebarbative retelling of a certain famous voyage. Mason’s work helps us focus on the nature of fiction and memory, on narrative beginnings and endings. The homecoming of Odysseus as Mason writes it is heartbreaking.

Dan Beachy-Quick, A Whaler’s Dictionary (2008). Another re-imaging of a classic. “The knife, the lance, the harpoon, the pen’s nib, the sperm whale’s and the shark’s scythe-sharp tooth, do not create the wound they inflict. The wound is created by the space the cutting implement opens.” One of the most intellectually ambitious projects in recent literature—a passionate effort to understand the complex cross-hatchings of meaning in Moby-Dick. A book to visit and re-visit again and again, each time leaving a little wiser but also a little more (healthily) perplexed. The endless conversation across the ages, all bound up in this one “dictionary.”

[Our third confession: We have not yet read China Mieville’s The City and the City. But we did last year re-read parts of Perdido Street Station.]

Justine Musk, Lord of Bones (2008). Jessamy Shepard owes something to Buffy, and to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, but is developing a voice of her own. Musk’s style reminds me of Clark Ashton Smith’s and Clive Barker’s.

Sarah Micklem, Firethorn (2004). Another best-of-the-decade. I am a few chapters into the sequel, Wildfire (2009), and am looking for the follow-up expected in 2010. The harsh boundaries of love in a very savage world, the space women can carve out for themselves, the power of the powerless.

Libba Bray, The Sweet Far Thing (2007). Bray’s Gemma Doyle is a most engaging heroine, her boarding school the usual cauldron, the mysteries and magic of “the realms” nicely realized. I hope Bray will return to Doyle.

John Scalzi, Zoe’s Tale (2008). The fourth in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe. Taut, acerbic, raising critical questions about technology, aging, the nature of humanity. I cannot recall if it is in this volume or one of the others in the series, but Scalzi makes you feel the humanity in a, well, human who has been genetically altered into a sort of space tortoise that clings to the outer skins of space ships. That’s good writing. Plus his blog is one of the best around.

Norman Lock, A Book of Imaginary Colophons: Alphabets of Desire & Sorrow (forthcoming). I’ve read excerpts as they appeared in 2009 in Agni, Black Warrior Review and the Iowa Review. Lock says in an interview at The Collagist, that he hopes “to write something else that has never before been imagined. For me nothing else is worth the trouble.”

--- As I keep proposing, we’re in a Silver Age. What comes next from Sarah Monette? From Nnedi Okorafor? Jeff VanderMeer, Richard Flanagan, Bharati Mukherjee? M. John Harrison, James Morrow, John Crowley, David Mitchell? We could keep going...the list is long...but...

...we have books piled high on the bedside table, books clamoring and cajoling, books blandishing and seducing...

1 comment:

stiletto storytime said...

I too hope Libba Bray will return to Gemma Doyle...I simply loved her series and miss it already. I need to re-read! Also I cannot wait for the next installment of the Hunger Games series. Great Picks!