My favourite sci-fi/fantasy books of 2013

As always, last year I read so many good sci-fi/fantasy books, I can hardly remember them all. Here are the ones that stuck in my head because they were especially great.

The Drowned Cities

Paulo Bacigalupi’s follow-up to his YA novel, Ship Breaker, tells the tale of Mahlia and Mouse—two orphan refugees trying to survive in a war-torn future America where global warming, resource mismanagement, and corporate greed have brought about profound social and economic collapse.

When Mouse is forcibly conscripted into an army of child soldiers, it’s up to Mahlia and a genetically modified half-man, half-beast weapon named Tool to save him before the depredations of war damage him beyond all recognition. Not a light tale by any stretch of the imagination, but Bacigalupi creates compelling and realistic characters, and the grim future he envisions is frighteningly easy to believe in.

 

Amulet

amuletMy eight-year-old son got The Stone Keeper, the first book in this graphic novel series as a Christmas present in 2012 and immediately borrowed the rest of the books from the library. He inhaled them all.

The books tell the story of Emily and her younger brother, Navin. After the tragic death of their father, the siblings are forced to travel to an underground world populated by menacing elves, man-eating demons, and robots to rescue their kidnapped mother and save a world threatened by unspeakable evil.

Although ostensibly written for the 10-13 crowd, Amulet is one of those rare graphic novel series that appeals equally to all ages. The story is gripping and the artwork is gorgeous. I’m just as impatient and excited as my son is for book 6 to come out hopefully this spring.

 

Embassytown

embassytownOh, China Mieville. No other writer’s imaginary worlds are as dark, twisted, alien and somehow still irredeemably human as yours are.

Embassytown tells the story of a colony of humans living on a planet inhabited by a benign and mysterious alien species on the far edge of the galaxy.

The Arieke, or “Hosts,” speak a complex language that makes it impossible for them to express anything other than literal truth and can only be approximated by Ambassadors, cloned human twins raised from birth to telepathically anticipate each other’s thoughts and speak in unison. When a new type of ambassador comes to Embassytown, the equilibrium between the humans and the Arieke is destroyed and the colony finds itself threatened with annihilation.

This story is as much a meditation on the power of language to shape reality as it is a compelling and original vision of what living on an inhabited alien planet might be like.

 

Leviathan Wakes

leviathan wakesIf you’re hankering for a well-written, exciting space opera, look no further. This thrilling series opener kicks off with a ship’s entire crew getting reduced to a horrifying puddle of goop when they come into contact with an ancient alien bio-weapon that was supposed to reach Earth a billion years ago but instead got hooked into orbit around Saturn.

Now that this ancient bio-weapon has been discovered by one of Earth’s most powerful corporate entities, what does it mean for the future of the human species? (Hint: nothing good.)

Leviathan Wakes is the first book of James S. A. Corey’s Expanse trilogy and is one of those rare page-turners that kept me guessing the entire way. I’m currently a third of the way into the final novel and still have no idea how the story’s going to end – the mark of a fantastic story, in my books.

 

REAMDE

reamdeOkay, so this story isn’t strictly science fiction or fantasy, but given that it was written by Neal Stephenson and a significant chunk of the action takes place in a World of Warcraft-like video game environment, I had to include it. (Mostly because I loved it oh so much and wanted to write about it.)

REAMDE kicks off with a classic “wrong place at the wrong time” scenario in which the niece of a millionaire video game creator gets kidnapped by the Russian mafia, who need her shady computer programmer boyfriend to help them find the Chinese hacker who has compromised their sensitive banking information.

The story takes them from the Pacific Northwest to China and then into the wilds of the BC interior and involves gangsters, Muslim terrorists, British secret agents, evangelical Christians, drug runners, and mountain lions. A fun and gripping read and a great introduction to Neal Stephenson if you’ve never read any of his other books.

 

The Night Circus 

night circusWhat do you get when two ancient magicians make a wager on who can train the most powerful apprentice – and a 19th-century traveling circus is the stage on which their protégés are forced to do battle? One of the darkest, most original and unforgettable love stories you’ll ever read.

I don’t want to spoil it for you, so all I’m going to say is that this book will either make you want to run away with the circus – or run screaming from anyone who professes to have magic powers. One of the best stories I’ve read in years.

 

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making


the girl whoIf you love Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, then you need to read this book by Cathrynne M. Valente. In my view, it’s the first true successor to these time-honoured children’s classics that manages to pay homage to them while still being a completely original work that deserves to become a classic in its own right.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland tells the tale of September, a 12-year-old girl who’s whisked away from her boring life in Nebraska by the mischievous Green Wind, who takes her to Fairyland so she can have an adventure of her own. On her quest to retrieve a spoon from the tyrannical Marquess who now rules Fairyland, she teams up with a Wyverrary (half Wyvern, half library) and an Arabian djinn named Saturday.

When her friends are kidnapped by the Marquess and taken to the other side of Fairyland, she is forced to unravel the mystery of the beloved Queen Mallow’s disappearance and the Marquess’s rise to power.

Although it’s ostensibly written for 10-12 year olds, this book is rich with deep allegorical meaning that appeals to adults as well and will make you and your children want to read it over and over again.

And best of all, it’s only the first book in a series. I can’t wait to read book number two!

So what were your favourite sci-fi/fantasy books of 2013? Or do you read books from a different genre? Let us know what your top picks were in the comments!

 

YA Fiction–Moving Away From the Post-Apocalyptic Themes

It has been a heavy few years in the world of YA fiction. Vampires, werewolves, and the end of the world as we know it have flooded the market.

I do appreciate the portrayal of strong female characters in some of these books. Katniss in The Hunger Games Trilogy is a good example. While Sarah Dessen writes a great love story, her novels don’t typically have a lot of substance.

That said, here are some of my recommendations for YA novels that are real, thoughtful, and do not have any vampires in them.

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Junior’s decision to go to an all-white high school off-reservation has his on-reservation friends and family criticizing him for his choice. Filled with serious topics and a lot of humour to offset them, this is one of my favourite YA books. This one is my 14 year old’s favourite.

The Path of Names by Ari Goelman

Reluctant Dahlia goes to sleep-away camp and finds herself caught up in a mystery surrounding the camp.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

A story about young women pilots in WWII, the plot is complex with amazing twists. A great choice for older teens (and parents), especially those who like spy novels.

Hoot by Carl Hiassen

Kids standing up for what they believe in, and encouraging adults to do the right thing.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

My 12 year old son recommends this one. Artemis is a millionaire, genius, and a criminal mastermind.

A fantasy writer to watch for

The Closer by Ari Goelman

Publisher’s Weekly has described his work as “outstanding” and “lovingly constructed,” while The Harvard Crimson has described him as a master of “sci-fi, fairies, and the urban ghetto.”

Ari Goelman is a writer to watch for. With several short fiction pieces published, and a novel in the works, Ari Goelman is a writer to watch for.

arigoelman.com

Explaining steampunk to a cowboy

Last weekend I found myself explaining steampunk to my 73-year old in-laws. Oh, where to start.

The Diamond Age: Or, A young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
The Diamond Age: Or, A young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

We were all at a family reunion in ranch country, staying in an old hotel on a working ranch. The hotel has a saloon. Our first evening there, a man was sitting in the saloon, dressed up like he was posing for an old-time photo. I’m talking round glasses, bowler hat, vest, jacket, tie, and a handlebar moustache! The next afternoon we came across some cowboys on their day off, dressed in old-time garb. I think it was the same man with the handlebar moustache (could there really be more than one?) who was wearing a checked shirt with leather gauntlets, a leather vest, bandanna, and hat.

My father-in-law was a cowboy for 20 years, but he didn’t get the fashion these guys were sporting on their time off. I suggested that maybe they were Steampunks who just didn’t know where to hang out. Blank looks, of course. I explained that in science fiction, the pre-Victorian era is considered to be the height of civilization, and if you pair the fashion and conventions with futuristic technology, you get Steampunk. Thanks to Maria, I read The Diamond Age: Or, A young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson, making this conversation possible.

He steered the conversation to cowboys who will work for lower wages so that they can ride horses while they work.

Why do we love Vampires?

I have been sick for the past 2 days, so I was able to watch some shows that I had recorded amongst which were True Blood, Vampire Diaries, and Being Human.

I realized that vampires seem to be playing a bigger and bigger role in the world of tv, film and publishing. It used to be Bram Stroker and old re-runs of Béla Lugosi. Then Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampirebrought new blood to the genre along with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

And then it just exploded. A recent search for “vampire” at amazon returned no less than 23,157 results. It gets even crazier. Check out these titles from the following sub-genres of “vampire”:

Medicine:
Biting Back: A No-Nonsense, No-Garlic Guide to Facing the Personal Vampires in Your Life

The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia (Volume 2); Being Babylonian and Assyrian Incantations Against the Demons, Ghouls, Vampires,

Professional & Technical:
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed

Greedy Bastards: Corporate Communists, Banksters, and the Other Vampires Who Suck America Dry (for Koree)

Cooking, Food & Wine:
Love at First Bite: The Complete Vampire Lover’s Cookbook

The Vampire and the Vegan, Book I: Food

Gay & Lesbian:
The Vampire With The Pink Handbag Fully Loaded Version

Better Off Red: Vampire Sorority Sisters Book 1

Art & Photography:
How to Draw Vampires: Discover the secrets to drawing, painting, and illustrating immortals of the night

Learn to Draw Like the Masters: Vampires: Collected manuscripts detailing the masters’ secrets for studying, drawing, and painting vampires

Random:
Emma and the Vampires(Jane Austen Undead Novels)
How to Get a Date With a Vampire

It seems these days everyone is on the vampire bandwagon. Even Jane Austen. So why do you think we love vampires so much?

What I’m reading now


Just started reading Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie. It’s been a few years since I’ve read a Rushdie novel and he’s long been one of my favourite writers. And two of my other favourite writers — Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon — have written blurbs for the book that appear on the back cover.

So excited to dive into it!

Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi

Genre: Modern Sci-Fi – Described as “cyberpunk without computers” by Time Magazine, Best Books of 2009

Rating: A

Who will like this book: Sci-fi lovers, William Gibson fans (I’m looking at you, Maria), people who love a great story and are deeply interested in environmental issues

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Imagine a world where all of the worst predictions of the peak-oil doomsday criers and the anti-GMO protestors have come true.

This is the setting for Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, a story that takes place in Thailand some two hundred years in our future, after the world’s economies have collapsed and the global ecosystem has been ravaged by mutant viruses and plagues that are the result of the commodification of the food chain by industrial agriculture corporations like Monsanto.

… It’s a future that’s all too easy to imagine becoming a reality.

Thailand is one of the few countries that has closed its borders to the “calorie companies” and is struggling to maintain what’s left of its own biodiversity while undercover calorie men try to sow dissent between the different political factions in the country and get their hands on Thailand’s legendary seedbank, which has enabled Thai scientists to bring fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, chilies, and rambutans back from the brink of extinction.

And that’s just one small fraction of what’s going down in this rich, complicated novel that asks readers to consider what “natural” is, and what exactly it is that makes us human.

This story has one of the most interesting fictional characters I’ve encountered in a long time. Emiko is the “windup girl” of the book’s title – a genetically created Japanese “New Person” who was designed to be the perfect obedient servant and pleasure toy. But when her Japanese master abandons her in Bangkok because it’s cheaper to replace her with an upgrade back home than purchase the extra return ticket to Japan via clipper ship, Emiko must struggle to survive in a city which views her kind as an abomination against nature.

To make matters worse, her model has certain limitations built into its structure to identify her as not human. Her limbs move with a marionette “stutter-stop motion” that emphasize her unnatural origins, and her pores don’t allow her to sweat, which means she overheats quickly when she exerts herself – a disadvantage that makes her part of the story especially claustrophobic when she finds herself caught in a crowd on a steamy Bangkok afternoon.

And yet, surrounded as she is by people who seek to use her, destroy her, or make money off her, Emiko comes off as the most human character of all.

The Windup Girl was named as one of the best novels of 2009 by Time Magazine, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Locus. If you like compelling, character-driven stories that look at the big problems facing today’s society and imagine how they might play out in the future, then I strongly recommend you read this book.

This review was written by Erin W. To learn more about Erin’s book preferences, click here.

Started a New Long Series!


So after years of touting the merits of this series (which is impossible to find on our Coast), Erin W finally got her collection of Tad Williams‘ Otherland series back and lent it to me.  I am about 40 pages in to the first book “Otherland Volume 1: City of Golden Shadow” and so far I love it.

I also find it terrifyingly close to the bone in terms of what the future will (note I did not say may) hold.  Like Neal Stephenson and William Gibson (2 of my all-time favorite writers), this book promises a futuristic world that is just around the corner.  The prose is also poetic, a sentence I just read “He walked on beneath the unmoving sun, wisps of cloud rising from his heels like smoke.”

The best thing about this is that the book is almost 800 pages long, and part of a four book series.  Yeah!