Periscope Depth

50 books 2014: Best Sci-Fi / Fantasy

I read 50 books in 2014. This week, I’m going through each genre and highlighting my favorites.

Love Is the Law, Nick Mamatas: One of the most abrasive, engaging modern fantasy novels I’ve ever read. Dawn Seliger challenges your notion of “likeable” protagonists by sinking her teeth into you in the first chapter and then dragging you on a gutter-level tour of late 80s Long Island.

The plot advances through a lot of coincidences, which would sink a lesser novel. But Mamatas embroils the narrator and her POV in such a dense haze of Aleister Crowley and arch occultism that it works. If you truly believe that there are no coincidences, that every gesture or symbol is rich with meaning, then of course you can blow a murder mystery wide open by going to a comic book shop. That’s the kind of world this is.

Tales of Nevèrÿon, Samuel R. Delany: What fantasy at its best should be: an exploration of humanity and human culture – specifically, semiotics – through the lens of fantastic worlds. It feels like a standard Hero’s Journey at first, distinguished only by Delany’s unique prose and the occasional abrupt plot twist. If you stick with it long enough to see where it’s going – not the definitive conclusion it leads you to, but the unanswered questions it forces you to ponder – you’ll be awestruck at Delany’s craft.

Soldier of the Mist, Gene Wolfe: Classic Wolfe, yet more accessible than most of his other books. I’d recommend this as the first novel for someone who wants to break into Gene Wolfe’s corpus, as it contains many of his usual tropes: unreliable narrator, a chaotic world plagued by great powers, odd linguistic quirks that make the familiar seem odd and the odd familiar. The “real world” setting makes the story more attainable, though, as does the necessary conceit of occasionally repeating what’s happened over the prior chapters.

The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness: One of the most remarkable YA sci-fi books I’ve ever read: a powerfully imagined story illustrating the gulf between Self and Other, between genders, between children and adults. The narrator’s voice is genuine and original without being too hokey, and the plot moves swiftly.

If I had any regret, it’s that too much of the plot is kept on tenterhooks – there’s a Big Secret about the world that everyone swears they’ll tell the narrator later – and that the narrative HAS to keep moving at breakneck pace in order to keep that mystery plausible. If the protagonists could slow down for literally an afternoon and catch their breath, the Big Reveal would have happened earlier. But I don’t know how Ness could have pulled off such a fantastic world without this element of pacing, so it’s not a crippling flaw.

Honorable Mention: Rogue, Bullettime, Throne of the Crescent Moon, Bad Little Girls Die Horrible Deaths, City of Stairs, The Word for World is Forest