The Runaway and the Resurrectionist: My Top 10 Reads of 2013

We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.

– Jonathan Gottschall, ‘The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human’

  1. Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
  2. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë
  3. Wonders of the Invisible World – Patricia A. McKillip
  4. Daughter of Smoke and Bone/ Days of Blood and Starlight – Laini Taylor
  5. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan
  6. Feed – Mira Grant
  7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
  8. Blue Remembered Earth – Alastair Reynolds
  9. Raven Girl – Audrey Niffenegger
  10. The Diviners – Libba Bray

Honourable mentions on the list must go to two web comics I discovered this year. Girl Genius is a wild gaslamp fantasy with mad science and a cast of fabulous characters headed by the charming and slightly terrifying Agatha Heterodyne, while Nimona fuses science fiction and medieval fantasy into one astoundingly cohesive world, either in peril from the united forces of Ballister Blackheart and his shapechanging apprentice Nimona, or about to be rescued by them. They haven’t decided yet. Very recently I’ve also started following A Hundred Days of Night, a comic based on the ancient Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, but with added sarcasm, romance and politics. It’s not very far along yet, but is already tremendous fun. My heartfelt thanks go out to all these creators for making so much remarkable work available online for free!

A Corner of White to Lighthouse Bay

At the beginning of the year I signed up to the Australian Women Writers Challenge. To meet my chosen level, the Miles, I had to read at least six books by female Australian authors and review at least four. Just for the hell of it, I added a mental note: they couldn’t all be speculative fiction.

The result is a list of books that have alternately intrigued, annoyed, charmed and definitely challenged me. Almost all fell outside my usual comfort zone.

The majority, of course, were either fantasy or science fiction, but even those stretched me; neither Margo Lanagan’s sinister fairy tale Sea Hearts nor Meg Mundell’s dark Australian dystopia Black Glass were easy reads, while Pamela Freeman’s Ember and Ash was traditional fantasy, which I’ve drifted away from in recent years. Even Tales from the Tower, a collection of fairy tale retellings edited by Isobelle Carmody, was full of confronting surprises.

Also included on the list are two works of contemporary/women’s fiction – the intergenerational murder mystery Poet’s Cottage by Josephine Pennicott and family saga Lighthouse Bay by Kimberley Freeman – plus a biography, Memoirs of a Showgirl,by Shay Stafford. None are books I’d normally gravitate towards; all gave me fresh perspectives into unfamiliar worlds.

Then there are the books I’ve read but not reviewed. Tehani Wessely of FableCroft Publishing released the anthology One Small Step in May, while Liz Grzyb edited Dreaming of Djinn for Ticonderoga and co-edited The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror with Talia Helene. As I have stories included in all three, I’m not exactly impartial, but they are collections I’m delighted have on my shelf and some less biased reviews can be found here and here. To everyone who said nice things about my stories, you are lovely and it was very much appreciated!

I am proud to have worked with such talented women, and proud to be a part of this industry. The stories I have read this year have been vastly varied, intelligent, and original. They are stories that should be told, and read, and talked about. I don’t really believe in the idea of ‘the great Australian novel’, because that means something different to everyone, as it should. This country is too big to be contained all inside one book. To encompass it all you need a library, an ever-changing map of stories, overlapping, interlocking, with signposts to guide us from reassuring waters to alien depths and back again by the scenic route.

I’m not done with my Challenge yet. My To Read list for 2014 includes books by Patricia Wrightson and Kate Forsyth, Kate Morton and Kimberley Freeman, experimenting with authors already known and admired, and those as yet unknown. That is, after all, the point of the Challenge: to start looking for these authors, and not stop.

There are remarkable women out there telling stories that should be heard. And I have reading to do.

Review No.133 – Feed

Feed – Mira Grant

Orbit, 2010

In the year 2014, two of humanity’s greatest medical discoveries mutated into one virus so powerful even death can’t loosen its grip on a host. More than twenty years after zombies went from horror movie cliché to global reality, the survivors exist in a precarious balance between rampant paranoia and unthinkable practicality, and reporting on the creaking edifice of modern civilisation are ambitious bloggers Georgia and Shaun Mason. When they are chosen to cover the campaign of presidential candidate Senator Ryman, it seems like the best chance they’ve ever had, but there are risks even they could never imagine and a story that will taint everyone it touches. If they don’t break it fast, it might break them instead…

Mira Grant is the pseudonym of urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire and Feed is the first book in her Newsflesh trilogy. I have little fondness for zombies, or indeed horror at all, but this book kept showing up on my radar and sometimes it’s worth taking a flying leap out of your comfort zone just to see what’s happening on the other side. Feed is a fiercely intelligent, uncompromising narrative set within a brilliantly realised world with memorable characters entirely capable of breaking your heart. The series continues with Deadline.

Review No.132 – Raising Steam

Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett

Doubleday, 2013

In the teeming city of Ankh-Morpork, where goblins and golems have won equal rights and black-ribboner vampires switch to a caffeine addiction, anything can happen and probably has – but even its unflappable citizenry are in for a surprise when a young engineer brings his creation to town and sets about building the Discworld’s first ever railway. In times like this, when new and old collide with force, the man guaranteed to be in the middle of it all is career criminal, star government employee and reliably unreliable Moist von Lipwig. With the arrival of the railway, he is in his element. Not everyone, however, is ready to welcome the age of steam. The fundamentalist dwarves known as delvers have only one welcome for innovation, and that is the sharp edge of an axe…

If nothing of that summary makes sense to you, most likely you have never read a novel from the Discworld series. Go forth now and read some Pratchett. You could start with his first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, or the first with Moist von Lipwig, Going Postal; other good jumping on points include Guards! Guards! and Mort. This, however, is not likely to be your stop.

So what did I make of Raising Steam? It was nice to see Moist back, and Adora Belle was as acerbically excellent as ever, but this wasn’t their story – this was an ideas book, like Moving Pictures and Soul Music, where a Thing is introduced and the consequences played out. It is less coherent than usual, involving more characters than quite fit in the narrative and juggling some threads decidedly better than others (the depiction of goblin culture is wonderful, the simplification of the railway’s impact less convincing). But if you love the series, like I do, you must read this. Getting a new Pratchett book has become like getting a letter from old friends and he drops references to his vast, beloved cast all over the place. That, I think, is the well-earned privilege of writing forty books in the same series. Thank you, Mr Pratchett! Write again soon!

Review No.131 – The Fire Rose

The Fire Rose – Mercedes Lackey

Baen, 2009

The early twentieth century is not a good time to be an ambitious female scholar, let alone a recently bereaved and borderline destitute one. Without her father’s support, the only option left to Rosalind Hawkins is to push her academic work aside and gain employment with whoever will take her. When an astoundingly generous offer from a mysterious benefactor lands in her lap, she is justifiably suspicious, but her circumstances drive her to accept. Travelling to San Francisco to become governess to the children of a reclusive railway baron, she discovers both her position and her employer to be utterly unexpected. If something seems too good to be true, there is always a reason…

The Fire Rose is a take on ‘Beauty and the Beast’, originally published in 1995, with an inviting premise that is distinctly flavoured with overtones of Jane Eyre – a combination I fully expected to enjoy. I was instead left appalled. The hero is arrogant and immoral, blinded to the sufferings of others by his obscenely selective notions of ‘innocence’, none of which are challenged; this leaves him little better than the truly reprehensible villain. Rose herself, meanwhile, suffers from an acute case of ‘not like other girls’ syndrome. She is constantly comparing herself to other, hypothetical women to drive home her difference, with a sense of superiority that damages any sense of sympathy with her character, and her classist beliefs are, like her love interest’s, never challenged by the narrative. Every character of colour is a poorly fleshed out caricature treated with disrespect by the rest of the cast. This being the first book in Lackey’s Elemental Masters series, perhaps that aspect is at least improved upon in the sequels, but I won’t be reading them. There are spoilers and further outrage below.

SPOILER: (Trigger warning) The ostensible hero, Jason Cameron, is described as someone who ‘would not take advantage of someone who was, in his estimation, truly innocent’. He is also fully aware that his apprentice Paul du Mond goes into the city to inflict brutal sexual abuse upon terrified young (usually Chinese or Mexican) women, enslaved in squalid brothels. The details of the abuse are not entered into by Lackey, but du Mond’s capacity for sadism is not left in any doubt. Aaand this is Cameron’s reference to the subject: “I thought it didn’t matter; after all, many Masters had little peccadilloes when they were Apprentices that they outgrew once they learned discipline.”

The only time du Mond’s behaviour bothers him is when Rose is threatened by it; apparently his version of innocence only includes highly educated, English-speaking white women whom he happens to fancy. Oh, he also spies on her without her ever finding out and openly admits he’d cheat on one of those hypothetical ‘other girls’ had he married one, because all other women must be worthless in comparison to the unassailable Rose. I expect some sexism, racism and classism from historical fiction, but there is no level on which Cameron’s behaviour is acceptable. Rose never finds out he’s a rape apologist, not in this book at least. So in what way exactly is he better than his deceptive nemesis Beltaire?

Wow, I’m angry.

Review No.130 – Naked City

Naked City – Ellen Datlow (ed.)

St. Martin’s Press, 2011

The old stories have followed their tellers out of the dark woods and into the city. In New York, real estate agents struggle to shift a cursed apartment. In Israel, a boy tracks the mystery of a magician’s assistant. In cities across time, across worlds, a vampire returns home to pay his debts, a woman drinks ghosts, and a photographer of the dead finds his way into the house of Death herself. Anything can be found in the naked city…

Urban fantasy is a favourite genre of mine, in part because it’s so incredibly flexible. Several of the stories in this anthology, however, would be better classified as horror, some were so obscure and incomplete I’m not sure what they were, and a concerning number see their female characters only through the male gaze. There are some excellent reads in Naked City – Naomi Novak’s ‘Priced to Sell’ was delightfully casual, ‘Fairy Gifts’ by Patricia Briggs was intelligent and different, Lavie Tidhar’s ‘The Projected Girl’ was beautifully enigmatical, and Holly Black was at her usual high standard in ‘Noble Rot’ – but I did not warm to this anthology as a whole.

Review No.129 – Crocodile on the Sandbank

Crocodile on the Sandbank – Elizabeth Peters

Robinson Publishing, 2000

When her scholarly father dies and leaves her a woman of independent means, Amelia Peabody has no intention of settling quietly into the respectable marriage everyone expects. Instead, she sets off to explore Egypt, on the way encountering a penniless young lady cut adrift in the streets of Rome, a pair of unconventional archaeologists and an unusually animate mummy. Amelia does not believe in curses. As danger pursues them down the Nile, however, and the mystery grows ever more inexplicable, one thing is clear: the mummy had better believe in her.

First published in 1975, this is the first in a long series of Amelia Peabody adventures. It’s not surprising; she is a delightfully indomitable heroine who can handle anything thrown at her with a disgusted sniff and a jab of her parasol. Her friend Evelyn, while mostly consistent, gets weighed down with predictable melodrama in the second half of the book, which made me like her considerably less. In fact, I found the romantic elements of the book a bit exasperating, and was also conflicted over the embarrassingly authentic 19th century attitudes – but that authenticity is an integral part of the plot and setting, and is subverted just often enough. Crocodile on the Sandbank is not a book to be taken seriously; it’s a light-hearted, good-natured romp with bonus archaeology. The series continues with The Curse of the Pharaohs.

Review No.128 – The Alchemy of Murder

The Alchemy of Murder – Carol McCleary

Hodder & Stoughton, 2009

Pioneering American journalist Nellie Bly is not a woman to be held back by the boundaries expected of a late 19th century lady. Following the trail of a sadistic killer across three countries, she arrives in Paris during the 1889 World Fair, a time when the wealthy display their glory on the world stage, the poor are ravaged by a mystery influenza, and the rising force of anarchists drives both sides to dangerous extremes. If she is to catch her man, Nellie must take the most outrageous of risks – but there is more than one enemy in Paris determined that she will not tell her story.

Nellie Bly was a real woman and several other characters in The Alchemy of Murder are likewise significant figures of the day, but the book is introduced as her secret journal and there are no end notes separating history from fiction, so it’s irritatingly difficult to know what is based on fact and what is not. I ended up just reading it as straight fiction. Nellie is a competent protagonist, though not as layered as I would have liked, and given the premise of the plot, I expected to enjoy this book more than I actually did. It was slowed down at times by too much exposition and veered too far into incredulity for my taste, with a villain who did not quite make sense. There were some interesting twists, though, and I can’t say for sure without my own research that any of the more bizarre events did not take place. Nellie Bly’s adventures continue in a sequel, The Illusion of Murder.

Review No.127 – Night Maze

Night Maze – Annie Dalton

Mandarin Paperbacks, 1990

After a childhood spent drifting from one foster home to another Gerard Noone has finally, cautiously, begun to settle when his mother’s family suddenly make contact for the first time. Untrusting but unable to resist the pull of his curiosity, he enters the world of Owlcote, a deteriorating Elizabethan mansion where a bitter echo of a past tragedy has been eating away at the Noones for generations, but the only one who will acknowledge it is Gerard’s haunted cousin Harriet, who is in danger of becoming consumed by it. What was Gerard’s mother so afraid of that she fled the house and never came back, and how many more lives can it destroy?

This YA fantasy has been on my To Read pile for an embarrassing length of time after being picked up on a whim at a book sale. The style and subject remind me a bit of Margaret Mahy, though Night Maze also bears some surprising similarities to Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken. The portrayal of even the most unlikeable characters is well nuanced, while Gerard and Harriet are complex protagonists with unexpected weaknesses and strengths. My favourite aspect of the book was how all Gerard’s most beloved mentor figures were women, and this was treated as perfectly normal. I’d love to see more of that.

Review No.126 – Rivers of London

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

Gollancz, 2011

When the first body is found, probationary constable Peter Grant is sent to guard the crime scene and chances upon the only witness to the crime. Unfortunately, that witness is a ghost. Struggling to make sense of the encounter, and what it means for the investigation, Peter goes ghost-hunting and instead meets Thomas Nightingale – the last wizard in service to the Metropolitan Police Service, who happens to be on the lookout for an apprentice. London, Peter soon discovers, is home to a whole world of creatures of the uncanny, and one of them is an intangible, uncontrollable killer already poised to strike again.

It turns out that Ben Aaronovitch is, among other things, the screenwriter of the McCoy era Doctor Who story ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, which just goes to show it’s worth reading the author bio. Rivers of London (known in the US as Midnight Riot) is the first in the Peter Grant series and was a mostly enjoyable fusion of crime novel and urban fantasy. There were a few moments that rang a slightly wrong note for me, and I was occasionally exasperated by Peter’s attitude, but the idea behind the book was solid and the background characters were all interesting. The series continues with Moon Over Soho.