The Dragon and the Goddess: Top Ten Reads of 2014

  1. The Turn of the Story – Sarah Rees Brennan
  2. Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
  3. Fairytales for Wilde Girls – Allyse Near
  4. On the Steel Breeze – Alastair Reynolds
  5. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  6. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie
  7. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin
  8. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
  9. Rose Under Fire – Elizabeth Wein
  10. Nimona – Noelle Stevenson

As if these books are not all wonderful enough, two are available for free online. Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Turn of the Story was intended as an extra for her short story ‘The Wings of the Morning’ (published in Monstrous Affections: an Anthology of Beastly Tales) but kept getting extended into more segments and sort of turned into a novel. It includes the most dangerous pacifist you’re ever likely to meet, his mildly concerned friends, matriarchal elves, a judgemental unicorn and all the fabulous fantasy meta you can stab with a sword. Links to all the chapters are compiled here.

I can LINK again! It’s exciting!

Another excellent online project that engages with fantasy traditions while at the same time totally inverting them is Noelle Stevenson’s webcomic Nimona, about an idealistic supervillain and his entirely unmanageable shapechanging apprentice. It can be read in full here, and a print edition will be released in 2015 with an exclusive epilogue. Creators in any medium usually face a difficult balance between making what they love and making a living; that these women have chosen to share so much of their amazing work free of charge is incredibly generous, and could not be more appreciated.

Happy New Year, and happy reading in 2015!

Review No.231 – Kingdom of the Gods

Kingdom of the Gods (The Inheritance Trilogy No.3) – N.K. Jemisin

Orbit, 2012

First published in 2011

Consider this a housekeeping post-it: I have been misnumbering my reviews since JULY and while this really frustrates me, I can’t be bothered going back to fix them up. Perhaps it is a sign I should stop numbering them at all. In the meantime – this is definitely No.231! On with the review!

Three children meet in the dust and dark beneath the palace of Sky. One is Sieh the Trickster, once a godling slave to the Arameri family and now bitterly bewildered by the disappointments of freedom. Shahar and Dekarta are the descendants of his tormentors. An idle game turns into an unlikely friendship, but where love and power meet there is the worst kind of danger. The world is changing. Chaos may yet swallow them all.

To really understand this book, you have to read the first two in the series – and I’d also suggest avoiding any blurbs, as the one included at the end of The Broken Kingdoms made me expect a completely different protagonist. The narrative voice of this story is Sieh, a decided departure from Yeine and Oree in any number of ways. Sieh is much more raw, ungainly and guilt-ridden and making inadvisable decisions at every turn. He’s just so frustrating. Familiar characters look different and often less likeable through his eyes (though Yeine and Lil are brilliant from every angle). This book feels heavier than the previous two, more volatile, as I’m sure Jemisin intended it to be. The world-building is spectacular as ever, the language nuanced and beautiful. It is a fitting end to a remarkable trilogy.

Review No.126 – The Broken Kingdoms

The Broken Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy No.2) – N.K. Jemisin

Orbit, 2010

A decade ago the city was known as Sky, for the floating palace of the Arameri, and strict monotheism was enforced upon its citizens by the followers of Bright Itempas. Now that palace is ensnared between the branches of the World Tree that towers over all, giving this place the new name of Shadow, and it is overrun by the children of the gods. They walk among mortals, making homes, taking lovers, answering the prayers of their worshippers in between managing their more mundane enterprises. The trails of magic they leave behind are visible to Oree Shoth alone, and magic is the only thing she can see. Beloved of one godling and living with another, she is already subject to more celestial attention than she would like; then she finds an impossible corpse, and realises the disaster has just begun.

Jemisin has a clear, engaging style and a wealth of beautiful imagery – which, given the book’s blind protagonist, is presented in an inventive variety of ways. It is rare to see a character with a disability placed at the centre of a novel-length narrative, and Oree holds that space decisively. Hers is a different kind of strength to Jemisin’s previous heroine, Yeine, but she’s equally enjoyable company. I also loved some of the secondary characters, particularly Lil and Nemmer. The trilogy concludes with The Kingdom of Gods.

Review No.115 – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy No.1) – N.K. Jemisin

Orbit, 2010

To be Arameri is to wield the power of the gods. Their family have reigned over the world for a thousand years, while in the city of Sky ambitions and enmities seethe against a backdrop of obscene opulence. It is a world Yeine’s mother Kinneth rejected long ago, retreating to the ‘barbarian’ province of Darr, but that does not change the blood in her daughter’s veins. As the leader of the Arameri prepares to choose his heir, Yeine is summoned to Sky for the first time. This may be her chance to avenge the oldest of wrongs…if she can survive past sunset.

Little endears me more to a protagonist than competence and Yeine has that in spades. Her narration is pragmatically matter-of-fact, but also skilfully nuanced. The world-building is excellent, taking the most fantastical concepts and making them utterly, heartbreakingly believable. The trilogy continues with The Broken Throne.

Looking For A New Horizon

The really important thing to be was yourself, just as hard as you could.

– Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens

I am Australian and I am white. This combination makes me feel very uncomfortable bringing up the subject of racism on the pretty basic principle I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. I’ve never been sworn at on public transport because of my skin colour, or treated like a potential terrorist because of my accent. I’ve never been told to go back to where I came from. Sure, I’d love to see more female protagonists in books, TV and movies, but at least I can find representation of people like me.

This is privilege. I never asked for it, but I have it anyway. It is not something I am ashamed of, but it’s something I do have to be aware of, and my recent internet reading – from the Star Trek whitewashing issue to discussions like this one on Sarah Rees Brennan’s Tumblr – has made me realise it’s probably something I should talk about.

The Australia I live in was founded on slavery. British criminals were transported to the other side of the world against their will to colonise a continent that was already very much occupied. The ‘law’ was established by the people who had the most guns, which meant the military representatives of a distant government that didn’t much care about what happened to anyone once they were off British soil.

Because the indigenous population had not yet come up with a slew of ultra-efficient ways to kill each other or a version of civilisation that included demolishing large tracts of the natural environment, their rights were not so much trodden on as crushed into smithereens. They were classified as animals by ‘law’ – I will continue using that word in quotation marks until it GROWS UP – and subjected to the usual range of disaster that befalls the invaded, from slave labour to rape to massacre.

And it actually got worse. At a time when Australia was meant to be growing into a real country as opposed to a imperial prison colony, life as an Aboriginal Australian was hell. You couldn’t vote. You couldn’t lay legal claim to land your ancestors had been living on since before recorded history. Your children could be taken away and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it.

Things are better now. Frankly, it didn’t take much. Acknowledging the indigenous population of this country as human beings was a good start. Every Australian citizen over the age of eighteen can vote now, regardless of race; an official government apology has been made to the victims of the Stolen Generation, and some land has been returned to its traditional owners. But legal equality is a completely different matter from social and economic equality, and we’re a LONG way off from that.

I have been aware of this history for most of my life, in the same way I was aware of the Roman empire and Viking invasions in the northern hemisphere – it happened, it was awful if you were unfortunate enough to be there at the time, the planet moved on. You see, that wasn’t the Australia I lived in. We were better than that. I saw gorgeous artwork by indigenous artists exhibited in art galleries, saw displays of their experience of history in the state museum, heard Aboriginal activists talking on television. All those terrible things had happened, but we had collectively learned from our mistakes and moved forward to Better Things.

Yeah. I’m such an optimist.

It’s been a long time since I really believed my country was at that point. Since I started reading newspapers, really. Hearing about incidents of racism, though, is still like getting little electric shocks – spikes of pain to that bright-eyed optimist who lives inside my head. Really? This happens in my Australia?

Even that awareness didn’t prepare me for hearing that a black American woman was worried that she wouldn’t be safe in my country.

Her name is N.K. Jemisin. She is an acclaimed fantasy writer who was recently Guest of Honour at Continuum in Melbourne and she made a speech there about the issue of race in speculative fiction. It’s generated a bit of buzz, both positive and negative, which is how I heard of it. I’m glad I did. It made me think, which is always a good thing. It also reaffirmed her position on my Authors I Must Read list, because anyone who can be that fierce and funny and articulate in one speech must be superb in a novel.

Many of the points she made are ones I’ve seen discussed before: that diversity is still seen as a revolutionary thing by a lot of people and is being actively discouraged within the genre in a multitude of ways. What she did was put all that in the greater context of history, both Australian and American, the imagination-defying ways in which our societies have failed non-white people, and the ways in which they are (or are not) trying to make amends. Jemisin calls for active attempts at an official Reconciliation within the science fiction and fantasy community. It’s a wonderful idea. And as I said, it makes me think.

I do not feel responsible for the actions of those first white settlers, who are not even my ancestors; I do not feel guilty or apologetic for living here, in the country of my birth, despite the cost at which it was built, because this is the only version of Australia I have ever experienced and Australia is my home. But I have to be aware of that cost.

I want my Australia to be the place that I once believed it was, where equality isn’t an illusion that breaks if you look at it directly. I want my Australia to be a place where anyone of any race feels welcome and safe. I want speculative fiction, my favourite genre, to be the same – a safe space for everybody.

The point of science fiction and fantasy, for me at least, is to reach for the horizons only imagination can find and do our damn best to make them real. This genre has introduced me to Time Lords and mutants, vampires and goddesses, goblins and giants – how can human diversity in fictional worlds be so hard? Seriously, how do we do think we’re going to cope with meeting aliens if we can’t cope with other human beings?

Basically, I want things to get better. And that starts with saying so.