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Things That Make Me Happy: Fantasy Novels, 2014

Posted on January 20, 2015

Every year, I’m determined to write a post about my favorite books of the previous year. Every year, I fail at it, in part, because of my tendency to want to write a 2000 word essay on each one.

This year, I’m doing it as part of my new “things that make me happy” blog posts. And I’m splitting it into two parts: fantasy novels this week, and SF novels next week. This isn’t every book I liked in 2014 (a great year for new books), but it’s a list of the books I liked the most. This is also not a place for quibbles and complaints, this is about books I loved and what I loved about them.

Books are alphabetical by title.

Afterworlds, Scott Westerfeld

This is a split book, half the chapters are about Darcy, an 18-year-old who is skipping college and has moved to Manhattan to finish a novel for which she has already received a sizable advance. The other half is Darcy’s novel, a YA paranormal romance.

Just on a technical or structural level, the book is impeccably put together. We see Darcy having experiences that bleed into the novel, we see her talking about old versions prior to the one we are reading, and we see her obsessing about getting the ending written even before we read it. The Darcy sections are really fun, there’s a lot of great scenes about writing and the YA publishing scene, and the novel-within-the-novel is a perfectly publishable YA novel that doesn’t feel like Westerfeld’s normal style. That’s all really hard to do.

If you have any interest in fiction writing or fiction writer’s process, I really recommend this book.

Full Fathom Five, Max Gladstone

Full Fathom Five is basically distilled essence of almost everything I want in a fantasy novel. It’s got a cool modern-feeling setting, the magic is unusual and resonates on kind of an emotional logic level, there’s more than a hint of satire or social commentary. Plus the characters are interesting, the plot is intricate and well-structured.

In this world, magic is somewhat analogous to law and finance (Gladwell started the series in 2008 after deciding that the news items about bringing Lehman Bros. back to life sounded more than a little like necromancy…). Pieces of soulstuff are used as currency. This novel takes place on an island whose primary industry is the creation of idols where people store excess soulstuff so they don’t need to spend it in tribute to various gods as they travel. Yes, it’s anonymous offshore prayer. Anyway, the idols start to come to life, which is somewhat disruptive.

If I haven’t hooked you by this point, I’m probably not going to. If I’ve even close to hooked you, you should read this.

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

If you want to talk about books I loved, possibly beyond reason, possibly in a “don’t tell me if you didn’t like it” kind of way, this is the book. I have a weak spot for books about characters who are basically decent, who are placed in tough situations, and who survive by being basically decent.

Maia is the unloved, exiled, half-goblin fourth son of, well, the Emperor. On about page 2, the Emperor and his three other sons are killed in a mysterious accident. Maia moves from his country, somewhat shabby life to becoming the Emperor overnight. He finds his new role bewildering, and the existing nobility indifferent or hostile.

You may think you already know how this story goes, and you are somewhat correct. But Maia is so well drawn, and his instincts are so different from what you might be imagining, that the book works spectacularly well. It’s the kind of book where there’s a brief, confusing flurry of violence, and then chapters of aftermath, including Maia’s second guessing. It’s a book where Maia receives a demand that he abdicate, and takes it much more seriously than you might think. And honestly, I’m doing a horrible job of expressing why I loved this book. Please try it, it’s really something special.

The Golem and The Jinni, Helene Wecker

This book – truth in advertising alert – is about a Golem. And a Jinni. Both of whom find themselves separately among the immigrant communities in 1899 in New York City. They meet while each is trying to adjust to a life that is not what they originally intended. What happens next is – well, it’s a lot of stuff. Each of them has a villain of sorts to overcome, and the various people around their lives have their own stories. It’s not quite a paranormal romance, not quite a mystery, not quite epic fantasy, and not quite historical fiction, but it draws on all of them.

I recommend this book a lot, in part because the historical fiction part of it is so strong that it’s a good recommendation for people who don’t read much fantasy. It’s also really evocative of a historical time and place that I’m really interested in.

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

This the third and final book in a series. I describe this series to people. I say “Harry Potter. But in America. With college-age students. And they go to Narnia.” People usually make a face, because honestly, that sounds potentially ghastly. So, this is one of my two or three favorite fantasy series of the past few years, even though it sounds like a weird mashup.

First off, Grossman knows the Narnia stuff cold, and he’s pretty great on the wizard stuff too. (For one thing, his books have an underground magic society, which is one thing Rowling generally avoided.)

It’s hard to talk much about this book without spoiling the first two in the series. So, I’ll just say, this is a really great fantasy series, and it’s a worthy conclusion.

The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross

This series, I describe as “Lovecraftian horror, where the evil creatures are summoned via computer programs.” There’s a good chance I’ve already hooked you. The main character, Bob Howard, starts the series as a low-level IT Tech at the Laundry, the super-secret British agency that handles supernatural horrors.

The first few books of the series parodied various spy book and movie tropes. Having run out of those, Stross is now going after urban fantasy, and in this book, as the title might imply, we get vampires. Except, as many people in the novel mention, everybody knows that vampires don’t exist.

Stross is really good at imagining logically consistent versions of fantasy creatures (see his novella Equoid for a terrifying alien unicorn.) He also knows his programming stuff, and the series is littered with offhand jokes that developers will get (like the suppressed 4th volume of Knuth that contains all the demon summoning programs). This is maybe my favorite book in a series that I really like.

Something More Than Night, Ian Tregillis

How can I describe this? The main character is an angel. Who, for some reason, likes to talk in a 40s detective-noir style. He’s investigating the death of the angel Gabriel. Oh, and the book takes place partly in a near-future sort-of-dystopia, and in the metaworld where the angels live. And there’s more quantum physics than you’d typically expect in a fantasy novel. It’s weird, and I liked it much more than I expected to.

Valour and Vanity, Mary Robinette Kowal

This is a rare multi-book series where the books keep getting better. The initial book was very much “Jane Austin, but with magic”. Subsequent books (this is book 4) have taken the main characters around the world. In this book, they find themselves in Vienna, where they are promptly conned out of all their money and effectively forced to stay in the city.

What’s next? Naturally, run their own con/heist to get their money back, expose the evildoers, and save the day. Kowal is fantastically good at having the magic (which the characters call “glamour”) act as a seamless part of the world. The two main characters are one of the more interesting fictional couples going, and the whole thing is just really fun to read.


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