After over two months without a five-star rating for a novel or novella, July was a return to excellent reading, with two novellas and two novels that I have rated at 17/20 or higher. I haven’t gotten any of the reviews posted, but there are some glowing reviews coming for August, with sneak previews here in the July roundup. It was a sparse month for actually reading short fiction, because real life has been a whirlwind and I haven’t had those 20-minute reading chunks that I’m used to. But the short fiction that I read was universally good, so much so that I’m not formatting this post quite like I usually do. I’ll still highlight a couple favorites, but I’m skipping the “strong contenders” category, because basically every short I read was a strong contender for my July favorites, and I don’t want to set up the one (1) story that was merely “pretty good” as a pariah in the “other reading” section. Anyways, let’s get to it.
- “The Lottery” (1948) by Shirley Jackson. As someone who has shied away from horror, I’d never read anything by this titan of the genre. After reading “The Lottery,” I can see why she has the reputation she does. The amount of tension and unease she creates without even a bit of gore is tremendous.
- “Jackalope Wives” (2014) by Ursula Vernon. I’ve read a lot of Vernon under her T. Kingfisher pen name, but this is the first I’ve read under her own name. Unsurprisingly, the Nebula winner is excellent, with a fairy tale atmosphere, a strong plot, and some apropos observations of humanity.
Other July Reads
- “Thirteen Secrets of My Purse” (2021) by Rachel Swirsky. A very short (under 1200 words) story with thirteen objects revealing an increasingly magical story. Nicely done, and especially easy to recommend given that it can be easily read in under 10 minutes.
- “Glass Bottle Dancer” (2020) by Celeste Rita Baker. A World Fantasy Award nominee written in a Virgin Islander dialect telling of a middle-aged women taking on a new hobby, with unexpected consequences. Really good read.
- “The Nine Scents of Sorrow” (2020) by Jordan Taylor. Another well-crafted World Fantasy Award nominee, this one telling of a French perfumer with magical origins.
- “8-Bit Free Will” (2020) by John Wiswell. A British Fantasy Award finalist about two JRPG monsters who go on their own adventure. It’s heartwarming and fun and pretty much on-brand Wiswell. If you like his work, you’ll probably like this.
- “We Interrupt This Broadcast” (2014) by Mary Robinette Kowal. An prequel short to the Lady Astronaut series that delivers plenty of emotional impact on its own, although I’m not sure I like it as much in the context of the series, where I feel like it robs a bit from The Calculating Stars. Your mileage may vary.
Novels and Novellas
- The City We Became (2020) by N.K. Jemisin. Another Hugo finalist from an absolute master of contemporary fantasy. Jemisin’s incredible talent is on full display here, although a couple awkward plot points keep this one a bit below the level of some of her previous work.
- The Hidden City (2008) by Michelle West. The opener to a sprawling, character-driven epic fantasy series, but one that has its own satisfying story. There’s a bit too much hand-holding of the audience, but the relationships are strong, and the “grumpy old man who reluctantly saves the day” trope never gets old.
- The Ruin of Kings (2019) by Jenn Lyons. What begins as a strong start to another sprawling epic loses its way among a dizzying procession of new plot twists and inconsistency in narrative voice.
- Every Heart a Doorway (2016) by Seanan McGuire. A murder mystery/school drama/portal fantasy mashup with an average main plot but strong interpersonal work and excellent flashback scenes that make it worth a read regardless.
Other July Reads
- Authority (2014) by Jeff VanderMeer. The sequel to the fantastically weird Annihilation tries to recreate the same atmosphere in a shadowy government agency with mixed results. The writing is still excellent, and the atmosphere comes through in pieces, but the 70% increase in length from book one doesn’t serve the story well. A good read, but not on the level of the opener.
- Down Among the Sticks and Bones (2017) by Seanan McGuire. A prequel to Every Heart a Doorway that feels like an entirely different subgenre, capturing the fairy tale atmosphere to tell a darkly magical portal fantasy that stands up tremendously despite introducing almost nothing new from a plot perspective. Full review to come.
- The Empress of Salt and Fortune (2020) by Nghi Vo. A very short novella that reads more like an extended short than a compressed novel, telling the epic story of an Empress’ exile through a series of objects found in her former residence. Really excellent, and my current frontrunner for the Hugo Award for Best Novella. Full review to come.
- Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke. A short epistolary novel featuring an unnamed protagonist exploring a seemingly infinite labyrinth. It’s a quiet novel without a lot of shocking twists, but the expert writing and lovable lead make it a real joy to read. Full review to come.
- The Last Graduate (2021) by Naomi Novik. My second ever ARC is the much anticipated sequel to A Deadly Education, which keeps everything people loved about the first while expanding the scope. Full review to come.
- Gideon the Ninth (2019) by Tamsyn Muir. The famously (or perhaps infamously) snarky dialogue worked extremely well, but the plot–necromancers explore a haunted house, with various dangers exposed later–is so backloaded that the tension never built adequately. An excellent book on the scene level that was held back by structural flaws. Full review to come.
- The Poppy War (2018) by R.F. Kuang. A military school coming-of-age that turns into a brutal military fantasy, but impossible to put down and with sufficient foreshadowing that the tonal shift doesn’t feel jarring at all. An excellent book–I’ll be moving the sequel far up the list. Full review to come.
- Raybearer (2020) by Jordan Ifueko. A strong young adult fantasy that deals with a laundry list of heavy themes without feeling overstuffed, with an excellent central cast of four close friends being groomed to rule an African-inspired empire. Full review to come.
Yes, that’s a lot of reviews to come. I probably should’ve posted more than four times in July, but it was a busy month. I’ll see about doing better in August.