Moving into the new year, I’m going to make a small change to how I do my round-up posts. I feel like writing extended short story reviews would be too much, but with the length of my unusual comments, it’s hard to capture why a story might not work for me, and so my entries for stories I liked are hard to distinguish from stories I didn’t. Unless I want to slam the stories I didn’t like, which is counterproductive. As such, I’m just going to talk about stories I enjoyed here. I’m still splitting off favorites from the rest, but anything that makes it into this round-up is a story I found worthwhile. I’ll still post novel/novella DNFs of 25% or more, because dedicating a hundred or so pages to a book is enough to give me an opinion about what works for me and doesn’t, and in a way that won’t poison future readers against a story. But the short fiction section will highlight only the good.
Anyways, let’s get to it.
- “The Burning Girl” (2021 novelette) by Carrie Vaughn. In a story that calls to mind The Poppy War, but with a very different tone, “The Burning Girl” tells of a small group of people with inexplicable powers who are happily used to win a war but who must fear their own side as much as the enemy. The conflict here isn’t quite so grim, and there’s a hopeful tone underlying everything, but that hope isn’t naive in the slightest. Excellent work, and added to my Hugo consideration list.
- “Questions Asked in the Belly of the World” (2021 novelette) by A.T. Greenblatt. A fairly dark dystopian tale that again has a thread of hope, featuring exquisite worldbuilding in a story of two people realizing that everything they’d ever been taught may be wrong. I sometimes had trouble keeping track of the flashbacks compared to the present story, but I suspect a big part of that is a web formatting problem and not a story problem. Also added to my Hugo consideration list.
- “AITA For Using My Side Hustle to Help My Boyfriend Escape the Clutches of Certain Death” (2021 flash fiction) by Aimee Picchi. If the title piques your interest, you’ll probably enjoy this clever flash fantasy take on Reddit’s AITA. If it doesn’t, it probably won’t move the needle.
- “AP Literary Theory Suggests This is a Quest (Or, what Danny Did Over Spring Break)” (2021 short story) by Isabel J. Kim. A not-a-quest (note: definitely a quest) story that has a lot of fun playing with tropes of high school settings and adventure fantasy in a very self-aware fashion.
- “The Spelunker’s Guide to Unreal Architecture” (2021 short story) by L. Chan. An appropriately creepy haunted house story interspersed with selections from a guide to the unreal with some hard-hitting emotional beats.
Other Shorts I Enjoyed in January
- “Gordon B. White is creating Haunting Weird Horror” (2021 flash fiction) by Gordon B. White. A little more on the body horror than I prefer, but a horror story in an experimental format that definitely nails the creepiness. I’d expect this one to hit for horror fans.
- “Mulberry and Owl” (2021 novelette) by Aliette de Bodard. A story about broken relationships, broken revolutions, and picking up the pieces. For whatever reason, de Bodard’s stories never seem to reach out and grab me the way other authors can (what can I say, prose is important but it’s also still something of a black box for me), but this one checks a lot of boxes and is one I enjoyed overall. It’s worth a strong look, especially for those who enjoy her prose style.
If you’ve been following my blog at all, you know all about the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, and I’ve posted nine reviews and eight score posts in January. I’m not going to link each one individually, but you can browse my SPSFC category at your leisure. I would like to take a moment to highlight my two favorite books of the 30 in our first round group: Day 115 on an Alien World and The Last Shadow (links to my personal reviews). I’ll also highlight the three books out of those 30 that my team chose to advance to the semifinals: Dusk Mountain Blues, The Last Shadow, and Gates of Mars (links to full team reviews).
Novels, Novellas, and Collections
I didn’t post any reviews that weren’t SPSFC-related, but I still did some reading this month, and you can expect to see some reviews beginning to pop up in February.
- Plague Birds (2021 novel) by Jason Sanford. DNF at 46%. There’s nothing glaringly wrong here, but there’s a revolving door of powerful and mysterious strangers with unclear motivations, and I’m just not especially moved by the mystery of figuring out who is friend and who is foe and who is in-between. Add a bit more blood lust than I prefer without prose or characterization that grabs me and forces me to continue, and you have a recipe for a novel that seemed fine but just didn’t grab me.
Other January Reads
- Full Fathom Five (2014 novel) by Max Gladstone. A effectively standalone piece in Gladstone’s Craft Sequence that has an urban fantasy setting without much of the trappings, with an entertaining plot, strong characters, excellent prose, and a well-realized world carefully crafted to mirror real-world economic systems. Review to come.
- Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871 novel) by Lewis Carroll. This is a reread that I did at bedtime with my five year-old, and I forgot how much more I enjoy Through the Looking-Glass than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The first has the iconic characters–the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, etc.–but so much of the humor comes from parody of pop culture that just isn’t popular anymore. The second is full of language jokes and some fun poetry with varying degrees of nonsense, with “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” being obvious standouts.
- The Thirteenth Hour (2021 novel) by Trudie Skies. Twelve races living together in a steampunk world and some sort of conspiracy to keep the dominant races in power. The prose and perspective characters are really good, but I wasn’t as convinced by how the society worked–especially regarding religion. Review to come.
- The Queen of Blood (2016 novel) by Sarah Beth Durst. A YA fantasy about a world full of malicious elemental spirits and a girl who must use her cleverness to keep them from destroying her and her loved ones. The side characters tend to be thin, and major plot points may be predictable, but the narrative keeps the tension high, and the lead’s problem-solving is fun to watch. Review to come.
- Daughter of the Empire (1987 novel) by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts. This is pure scheming fantasy, with the lead thrust into power at a young age and forced to use every ounce of cleverness and ruthlessness just to keep her house afloat amidst and endless series of rivals ready to pounce on her weakness. The structure tends toward the episodic, but the writing and lead character are well-done. Review to come.
- Appropriately Aggressive: Essays about Books, Corgis, and Feminism (2019 collection) by Krista D. Ball. It’s a collection of essays, so it hits differently than a cohesive whole, but a few of the essays on feminism and fantasy have been truly excellent. Review to come.