Aside from writing — because for me, the two can’t be separated — reading is my favorite activity. As long as there’s one good story I have yet to discover, I’ll always have something to look forward to.
But I don’t read very fast. Not only are the Internet and current affairs a distraction, but the reading I have to do, to prepare for classes, often supersedes the reading I want to do. Those who have managed to read a hundred or more books this year must forgive: I’ve only finished twenty-six, not counting a couple I didn’t manage to get through. But despite the lack of quantity, I call this a good reading year. Here are some of the reasons why:
I’ve discovered new favorites. This year, Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree takes my top prize, with Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns a near photo-finish second. Other standouts include Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand, Jen Williams’ The Ninth Rain, Curtis Craddock’s A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery (why the heck are fantasy fans sleeping on this Risen Kingdoms series?), Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades, and Kate Elliott’s King’s Dragon.
I’ve been exploring some older fantasy works by women. It turns out that the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s produced quite a few epic fantasy series that have been unjustly neglected or forgotten, much of it written by and starring women. This past year I’ve set out on a mission to find them and give them a read. I started out with King’s Dragon, the first book in Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, since I already knew and admired Elliott’s later work. Afterward I gave Rowena Cory Daniells’ Beseiged and Jude Fisher’s Sorcery Rising a try, and finished up this year with Katya Reimann’s A Tremor in the Bitter Earth. I found all to be compelling, and I look forward to finishing their series. Just now I’m in the midst of Diana L. Paxson’s The White Raven, a stand-alone retelling of the Tristan/Isolde legend from the point of view of Isolde’s lady-in-waiting, and in the coming year I plan to make the acquaintance of Paula Volsky via her French Revolution tale Illusion, as well as dive into Katherine Kerr’s Daggerspell.
In one respect, the older books I read this year show their age; with the exception of King’s Dragon (which may be why it’s my favorite), they all lean heavily into the theme of misogyny, in both world-building and characterization. Beseiged introduces us to three races — human, half-human, nonhuman — each with their own religions and cultures, yet they all have one thing in common: men hate and fear women. Sorcery Rising seeks to contrast two societies, one where women are kept under strict confinement and another where they have considerably more freedom of movement, but even in the latter society, the heroine is nagged by her father and brothers to give up her dreams of exploring, get married, and start having babies. In A Tremor in the Bitter Earth, the protagonist, in order to rescue the man she loves, must travel from her home, where she has the freedom to be herself, to a country where women have no value at all, must like those “Planet of the Taliban” episodes that get on my last nerve in science fiction TV shows. I still found the books well worth reading and the series worth pursuing, but continued heavy emphasis on the misogyny theme is wearying for me, and I feel a deep sense of relief to see, in works like The Priory of the Orange Tree and Sam Hawke’s City of Lies and Melissa Caruso’s The Unbound Empire, that the epic fantasy genre may at last be starting to move away from it.
I got acquainted with some fun and fascinating people. I don’t think you’re ever too old to learn from fictional characters. This year I learned from Turyin Mulaghesh (City of Blades) that sometimes the best way to defeat evil is to tap into the darkness within oneself. I learned from Vintage de Grazon (The Ninth Rain) that it’s never too late to travel, explore, and discover. I learned from Nona Grey (Grey Sister) that kindness that can be a strong offense as well as a solid defense. I learned from Ead Duryan (The Priory of the Orange Tree) that compassion and the willingness to help should never be kept confined within a single insular group. And I learned from Mehr (Empire of Sand) that nothing is more powerful than a woman who knows the steps to the Dance of Life. Even if the lessons aren’t new — even if they’re driving home what life has already taught me — I love discovering what characters like this have to teach me, and I look forward to what I’ll learn in the new year.
I look ahead to 2020. Among the books I got for Christmas are A Memory Called Empire (Arkady Martine), Gods of Jade and Shadow (Silvia Moreno-Garcia), The Ten Thousand Doors of January (Alix E. Harrow), Realm of Ash (Tasha Suri), Ships of Smoke and Steel (Django Wexler), Starsight (Brandon Sanderson), The Red-Stained Wings (Elizabeth Bear), Children of Virtue and Vengeance (Tomi Adeyemi), and The Deepest Blue (Sarah Beth Durst). These and more will keep me happy, engaged, and ready to create.
Happy New Year!