My 2012 Juice Box Awards hit a bit of a snag called a new job. I quite underestimated the challenge of moving into a new work environment after ten years. But, I’m going to do my damnedest to get my 2012 awards done this week!
One of my favorite awards is recognizing books from years past that I only recently read for the first time. These novels get forgotten too easily with the shiny new releases that come by every month. Unlike last year, I tried to make a point of reading more out of year novels, and I succeeded with twenty of the one-hundred books I read this year. Not bad, right?
So, which was the best? Below are my five favorites from 2012, with published years ranging from the early 1980s to 2011.
#5 — Earthseed by Pamela Sargent
Sargent’s 1983 young adult classic was rereleased this year by Tor in trade paperback, presumably to celebrate the fact that it was optioned for the big screen by Paramount. Set in a distant future, a group of teenagers hurtle through space on Ship, a sentient generation starship tasked with populating a habitable planet with humanity.
The novel is an exceptional blend of Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games, equal parts insight into human nature and the nature of oppression in an unequal society. As I’ve reflected on the novel in subsequent months I find myself less impressed than I did at first blush, but it remains an exceptional story that demonstrates the kind of female protagonist I wish surfaced more often.
#4 — Armor by John Steakley
Steakley’s classic often stands in the shadow of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War — mostly because of POWER ARMOR. Armor is an all together different kind of novel though, telling two stories that only intertwine at the conclusion. The part featuring Felix, an Earth soldier encased in special body armor designed to fight an insectoid alien horde, fits neatly into the Heinlein and Haldeman tradition as Steakley looks at the horrors of war from an ‘in the thick of it’ point of view.
Once this section ends, it switches to a planetary heist by legendary pirate Jack Crow. Most of the novel’s detractors point to these chapters as Steakley’s misstep. I rather disagree. The novel excels because of the contrast between Felix’s hopeless fatalism and Crow’s (or more exactly his friend Holly’s) fatal hope. This is really a tremendous novel that deserves to be read as widely as other celebrated titles.
#3 — Devices and Desires by KJ Parker
What more can I say about KJ Parker who I believe to be the greatest writer in fantasy? Parker’s novels aren’t always the best novels. I didn’t find Sharps to be even one of my five best novels of 2012. But, if asked which novel of 2012 was written best, I would hard pressed not to name Sharps to that crown. Parker’s sentences are that sharp, that precise, and that efficient. Devices and Desires displays that talent, but does so in a form that puts it well ahead of Parker’s 2012 release.
First in a trilogy, Devices and Desires is the story of an engineer who’s sentenced to death for a transgression of guild law. He flees the city, leaving behind his wife and daughter. Wanting nothing more than to get his family back, he goes to incredible lengths, including the destruction of an entire people. Parker takes the reader inside this calculating mind and does so with such a deft touch that it’s only after careful examination you realize how deeply the engineer mentality has influenced the narrative. From the kinds of metaphors used, down to the very structure of the sentences, this is a brilliantly constructed novel. I can hardly believe I haven’t made the time to read the next two novels yet.
#2 — Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
Karen Lord is one of the hot writers of the day in SFF. She was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award last year, for Redemption in Indigo, and is now being lauded for her 2013 novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. Having read both, I’m of the opinion that the stronger novel is her first. No surprise I suppose considering I’m calling it the second best novel I read not published in 2012.
Redemption in Indigo marries Caribbean and Senegalese traditions into a fable not dissimilar in tone to José Saramago’s Cain, which likewise deploys humor and parable-like set pieces to peel back layers of myth. It’s a beautiful work of fiction that trends toward fabulism and a progressive point of view. It’s also an incredibly different kind of narrative that I struggle to describe (something that’s also true of Best of All Possible Worlds). It gives Lord’s work a feeling of newness. Something that tends to be generally lacking in the sea of genre fiction.
And now, the best book I read this year not published in 2012 and the winner of a 2012 Juice Box Award is. . .
#1 — The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones
There are so many great things about this novel it’s hard for me describe them in brief. At its core, Desert of Souls is the story of two common men — Asim and Dabir — in 8th century Baghdad. It’s an Indiana Jones style adventure novel written very much in a sword and sorcery tradition. The end result is more the adult version of Disney’s Aladdin (sans Robin Williams and Gilbert Godfrey) than a Middle Eastern Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Where it truly excels though is in the application of the tropes and structures from Arabian Nights to accomplish a modern interpretation.
By embracing that past, infused with Arabian Nights and early 20th century fantasy, Jones captures what is best about outmoded forms of fiction without any of the of negative trappings. Many will call Howard Andrew Jones a writer of historical adventure fantasy. It’s an accurate description, but one that sells him woefully short. Desert of Souls is a masterful novel that resonates on a meta-fictional level that’s rarely equaled. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Congratulations, Howard Andrew Jones! May you sip your Juice Box until it folds in on itself and creates a worm hole to another dimension.