Of the one-hundred books I read in 2012, nearly one quarter of them were first time authors. I read slightly more last year (28), which makes some sense considering that 2011 was a far better year for debuts than 2012. Regardless, I would happily stack up this year’s Juice Box short list against last year’s. Oddly, none of this year’s best debuts were written by women, a fact that surprised me after reading so many excellent debuts from women a year ago. I’ll chalk it up to noise, especially considering my 2013 reading thus far has included numerous excellent debuts from female authors.
Interestingly, despite some of the harsh criticisms I’ve levied toward Night Shade Books’ 2012 list, two of their debuts make the cut here, matching last year’s number. I lauded them a year ago for their outstanding new author program, and I hope it’s something they can continue to champion.
Without further ado, the 2012 Juice Box Award for Debut of the Year:
#5) Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards
Salyards’ debut is all about a reporter who finds himself in the middle of a war he’s completely unprepared for. The novel is foremost a character study. It puts the reader inside the head of a naive, scared, and incapable narrator, who is revolted by and attracted to his subjects in equal measure. Interestingly, the character study I speak of isn’t the narrator, Arki, but Captain Killcoin, the secretive leader of the company, and his merry band of slaves turned soldiers turned guerrillas turned brooding veterans. The narrator becomes the cipher through which the reader perceives reality and thereby Killcoin.
The novel reminds me not a little of Glen Cook’s The Black Company series, one of the most significant works for modern fantasy. Cook, like Salyards, focuses on character over milieu, and more importantly on the social dynamics of military squads in a fantasy world. What separates the two is Salyards’s use of outsider observer. Croaker, from Black Company, is the quintessential insider and an active participant in the action. Using Arki, Salyards creates a wholly different paradigm that reflects on the fantasy genre and the nature of violence in a way that’s entirely unique.
The haunting nature of Killcoin, and Arki’s witnessing of his life, carries the novel, delivering a special and fresh reading experience.
#4) Control Point by Myke Cole
The first thought I had when I finished Myke Cole’s debut, Control Point, was confusion over why Ace decided to only release it in mass market paperback. In my life, I’ve read few novels that have greater appeal to such a wide swathe of readers. Control Point isn’t urban fantasy or military science fiction (two of the best selling sub-genres), but rather a blending of the two.
To have a discussion about Contral Point, it’s almost mandatory to know something about Cole himself. He did three tours in Iraq — some as a security contractor and some as a Coast Guard officer. He’s served as a government civilian, working Counterterrorism and Cyber Warfare and he was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Talk to him for a minute and his passion for service is palpable. Given that, I was stunned by the skeptical lens by which he examines government and those who serve it. The impetus for the novel begins with the question, what would the government do if magic existed and it was illegal? Cole’s answer is: establish a secret government agency to control it and use it for its own purposes. There’s much more here than is readily apparent, making it easily one of the five best debuts of 2012.
#3) Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
So far we have a reporter and government employee, what are we missing to complete the holy trinity? You guessed it! A lawyer. Who would have thought that a fantasy novel about a law firm specializing in the adjudication of a dead god’s estate would be this good? In fact, it’s great, and Three Parts Dead would have won this award were it not for an ending that fell a little short.
Anytime a story involves gods there’s got to be some discussion on the nature of belief. Informed by the Bertrand Russell quote that inspired the title, I interpreted that discussion to be the conflict between idealism and pragmatism. Russell being one of the founders of the so-called ‘revolt against idealism’ I found of particular interest. Reinforced by the modern wave of cynical fantasy, most identified with Joe Abercrombie, today’s fantasy tends to argue that ideals only bring bloodshed and disappointment and pragmatism is a nice way of saying self preservation.
Gladstone takes a different approach affirming the importance of actions informed by belief. This discussion is linked to his protagonist’s arc: her “birth” as an independent agent, her action as a self-interested actor, and her ultimate denial of its appeal in favor of ‘meaning’. All that juxtaposed with the legal thriller, a subgenre of fiction that also tends to diminish idealism, makes Three Parts Dead a beautifully orchestrated novel that belies its status as a debut.
#2) Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
I read Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon the day after meeting him, two weeks before the novel was released, at ConFusion in Detroit. I had only recently received a copy in the mail and ended up reading most of it in my hotel room half cocked on scotch in the wee hours of the morning. Thankfully, the novel was a brisk 288 pages that allowed me to finish it in a reasonable amount of time despite my less than 100% mental capacity.
After reading that paragraph I realize it might indicate that I loved Throne of the Crescent Moon because I was drunk. That’s not the intent, because Ahmed’s novel is a tremendous achievement that revitalizes the sword & sorcery paradigm with a new and fresh perspective that blends the best elements of the old masters with the affectations of modern fantasy. Is it too short? Probably. Do things happen to expeditiously in the end? Definitely. Did I have more fun reading a book this year? Nope.
And the winner of the 2012 Juice Box Award for Best Debut:
#1) Faith by John Love
One of the first books released in 2012, Faith by John Love was also one of the best, and the best debut I read in 2012. The basic premise is that 300 years ago an unidentified ship visited the Sakhran Empire and left it devastated. One Sakhran recognized the ship for what She was and wrote the Book of Srahr. When they read it, the Sakhran’s turned away from each other, sending their Empire into a slow but irreversible decline. They called Her, Faith. Now She’s back, threatening the human Commonwealth and the only thing standing in Her way is the Charles Manson.
The Charles Manson is an Outsider, one of the Commonwealth’s ultimate warships, crewed by people of unusual ability – sociopaths whose only option is to serve or die. The plot is somewhat reminiscent of the Star Trek model — deep space encounters, prolonged stand-offs, failed diplomacy, synthesizing the unknown, and eventual escalation of force are all present. The bridge of the Charles Manson, where the vast majority of the novel takes place, has a captain, a first officer, an engineering officer, a pilot, a weapons officer, and all the other parts normally associated with a Federation Starship. Of course, Captain Picard wasn’t a sexual deviant (notice I didn’t say Kirk!) and Commander Riker wasn’t an alien with claws for hands.
Not just a delinquent Star Trek novel, Faith is also a psychological journey akin to that of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. On the Charles Manson, Aaron Foord is Ahab, an unrelenting, obsessive, and meticulous task master who drives himself and his crew to the limits to defeat Faith. And Faith, an enigmatic and worthy opponent who Foord both loathes and adores, is the white whale. To someone whose read Melville’s classic, many of the concepts that the whale represents are likewise present here. By the novels conclusion Love has melded the space opera with the literary, providing a resolution to the conflict while initiating a conversation with his reader about metaphysical concepts at home in Plato’s Cave.
Faith is a tremendous achievement, debut novel or not, and it’s one I would recommend my readers immediately make time to read.
Congratulations to Faith and John Love! May the sipping of your Juice Box protect you against possible incursion by microscopic aliens.