In a typical year about one third of my reading is debuts. 2013 that number was closer to 20%. If I was guessing why that might be I would say it’s because Night Shade fell apart. I wrote about it extensively here. The truth is Night Shade was one of the bastions of debut writers, a place where even the most abstract titles would have a chance at finding readers. With Night Shade in-flux and no real idea yet how the new ownership will direct the press I felt a real absence of new unique voices to the scene.
Now that doesn’t mean there was a lack of debuts, merely that among the debuts there were fewer titles that sounded genuinely interesting to me. Kameron Hurley said it on Twitter last night, and I thought it spoke very well to the circumstances under which I seek out a new writer:
— Kameron Hurley (@KameronHurley) January 2, 2014
There was little of that this year for me. I missed some. Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria never made its way into my reading pile. Nor did Helen Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. Nevertheless, there were five that felt deserving of recognition (and one that you’ll see in tomorrow’s post for novel of the year that I exempted from this one).
#5) Generation V by ML Brennan
I really dislike urban fantasy on the whole. I find it repetitive and trite and guilty of pandering to its readership. Shit. Did I just describe epic fantasy too? Well, epic fantasy panders to me and urban fantasy really doesn’t. So… that makes sense. LEAVE ME MY ILLUSIONS. Why then is an urban fantasy one of my five favorite debuts of 2013? Because it doesn’t pander. It isn’t repetitive. And it isn’t trite. Maybe a little on the last count, but that’s OK, because if it doesn’t have some of the tropes it wouldn’t be in the genre, right?
In Generation V the protagonist is a broke college kid who happens to be a pre-pubescent vampire. He’s got a screwed up family life and demands no respect from anyone in his personal life. He ends up investigating a murder when a vampire comes into his family’s territory and needs a snack. Pair him up with a hot shape changing fox guardian, and things get hairy.
Nothing about the book goes as you might expect. The narrator isn’t a master class of wit. He isn’t powerful. He isn’t even really vampirish. He’s just a dude trying to do the right thing. I found the whole concept refreshing, giving me new hope for urban fantasies. I’ve read several since and found a few to enjoy and a few that reconfirm my past experiences.
#4) Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan
I could make the case that Promise of Blood is a little bit like the Generation V of epic fantasy. The main character is old and not as quick as he used to be. His son, another point of view character, is a drug addict, but awful good at his job. There’s an out-of-shape investigator who is barely keeping his head off the chopping block, and a washer woman turned fugitive who doesn’t get raped. There are guns instead of swords (although there are a few swords) and the magic system and milieu have a very industrial revolution texture to them. In other words, Promise of Blood acts like an epic fantasy, but it doesn’t really look like one.
In terms of the narrative itself, McClellan wrote a delightfully fast paced and thrilling book that whets the appetite for what comes next, without being unduly cliff hangery. It feels like the debut of an author who’s going to do great things in the future. Whatever that future is, I’ll continue to enjoy the present he’s created, which is under contract for five more books.
#3) The Oathbreaker’s Shadow by Amy McCulloch
I announced on this blog a few days ago that McCulloch finally sold her debut novel to a US publisher. It’s about time. Based in a world where magic binds people together through oaths, Raim discovers an unknown promise made on his behalf. When binding his life to his best friend (and future king), Khareh, the string that had been tied to his wrist from birth bursts into flames and sears a dark mark into his skin. Scarred as an oath-breaker, Raim has two options: run, or be killed.
At its heart, Oathbreaker’s Shadow is about reconciling absolutes against reality, where nothing is ever one-hundred percent anything. Raim begins in a world defined by fidelity above all else. To break faith, for even the most minor of commitments after adolescence, is to invite banishment and scorn. These concepts provide a didactic story that makes what could be read as adult fantasy into something inherently designed for a young reader. McCulloch takes a basic and intriguing moral concept and pumps up the volume to a level that presents an almost instructional scenario.
It’s done beautifully well, making Oathbreaker’s Shadow one of those books that inspired me to take a whole new look at fiction for young readers. Expect a lot more YA and even MG reviews here in 2014.
#2) No Return by Zachary Jernigan
I thought this was such an important title I wrote about it twice. Once here on my own blog and once at Tor.com in ‘Under the Radar’. It is, in fact, the most daring debut novel on 2013, with bizarre characters, bizarre scenes, bizarre language, and bizarre world building. But, underlying all that weirdness is something that digs at the roots of the human experience. It seems so much of genre fiction these days is talking about social agendas, which is by no means a bad thing, but No Return is so divorced from anything I would call a discussion about ‘the state of things’ that it can’t help but speak to the universal truths that underscore breathing.
On the downside, Jernigan’s two pronged narrative has absolutely no resolution. Regardless, I had No Return has the 5th best debut of 2013. After writing about it decided I was off by a few and moved it up to number two. I’m very convincing you know.
And now, the winner of the Juice Box for Debut of the Year goes to…
#1) The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
8 months ago I called Lives of Tao ‘the most fun I’ve had this year.’ Fast forward to today and it’s still true. And I never would have read it if it wasn’t for Breach Zone author Myke Cole, who blurbed the book and brought it to my attention months before anyone was talking about it.
Lives of Tao tells the story of out-of-shape IT technician Roen who hears a voice in his head that turns out to be an ancient alien life-form named Tao who’s hitching a ride. Aliens have been on Earth for a long time, with two opposing factions searching for a way off-planet. The Genjix would sacrifice humanity to accomplish it, and the Prophus wouldn’t. Roen, being lucky enough to get a Prophus, is now a secret agent in a war totally beyond him.
Unlike all the other books on this list, Chu doesn’t really try to do anything particularly challenging. He’s got a cool idea, one that rewrites history without rewriting anything, and runs with it. He succeeds because he’s got a clever voice, full of subtle wit and kinetic pacing. It’s the kind of book I often don’t seek out because the odds of it blowing me away require a host of buttons to be pushed just so else it becomes literary flotsam. Chu pushed them all. And it tickled.
If there’s an author out there who has a chance to win the award of ‘Most John Scalzi’ it would be Chu. Of course, I’ve often levied rather stern accusations about Scalzi’s repetitive nature. With that in mind we’ll have to see where Chu takes things from here. In the meantime, Lives of Tao feels like one of those books that was written just for me.