art by Ashley Cope
#1) Jhereg by Steven Brust
Somehow I’ve gone 25 years of genre without reading Steven Brust. I remember very distinctly buying The Phoenix Guards at a middle-school book fair, but found it not to my tastes at the time. Jhereg, Brust’s first novel, is nothing like how I remember that first foray. Stripped to the bare essentials, Jhereg is the story of a young human assassin named Vlad Taltos surviving in a criminal underworld populated by dragonpersons. Hired by an underworld boss to hunt down another underworld boss, Vlad becomes deeply entangled in a complex plot to overthrow the status quo. Wisecracks, complex plans, and a little blade work are the legs on which his success rests.
Jhereg is quite similar to Daniel Polansky’s Low Town series with its morally bankrupt protagonist in possession of a code of ethics unique to his situation. Obviously Low Town is some thirty years late to the party. Where Polansky offers a more robust reading experience, Jhereg contains little description, relying almost exclusively on dialogue to carry the narrative. It makes for a page turning experience that makes an already short book feel like a fifteen minute cat nap and leaves an immediate desire for a hundred more sleeps just like it. Apparently I just compared Brust’s novel to sleeping which is an odd analogy. It’s not boring. Go read it.
Patrick Rothfuss just completed an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit in the r/fantasy subreddit. It was a huge event, with over 1500 comments, and something like 25,000 unique visitors. During the event, the following conversation took place:
My response was most closely approximated to shock. I put it on Twitter. It was retweeted. Some female fans decried it. Otherwise, silence. I should not be surprised. Successful people with gobs of social power are often left to their own devices. I cannot in good conscience let this one go.
After much soul searching and evaluating, or what Wesley Chu calls roaming the steppes on his trusty steed, Eva. . .
. . .we selected the three winners of our Book Tree Holiday Giveaway! Actually, on second thought, it looks like he’s riding a dog on his way to boost a diamond necklace from the Metropolitan Museum. Right?
And the winners are…
So, it’s award season. And that means there’s a lot of shit floating around about who’s eligible for what. One thing I don’t see much of is the blogging community touting their actual work. There’s some chat here and there about “I’m eligible for fan writer!” Or, “my blog is a fanzine!” I’m glad that’s happening, but shouldn’t we be talking about the actual work?
Over the last twelve months we’ve all read and written and consumed a lot of material, some of which was memorable, some which wasn’t. Some of which was widely read, some of which wasn’t. And the vagaries of the internet are such that even good writing often goes overlooked due to news cycles and posting times and the like. I think that’s a shame regardless of whether or not me, or any my colleagues, are eligible for an award.
Hopefully, this starts a meme among the blogs. Here’s what I think was my best work in 2013.
Night Shade Books: What went wrong? - This post was something like two months in the making. I first had an inkling that Night Shade was about to implode in August of 2012. Fast forward several months. Over the course of a week I had editors, literary agents, and half dozen authors providing background material for me to put this piece into the appropriate context. I take a lot of pride in the end product. I could have broken this story well before Publisher’s Weekly or i09 or anyone else posted it, but I felt like the narrative I had to tell was more important than the news cycle. I hope you agree.
Do I have a problem with how the Hugos are conducted? Yup. Do I still think they’re important? Yup. Is it intellectually dishonest of me to hold both of these positions simultaneously? Double-yup. When has being wrong stopped me before? I’m pretty sure Liz Bourke has coined the phrase, “Justin Landon is wrong on the internet.” Why stop now?
Best Novel: I’m going to keep this one quick, I wrote about my favorite novels of the year extensively here.
- Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
- The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar
- American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett
- Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh
The fifth position on my ballot will probably stay blank. Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars and Mark Lawrence’s Emperor of Thorns are both good enough to warrant nomination, but are so inexorably linked to their previous volumes that I struggle to call them best of the year. It’s a personal choice in nominating.
I don’t read much short fiction and what I do is almost entirely original to anthologies as opposed to the short fiction magazines. Nevertheless, among what I read this year I find the following very worthy of nomination.
[Editor's note: The story reviewed in this piece is the third story in the Jurassic London 2013 Stocking Stuffer Chapbook. The chapbook features three stories themed, ostensibly, around regency romance. Liberties were taken. The chapbook, and 'Godmaker' can be downloaded or read online here for free.]
Hot and heavy came the breath from Skeid Raalfstaag’s lips.
So begins Stevon Deermeet’s debut short story. Calling it epic fantasy erotica, sells it short. Not ordinary epic fantasy or mild mannered erotica, ‘Godmaker’ is an author at the peek of his powers channeling the until-now-lost erogenous zones of Brandon Sanderson, Terry Brooks, and Raymond Feist.
Much of the erotica subgenres are an end in and of themselves. Deeermeet refuses to take the easy road, instead providing deep and cutting commentary on how epic fantasies use sexuality. And does it in around 1,000 words.
As the sentence quoted at the start implies, Skeid Raalfstaag is Deermeet’s protagonist. The gist is that Raalfstaag has recently been joined with a woman of the clan and he must repress his battle instincts in order to consummate their relationship. The words Deermeet chooses to describe this process are chilling. It begins with Raalfstaag’s inability prevent an erection in the early stages of their dance, highlighting Deermeet’s sexually abstinent culture.
I read 101 books this year. 32 weren’t published in 2013, 11 were manuscripts set for publication over the next several years, leaving 58 titles from which I am drawing conclusions about the book of the year. In other words, take what I say with a grain of salt. I haven’t read everything, including what are probably several very real contenders for the best book published this year. So, if you disagree with me it’s OK. I’m still right, but its OK.
Onward to the list…
These books really couldn’t be more different. But, that’s how I roll. I’m one of those grouchy people who struggle to call non-first-books-in-a-series the best anything. They’re just so reliant on knowing what has come before. In this instance though there’s no arguing that both Mark Lawrence’s Emperor of Thorns of Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars are two of the best books of 2013. With that in mind consider this a strong recommendation that you go pick-up the earlier books in the series and get to work.
The Lawrence novel ends the Broken Empire Trilogy which follows little Jorg Ancrath’s quest to put himself on the throne where no one but himself can control his fate. Suffice to say there are lots of little obstacles to that journey, not the least of which concludes the series on a bitter sweet note. I say bitter sweet because that’s a term we use that really doesn’t mean anything, and in this case it’s terribly misleading because there’s nothing remotely sweet about the novels. They’re dark, and haunting, and totally unredemptive. Genius all the same.
Bear’s novel is the second in her Eternal Sky trilogy, to be wrapped up in 2014 with Steles the Sky. I’ve obtained a copy and eagerly waiting to dig into it. Although Bear’s novels don’t opften have the kind of narrative pace and intent that others do her prose is second to none. She writes beautiful books full of evokative scenes and authentic characterizations. Her novels function like broken GPSs, leading you astray all the while believing you know exactly where you’re headed. Until you don’t. Bear is one of the finest authors in the fantasy genre today and I sincerely hope she hits a bestseller list some day.
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:
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).
Art is something I spent a lot of time in 2013 getting more knowledgeable about. I found a lot of incredible artists to geek out over, and a lot of really poorly executed pieces to decry. For the Juice Box Awards I look at two things, the quality of a cover’s illustration and its overall design. The two are inexorably linked, particularly when it comes to covers. While many awards only look at the artwork, typically an illustration, I want to recognize the overall composition of a cover. As an example, Richard Anderson composed this beautiful image, and then the art director inexplicably mauled it with the type setting.
Of course, some of that is on the artist because he really didn’t give Irene Gallo, Tor’s Art Director, much space to work in without obscuring the image, but still… it’s a beautiful illustration and a pretty tragic cover. Another example with Marc Simonetti’s art in a French edition of Terry Goodkind’s The First Confessor:
Here the art director is fighting the cover art entirely by blocking it out to create a letterbox effect. Unlike the Anderson cover previous, Simonetti leaves a tremendous amount of space across the top for type setting. It makes me wonder at all why Bragelonne commissioned such a beautiful painting at all. Boggling.
Nevertheless, my goal with the Juice Box is to recognize both aspects–the illustrator and the designer. Let’s get on with the show. I present my lengthy short list of the best covers of 2013, with the winner at the end. My top five covers for the year are marked by commentary.
My annual reading is about 70-80% current year releases. But, with around 100 books read a year that leaves a not insignificant number of off-year reads that I like to recognize and talk about. In year’s past this has been something of the KJ Parker award, with The Folding Knife winning the award in 2011 and Devices and Desires making the short list in 2012. Parker did not make the list this year despite my reading Colours in the Steel this year, which I found to be good, but far from Parker’s peak efforts.
Before I go on, I want to give a shout out to a novel that’s not been published. I’ve mentioned before that I read for a handful of authors. Sometimes that’s full books nearing publication, sometimes its partials or pitches for early feedback, and, in one very specific occasion, it was a trunked novel that the author thought I would have a particular interest in. The novel, titled Wild, was written by Will McIntosh. It’s about a baseball team, cursed for reasons no one can quite figure out, dealing with the outing of the first openly gay professional team sport athlete. It’s easily one of the best books I read this year. Part romance, part familial bonding, part urban fantasy with baseball’s gods as the antagonists, it should be the kind of novel published alongside Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding or John Grisham’s Calico Joe. If any editors are reading this… call McIntosh’s agent and ask for a copy. Please. It’s brilliant and timely.
(In other news, except McIntosh’s brilliant Love Minus Eighty to make an appearance in a future Juice Box Award.)
With that done, I present the best of my 2013 reading not publishing in 2013: