Tag Archives: Fantasy

2016 FAVORITES

First up: I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has read, liked, linked or commented. Thank you. My best wishes for the new year!

I’ve read 54 titles in 2016, and reviewed 52. Below are the ones I enjoyed most, in no particular order. Click on the covers for the review.



Bone SwansBone Swans – stories by C.S.E. Cooney (2015)
If I had to make a top 3 of things I read this year, this would be in it. 5 stories, 2 of which play on known fairytales. “Poetic, humorous, original, daring, gruesome, outrageous, unsettling and even amoral.” You can read them for free online, links at the end of the review! Start with the title novella.


Europe In AutumnEurope in Autumn – Dave Hutchinson (2014) 
Spy novel in a near future fractured Europe. A relevant, Cassandran pageturner. I’m looking forward to the sequels. If you’re not up for a new series: this one can be read independently, and Hutchinson in fact wrote this as a standalone title. Only afterwards did he decide to make it a series.


Ninefox GambitNinefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee (2016) 
Poetic far future space opera by a Korean trans man. Checks all the right boxes for the 2016 crowd. Difficult at first, and at the end you still won’t be 100% sure about what’s going on. And the good thing: this is excellent & fresh on its own terms, not merely because of identity considerations.


The Darkness That Comes BeforeThe Darkness That Comes Before – R. Scott Bakker (2003)
Pretty grim epic fantasy with a messianic storyline. First of the Prince Of Nothing trilogy. That trilogy is followed by The Aspect Emperor series, so if you like it, you’re set for some quality reading time. A bit overlooked it seems. Fans of Steven Erikson should take note.


Wolf HallWolf Hall – Hilary Mantel (2009)
Historical fiction that does complex court politics much, much better than most fantasy. 16th century England & the Tudors are the backdrop, and Thomas Cromwell a fascinating main character. This comes with the highest possible recommendation, and that’s for people that read only speculative fiction as well.


The Summer TreeThe Summer Tree – Guy Gavriel Kay (1984)
The debut of one of fantasy’s most respected, ‘literary’ authors. Kay helped edit The Silmarillion, and that shows in this first book of The Fionavar Tapestry. While the Tolkien influence is obvious, it’s a thing of its own for sure. It had me teared up at times, and the prose is delightful art.


The Paper MenagerieThe Paper Menagerie – Ken Liu (2016)
I thought The Grace Of Kings, Liu’s long form fantasy debut, was a giant, overpraised bore. None of that stale, clunky writing in this charming, diverse collection of short stories. Here, his prose is fluid. It has a few hard-hitting, brutal stories. You can read the bulk online for free: the links are in the review!


The Water KnifeThe Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi (2015)
High octane dystopian fiction. Featuring an action hero running around and killing people. Set on the water deprived American West Coast, somewhere sooner than later. Both entertaining and brutal, both escapist reading and political warning.


White NoiseWhite Noise – Don DeLillo (1985)
I should read more non-speculative fiction, as both of the non-speculative titles I read this year made this year-end list. White Noise is still relevant 30 years later. One of the prime examples of postmodern literature, but that’s such an unclear, overused flag it might not help. Full of sharp observations and insightful irony. If you like Kurt Vonnegut, try this too.


More Than HumanMore Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon (1953)
On the surface level a typical 1950ies book infused with the scientific hope for a paranormal breakthrough in telepathy and the likes. Nietzsche’s influence is fairly obvious, but well done. Beneath that, it’s a novel about Nature’s beauty and Man’s loneliness. Sturgeon’s prose is a treat, and his views are transcendentalist. It has a small but important racial component too, well before such became mainstream.


Green EarthGreen Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson (2015)
More people should read KSR. He’s without question the best and most pressing author working in speculative fiction today. This is his version of The Great American Novel. Originally published as the Science In The Capitol trilogy, Robinson decided to cut 300 pages and publish the resulting redux version as one big book. Highly political, and in a such a way it is relevant for all of humanity. Green Earth‘s main topic is climate change, and the place science should take in Washington’s decision making. Green Earth is also about raising small children, Buddhism, the outdoor life, Roosevelt and Emerson & Thoreau.


Gardens Of The MoonGardens Of The Moon – Steven Erikson (1999)
Erikson put the epic back in epic high fantasy with this debut, the first in a 10 book series. It features – among countless other things – an insane mage that’s a small wooden puppet & a sword that has a prison inside it. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen is universally regarded as having redefined the genre.



I have the feeling 2016 wasn’t an as good a year for SFF as 2015 was. Less titles appealed to me, and of what I’ve read, not a lot stood out. But, I still want to read Dark Matter, Europe in Winter, The Great Ordeal, Children Of Earth And Sky and Version Control. With that in mind, for the moment, my vote for best book released in 2016 goes to Ninefox Gambit.

When I wrote my 2015 favorites post, I still had to read The Dark ForestThe Grace of KingsThe House Of Shattered WingsThe Traitor Baru CormorantThe Water KnifeDark OrbitThe Fifth SeasonGreen Earth, Twelve Kings In Sharakhai. I have to say most of those didn’t convince, and my favorite 2015 book firmly remains Aurora, with Luna: New Moon and Seveneves close behind. None of the 2016 releases I’ve read so far come close to those 3. I’m hoping Version Control will be in the same league. The only 2015 title that’s still on my current TBR is Europe At Midnight.

The worst 2016 book I read must be The Medusa Chronicles by Alastair Reynolds & Steven Baxter. Such a shame Reynolds can’t seem to find his old form back. Producing books at his current tempo won’t help.

What’s in store for 2017? I’m thrilled for KSR’s new novel New York 2140, set for release in March, as well as a few sequels: McDonald’s Wolf Moon (February), Lee’s Raven Stratagem (June) and Hutchinson’s Europe At Dawn. October will see the start of a new trilogy set in Elizabeth Bear’s the Eternal Sky universe – The Stone In The Skull. And maybe Rothfuss might finish revising Doors Of Stone, who knows? He’d better hurry, as I fear I might have evolved too much as a reader to still enjoy Kvothe’s story…



NON-BOOK FAVORITES

2016’s three mammoth music albums

It seems my music ‘consumption’ has diminished even further in 2016. For over two decades, I used to buy one or two albums a week, but it looks like I’m becoming more and more saturated. Nonethess, the final months of 2016 saw the release of three brilliant albums, all on the same label, but sounding very different, and among the best the innovative new music stalwart Erstwhile Records has ever released.

The Room Extended

Keith Rowe – The Room Extended
4 cds from the originator of the prepared guitar (no, that’s not Fred Firth or Lee Ronaldo) and founding member of AMM. Rowe is in his 70ies, and this is maybe his most important record. Introspective, dark, brooding, sparse, harsh, fragile, beautiful. Expect no rhythm nor harmony nor melody – just layered sound. Music like abstract painting.

The Earth And The Sky

Michael Pisaro – The Earth And The Sky (played by Reinier van Houdt)
Among the best solo piano albums I own, and that’s counting classical music, jazz and avant garde. So yes, you might have never heard of American contemporary composer Michael Pisaro, but this 3-cd collection truly is on par with recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Satie, Rachmaninov, Feldman, Cecil Taylor, Schlippenbach, Thelonius Monk and John Cage. It’s slow, introspective, and the recordings’ depth and textures are amazing. Just beautiful.

community

Graham Lambkin – Community
A double cd that’s hard to categorize. There are fragments of songs, found sound, collage, poetry, soundscapes, weirdness, musique concrète. Captivating, dreamy, urgent. A singular, adventurous voice in contemporary music.

Other music

metal
Deathspell Omega – The Synarchy Of Molten Bones   (Norma Evangelium Diaboli)
Xibalba Itzaes – Ah Tza!   (Nuclear War Now!)

field recordings / composed improvisation / alternative country
Toshiya Tsunoda – Somashikiba   (edition.t)
Christian Wolff & Michael Pisaro – Looking Around   (Erstwhile)
Lambchop – FLOTUS   (Merge)

older stuff discovered this year
Neptune Towers – Caravans To Empire Algol   (Moonfog)
Misfits – Earth A.D. / Wolfs Blood   (Plan 9)

2016 pop singles
Rihanna – Work (feat. Drake)
Frank Ocean – Pink + White
Tourist LeMC – Horizon (feat. Wally)

Live performances

Hands down, the most brilliant thing I saw in 2016 was Joanna Newsom and her band, Bozar, Brussels, on the 24th of February. Goosebumps for the full 2 hours. Easily among the best 10 shows I saw in my entire life.

I didn’t see a lot of live music this year, but I was impressed by pianists Alexander Von Schlippenbach & Aki Takase in De Singer, Rijkevorsel (6/9), and pianist Alexandre Tharaud playing Erik Satie in De Singel, Antwerp (30/1). Also Gabriel Rios did a great job in OLT Rivierenhof, Deurne (10/8).

I also enjoyed Cecilia Bengolea, François Chaignaud & Compagnie Vlovajob Pru dancing on dancehall & Gregorian polyphonic chants, in De Singel, Antwerp, on the 1st of October.

Art I’ll remember

James Turrell – burial chapel at the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof I, Berlin, Germany
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy
Sarah Lucas’ Bitch – Kunstmuseum Basel, Swiss

GARDENS OF THE MOON – Steven Erikson (1999)

gardens-of-the-moonI don’t have a lot of analysis to offer to readers already familiar with Gardens Of The Moon. It’s a massive book (703 pages + an 8 page glossary) and yet I only took 4 notes while reading. In this case, that means there was nothing to complain about structurally or idea-wise: so no plot holes, or bad writing, or philosophically unsound ideas. It also means Erikson didn’t surprise me with particular insights in the human condition.

That last one is not necessarily a negative: I don’t want to imply Erikson writes derivative, superficial stuff – he doesn’t – but I have the feeling I can only start making valid points on his ideological foundations after I’ve read a lot more of this series.

So what do I have to offer to readers familiar with this debut? Nothing but the information I liked it a lot – which may or may not say something about how our tastes align. I was a bit bogged down at the halfway point, but that probably was more because of other things keeping me from reading than because of the book itself.

I do want to convince fantasy readers unfamiliar with Erikson to start this widely acclaimed book, so I’ll devote the rest of this review to doing just that.

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THE DARKNESS THAT COMES BEFORE – R. Scott Bakker (2003)

the-darkness-that-comes-beforeA couple of weeks ago I read this review of the recently published The Great Ordeal on Speculiction. It instantly triggered me to read the first book of The Prince Of Nothing trilogy, as The Great Ordeal is the third book of The Aspect Emperor series – a sequel to that first trilogy.

My previous review highlighted Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on Theodore Sturgeon and his More Than Human. Coincidentally, R. Scott Bakker begins his book with a quote of Nietzsche from Beyond Good And Evil.

I shall never tire of underlining a concise little fact that which these superstitious people are loath to admit – namely, that a thought comes when “it” wants, not when “I” want …

It’s not just some fancy quote to set the mood, as in Before They Are Hanged. It spells out the theme of the novel. Kellhus, the main character, was bred and raised by the Dûnyain, an ancient monastic order that makes it its goal to achieve control over one’s impulses and desires. The title of the book refers to the same theme:

The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?

If you’re not philosophically inclined, don’t let that quote put you off – the book isn’t full of preachy stuff like this – on the contrary: it’s character-driven, and there’s plenty of action and awe.

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THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU – stories by Susanna Clarke (2006)

the-ladies-of-grace-adieuSusanna Clarke’s much lauded magnum opus Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite speculative books. So I didn’t hesitate to order The Ladies Of Grace Adieu And Other Stories after reading an excellent review on the Calmgrove blog.

It features 8 stories, plus a fictional introduction by “Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen”. That introduction is only 3 pages and set my expectations even higher, as Clarke’s familiar ‘English’ narrative voice shone through instantly, promising more of the treat Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was. All the stories in this 235-page collection deal with Faerie in one way or the other, and were illustrated by WFA winning artist Charles Vess. A few are also explicitly linked with J.S. & Mr. N.

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THE GRACE OF KINGS – Ken Liu (2015)

the-grace-of-kingsThe Wall Of Storms, the sequel to this first book of The Dandelion Dynasty, will be published in a few weeks, early October 2016. I’d already ordered it, but after reading 200 pages of The Grace Of Kings, I cancelled my order. I also cancelled reading the rest of the 623 pages of Ken Liu’s full length debut. So, yes, this is my second DNF this year – the other’s here.

What a bummer. I looked forward to this book. I’m a huge fan of the short story collection Liu published earlier this year, and I liked his translation of The Three-Body Problem. It won the Locus First Novel, and there were a few positive reviews of bloggers whose opinion I respect.

Imagine my surprise with this book’s main problem: clunky, crummy prose, and dialogue that’s bloated & unrealistic – fantasy world or not.

“Young man,” she mumbled after the retreating figure of Kuni Garu, “you may act lazy and foolish, but I have seen your heart. A bright and tenacious flower will not bloom in obscurity.”

or

But the evidence seemed to some of the ministers and generals flimsy.

or

Also, his double pupils always made others look away.

There’s so many words in this book. Words words words. Also, if the editors would have taken a marker and highlighted all the redundant words and phrases, the book would have looked like a syllabus from an undergrad who can’t distinguish between what’s important and what’s not.

This book might be the best illustration I’ve come across of why an author should show and not tell – a critic’s cliché that I don’t like repeating in reviews myself, but really, this book forces my hand. Liu does lots of telling, let me tell you. But if I’m honest, the telling as such is not really the problem: it’s how it is being told, and that’s repetitive and slow paced. It’s boring telling, indeed. There are pages and pages of things explained that were already clear. Explained, repeated, and explained again. Because of all that, Liu’s tale failed to connect emotionally, and I hardly felt anything, as only saying something is “famous” or “skilled” doesn’t make it so. As a result, the action felt stale and lifeless. Strange, as Liu’s short fiction proves he can write compelling, even horrifying scenes, using poetic, precise prose. Yet his long form feels like amateur hour.


Saladin Ahmed, author of a pulp turd, calls this book “a much-needed breath of fresh air” for epic fantasy. Saga Press slapped it on the cover, but forgot The Grace Of Kings actually isn’t really fantasy. It’s a rehash of Chinese history. Ken Liu talked openly about this, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page of the Chu-Han contention – the conflict 2 centuries BC that led to the birth of the Han dynasty – is revelatory. The two main characters, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, are more or less Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Here’s two Wiki quotes, that will be very familiar to people who’ve read the book…

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THE PHYSIOGNOMY – Jeffrey Ford (1997)

the-physiognomyThe Physiognomy is the first book of The Well-Built City trilogy, and all three books supposedly make up one big novel. I won’t be reading book two and three, as The Physiognomy failed to connect with me. I am not saying this is a bad book, I am just saying it wasn’t my cup of tea. As it won the World Fantasy Award – not an award with a bad track record, with winners as diverse as Clarke, Le Guin, Miéville, Kay, Priest, Powers, Wolfe – I’m sure there’s an audience for it.

I’ve devised a quick litmus test to see if you’re part of that audience. Consider these two sentences:

I stared at some of the titles on the shelves and before long found four of my twenty or more published treatises. I was sure he hadn’t read Miscreants and Morons – A Philosophical Solution, since he had not yet committed suicide.

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THE BOOK OF PHOENIX – Nnedi Okorafor (2015)

The Book Of PhoenixThe Book Of Phoenix is a kind of prequel to Who Fears Death – a post-apocalyptic science fantasy book I haven’t read. It is my first exposure to Nnedi Okorafor’s writing, and a book that left me frustrated and unsatisfied – yet humbled and uncertain too. I think Okorafor has cleverly hidden her true intentions with this book, and that makes it both an artistic success and an artistic failure – depending on one’s perspective. Let me first write about what Okorafor didn’t manage to do.

While the first fourth of the book was gripping, the plot quickly lost all tension. The Book Of Phoenix is for the most part set in the 29th century and is – roughly – about a child born as an experiment in genetic engineering, done by a shady Big Evil cooperation. That cooperation, LifeGen, has several “towers” spread across the USA where it conducts experiments of all sorts, mainly on Africans that seem to have been enhanced X-Men style – presumably by some alien artifact. The experiments are generally unethical. Continue reading