It’s the time of year that hard-working book reviewers publish lists, declaring the “Best of 2019!” and so on. Now, organized reviewers have theirs lists done by early December, thus missing out on most of a month of releases. I’ve waited until the very end of December before drafting my own list. Sometimes procrastination pays.
Books are listed in alphabetical order by author’s name.
Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron
This West African-inspired fantasy novel focuses on Arrah, a young woman descended from powerful magicians who appears to have inherited no magical talent at all. Determined to prove her worth and protect her land, Arrah makes an ill-fated bargain for power. She discovers all too late that she has comprehensively misunderstood the nature of the crisis facing her kingdom.
Arrah is everything one might want in a protagonist: good-hearted, sympathetic, and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Queen of the Conquered (Islands of Blood and Storm, Book 1) by Kacen Callender
Sigourney Rose is an anomaly in her world: black but rich. She isn’t a slave, like so many of her dark-skinned distant kin. Sigourney is determined to claw her way to supreme power, then wreak thorough revenge on the light-skinned enslavers.
Callender’s debut novel works as a seamless blend of Elizabethan revenge play and mystery.
Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse and Other Possible Situations by S.B. Divya
This single-author collection features fourteen short pieces, including the Nebula Award nominee “Runtime.” Divya’s interests fall firmly within the classic SF mainstream; “Loss of Signal” recalls an early Niven, “The Egg” is steadfastly Bujoldian, “Ships in the Night” is reminiscent of a Poul Anderson tale, and so on. Divya draws on a more diverse background than most U.S. authors and writes accomplished prose. Almost all of her works to date can be found in this collection. One hopes a novel will soon follow.
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is, as one might expect, a mystery. Once again a stolid veteran returns from a disappointing foreign war and becomes the roommate and amanuensis of a brilliant consulting detective. Straitlaced Captain John Wyndham dutifully documents the exploits of flamboyantly decadent sorcerer(ess) Shaharazad Haas. Not only is Haas far more interested in the pleasures of the flesh than was stuffy Holmes, the world in which her mysterious diversions occur is far richer in eldritch monsters than that inhabited by the English detectives. Hall delivers a hilarious comic cosmic horror novel populated by characters who are, to use a technical term, “queer as fuck.”
The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain
Roused from long slumber, the djinn Melek Ahmar wakes to a world transformed. His fellow djinn are nowhere to be seen. Even humans seem to have vanished, save for one lone man, the former soldier Bhan Gurung. In fact, humans have not disappeared, but have merely retreated into hi-tech cities, Kathmandu being the nearest. Gurung is not interested in urban utopia. What he would like is vengeance. The powerful but naïve djinn will be his chosen weapon. One would expect a grim and bloody tale…what one gets is a delightful light comedy.
The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher
Mouse shoulders the task of cleaning out her malevolent grandmother’s North Carolina home. Amidst the detritus hoarded by the old lady, she finds a journal left by Cotgrave, her grandmother’s long-suffering second husband. An editor by trade, Mouse cannot help but glance at the text. It is an error that will entangle Mouse in a horror best left hidden. What follows is an escalating tale of awful relatives, terrible neighbours, and atmospheric horror.
Catfishing on Catnet by Naomi Kritzer
Forced to move frequently to elude her abusive father, neither Steph nor her mother have the opportunity to make friends. In real life, that is. Online, Steph has an active social life on Catnet, an image-sharing forum. Among Steph’s virtual friends is one more virtual than the rest, the artificial intelligence CheshireCat. Steph has only her mother’s word that the father she does not remember is a stalker. In fact, he is much worse than he has been painted, and Steph’s efforts to learn about him have put her and her friends in danger. Smart, rich, and ruthless, her father needs few clues to find her. His plans, however, do not take into account an all-seeing, if terribly naïve, non-physical opponent. This is a remarkably good-natured thriller.
Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ken Liu (also translated by Ken Liu)
A thematic sequel to the anthology Invisible Planets, Broken Stars offers a wide-ranging overview of contemporary Chinese science fiction. Included are sixteen short stories, each with an accompanying thumbnail biography of each story’s author. Also included are three essays on Chinese SF and its place in modern Chinese society. While my favourites are the stories by Xia Jia and Tang Fei, there are no disappointments in this anthology. Special appreciation to the translator for his exemplary work.
Rediscovery: SF by Women 1958 –1963 (Volume 1) by Gideon Marcus
This delivers exactly what it promises: science fiction by women, published between 1958 and 1963. One danger for retrospective collections is that the stories that editors tend to remember are those that have already been anthologized multiple times. Marcus and his team sidestep this pitfall adroitly, drawing on Marcus’ familiarity with the era to deliver a diverse collection of little known but skillfully crafted short pieces. If you’re unfamiliar with the fiction of this era, you might want to start sampling.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
As far as Cirilo Layba is concerned, his granddaughter Casiopea Tun is lucky. He forgave her mother’s ill-fated marriage and took in the orphaned Casiopea. Yes, the girl is lucky to be an unpaid live-in servant in backwater Uukumil. Casiopea is determined to escape. She finds an unexpected ally—a revived Hun-Kamé, Lord of Xibalba, god of death. The protagonist appeals and Moreno-Garcia’s prose is entrancing.
Girls’ Last Tour, Volume 6 by Tsukumizu
Sisters Yuuri and Chito spent five volumes exploring a desolate cityscape, rarely encountering other humans. Their long-term goal was to find their way to the city’s heights, where perhaps salvation from the inexorable entropy slowly smothering the city might be found. In this final volume, the reader learns what awaits the sisters at the end of their long quest. *sniff*
Despite being composed almost entirely of ominous foreshadowing, the story is charming, even heartening.
Magical Women, edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan
Venkatraghavan delivers an assortment of stories by talented Indian writers. Three elements unite the stories: all are written by women, all are speculative fiction, and all are worth reading. A further element common to many (but not all) is an undercurrent of incandescent fury over the current condition of the world. Taken as a whole, the collection is not quite as upbeat as Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, but the craft of the writers is undeniable.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assAlsted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.