Last year I read 33 books. This year I read 121. What happened to me?
I’m Strix. I co-blog here occasionally and keep reading behind the scenes. As the year winds down I thought I’d look back and do all that standard retrospective stuff. So – yes, what happened? Why’d I read so much this year? The biggest reason for that is: college happened. Math classes happened. I have trauma associated with those classes from my high school years, and returning to them years later was…well, I coped by turning to my two favorite escapes: video games and books.
On top of that, thanks to befriending keikii and joining a book group on discord, I had a deluge of recs and people excited for me to read. And on top of that, keikii introduced me to both the paranormal romance and urban fantasy genres, two areas I’ve been neglecting due to their bad press. (Selling poorly written paranormal romances at the grocery store isn’t a good way to entice readers to find more, publishers!)
The perfect storm commenced: stress drove me to read, keikii gave me two genres worth of easy reading, and I read and read and read.
So what’re the best titles from the year?
10. Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance Medley: I read a lot of these this year, and while individual titles aren’t going to outclass the rest of the stuff on this list, I need to point them out because I read like ten different series this year and sampled the genres as thoroughly as I could. Anita Blake’s Guilty Pleasures for example is a short little nasty book that nails a mixture of noir and horror, portraying vampires as sexy and terrifying in equal measure. The next two books in her series explore the horror of losing control and while I’ve been warned about the descent into orgies, the road there is great. Then you get something like Moon Called by Patricia Briggs that sets a gold standard for fast, fun, horrifying urban terrors. Or Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker, or Kim Harrison’s Hollows, or Eileen Wilks’ Lupi… I can list a lot of authors here, and they’re all worth checking out if you’re into exploring that space between the stereotypes of modern America and monsters. Some do it intelligently, some don’t, all of them kept me happy through tough months.
9. Steel Frame by Andrew Skinner: I reviewed this! I’ll sum it up here: absolutely fantastic gritty sci-fi with giant robots and a traumatized woman finding her way through a horrific situation. Great writing, great imagery, this is a book that went for everything I like and nailed it.
8. Cyberstealth / Dancing Vac by S.N. Lewitt: I reviewed this on Goodreads and here’s another summation: Top Gun with stealth-focused starships and aliens as copilots. But it’s also a spy novel, with uncomfortable character moments as they realize who they can and can’t trust. The sequel takes the revelations from the first novel and spins it out into an even larger stage, raising the stakes and pushing straight into amazing setpieces. Note that you shouldn’t read the back cover for Dancing Vac as it spoils the finale of Cyberstealth. Also, try to read them as a pair – Cyberstealth works as a standalone, I guess, but you really need the second half for closure.
7. Ventus by Karl Schroeder: Another one I reviewed on Goodreads! Here’s the first chonker on the list: my mass market paperback edition of this title was 600+ pages. Yet it was a page-turner! By all rights the author should’ve cut it into thirds, added some padding, and sold it as a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid trilogy and made bank, but nope. Big fat paperback ready for me to devour and rave about. See – it starts with the fantasy cliche: here is a young dude working as a mason in a fantasy land. He doesn’t know a thing about starships, he’s never left his home town, and blah blah blahhhh you’ve seen him before. Naturally a mysterious woman sweeps into his life and he’s off on adventure! …But this is where the cliches stop because the woman is from space, she’s hunting a rogue cyborg, and fantasy planet isn’t as fantasy as it seems. The author has some big ideas on how nanotechnology works on a global scale, and I’m still surprised at how he managed to juggle the big ideas with solid character writing and the ability to write a story with decent pacing. I’m probably going to reread it next year, just to enjoy it again.
6. Nightrunner by David Mace: No review for this one, mostly because it’s so bleak I was in recovery from it, and by the time I was ready to review it I was distracted by my next book. This one is an ’80s hard sci-fi novel that contains the most realistic take on futuristic technology I’ve ever seen, especially for the era. Accurate orbital mechanics are a feature in this novel, as well as an absolutely bizarre future society. The plot is, a team of people from Earth are sent to a dead rock of a planet to find out if enemies have made a base there, and if so, to get rid of them. Things go right, until they go very wrong. I would recommend reading this without reading the back cover because it gives away a major spoiler.
5. A Judgment of Dragons by Phyllis Gotlieb: I reviewed this one here! It’s weird old sci-fi featuring spacecats and time travel and inter-species dynamics. It’s a set of connected short stories about a pair of spacecats on a mission: they’re approaching Earth to make a deal. I believe it was along the lines of “we join the Federation, you give our planet enough supplies to introduce sustainable crops to solve a food shortage” – and of course it’s not that simple. The first story involves a time rift that strands them on Earth in the past, in a Jewish community in Poland. It’s a beautiful story from a non-human point of view and every story after the last is better and better. There are sequel novels that I should read in 2020.
4. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson: No review, as like Nightrider I was too emotionally compromised to write about it when I finished it. This book might deserve to be lower in this list, as it doesn’t have a bombastic plot or huge ideas, but… Right. This book is a mystery, a meditation on 2000s technological culture, a reaction to 9/11, and a character study. Our heroine is allergic to pop culture, is so tuned into it that she’s hired as a consultant for finding the best designs for brands. The writing in this book made it sing almost more than the ideas, because it felt… I can only be abstract. It felt like reading ripples on a water’s surface.
3. Species Imperative Trilogy by Julie Czerneda; No review, sorry. This is straight up fun space opera. After a string of big idea sci-fi trilogies that weren’t very good on the character front, this made me excited about reading the genre again. In a utopian future where Earth is part of the Federation, which is mediated by a race of technologically advanced and extremely fair friendly aliens, there’s trouble: someone or something is eating all of the life on random planets and it ain’t stopping. Our heroine, a biologist who studies salmon migration, is dragged into the plot, kidnapped by aliens, forced to learn about an alien culture and adapt to it, and then has to handle alien politics. There’s some excellent character work in here, fantastic weird aliens that have neat cultures (very Cherryh-esque!) and while the romance in the first book was kind of weak, it pulled together and became fun to the point that I was thrilled to see them together in the final book. This is easily the most Star Trek-y book I read this year – well, trilogy – and by god it delivered with warmth and optimism and weird aliens.
2. Cast in Shadow (and sequels) by Michelle Sagara: Yeah, okay, by rights I should call it the Chronicles of Elantra title, but I still think of it as the Cast in [x] series, as every title is Cast in Flame/Shadow/Trust/Chaos/whatever. I reviewed the first volume in the series, but haven’t done the rest yet. This series is urban fantasy, and yet it’s not lumped in with the rest of them. Why? Because it takes all the trappings of urban fantasy – spunky heroine, urban setting, every book is a different murder that needs solving, and the struggle of handling weird fantastical creatures living in the city with you – and the series mixes all of these trappings into a beautiful fantasy stew. The base concept is, our heroine is a cop walking the streets in a giant city ruled over the Eternal Dragon Emperor. She’s human, but was given magical tattoos when she was a kid, and she still has no idea what they mean or why she has them. In the first book, bodies start turning up – with the same tattoos on them. Dun dun dun!
My favorite thing about this series – I’m on book six now – is how Kaylin grows. She’s twenty when the series starts, coddled by those around her due to her background, and over the course of the books goes from kind of dumb would-be adult to someone I would actually trust to protect the city. See, this was one of my early complaints about the first novel – by all rights she shouldn’t be a cop. She’s consistently late, sloppy, and ignorant as hell. She’s kept on because the sergeant and head cop essentially adopted her off the streets and the entire precinct has helped her grow up, so she’s kind of a precinct mascot at first. This helps the readers out because she’s always having things explained to her, but also kind of grated on the nerves. Fortunately once the plot gets underway she begins to really grow up and pay attention, and I absolutely love her as a heroine.
One last thing: there’s no romance in the series so far. It’s kind of advertised as having some, but… nope. Nothing. Do not read this if you want her to smooch anyone, she’s too busy stopping magic crime.
1. The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R Kiernan: Along with the rest of her works as I read through them. No reviews because everything she’s written that I’ve read has devastated me and left me unable to do much but process. Is that an excuse? Possibly. Please read her works. Her prose is majestic as only the best prose can be.
The Drowning Girl is a ghost story about a woman named Imp. She encounters a mermaid or a werewolf and this encounter radically changes her life and her relationship with her girlfriend. It’s written in the style of a memoir, with Imp narrating everything…and she’s the least reliable narrator I have ever read. But she is honest. I think. There’s a lot of circular writing in this, as Imp puts off writing her encounter with the werewolf or mermaid, as Imp gives you full context for her life, as Imp even includes short stories that may or may not be relevant. I devoured this book and walked around staring at walls. On a personal note it’s also the closest I’ve ever come to understanding bipolar disorder, which is important as one of my relatives has it. Just… one hell of a book.
As for everything else she’s written – the Dry Salvages is a sci-fi novella about space archeology and knowing something you shouldn’t, and space horror. Threshold is scooby-doo, but the teenagers are actually adults, the dog might not exist and is definitely a twisted horror that will eat you, and instead of a man in a mask it’s a tunnel with a brick wall at the end. Agents of Dreamland and Black Helicopters are novellas about lovecraftian horrors intersecting reality with secret agents and glimpses of the future and there’s a third one in the series coming out in 2020!
There’s more, of course – I’m reading through them and will be all through 2020 – but Kiernan writes strange things in such an evocative way, and I am desperate to see more.
So that’s the end of my list! I’ve read so much this year and I’ve left off some amazing, astounding titles – god, my friends will rail me for leaving off Gideon the Ninth and Bone Ships and the Luminous Dead but I only had ten slots and I had to talk about the books that got me as no other books did this year.
I’m hoping 2020 is a better future. I’m hoping I read a lot next year – but hopefully for the joy of it, and not for the desperate escape from reality.