Jeff VanderMeer’s Fantasy in 2010: A Baker’s Dozen of the Best
Any year’s best list should be about passion and depth: the love of a book in the context of a lot of reading. In 2010, my reading was at the very least comprehensive, and I discovered several novels that lived on in my imagination long after I finished them. What I found, most of all, wasn’t about trends or patterns—it was about the joyful fragmentation of a genre and the growth of unique voices. There is no center, no cohesion, no one way, and that’s a great and hopefully enduring quality.
My top three novels exemplify this fragmentation and this promise: Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age, Michael Cisco’s The Narrator, and Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo. They are all great novels, but in wildly different ways. To choose one as the best of the year would be impossible and unfair, so I haven’t tried. All three are the best fantasy novel of the year. All three are fiercely unique.
As for the rest, I’m becoming ever more suspicious of ranking novels and so I’ve presented my choices in alphabetical order by author. Please note that although this list isn’t meant to include science fiction, there’s some slippage in the form of novels in which there appears to be little SF intent. I would also like to mention Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month, which isn’t a novel but a wonderful exploration of fantasy in prose and poetry and belongs on any fantasy lover’s bookshelf. Finally, I admit that heroic fantasy is woefully under-represented in this list. While it’s a subgenre I enjoy, I didn’t read much of it in 2010. (Heroic fantasy will be covered in a separate feature, by Larry Nolen, for Locus Online.)
Best Fantasy Novel of 2010 (a three-way tie)
This novel by a Czech master describes a European’s encounter with a civilization on a tiny island in the Atlantic. At the center of the islanders’ culture is the Book, a handwritten, collective novel filled amazing tales of history and sorcery. Because anyone can write in it, the Book is non-linear. The result is a text of stories within stories that’s as playful as it is fascinating—especially in the context of the narrator’s reports on the island. But this book is much more than a travelogue. It is fiction as philosophy and history, a book that manages to be beautiful and profound and exciting all at once: a classic of modern fantasy. A sly sense of humor also haunts The Golden Age, a wit and cleverness in the service of absurdity.
In Michael Cisco’s latest novel, a man named Low is conscripted into an army to fight against the “blackbirds,” who possess lighter-than-air armor. But first, our hero must navigate a city of uncanny dead things, with priests for both the living and the dead. Once mobilized, he sets off on a journey that is one of the great feats of the imagination in the twenty-first century. So many pages contain unexpected turns of phrase, images, and unconventional set-pieces. Readers will be lured into the novel’s hypnotic mood while also marveling at cannibal queens, sleepwalkers that disrupt the air as they glide past, conjurings with unexpected consequences, refugees from an insane asylum who assemble as soldiers, a cathedral that alters all who enter it, and flying creatures that seem intelligent. This novel is possibly the most neglected of the year. Michael Cisco, the American Kafka, deserves your attention.
Winner of the Crawford Award, Lord’s first novel is, as I wrote in the NYTBR, “a clever, exuberant mix of Caribbean and Senegalese influences that balances riotously funny set pieces (many involving talking insects) with serious drama initiated by meddlesome supernatural beings. A gluttonous man named Ansige travels to the hometown of his estranged wife, Paama, to persuade her to return to him. These opening scenes are among the funniest I’ve read in years, but are then balanced by the true complexities of a marriage. More importantly, the focus slowly shifts to Paama, and it is Paama who stands at the heart of the novel. By novel’s end, Lord has managed to compress her story while balancing the cosmic and the personal with a composure that would be the envy of many veteran novelists.” This reader-friendly, complex novel deserves to become a classic.
In a secondary world directly commenting on the idea of Manifest Destiny, Servants of the Gun are afflicted with demons that inhabit their guns and the Servants of the Line are slaves to intelligent supernatural locomotives. The First Folk, who appear to have a kind of rejuvenating immortality, suffer from the machinations of both groups, including the ignorance of settlers. Gilman’s novel is morally and ethically complicated. It also features a truly unlikeable but fascinating rogue, a strong female main character, and transcendent descriptions of the Unmade part of the world beyond the Line. If it has a weakness, it’s that the author appears to have tied off the end of the novel to give artificial closure while preparing for a second, concluding volume. Despite that, the novel contains unforgettable scenes and exerts undeniable power.
Jemisin deserves for the first two novels in her Inheritance Trilogy to be appreciated separately, but Orbit undercut that possibility by releasing them both in the same year. The Broken Kingdoms, which has received less attention, is actually a better-written book than its predecessor. Both novels, however, feature compelling protagonists, whether it’s Yeine Darr in book one, the heir to a throne, or Oree Shoth, the blind artist of book two. Both function within constraints, even if those constraints are vastly different, and it’s in understanding the limits of power and of any one person’s agency that Jemisin parts company with more escapist fare. This quality—along with a keen eye for human interaction and a good understanding of social and political institutions—makes Jemisin such a formidable writer. The fantasy elements are handled competently, with spikes of the spectacular, but it’s the ability to show real human emotion and motivation that drives the books.
The Sandman Slim series is urban fantasy on speed, with Kadrey mixing of noir, pop culture, horror, hardboiled fiction, and everything in between. The result is endlessly inventive and high-octane—it should be difficult for reader to keep track of characters and the plot with so much kinetic energy flying off the page, but Kadrey’s an excellent writer who’s able to juggle all of it without dropping a single pin. Zombie plagues, vampires, angels, and more populate Kadrey’s Los Angeles, the appeal of his fiction the ability to rejuvenate the familiar. Kill the Dead is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor, with its even more down-and-out freelance detective James Stark in danger of going to Hell for his crimes. It’s hard not to steal William Gibson’s description of the first volume as “like watching Sergio Leone and Clive Barker codirect from a script by Jim Thompson and S. Clay Wilson.”
National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” first-time author Grace Krilanovich has created a phantasmagorical, Decadents-influenced novel for the twenty-first century. Set in the Pacific Northwest of the 1990s, the plot concerns a girl with ESP looking for her disappeared foster sister, a possibly supernatural serial killer, and visions that David Lynch would probably kill to have jaunting along the inside of his eyeballs. Along with a great eye for detail and imagery, Krilanovich has a dark sense of humor and no patience with anything approaching the idea of moral fiction. The author doesn’t try to make readers like the narrator, but the episodic journey chronicled is hypnotically fascinating. Surprising changes of direction exist even within individual paragraphs as the real and the unreal mingle.
This spirited and challenging secondary world novel with echoes of our own earth grapples directly with issues of colonialism, following the story of the girl Sjennonirk, a spiritwalker and member of the northern Aniw tribe, after she is captured by the invading Ciracusans. The Ciracusans have allied with certain tribes while others have formed an insurgency. As the threat of war escalates due to the arrival of a third power group, a member of the Ciracusan military detains Sjennonirk. He’s convince her ability to conjure up a ferocious doglike companion will have strategic uses. The resulting struggle is a test of Sjennonirk’s resolve and endurance, even as it is also a test of the occupiers’ worse and better aspects. This isn’t a perfect novel by any means—the pacing in the middle sections comes to resemble needless repetition—but it’s an honest and unusual story that never deals in escapism or tries to simplify a complex and often ambiguous situation.
The titular brothers seemly cannot die. Bank robbers during the Great Depression, they are shot to heck and back only to resurrect in the morgue and escape to steal again. In the process, they become folk heroes, even as their continual decorpse-ification mystifies and worries them. Elements familiar from novels about this era abound, like corrupt cops, a loyal girlfriend, upstanding federal agents, and allies with names like Brickbat. However, the author manages to renovate and rejuvenate these possible clichés through attention to detail and scenes of deep strangeness involving the brothers’ many deaths. There are some amazing and exciting set-pieces in the form of close escapes from the authorities, and the story gains almost mythical proportions as the Firefly Brothers become deified by the poor and downtrodden. Enough is explained by story’s end to satisfy the reader, while leaving ambiguous that which if revealed might be disappointing.
Okorafor’s third novel takes place in post-apocalyptic West Africa and tackles slavery, genocide, female genital mutilation, and other topics not commonly found in genre fiction. All of this is housed within an ingenious and unique story that takes the form of a quest centered around the character Onyesonwu, whose name means “Who Fears Death?”. She was born of rape, and grows up learning to be a sorceress and navigate a stark desert landscape that requires toughness but also at times mercy. Although clearly set in the future, the novel includes elements of the supernatural that make its lineage more complex. There are so many moments of drama packed into the text that there’s a fear of reader exhaustion at times, but Okorafor’s just staying true to her characters and the situations in which they find themselves. The sting in the tail of this novel manages to surprise without seeming manipulative.
This retro-historical, pseudo-Steampunk novel combines a deep appreciation for Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a clear nod to the exploration of human cruelty at the heart of Vladimir Nabokov’s best novels. It’s also very darkly humorous, and features the earnest narrator (and failed writer) Harold Winslow, who relates a story not so much unreliable as at times deliberately incomplete. Elements of regret, disappointment, missed opportunity, and tyrannical power drive the plot, with Winslow telling his tale while imprisoned in a circling airship built by a despotic entrepreneur who rules the world through his machines. Those machines are delightfully whimsical at times, but their purpose is often disturbing. In the space between those two effects Palmer trusts the reader to understand his satirical intent.
This slow-burn of a novel relates the story of Finns Jyrki and Heidi as they hike through the wilderness of Tasmania and New Zealand. Sinisalo immerses the reader in the physicality of the trek, and the increasing isolation of the hikers. She also switches back and forth between the first-person narration of Jyrki and Heidi, to good effect. The differing perspectives give the reader a much better and more equal idea of their relationship. Sections related by a nameless narrator cataloging elements of “civilization” are placed strategically throughout as well, along with National History Digest articles that convey information relevant to species that might be encountered by the two. There’s some element of lecturing in the inclusion of these articles, and a wearing number of allusions to Heart of Darkness that also seem to lecture, but in general the atmosphere created is exciting and the trip fascinating to watch play out. When the fantastical element finally enters the story it’s all the more effective because of the careful way in which Sinisalo has brought the reader to that point. But the larger themes are less about fantasy and more about ecosystems and our place within them.
This book constitutes an amazing fictional account of a psychopath named Keith Heyward in Madison, Wisconsin of the 1960s. It also documents a psychopath’s development and relationship to his mentor. It’s a classic of deep, disturbing characterization, merciless and oddly moving. As a test of Straub’s ability to inhabit a loathsome character and understand that character, it’s perhaps unparalleled in modern literature. There’s just a whiff in the text of the supernatural elements that drive the novel A Dark Matter, from which this book has been extracted and amplified, but readers of that novel will notice them.
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