These days I don’t read much horror other than short fiction. It’s not what I turn to for pleasure-reading fiction. So my “year-in-review” article does not specifically discuss the dark side. Maybe not surprisingly, though, many of my favorite reads have more than a thin stream of the tenebrous trickling through them. Outside of personal inclination, this may be an indication of what seems to be becoming more of a rule than an exception with science fiction and fantasy: it is often dark stuff. And, a corollary to that rule: the borders between what is considered to be SF or F or H or even “literary” fiction seem less defined than ever.
Thematically, post-apocalyptic climate-changed futures seem to be the most common. We are also now far enough into the Trump/Brexit era to see – more in shorter fiction than in long, but starting to show in the latter as well – hints of rebellion, as well as a sense of inevitability instead of warning. Hope can still exist, but only after the inexorable has transformed the playing field.
Two of the five novels I’m mentioning weren’t published as genre per se; one is young adult fantasy. The readership for these books is much broader than “typical SF and/or F” fans. That may be another trend: some “genre” has always avoided being published as such, but now that seems more common.
One thing I am very glad to see continuing and strengthening in science fiction and fantasy of all lengths is inclusion (I chose that word over “diversity,” thanks to Ava DuVernay) and worlds built on non-Anglo-American and non-British cultures. A feminist perspective is almost de rigueur these days, and I am old enough to be astounded as well as delighted by this development.
The most identifiably science-fictional novel I recommend from 2018 is Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller. Gary K. Wolfe reviewed the novel in Locus #687, Paul Di Filippo did the same for Locus Online, and there are tons of other over-the-top positive opinions out there to give you more details. That said, it’s one of those books that is best enjoyed without knowing too much about it before you read it. Miller’s future Earth is much altered by climate change and the resulting political developments. He has a cyberpunkish passion for integrating our current societal and political problems without lecturing or moralizing. Set in (on?) Qaanaaq, a tech marvel of a city floating in the Artic Ocean, the story is told by a number of alternating narrators and some readers may need a little patience to get fully involved, but it’s worth the investment.
Maria Dahvana Headley is well known to SF/F readers, but I haven’t seen much recognition of her novel The Mere Wife as genre. This contemporary reimagining – really more of a reinterpretation – of Beowulf, is about (among other things) a truly heroic woman, monsters, and the disruption of the established by outsiders. Seems to me you could call it dark fantasy. There’s also a satiric edge that reminds me a bit of the late Kit Reed’s work. Whatever you want to call it, it is an amazing novel. You don’t need to know Beowulf to fully enjoy The Mere Wife, but it doesn’t hurt to at least read it.
Madeline Miller’s Circe was a number-one bestseller, but I don’t think it has been suitably recognized as what it is: fantasy. (Yes, like Headley’s book it is a reimagining of an old – in fact, even more ancient – tale.) Unless you seriously worship the ancient Greek gods, I’m pretty sure no one will quibble with calling a book about a near-immortal witch fantasy. Miller gives us a Circe – best known from her role in Homer’s Odyssey for turning some of Odysseus’s crew into swine and then hooking up with the captain for a year on her island – who is a fully rendered heroine whose story is interwoven with those of other mythical characters. Told from Circe’s point of view and in her voice, it becomes a story of empowerment and self-discovery in a world that subjugates women, even if they are semi-divine. There are a few quirks in Miller’s writing, but chances are most readers won’t even notice them as they speed along, enchanted by a plot they probably already know the ending of.
Trail of Lightning is undoubtedly fantasy and has been reviewed as such (by Liz Bourke, for one, in Locus). Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut novel shows some signs of first-timer flaws, but it still stands as entertainingly readable and the unique use of traditional Diné religious belief as the worldbuilding foundation is fascinating. Much of the world is underwater due (again) to climate change, but Dinétah – former Diné (Navajo) tribal lands that were walled in to protect them from the surrounding chaos – survives. In Diné terms, the Big Water has ended the Fifth World and the Sixth World, with the Diyin Dine’é (Holy People) again ascendant, has begun. If you don’t care for the romantic element of this type of “urban fantasy,” you may not want it in your TBR pile. But if you enjoy the fierce-but-fragile heroines of that subgenre, you will love monster-killer Maggie Hoskie, who possesses “clan powers.” Sequels will follow.
Like Trail of Lightning, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is a debut novel and there are elements that might invoke some negative criticism. But it is still a good read. Basically, the land of Orïsha and its people were once imbued with magic, but a merciless king destroyed all adult maji (magicians). It is left to magical Zélie, her unmagical brother Tzain, and a rebellious princess, Amari, to try to set the world right. They have a lot of “setting” to do. Sequels are coming. Adeyemi’s West African mythology-based world is exceedingly well built and in the fantasy/heroic journey taken, the metaphoric “evil” to be overcome is bigotry, prejudice, and racism (and even colorism) rather than an abstract. It is a very dark and (for young adults) violent journey indeed. As Adeyemi has stated, every fictional obstacle faced in her novel is intentionally “tied to a real obstacle that Black people are facing today, or that they faced as recently as a few decades ago.” If I were an eleven-to-sixteen-year-old Black girl, this would be a life-changing book, and I suspect its effect will be nearly as profound on many others. It’s also an important book for a lot of reasons I won’t go into.
I love novellas, so I want to recommend a few. These three are all solidly within genre. You don’t need to be previously acquainted with Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya universe – the distant future of an alternate history in which the Americas were first “discovered” by China, which led to Asian world domination and, eventually, galactic supremacy – The Tea Master and the Detective is a new story set in it. The clever novella combines murder mystery with science fiction as Long Chau, a scholar seeking a corpse to study, discovers her specimen was murdered. Long Chau has some Sherlockian aspects, but she’s definitely more than a piece of pastiche. The tea master – a mindship named The Shadow’s Child – is also a well-drawn “character.”
De Bodard’s In the Vanisher’s Palace is just as strong. The logline might be: “Dark retelling of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ infused with Vietnamese mythology,” but that would be doing it a great disservice. There’s much more here than just a change-up of a fairy tale.
P. Djèlí Clark packs a lot of alternative points of history into the world of his terrific novella The Black God’s Drums. The year is 1884. The Haitian Revolution was successful enough to result in a free Haiti (and associated Free Isles); a slave uprising in New Orleans during the first year of the US Civil War means New Orleans is one of a few nonaligned territories in North America; the Battle of Antietam was not a “strategic victory” for the Union (and, one can assume, did not precede Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation); the bloody war dragged on and on, finally ending in an armistice in 1869, with the Union still fighting a guerrilla war against the Confederacy in order to free slaves. There’s more – like a strengthening/rising/return of old “Afrikan” gods. A breathless plot about weapons-of-mass-destruction-grade altered storm patterns features streetwise Creeper, a girl in whom the orisha Oya – goddess of storms, life, death, and rebirth – dwells. If anything, there’s too much packed into this novella, but I’m not complaining.
Finally, I’ll mention some of the best single-author collections I’ve run across this year (in no particular order): All the Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma. How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin, An Agent of Utopia by Andy Duncan, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone by Kat Howard, and The Future Is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente. Caitlín R. Kiernan also had three collections published in 2018. I haven’t seen them yet, but I’ve previously read most of the content, so I feel I can recommend anyway: the very expensive Houses Under the Sea, the somewhat-pricey-but-there’s-an-ebook The Dinosaur Tourist, and the reasonably priced The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan.
I know I’ve forgotten something or, more likely, several somethings, and there is still reading to do, but oh well.
Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron, Ohio, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.
This and more like it in the February 2019 issue of Locus.
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