SFFWorld's Fantasy Review of 2009
(2009-12-29) SFFWorld ‘Best of’Fantasy 2009
It’s that time of the year again: this is where we mention books we’ve liked (or not liked!) over the year, and try to point out those we’ve most enjoyed.
Please note: there’s always a grey area between those pesky US/UK publication dates, and so we may mention books that were released where you live last year and vice versa. Apologies if that upsets you, but it may give you something to look forward to next year!
This year we’ve gone back to basics: mainly just me and Rob, with a few comments from the SFFWorld crew we’ve dragged in kicking and screaming from their places of hiding.
Please note also that is not intended to be, nor ever has been, a definitive ‘best-of’ list. It’s just what we’ve come across through the year, things we’ve noticed, books, comics, films etc that we’ve really liked, or in the odd case, disliked.
OK? So: to battle!
1. Fantasy. Usually the biggest section of the review. (Note: SF will be along later.)
The Fantasy Year Highlights
In January we started well, with R. Scott Bakker’s prequel, The Judging Eye, (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/528.html ) the first of the three part Aspect-Emperor (the series itself is the second in a sequence of related series following The Prince of Nothing), which Rob really liked, and, in return, Mark really liked Jasper Kent’s Napoleonic vampire tale, Twelve, (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/492.html) though he did feel the ending was a bit of a cop-out.
Onto Dan Simmons’s Drood in February: an amazing book, which combined author celebrity with Victorian values, unreliable narrators and psychology and the occult. Not the easiest of reads, nor the fastest: nearly crippled Mark! – but Rob seemed to like it as well. (link: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/516.html )
Tim Powers’ Secret Histories in March was a lovely book: and very heavy! But some nice alternate versions of published stuff and some interesting snippets of unpublished stuff, as well as lots of pictures in a glossy tome. Mark was impressed: Did I say how heavy it was?
In the same month Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest was published. It received an interesting reception when it was an SFFWorld Book of the Month in July (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/forums/showthread.php?t=22992). Also from PS Publishing in March, The Best of Gene Wolfe: very expensive, but worth it. Stephen Deas’ The Adamantine Palace was also released in March, though reviewed by Mark back in October 2008. He liked it. (link: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/489.html ) Rob was quite impressed by Matthew Sturges’s debut novel, Midwinter (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/526.html) and by the much-heralded US release of Peter Brett’s The Warded Man (released as The Painted Man in the UK in 2008) (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/540.html) which seems to have been a favourite for many this year.
In April Kate Griffin’s Madness of Angels seemed to generate positive comments in an ‘urban-fantasy-based-in-London-but-not-Neil-Gaiman’s-Neverwhere’ kind of way. (Link: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/551.html )
The main media excitement this month seems to have been around the publication of Jane Austen’s/ Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, the classic novel with added extras, namely zombie hordes, cannibalism, ninjas, and ultra-violence. Surprisingly, it was a New York Times bestseller, reaching Number 3 in this month, and spawned a slew of other similar (and less original) mash-ups such as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Mr Darcy, Vampyre.
Vandermeer’s Best of Michael Moorcock caused a bit of a stir, mainly by staying away from the traditional Moorcock and concentrating on his non-Elric / Eternal Champion stuff. Mark was pleased, as its content showed Mike’s influence on new writers such as China Mieville et al.
And whilst we’re mentioning China, The City and the City arrived in May. Mark really liked this one, (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/538.html) many didn’t, whilst the non-genre mainstream scratched their collective heads, looking bemused.
Into the summer here and in June the arrival of Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold was a pleasant surprise. Not particularly new in plot, but well done, nicely written and a good sign that Joe can produce single novels as well as trilogies fairly quickly. Mark Chadbourn’s Darkest Hour reissue (first time in the US) seems to suggest that he may have found an audience in the US, at least judging by Rob’s reviews. And while we’re typing about books we liked, Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur, also released in the UK in June, impressed Mark (the reviewer!) a great deal. (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/541.html)
In July we saw the return of Robert Holdstock to Mythago Wood in Avilion. Impressed a lot of people this, but RobH seems to be one of the UK’s best kept secrets still. Nevertheless, a direct sequel and much loved by many. (Editor’s note: Sadly, this was written before Robert’s untimely death in November.)
Also in this month Rob really liked Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker, a ‘consistent, engaging and well crafted’ tale. (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/543.html) Clearly a writer developing his craft, more about him later.
To the annoyance of many US fans faced with a long delay, Robin Hobb’s return to the Rain Wilds in Dragon Keeper in the UK in July (the US in February 2010) was much anticipated, though our impression is that it seems to have had a rather muted response, though selling pretty well. The ending in particular seems to have disappointed, but no doubt all will be resolved when the second part of the tale, Dragon Haven, is released in March 2010 in the UK.
The biggest release in August, both in stature and in size, was Steven Erikson’s Dust of Dreams, the penultimate Malazan book, at least in this series. Owen/Kater was a little disappointed by the cliff-hanger ending, (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/563.html) and the fact that it was clearly one book spilt into two, in his SFFWorld review, but we’re sure he’ll be happy when the next book comes out soon.
Rob really liked Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/561.html), an adult take on what at first glance looked like a Harry Potter scenario, but with ingeniously detailed world building, mature characters and sex.
Also of note in August was the George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois-edited collection utilizing Jack Vance’s Dying Earth in Songs of the Dying Earth, which was not bad at all and a suitable appreciation of Jack’s talents.
Must also point out here Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book as a Hugo winner in August. Not a great surprise winner, though Mark remains, (typically for him with much of Neil’s work), underwhelmed by the book. Mark actually thought Anathem would get it, but then he regularly gets the winner wrong.
By September, a new Terry Brooks Landover novel, and one that’s a bit darker perhaps. Princess of Landover did not seem to be the happy-go-lucky style of the earlier books, but was well-liked by the Brooks faithful.
In October, the continued dominance of urban fantasy seems to have continued with Kelly Armstrong’s latest, Frostbitten. Charlaine Harris too, this month, with her latest Sookie collection of short stories, A Touch of Dead. Rob was really quite creeped out by Douglas Clegg’s little tale (but beautifully presented) Isis. (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/580.html) October also saw the UK release of The Other Lands, Book Two of David Anthony Durham’s War with the Mein trilogy.
November’s, and perhaps the year’s, most anticipated Fantasy release was the Robert Jordan / Brandon Sanderson release, The Gathering Storm. Like Erikson, the series seems to heading towards closure. Many were pleasantly surprised - not to mention relieved! - that Brandon, on the whole, had managed the difficult job of continuing the series.
Also in November (UK), The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington also seems to have gained credit, with a Vandermeer recommendation and its striking cover and violent, manic, unlikable lead characters. Brothers Grimm for the 21st century. Mark and Rob both liked this one. (LINK: http://www.sffworld.com/brevoff/590.html) Stephen King’s hefty Under the Dome also appeared, to mixed reviews.
And so to December. Scalzi’s God Engines seems to be making a stir, released by Subterranean Press to generally positive comments (even if one of the covers used was, to Mark’s mind, truly awful.)
OK. What have I really liked this year? In no order, Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, China Mieville’s The City and the City, Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur, Jasper Kent’s Twelve, Stephen Deas’ The Adamantine Palace, and The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington, for its sheer shockingly awful grossness.
Rob: Unsurprisingly, it was another strong year for fantasy and as seems to be happening year after year, I didn’t get to read all the books I’d hoped to read. Standouts in Fantasy for me this year were Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker, Peter V. Brett’s outstanding debut The Warded Man (it didn’t reach the US until this year), R. Scott Bakker’s The Judging Eye, Matthew Sturges’s Midwinter, Douglas Clegg’s nifty little novelette Isis, and Dan Simmons’s Drood. Perhaps my favourite book of the year (though it continually flips this position with Bakker) was Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.
Considering Isis, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, Caitlín Kiernan’s The Red Tree, (which I liked and seems to have been received very well by those who read it) a big new book by Stephen King, the launch of a new Year’s Best Horror anthology, The Devil’s Alphabet (a book mentioned in the SF portion of the review, but can also work as horror and should appeal to readers of both) among others, it seems we are in a nice Horror Renaissance. I’m sure Randy M., one of SFFWorld’s long time members, would agree that Horror is still quite strong.