2016 Reading Challenge

About a year ago, I posted a run-down of the books I read in 2015, as well as three separate posts detailing my reading plans for 2016. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is not the soul of this blog.

That was early January, but since it feels unlikely that I’m going to finish anything tomorrow, I thought I’d get a jump on the reflecting. This year, I made myself a spreadsheet to track my reading (my engineer husband is so proud). I finished 87 books. Of those, 42 were written by people of color, which is a drastic improvement from my mostly-white 2015 reading list. The breakdown of author gender was pretty similar, with about 2/3 female authors and only one non-binary author.

Wiser people write about the issue of diversity in publishing every day, but here’s my two cents: I had a harder time finding new fiction by people with backgrounds different from my own. These books were not always on library or bookstore shelves. Many of the ones I did find were indie or self-published, rather than from a major publishing house. The discrepancy has certainly made me more conscious about where I spend my book-buying dollars.

I read more nonfiction this year- thirteen books total. A good percentage of those were writing books that I read in an effort to improve my own craft, or maybe figure out what genre the book I’m writing is (With some help from friends and books, I’ve settled on calling it paranormal suspense). Reading with a goal in mind helps decrease the feeling that I’m doing pointless homework.

There was less fantasy this year, or maybe it just looks that way because I stopped lumping “paranormal” in with “fantasy.” There were a lot more romances this year—I was craving happy endings, for sure. According to my lovely spreadsheet I read somewhere in the neighborhood of 24,600 pages total, which is a basically meaningless number because of font sizes and different editions and illustrations and such, but still fun to look at.

I’ll be back sometime next week to let you know what to expect from this blog in 2017 (hint: it is mostly books and yelling about The Magicians). In the meantime, here are my favorites from the past twelve months:

Favorite New Series: Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate. I picked up Soulless back when it first came out in 2009. I can’t remember if I was having paranormal burnout or het romance burnout or what, but I didn’t finish it then. I’m so pleased I got it out of the library again. I’ve never purchased a box set that fast.

Favorite Continuing Series: The Obelisk Gate is the second book in the Broken Earth Trilogy. N.K. Jemisin continues to break my heart in new and creative ways.

Favorite Re-Imagined StoryThe Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. I love a good fairy tale retelling. Even though I’ve never read Hale before, this felt like coming home.

Favorite Classic That I Finally Got Around ToKindred by Octavia Butler. Newer, as “classics” go, but wrenching and still so necessary.

Favorite Comic: I am a little sad to be coming to the end of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, which gets better and better as it goes.

Favorite Surprise Discovery/Debut Author: I’ve already written about how much I found Mishell Baker’s Borderline thanks to a bookstore staff recommendation. It’s a stunning paranormal mystery full of complex characters, fairies, and modern Hollywood intrigue, and I’m so so happy I picked it up.

Favorite Overall: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the 16th book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Bujold has incredible range as a writer, but this is how I like her best—sci-fi with a twist of family drama, romance, and comedy.

What other excellent and life-changing literature did you experience this year? Tell me in the comments, and have a safe and happy new year.

Worldbuilding in The Dreamblood

This post contains some very minor spoiler for The Killing Moon. Like if you squint.

For the past year, I’ve been calling The Killing Moon as my least favorite book by N.K. Jemisin. That’s kind of like talking about the least delicious flavor of ice cream, which is to say, it still ranks pretty high in my estimation of books in general. Because I’d been kind of disappointed by The Killing Moon, I didn’t expect to love its sequel, The Shadowed Sun (together known as The Dreamblood). I have a tendency to like the beginnings of things the most, the first book in the series, the first season of the show, the band’s first album. But when I got The Shadowed Sun out of the library and couldn’t put it down for days. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a turn-around from one book to the next.

I could write about how much I loved The Shadowed Sun. It takes one of my favorite tropes—a woman who dresses/lives as a man in order to pursue a male profession—and takes it in an entirely new direction. I’ve also never done such a 180 in my feelings for a romantic pairing. What started as “please don’t kiss each other PLEASE STOP” turned into “I just want them to be married already” by the end.

Yeah, I could write that post. But it would probably be lots of gushing and would alienate any of my readers who hadn’t also read and adored the book. Instead, let’s talk about fantasy world building (specifically N.K. Jemisin’s) and subverting expectations (specifically mine).

Since I got so into The Shadowed Sun, I decided to try The Killing Moon again. Sometimes a book just hits you in the wrong place. I genuinely enjoyed it, maybe even loved it, the second time around. That got me thinking about the choices authors make that draw readers in or throw them out of a story. It’s different for everyone, and every book, but here’s what happened with me and The Killing Moon:

Like so many fantasy authors, Jemisin has created a world with Gujaareh and its neighbors. There’s religion, government, social classes, strained international relations and looming war, all common elements in epic fantasy. What she doesn’t do is anchor any of this in a real world society. At least, not in the way that we’re used to.

If you read fantasy, you know what I’m talking about. Lots of authors, when creating their own worlds, base them heavily on a real historical time or place. Tortall is Tudor England. Westeros is England during the War of the Roses. Terre D’Ange is Renaissance France. Ancelstierre is WWI-era England, even though it borders on The Old Kingdom, which is more Medieval Scotland.

It’s not a bad thing that writers like to steal their settings from world history. It’s kind of comforting to me, as a reader, to open a book and think I’ve been here before. It’s also made me a little complacent.

Gujaareh is, according to Jemisin, somewhat based on Ancient Egypt. But the resemblance is more in spirit than in substance, and it doesn’t look anything like most of the pop-culture versions of Egypt that have entered our collective consciousness. There are no pyramids in the distance, and the gods aren’t stand-ins for Isis or Ra. Even the astronomy is different—there are two moons in the sky. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Cairo anymore.

Jemisin doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining the workings of her new society, though. The Killing Moon gives us magic and death and a mysterious threat all in the first few pages, and it rarely slows down from there on out. I had a hard time picturing the setting and the characters vividly at first, and not because there was a lack of description. I had to examine my expectations, built up from years of reading other books and just living in the world I live in. As with a real city, it took me a few trips to Gujaareh before I stopped feeling like a clueless tourist.

Here’s a good example: in Gujaareh, social standing is determined by a complex interplay of circumstances. People are born into social castes—nobles, military, merchants, farmers, artisans, and servants. The city is a trade center and fairly racially diverse, but the upper classes tend to have darker skin. One of the viewpoint characters, Ehiru, is a member of the priesthood and therefore casteless, but his dark coloring is a hint towards his origins. Another viewpoint character, Sunandi, was born into poverty but adopted by a rich man. Given that, I pictured Sunandi as light-skinned for the first part of the book. Then I realized Sunandi is pretty explicitly described as being dark. She isn’t actually from Gujaareh; she’s from its sometime-conqueror Kisua. Kisua is further off the beaten paths of trade, so its citizens are more racially homogeneous.

Jemisin avoided the easy shorthand of race as a universal class indicator, instead electing to create something more interesting. Nothing is simple or absolute. There is no race or enemy city full of villains. Like I said above, the viewpoint characters come from both sides of the war. The heroes make questionable choices and deal with the consequences. Both books in the series stand alone— no cliffhangers, here—but they also don’t make any sweeping pronouncements about who was right or wrong. This kind of real-world ambiguity works well against the complexity of the setting.

So once again, a second reading provides me with new perspectives. In the future, I’m sure I’ll keep visiting fantasy worlds based on some historical part of Europe or other. But I’m grateful to the Dreamblood series for broadening my horizons and taking me somewhere completely new.