Wednesday, January 02, 2013

2012 Reading Year in Review

I’ve done this for a few years now (2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006), so in order to maintain the middling credentials as a genre blogger/book reviewer I have, I'm doing it again for 2012.

As I have in the past, I’ll start with some stats… I read (or at least attempted to read) 73 books in 2012, depending on how you count omnibus editions. I say attempted because a few books I simply dropped because nothing about the book compelled me to keep reading. Many of those, 40, were new/2012 releases, but I have been trying to get back into some of the older stuff and the fact that nearly half of what I read was pre-2012 means I did just that.

In 2012, I posted 51 reviews to SFFWorld and 3 to Tor.com. Yeah, I became one of Tor.com's semi-regular book reviewers in 2012. I've got a couple of Tor.com reviews coming up in early 2013.

Aside from the regular gamut of current year releases, I did some major catching up with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time in the lead up to the January 2013 release of A Memory of Light.  I also read through a quite a few books by Daniel Abraham, including The Long Price Quartet in addition to this two 2012 releases.

Here are some stats:
  • 35 can be considered Fantasy
  • 40 2012/current year releases
  • 20 books by authors new to me
  • 25 can be considered Science Fiction
  • 6 can be considered 2011 debuts
  • 3 can be considered Horror
  • 14 Books by women (Not necessarily 12 different women because, for example, I read 4 total novels [one novel and an omnibus] by Rachel Aaron)
All that said, on to the categories for the 2012 … which I think I'll call the Stuffies. As I said last year, this isn’t a typical top 10 or 12 or anything, but whatever you want to call them, here are some categories for what I read in 2011 and what I put at the top of those categories.


Rob’s Favorite Fantasy Novel(s) Read in 2012

2012 was another strong year for Fantasy, with according to Locus Magazine, 215 Fantasy/Horror novels published in 2012. One thing I noticed, in addition to the debuts, was the number of novels which were second/third/etc. installments in ongoing series. This isn't rare, per say, rather the opposite.

With all of that having been said, as I've done in the past, I'll highlight the fantasy novels that stood out to me in 2012

The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett was not only the best fantasy novel I read in 2012, it is my favorite novel of the year, full stop. It was a powerful novel and I'd even rank it as one of the ten best I've read in the last decade:
Bennett’s style is both subtle and powerful, he doesn’t often beat the reader over the head with blatant imagery or themes. Rather, the hints and pieces he offers the reader work so effectively to build a collaborative engagement of conversation between writer and reader that it proves all the more powerful. We know there’s a big curtain and behind that curtain, lots of pieces and players are moving around while the performers in front of the curtain waive their hands for the audience. In that respect, Silenus’s Troupe is just the front for much larger events and performances, as well as intimate movements and emotions.
...
Throughout my experience with The Troupe I felt echoes or resonances with a lot of fiction I’ve read or watched over the years that rang very True. Not that Mr. Bennett was repeating the cadence as much as he was adding to the overall song. Some of these resonances include the aforementioned Ray Bradbury, as well as Stephen King (thematically The Dark Tower and specifically Low Men in Yellow Coats), Neil Gaiman, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, the television show Lost, among other elements. What Bennett cued into is the veneer that much more is going on behind the curtain than what the reader sees on the page or the audience sees on the stage – a grand chess match between powers people can’t comprehend, let alone even realize exist.

Daniel Abraham is the author I read the most this year, in terms of quantities of books.  If The Troupe was the best novel I read in 2012, then The King's Blood, book two of The Dagger and the Coin is hands down the best Epic Fantasy novel I read in 2012:


Abraham is doing something very fascinating with most of his characters, but the one which I find the most intriguing is Geder Palliako. Through the eyes of most of the other characters, he is cast in a negative light ranging from as insecure to immature manboy to a dark manipulator to a fool to a coward. Through Geder’s eyes, Abraham evokes a great deal of sympathy for his plight, that ultimately, Geder seems to be trying to do what is best for the Prince under his watch and the land the Prince rules through him. His motivations come across as plausible outgrowths, particularly the less-than-savory aspects of his persona – his frustration, his anger, his jealousy, and his inadequacies. I’m not sure quite what Abraham is building with Geder, it is possible he is being whittled into something of a Big Bad for the series. On those aspects, I find a great deal of similarity between Geder and Walter White of Breaking Bad. Both characters are initially meek and weak, both characters struggle to overcome their fears in what might not be the best of fashions, and through various developments grow out of that shadow into something much more menacing. An important stage in Geder’s development is his ultimate reaction to Killian as seen through the eyes of Cithrin.


The notes are familiar, they are successful; these notes are why readers return to the genre again and again. When those notes are struck well, with precision, and with a flair that is a slightly different, yet graceful, tone, then this symphony is wondrous to behold. With The King’s Blood, Daniel Abraham has achieved such a graceful symphony. There’s an excitement to reading a great novel in a genre you enjoy, the pages ratchet up the excitement for what’s come before and what it promises, this excitement is present in The King’s Blood. Every beat of Epic Fantasy that I wish to hear was struck in The King’s Blood and struck with an evocative quality that comes across as a perfect hybrid of inborn talent and precisely honed skills.

Rounding out my top three is a novel from an author whose short stories I've read, but prior to this novel, never any of her novels. The novel is Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear:

Set in a fantasized Middle-East, the novel centers on characters who are at the fringes of society: a young man who is the lone survivor of a vicious battle for succession that took the lives of many his family (Temur) and a young woman setting aside her royal lineage to assume the role of Sorceress (Samarkar). While Temur and Samarkar are the focal characters for much of the novel, fringe characters such as the tiger-woman (an outcast of her tribe) Hrahima or the woman with whom Temur initially bonds emotionally, Edene herself is part of a fringe society. These characters, despite and because of their ‘fringe’ status are powerful and persistent in their motivations and actions. Yeah, that’s right, Bear threw tiger people in as a race of characters, and though Hrahima is a minor character at the moment, through the other characters in the novel, Bear gives her a great sense of power and awe. I hope Bear explores this character in greater depth in future novels, as well as the society from which she comes


It is precise, engaging and powerful. Bear has packed the novel tightly with emotion, romance, characters who are believable and living, conflict both internal on a character level and external in physical battles, to such a degree that the wonder is in her ability to do so much in such a relatively small space. Bear balances the epic scale of gods in a fully realized and living cosmology as real beings with the intimate goals, feelings, and emotions of her human characters as magnificently as any writer plying their trade in fantasy today.

Other fantasies that really stood out to me were:

  • Red Country by Joe Abercrombie - "Red Country is an exciting, entertaining novel; simply one of those books I could NOT put down. It helped me weather the blackout and power outage I experienced as a result of Hurricane Sandy. ... It isn’t clear what Joe will be writing next, but whatever it is, more stories in this world, a tale of Bayaz or frankly anything, I’ll be there. Red Country is easily a top book 2012 book for me."
  • Shadow OPS: Control Point by Myke Cole - "On the whole; however, Control Point is a mostly tight novel that was much more thought-provoking and rewarding than I could have imagined. I keep questioning Britton’s actions, I sympathize with his emotions and I can’t come to a fully formed response of what I think his correct course of action would have been (or rather, what my course of action would have been) – rebel or go along with the system. "
  • The Bones of the Old Ones by Howard Andrew Jones - "Let me get it out of the way, this book is one helluva an adventure. Flying carpets figure prominently in the novel, so what more do I need to mention? O.K. how about a possessed woman, a sorceress who seemingly does a turn of character, thrilling sword fights, giant bear-monsters, spirits and echoes of ancient heroes. Jones does a near pitch-perfect balancing act between character, action, backstory, and narrative flow."
  • The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S. Kemp - "In Egil and Nix, he’s given readers possible long-distant cousins to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in that he’s got the large bruiser and short thief duo, as well as the banter between the two. Furthermore, one of the main areas in this world is known as the Low Bazaar, an obvious homage the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story Bazaar of the Bizarre."
  • King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence - "VERY good, more complex, perhaps more ambitious than Prince of Thorns. ... Still, I enjoyed it a great deal and if the finale, Emperor of Thorns can reach the same levels of excellence, craftsmanship, and imaginative storytelling as either of its predecessor, than I for one will be an extremely happy reader."
  • Caine's Law by Matthew Stover - "Part of what was so great was seeing all the different versions of Caine Stover gave us and while each one was from a different timeline, the trademarks of his biting and uncompromising personality were on full display. It was also great to have another chance to treat with Ma’elKoth, Orbek and some of the other characters of Caine’s past novels."
  • The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams - "What is intrigues me a great deal is the mythology/back-story that informs the ‘current time’ of the novel. The forces of Heaven and the representatives of Hell have the Milton-esque and biblical with more of a modern shell. ... I enjoyed The Dirty Streets of Heaven a great deal and I’m even more excited to see where Tad Williams takes Bobby Dollar in the next two installments."



Rob Favorite Science Fiction Novel(s) Read in 2012

I read a bit more SF in 2011 than in 2012, but the SF I read published in 2012 stood out a great deal.  Two of the three authors appeared in my top 3 for 2011.

David Brin is a living legend in the genre, but I've read very little by him (maybe a short here and there and The Postman).  The novel he published in 2012; however, stands out as my favorite SF novel published in 2012, Existence:
Although the world has suffered catastrophes, like the aforementioned war and a melting of polar ice caps, and changed drastically, Existence is not a dystopian novel even if it is set in a somewhat post-apocalyptic environment. Early on, one of the points Brin makes through his characters and the world-building is that people survive and persevere. Though bad things have happened, people will continue on and adjust. It is both a novel of ends and beginnings, a novel of first contact and a novel that approaches an answer to the question partially framed by the Fermi Paradox “Are we alone in the universe?”
...

What worked very well for me in making this a believable future was Brin’s method of relaying the world through his characters not in huge dumps of information, though some elements of the ‘current’ world were divulged in sizeable chunks, but rather the inferences and casual mentions of the past events as if it were common knowledge.


Blackout is the final novel of The Newsflesh Trilogy, Mira Grant’s Zombie-Apocalypse trilogy. The second novel maintained the same tension and narrative power as the first and has set the bar high for the concluding volume. Here’s some of what I said about Blackout:
What Grant has done, in a narrative sense in Blackout, is truly enjoyable and fascinating. The point of view narration in the previous two volumes is indeed intact; however, Grant rotates the chapters with the only initial indication being blog quotes from the opposite perspective. That is, Becks is part of Sean’s narrative and when we see a blog quote from her, it signals a chapter from Georgia’s point of view. It’s a rather obvious trick, but still quite successful. I felt that Georgia’s voice in Feed was stronger than Shaun’s was in Deadline, but there’s more of a balance between the two here in Blackout.



I enjoyed the random Zombie novel here and there, but when I read Feed I was totally blown away, which set the bar high for Deadline. That bar was met and with Blackout and the whole Newsflesh Trilogy, Mira Grant has completed what should be considered the quintessential Zombie narrative for the early 21st Century: it raises as many (maybe more) questions about identity, government conspiracies, sanity, science gone wrong, and surviving in a Crapsack World. I found it difficult to put these books aside for the annoying interruptions of life while reading them and highly recommend the trilogy, which stands very, very high on my list of completed series.

James S.A. Corey (AKA Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) round out my top 3 SF books with Caliban's War,  the second installment of The Expanse:
Although the war in the solar system came to something of a conclusion in Leviathan Wakes, tension and potential for greater conflict still exists. The events spinning out of James Holden’s actions on Eros are not without their repercussions. The MacGuffin of these books – the protomolecule – is now on Venus and being observed by the governments/military of both Mars and Earth while an Event on Ganymede similar to the vomit-zombies from the previous novel occurs. It is different enough to throw further speculation about the protomolecule’s nature and the group responsible for the Ganymede outbreak into rampant speculation.



Conversely, the ascerbic Avasarala provides some snarky humor throughout. Her uncompromising attitude is balanced by her interactions with her family. There’s also a good deal of political weaving especially through her character as she interacts with people very high up in the solar system’s hierarchy including a particularly grin-inducing scene with one individual at the novel’s conclusion. I hope to see much more of her in this series as it progresses.


Other SF books that really stood out to me were;
  • Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell - "For an ecological action-thriller, Buckell more than proves he’s capable of delivering the goods. More impressively, he balances the action pieces with equal amounts of engaging character development and geopolitical intrigue. The novel is broken into short, engaging chapters that make it easy to pick up and difficult to put down as many chapters end in a sort of question/conflict that made me want to keep reading.."
  • Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley - "a vast-canvas galactic space opera that exemplifies the qualities readers so enjoy in this space opera renaissance – multi-planetary society, dependence on artificial intelligence, alien horde as the enemy, mystical/mysterious alien allies, colonization of humanity, and more importantly he uses these familiar ingredients in a way that is fresh. Cobley packs a lot of ideas and elements into the novel which flows fairly organically."
  • The Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier: Invincible - by Jack Campbell - "In the end, I found Invincible to be a very gripping read despite a couple of the minor flaws. It should satisfy long-time readers of the Campbell’s series and might even work as an entry point for new readers, though much of the character interaction is informed by their past as recounted in the previous seven novels."
  • Katya's World by Jonathan L. Howard - "In the end, Howard has crafted an engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking novel. Though quite different in accoutrements from the other Strange Chemistry title I read (Blackwood), the same sense of wonder and overall flavor is present – quality story focused on youthful characters in a fantastically plausible setting. Another winner for the imprint.."



Rob's Favorite Debut(s) of 2012


My favorite debut of the year was from Ace books (as it was last year), Myke Cole’s Control Point, the first installment in his Military Fantasy series Shadow OPS which logically posits that if magic were real, then the military would weaponize it, attempt to control, and to codify it:
Myke Cole’s near future saga blends Urban Fantasy and Military Science Fiction, two branches of Speculative Fiction that don’t come together often. The Great Reawakening has taken place, magic is real as are the creatures out of fantasy and myth like goblins and Rocs. The military has permitted (and controls) schools of Elemental magic dealing with wind, fire, water, and earth control. Other ‘schools’ such as reanimating the dead and opening up portals for quick travel, are forbidden. Oscar manifests sorcerous powers in the forbidden school of magic – Portomancy, the ability to open portals allowing for instant transportation to any location. Due to the laws in place, he must immediately turn himself into the authorities. As an officer in the military responsible for bringing in those who manifest out of the public, Oscar has seen what happens to Latents, people such as himself, so he flees and becomes a fugitive.

Gwenda Bond is not unfamiliar to the genre crowd, she's written pieces for Publishers Weekly and Locus.  She's a terrific writer which is why Amanda Rutter and the folks behind the Strange Chemistry imprint were smart to maker her debut novel Blackwood the launch title for the imprint:


In Gwenda Bond’s debut novel Blackwood she takes the historical fact of the disappearance, fills in with some more history, and adds some conjecture of dark magic to the disappearance. All of that is in the background for most of the novel and instead Ms. Bond focuses her novel on Miranda Blackwood, a young lady who works for the local theater and cares for her drunk father, her mother having passed away long before the novel begins.

Miranda often dropped the “frak” bomb when frustrated and references to other geek culture shows abounded. In other words, Miranda’s a girl on whom a younger version of myself might have had a crush. Bond did a very good job of making me root for both of these young kids and making them both outcasts who find common ground.

Rounding out my three stand out debut novels comes a novel from a writer who has made a name for himself  as a short story writer, Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon:

Where Ahmed excels is with his protagonist, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood. He’s the type of guy you want to have as the ‘crotchety but cool uncle’ at the bar with you to share a drink or at your side should that bar-room brawl occur. We get in the head of Makhslood as he re-examines the decisions he’s made in the immediate past and ponders of how he should best proceed particularly with the Falcon Prince.

The pacing is terrific, as it drew me into the characters heads, I felt the high stakes of the conflict and really wanted these people to succeed. DAW wrapped this enthralling novel with a bright, eye-catching cover by Jason Chan that very much captures the feel of the novel displaying the three primary protagonists fighting a horde of ghuls. Over the course of the novel, I felt resonance between Throne of the Crescent Moon and comic book superheroes, specifically Batman and towards the end, characters in Watchmen.


Favorite Backlist / Book Not Published in 2011 Read in 2012

I'll start off this section with an entire series, Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, which published from 2006 to 2009 in single volumes and was re-released in 2012 in two omnibus volumes:
A Shadow in Summer has many elements in common with Abraham’s fantasy contemporaries – imagined world with echoes of our own, archaic governments that hearken to our past, hints of magic and non-human creatures. Where the novel (and series) differs is in how these elements play together in Abraham’s sandbox. The magic is subtle  ...  So, taking a bit of a step away from the first volume, (in A Betrayal in Winter) Daniel Abraham gives readers what is essentially a fantastically infused murder mystery set in the imagined city of Machi. Though the events in the previous volume were indeed climactic, Abraham’s story illustrates how far ranging the consequences of one’s actions can be.  ...  Abraham jumps another fourteen years between books at the beginning of An Autumn War, Otah is entrenched in his role as ruler trying to keep his nation together. While Otah is busy ruling, Maati spends much of his time in the novel reflecting. Abraham provides a vantage point into the world outside of the cities where the andat have such an impact. ... Even though the first three volumes were intimate and personal in that Abraham’s dealings with characters focused on a relative few characters compared to his genre contemporaries, the stakes increased with each book. The personal aspect; however, is even more strong in The Price of Spring as the feel of the novel comes through Otah and Maati, once friends and allies who have become ideological enemies and are no longer in the same land.

George R.R. Martin makes an appearance on another one of my wrap-up posts, this time for  his classic vampire novel Fevre Dream:

Six years earlier, Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire and the superficial similarities between the two novels are hard to ignore – both take place in the south, with much of the action focused on a ‘gentleman vampire.’ One of the most fascinating elements to Rice’s Chronicles was the backstory/history of the vampires as a race. Martin does quite possibly a better job in one book with his vampires – we learn of the history of the vampire solely through Joshua’s voice. While this works to a large degree, I find it more successful than Rice’s history more for what is left unsaid and told for Rice left seemingly no stone unturned. A little bit of mystery is stronger than knowing the full scope in this case.

The final book here is Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia.  Sometimes a protagonist is a mirror image of the writer and it comes across as self indulgent or as the dreaded Gary Stu.  While some can say that about the protagonist Owen Pitt, for me, the novel was a blast and I could easily overlook such Gary Stu-ish qualities. I'm pleased that I've got the next two on my kindle in the omnibus edition waiting to be read:


Correia admits to being a fan of B-Movies featuring monsters and that love for such films transfers well to the page he clearly had a lot of fun writing the book. Who wouldn’t want to throw their boss out the window, beat up his dream-girl’s annoying boyfriend, have carte-blanche when it comes to fighting monsters, save the world and get the girl of his dreams on his arms after beating the Big Bad? These audacious elements blared out to me while I was reading the book and I didn’t care because I was having fun reading it.

Monster Hunter International was clearly a book that I was able to enjoy despite (and maybe because of) some of the bombastic elements that if thrown together without some skill, I would have easily dismissed. Another element that helped to make the novel enjoyable was how Correia depicted Owen interacting with his newbie squad and in particular the defacto head of MHI, Earl Harbinger. Where some of the character interaction felt a little less genuine were some of the scenes when Owen and Julie interacted.


MVP Author of 2012

Anybody who has been following my blog for the past year or knows me from the SFFWorld forums should find it as no surprise that this slot goes to…


His 2011 collaboration with George R. R. Martin's assistant Ty Franck, Leviathan Wakes (the first installment of the Space Opera series The Expanse) was short-listed/ nominated for the Hugo Award and The Locus Award for best Science Fiction novel in 2012.  The second novel in that series, Caliban's War, published to nearly as much acclaim. The King's Blood, the second installment of his epic fantasy series The Dagger and the Coin published to rave reviews. and I would be surprised not to see it on awards ballots next year. His acclaimed Long Price Quartet was released in two omnibus volumes in 2012.  Abraham is writing/scripting the comic book/graphic novel adaptation of his friend George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. His urban fantasy series The Black Sun's Daughter hit UK bookshelves for the first time this year and his short fiction appeared in Gardner Dozois's 29th Annual Year's Best Science Fiction anthology.




Favorite ‘New To Me’ Author(s) of 2012

I did a wrap up this earlier in the year and I can't really say much has changed since then so I'll a couple:

Rachel Aaron – I enjoyed the heck out of her The Legend of Eli Monpress omnibus, I've read the fourth in the series - The Spirit War and the fifth/final - Spirt’s End - awaits to be plucked off of Mount Toberead. These are fun, entertaining fantasies that I think would appeal to readers who enjoy Scott Lynch.



Jim C. Hines – I’ve only read one book by him, Libriomancer, but it really stood out to me.  Jim is a smart writer, has one of the best author blogs in the genre, and I've got a few books of his sitting along the slopes of Mount Toberead. 





Favorite Publisher of 2012

For the second year in a row, I have to give the nod to…





A quick look through of this post and it shouldn't be that great a surprise that Orbit Books is the publisher whose books I enjoy the most. For my reading time, no publisher produced books that worked as consistently from book-to-book for me. That is, on the whole, all the books I read published by Orbit worked for me in a big way.

This isn’t to say that other publishers didn’t publish great stuff I enjoyed, just that nothing I read from Orbit fell into the disappointment/clunker/meh category. I can't say the same for the other publishers whose books I read in 2011.



Looking Ahead to 2012



Another shot of Sully to close out the year as she ponders what's to come in 2013. Either that or she sees some deer.



What does 2013 bring?
  • Season 3 of Game of Thrones
  • Season 3.5 Walking Dead
  • The final season of Breaking Bad
  • Man of Steel
  • The Hobbit (part 2)
  • Thor 2
  • Iron Man 3
  • Shadow OPS: Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole
  • The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett
  • American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett
  • NEW NEIL GAIMAN!!! The Ocean at the End of the Lane
  • A Memory of Light the final Wheel of Time (I'm a Memory Keeper for the Philadelphia signing!)
  • Abaddon's Gate the second in James S.A. Corey's The Expanse
  • The Tyrant's Law book 3 of Daniel Abraham's The Dagger and the Coin
Looks like a decent batch of major releases on the small screen, big screen, and page for me. Let's just hope some of it lives up to the hype.

6 comments:

Bob Milne said...

Daniel Abraham, Mark Lawrence, and James S.A. Corey are all tops of my catch-up list for 2013. Seems like the TBR pile just keeps growing!

I just may have to look into that ebook omnibus edition of Monster Hunter International. I've got the hardcover omnibus, which looks great, but is about 3 inches thick!

RobB said...

I knew I wanted to catch with Mr. Abraham's work in 2012, I am VERY pleased I did. I might do a post for 2013 reading plans.

Regarding MHI, the e-book version of the omnibus is available for $9.99. I picked it up for $6 before Baen signed their deal w/amazon and was selling a majority of their ebooks on their own web site for $6.

Paul Weimer said...

A very similar year to mine in many ways, Rob.

theguildedearlobe said...

I have to thank you for a lot of great recommendations this year. As someone who is less of a hard core SF/f guys as a lot of the bloggers I follow, I always appreciate that I can get a good feel for the novel you are reviewing, and whether it would fit into my quirky likes and dislikes. Without your review, I probably wouldn't have tried The Troupe, and I'm glad I did. Also, you created an excitement for titles like Control Point and Throne, both of which ended up being some of my favorites of the year.

Hears to a great 2013.

RobB said...

Hi Bob,

Thanks for the kind note and I'm pleased that you picked up those three books on my recommendation/reviews.

What can I say, if I like a book I want to shout about it and make sure other folks enjoy the book/books, too! (or really anything I like, such as movies, beer, food, etc)

Bryce L. said...

I completely agree about The Troupe. I became an instant Robert Jackson Bennett fan.