Mind-Bending Reads of 2014

As I said in my Best Novels of 2014 post, last year was a great year for reading, so much so that I want to do another list. There were a couple of books I read that didn’t make my list of favourites, and that I might not even have liked as much as books that didn’t make either of these lists. Nevertheless, there was something special about each of them – they offered things I’d never encountered before, gave me interesting idea to ponder, showed me different ways of doing things, or made me question my own assumptions and biases.

Here they are, in the order that I read them:

LagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ve enjoyed Okorafor’s short stories but I struggled to connect with Lagoon, partly because it’s got loads of characters who you never get to know well enough, and partly because the story just failed to satisfy. That said, it very satisfyingly takes the epic alien invasion narrative out of the usual US setting (I get very very tired of these stories always happening in the States) and places it in Lagos, Nigeria, where the city’s chaos is deemed more suitable to the aliens’ plans. Okorafor lovingly depicts a city both frightening and fascinating, and weaves in local folklore and mythology. I particularly liked the part about a dangerous road depicted as a literal monster that eats the people and vehicles travelling on it. Lots of readers loved this book and despite my reservations I’d still encourage others to give it a shot.

The Mirror EmpireThe Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

I’ve only recently started reading epic fantasy with any kind of regularity, and since politics has never been my strong point I often struggle to focus on those aspects of the plot. It’s particularly difficult in The Mirror Empire because Hurley is so incredibly inventive and works damn hard to avoid all the tired traditions of the genre. So there’s a lot of wildly imaginative, totally unfamiliar stuff to take in, along with a very complicated political plot involving diverse nations and peoples with varying social structures. But the things that make it a challenge also make it an amazing book that feels like nothing else I’ve ever read. Hurley builds a whole new world from the ground up. Instead of horses and forests, there are bears and carnivorous jungles. Instead of misogynist feudal societies there is an egalitarian polyamorous society based on consent, a society that recognises multiple genders, and misandrist matriarchy full of female warriors and male concubines. There are vegetarian cannibals, a magic system based on astronomy… Basically, if you want epic fantasy with a strong emphasis on the fantasy, then you should read this book.

The Three-Body ProblemThe Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

As with The Martian, I tried to challenge myself by reading hard sf, while also expanding my reading with Chinese sf. This one proved to be a much more demanding, with some very technical content that went waaay over my head. It’s also a historical novel, with parts of the narrative set during China’s Cultural Revolution and lots of references to that period and Chinese culture. This could make the book pretty alienating at times, but I still enjoyed it. The real drawcard is an epic story of first contact deeply influenced by the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The story moves slowly, but when it’s good, it’s magnificent. The only reason I didn’t rate it higher is that it’s has a lot of flat characters, including an incredibly dull POV character who is little more than a tool to move the plot around. Still, The Three-Body Problem sets a thrilling story in motion, and I’m looking forward to the sequels, which several people have suggested I will enjoy much more.

We Have Always FoughtWe Have Always Fought by Kameron Hurley

Yes, Kameron Hurley has two entries on this little list. I would recommend this book to ALL sff readers and writers. Seriously, EVERYONE. Kameron Hurley won a Hugo award for her essay “‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative”, on false assumptions about the roles of women in history (eg. that women don’t fight in wars), and the subsequent depiction of women in sff. This book is her collection of blog posts about sff, writing and publishing, most of which are similarly political. And it is a brilliant, eye-opening, mind-broadening read. Hurley points out how unthinking some genre stories can be, while offering myriad ideas for thinking more acutely about character, race, gender, worldbuilding, plot, etc. Reading it might make you feel frustrated to notice how wide-ranging these problems are or make you feel disappointed in favourite stories you’ve never questioned before, but it’ll also help you appreciate authors who think beyond the norms and make the effort to write better worlds.

This book also gave me even greater appreciation for Hurley’s novels, which I already admire. She often writes with unflinching honesty about the difficulties of writing fiction, getting your work published, and trying to get it sold. Along the way she offers loads of insights into her own novels, frequently making me want to go back and look at something I missed or reassess something I judged unkindly (like my annoyance with a sickly, disabled protagonist in The Mirror Empire). I didn’t put it on my list of favourites only because some of the essays are a bit boring, and can get a bit ranty and repetitive, tending to blur into one another if you read it cover to cover. That doesn’t make this any less of an absolute must-read.

Do you ever try to expand your reading? Did you read any eye-openers last year?

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