RogerBW's Blog

2021 in Books 02 January 2022

In 2021 I read 129 books, fewer again as I think I've fallen out of the habit of making time to read. (And I'm still not having long drives for listening to audio books.)

In Hugo-eligible books I loved Micaiah Johnson's The Space Between Worlds which wasn't even nominated (of the 16 potential nominees it was eliminated in round four); like Kameron Hurley's The Light Brigade, it takes a tired old SF trope and looks at it from a different angle. I only read two of the books that actually were nominated (the excellent Network Effect, but is it excellent enough to be Hugo-worthy in isolation?, and the excellent Harrow the Ninth); I feel no urge to read the others.

In non-Hugo-eligible SF&F I'd make A Desolation Called Peace my book of the year – and I hope to see it nominated next year. I enjoyed others, but looking through the list of titles nothing else resonates in quite the same way.

In non-SF&F (well, -ish), I returned after many years to The Sky Riders, and was glad to find it not quite as much prone to the ills of its era as I had feared.

In non-fiction I was particularly impressed by A Libertarian Walks into a Bear (what happens when libertarian idealists, as well as the sort of person who always accretes where actual libertarian idealists gather, meet reality); by Nerves of Steel (a former military pilot entirely unable to see her own blind spots but still interesting when talking about flying); and by The Long Way Home, the story of getting a Pan Am Clipper back from New Zealand across Asia and Africa to New York in 1941-2.

Books I gave up on, which therefore didn't get individual reviews:

Arcadia, Iain Pears (2015): gateways between fantasy, present (well, Cold War England) and future dystopia seem like a promising idea, but the writing is a joyless slog and there are 188,000 words of it; I'm not going to go any further in the hope that one of the characters might eventually show some slight spark of animation. (Also there should be more to a technodystopia than office politics.)

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley (2014): oh, Alan, you made a commitment at the end of book 5 (the heroine's missing-presumed-dead mother has been found), but then you had to write book 6 and realised it would change the tenor of the series if you kept it, so you broke it and killed her. I was already feeling rather let down by the progress of this series – the post-WWII setting should clash just slightly with the tropes of the classic village cosy mystery, as it does in the writings of Christie or Marsh or Allingham, and it feels unrealistic when it doesn't – and this was enough to put me off completely. (The series is now up to book 10 so clearly other people don't feel the same.)

Artefact: Lazarus War #1, Jamie Sawyer (2015): you remember how I said Alex Stewart's Shooting the Rift was largely lacking in originality? Alex, much is forgiven. This is desperately Aliens-inspired milsf (based on other works of milsf rather on than actual military practice), without the body horror, but with remote-operated "simulant" bodies so everyone gets to "die" a lot. Sawyer never met a cliché he didn't like and they're all wedged in here. This simply has nothing to say. Why did I even pick it up? Lots of Goodreads readers who liked other things I liked seem to love it; if your buttons are the right shape to be pushed by it, yay for you, you have an easier time finding books to enjoy than I do.

Who Runs the World?, Virginia Bergin (2017): all the men have died off so we have Women's Society and everything is perfect except it's all fake really. I think this is meant to be a parody of separatist feminism but it's so clumsily written it's quite hard to tell. Also lesbianism is apparently vanishingly rare in this all-female society, and considered deeply icky. Dunno what all these women do with their sex drives then; maybe they don't have them. The book doesn't care and neither do I.

The Hill of Dreams, Arthur Machen (1907): lovely phantasmagorical language but it all goes round and round in circles and signifies nothing, not even the worth of art for its own sake that it's trying to signify. (Shares with the near-contemporary Hadrian the Seventh a sense of the author working out his imagined revenge on his real-world tormentors.) Several people for whom I have a lot of respect enjoy Machen, and this work in particular; oh well.

Four Roads Cross, Max Gladstone (2016): I tried, I really did. This is the last of the series; and by internal chronology it's the immediate sequel to Three Parts Dead, with the return of Tara Abernathy, that I've been wanting ever since I finished that book in 2014. But my least favourite entry in the series was Last First Snow, and it quickly became clear that this was going to repeat some of my least favourite things about that book, the people determined to act unpleasantly even though it's clearly not to their benefit (I get enough of that in real life), the magic-as-finance treading the same ground yet again rather than going on to anything new, and the long slow building up of tension as everything gets ready to go to pot. Maybe if this had come out before the other three books, that gradually drove me further and further out of favour with Gladstone's bag of tricks as it became apparent just how small and repetitive it is, I'd have enjoyed it more.

Nophek Gloss, Essa Hanson (2020): A very mixed bag: dystopian YA bildungsroman, nifty tech with pocket universes and variant physics, a found-family that's basically Firefly with more non-neurotypical representation, an autistic-coded female friend who's fridged out of sight in the first few pages so that our hero gets All the Feelz. I ploughed on until I got to the point where Our Hero's Nemesis reveals that Our Hero is not in fact a farmboy slave but a super duper experiment by the Nemesis People who got accidentally shipped to slave farming world… and not only does Our Hero believe him, the reader's clearly meant to as well.

See also:
Three Parts Dead, Max Gladstone
Last First Snow, Max Gladstone
A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling
Nerves of Steel, Tammie Jo Shults
The Sky Riders, T. C. Bridges
Shooting the Rift, Alex Stewart
The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson
The Long Way Home, Ed Dover
Hadrian the Seventh, Frederick Rolfe
A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine

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