January was a great reading month for me, and the month technically isn’t over yet. My goal for the year overall was to read 75 books, but I’ve never set such a goal before, and never actually tracked how many books I’ve read in a year before, so I have no idea how easy or difficult it will be to read 75 books. But if this month is any indication, I’m well on my way.
I read eight books in January, three of which were rereads and three of which were for my 2019 Reading Challenge. And as I look over the books I read this past month, if a theme or common thread emerges at all, it’s that all of these reads had fantastic world-building.
1. The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi
Reading Challenge: a book recommended by a friend (1 of 5)
Technically I started this book in 2018, but I finished it in 2019, and according to Goodreads, that’s what counts. My boyfriend and I listened to the first installment of Scalzi’s Interdependency series on our drive back from California after visiting his family for Christmas. Scalzi in general and The Collapsing Empire in particular came highly recommended by my brother, whose book opinions I can almost always count on, and an exciting audiobook is the perfect choice for a long road trip.
I honestly don’t know if I would have liked Empire as much as I did without Wil Wheaton’s narration, so audio was definitely the way to go. A lot of the humor is in the dialogue, which you need to hear out loud to fully appreciate, and which Wheaton delivers perfectly. There’s also a great balance of action, intrigue, and interesting sci-fi ideas–like the Flow, which even in the world of the book is a little-understood natural phenomenon that allows for much more rapid space travel, like an ocean current but in space, though it still takes almost a year to get from one end of the Empire to another.
My favorite part about the book (usually my favorite part about any book) was the characters. Two of the mains and several of the side characters are badass ladies who get stuff done. One of them, Cardenia Wu-Patrick, who reluctantly becomes the ruler of the titular collapsing empire, graces the book cover I designed.
Rating: 4 out of 5
2. Marvel 1602, Neil Gaiman
Reading challenge: a book outside your genre comfort zone
When I was thinking about what to choose for this part of my challenge, it took awhile to come up with a genre that’s truly outside my “comfort zone.” I definitely have certain genres I go back to again and again, but I’ve read and enjoyed books in almost every genre I could think of, so it was hard to identify something I wasn’t “comfortable” reading.
Then I remembered comic books. I’ve tried comics and graphic novels before but always found the format a little awkward to read. My eyes skip ahead to panels farther down or on the next page while I’m still trying to read the text of the first panels, and I get so bogged down in the visual that I can’t focus on what’s happening in the story. It’s a little bit of a sensory overload and I get overwhelmed.
But I thought, let’s give this another try. I decided to choose a graphic novel or comic book collection with an intriguing premise, and boy did I pick a good one. Marvel 1602 re-imagines our favorite Marvel superheroes as agents for Queen Elizabeth I in the early 17th Century. Super cool, right? I loved the concept and, for the most part, the interpretations of the characters so much that I had little trouble getting in to the format.
A couple things I just have to say I didn’t like were:
(1) how they reinterpreted Thor for the 1600s. He’s already kind of an archaic character, at least in the films, so I thought he should have just stayed the same (but Marvel 1602 was written in 2002, before any of the movies, so maybe original comic book Thor is more modern, I have no idea); and
(2) the explanation for why they were all in 1602. I don’t want to spoil anything, but why did they even need to explain this, or connect it to other timelines of the Marvel universe at all? I would have been more than happy to accept that this was just a completely separate story that imagines how the Marvel universe would be different if our favorite superheroes lived 400 years ago. But I guess if Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse taught me anything, it’s that in the Marvel universe (or multi-verse), everything has to be connected. I think this is kind of a tenet of comic books, but this was my first one, so what do I know?
As for what I did like? Besides the amazing premise, what else: the badass ladies. For my cover design I chose to feature Virginia Dare, a character based on the historical Virginia Dare, who was the first English child born in the Americas. Gaiman created this shape-shifting version of her because he wanted a character who was uniquely American in the story. She’s pretty rad.
Rating: 3 out of 5
3. Under the Pendulum Sun, Jeannette Ng
Reading Challenge: an author’s debut book
This book was weeeeiiird, but I loved it.
This is another one where the premise sells itself: in an alternate Victorian England, a brother and sister are sent as Christian missionaries to the Fae in a magical realm called Arcadia. One of the most intriguing aspects of this world is that the sun is literally a pendulum; the world is flat, and the sun swings across the sky, lighting each part of the land in turn, so it is never fully dark, but a perpetual twilight. Ng wrote an article for Medium in which she explains her thought process for creating this world and the scientific implications of such a celestial system. It’s definitely worth a read, even if you’re not going to read the novel.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the missionaries trying to convert the Fae to Christianity. These fairies are nothing like Tinker Bell; they’re strange and cruel and terrifying. Even the land turns out to be as changeable and treacherous as the Fae themselves. There are a lot of theological ideas interwoven, as one would expect, and Ng does a fantastic job of showing this harsh and fantastical world through the lens of a 19th Century religious view.
There is almost a whole subgenre in speculative fiction that features missionaries attempting to bring Christianity to a non-human population (one example in particular that I count as one of my favorites is Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, the fourth book in Card’s Ender Quintet), but this is the first to my knowledge that takes place in a magical realm rather than on another planet. I think there are different theological implications in a world where magic exists than in one that is simply another planet in our universe, presumably without magic.
Under the Pendulum Sun is a very dark and dense book. It borders on pastiche in its Victorian language; its first person narration from the missionary sister’s POV is strongly evocative of Jane Eyre. It’s definitely not a lighthearted read, and the ending is [SPOILER] not at all happy; this is no Disney fairytale, after all. But I guess I like that? This is Ng’s debut novel, as the challenge states, and it came out in 2017. So I can’t wait to see what she writes next–hopefully that will be soon!
Rating: 4 out of 5
*Other New Reads:
4. The Winter of the Witch, Katherine Arden
Concluding the Winternight trilogy, The Winter of the Witch was a satisfying ending to what is in my opinion one of the best fantasy series of the past decade, at least. I don’t know if I can adequately describe this series without giving too much away. Along with the apparent theme of my reading this month, the world-building is, well, out of this world. Except I think it is supposed to part of this world, kind of?
The story is set in medieval Russia and features real historical events and people, but it’s mainly a retelling of a very old Russian fairytale, and is full of mystery and magic. The seasons do change in the books, but reflecting back on them, I mostly remember having an impression of endless, dark and haunting winter woods with snow thick on the ground and frost on tree trunks. It is a tale best told around a warm fireplace, or read while curled up in a cozy chair with a cup of cocoa.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
5. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin
This one has been on my TBR for years, pretty much since it came out and, along with its sequels, swept the Hugo awards three years in a row. Holy crap, this was good. I don’t know if I can even put it into words how amaze-balls this book was, but I’ll try.
What genre is this? I don’t know. I guess it’s fantasy, but it’s not like any fantasy I’ve ever read. And it’s also kind of science fiction, too. I mean, it’s like, at least tens of thousands of years in the future, probably more like millions or even hundreds of millions (?!), because the continents of the Earth have shifted into a supercontinent, like Pangaea (dang it, again?!), and there are all these ruins of ancient civilizations that no one really knows anything about. And these huge obelisks that are apparently artifacts of those ancient civilizations, and they just sort of float through the sky, but no one really pays attention to them… ?
There are also people called orogenes, who are kind of outcasts of the society because people are afraid of them, since they can sense and even manipulate movements of the Earth, because, oh, yeah, there are constant earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and the threat of entering into a “Fifth Season” due to the ash fallout from said eruptions, which will block out the sun for a couple decades. Apparently, this has happened dozens of times in the recorded history of this society. And when there’s a Fifth Season, the world apparently devolves into Mad Max-level chaos.
At the beginning of the book, one of these Fifth Seasons is about to begin. The main character, an orogene woman who has been hiding her abilities from her community and even her husband, sets out to track down her son’s killer, who’s also kidnapped her daughter. So on one level, we’ve got her story in the very immediate present (this section of the book is in what I guess would be second person? The narrator refers to the protagonist as “you,” heightening that immediacy), where the world is ending around her but she has to keep going, somewhat reminiscent of The Road. But beyond this somewhat simple and straightforward story, there is sooooo much more going on.
The book ends with the setup for book 2, which is in my Amazon cart already. Also, the author is super cool.
Rating: 5 out of 5
The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, both by Katherine Arden (in preparation for The Winter of the Witch)
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (in preparation for the next episode of Pop DNA)
My favorite read this month? I think it’s a tie between Under the Pendulum Sun and The Fifth Season. They were both so unique and creative in their world-building, used piercing and evocative prose, and they were both deliciously weird and left me wanting more from the authors, which is the best feeling you can get from a book.
What about you? How is your reading challenge going, if you’re doing one? What’s your favorite book you read this month?