A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
First of all, look at that cover art. Look at it. It’s breathtaking. It creates within you certain expectations, of majesty and power and Empire, of two cultures clashing with one another, of two individuals removed from all others for entirely different reasons. It sets up a confrontation, too, a central notion of otherness; it is, in a word, one of the finest sci-fi covers I have ever seen.
The book itself?
A Memory Called Empire is a celebration of masterful worldbuilding and cerebral storytelling, the story of exciting political intrigue and murder, of civilization and the other. All these vastly differing aspects are threaded seamlessly into one, a narrative that enfolds steadily at first, turning ever more unpredictable and complex as the story progresses.
The reader will find the culture and society of the Teixcalaanli Empire both familiar and alien; while individuals are driven by passions that will be familiar to any of us, the culture is ruled by an obsession with the past and the recreating of it. One of the tools in the recreation of the Teixcalaanli’s past is poetry, which plays a unique role in the Empire, from politics to its every other social aspect. Whether criticizing authority or in defense of it, poets have influence enough over the citizens of the Empire to force them onto the streets; the role of poets reminded me of what Percy Bysshe Shelley described as “…legislators of the world” in his essay, “A Defence of Poetry.”
This is but a part of my full review of the novel. A Memory Called Empire is my favourite sci-fi novel of 2019, and second only to The Word for World is Forest in terms of blowing my sci-fi mind with the sheer scope of its ideas.
Starsight by Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson, why you gotta be so good?!
Spensa returns in this character-driven adventure, forced into a situation wholly outside her experience. As a result, Starsight is an exploration of the other, and a way to reconcile with it. It is a story of fear, of facing that fear and growing stronger for the staring down of it. It is a tale of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. And it is beautiful.
You can read my full review of it here.
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
The 2010s took Ursula K. Le Guin from us at the venerable age of 88; as I find my way through her works, I realise more and more that hers was an extraordinary loss, one that will leave a void in the SFF community. Her humanity, humility, wry humour and wisdom, her ideas – they humble you. They make you a whole lot more human, they change and transform you. It’s a scary thing – you can sit down, thinking you know yourself, then open up a book by Ursula K. Le Guin and suddenly, you’re not so sure. Something, a process, a shift has taken you away from yourself and you are new, you are different, and that is scary. Scary as all hell. But also special.
Here is a work of speculative fiction worthy of the “Masterworks” label. The Word for World is Forest has plenty of meat on the bone despite the short number of pages its text occupies. It’s thematically rich, a novel of memorable ideas and characters both. Le Guin problematises the ethic of exploitation in her signature style, poignant and deeply thoughtful.
“…it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of non-combatants in the name of “peace” was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of “man”. The victory of the ethic of exploitation, in all societies, seemed as inevitable as it was disastrous.” (from Le Guin’s Introduction).
This realisation is the initial push that gave birth to The Word for World is Forest. The theme of exploitation is joined by the equally relevant subject of colonialism: our very own human race, now travelling along the stars, has promulgated across different planets; central for The Word is the so-called world of “New Tahiti,” dominated by oceans and lush green forests, where a little over two thousand men are working to deforest the world one island at a time, in order to sate the unquenchable thirst of an Earth that has exhausted all its natural resources of wood.
My full review for it is here.
Shadow and Claw by Gene Wolfe
What is this madness, and what right does it have to be so damnably good?
This is the first half of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, one of the most complex sci-fi novels ever written – at least that seems to be the prevailing opinion. It’s complex and not a quick read, and it takes an emotional toll. But there’s something about this world, this Urth awaiting the birth of its New Sun, that is nothing short of transcedental. It treads the line between sci-fi and postmodernism, playing around with time and voice and philosophy, and it’s unnervingly complex.
Well-worth the read, though, for everything the torturer Severian goes through. And possibly the re-read. I’m slowly making my way through the remaining two novels – you can expect my review/essay/manifesto on the series later this year.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
Stephen King writes a time-travelling thriller about an English college teacher’s attempt to . Is it as sci-fi as anything else on the list? Likely as not. But is it as good as anything else on the list? Yes, yes it is. You want to read more about it? Here you go!
Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn
Despite the extremely divisive nature of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, we live in a golden age of Star Wars for fans of the franchise. Not since Zahn’s original trilogy and the Knights of the Old Republic games has there been such a sheer amount of excellent expanded universe content; comics, novels, even audio dramas (though, I hear, the Dooku audiodrama of last year wasn’t quite as good as most would’ve liked). Leading the
Thrawn: Treason is but the latest of Zahn’s New Canon novels and it does an excellent work of playing to the blue-skinned tactical genius’ strengths. Though it was really cool to see him match wits with Darth Vader in 2018’s Thrawn: Allegiances, that novel had a number of issues – Treason corrects the course in a satisfying way and digs deeper into the divided loyalties Thrawn has to the Empire and to his own Chiss Ascendancy. It’s really good, good enough to be on this list.
You can read my full review here.
Master and Apprentice by Claudia Grey – another Star Wars book, quite excellent; as it’s centered on Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn’s relationship, it’s a lot more fantasy than sci-fi because…Jedi. It’s really good, though, you’re welcome to read my review of it if you enjoy that.
I also listened to nine Horus Heresy novels! Some were entertaining, some weren’t, none of them are really all that great. Except for Fulgrim, which is absolute nonsense but in the best way possible. Or the worst way. Can’t quite tell.
For the Emperor…?