At long last, I’m getting around to sharing my thoughts about the rest of my favorite books from last year. These thoughts still feel kind of rough, but I want to get this off my plate and move on to talking about this year’s books.
1. The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik
The third and final book of Novik’s Scholmance series. This was at the same time both a glorious fulfillment and also at times something of a letdown.
Novik’s Scholomance series is premised on the idea of a magical school for wizards, a la Harry Potter, but one where everything really is trying to kill the students and a large percentage of the student body does not survive until graduation and much fewer make it through the graduation ceremony. (Though sometimes in Harry Potter the world seems to be filled with pitfalls and magical creatures that want to kill the students, Rowling’s wizarding world is much kinder and gentler and more benevolent than Novik’s.) Basically, wizards can get power to do their magic in one of two ways: they can work for it, and get mana, or they can steal it, and get malia. The problem is, it turns out, that every act of mgic that uses malia not only steals life force from a living creature, it also creates a mal, a malevolent magical creature whose sole purpose is to feed on magic users. Most wizards are killed by mals as children before they can reach adulthood. Therefore the wizards created the Scholomance, a magical school that exists in a sort of pocket universe where, theoretically, the mals can’t get in. Except they do. And the machinery which was supposed to kill them broke a long time ago and no one can fix it. So students die. But still at a lower rate than if they don’t go to this exclusive, hard to get into, school.
But El, our protagonist wants to fix the broken Scholomance, which she accomplishes (maybe, sort of?) in the first two books. and also set up some kind of alternative to the Exclusive Enclaves where the best magicians live behind protective magical walls. This is the quest of the third book.
I think this novel really works on the level of worldbuilding. The true foundation of the Enclaves turns out to be even darker than I thought, the solution was even harder than I initially expected, and felt deeply satisfying and true.
But where the book was weakest was in the relationships. I thought the friendships and the romantic relationships deserved much more resolution than they got. I wanted some kind of satisfying wrap up where we get to see our favorite characters interacting in the new world they are trying to build. Novik tells instead of showing and gives us a checklist sort of run down. I wanted a feast, something like what they get in the middle of the book when she visits her friend Aadhya’s family– a scene where we get to see them relaxing and enjoying each other’s company and healing before going on to their next challenges.
There was a deep pro-life current running through all of these books, especially in this final one. Every human person is valuable, no innocent person should be sacrificed for the comfort and security of others… it had an echo of Ursula LeGuin’s haunting short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. This plays out so beautifully and wraps up in a way that’s even better than I could have dreamed.
The whole Scholomance series is very grimdark and violent but also has moments of staggering beauty and is ultimately more hopeful than pessimistic, though it certainly doesn’t take a rosy view of human nature. I think it’s Novik’s best work to date. And that’s saying a lot after Spinning Silver. However, it’s definitely not going to be every reader’s piece of cake and many people who liked Novik’s earlier work won’t like this novel. Also, because of mature content, I suggest this is a world for only older teens and parents should probably pre-read for violent and sexually explicit content.
2. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
Murderbot would rather be binge-watching television. Murderbot is the name that Sec Unit gives to itself. Not because it wants to kill anyone, but because that’s how television shows portray Sec Units, whose function is to protect humans beings.
The first time someone recommended this series to me I was totally put off by the title. And the description didn’t lure me in. But eventually enough of my friends were singing its praises that I became curious and dove in. Murderbot is a construct, part robot, part human… not a cyborg–a person given machine parts– but rather a thing made from human genetic material that has been grown and put together with robot parts to make a being which is…. something new. The major question in the novel is whether Murderbot is a person or not.
Murderbot/Sec Unit is sarcastic. Often it comes across as if it were an autistic person. It’s not comfortable with displays of emotions. It doesn’t really like people looking at it. Most people think Sec Units as tools, but it has an awful lot of opinions and preferences and, well, very strong reactions, for a piece of equipment. I mean clearly it’s not a piece of equipment. It’s our narrator, our protagonist. And its social awkwardnes is endearing, almost charming. I feel like nothing I can write captures how much I like spending time with Murderbot and I’m not even sure why. It’s a most successful character.
3. The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold
A friend kept recommending this series and I finally gave in and picked them up from the library. I tore through the series of about 20 books in a few weeks and then… turned around and re-read most of the series again. It’s a rather sprawling series of science fiction novels that were written over the span of 30 years.
The first two books, Shard of Honor and Barrayar are basically space romance. Explorer Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony is leading a scientific team on a new planet when they are ambushed by a group of soldiers from the planet Barrayar. In a fairly standard plot, Cordelia falls in love with her captor, despite his very bad reputation as the Butcher of Komar. Then she rescues herself. Then their planets are at war. But at the end of the war they are finally reunited. There are more twists and turns but eventually Cordelia runs away and joins Aral Vorkosigan on his backwater, barbaric homeworld of Barrayar, which had been isolated for centuries and then conquored and exploited and has finally thrown off their conquorers and set out to carve out a place in the galaxy.
The second novel picks up where the first left off with Cordelia on Barrayar, caught up in a civil war. Her husband’s family are loyal to the emperor’s family, but the emporer dies, leaving his young grandson as his heir. Aral and Cordelia are named his regents and must fight against rebels who want to take advantage of the insecurity of the new child emperor to seize power. Cordelia does not take a passive role in any of this, but dives headfirst into the conflict and helps win the war. During the conflict a pregnant Cordelia is exposed to a toxin which endangers the life of her unborn son, Miles. They take advantage of the new to Barrayar technology of an artificial womb to save Mile’s life. Miles is left with very fragile bones, a cripple in a warrior society which values prowess of arms and has a pathological fear of mutation and a historical practice of infanticide (because of their history of genetic isolation on a hostile world). Cordelia fights to secure her son’s place as his father’s heir. Miles becomes the hero for the rest of the series. (Except for a handful of novels which follow secondar characters.)
Because of his prenatal injury, Miles is a dwarf with fragile bones. But he is set on having a military career like his father and grandfather and all male ancestors before him. Barrayar is still a traditionalist society where people wear swords and live in castles and follow an antiquated code of honor and have very traditional sex roles and costumes. But they also are rapidly entering into galactic society and dealing with a rapid influx of new technologies. Cordelia as an outsider from a more advanced and liberal culture is all for the new progress. The series follows Miles from a young teen through his middle age. He has careers in the military, as a freelance mercenary leader, as a diplomat and spy, and finally as a politician. He finds that he has a clone brother, he falls in love. He gets into scrapes with the mercenaries and with his handsome cousin, Ivan.
I thoroughly loved this series, except for the final book, Gentleman Jole, which I think I should have skipped. Content-wise, I’d say these are adult novels, possibly young adult/late teens with parental supervision. There are some pretty complex moral issues, sexual promiscuity, a lot of violence. And there were a some instances including some rape and torture, not gratuitous, but there. At times it can be much more intense than I’d care to give to my teens.
4. Paladin of Souls and Chalion’s Curse by Lois McMaster Bujold
After I’d read through the Vorkosigan Saga twice, I was still wanting more Bujold, so I decided to try some of her fantasy books. Chalion’s Curse had recieved some positive mentions and so had Paladin of Souls.
Chalion’s Curse didn’t disappoint at all. The protagonist is not a young man. He’s an older, middle aged, broken man, having survived slavery, a long term as a galley slave. Coming home from war, like Odysseus, long after the war is over, penniless and rather desperate. Going “home” but like Frost’s hired man, he’s really hoping there will be a place where they have to take him in. And as he travels he stumbles, unwittingly upon a mystery, a death curse. It seems that his captivity might not have been an isolated incident but part of a larger pattern, a curse that has fallen on his country. A curse which it might even be his destiny to life, perhaps at the cost of his own life.
What makes Chalion’s Curse stand out from all the fantasy novels I’ve read is the way it treats religion. In this universe there is a pantheon of just five gods: Father, Mother, Sister, Brother, and Bastard. There is a fairly sophisticated religious practice, each god has their own clergy, though mostly the houses of worship have altars to all four gods (the Bastard gets an annex off the back, usually). And we especially see the death rites where the gods let it be known, through a totem animal, which one of them is patron for the departed soul. These gods care about human beings, but are limited in how they can work in the world. They can only act through willing hands– reminding me of St Teresa of Avila’s prayer “God has no hands but yours”. Why the gods are so constrained isn’t clear. What’s interesting is how that constraint then demands that human beings become saints, channels of grace through which the gods can act in the world. Not all clerics are saints, not all saints are clerics.
As much as I liked Chalion’s Curse, I loved Paladin of Souls even more. It’s not often you get a middle aged mother with grown children as the hero on a quest. The protagonist in this novel, Ista, is a minor character in Chalion, she’s one of the royal family who is under the curse. But we meet her now she’s a widow, she’s lonely and itching for something to change, annoyed by the servants and family who won’t stop coddling her. She determines to go on a pilgrimage, mainly to get away from everyone. But of course once she’s out on the open road, she encounters adventures. I love it. She thinks she’s too old for such things, but it turns out she’s not too old for adventure, for heroics, and perhaps not even too old to fall in love.
I found the third novel of the series, The Hallowed Hunt, not nearly as much to my taste as these two. It takes place in a different time and place and with totally different characters. It’s only part of the series in the sense that it takes place in the same general setting. And really I didn’t connect with either the characters or the plot. It didn’t feel as tight and it lost sight of what I enjoyed in the first couple of books.