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The Juice Boxes - Best SFF Book I Read This Year Not From 2011

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Juice Boxes - Best SFF Book I Read This Year Not From 2011

I read something like 90 books this year (as of writing this) and somewhere around a third of those weren't published this year.  When it comes to end of the year awards I prefer to talk about what came out this year.  To expand it would mean pitting classics against modern stuff and I find that doesn't work that well.  So every year I'll be doing this -- talking about the best book(s) I read published in prior years.

Here are my nominees for Best SFF Book I Read This Year Not Published in 2011:

#5: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Classic, right?  Haldeman's seminal novel about a futuristic war is, like all great science fiction, as much about the time it was written in as the time it's written about.  In this case, Haldeman's future war was a commentary on Vietnam and what is was like for soldiers coming home.  The message is still relevant today, although some of the novel's idiosyncrasies , especially those related to homosexuality, don't really conform to a modern perspective.  It's also a dynamic novel on the surface, dealing with the actual scientific hiccups of faster than light travel and what warfare might look like a thousand years from now.

#4: Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover
These days there's a lot said about gritty fantasy.  Names like Abercrombie and Martin are defined as the trend setters.  I think we forget Matthew Stover because he hasn't done much (except Star Wars) outside the The Acts of Caine series.  Not to mention his sequels to Heroes Die haven't been near as good.  Published in 1999 (8 years before The Blade Itself), Stover's novel is a commentary on consumerism, imperialism, and BestWaysToKillSomebody-ism.  In other words, its a gruesome, dirty, sword and sorcery inspired, Sci-fantasy with some similarities to the Mojoworld story line from X-Men.  If you haven't read it, what are you waiting for?

#3: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Ok, this is a good novel and a great piece of social commentary.  I'm not sure how to separate the two when rating it and that's why it's here at #3 instead of #1.  As a novel, I'm not convinced it's the best thing I've ever read.  In using science fiction as a mirror into the real world?  It's about as good as it gets.

I criticize it as a novel for two reasons.  One, I didn't really click with any of the characters which is a personal problem and may not be an issue with Bacigalupi's work.  Two, there's something about the way the novel reads that's a little disjointed.  Not the prose so much as the way it all comes together... I never could put my finger on what it was.  Sometimes a style just doesn't totally work for me, and I guess that was the case here.  Still, it's a very good novel and a must read from a cultural perspective.

#2: The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Grossman's protagonist, Quentin, is morbidly unhappy with his life and looking for an escape.  Go to any fantasy message board right now and ask, "Why do you read fantasy?"  The common answer is - escapism.  That's what fantasy is all about (or at least, was about).  Quentin wants to turn the page and go away.  He keeps chasing a carrot for what will make him happy.  When magic isn't enough, he tries love and then ultimately he pins all his hopes on Fillory - a magical land imagined in his youth.  Want to guess how that works out?  I guess I'm saying Quentin is a metaphor for fantasy readers and that's just scratching the surface of all the things Grossman is doing in The Magicians.  Go check out my full review because a paragraph isn't enough to describe the awesome.

#1: Best SFF Book I Read This Year Not Published in 2011 is...

The Folding Knife
by K.J. Parker

The Folding Knife is a second world setting that approximates Athens or Rome at some point in ancient times.  In this case, Athens is Vesani and I have no idea where it is in relation to the so-called Eastern Empire that exists as the elephant in the room. I don't care and seemingly neither does K.J. Parker who cuts away all the extraneous items that make up a standard epic fantasy.

In the prologue Parker hits the reader with the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN as her protagonist Basso leaves Vesani in poverty on the top of a wagon. What it holds back is the why. Parker relishes filling in that blank with a brilliant tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare and Euripides.

Finance is the device that Parker uses to move the plot from Basso's role as head of the Charity and Social Justice Bank.  I couldn't help observing a parallel between the Vesani (read: Basso) economy and America's. Leveraged, always betting on future profits, never cutting back.  On a more personal side, namely the human story of Basso beginning with the murder of his wife and brother-in-law, Parker sets up scenes of loss and heartbreak that resonate time after time.

For all that Folding Knife is an epic fantasy - just not traditionally so. It follows a man through thirty years of his life describing his rise and fall from power through war and peace in 400 some odd pages.  Why is there any list of the best fantasy novels out there without The Folding Knife right near the top? I can't explain it.  It's one of the five best books I read this year and cemented K.J. Parker as one of my buy on sight authors.


If you missed my Thanksgiving post, I explained that I'm doing a series of awards. I'm going to call them the Juice Boxes. See if you can keep up here... so there are the Hugos. My name is Justin. Put those two words together and you get Jugos. Jugo in Spanish means Juice. The Juice Awards sounds like something O.J. Simpson would bestow on someone, so I added the box. After all, who doesn't like Juice Boxes?

I'll be doing a separate post for each category with a goal of having them all done before Christmas (we'll see). My award categories are as follows:

Best SFF Press for eBooks
SFF Editor of the Year
SFF Cover of the Year
Most Disappointing SFF Book (2011)
Best SFF Book I Read This Year Not Published in 2011
SFF Debut of the Year (2011)
SFF Book of the Year (2011)



At December 22, 2011 at 7:35 AM , Blogger Stefan Fergus said...

Really want to read THE FOLDING KNIFE, THE MAGICIANS and THE WINDUP GIRL. I have no idea why I haven't read them, yet...

At December 22, 2011 at 11:15 AM , Blogger SkynJay said...

Glad you put the Folding Knife as your #1. I knew there was a reason I liked you. (Your addition of The Magicians makes it a bit suspect though.....)

At December 22, 2011 at 3:37 PM , Blogger Elfy said...

This is quite a good idea. I may have to think about doing something similar on my own blog. Of the books here I've only read The Magicians and I wasn't impressed by it, but to each their own.

At December 23, 2011 at 2:32 PM , Blogger Zafri Mollon said...

If you read my review on you'll see that I basically agree with you re: The Windup Girl. I really enjoyed Purple and Black by KJ parker but never read anything else by him/her.

At December 24, 2011 at 7:55 AM , Anonymous redhead said...

Thank you for highlighting books you enjoyed that are a little older. It's fun and all to talk about new stuff, but books that are a few years old are just as good, sometimes better!

At December 26, 2011 at 5:08 AM , Anonymous Michelle said...

I also have to agree with you about the The Windup Girl. I thought it was an excellent work of social commentary and a pretty good book overall. However, the vision of the future was disturbingly plausible to me, it made the ecologist and humanitarian inside me want to curl up in a corner and weep. So, while I think it achieved its goal in providing food for thought I couldn't really enjoy reading it. It might be my no.1 thought provoking recent read though.


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