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10 Books You Might Have Overlooked in 2010

Everyone's doing "best of" lists this month, but to be honest, I haven't even made it through a quarter of the books I wanted to read in 2010.  I had the best of intentions.  I even made a list.  But the drawback to ordering all the speculative fiction for a medium-sized public library is that I get to see all the pretty new shinies as they come in, and I am very easily distracted by books.  ("Oh, the book I want to read is on reserve... in the meantime, I'll just check out this one... and this one... OH, and this one...!")  I don't feel qualified to come up with a "best of 2010" yet (maybe in June?), so instead I thought I'd share a list of the best books of 2010 you probably haven't read yet.  The first five titles are ones I nearly passed over, and was really glad I didn't.  The remaining five are underread titles that you probably didn't check out last year... but should.

Here they are, roughly in order of publication:

5 Books I Nearly Passed Over:

1 The Conqueror's Shadow, by Ari Marmell
Why I almost didn't read it:

   This isn't the first time a villain (reformed or not) has been the protagonist of a fantasy, but it's a really hard trope to do well.  And while this wasn't the author's first book, all his previous works have been series novels for commercial role-playing games, which doesn't necessarily recommend him to me.
Why I'm glad I did:
   Strong characterization, humor, and a more mature outlook on the risks and rewards of adventuring and conquest (not to mention the regrets for fashion choices of one's youth) set this book apart from the usual diet of dark fantasy.  As the former Terror of the East, Rebaine offers a far more nuanced view of good and evil than your typical hero.  He comes in peace (this time), but he's going to have a hard time convincing his former enemies of that (not to mention his former allies).  He's trying to stop an unknown villain from picking up from where he'd left off nearly 20 years ago, but the injustices that drove him to world conquest the first time still exist.  Rebaine's interior struggles are just as fascinating to me as the physical battles.  He knows he's older and slower.  His enemies know all his tricks.  He's extraordinarily cocky, but even the most brilliant of commanders needs an army, and he doesn't have one.  If he is to succeed, can he afford to be less ruthless than he was last time?  But what good is it to him to save the world, if it loses him the love of his wife?

2 Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Why I almost didn't read it:

   For the longest time, I resisted reading Kay because I thought he would be too high-fantasy for my taste.  (After all, he got his start co-editing The Silmarillion with Tolkien's son.)  But this book, despite the publisher's "Fantasy" label on the spine, didn't sound like a fantasy at all-- more like a historical novel.  That alone could be a turnoff for some fantasy readers, but my quibble was too much fantasy, and I like stories of ancient China.  I thought I'd give it a try, despite its size (it's almost 600 pages). 
Why I'm glad I did:
   I want to read everything this man has written now.  This book is a fantasy-- but it doesn't feel like one.  The magic is so natural, so ingrained in their everyday world, that it's easy to forget that restless spirits and shamans who can switch souls aren't part of the real world (or perhaps they are, somewhere far away on a foreign border?).  It is epic-- seen from a distance, the work details a massive, empire-spanning dynasty at its height, and traces its decline and fall.  But it is also, somehow, all about one person.  Kay tells his story through the eyes of one seemingly insignificant man-- a deceased general's second son who is not very brilliant, not much of a fighter, and really doesn't know what he wants to do with his life yet.  Everything the reader sees is through his eyes, or the eyes of his friends and relatives.  Although none of them can see the "big picture" of what's actually happening in the empire, each is more critical to events than he or she realizes. Through this handful of average, flawed, sometimes-brave people, Kay manages to reveal the entire scope of events to the reader while maintaining an extremely personal investment in the story.  If real history were told in this way, you wouldn't be able to get kids out of school.

3 The Reapers Are the Angels, by Alden Bell
Why I almost didn't read it:

   I don't read a lot of horror.  Good horror often does its job too well and scares the bejeebers out of me, and bad horror sickens me.  However, I love zombies.  (I'm not entirely sure why.)  I picked this book up because it had gotten exceptional reviews, and it has zombies in it.  I nearly put it back down again when I read the back cover blurbs.  The reviewers were tossing around names like Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner.  Literary zombies?  ...Really?  It was beginning to sound like the sort of book that critics adore but average readers despise.  The first few pages didn't endear me to it, either-- the book is written in a folksy Southern patois and eschews the use of quotation marks for dialogue.  Literary contrivances like these usually get on my nerves pretty quickly.  On the other hand... zombies.  And really good reviews.  Okay, I thought.  60 pages.  60 pages is my standard limit for leisure reading (longer books get a longer deadline) when I'm fairly sure I'm not going to like a book, but feel obligated to give it a fair trial.  If I get that far and still have no desire to continue reading, I'm done.  Life is too short to struggle through books I hate.
Why I'm glad I did:
   This is definitely not your average postapocalyptic zombie novel.  It made me take a good long look at the things I value, at how often I recognize the beauty around me.  Which isn't to say the book is pure philosophy, either-- there are plenty of kick-butt zombie slaying scenes.  The protagonist is illiterate (which throws some interesting twists into the plot) but she is in no way stupid or simple.  She is deeply spiritual, and spends a lot of time thinking about her role and purpose in this vastly changed world.  She's young in years, but old in life experience.  She's seen (and killed) things that have sent older men running.  When others can only dwell on the horror or retreat into memories of a better past, she takes time to appreciate beauty where she finds it.  This is the only world she has ever known, and she faces it open-eyed.  Cross Cormac McCarthy's The Road with Zombieland, toss in a little down-home gospel preacher, and yes, give it a bit of Flannery O'Connor Southern gothic flavor, and you'll have an idea of what to expect from this novel.

4 Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Why I almost didn't read it:

   Bujold's Vorkosigan saga is one of my most beloved series.  I was very excited when I heard a new Miles Vorkosigan book was coming out... but also a little surprised.  Bujold had turned her attention to other projects of late, and has been writing mostly fantasy.  In fact, aside from a novella tucked into her last Vorkosigan omnibus, she hadn't written anything new for Miles since 2002.  I thought she might have retired him.  (He's certainly earned it.)  So why would I be reluctant to read his latest adventure?  The same reason I was reluctant to go see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which sadly bore out my fears).  Truthfully, I was worried that Miles had jumped the shark.  It's been eight years since the last full book, after all, and he's married now.  And with a plot centered around cryogenics, what was she planning to do?  She already killed him, froze him, and brought him back to life in Mirror Dance.
Why I'm glad I did:
   Shame on me for doubting.  He may have a few more years on him but Miles isn't done yet, not by a long shot.  For me, this one harkens back to the bad old days of Brothers in Arms, when Miles was cut loose from his support network and had to rely on his (considerable) wits and charm to make it back alive.  As always, Bujold provides plenty of social commentary for one to chew over, and I found her musings of the politics of cryogenics particually relevant to our greying population.  If you've never read the series before, this is probably not the best title to start with (that would be Warrior's Apprentice, also found in the Young Miles omnibus, or even better, Cordelia's Honor, which begins with his parents).  If you're already a fan, though, this one cannot be missed.

5 Pegasus, by Robin McKinley
Why I almost didn't read it:
   I expected the book would be excellent-- it's Robin McKinley, after all.  She's a multiple award-winning author who's owned a place in my top five favorite authors since The Blue Sword came out in 1982.  I was dubious, though, about the subject matter. A princess and her flying horse?  Really?  Are they going to weave lavender ribbons in their hair and dance with rainbows?  Perhaps I've outgrown her, I thought.  Maybe this one's a bit more for the YA crowd. 
Why I'm glad I did: 
   Okay, I really have to stop doubting my favorite authors.  I mean it.  Although it's set in a fantasy world, what McKinley has written here is a classic science fiction novel about first contact.  A group of humans encounter a vastly different species.  Although their cultures are utterly alien to each other and their languages and technolo-- er, magics are not compatible, mutual need drives them to find a way work together so that both may survive their inhospitable environment.  A handful of humans have jury-rigged a means of translation, but it is halting and difficult.  Now, hundreds of years after contact, one human may have an opportunity to learn more about the other race, to better the understanding between them.  That would be a good thing, right?  Perhaps not for everybody....

5 Books You Probably Missed:

1 The Unwritten, v.1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, by Mike Carey with Peter Gross, illus.

Why you probably didn't read it:
   It's a graphic novel-- a "comic book" (although it's more thriller than comedy).  Although a lot of GN stories fall firmly within the genre, I've spoken with many hard-core speculative fiction fans who still balk at wasting their time on books with pictures in them.  (After all, Neil Gaiman's Sandman could have been a fluke, right?) 
Why you'll be glad you did:
   If you still feel that way, you're missing out on a lot of great stories like this one.  Mike Carey is the perfect gateway-- not only is he an old hand at nuanced, thought-provoking GNs (he wrote Vertigo's Lucifer series), he's also written regular novel-length fantasy (the acclaimed Felix Castor series).  Unwritten is a particularly intriguing title, because at its essence it's a story about the tremendous power of stories.  Tom Taylor is one of the most unlikely protagonists I've ever seen.  He's adored by millions, but it's not actually him they love.  He's the only child of a bestselling author, an eccentric writer who based world-beloved character Tommy Taylor on his son (sort of a cross between Harry Potter and Christopher Robin).  But his dad deserted him, vanished without a trace years ago, leaving the last novel in his popular series unfinished.  Now Tom is all grown up, and the only job he's good at is sharing a name with his dad's fictional magic boy.  But soon he may not even have that-- new evidence suggests he's not Wilson Taylor's biological child, and some are starting to blame him for his father's disappearance.  Tom is determined to clear his name by finding out exactly what happened the night his father vanished, but the more he digs, the stranger the truth becomes.

2 Discord's Apple, by Carrie Vaughn
Why you probably didn't read it:

   It's Carrie Vaughn, but it's not a Kitty Norville book.  Vaughn has been writing the bestselling urban fantasy series about werewolf DJ Kitty Norville since 2005-- eight books so far.  This, though, is a departure from her regular series-- a bit of an unknown quantity.
Why you'll be glad you did:
   This book surprised me on a number of levels.  Firstly, it's set in a very dark near-future in which America's fears of terrorism have escalated into a near-police state at home and global unrest.  Vaughn doesn't make a big deal about the setting-- the characters just accept it as status quo-- but somehow, that makes it all the more disturbing.  Secondly, I was impressed with the amount of research that went into this book.  Half the story is centered around the fall of Troy; Vaughn brings its characters to life and plausibly explains their relevance to the modern story.  She even tosses in a little Mycenaean Greek and some classical-style epic poetry.  Thirdly, it's surprisingly deep.  None of the relationships in this book are as simple as they might seem, and Vaughn has some intriguing thoughts on the role and power of stories in the world.  What I love the best, though, is the way she weaves all the plot threads together: the ancient ones, the modern ones, the little vignettes of the Walker ancestors, even the side-stories of the Storeroom's strange visitors and Evie's comic book artist partner back in L.A.  There are no minor characters here; everyone's story is important.  I liked Vaughn's Kitty Norville books; I loved this.  I hope we see more like it.

3 Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord
Why you probably didn't read it:

   To begin with, it doesn't look like a fantasy novel.  Further, it's African fantasy, which just doesn't play well in this area; perhaps it's just too "foreign" for people, as the names are very unlike what we're used to.  Also, Lord is a debut author publishing with a very small press; many of you probably just haven't heard of her.
Why you'll be glad you did:
   For such a little book (it's only 180 pages), there's an awful lot of story here.  It's funny and charming and a little (okay, occasionally a lot) bizarre; after all, the main characters are fighting over possession of a magical Chaos Stick.  What really snared me, though, was the characterization and storytelling.  Good storytelling is an art; when done well, it doesn't feel like a recital, it's like a conversation between teller and listener.  Lord possesses that art.  Even the most minor characters have backstories and motivations that she explains in fun little digressions as if we'd asked after the doings of her neighbors.  And just like her neighbors, her characters feel like people we could know.  They're relatable.  With all the wonders that filled this book-- magical artifacts, disasters, tricksters, talking insects, small gods, chaos, and undying spirits-- in the end it came down to the characters (human and not) and how they learned to deal with one another.  As in real life, the story doesn't have a "proper" beginning or ending; it feels more like a chapter in a larger tale, but satisfies as it is.   If the quality of today's writers is any indication, you're about to start seeing a lot more African speculative fiction on our shores from authors like Lord (who is Barbadian, but her tale is from Senegal) and Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death).

4 Zombies vs. Unicorns, by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier, eds.
Why you probably didn't read it:
   The YA sticker on the spine.  Yes, this book is intended for a teenaged audience.  Also, it has unicorns in it.  (I'm Team Zombie all the way, of course.)
Why you'll be glad you did:
   Never before have I enjoyed reading the introductions in a short story collection as much as I enjoyed reading the stories themselves.  The strongly partisan introductions from editors Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black-- representing Team Zombie and Team Unicorn, respectively-- are an absolute riot.  This collection, though, is seriously good.  It will introduce you to some of the best young adult authors you aren't reading (but should be)-- Libba Bray, Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, Cassandra Clare, and Maureen Johnson, just to name a few (Garth Nix and Naomi Novik you may already know).  The premise is very tongue-in-cheek and yes, some of the stories are silly, but they are also frequently surprising and moving and thought-provoking; some stories are clear stand-outs, but there are no weak entries here.  The tales are all clearly marked for staunch enthusiasts of one side or the other, but I warn you-- they're all so good, you'll likely find yourself rooting for the enemy.

5 The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge for Prester John by Catherynne M. Valente
Why you probably didn't read it:

   Valente is the best little-known author that I know.  Her last book, Palimpsest, was nominated for both a Locus and a Hugo Award for best novel, but it's almost never gone out (and we're the only library in the system to own it).  Her latest, Habitation of the Blessed, is based on the medieval story of a (probably) mythical Christian king who reigned over a kingdom of fabulous wonders and oddities somewhere north of India.  If you're a medievalist, you're probably familiar with the legend.  if not, well....
Why you'll be glad you did:
   Habitation, first in a projected trilogy, peels open like a strange fruit with many layers of rind.  Valente is fond of the frame tale technique, and she uses it again here to good effect.  The outer story is of Brother Hiob, a Swiss missionary to the East who discovers a strange miracle: a tree that bears books as its fruit.  Two of the books he is allowed to harvest purport to be written by people who were close to Prester John; the last is by the fabled man himself.  Hiob is stunned and excited to discover proof of Prester John's existence, but at a loss for what to tell his fellow monks back home.  For as it turns out, the truth of Prester John's legend is not as glamorous as they'd believed, but still stranger than they could have ever imagined, full of fabulous creatures, wondrous sights, and foreign philosophies.  The stories unfold as Hiob copies out the books and shares their fantastical stories with his readers.  Valente's books are brain candy to anyone who loves richness in language.  If you like mythic fiction and tales from far-off lands, if you love the style of Arabian Nights, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, China Mieville, or Neil Gaiman, you'll love her. 

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