OK, yes, it’s late January, and here is finally my December reading wrap-up, but last year I promised that I’d stop remarking on the lateness of my wrap-up blog posts, so I’d like to take that energy into 2020. December ended up being the month with the most 5-star reads in all of 2019, and I discovered a few new favorites in addition to re-reading one of my favorite YA books of all time. I also picked up several novellas that surprised me, and read a Star Wars book for the first time in many years in preparation for the release of The Rise of Skywalker. Let’s get into the stats!
December reading stats
Total books read: 10
And now for some reviews!
Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (5 stars) – this is now my third 5-star read from Catherynne M. Valente, the previous two being The Refrigerator Monologues and Space Opera, and if she wasn’t already, she’s now been firmly cemented in favorite author status for me. Deathless is dark, disturbing, even disgusting at times, but beautiful in spite of or perhaps because of these elements. Set in Russia, it has so many elements of both history and mythology twisted into its narrative (some I was familiar with, some I was not, but I definitely don’t think you need to be an expert of Russian history to enjoy this book, although you’d probably pick up on some elements I may have missed) but still manages to create something wholly new and unique. It centers around the twisted, myth-based love story of Marya Morevna, who when the story begins is a young girl growing up as Russia turns to communism, and Koschei the Deathless, a villainous god from Russian mythology. They spend years fighting against and falling into the tropes that myth have set for them, meanwhile encountering other memorable figures both historical and mythical. Valente’s writing is so saturated and compelling that you feel completely immersed while at times forced to distance yourself and reflect on what she’s doing with the narrative, which is always something impressively clever. I was absolutely blown away by this book, and I can’t wait to pick up more from her and find out what other worlds she’s created in her books.
In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan (5 stars) (re-read) – Although this is my second reading of In Other Lands, my feelings have not changed since my initial read, so I’m just going to include my original Goodreads review, with a brief addendum at the end:
5 stars is not enough. I loved the crap out of this book. In Other Lands fits right into that niche genre of books that satirize and also pay homage to traditional portal fantasy stories, like Lev Grossman’s Magicians series, or Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, or Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. If you liked any of those, you’ll also probably love this book. We follow Elliott, a young bisexual British boy, who’s given the opportunity to enter the fantasy realm of his dreams–except nothing there is as he expects it to be, and he finds himself constantly challenging society’s expectations and norms. Elliott is extremely intelligent but very difficult in social situations, and he’s constantly butting heads with everyone around him except for his crush, Serene-Heart-In-the-Chaos-of-Battle, a beautiful elf maiden who is also, like all female elves, a deadly warrior. The two of them form an at-first tension-filled friend group with Luke Sunborn, a seemingly perfect stereotypical male fantasy hero, with the three of them gradually becoming closer and learning more about accepting each other’s faults as they progress in their training to join the Border Guard, which acts as a military force policing both the fantasy realm and its border with the human ones.
I will say that if you are a stickler for structured plots, then you may have issues with this book. Personally, as long as I’m enjoying what I’m reading and I love the characters, I could care less about having drawn-out battle scenes or whatever, so it didn’t bother me at all, but I could see some readers taking issue with the fact that the story meanders without following a traditional conflict/resolution fantasy plot struture.
This book is a beautiful story about growing up and learning to challenge traditionally held beliefs, which may not be the right ones, and learning to understand and accept yourself for who you are. It’s about friendship and how people can complement each other while still being from very different backgrounds. It’s about learning your strengths and using them to make the world a better place. It made me laugh out loud continuously and also cry multiple times. It’s one that I can see myself re-reading and enjoying just as much each time. It’s honestly wonderful, and I really hope that more people read it.
Edit: Upon re-read, In Other Lands has become one of my favorite books of all time. You should all stop what you are reading and immediately read this instead, because it’s better.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (5 stars) – I’ve seen some stellar and some disappointed reviews for this highly hyped adult fiction debut from YA powerhouse Leigh Bardugo, and I found myself falling firmly in the “love” camp on this one. Ninth House is dark, yes, and there is a LOT of infodumping, yes, but neither of those things tend to bother me; on the contrary, if I’m really interested in a book, I’d always rather err on the side of more information, and I don’t really mind if it’s presented in the narrative or outside of it. And although the worldbuilding of Ninth House is fascinating–magical secret societies at Yale, a protagonist with the ability to see ghosts, magic driving political and business leaders’ decisions but sourced from college students–it was the characters that really grabbed me. Alex, a misfit with a dark, haunted past, and Darlington, an old-money “gentleman,” both won me over instantly, and their scenes together were some of my favorite in the book. I also think Ninth House sets itself up really well for a sequel, which I can’t wait for.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (5 stars) – I love a short, impactful literary fiction novel with a unique premise. Ghost Wall is about a modern-day family who joins a summer university project to live like it’s the Iron Age, but the historical reenactment brings out the worst in the family’s abusive father, and the daughter is confronted with just how disturbing his actions are. It’s extremely tightly written, a very fully realized story with no extraneous words or actions, and I’ll definitely be looking to pick up more from this author.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (4 stars) – Even after hearing about a million positive reviews of this scifi novella series, I was put off by the name (Murderbot isn’t a word that’s instantly appealing to me) but I finally gave into the hype, and I’m very glad I did. Following Murderbot (who named itself) a bot intended for guard/protection duty who has hacked its system and now spends most of its time watching TV inside its head, All Systems Red is both very funny and also full of plenty of action, as Murderbot’s most recent mission to protect a team of scientists goes very awry and it’s forced to interact with people far more than it feels comfortable with. Murderbot is a great, memorable character, and as soon as I finished this novella I knew I’d be picking up the rest of the series next.
The Test by Sylvain Neuvel (4 stars) – a twisty, addicting scifi novella about a man taking a UK citizenship test where something goes horribly wrong. You really don’t want to know much going into this one, since it goes in several unexpected directions, but I read it in one sitting and would very much recommend–it would be perfect for a readathon,
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells (4 stars) – the sequel to All Systems Red, this novella follows Murderbot as it attempts to fill in the gaps in its memory about the events that lead to it hacking its system and gaining autonomy. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as All Systems Red, but I did enjoy the interactions between Murderbot and an overbearing transport ship it meets.
Star Wars: Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse (4 stars) – the last time I picked up a Star Wars book, I think I was about ten and obsessed with Queen Amidala’s outfits and badassness from Episode 1. I was inspired to return to the world of Star Wars books for a few specific reasons: Rebecca Roanhorse, whose Sixth World series I’m obsessed with and recommend to everyone who listens; my love of the new Star Wars sequel trilogy and impatience for The Rise of Skywalker to come out; and my best friend, who’s obsessed with Star Wars and bought me a copy of Resistance Reborn when she was worried she wouldn’t finish her copy in time to lend it to me before the movie’s release. I’m very glad I did end up picking it up, as I found myself thoroughly enjoying this book; it’s a bridge between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, jumping between several perspectives but focusing in particular on Poe and his struggles with the events of The Last Jedi and the ramifications of his actions. I really liked how Roanhorse delved into the emotional fallout from The Last Jedi, and also was very much on board with the interesting side characters she introduced. I’m definitely glad I picked this one up; it’s definitely not necessary for understanding the movies, but it works well as a companion.
An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris (4 stars) (re-read) – Again, since this was a re-read, I’m including my original Goodreads review; I felt similarly about it upon re-read.
It’s been awhile since I’ve read a Charlaine Harris book, but for years and years, I devoured every book of hers that I could get my hands on, starting with the Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire Mysteries series. She’s still #1 on my most-read authors feature on Goodreads (although Ilona Andrews has recently caught up, and they’re currently tied for first place with 28 books each). When I heard that she had a new book coming out, though, and that she would be signing copies at BookCon, I was so excited to be able to dive back into her writing. And An Easy Death definitely did not disappoint; the premise is a lot different than Harris’s other books, but it has her signature cozy mystery-esque writing style alongside plenty of action and lovable characters.
An Easy Death is hard to classify, genre-wise; it’s sort of an alternate history Western with fantasy elements. It’s set in a version of a fractured United States that splintered apart after the assassination of FDR and a series of disasters, and at the time the book is set, pieces of the U.S. are now owned by Canada, Mexico, and England, and the exiled tsar of Russia has settled on the West Coast with his army of grigoris, or wizards. Our main character Lizbeth Rose lives in the southwestern country of Texoma and works as a gunnie, sort of a gunslinger/bodyguard hired out to protect people. She gets drawn into a search for a missing grigori when she’s hired by two wizards as a guide and protector, and although she’s not a fan of magic or the Russian wizards that brought it with them to her country, she’s determined to see her mission through.
There are really no dull moments in An Easy Death; it’s action-packed and does have a high body count. Lizbeth Rose is a badass, street-smart heroine who’s easy to root for, and she faces down a series of bandits, wizards, and rival gunslingers head-on. The worldbuilding is gradual and fascinating; the concept of the Romanovs surviving an assassination attempt and fleeing Russia for California is a particularly interesting one, as well as the idea that Rasputin had actual magical powers that he taught to a host of other magic-wielders. The book sets up a sequel well, as there’s still a lot left to explore at the end of the book, and I really can’t wait to return to this world. I think that this book would work really well for fans of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (which I also loved) as well as urban fantasy fans looking for something different. Highly recommend!
A Longer Fall by Charlaine Harris (3 stars) – Unfortunately, A Longer Fall missed the mark for me, especially compared with the first book in Charlaine Harris’s fantastical, Western alternate history series, An Easy Death. I love the world-building in these books (FDR was assassinated, which set off a chain of events that fractured the United States into several smaller countries, and California/Oregon was settled by the exiled Russian tsar and an order of magic users founded by Rasputin), and the first book was an action-packed ride featuring “gunnie” or hired bodyguard Lizbeth Rose as she took a job protecting two Russian wizards whose mission had a connection to her past.
A Longer Fall brings back Russian wizard love interest Eli, who I did find likable in the first book and who hires Lizbeth to help him track down a mysterious crate in the nearby country of Dixie, or what was formerly the American South. A Longer Fall is slower in pace, with not much of a payoff at the end, and a romance that quickly turns from interesting to stale. A central issue in this book is Dixie’s pervasive racism and sexism, which could have been interesting for the story to delve into, but unfortunately I didn’t feel that either topic was handled very well.
I love Charlaine Harris, and I hate that I’m not giving this book a higher rating, but ultimately it just wasn’t as enjoyable for me as many of her other books have been.
I received an eARC of A Longer Fall courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.