Hello, Happy New Year 2021! I’m here to talk about some of the great books I read in the horrible year of our pandemic 2020. I know, I have been remiss. I really should have talked about my favorite novel reads of the past year before February of the next year. My excuse is the pandemic really sucks. We are in our second lockdown in Ontario, but considering I never left the first, and the glacially slow vaccine rollout in Canada means I won’t get a shot until August at the earliest…well, this is pretty much me now and in the foreseeable future:
Anyway, the good part about my delayed delivery is that I can cheat and include a book I just finished reading, so there.
Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges, 1962.
Brilliant, astonishing, and unforgettable. This is a selection of stories, essays, and parables by one of the foremost Argentine writers. Jorge Luis Borges wrote exclusively in the short form, but he managed in a few thousand words what it takes other writers entire novels to convey. I am surprised it has taken me so long to read his work, and utterly grateful that I have finally found my way to it.
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is my favorite story in this selection. I read it again and again; each time I found something new to marvel at. Imagine a story about a fictional place with a mythology which starts to become realer than the real world, even as the fictional place stays fictional. Dense and delightful. But there were many others I loved. The Library of Babel which imagines the entire universe as a labyrinthine library. The Circular Ruins where a sorcerer dreams a man into existence only to discover that he himself is a dream. The Zahir which is about obsession, but has a fascinating motif of an infinity of tigers. The Immortal which is about a man who seeks immortality, gains it, and then wishes to lose it. The Garden of Forking Paths in which a man’s ancestral legacy is revealed to him by his victim. Books, labyrinths, tigers, and hapless humans populate these stories about time, death, and the nature of reality. Highly recommended for those who like big ideas in their short stories.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, 2020.
Is it a coincidence that the second book on my list also features a labyrinth? I was delighted to know Susanna Clarke was coming out with another novel. Her book Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell about rival magicians in an alternate Victorian England was one of my favorites when I read it several years ago. It’s also a massive tome of a book. Piranesi, on the other hand, is a slim little book that you can read in one sitting. But, like me, you will keep thinking of it long after it is finished.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an Italian artist famous for his etchings of fictitious prisons. But the novel is not about him at all. It’s about a man named after him. Piranesi lives in a labyrinthine house with huge, endless halls, enormous statues, and an ocean that regularly floods it. Piranesi keeps notes of the tides, fishes to sustain himself, and explores the house. But there is one Other in the house who is not like him at all. The Other visits him regularly to ask questions about the house, and get his help on a secret knowledge mission. Slowly, it is revealed that there is another in the house – someone who does not have Piranesi’s wellbeing at heart. In discovering this third, Piranesi will also discover the secret to himself and the house. Beautifully written and unforgettable.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, 1980.
Another labyrinth – sensing a pattern here, haha. This was actually a re-read. I read and loved this book more than 20 years ago. All I remembered was that it was a murder mystery set in a monastery and somehow books were involved. I was initially reluctant to attempt a re-read, because some books don’t stand the test of time. But this one did – more or less. It is an enthralling, gripping, irritating, difficult read. Mostly, I am astonished at myself – how did I manage to enjoy it so much when I didn’t have access to Wikipedia or any online translation? I didn’t know Latin and had little knowledge of medieval European history. And yet, I loved it as a teen. Having re-read it, I understand why. It has at its heart a mysterious book and a library which is also a labyrinth. The latter was inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ story The Library of Babel. Borges is even a character in this book. I am being very meta in my reading lately.
The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip, 2008.
We still talking of labyrinths? Hah, this is not exactly about a labyrinth but there is a rather labyrinthine house with secret doors to another world. Sealey Head is a small village near the ocean where, every sunset, a ghostly, unseen bell tolls. It has always been so; most inhabitants do not remark on it at all. But some do; some wonder what the bell means; some write stories about it. And in Aislinn House, the maid Emma opens doors into a fantastic world where a princess is trapped in cruelty and ritual. How are the two worlds connected? And can Emma help the princess?
I always love Patricia A. McKillip’s books and this one was no exception. Magical, dreamy, romantic, and intriguing. There is love, not just of the romantic kind, but the love of books, the love of mysteries. This book is well worth a fantasy reader’s time.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, 2019.
You know you want to read about lesbian necromancers in space. Or maybe you don’t know it yet, but you absolutely will when you pick this book up. Join Gideon as she reluctantly accompanies her childhood enemy Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, to a planet where a deadly trial awaits. Those who survive will enter a next level of existence and power. But first, Gideon and Harrow need to get over themselves and team up and actually survive. If rich worldbuilding, snark, violent murder mysteries, enemies-to-friends, and necromancy sound like your jam, go for it. I was sadly disappointed by the ending, and so far I’ve bounced off the sequel, but I mean to try again. As for the labyrinthine aspect of it, do check out the necromantic lore of all nine houses on TOR.
Heaven Official’s Blessing by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (墨香铜臭), 2017.
Ah, how do I describe this glorious book packed with godly romance and demonic adventure? It is a wonderfully convoluted Chinese web novel and I am deeply grateful to the fan translators who have translated its chapters into English and made them available online. No official translation exists which a reader can buy, sadly, AFAIK. Back in March of 2020, I was fairly deeply sunk in gloom, and this is one of the books that helped me pull through.
Our hero is the god Xie Lian, who eight hundred years ago was the Crown Prince of the Xian Le kingdom. He was beloved and daring and handsome; no wonder he ascended to the Heavens at a young age! Unfortunately, he descended pretty fast. This happened a second time also. The novel begins when Xie Lian ascends for a third time. By this time, he is the laughing stock of all three realms. On his first task, he meets a mysterious and powerful demon king. Unknown to him, he and the demon go back a long, long way. Ah, I can’t tell you any more without spoiling it. Suffice it to say, it is one of the most romantic and enjoyable novels I have read. The writer MXTX is also the author of Mo Dao Zu Shi (Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation) on which The Untamed is based. I’ve read both books – this is the one I loved more. Note: The labyrinth here is one of the hero’s own making; he has lost himself in it. Fortunately, there is someone who loves him and who will help him free himself from it.
The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, 1989.
The first book in this fascinating saga appeared in 1989, the second in 1992, the third in 2003, and the fourth in 2004. Readers (including, now, me) are still waiting for the fifth. Hope springs eternal! The author has mentioned the fifth book in her blog and even shared an extract at some point. So what is this series about? Imagine a deep fantasy world that slowly turns more and more science fictional as little details are revealed, book by book. Steerswomen (and a few Steersmen) belong to an Order dedicated to the truth, to exploring and mapping the world. At the opposite end from them are Wizards, equally dedicated to secrecy. When Rowan stumbles on strange jewels distributed in a pattern, she sets out to explore this mystery. But this brings her in conflict with the Wizards. I love the main character, Rowan, who is both intelligent and empathetic. Highly recommended for those who don’t mind waiting, indefinitely, for a series conclusion.
In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
Would you like to read a thoroughly entertaining book about a disaster bi and his two best friends set in the fantasy Borderlands adjacent to the real world? Please read this. It is hilarious. Parts of it had me in splits. Elliot is smart, funny, obnoxious and, to the reader at least, transparently needy. He arrives in the Borderlands to train in a magic school at the age of thirteen, meets a gorgeous elf and a handsome boy, and it all starts from there. This is portal fantasy with a difference. There are elves, dwarves, mermaids, banshees, trolls, harpies, and just about every creature you can think of. There is also plenty of conflict because, of course there is always conflict whenever you add humans to the mix. But Elliot does not want to learn how to fight, like most of the others do. Elliot is a pacifist and believes he can change the Borderlands for the better, i.e. more peaceful. Will he succeed? More to the point, will he stop sabotaging his love life and recognize his soulmate?
These are just a few of the 42 books I managed to read in the last one year. I didn’t make my Goodreads goal of 50, and I’m not surprised. I’m not even setting a goal this year. I’ll read what and when I can and won’t beat myself up for not meeting reading goals. Hopefully next year will be easier.
Lastly, a word on my current read. I have just started Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India by Furcifer Bhairav and Rakesh Khanna. It is a delightful encyclopedia of South Asian ghosts and monsters. I look forward to many enjoyable hours with it.
For Harrow the Ninth — I loved Gideon and then struggled with aspects of the sequel until about … 2/3 of the way through? maybe even 3/4? And then it really *took off* from there and I was really pleased with it overall, but I did have to kind of trudge through for a bit.
(I have the Collected Fictions of Borges and love all of the stories you mention here)
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Yes, I think I just need a different headspace to attempt Harrow the Ninth again, because I do want to read the third book!