Although I read a wide diversity of literature, I have a special love for speculative fiction. I’ve recently been reading mostly short stories in this genre, but there’s nothing like long fiction to satisfy the urge to jump into a different world and stay there for a while. With 2014 around the corner, I’d like to mention three books that I read this year and especially loved. They are The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, and Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older. Each book is from a different speculative fiction sub-genre.
Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman is something between science fiction and fantasy. It tells the story of Rowan, a steerswoman who sets out on a quest. Steerswomen (and steersmen — there are a few of those too) are seekers of knowledge. These types of characters in science fiction are usually likeable since writers and readers in this genre tend to be sympathetic to the idea that knowledge and activities designed to increase knowledge should be prioritized in our society. Rowan is a particularly satisfying protagonist– intelligent, exacting, competent and with a quiet dignity and integrity. Our respect for her grows as we watch her proceed with methodical, clear-headed logic which ultimately leads to her decision to sacrifice her own comfort and safety to find the answers to certain important questions. Steerswomen, by their creed, are required to answer any question that is put to them. I love this idea, which combines the value of freely sharing knowledge with the importance of telling the truth. When Rowan pairs up with another women — an outlander warrior with a very different background and personality — the fun has only begun. It’s such a pleasure to read intelligent science fiction/fantasy containing strong, interesting and believable female lead characters who effortlessly smash stereotypes and overused tropes.
Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint lets you know from the very first page that what you are about to read is going to break rules and shift paradigms. In fact, if I understand correctly, this story birthed its very own subgenre: mannerpunk. Part of what we find in this tale are things we’ve seen before: dukes and nobles and common folk, wealth and poverty, balls and plays, intrigue, murder and politics — and Kushner does all of this very well, but with her own twists. On top of all that, we’re treated to a story of love, art and scholarship. The main characters are Richard St. Vier, a swordsman, and Alec, a student with a mysterious background — but beware, these are not your mundane swordsmen and students. Like everyone is this world, these titles come with very particular expectations and rules. This, in part, is where the mannerpunk comes in. Beware as well if you are expecting a story that is heteronormative. It’s also not a warm and fuzzy tale — both main characters can be quite bloody minded. What we do get is a story that’s both tender and intense, and Kushner manages to pull this off with an economy of language that’s astonishing. I rarely read books twice but I did in this case. The first time, I enjoyed the story, the second time enjoyed the details, the nuance and the language.
I read Salsa Nocturna because I’d already read Daniel José Older’s stand-alone story, “Skin like Porcelain Death” and wanted more. I was not disappointed. Salsa Nocturna is a set of related short stories which fit together so well that there’s the same feeling of cohesiveness and completion you get with a novel. In addition, I didn’t have the problem I sometimes have with short story collections where it takes me a certain amount of time to get into each story. There’s no down time here — Older had me nicely buzzing along from each first sentence. Horror is not a genre I usually read, although I would probably characterize these stories as a horror/urban fantasy hybrid (and I do read urban fantasy). Whatever the genre, four things makes these stories unforgettable: the voice, the authenticity and complete believability of the characters (especially impressive in horror and fantasy), the warm feeling of community that Older is able to create almost instantly, and the voice. Did I mention the voice? On a personal note, as a Brooklyn expatriate living in Montréal, Salsa Nocturna tugs at my tender feelings for my hometown, particularly for certain neighbourhoods where I’d worked for many years. He manages to create a place that is utterly familiar and fill it with ghosts, half-dead creatures and paranormal activity, and then shows us a supernatural hierarchy and bureaucracy which brings us back again to the utterly familiar. I will never look at my city of birth in the same way again.