Wednesday, 25 December 2013

The best books I read in 2013

So here's something you probably don't know about me: I'm really terrible at making "best of" lists. I always forget things, even when it's something I've had on the brain for months, and I'm so hideously indecisive that it can take me a week to decide what to list. Fortunately when it comes to books, I use Goodreads, so all the books I read this year are organized into a neat list, divided by genre and rating. Where would people like me be without electronic organizational devices?

1. A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files

This book is the first in a trilogy, all of which I read this year (in extremely rapid succession, i.e. "oh my god it can't end like that! I have to read the next book RIGHT NOW even though it's one in the morning and I have class in six hours!") so it's kind of difficult to decide which book to put on this list. Do I put the first book, which is missing several of the key characters but also sets up everyone's emotional arcs? Do I put the second, where the bulk of the plot solidifies? Or do I put the third one, where you get the emotional catharsis that the first two books demand? I eventually put down the first, not because it's necessarily the best (although to be completely honest, I'm not sure I have the emotional distance to quantify "best") but because when I read it, I really had no idea what I was getting into. About five hours after I started, I finished reading whilst lying prone on my bed in tears and yelping at friends over instant messenger: "THIS CAN'T BE HAPPENING! I'M SO UPSET! WHY ARE THE CHARACTERS DOING THIS TO ME!"

The Hexslingers trilogy is immense and tangled and complicated, so I won't spoil the details for you, except to say that it's about an alternate universe Wild West where magic is used, and what happens when a magician ("hex") raises powers better left along. It's also populated with beautifully diverse, emotionally devastating characters (almost all of whom are not straight- seriously I can count the heterosexuals in this series on one hand) and story arcs about identity and faith and love and recovering from betrayal and learning to stand on your own. It's about being a hero even when no one would ever have expected it of you, whether because of your gender, your race, your sexual orientation, or simply who you are. In a lot of ways, it's about growing up, and by the time I finished book three (bawling all the way) I felt like I'd grown up with the characters, even though it took me all of two weeks to get through the three books.

Hexslingers Omnibus (all three books plus three post-trilogy short stories): Amazon |

2. The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan

Sometimes I get a little worn down by reading mainstream fantasy/sf/horror because after awhile the parade of identitical, safely heterosexual couplings all blends into the same vague, bland oeuvre. That's probably a big reason I enjoyed Hexslingers so much, and it's definitely a reason I enjoyed The Red Tree. The book is a sort of Lovecraft pastiche set in rural Rhode Island, which leaves any number of questions floating at the end- what was real and what wasn't? Who, or what, was behind it all? What happened to Sarah Crowe? (The reason I mentioned mainstream SFF earlier is because this book is relatively mainstream- that is, it's published by Roc and I bought it at Chapters- and both the main characters are queer women. As is the author, I believe. Solidarity!) It's a very spooky read, and that's exactly why I like it. I'd also recommend Kiernan's The Drowning Girl, which has a similar eerie tone and cast of intriguing characters, but a happier (ish) ending- as happy as you can get with horror, anyway.

The Red Tree: Amazon

3. The Witch Sea by Sarah Diemer

Sarah Diemer is an author who deserves to be breaking the NY Times bestseller list and getting her books optioned into movies. Unfortunately she's not, mostly because she self-publishes in the name of having her books more accessible to the people who need them. The Witch Sea (which is really more of a novella than a novel) is a gorgeous, haunting romance between a young woman who's been tasked with keeping a gaggle of sea monsters prisoner and one of the monsters who wants to free them both. I won't say much more, besides the fact that Diemer packs more of a punch into 708 Kindle pages than most can in a hardcover book of the same pagecount.

The Witch Sea: Amazon, where is costs exactly zero dollars.

4. Her Majesty's Will - David Blixt

Lord you guys, this book was SO MUCH FUN. As a history geek, as a Shakespeare nerd, as someone who loves to speculate about the love lives of various historical figures, this book was pure candy to me. Will Shakespeare, an unfulfilled schoolteacher in Lancashire, stumbles across cross-dressing spy Kit Marlowe on the road one day and decides that this is as good an excuse as any to flee to London and try to ply his trade . . . in spycraft. Hijinks, most assuredly, ensue. The dialogue is well-crafted and period-appropriate, the banter is ticklishly funny, references to Shakespeare's life abound for anyone interested in playing spot-the-cameo (hi Robert Greene!) and the relationship between Will and Kit (often speculated upon, never confirmed by any historians. That I know of) is a rocking good time. Also: crossdressing. Did you know Kit Marlowe made a very pretty girl? Well now you do.

Her Majesty's Will: Amazon

5. The Steel Seraglio by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey

Chizine Publishing (the company that also published Hexslingers, above) is rapidly becoming one of my favourite indie publishers. They're a horror/sff company running out of Toronto, and they pride themselves on releasing the kinds of titles you couldn't find anywhere else. Hexslingers is one example (gay magic cowboys save the world!) and The Steel Seraglio is another (rogue harem saves a city using matriarchy!)

In Bessa (a fictional city set in what will one day become the Middle East) a coup takes place, as a religious fundamentalist slaughters the sultan and his entire family. The sultan's seraglio (harem) of three hundred and sixty-five women escapes into the desert, and from there have to decide how to survive from this point forward. I won't spoil what happens next, but suffice to say the premise expands to cover ideas of history, myth, and fiction, the idea of family- how it can be created from nothing- self-sufficency, and memory. I don't want to compare it too much to Hexslingers, because they're tonally very different, but a lot of the themes- about outsiders surviving and thriving and building their own community and selves- are similar. Maybe it's a Chizine thing. Or maybe I just got fantastically lucky with the books I read this year, and stuff with the themes I wanted to read about fell right into my lap.

The Steel Seraglio: Amazon |

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and have a fantastic New Year. I have an announcement coming up in the next few days that I hope you guys will enjoy hearing; in the meantime, I hope you're all enjoying the season.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Why I won't be watching Bitten, as a devoted fan of the books it's based on

A thing you should probably know about me is that I am a huge, huge fan of Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series. I read the first book, Bitten, when I was fourteen and finished the series with Thirteen last year at the age of twenty-one. I grew up with these characters- in some cases, quite literally. I know some of them probably better than I know members of my extended family, and the books have helped me through some really tough times. So when Bell Media announced that they were making a TV show based on the first book in the series, saying I was thrilled is a bit of an understatement.

Then they announced the casting. One of the main characters, Jeremy Danvers, is being played by this guy:

Now I've never seen this actor in anything before; I have no feelings on him as a person. But in this case, I am gravely disappointed by his casting, and the racism shown by the showrunners in their choice of him to play a character textually described as Asian-American.

You could argue (I mean you shouldn't, but you could) that since Jeremy's backstory and heritage aren't explicitly referred to in Bitten, then the production team simply didn't know that he was not white. I might be inclined to agree- I don't want to believe that the production team intentionally whitewashed a character, after all- but the excuse doesn't hold water. SPACE, the channel producing and running the show, also posted this image to their Facebook page. It's a family tree of the character who appear in Bitten- including Jeremy. This information could only be discovered by reading the novels and novellas in which his parentage, race, and appearance is described in-depth. If they cared enough to do that extra reading and find out what everyone looked like and who their ancestors were, there's no excuse for not offering the role to a talented actor of Asian descent rather than erasing this important part of Jeremy's character.

It's not like issues of representation in the media haven't been at the forefront for the past few years; there's a whole website,, dedicated to raising awareness of these issues. And the long and the short of it is, the industry is incredibly rough on actors of colour. You don't need to take my word for it- check out the local movie listings. How many movies playing at your local multiplex star non-white actors in leading roles? And why, when so few roles are offered to nonwhite actors, would Bell Media make the decision to take another potential role and give it to a white actor?

So I'm not watching Bitten. I'm pretty sad about it, to be honest; I was so excited when the series was first announced. But I can't in good conscience support racist casting practices like this. I love the books as much as I always did, but for me, the cons of watching the show simply outweigh the pros. Casting practices like these may proliferate in the entertainment industry, but I don't need to support them. Sorry, SPACE and Bell Media; you've lost yourself a viewer.