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 | Chizinepub.com
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 | Chizinepub.com
The Steel Seraglio: Amazon | Chizinepub.com
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.