I read more in 2023 than I expected to. Over on Bookwyrm, they make a nice report of it, but I thought I’d share something more personal for you. (BTW – I still recommend you switch away from goodreads to a platform built for you and join bookwyrm).
At the beginning of the year, Cory Doctorow posted about the joy of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. I was hooked and thought I’d try consuming the first book.
Friends, it consumed me. And then the whole series followed, one after another. I had to see it through. Each book had a new twist, a new country, a new region, new insights into power and servitude and love and friendship. The series takes a premise that sounds a bit ludicrous, then takes it extremely seriously and chases it into every dark corner. That premise is something that is almost embarrassing to summarize: What if in the Napoleonic wars dragons were real, intelligent, commonplace and part of the war. Magic isn’t a thing, there are no wizards, just real speaking dragons exist and are part of the war. In this world, Laurence finds and becomes bonded with a newly hatched dragon named Temeraire.
Laurence and Temeraire go on an epic journey as they travel the whole world in the effort to defeat Napoleon’s relentless army and innovative dragon tactics, to keep Britain free. In each book, Temeraire asks more and more from Laurence about the world as it is, Laurence finds himself trying to explain the contradictions inherent in the system he never questioned before, and their relationship continuously evolves as they encounter other cultures and other relationships between humans and dragons. I got so excited as I read along:
Big tough downer moments! But as always the star of the show is the shifting relationship between Temeraire and Lawrence- and him slowly changing his views on the enslavement of dragons.
Lien returns! Napoleon is seen!Matt K Commenting on Black Powder War
Just wonderful.Matt K commenting on “Empire of Ivory”
All of the stressors and impossible hypocrisy of the empire begins to rise in the relationship of Laurence and Temeraire. What hope is there for recognition of dragons if humans see other humans as things?
And the action is intense for every book. Huge epic battles with aerial dragon to dragon fighting and mid-air boarding parties, prison escapes, heists, sword fights, pistol duels etc etc. Naomi Novik doesn’t miss a trick. I can’t scratch the surface of the 9 book series for you, but it was worth all the reading. In 2024 I’m going to tackle her “Scholomance” series with high expectations.
At the other end of the spectrum of epicness I was utterly charmed by the works of Becky Chambers. In 2022 I read “A Psalm for the Wild-Built” and liked it, but didn’t realize at the time how good it was (?????). I didn’t realize her skill is the beauty of small-stakes stories.
Everyone has stakes and a journey and I am fond of all of them. Now I’m in for the next books.Matt K on “A long way to a small angry planet”
There was a really big battle climax to the book – but it was overshadowed by the simple beauty of the relationships developed for every character and the huge emotional stakes. It’s a big universe where humanity is a very very small part. Earth’s gone, humanity depends on the largess of richer species. Rosemary, comes from that background and joins the multi-species crew of the Wayfarer, a working spaceship that gets a very interesting assignment opening up a wormhole to the home planet of a dangerously behaving new species. The journey is fantastic. The end is a gut punch where a difficult choice leads to a precious character’s life being risked. And the risk doesn’t pay off. I wanted to read up on the further adventures of these characters. I wanted to plow through more adventures of the crew of the Wayfarer in the Wayfarers series! More more more!
But Becky is too good. She disappoints you in the absolute best ways. Each new novel is warm, kind and interesting, it’s in the same universe, but it doesn’t just let you stay where you were. Each book takes on a new aspect.
The next book takes two characters that are very minor from the first book and sets them out to grow and learn in a completely new environment. It expands the stage from the size of the ship to a wider society and mixed cultures. Two characters are fleshed out – one as they become a fully realized person growing up from the first page, the other healing from a sickening origin into an independent kind woman. And there’s a heist, sort of. It’s great. It ends with a warm hug and I loved it. (?????)
It’s just so calm and kind and full of heart. I really love the way minor characters have leapt into fully dimensioned people with giant stories. It gives you that sonder chill.Matt K on A closed and Common Orbit
She does it again with the third book. In the first book, it’s mentioned that humanity had to flee the dying Earth in an Exodan fleet of spacecraft looking for a new home. These generation ships had to not repeat the mistakes that ruined the planet they launched from, so everyone has work, food, housing in self-sustaining systems. Eventually they find or are found by the wider galaxy – but who cares about some fragile monkeys in steel cans? It takes a very long time until we are allowed to settle and immigrate to other planets. And not everyone wants to leave the sturdy culture humanity has built in their aging ships for the razzle dazzle of the wider culture. This book takes place in one of the Exodan ships, explores who stays, who leaves, who grows and who dies. Their is a mystery that gets solved, but it’s very Chambers – the point is people figuring out how to be together and why. Everyone has stakes, reasons for who they are – and in the end you can celebrate the new places the characters end up. (?????)
The last Wayfarer book leaves it all behind for a crisis of intersecting cultures in an intergalactic truck stop. We get to learn the story behind an incredibly unusual romance, the ways these cultures conflict and work together, the real pressures that divide them and the ways they can help each other grow past those pressures and divides. All this happens in a kind of a “bottle episode” – three strangers are stranded when there is a cascading satellite crisis that renders them incommunicado and unable to take off. The crisis in the sky leads to them having to encounter each other instead of just passing through – and they learn why each is there. As things on the ground are starting to get better, there’s a crisis on the ground and they all help each other to get through it. I don’t want to give too much away, but this is the good kind of bottle episode. (?????)
Where Temeraire is an epic tale of grand battles, it is also a small story of two people growing and maturing as they face uncomfortable truths about how they relate to each other and the world. Laurence and Temeraire are the true constants. The Wayfarer series is about smaller challenges, smaller stakes, but very personal ones. In each one of these books the stakes are just as important to the characters as a grand battle. And Becky Chambers manages to make you care and understand across each character, taking the time to build them fully.
Now I get how a Becky Chambers story works so well. The smallness is part of the point. She can make the small stakes MATTER. They matter to the characters and they matter to me. So I decided to read the sequel to “A Psalm for the Wild-Built” in the “Monk and Robot” series.
A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is a gem (?????). It gets smaller and more detailed. The two characters are the same Monk and Robot from the first book are going to tour the world and fulfill a bigger mission – but the way they grow with each other on the journey is massive.
This little arc charms my heart as all of Becky Chambers books do.
The world is so big and the story so intimate, the climax a hidden tiny change in a conversation.Matt K on A prayer for the Crown-Shy
CJ Leede’s, Maeve Fly was something I picked up randomly in a bookshop and had to purchase after a few pages. I absolutely loved it (?????) and cackled at the pitch black darkness in it. It’s a dash of American Psycho, a splash of Chuck Palahniuk, stirred with Elsa and Anna, then strained through a used bandage.
It is definitely the grossest book I read this year, and Mary Roach’s hilarious Packing for Mars has a whole chapter on astronauts pooping. Packing for Mars was probably the funniest book I read, though Mel Brooks’s All About Me came close.
The most depressing book was The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi. I mistakenly got my work’s book club to read it and… people weren’t happy. There is no happiness in this very thinly veiled fantasy allegory for climate change.
I read some great books that flipped between two times – A Closed and Common Orbit is in there, but I read two right next two each other.
Witch King flips back and forth between two times. One is a mystery – who trapped us? What intrigue is afoot and how can we foil it. The other is a rising challenge, a hopeless rebellion against an overwhelming authority.
Both are told with strength and warmth- our protagonist is frankly a bit of a shit in the beginning, but we learn why and see where they are coming from and where they are supported more than they see.
It ends with the perfect ending for a mystery and the aftermath of a rebellion. The story is done.
There’s so many good bits and little shiny details in this epic redemption journey. In the past, a simple occupation mission by an atrocious all-conquering invasion force goes awry with a mysterious conspiracy coming to a head. The protagonist is an AI ship consciousness multiply embodied in enslaved human soldiers. A crisis builds under the watchful eye of an empress that rules from within thousands of bodies.
In the present, the aftermath of the crisis is our protagonist singly embodied, troubled by the atrocities it committed and dedicated to a hopeless mission of vengeance.
There is a lot of dealing with a… not an untrustworthy narrator but an extremely neurodivergent naive narrator. Lots of fun gender issues and language issues that present as interesting puzzles for the reader.
This book wowed me (?????) and I’m eager to read the sequel.
In 2024, I’m going to shoot for 24 books read, but I think I’d like to write more about them. It’s been fun writing this post, but I could do a little bit more as I read each one.