Character-driven SF

I mentioned on Twitter when I was reading Ancillary Sword recently (SO GOOD) that Leckie makes me want to read and write all the character-driven SF. To be honest, “hard” SF bores me, and I am generally a very character-oriented reader. So I thought I would at least list a few of my favorites. If you have recommendations, please feel free to chime in!

Since I’ve already mentioned her, Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary books obviously belong here. She’s so good at writing a story that’s both intensely personal and all about implications for the wider world and I looove it.

Leckie has a couple of clear influences (and if anyone lists her influences and leaves these two off, I give them a SEVERE side-eye): Lois McMaster Bujold, especially the Vorkosigan saga and perhaps even more so, C.J.Cherryh‘s Foreigner books.

Also: Doris Egan‘s Gate of Ivory, which I believe I first heard about on Jo Walton’s blog, are not nearly as well known as they should be. These are just barely SF as opposed to fantasy, but they’re also fantastic.

Connie Willis‘s Oxford books go in a very different direction (time-travel) but they are amazing and heart-breaking precisely because they are intensely concerned with characters, both past and future. Also, Promised Land, which she wrote with Cynthia DeFelice, and is one of my favorite comfort reads.

The Touchstone Trilogy, by Andrea K. Host, is definitely character-centered, as is And All the Stars. Touchstone, arguably, is science-fantasy rather than science fiction, but I’m putting it here anyway because I can.

R.J. Anderson‘s Quicksilver/Ultraviolet duology, rare and wonderful YA SF, are also thoughtful explorations of identity and family and growing-up.

(Authors I have deliberately not included in this post: John Scalzi, and Orson Scott Card. Both look like they’re character-driven, perhaps, but are actually primarily concerned with quite different things, in my reading.)

Okay, so what else am I missing?


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Recent reading: Cybils edition

These all fall into a roughly similar category: books I enjoyed enough to finish but not enough to wax enthusiastic about.

Oliver and the Seawigs
by Philip Reeve: Oliver and his explorer parents return home only for his parents to be taken out to sea by things that look like islands but move. Oliver heads off to rescue them. It’s all very silly, in a way that will probably appeal to some kids. There’s just not much meat here, though.

Grave Images by Jenny Goebel: Bernie’s family owns a gravestone engraving business, but when her dad hires a mysterious new employee, things are not at all what they seem. I liked the Southern Gothic atmosphere, the way religion is part of the story, and (for the most part) Bernie herself. I am less convinced about the portrayal of Bernie’s mother, Michael, and–unfortunately–the central conceit itself. This one never quite settled into a tone and kept trying to be both spooky and over-the-top silly.

Winterfrost by Michelle Houts: This was my own nomination for my category, mostly because I myself wanted to read it. It’s quite a nice story. Bettina’s parents have gone off to visit relatives, leaving her in charge of her little sister. But in the confusion, they forgot to put out the rice pudding for the farm’s nisse, and the nisse isn’t happy. This would be a great one for the child that grew up with the Tomten’s Farm picture books, or anyone who likes a slightly old-fashioned story.

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass: I really appreciated that the main characters of this one are all African-American. No tokens here! And it’s a niceish enemies-to-friends story, with a subplot of Bakari’s grandfather that seemed very true to life. However, there’s basically no plot. Definitely one to hand to reluctant readers (of any skin color) but more than a bit grating as an adult.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier: Lots of other people have loved this one and they’re not wrong, exactly. Auxier does a nice job of creating atmosphere, in the sourwoods and the creepy house. But for me as a reader, I was never quite fully engaged by it. This is definitely a personal reaction, and at the same time, I think there’s something a little too easy in all the portrayals of the characters.

Almost Super by Marion Jensen: This is kind of a Savvy-like idea: kids in the Bailey family who are 12 or older get super powers at 4:23 on February 29th. They use their powers to fight the villainous Johnsons. But Rafter and his brother get the weakest superpowers ever. This was pretty solidly middle-of-the-road for me: an okay read, but not one I got excited about. Kids who are looking for fairly light superhero books, however, will probably love this! I’ve seen it as a readalike for fans of The Incredibles, and that’s just about right.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I’d Dress Up As

This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

The original prompt was “Top Ten Characters Who I Would Totally Want To Be For Halloween” but since I’m not that big on Halloween (I know, I know), I changed it. Also my list is entirely female, since I couldn’t think of any male characters I could convincingly dress up as. (Although I think Miles Vorkosigan is about the right height. THAT would be hilarious!)

1. Irene Attolia from The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
Because she’s my favorite, more than because I could successfully pull her off

2. Sophie Hatter from Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
I think I would make a rather good Sohpie, on the other hand

3. Mae Crawford from the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy by Sarah Rees Brennan
The only person I’d wear pink hair for

4. Belladonna Took from Lord of the Rings (well, sort of) by J.R.R. Tolkien
I have finally accepted that I am a hobbit and not an Elf, but if I’m going to be a hobbit, I’m going to be a Took! (by gosh, by golly)

5. Rose Justice from Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
I have already been someone from the 1940s! And of EWein’s characters, Rose is the one I’m most like.

6. Harry Crewe from The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
Another one I’d have to stretch to pull off, but I love Harry, so.

7. Betsy Ray from the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace
I think I would make an excellent Betsy

8. Kate Sutton from The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope
Mostly for an excuse to wear Tudor clothes (but also because KATE)

9. Cassandra Mortmain from I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Mostly so I could try to copy all of Ramola Garai’s costumes from the movie (but also because CASSANDRA)

10. Harriet Vane from the Lord Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy Sayers
Another one I probably can’t really pull off but would do anyway because Harriet is the best


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Greenglass House by Kate Milford

greenglass houseGreenglass House is a smugglers’ inn, but it is also Milo Pine’s home. He loves his house and his parents and he would be happy if nothing ever changed. But one snowy evening, two strangers arrive unexpectedly, setting into motion a chain of events which will force Milo to look at himself and his family.

I’d been hearing a fair amount of buzz about Greenglass House when it came out, so I was excited to see that it was nominated for the Cybils. I’ve read one of Milford’s earlier books and liked it. Plus the cover is very appealing! (I have a weakness when it comes to great covers.)

I’m happy to say that I enjoyed my reading experience immensely. Of course, it probably helped that I read this one while curled up in a little eyrie of a room in a bed & breakfast, which about the most perfect place I can imagine for this particular story. But I think I would have liked it whenever and wherever I read it.

This is an elegant book, with a puzzle-like quality to it which is very satisfying to the intellect. It’s rich with layers, imagery, and allusions. But at the heart of it is a very human, very real story which is never overshadowed by the elements that support it.

Adoption is something I’m familiar with, but only from the outside, so I can’t speak particularly to that aspect of Milo’s story. But I think Milford is both trying to accurately portray what Milo might feel, and at the same time show that longing to understand the world that’s a hallmark of middle grade books. I said of The Whispering Skull that it was “poised at the tipping point between childhood and young adulthood, when you want the next thing but fear losing what you already have.” That’s certainly here too. It’s a thoughtful, introspective look at leaving childhood behind.

It’s also a pretty awesome mystery (I guessed parts but not the whole solution!), and features a wonderful setting, which I definitely added to my mental list of Fictional Places to Visit. And Milford’s writing is really strong here, a quiet but very carefully crafted narration. All in all, this is a lovely book, and one that more than lives up to its cover.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, HMH Books; middle grade


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The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

whisperingLast year brought us Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase, which was a 99.9% enjoyable book for me, and one that left me wanting the sequel now.

The sequel has now arrived and I’m happy to report that I found it as engaging and entirely readable as the first book. Lockwood, George, and Lucy find themselves going head to head with their archrivals, the Fittes Agency, and attempting to battle the ghost of a Victorian doctor and possible black magician. Plus, there is a skull in a jar whose whispers only Lucy can hear.

At first the different strands of the plot seem a bit disparate. There’s the Source that they have to deal with, the bet with the Fittes agents, the skull and its suggestive comments, and Lockwood’s secrets which he keeps even from George and Lucy. But by the middle of the book, Stroud pulls them together in a fairly masterful (if slightly coincidental) way.

For me, Lucy’s voice and the interaction between the three main characters is a large part of the appeal. Lucy is loyal, sarcastic, a bit self-centered (or at least, unable to see people entirely clearly). I had some issues with the way George was described in the first book, and while that didn’t exactly go away, I can see the dynamic becoming more complicated in ways that make me feel like Stroud may ultimately do some interesting things with the questions of heroes and so on.

I also noticed that, like E.K. Johnston’s Story of Owen, the narrator is a young girl who is telling a story she is involved in but which she normally wouldn’t be considered the protagonist of. In most stories of this type, Lockwood would be firmly at the center of the narrative. Instead, he remains a bit of an enigma, his charisma described by the other characters but never entirely felt. For the most part, this works for me, because Lucy herself is quite delightful and doesn’t come across as simply a storytelling device. But I did find myself a bit hung up on why Lockwood wouldn’t tell George and Lucy anything.

And it’s also true that, because of the way the world of this book works, there’s an interesting sense of time passing, of growing inevitably older and losing something as well as gaining it, which is fairly striking. Lockwood & Co are growing up and as they grow they will lose their powers. I wonder if this is partly what makes it specifically a middle grade book: poised at the tipping point between childhood and young adulthood, when you want the next thing but fear losing what you already have.

Of course, Stroud has decided to leave us with a Big Revelation which makes me wish it was next year already. However, the main strands of the narrative are nicely tied up, with a few lingering questions to tease us all along.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Disney Hyperion; upper middle grade/younger YA

I read this book for the 2014 Cybils. You’ll be able to see all of my Cybils reviews by clicking here.

(True fact: I almost said this book was written by Jonathan Strange, not Jonathan Stroud. How surprised Strange would be!)


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Top Ten Tuesday: Series I want to start

This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

There are SO MANY series I have yet to read. These are just a few from my TBR spreadsheet of doom/list:

1. Still Life with Shapeshifter by Sharon Shinn
2. The Thousand Names by Django Wexler
3. The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda
4. Jaran by Kate Elliott
5. A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly
6. Libriomancer by Jim C Hines
7. Champion of the Rose by Andrea K Host
8. The Valor Series by Tanya Huff
9. The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice by Laurie Russell King
10. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch


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Recent reading: Non-Cybils edition

I decided that during this Cybils season, I will try to read all Cybils books all the time during the week and then let myself read other stuff on the weekends. We’ll see how that works. At any rate, here’s what I read this weekend:

Deceiver by CJ Cherryh: I was engaged by this, because Cherryh, and then I hit a certain point and I was reading frantically and stayed up way too late because I had to know what happened. Which is to say, this is one of the more gripping installments at this end of the series.

Dark Metropolis by Jaclyn Dolamore: Historical fantasy set in a city based on Weimar Berlin. I liked this one quite a bit, although I never completely bought the romance. But it’s an unusual and intriguing setting and Dolamore is very good at little bits of description that really set the scene.

Lulu and the Hedghog in the Rain by Hilary McKay: I’ve been going on about how wonderful Hilary McKay is, and how wonderful her Lulu books in particular are. But they really make me quite happy! I enjoyed the neighbors in this one, and Lulu’s absolute conviction that everyone should love animals as much as she does.

Perfect Scoundrels
by Ally Carter: I’ve been meaning to read this one since it first came out and actually had it checked out at one point. I did enjoy it, but found myself a little less invested in Kat’s adventures. Is it the book? Too much distance from the last story? Not sure.

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