Over the past few months, I’ve read a number of “book ones” in multi-book series that I really enjoyed. Here are four I’d like to highlight, all of which either have a sequel out already (in the case of the first two) or out in the next few weeks (in the case of the last two). No waiting for months before bingeing right on to the next book!
Cold Iron by Stina Leicht
The first book in what looks like it’s going to be the epic fantasy trilogy I’ve been wanting for a long time. I primarily read epic fantasy as a teenager, and I love the sweep of it. The nation-shaking plots, the battles, the magic, the heroic effort to defeat evil. Great stuff. But bundled into that is a lot of reactionary pining for feudalism and how replacing a Bad King with a Good King fixes everything.
Cold Iron upends those tired tropes, and gives us an epic fantasy with a revolutionary mindset. Our two lead characters are royal siblings, yes, but the empire they’re heirs to is kind of crappy and oppressive; at the very best the status quo is deeply flawed. The book is not the story of how the Good Queen fixes the status quo & makes it a paradise, it’s about how the status quo collapses. And that is altogether a very different (I’d argue more interesting) story. Throw in plenty of women characters with agency, major supporting characters who are queer, a much less prominent role for the military than is normal in fantasy societies, and a gripping plot and you have something really special.
The best epic fantasy that I read last year, and I’m excited to read the second book, Blackthorne, which is out now.
Soul’s Blood by Stephen Graham King
You don’t see much queer space opera out there, and that’s what I thought I was getting when I picked up Soul’s Blood. And it is what we start with, but it becomes apparent that that is not the book’s primary focus. Our major characters are Keene and Lexa-Blue, along with Lexa-Blue’s sentient ship, Maverick Heart, better known as Vrick. They’re interstellar ‘troubleshooters,’ taking on jobs of varying levels of legality to pay their way. The book opens with a nice little heist scene, but quickly morphs into what consumes the rest of the book: a political technothriller. One of Keene’s ex-boyfriends is CEO/King of a corporate state, and needs help resolving an escalating conflict with the genetically modified not-quite-human nation which shares his planet.
What ensues is surprisingly character-driven, which works well because the characters are excellent. Keene is a cocky smuggler, yes, but he also wears his heart on his sleeve, and Lexa-Blue is a riot as a hypercompetent, gives-no-fucks badass. Arguably my favourite character, though, is Vrick. Centuries old, the product of banned technology, and a loyal friend to Keene and Lexa-Blue, he’s a marvellous creation. This good characterisation is backed up with interesting worldbuilding and a fast moving plot. I might have wished for the book to be a bit longer to spool out some of the relationship developments, but there are worse sins than leaving one wanting more.
Gatecrasher, Book 2 in the Maverick Heart series is out now and is, if anything, even better than Soul’s Blood.
Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells
I read this on the recommendation of KJ Charles, who in addition to writing great books gives good recs, so I wasn’t surprised that I really enjoyed Hunger Makes the Wolf, but I was surprised to be really blown away by it. The basic setup is two young women on an outlying mining planet in an interstellar civilization. One is in an outlaw motorcycle gang, the other is the niece of the gang’s leader and ends up with a prominent role in the miners’ union. Both are altered by something weird about their planet to have ‘witchy’ powers, and are set in conflict with the big nasty corporation which runs the mining operations on the planet (and also control all interstellar travel, so we’re talking big corporation).
The setup itself is cool enough: magic SF outlaw bikers in the neo-Wild West (there is also an alien(?) I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to find sexy but totally do)! How is that not going to be awesome? But that’s not what impressed me so much. The special thing about this book is its unrepentant howl of working class anger at pretty much everyone who exploits workers. The church, the rich, corporate interests, all of it. And a pretty obvious contempt for ineffectual liberal incrementalism, too. So the book is enormous amounts of fun as a science fantasy adventure, and also a big fuck you to our complacent liberal present.
Highly recommended, and very much looking forward to book 2, Blood Binds The Pack, which is out on 1 February.
The Root by Na’amen G Tilahun
An unclassifiable and high quality portal fantasy/urban fantasy mashup.
A portal fantasy/urban fantasy of the highest quality. Our two leads are Erik, a former child star in San Francisco whose career has been destroyed by a scandal involving his ex-boyfriend, and Lil, basically an apprentice mage/archivist in the parallel city of ‘Zebub, where humans are an underclass to god-like beings. Both are black, an unfortunately rare situation in fantasy writing. Both are also excellent characters. Erik quickly discovers that he is descended from the blood of gods (or angels. Or something more than human), which gives him special powers. He’s introduced to a number of other people who share such powers, and is drawn into a fight between two factions of these children of angels. Meanwhile, in Zebub, Lil starts off incredibly timid, but finds an enormous amount of strength & bravery as she’s drawn into a mystery of something which threatens the whole of her reality. The plot is convoluted – in a way I enjoyed – and there are many point of view characters, so it’s hard to give more detail than that.
Aside from the extremely creative worldbuilding and rock solid prose, there are a number of other things that made this one of the best books I read last year. I really like that Erik’s powers are related to his anger: it’s rare for queer characters in media to be allowed to be angry, for that anger to be justified, and for it to be powerful. Erik is granted all of those things. I like that the angels are ugly; completely inhuman (and in line with some old testament descriptions). And the diversity of the book is wonderful. Erik’s not-quite-love-interest is Asian. A number of his friends and colleagues are queer. Powerful women with real agency abound. It’s a fantasy where anyone can see themselves, find themselves in it, and that is a precious thing.
Book 2, The Tree, is out on January 23, and is the next book on my TBR pile.
Edwin gets grumpy if his SF/F reading doesn’t feature happy queer main characters. Aside from that, he reads and writes for a living (though not fiction), so of course his hobby is reading, and now writing about what he reads. Why do anything else?
Connect with Edwin on Twitter: @gaybookgeek