The OF Blog: 2008 in Review: Debut Novels

Monday, December 29, 2008

2008 in Review: Debut Novels

While normally I would refer any discussion of debut speculative fiction novels to Tia Nevitt's wonderful Fantasy Debut blog, looking back through my books at hand, I see there were nine debut novels about which I have things to say. This is obviously not a large number, nor does it comprise all of the debut novels that I have read (I recall Ann Aguirre's Grimspace and Anton Stout's Dead to Me vaguely as being pedestrian reads that didn't appeal to me in the way perhaps it would for those who are more well-read in urban fantasy/paranormal romances than I am), but perhaps there'll be a few books here that haven't been covered by others already.

In addition to three books already covered in my review of YA SF/F reads (Kristin Cashore, Graceling; Peadar Ó Guilín, The Inferior; Isamu Fukui, Truancy), there are a couple more debut efforts which will not be discussed here, as they shall appear in my upcoming article on my favorite anthologies/collections/novellas for 2008. However, the following four debut novels hopefully will contain points of interest for most readers here. As like with the YA and Graphic Novel articles, the books discussed are not "ranked" in any shape or form; I'm adding them from a longlist I wrote down when browsing my bookshelves (there will be a brief post on the 31st where I'll provide "rankings," but that post is intended solely for those who have the attention span of an ADHD squirrel, as the real fun is in discussing the books, no?).

Although the technical release date for Felix Gilman's Thunderer (according to Amazon) was December 26, 2007, the book carries a 2008 copyright, thus its inclusion on this list. I first encounter Gilman's writing in early February when I read his contribution to a group story project contained within The New Weird anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (more on that anthology tomorrow). I was impressed enough by it that I ended up requesting a review copy of Thunderer. Although I failed to write a review at the time (the reason being was that I had just been hired for a teaching position at a local residential treatment center for emotionally/behaviorally disturbed teens), I always kept thinking that I ought to return to it and then write a review. This little snippet will have to suffice, at least until I (hopefully) write a review of its sequel, Gears of the City, which incidentally is coming out tomorrow.

Thunderer is a very atmospheric novel, and its opening chapter hooked me, especially this description of the Bird:

Countless painters decide to capture the Bird's image. It'll test their art. It's impossible to make out its details - before the eye can fix on it, it's moved on. It's huge, yes, but it's impossible to say how huge. It seems to be unthinkably distant even as it thunders immediately overhead - perhaps it's vastly farther away and larger than it seems. Later, no one will even be able to agree what kind of bird it is. Some see a storm of bright feathers, others only the graceful motion of its wings. Little more than a sense of easy, invincible speed remains. A dozen minds conceive abstract new schools of painting to capture the moment.


The Bird has no church: its interventions into the city are too occasional and unpredicable, and it is utterly antithetical to order and structure in any case. But a handful of eccentric self-ordained devotees are here, wrapped in contraptions of linen and silk and balsa, ready among the sparse crowds, and as the presence rushes by, they run to the chasm between the roofs, fling out homemade wings, and plunge. In the moment of its passage, their wings catch flight, the Bird's power passing briefly into them, and they wheel up to join it, tears of joy and terror on their faces. Those who miss the moment fall to be broken in the alleys below. Down there, the city's no gleaming, gauzy thing; down there it's hard and bruise-dark and stinking. (pp. 4-5)
It is this combination of the hopes and beauty symbolized by the Bird's appearance and the juxtaposed "hard and bruise-dark and stinking" image of the city (Ararat, itself a name almost biblical in its possibilities, no?) that grabbed my attention. Arjun's search for his people's god in the midst of the Ararat's teeming hordes of the unwashed, suffering souls captivated my attention at the time. I can only hope that Gears of the City improves upon the pacing of the plot, as the main weakness I recollect about Thunderer (one that is but the flip side of its imaginative strength) is that the reader sometimes could become too lost in the wonder, at the danger of losing focus on what was transpiring. Perhaps there'll be a greater sense of resolution in this second volume, but Gilman's debut effort is one of the smoother and more enticing ones I have read in recent years.

Although Toby Barlow's prose poem, Sharp Teeth, was released in Great Britain in late 2007, it was not until February 2008 that it was released here in the United States. As I said in my May review:

But epic poetry has been a moribund storytelling form for over three centuries now, which is why when I read that Toby Barlow wrote his debut novel, Sharp Teeth, in a fashion that would hark back to those ancient forms, I was intrigued. So what if the story involved werewolves, surely an overplayed paranormal/horror staple? None of my favorite epic poets ever really created something "new" when they wrote about the Trojan War, the founding of Rome, or of the twelve mighty paladins of Charlemagne. What each of those writers, from Homer to Vergil, from Ariosto to Tasso, did was to take that source material, hackneyed as it might have been in the hands of a lesser poet and make something meaningful from it.

Did Barlow manage to do something of the same? To a degree, yes, but only to a degree. In his tale, told in free verse rather than in the octaves favored by Ariosto (whose themes most resemble Barlow's and thus will be the epic poet of comparison in this piece), Barlow tells of an ancient band of lycanthropes who shift back and forth from a canine (not lupine) to human state at will, unaffected by the lunar cycle. There is a lost alpha female, nameless, who drives the story; it is her interactions with the dogcatcher, Anthony, that sets up a narrative/character tension that makes the resulting story a real page turner for me.

Mixed in with this saga of deceit and love, of fleeing females and meandering males lost in the gloam searching for their lost leader, are some interesting asides, similar to the ones that Ariosto and others employ to great effect in creating a greater depth to the conflict being played out.
I love me some poetic tales of longing, self-identity searching, and true love being frustrated. Is it any wonder then why I would chose Sharp Teeth to be on this list?

I discovered J.M. McDermott's Last Dragon after reading a few enthusiastic posts about it on Jeff VanderMeer's blog. I then emailed his publishers and they sent me a review copy of this book and three others. I read through this book over the course of a day and night back in early February. Below is a snippet from the book and my commentary on it at the time:

My fingers are like spiders drifting over memories in my webbed brain. The husks of the dead gaze up at me, and my teeth sink in and I speak their ghosts. But it's all mixed up in my head. I can't separate lines from lines, or people from people. Everything is in this web, Esumi. Even you, even me. Slowly the meat falls from the bones until only sunken cheeks and empty space between the filaments remind me that a person was there, in my head. The ghosts all fade the same way. They fade together. Your face fades into the face of my husband and the dying screams of my daughter. Esumi, your face is Seth's face, and the face of the golem.

Esumi, do you remember the night before you left? We threw a grand ball in your honor. A skald sang of the glorious deeds. My deeds, my husband's, and even yours were sung. And Adel's glorious song eclipsed us all. Three hundred cantos extolling her deeds were barely enough for the ones who didn't know her when she was alive. I knew her. You didn't. I don't know if she was really our savior, or simply the monster who fooled us all. Both, perhaps. I don't know. I never did. I think she was my friend, but even that's fuzzy. For all I know I was a weapon for her, no better than any mercenary. Or perhaps I was her friend, like a trusted weapon at her side, a trusted warrior. And, she is a hero worthy of song.

In these letters I wish to tell you of us and his empire, Alameda. (p. 3, ARC)
This opener to J.M. McDermott's debut novel, Last Dragon, serves as a portal for what follows next. Eschewing a straight narrative tale, McDermott's story of a young girl, Zhan, and her search for her grandfather, who has been accused of killing her family as well as others in her native village, moves in an episodic, rapid-fire fashion in which each scene lasts little more than a page or two. As Zhan and others (most of whom are mentioned in that opening sequence quoted above) travel in search for her grandfather in an attempt to understand just what could have led him to wreak such havoc among his people, the reader is treated to a series of narrative fragments, fragments that at first can be disorienting for those expecting lots of straightforward expository writing, but which when considered carefully in their own light, yield some surprisingly intense character insights.
Although McDermott's writing might not be for everyone (damnable tastes that some people have, aside...), it certainly is the type of prose and story that I enjoy reading and I was impressed enough to put it here.

Although I'm still trying to decide how I'm going to revise my review for later publication, Jo Graham's Black Ships is one of two Æneid-themed novels to be published in 2008 (the other being Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia). Below is a quote from my draft review:

How should a modern-day writer approach using such a legendary character in a tale? Should the story be recast in modern terms, with modern analogues for ancient ideals such as Aeneas’ famed pietas? Ought the writer stay true to the character established 2,000 years ago but instead rework the surroundings to make them “true” as well to the presumed early 12th century BCE setting? Perhaps any writer who’s audacious enough to use Vergil’s characters ought to consider using the poem itself as the basis for departure? Or would it be best if Aeneas himself were but a minor character in the reworked story?

Jo Graham, in her debut novel, Black Ships, bases her version of Aeneas upon recent archaeological evidence. She uses evidence that there might have been two sacks/destructions within a generation’s time at the Hisarlik site presumed to be that of Homer’s Troy as the basis for her tale. Furthermore, as she states in her afterward, she read a transcription from tablets found at Pylos referring to “the woman of Troy, the servant of the god.” Taking this and other evidence found in Egyptian and Hittite records in regards to the sudden appearance of the Sea Peoples and their depredations in the eastern Mediterranean, she constructs a story set around 1200 BCE that is very true to current theories regarding the weaponry, economies, and religious practices of that region during a very troubled and violent time.
But a moving tale depends upon more than just an exciting backdrop. Fortunately, Graham's characters are intriguing and she does an excellent job of integrating her fictional ones in with the legendary ones such as Prince Aeneas. However, I don't want to get too far into discussing the mechanics of the book (I do have that review to edit/revise this week, ya know), so I'll just close by saying that for a historical fiction/romance/slight fantasy debut effort, it more than met my high expectations for it.

James Braziel's Birmingham, 35 Miles is a post-apocalyptic, family-centered novel that when summed up in synopsis form, perhaps would appear lackluster, due to a surface similarity with Cormac McCarthy's stunning The Road. Braziel's book, however, is not a carbon copy of McCarthy's and the events that are unfolding center as much around inertia as it does around the effects of devastation.

The story opens in southern Alabama in 2044. In 2014, a new ozone hole opened up over the southeastern US, making it into a deadly desert. The US government has quarantined the area, forcing the inhabitants of that region to stay there in an attempt to control the flood of refugees. One of the family's sons, Mat, has a visa to the unaffected lands to the north, to Birmingham, just a scant 35 miles away, but it is Mat's internal struggle that makes up much of this novel's story.

Braziel's strength is in developing his setting and his characters. While some might be frustrated by the slow pace of the first half of this 292 page novel, those who love quality prose might be attracted to passages such as the one that opens the novel:

Working on fence posts was my grandfather's work, my father's work for some time, until the winds and sand came in from the coast, and the sky opened up a wound over southern Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, a blinding eye swirling, burning until everything in the Deep South became too dry. No crops would take, and then my father became a clay miner who told me, "Clay rocks are good for nothing but the money. And there's not much of that, Mathew, except for the government, what they're willing to give to keep us here." But money or no money, my father would have stayed and died just as he did. (p. 5)
The tale unfolds at a leisurely pace, never hurrying to its destination, as that 35 miles becomes more than just a short travel away. After all, when there are kinfolk involved and familial connections to the land, blasted as it may be, why should one rush into making a snap decision?

Francie Lin's The Foreigner is a noir novel. It is a tale about family. It is a story involving a main character discovering his real identity. It is a fiction that devotes itself to exploring the chasms that can open up between an individual and his/her society. It could even be a romance. Certainly it is a Romansbildung, perhaps even more than that. Whatever it is, The Foreigner made for a very good read.

Lin's novel revolves around a stolid, rather boring Chinese-American financial analyst, Emerson Chang, who couldn't get laid if he had $1000 to give to a willing prostitute, and his dying mother's wish to for her ashes to be scattered in her native Taiwan. Along the way, Emerson has to confront the nasty living ghost of his brother's shady past, figure out how to deal with his new-found inheritance, and what to do when he falls in love, sort of. Lin peppers her narrative with subtle humor, often using it as a vehicle for exploring the conflicts that Chinese-Americans, particularly the males, have between their family/old society's cultural expectations and the new pressures that living in the United States brings. Emerson's explorations into his family's past uncovers some dangerous information, and throughout the second half of the novel, Lin's narrative takes on elements of a thriller in the speed in which events unfold. However, she manages to maintain firm control over the narrative and the reader is rewarded with a tale that not only moves briskly, but also contains layers of depth for those who like to contemplate what they are reading.

It'll be interesting to revisit this post in about five years or so and see what each author would have produced by then. I suspect for most, if not all, their second, third, X number of novels afterwards would build upon the promises found in each of these fine narratives. Some likely will experiment with different styles, others might continue to develop their voices in a particular chosen narrative style. All I know is that I'll be keeping tabs on each of these authors and that I'll have two (Gilman, Graham) to read before next month is over.

But perhaps there are other debuts that I have missed. What 2008 debuts would you point out as being among the best for this year?

Later today, a relatively short post on 2008 SF/F Non-fiction/Related Works, with posts on Tuesday devoted to Spanish-language/Translated Fiction and to examining some of the best anthologies, short story collections, and novellas for 2008.

1 comment:

Tia Nevitt said...

How did I miss this? Thank you!

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