The OF Blog: 2009 in Review: Debut Novels

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 in Review: Debut Novels

This list is going to be shorter than usual, in part because I reviewed two of the books earlier and in part because I don't have as much to say about some of these as I wished, based on having read them months ago and not having a copy at hand to refresh my memory.  So I think I'll limit this to four pieces and two honorable mentions.   Oh, and I should note that I did not read many debuts (American, mass-release, or otherwise) this year.  One of those statistical anomalies, I guess.  Sure next year will see more debuts read.

Jesse Bullington, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

From my earlier review:

Lately, there has been a trend to glamorize the rogues and thieves of the world. Whether it's via films such as the Ocean's series or through caper novels like Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, the violent perpetrators of theft and bodily harm have been made more palatable for those reading or viewing their stories. Underneath the advertised "grit" for these type of tales is generally found a romanticization of these law-breaking transgressors.

Jesse Bullington's The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart eschews this softening of the rogue's image into something that is acceptable. Instead, his two fictional brother, Hegel and Manfried Grossbart, are just downright murderous, thieving SOBs who are not glamorized at all in this swift-moving 432 page debut novel. Although they might be witty on occasion, passages such as the one quoted above illustrate just how black-hearted and cruel their wit is. Shaft may have been a bad mo'fo, but these two are bad mo'fos without the lovable charm.

Bullington grounds his story in mid-14th century Central Europe. Beginning in 1364, 15 years after the last vestiges of the terrible Black Death plague have struck fear (and death) into the hearts of millions of peasants, the story of the Grossbarts integrates its setting almost seamlessly into the narrative. It is a time that produced the fear and paranoia that a century later led to Kramer and Sprenger's infamous Malleus Maleficarum being produced. Belief in witches and demons, with Satan at their head appearing in various guises, was rampant and as the novel develops, these complex intersections of orthodox Catholic belief and popular superstition inform and enliven many of the Grossbart adventures.

When I finished the novel last night, I was sad that there were no more pages left to read. I usually don't like caper or anti-hero novels that much, or at least those that bowdlerize the dark aspects of such characters, but The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart grabbed my attention from the first page and I had to keep reading until the final page. This is the best 2009 debut novel that I've read, hands down.

 Gail Carriger, Soulless

This is a hard debut to classify. There are elements of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and steampunk inside this paperback original, but the effect is something that feels organic and not a Frankenstein's monster of disparate narrative modes.  While doubtless there will be those who will decry the romance elements or believe that Carriger does nothing original plot-wise, I would beg to differ.  What Carriger does very well here is to create a vivacious, often-amusing character whose quirky personality serves to underscore just how odd it would have been to have vampires and werewolves at Queen Victoria's service in the 19th century.  Carriger's prose is often droll and sometimes hilarious, creating an effect that won me over despite my initial hesitation to read this novel.  For this alone, it is among the best debuts that I've read this year.

Mark Charan Newton, Nights of Villjamur

Newton's appearance on this list may seem to be strange, since he did have a limited-release novel appear in Great Britain a year or so ago, plus his first novel to appear in the US will not debut until mid-2010.  Nevertheless, since I'm an American and I read this novel in 2009 for the first time, I'll include it here.

Nights of Villjamur is an interesting hybrid novel. Combining elements of dying earth fiction with "weird" fiction (this is more apparent in his second novel, City of Ruin, of which I have read the first 100 pages or so in draft form before work demands deprived me of any real chance to resume reading it), Nights of Villjamur is a promising opening to a fantasy series.  Atmospheric, the novel at times suffers from inconsistently-developed characters, but on the whole, the narrative showed enough promise (since confirmed by what I've read of the second book) to merit a place on my list of best 2009 debuts.

Peter Brett, The Warded Man

From my earlier review:

Peter Brett's debut novel, The Warded Man, is the opening volume to an epic fantasy trilogy that contains many familiar elements. Civilization has collapsed into a brute, subsistence-farming level after the return of the corelings, demonic creatures that arise each night from the land's Core to pillage and reave, three centuries before after more than a millennium's absence. The only thing protecting the remnants of human societies are mysterious ciphers called Wards, which serve to repel various demon attacks. However, these Wards have gaps and each night becomes a struggle to survive, with dawn a time of both hope and mourning. Throughout this novel, Brett does a very good job highlighting the terrors that night brings, with passages similar to the one quoted above serving to remind readers of the terror that the characters experience every day of their lives.


So while Brett utilizes the clichéd Warrior, Healer, and Bard archtypes for his three main characters, his efforts to make each of them conflicted, hurt characters who desire their own form of deliverance works to such an extent that for most of this novel, I found myself curious to see what would develop next and how each character would grow from their experiences. While these arcs are kept separate for most of the novel, when they come together in the final section, it feels more like the Warded Man has well-rounded, dynamic characters around him rather than a Hero with boon companions whose personalities are paper-thin representations.

However, there are some weaknesses with this novel. While the pacing and characterization generally are excellent, at times each falters, particularly in the last section. The omnious tone set by the early chapters fades a bit too much, especially once the Warded Man appears and the demonic corelings are being slaughtered. That narrative tension is lost and while I suspect (as did the characters themselves later on) that these elemental corelings are but the foot soldiers to the real threat looming over the final section, it did lessen the effect created by the horrific attacks shown in each character arc prior to the final section. Characterwise, I felt Brett rushed too quickly into a situation involving Leesha, as it seemed to me that he didn't remain as "true" to her developed character as he could have. Going to great pains to show her reluctance to conform to her village's sexual/moral double standards, only to reverse course to bring two characters together was a bit too abrupt for my tastes, although it must be noted that it wasn't simply just two bodies meeting and then crashing together in coition minutes later. Still, a bit more time developing a tension between these characters would have improved the plot and character dynamics.

The novel concludes on a cliffhanger of sorts, as there appears a challenger for the role that readers might have presumed one of the three main characters had assumed. I found it to be a natural ending point, one that leaves me curious to read what happens in the second volume, The Desert Spear, due out by the end of the year. Hopefully, Brett will show continued development as a writer, as The Warded Man, while imperfect in places, showed enough promise as to give me hope that Brett will emerge as one of the few must-read epic fantasy writers for me. Very good debut effort.

 Other noteworthy debut novels read this year:

Mark Teppo, Lightbreaker

Amanda Downum, The Drowning City

So yes, these are the debuts I read this year.  Perhaps you have read others that are worthy of consideration?  If so, which books would make your own 2009 debuts list?


Liviu said...

The debuts that made my final top lists (I decided it to expand it and put 20 sff, 10 mainstream and some shorter fiction too) are In The Court of the Sun/D'Amato (sff debut), Heart of Veridon/Akers, Nights of Villjamur/Newton (with your caveat too) Adamantine Palace/Deas, Twelve/Kent, Father of the Locks/Killeen, The Babylonian Trilogy/Doubinsky (Engl lang debut), Wonderful World/Calvo (Engl lang debut, Escape from Byzantium/Mellon (sff debut)

However I have already read about 10 2010 debuts and there are some impressive ones, most notably The Left Hand of God/Hoffman (this will be a massive love it/hate it the way it throws things in the pot - marketed as epic saga, presumably fantasy here is a list of words from it: "Norwegians, Gauleiter, Kiev, St. Stephen of Hungary, Jesus of Nazareth, Jews, Rabbis"), Hundred Thousand Kingdoms/Jemisin, The Bookman/Tidhar and Servant of the Underworld/de Bodard

I have very high hopes for several more debuts and of course the unknown ones for me that I will hopefully discover as 2010 goes

Brian Lindenmuth said...

As quite possibly your only crime fiction reader I'll take the opportunity to say that THE debut novel for that genre is an Irish novel, The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville. Some other top tier debuts are A Bad Day For Sorry by Sophie Littlefield (does some interesting things with gender balance in a crime story) and Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya.

I know you don't read a lot of crime fiction so you can take them with as big a grain of salt as you wish.

Larry Nolen said...


I read it every now and then and my mother seems to like it a bit, so I might explore it and at the very least introduce her to a new author.


Interesting selections there. A few of the 2010 debuts I have waiting to be read in a couple of weeks or I have circled as possible acquisitions in the near future. Didn't know the Doubinsky was released in English in 2009, or else I would have sprung the money for it. Still might, come and think of it.

Carl V. Anderson said...

Jedidiah Berry's debut, Manual of Detection, though shelved in the mystery section, has some very surreal, almost steampunkish elements to it that make it, in my opinion, a book that genre lovers should check out. It was a nice debut with interesting characters written in an engaging manner. I'd definitely recommend it.

Larry Nolen said...

I thought about reading Berry's novel, as I did like some of his short fictions that I've read in various anthologies, but I seem to recall reading some mixed reviews, so I put that on the backburner. Perhaps in 2010.

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