The OF Blog: 2010 in Review: Debut Authors

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2010 in Review: Debut Authors

If my previous essay highlighted my deficiencies in reading 2010 releases in the graphic novel and YA fiction categories, this essay will note a bounty of debut authors whose first books were published in the US in 2010.  Some of these authors I have covered before, while some will be discussed at length for the first time here.  The quality varies greatly, as some of the debut offerings I read were total crap (as I noted in my essay on Disappointing Reads), while a few were above-average or even outstanding literary offerings.  Although due to reading some of the review copies sent to me and a lack of awareness elsewhere the majority of these debut works fall solidly in the SF/F genre market classification, not all of the works listed below would be shelved in the SF/F section of most bookstores.

In my previous post, I discussed briefly my thoughts on works by Blake Charlton, Alexey Pehov, Mary Robinette Kowal, Sam Sykes, and Anthony Huso.  I will not repeat myself here, except to note that although I listed Kowal's book as a "disappointing read," I judge it to be only a disappointment relative to what I think she could have accomplished with that story; her tale is worlds more enjoyable and accomplished for me than the other authors listed above.  That being said, most of the other authors which I saw discuss briefly below produced more interesting work.

This past spring, Pyr Books released the first four volumes of British writer Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series.  Although originally released a couple of years prior in the UK, it was interesting to read the first three volumes back-to-back-to-back.  The first volume, Empire in Black and Gold, by itself was mere prologue that was competent but nothing attention-grabbing.  However, reading Dragonfly Falling and Blood of the Mantis so soon after it made for a more favorable impression, as each builds upon the few interesting quirks established in the first:  the totemic relationship between the various human groups and their insect "Kinden", which imbues each group with certain distinct characteristics befitting those who model themselves around various insects such as Ants, Bees, Spiders, Wasps, Moths, Mantis, Beetle, and so forth.  By the time I finished reading the fourth volume (which closes a major narrative arc for this planned ten-volume series), Salute the Dark, a few months ago, I had decided that Tchaikovsky's novels were decent popcorn flick-level reads that were solidly told, even if they lacked much in the way of narrative innovation or snazzy prose.

Around the same time that I read the first Tchaikovsky novels I finally got around to writing a review of N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, although that book was the first book I finished reading in 2010.  Here are some extracts from that review:

Jemisin plays upon reader expectations of clashes between Light/Dark by creating a third, mediating element that forces readers to reconsider any previously-held preconceptions they may have held about the two (male) gods that still exist when the novel opens.  Furthermore, by having this third, mysterious goddess/element in the background, Jemisin creates a plausible mythology that not only is explored within the narrative, but which provides an interpretative scheme for the novel that may satisfy those such as myself who like multifaceted, challenging narratives.  As noted above, the three god/forces dominate the novel and Jemisin's skillful exploration of their motivations and their roles that infuses The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms with a compelling storyline which concludes strongly at the end in a fashion that will be simultaneously surprising and long-expected.  Love is such a strange creature and its mutations can affect so many.

Although The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is but the opener for a trilogy, it is virtually self-contained.  There is a definite, full narrative arc executed over 400 pages with a conclusion that brings all storylines but one introduced here to a close.  The only open arc is introduced in the closing chapter and it sets the stage for a completely different sort of story to be explored in the second volume.  It appears this trilogy may rely more upon thematic cliffhangers than narrative pauses to keep readers anticipating the next volume.

So how well did I like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms?  For the first half, as I stated above, I found myself being annoyed slightly by things such as Yeine's seeming digressions, the perceived lack of focus on what might be the book's central element, and the sometimes-distant, passive point-of-view character who sometimes failed to make what was transpiring vivid.  But by the time that the gods' conflict emerged as the central focus, Jemisin's prose became more taut and the sometimes languid pace of the earlier chapters picked up in such a fashion as to make the final ten chapters or so very riveting.  The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not a perfect novel, but it certainly is a very promising and intriguing debut novel, one that despite its flaws felt more polished and nuanced than the vast majority of debut novels I have read in recent years.  Jemisin has set the stage for what appears to be a redemption story and that alone would make me want to read the sequels. Knowing that, minor stumblings aside, that she has the writing chops to accomplish this leaves me anticipating the next volume more than I do most pending volumes.

This past summer, after reading a passing comment on Jeff VanderMeer's blog praising her book, I picked up Caribbean-raised writer Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo.  Based in part on West African folklore, this tale of a wife and her buffoonish husband morphs into something else toward the end of the novel.  Lord's use of humor was judicious and her prose is excellent throughout this short novel.  It is a novel that is a pleasure to read and I suspect I will enjoy re-reading it several times in the years to come.

Another talented debut author that I read this past summer/early autumn was Charles Yu, who wrote How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.  I did not write a full review of it, in part because I want to re-read it again to be certain of a few points that I suspected were major undercurrents, but I will say that its core, dealing with issue of loss and identity, made it a touching read.  Plan on re-reading this one sometime in 2011 or 2012.

Amal El-Mohtar's The Honey Month is an unusual book.  It is a collection of stories set around and based upon the author's reaction to the various blends and varieties of honey that she sampled over the course of a month.  Several of these short fictions do not go past a couple of pages, yet within these short spaces, vividly-imagined vistas are created that hearken back to the synethesia brought about by the sampled honeys.  Simply a delight to read and a book I gave to a dear female friend of mine so she can enjoy imagining what El-Mohtar has set up in her tales.

Brian Conn's The Fixed Stars is a small press debut title whose prose I enjoyed more than I did the plot, which I found to be somewhat lacking in comparison to the prose and characterizations.  A similar experience occurred when I read Darin Bradley's Noise.  Neither were poor works, just merely solid first efforts that leave me hopeful that their sophomore efforts will dazzle me. 

Although she has yet to have a novel published, Rachel Swirsky's debut collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, published by Aqueduct Press, is well worth reading just for the stories and poems she produced before she released two favorites of mine, "A Memory of Wind" (which I had highlighted for consideration for Best American Fantasy 4) and "Eros, Philia, Agape," which was up for a Nebula Award this past year.  Not a single dud for me in this slim collection.  I truly believe she'll be a major star in the near future.

Finally, my favorite debut novel this year was Grace Krilanovich's The Orange Eats Creeps, which I co-reviewed back in early October.  Here is a sample from that review:

The Orange Eats Creeps contains so many levels of reaction and interaction within its 172 pages that sometimes tangled knots appear.  There were times that the blurred lines between the narrator's dreamtime and her waking moments became so intertwined that it was difficult to pick out just what was really occurring, although it should be noted that this seems to be precisely Krilanovich's intent, that of exploring what happens when events crash together and are subsumed by the internal conflict of the narrator.  Sometimes, the intensity of the narrator's thoughts and the passivity she took to some horrific events overwhelmed certain elements of the story; the drug-induced ESP and the connections alluded to in the blurb quoted above to the Donner Party girl were neglected for large stretches of the story.  Yet despite these moments of confusion and underdevelopment, on the whole The Orange Eats Creeps was a horrific, visceral novel that grabbed my attention and made me confront several unsettling aspects about the banal evils that surround us.  The emptiness of the hooking up and of the consumption of speed reminded me too much of my youth and of those I knew in my teens and early twenties.  Krilanovich captures the negative vibe that so many members of the Latchkey Generation experienced in the late 1980s and 1990s in a take no prisoners-style approach.  Twist it just a little bit, away from the concretized metaphor of the bleak, brown-and-orange wasteland and toward the bland, soulcrushing nature of teen life during this time period and it could read almost as a superbiography for so many of us that endured those years while seeking to find our way and ourselves through the haze of drugs, alcohol, and abusive relationships.

Although it is far from a cheery novel, The Orange Eats Creeps contains enough elements of hope to keep its readers going until the end.  While I cannot truly claim to have "enjoyed" this novel, I certainly can say that it is one of the most powerful, moving, and unsettling stories that I have read in quite some time.  The fact that this is Krilanovich's debut novel makes this novel a greater accomplishment than the fine work it already is.  It feels as though it is a story that has been "lived" and in witnessing this, we are changed as a result.  It is truly a remarkable work, one that will leave me thinking about its uncomfortable truths for a long time.

Fourteen debut authors, over half of which I would read a second (or fifth) novel by them soon after release.  Not too bad for this year.  Fitting that my favorite debut novel is one that cannot be classified easily into a single market genre.  Sometimes, the better stories are those who blur or even erase perceived boundaries and this certainly was the case for Krilanovich's novel and a couple of others discussed here.

No comments:

Add to Technorati Favorites