Monday, December 17, 2012

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.16: Rachel Swirsky

Highlights of 2012
by Rachel Swirsky

For once, I’ve actually kept up my reading during the year, so I can recommend books and stories from 2012 instead of from 2011!

I still have some reading to do, of course – another fifteen or so young adult books to consider for the Norton, the November and December issues of some magazines, and another half-dozen anthologies. And I’ll be doing more comprehensive analyses and reviews in January and February once I’ve had a chance to look back at the completed year. But I feel confident in picking out some of the highlights I’ve found so far.

For my own reference this year, I started rating the stories I read on a scale of five stars, with three stars meaning “a perfectly good, professional quality story.” I mostly did this as an aid to memory; it’s hard, by December, to remember my specific emotional reactions to stories published in February. However, monkeying around with the numbers gave me some interesting information.

At the end of October, I averaged my scores for the magazines I’ve been following. Almost all of them averaged just above or just below 3.0. The positive exception was CLARKESWORLD, which provided me the best bang per page view in 2012.

The average Clarkesworld story isn’t necessarily any better than the average, perfectly good pro quality story one can find elsewhere—although Clarkesworld has the benefit of publishing few duds. Instead, their high score derives from the fact that they often catch the year’s highlights. The average stories are average, but there are much more frequent standouts. (I’ll go further into some of those later.)

By crunching the numbers, I also learned that—for me, at least—the best way to ensure a consolidated, strong reading experience is to pick up an anthology. It makes sense—anthologists are able to focus on curating a one-time collection. This year, I particularly enjoyed anthologies by Strahan, Datlow, and Mamatas.


So far, I’ve read about twenty-five SF/F young adult novels. Because I’m mostly reading based on recommendations, I’ve pretty much only picked up strong books, which has itself been a pleasure.

Of those novels, four have really stood out to me, but I haven’t decided yet how I feel about two of those four. I’m still trying to reconcile their strengths with their weaknesses. The ones I can endorse without complication are:

VESSEL by Sarah Beth Durst, is an epic fantasy quest, in which a girl must search the desert in order to find her people’s goddess. The imagery is unexpected and the characters well-drawn, and it does a good job of balancing epic fun with thoughtfulness.

SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman tells the story of a young music teacher who finds herself caught up in the struggle between humans and dragons, and must use her knowledge of and love for both populations in order to keep the peace. This is one of those books that feels like it’s longer than it actually is, in a really pleasant way; there’s a lot of heft and history that’s woven into the story, a sense of depth and breadth.


My favorite novel this year was, again, by N. K. Jemisin. I’m just going to send her my entire sock collection sometime since she keeps knocking them off.

THE KILLING MOON and THE SHADOWED SUN are a duo, set in the same world, a quasi-Egyptian-ish fantasy, written with all of the skill one expects from Jemisin. Both novels are good, but for me, THE KILLING MOON was clearly stronger, with a slightly more coherent plot, woven with a deeper sense of mystery and revelation. The main characters are both priests and assassins; N. K. Jemisin discusses the genesis of the idea on John Scalzi’s Whatever. (


I haven’t finished mulling over all the short stories, novelettes, and novellas that I read this year. Since I read short stories in such high volume, it always takes me some time to sift and consider.

Since I’ll be doing a more complete breakdown later, for now I’m going to give myself an arbitrary constraint, and write down the first five that come to mind.

FADE TO WHITE by Cat Valente (Clarkesworld) – Intricately interwoven points of view, interspersed with excerpts from scripts, present a glimpse into the lives of teenagers entering their adulthood in a post-apocalyptic world. The idea of a dystopia that’s reminiscent of the 1950s isn’t unique to this story, but Valente handles it with a light hand. The story feels a bit fragile, and a bit beautiful, and unusual in a lovely way.

MONO NO AWARE by Ken Liu (THE FUTURE IS JAPANESE, ed. Nick Mamatas) – I really loved reading this anthology, which included both specfic by Japanese authors, and by Anglophones writing about Japan. I had a story in this anthology, which only whetted my appetite to read it; I thought the idea was so cool. There were a number of other stories in the anthology that merit mentioning as well (including, but not limited to, “The Indifference Engine” by Project Itoh), but this was the first one that came to mind. Ken Liu’s direct, simple way of revealing emotion works well in this story of a child who leaves the doomed earth and grows into a man who helps sail a generation ship. Plus, the concept in the title is cool, and I hadn’t known it before.

MURDERBORN by Robert Reed (Asimovs) – This is one of those “thought exercise” novellas that works best if you take it as a kind of philosophical entertainment. Reed’s “What if?” is “What if you could bring back victims by killing their murderers?” Some of the science, etc., doesn’t really stand up if you think too hard about it, and the premise is hung on an adventure plotline that I was indifferent about, but the question was interesting, and I was caught up in Reed’s speculative answers.

MANTIS WIVES by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld) – This is one of Kij Johnson’s brief, visceral, vicious stories. It’s a story that’s like a knife.

THE SEGMENT by Genevieve Valentine (AFTER, ed. Ellen Datlow) – Datlow’s anthology AFTER collected dystopia stories written for young adults. While many were good, Valentine’s stood out to me as the best (though N.K. Jemisin’s contribution provides some competition). An orphan who lives in, yes, a dystopia, undergoes the process of social awakening that leads her to understand herself, her world, and the people around her. The character is sharp and the story, told through her point of view, gains the same sense of sharpness. There’s no tragedy or melancholia, even though the story deals with things that are both tragic and melancholy. The voice allows the story to take its premise--which could have been treated with a wink-and-nod smug cynicism--and go somewhere much more interesting, as there’s a sense of genuine immersion and surprise as we follow the main character through her arc.

There are lots of other stories that I loved this year—to name just a few, Aliette DeBodard’s “Immersion,” Joy Kennedy O’Neill’s “Aftermath,” Dale Bailey’s “Mating Habits of the Late Cretaceous”—but I’ll have to save writing about those for another post, or else I’ll be here all night.

Rachel Swirsky is an award-winning literary, speculative fiction and fantasy writer, poet, and editor living in California. She was the founding editor of the PodCastle podcast and served as editor from 2008 to 2010. Her novella "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window" won the 2010 Nebula Award and was also a nominee in the Best Novella category for a 2011 Hugo Award and in the Novella category of the 2011 World Fantasy Award. Aqueduct published her short fiction and poetry collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, in 2010.

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