Best Reads: July through November 2021 – Part 1 -Best Speculative Fiction.

Real life got in the way this year and I didn’t do my normal wrap up of the quarter in September, so I’ve decided to wrap up the five months from July through November together. I’ve picked my top twelve from the fifty-seven books I read in the period.

These twelve books are the ones that brought me the most pleasure and I recommend them to you.

I’ve grouped nine of the books by genre: Speculative Fiction, Crime Fiction and Horror Fiction. Then I’ve picked three series that worked well for me and three intense novellas. For ease of reading, I’ve broken this ‘Best Reads’ into posts covering three books or series or novellas at a time.

I read nine Speculative Fiction books in this period. They were all good but these three were outstanding. They are all by authors who were new to me and they all managed to combine great storytelling and world-building with ideas that challenged me to look again at how the world works

‘War Girls’ is Science Fiction at its best: strong, believable, human characters that you care about; fearless confrontation of the realities of being child-soldiers in a brutal civil war; credible and terrifying future weaponry deployed in vividly described combat; a constant focus on the human cost of violence and hatred.

‘War Girls’ is set in a future Nigeria, struggling to find its place in a world damaged by climate change and scarred with radiation deserts created by a global war.

Nigeria is engaged in a long and brutal war with the self-declared independent state of Biafra. The war is fuelled partly by ethnic hatred against the Igbo and partly by Nigeria’s desire to hold on to the rate minerals beneath the Biafra soil.

This echoes the War of Biafran Independence (1967-1970) in which millions of people died.

The focus of the book is on the ‘War Girls’ of the title – child soldiers on the Biafran side, who have tried to separate themselves from the war and build a life in a camp hidden in the forest.

When the camp is attacked, two sisters are separated and find themselves on opposite sides of the war.

What follows is creative, emotional, horribly real and impossible to put down.

‘The Sound of Distant Engines’ is a powerful and disturbing novel, not just because of the future America it presents but because of the brave but broken man at the centre of the story who is an embodiment of this future America’s problems and its possibilities. 

It presents a horribly plausible three-generations-from-now future America in which long-running foreign wars have morphed into a Christian crusade against the Muslim world, At home, a strong alignment between Church and State has made the espousal of Christian Fundamentalist values of ‘One Nation under one God’ as THE mark of patriotism. ‘

This is not a high concept political allegory. It is a low-key but tense, very personal book about a man approaching the end of his life who finds himself haunted by his past and out of sympathy with his present and who is pushed into action when the Church that he despises brings pressure on him and his family to become a symbol for recruiting the young into the war effort.

I finished ‘The Space Between Worlds’. and thought: “Wow. That was so good and so unexpected. Great storytelling, lots of surprises and lots to think about. It was raw, clever and disturbing. And all that from a debut novel. Micaiah Johnson is a writer to watch.

Johnson uses travel between parallel worlds in the multiverse to explore social exclusion. She tells the story from the point of view of Cara, who started amongst the excluded but who has been allowed to live among the privileged because she has something that they need. 

The story is set in a future earth where travel to hundreds of the nearest parallel worlds in the multiverse is possible, provided your counterpart in the world you’re travelling to is already dead. Cara is valued as a traveller between worlds because although she is young, her counterparts have already died in 372 worlds. As Cara explains, if you’re rich in this world, you’re likely to be rich in the parallel worlds and so your counterparts are likely to be alive. So travel between worlds created a demand for what Cara calls ‘trash people’ like her.

The book works well as an adventure but what really drives it are themes on the nature of identity, of privilege and exclusion, of the cost of survival and the reality of choice. 

This is the best kind of get-your-hands-dirty, wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee Science Fiction and I strongly recommend it.

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