This year’s reading was dominated by speculative fiction (even more so than usual). The reason for this is that after many years of being a reader – and a fan – 2019 was the year I tried to become a writer. Throughout the year, I worked on a science fiction novel that, which was finally completed at around ten minutes to midnight on December 31, and sent to my publisher. So I made a conscious choice throughout the year to immerse myself in SFF, to blend the worlds of writing and reading (if that makes any sense!).
The list follows, in its usual format, and with the usual caveats.
A. Science Fiction and Fantasy [SFF]
- Achala Upendran, The Sultanpur Chronicles (***): One among a raft of interesting recent editions to SFF in a partially-recognisable Indian fantasy world, with Indian characters.
- Ivor Hartmann (ed.), AfroSF V. 3.0 (*****): The third instalment in the AfroSF series of short stories lives up to the reputation of the series – some brilliant new short work here.
- Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand (****): I enjoyed this book as a work of fantasy, and for its nuanced treatment of themes like consent, which are rarely examined in the genre. I’m more circumspect about its marketing as “Mughal fantasy”, as the links appear to be somewhat … tenuous.
- Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf (****): James’ foray into SFF upsets all kinds of classic tropes and conventions of the genre; an extremely difficult book, and one that has polarised opinion, but it worked for me (reviewed here).
- Tarun Saint (ed.), The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (***): Some hits, some misses (reviewed here).
- Tade Thompson, The Rosewater Insurrection (****): Thompson’s swashbuckling trilogy set around an alien power touching down in modern-day Lagos, continues to entertain with this second instalment (reviewed here).
- N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season (***).
- N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate (****).
- N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky (***): Better late than never, I guess, coming to this storied trilogy? Perhaps inevitable after all that hype, but though I enjoyed this, it didn’t exactly change my life. Somewhat strangely, I liked the second novel the best.
- Anne Leckie, Ancillary Justice (****): Another iconic novel that I came to late. Like everyone says, this one really bends your mind and forces you to examine a host of internalised assumptions with which you approach the world. And oh, there is a sentient spaceship!
- Sue Burke, Semiosis (***): A worthy addition to the whole plants/humans sub-genre of SFF.
- Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (***): My first Robinson; it was, as you would imagine, quite an experience. I enjoyed it, of course, but also felt that at times the combination of history, politics, space travel, and economics made it a little too dense. But it did set me looking up what the Mondragon Cooperative was all about, so that’s a bonus!
- Lavie Tidhar, Unholy Land (****): Tidhar never disappoints. This novel, set in an alternate history where the Jewish people were given a slice of Uganda to build their country (an actual proposal at a time) turns into an alternate history of Israel/Palestine – by turns gripping, humorous, and terribly sad.
- Ada Palmer, Seven Surrenders (***): I did not enjoy the second instalment of the Terra Ignita series. I felt, on more than one occasion, that I was being talked down to as a reader, and the obsession with the classical Western philosophical/historical canon – in an ostensibly global novel – became extremely jarring after a point.
- Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation (***): Yet another late arrival to a modern-day classic! An enjoyable read, although it did not stay with me for too long.
- Yoon Ha-Lee, Raven Strategem (*****).
- Yoon Ha-Lee, Revanant Gun (*****): Following on from Ninefox Gambit, the second and third novels of the Machineries of Empire series make it by far the best SFF series I read this year, and amongst the best I’ve ever read. I couldn’t recommend this highly enough: its universe – that is based on the idea of “consensus reality”, and resistance to it – manages to combine technical virtuosity with epic scale and sweep. Your heart soars when you read this series – like the best of fantasy.
- Ken Liu (ed.), Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (****): This edited collection shows you exactly why, by common consensus, China is the place where the most exciting modern SF is coming from. The stories here are diverse and varies, but maintain an amazingly high degree of technical skill – and political awareness woven into the narrative. My favourite was probably ‘Folding Beijing’, a story that continues to haunt me.
- Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (****): Liu himself, of course, is a darn good writer (his short story was the basis for Arrival), and this collection shows you why. What stands out is his versatility – from murder mysteries to haunting space opera – it’s all here.
- Terry Pratchett, Night Watch (****): Yes yes, I know. I should have read this years ago. Well, better late than never.
- Yoon Ha Lee, Hexarchate Stories (****): If you are a sucker for the Machineries of Empire series, this set of short stories – that gives you the backstories of important characters and a novella-sequel at the end – is like essential drug supply. Otherwise, it will make no sense.
- Amal el-Mohtar and Max Goodwin, This Is How You Lose The Time War (*****): God. This time-travel-love-story just has some of the most straight-up stunning prose that I’ve read all year. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read a better love story in a long while – the way it expands the world into a universe, while making it all intelligible. I’ve lost count of the sheer number of passages I marked out in delight. Read this book.
- Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire (****): Martine’s debut novel – as you would expect – is a rich and complex blend of political and social Sci-fi, set in a space-empire. Shades of Asimov here, as it features a protagonist coming in from the margins, but Martine is of course very much her own writer.
- S.B. Divya, Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse (***): From a contaminated Bangalore to deep space to a Hunger Games-style battle for survival in a near-future USA, Divya’s little vignettes stand out for their elegance and craft.
- Margaret Atwood, The Testaments (***): To be honest, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale felt quite a let-down.
- Imraan Coovadia, A Spy in Time (***): A fascinating contemporary addition to the time-travel genre, moving between Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, and the end of days; and telling us – in the gentlest way possible – that time travel is (also) about race (reviewed here).
- Chen Qiufan, Waste Tide (***): Back to China: this novel is set in an island off the continent, which has become the worldwide hub for the processing of digital waste. A science fiction novel about the violence of global supply chains and of local resistance (reviewed here).
- Suyi Davies, David Mogo, Godhunter (****): A really fun novel set in contemporary Lagos, with rival gods in the Yoruba pantheon being pressed into service in an apocalyptic war (reviewed here).
- Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust (****): Barring one very problematic narrative theme, and the occasional deus ex machina, The Book of Dust revived the old magic of the His Dark Materials series that La Belle Sauvage had (for me) entirely failed at. Just for a ride down memory lane, and the termporary recreation of that incredible magic – HDM shaped my childhood perhaps more than any other book – this was worth it.
- Ted Chiang, Exhalation (****): A set of long-short stories from Ted Chiang, often revolving around time paradoxes. Technically brilliant, and very good storytelling as well.
- Tade Thompson, The Rosewater Redemption (***): For me, the closing instalment in the series didn’t quite hit the heights of books 1 and 2.
B. African Writing
- Marye Conde, Segu (****): The classic novel of First Contact, about last days of the Bambara Empire (that spanned present-day Mali), and of a West African society disintegrating under the twin forces of Islam and colonialism. A beautiful read (reviewed here).
- Leonora Miano, Season of the Shadow (****): Another haunting first-contact story and the prelude to the Middle Passage, set in present day Cameroon, but this time the tyrants and the destruction comes not from beyond the sea, but from within. Some of the scenes in this (brief) novel are still in my mind (reviewed here).
- Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift (****): A grand, sweeping history of modern-day Zair; by times exhilarating, by times tragic, and with the strangest twist of SFF at the very end.
- Maaza Mengiste, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (****): Another beautiful novel, this time set in the Ethiopian Revolution of the 1970s, with some of the most powerfully drawn characters I’ve come across this year.
- Joginder Paul, Land Lust (****): Well, Joginder Paul is Indian, but the book is set in Kenya, and was written based on his experiences living in Kenya, so I’m placing it here. A set of delightful – and delightfully sad – short stories about the intertwined lives of Indians and Kenyans in a newly-independent country.
- Zeyn Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars (****): With maps (!) as the common underlying theme, this novel beautifully weaves together escape from modern-day Syria with an older story of migration and adventure; heartbreaking, but also uplifting.
- Chigozie Obiama, An Orchestra of Minorities (***): One of those strongly hyped-up novels that just didn’t do it for me; I felt the weight put on the narrative device (no spoilers) was a weight it could not bear.
- Abdourahman A. Waberi, Passage of Tears (***): A surrealistic drama/murder mystery set in Djibouti. Enjoyable in parts, confusing in others.
- Ibrahim Abdel Megouid, Clouds over Alexandria (*****): Picked this up after seeing it mentioned in the ArabLit Quarterly. This is an absolutely stunning novel. It is set in 1970s Egypt – at a time of student unrests and revolutionary protests against Anwar Sadat – and captures the hope, the madness, the despair – and ultimately, the tragedy – of the time, and of its student protagonists, in a truly unforgettable and heartbreaking way.
- Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust (****): The last book I read in 2019 was amongst the most intense. Dust is set in contemporary Kenya, begins with an assassination, and then takes us on a journey through Kenya’s past, starting with the Mau Mau rebellion and the birth of the country. Owuor weaves together the personal and the political in a beautiful and haunting manner.
C. Polish Writing
- Narcyza Zmichowska, The Heathen (***): Part of my reading on my trip to Poland; one of the first feminist Polish – and indeed, European – novels, written in the mid-19th century, and interesting just for that reason.
- Antoni Libera, Madame (*****): A tears-running-down-your-eyes hilarious Polish novel of an eighteen-year old schoolboy who falls in love with his thirty-two year old Piano teacher, just when communism is extending its suffocating grip over Warsaw in the 1950s. What a read.
- Ryszard Kapusciski, Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland (***): Sketches from the legendary journalist. I tried to get into the feel of things by reading this on long train rides in Poland, but to be honest, it didn’t quite work for me.
- Olga Tocarczuk, Flights (***): Tocarczuk, of course, won the Nobel Prize this year. I enjoyed parts of this book and its aphoristic character, which – I feel – is ideally read in bursts.
- Jacek Dahnel, Lala (***): By times funny, by times sad coming-of-age story in contemporary Poland (all books reviewed here).
D. German Writing
- Alfred Doblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (***): Part of my Germany-travel reading (of course). This is, of course, the classic novel of Berlin on the eve of fascism, a city drawing its last breath before the fall. Fascinating – and more than a little disturbing.
- Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Novels (***): See above. The two novels here provide another glimpse of Weimar Berlin, and that great efflorescence of art and culture before the onset of Nazism.
- Klaus Mann, Mephisto (****): The iconic novel of compromise and betrayal in Nazi Germany. Mann’s Hendrik Hofgen – who begins as a leftist and ends as a Nazi collaborator in order to secure power and riches – is a brilliant, haunting character – above all, because he is so human, and makes us feel – disturbingly – that we might well make the same choices in the same situation. And the most disturbing part: to the end, Hofgen is able to justify it all to himself, reason it out by saying “better me than an actual Nazi in my position”, and “I’m working within the system to help.” Where else have we heard such justifications?
- Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (****): Reminiscent in many ways of Victor Serge (see below), this novel is almost a snapshot of the tragedy of 20th-century Europe – moving from anti-Jewish pogroms to Red Vienna to besieged Moscow, and finally, post-World War II Germany; taking us through anti-semitism, Nazism, and Stalinism. The narrative device (again, no spoilers) is particularly fascinating in what it does with time and the past; the prose is magnificent (all books reviewed here).
E. Other European Writing
- Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years (****): One of the stand-out novels of the year, for me. Serge writes of two ex-communists on the run, chased across Europe – and then Mexico – by Stalinist agents; but in doing so, he writes a dirge to the ideals of the Russian Revolution, and their decay in the Soviet Union. The prose is hypnotic (reviewed here).
- Hamid Ismailov, The Devil’s Dance (*****): Another stand-out novel. One of the first Uzbek novels to be translated into English – and banned in its home country – The Devil’s Dance tells the story of the doomed generation of Uzbek writers and intellectuals that were killed in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s – alongside another story, set in the Khanates a hundred years ago, at a time of great social and cultural upheaval (reviewed here).
- Abdulla Quodiry, Days Gone By (****): Ismailov’s novel made me go look for his progatonist, the real life Abdulla Quodiry, and read his novel. Days Gone By was so popular in Uzbekistan in the 1920s when it was published, that parents named their children after Quodiry’s protagonists. You can see why – the story mixes adventure, love, and the national history of Uzbekistan in a skilful and gripping narrative.