Tag: Esi Edugyan

Top 5 Fiction 2018

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2018. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Cruel Prince

Cover image for The Cruel Prince by Holly BlackThis was one of the first books that I read in 2018, but it has nevertheless held up as one of the best, and the sequel is just around the corner in January 2019! Seventeen-year-old Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, are mortals who have lived in Faerie since they were children, raised by the Faerie general who murdered their parents in order to retrieve his daughter, their half-sister Vivi. Despite this violent beginning, Jude longs to find her place in the High Court of King Eldred, and dreams of knighthood and acceptance. However, many of the high fey will never see a mortal as anything more than a servant, to be used and discarded at will. Worst among these is Prince Cardan, youngest of the High King’s sons, who seems to have a special hatred for Jude, and the way she was raised as if she were part of the Gentry. When the High King announces that he will abdicate his throne, and pass the Blood Crown to one of his six children, Jude is caught up in political intrigues and violent betrayals, and is quickly reminded why the Faerie Court is no place for humans. Holly Black is an acknowledged master of the faerie tale, and The Cruel Prince represents a particularly twisty example of her talent in this arena.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy, Fairy Tales

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Cover image for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky ChambersI am a sucker for a found family narrative, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is great exemplar of a sci-fi take on this trope. When Rosemary Harper abandons her privileged life on Mars for a new identity, and takes a job as a clerk aboard the Wayfarer, her only expectation is to get away from the past. Aboard the ship is a motley inter-species crew that makes their living by building wormholes for interstellar travel, and Rosemary has been brought aboard to keep their permits and paperwork in order, so they don’t lose their license. Their latest job begins when a new species is welcomed into the Galactic Commons, which will necessitate building new tunnels to facilitate travel and trade. But the Toremi Ka are only one clan of a warring, nomadic species, Hedra Ka is their newly claimed territory, and the Wayfarer and her crew may be flying into a war zone. There is plenty of science working beneath the premises Becky Chambers puts forth, but her story is character-driven, and technology is decidedly not the focus. Rather it is the development of the relationships among the crew on this journey that take center stage.

Categories: Science Fiction

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. KuangDebut novelist R.F. Kuang hit it big this year with the gritty first installment of a planned trilogy about the Nikara Empire. A war orphan, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods. Even as she is further alienated from her teachers and classmates, she becomes the protégé of an eccentric master who has taken no other apprentices from her class. But Master Jiang wants Rin to learn to control and suppress her abilities, while Rin dreams of wielding them in battle for the glory of the Empire. And with the Empire constantly on the brink of the next war with the Mugen Federation, it becomes increasingly difficult to heed her Master’s advice and resist the call of the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance. The Poppy War is a decidedly adult fantasy featuring a terrifyingly badass female protagonist on a worrisome trajectory towards darkness.

Categories: Fantasy

Strange the Dreamer

Cover image for Strange the Dreamer by Laini TaylorStrange the Dreamer is the kind of book where the author writes herself into difficult situations, but then makes bold choices with the consequences. From his childhood as an orphan in a monastery, to his young adulthood as a junior library apprentice, Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the lost city of Weep. For thousands of years, magical goods crossed the Elmuthaleth desert to be traded, but no faranji was ever allowed to see the city from whence they came, on pain of death. But two hundred years ago, all trade suddenly ceased without explanation. Once, Weep had another name, but fifteen years ago it was snatched from the minds of the few who remembered the city at all, including Lazlo, whose obsession was only deepened by the loss. Now a hero from Weep, known as the Godslayer, has emerged from the Elmuthaleth, seeking the best scientists to join a delegation that will help the city solve the last remnant of the problem that halted trade for two hundred years. But what use could such a delegation have for a mere junior librarian who has studied Weep all his life, and yet undoubtedly knows less about it than anyone who was raised there? In beautiful prose that will be familiar to fans of her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Laini Taylor brings to life a vivid new fantasy world that didn’t so much capture my imagination as take it hostage, until I stayed up far too late to reach the last page, and find out what would become of Lazlo, Sarai, and the people of Weep.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi EdugyanCanadian sensation Esi Edugyan received international attention this year, with her Giller prize winning novel also being named to the Man Book short-list. Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse. In her trademark exquisite prose, Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Indeed it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes Washington Black unforgettable.

Categories: Canadian, Historical Fiction

Honourable mentions also go out to the rest of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, which I devoured, and found to be utterly delightful, though the first one was my favourite, and is thus listed here. That’s it for fiction, but check back later this week for my non-fiction selections!

What were your top fiction reads of 2018?

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyanby Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-0-525-52142-6

Disclaimer:  I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

I carried that nail like a shard of darkness in my fist. I carried it like a secret, like a crack through which some impossible future might be glimpsed. I carried it like a key.”

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse.

In her trademark exquisite prose, Esi Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Wash goes on to lead a big, improbable life as a result of Titch’s intervention, but a life that is not without difficulty and costs. The novel reflects some of the harder realities of the abolition movement, such as white men who were more concerned about the moral stain of slavery than about the actual harm suffered by Black people as a result. Titch’s intervention also cuts Wash off from his own people on the plantation, costing him his relationship with his foster mother, and setting him apart from field and house slaves alike. Wash learns to read, and draw, and calculate, but once he finds himself out in the world, unexpectedly freed by a fight between Erasmus and Christopher in which he is a proxy, he discovers that there is little call for—or acceptance of—a Black man with such skills. He is an anomaly wherever he goes, not least because of the horrible physical scars he bears as a result of his enslavement. Tellingly, it is a result of Titch’s actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked. His freedom proves to be a complex thing.

Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though he does not wish to accept responsibility for this fact, it is true nevertheless. While in the beginning Titch is a character that the reader can admire for rebelling against his family’s immoral expectations, in the end he throws off other expectations and responsibilities as well, calling into question whether it was the immorality or the expectations he was rebelling against in the first place. Although Wash is the protagonist and the narrator, it is Titch who haunts the story, his choices echoing through Wash’s life even after their unequal partnership has unraveled, and Wash has built a new life for himself among the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia. These echoes will eventually take him to Europe and Africa, in search of understanding Titch’s decisions and their far-reaching consequences. But some questions have no satisfactory answers, and Edugyan’s open-ended conclusion reflects that.

Washington Black is a novel full of adventure and travel, from Titch and Wash’s improbable escape from Faith Plantation, to encounters with bounty hunters, expeditions to the Arctic, and the escapades of cutting edge scientists diving for marine zoology specimens for an ambitious new undertaking. The reader will not lack for entertainment on this account, however it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes this novel unforgettable.

We Need Diverse Books

Over the past week or so, I’ve been quietly watching and listening to the We Need Diverse Books campaign and conversation. Being white, straight, and able-bodied, and generally pretty privileged, I felt like listening was my job. But I also need to speak up at least long enough to say that I read and support diverse books, and I want more of them. It’s wonderful to see myself in literature, but it would be pretty damn boring if every character was just like me. I want to hear from, and about, people from all walks of life. Here are some fantastic diverse books that I have enjoyed:

Cover image for The Buddha in the Attic by Julie OtsukaWritten from the perspective of a collective “we,” Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic relates the experiences of the Japanese picture brides who came to America in the early 1900s. Betrothed to men they had chosen from photographs, and promised a more comfortable life across the sea, these women left their homes and families for a hard new life on America’s frontier. Many arrive to realize that the husbands they were promised were mere fictions, and the men they are expected to marry are poor migrant agricultural workers. The lives they are able to build for themselves over years of hard work are abruptly yanked away from them with the onset of World War II and the institution of the Japanese internment camps.

Cover image for Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

In Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan takes us back to World War II Europe, as jazz musicians Chip Jones and Sid Griffiths relive their memories of that time. They lost many of their friends and fellow musicians, first in Nazi Berlin, and then in occupied Paris. But none of those friends haunt them quite like Hieronymous Falk, also known as The Kid, a jazz horn player who could have been the next Louis Armstrong. Hiero was a Mischling, a black German made stateless by his race. Just hours after laying down the legendary track known as Half-Blood Blues, Hiero was captured by the Germans, and sent to an internment camp. Everyone agrees that Hiero died in the aftermath of the war, although there are many competing theories about how he met his fate. Chip and Sid are about to travel back to Berlin for the premiere of a documentary on Hiero’s life and music, but just before they depart, Chip receives a letter from Poland from someone who claims to be Hieronymous Falk. 

Cover image for Golden Boy by Abigail TarttelinIn Golden Boy, Abigail Tarttlein tells the story of Max Walker. Smart, athletic, and popular, Max seems to have everything going for him. He is loved by his parents, idolized by his younger brother,  and adored by his peers. But all his life, Max and his parents have been hiding a secret; he is intersex. Dating makes it hard enough to conceal this fact, but when Max is raped by a childhood friend, it seems that his secret will inevitably come out. The upheaval comes at the worst possible time; Steven Walker is about to stand for Parliament, and the ravenous British paparazzi that ran the previous candidate out of office may descend on the Walkers at any moment.

Cover Image for The Silvered by Tanya HuffCanadian LGBT author Tanya Huff often writes about straight protagonists, but in every book, you will find queer secondary characters, and wonderful female heroes. IThe Silvered, she reworks the concept of the werewolf, creating a complex social structure which combines werewolves and mages. Their country and their culture are under siege by an ever-expanding, Napoleon-esque Empire which regards the Pack as abomination. Bigotry, xenophobia, and racism complicate novice mage Mirian Maylin’s efforts to save the Mage-Pack after five members are kidnapped by the Emperor. 

Cover image for Maggot Moon by Sally GardnerMaggot Moon is the story of Standish Treadwell, a dyslexic boy keeps his mismatched eyes downcast, and tries to be invisible at school. In the dystopian society where Standish lives, being different is dangerous. Dyslexic herself, author Sally Gardner has created a wonderfully relatable hero whose learning disability isn’t a secret super power. This novel is best read with as few spoilers as possible. 

 

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissSometimes truth is better than fiction, and more diverse, too. In The Black Count, Tom Reiss profiles Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous novelist. The son of an itinerant French nobleman and his black slave mistress, Dumas was born on Saint-Domingue, and became a free man when his father took him to France, where slavery was illegal. He received a traditional French education before joining the army. As a person of colour, Dumas arrived in France at a peculiar moment in history, when rising Republican ideals would enable him to achieve incredible military acclaim despite his race, eventually becoming a general in the French Revolutionary Army. Unfortunately for Dumas, the window of opportunity was short, and when Napoleon rose to power, the fortunes of the gens de couleur did not rise with him. 

 

Canada Reads Along: Half-Blood Blues

Cover image for Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyanby Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-1-4668-0284-1

Look, kid, don’t be sore. You hit them skins good for you age. But playing good for you age don’t mean you playing good for the ages. ‘Less you a Bolden, or a Jelly Roll or something. And they don’t come along but maybe twice a century. Listen, jazz, it ain’t just music; it life. You got to have experience to make jazz. I ain’t never heard no one under eighteen even sound like he know which end of his instrument to hold.”

Chip Jones and Sid Griffiths have been friends since they were little boys in Baltimore. Now they’re old men in Baltimore, but in between, they were jazz musicians, caught in Europe during World War II. They lost many of their friends and fellow musicians, first in Nazi Berlin, and then in occupied Paris. But none of those friends haunt them quite like Hieronymous Falk, also known as The Kid, a jazz horn player who could have been the next Louis Armstrong. Hiero was a Mischling, a black German made stateless by his race. Just hours after laying down the legendary track known as Half-Blood Blues, Hiero was captured by the Germans, and sent to an internment camp. Everyone agrees that Hiero died in the aftermath of the war, although there are many competing theories about how he met his fate. Chip and Sid are about to travel back to Berlin for the premiere of a documentary on Hiero’s life and music, but just before they depart, Chip receives a letter from Poland from someone who claims to be Hieronymous Falk. The letter forces the friends to relive the war and face up to the consequences of their choices.

Narrated in the person person by Sid, Half-Blood Blues has an almost musical voice. It takes some time to settle into the colloquial style, but ultimately Sid’s voice is one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Equally compelling is the way in which Esi Edugyan brings jazz-age Europe to life, highlighting the plight of black people caught under the Nazi regime, a topic which is rarely addressed in World War II fiction. Half-Blood Blues is an education in jazz music and black European history and a counter-point the better known story of the persecution of the Jews. Although we know what is coming in the war, Edugyan creates tension within the personal narratives of the characters, recounting old grudges and misunderstandings. The chapters about the war are interspersed with the chapters about Sid and Chip’s journey back to Berlin, and on to Poland. The unfolding backstory increasingly contextualizes Sid’s anxiety about coming face-to-face with Hiero again, forcing him to confront his profound jealousy of Hiero’s talent, and his own contradictory self-image.

On Canada Reads 2014, Half-Blood Blues was championed by Olympian Donovan Bailey. Samantha Bee, Stephen Lewis, and Sarah Gadon cast the three votes which made it the second book to be eliminated, after Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. While the panelists acknowledged the literary merits of Half-Blood Blues, Bailey failed to make a convincing argument for the contemporary relevance of the book as one that will inspire change in Canada today. Bailey actually made some of his most salient points in the Q&A after the debate, pointing out that racial profiling still affects freedom of movement in the modern world, a theme which is prevalent as the characters try to escape Nazi Germany and then German-occupied France. On literary merit alone, Half-Blood Blues is an extremely strong contender but this year’s theme of inspiring social change proved to be its downfall.

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More World War II Fiction:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka