12 Reads Of Christmas: 2011 Personal Year’s Best

It’s that time of year again. And I find myself reflecting on a year filled with books. I read 52 books a year just for SFFWRTCHT alone. And this year, between guest blog posts, reviews, research, and more, I added at least 23 more books on top of that. I lost count, truthfully, and I’m not going to go through Goodreads to find out. So we’ll say I read 75 and call that close enough. In any case, this list is not a ranking of everything I read. Instead, I’ve chosen to list books which most impacted me as far as opening my eyes to possibilities. The books on this list either showed me new genres, new ways of looking at old genres, or new approaches to them in ways which have stuck with me and left me thrilled and challenged as both writer and reader. With that in mind, here’s my 2011 Personal Top Reads:

1) The Flying Machine by Andrew Mayer — Okay, steampunk’s been done already. Cherie Priest mastered it, we’ve all heard. Gibson, Powers, Jeter and Blaylock launched it. But wait. Here comes a new writer whose not only done it but added superheroes and written a tale the likes of which we haven’t seen since Jules Verne? The Society Of Steam series launched with The Flying Machine and steampunk has never been so fun. A great read, with fun characters, good action and good humor.

2) Soulless by Gail Carriger — And speaking of humor, nothing made me laugh more than Gail Carriger’s Soulless, the first of four Parasol Protectorate books in her original series and now she’s just about to launch a new one. Werewolfs, vampires, Victorian England, even the Queen herself appear amidst the quirky characters. This is fun and funny. A great read.

3) Greywalker/Downpour by Kat Richardson — Harper Blaine was just your average, small time Pacific Northwest PI until a man  beats her to death. In those two minutes, while she’s dead, something changes her forever. When she comes back, Harper can see dead people. Not in a ‘Call Bruce Willis, Mommy, this is odd” kind of way but a “Hey, Drac, you been taking your vitamins? You’re pale as a ghost kind of way.” Vampires, Ghosts, magic and witches transform her life. Written in 2006 I can easily understand why this urban fantasy novel took off, and the sixth book, Downpour, from 2011, is just as good. Harper’s now used to her powers, so to speak, and so are the undead used to having her around. This time she witnesses a ghostly car accident whose victim blames a nearby small resort community. When Harper goes to check it out, she finds a sinister cabal gathering forces with a dark art and she must stop them before it’s too late. Great characters, great use of Pacific Northwest locations, great mystery elements and pacing that carry you suspensefully through to the end.

4) Diving Into The Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch — Kris Rusch is no stranger to most of you, she also writes mysteries as Kristine Grayson and edited the mighty Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for several years.  In this great new space opera series of which two books are out this year and another follows in early 2012, the protagonist, Boss loves to dive historical ships found adrift between the stars. Sometimes for money, but mostly as a historian. She wants to know about the past—to experience it firsthand. Then one day, Boss finds the claim of a lifetime: an enormous spacecraft, incredibly old, and apparently Earth-made. It shouldn’t be here. It can’t be here. And yet, it is. Boss is determined to investigate and so hires a group of divers to explore the wreck with her,  but the past won’t give up its treasures without blood. Really good stuff based on several short stories which have appeared in Analog.

5) The Disappeared/Consequences (Retreival Artist) by Kristine Kathryn Rusch — her other series started from short stories, about former cop turned retreival artist Miles Flint starts with The Disappeared and continued through 7 novels with an 8th coming out this month. Flint helps hunted innocents, convicted of crimes against alien races which they don’t really understand and didn’t intentionally commit, to hide themselves and start new lives, to disappear. But somehow his clients turn up dead. Someone is hunting them or revealing their identities and Miles has to stop them. Great books with a combination of space opera SF and mystery-police procedural elements. A whole lot of fun. With some well developed, interesting alien cultures.

6) The Unremembered by Peter Orullian — A musical magic system where spells are sung? Need I say more? Well how about this, if you’re mourning the coming end of The Wheel Of Time, you’ve got seven books ahead of you in Orullian’s Vault of Heaven series. Yep. And this first one reminded me how much I love epic fantasy. It’ll remind you too. Great characters, great worldbuilding, epic good v. evil. And musical magic. Who could ask for anything more?

7) The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams — Ok this one’s been around a while. 1988 copyright. But I’d never read it and I am having a ball. It’s a long, dense book with lots of characters and description and there are three more books to follow, the last in two parts, but there’s a reason this series has been hailed as epic fantasy on a Tolkien-esque scale. An epic evil is rising and two brothers are fighting over their father’s throne, threatening to divide a kingdom. Great stuff, rich settings, action, and characters with politicking, dragons, trolls and more.

8 ) Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell –Ari Marmell has written D&D adventure packs and tie-ins, but in Goblin Corps he writes a heroe’s adventure with the bad guys as heroes. That’s right,  top goblins including an orc, a kobol, a bugbear, a troll, a doppleganger, an ogre and a gremlin are sent by the Goblin king to recover objects of power that will reverse the course the Dark Lord’s defeat, only to uncover a more sinister plot that threatens them all. They’re not the easiest group to like or root for yet Marmell pulls it off and never stops entertaining with good action and humor along the way.

9) Black Blade Blues by John A. Pitts — John A. Pitts’ urban fantasy series about apprentice blacksmith Sarah Beauhall was one of the best surprises of the year for me. Anyone who’s ever hung out with SCA members or gone to a Ren fest will appreciate this story, about dragons taking over the financial power as brokers and businessmen who come up against an ancient dragon killing sword when Sarah uncovers it while doing props for a movie. They come to destroy it and try and destroy her in the process and Sarah fights back to save her lover and her friends. Great coming of age drama, good humor, and a lot of fun. A great read all around. And book 2 arrived late this year.

10) Pathfinder Tales: Plague Of Shadows by Howard Andrew Jones — Howard Andrew Jones, Managing Editor at Black Gate Magazine and editor of many anthologies of classics from the likes of Harold Lamb, etc. burst onto the scene with two terrific novels this year, Desert of Souls, with Asim and Dabir–follow ups coming in 2012 and beyond– and this Pathfinder Tales D&D tie-in. I’d never read any D&D books before and I imagined silly stops in the action for the characters to roll dice and other game-play nonsense but there’s no such thing. This is good adventure, sword and sorcery fantasy with strong characters, a well thought out world and magic system, and a lot of fun. I had a blast. Made me want to get back into D&D regularly again after twenty years and I’ve read several others since. Good stuff for the fantasy lover in this line.

11) Firebird by Jack McDevitt — The third SF title on my list is part of an ongoing series about the antiquities agent Alex Benedict  and his assistant Chase Kolpath as they help wind up the estates of the deceased deep in a distant solar system only to uncover deeper mysteries surrounding the objects and the people themselves.  This time reknowned Physicist Christopher Robin has disappeared and left a trail of   interstellar yachts flown far outside the planetary system where they too vanished. Following Robin’s trail into the unknown puts Benedict and Kolpath in danger. McDevitt writes like a classic Golden Age writer, which anyone who’s read my posts here knows sold me right away. Just a lot of fun with good SF elements to boost the mystery.

12) The Black Prism by Brent Weeks — Gavin Guile is the Prism, the most powerful man in the world, high priest and emperor, a man whose power, wit, and charm are all that preserves a tenuous peace. But Prisms never last, and Guile knows exactly how long he has left to live: Five years to achieve five impossible goals.  When he discovers he has a son, born in a far kingdom after the war that put him in power, he must decide how much he’s willing to pay to protect a secret that could tear his world apart. Great magic system. Great characters. Great action. Epic fantasy in a unique setting with lots of tension and excellent pacing. Weeks was new to me but he already has the best selling Night Angel Trilogy and you won’t want to miss this new one either. Book 2 comes in Fall 2012.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

‎4 5-star & 8 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindlehttp://amzn.to/pnxaNm or Nook http://bit.ly/ni9OFh $14.99 tpb http://bit.ly/qIJCkS.

Review: Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes

A great read and one I wish I’d had time to read straight through without so many interruptions.  It captured me from the get go and kept me entertained throughout.

The first in a new sword and sorcery series, “Tome Of The Undergates” is about a group of adventurers, led by a human named Lenk, who get hired to retrieve a powerful book stolen by demons which holds the power to threaten the planet.  A motley crew indeed, our adventurers include four humans, a shict, and a dragon man, none of whom are necessarily admirable but all of whom are deeply flawed.

Sykes basically takes two large set pieces — an opening battle and a closing battle, and connects the dots with a few scenes.  The book is told from the POVs of his band of adventurers, whom we only come to know a little over the course of the book.  Instead, the focus is on action and grit, both of which Sykes gives us in abundance.  He’s clearly a master of descriptive verbage, and some of that verbage might not work for those easily offended.  But it does serve to make his battle scenes more realistic than most and it also makes them more powerful and effective at drawing you into the world he’s creating.

His world building is strong but he can certainly do a lot more with it and the same can be said for the characters. I would have liked to see the character arcs developed a bit more.  We get their backstories in bits and pieces, some not even given until the very end.  And while these bits and pieces of world building and characterization are strong, they amount altogether to very little parts of the whole.  We still have a lot to learn, but it’s a small quibble because Sykes is in this for the long haul.  He’s already written a sequel, “Black Halo,” which comes out in Spring 2011, and I’m sure we’ll learn a lot more about these heroes and their world in the further adventures to follow.

A strong and entertaining story, Sykes invests his characters with distinct personalities and makes good use of humor.  Despite their flaws, we like them, and we root for them, and it’s a fun ride to join their journey.  If you like adventure fantasy, you’ll love this.  Recommended.  I look forward to more to come from Sykes in the future.

Five Reasons Science Fiction and Fantasy Are Important To Me

I’ve had a love affair with science fiction and fantasy since grade school. I will never forget the time my cousins dragged us to this film with the weird name “Star Wars.” Even at age 8, I was sure the title sounded dumb, but my cousin and best buddy, David, had seen the film several times already, and “you just have to see it,” he said.

The film did not disappoint. From its opening minutes aboard the Rebel Ship, I was on the edge of my seat. That opening scene remains one of my favorites of all time for any speculative fiction film. There’s nothing quite like the intensity of the battle between Rebel troops in blue shirts and leather vests against heavily armored storm troopers in the tight quarters of their ship. The intensity only increased when the heavy breathing dark menace, Vader, enters through the hole in the hull.

“Star Wars” blew me a way and opened my mind to possibilities I had never considered before. Always creative, always a dreamer, suddenly my wildest fantasies, fueled by my fascination with NASA’s space program, became real possibilities for me – maybe not for today, maybe not for tomorrow, but some day. I wanted to walk on the moon, launch in a space ship, float among the stars, visit alien planets. Even in other activities, my dreams filled my mind. When I went gliding in the alps on the engine-less glider plane, floating silently on air as we descended back down to the pad where we’d launched into the air on a giant bungee, my thoughts were of space. Was that what it would feel like on a space ship with silence all around? Was the abruptness of the launch similar to what it would be like to ride a rocket?

In high school, I had the opportunity to visit the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson and see actual NASA craft, experience astronaut training simulations, touch moon rocks and buy NASA souvenirs. The brief NASA Adopt-An-Astronaut Program allowed me to communicate with the first shuttle pilot, read about their mission, and feel personally involved. When astronaut Steve Hawley, formerly married to Sally Ride, visited my high school, his family ties to my church youth pastor allowed me closer contact and the thrill of shaking an astronaut’s hand and asking the silly questions he’d heard dozens of times that I wanted to hear answers for with my own ears.

So the first of my five reasons why science fiction and fantasy are important to me is that they opened my life to possibilities which had only seemed far fetched before I discovered them. They made me believe the hope of possibilities was a viable thing to dream about and affirmed my sense of wonder.

One of the few movies and televisions shows my father and I could enjoy together was the 1978 animated “The Hobbit,” based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel which had exploded in the 1970’s with its release to mass market paperback. Where as the “Star Wars” books were my first science fiction reads, “The Hobbit” became my first fantasy read. I devoured the book, even though I was so young I couldn’t grasp a lot of it. Soon I was reading fan magazines, checking out other books, and making up my own stories.

I became a fan of Alan Dean Foster because his “Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye” allowed me to revisit the Star Wars universe between films in a book almost like the movies. Since then I have read many more of his movie adaptations and original books, and he continues to be one of my favorite writers.

I discovered Robert Silverberg and Orson Scott Card, my two top favorites, when family members gifted me “Lord Valentine’s Castle” and “Ender’s Game” and insisted I read them. Having never heard of them, I was reluctant at first. I’d always been a picky consumer, wanting to feel confident of the likelihood I would enjoy a book or movie before investing time in it. Both books blew my mind, and since I’ve bought almost everything I can get a hold of from both authors and devoured each the same. I’ve reread both those books and experienced that thrill of first discovery all over again, then shared them with friends so they could experience it, too.

The second reason why science fiction and fantasy are important to me then is the bonds they’ve allowed me to create with friends and family. They’ve helped bring our dreams and lives together in exciting, unexpected and enriching ways, allowing us to share our wildest dreams and celebrate our future hopes.

In working in television and film and as a writer in my adulthood, I’ve heard many stories about how science fiction and fantasy have influenced not only writers of other genres, but even the development of technology. NASA once sent experts to the set of the original “Star Trek” series to discover how the producers made the doors slide open and shut when actors entered and departed rooms. The producers actually had a crewman behind the doors manually sliding them over, but today there are many doors designed to do just that in everything from office buildings to vessels. Are they exactly like the “Star Trek” doors, no, but they are modeled after the possibility. Seeing the “Star Trek” creator’s view of future possibilities inspired others to dream of how they could bring those possibilities to life and changed our world, the third reason why science fiction and fantasy are important to me.

I will always remember the first time I turned to the Sci-Fi Channel and discovered the new “Battlestar Galactic.” I had certainly heard of it, but like many fans of the original, had not liked what I’d heard about the “reinvention” and changes made by the new writers. To my great dismay, I loved it. It was darker and more serious than the original had ever strived to be, but it also provided an amazing commentary on our times, examining political and moral issues being faced at this moment in countries around the world. Like the original “Star Trek,” under the guise of “science fiction,” the new “Battlestar” was able to confront issues head on which most writers would never dare to.

The result was a compelling and inspiring television series, and one of the most respected and admired speculative fiction series ever created. So my fourth reason why science fiction and fantasy are important to me is that they can speak to issues in our own world and cultures in ways that contemporary works cannot, forcing us to think about things in a new light and consider possibilities we would never accept if they weren’t presented as “other world” instead of our own.

The final reason why science fiction and fantasy are important to me is that without the possibility of dreams and imagination, my life would have been unhappy and incomplete.

My dreams and imagination have taken me from a small Kansas town to the tribal villages of Africa, from the slums of Rio De Janeiro to the cobblestone streets of Europe and everywhere in between. Without being a dreamer, I would have never lived the life of risks I have lived in the thirty-two years since I discovered “Star Wars.” I would never have worked in film and television, written stories and scripts, released three CDs and a national single, or toured the world to speak, teach and sing. Some of those dreams had never occurred to me in Kansas, while others were the same ones my colleagues and classmates laughed at and mocked when I first mentioned them.

Ironically, at our 10th High School reunion, they all seemed to know where I’d been and what I’d been doing and instead of laughter, offered their admiration. I’d lived the life I said I’d wanted to. I chased my dreams and even caught some of them. None of that would have happened, if science fiction and fantasy hadn’t taught me to dream. And there are many others just like me.