2019 has been a great year for fiction, especially the independently published scifi and fantasy associated with labels like #pulprev and #superversive. I’ve read books this year that I’ve been missing all my life, but I couldn’t find, and some that are brand new. I’ve also got my favorite indie videogame listed.
In roughly chronological order of when I read them, here are some books I really enjoyed this year. My reading has tended heavily toward fiction, but there are a couple of history books in the mix too.
Serenity City: Heroes Fall
Morgon Newquist at Silver Empire books wrote a book I love in a genre I didn’t think I was interested in. Heroes Fall is a superhero novel that asks the question: what is the greatest weakness of a superhero?
I found the answer given intriguing, which is about the kind of society that would emerge when powers can get you fame, influence, or money, but no one has been granted unusual wisdom or exceptionally good judgment beyond human ken. I also like that this novel kicked off a multi-author shared universe published by Silver Empire, and I’ve enjoyed several other authors’ contributions as well.
Catherine L. Moore’s short stories
Catherine L. Moore deserves to be better known.
Jirel of Joiry is by far her most striking character, a warrior who doesn’t lose her femininity by knowing her way around a sword. Northwest Smith is a pulp legend, an lovable rogue who is larger than life. Moore’s work is pulpy and fun, but often strikingly astute about human nature.
If you don’t read anything else, at least check out “Black Kiss” and “Shambleau”. Those two alone should ensure Moore’s reputation.
Dungeon Samurai is an isekai dungeon-crawler built on the principle that “amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics”. An expedition into the eponymous dungeon must be supplied with food, water, sources of light, and all manner of equipment. Soldiers must be trained to use their kit, and how to work with one another in the dark and cramped labyrinth. A whole society provides the many specialized functions you need to support such an effort.
Author Cheah Kit Sun also wrote a book in the Heroes Unleashed universe from Silver Empire. Cheah is a fascinating writer who always manages to represent religion accurately in his books, from the believer’s point of view.
Clock’s Watch is a collection of vignettes about Jerry Clock, the lone guardian of Coney Island against the demons and chthonic entities that attempt to enter the realms of men through it. To start, we don’t know much about Clock, other than that he wears a coonskin cap and no one can see him. Not just because he’s really short, a Little Person, but because there is something about him that most people just don’t notice anymore.
Which probably makes his job easier, since he can skulk around the boardwalk or get drunk on the beach without anyone asking impertinent questions like: why are you following that guy? or what are you doing with that crossbow and giant knife!?!
Dragon and Thief Series
The Dragon and Thief series is a well-executed juvenile scifi by one of my all-time favorite authors, Timothy Zahn.
Written for tweens or teenagers, this is an excellent adventure story with some life lessons built in. You can also often find it on a screaming deal on Amazon, as little as $1 a book.
Empire of Bones Saga
Empire of Bones is a future history space opera with a military scifi feel. I think all of those things are important descriptors, because it sets the stage for what kind of book this is trying to be. If you are interested in that, this book will be a lot of fun.
The primary fun is seeing what is around the next corner. But the protagonist is a princess with the negotiating skills of Korben Dallas, so you get to see her get into, and then out of scrapes with nothing more than pluck, wits, and any sweet Old Empire technology she can manage to scrounge up.
The series is up to 11 volumes, with a twelfth on the way, so you can get a lot of enjoyment here.
The Yankee Republic
Fenton Wood’s Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves is one of the most joyful books I have had the pleasure to read. The Yankee Republic is in an alternative history to our own, and in the best fashion, Wood makes me want to live there.
Philo Hergenschidt’s boyhood adventure to build a radio transmitter is subtly magical, a paean to a world that never was, but perhaps should have been.
Two more volumes are available now, with a fourth book out December 1st.
The Spartan Regime
Paul Rahe’s slim volume on Sparta is absolutely packed with details. Rahe blends history, paleolinguistics, archeology, and even ancient DNA into his argument for why Sparta ended up with one of the most astonishing social and legal structures of the classical age.
Rahe is frank about the inherent difficulty of interpreting the sparse information we have on Sparta. Everyone brings their own biases to the table, so the best we can do is acknowledge our own points of view and then make the best argument we can.
I am a fan of Rahe’s argument that Spartan society evolved out of the precarious strategic situation of Laconia after the Dorian invaders/bandits who were their ancestors managed to over-extend their domain, and were forced to subordinate absolutely everything to political unity and military preparedness.
But he is also aware that no one lives up to their own legends.
Blood and Thunder
While largely about Kit Carson, Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder is also about the fate of the Navajos, one of the last tribes conquered by the United States.
I picked this one up because this is very local history where I live, but also because Sides has a reputation for being fair to everyone involved.
Into the Breach
Into the Breach is a turn-based pixel art game from Subset Games, the makers of the well-known FTL. You control powerful mechs battling kaiju-like insects consuming a ruined Earth. You have the ability to see what each enemy will do before it does it, which might sound easy, except you are always outnumbered, and managing scarce resources.
Into the Breach is just about perfect. Each playthrough can be completed relatively quickly, but the difficulty scaling and multiple mech options make it worth mastering. Easy to play, hard to master, with very little left to randomness, which makes it pretty different from FTL. You just need to see many moves ahead to make your strategy pay off.