This is The Bookshelf, a list of recommendations related to each issue’s theme. It’s not an exhaustive list, or a top 10 list in any way. It’s just a collection of books that we love that feature diverse characters and themes, written by diverse authors.
Throne of The Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is the last ghul hunter in Dhamsawaat, and all he really wants to do is sit outside of Yehyes’s teahouse and grow old in peace. But if he were to retire and live the life he truly wanted, there would be no one to protect the innocent from the terrifying ghuls, zombie-like beast creatures controlled by evil mages. Raseed, his young and zealous apprentice, is a skilled dervish, and does not always see eye to eye with the world weary Adoulla., but when it comes to fighting ghuls, Raseed’s fighting skill combined with Adoulla’s magic is a force to be reckoned with. When travelling into the desert to hunt down some particularly nasty ghuls, they are aided by Zamia, a shape-shifting desert tribesman who has been orphaned by ghuls. Together they must find a new sort of magician, one who is more powerful and murderous than anything Adoulla has come across before.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is set in a world drawing inspiration from Arabic and Islamic folklore and culture, whilst creating something totally fantastical. In a genre that is so-often rooted in European Medieval mythology, this is a welcome change, and one we should see more of. As well as an incredibly diverse cast of characters, what I also found interesting was how it looked at old age. Adoulla, and his friends Dawoud and Litaz (a healer and a sorcerer), are all aging. It looks at how this affects them in their daily life as well as how it changes how they must fight evil. This is a fun, rollicking story, full of fight scenes and magic. Laurel
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
(Book 1 in the PC Peter Grant Series)
Peter Grant, a probationary PC in the London Met, is desperately hoping not to get assigned a desk job, although the likelihood of this seems worryingly dim. Luckily, he runs into a ghost in Covent Garden, who’s witnessed a gruesome murder, drawing the notice of a rather odd branch of the police force. He finds himself one of two members of a secret ‘department’ that polices magic and the supernatural, under the tutelage of an actual wizard, the last one in fact, Inspector Nightingale. If becoming ‘the first apprentice in fifty years’ wasn’t enough, Peter soon finds himself trying to keep the peace between the goddesses and gods of the rivers of London, who are waging ancient turf wars that threaten to disturb the peace. Soon, a spate of murders begin to seem supernaturally connected, and Peter must juggle river gods, ghosts, killing vampires, his secret passion for his co-worker Leslie and preventing the next horrific murder. Part police procedural, part sorcerer's apprentice, there is something wonderfully British about this piece of urban fantasy, in a way that actually represents the London as it exists today. Peter, the protagonist, is Black, as is Mama Thames (the goddess of the Thames) and the supporting cast is also diverse. A story about London in which its wonderful diversity isn’t represented is actually less realistic than magic such as face-splitting magical possession that rips open the victims' heads. Oh yeah, there is a lot of that. Rivers of London, Book one in the PC Peter Grant series, is great fun, and should appeal to crime and fantasy fans alike. Laurel
The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold
I only discovered these relatively recently, and I’m furious with everyone for not telling me about them sooner. So I haven’t read every book in the saga (there are loads) but every single one that I have read I love so much I would marry it. The saga begins with Shards of Honour, where we follow the brilliant Cordelia Naismith of the Betan Expeditionary Force, and her future husband, Aral Vorkosigan, a bisexual military commander from Barrayar, who’s supposed to be her enemy. They fall in love, and I particularly enjoy the culture clashes between them, as Cordelia is exasperated by Barrayan chauvinism and jingoism and Aral is quietly amused and impressed by her fortitude and wit. Only a few books in, with Warrior’s Apprentice, and we’re along for the ride with their son, Miles, who is a cocky bugger I’d probably want to kill within five minutes if I ever met him in real life, but whose exploits I am more than happy to read about. Miles was born with brittle bones, and he’s also much shorter than the average Barrayan, as Aral and Cordelia were attacked with poison gas while she was pregnant. The Barrayan attitude to disabled people is less than sympathetic, and while in one sense Miles is in a more privileged position than most other children, being the son of a Lord, he grows up having to work harder than his peers in order to prove that he isn’t a ‘dumb mutant’. The books are hilarious, totally thrilling and profound, with a huge range of characters and if you haven’t read them I think you should join me in waiting impatiently for the next one to arrive from the secondhand bookshop in America that you ordered it from (why are they so hard to find here?!). Lucy
Dawn by Octavia Butler
(Book 1 in Lilith's Brood)
Lilith, the Black female protagonist of this book wakes up on an alien spaceship having spent centuries in stasis, and a decidedly creepy-looking Oankali alien tells her that the human race's only chance of survival is to interbreed with it. Not all the humans they saved from a nuclear waste-ridden Earth have been woken, but they see potential in Lilith and have chosen her to be a lead integrator who must help a group of other humans awaken and realise their new fate. She initially finds comfort through a relationship with one of the other humans - a Chinese man. This small aspect of the book was a pleasant surprise for me - it is not often that Chinese men are allowed to be romantic interests for people from other ethnicities, and I was glad to see an example. Many of the humans find it impossible to adapt to the idea of living with and breeding with the Oankali. The aliens can manipulate genetic material - Lilith is at the same time grateful and horrified that while she was sleeping they examined her and simply removed some cancerous cells that would have been fatal. They also point out that the only way to have children is to breed with them, but they are the ones who have removed all ability to procreate from the humans in the first place, manipulating the humans' emotions as well as their bodies.
Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
Chin has been working on the railroads with his uncle in an unwelcoming America, trying to earn enough money to go home triumphantly. This seems to him a distant hope, sleeping on the ground, surrounded by his disheartened countrymen, looking for work. When a strange, ugly white woman burbling inanities walks into their camp, Chin is charged with the responsibility of taking her to the nearest town. But being seen with a white woman gets Chin into serious trouble, leading him towards Tom, a Native American charged with murder, and a deed that will haunt Chin for the rest of his life. When the woman is ‘rescued’ from him by the townsfolk, she is taken to a psychiatric institution, and Chin sets out to free her, just in case she is, in fact, a ghost, and will seek some sort of supernatural revenge on him for unwittingly putting her there. Here, another inmate names her Sarah Canary, which she is then called for the rest of the book, but we never truly know what her real identity is. There are a few different protagonists throughout – BJ, an escaped mental patient, Harold, an travelling conman who puts Sarah Canary in a freak show, and Adelaide Dixon, a suffragette promoting female sexuality – who each attach their own version of Sarah to this odd, speechless woman, but the main character for me is Chin, a philosophical young man, far from home, and living constantly in fear. He always keeps his mind open to what Sarah is – perhaps she is a spirit, or perhaps not – but mostly he just wants to keep her away from those that would harm her. Set in 1873 in a mystical version of the Washington territory, Fowler explores the heavy racism that Chinese migrant workers faced, the ingrained cultural misogyny, and also the horror of having a mental illness in this time.
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney
Oh, Rydra Wong. I had been waiting my whole life to read about you – you super-intelligent, multlingual, Chinese poet spaceship captain. This book starts off as a SF space spy romp, and even has a ‘putting the crew together’ scene (written in 1966, perhaps not so much of a cliché, but anyway, it’s a cliché that I always find a guilty-pleasure), but it gets crazier and crazier, descending into multiple-personality linguistic shenanigans as she and her crew try to save the universe. The crew are a diverse mix of people, involving some in a triple relationship (Rydra herself used to be in one as well) and some with various body modifications, but they are all presented in a way that shows this future accepts all people that live in it, whether they are polyamorous, straight, trans, or gay.
The main theme of the book is linguistics; the universe is at war and the weapon is Babel-17, a language that alters your perception and thus can turn you into a traitor, which is why polyglot Rydra is called upon to assist. Delaney was inspired by a linguistic theory of the time, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that posited that the structure of a language shaped the speaker’s perception of the world. Although this idea has since been disproven, I like that this theory of linguistic relativity bears particular relevance to descendents of diasporas and immigrants, and people from multi-cultural countries. Even though my Mandarin is rubbish, I personally get a kick out of knowing that the word for computer in Mandarin means ‘electric brain’, and although this might not change my cognitive response to actual computers, it’s super fun being part of a club that knows this. And I feel genuinely grateful that there’s a female protagonist in a SF book who knows it too. Lucy
Obsidian and Blood Trilogy by Aliette de Bodard
I’m less familiar with Aztec myths than I am with those of western cultures, and it was a pleasure to be immersed in their world. Set in Tenochtitlan, the trilogy follows Acatl, the High Priest for the Dead, who in each book also has to play detective and solve violent and magical crimes. The fact that Acatl is tasked with solving the crimes gives you an idea of what kind of awful things go on in the world of these books – why else would you ask the High Priest for the Dead to investigate if it didn’t involve jaguar demons and various deities’ plans to take over the world? For the gods are real, and most of them treat mortals as if we were ants, or at best, their playthings, and if they are real then they also demand blood sacrifices. Often horrifying, the books are also exciting and gorgeously detailed, drawing you deep into the hot Aztec capital city with its cloak and dagger politics and beautifully described temple sites. Fantastically researched, it was so interesting to spend time in the world that de Bodard has built, and often it was pleasurable too. I use the word with caution, as in a world where you can accidentally create a portal to the God of Death’s throne room, I’m not sure pleasure would be my overriding emotion. Lucy
Half A King by Joe Abercrombie.
(Shattered Sea book 1)
Yarvi, second in line to the throne of Gettland, is set for a life of philosophical contemplation at the ministry, where he will advise kings on ruling from behind the safety of his books. But when his father and older brother are killed, he is suddenly thrust onto the throne, taking a crown he does not want. This may have something to do with the fact he is very aware that his subjects don’t want him either. Set in a warlike world with clear Viking parallels, to be strong and to fight well is everything to a man, and vital for the King. But Yarvi was born with a deformed hand, and has never been good with a sword, making him weak in the eyes of his warriors. When treachery strikes, he embarks on a harrowing journey of escape and revenge, that will ultimately shape him into the king he needs to be.
Skallagrigg by William Horwood
Although this was adapted into a BBC TV series in the 90s, I hadn’t heard of this until a TV archivist friend told me about it, and I’m so glad they did. The story focuses on Esther, a woman with cerebral palsy, and we see her grow up after her mother dies in childbirth and her father initially rejects her and her disability. William Horwood was inspired by his own daughter, Rachel, who also had cerebral palsy. Due to her time in various institutions, and through meeting other people with cerebral palsy, she hears about this sub-culture’s myths of the Skallagrigg, a being who helps the boy in the stories, Arthur, in his times of need. The book isn’t really that fantastical, although there is a hint of twin magic, but it does have the air of speculative fiction – Esther begins almost a lifelong quest to find out who Arthur and the Skallagrigg really are, and it’s this mystery that gives it a feeling of folklore. The stories are passed around the disabled community through oral tradition over many years, and Esther collects them when she can.
Last God Standing by Michael Boatman
When picturing the supreme being, you might not think of the slightly tubby, twenty-nine-year-old Lando Cooper, whose main daily worries run from his eccentric parents to asthma and the upkeep of his ’fro. But, hey, it just turns out that Lando Calrissian Darnell Cooper happens to be the big guy, God himself, in human form. Oh, and an aspiring stand up comedian. Deciding to take a sabbatical from heaven has stirred things up a bit. The idiot angels don’t know what to do without him, and that naughty Lucifer is getting ideas. Also, every other god and demi-god seem to be bent on taking Lando out. There is something a little ‘Scott Pilgrim’ about it, with various death matches throughout that Lando has to not only win, but also clean up the mess afterwards and put the world back to rights. I loved the supporting characters. His girlfriend Surabhi, whilst being beautiful and rich, is also ‘constantly learning new ways to disarm, disable or disembowel people’, and greets him by gleefully flinging him across the room rather than with the demure kiss on the cheek you might expect from this type of character. His mother Barbara is oversexed and comes onto all of his friends, and his dad Herb advertises his auto business by skydiving whilst playing the accordion, riding bulls and ostriches, and water-skiing whilst being towed by a boat covered in nude pictures of himself. With a family like that, who wouldn’t become a comedian? This book might not be for everyone. The writing is ‘quirky’ in a way that could grate on some, but that I found hilarious. Laurel
This is an odd and beautiful book, written with crisp, exquisite prose. I’m not sure you could call it SF, as this Gollancz SF Masterworks edition suggests, but I’m also not sure what genre you could call it. It is full of an otherworldly magic, and it is also incredibly weird, and that certainly qualifies it as ‘speculative’ in my mind. Whilst dealing with truly difficult subject matters, it remains light and very funny at times, and is a genuinely enjoyable classic. Laurel
The book is said to be somewhat of a parable for the integration of African Americans into white American society post-slavery. So much of themselves has already been relinquished, and so much more is required to change in order to survive, but because of the power held over the humans by the Oankali, they do not really have a choice but to integrate. The subsequent two books in this trilogy, known as Lilith's Brood, deal with this theme further, as the Oankali and humans return to Earth and set up communities there and have mixed children. The children bear the physical and emotional legacies of their parents' choices. One of the most thought-provoking books I have read in years, Dawn is highly recommended. Lucy
Having a protagonist with a congenital disability is unusual in SFF, and here we really see the psychological repercussions of prejudice that Yarvi experiences. Yarvi is in many ways more suited to be king than his elder brother was; he is intelligent, thoughtful, and fair, but the fact that he cannot swing an axe means that he is made to feel shame by the very people who his leadership could benefit. The journey he takes beats him down to nothing, so that he must build himself back into someone new; someone who recognises his strengths, and finally understands his own worth. To risk touting a cliché, I could not put this book down. It is fast-paced and exciting, but at the same time the rich characterisation and careful world-building means that it is far more than the sum of its plot. Another thing I loved about this book is that the supporting cast is diverse, and the female characters are real, interesting, and often wield the power (most of the ministers that advise the different kings are female, women can captain ships, be navigators, and command armies). Labelled young adult, Half A King is well written, gritty and well worth a read. Laurel
Around all this, we see her grow up into an independent and intelligent woman, and see the great positive effect that technological developments have to her quality of life – once she gets a new keyboard she can communicate with her friends and family, and also learns how to computer program. For as well as being a very personal book about his relationship with his daughter, Horwood has also, by including Arthur, a boy with cerebral palsy who was born decades previously who had no such access to technology, made the book into a history of disabled people in Britain. I don’t believe that this history is told very often in British literature. It’s very evocative in terms of time and place – it’s definitely Britain (there is a scene involving Morris dancing and Esther’s granddad that made me well up) and it’s definitely the 1970s and 1980s (the children in it enjoy sending away for video games on floppy disk), but it’s also a story unlike any other that I’ve read, because the experiences in it are so rarely given so much detail. Lucy
Wilde Stories 2013 edited by Steve Berman
Wilde Stories is a collection of ‘the year’s best gay speculative fiction.’ This anthology features some really brilliant short stories, from a coming-of-age lake monster mystery set in the present day, to a dystopic world in which the upper classes are so enthralled by the virtual world that they remain completely oblivious to the fact that poorer people are squatting in their houses. My favourite one, I think, is the last in the collection, Keep The Aspidochelone Floating, a story of a famous sailor taken prisoner by pirates, and forced into a world where he earns respect, a lover, and discovers something terrible and wonderful at the same time.
People seem to have mixed feelings about anthologies that feature stories from marginalised groups in this way, whether they focus on women, people of colour, or in this case, homosexuality. I’m not sure why this is. Is it simply the argument that the only people who will read it are people that are already open to and searching for this sort of fiction? That they will always be ‘preaching to the choir’? Well, what’s the problem with that? This is about more than opening people’s eyes to the overly white, cis male mainstream that creates the bulk of genre fiction. This is for the people who are searching for it, who want to see themselves in their fiction, or even just hunger for a more complete and realistic world, in which protagonists are not limited to the accepted norm. Either way, Wilde Stories is an excellent example of doing this sort of thing well, with a high standard of engrossing, exciting and eye-opening fiction. Laurel