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As Ursula K. Le Guin says, "Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!" I want to find the books, fantasy and otherwise, that do this; the ones that help me escape the boxes in my mind, the limitations of previous thought, and the banalities that petrify my imagination. I want to read the books written by people who tell stories usually ignored and find our escape together.
Helen Oyeyemi is my favorite. Reading her stories is like bathing in magic; it's all glitter and star-shine and new ways of seeing (which can be difficult and should scare you). These stories are beautiful.
I loved this dream-like story and especially its inspiration as a feminist take on Lovecraft's mythology. Vellit Boe is a professor in her mid-fifties whose quiet life at the University is interrupted by a student's decision to run off with a man from the waking world. She embarks on a journey to find a way into his mysterious land, all the while contending with angry gods, monstrous creatures and a sexist society that any readers of Lovecraft will immediately recognize. Kij Johnson's prose is gorgeous and her descriptions of the dream-lands are breathtaking.
If you haven't read anything by N.K. Jemisin yet you should start! The Fifth Season is the first in her Broken Earth Trilogy as well as being the first in her back-to-back Hugo Award wins (which had never happened before). As usual, her characters are complex, her world-building is extraordinary, and her critique of power is incisive. In a world racked by unpredictable, civilization-destroying earthquakes and populated by people who can manipulate energy, we follow three interwoven narrations, each story insisting on being told. As with the best of her genre, Jemisin transports us to a wholly magical place but one filled with visions of our own world in every corner.
Danny is a 15 year old trans girl, one who has had to hide her true self until the moment a superhero dies at her feet and grants her his powers, immediately transforming her body to match the one of her dreams. Each of Danny's transformations are incredible blessings but ones that carry great cost; she has to navigate a world filled with abusive adults, sexist friends and super-powered transphobes. April Daniels is incredible in her insight and the way she finesses the complexities of a transgender teen's life all the while interrogating oft-held assumptions of the superhero genre. Parts of this story are very difficult to read but as Charlie Jane Anders says, "I didn't know how much I needed this brave, thrilling book until it rocked my world."
Within 20 pages Oyeyemi became one of my favorite authors. Her writing is engaging, sharp and suffused with some form of oxygen that makes breathing wider and deeper. I can’t write about her without sounding like a smitten lover and that is perhaps the best description of how her books make me feel. This is a story of generational trauma, of the relationships between mothers and daughters and the less obvious effects of racism in america. Each of these themes can be overwhelming when mishandled yet Oyeyemi utilizes them with a kind of overt-subtlety which strengthens their impact while still allowing us to enjoy the narrative. Perhaps it is because she isn’t a moralist trying to teach us any lessons; rather she says, “Look and see”.
Ann Leckie does some incredible tricks in her Ancillary Trilogy. First, she shows us what the world would sound like if feminine pronouns were the default. This is both disconcerting and wonderful. It poses a challenge to readers to reconsider how and why we gender characters in our minds and what impact that has on our perception of their actions. Her second trick is, at times, even harder to imagine and very difficult to explain. Imagine seeing the world through thousands of pairs of eyes, united by a single consciousness, while also holding a sense of individuality. Leckie takes these seemingly disparate ideas and weaves them into a beautiful tapestry set in a region of space both familiar and alien to those of us on Earth.
The grand dame of science-fiction is perhaps better known for her Parable duology but the three books which make up Lilith’s Brood are just as powerful. Earth has been decimated by human warfare and an alien race has decided to colonize and repopulate. Through a generational lens Butler explores topics of free will, desire, and, most unsettling, consent. This is not an easy book to read, but it does what the best books do well: it challenges us, forces it’s readers to confront difficult topics while offering transformation through the process. If we are not better people having engaged with Butler’s ideas we at least have a new kind of clarity.