TOP PICKS – August 2023
Welcome to this month’s Top Picks!
Every month, we’re going to share with you our favourite reads of the month. We’ve rounded up our contributors and asked them each to recommend just one favourite read of the month. Somehow, we’ve reached the end of yet another month!
A big thank you to Nils for coming up with this feature, and our contributors for taking part!
Beth: House of Odysseus by Claire North
I haven’t had a great reading month, in terms of books I’ve really loved, which is pretty unusual for me these days. However, House of Odysseus would still be a standout read and my top pick.
I was glad I’d re-read Ithaca the month before, and the events and characters were fresh in my mind for this return to Claire North’s retelling of the story of Penelope. I think what I love most about, well both these books really, is how funny they are. That came as such an unexpected surprise with the first, and House was no exception. Aphrodite was a fantastic choice of narrator. I can’t wait for the last instalment!
Nils: Starter Villain by John Scalzi
The month started with a fantastic buddy read of House of Odysseus by Claire North with Beth and we had such a great time reading this sequel together. The other books I read this month have been ones that are a little outside of my usual genre. I absolutely blazed through Thirteen Ways to Kill Lulabelle Rock by Maud Woolf which is a sci-fi thriller about a troubled actress who makes twelve clones of herself and then creates a thirteenth clone to kill them all. There were moments of dark humour in this but most surprisingly it was a very emotional look at the human experience and I loved that.
I also just finished The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels by India Holton and let me tell you I’m kicking myself for not having read it sooner! There are noble Lady pirates, flying battle houses fully equipped with canons, swords, pistols, plenty of banter and so many nods to classic literature, particularly the Brontë family. It’s a brilliant historical fantasy romance!
Though my Top Pick has to go to Starter Villain by John Scalzi because this little sci-fi fantasy had sentient spy cats, obnoxious dolphins going on a labour strike and evil businessmen being outsmarted by a homeless supply teacher! How can you not utterly love that?! The main protagonist, Charlie, is so confused, so very clearly out of his depth for the entire book and this just made him all the more lovable. If you’d like to read more of my gushing, here’s my review:
Cat: These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs
Either Mosaic by Catherine McCarthy – an amazingly powerful, well-written and creepy novella – or These Burning Stars by Bethany Jacobs. More lady pirates, politics, subterfuge, all so good.
I am loving these original female writers doing their thing right now. Having to narrow it down is HARD! I honestly could toss a coin on these two. Let’s say These Burning Stars, because it’s stayed with me slightly more.
Julia: Oath Sworn by Meg MacDonald
I’ve had a good month, with plenty of quick and fast reads, quite some urban fantasy ones. It’s really hard to choose as I enjoyed them all for different reasons!
Warlock at Law for the genre mash of legal thriller and fantasy, Accidental Alchemist for having the cutest gargoyle, Dead Man Walking for the great character growth since book one, Beware of Chicken for the sheer comforting feel, Cursed Cocktails for all the drinks I want to taste and Strange Cargo for having me chuckling along nicely, and adoring the sarcasm and banter.
But no, no I shall choose neither of those quick and easy ones – I shall choose Oath Sworn by Meg MacDonald, which was in our SPFBO batch ages ago, and I finally got around to it again. It’s a gaslamp story featuring airships that is really complex and does not hold your hand. For me it struck a good balance between feeling mysterious but never to the point it lost me. I liked the main characters and finding out what even happened bit by bit along the way!
If you want something a little different, and a bit more challenging, this is a great choice!
Theo: Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie
I’ve been storming through some of Martha Wells’ Murderbot diaries this month and – tragically – I have now run out of published works. I finished with the full length Novel Network Effect, where ART (Asshole Research Transport) makes a welcome reappearance and am on tenterhooks for the next volume in the series.
Funnily enough I went from Wells’ depictions of an AI consciousness embodied (literally) in formidably combat capable human form to Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice with her depictions of an AI consciousness (of an entire millennia old star ship) also embodied in formidably combat capable human form. I particularly like how they both approach gender issues. Murderbot is studiously non-binary while One Esk/Justice of Torrens understands gender as constructs of culture and language rather than biology. It’s a tough pick between these two excellent and entertaining approaches to the AI theme but I’m going to go with Ancillary Justice as my August pick, because the intricate plot line around revenge against a multiply-cloned adversary resonates more with my current political mood!
Dorian: Lords of Uncreation by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Just under the wire, I finished Lords of Uncreation by Adrian Tchaikovsky. After the first two books in the Final Architecture trilogy, I was expecting great things, and this book did not disappoint! Such a perfect blend of action, politics, mystery, and Weird Science Fiction Stuff™, by which I mostly mean bizarre tech and fantastic alien creatures.
Without spoiling too much: the central conflict in the book (and by extension the series) revolves around “Unspace,” a kind of hyperspace-analog with its own unique twists. Tchaikovsky spends a lot of time pulling off the neat trick of 1) conveying how Unspace is impossible to understand, and then 2) finding ways for both his characters and his readers to understand it, via a constant parade of clever metaphors.
Also, while The Final Architecture didn’t feel like “Science Fantasy” (the way, for instance, Essa Hansen’s Nophek Gloss did), Tchaikovsky isn’t afraid to handwave concepts when the story doesn’t need them. He doesn’t spend unnecessary words detailing how “gravity drives” work, or how characters always seem to be in communication with one another. He spends his exposition bullets wisely, and it makes everything so much more fun.
If you like sprawling space opera bursting with mind-blowing ideas, engaging characters, and excellent humor-laced writing, you want these books.
What was your favourite read of the month? Share with us in the comments!