This year’s breakneck pace between shortlist announcement and award ceremony made it impossible for most people to play along at home with The Kitschies’ search for the most progressive, intelligent, and entertaining speculative fiction. A full list of ten novels, five book covers, and five digital creations (one of which is another novel), is a lot to digest in a matter of weeks. Without a chance of making the deadline, I opted to string out my Kitschies reading for most of the year.
So, ten months later… I give you my impressions of the Kitschies Golden Tentacle list. In short, this is a very good list.
The Golden Tentacle List (the award for newbies)
Actually, I love this list! Every author here is talented, interesting, and, most important: new to me. Even better: every book on this list is an odd, idiocyncratic misfit within the grand scheme of SF. These books don’t do what you want or expect them to do, and they do a good job of not conforming to commercial expectations.
The Winner! Making Wolf by Tade Thompson
A man returns home and becomes enmeshed in the world of crime. If you’ve been paying attention, this keeps popping up on my best-of lists! And for good reason: This novel would please a lot of readers looking for an intense, rip-roaring page-turner. Still, it’s a surprising selection by the Kitschies jury, as this twisted neo-noir thriller is not for the faint of heart. Several violent scenes remain burned in my brain, and even consensual sex becomes disturbing when seen from the protagonist’s inconsistent moral landscape (and warning: the sex is not all consensual). But that’s not to say it isn’t a deserving win. It’s a subversive look at tired themes of going home, finding oneself, personal redemption, and unreliability, and, on top of that, it’s nonstop climatic action. The equally troubling and compelling protagonist oozes more charisma than most leading men, and even when the story is over, it feels like it’s just begun.
The Shore by Sara Taylor
A curious delight that gently SFnalizes the Virginia seashore over several generations of two families, crossing a few centuries and into a near-future gentle post-apocalypse. Where magical realism meets Mason Dixon, there’s a tinge of what feels like a coastal version of Appalachian culture that makes prime pickings for this subgenre. It’s a quiet kind of strange, with a powerful feminist element coursing through the family histories, and each character strand features its own independent voice. Meticulous writing gives life to internal conflict, historic momentum, and minor magicks, though a couple of caveats need to be mentioned: Some of those minor magicks have Native American roots that border on the stereotypical; and the generational, snapshot view of women’s lives– while fully-fleshed– limits the scope of these women by depicting them only in relation to the oppression they experience. (To do otherwise, however, would make it a very long book, and likely lose some of its potency.)
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
When Lagos-born Furo Wariboko wakes up with pale skin and red hair, his entire world is turned upside down. Blurbs tend to describe this as a modern take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis but, while Blackass relies on the concept of the altered self in relation to society, it deters radically from Kafka’s own purposes, and stands as its own story, even with a few moments of glib, authorial 4th-wall-breaking to keep you on your toes. It’s fun and interesting, and could be perfect if not for the confusing moralized ending that seems to archaically equate racial transitioning with gender transitioning, suggesting that one can never fully transition in the case of gender. It felt like old-fashioned, regressive justifications against gender transitioning, though I’m not sure if the author intended this, perhaps even to highlight the inconsistency, or if I completely misunderstood. Still, it raised my eyebrows, even though it was so fun and sharp until then.
I’m surprised to find now that Blackass has garnered a lot of average ratings online, most often dinged for its unlikeable protagonist and uneven (or lack of) plot. That’s a shame because that’s what I liked most about it.
The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
A gorgeous, delicate novel about the flooded future world in which the landless drift from island to island to do business with the more privileged landed folk, illustrating a new kind of class division in the post-climate change future. Meanwhile, some humans show signs of humanity’s next adaptation: webbed fingers and gills, signaling a return to our genetic past– reminiscent of Ballard’s The Drowned World in this way, but with a touch of mermaidism– and society responds by instituting a newer kind of dangerous superstition among the non-webbed humans. People might say it’s like The Scar meets The Night Circus (I can’t remember if I saw that somewhere or if I made it up), but it’s subtler and richer than either of those, yielding to the social and political criticism of today in the guise of clowns, inverted couples, and trope subversion.
It loses some of its depth midway when Callanish starts acting out of character to move the plot along, and the neat-and-tidy wind up at the end felt too contrived for such a rich and thoughtful book. Even so, it was still a very enjoyable novel to read and my favorite on this list.
The Night Clock by Paul Meloy
The mental health of a man who works in mental health services might not be the only mystery here, but it’s certainly the mainspring of this winding, frenetic story. Meloy’s sharp style and acerbic wit is an absolute delight, and it’s on display in abundance in the beginning chapters, which lends an attractive Sean of the Dead-type flavor, but darker, funnier, and more mature. But then the novel pulls a Bone Clocks and we’re dumped into a 2-D horological fantasyland and, like The Bone Clocks, it’s all a really clever statement, but, like The Bone Clocks, it also feels like a slap in the face to dedicated SF readers, especially after all that decadent, intelligent relational writing goes *poof*. (And I don’t doubt this is all intentional, but argh.)
Still, this won’t stop me from reading more of Meloy’s work just to get another taste of that style. (And apparently, Meloy and I work at different ends of the same industry, and there were parts I identified with so hard that I think he’d be interesting to take out for lunch.)
At first sight, some of these novels might raise eyebrows for being on an award shortlist, but never judge a book by its cheesy CGI or childish pastel cover, as the saying goes. These are debut authors from mostly small or atypical publishers, and I’m just thrilled to have been introduced to all of them.
The Kitchies jury has a good case for including each novel on this list, but The Gracekeepers would be my choice for the most progressive, intelligent, and entertaining speculative fiction out of the five. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for all five authors in the future, though!
Hey Kitschies: you folks did such a good job this year, you’ve earned a year off!
Tomorrow: A (very) late review of the Kitschies 2015 Red Tentacle list. Don’t miss it!