As I write more and more reviews on this blog, you’ll see a small notation/badge (that I’ve yet to design) sometimes appear beside the review score: “Champions of the Genre.” You’ll also notice an identically-named shelf on my Goodreads page. It’s a designation
plagiarized from inspired by video game critic Jim Sterling from the Jimquisition. And it means what it sounds like it means: the best of the best.
Many books feature beautiful prose, complex characters, dazzling worldbuilding, and deep exploration of human issues. But only a few among them shatter barriers with the violence to make the sky tremble and take notice. The barrier around the pre-conceived limit of a genre. The barriers of pre-packaged societal constructs. The barrier to the core of your heart.
These are books that I (read: subjective. Don’t send me angry messages) believe represent the best of what a genre can do.
They are the pathfinders. Ones that elevate the field to heights previously unimagined.
They are the defiant. Ones that look at all the injustice in the world and respond with simmering anger and purpose.
They are the clingers. Ones that tear through to the center of your being, latches on and stares into you, daring you to pull it away.
They are books you would buy multiple copies of without a single look of remorse for your weeping wallet. One to read to tatters. Two to read sparingly. Another to just lounge on your shelf looking pretty and pristine. And let’s not forget all the different editions. Before you know it, your shelf has become a shrine.
And today I present to you
ten nine and a half examples of such stories.
The first time I read this, I nearly stopped after the first three chapters. Everything was vague and strange and confusing. But I’d bought it with what measly pocket money I had as a 15-year old, so, swallowing buyer’s remorse, I forced myself to continue. One of the best book-related decisions I would ever make, it turns out.
Imagine for a moment that you’re walking through the woods. Not quite lost, but just drifting…exploring. You let the world fall away from you until all you see and hear is the pulse of the moment. The moment where the past, the present, and future tangle all about you in a flurry of warmth
And time settles around you in quiet repose. And in that moment you feel such a oneness with the world it’s enough to make you weep and laugh aloud at once.
Melina Marchetta takes that feeling and weaves it into an entire novel.
I disagree with Printz award selections more often than not. But On the Jellicoe Road deserves every accolade and more.
Warchild takes your classic space opera plot–a war between the aliens and the humans, with pirates muddling things up in between–and swivels the focus onto the foremost victims of any war–the children. It can be read as a story about a young boy who gets trained to be a soldier and a spy. And it can be read as a story about child soldiers and the traumas of war and how they linger with deadly tenacity in someone so young. Karin Lowachee juggles many difficult subject matters and pulls them off with astounding realism. Her characters are compelling and multi-faceted, all of them being so much more than what they first seem. I absolutely adore it when a book makes me do a complete 180 on my feelings towards a character, and Warchild had two such moments.
Brutal. Heartbreaking. And necessary.
At Swim, Two Boys is one of those books that makes you think, No human could have written this. And, Only a human could have written this. It’s probably the most beautifully-crafted piece of work I have ever read. O’Neil manipulates the English language with the finesse of a god and the pathos of a mortal. He has been (rightly) compared to James Joyce, but I find his work much more accessible than the latter (though no less groundbreaking). Because although story is a historical one–one that slides a lens over the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland–at it’s core, it’s a story of the endurance of love, friendship, and youth amidst violence and hatred. And anyone, regardless of sexuality, nationality, age, or gender, can relate to that.
In the latest 10th anniversary edition of The Name of the Wind, there’s a blurb by Lin-Manuel Miranda saying, “No one writes like Pat Rothfuss.” And I’m inclined to agree. The Kingkiller Chronicles isn’t perfect by any means. I have issues with Kvothe and some of the side characters, as well as the pacing. But, my god, the writing. NotW opened my eyes to the fact that beautiful, just-the-right-side-of-purple, prose has a place in epic fantasy. And not just any epic fantasy–one about a magic school. It was completely mind-blowing to me at the time, and Pat’s work has since become a big inspiration to myself and countless writers.
Boy’s Life stands as the prime example of what a coming-of-age novel should be. It reaches into the heart of childhood and draws out the magic that lies entwined with the reality of growing up. The author understands so, so well that being a child is not all carefree happiness and sunshine. That there are pains and fears and uncertainties mixed in with the joy and wonder. McCammon transcribes all of that through gorgeous prose and a vivid setting that you swear you can just reach out and touch.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant is many things. Less a fantasy and more of a political thriller set in a secondary world, it’s one of the few economic-centric stories that didn’t make me want to stick a poker through my eye–that made me actually invested (ha!) in the nitty-gritty details of how the flow of money controls an entire country. Its main character, Baru, is one of the most complicated protagonists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting–ruthless, clever, and often unlikable, but so determined to set the world right. It’s also one of only two book I’ve read (the second being The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue) that gives you a map with notations made by the main character. (I’m baffled as to why it’s not done more often. A notated map can show something–however small– about a character in a way that you can’t do in the actual story.)
But what really makes it an entry on this list is how masterfully the author uses the readers’ expectations against them. You think you know what’s happening and you cling hard to that belief. And then the book blindsides you. I was left physically shaking and rummaging through the pieces of my heart by the end.
This book shifted the foundation of my world. It was the first time I saw words being used to create something so wholly different and yet so honest. A WW2 book like no other, it touts a weary Death as a narrator who tells the story of a young orphan girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Using a kaleidoscope of beautiful imagery, the writing juxtaposes the brutality of the time period with the beauty of kindness and underscores the power inherent in language, both written and spoken. I read it, cried a year’s worth of tears, and read it again…and again. And reread it at least twice a year for five more years. The Book Thief became the foremost inspiration for my own writing style, and a copy of the rambling letter I’d sent to Marcus Zusak, and the reply I got, is still stuck up on my wall.
You can always count on N.K. Jemisin to bring something new and/or important to fantasy, whether it’s an Ancient Egyptian inspired setting, a cast that comprises mostly of PoC characters, or bi(pan?)sexual Gods. Though The Broken Earth trilogy is not my favourite of her books (that goes to the Dreamblood duology), I think it’s her most important. It belongs in the “defiant” category– a story of oppression and conquerors and motherhood. And anger. So much righteous anger. The Fifth Season not only introduces a brilliantly clever narrative structure, a unique world, and complex characters, it features diversity of all kinds–sexuality, race, gender. The series is everything that modern fantasy can–and should–be, and it deserves all the awards (Hugo 2018, here we come!)
And the best for last. Technically, all of Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books are Champions of the Genre, but I figure you don’t want to scroll through 16 additional entries, all featuring the same comment: “I will conduct blood sacrifices in Robin Hobb’s name.”
I can say with utter confidence that nothing will top this series for me (I’ve gone into details of what these books mean to me in this post). And my advice to newcomers? Don’t trust the blurbs. They make it sound like any other fantasy story where a young boy trains to become a master assassin. But it’s not.
Why? Because of the characters.
No one, in any genre of literature, writes characters like Robin Hobb does. Her characters feel like people you can pluck out into our world and have conversations with. Their relationships mirror the complexity of our own, spanning years and decades, filled with awkward bumps and painful distances. You will cry and yell and rejoice and despair alongside them. I’d heard someone say that you don’t read a Robin Hobb book, you live it. And that’s exactly it. It’s a long, winding journey through all the strangeness of life (plus magic and dragons and wolf brothers). And you sit there at the end of it a different, better, person.
And because I was short on time, a quick half-mention to The Isle of Blood (The Monstrumologist #3) by Rick Yancey. It’s horror. It’s beautifully philosophical. And it incorporates Nietzsche quotations without reading like a quirky contemporary indie feat. white teens. Read it.
And there you have it! I’ll probably compile a full list on a separate page and add to it as I go along.
Feel free to tell me some of your Champions of the Genre and throw some recommendations!