Mad’s Favourite Book of 2016: Morning Star by Pierce Brown

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Madeleine Cassier
Producer
Website | Twitter | GoodreadsBookTube

2016 was a great reading year for me: my average star-rating on Goodreads was 3.9, so of the 143 books that I read, I enjoyed the majority of them. You’d think that having to pick a favourite from that list would be difficult, and had it not been for this book, I probably would have had a hard time narrowing it down from the list I originally made.

So, before I begin unabashedly gushing about my favourite, a quick little moment for the honorable mentions that were all so close, but not quite there: Maybe Someday by Colleen Hoover, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Dictator by Robert Harris, The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski, The Black Count by Tom Reiss, A Court of Mist and Fury by Sara J. Maas, Nevernight by Jay Kristoff, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Kill the Father by Sandrone Dazieri, Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, and Augustus by John Williams.

Right, now that that’s through: to the favourite!

Once upon a time, a man wrote a Red book and shot my emotions out of an airlock into the cold, dark vacuum of space. I thanked him for it, and moved on to the Golden sequel which took my heart and pummeled it into pieces so small, I was no longer sure there was anything left within the cavity of my chest. And so I plunged into darkness, whatever remains of that life-organ too terrified to beat for fear that this man and his Morning Star would truly obliterate it for good.

It’s no secret to anyone who either knows me in person or follows me on the internet that I adore the Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown — they are definitely my kind of books, filled to the brim with Classical allusions, full of heart-stopping battle sequences, and featuring a diverse range of rich, complex characters that make me laugh, cry, and swear in equal measure. The ever more prescient commentary the trilogy provides on politics and power, prejudice, and general humanity make me re-read it continuously, finding ever more parallels to our world — the good, and the not-so-good.

Besides all of the feels that this book provides me, I love how kinetic it is: it’s relentless, rarely pausing to let you catch your breath as it thunders its way to its gory and brutal, yet wholly satisfying and well-earned conclusion. And yet, through all of that, it never lets you forget that every action has a consequence; everything has a cost, and the people we love can die, sometimes for seemingly no reason at all.

I have a hard time trying to keep this post short, as I’d happily sit and ramble for pages and pages on every detail of Morning Star that I loved, and then continue on by going back to Red Rising and Golden Son to ramble about their high points as well — is this a perfect trilogy? Probably not, but it’s perfect for me, and it’s hard to imagine my fiction-loving life without these books.

This trilogy, and especially its conclusion, speak for itself, and I, as a reader, feel lucky to have been graced with Pierce Brown’s magnificent gift for storytelling. And, like many a Howler across the world, am now eagerly awaiting what he will bring us when showing the consequences of revolution in Iron Gold.

Omnis vir lupus.

Dorothy’s Favorite Books of 2016: Station Eleven & Born A Crime

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Dorothy McQuaid
Showrunner for Pycera/Social Media for BWP
Twitter | Blog | Email

Hello, Whisperers! Happy New Year! I loved Rebecca’s post about her favorite book of 2016, and I wanted to make my own.  I was fairly certain what I would choose for most of the year – I said things like “this is the best book I’ve read in years” and actually went so far as to get a quote from it tattooed on my living flesh. However, in the very last days of 2016, I listened to an audiobook version of another amazing book (which was actually published in 2016,) and honestly couldn’t decide between the two. Luckily, one is non-fiction and one is fiction, so I can choose both!

My favorite fiction book I read in 2016: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (published 2014.) Although this book received accolades and awards when it was released, somehow the hype went over my head and I didn’t hear anything about it. Really it should only take four words for you to want to read this book: “Shakespeare after the apocalypse.” What more could you possibly want? Oh, a reference to Star Trek that makes you want to cry and sing and laugh and run out to the tattoo parlor? This book has that too. The core of this book is going beyond survival, into…. thrive-al(?) in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. While others cobble together a living from the land or the remains of the cities, this book follows a cast of actors, musicians and other artists who travel from town to town performing Shakespeare and classical music. Because survival is insufficient.

My favorite non-fiction book I read in 2016: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (published 2016.) I don’t watch The Daily Show and have only seen a few clips of Trevor Noah, but when several friends of varying literary interests began raving about this book, I had to check it out. I ended up listening to the audio version, and I’m glad I did – it is narrated by Trevor and he speaks the different African languages, accents for each person, just a generally fabulous narration. I couldn’t put it down. Trevor manages to address social issues like racism, sexism, institutionalized poverty, code switching – WAIT DON’T FALL ASLEEP – while also telling great stories about pooping on the floor and getting abandoned by a dog named Foofy. Listen to this book. It will make you laugh and cry.

Rebecca’s Favorite Book of 2016: Illuminae

Rebecca Kordesh, Director1dd72c74-dd4f-4789-8d3d-694ba1279a47
Twitter | Blog

2016 was a big year for me because it was the first year where I was active enough on Goodreads to participate in a reading challenge and to watch as my numbers went up and up and I finally met that 150 books read goal. Goodreads is also nifty because it keeps track of the books you’ve read for you, so now that we’ve hit 2017, I get to go back and look at what I read in 2016 and reminisce.

If I’m totally honest, about half of those 150 books were somewhere between “meh” and “NO!” on the scale of enjoyment, but the other half were a real treat. That’s maybe the advantage to pushing through about three books a week — yeah, you find lemons, but you also find gems. Lots of them.

So many, in fact, that it was quite difficult for me to land on a single book to talk about. So before I go an wax lyrical about Illuminae, I’d like to give a shout out to a few of the other fantastic books/series I was lucky enough to experience in 2016. Here’s to you, The Raven Cycle, so beautiful and pure in your spot on my favorite’s shelf. I love you. And here’s to you, Red Rising trilogy. Thank you for rekindling my husband’s love of books. Cheers to Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, y’all rocked my world. I’ll raise a glass to you, Menagerie, one of the coolest creepy little things I stumbled upon. And a toast for the books I’d already loved that I got to love again in 2016, from the Harry Potter series to A Series of Unfortunate Events to Sandman and down to a wide array of Juliet Marillier classics. Annnnnd one final shoutout to the 40ish books that did not make this list but were also fantastic and provided many feelings and great joy to my year.

51puwgixkl-_sy344_bo1204203200_And now, to the main event.

Illuminae. 

Man oh man what a book. It’s difficult to even know where to begin with this because reading Illuminae was such an experience, but I shall try.

First, this is not a traditional book. Rather than straightforward narration, Kaufman and Kristoff tell this story through a series of IM chats, data files, reports on security camera footage, classified military files, and eventually information from the server core of the main AI unit, AIDAN.

While I’m usually impressed by clever forms of narration like this, I don’t often read them because I’m a trandtionalist with books. I like them to be straightforward narration style. But the style of this book could not be more perfectly done. The execution was brilliant, the use of tiny visual details superb, and the lack of straightforward narration did absolutely nothing to take away from the emotional impact of the story. It was a wild, fun, emotional, and intense ride.

Seriously, I was invested within the first 30 pages and I spent this entire experience caught somewhere between laughter and genuine tears. Illuminae is funny, it’s fun, it’s intense, violent, and fast-paced, but it is also deeply philosophical and altogether incredibly emotional. AIDAN, the possibly insane AI of the Battleship Alexander, really takes the cake on this. I simultaneously hated it (you know, ’cause of psychotic AI things) and favored the parts of the book from its perspective because that’s where many of the most poignant moments were delivered, and flawlessly.

The main two characters, Ezra and Kady, are both phenomenal. Kady is everything I ever wanted in a snarky space heroine, and Ezra is just bae. Their backstory and their development throughout the book was incredibly compelling and just absolutely wonderful.

Illuminae was literally everything I could ever have wanted from a book. It was a fantastic escape, a brilliantly imagined alternate reality that somehow felt familiar. It engaged me with characters that were both human and otherwise and got to that part of me that genuinely cares about those characters even while I rationally know they don’t exist. It got me thinking about the big questions without being too heavy-handed about it and without trying to provide any answers. It was one of those books that provides the entertainment you want from leisurely reading while also encouraging you to think about the world you live in and the nature of the things you know.

Illuminae, I adore you.

(I also adore Gemina, the sequel that this blog post would have been about if I’d read Illuminae in 2015 when it was released).

But seriously, hat’s off to Kaufman and Kristoff for this delightfully wonderful thing, and thank you 2016 for bringing Illuminae to me. A+.

Tamora Pierce

Hi Tammy,

Remember that time you laughed at a badger meme I posted? You probably don’t, and I don’t blame you. You probably see a lot of badger memes. But I remember, and I was proud of myself for that for, like, a whole day afterward. Not to get too sappy, but bringing some small amount of joy to someone who had brought me gobs and gobs of it was a really good feeling.

The first book of yours I read was Wolf-Speaker.

I know, I know, it’s a weird place to start: a second book of a second series. I didn’t even have the decency to start at the beginning of the Immortals quartet. I was thrown into a story already begun, meeting a protagonist who had already begun her arc, spending time with characters who had already been introduced and elaborated on.

I regret nothing. Part of this is because of your writing, Tammy. Despite coming in partway through a 4-book arc, starting with Wolf-Speaker just felt like another entry point into the story. You weave in the salient details of past events without belaboring them, hint at larger happenings in the world, and further develop your characters all within the confiens of a single story. Wolf-Speaker doesn’t feel incomplete, though I would also argue that it fits perfectly into its niche in Daine’s timeline.

I also don’t regret my decision at all because being introduced to a protagonist who can communicate with animals, and having her first major interactions be with a wolf pack was the perfect point to enter a story for my 12-year-old self. Regular readers of the BWP blog may recall that I wrote of the Redwall universe that a universe full of talking animals was everything I wanted. I may have to slightly tweak that statement, because even better was the possibility of a universe where animals were still animals — not living in buildings and farming the land, but living as animals do — but some people could talk to them. Rather, some people could talk to them, and they would answer.

From Wolf-Speaker, I finished the Immortals quartet, and then went back to read your works from the beginning. Over time I got to meet all of your heroines, and I am so glad I spent time growing up with all of these women. From bull-headed temperamental Alanna to calm unyielding Kel, to snippy people-averse Tris — it would take too long to describe them all, but suffice it to say, that when I try to determine a single favorite, it’s nearly impossible.*

There are many things I can be thankful for in your writing, Tammy, but the greatest thing is that you showed me unequivocally that women in fantasay could be as real and varied as the women I know from reality. They could show full ranges of emotions, had their own ideas, and made their own decisions. They could be sad, angry, brave, quiet, brash, thoughtful, giddy, and everything in between. Thank you for their stories.

-Louisa

*Nearly. (I’ll give you one guess).

Jennifer Niven

“The thing is, there are good days and bad days. I feel almost guilty saying they aren’t all bad.”

Dear Jennifer Niven,

We’ve actually met once, back in 2015 at NoVa Teen Book Fest — I had an ARC of All The Bright Places with a billion little blue and green post-it flags sticking out of it. I’m not very great at meeting people whose work I admire; I tend to go bright red in the face and start anxiously babbling and word-vomiting whatever runs into my mind first and it doesn’t usually end well. But you were so very kind and sweet, and meeting you was the high point screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-12-23-12-pmof my time at NTBF15, not only because of this meeting and all the talks I heard you give over the course of the day, but because of your book — the very thing that brought me to NTBF15 in the first place.

I picked up that ARC of All the Bright Places in the very start of 2015 and was left in pieces. There I was, 23 years old and recently unemployed, going to therapy every week to recover from an eating disorder while being told that, in addition to the depression I’d suffered from on-and-off for some time, I was also suffering from anxiety along with ADHD. I was a molotov cocktail of emotions, a powder keg about to explode, and I suppose one wouldn’t think that a book like yours, so tragically beautiful and heartbreaking, would be the very thing I needed in that moment.

But it was, because in that moment I needed to feel and scream and rage and bang my head and hands against the wall. Through Finch, I found all that tumult — he was as close to my own swings in temperature as I’d ever found in a character. All those post-it flags, they were probably 90% Finch — they were the moments I recognised in myself in some way, shape, or form. So many authors, especially in the Young Adult writing community, have attacked the topics of mental illness, suicide, loss, and grief…but very few had done it with such elegant ecstasy and subtle passion as you did with this book. And Violet — lovely, lovely Violet — it was through Violet that I found that way to do more than cope with things that ripped me apart. Her story, seemingly so much quieter than Finch’s, was just as powerful, just as helpful.

I didn’t get the chance, I don’t think, to say thank you during that brief meeting with you. That your book, in a way, helped save my life. That Finch and Violet, these broken and flawed human beings, were what I needed in that very moment, and in so many moments after that first read. I can see the marked improvement in my own mental health and ability to recognise my own “temperature fluctuations,” as it were, because I experienced it through them.

You wrote such a bright book that holds a very bright place in my heart. And I can’t say thank you enough for that.

Sincerely,
Madeleine

Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie,

Howdy. You are really awesome.

That’s all, basically.

I could spend several hundred words telling you how freaking amazing The Raven Cycle is and how much I adored The Scorpio Races.

I could write you an essay about how incredibly skilled you are at blending fantasy with reality, at reminding your readers of the magic that already exists in our world.

I could write a whole letter on your use of mythology in The Scorpio Races and how much this religious scholar just ate that up.

I could write you a book about how following you on various social media platforms has taught me that the world is unfair and that the level of talent you have in the variety of areas you have it is just unreal.

I could go on and on and on about why I went and got a raven tattoo after the release of The Raven King (and yes the biggest raven is named Chainsaw).

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But at the end of the day the most important thing for me to say is that I am grateful for you, and all that you do.

Thank you for being really awesome.

Seriously.

Really, thank you.

-Rebecca

William Shakespeare

If I profane with my unworthy hand
Your written shrine of celebrated wit
My praise, lowly as it is, ready stands
To release itself through most loving writ
For ‘To be or not to be’ you once said
Hamlet’s distress did kindred spirit find
A lonely girl of but thirteen years led
From depression with bottle left behind
When yet more years had passed and knowledge earned
The sorrow returned anew to claim
A lonely, angry heart that always burned
She would not gentle enter Peace’s domain
But for Antony’s piercing words and tears
She’d not’ve named her demons for yet more years

For thee in thanks, MADELEINE

 


nota bene: This sonnet has been poorly written in the style of a Shakespearean sonnet. Please forgive the author of this letter for her inability to write poetry and general absurdity.

Neal Stephenson

Dear Neal,

I’m sure all readers have had that feeling when you read a book and think, “It’s like the author wrote this book just for me!” For me, that book was Snow Crash. Though the book covers a variety of topics, the main focus is technology and language. As an aerospace engineer with a minor in linguistics, you can see why I might have thought this book was personalized. Snow Crash was epic in scope, fast paced, and even featured a pun-named main character.

The word epic is thrown around a lot these days, but your books really live up to the word. What other author would create a religious order that reveals itself ever 1000 years? Or chronicle the cataclysmic end of human society on Earth? And even still, we feel personally invested in your characters and care about what happens to them within the larger scope of your story.

Last week, I thanked Ursula LeGuin for showing science fiction and fantasy can be used to challenge our own prejudices and social conventions. Today, I thank you for showing something that speculative fiction better than any other genre: stories, societies, and even civilizations that space vast reaches of time and space. Even as it inspires us, it reminds how small and fragile we are in the larger context of the universe.

Finally, I end this note with an apology: I haven’t yet been able to make it more than 100 pages into Cryptonomicon, and I’m sorry. I promise I’ll try again, maybe as New Year’s Resolution. In the meantime, thank you again for the vast amount of story I’ve read, enjoyed, and been inspired by.

-Christopher

Vyasa

“What is found in the poem [The Mahabharata] I have recited —
Concerning dharma [righteousness], riches and enjoyment,
As well as the path to final liberation —
May be found elsewhere. But anything
It does not contain will be found nowhere.”

The Mahabharata, 18.5.38, English adaptation by Carole Satyamurti

What can one really say to that? The Mahabharata, the world’s longest epic poem, composed in Sanskrit by Vyasa, is ten times the combined length of the Iliad and Odyssey and three times the length of the Bible. It is more than just a fixed text. It has been told and retold, in a million versions, oral, written, and on screen; as people say in India, one never really hears it for the first time. (See Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik).

The Mahabharata is the living link to my ancestors and their culture, the compendium of their wisdom, a sort of Wikipedia of ancient times, a work that contains many works within it: treatises on politics, philosophy, warfare, ancient history, and the Bhagavad Gita, the divine song which came directly from on high, culminating in the most beautiful of epiphanies (Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita). How do we make peace with the world and the things we have to face in it? Is it by realizing we’re just actors in a drama, instruments in a divine play? As the Gita puts it, beautifully:

“I am almighty time, the world-destroying,
And to destroy worlds, I have arisen!
Those warriors arrayed in lines opposing
Your men, even without you, will have perished.”

The Bhagavad Gita, 11.32 (located in book 6 of The Mahabharata), Translation by Gavin Flood and Charles Martin

All that’s great. That gives The Mahabharata enormous historical, cultural, and religious value. But The Mahabharata is more than just that. Though set in the most distant of times and places for an individual living in 21st century America, it is relevant today. Like the works of Shakespeare, the stories it tells and the emotions and dilemmas experienced by its characters are timeless and speak to the core of what it means to be human, anywhere, anytime. When do we stop turning the other cheek and stand up for ourselves? What are the limits of loyalty to our friends, especially if they’re veering off the path of good? Is it ok to break the rules for the greater good? How do we keep going when the times get rough? These questions are addressed within this great and ancient book. Some questions stay with us humans forever. I am fortunate to have had this book as a companion throughout my life.

-Akhi

Pierce Brown

Outgoing transmission: Pierce Brown
Subject: Thank You

Of all the authorial thank you notes that I wrote for this month — several of which are wholly ridiculous in tone — yours proved the most difficult to write. You are currently reading the results of attempt number nine ten

Where to begin? I regret to say I went into Red Rising with a good deal of reservations: it was blurbed to appeal to fans of The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game (I am, alas, a fan of neither), and its jacket description made it sound like every other class system-based dystopia that had flooded the market for the past few years, or so it seemed to me. But that cover was so striking — a bright red wing on matte black — that I did what I usually tend to do in situations like these: I shrugged and bought it while thinking “Eh, why not?” (This seems to be how most of my best and worst ideas start.)

I began with the audio — I can’t remember what exactly I was doing that fateful evening, but I needed to be hands-free — and from the moment Tim Gerard Reynolds read that first line, it was like one of those moments in a film where the protagonist pauses what they’re doing and the camera pushes in with a tightening, shadowy ellipse to form a spotlight, the world around them having faded away.

“I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.”

I’m a sucker for a good revenge plot; I stand by my opinion that The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the best revenge plot ever crafted. I love me a good revolution tale; American Revolution history is some of my favourite from this country and, oh yeah, Star Wars Rebel Alliance all the way. I also cannot resist a war story; I’m a rather odd child who knew Homer’s Iliad before Harry Potter.

So getting your story, complete with Classical allusions and pop culture easter egg-like references that kicked my high-functioning ADHD mind into full-on literary analysis mode was like getting the book I’d never dared to want, because there was no way in heaven, hell, or earth that it could exist.

And I don’t just love your trilogy because you’re a master of your craft and tell a heart-stopping story; or because you created and developed characters so beautifully flawed and tragically human that they transcend the confines of the page; or even because finding all those little allusions and references brings me inexplicable joy. I do love your trilogy for all those things, but I really want to thank you for how thoughtful your books are.

Your books dared to ask a great deal of deep and difficult questions. What happens after revolution? What happens when you gamble and fail? When you lose a battle but must continue the war? How do you deal with grief and rage and hate?

How do you not only live, but live for more?

I got to question and consider the world of your own making and the consequences of every small action, or even the lack of action. And then I got to apply it to my own life — which, in the wake of everything that has happened in 2016, meant an awful lot of thinking and drinking and more thinking.

But there is also a part of the story I didn’t mention, about when I picked up your first book back in 2014…it wasn’t a great time for me. I was going through what can only be described as a complete existential, quarter-life crisis. I’d graduated university without a job in my field, was working full-time at a bookstore which, while not terrible, was not what I wanted. I was just entering treatment for an eating disorder, which would lead to me (finally) getting diagnosed with anxiety and adult ADHD alongside depression, which I knew I’d dealt with since high school. Everyone around me was getting married, buying houses, raving about their dream-jobs and, well, needless to say, I felt very stuck and worthless and useless.

You didn’t really need to know all that, I suppose, but it’s the only context I can offer so that when I say your books were not only what I needed in that moment, but were what helped to spark a little fire to dare, to try, and to at the very least pretend to be brave…I’m not trying to be sycophantic. I may be prone to hyperbole in some things, but I don’t exaggerate when I say that your books had a profound impact upon me — upon my behaviour, my thought processes, philosophies, and just overall personhood. I can look at my short twenty-five years and find that point at twenty-three in late 2014 that denotes the shift of “before Red Rising” and “after Red Rising.

I hadn’t been able to live in peace but I started to find a glimmer of it in Darrow’s war. 

And as if that wasn’t enough, it wasn’t too long after I got diagnosed with Bertolotti’s Syndrome in late 2015 that I got to read Darrow scratching and clawing and working his own way back to recovery in Morning Star…just as I was going through physical therapy so I could go through everyday life with minimal pain or discomfort. It was this strange sort of inspiration, the rationale of “Well Darrow could come back from that, so surely I can grit my teeth and push through whatever’s happening here.” It’s not that I hadn’t thought that way before Morning Star, but something about the visceral way in which you wrote Darrow’s journey put everything happening in my own life into sharp perspective and helped me to hone my focus.

Simply put: your books changed my life.

So, thank you, Pierce Brown. Thank you for crafting this story. Thank you for writing it down and sharing it with all of us. In this all too often dark and terrifying world that sometimes likes to knock us down and basically beat the shit out of us, you gave us a trilogy about a rising tide of sons and daughters whose grit and humanity and glorious hope blazed with such ferocity that they shone brighter than the morning star itself.

And it’s a bloodydamn, gorydamn beautiful thing.

Per aspera ad astra and sincerest thanks,

Madeleine C.

PS. Also, you like Star Wars and puppies, so I should have known that would mean your books were going to be amazing.