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.


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+.


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.


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.

Ursula LeGuin

I fell in love with you in the way the best loves happen—that is, almost entirely by accident.

We were living in England while my mother worked with the US Air Force; I was in 6th grade. Every day, we had one glorious hour of our class schedule devoted entirely to silent reading time, and my teacher for that period—an older, slightly acerbic, presumably rather feminist Gifted and Talented teacher—bore a certain fondness for giving individual students books she thought they should read. And by “give”, I mean “unceremoniously hand you a book and unequivocally state that you were not allowed to read anything else in class until you finished it.”

It was through that method that I was first introduced to A Wizard of Earthsea.

As a moderately imaginative and somewhat well-read child, I had read plenty of fantasy books before. When I opened the Earthsea cycle for the first time, though, I knew on some level that this was a game-changer. The vividness of the description, the completeness and utter uniqueness of the worldbuilding, and all the dragons and birds of prey and colorful wizardry drew me in. The complexity of the characters, the sheer vast scope of the fantasy, and the tender poignancy of the storytelling hooked me and wouldn’t let me go.

I sat on the bus to school every morning on our trip across the fens, looking out the window at the dense, rolling British fog, and it was as if I was on Lookfar with Ged in the distant sea looking out, and out, and out. One night I dreamed, vividly, that standing in a field I put up my arm in the air and felt the light beating weight of a kestrel backwinging down to my skin—the most fragile, hollow pressure.

Fantasy and science fiction had already given me a broader perspective, new ways to look at things. Your writing was more than that—you gave me news eyes entirely through which to see.

For those reading who do not know—Ursula K Le Guin is almost indisputably one of the most prolific and most celebrated science fiction and fantasy writers still living. She has won almost every major award possible in both genres, and over the course of dozens of years has written dozens of works ranging from poetry and essays to children’s books and not-so-childish novels. She is the daughter of a writer (Theodora Kroeber) and well-known anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and it shows. Her work is known not only for its enthralling worldbuilding and attention to detail, but perhaps more vitally for its incorporation of a subtle, tender, seeping sense of humanity. This is a writer who knows people, intimately; no matter how far-flung the universes she describes or how fantastical the species that inhabit them, her writing is pervaded by the sense that perhaps you aren’t so far from home after all. When I think of speculative fiction, when I think of science fiction and fantasy, I think of Ursula Le Guin before anyone else.

Ursula, I continued on and read some of your short stories after Earthsea—the tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly moving anthology Changing Planes (whose premise is that you can only switch dimensions while sitting in the interminable boredom of an airport waiting room), the clever and more serious pieces in The Birthday of the World and The Compass Rose. Short stories are, I think, where your brilliance really shines. They’re where your anthropological and sociological musings really take wing; many of them read as thought experiments—“in this world, what if there were humans but X was different about them?”

In The Matter of Seggri, men are incredibly rare and treated with a smothering, oppressive kind of nurture familiar to any modern woman. In The Fliers of Gy, some people are born with wings—the most quintessential of widespread human fantasies—but the frailty of their bodies and their maladaption to their own culture make it a tragedy and a horrifying curse rather than something to be coveted. In Unchosen Ways and Mountain Love, lovers navigate achingly familiar pains of love and loss and family rivalry in a society where marriage literally takes a village (or a moiety, more accurately). In each, you play so deftly deftly with race, gender, and sexuality, constantly and gently nudging us out of our most fundamental assumptions of what it is to experience each of those things by skillfully framing it in ways that don’t even feel like a lesson so much as a matter of fact “but it’s always been this . I grew up to be an anthropologist, like your father (and, in a very real sense I think, like you), and I think I know where that process started. You slowly, patiently, painstakingly taught me from afar one of the cornerstones of both speculative fiction and anthropology—learning to see the peculiar as normal and the normal as peculiar.

I also saw myself in your characters, both in the individual sense and in ways slightly more broad. Most of your protagonists are non-white and non-heterosexual, or at least play with the notion of what those designations even mean; plenty of them are non-male or non-binary-gender or both or neither or all genders and sexes at once. That was something that comforted me in an unprecedented way both as a young multiracial person and as a young, burgeoningly genderqueer and transgender person. I will admit—I regret to say that I didn’t read your most-lauded novelized study of gender, The Left Hand of Darkness, until relatively later in life, and was rather un-compelled by it. The notion that someone can be more than one sex or gender at once, and be loved by somebody not used to that concept, is perhaps a bit more underwhelming to read about when you’ve lived with it for a decade or two…But I read Coming of Age in Karhide, also set in Gethen, and loved it, felt myself coming of age into my gender a bit with every dreamy vivid line of it. I think for a lot of people, your works are the first time they’ve been exposed to some of these ideas in a digestible and slightly depoliticized way, and I can only imagine how much easier my life has been rendered because of that, through that behind the scenes absorption. (I am slightly tired, however, of having strangers tell me that I remind them of Gethenians.)
My favorite work by you, however, is the one I can barely begin to do justice to.

The Dispossessed has been (at least to me) shockingly divisive within my friend groups. Roughly half the people I’ve recommended it to have loved it so unconditionally that they took it as one of their own new personal favorites; the other half has hated it and thought it dull and uninteresting to the point of inanity. Regardless, I can cheerfully and blithely state that I have never read a book I enjoyed more purely, or that I found more in. I come back to The Dispossessed again and again and again—I read it for comfort during trying times, in moments when I worry that I’ve lost my way or my sense of self. I’ve been recording myself reading lines of it as I’ve gone on testosterone and my voice has been dropping, documenting the growth and change in more ways than one. The clean starkness of the world of Anarres and (at least initially) its inhabitants, the thoughtfulness and nuances of the political commentary…It starts on one level as a fairly straightforward conversation about anarchy, socialism, capitalism, and socioeconomic woe, but grows over time to be a much more convoluted dialogue on the nature of individualism, the inescapability of solitude, and the endless search we all of us make for that ephemeral, at times unreachable thing—home, and purpose, the sense that there is somewhere we belong.

I read Shevek’s story and feel the pang of sympathy for him a little bit differently every time. In high school, as a sense of camaraderie for someone reaching desperately for a goal that would make or break him by its attainment or his failure. In college, I resonated with his intensely personal realizations about utopia and revolution, of the ways people frequently recreate the things they fear or hate the most. After college, I’ve come to see the cleverness of his characterization, his flaws and egocentricities and anxieties, and search for how my own flaws shape my perception. Every year or two I come back to this book, these immortal settings and characters, and the sheer beauty and gracefulness of the multilayered arcs of the story takes my breath away. Futility and joy and arrogance and humility and camaraderie and isolation and breathless, breathless hope…

Nobody writes imperfection as perfectly and as compassionately as you do, with such a gentle and loving acceptance for both the beauty and monstrosity inherent to being human. You hold a mirror up to me, and of all the mirrors I’ve ever seen—I’m ok with looking into this one, and with the reflection I see in it.

Thank you, Ursula, for what you have given me—the gift, for once and forever, of sight.”

Ursula LeGuin

Dear Ursula,

When I was younger, my father suggested two book series to me: the Chronicles of Narnia and the Earthsea Trilogy. I read C.S. Lewis’s books and enjoyed them, but they didn’t speak to me the same way yours did.

It was my first experience with truly great world-building. The islands of Earthsea were filled with characters and creatures that felt rich and real. My first magical school wasn’t Hogwarts, but Roke with its Masters and students. I was fascinated by the way that words held power in your world, that to completely know a thing, you must know its true name. I quickly devoured The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, entranced by Ged’s journey. There was something poignant in the way that his nemesis wasn’t some external evil, but one of his own creation.

Time went by, and I rediscovered your work in high school in The Left Hand of Darkness, which encouraged me to see the world in a different light through gender. Always Coming Home did the same though anthropology, The Dispossessed through socialism. Your work is the epitome of what science fiction should be: shifting stories to other times and spaces to reveal truths about our own.

In college, I had the privilege of taking a class from one of your colleagues in which we read several science fiction novels written by women. While it certainly opened my eyes to many authors, some of whom are now among my favorites, the core message of the class I already knew thanks to you: that science fiction and fantasy writing, like any field, is made better through diversity.

I sincerely thank you for your work and your talent, and I look forward to the time when I can pass on your stories to my children the way they were passed to me.


TBT 10: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

Our designated #LOGHSQUAD discusses the recently-released English translation of the first light novel in this acclaimed Japanese science-fiction series, as well as its comparison to the popular anime adaptation.

[Spoilers start at about 48:00]

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In this episode you heard from:
Akhi | @akhipill
Madeleine | @madnbooks |
Shelly | @shllybkwrm

The Book Table is a podcast from Backroom Whispering Productions. Our theme music is by Mark Wayne.

If you liked this podcast, rate us on iTunes! Or get in touch with us:
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Tell Me Again, Please!


Rebecca Kordesh, Director
Twitter | Blog




It is no real secret that we as a culture have a weakness for fairy tales and their retellings. The overwhelming success of Disney alone is a testament to how much we love to hear familiar stories told in a slightly different way. Indeed Disney does not only retell classic fairy tales, but they sometimes even retell their own–think of the strikingly different stories contained in Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent, both Disney films, based on the same fairy tale.

The universal appeal of fairy tales and folktales is not such a difficult thing to understand; they are defined by simple and easily accessible motifs that echo deep truths about the human condition. And because fairy tales and folktales were originally passed down orally, the idea of editing and changing the story with each telling is, well, a tale as old as time in some respects. This is what makes me such great fodder for modern stories; indeed it has become its own literary genre, and an incredible number of recent buzz-worthy and bestselling books fall into it.

Think Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle, or Gregory Maquire’s Wicked (which has since been re-told again as a highly popular musical – isn’t this fun?). And because fairy tales and folktales tend to involve magic or other elements of the uncanny, novelized retellings tend to fall into the fantasy genre (or, with some of the really creative ones, the sci-fi genre). In this post I’ll be taking a look at three approaches to the retelling genre and focusing on two books in each (with the exception of the four book series in category three) and thinking about what works and what doesn’t.

This discussion will not contain plot spoilers, but if you happen to feel like maybe you don’t want to know anything at all about the books before you read them (which is hard because they are, you know, fairy tale retelling so…. you probably already know the basic story) this may not be the post for you!

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“Science-Fantasy,” an epic genre combination

Dorothy McQuaid
Showrunner for Pycera/Social Media for BWP
Twitter | Blog | e-mail


Space ships. Robots. Artificial intelligence. Warring high-tech factions. Science!

These are a few of my favorite things.

Mystical spirits. Magic. Powers Unknown. Conversations with the gods. Dragons!

These are a few more.

But I have to read different genres to get my fix of both, right? After all, aren’t science-fiction and fantasy often shelved separately (albeit, next door to each other) in libraries? Actually, not always. It’s one of those cases where it does depend upon the library or bookstore in question: some separate them, some don’t. Some places might not even bother to separate them out from general fiction! In the latter case, I suppose that would help the argument that there are definitely stories that blur th esoteric line between science-fiction and fantasy, but it also goes to show that not everybody agrees on this. As for me, I’m always delighted when I encounter something that has elements of both science-fiction and fantasy.

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Tea in Fantasy


Akhi Pillalamarri
Head Web Content Contributor
Twitter | Website

It’s always a pleasure to see things you enjoy appear in the literature you read. For example, in my previous post, I talked about how I liked seeing a terrain that appeals to me, the desert, in fantasy literature.

This same pleasure also extends to food and drink. I love tea. I love expanding my palate by trying out different varieties and preparing it in a multitude of ways. Just as there are numerous different grape cultivars that yield different types of wines, such is the case with the tea plant.

While the constructed worlds of some of the series I’ve read try to capture the diversity of wine and beer, I haven’t seen this effort extended as much to tea, and even less to coffee.

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