The Best of 2021 in Books and Comics

Oh, 2021… it was, in many ways, quite similar to 2020, actually. We did a general summary of the year here, and now the time comes to sum up our reading/watching experiences. This year, we decided to combine our best and worst title is one place, one reason being it’s already mid-January…

Piotrek: and another, at least in my case, that I mostly made really good choices and there’s really not that much bad stuff to write about.

Ola: Oh, for me this reading year was more of a mixed bag, with some truly flabbergasting titles from NetGalley – and some truly amazing, too. It was generally a pretty good year, reading-wise. Lots of solid titles, not too many re-reads… I will also remember this year as my introduction to the marvellous metaverse of manga – and that journey will continue!

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Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber: Subtle Architecture of Treason

This is our post for Witch Week 2021: Treason and Plot, organized by the inestimable Chris of Calmgrove and Lizzie of Lizzie Ross. Witch Week is a yearly event happening in the last week of October, in tribute to Diana Wynne Jones’s third Chrestomanci book focusing on all things fantastical. This year, however, instead of concentrating on Halloween and thereabouts, we’re taking a closer look at the history of the Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot, the British tradition of Bonfire Night, and various treasonous activities causing rot in states, real and imagined.

We chose Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber as our topic for this year’s Witch Week for two reasons: first, Zelazny’s untimely death in 1996 caused a curious silence around his works, so that he’s no longer a well-known author and his novels have been slowly sliding into oblivion in recent years. He remains an author’s author, mentioned here and there by the new generations as a source of inspiration, but in our opinion he deserves wider recognition. Secondly, The Chronicles of Amber, a series of ten books that can safely be classified as fantasy, though discussions can be had whether it’s epic or urban, or something else altogether, is a wondrously complex latticework of betrayal, double dealing, plots within plots, lethal mysteries and hard-bitten protagonists somewhere between noir detectives and medieval knights.

Ola: Well, there’s a third reason. Both Piotrek and I love Amber, and needed little excuse to return to this fantastic world ;). Zelazny’s a great author in general, though uneven at times. But his best works are among the best the genre has to offer, and even his mediocre ones boast of unique imagination, propensity for audacious literary experimentation, and sensitivity to language that’s at once precious and highly uncommon. Incidentally, a novel perfect for a Halloween reading, and also containing a lot of treason, backstabbing, and plots to conquer the world, is his A Night in the Lonesome October.

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Brent Weeks, The Black Prism (2010)

Author: Brent Weeks

Title: The Black Prism

Format: Paperback

Pages: 640

Series: Lightbringer #1

Brent Weeks seems to have as many die-hard fans as critics; and the number of both is not insignificant. His bestselling Lightbringer series, of which The Black Prism is the first instalment, consists of five books. And what books these are! Each is over 600 pages long, and the last reaches nearly a 1000 pages 😉. In other words, a huge time investment for busy bookworms such as us. Is it worth reading? Or at least starting?

The short answer is yes, but it is not an unequivocal yes. It’s not a game-changing literature, or a piece of art that will forever alter your understanding of reality. It’s not without its faults. And yet, The Black Prism is a well-written book, with a creative, complex magic system, a rich set of believable (well, mostly 😉) characters, and some highly enjoyable plotting. There’s lot of action, and plenty of blood and gore and cruelty, steeped in a thick sauce of political intrigue, treachery, side switching, heroic efforts, and spiced with variedly successful attempts at humour – generally, all what you have come to expect from epic fantasy.

So, what is it about? In a land ravaged by a civil war, in which brothers fought against each other with sorcery and sword, a tenuous peace is threatened once again by discontent, ambitious princes. In the world of Lightbringer the power comes with magic. And magic comes in many different colours. Literally; magic is dependent on the perceived light spectrum, and magic users are divided into groups based on their colour affinity: which hue can they harness to create luxin, a versatile substance exhibiting different properties depending on its base colour. There are as many types of luxin, and its creators, as there are colours in the rainbow – plus both ends of the spectrum, ultraviolet and sub-red. As magic is an indispensable element of the world of Chromeria, magic users are widely sought after and respected, increasingly so when they can use more than one colour; and a person able to wield all seven hues is called Prism.

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Rebecca F. Kuang, The Poppy War (2018)

The Poppy War

Author: Rebecca F. Kuang

Title: The Poppy War

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 544

Series: The Poppy War #1

This turned out to be one of the more difficult reviews to write for me. Everybody and their uncle seems awed by Kuang’s debut novel, which reimagined the history of 20th century China into a vengeful fantasy of violence. The Poppy War was one of the rare books bound to become a bestseller, with publishers outbidding each other for the rights to the book. The enthusiasm was not without merit: for the reader from Western sphere of influence, Kuang’s novel presents an undeniably attractive image of China, fueled in equal measures by the elements of Chinese mythos already popularized in Western pop-culture and by the impression of mystery surrounding China as a fabled, distant land. The mythos, and stereotypes, are fairly easy to enumerate: martial arts’ prowess, Chinese zodiac and a large pantheon of demigods and demons, feng shui rooted in a belief of holistic spirituality, snippets of a heroic age long gone, when emperors ruled and Great Wall and Silk Road were built, and a vague concept of a collective social outlook, linked to Confucius. Add to it Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda series and Disney’s Mulan, and maybe some bits and pieces of more contemporary information regarding Chinese communism coupled with the evidence of the irrefutable economic success, and the vision of China in popular culture is more or less complete.

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Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019)

black leopard red wolf

Author: Marlon James

Title: Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Format: Paperback

Pages: 620

Series: The Dark Star Trilogy #1

“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” p. 3

If Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo del Toro ever had a child who was an empath with deep, abiding love for Africa and penchant for intimate, graphic violence, his name might have been Marlon James. Black Leopard, Red Wolf elicits quite extreme reactions from readers – from hate to confusion to appreciation to love – and after reading it I no longer find this surprising. It is indeed a visceral, shockingly brutal and sometimes outright nightmarish journey through atrocities and evils, real and imagined. When James writes that there are two pages in this book that his mother is not allowed to read, I feel I know exactly which two pages he talks about; and they are horrifying in the portrayal of the most intimate, vengeful violence. And yet Black Leopard, Red Wolf is also a book describing with heartbreaking detail the fleeting, protean essence of happiness; the capriciousness of fate and coincidence; the twisted, uncanny ways of human heart. At 620 pages of dense, challenging prose Black Leopard, Red Wolf is James’s absolutely stunning tour de force; a classic Bildungsroman set in the mythical neverwhen of pre-colonial Africa, where monsters prowl the land and sometimes hide behind human eyes, where humans take on animal forms, where magic is ordinary, and miracles are everyday occurrences, but where human kindness is rarer than gold.

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