From the editor of Focus: Best of the Year 2019

By Dev Agarwal

There was a lot to try to keep up with in 2019.  As usual my attention was split between what was new, what I’d missed and what I revisited.  As this is the regular review of the new, I’ll keep my attention squarely there — though I’ll confess to missing key releases that will doubtless prove to be among the best of the year.

As 2019 was also the end of a decade, this is a moment to note that over the last ten years we’ve seen a number of new writers establish themselves as major names in the genre.

I caught up with two novels that were key parts of genre series: Elizabeth Priest had a second book in her YA Troutespond series, The Changeling’s Choice (Luna Press Publishing), and Aliette de Bodard published The House of Sundering Flames (Gollancz). Priest’s novel continued her urban fantasy adventure with Alana the teenage witch, who balances fighting monsters from the faery world alongside handing in her A-Level course work, while de Bodard’s novel concludes her Dominion of the Fallen trilogy. Priest continues to build a sizeable following in YA, while de Bodard’s novel was described as “moving and hugely readable” and de Bodard as “one of the most influential voice in fantasy today.” De Bodard’s first short story collection also came out in 2019, Of Wars, and Memories, and of Starlight from Subterranean Press. This collection ranges across the ambitious breadth of de Bodard’s world-building, including her magic-infused Gothic Paris and her far-future Xuya space opera.

Tim Major also enjoyed two significant publications this year. Snakeskins (Titan Books) is an SF thriller concerned with the timely and current issues of cloning and identity.  Later in 2019, Major’s first collection, And the House Lights Dim (Luna Press) came out.  This collection travels through traditional SF to much weirder fringes. Both books are well worth seeking out and I’m pleased to say that the BSFA has snagged Major to discuss his writing process in Focus in 2020.

Maura McHugh had a particularly busy 2019, and published prominent short fiction including ‘The Mechanical Marionette Mob’ in Scarlet Traces, edited by Ian Edington, (from Rebellion Publishing) and ‘Y’ in Nowhereville: Weird Is Other People, edited by Scott Gable (Broken Eye Books). McHugh is another writer publishing a collection in 2019. NewCon Press published The Boughs Withered (When I Told Them My Dreams) in August, edited by former BSFA Chair, Ian Whates. She was prominent across multiple media, with a radio adaptation of her short science fiction play, The Love of Small Appliances, broadcast on Near FM (directed by Nicola Murphy).  McHugh also had a number of comics published in 2019, including Witchfinder Omnibus, Volume 1, co-written by Kim Newman and with art by Tyler Crook. If that wasn’t enough, you can find podcasts of McHugh being interviewed by Scott Edelman for the Eating the Fantastic podcast and also McHugh’s interview with George RR Martin during Worldcon in Dublin.

Another writer who cemented her career in the last decade and continues to be a strong and visionary voice is Priya Sharma. Sharma published three notable short pieces in 2019. There’s ‘Feral’ in The Porcupine Boy & Other Anthological Oddities, edited by Christopher M. Jones (Crossroad Press). There’s ‘My Mother’s Ghosts’ in Great British Horror 4: Dark and Stormy Nights, edited by Steve J. Shaw (Black Shuck Books) (and where you can also find ‘Oathkeeper’ by Maura McHugh). Sharma’s third story of 2019 was ‘Ormeshadow,’ a novella for In this story, Sharma takes her readers on a journey that melds myth, legend and family drama in a seamless and lyrical narrative.  Sharma is a writer who always combines the highest standards of prose styling with imaginative jumping off points for her stories.

Rosanne Rabinowitz was also busy last year with short fiction, including ‘Geode’ in Pareidolia, edited by James Everington and Dan Howarth (from Black Shuck Press). And again showing how interconnected our genre is, this collection also featured ‘What Can You Do About a Man Like That?” by Tim Major.

Rabinowitz reprinted a novelette, ‘All That is Solid,’  as a chapbook through Eibonvale Press. This is a timely story that explores our Brexit tensions through activism and art therapy, in arresting and elegant prose.

Georgina Bruce’s debut collection, This House of Wounds (Undertow Publications), arrived in 2019. Anyone interested in serious and lyrical fiction will want to read this book, accurately described as “edgy” and “disturbing.” Bruce’s work is always both visually stunning and emotionally invested.

David Gullen, another regular contributor to Focus, edited Once Upon a Parsec, an anthology on alien fairy tales for Ian Whates’ NewCon Press.  This anthology includes memorable stories from names that will be well known to BSFA members, including Focus writers Allen Ashley, Neil Williamson, Gaie Sebold and Stephen Oram.

Three of the stories that Gullen edited made into on the BSFA Award long list, reflecting the often unseen but crucial contribution of the editor in drafting individual work and in fashioning a thematic collection.

When not editing, Gullen published fiction with a novella, Third Instar, from Eibonvale Press. 2019 also saw Gullen break into the high profile magazine market in the US with his debut sale to F&SF, ‘The Moss Kings.’ I can recommend both stories.

As well as her story for Once Upon a Parsec (‘The Tale of Suyenye the Wise, the Ay, and the People of the Shining Land’), Gaie Sebold published a new novella with NewCon Press, A Hazardous Engagement, featuring a fast-paced blend of magic, gods and automata.

2020 should promise more fiction by both Gullen and Sebold, who are furiously inventive and entertaining writers.

At Eastercon, I had the good fortune to see David Langford, who was releasing New Maps: More Uncollected John Sladek (Ansible Editions).  I was not familiar with Sladek before reading New Maps, though like many people I recognised his name.  I see now that I have allowed a significant gap in my genre reading to develop.  I am busy correcting that error by reading as much Sladek as possible. The earlier Maps and New Maps both collect his satire, criticism, poetry and artwork (including ‘The Rebus Version of Mein Kampf’ which really needs to be seen to be appreciated). “Sladekian weirdness” is delivered as advertised.

Turning to television and cinema: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was more science fictional than most of Tarantino’s oeuvre as it took place in a parallel universe where the Manson family encounters a TV actor and his long time best friend and stunt double, before they encounter Sharon Tate. The film was surprisingly unTarantino-esque in its pace and in championing character over action set pieces.  This was a long and textured film that balanced the struggle to make it in Hollywood’s relentless industry as well as a fictionalised retelling of the vicious Manson cult.

Amazon and Netflix are reinforcing the challenge to cinema and television with their expensive and expansive long form drama. Nicholas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young had everything — extreme violence, psychologically damaged characters, sexual politics, deeply unpleasant exploitation, yet more violence, dark humour and relentless shock value.  It’s squarely genre in its sense of the horrific and showing us another world hidden beneath our own.

The comedy drama Russian Doll was relentless in a different way. While viewers will be very familiar by now with Groundhog Day time loops as a specific subgenre, Russian Doll managed to make that conceit new and inventive in its exploration of bereavement, PTSD and suicidal ideation.  And despite those heavy themes it was funny too.

I tuned in to Watchmen with low expectations having been steeped in Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel. I will now commit heresy by saying that I really enjoyed the series and found that it developed the characters fully and explored both the past and the future of Moore’s original setting. The series pulled off the difficult trick of taking Watchmen out of its original medium (comics) and translating it into another (television) very successfully.

In summation: last year was a full one and this year is already lining up to be just as busy.  There was a lot to like in 2019 and to look forward to in 2020.

Dev Agarwal is the editor of FocusHis fiction appears in Albedo One, Aofie’s Kiss, Hungur and Aeon.

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