–Spirit by Gwyneth Jones: basically a gender-flipped retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo in space, Spirit follows Bibi, an orphan taken into the household of Lady Nef and General Yu. As the years pass, Bibi rises into the hierarchy of the new order on Earth–until a terrible betrayal shatters her life and the lives of those she loves. Honestly, the book had me at gender-flipped Monte Cristo, but there’s actually quite a bit more to it than that! Set in Jones’ Aleutian continuity, this is a rich, dense book with an unusual plot and great examination of gender roles. It’s also very striking, as Zen Cho pointed out to me, that this is one of the few books that depicts a Chinese-dominated society in a plausible and no-fuss manner that is miles above Joss Whedon’s attempts in Firefly (don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff about Firefly that I love, but realistic depiction of Asians isn’t really one of them). I missed it on the first reading because I was struggling a bit with the universe, but it does get a lot of little details right (the immortals, the festivals, the ranks in the household). As Zen points out, it also falters in places (where are the Classics and the Confucian influences, for instance), but still, pretty good. The other reason I loved the book was the strong emphasis it placed on family and family bonds–Bibi’s vengeance is centred on what happened to her mistress rather than on the loss of her own love, which is in the end a small part of the story.
–Witcher Saga and Witcher short stories, by Andrzej Sapkowski (read in French translation, though you can find volumes 1, 3 and 4 on amazon, respectively The Last Wish, Blood of Elves and The Time of Contempt–volume 2, Sword of Providence, is another series of short stories like The Last Wish). Those were massively successful Polish books (giving rise to a number of derived products including a rather well-known series of video games). It’s… well, Tolkienesque. There’s a bad-ass sorcerer who beats everyone at sword fights and his very powerful lady love, and a lot of times this skirts perilously close to wish-fulfillment from the author. There are elves who like nature, and dwarves who love mining, and humans who are slowly replacing them on the world stage. But what saves this is the totally cynical and black outlook on the setting: elves and dwarves are persecuted by humans in successive pogroms, all sides can act like selfish bastards as it suits them, and it’s very hard to see who would be the good guy, as everyone is busy playing politics and making sure their kingdom comes out on top; and even the horrible monsters the hero is meant to slay pale in comparison with the monstrous behaviour of humans acting in their own self-interest. I’m not saying it’s got very deep messages, but it’s a reasonably entertaining read if you don’t mind violence (there’s a lot of graphic wounds and battlefield scenes which don’t shy on the hours of suffering for the wounded), or sex (lots of explicit sex and ribald jokes, also I think some rapey content–there’s very little fetishisation of it, but it’s… explicit, as said before). It’s also not a monument of feminism, but it was rather a breath of fresh air to see several female main characters with their own storylines (and their own kick-ass moments) rather than the shrieking damsels-in-distress I’ve been seeing in far too many genre books lately.