Part of the joy of a vacation is catching up on all the books I’ve had backlogged for months. These are five books I’d heartily recommend for any trip, not the typical travelogues you’d expect in a vacation recommendation list, but books that push the boundaries of genre and literature to give your break a whole new perspective.
Hexomancy by Michael Underwood
There’s nothing like visiting an old friend during a vacation. I’ve been following the Ree Reyes series by Michael Underwood since its first inception, Geekomancy, which I called a love letter to pop culture The concluding act, Hexomancy, is sublime, dark, and an absolute joy to read. Lucretia, the villain in Attack of the Geek, is put on trial and banished. But as Ree’s mentor, Eastwood, points out, “When a Strega fails in her assignment, three more are dispatched to correct the error. One comes each season, striking when their powers are at their strongest.” The fight against the trio of villains forms the backdrop in this delightful menage a trois of fantasy, science fiction, and gaming at their best. It’s almost as though the favorite parts of everything pop culture you love is intertwined in a thrilling brew that is as unrelenting in its pace as it is witty. Underwood has a passion for the material, and a narrative that could have easily fallen into the trap of being a retro pastiche becomes something bigger than the sum of its total parts. The fight with a crocodile called “Scale, sovereign of the sewer” exemplifies the unique concoction as it conjures up light sabers, Buffy magic, and one of the funniest lines that’s all the more acute for its candor: “If Ree’d learned one thing in nearly three decades of video gaming, it was that you spammed attacks on the weak points.” Let Underwood hex you with his literary magic and you’ll be in for the ride of your life.
Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace
Culinary hell, a delicatessen of your nightmares, a savory adventure that bakes your brain into rolls of anticipation. Sounds like the perfect vacation dinner, right? Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace is the meal you’ll never forget, that five course dinner that sets your senses on fire and burns every nerve in your tongue but still leaves you wanting more. All the dishes are a marvel including a brutal knife fight, the dark secret behind chicken nuggets, and a le plat principal of rare angel flesh. The Sin du Jour handles exclusive clientele and discovering the secrets of demonic taste buds is the twisted special of the night that continually surprises. You literally won’t know what is being served next and the insights into politics, social customs, and fine dining serve as pungent spices to enliven an already fantastic meal. Wallace is an incredible chef and as he points out, “The secret is in the proportions, the exactitude of each ingredient and its ratio… A little too much or not enough and the flavor becomes a reasonable, obvious imitation of the real thing. They all marvel over the fact that it’s only a pinch of onion powder separating mediocrity from worldwide renown and endless riches.”
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard’s alternate vision of Paris is one of the most brilliantly dark reconstructions of the city of lights ever written. It’s a poetry of destruction, drenched in the horrors of a house war. Her writing is so gorgeous in its depiction of ruination, it feels like she’s literally swooping you off your feet and dropping you into the dilapidations of a city post-heavenly war. Different myths intersect, united in their savage search for celestial feasts, reminding us that tragedy transcends culture and beliefs. The House of Shattered Wings is a shrine to all that we love about books, humbling us with its awe-inspiring constructions as well as its violent plunges into the depths of existence: “No, not a church. A cathedral, like the pink-hued edifice the French had built in Saigon. It was . . . like a knife blade slowly drawn across his heart: he could almost have been back home, except that it was the wrong architecture, the wrong atmosphere, the wrong setting. He could still feel the fervor of its builders, of its worshippers, swirling in the air: a bare shadow of what it had once been, but so potent, so strong, so huge… There was—a flash of something familiar: the magical equivalent of the smell of jasmine rice, a touch of something on the nape of his neck that brought him, instantly, back to the banks of the Red River, staring at the swollen mass of the river at monsoon time—breathing in the wet smell of rain and churned mud. ”
The Buried Life by Carrie Patel
The worldbuilding in The Buried Life is absolutely fantastic and Patel weaves together a universe that’s as grand as it is provocative. The introduction to Detective Liesl Malone is chillingly brilliant, bullets before handcuffs the perfect allegory for the blend of grit and humor that drives the story. A pair of aristocratic whitenails have been murdered, but why a historian? The unique infusion of Victorian steampunk, hints of the ancient Cataclysm, and the subterranean dystopia of Recoletta frame the mystery as we slowly begin to discover the machinations of the parties vying for control. What I loved most was as I followed Malone and the unlikely heroine, a laundress named Jane Lin, I kept on wondering what people would think of our world a few hundred years from now. Patel is etching out traces of our own civilization from a future perspective, a cultural excavator carving out the recesses, digging up fossils that reveal both the geography of a collapsed United States as well as the intellectual debris of censorship. The Buried Life had me digging deeper, gawking at the literary stakes involved in the discovery of the Library of Congress: “The councilors wanted to uncover the Library’s secrets, but only for themselves. These are the tyrants who would entertain us with Shelley’s odes but keep us from his ‘Queen Mab…’ A visionless oligarchy. No respect for the history they would unearth and no discipline in using it… Textbooks on suppression and propaganda, but none on philosophy.”
The Voyage of Argo by Apollonius
One of the oldest myths in Greek culture got an upgrade when Apollonius of Rhodes humanized the Greek figures of legends, giving readers surprisingly flawed characters wracked by doubt. His writing was so unlike anything of the time, the work was derided even in his home town, Alexandria. I remember first reading it, being struck at how different the tone was. Their voyage wasn’t just an attempt to find the Golden Fleece, but rather a microcosm of the human condition, helpless to the whimsies of deities while struggling to eke out their own positions in society. When faced with defeat, Jason, doesn’t respond with typical gusto and the bravado of a Greek figure of legend. Instead, he is “paralysed by a sense of utter helplessness” and “added no word to either side in this dispute. He sat and ate his heart out, crushed by the calamity.” This is the kind of voyage I can empathize with, one that doesn’t hide from human foibles, but instead embraces them, prodding us forward. Every one of the books on this list does that which is part of why I enjoyed reading them so much over mojitos and key lime pies. Now please excuse me while I go swim in the ocean with a migratory swarm of sharks.