In a year where my blogging volume has dropped precipitously due to writing commitments (and, uh, work), this is probably my last post of the year. Let’s go out with a bang! I haven’t had the opportunity to post about some of my favourite things this year, so I’m gathering all my 5-star raves for 2018 in one place.
To keep things manageable, I’m restricting my list of 5-star reading and viewing experiences to “Histories Unfolding Approved” historically-related entries.
In 2018 I was really blown away by the endings of two historically-themed YA series. It was a shame I didn’t have the time to give each of them a proper review. At least they made this list!
Rivals in the City, by Y.S. Lee
After a small step backward in the third book, all the twists and charms that made the first two installments so fun to read come back in a big way. Rivals in the City is easily the best novel in The Agency series.
As always, the writing balances a whimsical adventure with high stakes crimes and the emotional turmoil of a heroine struggling with her hidden identity. These elements are bound together in one riveting, suspenseful package as an adversary from Mary Quinn’s past threatens revenge.
Being the final book in the series, it finds a way to wrap up longstanding mysteries and threads in a deeply satisfying way. Yet there is no finality to the story. I get the sense that this book closes one phase of Mary’s life as she prepares for the next one. Even so, Lee has indicated no plans to continue the series (pretty please?) If that remains the case, this is a fitting way to end on a high note.
Blood for Blood, by Ryan Graudin
Whereas the first novel was hindered by its predictability, at least until the last pages, I was constantly surprised and enthralled by the twists and turns of Blood for Blood. Just when I thought things were headed in one direction, a new obstacle threw everything for a loop.
The attempted revolution against Nazi domination in this alternate history story seems doomed to fail as Yaël and her allies go on the run. With each plot twist, the set ups and payoffs are executed perfectly. Never once did I feel the story lapsing into familiar YA tropes. It doesn’t pretend that the world gets all better because of one heroic act. But despite the intense subject matter, it never feels burdened or too dark.
This is an excellent all-around adventure novel.
Bonus Non-Historical 5-Star Read: The Rise of Io, by Wesley Chu
Well, alright, I could argue that the Tao series counts as historical, with its backstory of alien interference in our civilization. However, this follow-up novel goes into full speculative mode after the world-altering events of the first series.
Still, I liked this book so much and was so floored by its unexpected plot turns that I wanted to give it special mention here.
This is a great start to a new trilogy, re-energizing one of my favourite recent sci-fi reads.
Although there has been critical hype for historical movies such as First Man and The Favourite, I haven’t managed to see either of these. Instead, the best historically-themed viewing experiences I’ve had have been on television.
You might have heard I absolutely loves this show.
It checks off a whole host of my favourite things:
- a murderer’s row of British character actors doing British character acting;
- beautiful Arctic landscapes;
- survival horror;
- and a supernatural monster from Inuit mythology!
Seriously, if you haven’t already, find a way to watch it!
Doctor Who | “Demons of the Punjab”
There have been so many refreshing changes to this new season of Doctor Who. Both new showrunner Chris Chibnall and new Doctor Jodie Whittaker have taken a few risks with their approach. For the most part, it has paid off in spades.
The new stories have gotten away from some of the most infuriating tendencies of the previous era. There is no over-reliance on the sonic screwdriver or solving everything at the last minute “because love.” In fact, not everything gets solved. Whittaker brings an endearing fallibility to the role reminiscent of my favourite Doctor, Peter Davison.
Another refreshing change is the resurgence of historically-themed episodes. What makes “Demons of the Punjab” stand out is how dominant the history element is. Smartly giving a showcase to a writer of East Indian descent, this episode effectively dramatizes both the events and the human costs of the Partition of India.
The sci-fi alien threat of this episode rapidly recedes, leaving the emphasis on the very human demons that plague the real world. This is no boring recitation of history, though. It wrings every bit of tension out of an inevitable tragedy. For OG Whovians, this may remind you of the First Doctor serial The Aztecs.
This season, the historically-themed episodes have consistently been the best. Here’s hoping for more in the coming season.