The Michelle West novels: Suggested reading order

With the publication of the final two novels in Michelle West’s House War series this year (Firstborn and War), respectively, I’ve embarked once again on my quest to talk these books up to other people. In particular, if you like West’s Chronicles of Elantra series, written under her other penname Michelle Sagara, I think you’ll like the West aka Essalieyan novels too. For more on why I think these books are great, and why the conclusion to the House War in particular has been very satisfying, you can read my review of the previous entry in the series, Oracle, at Strange Horizons.

It’s the perfect time to start reading these books, as West has already sold the first four books in the final series in the universe (currently titled The Burning Crown), but the absolute earliest we could expect to see the first one would be 2021. Plus, there are currently 16 books in the series, so that’s a lot to catch up on.

That quantity, and the fact that the series began twenty-five years ago, also leads to the question of where someone who does want to read these books should start. (Note: all links go to West’s website, where she has assembled buying links for each book so I don’t have to.)

Where to start?

There are, roughly, three main storylines in the Essalieyan universe, which is converging towards the end of the world over the course of the story: that of Essalieyan and its capital city Averalaan, where most of the action takes place; the Western nation of Breodanir, which follows a different god and has different customs, ruled by the Hunters and their Huntbrothers; and in the South, the Dominion of Annagar, which views the Northern gods with suspicion. Jewel Markess ATerafin is the main protagonist of the Essalieyan storyline, and of the House War sequence. Breodanir is the subject of The Sacred Hunt, and the Dominion plays a starring role in The Sun Sword.

The difficulty comes in with the fact that the first three books of The House War precede or take place concurrently with all of the other books. So the following reading order is constructed with an eye towards minimizing spoilers and readerly whiplash due to jumping back and forth between books published in the mid-1990s and the end of the 2010s. West’s style has evolved markedly over the course of the series, becoming a more effective version of itself, and the difference is particularly noticeable between the first two books and all the others. All are published by DAW.

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The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie

I got to review Ann Leckie’s fifth novel for Strange Horizons recently and I was extremely happy about it. I love Leckie, and this book was an interesting twist on her established themes. It’s also Hamlet as retold by a rock, but the rock is the actual protagonist of the story, and it was great. I’ve seen some people perhaps not quite grasp that; I’ve also seen people say they couldn’t get into the book. I can see how that could be the case, but I was immediately gripped by the question of how the two halves of the story fit together. It’s great, and if you were put off the Radch books for whatever reason, this is a great, very different book to read.

A Conspiracy of Truths, by Alexandra Rowland

My review of A Conspiracy of Truths went up at Strange Horizons a few months back. I’m a fan of the author’s podcast (although, as with most things in life, I’m woefully behind on it), and I picked up this novel out of a desire to support her. I wound up really enjoying this “fantasy of fake news” quite a lot, even if its take on a “fantasy of fake news” isn’t quite what I expected from the elevator pitch.

You will note that the review doesn’t engage at all with the hopepunk discourse, which blew up while I was writing it. This was a deliberate choice on the part of me and my editor at Strange Horizons. Since nobody is paying me to write here, and since my morning coffee hasn’t fully metabolized yet, I will just say that I find the concept of hopepunk desperately undertheorized, which is a fancy way of saying “not framed with anywhere near enough conceptual rigor.” I will also say that I’m with AOC (always)–I think hope is something you have to do and be rather than waiting for it to come to you externally.

Fonda Lee, Jade City (2017)

This novel has already garnered a lot of buzz, and it was quite interesting to see someone combine wuxia movies and Hong Kong gangster flicks with the trappings of fantasy novels. I didn’t love this book unreservedly, but it’s definitely worth reading.

The island of Kekon is the only source of jade in the world, and it’s jade that gives the island’s Green Bone warriors their powers of agility, speed, strength and perception. Decades ago they used those powers to win Kekon its freedom from colonial overlords; now the two crime families who worked together for independence are on the brink of all out war as Kekon’s economy has taken off. The scions of the youngest generation of the Kaul family–cautious Pillar Lan, brash Horn Hilo, and failed future Weather Man Shae, who walked away from her family once and just returned, as well as their adopted cousin Anden–face an uncertain new world in which they will be tested by the Ayt clan, led by a ruthless female Pillar whose plans encompass a stage far larger than the island.

There’s no getting around the fact that this book is long, probably too long, as has been the case with most adult novels I’ve read recently. Lee, however, avoids the soggy middle problem which often afflicts these novels by having the plot take a sharp left turn that I won’t spoil. It works well, and it sets the front half of the novel up as a kind of golden age in retrospect, which is interesting.

I grew up in New Jersey, so I have a pretty high degree of automatic side-eye for the idea of competent and/or even moderately honorable mobsters, but it’s a fantasy novel, so I’ll give Lee that one for free. The real problem with the book from my perspective is that the female characters (Shae, Ayt Madashi, and Hilo’s fiancé Wen) are much more interesting than the male characters. I’m also not wild about the fact that Anden is a bundle of tragic queer and tragic half-breed stereotypes rolled into a ball, and let’s remember that this is a novel that Lee constructed: queerness is “unlucky” and therefore only okay if people don’t talk about or “flaunt” it on Kekon because she decided that Kekon would be this way.

All that being said, I grew to like the characters quite a lot by the end, and there’s a good deal of sharp-edged hilarity in the brief glimpses we get of Kekon from the white not!European perspective towards the end of the novel. I’m definitely also interested to see where the story goes, and even if that turns out to be a place I don’t like, Lee’s bold story and world-building are a boon for the genre as a whole. We need more books like this, and it deserves its success.