And so here are my favorite reads from this past year. As usual very few of these books are recent books. Some like the Westlake and the Pohl I’d been meaning to read for years. One delight from the past year was reading Tanith Lee. I wish I had gotten to read her work sooner. One thing I didn’t read much of this past year was non-fiction. Maybe only two or three other books beside the Machiavelli one listed below.
The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake
The first of Westlake’s novels featuring his jinxed crook protagonist Dortmunder. This is a great fun heist novel where a simple jewel heist turns into something so much more complicated. Westlake writes a world that bends not simply crooked but cussed.
The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot
A thriller novel about a doctor and his family who become drawn into the vampire subculture of Victorian Europe. It’s a mess of breakneck events, that is a lot more entertaining than it needs to be.
The Compleat Guth Bandar by Matthew Hughes
I am susceptible to the occasional Jack Vance itch
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Chambers might be my favorite for writing mac&cheese comfort food science fiction.
The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall
Hallucinatory secondary world adventure fiction that’s like a Spaghetti Western version of the Planescape setting.
Gateway by Frederick Pohl
A classic of 1970s science fiction that digs into the grot and grit of fabulous technology. Humans discover a cache of alien ships and the desperate start piloting them around the galaxy at much risk to life and limb.
Embers by Sandor Marai
A tense little book about two old man confronting their past relationship and the dark secret that binds them. One of those books that’s basically about two people eating dinner atop a roiling sea of subtext and back story.
Gates of Ivriel by CJ Cherryh
Eternal champion style immortal swords woman awakens from her eternal sleep and throws the world in turmoil as she attempts to complete the mission that brought her to the world in the first place. Told from the perspective of the eternal sword woman’s companion, a barbarian warrior bound to the woman by a debt of honor.
Faces Under Water by Tanith Lee
An alternate renaissance Venice full of intrigue, alchemy, and a good bit of skullduggery as a scholar discovers a cursed mask beneath a mysterious woman’s window one night. Gets downright hallucinatory by the end.
Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World by Erica Benner
An oddly uplifting book about a republic in crisis due to the overweening pride and arrogance of a few men, and the dedicated man of principle who must walk a narrow path through the era. Hard to say why I loved this book, but I pretty much recommended it to everyone I knew at some point.
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
The kingdom of Iraden houses many secrets as Eolo the warrior discovers as they assist their friend in reclaiming his position as the Raven’s Lease. Interesting world building here in part constrained in focus and scope to all the plot occurring in one location.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
Straight forward fantasy novel about a group of adventurers tasked with stealing an artifact to aid a kingdom. This earns its spot here by its attention to detail and the depth it goes in developing its small cast of characters and slim plot.
Faces Under Water by Tanith Lee: The first book in Lee’s alternate Venice series full of alchemy, masks, magic, and skullduggery with a lot of the vivid prose Lee is known for. I had a great time with this. When Furian finds a strange mask floating in the canals of the city of Venus it leads him into a conspiracy full of madness and murder. Of course, he’s an obnoxious ass and the book’s full of all sorts of the awful and horrific (rape’s a plot reveal), but as someone who grew up loving Clive Barker and Sword & Sorcery this felt like the two streams coming together. This cover, however, is crap.
Revenge of the Witch by Joseph Delaney: The first book in Delaney’s The Last Apprentice series about Thomas Ward, who’s the seventh son of a seventh son and the apprentice to Old Gregory the Spook of the county. Spooks are basically ghost finders and witch hunters that protect a region from supernatural foes. The setting’s vaguely 17th century after the English Civil War of Not Quite England. I’m not sure if Thomas is the main character of the whole series, or it shifts to others. I’d say it’s alternate history fantasy with horror overtones.
Jakob Von Gunten by Robert Walser: Walser was the guy critics compared Kafka to before critics started comparing writers to Kafka. I wrote about Jakob Von Gunten over at my patreon. You can click here to subscribe and read it.
To The Resurrection Station by Eleanor Arnason: This is an early book by Arnason and mashes up science fiction tropes with Gothic ones. It’s a book that’s fun, but a product of its time, and likely Arnason would do a better job with the same story now. For me, the charm was in protagonist Belinda Smith’s “magic power” that bends reality around her and makes the impossible possible. It was a neat conceit.
The Cloudship Trader by Kate Diamond: I liked this book, but I also reacted weirdly to it. This is the first book in my memory that instantly brings to mind a Studio Ghibli movie. It doesn’t matter which one. It captures the Miyazaki aesthetic and sticks with it. The plot revolves around enslavement of non-human characters, bad things happen, one character is fleeing an abusive relationship, but there’s nothing systemically bad in the world, hell, there doesn’t even seem to be any force of entropy or the simple cussedness of inanimate objects. All the evil is performed by a few bad actors acting mostly in isolation and the characters believe that if they calmly state their case and reveal the facts to a person in charge, everything will be okay. No one could abide letting an injustice occur and would go to great lengths to repair the wrongs done, even if that meant destroying a cultural object of great significance or tearing apart a treaty. I like a good comfort food read from time to time, and this is certainly one, but it’s also Comfort Food as an aesthetic and I found myself at time having a hard time swallowing that. But the appeal of such an aesthetic is clear.
I got lazy. Then I decided to move. Then I moved. Now I’m getting back to it. So here are the books I read and liked.
The Comedians by Graham Greene: A novel about morally compromised people making bad decisions as the world falls apart around them. Here we have Mr. Brown, a jerk of a hotel operator, obsessing over his affair with a diplomat’s wife in Papa Doc’s Haiti and the friendship he strikes up with two other dubious characters, Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith. Their nondescriptness is what draws them together. Overall the whole thing comes off as a farcical tragedy. Somehow through a series of awful events characters’ patheticness and pettiness manages to get twisted into something almost virtuous. I can think of plenty of reasons why someone would hate this book. It’s about privileged people being petty and awful in the face of suffering. And yet, or maybe because I am an awful person too, I love it.
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie: A self-contained fantasy novel!?! Who would’ve thunk it possible!?! The thing I really liked is that Leckie manages to write a bottle story where the characters are confined to a single place and time, yet she still manages to make the scope wide and far-ranging. This is a world full of politics and gods, but also individuals and their day to day problems. I feel like this book is one that could serve to welcome people back into the fantasy genre.
Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World by Erica Benner: I loved, loved, loved this book. And blathered about it on my Patreon. Did you know I have a Patreon? This is my Patreon. Why not support my Patreon? SuPpOrT mY pAtReOn. Support me and my writing, and receive my gratitude in return!
Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher: This book depressed me. You should read it.
Far North by Marcel Theroux: A grim post-apocalyptic road novel that’s as stripped down and lean as The Road but a bit more interesting because the narrator has a richer backstory. She’s the descendant of a religious back-to-the-land commune that sought to escape the impending collapse by settling in Siberia. The book nods heavily at the Western genre and its utopian yearning for some promised land that must exist just out of reach over the horizon.
Edges by Linda Nagata: Far future SF with downloadable minds, lives lived on various layers of virtual reality, and sentient alien artifacts that outlive their creators. The characters are a bit broad strokes, but the world and technology are fascinating. In particular I love the ideas that humanity’s great knack is our ability to subvert technology and merge with it no matter how alien it might be, and the universe is less populated by aliens than it is by the systems and devices they left behind. Fun stuff and while it stands alone it brings back characters from Nagata’s Nanotech series.
Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason: This is an alternate history novella of the quiet sort (as opposed to the Rommel-and-Patton-team-up-to-fight-Hitler-and-Stalin-oh-my-god-I’m-so-hard-right-now sort) that posits the existence of wooly mammoths in the American West during the era of Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis & Clark expedition, and what their continued existence means in relationship to and as metaphor for the coming struggle between Native Americans and European settlers. Not much happens and it’s very much a told story, but I was caught in it and enjoyed the ride.
Crawling out of my crypt for a bit. Here are the books that lit my wick last month.
Yes, this is late, but new job and all that.
Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott: Super fun Space Opera where FTL is achieved by alchemy, tarot cards, and harmonic engines that tap as close as possible to the literal music of the spheres. Plus group marriages of convenience, conniving relatives, space pirates, and an “evil empire”. Like I said, super fun.
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner: A fantasy novel without wars or big events or an entire cohort of characters to keep track of. Instead, it’s a story of a thief press-ganged into assisting a king’s “magus” in recovering a fabulous treasure that’s more valuable as a symbol than for any monetary value. The world building’s rich and deftly done, and the handful of characters fully realized. Recommended.
Outside the Gates by Molly Gloss: That 2019 will see all of Molly Gloss’s novels back in print is a great thing, and while I didn’t enjoy this early novel by her as much as her later work, it was still a treat to read – a bit like Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. Vren is a young boy with strange powers exiled from his home and forced to live in the haunted woods outside the gates. There he finds friends, but also a rising threat he must confront.
The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton: I hadn’t read Andre Norton before now and I absolutely wish I had. Her stuff is absolutely delightful in a pulpy greasy kids stuff sort of way. Murdoc Jern is a galactic gem trader who inherits a magical ring from his murdered father. What secrets does the ring hold and why would people kill for it? Murdoc decides to find out, and ends up on a quest that sees him wandering the space ways with an assorted bunch of companions including Eet, a mutant space cat that bears more than a little resemblance to HR Giger’s Alien.
Plague Ship by Andre Norton: You can read about this one on my Patreon.