This is all about other people’s books because–well–BOOKS!
We’re coming up to the gift-giving season, so don’t forget books. My mum, who will be 90 in January, is trying to read her way through all the Wilbur Smith back catalogue, so that’s her taken care of. We have a list. She’s ticked off what she’s read and that lets me know where to start. (Luckily she doesn’t read this blog, so she won’t know what I’m planning.)
I thought I’d like to do a roundup of books for you to consider giving to discerning friends (or to buy for yourself with those book tokens from Auntie Ethel). Yes they are 90% SFF. If you have a problem with that go and write your own list! Feel free to add titles that you recommend in the comments.
Kari Sperring: Living with Ghosts
Fantasy. A darkly atmospheric tale of the city of Merafi, beset with malevolent spirits seeking entry into the mortal realm, the sorcerous plot to aid them and the four mortals and a ghost standing between a tidal wave of magic and the endangered city. This is a gorgeous multi-layered work with a cast of characters which includes Gracielis, failed Tarnaroqui assassin-priest now courtesan and spy; Thiercelin, husband of one of the Queen’s closest advisors and feeling like a spare part most of the time; Joyain, loyal soldier, out of his depth, just trying to keep it all together; Valdarrien, slain in a duel, but not yet gone.Beautiful, lyrical writing. A treat. If you enjoy this you will also enjoy The Grass King’s Concubine. Though distantly related these books are stand-alones, so buy as a pair or buy singly.
Liz Williams: Snake Agent
Fantasy/Police Procedural. This is the first of Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen novels. Start here. Read them all. Chen is a snake agent, the policeman in the franchise city of Singapore Three in charge of supernatural and mystical investigations with the brief of investigating crimes that cross the boundaries between the mortal world, Heaven and the layers of Hell. In this first outing he’s teamed up with a vice officer from Hell (literally), the seneschal Zhu Irzh. Starsky and Hutch they are not, but there’s an element of the buddy-cop story as each character gets the measure of the other. Quirky, fascinating and fun despite its gritty content. Lovely characterization, lots of complications (including Chen’s demon wife and her familiar who is sometimes a badger and sometimes a teakettle).
Lois McMaster Bujold: The Curse of Chalion
Fantasy: One of those books I return to time and again, this has the best hero ever in Cazaril who, as the book opens, is a broken man, physically and mentally. Once courtier, courier/spy, captain and castle warder, he was betrayed and sent to the galleys to die. That he survived three years against all odds shows you how there’s a core of steel in this man despite everything. Now a homeless, hungry and ragged refugee, he’s seeking only a quiet life, but instead, his qualities are recognised and he’s given responsibilities which he has to live up to, gradually rebuilding himself by solving other people’s problems. This begins a sequence of events that takes Cazaril back to the capital, Cardegoss, to his own enemies mired in a seething hotbed of poisonous intrigue. Caz doesn’t see himself as extraordinary, even though he does extraordinary things. Even at his lowest he still has integrity and honour, not something he wears on his sleeve, but a deep internal moral compass. The story is a study of how one quiet but determined man can effect great change. It’s a dialogue between free-will and divine intervention.
Lois McMaster Bujold: The Warrior’s Apprentice
Science Fiction. Space Opera. Yes, two Lois McMaster Bujold books on one list, but there’s no way these two can be lumped together. Where Chalion is fantasy, this is science fiction, or space opera if you prefer, but it’s much more than a rocket ship romp. There are two books ahead of this in the series, (available in the omnibus Cordelia’s Honour) they primarily deal with Miles’ parents and his birth. Ms Bujold’s SF oeuvre is based around what fans have come to call the Vorkosiverse with the central character, Miles Vorkosigan, a stunted, brittle-boned individual in a militaristic spacefaring society which has a horror of physical imperfection. Barrayar is a politically backward planet which mixes space-capabilities with a highly stratified society. There’s an emperor, a council of counts and a civil service that is a cross between Yes Minister and Spooks. Between the seemingly impossible tasks of living up to his warrior-father’s legend and overcoming his own body, Miles Vorkosigan faces challenges which he has to think his way out of, or, being Miles, overthink. While not a comedy in any sense of the word there are times when these books are laugh out loud funny. In The Warrior’s Apprentice Miles flunks the test to enter the military academy and, sent off to visit his grandmother on Beta, rescues a failing pilot and (almost accidentally) talks himself into being the admiral of a mercenary fleet. Serious hijinks ensue. This is available either as a stand alone or in the Omnibus Edition ‘Young Miles’ which consists of two novels and a novella. While I would encourage you to read all the Vorkosigan books in internal chronological order, The Warrior’s Apprentice is a perfect introduction to a maddening, hyperactive, totally brilliant little runt who will grab your attention and not let go.
Patricia Briggs: Moon Called
Urban Fantasy: This is the first of the books about Mercy Thompson who, in addition to being a VW mechanic with her own repair shop is a ‘walker’ – a Coyote shapechanger – who has been brought up by werewolves. There’s a side order of vampires, fey and witches in this world. Set in the Tri-Cities area of Washington State, Mercy lives next door to Adam the alpha of the local werewolf pack which causes complications as there’s a certain amount of friction and sexual tension going on. The plot is fast, the style immensely readable. Mercy is a capable, but not invincible heroine and the whole series is tremendously engaging.
Joe Abercrombie: The First Law Trilogy
The Blade Itself. Before They are Hanged. The Last Argument of Kings
Grimdark Fantasy. You can read these books separately but really they are one complete story, so set aside several weeks and settle down to read all three. Abercrombie definitely qualifies as grimdark, but his books are not without black humour. There’s a cast of characters who intersect (sometimes only briefly). They all hate each other and/or are deeply suspicious of each other at the beginning – and all hate each other just as much at the end. The characters are compelling. Logen Ninefingers is a bloody barbarian and a fighter who will kill anyone who gets in his way when the berserk is on him. Remarkably insightful, though not educated, he leaves the north before he gets embroiled in one bloody feud too many. Inquisitor Glokta, once the shining hope of his generation on the battlefield is a man, broken in body but not in intellect, who knows torture from both sides. Hating everyone, he’s cutting treason out of the union one bloody forced confession at a time, but he’s permanently afraid that he’ll be the next one found face down in the harbour as he gets closer to the rotten heart of the government. There are murderous conspiracies, old scores to settle, a war brewing and a wizard who may be the embodiment of the First of the Magi or he may be a self-serving old fraud. I’m not a lover of grimdark fantasy for its own sake, but Abercrombie’s characterisation is superb and those little moments of black humour lift this well above the crowd.
Elizabeth Chadwick: A Place Beyond Courage
Historical Fiction: The story of John Fitzgilbert, who from humble beginnings as a royal servant rose to become marshal at the court of King Henry I, responsible for the logistics of everything from moving the court from one location to the next to supplying the authorised whores. An ambitious man, John prospers in turbulent times until, with the death of Henry the country is thrown into civil war as Henry’s daughter, Mathilda, battles it out against her cousin Stephen for the crown. John is one of Chadwick’s charismatic protagonists and one of my personal favourites, though he is eventually destined to be outdone by his fourth son, William, Earl Marshal, whose story is the subject of ‘The Greatest Knight’ and ‘The Scarlet Lion’. I like Chadwick’s historical novels. She writes within the Medieval period largely of Plantagenets. While writing historical romances, she never loses sight of political intrigue. All her books feel well-researched and she weaves fiction and fact together to make an engrossing read. With the recent TV programme on William the Marshal it’s worth going back to the origins of his story and reading them all.
Jaine Fenn: Principles of Angels
Science Fiction: This is the first of Jaine Fenn’s five (so far) Hidden Empire books, each one of which can be read as a stand-alone. Khesh City, a democracy of sorts, floats above the surface of the inhospitable planet of Vellern. Topside is lavish and luxurious, the Undertow is dark, twisted and dangerous. Khesh is policed by Angels, flying assassins, augmented by tech. Taro, brought up in the Undertow, is the prostitute nephew of an Angel, protected by her status until, one day, he sells his body to the wrong man and his customer follows him home and murders her. This sets Taro off on a path which must foil the destruction of Khesh itself. Ms Fenn’s writing is brisk, her plotting is satisfyingly twisty and her imaginative creation of Khesh City and her mesmerising Angels make this a memorable book. When you’ve read it you’ll want to get the rest of the series: Consorts of Heaven, Guardians of Paradise, Bringer of Light, Queen of Nowhere.
Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora
Fantasy. This is the first of the Gentlemen Bastards series, of which there are three so far, plus at least one novella prequel. Locke is a thief and a liar, whose skills at both are honed to (almost) perfection by Father Chains as he puts together a gang of young chancers, educating them to be capable of slipping into society at any level to work their scams, while seeming, to the Capa who runs all the crime in the city to be little more than jobbing pickpockets. Current story and backstory are woven together in Comorra, a fantasy analogue of Venice. Locke is imaginative and talented, but doesn’t always make the right decisions and setback piles upon setback with Locke and his gang struggling against near impossible odds to survive the Grey King, an unbeatable threat. Thoroughly absorbing, interesting characters who are changed by events that happen to them, great backstory, twisty plot in the front-story leading to nail-biting tension. Once you’ve finished this you’ll want to read Red Seas Under Red Skies and Republic of Thieves
Karen Traviss, Hard Contact
A Star Wars Republic Commando Novel
Science Fiction. Media Tie-In. I don’t read much media tie-in material unless I know the author, but I trusted Karen Traviss (author of the Wess’har series of novels) to deliver something with integrity and boy was I right. This is a story originally written to back up the Star Wars Republic Commando game, but such is the quality of writing that it far outshines its origins. The main characters are clone soldiers, the guys in white armour. They are all cloned from the same genetic material so they are all identical, they have all been created together, raised together, trained together. They will all age together – at twice the normal rate as they’ve been grown to maturity in twelve yeas by their Kaminoan creators specifically to be cannon fodder for the Republic. They have numbers instead of names… or do they? Within the first few paragraphs there are four completely individual characters on the page. This is set after one of the big battles as depicted in the Star Wars movies and these clones, raised in pods of four, are the sole survivors of their pods amalgamated into a new unit after losing brothers. The small differences they cherish not only separate them, but eventually meld them into a unit. They may only have numbers officially, but they’ve given themselves names. Within the confines of a search and rescue story, involving a very inexperienced Jedi, Ms Traviss starts to ask hard questions about identity, self-determination and culture. The clones are, in effect, slaves, owned by and to be used by the Republic. What happens to them if they are injured beyond the capacity to be returned to active duty? What happens if they fall in love? What happens if they want out of the army? Throughout this and her succeeding Republic Commando books Ms Traviss explores all these ideas and more. If you filed the numbers off this it might almost not be a media tie-in at all, though the rest of the Republic Commando novels (all written by Ms Traviss, unlike many other Star Wars sub-series) return our core characters to the centre of what’s happening in the Star Wars Expanded Universe much in the same way as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s own story weaves through Hamlet. Even if you never read another media tie-in novel as long as you live, read this one. And when you have you’ll probably want to go on to read: Triple Zero, True Colours, Order 66 and The 501st. (And since the final book was never written due to a change in the Licas/Star wars ‘bible’ Ms Traviss has very kindly given her outline of all the plot resolutions on her website here: http://www.karentraviss.com/page22/files/How_would_you_have_wrapped_u101.html)
So there you have it, my Christmas picks. Go and read them, buy them. Support authors. If you enjoy them blog about them and tell your friends.