I refer you to other posts that I’ve made on great books for Christmas presents–and, of course, you can always buy mine–but I wanted to go through some of the books I’ve read this year and bring them to your attention. Their are eight standouts in particular.
Karen Traviss: View of a Remote Country
I really admire Karen Traviss’ writing and so the opportunity to revisit some of her early short stories in this book was not to be missed. Thirteen short stories including some classics such as ‘Suitable for the Orient’ and ‘Does he take Blood?’, and my personal favourite, ‘Evidence’ which is the powerful tale of how an archaeologist interprets/misinterprets the evidence in the find of an alien burial on a remote planet. All the pieces have speculative fiction content, mostly science fiction, some of it social, some of it alt-historical, some of it alien/extra-terrestrial and (unusual for Traviss) a smattering of fantasy. All of it speculative in the widest sense of the term. Highly recommended.
Joe Abercrombie: Half a King
Yarvi is a prince, but a younger son, so not expected to inherit, which is just as well because he was born with a deformed hand and can neither hold a shield nor scale a fortress wall. He’s never going to be the man leading an army into battle. He’s destined to be a minister and has almost completed his rigorous training when his father and older brother are killed and he’s dragged into the limelight – and not to his advantage.
Betrayed by his uncle and surviving only by good fortune and his quick wits, Yarvi is sold into slavery, strapped to a galley oar where he seemingly will stay until he dies, but Yarvi is clever. He’s only ever had his wits to rely on in a land where physical prowess counts for everything. And despite the hardscrabble world he’s been thrust into Yarvi is essentially kind, though not weak. He’s determined to survive and determined to get revenge on his uncle. When eventually he gets his chance for freedom, he takes a bunch of shipmates with him on a gruelling journey back to his homeland. There’s a surprise twist at the end which means Yarvi gets what he wants, but not in the way he expected to get it and not without consequences.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I see some reviewers have dubbed it Abercrombie-lite because compared to the author’s earlier books this is nowhere near as grimdark, however they don’t seem to have taken into account that it’s written with young people in mind. The story is more simple, more accessible than the First Law Trilogy, but no poorer for all that. It’s a coming of age story with a physically flawed protagonist that kept me hooked. In fact – I only intended to read a chapter but I couldn’t put it down. I read the whole lot in one sitting without even coming up for air or coffee. That’s a real page turner.
Genevieve Cogman: The Invisible Library
As an ex-librarian I have a fondness for anything library-oriented so I wanted to like this a lot – and I did. Genevieve Cogman’s debut novel is a delight. Irene is a junior librarian – an agent of the Invisible Library which exists between dimensions, but has access to all the alternate earths in the multiverse. It’s purpose is to collect and preserve all the alternate versions of important books that have been published in the various dimensions and the librarians are, essentially, book thieves (or sometimes book-buyers). Getting hold of the book seems more important that the morality of their methodology. Sent to a steampunky alternate London to collect an important copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales she’s given the bare minimum of information and saddled with a trainee, the elegant and handsome Kai who is eager (maybe over-eager) to have a field assignment since he’s been cooped up in the library for the last five years, learning the ropes. Irene is wrong-footed even before crossing over into the alternate London by Bradamant, once her mentor and now a rival. Bradamant wants the gig of finding the Grimm, but Irene suspects her motives and her authority. This steampunk alternate is inhabited not only by humans, but by fae, werewolves and vampires. It’s been infected with chaos, and chaos magic and the library’s own powers don’t mix. Irene and Kai battle mechanical crocodiles, werewolves, silverfish, Bradamant (again) and, most terrifying of all, a renegade librarian who is known for returning the vital organs of those librarians whose paths have crossed his – mostly in separate, neatly wrapped packages. Zeppelins and mechanical hansom cabs are involved as well as a very proper policeman called Singh and an elderly blackmailer. It’s well-paced, inventive and a very satisfying read.
David Barnett: Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl
Gideon Smith, son of a Whitby fisherman from Sandsend is an aficionado of the true adventures of Captain Lucian Trigger, Hero of the British Empire, so when his father’s fishing boat is found floating, abandoned, with all the crew lost, Gideon goes looking for answers. There’s a strange creature walking the night, one that’s scarily reminiscent of a mummy described in one of Trigger’s tales, and strange goings on at Lythe Bank. He meets writer Bram Stoker, himself investigating another unexplained abandoned ship and the strange tale of a fierce black dog that came ashore. Unconvinced that Stoker’s quest (with Countess Elizabeth Bathory, Dracula’s widow) is tied to his own Gideon heads for London to seek help from the redoubtable Captain, on the way rescuing Maria, an automaton powered by pistons, but with a human brain. Once in the capital, a city of stinks, mechanical marvels and plenty of reminders that the British Empire is enormous following the failure of the American War of Independence, he and Maria seek Trigger with the dubious help from a potty-mouthed Fleet Street journalist, Bent. They are bound for disappointment, but gradually a story unfolds that draws all the separate strands together. A super, steampunky romp with vampires, mummified beasties, airships and automata that starts in Whitby, moves to London, Egypt and back to London again. Well-paced this is obviously only the start of Gideon’s adventures due to a large dangling thread at the end. And, indeed, checking up, there’s already one more Smith book published and another to come in September 2015. Highly recommended.
Ian Whates: Pelquin’s Comet
The Dark Angels #1
Space opera, adventure, treasure hunting, a motley crew, aliens and some corporate intrigue are the building blocks that form this science fiction tale from Ian Whates. Pelquin is a free trader/ The Comet, his ship, and motley crew, bear some resemblance to the Fireflyesque scenario (no bad thing in my book) in which a rag-tag bunch of adventurers skirt the barely legal side of free-trade amongst a collection of worlds. Pelquin, the captain has a lead on a cache of valuable alien artefacts, but to get at them he needs to finance his expedition with a hefty loan from the First Solar Bank. He gets the loan, but also acquires a sharp-suited banker, Drake, who is a lot more than he seems to be, and, when his engineer, Monkey, is injured, Pel casually acquires a young woman replacement who’s not quite sure who or what she is, but super-soldier wouldn’t be far off the mark. This is a set-up book for more adventures and so there are a lot of potential avenues unexplored, but on this first showing I’d be happy to read more books set in the Dark Angels universe. Some questions are answered, more are asked, so if (like me) you like your spaceship crews a little rough and ready. Morally ambiguous while retaining the general designation of good-guys, this is for you. It’s well-paced, twisty and gives a good glimpse into the possibilities of Pelquin’s universe. Oh, and it’s got a gorgeous cover – art by Jim Burns.
C.E Murphy: Heart of Stone
Negotiator Trilogy/Old Races Universe #1
Loved this. Margrit Knight, a lawyer and negotiator in New York City gets involved with a world she never knew existed when she meets Alban – a gargoyle and one of the Old Races. Someone is killing women in Central Park and Alban has been framed. Who and why? That’s the big question. Margrit’s homicide detective off-on lover, Tony, thinks he has the answer. Margrit helped to give it to him, but when she listens to Alban’s side of the story she realises that she was too hasty. She also realises that she’s powerfully attracted to the gargoyle (no, he’s not always made of stone) and her rocky relationship with Tony is going to suffer even more. This is a whodunit and a whydunnit, but it’s also about race and acceptance. Margrit is black, from a privileged family and has to examine her own prejudices when she discovers beings in NYC who may not be human but dammit, they’re still people. The characters are powerfully drawn, Margrit is a compelling heroine, fiercely intelligent, dedicated to her job (and her clients) and fearless in the face of danger (even when she probably shouldn’t be). The setting and set-up is fascinating and though I’m not usually a sucker for police/lawyer type crime novels the urban fantasy aspects of this drew me right in.
Judith Tarr: Forgotten Suns
On the deserted world of Nevermore, a family of archaeologists labours to uncover ancient mysteries despite the threat of funding cuts which will lead to the United Planets stripping the planet’s resources in a legal invasion. Nevermore presents a conundrum. If the people of this world had suffered a wipeout after some apocalyptic upheaval there would be evidence, but there isn’t. Aisha accidentally blows the top off a mountain revealing a strange being, a living treasure. Human in appearance, Rama is even stranger than he first appears. Dressed in rags, but wearing enough gold artefacts to stock a small museum, and quite mad in a compelling way, he begins a quest to find Nevermore’s missing population. They’ve only been gone for five thousand years, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The question of who is Rama? turns into the question of what is Rama? Aisha may be the only person tying together disparate strands which all belong to the same puzzle. Psionic powers and magic mesh with science in this enthralling adventure. Characterisation, human and non-human, is complex and layered. The setting is a multiverse full of diverse worlds from Nevermore to Ariceli and Starsend via a free-trader’s hub in the company of a worldly wise opera singer, a renegade Psychorps lieutenant and a boatload of angry scientists. The writing is often lyrical without being overblown, the tension is well-wrought and the pace fairly rattles along. Highly recommended.
Terry Pratchett: the Shepherd’s Crown
Discworld #41 – Tiffany Aching #5
Ah, the very last Terry Pratchett and a farewell not only to the author but to one of his most endearing characters, Granny Weatherwax who sets her affairs in order, cleans the house, weaves her own coffin and meets Death as an old friend, leaving her cottage, her boots and her steading to young witch Tiffany Aching. That’s no great spoiler as it’s the first happening in the book which drives the story. Tiffany is a powerful young witch, yes, but stepping into Esme Weatherwax’s shoes (while not giving up her own steading on the chalk) is a very big step and there are some senior witches, particularly Mrs Earwig, who would deny her the opportunity. Indeed, people are always underestimating Tiffany. She’s young, working class, and she spends time cutting old men’s toenails because that’s what needs doing. And that’s what a witch does. It’s not flashy magic, in fact, it’s not always magic, but it’s what’s needful. Tiffany has allies. Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax’s long time friend, knows that Tiffany wouldn’t have been named as her successor unless she was worthy, and the Nac Mac Feegles, the Wee Free Men of the first Tiffany book. Tiff is put to the test when there’s another major incursion from the Elves, who live by their glamour and take delight in doing mischief from ruining beer to stealing children and tormenting and killing humans in various despicable and painful ways. Needless to say Tiffany deals with the Elves in her own way and becomes her own witch in the end, not following exactly in Granny Weatherwax’s bootsteps, but making her own. This is a delightful book, a fitting end to Terry Pratchett’s oeuvre. I have to say that right from the start there were moments when I could hardly read it dry-eyed. Tiffany and Terry have a lot to say about humanity.