Saturday, December 11, 2010

Favorite Novels Read This Year

A few fish plucked from the oceans...

David Anthony Durham, The Other Lands (2009). See my full review here October 17th, which begins: "David Anthony Durham's Acacia Trilogy is one of the most important projects within speculative fiction at the moment. (The first book-- The War with the Mein-- came out in 2007; the second-- The Other Lands-- in 2009; the third is due out fall, 2011; all from Random House). Having mastered the tropes of epic fantasy on his first time out (Durham won the 2009 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer), he is exploring in the Acacia series the intent and self-mythologies of slavers and the impact of enslavement on a global-societal scale. Acacia is world-building as a means to sophisticated, ambitious ends, the use of fantasy to comment on social relations and to imagine alternative power dynamics in our own world-- without resorting to allegory or sermon. Acacia thus belongs to the lineage that includes Plato's Republic and Timaeus, Campanella's City of the Sun, Johnson's Rasselas, besides Persian Letters, Candide, Diderot's Supplement au voyage de Bougainville, and so on down to Orwell."

Joyce Hinnefeld, In Hovering Flight (Unbridled Books, 2008). Delicately drawn, a moving exploration of memory, desires unclear even to those who harbor them, fraught relationships. All wound around the search for "Cuvier's Kinglet," a bird species that may or may not exist.

Olga Slavnikova, 2017 (Overlook, 2010, trans. from Russian by Marian Schwarz). The "most difficult-to-classify book of the year." Enjoyed without grasping its entirety, which was part of the enjoyment. Michael Froggatt, in his review (Strange Horizons, October 1, 2010), gets it precisely right: "Olga Slavnikova's 2017, the winner of the 2006 Russian Booker Prize, is a novel which confounds the reader at every turn: its prose style, characterization and narrative consistently refuse to conform to expectations. It stubbornly refuses to depict people or events in a way which recognizably reflects real life..."

Alastair Reynolds, House of Suns (2010). Another one of his love stories wrapped inside a billion-year epic. Reynolds is a poet of technology: clones are "shatterlings"; "aspic-of-machines" is the term for the nanobots and other medicinal therapies one applies as an unguent to wounds. Reynolds is especially good at the toss-off line that illuminates the deep trend, the broad sweep: "Cloning is a technology like making paper: it is not difficult if one knows how to do it, but extraordinarily tricky to invent from scratch..." (p. 97).

Iain M. Banks is the other current master of the billion-year spree, painting on an enormous canvas but always keeping individual human lives in the forefront. Banks and Reynolds are the heirs of Asimov and Herbert, and especially the Vance of the Demon Princes series and the Alastor novels. (Scalzi and Haldeman as the left-handed heirs to Heinlein?) Banks's Matter, another novel of The Culture, published in 2008 (Orbit), is at its heart a picaresque, with some of the best pert servant-clueless king dialogue since the 17th century. Or maybe it is a novel of ideas in the 18th-century manner, an anthropological inquiry...

Carmine Abate, Between Two Seas (Europa Editions, 2008, trans. from Italian by Antony Shugaar). My find of the year, as in "how come I had never heard of this author before?" Obsession in a Calabrian village, the pursuit of truthful memory, layers of history and emotion, the rebuilding of the ruined family inn (the myth-shrouded Fondaco del Fico)...

Gemma Files, A Book of Tongues (Chizine Publications, 2010). The debut of her Hexslinger series, set in a hyper-brutal American Wild West. Not for the faint-hearted. As Faren Miller put it in her Locus review (April, 2010): "...amping up the horror of a very dark tale...Files describes [the action] with a graphic, unflinching eloquence...Violent, sometimes foulmouthed, explicit in many ways, A Book of Tongues may discomfort anyone except the most seasoned fan of horror or homicidal westerns. More than one passage made me [i.e., Miller] wish I could 'read' with my eyes tight shut." Lobster & Canary felt the same way, and yet-- as Miller also goes on to say--the writing is so powerful and truthful that it elevates the story above mere squalor or obscenity. The gore reflects the horror as it is also depicted in the Iliad, in the Norse sagas, in Goodbye to All That.

Another fantastical, bloody Western--this time transported to Medieval Central Europe--is presented by Jesse Bullington, in his debut The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart (Orbit, 2009). "We ain't thieves and we ain't killers," proclaim the thuggish brothers (latest in a long line of grave-robbers, murderers, and sundry scoundrels), "We's just good men been done wrong." Where Files is relentlessly grim, Bullington is funny, making slapstick out of bloodshed, antics out of death. His novel is one long yarn, the mayhem so outsized, the descriptions so broad that the entire thing is a burlesque. Rabelaisian. Mix Sam Peckinpah with Terry Gilliam, and you have the sense of The Brothers Grossbart.

Moving to the polar opposite end of the literary spectrum, I loved Eline Vere by Louis Couperus (Archipelago, 2010, trans. from Dutch by Ina Rilke). Originally published in 1889, Eline Vere is routinely compared to novels by Flaubert, Thomas Mann, Henry James, Edith Wharton. A novel of manners about the cloistered, asphyxiating world of the 19th-century haute-bourgeoisie in The Hague. The eponymous heroine is an eccentric, subject to romantic fits and self-doubt. The pace is meandering, the details of drawing rooms numerous. Nothing violent happens...except once.

Galen Beckett, The House on Durrow Street (Ballantine, 2010), the sequel to The Magicians and Mrs. Quent. Likewise a doorstop novel about the haute-bourgeoisie...but with sorcery, Lovecraftian threats, skulduggery in high places, mysterious doorways long bricked over... The prose lopes along, like a genial hound,resembling a cozy mystery (with Cthulhu lurking along the edges).

Danielle Trussoni's Angelology (Viking, 2010) is uneven but -- in its best bits-- engrossing. If you like Lukyanenko's Night Watch trilogy, or any of the urban vampire-hunter series (Saintcrow, Butcher, etc.), you will enjoy Angelology...and its likely sequel(s).

The King's Gold by Yxta Maya Murray (from Harper, 2008) is a good romp, "an old world novel of adventure" as the sub-title has it. Sharp and witty characters, literary/historical riddles, pulp action, a wash of the Gothic supernatural...Reminds me of the Special Agent Pendergast series by Preston & Child, also a little bit of Eco, and of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind.

We highly recommend N.K. Jemisin's debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Orbit,2010). Jemisin has created a distinctive world, with idiosyncratic characters, vaguely Peakean in flavor, but entirely her own. We especially enjoy her dry wit, precise prose, and intricate plotting. Above all, we like her portrayals of the gods who have been enslaved: they are both more and less than human, raising a chill up the reader's spine while also tugging at our heart. We love them, fear them, do not understand them all at once-- we are as baffled, entranced and repelled as the heroine Yeine is by the immortal trickster youth Sieh and the terrifying (and terrifyingly erotic) Nightlord Nahadoth. Jemisin promises us two more in this series-- we await these eagerly.

Cherie Priest also does a fine job creating alien (eldritch, to use an overused but in this case very appropriate word) characters in Fathom (Tor, 2008, first paperback release February, 2010). The water elemental Arahab seeks to awake Leviathian from his slumbers deep below the earth's crust-- which will destroy the world. Yet Arahab is no caricature of evil: her actions have a defensible if wholly alien logic and ethic; she is willful, mercurial, but she weighs and measures, ponders, has doubts, is not merely hateful. If anyone is truly and one-sidedly evil in Fathom, it is the human Berenice, who betrays everyone, including her savior and patron Arahab. And then there is the enigmatic spirit called Mossfeaster: "From the feet up, the creature began to dissolve itself, not so much collapsing as letting the ground absorb it. But before the last of the shoulders, neck and head disappeared, it offered one final thought. 'You can help a thing who loves the world destroy it; or you can help a thing who hates it save it'" (page 100).

Spiritual quandaries also pervade Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress (Tor, 2009, first paperback edition 2010). Extraterrestials arrive to atone for a crime against humanity that no one on Earth knows anything about. "The Atoners" take selected humans to other planets to witness the consequences of this crime. Kress combines fast-paced drama with thought-provoking propositions. The revelations of the witnesses challenge deeply held beliefs; Kress is very good at describing how humanity reacts, in ways both trivial (celebrity tours, pop culture engulfment) and mortally important.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (Hodder U.K., 2007; first U.S. edition, Dial/Penguin, 2010) is really, really good. Finn has no memories of his past, but is now a Prisoner in the unimaginably vicious, squalid and vast prison-world of Incarceron-- a prison that is itself coldly intelligent, indifferently manipulating the fates of its inhabitants. There is and can be no escape from Incarceron. But where is Incarceron? That is the question for Claudia, daughter of the Warden, and her tutor, the Sapient Jared. As Finn and his deceitful, half-crazed companions desperately seek to escape the inescapable, Claudia (about to be married against her will to the Crown Prince) is furiously trying to locate Incarceron...all the more so when she and Finn stumble into conversation via a matched set of scientifico-magical Keys. Incarceron has it all: a twisting plot, flawed and believable characters, settings that live on after you shut the page. Peake and Vance come to mind, The Man in the Iron Mask, Dickens, Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games... we look forward to Incarceron's sequel, Sapphique.

Speaking of Collins, Mockingjay (2010, the finale of her Hunger Games trilogy) was everything we could have wished for. No punches pulled...down with the old boss, here's the new boss, same as the old boss...fight until the end and then fight some more. If dystopian our future be, let no one say that Collins did not prepare us...

Sharon Shinn, Fortune and Fate (2008, pb 2009), another in her Twelve Houses series. A melancholy tale of a knight errant (who reminds me a little bit of Lara Croft and Aeon Flux). Amadis of Gaul, Tirant lo Blanc, Palmerin of England, updated, clothed in sienna and umber. If you like Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, or Marie Brennan's Witch and Warrior, you'll like Shinn.

Warren Fahy, Fragment (2010). Best beach-read of the year! A loving pastiche, with nods to Jurassic Park, King Kong, Alien, and a thousand pulp stories and B-movies. Cries out to be made into a movie in its turn. (I love the details, such as the drawings of the spygers.)

1 comment:

Rick said...

Thank you for your summaries. Always looking for a good read.