Book – What would happen if, one day, all the humans on Earth simply vanished? What would happen to the planet, and what would happen to all the stuff we left behind? As a practical question, it’s not a terribly important scenario. All humans on Earth are unlikely to vanish all at the same time. But as an exercise in understanding the processes of the natural world and the durability of human creation, it’s completely enthralling. Be amazed at how quickly New York City would crumble into dust! Be horrified at just how long the Gulf of Mexico would burn if a spark hit an oil rig in just the wrong way! And be utterly humbled by the idea of a world without humanity in it at all.
I first picked this up to research a post-apocalyptic story I wanted to write. I was not disappointed – there’s enough material here to fuel hundreds of post-apocalyptic stories, no zombies required. At seven years old and counting, some of the science is probably getting dated, but it’s still a great read. For advice on avoiding an end-of-the-world scenario, try Scatter, Adapt and Remember by Annalee Newitz, or, for a larger-scale apocalypse, The Life and Death of Planet Earth by Donald Brownlee.
Book – Maia may have been an emperor’s son, but he never expected to amount to anything. His older brother was the heir, after all, and Maia had been exiled from court when his mother died, so the chances of Maia ever leaving the backwater estate he’s grown up in are small. But when the Emperor – along with all of his other heirs – die in an airship crash, Maia is the only one left, and he will have to learn everything there is to know about the court before he suffers the same fate as his father.
Katherine Addison is the new pen-name of Sarah Monette, who I’ve already written about as one of my favorite authors. With The Goblin Emperor she switches gears from the dark, emotionally fraught stories she’s known for to a more optimistic mood. Maia has a hard life, but he does well in it, gaining confidence by leaps and bounds as the story progresses. This is a coming-of-age story that starts where most leave off (usually becoming Emperor is the reward at the end of the quest) and it’s an extremely satisfying one. I’m happy to call this already one of the best fantasy books of the year.
Book – A vagabond, a natural philosopher, a mathematician, and a harem girl meet in London, in the late Baroque period (as early as 1661), and the result is one of the most epic, sprawling series of historical fiction you will ever read. Stephenson is better known for his cyberpunk novels like Snow Crash, but Quicksilver has more in common with his other work than you might first imagine. He started writing it during the composition of his award-winning Cryptonomicon, which is also a thriller about politics, money, and computers. (Yes, computers: Gottfried Liebnitz was trying to invent a computer as early as 1671.)
Stephenson has become rather famous for big books, but his three-volume Baroque Cycle is definitely his biggest. Although it’s hard to keep track of any given plot thread over the course of more than 2,700 pages, the well-drawn cast of characters from all walks of life will keep you engaged anyway. Fans of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy will enjoy the grand sweep of history and wealth of historical detail, and fans of Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon owe it to themselves to give this series a try.
Book - Family is everything in small towns, but Lucy Dane has a hole in hers. Her mother Lila disappeared when Lucy was just a baby, and people in town still gossip about her, suggesting witchcraft or something worse was behind her sudden appearance and disappearance in their small Ozark town. Then Lucy’s friend Cheri disappears, and her body is found in horrifying condition near the edge of town, and Lucy finds herself investigating the web of secrets surrounding these two women’s disappearances.
It’s not just the setting that The Weight of Blood has in common with Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, it’s a whole atmosphere, a paradoxical sense of claustrophobia in the wide-open, tight-knit rural world of the Ozarks. This is McHugh’s first novel, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she writes, as smooth and confident as any more seasoned writer, and with an excellent grip on her readers’ emotions. Set some time aside when you start this one – I ended up canceling my weekend plans to finish it!
Book – Awakening alone and thoroughly bandaged in a hospital room, Corey can’t remember who he is or how he got here. He is sure, however, that he really ought to get out. He manages to bluff his way through meeting two of his siblings before he confesses the truth of his amnesia, and they help him to remember: he is Corwin, a Prince of Amber, the only true world, and if he doesn’t act quickly, his hated brother Eric will crown himself king.
This is hardboiled fantasy, snappy, sarcastic, and to-the-point. If Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett got together to write a fantasy novel, it might have come out like this. Some of it is a little dated – everyone smokes almost constantly, and when was the last time you heard someone use “dig” to mean “understand?” – but hey, it was published in 1970, you have to make some allowances.
I was struck when reading this (for the first time since high school) at how much of a debt George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire owes to Amber. Sure, it’s all in one family instead of spread over several, but there’s just as much politicking, backstabbing, and fighting for the throne. If you like the one, I bet you’ll like the other.
Book – Capt. Will Lawrence of His Majesty’s Navy is very happy with his career. When he captures a French corvette transporting a rare and precious dragon’s egg, he takes responsibility for the egg, which means being there for its hatching. Unfortunately, the little creature – who he christens Temeraire, after the ship – has taken a liking to him, and that means that Capt. Lawrence is going to have to leave the Navy and enter His Majesty’s Aerial Corps, to fight Napoleon from the back of his very own dragon.
There are two kinds of people in the world: people who think that the Aubrey/Maturin series is great but would be even better with dragons, and people who think the first type are crazy. If you’re the first type, this series is for you. While the first book is a fairly straightforward adventure, later books explore more parts of the world and how the presence of dragons changes them from what you’d expect. As Temeraire (and Will) learn more about how the rest of the world does things, they begin to seriously question the society in which they live.
Book – Oscar is doing pretty well for himself. He’s found his way to Cambridge, working his way through his degree as an aide in a nursing home, where he meets the most interesting characters. He never loses his head, though, until he meets Iris Bellwether at one of her brother’s church services (he plays the organ). A little light church music isn’t all Eden Bellwether is interested in, though, and before he knows it, Oscar is drawn into Eden’s circle of admirers, accomplices and experimental subjects. Eden believes that his music has the power to heal. He might be right.
This spectacular Gothic novel by debut author Benjamin Wood sucked me in from the wonderful two-page prologue. It’s been repeatedly compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but as I’ve read neither of those, I couldn’t tell you how accurate the comparison is. I can tell you that I fell in love with all the characters, who are by turns symbolic and wonderfully genuine, and that the tense, surreal atmosphere was sustained well throughout the book. I’d recommend it for a book club – there’s lots to talk about.
– For the past several years I’ve been attending the awards ceremony for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award
, “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” Sometimes I’m already familiar with the winner, but usually I get a list of great new books to read. This year the only one of the nominees I’ve already read is Sea Change
, a fairytale by S.M. Wheeler about a girl and her octopus.
Lilly lives a sad and miserable life as the only child of parents who hate each other, perched in their castle by the sea. Her best friend is Octavius, a kraken; the two of them talk about friendship and morality. Then one day Octavius is captured and sold to a circus, and Lilly sets out on a quest to rescue him.
This is an incredibly poetic book, written more for the beautiful language and the sense of a fairy-tale than for ease of reading. Lilly’s story is a hard one, but the way she perseveres and changes is inspiring. I’d recommend it for fans of Caitlín R. Kiernan
and Catherynne M. Valente
Book – What would the world be like if there really were mermaids? No, really, what would that be like? That’s the question Kit Whitfield sets out to answer in her spectacular novel In Great Waters, an alternate history of the world where the royalty of Europe are all descended from the deepsmen, tribes of not-quite-human folk who live in the sea and who first rose to land in Venice in a time of political strife. Now – in something very like sixteenth-century England – a half-human, half-deepsman boy has been abandoned by the deepsman tribe that tried to raise him. He represents an opportunity – the chance to overthrow the incompetent, inbred crown prince before he has a chance to ruin the kingdom. The boy himself, however, may have some different plans.
This is a tremendously inventive story, not fantastical at all except for the existence of the deepsmen – if it were set in the future, you’d call it science fiction. The book explores the implications of its premise, but it never loses sight of the characters at the heart of the story: abandoned, bastard Henry and Princess Anne, both trapped by others’ expectations and fighting to define themselves on their own terms.
Book – Two girls are waiting for a bus but, impatient, they decide to hitch a lift instead. Later that night one of them is found murdered outside a pub. Enter Detective Inspector Morse, unhappily middle-aged, cranky, romantic, and (as his supervisor will say in a later novel), entirely too clever for his own good. No one is telling the whole truth, and Morse runs himself in circles second- and third- and fourth-guessing everyone’s motives in an attempt to find out what really happened that night on the way to Woodstock.
Last Bus to Woodstock shows its age in a lot of ways, not least the extremely dated attitudes toward sex and rape that nearly all the characters express, but it’s still a good, solid mystery with an engaging detective. I particularly liked the way Morse keeps getting things wrong: he makes lots of wild guesses and assumptions and follows lots of trails that lead only to dead ends before finally (of course) hitting upon the solution.
Written from the mid seventies through the late nineties, Colin Dexter’s popular Inspector Morse series was also made into a TV show that continues to be popular on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, and has spawned two spinoff shows of its own.