I had a kind of mission this year to read at least five books written in 2013. I nearly made it. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't had a chance to pick up the wonderful conclusion of Chris Holm's Collector series, "The Big Reap," which is why is not included below in my five favorites of this year. But, seriously, don't wait on my opinion, pick up the book if you haven't already and read it. Chris is a great story-teller with one hell of an awesome concept in the Big Reap.
Science fiction and fantasy. That's what occupied most of my reading time. And when I say science fiction what I really mean is Kim Stanley Robinson. Green and Blue Mars, 2312, and this year's Shaman, and I've barely scratched the surface on this guy's writing. I can't praise him enough for his ideas and character development and simple inspiring spirit. In a year I rewatched most of Star Trek, this was the fitting literary counter-part. Robinson portrays imperfect, realistically harsh worlds always on the brink of freeing themselves, not with guns or bombs but with the power of ideas and selfless courage.
Fantasy was taken up by the twin Scotts: R Scott Bakker and Scott Lynch. I ran across Bakker in a 'what do I read after Song of Ice and Fire' search. Dark, twisted, steeped in history, these books are fantastic re-imaginings of the Crusades. He doesn't quite pull away from the "Big Bad" motif, there's a dark, sinister, ancient force coming back into the world, but this is a background concern in the first two books of the series and no one comes off as gratingly noble or heroic.
Scott Lynch also writes about rogues and scoundrels. "Lies of Locke Lamora," is filled with them, as well as great action set-pieces, memorably strange settings, and a pleasingly wry take on the human condition. Locke Lamora is not a nice person. A Robin Hood figure, his schemes cause significant collateral damage to everyone around him, and nearly lead to the death of an entire city. "Lies of Locke Lamora," is a heist tale, basically, but one unafraid to look at the larger damage caused by criminal machinations.
Here are my picks for novels this year.
5) Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Green Mars, just like the first book in the Martian Trilogy is a novel of ideas and characters in precisely that order. Now the ideas are grand: long discussions of the process of turning a dead, frozen dust ball into a breathing, green tundra world; debates on forming a better society around principles of democracy and social justice; revolutions effecting positive changes rather than more ruin and death. This book suffers from the middle child syndrome, neither starting at the right place or avoiding a cliff-hanger, but it's still sharply focused, avoiding the leisurely entropy of its sequel, Blue Mars.
4) R Scott Bakker: The Darkness that Comes Before. Bakker's worlds are meticulous, with echoes of real historical events and personages, mixed with his own elaborate invention. The appendix for The Darkness that Comes before extends for pages, explaining cultures, languages, and ancient events creating a dense fantasy book for history buffs and text annotators. The stories in the book are fantastic, filled with believably greedy, self-absorbed, disturbing individuals that possess unique perspectives and obviously detailed histories. All of the books demand attention, Bakker's prose is difficult and full of poetry. Monsters appear, they're vivid and appalling, but the terror he invests in simple human conversation is what really makes this book special.
3) Scott Lynch: Lies of Locke Lamora. Caper tales depend on two things: one) intricate yet plausible schemes invented by two) amoral yet sympathetic schemers. Locke Lamora is a great character, devious, charming, arrogant, brutal, and yet ultimately human. The world of Camorr City reminds the reader of Renaissance Venice or Naples, albeit ones shadowed by crystal towers created through ancient alchemy. The magic here is very subtle, less fire-balls and conjured demons, and more potions and hypnosis. This fits the themes of the story perfectly, Locke Lamora's elaborate plans take chapters to reach fruition and having spells and wizards everywhere would cheapen that. Keeping a tight rein on overtly supernatural elements gives the ones who do appear more punch, underlining the most audacious magic trick of all, conjuring up a human soul in the heart of a thief.
2) Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman is a genre all to himself. His reliance on fairy tale logic and supernatural contrivances can seem a little cute at times, but not his weary appraisal of human misery. Here a small boy accompanies a friend on trek through 'orange skies,' and cat tail fields to confront an ancient pest, a 'flea,' in the words of the 'youngest' Hempstock, Lettie. Inevitable human weakness causes a chain reaction of threat and menace. Each of the characters are sharply drawn and yet mysterious. The plot of the story is simple, essentially a chase story that could be read in one sitting if the implications of Gaiman's various metaphysics didn't disturb and provoke. It's that disconnect that Gaiman points out, between the lucid dreams of childhood and the somnulent consciousness of adults that really rams the point home. Gaiman's ancient deities are perfectly happy to talk about the 'creation of the moon,' and particle physics, but ultimately it's the simple act of seeing and remembering that brings understanding to individuals. That and the grace of three women in a farmhouse unwilling to let every mistake meet its punishment.
1) Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson. Yeah, I liked this book a lot. For one thing, a realistic look at life in the Upper Paleolithic, complete with spear-throwers, cave-art, and interactions with Neanderthals is going to get my attention. Great gulfs of time stretch between when our modern species evolved and the first written records five and half millennia ago. Entire civilizations of nomads and hunters that we know almost nothing about. What were they like? What did they dream about? And as my students sometimes ask, why didn't they just settle down and start making technology if they were just like us? Shaman isn't really about answering those questions. It's a coming-of-age story, following a young boy in the Wolf Pack as he passes a rite of manhood, and gradually comes to fulfill the role of shaman. Probably my favorite part of this book is that the society of these stone age hunters and gathered is not depicted as being static, but rather a dynamic reaction to the pressures around them. At one point, the pack's old Shaman, Thorn, laments that with his passing all that he knows will pass into the wind, lost except for the stories he's made Loon memorize. It's an incredibly poignant moment, filled with the essential tragedy of our species' early existence, people just like you and I who lacked the means to preserve their discoveries for the next generation.