I’ve just written a long screed about the title of this blog, which for the sake of people uninterested in rambling introductions and yet more angst on the subject of the 2016 presidential election I’ve broken off into a separate post. This rambling post is about the best books I read this year.
All The Birds In The Sky
I feel nervous recommending this one, not because it’s less than brilliant, but because a large part of its brilliance is tonal, and tone is so much more finely balanced on the sharp end of individual taste than other aspects of writing. I can more easily imagine this annoying people than many other things I love; and I do love it.
But whatever. Magic meets science, fantasy meets SF, dark comedy meets romance, and deep genre facility is on display throughout: pure slam-dunk storytelling, written by someone who knows pop culture inside and out. Later in the year I bought a whole anthology because it had one Charlie Jane Anders story in it.
I am going to say almost nothing about the actual stories of all the books I talk about here, by the way. I am the most spoiler-averse person alive (I will fight all comers for the title), so I’d be inclined to this approach anyway; but a disproportionate number of these are mysteries in one way or another. The less you know, etc.
The Philosopher Kings
Jo Walton’s The Just City was one of my favourite books of 2015, and therefore I was reluctant to pick the sequel up. But it does not retrospectively ruin Walton’s intellectual adventure. On the contrary. The time travelling utopian philosophers who set out to found Plato’s Republic have schismed, and now there are multiple competing versions of the Republic. The children of the incarnate god Apollo are reaching adulthood. The question of robot sentience has been resolved. If you’re not intrigued yet, this is certainly not the series you should be reading.
Walton has said that this is not a utopian story. I’m inclined to disagree, but the question is definitional, and therefore interesting primarily to… exactly the people who will most enjoy this series. In any case it’s a world I want to live in. What surprises me most about it in the abstract is simply that it isn’t dystopian; so many stories about planned communities could be subtitled “How the best of intentions collapsed into Lord of the Flies” that it almost feels like Walton is breaking the rules, as opposed to demonstrating how imaginatively bankrupt this strand of speculative fiction has become. What surprises me most about the world and the books when I consider it more closely is… everything. Walton is more able to surprise me than just about anyone I read.
I was going to make myself wait a full year for the Allen & Unwin edition of Necessity, the third and final book, but after I gave up book reviewing back in Winter (see below) I gave in to temptation and bought the American edition. If anything I like book three even more than its predecessor: a rare and precious progression in any series, and with Walton’s Small Change trilogy (a dystopian trilogy, incidentally), I liked each book significantly less than the one before it. The arc of Walton’s career has been towards better and better storytelling: she’s a voracious reader and she seems to hate repeating herself, and I can’t think of another writer who gives me such a strong sense that she’s read everything I have, most of what I haven’t, and wants to take ideas from lots of sources and then do unexpected things with them.
Also, I like the way she approaches her characters. Cruelty and greed and bad luck exist in her worlds; but there is no sense that she relishes them. I have the sense that if she heard someone using the word “gritty” in praise of a writer she’d snort with just as much irritation as I would.
I would enjoy seeing the philosophers of the Just City debate whether or not this is Francis Spufford’s first novel. (Surely that was the supposedly non-fictional Red Plenty?) In any case: this is almost a book you can judge from its first sentence. Here, taste:
The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour – and having passed the Narrows about three o’clock – and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New-York – until it seemed to Mr Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck, that the small mound of the city waiting there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno – and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tietjes Slip, with the veritable gables of the city’s veritable houses divided from him only by one hundred foot of water – and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to pap: – all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning.
Are you not captivated? Then this is probably not your book. I was instantly Spufford’s willing thrall, and I can’t quite say he treated me well, but he certainly met the implied promise of that virtuoso opening. This is historical fiction as grand opera, performative and full of mind-blowing arias for a first rate cast of soloists. (The characters: so good, so well imagined). Also, this is New York as you’ve almost certainly never imagined it.
On that “did treat me well” point: Spufford is one of the most interesting and unlikely writers alive, but he is not, as you’ll gather from The Child That Books Built or Unapologetic, in possession of the happiest of outlooks. That’s a useful thing to know; except that it might put people off reading. And really, this is such a tour de force. Take a deep breath and dive in.
Too Like The Lightning
Oh dear god, what to say. Are you fond of world building? Do you like an elaborate mystery? This is the most purely impressive thing I read all year, in the sense that it hit me like a gold-plated brick and left an impression the size of a large crater. Recovery took some time. That performative idea I reached for with Francis Spufford — with him, imagine a man of enormous talent, substantial reputation and possibly fragile self-esteem, walking onto the first-time novelists’ stage at mid-life and reaching inside for absolutely everything he has. Ada Palmer is doing the Brilliant Young Thing’s version of that, which involves less pent-up terror, but possibly even more willingness to take wild risks. When she belts out her solo, “absolutely everything she has” turns out to include so much more than the kitchen sink. (Any one of the seven new nation-state equivalents plaited together here could fuel a book on its own). Imagine the judges quivering in their chairs as she strides off-stage afterwards. “What just happened?” “I’d ask her, but she might answer”. “Tell the rest of the contestants to go home”.
So: an insanely elaborate 25th century Earth, where “insanely” means both “plausibly complex”, i.e. so, so, so much more complex than most imagined futures manage to be, and also “so very romantic, and so very full of all-the-important-people-know-each-other coincidences that the complexity is belied and nearly reduced to window dressing”. But not quite. It’s too well imagined and too well done.
Like Spufford’s book, this has a central character whose past is mysterious & kept that way for a good proportion of the story. As with Spufford’s book, this places a heavy burden on the eventual revelations, and as with Spufford’s book, they can take the weight.
The book does absolutely nothing to warn you that it’s only the first half of a two part story. This is mildly infuriating, given the number of urgent unanswered questions that are up in the air by the final page, but on the other hand, Palmer’s world is the kind I want to spend as much time in as possible.
League of Dragons
A funny thing happened on the way to Warterloo… Nine books ago, Temeraire arrived on my doorstep looking like an inane high concept fantasy potboiler: the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons. I was thrilled. So few writers have attempted novel series about unusually competent and honorable men serving in the British military during the Napoleonic Wars, and god knows we need more people following in Anne McCaffrey’s footsteps. I read the first page because I had to and then I read the rest because I couldn’t stop, and it became a bestseller and two sequels appeared within months and Peter Jackson optioned it for film and it was huge and then everyone I know got a little bored. I understand that last part, and yet it’s always surprised me a little.
The thing is that Temeraire is the odd book out in this very long series: it’s very fast paced, it’s structured as a platonic interspecies love story, and its military action leads up to a sort of superhero origin story climax, where the thing that saves the day is that one of our protagonists turns out to have unexpected powers. It’s all very wish fulfillment. It starts the series off with a whoosh and a roar, but it also functions as a kind of false advertisement, because in the next book international politics becomes a thing, and our heroes are sent off on the first of many long journeys. Taken as a whole the nine book series is a travelogue of an alternate history, organised around military set pieces written, considering the participation of dragon-based air forces, with a startling degree ot tactical realism. In other words it’s very slow moving: lots of sitting around on ships dealing with naval etiquette, lots of slogging through deserts and appeasing or being chased by locals who refuse to understand that British imperialism is for their own good. Each book after the first introduces us to a new part of the world, in detail and at length, and the battle scenes are chess matches between players of highly differing skill using pieces with very specific abilities: not at all showcases for the day-saving special powers of our particular heroes. So it makes sense that people who loved the first book began to find the later ones rather drab after a while. And yet they’re so intelligent and well written, and their sense of what history is and how people of the Napoleonic era thought and behaved is so sophisticated.
Napoleon, especially, comes off very well here: I’ve met him half a dozen times in fiction, not counting cameos, and Novik’s version of him is my favourite. All the virtues, all the vices, vain, energetic, chivalrous, self-centered, demonstrably a genius. The ability to demonstrate the reality of genius being one of the major tests of any writer. Watching him exploit the political and military options opened up by the existence of highly sentient dragons amounts to reading a brilliant extended essay on the abilities and aims of the real historical figure, but it’s a lot more fun. I particularly enjoyed the way Novik bends her history towards ours, so that by League of Dragons, the long-awaited final book, the European war has essentially broadened out into a world war, and then concentrated back into a ruinous Russian campaign and a grand European aftermath; and yet with the plausible possibility that Napoleon might still win. Meanwhile Temeraire and Captain Lawrence, our heroes, continue to be lovely, well matched characters: intelligent and capable and utterly honorable, in two very distinct modes (avaricious dragon/nineteenth century British serviceman) which give them complementary and narrative-driving blind spots. I’ve enjoyed every book in this series (including the slow-crawl-across-the-Australian-outback one, which was where many readers jumped ship.) The finale does everything I wanted it to. So much so that I went out and bought Uprooted, Novik’s 2015 fantasy fairytale-ish novel about a girl taken from her village to serve a possibly nefarious sorcerer. Loved it. The first few chapters are rather exasperating: everything seems very heavily telegraphed and obvious. First our heroine is certain her best friend is about to be chosen as the village’s ritual sacrifice, and we know perfectly well it won’t be the best friend (or else she‘d be the narrator), and then she’s certain of something else which is even more clearly not the case. But once the book moves past these spin-your-thumbs-and-wait-for-the-unshocking-revelations bits, it’s quite beautiful: strong characters, an evil forest presence with the raw and frightening feel of a fairytale which develops into something far more complex and interesting, a wonderful magic system, and a story that goes places I didn’t expect.
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
No one should read this who isn’t a Vorkosigan person. If you have no idea what a Vorkosigan person is, read Cordelia’s Honour or The Warrior’s Apprentice, or, if you want to find out with minimal time expenditure whether this very large narrative universe is for you, the novella “The Mountains of Mourning”. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen comes at the far other end of the series. It’s the thing I’ve read this year that I most purely love and that I’ll probably reread most often.
Two days before my 50th birthday I rode into Whitianga at the end of a brutally vertical day of cycle touring, pitched my tent, and found a fish and chip place. While they were making me one of the most appreciated dinners I’ve ever eaten, I began reading this for the second time. I am sufficiently invested in Bujold’s characters that I can’t much enjoy her books the first time I read them — I’m too worried about what she might decide to do and which story possibilities she might close off forever. The first read is about scouting for danger. The second is about enjoying the terrain. The memory of reading this one on that three day 50th birthday Coromandel loop tour, and especially of sitting with it in that fish and chip shop feeling relaxed and hungry, will be with me for the rest of my life.
I don’t want to say very much about this. Even the necessary warning, which is that both words in the title absolutely apply and no one needing light or levity or joy should touch this with a barge pole, feels like giving too much away. It’s a stunningly gorgeous and original graphic novel about sweet little people who live in the woods, and it’s also a long look into the abyss.
I’m so glad I read it though.
Words Are My Matter
Wildly uneven: Le Guin’s fourth non-fiction collection ranges from why-is-this-so-short-dammit to three of the best essays I’ve read in years. The extended assessment of Saramago, “the only novelist of my generation who tells me what I didn’t know… the only one I still learn from”, is assembled from several shorter reviews and book introductions; the seams are visible, but just barely, and the critical thinking is of the very highest order. As so often with Le Guin, the essay sent me off to try my luck: she’s more likely than any other writer to steer me to new writers. (Or, in Saramago’s case, back to writers I’ve previously failed with. Those long, long, unpunctuated sentences. They bugged Le Guin as well. She got over it. I am currently about a third of the way through The Cave, reading it aloud, as she suggests, and I seem to have got over it as well.)
The excellence of the Saramago piece does rather underline how frustrating many of the other reviews in the book are: most of them written for The Guardian, and therefore standard newspaper length, which is just not long enough to develop a complex line of thought. Never mind; these little windows on Le Guin’s reading life still have their interest. And then you get the essay on architecture as a vehicle for moral ideas, “Living In A Work Of Art”, one of the most autobiographical things Le Guin has ever written and also one of the most beautiful and interesting. And a brief writer’s journal, full of little diary jottings and observations and entirely delightful. And an essay on meaning in fiction which actually manages to say things on this tired old subject which I’d never encountered before. There are no bad Le Guin books.
Some Luck, Early Warning, Golden Age
This was the great central reading experience of my year. Central in that I read all three of these books through late Autumn and Winter; in that I lived inside it for several months, so that even when I was doing other completely absorbing things the real center of my life was in some sense off where Smiley’s characters were; and in that it functioned as a hinge moment. These were not the first really good books I read this year, but they were the ones that created such a large and complicated world that I couldn’t live in it and still have time to do regular book review reading. I put off my compulsory reading, then I did it resentfully, and then I looked at how little I was enjoying it and sat down and made a list of all the really good books I’d found through reviewing in the last two years that I wouldn’t have read anyway. Then I gave up book reviewing, which left me the time to read a lot more Jane Smiley after I finished the trilogy.
I think Smiley and Hilary Mantel may be the most intelligent novelists I’m currently following, at least in a certain narrow sense — Ursula Le Guin has a broader and deeper intellectual scope, and Kim Stanley Robinson is more inclined to sit down and apply focused analytical thinking to large problems and work the results into fiction in a way that causes my thinking to expand. But in terms of the fluidity and complexity of the mental construsts they seem able to run — psychological, narrative, economic, historical — Smiley and Mantel are just the cleverest people I read. (I think Eleanor Catton has an equally powerful mind, but she’s a couple of decades younger than I am, whereas Smiley and Mantel are older; the wunderkind who leaves you in awe and the elders who leave you in their dust are different phenomena. Or try this metaphor: Catton has much better eyesight than I do, but she’s standing lower down the mountain.)
The specific thing that got me thinking of how similar Smiley and Mantel are is actually one of the major differences between them, and the one major thing I disliked about Smiley’s trilogy. I’m saying “disliked” rather than “dislike”, because I’ve argued this through with one of my sons, who sees a feature here where I saw a bug, and now I’m not sure what I think. The trilogy follows a single American family from the year 1920 to the year 2020, a span Smiley chose because she sees World War One as the calamity that ended the 19th century. She finished the third book I think in 2014; certainly not later than 2015. The last five years of the trilogy therefore occur in an alternate history to ours. This initially read to me as a major defect. Part of the astonishing richness of what Smiley does with her exponentially expanding cast — a young farming couple and their baby son, in 1920, a large clan spread across the continent, in 2020 — is how they do and don’t bounce off the century’s larger and smaller historical milestones. It’s a story about a family, and a story about families, and a story about America, and a story about what history is, and a story about the twentieth century. Every chapter covers one year. This is the sort of idea any writer could have and most sensible writers would know better than to attempt to use. Smiley steps onto her greased high wire and walks briskly across, doing occasional cartwheels.
But those last five years. Oh, they did annoy me. They are palpably science fictional. This is not a pejorative in my normal usage, but it becomes one when 95 chapters of more-or-less realism are capped in a quite different mode. Perhaps — this is my son’s argument — it shouldn’t; perhaps the ways in which Smiley allows herself to compress decades of environmental and economic collapse into a very short span give those chapters a necessary weight. My sense was that they impose a sense of resolution and conclusion onto a story which doesn’t naturally incline towards having one; a century is an artificial construct, and there’s too much human complexity in Smiley’s characters and in her understanding of history for the story to bend easily to the decimal system. I have felt this with a lot of Smiley’s books: she is so very good at capturing the processes of consciousness and the feeling of living in different people’s heads, moment to moment and day to day, but she isn’t equally good at structure. I think this may be why she’s so given to using artificially constraining forms: rewrite King Lear, write a book about a year in the life of a university, write a book following two years of the American horse racing calendar. She knows that endings aren’t her strength, so she writes to a pre-set limit and stops.
I’ve felt something related with Mantel: not that she can’t do form, but that she’s so subtle and fluid that she benefits from constraint. I find that her historical fiction works much, much better for me than her contemporary fiction, and I think the reason is that her characters are so complicated they have no discernible inner compass. They can do anything at any point. When Mantel is free to steer them wherever she likes, I experience her stories as random, as though she were plotting them by throwing the i ching. When she works within the events of history, her ability to justify any move any character happens to make becomes a crowning strength. So her Thomas Cromwell trilogy and Smiley’s 100 Years trilogy are in a sense very similar: three book masterworks created by great novelists working within a tight historical framework. The key difference between them is a process difference. Smiley wrote her books one a year, bang bang bang. Mantel spent years on her first two books and has already spent even more years on the third, partly because she took time off to write the BBC adaptation, and partly because, as she’s said many times to all of us who keep on asking, she’d rather keep us waiting than rush to the ending when she isn’t quite sure yet of the route.
I wish Smiley had made us wait. It would have been a long wait, because what I’m envisioning is that she’d have let the years from 2015 to 2020 play out, and then used their events as grist to her mill, as she did with the previous ninety five. It would have been some compensation for the Syrian crisis, Brexit and Trump to have seen her characters deal with them, the way we’re having to.
But on the other hand, two things. One: Smiley is a process person. She works to a rhythm, which is how she wrote these astonishing books so quickly, and why by the year 2020 she’s likely to have written more. Mantel’s achievement will perhaps end up being the greater; but Smiley is going to end her life having written more books. At her level of accomplishment, saying “Could you slow down a bit and make them better?” seems a failure of perception.
And two: my son’s point. The chapters covering 2015 to 2020 may not, in the long run, end up seeming the formal blemish I saw them as on my first reading. Their presentiment of a coming American economic and ecological catastrophe may be the necessary ending that allows this trilogy to speak to what the Trump years — so unforseeable even a year ago — are going to mean.