Here are the top fifteen books I’ve reviewed. They aren’t necessarily the top ten books I’ve read, but they’re probably the top ten books I’ve read recently.
Joint #14/#15/#16: Tender Morsels, Golden Fool, and Maskerade
Three contrasting fantasy novels. Tender Morsels is a standalone literary take on a fairy tale from an author better known for her short stories, and is told with breathtaking beauty and skill; Golden Fool is an Epic Fantasy doorstopper – the second book of a trilogy, the fifth book with the same protagonist, and the eighth of fourteen (and counting) linked novels in the same setting, and derives its power from its intensive (and extensive) immersion in the mind of the central character. One is dense, the other sprawling; one is delicate, the other workmanlike; one is critically acclaimed, the other popular with the masses. Both books, however share the trait of having relatively little plot, and both address themes of parenthood and emotional maturity. Maskerade, meanwhile, is a gem of a novel by Terry Pratchett – not one of his more important works, to be sure, but thoroughly polished, thoroughly clever, and thoroughly hilarious. And these three are tied for the last places on the list.
#13: A Canticle for Leibowitz
I don’t think there is any book quite like A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s one of the great monuments of science fiction literature, a Cold War scream, a religious tract, and a defiant demonstration of what can be done in the genre beyond mere lasers and space ships. Three post-apocalyptic novellas span a thousand years of future history in the life of a small Catholic monastery in Utah, in a book that combines powerful Catholic apologetic, unashamed moral and political debate, character studies, religious allegory, nuclear weapons, spaceships, extremes of light and dark, thoroughgoing intellectual complexity and honesty… and warmth, and a dry, black wit. It’s Literature with a capital L, as well as being very readable, and it’s probably going to be one of those books that will still be read in two hundred years (assuming people still read in two hundred years, and assuming, as this novel forces us to question, that there will still be any people left alive in two hundred years).
#12: City of Dragons
Robin Hobb continues to defy the expectations of her genre and demonstrate just what is possible within an unashamed epic fantasy series. City of Dragons (the third book of the Rain Wild Chronicles and twelfth book in the overall Realm of Elderlings cycle) may not be the installment that garners the most love, but it may be the best thing she’s written so far, simply in its near-flawlessness. This is a fantasy novel with imagination and originality, vivid characters and strong character progression, an effective and engrossing plot, high stakes, action scenes, emotional moments, and a highly fluent prose style. A novel that earns its high placing not with any flashy brilliance, but simply because it’s hard to find anything at all that’s wrong with it.
#11: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
If A Canticle for Leibowitz sets out to be literature, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay sets out to be a damn good read, and manages it. The story of two Jewish kids in mid-20th-century New York who create a superhero comic strip is itself told in comicbook-bright colours full of melodramatic plot twists and fairytale romance, spanning three continents and many decades, yet somehow never seems absurd. If it isn’t a perfect distillation of what comic books are really like, it is maybe, which is more, a distillation of how comic books appear to their fans – which might explain why it’s so often considered a genre book, despite its real-world setting. Along the way, however, it manages to be more than a popcorn adventure, and to be truly moving. Both mainstream and genre, both literary art and pulp fiction all at once. It’s a book I suspect I’ll be reading and re-reading throughout my life.
#10: The Stars My Destination
A book with so many things completely wrong with it that it’s hard to believe it’s an all-time classic… until you read it. A science fiction retelling of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in considerably fewer words, it’s a breakneck all-out assault on boredom that hits the reader with so much flash and dazzle that there’s no time to worry about the flaws. A joyously wild ride, the long-lost godfather of cyperpunk, an inventive and chaotic and experimental and exhilerating and stylish and beautiful experience. “He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead…”
#9: Reaper Man
Possibly the most completely haphazard and strange of Pratchett’s novels (and that’s really saying something), Reaper Man combines three only tangentially related stories, about life and death, living and being merely alive, belief and myth and humanity, and produces something that will exasperate some and entrance others, most likely one of Pratchett’s most divisive books. Riotously funny but pervasively flawed, it is in my opinion elevated into genius by the powerful and tearjerking subnovella depicting Death’s dismissal and retreat to a small farming village, which is making me get emotional now just remembering it…
#8: The God of Small Things
Aching sorrow and a grim inevitability pervade this novel about life and love and tragedy in southern India in the late twentieth century, as the adult Rahel returns to her family home and to the memories of the destruction of her childhood. Interweaving present melancholy with childhood innocence, the novel presents the central tragedy of Rahel’s life – and its far-lying consequences – as an almost crystaline, timeless, inevitable moment: the greatest stories, the book tells us, are those that do not trick the readers with twists and surprises, the stories that we know already, that are told again and again. This novel tries to tell an old and universal story with very modern means – a sensibility derived from magic realism, and the innovative juxtaposition of literary and sophisticated prose with the fairy-tale simplicity of the child’s perspective.
#7: The Affirmation
A chiselled marble miniature of a novel; and at the same time a morass of quicksand. Priest’s prose is intentionally plain, yet elegant, and it feels as though every word, every paragraph, has been precisely chosen for its part in the whole. Two men, or one man, one in the real world and one in a fantasy, for different reasons construct their autobiographies.A disquieting, unnerving, study in insanity, or possibly sanity, or both. I can’t really say much about it. If you look at my review, you’ll find I said a whole lot about it – but it was pretty much all nonsense. It’s that sort of book.
#6: The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula LeGuin’s SF classic – a short, icy-cold novel about a traveller to an alien world. Its famous themes of sex and sexuality are only the icing on a tale of politics and paranoia, science and faith, humanity and implacable nature; its surprising structure (a conventional third-person perspective alternates with first-person diary entries and a collection of fables and myths) is unobtrusive, seemingly natural, so completely masterful is LeGuin’s narrative. A book that withstands, even benefits from, many re-readings.
#5: Small Gods
Terry Pratchett’s masterpiece is a brilliant book in its own right, and caps a sequence of increasingly important and meaningful Discworld novels. Having established his interest in stories and reflections, here he turns to the biggest stories of all, taking on organised religion – the result is sometimes blunt, but it’s both funny enough and brilliant enough that it’s hard not to forgive him for that. Some of Pratchett’s most memorable scenes are structured beautifully into a deliberate and clever form, and polished to the point of being blinding. There’s a real atmosphere of purpose: this is the book that most feels as though Pratchett has something he really wants to say, and that he’s going to spare no effort in saying it perfectly. And he very nearly does.
#4: Lords and Ladies
After the triumph of Small Gods, Pratchett turned to something that feels completely different – but I’m going to side with the minority here and say that Lords and Ladies is even better. It may not have the same Grand Themes as its predecessor, but it’s still moving and important in its own, smaller way (particularly in how it deals with aging). Lords and Ladies may often be overlooked, but it may be Pratchett at his best: exciting, moving, insightful, funny, epic, intimate, slightly disorderly, and even a little bit scary. It’s a humble little triumph.
#3: The Man Who Was Thursday
G.K. Chesterton shows his supreme grandmastery of English prose in an indescribable, absurd, provocative, thrilling fantasy novel that’s ridiculously fun, while also possibly being a religious treatise in disguise. Often labelled with such peculiar terms as “philosophical thriller” or “proto-surrealist spy fiction” – there’s really no set of words to describe what it is. This is the sort of book that has no genre, but that genres are built on.
#2: The Rider
Tim Krabbé’s cult classic in Dutch had to wait 24 years for a translation into English, but it was well worth the wait. A gripping short novel detailing one amateur rider’s experiences in a fictional minor bicycle race in the south of France in the later 1970s, The Rider is also an essay in obsession, in religion, and in the human will. The uncompromising attitudes of the narrator inspire devotion and revulsion among readers, sometimes at the same time; the novel is also widely considered to be the closest literature has gotten to depicting the soul of cycling, and perhaps of sport as a whole.
#1: The Prestige
A novelist at the height of his powers takes on a story with the potential his talent deserves – The Prestige is a book that may not be the best book at anything, but that succeeds at almost everything. It’s a rare example of a novel that is beautiful and intelligent and well-crafted, but that is also thrilling and engaging. A book with hardly any flaws.