Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Favorite Books of the “Decade”

In no particular order

I don’t know if I can say I read a lot. I’m a pretty slow reader and it usually takes me a week or more to finish a book (depending on how much it holds my interest, possibly a bit more or a bit less). I typically only read novels, and almost exclusively novels in the genres of Sci-fi, Fantasy and Alternate History.

For me, the 80s and 90s were the greatest decades in reading, because there were some really tremendous works that I got my hands on in those timeframes, as well as a lot of crap that was still pretty entertaining. In the last ten years, I read some wildly enjoyable books, though not too many that truly blew me away. Most of those that did were actually parts of ongoing series that started in the 1990s, like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or David Weber’s Honor Harrington books. In such a case, I’ll pull in the whole series and write about it as long as at least some of the books were published in the last ten years.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006) – this novel was so great that I read it several times and even forced my wife to read it. It tells the stories of people who survived a global plague of zombies – fictional characters interviewed by an equally-fictional journalist narrator, but all conducted in complete seriousness. Brooks clearly gave a lot of thought to how different governments and individuals would react to an outbreak of disease like the one in the book that caused zombie reanimation, as well as to how the disease would spread and what the zombies would do. Despite being the son of renowned filmmaker Mel Brooks, Max shows nothing of his father’s slapstick in World War Z – it’s played absolutely straight and the impact it makes it impressive. Despite the fantastic premise, the book reads entirely as if actually assembled by a journalist after a global catastrophe.

S.M. Stirling wrote two great series that were different sides of the same conceptual “coin.” Imagine that the island of Nantucket suddenly disappears in the late 1990s, to reappear two thousand years in the past. In the modern world, an island of primitive savages appears to replace it, but at the same time all sources of power – from electricity to atomic energy to simple gunpowder – cease to function. These were two separate series – one covering the exploits of the denizens of Nantucket as they struggle to exist in the distant past, the other covering the struggle of 20th-century people to cope with the collapse of their civilization and the change in certain natural laws. Both were excellent, though I preferred the earlier series consisting of:
•    Island in the Sea of Time (1998)
•    Against the Tide of Years (1999)
•    On the Oceans of Eternity (2000)

The second series, called the “Novels of the Change,” were also good. Stirling excels at creating very realistic characters and challenging them in extraordinary circumstances. He also creates political factions and then pits them against each other, often in epic battles. I was occasionally disappointed when he would skip over the narrative of a key battle that he’d been building toward – something that occurred in both series – but the ones he did describe were very enjoyable. Sadly, his most recent series of novels, following the adventures of a group of children who are the descendants of those who survived the big change, are not nearly as good as his prior works.

American Empire and Settling Accounts Trilogies, by Harry Turtledove (2002 to 2006) – These six books concluded an alternate history of the United States that began with Custer surviving Little Big Horn and continued through a successful Confederate succession and all the way up through both (alternate) world wars. Sadly, this series isn’t actually on my favorites list. I found that these books got less and less interesting as they went on, with the books published in the 2000s failing to really grip me as some of the earlier works had done. Some of the characters got downright bland by the time the series finally ended and I wasn’t disappointed to see it conclude.

Instead, I’d have to say that I was pretty happy with Turtledove’s Opening Atlantis (2007). This alternate reality offers a world where the uninhabited, sylvan continent of Atlantis is discovered in the 1400s by Europeans and settled ahead of the Americas. The global balance of power is shifted by the additional landmass so close to Europe, while its settlers struggle with many of the same issues of self-determination and sovereign boundaries as the British, French and Spanish colonies of the Americas. There are two additional novels in the series, but I accidently purchased them out of order and haven’t read them yet. I hope they’re as good as the first one.

While I’m on a Turtledove roll, I have to put a plug in for Ruled Brittania (2002). Set in an alternate history where Spain's Armada completed their 1588 voyage to England and succeeded in taking over the country. The protagonist is none other than William Shakespeare, who must navigate intrigues as he works alongside an English resistance against their Catholic Spanish oppressors. A really remarkable read. In fact, Turtledove writes Shakespeare as a character very, very well. For instance, check out his short story We Haven't Got There Yet at the website. It's not related to Ruled Brittania, but it's quite good.

Two of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels were published in the last ten years, so I’m dragging the whole batch of them in here. Also, I didn’t discover them until the last year, even though my friend John has been suggesting I read them for years. In particular, Ashes of Victory (2000) was quite good, though as the ninth in the series I wouldn’t recommend skipping straight to this novel. Weber’s skills are in creating characters that feel like real people, political factions that behave as frustratingly as actual politicians, and, best of all, setting up characters and situations in early novels that pay off in deliciously unexpected ways sometimes four or five or more novels later. His military sci-fi technology is also extremely well-written and logical, providing the tools for some truly epic space battles.

George R.R. Martin’s ongoing series A Song of Ice and Fire is truly outstanding, though frustratingly incomplete after a brisk beginning. Two of the books were published in the last ten years, but this is another case where you’d really need to start at the beginning. The series thus far includes:
•    A Game of Thrones (1996)
•    A Clash of Kings (1998)
•    A Storm of Swords (2000)
•    A Feast for Crows (2005)

This saga tells the story of several very ancient families in the lands of Westeros, whose histories intertwined as their ancestors struggled for power and prominence though wars, intrigue, and royal successions. From the noble Starks of the North to the wealthy but treacherous Lannisters of the West, the quest for power and glory sets in motion events that touch every corner of this fantastic world. Martin is a true master of juggling literally thousands of characters through every sort of political machination, some of which have their roots centuries ago. It’s amazing to watch the complexity of the families Martin creates, and the ways in which he seeds secrets and plots that pay off far in the future. There’s a touch of magic in A Song of Ice and Fire, but not a lot. Likewise, fantastical creatures are kept fairly to a minimum – there are no elves or orcs, all but a handful of the ancient dragons are extinct, and the walking dead are confined to one very specific part of the world. This reads as far more of a historical fiction than a fantasy, which is appropriate since Martin based it largely on England’s War of the Roses. The fourth book was the weakest of the set and the fifth book, originally predicted by the author to be finished quite soon after the fourth, is now coming up on five years in production. The author needs to kick these final few books out the door and finish off this series, hopefully in the same brilliant manner as it was begun. Regardless, the first three books are exceptional reads in their own right. Plus, if you enjoy audiobooks, the reading of the first three books, unabridged, by Roy Dotrice is the finest set of audiobook recordings I’ve ever heard. Dotrice has a singular ability to not only create (and somehow remember) authentic voices for Martin’s cast of thousands, but he even matches accents to members of the same family for an added level of realism.

Finally, I have to say that I really enjoyed the DUNE prequel books the Legends of Dune trilogy by Brian Herbert (son of the late Frank Herbert, DUNE’s author) and Kevin J. Anderson. I love the original DUNE, but I have been unsuccessful at multiple attempts to read the entire original series, always giving up somewhere around the third book. This trilogy succeeds at leveraging the DUNE universe as created by the elder Herbert, but adding both an accessibility and an engaging story that much of the original series seems to lack. Herbert and Anderson have written quite a few books in the worlds of DUNE, many of which I’ve read and enjoyed, but to date I liked these best. If you’re a fan of the original DUNE, I suggest giving these a look.

And that’s it for favorite books. There were certainly others that I enjoyed quite a bit, among them Stephen King’s Under the Dome and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War that deserve a spot on this list, but I’ve reviewed them pretty recently and wanted to be sure to highlight some of the other fine novels of the last decade. These are just the best of the ones I’ve read, of course – a quick google search will turn up plenty more “best of lists” from critics with a far broader range.

That’s it for this week – have a very Merry Christmas!

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