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2011 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Reads

by Jonathan 2 Comments

Once again, I’m laying out my favorite books I’ve read in the past year. All in all there were a few nice surprises and relatively few duds. I’m looking forward to devouring even more books in 2012 before the world ends. Anyway, on to the list.

The Last Page
by Anthony Huso

Cover of The Last Page by Anthony HusoI was thinking about Huso’s setting long after I read this book. Without knowing for sure, I would say that Huso strives for, or was inspired by, weirdness in the same mold as Mieville, which is always nice. Some of the story ran into the cliche, but that was easily forgiven in light of the overall depth of the world and the magic. Definitely some behind the scenes stuff going on that keeps you wondering.

Half Made World
by Felix Gilman

The Half Made World by Felix GilmanI loved this one if for no other reason than the way it takes the U.S. frontier and turns it into some alien thing. The Line is a great antagonist with its massive sentient steam engines, ornithopters and noise bombs. And their rivals, the way of the Gun, a group of sentient firearms that can put the excrutiating Goad on their owners if they don’t do as the firearms ask. This would seem to be the first of multiple books, but stands alone just fine.

River of Gods
by Ian McDonald

River of Gods cover by Ian McDonaldThis was my first exposure to Ian McDonald and I have to say, it had all the elements I enjoy in a good read: ensemble casts, complex story lines that come together, solid character building, and a shit ton of near future sci-fi that is recognizable enough to not feel like a complete dolt, but well-thought out enough to keep you wanting much, much more. Can’t wait to dig into to Dervish House.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
by Charles Yu

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles YuThis might be my favorite of them all. Yu’s self-deprecating humor shines through in his protagonist, er, Charles Yu. The whole meta flavor of this thing is, in and of itself, worth the read, but the thing I enjoyed the most was the father-son story, the immediately humanistic appeal of what  might on the surface seem like straight up sci-fi. Oh yeah, there’s time traveling, too. I’ve heard that some readers took issue with the technical aspects of this book and to them I say, so what. It’s a great story and the science fictional aspects are merely window dressing that helps drive the point home.

East of Eden
by John Steinbeck

East of Eden by John SteinbeckAfter reading The Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flat, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After closing the book, I think this was every bit as good as Grapes, although a very different kind of story. Playing on the story of Cain and Abel and two words from that tale, East of Eden digs into the human psyche and explores our free will in the face of who we are. Thou mayest, indeed.

The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century
by Ross E. Dunn

I loved the premise of this book and knew very little about the man or the time or the world in which he traveled. It’s done in broad strokes to be sure, but it’s a nice gateway into the medieval Muslim world from Morocco to India to China and everything in between. Dunn provides an overview of a world we never explore in our history classes in the U.S., but is every bit as important as what was going on in medieval Europe at the same time.

Dance with Dragons
by George R.R. Martin

What can I say that already hasn’t been said. Any forward progress in this epic tale merits best book listings. I was to busy enjoying having fresh Martin words before my eyes to worry about introducing new characters and story lines. I enjoyed the hell out of this one. (As a side note, after re-reading A Feast for Crows, I found I enjoyed that one much more than my first read through. I suspect the same will be said of Dance.)

Towers of Midnight
by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Towers of Midnight coverKind of the same thing as with A Dance with Dragons. I’m looking forward to seeing how this wraps up. Sometimes Sanderson’s style pokes its head through the story — and not always for the better — but damn can he move the story along.  Things are coming together nicely, new wrinkles are evolving and the Forsaken are getting antsy. Looking forward to Tarmon Gaidon. A lot.

Desolation Road
by Ian McDonald

Desolation Road coverI hesitated to put this one on here because a.) I already have Ian McDonald on the list and b.) I wasn’t sure of my overall feeling about this book. Initially it struck me as East of Eden on a distant planet, but as I read more it became less of that. Basically the story chronicles the founding, rise and fall of the town Desolation Road. In doing so it covers three to four generations of families who live there. I think what sealed it for me was the climax and how everything that seemed rambling early on comes together, if not neatly, then at least satisfactorily.

And there you have it. There are others I might have overlooked, but since I could recall these from memory, I went with this list. Had I finished Mieville’s Iron Council (see side bar), it would be on this list as well. of the Bas-Lag books, this is quickly becoming my favorite.

Hope you all have read some great books in 2011. If you’d like to chime in with your faves, feel free to comment.

New Books in the Queue

Is there such a thing as too many books? Not bloody likely. I love having a backlog of books to read. In my current queue I have Iron Council, All My Friends are Going to be Strangers, Towers of Midnight, Gormenghast, Books 2 and 3 of the Millennium Trilogy, and Around the World in 80 Days. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

For the most part, birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries and father’s day keep me in books the year round. This year is no exception.  My wife is always the biggest contributer to my library, but others trickle in as well.

This year’s birthday brought these:

I listened to an interview with Charles Yu on The Starship Sofa. Yu struck me as a thoughtful, intelligent guy. When he explained that this book is essentially about a father and son relationship, I put it on my wishlist.

From an editorial review by Lev Grossman on Amazon:

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is a triumph, as good as anything in Calvino or Stanislaw Lem. I wish I could travel back in time with a copy and fraudulently publish it under my own name. Like most people, I thought I learned everything I needed to know about time travel from H.G. Wells and Star Trek, but I thought wrong: In Yu’s skillful hands a worn-out science fiction plot device becomes a powerfully expressive metaphor for how we experience the flickering, ineffable, ungraspable spatio-temporal phenomenon of life. Because after all, we’re all time travelers, blundering forward into the future at the rate of one second per subjectively experienced second.

After reading River of the Gods, I needed more Ian McDonald in my life. Throw in a giant futuristic steam engine on the cover and You’ve got me. I also have Dervish House on my list, but the bearers of gifts selected Desolation Road. I’m not complaining a bit.

Dig this:

“Flavoured with a voice that blends the delightful prose of Jack Vance with the idiosyncratic stylings of Cordwainer Smith, this novel is, most of all, about the dusty town of Desolation Road in the middle of the red Martian desert. Episodic in scope, it would also work as short stories. An elderly couple get lost in the infinite space of their garden, a baby growing in a jar is stolen and replaced with a mango, a man called The Hand plays electric guitar for the clouds and starts the first rain for one hundred and fifty thousand years.” —SFSite

This one worries me a little because I fear it may cover some of the same ground as The Cloud Chamber. The upside is that there’s only one way to find out.

From a review at fantasybookcritic.com:

I have not encountered the inventiveness, sense of wonder and generally the “many goodies” of The Last Page in a debut – all packed in a reasonable 400 odd pages – since John C Wright’s Golden Age and Gary Gibson’s Angel Stations, though this one is fantasy with blood magic, necromancy, mysterious and ultra-powerful beings as well as airships, guns, newspapers and a “steampunk” like setting with an early industrial flavor.

I follow Scalzi’s blog regularly and have listened to his short story After the Coup. I find his sense of humor to be enjoyable and his insights pretty good. Even so, I thought I should sample his longer fiction and slapped The God Engines on my wish list. Here’s hoping it bears all the good sensibilities I enjoy in his blog posts. The reviews on this thing are all over the place, so it’ll be interesting to see. I’ve read the first few pages on-line and was intrigued enough to continue.

A snippet of a review from Literary Sluts:

This is the tale of a world of faith over science, with multiple gods.  It explores religion, faith and sexuality.  It  manages to make a complete world, society and belief system known in only 136 pages. There is a huge unexpected revelation at the end, which basically twists everything you thought was true and leaves you …shaken.

Ever since I came across the idea of the New Weird, I’ve been intrigued. I’ve followed Jeff VanderMeer’s blog and read Finch. I cut my New Weird teeth on China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and followed that up with The City and The City and The Scar. I’ve already read VanderMeer’s introductory chapter to this collection and would encourage anyone who has an interest on the topic to check it out.

Here’s an excerpt from that intro:

New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.  New Weird has a visceral, in the moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects — in combination with the stimulus of influence from the New Wave writers…

And lastly, a book with no words in it. Yet. A lovely moleskine book with ruled pages so I can rule the pages. Can’t wait to fill it up. Maybe the next novel will be completely hand written. My hand is cramping already.