Novels of the year (halftime report)
Alright, enough discussing issues of meta-importance or older books; time to talk about some contemporary works. I’m not quite sure how it’s suddenly got to be halfway through 2009 – Christmas was only last month, right? – but I thought I should start recording stuff I’ve read this year that I’ve enjoyed. For the purposes of this post, I’m restricting that to novels of the fantastic published this year. Some lists:
Novels I’ve read that I was impressed by:
- Chris Beckett, Marcher. Very political near-future sf, and therefore not a bundle of laughs. But sensitively written, thoughtful, and not a million miles from the work of, say, Paolo Bacigalupi.
- Lev Grossman, The Magicians. Only out in the UK so far, so I won’t spoil; but an enormously skillful and knowing fantasy. Maybe knowing to a fault, but still a hugely enjoyable read.
- Toby Litt, Journey into Space. A controversial book: Ursula le Guin was very negative about it, but others have expressed more positive views. Much as I admire Ms Le Guin’s writing, I come down in the “pro” camp too. Although there’s some over-writing (and one ten-page risky passage that just doesn’t come off), the story of a generation starship civilisation building up its myths is compelling and accelerates nicely towards the end.
- China Mieville, The City and The City. I have some trouble with the book – chiefly, I think there’s a problem of gearing between the noir story and the concept it reveals – but there’s so much in here that absolutely stunning: the evocation of Eastern Europe, the superb readability, the central idea and its implications.
- Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia. May be the book in which Roberts has so far best managed to balance his love of sf-as-high-concept-literature with a story that he’s engaged in.
- Catherynne M Valente, Palimpsest. To my taste, pretty much the book of the year so far. Estranging, evocative, beautifully written.
- Robert Charles Wilson, Julian Comstock. Only just finished, though I had a headstart having read the earlier PS Publishing novella Julian: A Christmas Story. Very different from the Spin books, though no less (awful term) a novel of ideas.
Novels I haven’t read that sound good:
- C.C. Finlay, The Patriot Witch (via Rich Horton)
- Felix Gilman, The Gears of the City
- Jay Lake, Green
- David Marusek, Mind Over Ship
- Patrick Ness, The Ask and the Answer
- Kari Sperring, Living With Ghosts
- Bruce Sterling, The Caryatids
- Greg van Eekhout, Norse Code
- Jo Walton, Lifelode
- Sarah Waters, The Little Friend
- Kit Whitfield, In Great Waters
Novels that sound interesting but aren’t out yet:
- Iain Banks, Transition
- Stephen Baxter, Ark
- Rana Dasgupta, Solo
- Cory Doctorow, Makers
- Greer Gilman, Cloud and Ashes
- Richard Kadrey, Sandman Slim
- Ken Macleod, The Restoration Game
- Paul Mcauley, Gardens of the Sun
- Nelida Pinon, Voices of the Desert
- Cherie Priest, Boneshaker
- Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream
- Peter Straub, The Skylark
- Jeff VanderMeer, Finch
I should also say that I’m currently reading John Crowley’s Four Freedoms. It’s as wonderfully written and moving as you’d expect from Crowley, but I can’t (yet) find any way in which it’s fantastic. And while I’ll definitely be getting Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice when it comes out, the blurb suggests it’ll be less sf-nal than Against the Day.
So, with those caveats, please use the comments to tell me what I’m missing from these lists. Obvious note I: I’m not omniscient, and have almost certainly missed good books. Obvious note II: these lists do not represent Official Locus Anything. Obvious note III: please try to keep any recommendations spoiler-free. As I say, we’re talking about novels of the fantastic published so far in 2009. (If we were talking about collections, I’d go on for 5000 words again about The Best of Gene Wolfe; and I’m sure no-one wants that….)
ETA: I knew I’d forget some things. Additions to the lists above are in green.
10 thoughts on “Novels of the year (halftime report)”
I've read almost nothing (novel-length) from 2009: The Patriot Witch, enjoyable enough but not, I would say, Hugo quality, is one; and The Caryatids, which I found interesting in spots but ultimately very disappointing.
The novel I most want to read on your list is Julian Comstock, though plenty others look pretty good!
Couldn't agree more about The Magicians, which I thought was superb.
Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet concludes in July with The Price of Spring. If you're unaquainted with the tetrology, now would be a great time to read it straight through. The first volume, A Shadow in Summer, takes a few chapters to get up to full speed, but by the end of the third volume, An Autumn War, Abraham has made full use of every detail in the first volume. If you don't believe me, here's Jo Walton on the subject:
I just wanted to note that Greer Gilman's Cloud and Ashes has been out in the US for a few weeks. I'm reading it now, and it is indeed worthy of being mentioned here, very inventive, and such masterful use of language.
I'll certainly second Palimpsest and The City and the City. And thanks for the suggestion of The Magicians, as an American reader I hadn't seen it mentioned before and it looks interesting.
Most of my other recent reading has been catching up with 2008 titles, so sadly I can't add much. I did recently finish Robert Freeman Wexler's new novel The Painting and the City and was generally impressed by it. Readers who enjoyed the "ordinary guy finds himself in surreal circumstances" aspect of In Springdale Town and The Circus of the Grand Design will find that element in the new novel as well, but given a broader scope, a protagonist simultaneously more flawed and more endearing, and a slightly messier quality that fits the book's subject matter — it's not a book that makes sense, but still offers a satisfying conclusion (if not resolution).
One forthcoming title I'm interested in is Voices of the Desert by Nelida Pinon — it's apparently a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights from Scheherazade's point of view, with less emphasis on the tales, more on the circumstances of the teller.
Two mainstream British novels; The Little Friend by Sarah Waters, a ghost story in a decaying mid-20th cent manor house; Hodd by Adam Thorpe, a retelling of the Robin Hood myth. Both engaing unusually with traditional forms.
Thanks, all. Some comments (reflected in the lists above):
I've now finished The Caryatids and, with regret, wind up agreeing with Rich about how disappointing it is. On the other hand, I'm partway through Lake's Green, which looks very interesting indeed. Susan, I'm afraid Daniel Abraham is not to my taste – I really didn't get on with A Shadow in Summer. Matt, my Amazoned copy of Cloud and Ashes has not yet appeared so I refuse, on sound Cartesian grounds, to believe that it exists. The Pinon does indeed appear interesting. Anon: yes, am a Sarah Waters fan so that goes on the list. Adam Thorpe I have very mixed feelings about. I thought Ulverton, his first book, was just miraculous and his second, Still was astonishingly bad. So I've steered clear ever since. Have you read Hodd? Is it any good?
I wanted to thank you for listing Jo Walton's Lifelode, which I had missed entirely. It has become one of my favorite books of all time. However, as I like it for many of the same reasons I like Abraham's Long Price Quartet (well-rounded middle-aged characters, exquisite prose, the interweaving of domestic detail with world-shaking events) your mileage may vary. However, I am of your opinion about the Mieville, Roberts, Valente, and Wilson, so maybe we'd react similarily to the Walton. Thanks also for listing The Magicians and Marcher, which I now intend to read. (I believe the Sarah Waters novel is actually titled "The Little Stranger.")
"Ursula le Guin was very negative about it"
I'm just shocked that in Le Guin's initial summary of generation ship stories that she doesn't mention that work of genius, The Starlost.
Incidentally, she has to have one of the all-time most misspelled sf/fantasy author names, up there, if not over, Isaac Asimov, Tolkien, and Heinlein.
Very nice list. Other 2009 novels that look interesting (at least to me) but which I haven't yet read:
# Dan Simmons, Drood
# Nancy Kress, Steal Across the Sky
# Kit Reed, Enclave
# Walter Jon Williams, This Is Not A Game
# Robert J Sawyer, WWW:Wake
# Rudy Rucker, Hylozoic
Of course these could very well be excluded from your list by the phrase "that I was impressed by" 🙂
I was very impressed with Kit Reed's Enclave — one of the best novels I've read in recent years.