2013 has been a fantastic year for books! I’ve been very fortunate, reading a mix of freshly published titles as well as older books off the teetering to be read pile. I have read 146 novels this year, including ten books for my Arthur C. Clarke Reading Challenge and about thirty backlist titles from favourite authors. I’ve largely stayed where I’m most happy, reading historical fiction, science fiction and thrillers. There’s been little need to stray – the standard has been superb throughout the year and I consider myself most fortunate to have spent so much of my free time nose-deep in a five star read. I’m grateful to all publishers and publicists for all their support and hugely appreciated books, to my fellow book bloggers for their inspiration and friendship, to authors for their talent and words, and to everyone who took the time to read the blog, retweet a link or make a comment. It’s been a pleasure!
Before we crack on with 2014, which, judging by the size and quality of my 2014 reading pile, is set to sail very fair indeed, here is a selection of my favourite reads from the last twelve months. The list – which has settled on 25 books – will be divided into two with my most loved read of the year ending the second post tomorrow. Otherwise, they’re not listed in any particular order. So, with no further ado, here is PART ONE.
The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson
Review. The first novel I reviewed in 2013 proved to be one of its highlights. Not surprisingly, its sequel, The Tudor Bride looks set to follow the same course in 2014 (review to follow in the next couple of days). Joanna Hickson brings to life most beautifully the life of Catherine de Valois, a princess of France given to Henry V during the aftermath of Agincourt. The Agincourt Bride focuses on Catherine’s early life and betrothal, mixing her own story with that of her faithful maid and companion Mette. The challenges that Catherine had to take on at such a young age are not to be underestimated and, while she is depicted flaws and all, her courage and vulnerability are never in doubt. The warmth of the novel overwhelmed me, just as its sequel did, and I look forward to reading every word Joanna Hickson writes in the future.
The Wool Trilogy by Hugh Howey
Reviews of Wool, Shift, Dust. A highlight of 2013 without doubt has been Hugh Howey’s masterly Wool trilogy. Set in a future where mankind must burrow into the earth for survival, Wool, Shift and Dust were for me the dystopian novels of the year. Character driven throughout, the trilogy is teeming with revelations and packed with thrills. It is dense with atmosphere and in places utterly horrifying, confronting a host of phobias. It is also intensely sad on occasion. I have loved this series. The prose is immediate, attention-seeking and precise. The worldbuilding is second to none but so too are the characters. By the third novel, we are extremely fond of some characters while others are proving increasingly to be dreaded. The character development of many is wonderful and intricate. There are interludes which seem to have little impact on the end result but they all serve to make this dystopian horror more real. Above all else, the Wool trilogy is a puzzle and, I’m delighted to say, none of its pieces are missing. I can’t recommend this series enough.
Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Freemantle
Review. In Queen’s Gambit, Elizabeth Fremantle takes on the extraordinary figure of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s wife and widow, who lived more in her forty years than most women of her age, and she does her proud. Narrated in the present tense, we are thrust into the heart of the drama where, more often than not, Katherine lived on the very knife’s edge of catastrophe. Another figure strides through the pages, the monstrous King Henry, tormented by pain, disease and cruelty. Even though history tells us what happened, there is still a feeling of tension underlying the events, reminding us that it could have ended so differently. As the novel continues, one can only wish it had. Katherine is a remarkable figure here – modern in many ways and yet caught in her time.
Traitor’s Field by Robert Wilton
Review. Traitor’s Field is a masterly combination of intellect and heart. The Civil War is brought alive in these pages and it is a book to savour. It comprises short segments with ‘reprints’ of documents, some using 17th-century fonts unfamiliar to modern readers. Characters and plotlines are only slowly unwound. There are plenty of action sequences but all the time you need to be alert for clues to the wider picture. The writing itself is stunning – questioning, disjointed, evocative, mixing tenses. The prose gives us no protection, it thrusts us into the heart of it all. Thoroughly rewarding and engrossing throughout, Traitor’s Field is a masterpiece.
Pharaoh by David Gibbins
Review. Advertised as a thriller, Pharaoh is much more than one would expect. It is instead a historical adventure of the highest order, following a secret mission by Major Edward Mayne of the Royal Engineers in the 1880s to race up the Nile to reach General Gordon in Khartoum before he can be taken prisoner. Mixed with a present day quest by Jack Howard to uncover a mystery surrounding the ancient pharaoh Akhenaten, Gibbins here brings this enigmatic Egyptian world to life. He reveals how almost alien this environment must have felt to the Victorian British (and Canadian) soldiers dragging their boats through the crocodile-infested waters by bringing in glimpses and clues to the exotic ancient history that surrounded these men on their dangerous journey. A superb novel and I look forward to its sequel.
The Last King of Lydia by Tim Leach
Review. Despite his unimaginable riches, Croesus, King of Lydia, has been vanquished. In 547 BC, Croesus sits upon a throne of wood erected on top of a pyre, his white robes smeared with oil, quick to catch a flame. Watching him is Cyrus, King of the Persians, now lord of an even greater empire thanks to the military weakness of Croesus. Croesus uses these last moments to reflect on an encounter with Solon, an old politician and philosopher from Athens. Having shown him his treasure rooms, Croesus asked the old man who he believed to be the happiest man alive. Croesus was shocked to discover that this man was not him. All this wealth, which Croesus believed must make him the happiest man alive, counted for nothing if he didn’t live and die well. It’s only now, waiting for the flames to catch, that Croesus begins to understand the waste. The Last King of Lydia is Tim Leach’s first novel and this is an extraordinary fact because it is without doubt one of the finest pieces of writing I have read for a long time. Not just as historical fiction, at which it excels, but for its exquisite depiction of man’s search for contentment and happiness, a good life as well as a good death when the time for that is right. Not just for kings but also for those who serve them, their slaves as well as their wives and children. Magnificent.
The Tower by Simon Toyne
Review. Over the last three years, Simon Toyne’s Sanctus trilogy has been a source of great anticipation and pleasure. It stands out, not just for its fine storytelling and vivid characterisation but also for the world in which it is set. Simon Toyne has created a city so real that one could search for it on a globe and be surprised not to find it. The city of Ruin has at its heart the Tower, an immense monument, natural and shaped by man, that houses the Sancti, an order of monks separated from the rest of mankind by their secrets. In The Tower, the last of the trilogy, the secrets are finally revealed. This has been a fantastic thriller trilogy and it’s to Simon’s credit that its end is every bit as good as one knew it would be. The only sadness is that the trilogy is now complete but no doubt there is much more to come from this fine writer.
I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
Review. I picked this book up knowing very little about it other than that it was not my usual sort of read at all – a spy thriller beginning with a gruesome crime scene – but I was assured that I should put all my preconceptions to one side and jump onboard and hang on. And they were right. From the very first to the very last page, I was utterly enthralled by this astonishing novel, a debut, no less. I Am Pilgrim is thrilling and unputdownable. It is an emotive reading experience. It is indeed genre defying. The journeys that we, the lead characters and the author/narrator are led on are populated by ‘real’ people, obsessed by their own lives, living their own experiences, influenced or merely observed by our two chief protagonists, Pilgrim and Saracen. It’s a twisty path, covering so many countries, sometimes leading to tears, admiration, horror or to tremendous shocks and revelations. 700 pages might seem long but when I finished I Am Pilgrim I was so sorry to put it down, full of admiration as I was for Terry Hayes and this extraordinary achievement. With no doubt at all, this is my top thriller of 2013.
The Blood Gospel and Innocent Blood by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell
Review of The Blood Gospel and Innocent Blood. James Rollins is one of my very favourite thriller writers. I look forward to every book he writes. This year, Rollins has joined with Rebecca Cantrell to embark on a new series, the Order of the Sanguines, a sequence of mysteries involving a supernatural order of priests living in Rome, who inhabit a world walked by monsters, demons, immortals and vampires. Joining them are two humans, Erin and Jordan, and it is because of them, not to mention the extremely high quality of the writing, that the reader can accept this strange world in which they are placed. The novels are as much about emotion as they are action and they are utterly absorbing. Fortunately, Innocent Blood, the second in the series, followed swiftly on the heels of The Blood Gospel.
The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick
Review. During 2013, I have read no fewer than four novels by Elizabeth Chadwick. Her writing is extraordinary as is her power to evoke the lives of people from the past so vividly that you can almost sense them around you. In The Summer Queen, Elizabeth Chadwick turns her attention to my favourite female figure from history – Eleanor of Aquitaine – and the result is wonderful. This novel, the first in a series, follows Eleanor through her childhood and during her marriage to the saintly, albeit horrendous, French King Louis. The portraits of Eleanor, her husband and her sister are compelling and vivid, as are the locations in France and on Crusade, and as this part ends we can glimpse young Henry of Anjou standing in the wings. This is historical fiction at its best and I can’t wait for part two next summer.
Marauder by Gary Gibson
Review. Gary Gibson is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, let alone favourite science fiction authors. He has the considerable, not-to-be-underestimated talent of bringing lightness and accessibility to hard science fiction. Marauder is set within the universe of the Shoal Trilogy and yet it is also a standalone novel. In it, we have two fascinating and contrasting female figures – Megan, an experienced, assured machine head, who knows what she wants, what she has to do, and nothing can stand in her way; and Gabrielle, young, relatively innocent and used and ready to fight back. Manipulating them both, to varying degrees of success, is an array of men on both sides of a bitter struggle to keep their planet dominant. Marauder is full of wonders – the ships and worlds, the mix of human and artificial intelligence, the unknowable monster that is the Marauder and the wider context of the FTL drives and the battle for their control that has scarred the galaxy for millennia. History here is being made. The novel is also full of twists and turns, providing a welcome continuation of the original Shoal trilogy while striking free into new territory. Marauder is great science fiction but it is also an absorbing thriller, intricately plotted and wonderfully imagined.
ACID by Emma Pass
Review. Without doubt, ACID is my favourite Young Adult novel of 2013. The reason for this is embodied in the 17-year-old heroine Jenna Strong, a young woman imprisoned for the murder of her parents, and the Orwellian world in which she has been placed by Emma Pass. The fact that ACID is set in the UK, evoking such familiar places as London, Newcastle, Manchester and Orkney among others, is a refreshing and appealing change but even more than this is the realism of what has happened to Britain. This is a truly dark and frightening place, made even more terrifying by its vivid, precise descriptions of subdued cities and their abandoned cultural centres, and the meticulous detail with which Emma Pass describes how journeys, events, procedures take place. This is a state governed by rules and laws. There is an attention to detail that is completely fitting with the tone and theme of the novel and adds to the menace of its mood. The plot is cleverly and effectively supported by extracts from newspapers, all contributing to the depth and realism of this future Britain. The story itself is a thrilling one, full of twists and turns and surprises as well as moments of the most awful horror. I was gripped by ACID from start to finish. Its ending was, for me, heightened even further by the fact that it is not the first of a trilogy or series. It is a novel on its own.
The Blood of Gods by Conn Iggulden
Review. The story of the aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar in the Theatre of Pompey in 44BC is a familiar one, possibly the most famous of all Roman tales thanks to Shakespeare and Hollywood. For Conn Iggulden, though, it represents the inevitable and natural culmination of his superb series Emperor, which has brought alive the rise to power of the god Julius and now, in The Blood of Gods, depicts his fellow Romans slipping in his blood, scrambling for position, giving way under the indomitable obsession for revenge wielded by his adopted son Octavian, the new Julius Caesar – Rome’s first emperor in everything but name. There are some fantastic set pieces here. In addition to the famous last battle, there is also a harrowing sea battle led by Agrippa. The horrifying battle sequences complement well the political machinations of Rome just as the combat exists side by side with great oratory. The manipulation of Rome’s masses is as important as prowess on the battlefield. It’s been over five years since the publication of the last Emperor novel. Now the story ends at last and there is indeed closure here. You can feel it in the few scenes with Brutus and Cassius, in the shifting of Mark Antony as he tries to find his own place of comfort and power, and in the resolution of Octavian Caesar to proclaim his adopted father a god, his assassins all slaughtered. Above all, though, The Blood of Gods is an enormously confident and accomplished novel that achieves the near impossible task of placing you, the reader, in the very heart of this most fascinating time in Roman history as a witness to the actions of its greatest men.
A brilliant novel and, as such, the perfect point at which to take a rest before part two.