And we’re back! After yesterday’s post, the first part of my Book review of 2013, it’s time for part two (fortified by my birthday lunch). The list is in no particular order except for the final book which is my personal favourite of the year. I must also repeat this from yesterday: 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! On with the second batch of my favourite books from 2013.
Angel City by Jon Steele
Review. This second novel in a series begun so memorably with The Watchers, is set in a world in which angels walk the earth side by side with demons. Some humans, such as those we met in The Watchers, have the gift – or curse – to witness their struggle for supremacy, to mark the light of creation in the eyes of angels. Most people, though, live in ignorance and barely know the world they live in. Mixing fantasy with thriller and police drama, Angel City is powerful stuff with rich characters we care deeply for – Kat, her young son Max and Harper. Jon Steele is a wonderful writer. I can’t think of another like him. It’s possible that his background as a war journalist has given him an extra insight into the innate powers of men and women to damage and care for one another. His prose veers between immediacy and poetry. It is bloody and beautiful. It’s hard to imagine caring for characters more than those we are presented with here. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the marrying of fantasy and reality. I’m no fan of fantasy fiction, on the contrary, but I think I love Jon Steele’s novels so much because he brings the fantastical into our lives as a powerful ‘explanation’ of some of the horrific acts that man commits against himself, which we see day in and day out on the news. Extraordinary, enriched with humanity, and not easy to explain!
The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper
Review. When archaeologist Lily disappears from the excavated remains of an ancient drowned city in southern Italy, we embark on a journey alongside her husband Jonah that will astonish us. The Orpheus Descent is a novel that tells two stories. In parallel to Jonah and Lily’s story is that of Plato. In the years following Socrates’ murder or assassination, Plato’s writings underwent a significant change as his philosophical view of life, love, beauty and virtue shifted. Tom Harper here gives us one possible reason for this. Plato is also on a quest. The two stories entwine like fibres of gold. As the novel progresses the strands knit closer but for much of the time they are linked by things wonderfully described and evoked – landscape, mythology, love, religion, desire, philosophy, jealousy, virtue. The Orpheus Descent is a superb reworking of some of the most familiar and beautiful myths of ancient Greece – Orpheus’ hunt for Eurydice in the Underworld among others. The landscapes of ancient and newer Greece and Italy, as well as the mythological landscape, are brought alive by the journeys of Jonah and Plato and the parallels between their two stories are awash with similarities and echoes. The novel is both utterly enchanting and brain testing in the best of ways.
Stormbird by Conn Iggulden
Review. Conn Iggulden appeared in yesterday’s first part of the post for The Blood of Gods, the conclusion to his Emperor series. Stormbird marks the beginning of a new series set in a different time, the Wars of the Roses. It is every bit as superb as anything Conn has written before and without doubt is one of my three favourite historical fiction novels of the year. Its hardback also has the most beautiful cover I’ve seen in 2013. This is a novel full of violence, battle and shock, but, for me, despite that, the most memorable figure is young Margaret of Anjou. There is not a trace of sentimentality in her treatment. But not all of the novel is to do with the rich and powerful. There are displaced longbowmen and disgruntled peasants and much of Stormbird follows their rich and full lives, especially those of archer Thomas Woodchurch and his son, and of real-life rebel John Cade who led his army of of the dispossessed and hungry into London itself. What these people have to deal with is measured against the acts that they inflict on others in their vengeance. It makes things complicated and rewarding to read. There is a moment with John Cade that made me weep and that is testament to Iggulden’s powers of humanising these long-dead people. History gives us an idea of what is to come in the next novel and in Conn Iggulden’s hands it will soar.
Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
Review. One of the key events of the decades leading up to William of Normandy’s transformation from Bastard to Conqueror was the slaughter of Danish settlers by the citizens of English towns, incited by King Aethelred, on St Brice’s Day in 1002. This massacre, or rather the crisis that provoked it, lies at the heart of Shadow on the Crown. But, refreshingly and completely effectively, the tale is told not from the point of view of soldiers or kings, although we watch their actions, but from that of Aethelred’s second wife and only queen, Emma of Normandy. She has to endure a great deal, from her brute of a husband and from herself – it doesn’t pay to love where she shouldn’t. Patricia Bracewell doesn’t romanticise Emma at all. This is a believable, real young woman, living a thousand years away. Shadow on the Crown is a wonderful novel – luxurious, evocative yet dark. Its descriptions of buildings and places, mostly now lost over the last thousand years, brings this time to life. The hardback is another beautiful book.
The Far Shore by Nick Brown
Review. Roman imperial secret service agent Cassius Corbulo is back! And with Cassius is his gentle Christian servant Simo and his bodyguard, freed gladiator Indavara. This third adventure in the Agent of Rome series is is one of the most gripping novels of Roman historical fiction that I have read. It is heated up with two equally dramatic, harrowing episodes that were impossible for me to put down. Its sea voyage is so intense and horrible and brilliantly described that I could feel my own stomach churn, let alone that of Cassius and the others. This is then matched by the fascinating depiction of life on the very edges of late Roman rule on its remote North African edge. This is the late 3rd century AD when indigenous tribes were reclaiming lands across the empire, aided by a succession of fleeting, corrupt, embattled governments in Rome. Cassius gets a taste of this first hand in Cyrenaica. A dangerous place at a dangerous time. Quite apart from the edge of seat action, a great appeal of this series is the trio at its heart – Cassius is an unlikely hero. As he admits, being a secret service agent hardly endears him to strangers, and his youth and arrogance might seem charming at times but at others they get him into all sorts of trouble. The novel tantalisingly delivers some of Indavara’s past. As for the baddie… Overall, The Far Shore is a thoroughly enjoyable, fast and furious, often funny Roman adventure, populated by people I care about and set in a world in which demons are at work.
Love Minus Eighty by Will McKintosh
Review. Set in a vaguely anonymous and heavily altered New York City a hundred years or so in the future, we are presented with a world gone social media mad. Life is lived in front of an audience of screens, the projections of online voyeurs, who follow the popular around, listening in to ‘private’ conversations and moments. Life and death matter far less than how much money you have, how beautiful you are and how many ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ you have. Should you have these then death is actually little more than an inconvenient intermission in an otherwise long and spoilt existence. You will be frozen and then instantly revived, your ailments at least temporarily held at bay and your injuries fixed. If you are female and beautiful but without money then it is possible that you might find yourself in a form of frozen living death, one of the Bridesicles, awoken for brief expensive ‘dates’ with the type of man who would want to revive a dead woman to be his wife or, more accurately, sex-slave. As all good dystopias should, Love Minus Eighty builds a well-realised and extraordinary world. The layers of city reflect the layers of social class. This is a world in which you are classed by the technology you carry on your body, your social skin, and how many conversations you can conduct simultaneously. Yet this contrasts with the people themselves. Many of the characters we meet here want the same things as you and me, no more or less. This thoroughly enjoyable book has some big themes but they are not delved into too deeply. Instead, this is a fast, easy to read and addictive novel.
Rome’s Fallen Eagle by Robert Fabbri
Review. There are two events in particular from Roman history that have always fascinated me – the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which resulted in the loss of Varus, his three legions and their eagles and the Claudian conquest of Britannia. In Rome’s Fallen Eagle, the fourth in Robbert Fabbri’s excellent series on Vespasian, these events are both key and the result is a novel that I did not want to let out of my sight. From the very first chapter, set in a blood-soaked Roman theatre, ravaged by Caligula’s maddened, grief-stricken Germanic bodyguards, Rome’s Fallen Eagle grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and hauls him or her through the most dangerous fringes of the empire, made worse by the scrambling for power amongst those closest to Claudius and his wife Messalina, and into the unknown. Rome’s Fallen Eagle is one of the most exciting novels I’ve read in 2013. The action does not let up a jot as one adventure turns into another while all the time we are in the company of well-rounded and colourful personalities, Roman and barbarian. I have enjoyed the whole series but without doubt Rome’s Fallen Eagle is my favourite. It is never less than compelling, it is always well-written and time and time again jaw dropping. I couldn’t read its pages fast enough. The ebook was published in September 2013, with the hardback edition due out on 2 January 2014.
The Serene Invasion by Eric Brown
Review. Alien invasion – not a concept that conjures up images of calm, peace and non-violence. In Eric Brown’s The Serene Invasion our preconceptions, not to mention those of the billions of men, women and children on Earth, are challenged by the arrival of a species that is intent solely on fostering peace across a planet on the verge of losing life thanks to its human inhabitants. The Serene has done it before for other worlds. Now it’s time for Earth to be put in its place. From the very beginning, The Serene Invasion pulls at the imagination, provoking contemplation about mankind’s relationship to violence and aggression. Most significantly, is it inherent? Alongside this, as the novel moves through the decades, are descriptions of wondrous cities – and they are beautiful and stunning to imagine – as well as transformed landscapes. This is a fantastic book. I loved everything about it. It starts off with intense action and drama and then it transforms before our eyes. Set only a few decades in our future, it hints at a message that we should look about us before it is too late. But, above all else, The Serene Invasion is absorbing and uplifting, driven by characters I cared about and full of memorable, often beautiful, moments.
The Abominable by Dan Simmons
Review. In 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irving were briefly glimpsed tantalisingly close to Everest’s unconquered summit. They disappeared into the mountain’s ‘smoke’ and were never seen alive again. The announcement of their presumed deaths in the London papers was accompanied by the post script notice of the deaths of two other climbers on the mountain – Lord Percival Bromley and Kurt Meyer, who were reported to have been swept away in an avalanche. Lord Percy’s mother is tormented by thoughts of her son lost on Everest and so she agrees to support an unofficial expedition to Everest in 1925. Seamlessly mingling fact and fiction, The Abominable by Dan Simmons presents the Everest expedition of Richard Deacon, aka The Deacon, once the friend and climbing partner of Mallory, and our narrator Jake Perry, a young rock climber, and their small, unusual and characterful team of European climbers and Sherpas. But there is so much more to this spectacular and luxuriously chunky novel than those bare bones. Over the course of almost 700 pages, Dan Simmons convinces you that you are back in the 1920s, this heyday of mountain exploration. I was so sorry to finish The Abominable. It was an emotional reading experience. I have rarely felt so absorbed into a work of fiction, so steeped in its mood. I could feel the chill and I shared the fear as well as the exhilaration of a particularly perilous section of climb achieved. I didn’t find the pace slow. I found it to be luxurious and rich. Surely there can be few literary portraits of Everest (or its courageous, obsessed, astonishing climbers) as vivid and riveting as this. A completely satisfying mix of history, realism and fiction.
On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds
Review. As men and women explore space and settle new worlds, increasingly knotted to technology, they put at risk everything that is, or has been, beautiful about the Earth and life on it – free thought, independent purpose, animals and nature, healthy breathable skies and even family ties. In On the Steel Breeze, the distant sequel to Blue Remembered Earth, these themes are explored even further and taken to new places as humanity confronts a time of great crisis. In On the Steel Breeze, we follow the life stories of three women, descendants of the remarkable and celebrated Eunice Akinya and her daughter Sunday, so well known to us from the previous novel. All is not that straightforward, though, because these three women each share the same name, Chiku, and their ties are unusual and profound. We revisit places and characters from Blue Remembered Earth. For me, this meant a welcome return to the Merfolk of the United Acquatic Nations as well as sinister machine-controlled Mars. But added to these are the new worlds, especially Crucible and the holoships, and thrilling episodes on other planets and environments. On the Steel Breeze might be visionary but it’s also a thoroughly exciting adventure, with edge-of-seat scenes scattered throughout the book. Parts of it are breathtaking, not just for the splendour of the backdrop. I’m delighted to report that elephants make a return in the new novel and they are given a much more important role in our future.
Sword of Rome by Douglas Jackson
Review. Gaius Valerius Verrens returns. A Hero of Rome, Valerius is a man and soldier well-known for his false wooden fist, his right hand lost in the service of Rome, the cost of a last stand against the fury of Boudicca. In this fourth adventure or mission, Valerius is caught up in the whimsical death of Nero in AD 68 and its bloody aftermath. Valerius is known for his valour and for his morality, not to mention that most dangerous of attributes – loyalty – and having rejected the throne himself he becomes the tool of those who won’t. Servant of Otho but friend of Vitellius, Valerius is sent by Otho to persuade Vitellius not to challenge his new rule and not to march on Rome. As towns, districts and legions choose their allegiances and prepare to make a stand or advance in threat, Valerius is caught in the middle. What makes it worse is that there is a man literally after his blood and as Valerius moves across the empire on his mission to broker peace, this enemy is a constant terrier at his heels. More pleasurable for Valerius, is the appeal of Domitia, first met in Avenger of Rome and here back to give Valerius something much closer to his heart to fight for. Douglas Jackson has an incredible ability to put the reader into the mind of his Hero of Rome Valerius and the result is a powerful rollercoaster that towards the end put my heart and stomach into my mouth. The aftermath of Nero’s death was a dangerous time for Rome and here we experience exactly why. Superb.
Proxima by Stephen Baxter
Review. I have read many fine books in 2013 but with no doubt at all, Proxima is my favourite book of the year. It has everything and more that I want from a novel, whatever its genre, and by the end I was left breathless and more than a little upset that it was finished. Earth is in trouble, the centre (in a manner of speaking) of a solar system divided between the west and China. While China mines the resources of the asteroid belt and the more distant planets, the west colonises the closer planets. But when a new energy source is discovered on Mercury that permits interstellar travel the enormous opportunities that this grants to one faction are matched by the danger of the ensuing intensified cold war. Meanwhile, a ship full of rejects from Earth and Mars uses this new technology to reach Proxima Centauri, our nearest habitable planet, four light years away. Their goal is to settle the planet and do the necessary hard work of establishing a basic social infrastructure before others can ultimately join them to reap the benefits. Their main job, though, is to breed – to create new generations of human beings on a new Earth. To start all over again. This is the goal and the dream but how different and harrowing is the reality. Proxima is a novel that almost overflows with wonders. It contains not just one story but several. It takes place on Proxima Centauri but also on Earth, Mercury and in the distant asteroid mining settlements. The lives we encounter over a considerable number of years become increasingly important to the reader. Looming over all the personal tales of hardship and endeavour and love is the terrifying cold shadow of potential war between east and west which, if it comes to pass, could mean nothing less than the extinction of the human race. The writing is elegant, informative, exact and visionary. It has scenes that took this reader’s breath away. The characters are always interesting – even the original AIs and especially the ColU robotic unit. Proxima is so full of surprises that it never releases its grip. It is packed with ‘wow’ moments and there are other moments which made me weep with how perfect or profound they felt to me. This was not an emotion-free reading experience. Incredible.
Picking 25 books from a total of 146 novels read was not an easy task and there are plenty of other books I could have added to the list.
Brothers’ Fury by Giles Kristian
The Poisoned Island by Lloyd Shepherd
Assassin’s Reign by Michael Arnold
Reviver by Seth Patrick
The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
The Keystone by A.M. Dean
The Excalibur Codex by James Douglas
The Eagle’s Vengeance by Anthony Riches
Fields of Blood by Ben Kane
Grail Knight by Angus Donald
The Dire Earth Cycle by Jason M. Hough
Crash by Guy Haley
The Blood Crows by Simon Scarrow
The Chimera Secret by Dean Crawford
At Break of Day by Elizabeth Speller
Of all the older novels I read in 2013, Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds is, I think, my favourite, followed by Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey and, for historical fiction, The Queen’s Vow by C.W. Gortner.
I would like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and a wonderful book-filled 2014!