So, another year over, more or less, and while awaiting the books that I asked Santa to bring, here is my non-comprehensive thoughts on my books of the year 2016. In no order and without warranty, my fiction picks. Non fiction to follow.
Ben Winters is perhaps THE best new SciFi writer. His apocalyptic Last Policeman trilogy was ineffably sad and quite wonderful. This year the only book that made me shudder, and when you read books about nazi police investigators and necrophilic Stasi (read on) THAT takes some doing, was Underground Airlines. The premise is simple – through a not improbable event we find ourselves in a USA where there was no confederate civil war but instead one in the 1960s with a liberal, latino Texas trying secession, where slavery is still legal in 4 states, and where the particular institution has resulted in the USA being more or less a pariah worldwide. WIthin the USA there is an active slavecatcher apparatus operated by the Feds, riven by abolitionists and proslavery, and mostly employing runaways. This is a deeply disturbing book – the USA is at once familiar and utterly horrifically different. I had no clue where the plot was going, beyond a conventional ending, till the last few chapters, when the full inexorable legally brilliant plan is uncovered. And we have no sense that it is foiled. A book to leave you with much to ponder.
Ok, I know he is a darling of the Alt-right, and has caused a ruckus at the Hugo’s but I really like Larry Correia. He is a pulpy writer, lots of guns and gore and gals and guitars, lots of monsters and mayhem, mostly set in or around Alabama. Think Deliverance with full auto and creatures from the dungeon dimensions. I had missed out on Monster Hunter Alpha but caught up with it – Earl Harbringer is NOT a man to mess with and shows how and why he truly is the Big Dog in the pack. Werewolves, black helicopters, drooling lunatics with dreams of world domination, feisty cops (who may or may not meet a Terrible End)…. Its good.
How does a (reasonably) decent police officer work in a totalitarian state? Since reading Gorky Park in the early 80s that has always fascinated me. I have found it hard to get good police procedurals in that milieu however. This year I took a bunch of novels from Philip Kerr, the Bernie Gunther series, and jumped in. Great reads. Bernie is not an especially good man, nor an especially nice one. But he is fundamentally decent, and tries his best as a Berlin police investigator, private investigator, military intelligence officer and reluctant spy to keep a moral core intact. As the series spans from 1932 to 1956 that is not easy, indeed not possible in full. These are wonderful reads, noir and poignant. There is a debate on whether these should be read in publishing or chronological order. I think publishing, as increasingly the timeline jumps about after book 3.
Similar in tone, if a little darker, is the John Russell series, starting with Zoo Station and authored by David Downing. Again a flawed hero, this time a little less flawed than Bernie and a man who is not above double and triple crosses to make one’s head spin, Russell is an Anglo-German journalist. We follow him, his family and his many enemies from the late 1930s to the early 1950’s taking in a tour of the asylum that was europe. I grew to like the characters in this series – not easy to do- and cared for them. The arc of Kerr’s son, Paul, from soccer mad pre teen to exile post war is poignant.
We think of the Praetorian Guard as faceless and powerhungry, but ignore that in the middle empire they were a handy pool of skilled fighters from whom the Emperor de jure could pick and choose detachments and units. SJA Turley is a very evocative writer – try Ironroot for a sad but uplifting fantasy – and here in The Great Game and in the sequel Price of Treason we follow Rufinius as he more or less literally stumbles into promotion to the Guard then, newbie and disposable, is thrown to the conspiratorial wolves. But…. hes got game, he manages to make some friends and has luck. He by no means escapes unscathed – by the end of the second book this is a scarred and seasoned killer, but we stick with him as he makes his way onward, not to glory he hopes but just to the end of the assignment.
Christian Cameron is a wonderful writer of military historical novels. His Long War series follows the exploits of the historically attested Arminestos of Plataea, and weaves around the few facts of his life a vivid recreation of the emergence of Greece. By the time we reach Rage of Ares we have have followed Arimestos as a farmer, slave, courtier, smith, pirate, and pretty much all round man of bronze, a killer of men and sickened by it. We have seen the ionian rebellion, the rise of Syracuse, the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis. Here we reach the finale, where he fights the culminating battle, that of Plateae, literally on his own farmland, against the Persians, his peoples enemies and his personal friends.Its elagic, brutal and engrossing.
I had heard great things about The Three Body Problem but hadnt gotten around to reading it until late this year. It, and its followups The Dark Forest and Death’s End, are rich, sweeping, sinocentric science fiction novels, tackling the biggest issues of all. As we go on the scope expands and expands to Stapledonian dimensions, and the problems with it. A rewarding and satisfying read. All three really need to be read in fairly rapid succession to get the full impact of the writing.
Ah, Uthred Uhtredærwe.. Never a man to let a grudge die, the Flame Bearer sees Uthred of Bebbanberg finally moving to secure his birthright. This is another great novel from a master storyteller. Uthred is not a nice man, not at all. Cruel, proud, violent, capricious, yet capable of nobility and generosity, he is a wonderful creation. Ageing, but like oak getting harder and more durable, Uthred begins to find that even if one does get close to one’s life’s aim there is always some other problem (in this case, the King of Scotland). I read this before I bingewatched the Last Kingdom, which I also hugely enjoyed. Cornwell has in Uthred a character at least as good and as complex as Richard Sharpe. Read the whole series NOW
So, the Stasi… In keeping with my reading of the Bernie Gunther novels, I have begun to try to seek out novels about police in extraordinary circumstances. So, East Germany had the Stasi, of course, but also regular cops. East German citizens robbed, raped, murdered, defrauded, got into fights in bars, drove drunk etc. And as in any society there were police to deal with them. But what happens when these regular, if politicised, police get mixed up in a case with capital P Political implications. The protagonist is a policewoman who is dully dutiful to the state, with no great notions of how wonderful it would be to be in West Germany and who gets on with her job until one day she is called to a case close to the Anti Fascist Barrier or as we called it the Berlin Wall. From there on it it all unravells. A complex, tough read that makes you think of what it means to the soul to go along to get along.