As 2017 draws to an end, it’s been another good year for me in terms of reading. Below are my fiction books of the year, with non-fiction to follow.
Perhaps the most outstanding book that I read this year is Kingdom of the Wicked. It’s an alternative history book, but one that tackles incredibly big themes. The starting point is one that I haven’t seen well done for a long time, positing an industrialised Roman Empire. There’s an interesting appendix at the back as to how you might get an industrial revolution going in Roman times, and make some sense. In any case, we find ourselves in a technology similar to that of the 1960s, but set instead in Judaea in 33 A.D. you can see where this is going… what’s really interesting about this book is that it tackles themes of torture, the nature of Divinity, issues around what it means to be a colonizer as well as means to be colonized, migration and nationalism, the tension between state law and state violence, feminism and reproductive rights. Many of the characters are biblical or historical. Here they have a fresh new look, and biblically and historically attested events are presented from a number of different angles which make you think about what really might have happened. The book is the first part of the trilogy, so I look forward to reading the rest.
I have always had an interest in the Cthulhu mythos of HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft, of course, was not at all nice person, a deeply racist person in fact. It’s interesting given the explosion of allegations and news around sexual harassment to think about how we can, if we can, separated the art from the artist. These two books are a sideways take on the mythos. The first one starts off as a regular police procedural but then gets, as books about Cthulhu tend to, very weird. What interesting is that the weirdness gets introduced gradually, and becomes normalized. This, of course, is another theme running through 2017. The first book ends in a twist, and the second one takes off from there. The second one is more explicitly alternate history, but it is an alternate history viewed through the prism of the dark gods. It hard to categorise these books, police procedural, alternate history, horror… it’s all here. Carter and Lovecraft are interesting protagonists, with a complex relationship.
Michael Connolly always writes well-crafted books. This year we have two, the new Harry Bosch but more interesting perhaps is the introduction of a new character in The Late Show. The late show is where detectives investigate crimes accordingly evening, in a holding pattern until the ‘real; detectives come on board in the morning shift. It’s a backwater, a dead-end. our character, Renee Ballard, has been exiled to the backwaters of the late show as a consequence calling out her superior for sexual harassment. She get sucked into a case, which of course as ever with Connolly leads to a process of unravelling bigger and more complex issues. Connolly runs multiple series, and one of his features is that main characters in one tend to be supporting characters in another. It’s always fun to play spot the character.
Set in the bone-dry outback of Australia The Dry is a really well-written well-crafted police procedural. The main character is a local boy makes good, who left under circumstances that gradually get revealed, to become a policeman in the big city. Although he is a specialist in financial crimes he gets drawn into the issues around a murder-suicide for which he has returned for the funeral, the perpetrator being his childhood best friend. It becomes gradually clear that this murder-suicide is not as it seems, and has its roots in another tragedy years ago which caused our protagonist to leave under less than ideal circumstances. There’s a lot of psychology, a lot of trauma, in this book. Alcoholism, Child abuse, the claustrophobic nature of smalltown life, financial pressures, and a whole cast of characters hiding secrets great and small.
Charles Stross is possibly the best science fiction writer out there right now. The latest incarnation in his laundry files, The Delerium Brief, takes us very deep into the woods. There is always a lot of dry humour in these books, centring around bureaucratic bumbling and the nature of the deep state, which is neither all good nor all bad. Here we see the beginning of what might well be the end times. It becomes clear in the last third of the book that in order to avert the greater evil you may well have to find yourself cohabiting with what you hope is the lesser evil. The laundry series has been getting darker and darker. We’re hurtling into the deep night, and there be monsters. A lot of threads from earlier laundry books begin to come into this one, but as ever with Charles Stross, it’s not at all clear if they are resolved, and those that are resolved tend not to be resolved in a way which is not always terribly human-friendly. It’s probably not a great book to start reading the series, but it’s certainly a great read.
Perhaps my favourite Roman history serious right now is the series of books around Fronto, sometime legate of Julius Caesar. Fields of Mars starts off with him busy trying to have a life outside the army, not terribly successfully, as a wine merchant. Those who have read the books will know that putting Fronto in charge of the wine business is not a good idea either for the business or for his liver. Meanwhile in Ravenna Julius Caesar is trying, but as we know won’t succeed, to avert Civil War. Fronto’s family straddles the political divide in Rome, and he himself is deeply ambivalent about Caesar, as a man and as a politician. And it’s very clear that we’re going to see another series of how Fronto deals with the Civil War and fighting against his friends. Bring it on!