It’s that time again. Not quite awards time – I’m not even going to pretend I’m wearing a specially rented tuxedo and have just stepped from a Limousine to deliver this preamble (and charged myself an astronomical fee for the privilege) – but time to celebrate some of the wonderful books that have crossed my path this year.
Here’s a list of my favourite books of the past twelve months. I’m not limiting myself to 2019 publications but happily freewheeling through the years; I don’t see enough current releases to focus solely on the most recent publications. I’ve never met a loop I wasn’t out of.
Here we go, then – fourteen books that have uplifted me this year:
The Imaginary Corpse – Tyler Hayes (2019)
This is beautiful. An impossible, ridiculous concept – a stuffed triceratops detective; a noir mystery in a cartoon world of forgotten ideas – that brings out the heights and depths of the emotions.
Tippy lives in the Stillreal, a world where ideas go when they’re not needed anymore. There he solves mysteries and battles his own trauma – until he runs into The Man In The Coat, a creature who can do the impossible: he can kill an Idea permanently. Now Tippy must solve the case before there is nothing left but imaginary corpses.
A mad idea written with such beauty and delicacy that it utterly convinces. Were I awarding a Book of the Year this would be a strong candidate.
The Breach – MT Hill (2020)
I crammed my way through this in two days, thanks to deadlines. But I feel like it’s still unfolding in my brain, even a month after finishing it. Intense, lyrical and creepy as hell.
Shep is a steeplejack with a second life as an urban explorer, breaking in to abandoned structures to document their existence and for the sheer thrill of it. But when he discovers a mysterious nest on one such foray, his life will be forever altered – and maybe much, much shorter.
Meanwhile a down-on-her-luck journalist, Freya, is investigating the death of another urbex adventurer. She meets Shep and follows him across the world to try and get to the bottom of just what is making people act so strangely.
Just what is out there? And what is trying to get in?
Dark River – Rym Kechacha (2019)
Two mothers, with 8 millennia between them, struggle to save their children in this brooding, suspenseful novel of climate change.
In Doggerland Shaye makes an epic journey to perform a ritual that will secure a future for her son. In London in 2156, Shante waits for a visa that will allow her to extract her family from an angry Thames and make her way to the safer north. On the way both women will face trials and tests that will push them to the limit.
Written without speech-marks, Dark River is a flowing, liquid read that sweeps you along relentlessly right up to its devastating conclusion.
The Outside – Ada Hoffman (2019)
A lot’s been written about this already, with its autistic main character and its great AI Gods and semi-human Angels. It’s worth the hype.
After Yasira’s prototype energy drive malfunctions and destroys the space station its mounted on, her work is deemed heretical and Yasira is abducted by angels. Her mission becomes one of tracking down her old, vanished mentor, who has been committing atrocities not only against people but against the known laws of the physical universe.
With her own home planet infested by impossible monsters, Yasira must choose who to trust: the AIs and their harsh angels or the rebel scientist whose unorthodox mathematics can open doors to impossible space.
An elegantly put together story that manages to bring something new to the table, and introduces mind-twisting concepts in a way that doesn’t twist your mind!
Angelmaker – Nick Harkaway (2012)
This is great fun. Gangster noir meets James Bond meets absurdist comedy in this book of clockwork, of secret doomsday weapons, mad museums, dictators and octogenarian secret agents.
Joe Spork is a clockmaker and son of a famous mob figure. He is drawn into a conspiracy by the seemingly normal pensioner Edie Banister, who, sick of a life of fighting the nations foes, plots to activate a secret 1950s doomsday machine. Joe now has to fight not only the government but Edie’s arch-nemesis – a mad Asian dictator with a cult of mysterious monks at his behest.
A sprawling, thrilling adventure that always leaves a smile on your face, this is a big, fun thrill-ride that never bores despite its considerable bulk.
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City – KJ Parker (2019)
This was an unexpected delight. A colonel of engineers is, thanks to a series of unfortunate events, left in charge of a Classical city just as it’s invested by a vicious enemy who’s promised to kill all of the inhabitants. To save the city would be a miracle, but Orhan – a cheat, a liar, a man with a serious problem with authority – might just be the perfect person to pull off the impossible.
Witty throughout and with characters you really come to love, the beauty of this really is in the telling; the style is light and irreverent and simply a pleasure to read.
The Ninth Rain – Jen Williams (2017)
A cut above the normal fantasy epic, this is the first in a trilogy set in the world of Sarn: the ancient protectors of the planet, the Eborans, are all but dead from disease, their ancient god powerless and dormant. The planet is littered with the remnants of past wars.
Tormalin the Oathless, one of the last Eborans, leaves his home to wander and live a dissolute life. That is until he meets scholar and antiquarian Vintage de Grazon and the escaped fell-witch Noon. They find themselves hunting old relics in warped and mutated ruins whilst fleeing Noon’s old foes from the Winnowry. And, should they survive that, there is the prospect of the waking of the foes of all – the ruthless and totally alien Jure’lia. They are coming. And the ninth rain will fall…
The Ninth Rain is a wonderful book, the dark mood totally lightened by Williams’ wonderful touch with characters. The central players are all wonderfully drawn, their sarcasms and dry wit brightening a fairly dark world to produce a truly compelling trilogy.
This Dreaming Isle – Various (Dan Coxon ed) (2018)
A short story collection of dark and twisted folk tales from the British Isles. Fifteen stories, all depicting something unsettling about this land. Some explore myth and legend, others root themselves very much in the here and now. All are fascinating and it’s a real credit to editor Dan Coxon that he’s produced such a coherent body of work from a disparate and high-powered cast of authors.
The Outlaw and the Upstart King – Rod Duncan (2019)
Disclaimer – I call Rod a friend so you can feel free to disregard my opinion. Nevertheless, this is great. Rod blasts his Elizabeth Barnabus series into the New World with this explosive novel set on the frigid isle of Newfoundland where tattoos bear witness to laws and oaths.
Elias is an outlaw, a man who was cheated out of his place in society – and his thumbs. He wants revenge. Is the mysterious woman who landed unwontedly on the island’s rocky sure, a way for him to reclaim his honour? Or will she just lead them to their deaths?
A fantastic adventure filled with great characters and a real feel for the cold, hostile landscape, this is definitely worth a pace in my favourite books of 2019. Indeed, my next read will be the last book in the trilogy, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man.
Fleet of Knives – Gareth L Powell (2019)
Another second-in-trilogy book here, and another cracker from this Golden Age of British SFF that we’re living through.
The story concerns the former warship Trouble Dog – one of the best AIs I’ve ever come across – and its crew answering a distress call from the crew of Lucy’s Ghost, who have taken refuge aboard an enormous alien generation ship. Meanwhile the Marble Armada have decided to enact peace at any cost – including the destruction of many human ships.
Can Trouble Dog and her crew survive being trapped between chaotic alien monsters on one side and the Marble Armada on the other?
The Winter Road – Adrian Selby (2018)
The Circle – a thousand miles of perilous forests and warring clans. No one has ever tamed such treacherous territory before, but ex-soldier Teyr Amondsen, veteran of a hundred battles, is determined to try.
With a merchant caravan protected by a crew of skilled mercenaries, Amondsen embarks on a dangerous mission to forge a road across the untamed wilderness that was once her home. But a warlord rises in the wilds of the Circle, uniting its clans and terrorising its people. Teyr’s battles may not be over yet . . .
A very fine work filled with characters you really feel and care for. A little different to the run-of-the-mill fantasy works it’s competing with, its plant-based ‘magic’ a tonic after the years of wizards. Highly recommended.
Embedded – Dan Abnett (2011)
The role of journalists in war is the premise in this intriguing SF tale of warring factions.
Lex Falk is recently arrived on planet Eighty-Six, a dull place without much more than minor military skirmishes to cover. But when Lex gets the runaround from the military, his interest is piqued. He gets himself chipped to share the consciousness of a front-line soldier. But when that soldier is killed, Falk must use all his resourcefulness to get back to his own body – and maybe, on the way, he’ll find out what on earth the fighting is really all about.
Lovely writing, an interesting premise and believability are all strong plusses here. There are also strong echoes of contemporary conflicts and the role of journalists within war-zones. Is access to the frontline worth being channelled to give what is essentially military propaganda?
An excellent novel.
Darksoul – Anna Stephens (2018)
Another second of three; Darksoul is the sequel to Godblind and, though it manages not to be quite as nasty as the first book, Darksoul is still pretty grimdark.
The veil that kept the red gods from walking the earth has been torn down. The Mireces army controls the fields of Rilpor. All that stands in the way is the city of Rilporin – and the mind of a soldier with the eyes of a fox.
Bloody, action-packed and thrilling from start to finish, this is a fine book. I really must get around to reading book three.
The Tiger and the Wolf – Adrian Tchaikovsky (2018)
All people have two shapes: human and the animal to whose tribe they belong. This is the simple and fascinating concept behind The Tiger and The Wolf. And it works brilliantly.
Maniye’s father is the Wolf clan’s chieftain, but she’s an outcast. Her mother was queen of the Tiger and these tribes have been enemies for generations. Maniye can take on tiger and wolf shapes. She refuses to disown half her soul so she escapes and the killer Broken Axe is set on her trail.
Beautifully written and with a real feel for landscape and character, this is a fantastic novel.
And that’s that for another year! I’m going to take a break, now, until 2020, unless something thrilling and dramatic happens inbetweentimes that I just have to share. Otherwise, I wish you a wonderful holiday season and much, much, happy reading.