A list of my favorite Fantasy and Sci-Fi Novels (2020 edition)

Individual Novels

This category is dedicated to books as standalone books that may or may not be part of a longer series of books. The dividing line for this list was whether I thought you could read just the one book from a series as a self-contained story. If the answer was no, then the series likely appears below. As with my list of favorite novels, this is both recommendation and not. The list is a product of personal taste and dim memory of when I read these books, which often speaks as much to who I was when I read them as to the overall quality.

Tier 3
27. The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings (2000)
26. The Armored Saint, Myke Cole (2018)
25. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
24. Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005)
23. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (2012)
22. Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974)
21. Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951)
20. The Postmortal, Drew Magary (2011)
19. Neuromancer, William Gibson
18. The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
17. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)

Tier 2
16. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab (2015)
15. Ilium, Dan Simmons (2003)
14. The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (2008)
13. The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2007)
12. The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (2015)
11. Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
10. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
9. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
8. Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
7. Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)

Tier 1
6. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemison (2015)
5. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
4. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
2. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon (1990)
1. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)

Series

This category is dedicated to fantasy books that I think of as series rather than as individual books. These series range from three to fourteen books. Not all of the series are complete and in fact my top two and four of my top ten are as-yet incomplete. The only caveat to this list is that I have to have read all of the books in the series that are out, which eliminates series of books that I quite enjoyed, including some of the books on the above list.

Tier 3
14. Star Wars: X-Wing, various authors
13. Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
12. Kushiel’s Legacy, Jacqueline Carey
11. Tao Trilogy, Wesley Chu

Tier 2
10. Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson
9. Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb
8. Dandelion Dynasty, Ken Liu
7. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson
6. Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb
5. Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Tier 1
4. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
3. Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin
2. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin
1. Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss

The Queue

Yehya would never admit that he was just a single, powerless man in a society where rules and restrictions were stronger than everything else, stronger than the ruler himself, stronger than the Booth and even the Gate.

A new political authority has begun to assert authority in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. The Gate, named for its public-facing building, appeared in the city a few years ago and has gradually begun to assert authority in the name of two things: order and virtue. At first the Gate’s announcements and orders made little impact, but in the aftermath of the recent Disgraceful Events, they are beginning to encroach upon the daily lives of the citizens living in its shadow.

Just one problem: The Gate denies that the events of that day ever took place.

The Gate asserts authority through bureaucracy. Official petitions and even employment requires a certificate of True Citizenship, which one can acquire at the Booth, an adjunct of the Gate at the side of the building. Failure to acquire a certificate is the same as failing to provide adequate evidence of loyalty. Petitions can be brought to The Gate itself with certificate in hand, lining up in the eponymous queue until The Gate opens to hear petitions. Those waiting in the queue assure newcomers that The Gate should open at any time, they just need to be patient––and to wait their turn.

Basma Abdel Aziz drops a madcap story at the center of this Orwellian and Kafkaesque hybrid setting.

The plot of the novel follows the six necessary documents for the patient Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed’s file in his petition to receive treatment. On the day of the Disgraceful Events, Yehya acquired a bullet that is now working its way into his internal organs, but the X-ray evidence of the bullet has disappeared and the doctor in charge of his recovery has been directed to forward Yehya to The Gate’s hospital, which will only see him if The Gate approves his petition.

All Yehya needs to do is acquire a certificate of True Citizenship, formally declare that he did not receive the bullet from The Gate’s soldiers––perhaps the agitators shot him?––and wait for The Gate to open to approve the petition. Easy.

Yehya’s stubborn refusal to deny the truth he knows prompts his friends to go into overdrive in an attempt to save him, including trying to persuade Tarek, the original doctor, to perform the operation anyway.

As someone with an aversion to standing in line, I had an a visceral reaction to the description of this interminable line. Abdel Aziz builds an entire eco-system around the queue, presenting its metastatic growth as something that people simple accept as a new normal and presenting it as a niche market for tea vendors who cater to the line and preachers with a captive flock. Beyond its borders the line is not questioned, it simply is.

Novels about authoritarianism each find their own way to inject humanity into the center of the story. In 1984, for instance, Winston undergoes a crisis of conscience about the government and reaches out for natural and human connection before being stripped down to the bone and reprogrammed. In setting The Queue resembles 1984, but in plot it is closer to a Kafka novel where the protagonists struggle against the faceless bureaucracy. I didn’t find every character in The Queue compelling, but Abdel Aziz elevates the stakes in a powerful way by documenting Yehya’s deterioration at the same time as she shows people railing at, negotiating with, and trying to fight The Gate by turns, all with equal effect.

There are individual moments of dark humor, but The Queue is not an easy read. Rather, it is a grim tale that concludes with a powerful gut punch and a message: accepting the queue and its related imposition as the new normal means that The Gate wins.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I finished Hippie Food, a story of how the food of the counter culture shaped the modern American diet and have since begun Z, Vassilis Vassilkos’ formerly banned novel based on a Greek political conspiracy in the 1960s.

A List of my Favorite Novels (2020 edition)

A few years ago I published a list of my favorite novels. At the time I had intended to update this list annually, but never did, in part because there wasn’t much movement on the list and because the initial series included capsules that took a lot of work to write.

I have read a lot of really good books since publishing that list, with the result that not only is the list more than twice as long, but also that there has been substantial movement within it. For instance, the original list was entirely male and overwhelmingly white; it still leans heavily that direction, but also contains more than a dozen books by non-white authors and about a quarter of the new books were written by women, all of which entered the list in the last two years. These demographics are entirely based on the demographics in the books I read, so I fully expect that the list will continue to diversify as I read more widely.

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 11
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2017 (American War and Exit West)

Tier 5

66. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
65. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
64. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
63. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
62. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
61. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
60. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
59. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
58. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
57. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
56. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
55. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
54. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
53. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Tier 4

52. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2016)
51. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
50. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
49. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
48. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
47. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
46. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
45. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

44. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
43. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
42. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
41. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
40. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
39. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
38. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
32. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

A Recent Reading Recap

The thing about my current semester is that it barely left time to think, let alone do anything, but I did manage to crawl my way through a few books. Now that my semester is winding down and I finally have a moment to breathe, I have a chance to jot down notes.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed – My least favorite of the books I read this fall, The Possessed is a memoir about graduate school and Russian literature in which long sections read as though she was workshopping ideas for the book that eventually became her novel The Idiot. Batuman is a gifted writer and I enjoyed the discussions of Russian literature, but those often went beyond the authors I was familiar with and I was generally underwhelmed by her presentation of graduate school.

Eric Rauchway, Winter War – One of my aspirational goals for teaching is to read one new book about each class I teach in a given semester, beyond whatever other prep I have done. This was my choice for my Modern Americna history class. In Winter War, Rauchway examines the months between the election of 1932 and Roosevelt’s inauguration to show the radical start of Roosevelt’s New Deal and how Hoover sought to undermine his successor. This was a really excellent book that deftly leads the reader through the political maneuverings at the height of the Great Depression.

Josh Gondelman, Nice Try – The final non-fiction book I read this fall was Gondelman’s Nice Try. I attended Brandeis at the same time as Gondelman and we have a number of mutual friends, but I know him primarily as a writer for TV and on Twitter as the world’s nicest comedian. This collection is a delightful, light-hearted stroll through the serious topic of trying to be both a nice and good person in the world.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu – The fourth book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series is one of the best. Like Tombs of Atuan, this novel picks up the story of Tenar, now living on Gont as a middle-aged woman named Goha, her children grown. The inciting event comes when two people come into her life. First, an emotionally and physically damaged child she names Therru and then Sparrowhawk, no longer a mage, but a broken old man. The result is a heart-wrenching fantasy story of sorrow and loss that, like the rest of the series, undermines the typical heroic tropes including, this time, the notion that a single heroic victory would in fact set the world at rights.

Myke Cole, The Armored Saint – I started following Cole on Twitter because of his interest in ancient Greek history, but I also appreciate a good fantasy novel and he recommended people start with this one. The Armored Saint is a coming of age story about Heloise Factor, the daughter of the town’s scribe. What impressed me about this book is how Cole creates the sense of history, with adults having fought in past wars and an Order that prevents demons from entering the world by making sure that no wizard survives, while nevertheless focalizing this story that takes place in one small valley through the point of view of this young woman who, rightfully, is angry at members of the Order who abuse their power.

Jose Saramago, Blindness – The only capital-L literature book I read this semester was by Portuguese Nobel-winner José Saramago. Blindness is a harrowing story of a city that descends to anarchy when its citizens begin going blind. The government responds to the initial cases by quarantining the afflicted in an asylum, in the hopes that it will stop its spread. But the asylum fills up, and one of the wings organizes a ring to control the spread of supplies, extorting money and sex from the other wings. Then the supplies stop coming in and the inmates escape into a world abandoned when every one went blind. Overall Blindness struck me as a much more sophisticated and satisfying take on the themes of Lord of the Flies. My one lingering question was about the character of the doctor’s wife, who accompanies her husband into the asylum and is the only character in the entire book who never goes blind. I couldn’t decide what to make of her character, eventually deciding that she is saved by her selfless sacrifices at every turn, but also finding that this level of metaphor didn’t quite fit with the rest of characters in the novel. I quite liked Blindness in sum, but the fact that I came away wishing that I read it at a time when I could give it more attention means I might need to re-read this one.

ΔΔΔ

I am now reading Robin Hobb’s Ship of Destiny, the conclusion of her Liveship Traders Series. By the time I’m done, I hope to have enough time to write full review posts again.

Beloved

Except for an occasional request for color [Baby Suggs] said practically nothing––until the afternoon of the the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but white people. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.

Toni Morrison is an author who has been on my radar for a long time, but despite using the Nobel Prize for Literature to build a reading list and wanting to diversify my intake I have always found reasons to read something else instead. I have struggled with a lot of books set in the American south, for one, and her books just didn’t seem to be my speed––whatever that means, these are excuses. Morrison’s recent passing inspired me to rectify this oversight.

Beloved is a novel of two places, each with two phases, linked by Sethe––wife, mother, slave, freedwoman, murderer.

124 is the first place, once a refuge for former slaves outside Cincinnati and now where Sethe and her daughter Denver live with the ghosts.

The second place is Sweet Home, a bucolic plantation where Sethe had been a slave before fleeing with her family.

Two arrivals shake 124 from its dismal, spiteful routine. First comes Paul D, a man who had been a slave with Sethe at Sweet Home years past. Second comes the ethereal Beloved, a young woman who seems to have appeared out of the Ohio River. With each arrival Sethe gets further lost in the world of memory. Paul D reminds her of Halle, the father of her children and chosen husband, and of Sweet Home. Beloved, who Sethe associates with her dead baby with “beloved” carved on its headstone,” reminds her of the trauma of 124.

The main thread of Beloved begins in 1873, eight years after the end of the Civil War and longer since Sethe gained her freedom, but this is very much a novel about the lasting impact of slavery. The older women of 124 (Sethe and Baby Suggs, her husband’s mother) physically wear the carry the marks on their bodies, yes, but how Morrison writes the psychological scars is what sets this novel apart.

The most obvious example of these scars––and one that only deepens as the novel progresses––is Sethe’s decision to kill her infant her former owners track her down. This is obviously *the* central scene to the book, but smaller moments were equally revelatory. Some are expected having read about slavery in the United States. Racism from abolitionists, broken and lost families, casual sexual violence (albeit not from an expected angle). Others were less expected, such as Baby Suggs’ preoccupation with color once she is free and realizes she is allowed to have opinions about such things or the disconnect between the names the white slave owners use and the names that the enslaved people want to have.

What stood out most to me, though was how Sethe and Paul D remember Sweet Home.

Sweet Home is repeatedly referred to in glowing terms. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. The Garners, the original owners of the plantation, are generally remembered positively. They treat their slaves well, never beating or raping them, valuing their skills and opinions, and even arming the men to let them hunt. They don’t force Sethe into a sexual relationship, but allow her to have one with the man of her choosing and allow Halle (that man) to hire out his services so that he can purchase his mother’s freedom.

The Garners’ benevolence stands out because, after Mr. Garner’s death, a relation known as Schoolteacher takes over management. His opinion is that the Garners have been too lenient, and begins beating the slaves, restricting their movements, and employing any number of implements, including semi-sexual violations. Saying Sweet Home turned sour understates the toxicity of the change and underscores the depths of horror that slavery enabled.

But Morrison also uses this island of blessed tranquility to demonstrate the grotesqueness of slavery. Even with impossibly benevolent owners, slavery dehumanized the enslaved. Within the confines of Sweet Home the owned had a dim shadow of freedom, but they are isolated and still living their lives for the benefit of their owners. Whatever goodness the Garners have is forfeit by their participation in this system.

Beloved is not necessarily a book written with me, a white man, in mind. I frequently like a voyeur even while I was swept away by the power of Morrison’s prose or was caught by a turn of phrase that made me reread a sentence, paragraph or page. Yet, this discomfort is exactly the reason that people like me ought to read this book. Morrison simultaneously breaths life into the expected jagged wounds of American history and upends any usual assumptions.

If the purpose of literature is to liberate us from our own experience and build empathy, Morrison succeeds in spades. Beloved is spectacular and deserving of every accolade it won.

ΔΔΔ

I have been snowed under for the past two weeks with the start of the fall semester and have for the most part chosen to read rather than write here. In this stretch, and speaking of discomfort, I have finished reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which is a powerful look at her weight and am now making my way through Eric Rauchway’s Winter War, which is a really well-written look at the political gamesmanship between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt between the 1932 election and Roosevelt’s inauguration.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Welcome to Camorr, a city state built on the twin pillars of the ruins of an ancient civilization and commerce. Officially the Duke Nicovante rules from the luxurious heights of the Five Towers, his city guard patrolling the streets in yellow tabards and secret police skulking in black. Unofficially, Capa Barsavi rules. Barsavi controls the city’s criminal underworld, keeping the duke’s Secret Peace that keeps the gangs from targeting the aristocracy and city guard and keeping their actions from spilling into public riots.

The Gentleman Bastards, trained by the blind priest Chains and led by the silver-tongued Locke Lamora, are one of the gangs sworn to Capa Barsavi. A small gang, the Gentleman Bastards let Barsavi believe that they are pretty thieves when, in fact, they specialize in elaborate, non-violent confidence games that flaunt the Secret Peace.

Their target now is Don Salvari. Posing as Master Fehrwight, a foreign merchant, Locke intends to relieve Salvari of a sizable portion of his estate by getting him to fund the rescue of “his” family’s brandy business from an unstable political situation in return for a stake in all future profits. To grease the wheels, they give Salvari a push from the opposite side, posing as the secret police to enlist his aid in capturing the Thorn of Camorr, a thief who has been terrorizing the aristocracy––all Salvari has to do is play along until all of the Thorn’s compatriots can be identified.

Thus The Lies of Locke Lamora begins, a tightly written heist that alternates the Salvari con with interludes that flash back to Locke’s origin and training, as well as introducing the rest of the Gentleman Bastards, the twins Calo and Galdo and Locke’s antithesis, Jean Tannen––large where Locke is small, meticulous and rational where Locke is impulsive and intuitive.

If the novel ended there, it would have been a largely insubstantial book, but a rollicking good time. The Gentleman Bastards are lovable, genteel rogues who steal from those who can afford it and do so without violence. They hoard their money because they haven’t considered what they could do with the money. The deft touch of this plot line conceals a darker setting, which are foreshadowed with brutal revels and the blood that stains Locke’s glib tongue from the time he was a youngest.

This darkness rushes to the fore in the back half of The Lies of Locke Lamora when an ambitious new player arrives in Camorr. The Grey King threatens to upend the balance of power in the Camorri underworld by targeting the heads of the gangs and undermining Capa Barsavi’s organization. Nobody knows the Grey King’s identity, let alone what he wants, but it is only a matter of time before he is going to come after Locke.

Characters can make or break a book of this nature, almost as much as the pacing. We need to buy that our protagonists can plan, prepare, and execute a plan of this scope, while making their marks competent enough so as to not be pushovers. On this point Lynch has an overwhelming success. He populates Camorr with competent, dangerous individuals, while using the interludes to demonstrate how Locke and his friends acquired the necessary skills to outwit them. These characters skew male because of the composition of the Gentleman Bastards, but Camorr is more balanced; I particularly liked Dona Salvari who is a canny partner for her husband and we are given tantalizing hints but never see the one woman Locke loves.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is an immensely satisfying book. Adding to the success of the structure Lynch achieves an effective balance of stakes by balancing the lightness of Locke’s gang with the darkness of the setting.

In fact, there was only one feature of the Lies of Locke Lamora that I *didn’t* like, a seed buried in the world building.

In most of its formal aspects, the world of this novel is a spin on Renaissance North Italy, with Camorr taking the place of Venice. In addition to Camorr being a city of canals and the italianate vocabulary, other aspects of the world reinforce this impression: the bones of the lost civilization that Camorr is built upon is Rome, there are other city states at odds with an empire to the north with an uncouth tongue (Germany), and Emberlain as a poorly-defined place that could be France. Similarly, instead of inventing the epigraphs at the start of each section, Lynch chooses real quotes, first from Shakespeare and then from Jean-Jacque Rousseau.

Over time Lynch developed the world away from this seed––the lost civilization, for instance is both more magnificent than Rome and utterly wiped away while Renaissance Rome was the Papal Seat––until the maps of the world bear little resemblance to the real world, but the underlying disconnect remained.

Using a seed like this doesn’t have to be a problem. Jaqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, for instance, steers into its second-world European setting to good effect. Where complications emerge is when the setting gets caught between a the historical setting and a fully fictional world. As I have previously written, history has advantages: it can imbue a setting with social, cultural, and environmental depth created through the slow processes of geological formation and trade where fictional settings can be unnaturally static, with each region being both a curious mishmash of features and oddly-siloed away from each other.

The fact that The Lies of Locke Lamora remains so tightly focused on Camorr avoids most of these pitfalls. Lynch is able create a richly-textured city while leaving the lands beyond largely undefined. Cracks only occasionally showed, such as the arrival of a frigate constructed after the model of Emberlain, a ship style most associated with eighteenth-century France.

In the end, though the triumphs of The Lies of Locke Lamora more than compensated for any concerns I had with the setting. This is a deeply satisfying fantasy novel that begins as a fast-paced romp before taking a sudden dive into emotional depth.

ΔΔΔ

I have also finished Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call From the East and am now using the last gasp of summer to continue Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. I am about a quarter of the way through The Furthest Shore.

The Witch Elm

Toby describes himself as lucky, his cousin Leon says that he gets away with everything. He has always had things easy: a rugby star in school, smart, attractive, from an affluent background, and always able to talk his way out of jam––a skill that comes in handy in his job promoting an art gallery. He makes friends easily, has kept close friends since school, and has devoted girlfriend, Melissa.

Outside a minor scrape at work, life is good. That is, until he is beaten within an inch of his life during a home invasion.

The assault lands Toby in the hospital and suffering from brain injuries that leave him physically and emotionally fragile and struggling to speak. Around the time that he is to be released from the hospital, the second of his two cousins, Susanna approaches Toby about moving in to the Ivy House, the family estate where the three cousins spent summers as children, because his uncle Hugo has been diagnosed with late-stage cancer.

Melissa agrees to move in with Toby while he recovers, so the couple relocates to the old home. The new arrangement, alternating between quiet genealogical work with Hugo and the overwhelming activity of family gatherings, is good for Toby’s health. Life settles into predictable routines and, gradually, he recovers. Hugo’s health declines in step, though, and what will happen to the house after his death hovers over the proceedings.

Then one of Susanna’s kids finds a skull in the old Witch Elm tree in the back yard and their lives are thrown into chaos. The police cut down the tree and tear up the yard in their investigation. Once the identity of the body is determined to have been Dominic Ganly, an old classmate of Toby, Susanna, and Leon’s who was reported to have committed suicide just after they graduated, Toby begins his own investigation. He thinks he remembers the dead man as a friendly acquaitance, but could he have been wrong? Is his failure to remember the result of the brain injury or repressed memory? Could he have killed Dominic?

Tana French distinguished herself with the Dublin Murder Squad stories in her ability to spin out tight psychological dramas that build both suspense and emotional depth to relatively simple cases that her detectives solve. In The Witch Elm she flips the script, building a tight psychological drama in two separate cases, this time from the perspective of the victim of one of the crimes. We rarely get to see what the police do to solve the cases, and their methods only serve to exacerbate Toby’s anguish, leading eventually to an explosive late turn that worked after a sort, but put the rest of the story in a different the rest of the story in a different hue that was, in my opinion unnecessary.

(In broad terms, the twist shapes the form the story takes, adding depth to some of the questions of memory and call into question the entire story, but since they are impossible to talk about without spoilers for the whole book, so I will not talk about them here.)

Toby’s PTSD shapes the story, but the overriding themes are memory and identity. The assault and subsequent investigations force Toby to question who he is, even while Melissa tries to keep him grounded. First, the injuries fundamentally change how he interacts with the world and leave him with blanks in his memory. Then, when the skull turns up, everything he remembers about high school and his younger self is called into question.

In Toby’s memory, high school was generally fun, the other people generally benign. But, as Leon and Susanna are quick to point out, Toby has always had things easy. He was a popular, intelligent athlete. For Leon, a gay and eccentric loner, and Susanna, a quiet, nerdy girl, high school was not so fun and their classmates not so harmless. In truth, I came away from this part of the story rethinking what my own high school experience was like since, in some respects, my background was similar to Toby’s.

Lingering over everything is the question of whether or not Toby is a good guy. Melissa certainly thinks so and Hugo agrees, as do his friends, all of whom reassure him that he was the generally benign person that he saw in everyone else. Even Susanna and Leon generally agree, albeit with some minor qualifications. Before the assault, Toby would have taken this as his due; once he is forced to face the consequences of his actions, he is not so sure.

Minor issues with the final twist notwithstanding, The Witch Elm is a powerful and compelling drama that dives deep into questions of memory and family. I went into this novel with high expectations based on having read two of her earlier novels, Broken Harbor and The Trespasser, and a couple of positive reviews, and French more than met them. This is just more evidence that French is one of, if not the best mystery-suspense writer currently working.

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I am now reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in the Gentleman Bastards series.

The Tombs of Atuan

When I finished A Wizard of Earthsea, I concluded that it was a good story, but clearly geared toward a younger audience. Friends on Twitter convinced me that I should keep reading and, in short, I never should have doubted Le Guin.

The Tombs of Atuan is an old temple complex in the Kargish lands (a region left unexplored in A Wizard of Earthsea). The complex contains multiple temples, including for the Godking and the God-brothers, but the oldest is the Place of the Tombs, a sanctuary dedicated to the Nameless Ones. According to tradition, the priestess of the tombs is forever reborn, her essence transferred into a new body born at the moment of the old priestess’ death. That child becomes “The Eaten One,” her soul consumed by the Nameless Ones and her body raised by the temple as the new priestess.

Year by year, Arha (formerly Tenar) learns of her charge. The eunuch Manan is her faithful companion and the older priestesses of lesser gods see to her education, teaching her the lore of the Tombs and about the soulless magic-users of the western lands. But the rest are forbidden from entering the Labyrinth beneath the tombs, so the most important parts of Arha’s training must be self taught. She must discover the secret paths and the long-forgotten offerings for herself––and, equally important, Arha must see to the appropriate sacrifices. Human sacrifices.

Arha’s youth puts her at a disadvantage to the other priestesses. Her primary rival is Kossil, the priestess of the Godking, who regards the Tombs as a forgotten relic of little consequence. Arha has to tread carefully, lest Kossil have her killed and conveniently forget to replace the priestess.

The arrival of a stranger, a thief from the Western Islands trapped beneath the labyrinth, disrupts their tenuous balance of power. That stranger is Ged/Sparrowhawk, come to steal the greatest treasure held in the Tombs: half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, which, when joined with its other half, promises to reveal a rune that could bring peace to the world. Curiosity stays Arha’s hand, but this initiates a dangerous game with Kossil, who demands his execution.

The Tombs of Atuan is a brilliant novel, and a leap in complexity from the youthful coming of age story in A Wizard of Earthsea, despite the latter’s subtle sophistication.

(As a note, I cannot recommend the new afterwords Le Guin wrote for the series enough. They combine reflection on the process of writing, reflection on development of the genre, and a keen eye for literary analysis.)

Le Guin comments in her afterword how The Tombs of Atuan is, in some ways, a direct inversion of A Wizard of Earthsea, much of which stems from the protagonist’s gender. She writes:

Be that as it may, when I wrote the book, it took more imagination than I had to create a girl character who, offered great power, could accept it as her right and due. Such as situation didn’t then seem plausible to me. But since I was writing about the people who in most societies have not been given much power––women––it seemed perfectly plausible to place my heroine in a situation that led her to question the nature and value of power itself.

The word power has two different meanings. There is power to: strength, gift, skill, art, the mastery of a craft, the authority of knowledge. And there is power over: rule, dominion, supremacy, might, mastery of slaves, authority over others.

Ged was offered both kinds of power. Tenar was offered one…

In such a world, I could put a girl at the heart of my story, but I couldn’t give her a man’s freedom, or chances to equal a man’s chances. She couldn’t be a hero in the hero-tale sense.

And it is true. Tenar is the protagonist in The Tombs of Atuan, but Ged is the hero. That is, Tenar undergoes the emotional journey that drives the story, but her evolution is contingent on Ged as the doer of great deeds.

Le Guin rightly and astutely comments on the issue of gender in her afterword, but makes no mention of a second issue that features prominently in the book: the power of belief. This power forms the basis of the conflict between Kossil and Arha/Tenar in that Kossil is an ardent non-believer (though her non-belief may itself be corrupted) whose interests lie in the exercise of power over the younger priestess.

Despite the sinister overtones of human sacrifice, severe routines, and an indoctrinated child, the circumstances could be set for a more benign sort of story. In Arha/Tenar’s privileged position, this cult and culture is not inherently evil. Her charge simply is, so her questioning of the power is caught up in her struggle with Kossil. Only when Ged arrives does Tenar begin to question what she had been taught about the “soulless” westerners and the very nature of the religion.

Fantasy worlds allow for primordial and magical powers to exist, but the power of belief is no less real in life than it is in books. Tenar’s struggle for liberation from the only life that she has ever known elevates The Tombs of Atuan into a masterpiece and reduces Ged’s quest for an artifact that promises to bring good governance, a worthy ambition in its own right, to just a McGuffin.

In short, I loved this book. Simon and Schuster markets it as a teen fantasy, but in Le Guin’s masterful hands it is a brilliant sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea and I look forward to reading the next book in the series with eager anticipation.

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Work and travel have interfered with regular updates. The ship may have sailed on a full writeup A Long Day’s Evening, a philosophical novel by the Turkish novelist Bilge Karasu, though I still hope to write some notes. I have also finished Tana French’s The Witch Elm and have a full post planned about that one. I am now reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in Scott Lynch’s The Gentlemen Bastards series. I’m enjoying its cleverly interwoven origin and heist stories, but a small part of my brain is hung up on aspects of the world building that so far are a little too on the nose for Renaissance North Italy and Germany.

If Beale Street Could Talk

“It’s true that I haven’t seen much of other cities, only Philadelphia and Albany, but I swear that New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world. It must have the ugliest buildings and the nastiest people. It’s got to have the worst cops. If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying. And, come to think of it, that’s exactly the smell of New York in the summertime.”

“My presence, which is of no practical value whatever, which can even be considered, from a practical point of view, as a betrayal, is vastly more important than any practical thing I might be doing.”

A classic New York love story: a girl (Tish) and a boy (Fonny) who have known each other almost their entire lives. He, artsy and from a troubled home; she, quiet and from a supportive family. They find each other as late teens, beginning a delicate courtship and plan to marry.

A classic American story: A black boy (Fonny) is in prison, arrested by a white officer and standing accused of rape while his pregnant girlfriend (Tish) and her family scrape together money to clear his name, even with the legal system set against them.

If Beale Street Could Talk is both.

At the heart of this book is Tish, a lovestruck young black woman who is otherwise unremarkable. But Baldwin imbues her with a vibrant humanity that allows the reader to live and love with her––her hopes, her fears, her anxieties, her joys, her hates––while Fonny sits in prison and his child grows inside her.

The main narrative unfolds over six months of Tish’s pregnancy. With Fonny in prison, her family (mother, father, and older sister) supports her, but they are also hard-pressed to pay for his legal fees since his own family has largely rejected him. Tish is his rock, and they are hers. We are convinced, because Tish is convinced, that Fonny is a victim of a broken system––arrested by a racist officer and pushed through a system designed to ensure his conviction. Too often, the only update Tish can offer on her visits is “soon.”

Tish cuts this story of frustrated determination with reminiscences of her life with Fonny. Here we see how she knocked out Fonny’s tooth as a child, her discomfort attending church with his family, the joy at meals supplied by employees at a Spanish restaurant, and the pain and excitement of the first time they make love.

Despite a recent adaptation of this book and the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, I only knew of Baldwin’s work second hand. His oeuvre was therefore a natural destination with my goal to read more books by African American authors this year. If Beale Street Could Talk did not disappoint. From first lines it is an astounding novel.

Baldwin’s prose is extraordinary. In this simple story, he brings Tish to life and gives her an unmistakable voice that most authors find aspirational. The tenderness and consistency of this voice in turn creates opportunities, whether punctuated by subtle differences in voice for other characters, scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, or points of hard observation about America.

On its own the love story between Tish and Fonny is syrupy sweet, but placed in If Beale Street Could Talk it balances the bleakness of Fonny’s crisis. By turns tender and angry, but always honest, Baldwin weaves a delicate tapestry around Tish, creating one of the best novels about American life that I have ever read. If Beale Street Could Talk might set a high bar, but I doubt it will be the last of Baldwin’s work I will read.

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I have also finished reading Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep A Secret, a story set in Vermont about buried secrets come to light in the chaos after Hurricane Irene and have since begun Jane Mayer’s Dark Money.

Go, Went, Gone

“Could these long years of peacetime be to blame for the fact that a new generation of politicians apparently believes we’ve now arrived at the end of history, making it possible to use violence to suppress all further movement and change? Or have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? Must living in peace––so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world––inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?”

Without memory, man is nothing more than a bit of flesh on the planet’s surface.

I came to Jenny Erpenbeck in a roundabout way. I had been reading Stefan Zweig through the recent NYRB Classics series when an ancient historian on Twitter lamented that people were reading Zweig and neglecting the current master, Erpenbeck. So I gave Erpenbeck a shot. She hooked me with her first novel, The End of Days, which examines the twentieth century through a series of deaths. In Go, Went, Gone, Erpenbeck is back with a masterpiece about the gulf between the citizen and the refugee in our present time.

Richard, an aging widower, has just retired from his position as a Classics professor in Berlin. Go, Went, Gone opens with him emptying his office and retreating into the mundanity of everyday life where his days are spent making food and watching the news. With his newly discovered time, Richard learns of a hunger strike in the Alexanderplatz staged by refugees from Africa. Fascinated by these men who seem so out of place, he resolves to get to know them and begins showing up at their residence.

Few speak German, but all are multi-lingual, and Richard often converses with them in some combination of Italian and English. Richard begins by treating the men as his new project, but that quickly gives way to genuine warmth as he gets to know these men who literally risked life to reach Europe. One surviving an accident that killed most of the passengers on the over-crowded boat, another sends most of the money given to him to live back to his family. They cling to the friends they have made among their fellow refugees and just want an opportunity to work while being stymied by the impersonal bureaucracies of indifferent-at-best, hostile-at-worst governments.

Richard is methodical in his approach, trying to do his due diligence by not treating these men merely as monolithic outsiders, but even he has to be shaken from his complacency:

For the first time in his life, the thought occurs to him that the borders drawn by Europeans may have no relevance at all for Africans.

But for all of Richard’s conscientiousness, generosity, and empathy for the plight of the outsiders, I found his character distasteful, as though much of his charity was purely self-serving. The Richard we don’t meet, for instance, has his head in the sand about the world around him while he carries on an long-time affair. It is only in the boredom that comes from his retirement that he can be bothered to see what is happening. Likewise, he conceives of the refugees as an academic project first, and, early on, spends almost as much time wondering whether their attractive, Ethiopian German teacher would be interested in sleeping with him as he does trying to help. Richard’s actions are altruistic even if his motives are not, but he nevertheless struck me as a sort of narcissistic humanitarian who is mostly interested in what is in it for him.

Despite my problems with Richard, Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant novel. In one of the first scenes, Richard learns of a drowned man in the lake near his house, creating a massive disruption in his life. Similarly, the disruption caused by the reunification of Berlin, now almost twenty years past, looms large in his existence. And yet, these are minor changes compared to the trauma experienced by the refugees. Richard even struggles to reconcile the present quiet with the memory of Hitler when faced with questions from a refugee whose lived experience was filled with violence.

Politicians in Go, Went, Gone howl about the refugees and make plans to deport them back to Italy––or anywhere, so long as they are not in Germany––but in the world of the novel, the refugees are just people. (In a nice touch that inverts two centuries of racist presentations, Richard takes to giving them nicknames out of Greco-Roman mythology and northern European literature.)

Such is Erpenbeck’s triumph, sitting alongside recent novels like Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. The plight of the refugees is not exceptional––peace is. As a recent review brilliantly puts it: “this is not a world of citizens beleaguered by a tide of refugees, but a world of refugees trapped in the age of the citizen.”

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I just finished David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a riveting history from the 1920s where white guardians conspired to kill their Osage wards in order to deprive them of their tribal allotments, and have now begun Tana French’s The Trespasser, part of her Dublin Murder Squad series.