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

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)

The Farthest Shore

“The traitor, the self; the self that cries I want to live; let the world burn so long as I can live! The little traitor soul in us, in the dark, like the worm in the apple. He talks to all of us. But only some understand him. The wizards and the sorcerers. The singers; the makers. And the heroes, the ones who seek to be themselves. To be one’s self is a rare thing, and a great one. To be one’s self forever: is that not better still.

“What is a good man, Arren? Is a good man one who would not do evil, who would not open a door to the darkness, who has no darkness in him? Look again, lad.”

Decades after the events of The Tombs of Atuan, Prince Arren of Enlad has arrived on Roke, the island of the Wizards, with dire news: magic is disappearing from the world. Signs of this impending doom haven’t reach Roke yet, but the Archmage Sparrowhawk (Ged) who watches the balance of the world decides to trust Arren and venture out into the world to see what is happening.

They go first to the Southern Reaches where magic has indeed vanished, and with it most restraints of social connection. The disappearance of magic from the world of Earthsea so disrupts the fabric of society that it begins to unravel as people turn to drugs to cope. People alternate between despair and succumbing to a destructive, addictive promise of oblivion where they are being told that they can find eternal life. The mage and his guardian then head west, encountering the people of the open ocean who live on rafts where the magic of the song is also vanishing, before heading past the islands of dragons and to Selidor where they have to cross over into the land of the dead to find the source of this darkness.

The best thing about Le Guin’s Earthsea novels is her oblique and nuanced approach to themes. Where most fantasy literature relies on supernatural or eternal evil, these novels have grand stakes through intimate stories. A Wizard of Earthsea tackled taking rash actions and overcoming an internal darkness. The Tombs of Atuan took on issues of gender, power, and uncritical belief. The Farthest Shore is no different. Here she tackles the banality of human evil and, ultimately, the ordinariness of heroism when individuals have the courage to take action even at a cost to themselves––regardless of whether the person is young Arren or Ged, the most powerful mage alive.

The themes in The Farthest Shore turn it into a thoughtful meditation on good and evil, but it was my least favorite of the first three Earthsea novels. As usual, Le Guin’s new afterword is an engaging read, here focusing on dragons, the human face of evil, and why the novels seem to skip forward in time at irregular intervals. Contrasted with the first two books, though, I found the plot and most of the character development got lost for the meditation on good and evil. I had this same problem to an extent with A Wizard of Earthsea, but the fact that it was also a story about Ged’s coming of age, character came to the fore.

Here, we get a glimpse of Ged at the height of his powers, something we know because he have heard the tales about his deeds even when we haven’t seen them, but much of the story hinges on Arren, who Ged mostly takes under his wing. So far this isn’t a problem, and Arren even has his moments, but then he is revealed to be the descendant of Morred, one of the good kings of old and therefore a candidate to take up the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and justly rule the land. Where The Tombs of Atuan revealed “reincarnation” to be the work of a dangerous cult and A Wizard of Earthsea showed the nobody Ged to be a hero because of how he used his prodigious gifts, The Farthest Shore offered us an entitled heir if only he has the courage to claim it. For me this undercut much of Le Guin’s otherwise incisive story.

The fourth book in the series, Tehanu, won the Locus and Nebula awards for best fantasy novel in 1991, so I am looking forward to reading it despite my issues with The Farthest Shore.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I just finished Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla and other ways our intuitions deceive us, pop-science book about the psychology of intuition. I haven’t decided what to start next. I have a copy of Tehanu, but may need to read Beloved first, in light of Toni Morrison’s passing.

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.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Coming to Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels as a mature reader, I started with her mature works The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. These novels are philosophical and profound, part of her allegorical Hainish Cycle. By contrast, I put off reading A Wizard of Earthsea because it is simple, a book for a younger audience.

Sparrowhawk (real name: Ged) is a promising young mage from Gont, an island in the archipelago on Earthsea with a reputation for giving birth to powerful mages. As a child he manages to repel a Kargish raid on his village and is subsequently taken in by the Mage Ogion. The novel is, in effect, a chronicle of Sparrowhawk’s early exploits where he demonstrates his power by binding the powerful dragon Yevaud to Pendor and achieves his first great triumph: defeating a shadow that he himself summoned into the world.

In short, this is a classic Bildungsroman for a young wizard. I have found myself increasingly bored by stories about preternaturally talented young men and this concern lingered the entire time I was reading this book that is clearly written for younger readers.

But to dismiss A Wizard of Earthsea as shallow or rote is to give Le Guin too little credit. As she notes in the Afterword, this is a story about a person of color who is betrayed by light-skinned characters. He is explicitly a good and well-intentioned person with a positive male friendship, and is his own enemy. This is story without overt militarism or wars that define the fantasy genre from the Arthurian models through Tolkien and beyond.

Le Guin writes:

War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to “a war against” whatever-it-is, you divide the war Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off. This is puerile, misleading, and degrading. In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance. All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the “right” side and therefore will win. Right makes might.

Or does might make right?

If war is the only game going, yes. Might makes right. Which is why I don’t play war games.

A Wizard of Earthsea came out in 1968, far before the start of the recent golden age of fantasy literature. The best that the modern genre has to offer (e.g. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season) offer more complex plots and more fully developed characters, but this just makes it easier to underestimate her achievement. Even today, too many fantasy novels default to a faux-Medieval Europe setting and feature heroes whose “best” skill is their ability to end lives. Wrestling with the morality of this skill may be a common feature in recent novels, but there remains a residual attraction to sword-wielding prodigies.

I remain in awe of Le Guin, whose keen insight imbues this attractive mid-grade novel with subtle depth. Still, I was not the primary audience for this book and had difficulty connecting with the characters because of the tendency to narrate at a remove rather than embedding the reader in their points of view––something that heightens the superficial resemblance to Arthurian Romance.

All of this to say: I am glad to have finally read A Wizard of Earthsea, but I’m not sure that I will read on in the series.

ΔΔΔ

I am about a third of the way through a history of the Greek War of Independence that broke out in 1820. The book has turned into a bit of a slog. The most interesting thing, though, is exploring the difficulties of creating a nation at a time when seemingly the only people who conceived of “Greece” were educated people from Western Europe who visited the region with their eyes filled with visions of the distant past and a society of ex-pat merchants and soldiers of fortune.

Across the Nightingale Floor

I found Across the Nightingale Floor by accident. Browsing through my local bookstore, I picked up another book in the same series and opened it because Ursula K. Le Guin had given the book a blurb. Rather than get that book, I redirected to read this one because it was the first in the series, totally oblivious to who Lian Hearn was or really knowing anything about the series. I was not disappointed.

Across the Nightingale Floor is a straightforward fantasy in the tradition modeled after Medieval Romances of brave warriors and doomed love, set in an alternate medieval Japan.

Takeo, as he comes to be known, was raised among the Hidden, a secretive sect of pacifists, until his village of Mino is attacked by men of Tohan. Takeo escapes with the aid of a stranger who turns out to be Lord Otori Shigeru. This fortunate encounter catapults Takeo into a world of clan politics. Tohan recently came to prominence after defeating the Otori and killing Shigeru’s father and brother. Recognizing in Takeo something of the Tribe, a sect of assassins, Shigeru adopts him, raises him, and makes plans to use him to seek revenge.

The second half of the romance comes from Kaede, the heir Shirakawa family and close relative of another powerful family headed by Lady Murayama. In short, through Kaede lays a potential path to power, and since the rise of Tohan when she was a child, Kaede has been a hostage at Noguchi castle. Now that she has reached marriageable age, her captors have decided that it is time she marry and propose to use her as a pawn to undermine the last opposition to Tohan rule: brimming discontent centered on Otori Shigeru.

Across the Nightingale Floor does not have a complicated plot. It is filled with strong motivations, dramatic gestures, and two simple arcs that are gradually brought closer together with just enough action to propel the story. Around the teenagers at the heart of the story the motivations and plots are more complex in that this is a world of competing political motivations, but the sweeps are no less dramatic and the agendas nuanced only marginally by the weight of personal histories. Hearn hints at a more complex story and throws in a few twists along the way, but ultimately chooses not to elaborate.

This is not to say that Across the Nightingale Floor isn’t well-crafted. It is a lush story with significant research into the Sengoku period in Japan and a plot that I found propulsive. But it is also a story that feels like it belongs in an older fantasy or epic tradition, one that is more like a medieval Romance.

Using these traditions leads to certain consequences on top of reducing certain characters to their broad motivations. Older fantasy has a flat-map problem where anything that exists off the world-map might as well not exist. Narnia is literally flat, but elsewhere the flatness is implied, often with an authorial choice not to engage with the possibility of an interconnected world. Sometimes the plot doesn’t demand this engagement, but the consequences still exist.

Hearn offers slight nods to a wider world, with occasional references to a land over the sea that could be an approximation of China, but stops short of engaging with the wider consequences of the historical setting. For instance the Sengoku period was a period when Portuguese merchants conducted a brisk trade with Japan and the persecution of the Hidden strongly resembled the persecution of Christians during the period of the Tokugawa shogunate. Similarly, in one scene characters eat a meal featuring maize, a new world crop that came to Japan in the 16th century and therefore would have been rather new. None of these points were critical to the plot, but struck me as limits of projecting a story into a world modeled on a historical time and place without fully engaging with that context.

There was one final question that stuck with me as I read Across the Nightingale Floor. I picked it up without looking into Lian Hearn, and only belatedly learned that she had no connection to Japan other than having fallen in love with the country after visiting. Nevertheless, Hearn clearly did her research and avoids orientalist tropes, which put me at ease regarding cultural appropriation.

In sum, I enjoyed Across the Nightingale Floor as a perfectly pleasant, easy read, but many of the same features that made it enjoyable and the reasons I’m in no hurry to read any of the other books in the series. Perhaps on a beach (or a grassy equivalent) this summer I’ll be ready to pick up the second, but in the meantime I don’t really need another epic featuring a functional but flattened setting and a young male protagonist on the cusp of learning the ways in which he is special.

ΔΔΔ

It is the end of the semester here in central Missouri and while that means I’ve had a bit more time to read, I’ve also been falling behind on writing (both her and elsewhere). I recently finished Jenny Erpenbeck’s excellent Go, Went, Gone, a novel about immigration to western countries, and am now about halfway finished with David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a history of the Osage murders in the 1920s and the creation of the FBI.

Black Leopard Red Wolf

“What is evil anyway, a sad soul infected with devils who take his will, or a man thinking that of all his mother’s children he loves himself best?

Sometimes when I am reading a book the words of a review start writing themselves. Other times the author has strung out the significance of the book in such a way that the meaning of that book doesn’t become clear until the final word. (A sign of a great novel, according to Orhan Pamuk.) And then there are books where I look back and think “what was that?”

Marlon James’ new novel Black Leopard Red Wolf belongs in the last category.

Set in a fantastical world of African history and mythology, Black Leopard Red Wolf is the story of Tracker, as told in his words under question by an inquisitor. As he says, Tracker’s preternaturally gifted nose caused certain agents to employ him to track down a missing boy, presumed dead, for purposes that were originally unknown to him. Along with a motley cast that includes the Sadogo, a giant brawler with a morose demeanor, the centuries-old witch Sogolon, and Mossi, a prefect soldier from the far North East, Tracker follows the boy’s scent from city to city, belatedly realizing the complexity of the task. Not only has the boy been taken by the demon Impundulu, being turned effectively into a zombie and employing a series of magic pathways that criss-cross the land, but also his employers are playing a dangerous game: trying depose the mad king by restoring succession of kings through the female line.

This story comes out in fits and starts, unfolding in a non-linear fashion that defies identifying anything––with the possible exception of sexual attraction––as true.

Distilling Black Leopard Red Wolf to the narrative arc that explains the circumstances of Tracker’s interrogation, however, installs limits that James defies. Instead, this is a novel about setting, character, and mythology. Tracker tells the inquisitor of his childhood and background, how he rescued Mingi children and became lovers with the shapeshifter Leopard, with whom he killed the demon Asanbosam.

Only belatedly does he get to the hunt for the boy and the cities he visited along the way. The political intrigue and imminent war that forms the backdrop enter the tale slowly, coming only as Tracker begins to realize what he is caught up in.

There is a lot to like in Black Leopard Red Wolf. James brilliantly undermines the political ambitions on both sides of the conflict. The boy simultaneously serves as an existential threat to one political order, the final hope of another, and MacGuffin for our narrator. And still, James manages to in some ways undermine all three, revealing the threat to be greater, the hope to be hollow, and the catch to be more personally important than originally acknowledged.

This is a grotesquely beautiful novel, with James’ prose creating a hallucinogenic effect that heightens the unfamiliarity of the African setting. James doesn’t shy away from the sexual and the shocking, including unexpected, if not out of place, discussion of female genital mutilation.

All together, though, I found Black Leopard Red Wolf difficult to follow and Tracker an alien narrator. The end result is a novel that I found more frustrating than satisfying. I am left wondering whether returning to this world a second time when the next book in the proposed trilogy appears will be worth the investment. The prospect leaves me cold, but I also feel like I was only beginning to scratch the surface of the world by the time I reached the end.

Putting these thoughts together was a challenge, so I’ve been reading other reviews. This one from Amar El-Mohtar on NPR states many of my thoughts, only better:

“like if Toni Morrison had written Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Painful and strange, full of bodies shifting from personhood into meat, and somehow, always, still, upsettingly beautiful…Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf was like being slowly eaten by a bear, one inviting me to feel every pressure of tooth and claw tearing into me, asking me to contemplate the intimacy of violation and occasionally cracking a joke.” 

I also liked this review at the NY Times Book Review.

ΔΔΔ

I also recently finished reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor, and have since begun Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. The last few weeks of the semester have been exceptionally busy, so I am looking forward to a short break coming up soon.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

There is social unrest in England in 1806. Napoleon appears invincible and with Admiral Nelson dead the question on everyone’s mind is when, not if, he will invade. But there are other developments afoot. 

These events by all accounts began at an otherwise unremarkable meeting of the Society of Theoretical Magicians in York, where the scholarly society  congregates to discuss issues of the history of magic. The participants are not actual magicians, but learned in the history of British magic—or they were until the first practical magician any of them had ever met appeared and forced them to recant their pursuit. That practical magician, Mr. Norrell, with the aid of his trusty man Childermass who has been collecting every available book of magic, stakes a claim to being the only magician in Britain. Norrell makes himself of service to the government and restoring the life of Lady Pole, albeit with the help of a fairy, the man with Thistledown hair, to whom Norrell bargains away half of Lady Pole’s life.

Of course, Norrell is presumptuous in assuming his singularity, and it soon appears that there is a second magician, Jonathan Strange who the raving street magician Vinculus prophecies will help restore magic to England.

Norrell and Strange form a partnership that is complementary and combative. Norrell is bookish and controlling, where Strange is ambitious and creative. As their skills grow, Strange becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the secrets Norrell keeps and the restrictions he establishes, and they particularly clash over the fundamental nature of magic: Norrell wants a magic for the modern man, but Strange believes all magic is of the Fairy and therefore incompatible with the modern world. Where Norrell hones his skills in the refined security of a library at the beck and call of government ministers, Strange’s magic is put to the test in on the battlefields of Spain and Belgium.  These crucibles lead Strange to wildly inventive magic, but, to Norrell, they also engender a dangerous wildness in his erstwhile pupil.

Told in a format that blends the prose in an nineteenth century style with a presentation as a learned historical text of the sort that the theoretical magicians produce in the story, the windings of the plot in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are too long and intricate to do any justice here. What I can say is that while there is no love lost between myself and Mr. Dickens, whose stories this in some ways mimics, I was completely taken by this alternate history.

Clarke does a remarkable job of bringing the world of magic into early-nineteenth century England, seamlessly fitting an entire alternate history of this one aspect into the wider concerns of the day. Moreover, she breathes fresh life into an old trope from nineteenth century literature of the buttoned-up, scientific, modern man being challenged by unbridled forces that threaten him with destruction.

I had just one main complaint, which requires discussion of a particular plot point. (Consider yourself warned.) Vinculus’ prophecy about the tells of a third person, a man without a name who will become king. One person who feasibly fulfills this description is Stephen Black, the black servant of Sir Walter Pole. The man with Thistledown hair takes a shine to Stephen while visiting the Pole household, commenting on the nobility of his bearing and greatness of his spirit, showering him with royal gifts, and taking him into his entourage for the fairy balls. I liked the inclusion of a black man who would fulfill the prophecy and Stephen’s abhorrence at the methods of the man with Thistledown hair speak well enough for him, but for all of the buildup to Stephen’s greatness he is a passive character carried along by the whims of another who serves only to fulfill the prophecy. In the world of prophecy this works because it is an unexpected resolution, but in the world of a hefty novel it lags behind the rest of the characterization and plot.

My complaint about Stephen Black notwithstanding, though, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a brilliantly realized novel worth every one of its many pages.

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I recently finished Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon and Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive novella* Edgedancer, and am now reading Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

*novella is a relative definition here, barely squeaking in at 40,000 words, by any measure except in comparison to the main novels in the series.

Ship of Magic – Robin Hobb

A storm is brewing in the Vestrit family. The patriarch, Ephron, is dying, the family debts are growing daily, and the first voyage of their liveship Vivacia with son-in-law Kyle Haven as captain bodes poorly for the future. When Ephron dies, passing his wisdom and experience to Vivacia, the ship and estate pass to Keffria Haven, and thus to Kyle who, contrary to tradition in the old trader families, believes that women’s management has caused Vestrit fortunes to falter. Althea, the younger daughter who has sailed on Vivacia for years is put off the ship, along with the mate Brashen Trell and some others of Ephron’s chosen crew, and replaced with men of Kyle’s choosing. Since liveships, vessels brought to life with magic, require a member of the family to sail them, particularly once “quickened” and come to their full consciousness, Kyle has summoned his oldest son Wintrow back from the monastery he was dedicated to, forcing him to become a sailor. What’s more, Kyle has decided that the solution to the Vestrit financial crisis lies in changing the usual cargo, turning the Vivacia into a slave ship.

Althea runs away. The situation on the between Kyle and Wintrow Vivacia deteriorates, and the situation at home becomes even worse as the tensions between Ronica, Ephron’s widow, and Keffria are only put aside when they realize that Malta, thinking that her mother and grandmother are prudish and lame, has decided she is old enough to start courting boys and in her naivete and fascination with finery becomes entangled in a courtship with a member of a powerful family from the Rain Wild—a place of magic and death that made the traders of Bingtown wealthy, but at what cost?

And then there is the pirate Kennit, determined to capture a liveship and use it to become king in the Pirate Isles.

Ship of Magic is a fascinating and richly complex book that takes place in the same world as The Assassin’s Apprentice, but quite far to the south. There is a large, possibly apocalyptic story in its backdrop, since we receive glimpses of worms, large carnivorous sea creatures that can terrorize ships, who may have some connection to liveships and believe that a time of change is upon the world, but that is not the driving narrative. The plot arc involving the pirate Kennit is more fully developed, but it serves as a Chekhov’s gun that is repeatedly returned to than a central feature of the plot.

No, Ship of Magic is a family drama in a time of social change. The book is built around the figure of Kyle Haven, despite rarely, if ever, getting his perspective. At the outset the family largely accepts Kyle despite that he is not from one of the old families. He makes Keffria happy (they have three children together, but this happiness is both physical and emotional), he is an experienced sailor and wants what is best for the family. Once the stabilizing presence of Ephron is gone, however, Kyle’s domineering attitude and lack of respect for tradition come to the fore. The latter is particularly problematic because he is both unaware of and indifferent to old contracts with the Rain Wild Traders that require gold or blood and the magic that animates the liveships. The only thing worse than bringing enslaving your son on a liveship so that it will sail is turning the liveship into a slaver, but Kyle only sees the one as a way to fulfill a requirement and the other as cargo. Back in Bingtown, his presence likewise looms large since his actions caused Althea to disguise herself as a boy and flee to sea under a false name and for Malta to defy her mother and grandmother in the belief that Kyle will side with her.

There is a lot I liked about Ship of Magic, certainly enough that I will read the remainder of the series at some point. I am now absolutely convinced of the importance of EQ in this world. Not only does it govern the functioning of a Liveship since it is that relationship between ship and family that allows it to sail (and the ship’s ability to sense emotions of everyone onboard is a key reason why people don’t use these vessels to carry slaves!), but despite moments of action and adventure on the high seas, all of the tension in the book is pulled from relationships created and broken, whether from love, hate, or respect. To wit, Kyle is the central villain in the story, and Hobb sets him up to fail with deep character flaws, but not because he is evil. (There is an evil character in the story. His name is Torg.) Kyle’s villainy lies in his sexism and in his inability to see outside of what he wants, which is fine when, for instance, he wants to please his wife, but less so when it leads him to ignore Trader and Vestrit custom. These emotional tension sometimes made the book tough to read, but, despite the length of the book, they did not bore me.

I also appreciated the complexity of Ship of Magic. The book contains an unusually large number of different points of view, more than The Eye of the World and the same number as Game of Thrones. This feature, however, also led to one of my main complaints. Ship of Magic is long and sprawling and interesting, but its structure seemed incomplete. There are multiple plotlines that are eventually brought in touch with the Vestrit family drama to greater or lesser extents, but that are largely at odds with the rest of what is happening or that spring up seemingly out of thin air or are mysteriously dropped. This is good in the sense that it leaves the impression of a richly textured world, but bad because it muddies up the book. This is fine in the middle of a series where the readers are already on the hook, but not great as a premier that contributes to the stereotype of fantasy literature as bloated and dense.

While more difficult than it sounds, I do wonder if there was a different structure that could have split the series differently, perhaps into five or six shorter books each with a clearer coherence that would then allow Hobb to receive more credit for what she does well. There is a touch of artificiality about the cultures in the world, with names a little on the nose and instances where “northern” and “southern” stereotypes of our world are transposed into this land, but they are not reduced to tokenism. The social changes at Bingtown, both cultural and economic, with the influx of slavery and a relative decline of the old families that signed the compact with the Rain Wild Traders, form a well conceived and executed backdrop that offer avenues for challenging the Vestrit family and the emotional payoffs in Ship of Magic are earned at every step, better than most novels I’ve read regardless of genre.

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I am now reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen and while I can appreciate its importance and how it captures moments in American history, I am not loving it thus far. I have a few directions I can go after that, but am very much enjoying my streak of science fiction and fantasy written by women suspect that I will be reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky in close succession.

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

One of the consequences of growing older and becoming busier is that I don’t have the same impulse to stay up all night reading books, even ones that I really enjoy. For the most part that is a phenomenon of my past, but every once in awhile there is a book that makes me want to read straight through in one sitting. This is one such book. I restrained myself, parsing out chapters as a reward for getting enough work done on weekdays, but I wanted to start with this introduction in order to cut right to the chase: the The Fifth Season is spectacularly good and the first book in a series that has won back-to-back Hugo awards for best Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel.

Appropriately for its title, The Fifth Season starts with an end. A deep, fiery, man-made rift opens in the planet’s single continent, the Stillness, spewing ash and starting destructive earthquakes. Like in all fifth seasons, apocalypse-level cataclysms, society crumbles and people die while clinging desperately to the advice preserved in Stone Lore. All the while, obelisks drift through the sky above the stillness.

The Fifth Season rotates between three viewpoints, each following a woman at a different stage of life: Damaya, in her youth, Semnite, as an upwardly mobile professional, and Essun (referred to as “you”) as a middle aged woman chasing her husband through the apocalypse because he killed their son and absconded with their daughter. Each narrative revolves around the issue of orogeny, a hereditary magical ability that allows the wielder to to harness the kinetic energy of the earth in order to quell or incite geological material and activity. This power, which manifests at an early age, is commonly received with superstition and fear, with the wielders killed by angry crowds unless they are swept up by the Imperial Fulcrum, a training program where they can be controlled and protected by the Guardians.

Thus Damaya is swept into this system and exposed to its benefits and horrors, but often finds that her questions about the Fulcrum’s secrets go unanswered. Semnite, by contrast, is a fast-rising “four-ringer” Imperial Orogene and is now authorized to operate in the world on her own, and is dispatched with the prodigy ten-ringer Alabaster to clear a harbor of coral. Her mission is simple on the surface, but the subtext is that she is required to have a child with Alabaster who, in turn, teaches her about orogeny and the true nature of the Fulcrum. Essun, finally, experiences orogeny in the world when her husband kills their child upon finding out this secret.

The three narratives draw together as the book progresses, both serving a larger plot and remaining distinct stories in their own right.

Despite the breadth of the time and space covered by The Fifth Season (the attention to the scale of the continent was refreshing), the cast of characters remained relatively small, which allowed room to explore them in some depth. Jemisin likewise builds depth into the world, both with ruins of civilizations destroyed by fifth seasons past forming the bones of the continents and with an attention to the variety of racial features that set the different people apart.

Society on the Stillness is in the twilight years of an empire that dominated large swathes of the continent through its control of orogenes because this allowed much of its territory to remain stable while technology was developed. Its rule is not what it once was and most outlying comms (communities) are not directly subject to central power the way they once were. But being subject to an empire for so long has left its mark in most communities such that they are organized along similar lines. Each person has a name, the comm they are attached to (particularly important in times of crisis), and their use-cast, such as “leader,” “innovator,” or “strongback.” During a Fifth Season many of these distinctions no longer matter, but they also serve as a mark of normalcy. Center and periphery alike are adhere to Stone Lore, the advice literally carved in stone about how to survive cataclysms that is supposed to be immutable. This convention, however, need not actually be the case.

I’ve enjoyed the other books of Jemisin’s that I have read, but in The Fifth Season she takes the combination of worldbuilding, prose style, and storytelling to a new level. I cannot recommend this book enough and am greatly anticipating its sequel, The Obelisk Gate.

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I am continuing with my streak of reading books by women, so, next up I am reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo-winning novel The Word for World is Forest.