I read, for me, an awful lot of books this year. By the time the year’s done it’ll be somewhere around 40. I’m pleased with that, especially as I’ve hit a good balance between reading for work and reading for fun. I could, as always, broaden my horizons some but everyone always can and this year has gone from labouring under the same three books for six months to a nice spread of titles, authors and subject matters in surprisingly little time.
And that’s great. But it’s also a problem when you get to List Season.
Because of all the stuff I’ve read this year I’ve disliked…maybe…one book. Even that was interesting enough to keep going and taught me a lot of stuff by the end of it. I could talk about how the vast tidal wave of genuinely great fiction swamping the shelves is a bad thing, complain about the damage it does to critical discourse or any one of a dozen other argument starters that I don’t believe in. But my time’s too precious for that and so’s yours. So instead, let’s talk about the titles that really stood out in a sea of genuinely brilliant fiction.
The thing about combat sports is they’re the tip of a very large, very crowded iceberg. By the time two people step into a ring, cage or onto a mat to compete against one another months of hard work, psychological and physical preparation and thousands of hours from hundreds of people have been put into getting them as ready as possible. How much attention you pay to that defines how you approach the fight. Some people will yell and scream for the two competitors to mess each other up as badly as possible. Others will look at how the fighters move, if they sit between rounds, their interaction with their coaches and see the other fight that’s going on. That fight; the one between the better and worse angels of an individual is often far more interesting than the physical action. It’s also what lies at the heart of Matt Wallace’s five book series.
The sport here is simple; Slingers are competitive grapplers who fight to the death over the world’s only functional wormhole. You win by slinging the other Slinger over the edge. Sometimes you do that through superior strength or leverage, sometimes you do that through the complex game of chess that all grappling forms boil down to. Sometimes you do that by tricking the other Slinger into getting too close to your team mates. The ones allowed to use weapons.
And sometimes you don’t do it at all. And that’s when the trouble begins.
Wallace’s series is cyberpunk by way of Vegas on fight night. It takes one particular team as an entry point but soon expands out into something more akin to The Wire than Rollerball, taking you on a tour from the offices of the Game Authority to the Victim Hold, the last place anyone goes. By the time he’s finished, you’ve learned two things; the game doesn’t matter and never did. What matters is what happens when you realize you’ve been played.
Intensely romantic, bleak, humane and funny, these five novellas rung my bell all year and continue to do so on every level. The best work yet from one of the best voices in genre fiction.
Brendan and Rachael Connelly did the impossible this year; found a new twist on the Sherlock Holmes mythos that manages to honour everything that came before. Emily and Jenny, two young temps, find themselves working at Holmes Brothers, the Real Estate Agent who works out of 221b. It’s a nice enough job but the grey office carpet of every new build for the last 20 years isn’t exactly the velvet clad Victorian noir of Holme’s time. Nonetheless, the owners get a lot of requests for photos of ‘Holmes’, and, very occasionally, letters asking for the great detective’s help.
Imagine being in such a bad place that writing to a fictional character is the only thing you can think of doing?
Now, imagine if someone wrote back.
That’s the genius of what Brendon and Rachael have done here. By setting the story firmly in the real world they’ve avoided clashing with the, currently pretty large, group of fictional Sherlocks plying their trade on each side of the Atlantic. More importantly they’ve freed themselves up to tell a story with real compassion and insight. Emily and Jenny are intensely smart people who don’t quite get the traction they want in the world and the first case they work is a delightfully complicated piece that starts with wildly disparate elements and comes together with precision and grace. The Connellys take great pleasure in not letting their leads off easy either, and there’s a refreshing lack of greased wheels for the two amateur detectives. More importantly though there’s a sense of something that’s always at the background of the best British detective fiction; reassurance. These two young women have no resources outside their own brains but run headlong into difficulty anyway. They’re heroic in a unique, quiet way, refusing to let the current of their mundane lives drag them away from the people who need helping. Holmes himself would be proud and, more importantly, happy to leave them covering this version of London. They do good work and I look forward to future entries in the series.
We Were Liars
Ewa and Naz are two of my closest friends. We’ve redcloaked various conventions together, hang out whenever we’re in London and always, always listen to them when they recommend books. I’ll read most things and I love hearing people’s recommendations but the ‘Instant Kindle purchase’ level of my book pimp hierarchy is a rarified, VIP only affair and Ewa and Naz are most definitely in it. This book is one of the reasons why.
Cadence Sinclair is one of a monied family who, along with relatives and some friends, Summer on their own island. They’re American royalty; brilliant, bored and just a little bit amoral. The entire book is shot through with that feeling you get at the very top of adolescence; quicksilver flashes of what you’re going to be, what you could be, what you want to be and what damage you’re prepared to cause getting there. But Cadence has her own damage. Something dreadful happened two years ago and Cadence can’t quite remember what…
Most puzzle novels reward a single reading. This isn’t most puzzle novels. The conspiracy Cadence finds herself at the centre of is the best piece of literary close up magic I read this year. You’re given everything you need to understand what’s going on from the first page. It won’t matter. Lockhart is such a virtuoso with character and dialogue in particular that you’re swept up in the lives of her characters. Nothing is simple, nothing is easy and most importantly, nothing is wasted. There isn’t a single line of prose here that’s not been polished and refined to perfection. There’s not a single line of prose here that doesn’t have anarchy just below the surface. A book defined by tension and absence, but memorable for its intelligence, compassion and warmth.
Trust Ewa and Naz, basically.
2014 was YA’s year in YA’s decade but it was also the year the jokes about formulaic YA got noticeably louder. The Divergent/Hunger Games/Maze Runner model is very much in the ascendant at the moment and with good reason as all three of those series work very well. But there’s a perception, rightly or wrongly, of successful YA fiction being narrative lego; you plug the disparate houses into the romantic tension and coming of age story. Then you fit them all to the three part series housing and be prepared, in some cases, to shell out for the prequel set to bolt on the back. That’s not entirely fair but it’s also not entirely inaccurate.
Glaze doesn’t concern itself with any of those issues; it’s too busy diving facefirst into the ultimate social network.
Curran’s best known for the Control trilogy, one of the several series currently in limbo following Angry Robot’s suspension and purchase earlier this year. Glaze takes everything that excels in those books and crams them into one keenly observed story of adolescence, social unrest, social networking and what happens all three collide. It plays like a particularly good, fractionally kinder hearted episode of Black Mirror, revolving around the Glaze system. Less a social network, more social acceptance in digital form, it’s the brass ring waiting for everyone at the end of adolescence. Until Petri gets it via…more dubious means than she would have liked. Then it’s a firehose of information. Always on, always pointed straight at her. The internet as cacophony not symphony. It’s a gloriously nasty idea executed with tremendous style and, crucially, humanity. There’s nothing stoic or cookie cutter about Curran’s characters at the best of times but here they’re especially good. This is a novel about the revolution happening by accident, history being made not by the people who showed up but the people who realized they were the last ones left. It’s a book that impresses me more every time I think about it and it absolutely earned its spot on this list.
2014 is officially the year I finally got the Hell over myself about fantasy. I’ve always had a blind spot with the genre, partially due to a traumatic encounter with Tolkien’s LOTR preface about trees and partially because I like books to not be a second job. It’s the same issue I have with later Neal Stephenson; that sinking feeling when you hit page 800 or volume 15 and wonder if everything up to then was actually necessary or just the biggest warm up lap in literary history.
John Hornor Jacobs doesn’t so much ignore that approach as ride as fast as possible in the opposite direction. The Incorruptibles combines Roman iconography with the classic elements of fantasy fiction and throws those, in turn, into the old West. So you have technology powered by demons, Senatorial politics, vengeance and frequent, horrifying violence all mixed together in a powderkeg that moves like a paddle steamer but is in fact an increasingly fragile cultural bubble under constant attack.
Jacobs, much like Wallace, never backs from violence but never lets it be sensational. The battles here are horrific not because of spectacle but because of their ferocity and the fragility of those involved. There’s never any question of his characters being in control, they’re always under one gun or another, always trying to work within the increasingly unreasonable demands of their employers. Fisk is a man defined by a tragedy that threatens to literally consume him while Shoe, not fully human, is also not fully without faith. Shoe functions as the narrator and he’s one of the standout characters of the year. Wry, a little mournful and more than prepared to deal with the parts of his belief that trouble him, Shoe doesn’t back down from a single thing and both he and Fisk take serious damage throughout the book. The fact that damage is spiritual at least as much physical is one of the things that marks the novel out as something unique. The fact that Jacobs manages to explore three separate cultures, showing us the dark sides of at least two of them without ever passing judgment marks it out as extraordinary. One of the year’s most unfairly underrated books and one of the titles on this list that still haunts me in the very best way.
Those are just the five that clawed their way out of a beautifully, wondrously tight pack. I read 33 books this year, and of those I can count the ones I genuinely disliked on the fingers of my gripping hand.
RINGWORLD JOKE! SELF FIVE! FOR THE BIG DOG!
Anthologies like the revelatory Long Hidden, everything Jurassic put out this year and Scott Harrison’s fantastic Beside the Seaside showcased stories of endless intelligence, wit, humour and invention. Liz De Jager’s Banished kicked off a YA series with a refreshing lack of dystopia and a wonderful abundance of hot Celtic werewolves whilst Jen Williams turned fantasy on its head and shook it for loose change with the brilliant The Copper Promise, which I’ll be talking about here shortly. Elsewhere, Lou Morgan turned in one of the most unsettling horror novels I’ve read in years with Sleepless and Jake Bible made every single one of my sea monster action movie dreams come true with Mega, just one of the endless parade of frantically inventive pieces of awesome neo pulp he wrote this year. Patrick Rothfuss turned in not the intricate and beautiful The Slow Regard of Silent Things and Vick Linde wrote one of the most moving, clear eyed looks at the artistic temperament it’s been my privilege to read with The Faint Echo Of Wings.
I read a ton of really great books this year. These were the absolute best. If you want to see all of them, I’ve been keeping a log on my Pinterest boards.
Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go set up the 2015 ones…