Sunday 31 December 2017

My top five books of 2017

2017 was a busy year in many ways for me - especially on the editing side. Somewhere in between the day job, writing and juggling editing, I managed to squeeze in quite a few books that I read and reviewed - you can check out my full Goodreads challenge list here. There's a few others that didn't fit on that list as they weren't on Goodreads, so all told there were a little over 100 books read and reviewed. And one book I reviewed just before the end of the year snuck under the wire too!

Picking a top five from that lot is no easy task, but here, as I sip a glass of New Year rum, are my best reads of the year. The books are presented in no particular order - and all are well worth your attention. When you've done, well... a new year of reviewing awaits. I'd love to hear the books you've loved in the comments below as I load up my Kindle for 2018. May it be a year of great reading!

Prometheus and the Dragon, by Eric Michael Craig

One of my top reads of 2016 was Stormhaven Rising, and this is the sequel to that story. 
That first book told the tale of the discovery of an asteroid headed on a collision course for Earth - but that was a distant threat throughout the story, with the real focus being how different factions mobilised to try to deal with that menace. More particularly, there were the political machinations that took place as different groups vied to take the primary role in tackling something that could prove catastrophic for Earth. 
This book picks up where that left off - with two major plans in progress to try to deal with the incoming rock. Prometheus is a beam weapon designed to push the asteroid onto a new course that would miss Earth, but that beam needs to be sustained over many days to be a success. Meanwhile, a Chinese plan, The Dragon, is to launch a massive warhead that would shatter the rock. Both projects are operated from bases on the Moon - and the teams behind them are not on friendly sides.
Political manoeuvres on the surface see nations trying to settle old scores before the asteroid can hit - while a back-up plan of scrambling people to colonies on the moon in case the worst happens faces hazards of its own, with too many people and not enough room. 
As below, so above - and ensuring safety on the Moon for both people and the projects that could ensure Earth's survival becomes a challenge. 
This book really takes up the gauntlet cast down by the opening book in the series and runs with it - it's an absolute thrill ride full of hard decisions and harder consequences. More than a few times I cursed at the book as I turned pages filled with moments that bit deep. Then against those there are moments where you punch the air - such as when the Flight Infantry deploys in a skirmish on the Moon, tumbling out of the back of the vehicle carrying them at hundreds of miles an hour. It's the kind of kickass moment that reminds me of the Orion Ship in Niven and Pournelle's Footfall - a spaceship propelled by dropping nuclear bombs underneath it. Science kicking ass. 
The latter half of the book sees the asteroid getting ever closer - will humanity overcome its divisions to succeed in preventing its impact?
That I won't spoil - but I will say you've got a great read ahead of you as you find out. 

Songs of Insurrection, by JC Kang

Years ago, Dungeons and Dragons was my first roleplaying game. Back in the 1970s, I played my first game of the old blue book basic D&D by lamplight, and an addiction was born. Over the years, I played various versions of the game - including some fun off-shoot campaign settings, such as the Dark Sun setting and Oriental Adventures. I strongly suspect JC Kang dabbled in those two, for this novel enjoys the same strong feeling of a rich campaign setting as those two.
Picture a fantasy world but with an Eastern influence front and centre, and you have the world of Songs of Insurrection.
This is no by-the-numbers rewrite of a gaming campaign, though - indeed, it kept confounding my expectations as I read. The major focus of the story is on Kaiya, a musician coaxed into playing the Dragon Scale Lute, which in the hands of a master has the power to drive away a dragon with its music. She may also be falling in love with Hardeep, the paladin guiding her talents.
The characters are well-drawn, and far from stereotypical - and the fantasy elements of elves, dwarves and orcs are actually rather played down. It is the Eastern setting that really steps forward into focus, and that makes for a fantasy read with a really different feel from the usual. In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this - very nicely done.

Remanence, by Jennifer Foehner Wells

Remanence is the sequel to Fluency, a splendid space opera about first contact with an alien spaceship adrift in Earth's solar system. One NASA mission later and... here we are, at the point where you probably should stop reading if you haven't read the first novel. You can read my previous review of that book here.
So, spoiler warning duly given, we now have a slimmed down crew of humans in charge of the vessel and lead character Jane Holloway having gone beyond her role as team linguist to have become the commander of the new vessel, with a mental bond with the tentacled creature that controls the vast spaceship.
That connection has given her a new mission - to take the ship back to the race that created it, a voyage to the stars with an undermanned vessel and unprepared for what comes next.
In the same vein as the book it follows, it's very much a fun adventure, but what's really nice about the book is that underneath the soaring opera are some really nice ideas about language, gender, cultural differences and the nature of communication itself with the alien navigator able to telepathically communicate with the crew - sometimes with a power so raw it can override their own motives. Throw in a frisson of romance and the occasional - sometimes awkward - sex scene and it's a real mix of light adventure and thoughtful exploration.
By the end, answers that were sought have been replaced by new questions, new alliances have been forged and new enemies discovered, and the mission has taken on a much broader goal.
Book 3 awaits.

Karl Drinkwater's Horror Collection

Karl Drinkwater wants to scare you. Come on in, close the door behind you, he's got something to tell you.
This horror collection brings together three of his previous publications - the novel Turner, the short story collection They Move Below and the novella Harvest Festival.
Let's start with Turner - a novel that is equal parts The Wicker Man and The Crazies. There's an island off the coast of Wales where unwary travellers become targets, where they become hunted. We find ourselves alongside three of those travellers - a policeman, a teacher and a criminal - thrown together as they try to stay alive while crazed killers try to track them down.
It's a brutal tale, full of blood and gore and grue. Think of the likes of Stephen Gallagher or James Herbert, and that's the realm we dwell in, where flawed people with imperfect motives try to make the best of a bad situation. It's certainly not for the squeamish. If there's one flaw, it's that it takes a while for the reader to meet the central cast of the story - there's some bloody shenanigans before we get to that point - but when we do, it's a solid thrill ride as people scramble to find a way out, and maybe to find revenge along the way.
The short stories and novella that make up the rest of the collection are, by their nature, a mixed bag. With short stories, there will always be some you love more than others. It's nice to see Drinkwater playing around with form here - with some stories framed around internet chat logs, others in the shape of police interviews. Sometimes those work, sometimes not, but experimentation sometimes pays off.
For me, the best of the short story collection was an unexpected one - Web tells a tale of a Somali woman who has been subjected to genital mutilation, and the mental illness she appears to be suffering from. It's a tough tale emotionally to read, but brilliantly done. The harsh honesty of the tale almost feels out of place alongside the fantasy horrors of the other stories - but it's perhaps the most horrific of all for that.
Other excellent tales in this set are the nightmarish cave journey of Claws Truth Forebear and How It Got There, which is a treat in this collection particularly for readers of the opening novel. Harvest Festival rounds out the book with a splendidly horrific alien adventure that makes me think of the old Quatermass series. And heck, if anyone can make you think of Gallagher, Herbert and Quatermass in one fell swoop, that's practically a guided tour of the classics of British horror.

A Time of Need, by Brent A Harris

First things first, I need to make full disclosure. I've been following the creation of this book for some time as Brent A. Harris has chiseled words out of his brain. He even mentions me in the thanks at the front of the book, so be aware that I may be a little bit biased. But I'm biased in favour of quality.
A Time of Need tells the tale of an alternative America. In this tale, George Washington sides with the British and Benedict Arnold becomes the figurehead for the US forces aligned against Britain.
Instead of the course that history took, we instead see a new shape to the battle for the continent, with Arnold's ruthlessness put to a new use.
There's a real depth and thoroughness to this novel - I freely confess not being an expert on the history of the period, but Brent really brings the period to life, and you can tell the amount of research he has put in to get the details right.
Beyond the battle between Washington and Arnold, the parts of the novel I really loved were those focusing on the soldiers underneath the generals, as they faced difficult choices about where their loyalties should lie, and the reasons for making the choices they do. The character of Stevens, particularly, struck to the real heart of the novel. Just as he tries to decide his path, so too this young nation is working out where it is going to go, and what exactly it will be when it gets there.
The novel is unflinching in some of the horrific parts of the nation's history, such as the way in which slaves are treated, but the better for that. No one in the cast is wholly virtuous, but neither is anyone entirely villainous. Brent has created a story of the red, white and blue that is made up of many shades of grey.
In the end, I can heartily recommend this novel - it's an alternative history that taught me real history, and which brought to life the throes of a nation truly being born.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks! I'm honored to make the list ... especially with the other excellent authors you've chosen!