Sunday, 1 January 2012

Essay: Review of 2011

It's traditional in the blogging world to write a review of the year. This is not a traditional blog, but nevertheless there is some point to summarising things. At the start of 2011, I had a shiny new Kindle loaded up with free classics, a few old favourites and the first handful of my attempt to work my way through the best 100 science fiction books. Early in January, this project got derailed in spectacular fashion. I read George R R Martin's A Game of Thrones, and it completely blew me away. From then onwards, my aim was simple - to catch up with the forty years of fantasy since I first read Lord of the Rings.

I've read 98 books this year, of which 54 were fantasy and the rest a mixture of sci-fi, murder mystery, non-fiction and general fiction. I rated 7 of them as 5*; 43 at 4*; 32 at 3*; 11 at 2*; and 5 at 1*, an average rating of 3.33. [Statistics from Goodreads.] I have bought 141 books for my Kindle, of which 29 were free, 28 were less than £1, 16 less than £3 and 68 were above £3, an average price of £2.87. The most expensive book was A Dance With Dragons at £11.99. Because I'm playing catch-up, few of the books I've read were published this year.

Best of the year (5* reviews, in order of awesomeness):

The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham: This is the finest fantasy series I've read to date. There are four books in the series: A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, An Autumn War and The Price of Spring. I read them in their two-book omnibus form, Shadow and Betrayal and Seasons of War. The first of the four has some flaws, but the second is excellent and the third and fourth books are just awesome. The series has an original setting, a brilliantly simple magic system, great characters and a plot that derives entirely from these elements. It is one of those rare books where the prologue is not simply relevant, but the crux of later events. Not everyone likes the curious poses used to modify the language, or Abraham's spare writing style, but those who can get past that are rewarded with a stunning and profound piece of writing.

Stormlord Trilogy by Glenda Larke: This is almost as good as Abraham's work. Again, there's an original setting, a brilliantly simple magic system, and a tight, character-driven plot, with an elegantly understated writing style. It doesn't quite have the depth of Abraham's work, but it was a terrific, readable series. Of the three books (The Last Stormlord, Stormlord Rising and Stormlord's Exile [published 2011]), the third has a few minor plot flaws, but it's still an excellent series overall, exactly what fantasy should be.

A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin: This is the second of the five books so far released in the A Song of Ice And Fire series. It's taken fifteen years to get this far, with increasing gaps between releases, and two more at least to come, so judgment is reserved on the overall quality. Of the five, the first, A Game of Thrones, is in many ways the most revolutionary. Martin's easy writing style, broad canvas, tight plotting and larger than life characters are dramatic, but his tendency to kill or maim even main characters without obvious reason kept it to 4 stars for me. But this second book has the same elements without gratuitous deaths, a book-long plot thread in the slow build to the battle for King's Landing, a starring role for the wonderful Tyrion and some elegant use of the shifting points of view to keep the plot moving along, which made it the standout 5 star entry. Of the rest, the third book, A Storm of Swords, was too dismal to merit more than 4 stars, and began the out-of-hand plot-free sprawling which marred the fourth and fifth, A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons [published 2011].  It's hard to see how Martin can pull this one back into shape.

Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: This is a debut work, and pretty stunning it is too. With an original story-within-a-story concept, intriguing back-story and a wonderfully lyrical writing style, this was a joy to read from beginning to end, even though nothing much actually happens. Although I have to admit I didn't like it well enough to pay hardback prices for the follow-up, which is interesting.

The Lions of al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay: Not everyone likes Kay's over-wrought writing style, I'm not a fan of the thinly disguised historical setting and in some ways Tigana was the better book, but this has great characters, a suitably large-scale plot, and an ending with true emotional resonance. It's also deeply thought-provoking.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline [published 2011]: This is technically science fiction, but since it features an unlikely hero who has to join forces with a mismatched set of fellow-travellers on a quest to seek out the three magic keys giving access to special portals, and reach the enchanted egg before the evil corporate clones who plan to rule the world... has to be fantasy, right? It has its flaws - slightly dodgy world-building, not quite believable characters, a formulaic and predictable plot - but it's just so much fun.

Honourable mentions (self-published):

Self-publishing gets a bad rap, and there's no doubt there's a lot of dross out there - poorly written, derivative, full of plot holes, badly edited. Nevertheless there are some real gems for those who have the patience to seek them out. Of my 98 books read in 2011, 28 were self-published (not quite 30%).

The Stone Dragon by Tom Kepler [published 2011]: A most unusual and charming coming-of-age story, with deeper undertones about the nature of consciousness and dreams. And dragons. Very readable.

The Silence of Medair by Andrea K Höst: A true antidote to all those patriarchal pseudo-medieval affairs. This features a world where women can and do take up any career for which they have an ability, they can inherit and rule, they can wield magic, and the heroine is simply a woman with no unusual talents beyond loyalty fulfilling her obligations as best she can. Unconventional (to put it mildly) but a pleasure to read.

The Shaihen Trilogy by S A Rule: The three books (Cloak of Magic, Staff of Power and Spirit of Shehaios [published 2011]) share an unusual world, more egalitarian than the standard pseudo-medieval affair, with an intriguing magic system. The first book has a slightly fey air, with dragons, unicorns and a phoenix in the mix, whereas the second is a much darker, edgier affair, and both were excellent, with a deeply charismatic central character, Kierce. The third, which had largely different characters and a different setting, I found less interesting, but still very readable. There is more to come, apparently.

Stormfront by F K Wallace [published 2011]: This is the second part of the Stormwatcher trilogy. The first is Storm Rising [published 2011], which is a fairly conventional sword and sorcery type story, although very literate and with some good characterisation. This part builds on that to create the wonderfully complex character of Tiel, and is almost totally character driven. An excellent read. The third part is due out in 2012.

Honourable mentions (other):

The Folding Knife by K J Parker: A quirky fantasy with no obvious magic at all, all built around one unusual character and his rise to fame and fortune. Not to everyone's taste, but I found it fascinating, and very funny.

The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham [published 2011]: The first part of a new trilogy, The Dagger and the Coin, contrasting the two approaches to empire-building, war or economics. Great characters, as always, a slightly patchy plot, and world-building which is sketchy for now, but has promise, especially the twelve races derived from humans. More conventional than The Long Price, but hopefully will display the same depth in the end.

Leviathan Wakes by James S A Corey [published 2011]: Daniel Abraham again, this time in collaboration with Ty Francks, a traditional sci-fi affair with a detective noir feel. A nice pacy read, light on science, heavy on characterisation and inventiveness, elegantly bouncing the plot between the two point of view protagonists.

Principles of Angels by Jaine Fenn: Sci fi again, although with a fantasy air about it. This is the first of a sequence of (more or less) stand-alone works in the same world, Hidden Empires. This has a charming protagonist, a less believable second protagonist, and some flaws, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor [published 2011]: A wonderfully poetic writing style combines with an unconventional heroine, some imaginative back-story and a little angel-demon romance to produce a terrific debut. Not all of it is totally successful, but absorbing, nonetheless.

Worst of 2011

It isn't really fair to talk about the 'worst', as if there's some absolute objective scale of measurement. I've given five stars to books others find unreadable, and vice versa, so I don't think my opinion is sufficient to condemn any book. There were a few I really hated, or couldn't finish, this year, but let's leave them unnamed. But there is one that must be mentioned as my most disappointing read: A Dance With Dragons by George R R Martin [published 2011]. It was (marginally) better than my worst fears, but still nowhere near as good as I'd hoped. The writing is as colourful as ever, and the characters still leap off the page, fully realised and larger than life, but the plot... The sprawl is now at the point where it will be almost impossible for the author to pull things together. The magic is a mess, forward progress is glacial, dangling plot threads are more tangled than the average set of fairy lights, the cast of thousands (and their wives, children, retainers, supporters, swords, dogs, etc, etc) is impossible to keep track of, and there is still no sense of where any of this is going. It's out of control, and I have lost confidence in the author to get on top of it (but I would love to be proved wrong).

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