Just in time for Christmas here are some book recommendations from Milford committee members past and present. They are books that we’ve read this year (not necessarily books published this year). Contributors: Karen Brenchley, Jacey Bedford, David Gullen, Jim Anderson, and Sue Thomason.
Laura Anne Gilman : The Devil’s West trilogy: Silver on the Road, The Cold Eye, Red Waters Rising.
In this Old West tale, the Spanish Protectorate spreads up from the south and covers the land to the east of the Pacific, the United States holds the land west of the Atlantic, and in the middle is the Territory, known as the Devil’s West. In a saloon in the Territory, the Devil will give you what you ask for and take what you offer for trade, so be very careful what you ask for. Izzy, newly sixteen and released from her indenture, is ready for a change. Gabriel, a traveler interested in testing himself in the casino, has a problem he wants to solve. They each ask the Devil for what they want, and Isobel and Gabriel find themselves traveling the Road through the Territory on the Devil’s business. As they face challenges both physical and magical, for protection they have each other, silver, and the power of the Devil’s Hand to protect them.
I’m a bit of a snob about Weird West tales, since I grew up in the American West and have lived most of my adult life here, but Laura Anne Gilman gets it right. She has clearly done extensive research, including traveling through the areas where the story takes place. A refreshing and original trilogy, and recommend it for those looking for a different kind of magic.
Jodi Taylor: An Argumentation of Historians – Chronicles of St Mary’s #9
By implication I recommend the whole Chronicles of St Mary’s series. Does time travel make them science fiction, or are they pure fantasy? I don’t know and I don’t care, I love them. They are funny and serious at the same time. Quirky is probably the best descriptor. The staff of St Mary’s observe and record historical incidents as they happen thanks to their time travel pods. In one of the early novels Ms Taylor introduces the arch villain who attacks St. Marys historians up and down the timeline, in particular Max and by association, her loved ones. An Argumentation of Historians is an attention-grabbing read. There’s a quick trip to see Henry VIII fall off his horse in a tournament, and a trip to Persepolis, but Clive Ronan is still causing chaos, so Max and the time police set a trap for him. Well, it seems like a good idea, but when have Max’s good ideas ever worked? As a result, Max is dumped in the Medieval period and no one knows where she is. She knows where she is – in St Mary’s but about 600 years in the past. She has to learn to live there and to make a new life for herself because she doubts she’ll ever get home again. She’s desperately missing Leon, but there’s someone in 1399 who can offer her protection. She knows Leon would be the first to tell her to find a way to survive, even if that means marrying. We’ve known for a while that there was a traitor at St Mary’s feeding Ronan information. At last we find out who. Jodi Taylor is on my buy-on-sight list, so this is a must-read for me. Highly recommended.
Juliet McKenna: The Green Man’s Heir
One of my favourite books so far this year, this is a modern fantasy, rural rather than urban. Dan works with wood, moving from place to place so he doesn’t get too close to anyone. A century ago, a person with a secret could simply move to the other end of the country and take up a new identity, but nowadays with CCTV and social media, it’s not so easy. Dan has a big secret. His mother is a Dryad and that makes Dan… different. When a young woman is murdered and left in Derbyshire woodland, Dan realises that the culprit is from his world. She’s not the first. The police are never going to find the serial killer, so it’s up to Dan. Dan is a great character, always trying to avoid that attention of the local police, but rarely managing it. He’s a big lad with powerful fists and usually at the top of the list when the Law comes around asking questions. There’s a wealth of British folklore in here, and a damn good story. This book is getting a lot of attention, so I do hope Juliet McKenna makes this the first in a series. I’d love to read more.
Benedict Jacka: Marked – Alex Verus #9
Another installment in a long-running (ongoing) series. I have every respect for Mr Jacka. Sustaining this length of series is a marvelous achievement, especially to keep characters developing. This time Alex is sitting on the Junior Council (as a Dark Mage) in Morden’s place while Morden is in jail awaiting trial/punishment for magical crimes committed in the previous book. No one quite knows what Morden is up to. It’s certainly not like him to sit back and wait to be executed, but whatever it is has left Alex once more in the deep brown stuff. It seems that half the council wants him dead and the others are only keeping him around because he’s being useful, reclaiming some of the missing imbued items that were stolen in Book #8. Assassination attempts are a regular occurrence. Alex is beginning to realise that if he’s going to protect his friends he needs to a) play the council game and b) acquire more power. Is he beginning to want power for power’s sake? Are there elements of Dark Magery he’s gravitating towards? Dark is not necessarily evil… but there’s a fine line between the two. Alex is also finally admitting to himself what we’ve known for several books… his feelings for Anne. About time Mr. Verus. These books are a buy on sight for me. My only problem is that now I’ve caught up with the latest, I have to wait for #10. Highly recommended, but start at the beginning with Book #1.
Robert Jackson Bennett: Foundryside – Founders #1
Sancia Grado is a young thief who escaped slavery and now scratches a living in the Commons of Foundryside, the squalid shanty town that’s grown up in Tevanne between and around the campos where the four leading merchant houses exist in their own comfortable enclaves, thanks to their wealth and their magic/technology – scriving. Scrived objects are created with industrialised magical inscriptions. They power everything: carriages that move without horses, ambient flying rigs, and weapons that are powerful enough to shoot a bolt through metal. Sancia has a talent. She can hear the chattering and murmuring of scrived objects and by touch can learn the nature of whatever she touches. She saves this for inert objects. Touching another human is frequently too painful. When her usual fence offers her a job that will pay a small fortune, the fee is simply too tempting to apply her normal caution. She steals an ancient artefact, which has some very peculiar properties, but before she can deliver it and get paid, people start to die. From then on she’s trying to get out of the resulting scrape, but she can’t do it alone. The pace is lively, the characters interesting and the magic system complex (and occasionally boggling). This is the first in a new series.
Michael Marshall Smith : Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence
I loved MMS’s early work and his ‘Straw Dogs’ series, then lost contact with his work. This turned out to be a great place to resume. Hannah Green is a clever, funny, supernatural adventure about time, the Devil, and bad people doing bad things. Laugh out loud moments, an easy style, and strange and dangerous encounters. A perfect winter night read.
William Dalrymple : Nine Lives
Dalrymple is my favourite travel writer/historian at the moment, and this is one of his best books. Subtitled ‘In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’, WD helps us understand what it is to be a Jain nun, a Budhist monk, a story-teller, A Sufi, and more. Some of these ways of life endure, some, like a 25th generation statue-maker and last in his line, he catches at the very end of their times. Dalrymple writes with a transparent style, filled with warmth. Not many travel writers can make you cry.
Sylvia Townsend Warner: Kingdoms of Elfin
Back in print after forty years, this fine collection of stories from the courts of Elfindom are lyrical, witty, cruel, and charming. As anyone who truly understand the fey knows, they might not be nice, but they can be funny. Essential and pleasurable reading for anyone who enjoys gently grotesque stories.
Gareth Powell: Embers of War
I’ve not done a lot of reading this year. Day job and life and the complications thereof, and yes despite it all, I do love the day job. But even with all this, there is a recommendation I would love to make. This book. This is the book. If you read one book, then this is the book to read I would love to make that recommendation about Moby Dick, and I’d be happy to write that about Moby Dick. As much as I love the book, I’m aware that it’s not to everyone’s taste (though it should be). But more importantly, it’s not a book I’ve read it 2018. Though it is on the list for 2019, because the cycle has turned and it’s time.
As it turns out, I have read a book for which I would be happy to make that recommendation. Embers of War by Gareth Powell. It’s hard to recommend one book among all the books, because there are so many great books. But more than once, I scared the cats by how I reacted to the exploits of Trouble Dog, though decorum demands that I say nothing more than that. I don’t want to give hints and I don’t want to give spoilers. All I want to say is, go out. Read this book. Enjoy this book. Delight in this book. Go.
Anne Leckie: Provenance
Ingray Aughskold is a young woman of good family, inexperienced, bright, terrified of being found incompetent, and with a tendency to burst into tears when things go unexpectedly wrong. Which they do. I liked her the moment I met her, and the more I found out about her, the more my liking grew. Her society values “vestiges”, artefacts that have been the dumb witness to great events; this is a story about how our Stuff tells us who we are, how we make and experience Value and Tradition, and what “authenticity” means. A bitingly perceptive story told with empathy and warmth.
Maureen F. McHugh: China Mountain Zhang
Favourite Missed Classic of 2018; how did I miss this one first time round? Zhang, the eponymous protagonist, is a young engineer, in a socialist-republic USA which is economically and culturally subordinate to China. Zhang is both gay (officially disapproved of) and genetically modified (also officially disapproved of), and he’s trying to have a life – a nice, happy, fulfilled life, that doesn’t come at too great a cost to himself or his friends… I love this one because Zhang is an engaging character, the setting is audacious and well-realised, and because the story is witty and imaginative while insisting that actions have consequences – seen and unforeseen.
Natasha Pulley: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
I think this is probably steampunk. Main characters are Keita Mori, a Japanese master-craftsman in clockwork who is able to see probabilities (and is therefore able to act, sometimes, to nudge particular futures into being); Thaniel Steepleton, a pianist who sees sound in colour, working as a telegraph operator to support his widowed mother and her two younger children; Grace Carrow, inheritor of upper-class privilege and social restriction, a physicist who is on the track of a fundamental discovery about the nature of the luminiferous ether (which in this world evidently exists), and Katsu, a clockwork octopus who steals socks. A constantly, charmingly imaginative romance.
Andy Weir: Artemis
The plot can be summed up by deploying words like “heist” and “caper”, it’s set on the Moon, there is engaging nerdy stuff about how to smelt aluminium in lunar conditions, but also has the best economic justification for a lunar colony I have ever come across. The protagonist, Jazz Bashara, is instantly likeable, and the plot, characters and setting all pay a certain homage to Heinlein.
Robert Cargill: Sea of Rust
Set on a future-Earth where AI has wiped out humanity, this is the first-person narrative of Brittle, a Caregiver bot searching the deserts of the American Midwest for spare parts to prolong her existence. Starts out like a classic Western, but the struggle to prolong existence turns into a search for meaning, with side orders of speculation on the nature of freedom and personal identity. So, good for both shoot-‘em-up lovers and philosophers.
Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
This is… like Charles Stross, but kinder and funnier. The Department Of Diachronic Operations is a shadowy government entity whose mission is to use quantum science to go back in time and prevent the extinction of magic (said extinction having been caused by photographing a total eclipse of the sun). In other words, the plot is totally mad, but it works because there’s a lot of very good worldbuilding and logical extrapolation from the original premise. The characters are interesting and sympathetic, and the use of language is brilliant (apart from someone’s attempt at the Anglo-Irish of 1601). Tremendous fun.