I have been doing a lot of travelling of late — Germany, Sweden, Finland, Chicago — and that means I have been doing a lot of reading as well. When I travel, I read. Always have, always will. There’s no better way to fill the endless hours on the plane, and the strange hours in the middle of the night when the world is sleeping but you’re awake, thanks to jetlag.<br/><br/>A few words about some of the things I’ve read are in order, therefore.<br/><br/>I read the new Eric Larson bestseller, DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF LUSITANIA. Larson is a journalist who writes non-fiction books that read like novels, real page-turners. This one is no exception. I had known a lot about the <i>Titanic</i> but little about the <i>Lusitania</i>. This filled in those gaps. Larson’s masterpiece remains THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, but this one is pretty damned good too. Thoroughly engrossing.<br/><br/>I read an ARC of the long-awaited new novel from Ernie Cline of READY PLAYER ONE fame. ARMADA, like READY PLAYER ONE, is a paean to the videogames of a bygone era, and like READY PLAYER ONE it is a tremendous amount of fun for anyone who remembers that time and played those games. (Those who did not may find it incomprehensible, admittedly). Those of you who liked the old movie THE LAST STARFIGHTER will <i>really</i> like this one. Hugely entertaining… though it does make me wonder if we’ll ever see Ernie write something that isn’t about videogames. He’s a talented guy, and I am sure that anything he writes would be terrific.<br/><br/>I read the mega-bestseller THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, by Paula Hawkins, a mystery/ thriller/ novel of character about three women who live near the train tracks of a London commuter lines, and how their lives and loves get entwined when one of them disappears under mysterious circumstances. Fans of Gillian Flynn’s books will probably like this one too. I know I did… though I don’t think Hawkins is quite as deft a writer as Flynn. The first person voices of the three narrators sounded too much alike, I thought, but that’s a minor quibble. The main narrator, an alcoholic who is slowly falling apart, is especially well drawn. It’s a strong story, with a great sense of time and place, and one that had me from start to finish.<br/><br/>I read ANGLES OF ATTACK, by Marko Kloos, military SF, third book in his series, and the immediate sequel to LINES OF DEPARTURE, the novel that was (briefly) a Hugo finalist thanks to the Puppies before its author withdrew it as an act of conscience. I’d read LINES OF DEPARTURE as a result of that, my first exposure to Kloos. I liked that one well enough, but didn’t love it. ANGLES OF ATTACK is, I think, better. I’m still the wrong audience for this — my list of “great military SF novels” includes STARSHIP TROOPERS, BILL THE GALACTIC HERO, THE FOREVER WAR, and an oldie called WE ALL DIED AT BREAKAWAY STATION, but not much else — but these are very entertaining books. Since I know there are a lot of fans of military SF out there, I’d say that ANGLES OF ATTACK might actually have an outside chance at earning a genuine Hugo nod solely on its merits… assuming the Puppies don’t slate it again. In any case, Kloos is a writer to watch. (I do hope this series isn’t going on for twenty more books, however. I want to know more about his gigantic and enigmatic aliens, and I want a resolution). <br/><br/>Oh, and I also read a lot more of this year’s Hugo nominees. The stories and books that were NOT withdrawn. Hoo boy. More on that later. Suffice it to say that I was very glad that I had the books listed above to hand, to cleanse my palate after sampling some of the Hugo stuff.
Reading, Reading, Reading
I used to have a page called “What I’m Reading” on my old website. It’s still there on this new(er) website, actually, but I haven’t updated it in years. Keep meaning to, but there’s too much to do, too few hours in the day.
That doesn’t mean I am not reading, however. I read all the time. Usually a chapter or two right before I go to sleep… but sometimes a novel takes hold of me, and I wind up gulping down the whole thing in a night. A long, sleepless night. But I love that when it happens.
Anyway, just thought I’d mention a few of the books I’ve read recently.
I’ve already commented, at some length, about two of this year’s Hugo finalists, THREE-BODY PROBLEM and THE GOBLIN EMPEROR. You can find my thoughts on those below.
I also read LINES OF DEPARTURE by Marko Kloos. This was part of the Hugo ballot as originally announced, one of the books put there by the slates… but Kloos, in an act of singular courage and integrity, withdrew. It was his withdrawal that moved THREE-BODY PROBLEM onto the ballot. This is the second book in a series, and I’ve never read the first. Truth be told, I’d never read anything by Kloos before, but I’m glad I read this. It’s military SF, solidly in the tradition of STARSHIP TROOPERS and THE FOREVER WAR. No, it’s not nearly as good as either of those, but it still hands head and shoulders above most of what passes for military SF today. The enigmatic (and gigantic) alien enemies here are intriguing, but aside from them there’s not a lot of originality here; the similarity to THE FOREVER WAR and its three act structure is striking, but the battle scenes are vivid, and the center section, where the hero returns to Earth and visits his mother, is moving and effective. I have other criticisms, but this is not a formal review, and I don’t have the time or energy to expand on them at this point. Bottom line, this is a good book, but not a great one. It’s way better than most of what the Puppies have put on the Hugo ballot in the other categories, but it’s not nearly as ambitious or original as THREE-BODY PROBLEM. Even so, I read this with pleasure, and I will definitely read the next one. Kloos is talented young writer, and I suspect that his best work is ahead of him. He is also a man of principle. I hope he comes to worldcon; I’d like to meet him.
I also read the new novel by Lauren Beukes, BROKEN MONSTERS, a sort of crime/ serial killer novel with some supernatural Lovecraftian touches. Set amidst the urban decay of contemporary Detroit, this one has a vivid sense of place and a colorful and interesting cast of characters, but it gets very strange at the end, where the Lovecraftian elements come to the fore. I don’t think it is entirely successful, and it’s certainly several notches below the author’s last, the brilliant SHINING GIRLS (which would have been my choice for last year’s Hugo, but, alas, it missed the ballot by a handful of votes). I found it an engrossing read all the same, and I will be looking forward to whatever Lauren Beukes does next. She’s a major major talent.
I also read and enjoyed the new Naomi Novik, UPROOTED. Novik is best known for her popular series of Napoleonic Era dragon books, so this high fantasy is somewhat a departure for her. The whole set-up has a ‘fairy tale’ feel to it, but draws its inspiration from Russian folklore rather than the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen strains more familiar to modern readers. I thought Novik did a nice job of ringing changes on the old fairy tale tropes, and I liked her characters. But the story rushed by a bit too fast for my taste; I would have liked a longer book, where the characters might have had a bit more room to breathe. And I was seriously disappointed by the ending, wherein several important revelations came out of nowhere.
Next up? Not sure. CITY OF STAIRS and ANCILLARY SWORD and SKIN GAME are all on the stack besides my bed, along with an ARC of the new Ernie Cline novel (yay!). But the new Stephen King has just turned up as well, so…
I get emails all the time from fans asking me to recommend books for them to read “while I am waiting for your next one.”
I can’t possibly reply to all my emails, of course. But I do reply to some, when the mood strikes me. And I am always glad to recommend good books. There is so many of them out there that do not get half the attention that they deserve.
For some readers I like to draw attention to the classics of our genre. It never ceases to amaze me to discover that some of my own fans have never heard of all the great fantasists who came before me, without whom A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE could never have been written… without whom, in truth, there might not be a fantasy genre at all. If you have enjoyed my own fantasy novels, you owe it to yourself to read J.R.R. Tolkien (LORD OF THE RINGS), Robert E. Howard (Conan the Cimmerian, Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane), C.L. Moore (Jirel of Joiry), Jack Vance (THE DYING EARTH, Lyonesse, Cugel the Clever, and so much more), Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser), Richard Adams (WATERSHIP DOWN, SHARDIK, MAIA), Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea, the original trilogy), Mervyn Peake (GORMENGHAST), T.H. White (THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING), Rosemary Sutcliffe, Alan Garner, H.P. Lovecraft (more horror than fantasy, admittedly), Clark Ashton Smith, and… well, the list is long. But those writers should keep you busy for quite a while. You won’t like all of them, perhaps… some wrote quite a long time ago, and neither their prose nor their attitudes are tailored for modern attention spans and sensibilities… but they were all important, and each, in his or her own way, was a great storyteller who helped make fantasy what it is today.
Maybe you’ve read all the fantasy classics, however. I have lots of readers for whom that is true as well. Those I like to point at some of my contemporaries. As great as Tolkien, Leiber, Vance, REH, and those others were, THIS is the golden age of epic fantasy. There have never been as many terrific writers working in the genre as there are right now. Actually, there has never been so much epic fantasy published than right now, which means a lot of mediocre and downright terrible books as well, since Sturgeon’s Law still applies. But I prefer to talk about the good stuff, and there’s a lot of that. Just for starts, check out Daniel Abraham (THE LONG PRICE QUARTET, THE DAGGER AND THE COIN, Scott Lynch (the Locke Lamora series), Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie (especially BEST SERVED COLD and THE HEROES)… they will keep you turning pages for a good long while, I promise…
Fantasies are not the only books I recommend to my readers, however. It has always been my belief that epic fantasy and historical fiction are sisters under the skin, as I have said in many an interview. A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE draws as much on the traditions of historical fiction as it does on those of fantasy, and there are many great historical novelists, past and present, whose work helped inspire my own. Sir Walter Scott is hard going for many modern readers, I realize, but there’s still great stuff to be found in IVANHOE and his other novels, as there is in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s WHITE COMPANY (he write more than just Sherlock Holmes). Thomas B. Costain (THE BLACK ROSE, THE SILVER CHALICE) is another writer worth checking out, along with Howard Pyle, Frank Yerby, Rosemary Hawley Jarman. Nigel Tranter lived well into his 90s, writing all the while, and turning out an astonishing number of novels about Scottish medieval history (his Bruce and Wallace novels are the best, maybe because they are the only ones where his heroes actually win, but I found the lesser known lords and kings equally fascinating). Thanks to George McDonald Fraser, that cad and bounder Harry Flashman swashed and buckled in every major and minor war of the Victorian era. Sharon Kay Penman, Steven Pressfield, Cecelia Holland, David Anthony Durham, David Ball, and the incomparable Bernard Cornwell are writing and publishing firstrate historical fiction right now, novels that I think any fan of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE would find easy to enjoy.
And then there is Maurice Druon. Which is actually why I called you all here today, boys and girls.
Look, if you love A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, and want “something like it” to read while you are waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for me to finish THE WINDS OF WINTER, you really need to check out Maurice Druon and THE ACCURSED KINGS.
I never met Druon, alas (he died only a few years ago, and I regret that I never had the chance to shake his hand), but from all reports he was an extraordinary man. He was French, highly distinguished, a resistance fighter against the Nazis, a historian, a member of the French Academy… well, you can read about his life on Wikipedia, and it makes quite a story in itself. He wrote short stories, contemporary novels, a history of Paris… and an amazing seven-volume series about King Philip IV of France, his sons and daughters, the curse of the Templars, the fall of the Capetian dynasty, the roots of the Hundred Years War. The books were a huge success in France. So huge than they have twice formed the basis for television shows (neither version is available dubbed or subtitled in English, to my annoyance), series that one sometimes hears referred to as “the French I, CLAUDIUS.” The English translations… well, the seventh volume has never been translated into English at all, and the first six are long out of print, available only in dusty hardcovers and tattered paperbacks from rare book dealers found on ABE.
But that’s about to change, thanks to my own British publisher, HarperCollins, who are bringing THE ACCURSED KINGS back into print at long last in a series of handsome new hardbacks. The first volume, THE IRON KING, has just been published… with a brand new introduction by some guy named George R.R. Martin.
At the moment, alas, there’s no plan for American editions, but readers in the US (and around the world) can order the Druon novels from their favorite online bookseller through the wonders of the internet.
The best news… at least for me… is the HarperCollins not only intends to release new English editions of the first six novels of THE ACCURSED KINGS, but also… finally!!!… translate the seventh and concluding volume. (Talk about waiting a long time for a book).
Anyway… whether you want something else to occupy your time while waiting for THE WINDS OF WINTER, or you’re just looking for a good read… you won’t go wrong with Maurice Druon, France’s best historical novelist since Dumas Pere.
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Ten Best List
What good taste the folks at LIBRARY JOURNAL have.
They’ve included A DANCE WITH DRAGONS on their list of the Ten Best SF and fantasy books for 2011:
Jimmy Corey’s LEVIATHAN WAKES also made the list. Congrats to that scoundrel Jimmy,
I love librarians.
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I usually make it a policy not to comment on reviews, especially negative reviewers. When you put your art out there in the marketplace on public view, some are going to like and some are going to hate it. Comes with the territory. And like Superchicken always said, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.
Normally, I would not even comment on something as spectacularly wrong-headed and condescending as the review of the HBO series GAME OF THRONES recently published in the NEW YORK TIMES. There have been dozens and dozens of reviews of the show coming out all over the place, in newspaper and magazines, on television and radio, and of course on the web. Most, I am pleased to say, have been very good, but of course there are some bad ones as well. C'est la vie.
((Okay, I will confess, it does cheese me when I come across a reviewer who simply hates all fantasy. I had hoped that kind of literary snobbism was extinct, or nearly so. Maybe not.))
But the startling assertion in the TIMES review that women could not possibly like fantasy unless a lot of graphic sex was added to it (??) has prompted me to break my "no comment" rule. At least to extent of this post.
I see this morning that legions of female fantasy readers and self-proclaimed "geek girls" and "scifi chicks" have risen up all over the internet to say all the things that I'm too polite and too busy to say. And a lot more besides. I'd link to their blogs and posts here, but it would take hours. Google will lead you to them, if you're interested. It would seem that so many outraged emails and posts poured into the TIMES that they had to shut down the comments section for the review.
I am not going to get into it myself, except to say
(1) if I am writing "boy fiction," who are all those boys with breasts who keep turning up by the hundreds at my signings and readings?
(2) thank you, geek girls! I love you all.
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