I got asked what my current all-time favourite genre books are. After much head-scratching, ceiling-staring, and sifting through the stacks, I’ve come up with this list – unnumbered, and definitely not in much order otherwise, these are still my top ten reads. For now, at least.
The Barbed Coil, by JV Jones.
A standalone epic portal fantasy, in which our tinnitus-afflicted protagonist finds herself drawn into a terrifying battle against a king who wears the magical titular Coil, this was always going to be top of the list, come what may. The sheer detail that has gone into creating the world, the characters, the magic, on top of the brilliant prose, all draw me back again and again to this book. It feels like a series, and when you reach the end you’ll wish there was more, but Jones pulls off a masterstroke by limiting this to one book. It never outstays its welcome. If I ever manage to write a book that’s as well-regarded as this one, I’ll be damned happy. A while back, I wrote about it here.
Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed.
Grand, epic, and yet slender too, Throne of the Crescent Moon is modern sword & sorcery with an Arabic base and tone, and is bloody brilliant to boot. Saladin Ahmed has a definite voice, and he uses it to perfectly evoke his setting and the God that watches over all. Be warned however: food is frequently and passionately described. I put on three pounds just reading this book.
The Also People, by Ben Aaronovitch.
Yes, it’s a Doctor Who novelisation, rather than any of the Peter Grant novels. Why? Well, for one, I’ve only read Rivers of London so far and good as it is it doesn’t quite qualify for this list. For another, The Also People was the first chance I had to explore the New Adventures range that carried the Who torch after its TV cancellation, and the Culture-style pastiche was spot on and lovingly done. It turned me on to Iain Banks’s epic space operas, and yet I keep coming back to The Also People for the dry humour and the Doctor’s glacial manipulations of time and people alike.
Pandora’s Star, by Peter F Hamilton.
Reading Banks led me to Hamilton. You can argue that The Reality Dysfunction was the better, faster-paced epic (and indeed the sequel to Pandora’s Star, Judas Unchained, has a rather interminable second half) but I love Pandora’s Star for the world-building alone. How better to beat the limitations of FTL than by sending trains through wormholes on regular timetables? How can you not love that concept? A wonderfully British interpretation of wormholes that surely must have been dreamed up while stranded five minutes outside Grantham on the Trans-Pennine Express…
The War of the Flowers, by Tad Williams.
Another excellent epic standalone portal fantasy – there aren’t too many of those, so I’ve lucked out on this list! Again it feels like it could have been a series, and length-wise it’s certainly long enough to be two books rather than just one. Tad’s version of fairyland is one that I’ve revisited a couple of times and has actually been a small inspiration for at least some of Project:TFL.
The Burning Land, by Victoria Strauss.
Reissued this year, I tore through it at a rate of knots. If it’s odd to find an atheist loving a book that has at its core a question of faith, then trust me on this – Strauss isn’t preaching. Instead we are treated to a brilliantly detailed exploration of both sides of a schism. It’s about the characters more than the god. (And that statement applies also to The Throne of the Crescent Moon, in case you’re wondering)
Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett.
If you’ve already read the more recent entries on this blog then you’ll understand parts of why this is on here. In the ’90s I was involved with an amateur theatre group that staged a production of Wyrd Sisters in Sheffield. It was wonderful fun. This retooling of Macbeth is probably the best of Pratchett’s earlier Discworld novels. My copy is signed with the note: “I was expecting somebody taller”. :)
Breed, by KT Davies.
I read this earlier this year after it had sat on the TBR pile since the launch at last year’s Fantasycon. Like Throne of the Crescent Moon, it’s a fast-paced sword & sorcery romp; unlike that book, it absolutely revels in chaos, violence, and arse-pickle. Breed is a very unreliable narrator, and Davies plays a couple of cards very close to her chest to keep the reader guessing. It’s a shame Breed hasn’t made it onto the longlist for this year’s David Gemmell Award, as I would certainly have voted for it there.
London Falling, by Paul Cornell.
Another book I read just after Fantasycon, having won a copy of The Severed Streets there. Holy smack… having been thoroughly traumatised by London Falling, I’ve had to bury the sequel in a lead-lined box in the outhouse so that I can rest easy at night. I say that as a good thing, mind you – it’s rare that a book shocks me so much as I’m reading it that somebody asks me if I’m OK, and London Falling did that. If Rivers of London is “Harry Potter with a warrant card”, then Cornell’s take on urban fantasy police procedurals is “CSI: Hellraiser” (not convinced that simile works, but read it and see for yourselves). One day I might be brave enough to get through the first pages of The Severed Streets; until then I must try to ignore the gentle rustling of pages from down in the outhouse…
Dream Park, by Larry Niven.
It’s the oldest book on the list, and it’s something of a guilty pleasure – Dream Park has dated quite horribly since the original publication. Some of the tropes and characters are embarrassing, played seriously rather than for laughs, but I always loved the idea of technologically-assisted LARPing that Dream Park relies upon. As an old school D&Der myself, Dream Park is a throwback to that sort of wish fulfillment. It’s a bit like cheese before bedtime however – too much is definitely a bad thing.
So no, no Tolkien. No GRRM either. Don’t get me wrong, I still like them both, and as soon as The Winds of Winter lands, I’ll be on the ASoIaF horse again, but right now they aren’t my actual favourite things. No Juliet McKenna, as I couldn’t squeeze 11 into 10, and Paul Kearney lost out for the same reasons. Like the post title says though, it’s this week’s top ten. Sometimes it really does depend on which way the wind is blowing…
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