Best books of 2014

February 11th, 2015  |  Published in commentary

Okay, that title may be misleading, it should say “Some books that I read during 2014 and think that you should, too” as some of these books were not published in 2014 (Lady of Mazes was published in 2005, for example). Of course, if I were to actually put that as the title, the Headline Writer’s Guild would blacklist me (don’t laugh, they are scary, secret, and very powerful. haven’t heard of them? my point exactly). In any case, you’ve made it this far, so I should probably give you some actual content. This is a list of books that I read and enjoyed last year, and is not in any particular order.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison – Far and away my favorite book of last year, but also the one I am most hesitant to recommend. Watching the main character, Maia, trying to do the right thing without letting his new position destroy his values was amazing. I loved everything else about this book, too: the setting, the plot, and the language. The last one is kind of the issue, however. The book is full of jargon, and it was annoying to have to refer to the glossary in back constantly. But then I realized that perhaps the author was trying to have me experience the same thing that Maia was going through; just as Maia was overwhelmed by his new position I was being overwhelmed by the jargon. When I stopped worrying about knowing exactly what people were talking about and just allowed myself to experience the slight confusion as I read, the book really came together for me. Which is precisely the reason that I have such a hard time recommending it, as I can see it being too literary-minded for many fantasy readers and to fantasy-minded for many literary readers (which isn’t to say that fantasy readers can’t handle heavy literature or vice versa, but rather that they have different preferences). In any case, best book of the year, go read it (but make sure you read at least two chapters, the first chapter has a different tone than the rest of the book, and doesn’t give a good sense of what you’re getting into).

Red Rising by Pierce Brown – Imagine a Science Fiction dystopia that reads a bit like Lord of the Flies if all of the characters started off as sociopaths. Red Rising (so far, it is only the first installment in a trilogy) is everything that I wanted The Hunger Games to be. It is dark, but amazing. I loved it. The audiobook was fantastic, too, I could listen to that guy read the phone book. Also, some people seem to think that this is a Teen book, and yes, the main character is a teen, but the book is very adult in its sensibilities, expect to be horrified not just by the things that the characters do (though it really isn’t that graphic, the worst of it happens offscreen), but by the cold, rational way in which they go about it.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway – I had made an attempt to read Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, a few years back but it didn’t take. I tried it again this year after hearing that I really needed to read it from a trusted friend (thanks Linda!). It was brilliant. Then I read Angelmaker, Harkaway’s second book. It has a lot of the same elements that made Gone-Away World so good, but in a tighter, more finely-crafted package (hence why I chose it over the debut). Imagine a British, leftist Neal Stephenson (Angelmaker has some parallels with Cryptonomicon, actually) with pop culture sensibilities writing about things like identity and free will. These books take some work, but they are pure fun and totally worth it (usually I don’t care much about ‘style’ and ‘voice’ but I would read a technical manual on the manufacturing of manhole covers if Harkaway were to write it). The audiobook of this was great, as well, the narrator reminded me in turn of Jason Statham and Bill Nighy (favorite line: “I can sue anything.”). I would not be surprised in the least to see Tigerman on next year’s list.

The Martian by Andy Weir – While not my favorite book of the year, this was definitely my most recommended book of the year. At this point, something like half of my coworkers have read it due at least in part to my proselytizing. If you like Science Fiction, read it. If you like adventure (particularly man vs. nature), read it. If you like space, read it. If you like gallows humor, read it. If you like entertainment, read it. If you like science, read it. If you are not completely dead inside, you should read this book (and if you are dead inside, read it anyway, it might help, who knows). Instead of summarizing the plot, I’ll just go ahead and suggest that you click on the link and read the description on Goodreads.

Rome: An Empire’s Story by Greg Woolf – History books usually aren’t my thing. I’m not reading them to build the foundation a master’s thesis, I’m reading so that I can get some sense of the general patterns of the world. Rome: An Empire’s Story is exactly what I want in a history book. It takes a close look at a handful of periods of Roman history that exemplify what was happening in the empire. It was entertaining and informative, and it never outstayed its welcome, thanks in part to its brevity. If you are reading for more serious reasons, however, I would still recommend this book. It covers a lot of things, and has a truly massive reading list included, making it a great place to start for the more academic minded.

Lockstep by Karl Schroeder – Karl Schroeder has long been one of my favorite short story authors, but his novels hadn’t grabbed me the same way (the Virga series was good, but not great, in my opinion), until this year. Lockstep is his shot at reinventing space opera, a genre which I usually don’t go in for, and it was amazing. The central idea is that of a culture that gets around resource scarcity and lack of Faster Than Light travel by hibernating in lockstep. Everyone goes int cryostasis for thirty years, then wakes up for one month, then goes back into stasis. This allows them to live in marginal environments by having machines stockpile resources while they hibernate. As a side benefit, if someone travels to another planet several light years away, they would spend the entire transit asleep, meaning that it would just be like waking up the next day on a new planet. This book is everything that epic science fiction ought to be: mind-bending and hope-giving. Unfortunately, it also has a terrible cover. Look at it: two generic people in some sort of . . . environment (perhaps it is the future, perhaps it is a Japanese luxury hotel, who can say?). Yay? It would be a perfectly fine cover for a thriller or a novel without cool visuals . . . but Lockstep has Denners. What are denners, you ask? Picture a cross between a cat and an otter, with embedded net access. Adorable and really freaking cool. So why the hell aren’t they on the cover? In any case, read the book, it is excellent.

Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder – I tried to keep this list down to one book per author (see entry for Angelmaker, above), but Lockstep and Lady of Mazes are very different, and each is very cool in its own way. Whereas Lockstep reinvents space opera, Lady of Mazes takes a shot at the singularity. It is set in the far, far future (complete with implanted computing and ringworlds), but is really about (for me, at least) social media and the incursion of the virtual into the real (see Google, Facebook, etc), and the ways it will affect us. Whereas reading one of Schroeder’s short stories is like having a firecracker set off in your mind, this is like having a whole damn string of the things, but you are having such a good time with the pretty lights and loud noises that you hardly notice that your worldview is being tampered with. This is a big, sprawling adventure like Lockstep, but where Lockstep was largely about family, this is largely about society. Also, they didn’t botch the cover.

Darkbeast Rebellion by Morgan Keyes – A juvenile book, really? Well, yes. A sequel? Yeah, that too, so this also, perforce, an endorsement of the first book (Darkbeast). This book may be aimed at younger readers, but it is more emotionally mature than 90% of what I read (and to be clear, emotionally mature does not mean sex and violence). The book manages this by talking to its audience, not at them. The reader gets to watch as Keara makes mistakes, deals with them, then grows up a little. Aside from that, the world is fascinating: every child gets magically bonded with an animal (their Darkbeast) and is taught to give their animal all of their undesirable traits and impulses. The catch is that, when they turn twelve, they have to kill said Darkbeast. In the first book, Keara refused to do so, and this book is the continuation of her struggle to survive the continuation of that decision. As far as I can tell, the publisher only contacted Keyes for two books in this series, and although it comes to a satisfying conclusion, I really, really hope that more get written.

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