These are the six best books I read (for the first time) last year.
Combine the Greek pantheon with an amnesiac soldier trying to discover himself and you get one of my new favorite fantasy novels. Wolfe has a reputation for both beautiful prose and unreliable narrators; these are on full display here. This was the first novel I've read by Wolfe; it will not be the last.
A brilliant collection of short stories, some magic realism, most SF. Tears through quite a few subgenres, including alternate history and cyberpunk. Themes of alienation, parenthood, and racism repeat throughout.
A beautiful, and hilarious, remembrance about the author's parents, especially his father. There are a few painful moments, but also a lot of laughs.
The first Pulitzer-winning novel I've read, this is a fantastic piece of magical realism / speculative fiction, with an emphasis on racial prejudice. This book imagines the Underground Railroad as a literal train route, and we follow an escaped slave on the various legs of her trip. Through various means, Whitehead examines many historical crimes against Black Americans, including several that took place well after slavery. How the author does this should be discovered through the reading; this book is magic.
One of the best horror collections I've read in years. Many of these stories are post-modern in their approach to horror, using the genre's themes and tropes (as well as formal experimentation) to examine it. Good stuff.
A great suspense/mystery novel that centers around horse-racing. It also deals with grief, confidence, and despair. Loved it.
I would highly recommend these books to anyone; they're all amazing.
This was the last book in the series The Book of the New Sun. For the most part, I really liked it, and I might even have rated it higher than the four stars I’ve consistently given the other books in this series. However, I thought it went off the rails a bit toward the end.
It gave me the answers I was looking for in terms of what happened after the end of the fourth book, and I enjoyed the story it told. Then, without giving anything away, it shed new light on many of the events from those first four books, and gave more meaning to them, and I also really enjoyed that. Some things were spelled out, but others were quite a bit more subtle, and I enjoyed catching the various references.
My problem was that I thought the author went too far with it by the end. Just as I was admiring the cleverness, he took things a few steps further. I felt like, in an attempt to keep things twisty and complicated, he robbed it of some of the meaningfulness. Kind of like a cook who can’t stop tweaking his recipe until it doesn’t taste quite right anymore, or a painter who keeps adding “just a bit more” to his design until it’s no longer quite as pleasing to the eye.
A smaller complaint I had with the series in general is that, since the story centers around Severian, there are some characters who play a large role in the series but for whom we don’t get much closure because their paths diverge. There was one character in particular that I really wanted more follow-up on, especially considering how often he was remembered and referenced in Severian’s narrative.
Over all, though, I enjoyed this series quite a lot. I liked that it wasn’t simple or straight forward, and I liked its unique (in my experience) blend of some of the best elements from both science fiction and fantasy. For now, there are many other authors and books I’m interested in trying, but I’d like to cycle back around to give Wolfe another try sometime down the road.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. This will be my first time reading Heinlein and I’m not too sure what to expect. I have a variety of nebulous impressions based on comments I’ve seen here and there, but now it’s time to find out for myself.
This is the fourth book in the series The Book of the New Sun. There’s still one more book, but this was the conclusion to the main story arc that our main character, Severian, has been telling us. This review is therefore more of a review of the first four books as a whole than it is of this fourth book in particular.
I’ve enjoyed this series quite a bit. It’s an interesting mix of genres. It was clear from early on that this was really science fiction, and that becomes increasingly apparent as the series progresses, but the setting feels more like a fantasy setting and the story-telling method makes it feel more like an epic fantasy story.
The story is a bit complicated. Maybe complicated is the wrong word, because it really isn’t difficult to follow or understand, but there are a lot of little bits and pieces that we’re introduced to separately. We have to weave some of those pieces together for ourselves to understand the bigger picture, and we have to be paying attention once the narrator finally weaves some of the other pieces together for us. I’ve seen several people say the series improves with re-reading, and I can definitely understand how that would be true. I felt like I grasped most of it, but I’m sure I missed more things than I realized and would understand other things more deeply if I ever read it again. This isn’t a series to pick up if you’re in the mood for a light read, but it’s a good one if you want something you can sink your teeth into.
Despite my above description, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a twisty series. On the one hand, the story ended very, very far from where I ever would have guessed based on its beginning. On the other hand, the foreshadowing is pretty blatant. There were surprises, but nothing shocking. Severian, our narrator, gives us small hints here and there, and he also flat-out tells us some things in advance. In other cases, he recounts conversations in which somebody gives him answers, but he somehow fails to grasp what he's told because it’s so contrary to what he believed to be true. So he ignores what he's told and continues to carry on as if his own beliefs were true. Then, later on in the narrative when he “discovers” the thing he had already been told and recounts it to us, he acts like we the reader should be as surprised as he was. Severian claims a few times that he’s not particularly intelligent, and I frequently agreed with him. :) Still, while he exasperated me a few times throughout the series, and occasionally did things I disliked very much, he also grew on me and I mostly enjoyed reading his story.
This book wrapped things up pretty well, although not in a neat bow for sure. Severian himself speculates about explanations for some of the things he never found definite answers for, and sometimes his speculations made me question things I had thought I knew the answers to. There’s also a pretty big “What happens next?” question at the end, as Severian’s life has recently taken a brand new twist and he has an upcoming task that sounds pretty interesting. I might have been a little exasperated if this had been the last book, so I look forward to reading the fifth book to hopefully find out where things go from here.
The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, the fifth and final book in this series.
This is the third book in the series The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. I don’t have too much to say about it, but I enjoyed it at the same level as the previous two.
The previous book had a couple things that drove me nuts, and this book did not. Even Severian’s constant harping about his perfect memory is toned down to a more tolerable level. The story also held my interest pretty consistently all the way through. On the other hand, there really weren’t any secondary characters in this book that I felt attached to like I had in the previous book.
I have one very spoiler-ish thing to talk about in spoiler tags:
I did really like Little Severian and the brief period in which our Severian takes on the role of his father. The boy’s death really caught me by surprise. I guess it was supposed to be ironic that at one point Severian muses that he isn’t sure which he was more worried about losing, the boy or his sword, when he’s climbing up mountains with both on his back. By the end of the book, he’s lost both.
This book continues to create more questions, but it also answered or hinted at answers to quite a few things. On to the fourth book!
The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe, the fourth book in this series.