Now that I’ve finished this list and am looking back on it, I’m realizing two things. First, I read a lot of books this year with a longer scope than what I’m used to. More than half of the books below take place over several years. This isn’t a good or bad thing, just interesting. Maybe it’s a sign I’m expanding my horizons and am more willing now to put in the time to read things with more scale. I’m ok with this.
The other thing is that I continue to start series way more often than I finish them. 2014 brought me to no less than nine series I’ve started, with another eight to ten that I haven’t started yet but that I’d like to. I’m hoping to make some headway on some of the ones I’m into and am going to try to contain myself to only one or two new ones this year. What is it with genre fiction authors these days that every damn story they write has to be a trilogy?? Talk about first world problems. So many great books, not enough time! Anyway, here are my favorite books I read last year. Enjoy!
10. The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)
The first volume in Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy tale came to me highly recommended in the genre fiction scene I follow. That said, it took longer for me to get into and finish The Name of the Wind than most books I read these days. It’s a story that follows one man, Kvothe, as he goes from a sheltered but uncannily talented young boy who loses everything he knows and loves, to a promising magician on a quest for revenge, with all sorts of adventures in between. It’s a long book that requires patience and trust in its author to pay off the carrots he dangles in front of the reader, as it’s blatantly clear from the start this is only the first part of a much larger narrative. If you’re too impatient for the slow burn nature of the storytelling and aren’t willing to put in the time to see the series through (the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear, came out in 2011 and the third doesn’t even have a final title, let alone a release date), you may want to pass this one by. But if you’re the type who eats this kind of tome up, there’s an undeniable amount of stuff in here to keep one interested. It’s told by Kvothe himself, years later as he tries to convey his verbal biography to The Chronicler in an effort to record the truth in spite of the rumors that have plagued his legend. Kvothe’s adventures in his youth are interesting in their own right, but Rothfuss never lets us forget the overarching purpose behind his learning, and even when we occasionally return to the quiet bar/inn he now runs as he tries to stay under the radar, it becomes apparent the story is not over for him even in his older years. It’s no quick read, but there’s enough unanswered questions and well-told adventure here to give me faith that the time I put into The Kingkiller Chronicle will be rewarded.
9. Bitter Seeds (Milkweed Triptych #1) by Ian Tregillis (2010)
From the first time I heard of Ian Tregillis’ Milkweek Triptych I knew I had to read it. It’s 1939 and war is imminent in Britain. With the USSR not yet under threat and the US actively staying out of the kurfuffle, Hitler’s Nazi army is growing day by day, getting ever closer to tearing the country, and all of Europe, apart. Germany’s armies are bolstered by supersoldiers they’ve successfully begun engineering after years of human trial-and-error experimentation. These bio-enhanced individuals effectively give the Germans a striketeam of X-Men, with powers ranging from clairvoyance, to invisibility, to super strength, speed, and the ability to throw fireballs.
With no one else to turn to for help against the impending war, the British secret service start a covert operation with the intention of seeking out the country’s long lost guardians of an ancient knowledge. The country’s last remaining warlocks are brought together to conjure and negotiate with extra-dimensional beings called Eidolons for help. The Eidolons are all powerful, and are willing to offer their aid, but their assistance does not come cheap.
If this all sounds like a popcorn flick, you’d be right in thinking that. It totally sounds like fanfic. But the way in which Tregillis tells this tale specifically grounds things and gives the events realism and gravity. The brutal nature of the Nazi experiments on children and adults is not graphic, or even described in detail, but is implied effectively enough that it still made me cringe. The “science” behind giving human beings the powers of supermen by connecting wires and battery packs to their brains and drawing from their own innate abilities is equal parts believable and creepy. The Eidolons are mercurial and unpredictable in form as well as motivation. Their increasing human toll on the British very clearly is meant to convey that they’re messing with the forces of nature, and are only willing to do so as long as they’re benefitting. As negotiations get more unstable and the cost of defending themselves grows to horrendous levels, it brings into question at what point does the cost become too high.
The storytelling itself is a bit uneven. Taking place across the first few years of World War II, Bitter Seeds speeds up and slows down seemingly randomly, but the quiet moments allow us to glimpse the humanity behind the warlocks and supersoldiers. They have their own inner turmoil to struggle with apart from Hitler’s greater ambitions. Going in, I expected Bitter Seeds to be more comic book than it turned out to be, but I was still very pleased with what I found once I set my expectations aside. It’s a supernatural, but still very human, struggle between good and evil, with touches of steampunk and Lovecraft. All in all, it’s simply a great work of historical fiction.
8. Sphere by Michael Crichton (1987)
I miss Michael Crichton. I can’t think of another author with as much talent. Already a medical doctor before he even became a popular writer, he went on to find success in movies and TV in addition to continuing to write before he passed away. My only consolation is that I still haven’t read all of his work.
Sphere follows a group of scientists who are brought in by the military to investigate a spherical spaceship submerged deep in the Pacific ocean. What they find within tests not only what they think they know about extraterrestrials but also about their own psyches. It’s classic Crichton, with just enough future tech balanced with actual science to make it extremely believable. However, that science runs rampant throughout its pages but at the end of the day only exists to set a cool stage for a story about humanity and how we behave. To say much more about the story or what the ship ultimately contains would ruin the mystery and sense of discovery. Instead, I’ll just say that if you’re like me and love a lot of other Crichton novels, or just like a great psychological thriller laced with realistic-sounding pseudoscience, Sphere is well worth your time. And if you’ve written it off because you saw that crappy movie adaptation from 1998, come on, you should know better.
7. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (2014)
You like The Princess Bride, don’t you? Of course you do. It’s astonishing that for a movie that was as much of a struggle to get green-lit as it was, it managed to be so funny, loving, adventurous, and beloved that it went on to overshadow its written counterpart so completely. It still resonates deeply with audiences over 27 years later, and in my personal opinion is better than the book in most every way. As You Wish is a closer, more complete look into the film’s creation than we’ve ever gotten before, told by Westley himself, Cary Elwes. It’s a nostalgic look back at how the cast was put together, how he and Mandy Patinkin trained endlessly for “the greatest sword fight of all time,” anecdotes of the cast’s friendship when they weren’t filming, and more. There’s even lots of little inserts and insights from other cast and crew members as well, so we get to hear multiple takes on many aspects of the movie. Like most everyone I know, I adore The Princess Bride, so it’s really no surprise I enjoyed reading this. It gave me warm fuzzies all over again, although the parts about Andre the Giant were super sad as they describe what a happy, friendly person he was despite being in constant pain as a result of his large stature and wrestling career. If you have any love for this movie whatsoever, don’t think, just read.
6. Wool (Silo #1) by Hugh Howey (2012)
The post-apocalyptic, future dystopia genre is pretty crowded these days. It could be argued that Wool’s initial popularity had as much to do with how it was released as it did with its quality as a story, and I can understand that argument. Hugh Howey was one of, if not the, first success stories to come out of Amazon self-publishing, and it was with this very book. Wool is the first chapter in the Silo trilogy, but it was released in five consecutive parts through Amazon in digital-only format. After it got popular, it started selling in full volume and physical formats, and was followed by its prequel, Shift, and sequel, Dust. But for a first-time, unproven author, breaking Wool out into small, cheap, bite-sized chunks gave it an incredibly shallow barrier to entry, and it paid off.
Despite its piecemeal release, Wool still sucked me in with a mysterious premise that runs with the best of them. It’s some point in the distant future. Humanity has been wiped out, and for all the people in the silo know, they’re the only ones left. The silo they call home stands hundreds of floors deep in the desert sands. With socio-economic hierarchies, governmental authorities, and strict rules for population and resource control, they’ve lived this way for generations, and most are perfectly happy with that. However, every once in a while, someone is chosen to go out into the barren, toxic, wasteland above to clean off the cameras that offer a glimpse of the outside. Almost no one questions this tradition, but the ones who do are exiled to the task themselves, and no one who goes out to do this duty ever comes back.
I’m a sucker for big-brother, gears-turning-behind-the-scenes stories. So not only was the premise intriguing to me right off the bat, once small holes in the supposed utopia power structure started emerging, revealing peeks of what was really going on and the possibility of venturing out of the silo to discover more pieces to the puzzle, I was hooked. Wool is self-contained enough that you could read it on its own and totally ignore Shift and Dust, but with what I’ve seen I won’t be able to resist learning all I can about how this world came to be, who’s running it, and why.
5. The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (2012)
Pratchett and Baxter are both revered authors in their respective genres of fantasy and hard scifi. The Long Earth doesn’t exactly meet in the middle; it’s more on the scifi side than the fantasy. But as someone who’s not a huge Discworld fanatic (*hands in nerd card*) and for whom Baxter’s books are usually too abstract, this book hooked me a lot more than one might expect.
In 2015, someone discovers a curiously simple device, quietly invented and released on the internet by a man who’s no longer around, that allows people to “step” into the oft-hypothesized parallel worlds in the next dimension over. If you’re not familiar with the theory of multiverses, or parallel universes, that’s ok. The story isn’t about the science. The idea is explained clearly and then doesn’t get in the way. The Long Earth is about how this discovery changes human life forever in almost every imaginable way; geography, economy, business, politics, even psychology. In the years following the discovery of these parallel Earths, humanity’s attempts to colonize them with abandon wreck havoc with global society as the powers that be back home try to maintain some semblance of structure on what becomes known as “Datum Earth.” In the midst of it all, an artificial intelligence named Lobsang tracks down one man who is able to step without the aid of a stepper and recruits him for a journey to step farther than anyone has gone before.
Everything about this book grabbed me and didn’t let go. I was fascinated not only at how this expansion would affect human life as we know it, but also to discover how many other Earths are out there (if there even is a finite amount) and what sorts of alternate evolutionary developments might have resulted in them. The ending got weird in a way that I should’ve expected out of Stephen Baxter, and I’m told the next book in the series gets away from the hook that brought me in, but I still enjoyed every bit of The Long Earth and look forward to reading the next in the series, The Long War.
4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
The Night Circus a wondrous debut novel about mystery, magic and love, creating a setting so intriguing and mystical that I wanted to visit it myself. Le Cirque des Reves simply appears one night, with no warning or advertising. Filled with unique sights and sounds the likes of which no one has ever seen, the patrons pack in from all over to witness its treasures. Little do they know, the entire circus is merely a live stage for an ongoing duel of showmanship between Celia and Marco, two magicians who’ve been raised since childhood to confront each other for the amusement of their parents. Inevitably, groaningly, Celia and Marco end up in love and dance around this forbidden affection for most of their adult lives.
I have major problems with the love story in The Night Circus. It’s not because I’m an unfeeling robot (but if anyone tells you I’m not, they’re lying), it’s because it’s unrealistic. They barely spend sufficient time together to let even a school-kid crush develop, let alone a full-on obsession, sometimes going years without spending time in each other’s company. Neither one of them has much of a social life and the idea of love at first sight has always struck me as pretty absurd in general. That said, the romance is surprisingly, refreshingly, understated. And as implausibly as it develops, their mutual situations – controlled by their father figures, forced into a contest they neither understand nor have a say in, inescapably bound to the fate of the circus and its performers – make it seem less unlikely than I initially gave it credit for. It ends up being just enough to justify itself, as for better or for worse, neither the climax of this tale nor the fate of Le Cirque des Reves would be possible without their devotion to each other.
My initial misgivings about Celia and Marco aside, everything Morgenstern builds up around their attraction is interestingly crafted and done in such a way that is equal parts believable and surreal. The group that meets in secret to create the circus and go on to run and perform in it are eccentric and likeable. I wanted to learn more of their backstories and who made them the individuals they were. Le Cirque’s most dedicated fans, who call themselves reveurs and travel to each new stop as often as they are able, speak to its powerful allure and are easily relatable in today’s obsessive fan-based culture. The descriptions of the various tents and spectacles, and of Celia and Marco’s abilities, walked the line between reality and impossible fantasy perfectly. They filled me with delight and easily allowed me to imagine it all, but with an eerie, dreamlike slant. Every image I conjured was in black and white and faded away into shadow at the edges. I am not a creative or imaginative person, and it’s rare for a book to draw me into its world so fully, but The Night Circus did exactly that.
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999)
I won’t go into much detail with this one, as I’m probably one of the last people on the planet who hasn’t read these books yet. Harry’s first two years at Hogwart’s were great, memorable stories, but they were still very much children’s books. Prisoner of Azkaban is still firmly in that realm, but it’s a bit longer, a bit darker, and digs a little deeper into the backstory, to the point where we’re just starting to see that things are going to get real for Harry and his friends. To clarify, I’ve seen all of the movies so I already know the full picture, but I’m enjoying going back and reading the extra detail and expanded narrative of the books. This is my favorite Potter book so far. Rowling does a great job in making the entire arc of the series fit together naturally and I really enjoyed learning more of the intricacies of these characters, their motivations, and how their relationships are changing and uncovering. I’m looking forward to continuing with the rest of the books and seeing how it all plays out and fits together in its original written form.
2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)
I’ll admit that, like the HP books, I committed the cardinal sin with Ender’s Game and didn’t read it until I’d seen the movie. In my defense, after reading the book, I thought the movie was very well done compared to most book-to-movie adaptations. The story of Ender, an outcast by the very nature of his birth and raised expressly for the purpose of saving the human race, is just as engrossing now as it must have been when it was first written almost thirty years ago.
Any sympathy you might feel for Ender and his troubled youth quickly goes away as he learns to cope with those who would do him harm by returning their hostility in kind. As he gets shipped off to Battle School to train for the inexorable battle with the buggers that attacked Earth so many years earlier, he shatters every record and becomes the best leader in history. As much as I liked Ender and congratulated his accomplishments, my sympathy returned as the morality of his situation crept into the story. When all you know is war and the reason you’re so good at being a commander is because you hit your enemy back so hard they’ll never want to mess with you again, what kind of a childhood does that leave you, and what kind of person do you grow into? It’s a bittersweet story that only gets heavier when the true nature of Ender’s training and the irreversible consequences it brings about are revealed. I loved Ender’s Game, but it left me in a not-entirely-comfortable place, and I want to read the rest of the series, if only to see Ender’s adventures lead to a more satisfying and fulfilling closure.
1. The Martian by Andy Weir (2014)
Another first-time author, Andy Weir has written a space geek’s dream novel. It’s science fiction, but takes place in present day and is the most believable, riveting struggle between man and science I’ve read since Jurassic Park. NASA astronaut Mark Watney is a botanist on a voyage to Mars with his fellow crewmates. While there, a severe dust storm forces them to evacuate the mission. In the chaos, he’s swept away and believed to have died, while his shipmates barely escape after an attempt to locate him. Finding himself alive but alone and stranded on Mars, he’s left to fend for himself and figure out how to survive until his presence is discovered and a rescue attempt can be made. Thus begins a months-long struggle to use his knowledge of biology and botany, along with the life-support equipment his crew brought with them that was never intended for long-term use, to live on another planet.
Weir is on record as wanting to be as accurate as possible in his depiction of how one might survive on Mars, and it’s very clear he’s done his homework. As Watney keeps logs of his trials and tribulations, he goes into meticulous detail about how he’s harvesting nutrients out of the few plants he has and working his tools to serve sometimes very different purposes from which they were intended. It’s utterly gripping, not just from a survivalist perspective, but from a technological perspective as well. Some of the descriptions get a little tedious at times, but in the end they only serve to make the story more believable, and they’re balanced by Weir’s, or Watney’s rather, writing style. Watney has a great sense of humor, and is just as cynical as I am. His journals are filled with sarcasm, jokes, and other nuances that make him extremely likable and relatable as a character. As an example, the first sentence of the book is literally, “I’m pretty much fucked.” He’s extremely smart (you’d have to be to figure out how to live on Mars) but he’s also a regular Joe. He’s an extreme underdog given his situation and you want to root for him. As well as he does, he also can’t seem to catch a break, and his wits and survival instincts are tested to their limits more than a few times. In order to get off Mars and rejoin the rest of his fellow humans, he has to do more than even he expects. The Martian is a tense, exciting story of triumph that never lets up, told with a fun, realistic flair and so much captivating technical detail that it would make any NASA or science junkie salivate. It’s one of the quickest reads I’ve had in a long time, not because it’s short, but because I simply couldn’t put it down.