January 01, 2009

Happy New Year

by Alan Beatts

Happy New Year everyone,

The holidays are past, the relatives have gone home and there goes another year. At Borderlands, 2008 wasn't such a bad year, all things considered. Despite the economy we're doing alright in terms of sales and the staff are all doing well. I'm overworked as usual (well, perhaps a bit more than usual considering all the work that I'm doing to get the the cafe next door open) but life is really damn good.
At the end of the year I like to look back and consider some of the books that I really enjoyed. What follows are some of the standout titles that I read in 2008. Please bear in mind that 1) just because I _read_ them in 2008 doesn't mean they came out that year and 2) I'm sure I've forgotten several. If I was smart I'd keep a list of what I read but I'm neither that smart nor _that_ obsessive.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie - For someone who doesn't like fantasy novels much, I'm surprised at how many I thought were outstanding this year. Abercrombie's first book in the First Law trilogy really surprised me both with the quality of writing and with a number of plot twists and turns. He seems to revel in defying conventions; providing the reader with wise wizards who are selfish and have hellish bad tempers, barbarians who are secretly scared piss-less, very smart, sympathetic torturers and a quest that doesn't really have any pay-off at all (or at least so it seems).

Line War by Neal Asher - Asher's final (?) novel featuring Ian Cormac brings the events which have been building over the past three books to a satisfying conclusion and provides a number of revelations about What's Really Been Going On. It's not the place to start if you haven't read the other books but it's an excellent capstone to the story that began in Gridlinked.

Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson - Though this eighth novel in the Malazan Books of the Fallen is mostly about tying up loose ends, I though it was great. As Steve himself pointed out when he was at the store, it's a book about remorse and loss. I think that Steve's awareness that great events often have terrible consequences for the people involved is what I liked so much about Toll The Hounds. It's a sad book and not something to read if you're feeling down but, for those who've been following the series, it's a necessary book and has some of his best writing yet.

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory - And now, a book that's not part of a series! Daryl's first novel is just brilliant. It's a sort-of alternate history in which people are randomly possessed by "demons" which embody archetypes like the Trickster, Judgement, Death and so on. The protagonist's journey to discover what happened to him while he was possessed as a child leads him into a quest to find out why the possessions have been happening at all. It's both an investigation into our culture's archetypes and a finely crafted mystery chockfull of pop-culture and genre references. I'm really looking forward to whatever Daryl does next.

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan - Richard's previous five novels have all been science fiction and have received a huge amount of well-deserved attention and so I was really excited two years ago at ComicCon when he told me that he was working on a fantasy novel. Ever since I read Larry Niven's What Good Is a Glass Dagger, it's been my experience that when SF writers take on fantasy the results are surprising and usually damn good. At the time, he told me a little about the book and gave me a chapter to read. I thought that it seemed pretty cool. And then I read the final novel . . . . I don't want to build it up too much and risk disappointed readers but. It. Is. So. Good. As is typical in Richard's work, The Steel Remains is on the grim side and unforgiving in its portrayal of violence while being unashamedly critical of aspects of our modern society. But as is also typical of his work, the possibility of redemption is implicit throughout and is a goal that the characters strive towards. And what characters. I'd put the main protagonist in my personal top dozen favorite fictional of all time and the rest of the cast are equally well drawn.

Wolfman by Nicholas Pekearo - You would think that the traditional werewolf would have been done to death in fiction by now. That's what I thought 'til I read The Wolfman. I think that the real strength in Pekearo's novel is the characterization of the protagonist. He doesn't want to be a werewolf but he's accepted it. He's also accepted that, every month, he's going to kill someone and that the only alternative is to kill himself -- which he's not going to do. So he does his best to make sure that the people he kills are, if not deserving of it, at least are not particularly nice or likely to be missed by anyone. It requires very talented writing to take a character like that and make him sympathetic and human to the reader but Pekearo manages it despite his limited experience (this is his first novel).

Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams - I've loved Walter's work since the 80s when I read Hardwired (which is still one of the best Cyberpunk novels ever) and I've followed him ever since. His recent novel takes on new territory for him -- the post-singularity, post-scarcity society. Authors like Charlie Stross and Ken MacLeod have done some great work playing with the idea of a future in which advanced technology has made any sort of tangible property essentially free for all and where advanced intelligent computer/softwear combinations far exceed human abilities. What made Implied Spaces such a treat was seeing what an experienced and seasoned writer with over 20 years experience can do in such a playground. It was so good. The combination of the ideas with the deft plotting and great characterization that I've come to expect from Walter was unbeatable. It also has the distinction of being the first novel I've read to come even halfway close to describing what a military conflict might be like if both sides had access to advanced nano-tech.

I hope you enjoyed my idiosyncratic take on the books of last year. Here's hoping that the books next year are equally good. More importantly -- here's hoping that 2009 brings you all that you need and much that you wish for.

Warm Regards,

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