Five books I've read recently that I just flat-out liked: Henrietta Rose-Innes' Nineveh, Mary Gentle's Black Opera, Carlos Fuentes' Vlad, Andrew Motion's Silver and Harry Karlinsky's The Evolution of Inanimate Objects.
These all deserve longer reviews.
Nineveh (2011) by Henrietta Rose-Innes
My big ol’ grab bag of South African fiction has yet to disappoint me, but Nineveh is my favourite so far. Katya Grubbs is an exterminator - more a relocator, actually, as she’s a fundamental believer in vermin’s right to life. A swarm of mysterious beetles infests an idyllic suburb and Katya is hired to do her thing. Her investigation brings her in contact with pests of all shapes and sizes - including the suburb’s sleazy developer and her own wayward father.
Part Gothic, part mystery, all amazing. Despite the lack of any SF/F elements, Nineveh is a contemporary urban fantasy classic, along the lines of Zoo City and King Rat; a tale about a hidden world and the people (and critters) beneath our notice. This is all topped off by a genuinely surprising ending that, although it shocked me, couldn't have been more perfect.
Below the jump... vampires, pirates, opera and forks.
Vlad by Carlos Fuentes (2012)
A stunning novel that proves conclusively that even the oldest genre archetypes can still be used in new ways. Yves Navarro and his wife Asunción are part of Mexico City's thriving middle class, concerned with status, property, their family’s material success... all your typical yuppie obsessions. They’re doing well, but Yves’ new client, a dispossessed Eastern Europe gentleman, brings with him the promise of reward beyond their wildest dreams.
Vlad is a novel of halves. The first half is about the tension between classes - the new, rootless middle class gazing hungrily at the unattainable status of hereditary nobility. Tangible success vs intangible status. Vlad Dracul taunts and teases Yves and Asuncion, offering them all that they cannot achieve for themselves: immortality, history, privilege. The vampire is also a metaphor (if an obvious one) for colonialism - he's a bloodsucking European, arriving to drain Mexico dry.
The second half is more visceral fare. Mars needz women and Drac wants to get some action. There’s a bit of the old Faustian compact buried in here, but mostly Yves is running around like a headless chicken whilst Dracula has his way of things (and people). The conclusion arrives in a suitably squishy fashion. Although the book contains scenes that are slightly stomach-churning, Fuentes makes the point that all of us - fleshy human or lofty immortal - have our physical needs.
Vlad is out in English from the Dalkey Archives, a small book with a stunning cover. Certainly worth hunting down.
Silver (2012) by Andrew Motion
The former Poet Laureate tackles Treasure Island, writing a sequel to Stephenson’s work. Silver is pretty deeply flawed. The characters don’t act or think like, say, humans as much as fragments of some ethereal ideal, and the plot (which involves a return to Treasure Island and helping overthrow a nasty piratical colony) is basically a thin soup of good intentions.
That said... damn, is this a pretty book. Silver reminds me of Robert Graves’ lesser fiction (god, I cannot deliver an unmixed compliment, can I?), where, despite the weaknesses of the novel, the prose itself is excruciatingly beautiful. The young characters (and, in a nice twist, Long John Silver’s daughter is the heroic, competent one, while Jim Hawkins’ son largely swans around providing emo commentary) love and live and breathe and drift and do whatever it is that they’re doing on a sea of stunningly-crafted language. I don’t naturally take to poetic prose (see: every review I’ve ever written on the works of Catherynne Valente), but Silver is a stunner.
(Side discussion: is it fantasy? It has the symptoms of fantasy - pirates, swashbuckling and overtly fictional characters... but then, if you think about it, all novels feature overtly fictional characters. And pirates alone don’t make a fantasy. Would Treasure Island be a fantasy? Probably not.)
Black Opera (2012) by Mary Gentle
Mary Gentle, so the webbernet says, is a really big deal - with Ash praised as one of the Greatest Of All Time novels. So why isn’t Gentle’s first novel in six years getting more attention for awards? There’s a weird sense that this book just slipped through the cracks: Cheryl Morgan likes it, Abigail Nussbaum doesn’t, where’s the rest of the conversation? Twitter says a wee bit of “meh” and a lot of “hey, this happened?!”
It all begs the question: why isn’t this novel an event on the same scale of, say, Empty Space? Black Opera hasn’t shown up on any shortlists, wasn’t recommended by Locus readers and wasn’t submitted for the Clarke Award.
[For the latter - is it SF? I’d argue that it is - and at least as much so as Declare, Zoo City and The Waters Rising, just to use examples from the last two years. Certainly there are far more dubious books on the pile.]
I’ve not read Ash (cue: a dozen comments on this post all saying ZOMGWTF), but Black Opera is stunning, a gorgeous alternate history featuring two opera companies bidding for control of the world. It is slow and lavishly-described, punctuated by episodes of rapid-fire movement and battling philosophical arguments. The plot twists are melodramatic and surprisingly familiar. All like, well, an actual opera (except with all the boring bits removed). That structure is wonderful, and the result is a gutsy fusion of genres and styles, history and fantasy.
All that, and a wonderfully twisted underlying premise too: what is it like to be a die-hard atheist in a world where miracles definitely exist? An amazing book that, despite its size, reads like a, well... song.
The Evolution of Inanimate Objects (2012) by Harry Karlinsky
Karlinsky’s book is a lovely, and wonderfully convincing, pseudo-history. It is a slow burn, with Thomas Darwin moving further and further away physically and mentally, until, at the book’s conclusion, he’s almost entirely absent from his own story. Evolution is wonderfully structured around documents: letters and journal entries, with Karlinsky’s own comments adding another layer of narrative.
If Evolution has a flaw, it is that it is too convincing. The book ends with a lengthy conclusion, then another conclusion, to explain that this was, indeed, fiction. By the time I actually finished the book, disbelief had been heartily, er, reappended.
[Huge spoiler] Obviously, I’m a genre reader, but I think the book also needed one moment of ambiguity. A single glimpse or footnote that left the reader with a little doubt about Darwin’s theory. Alas. [/Spoiler over]
Overall - a fast read and an unusual structure make what should have been dry material into an exotic sort of psychological thriller. Arguably, this was 98% of a great science fiction novel, it just lacked that 2% of, er, science fiction.
Hmm. Now the temptation is to do a round-up post of five books I didn't like...