Friday, 21 December 2012

Top of the Scots 2012 | The Best Books: Other Awards

The Five Favourites we talked about yesterday may represent the very pinnacle of 2012's speculative fiction in my eyes, but The Best Books isn't over yet. Not even nearly!

Today, we're going to talk about some of the year's other most notable novels, beginning with a darkly fantastic double-act that only just missed out on proper slots in Top of the Scots' most coveted category.


A year in which a career best from Caitlin R. Kiernan somehow doesn't make my Five Favourites says more about 2012's abundance of brilliant speculative fiction than it does about The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, which I adored in oh so many senses.
"This [...] is a book of lies, yet there is truth to it, too. The Drowning Girl: A Memoir is unquestionably CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan's most ambitious long-form fiction to date, and its successes are multifarious, its failures truly few. I will say that the twofold conclusion the esteemed author eventually arrives at feels unfortunately hastened, but this doesn't subtract dramatically from the inexorable impact of The End, and again, 'you really have no notion how delightful it will be, was, at the inevitable convergence of those two roads full sail.' Kiernan's prose is in the interim as precise and appealing as ever, if a little less aesthetically poetic by dint of Imp's disorder (or discordant order). Similarly, her capricious characters ring true from their tailbones to their tippy-toes, and however far-fetched it is in fact, there is nothing false about this fiction."
This is one of the rare reviews for other genre-oriented resources that I haven't republished on The Speculative Scotsman, but you can of course read the remainder of the article over here.

To make up for the absences aforementioned, I've discussed my feelings for Kiernan's latest and greatest in more detail in my contributions to both of the other year's best articles I'm a part of. I'll say no more, except to point you towards and Strange Horizons, where the review excerpted above originally appeared.

Meanwhile, Forge of Darkness - the beginning of The Kharkanas Saga - single-handedly rekindled my interest in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, which I had made I don't know how many attempts to get into in the past.

From my review, which was so long I had to split it in two:
"For a new beginning from a phenomenal fantasy author, Forge of Darkness is surprisingly difficult to wholeheartedly recommend to readers unfamiliar with the series it aims to lay the foundation for. But cast your minds back. Recall that I was such a one, once upon a time. And know now that this twisted fairytale has a happy ending, because I plum loved this book, such that I expect to be first in line for the following volume. 
"Indeed, all I can think is that in the interim between Forge of Darkness and Fall of Light, however long that lasts, I have at least nine more Malazan novels to help keep my mind off the acute pain of anticipation."
True to my word, I've been busy with the series since the time of that writing: rereading Gardens of the Moon in the rare moments I haven't had some dastardly deadline to attend to, as well as beginning Deadhouse Gates again.

There's no stopping me now! :)

Biggest Disappointments

To go from two of 2012's most novel narratives to one of its least encouraging is quite the comedown, but you mustn't misunderstand: The Twelve wasn't a bad book at all. In fact there were elements of it I enjoyed awfully. I appreciated what little forward progress there was, and the action scenes, though few and far between, were exemplary:
"[Great] set-up for the summer blockbuster this book could easily be, if Ridley Scott would only exercise his option. The Massacre of the Field is memorably horrendous, as is the bombastic attack on the Oil Road, and the explosive final showdown unfolds in exquisite slow motion. 
"Unlike The Passage, which made so much of so little - and so very well - The Twelve is at its best in the throes of such spectacle, and if in the periods between these superb set-pieces it seems shallow, and somewhat self-indulgent, rest assured that soon enough, there will be blood. And when it comes, you'll see why this sequel is still worth reading. 
"In the beginning, The Twelve builds brilliantly, and the end - which is both 'a beginning and an ending, standing adjacent but apart' - is excellent. Regrettably, the intermediary episodes are substantially less successful, and to make matters worse they represent the length of any normal novel."
You can read my review of The Twelve in its entirety here. On the whole, however, I came away from the middle volume of Cronin's apocalyptic trilogy quite crestfallen, simply because The Passage was so fantastic. Indeed, way back when, I deemed it one of The Best Books of 2010... whereas The Twelve didn't even figure into my excruciating deliberations over this year's Five Favourites.

Before we move on, let me stress again that The Twelve isn't terrible: it's simply a disappointing successor to a truly tremendous text.

Honourable Mentions

I don't know what it is about the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, but I always read his books whilst on holiday. The better to give them the space and time they deserve, I guess.

The tradition began with Tigana, which I devoured between Christmas meals in 2009. Bang on a year on I read Under Heaven, and earlier in 2012, during my month in America, I went back to the well with A Song For Arbonne.

I dare say my first Kay's still my foremost favourite, but A Song For Arbonne came incredibly close to equalling it. There are truly few books I wouldn't change if I had my way; this is one of that negligible number. Hard to believe it's nearly 20 years old!

The Half-Made World is a rather more recent favourite. I've had a copy since its publication in 2010, and it appealed to me immediately. Sadly, it took two years and a single sequel - The Rise of Ransom City - before I put aside time enough to do it justice.

I'm so glad I did.

I'm going to need a little longer to get my thoughts on Gilman's novel in order, but to make up for my earlier negligence, I plan to review both volumes of this damn fine duology on The Speculative Scotsman shortly. For the moment, know that if I'd gone ahead and read The Half-Made World when it was remotely recent, it would have featured in the very first Top of the Scots in a far more major way than it has here.

I came late to The Macht Saga too. Luckily, I got on board with this awesome author just in time to make a right song and dance about the trilogy finishing in February. I reviewed all three volumes before publishing a love letter to the complete series, from which I've lifted this:
"Kearney, in my admittedly limited experience, is getting better and better. Going from strength to strength, as they say. And I wish more people were reading his work to realise it. If you ask me, the best of his fiction stands shoulder to shoulder - in its own way - with a who's-who of my favourite fantasists, including the likes of Steven Erikson, George R. R. Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay and, at a stretch, R. Scott Bakker.

"But I don't think he sells as well as any of them, and therein's the thing. I have no actual information here - this is just speculation, loosely informed by a smattering of press releases and the buzz around his books versus the buzz around new releases by the other authors above - but the received wisdom seems to be that he's little league, as opposed to being one of the big hitters. And that's a damned travesty."
Yet here we are in the Honourable Mentions section. Why is that, you ask? Well, whilst The Kings of Morning saw off The Macht Saga in fine form, The Ten Thousand is yet the best of the books — and that's two whole years old!

In any case, I'd rather recognise the entire than any one of its parts. If you haven't already had the pleasure, readers, read The Macht Saga! I simply can't imagine a single situation in which you'd end up regretting it.

Glaring Oversights

If you've been following The Speculative Scotsman for any length of time, it won't come as news to you that China Mieville and K. J. Parker are two of my very favourite writers. You'll remember that I recommended The Hammer over every other new novel published in 2011, and perhaps that Kraken featured in Top of the Scots the year previous. Furthermore, you'll can't but be aware that I'm quick to post anything remotely resembling news about either author.

I habitually look forward to their latest with the greatest anticipation.

So why the hell haven't I read their newest books?

Well, I've been busy... but that's hardly the half of it.

If I'm honest, I think I have a problem, because the selfsame thing happened with Under Heaven in 2010: like Railsea and Sharps, it was a new release from a frequently fĂȘted fictioneer that I all but refused to read until after the fact.

What's the use in gilding the lily? I'm a hoarder, but not of the normal denomination: I hoard stories, essentially. I hoard reading experiences that I'm as good as guaranteed to treasure... and in a sense, I sort of want them for myself.

That said, there's another reason for Sharps' absence from my reading this year. I'd been recommending my partner get on the K. J. Parker train for ages, and my copy of Sharps latest arrived at just the right time: Katie was between books, and good to give it a go.

Within a couple of weeks,  while I wrapped up a few literary loose ends, she'd read it from cover to cover, and was ready to surrender an opinion. Readers... I regret to report she didn't dig it.

This took the wind out of my sails somewhat.

I'm pretty sure I'll be reading Railsea sometime soon - hopefully somewhere warm, with coffee and chocolates, over the holidays - but it might take me some time to come back to Sharps.

Final Thoughts

You ask me, 2012 has been a fantastic year for genre fiction. One of the very best in my recollection. For fantasy and science fiction. For horror and alt-history. For the weird and the wonderful.

I had no trouble finding Five Favourites from amongst the many, many contenders... to the point that I seriously considered doing a top ten instead. What stayed my hand was the thought that if I doubled my numbers once, there'd be nothing to stop me from multiplying them again, and again — and what meaning would these awards have then?

Still, my restraint has left me with a list as long as my arm of books I'd recommend to discerning speculative fiction fans in a second. Like Jack Glass and JagannathRed Country and The Corpse-Rat King;  Some Kind of Fairy Tale and The City's Son.

I could go on and on... sadly Top of the Scots cannot.

I can't pretend to have read everything, either; not even everything that's been recommended to me. Other notable oversights include The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, The White Forest by Adam McOmber, This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.

I'm hoping to spend some time with each of these in 2013, but let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.  There's still a week of 2012 left, and if it's anything like the last 51, it's bound to be brilliant.

Now then. Our Christmas intermission approaches. I'll be back on Monday to wish you all well, and reward one reader with a particularly gorgeous gift, but with The Best Games and The Best Books behind us, I'm calling time on Top of the Scots for the time being.

Do stay tuned for The Best Movies and The Best of the Rest in early January!

For the moment, let's reflect on 2012.

It's been a hell of a year, hasn't it?


  1. Nice to see some love for Guy Gavriel Kay. He's one of those authors I hold back for an old-fashioned pleasure read myself. I been keeping the paperback of Under Heaven sitting by my bedside for a nighttime leisurely read and should be done in time for A River of Stars . . . I hope. :)

    It's interesting to hear Forge of Darkness rekindled your Malazan interest. I'm hoping it can do the same for me, but in a different way. I found The Crippled God to be a disappointing end to the Book of the Fallen, so I'm looking to put it behind me and start fresh all over again.

  2. Excellent lists, dear sir!
    The same thing happened to me this year too, as much as I waited for "Railsea" and "Sharps" in the end I didn't manage to read them. And for me this list includes "Forge of Darkness" as well. Our young Mihnea is top priority though and everything else took a step back. But I am certain that I'll catch up with these next year. I am even thinking to re-read and read all K.J. Parker's works next year. Hopefully I can succeed at this goal if I set it.
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
    And see you in 2013 Niall! :)

  3. Nice lists sir! I've added a few to my reading wish list. Not to mention a few games to my "I hope to play this some day list".

    I'll be looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts on The Half Made World. I've had that one on my shelf for a while and for some reason have been holding off on it. I'm ready to be inspired!