Thursday 20 December 2012

Top of the Scots 2012 | The Best Books: Five Favourites

Books are why I blog.

There. I've said it.

Sure, I review the occasional video game. I also talk about comics from time to time. And I've been known to post about movies, too... though rather less so lately. But at the end of the day, make no mistake: books are to blame for The Speculative Scotsman.

The Best Books, then, is the crown jewel of Top of the Scots. And it begins... now!

Five Favourites

5. Alif the Unseen
by G. Willow Wilson

As I discussed in my introduction to Top of the Scots 2012, for various reasons I've found time to be in short supply this year, and in light of my limited resources, I've had to make some terribly difficult decisions. One of these was whether or not to read Alif the Unseen.

I'll be honest: I very nearly didn't. I'd had an e-ARC of the US version sitting on my Kindle for some months before a physical copy of the beautiful British edition found its way to me. What finally elicited my interest, coupled with my passing familiarity with G. Willow Wilson from the comics she'd written, was the glowing Neil Gaiman quote on the UK cover. 

Though my reasoning for reading Alif the Unseen may have been both shallow and arbitrary, to my unbridled delight, the book itself was anything but. Here's a particularly suggestive excerpt from the review I wrote in August:
"The Alif is both more and less than a word. It is the first letter of Sura Al Baqara in The Quran; it is the first line of code ever written; it is a state of mind, a suggestion, a symbol that our hero becomes - inasmuch as it becomes him - over the course of this remarkable fantasy narrative. Alif 'had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif — a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful that what it concealed.' (p.3) 
"Alif the Unseen, too, conceals a great deal. The initial simplicity of the Aladdin-esque romance with which it begins belies the book's more challenging aspects. Seductive as it is, this early section seems fleeting when set against the heady concoction of faith, torture and politics that fuels its unforgettable finale. Indeed, these ends are so at odds that one can only imagine the inevitable clash, yet instead, Wilson shapes a careful, character-driven commingling — a thing both beautiful and terrible to behold."
Dear readers: if you haven't already experienced Alif the UnseenI urge you to do so at the first available opportunity. It's fantasy at its most magical.

And if I can't convince you, maybe this interview with the author will.

4. The Brides of Rollrock Island
by Margo Lanagan

From the delightful, as above, to the devastating, so below. Unlike Alif the Unseen, which took me entirely by surprise, I'd been anticipating The Brides of Rollrock Island for some time — ever since the twisted fairytale Margo Lanagan told in Tender Morsels in 2008. That latter will never leave me, and if this tragic selkie story is not necessarily its better, than it is its equal, at least.

It's breathtakingly beautiful, too. From my review:
"There is a peculiar poetry to Lanagan's prose: a power - all her own - over those who push through the opaque prologue, and with my every word I would urge you to do exactly that. [...] There's nothing not to love about The Brides of Rollrock Island. It's a wistful book, but wondrous. It will break your heart, and remake it. 
"Surrender yourself, then, to Margo Langan's mesmerising new novel. Allow it to surround you like a shimmering second skin... finer, fuller, and freer, finally, than the first."
Like several of my other selections, The Brides of Rollrock Island isn't easy reading, but what it lacks in accessibility, it more than makes up for in meaning. Which just goes to show that sometimes, literature's greatest rewards are not given, but taken — earned, even.

You'll have to work for this next one as well.

3. Angelmaker
by Nick Harkaway

I don't know what I was expecting when I read Angelmaker back in March. More of the glorious, gabbling madness of The Gone-Away World, perhaps? But more likely something lesser.

I didn't for a minute think Nick Harkaway's new book would blow me away in the manner it managed to. As I wrote in my review:
"The Gone-Away World was 'a bubbling cosmic stew of a book, written with such exuberant imagination that you are left breathless by its sheer ingenuity,' but for all its wonders, Nick Harkaway’s extraordinary debut was not without its issues in addition — foremost amongst them its madcap, almost abstract construction, which too often left one wondering what in The Gone-Away World was going on, even as it was going, going, gone.
"Angelmaker, however, is a book far better put than its predecessor. A markedly more crafted artefact. Though the author’s roving eye remains intact, and those subjects its alights upon feel as delightful and insightful as ever, Harkaway has honed this incomparable trick of his to a filigree so fine that it appears nearly invisible; a filament of woven gold - impossible, yet a fact for all that - which runs through Angelmaker from the fanciful first to the beloved last."
Back in March, Angelmaker seemed to me a clear contender for the year's best books; and here, nearly a year later, its impact is essentially undiminished. I can't think of a single 2012 reading experience I've had more fun with than than I did this one — I've selected the other books on this greatest hits list for other reasons.

Smart, funny and fantastic, Angelmaker is all I could have asked for. But be warned: like The Gone-Away World before it, it won't be for everyone. Why, just the other day The Book Smugglers took exception to Nick Harkaway's apparent inanity... and Ana's complaints were anything but baseless.

But beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder, and obviously this beholder adored Angelmaker.

2. The Vorrh
by Brian Catling

I have hummed and I have hahed about nothing else in Top of the Scots 2012 more than where to place Brian Catling's incredible debut.

Though there's no question in my mind that The Vorrh is a fundamentally fantastic genre novel - amongst the year's best, easily - at the same time it's the most recent release to feature in my Five Favourites by a number of months, and I don't doubt that its primacy in my mind plays some part in its apparent potency.

The long and short of it is that The Vorrh has yet to stand the test of time, whereas the others featured in my list have, and I felt it was important to take age into account this year. Nevertheless, know that it was this close to taking home the trophy.

Here are a few reasons why, excerpted from the review I republished here on The Speculative Scotsman before Top of the Scots kicked off:

"The Vorrh is quite a complex novel, and not always easy to follow, what with its unnamed narrators and its array of peripheral perspectives, but though the going gets tough, the tough makes for good going soon enough. I’d go so far as to say great. [...] And if its story seems iffy initially, rest assured that things become clearer beyond the book’s fulsome first third, by which point I warrant you’ll be comprehensively caught in the inexorable vortex of The Vorrh
"When even the warts of a novel are winning, it’s hard to misunderstand that you have something special on your hands, and The Vorrh is absolutely that. Equal parts dark fantasy and surrealist dream, it is inescapably dense, and unrelentingly intense. Shelve it shoulder to shoulder with 2012’s other most notable novels, then consider carefully which stands lacking in comparison."
And there's still time for you to win a copy of the strictly limited signed and numbered edition of The Vorrh I announced late last week.

If not The Vorrh, then, what's our winner?

1. 2312
by Kim Stanley Robinson

Surprised to see me plump for a science fiction novel as the best book of 2012?

Well you shouldn't be! I basically game the game away in May, in the last paragraphs of my original review:
"The tension in the structure of 2312, between the little and the large, reflects the relationship between the planet-cracking happenings and the seemingly insignificant events that Robinson is interested in for the bulk of the book. The reader is routinely shuttled between stunning set-pieces, like the sunwalk with which the whole thing begins, or the destruction of Terminator - Swan's sweet home if she has one - and quiet, composed, character-oriented moments, such as the prolonged underground walkabout our scattershot protagonist shares with Wahram, or the stop-overs she takes on various terraria. 
"You will come to look upon all these moments equally. In astonishment, in awe, at both the small, and the immense. Such is Robinson's success in terms of the sense-of-wonder 2312 evokes, like a sky full of stars exploding one after the other, over and over again. 
"Given all its ideas, not to speak of the myriad intricacies of each of these, I dare say 2312 is a substantially more accessible novel than it has any right to be. The author's decision to delineate his science from his fiction pays dividends in that respect, as it allows each scene to breathe, and more often than not to blossom. Furthermore, Robinson presents many of most complex concepts with a winning amount of whimsy. As recipes, among other things. 
"There's fun in 2312, then. Fun, and unbelievable wonder; love, profundity and a lot of legitimately gripping drama. Also some startling ideas. I had not dared to dream that Kim Stanley Robinson could even equal Red Mars, but in time, 2312 could take the cake. That and biscuit-based relativity aside, it's a magnificent sweet treat in its own right. Robinson is as intelligent and compelling as ever he has been - at least in my experience - but herein he has tempered his the science of his fiction smartly, and sensitively. The result, simply put, is stunning. 
"Never mind the usual genre divisions: 2312 is easily one of the year's best books, period."
The year's very best book, as it happens, in retrospect at least as much as in the moment.

Hearty congratulations to the creator of a sense of wonder like no other: Kim Stanley Robinson, I salute you!


And that's that. My favourite books of 2012, bar none.

Is it just me, or has this been an especially spectacular for speculative fiction?

But The Best Books isn't over yet! Stay tuned to The Speculative Scotsman for tomorrow's Other Awards, wherein we'll see which novels narrowly missed my final five.

In the meantime, I'd be obliged if you chimed in with your own opinions. What was the best book you read since the last time we did this thing? And what, I wonder, was the worst?


  1. Yeah, the Gone-Away World was too bonkers for me

  2. "The Corpse-Rat King" by Lee Battersby was my one-and-only 5 star review of the year. I've never found so much sheer enjoyment in a novel, right from the narrative itself, to the character building, to the storyline.

    "Magic: An Anthology of the Esoteric and Arcane" was the strongest collection I read all year, with a solid mix of stories and styles.

    "The Duchess of the Shallows" by Neil McGarry & Daniel Ravipinto and "The Scar" by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko were my 2 biggest surprises of the year. I didn't expect much out of either, but both ended up being 4 star reads.

    Biggest disappointment? Without a doubt, "The Long Earth" by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter. The waste of their talent was only equalled by the waste of my time. The only reason it beats out "The Omen Machine" is that I don't expect much from Terry Goodkind at this point, so relegating it to the DNF pile was almost a foregone conclusion.

    1. It may not have featured in my Five Favourites, but I did take your recommendation of The Corpse-Rat King to heart! I read it last week, and agreed: it's great, and deeply endearing. In fact it may just pop up in the next part of Top of the Scots tomorrow...

      As to The Long Earth, it didn't hate it as much as you, mate, though in retrospect it was at best inoffensive. Then again, I had no real expectations of its either of its co-authors.

      I hadn't even heard of The Duchess of the Shallows till you mentioned it, but I'll do my damnedest to take a look at it over the holidays! :)

  3. My problem is my reading pile tends to lag a year behind. I always get gift cards for my birthday and Christmas, so I buy a bunch of books in November and December and then spend the next year reading them all.

    The 2012 releases I read and enjoyed were:
    Angelmaker - Harkaway (amazing. you know)
    Caine's Law - Matthew Stover (brilliant conclusion to a brilliant series that is criminally under read)
    The Troupe - Bennet (not as good as I hoped, but really great nonetheless)
    Days of Blood & Starlight - Laini Taylor (the second in an urban fantasy series which I am inherently predisposed to despise just based on its genre that manages to be absolutely wonderful anyway)

    Top 5 older books that I read, in no particular order:
    The Price of Spring - Abraham
    The Night Circus - Morgenstern
    The Affirmation - Priest
    The Lions of al-Rassan - Kay
    The Iron Dragon's Daughter - Swanwick

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