All right! Let’s do this. I’ve been saving this post for a while and now it’s time to put up or shut up. Or something.
I’m going to list my 15 (I couldn’t quite fit it into 10) favorite novels/series of all time, in no particular order, and why they are important to me. They may not be the best written, or the epitome of their genre, but these are books that I think about, reread and have shaped me as a reader, writer and person over the years. If any of you read other author’s blogs, you might have seen John Scalzi do one of these recently. I swear that I started this a while ago and have just now gotten around to finishing it. I swear!
Sorry in advance about all of the gushing. So without further ado…
1. The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness
Patrick Ness is one of my favorite writers of Young Adult fiction. I very much enjoyed his Chaos Walking trilogy, but this, his first adult novel blew me away. I don’t usually prefer novels that intersperse fairy tales with modern settings (I couldn’t make myself finish Little Big), but Ness seems to balance the strange and the mundane perfectly. I was intrigued and confused by the ambiguity and satisfied by the ending all at once.
2.The Magicians/The Magician King by Lev Grossman
The first time I read it, I thought the first book was just okay. It’s kind of an adult version of Harry Potter that mixes the real world (the characters make pop-culture references like Harry Potter and such) with fictional (there is a series of novels that analog the Narnian Chronicles that figure prominently in the plot). I liked the plot and the characters, but the ending left me flat. It wasn’t until the second novel came out, and I reread the first novel and then continued on through the second one that the whole world came to life for me. Grossman’s ability to create realistic characters is incredible. Nobody is good or evil, just some combination of good choices or bad ones that end up simulating the mores we impress upon the world around us. I eagerly await the third novel!
3. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
Lois McMaster Bujold has been writing excellent science fiction and fantasy novels for decades. Great characters drive the plots in her novels, but The Curse of Chalion struck a different note. I’m not exactly sure what captured my interest. Was it the protagonist, a broken hero, just looking to find somewhere to live out the rest of his life with food and shelter? Or the world, a beautiful twist on fantasy where the gods actually have a presence. Either way, I loved the romanticism at the same time as I enjoyed the meticulousness of the worldbuilding.
4. Helm by Steven Gould
Steven Gould has written a number of smart, fun, easy to read novels including the popular Jumper which was made into a not-as-good-as-the-book movie. While I’ve enjoyed all of his books, Helm had the most interesting ideas for me. Helm is a post-earth story of a young man you accidentally uses of a helmet that holds someone’s personality and suddenly he must deal with sharing his brain with another person. The bad guys want to get a hold of the helm, because it could be used to imprint whatever beliefs they want upon whomever wears it. It also gets big bonus points for including very well described scenes involving Aikido!
5. Startide Rising by David Brin
David Brin is another author you can’t go wrong with. Great characters, deep ideas and a profound ability to get you into the head of some very non-human thinkers all make Startide Rising one of his best novels. It is the story of the first all-dolphin crewed starship and the galactic-sized ruckus caused by the discoveries they make. If you like this one, there are five other novels set in the same amazingly well thought out universe.
6. The Name of the Wind/Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
If I had to pick just one book as my absolute favorite, it would be The Name of the Wind. Set in a very non-cliche fantasy world, it tells the story of a brilliant young man and the world-shaking adventures that somehow end up with him living as an unknown innkeeper in a backwater village. An amazingly real-feeling protagonist who constantly surprised me, a world with all of the depth and mystery of our favorite storybook worlds and a theme that runs so subtly through each book that one can just barely detect its silhouette are all reasons that everyone should read this book! Be warned that while the first and second books of the trilogy are out, we don’t even have a publish date on the third book. It might be a while, but I have no doubt it will be the worth the wait.
7. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
I loved Ender’s Game when I was in college. Over the years, my perception of it has waned. I still enjoy the story, characters and such, but it seems more shallow than I remember it. Also, many of OSC’s books since then have used characters that spoke and thought like the young Ender. However, for Speaker for the Dead, re-readings have only cemented it as one of my favorite books of all time. The depth of character and grittiness of some of the character’s sadness is a good start. What really gets me is the empathy many of the characters learn within the story, not only for those humans among them that think and believe differently, but for the true alien, who lives in a strange world that humans can barely understand. Orson Scott Card’s considerable powers as an author are at their finest here.
8. Green by Jay Lake
Jay Lake’s work covers a fascinating gamut from clockwork-steampunk to sci-fi/fantasy mixup like China Mieville to full-on hard science fiction to fantasy. Green is in this last category and Lake writes as well in this genre as any of the others, which is to say incredibly well. Green seems to fit a genre of the talented child “recruited” to be taught the skills necessary to become a mover and shaker in her world. But part way through, she takes her own path, which leads her to be an assassin (!) and mother (!), not just of people but of gods as well. Lake’s book can sound like other’s but the details of his writing and the unexpected turns of his plots lend a freshness to his books that I very much enjoy.
9. Lens of the World by R. A. MacAvoy
Many of the writers of the books I have listed here have written a ton of great books and R. A. MacAvoy is no exception. I like all of her books, but none grabbed me the way Lens of the World did. The book is about a very unusual young man who accidentally happens upon a very unusual teacher and the events that unfold as a consequence of that meeting. It is about the beginnings of science in an almost-fantasy setting (it’s a bit ambiguous about the fantasy, in a good way). The title refers to a reference made by the teacher that the protagonist was “the lens of the world: the lens through which the world may become aware of itself.” I have re-read this book many times and fall in love with it again every time.
10. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
Max Brooks has only written one other book and that was the cute Zombie Survival Guide. One of the impulse purchase type of books, it did nothing to prepare the public for the power, insight and sheer realness of this war story. Written as a series of interviews with people who survived the world-destroying apocalypse, this book manages to give you a number of strikingly different short stories that cohere beautifully together to form a true plot about the beginning of, war with and finally triumph over a pandemic that almost destroys all human life. Don’t be put off by the zombies in the title. This book is about people surviving a war. The movie was decent, but nowhere as good as the book.
11. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
Part fairy tale, part mystery, part satire, Bridge of Birds is a wonderfully tasty novel set in a mythical china. Hughart only wrote a few more books and then stopped, much to the sadness of many readers. Bridge of Birds is one of the few humerous books on this list and I can’t recommend it enough.
12. The Cursed by Dave Duncan
Dave Duncan is another author who’s written dozens of books, all well written, fun and original, but Duncan hasn’t gotten the fame his prowess deserves. Of all of his books, The Cursed is my favorite. In the book, a plague ravages a a world, killing some, but imparting “gifts” on others. But each of these gifts comes with a drawback. These gifts can be powerful, but deadly. The characters are memorable and the world, as usual, well thought out. You can’t go wrong with anything by Dave Duncan, but this is one of his best.
13. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
A fairly new writer (at least on this list), Brandon Sanderson rocketed to fame by helping to finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I’m happy to say (here’s where I get a bit hipsterish), that I’ve been reading his books well before his recent popularity. He is an author to watch and everything points to his books only getting better with time. The Way of Kings is epic fantasy, but set in a world so encompassing, that Sanderson has said that almost all of his books fit in the same universe somehow. But like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Way of Kings (#1 of the Stormlight Archive) is the story describing the spine of that universe. It is a great book, but a small warning: it is the first book of a ten (for now) book series that will probably end sometime in the 2020’s. I can’t wait!
14. The Blade Itself (First Law Trilogy #1) by Joe Abercrombie
I put the first book up there, but I’m really counting the other two in the trilogy as part of that. From the description of the books, Joe Abercrombie’s trilogy seems like another epic fantasy, but right from the beginning, Abercrombie turns fantasy convention on it’s ear. Gritty (I know that’s a bit overused these days), dark, but with moments of optimism, The First Law makes fantasy feel like it might just be real. Characters have real motivations and make mistakes and nobody is either truly good or evil. Later books are set in the same universe and I will continue to buy them as long as Abercrombie keeps writing them.
15. Caverns (The Journey’s of McGill Feighan #1) by Kevin O’Donnell, Jr.
Another book that is just one example of a great author’s work. This science fiction writer has written books that predicted global warming, the internet, crowdsourcing and many other things long before they were on the horizon. Based on his description, I can only hope that teleportation as presented in Caverns becomes one of those realized predictions. Great characters, a engaging plot and an overarching mystery make these books easy to read and fun to think about. Kevin O’Donnell, Jr. unfortunately passed away last year, but I can still reread his books and enjoy them for years to come.
There are lots more books and authors that I enjoy, so it is difficult to restrict it to just 15. Maybe I’ll come back in a couple of years and add more to the list. Please share some of your favorites or let me know if you agree/disagree with any of my choices.