I want to start this runup to the finale with some lines from John Keats, inspired by a namesake of mine. From On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer:
“Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken…”
A good book is an unseen world. Recommending any of this top nineteen is a hill I am willing to die on. Let’s get started.
19. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
The first book in the alternate-history trilogy keeps the scope tight and engaging, avoiding the meandering pitfalls of Goliath. Deryn is a girl posing as a boy to join the Royal Air Force. Alek is a Hapsburg prince posing as a commoner to escape the conspiracy that killed his parents. As the Great War erupts between bioengineered beasts and giant robots, can their budding attraction survive in the face of all the secrets they have to keep?
The beauty of this trilogy is the world. The Darwinist/Clanker divide makes WWI make far more sense than it did in real life–still not justifiable, but understandable. And Westerfeld doesn’t skimp on the danger. This is no dulce et decorum war: you can smell the acrid smoke from the guns, can practically feel the alpine chill.
18. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
Before reading this story straight through on an airplane, I had a lot of misconceptions about it. I didn’t know that Phileas Fogg, that icon of the gentleman adventurer, wasn’t suited to undertake his wager because of any love for adventure. Rather, he’s perfect for the job because he is superhumanly punctual, the kind of man who will fire a manservant for being two minutes late with the shaving water. One of the greatest globetrotting stories of all time spends most of its length concerned with timetables and train schedules.
The wonder is there, of course, largely via the audience-insert character of Jean Passepartout. But it’s also in Fogg himself: knowing nothing about what made him the way he is, we are free to invent a whole litany of past traumas and narrow escapes that made him long for a robotic familiarity in his days. By the end, his circumnavigation has succeeded in cracking his stiff upper lip, and we discover that what we thought was a grand tour was in fact the rebirth of a man’s soul.
17. Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu
It’s arbitrary to rate this with the others, because it’s not really even a book. Nor is it a poem. Lao Tzu’s words seem as natural a part of the world as the Cold Mountain poems found scrawled on rock faces: the foundation of the only religion that seems to have conjured its own scripture as a point of completion rather than beginning. His thoughts on the Tao are to be contemplated, studied, discussed, meditated upon. But you don’t exactly sit down and read this straight through. So, instead of thinking of the Tao at number 17, think of all these other books in a north-south column, and Lao Tzu way the hell off to the left.
16. Arcadia by Iain Pears
Yes, this book does have an companion app for understanding its plot. It’s not required. But it helps.
I initially picked Arcadia up because one of its lead characters is based heavily on J.R.R. Tolkien–a respected Oxford linguist and former military man building a fantasy world in his spare time. Yet the central inspiration for Pears’s sprawling novel is not The Lord of the Rings but Shakespeare’s As You Like It, with its dichotomy of the civilized nest of vipers and the pastoral Eden. Rosalind, a student of the professor, stumbles through a mysterious portal in his cellar and find that the world he created is quite real. Meanwhile, in a brutal utilitarian future, a rogue researcher sets out to correct humanity’s mistakes using a stolen time machine.
Romances! Cold war spy thrills! Fantasy journeys! Dystopian social commentary! There is so much going on in this book, and not everything works with everything else. But what does work, works well enough to turn Arcadia into a feast on basically every level I enjoy reading on. What is the purpose of science? Will Rosalind find love? Who is the mole in MI5? Why do we turn our inspirations into literature? Can the characters avert nuclear war? Should they?
I had a great reading year. Everything in the top 20 comes with my highest recommendation, and from here on it was excruciating to put things in order. Read Arcadia. Just be forewarned that this is a lot of book, and it’s all happening at once, and you’ll like some parts more than others, and miss still other parts entirely.
15. Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
The second in the trilogy is frequently the best, and that pattern holds true with Leviathan. With his characters and world firmly in place, Westerfeld is free to tell a story that breaks the boundaries of YA. Fresh off their victory in the Alps, Alek and Deryn head to Ottoman Istanbul, where the Clankers and Darwinists are competing to influence the Sultan. Confining the story to a single city keeps the tension high and surprising. The action is top-notch, the illustrations engrossing, and the plot never once flags.
Beyond that, there’s a sense of history, of the weight of the world crashing down onto these unprepared teenage characters. This is what steampunk, biopunk, and all the other punks are supposed to be. They’re not just about gluing gears on your corsets, as fun as that is. They’re about getting to a vantage point where you can look back on the truth of history. And isn’t it best to teach teens as early as possible that war is futile and stupid, using feelings they’ll identify with even if they’ve never known a soldier?
14. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
This standalone Discworld religious satire is built around the kind of concept that’s so obvious only Terry Pratchett can point it out: namely, that most people who believe in a religion don’t believe in the god or gods themselves so much as they believe in the institution constructed around them. This isn’t always a bad thing–plenty of people go to church for the community rather than the prayer–but it does grant the theological establishment a great deal of power over its flock.
Small Gods is essentially a buddy road-trip story, only the buddies are a cantankerous god trapped in the body of a turtle and the simple-minded gardener who is his last true worshiper. Through their relationship, Pratchett asks questions as large as he ever does in his whole body of satire: Why should we believe? And once we understand what we ask of our gods, how can we receive it without hurting ourselves, or others? The answer the book arrives at forms fully in the final two pages, which are by themselves enough to call this the greatest Discworld book.
Yet–spoiler alert–this is not the last time Sir Terry will show up on this list.
13. A Redtail’s Dream by Minna Sundberg
I read this in the form of a webcomic, though it’s also been published as a book. A Redtail’s Dream is to the Kalavela what The Chronicles of Prydain is to the Mabinogion, which for those of you who aren’t national-epic dweebs, means it’s modern-day fiction that uses a culture’s founding myths as its fantasy world. In this case, native Finn Sundberg has taken a dream-world of animal spirits and vast forests and dropped in loser protagonist Hannu and his loyal hound Ville. To save their village from being lost in a dream forever, the pair will have to complete a series of difficult labors.
Aside from the beauty of the art, it’s a sheer joy to see a person geeking out over their own homeland’s mythology the way people do about Harry Potter on Tumblr. Way too many people now are using mythic symbols as emblems of hate (I mean white nationalists, by the way, if any of them have read this far). By contrast, Sundberg’s is a work of love, with the tender emotions to match. A Redtail’s Dream is both possessed by its origins and transcendent, the way all the best stories are.
12. Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine
The cover describes Arabella of Mars as what would happen if “Patrick O’Brien, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs got together and wrote a book to entertain Jane Austen.” With a blurb like that, it seems superfluous to say anything else. O’Brien contributed the wooden ships and iron men, Verne the wonder of an especially odd mode of transport, Burroughs brought his Martian worldbuilding, and since Austen was the beta reader, they made sure to wrap it all up with a marriage proposal.
But there’s more going on in Arabella than just a pastiche. Levine packs the tale to the gills with incident and adventure, always making sure his heroine is just barely up to the task. From the moment Arabella’s slimy cousin Simon announces his intent to murder her beloved brother, the story gathers speed like a ship headed for the stars. Other books on this list may have taught me more, but Arabella made me feel like a kid discovering books for the first time.
11. The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
As I just decided I have always said, if it can’t level a dining table, is it really a fantasy novel? I’ve found there are three things people tend to know about Williams’s seminal Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy: 1) The hero takes 200 pages to leave the castle he starts in, 2) It inspired George R.R. Martin, and 3) It’s long enough to make Robert Jordan suspicious.
#1 isn’t a problem at all, because the events catching Simon in their snare fascinate the reader as they grow worse alarmingly fast. And #3 is unfair in inviting comparisons to Jordan. While the Wheel of Time auteur infamously spent an entire book describing 35 separate POV characters doing nothing in particular, Williams never wastes a page. As a result, The Dragonbone Chair earns its doorstopping length, as does its sequel, Stone of Farewell.
As for #2: it’s a book about kings whose civil war distracts them from an enemy approaching from the north, who is strongly associated with inclement weather. The hero comes of age through traumatic experiences in an icy wasteland. There’s a dwarf, a giant tame wolf, a sword named Needle, a character who loses a hand and replaces it with a metal prosthetic, a character who starts out in a vast grassland distant from the rest of the cast…listen, all the best artists steal.
10. Stand Still, Stay Silent by Minna Sundberg
At last we come to the top 10, and a familiar face is here to greet us. It’s fitting to rate this above A Redtail’s Dream, as Stand Still, Stay Silent was always Sundberg’s dream project–she drew Redtail to see if she was capable of finishing a comic so she could do this one.
SSSS starts out with one of the most instantly intriguing premises I’ve ever had the misfortune to not come up with myself. A plague wipes out the entire human race except for the five nations of Scandinavia, who close their borders just in time. Ninety years later, the countries have each taken on their own specific characters–helped by the fact that magic is now (sort of) real for those who have returned to the worship of the Old Gods. A group of representatives for those countries is now about to be the first since the end of the world to make a journey into the “silent world” beyond their borders.
From this beginning spins a tale in which flamethrowers and armored trucks are equally at home with trolls and dream visions, which elevates the post-apocalyptic genre by focusing on what happened to the souls of all the people that died. The art is even better than Redtail, and the characters are so lovable they tinge everything with melancholy–their friendship can’t save the world, but at least it sustains them. Genuinely shocking moments mix with unexpectedly funny ones mix with awesome worldbuilding and…you know, it’s free online. Just read the damn thing.
9. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Obviously, this is one of the greatest murder mysteries ever written. Who is so jaded that they don’t feel a shiver in their soul when Sir Henry Baskerville cries, “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”? I submit, though, that Conan Doyle’s crowning achievement works even better on another level: as an exploration of the power of place.
There is no way that The Hound of the Baskervilles could be set anywhere other than Dartmoor. The fog. The mires. The empty neolithic huts. The distance between human habitations. Far from a cozy pastoral, the mystery embodies the layered creepiness of the English countryside, all the more so because Holmes himself vanishes for the greater part of the action, letting us experience the fear of the more credulous Dr. Watson. Watson himself repeatedly remarks on how things that sound ridiculous in London can be believed on the moor–indeed, this fact drives the murderer’s entire scheme.
I have very little patience for writing that doesn’t acknowledge that humans live in places. Absurd minimalist landscapes or midcentury urban angst: great literature it may be, but it’s not for me. Even Sherlock Holmes, fiction’s most famous rationalist, cannot escape the truth that everything eventually derives from the trees and the rocks, the bogs and the moors.
8. Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly
Hambly is a jack-of-all-trades for literature that’s better than it has any right to be. Case in point: the copy of Dragonsbane I borrowed features a buxom maiden with a swath of cloth strategically covering her nipples, swooning in the clutches of a glowering dragon. Fantasy from the 1980s gets a very bad rap that mostly has to do with the cover art, but still, would you expect that a book about dragonslayers and wenches turns out to be a moving portrait of a middle-aged woman struggling with her regrets? Believe it. Dragonsbane is brilliant for the same reason Mad Max: Fury Road was such unexpected fresh air–despite the fact that the man is in the title, it’s really a story about women.
Jenny Waynest is torn between two worlds. In one she is the wife of a petty lord and mother to his children; in the other, she is a solitary magic-user who bitterly regrets the limitations on her power that result from her choice to spend part of her life with the man she loves. Forced to choose, wondering if she’s already too late to make the choice, Jenny is confronted by Zyerne, a younger, prettier mage who never gave up on attaining ultimate power. Soon enough, she is also tempted by Morkeleb, a dragon who offers her the chance to become one of his kind–yet whom her husband John is bound to seek out and kill.
It’s a speculative take on a universal problem. No man is expected to give up his dreams for a family, yet so many women are expected to make the choice. And if a woman really wants to marry and raise children–and Jenny and John’s relationship is as supportive and mature as any I’ve ever read–that doesn’t make the dichotomy any less false. The way Hambly spins her entire story from Jenny’s dilemma, picking apart and reassembling her character and still finding time for epic dragon rides, should be enough to redeem all of 80s fantasy on its own, no matter how terrible the cover art may be.
7. The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin
“Introducing Investigator Yashim,” this book is subtitled, and I was very pleased to meet him. Yashim is one of the most interesting guys being written right now: a detective in the late Ottoman empire as Istanbul attempts to rapidly modernize; a eunuch who deals with his sexual frustrations by cooking elaborate meals; a charming social mingler equally at home conversing with the Sultan’s mother, a beautiful Russian aristocrat, a transgender dancer, or a common mule driver; and the kind of person who frequently finds himself in fistfights over boiling tanning vats or dramatic confrontations atop the Hagia Sophia.
In The Janissary Tree, Yashim must investigate several mysteries which all connect to the Janissary Order, a band of legendary mercenaries recently dispersed for becoming incorrigibly violent against their own people. What really makes this great historical fiction is the attention to detail, both in the characters and in the world. No fantasy writer could develop a city so full of richness and dark complexity as this one. And the mysteries hold up too!
6. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brien
Speaking of historical fiction, here’s the beginning of a series that’s often called the greatest entry in that genre. For those who didn’t have a grandfather that owned the full set of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, here’s the Star Wars crawl: it is a period of Napoleonic War. “Lucky Jack” Aubrey is a skillful and daring commander at sea and an indecisive philanderer on land. Stephen Maturin is a dashing and educated surgeon, botanist, and spy who is an utter neophyte in naval matters. The two men complete each other so well that it’s no surprise they go swiftly from duel opponents to lifelong friends by means of chamber-music jam sessions.
Master and Commander doesn’t have a traditional plot, in the sense of rising action and 3-act structure. It’s the full chronicle of Jack Aubrey’s first command, from his being promoted and posted to H.M.S. Sophie to his losing that same ship (it takes no fewer than four French warships to bring him down). Like The Janissary Tree, O’Brien’s works are victories of meticulous detail, but he goes even farther than Goodwin in successfully recreating the style and dialect of the era he writes about. Will people in the future understand that these books were being written 150 years after Lord Nelson’s death? Or, like “Ashokan Farewell,“ will Jack and Stephen leap back across the centuries? The Janissary Tree is great historical fiction. Master and Commander is a time machine.
5. Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology by David Hinton
A life is not that difficult to change. When I say a book changed my life, all I mean is that it had a material and lasting impact on the way I think and act. All the top 5 books of 2017 fall into this category.
In 1915, Ezra Pound, seeking to escape from the mannered poetic traditions of the previous century, discovered the poetry of Imperial China and translated a collection entitled Cathay. He was inspired by the rich minimalism of masters such as Mei Yaochen, Li Po, and Tu Fu, who could be beautiful, drunken, political, meditative, lustful, and enraged in the course of four or eight lines about birds or a lake. His famous two-line poem “In a Station of the Metro” could be read as a direct response to the Tang Dynasty.
In 1969, beat poets Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac became influenced by a mysterious figure called the Cold Mountain Poet, who famously inscribed his verse on rocks and cliff faces. Snyder translated several of his poems and published them in The Evergreen Review, and Kerouac dedicated Dharma Bums to him. Snyder and Kerouac saw in the nameless poet the figure of the archetypal American madman.
In 2010, Guy Gavriel Kay (who isn’t done around here any more than Pterry is) was so taken with the work of Li Po, the “banished immortal,” that he fictionalized him in Under Heaven as the perpetually inebriated Sima Zian. This character eventually dies in the same way Li Po was said to–drowns trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in a lake.
And so on. I could go on forever. The point is that westerners are forever discovering the genius of the classical poetic tradition of China, and that Hinton’s collection does the finest job yet of presenting it in its own right–inextricable from Buddhism and from East Asian history, yet entirely timeless–and that I started reading this book in January of 2017, and I still haven’t stopped.
4. The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti
It’s a story about a rushed American discovering a slow-food paradise in backwater Spain. No, wait, it’s a story about the greatest cheesemaker of all time, who is robbed of his business and sinks so low that he contemplates murder. No, it’s the story of how that American inserted himself into that cheesemaker’s life in the attempt to write the very book we’re reading now. It’s the story of a man out of step with his time, of the pull of unknown cultures, of stories themselves.
Relating the tragedy of Ambrosio Molinos, creator of a cheese called Paramo de Guzman which was briefly enjoyed by presidents and popes, The Telling Room evolves from a travelogue into a moving examination of the difficulty of living an authentic life in the modern age. When his cheese business goes under, Ambrosio believes he was stabbed in the back by his best friend Julian. When Paterniti finally meets Julian, he discovers that the truth is far more complicated: Ambrosio’s factory simply fell victim to economic circumstances. Unable to grapple with the loss, he created a more satisfying story, one that Paterniti himself gets caught up in.
Normally, I don’t go in for stories where the author makes themselves a central character, unless I’m warned beforehand that it’s a memoir. Here, though, Paterniti’s involvement provides a great deal of the book’s pathos, as he yearns for the unattainable world of Ambrosio’s quasi-medieval Castile in much the same way Ambrosio yearns for a time when people “knew how to shit.” I closed the book with tears in my eyes, realizing that The Telling Room was never a book about cheese. It’s a book about longing. And cheese.
3. Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay
(N.B.: Guy Gavriel Kay once answered my question on Reddit, so we’re basically best friends now.)
What a difference a career makes.
The author who was still finding his feet in The Summer Tree has evolved into not only the best fantasy writer of his time but one of the best writers working in any genre. His M.O. is to take historical periods and base his secondary worlds off them–thereby obtaining a one-two punch of emotional familiarity and unpredictability. OK, says Kay, we begin in Republican Venice, or Anglo-Saxon England, or Imperial China…but you’ll never believe what happens next.
His backdrop here is based on the Byzantine Empire, from which Kay conjures Sarantium, a city so storied that merely to go there is indicative of a turning point in one’s life. In the first book of the Sarantine Mosaic duology, mosaicist Caius Crispus reached Sarantium and planned a heretical work of art even as he became enmeshed in worldly politics. Now, in the conclusion, Crispin will realize he can no longer stay isolated on his ladder while the world below succumbs to chaos.
The story that emerges is as complex and stunning as any of Crispin’s mosaics. Chariot races are elevated to mythic proportions, love affairs play out on dark streets, mechanical birds and wild boars are guides to a shadowy otherworld. This is a book that aims for nothing less than the totality of history, and doesn’t fall short of the mark. What is history but pictures on walls, knives in the dark, the screams of a crowd, a messenger getting drunk in a seaside tavern, passionate kisses, dutiful lovemaking?
There’s not a character in this book I don’t long for more time with; not an image that passes I can’t recall months later. And when old ex-presidents and heads of state die in my lifetime, I believe with all my heart that they still hear the words: Uncrown. The Lord of Emperors awaits you now.
2. Republic by Plato
There is a moment, toward the end of Plato’s account of one of the most important conversations in Western history, that veers into the unexpectedly emotional. Socrates, having finally exhausted all his debating partners, ventures forth on a long allegorical speech about a soldier chosen by the gods to return from the afterlife and report on what he found there. This soldier relates that, just before resurrection, each soul is given the chance to choose the next life it wishes to live, knowing that after choosing it will forget all about its previous life. Odysseus is last in line to choose, and happily takes the life of “a private citizen who minds his own business,” stating that he would have chosen the same if he’d gone first.
By means of this parable, Socrates intends to illustrate how the soul is capable of gradually progressing along the course of justice. Each of his friends–Glaucon and Adeimantus, Polemarchus and even Thrasymachus–has drunk of the River Lethe before, and will do so again, for a thousand years and a thousand after that. Each is capable of choosing a better life every time they pass through the underworld. These men, who one night in ancient Athens stayed up late trying to figure out the definition of justice, might be with us today, still struggling, still waiting to be reborn just that little bit better.
The Republic is the portrait of that struggle. Over its ten books, Socrates and his interlocutors create and then dissect a fictional city that will become just in a mirror of the just human soul. No detail is too small for their notice. At one point, when Adeimantus points out that Socrates has forgotten to include a role for women in his perfect city, Socrates detours for three entire books to correct his mistake. Nothing is left to conjecture, heuristic, or common sense. Socrates doesn’t want a fast answer or an easy answer. He wants the right answer.
It’s this insistence that the path of justice is never out of reach that makes the most rational book in history such a touching read. We may never know if Socrates believed the words Plato puts in his mouth. We do know that Plato believed that even the most unjust soul can begin walking the long road toward redemption. The bully, the bigot, the robber baron–they will weary of evil. When that happens, those of us who are just must take their hands, like Brutha took Vorbis’s, and lead them out of the desert.
And yet, with a year as bad as 2017 was for the world, I knew the best book I read would be something that commingles rationality with faith. To my everlasting delight, it came along.
1. Nation by Terry Pratchett
When Terry Pratchett sat down to write his first book after his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s, why didn’t he return to his familiar, beloved Discworld? Perhaps he wasn’t yet prepared to face those characters, knowing that they would slip away from him. But I prefer a somewhat happier explanation: he knew he could only grieve by way of Nation.
Nation begins as a story of loss. Mau, a boy from an alternate-universe South Pacific, loses his entire tribe to a tsunami. In the days that follow, a new tribe begins to form from castaways, including Daphne, a proper English girl longing to join the Royal Geographical Society. Mau professes to have lost faith in the gods for taking everything from him, though the truth is more complicated, particularly as they keep yelling in his ear. Just as the tribe begins to feel safe, the island draws the attention of unsavory raiders. All the while, a secret lurks below the island’s surface.
So far, so good. But why does Nation deserve the top spot?
Mau begins wanting nothing more than to survive. When he sees to his survival, he starts realizing he also needs a reason to live. Behind the keyboard, Pratchett, as well, might have wondered at the purpose of continuing in the face of everything he’d lost, everything he would still lose.
But he wrote on. He poured his rage onto the page, and when there was no more rage–right about the point when Daphne literally drags Mau from death back to life–the book finds hope beneath it. In friendship and loyalty, in faith, and in the quest for knowledge. The refusal to give up grows into the determination to live, and in so doing, we learn how the Nation formed the world around it, bound to our history in the same way its gods are bound to our physical plane.
Grieving is a hallmark of life in 2018. We might grieve for America, for the planet, for civility, for innocence. Pratchett had his entire self to grieve for, and with Nation, he didn’t just write a book. He wrote his way out of the darkness. If Mau can rebuild his tribe, if Terry Pratchett can rebuild his identity through his book, we can begin to rebuild anything we’ve lost.
Perhaps we’ll die before it’s finished. But others will take up our work.
Though Pratchett wrote several more novels between Nation and his death, it’s not hard to imagine it as his final work. I picture him typing The End, nodding contentedly, and turning to face the figure standing in the doorway of his study.
SIR TERRY, says Death. IT IS TIME. ARE YOU READY?
“Yes,” says Terry, standing up. “I’ve finished my work.”
And the two old friends begin to walk across the desert.
And that, at last, is my completed list! Taking stock of it has been a wonderful experience, helping me figure out what lessons I took from last year–half of my life has always come out of my books. I hope to hear from some of you with your opinions about the works I listed, and to get some of your recommendations for 2018. Farewell for now!