Another year, another list of great novels. I don’t read widely enough to declare a ‘best of 2011,’ so instead here is a collection of my favourite novels published in 2011, starting with honourable mentioned (in no order) and capped off with my favourite novel of 2011, which might come as a bit of a surprise.
Shadowheart by Tad Williams
Shadowheart is, essentially, one enormous climax. The pacing is frenetic (for a Williams novel…) and the author fills every nook and cranny of the novel with feverish action, enlightening observations on the plot or characters and enough twists and turns to keep fans of the series happy. It’s always bittersweet to see a series come to an end; as fans, we are always eager to find out what happens to our heroes and heroines, but, equally, we don’t want them to ever leave our lives. Perhaps the greatest thing I can say about Shadowheart is that through four long volumes of a story, Williams convinced me to care utterly for his characters and there’s a hole now in my life where they once lived. Few story tellers can do that. Williams does it with alarming regularity.
Read my full review of Shadowheart by Tad Williams.
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
Leviathan Wakes set itself apart not by its weird aliens, nor its so-cool-I-gotta-have-it technology, but rather by its lack of such genre staples. You see, instead of plumbing the depths of the universe and its trillion stars, author(s) James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym worn by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) decided instead to explore a future where interstellar-travel is still only a pipe-dream.
Like the cult classic TV series Firefly, there’s a healthy amount of one-liners and crew banter, and though it can sometimes fall into cliché, it never never loses its easy charm. It’s a difficult dynamic for an author to pull off, but it works here and forms the heart of the novel, for the conflicts would be nothing if the reader didn’t care for the characters. Even more importantly, perhaps, is that the characters genuinely care for and respect one another, an aspect that helps the reader suspend belief as the crew squeaks their way out of one stick situation after another. They complement each other in both personality and skillset in a way that places them among the best casts the genre has to offer.
Leviathan Wakes is space opera for the masses—it asks for little from its readers other than that they show up and enjoy the ride, no doctorate in quantum mechanics necessary. The classic juxtaposition of Miller’s hard-edged noir narrative and Holden’s idealistic adventure are perfectly suited for one another and together they form one of the most enjoyable novels I read in 2011. It’s fast, it’s fun and it’s escapist science fiction in the purest sense of the term.
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
As a book reviewer, I’ve read many novels that were easy to write about, easy to critique or praise because they’re definable and have recognizable strengths and weaknesses. I’ve read several novels that I enjoyed so little that I felt the reviewing them would add little to the overall genre discussion beyond some shit slinging. I’d sit at my keyboard, trying to formulate a balanced, constructive argument for and against the work, and stumble again and again. And then there are novels on that knife’s edge of perfection, that are so joyous and heartrending that to speculate on them, no matter how effusively, would be to mar their beauty. Stardust by Neil Gaiman is one such novel for me. The Tiger’s Wife is another. There’s magic in this novel and I recommend it with every ounce of my passion for literature.
Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan
Theft of Swords is a delightful throwback to the Fantasy of the ‘80s and ‘90s that took the concepts and thematic structures first popularized by Tolkien and helped solidify the genre’s place in popular geek culture. These days it’s cool to hate on Terry Brooks, David Eddings and Raymond E. Feist, but Theft of Swords proves that the building blocks used by those authors are still effective today when wielded by a careful author.
Like any good duo, Royce and Hadrian, the two protagonists of the series, play off of each other’s faults and weaknesses while sharing enough similarities (mainly in their ambitions and respect for each other’s shrouded pasts) that there’s a nice balance. They’re easily recognizable for the tropes they play off of, but Sullivan writes the pair so naturally that they step just to the side of being flat cardboard characters.
One doesn’t read Sullivan for subversive context, labyrinthine prose or gritty realism but for blazing pace, fun encounters, loveable characters and a commitment to telling full stories in a single volume and fans of Terry Brooks, David Eddings and even Brandon Sanderson will find a lot to love about The Riyria Revelations. Theft of Swords is an ode to adventurous ‘90s Fantasy and it’s hard not to enjoy your time alongside Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn, the two nefarious and charming thieves who, like their author, overcome so much adversity to get hold the ultimate prize.
The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham
If you didn’t know any better, you might think that this was Abraham’s first appearance on this list. In actuality, he (along with Ty Franck) forms one half of James S.A. Corey, the author of Leviathan Wakes. The Dragon’s Path treads territory more familiar to fans of his earlier work, specifically the beautiful Long Price Quartet and contrasts sharply with his his Space Opera.
The Dragon’s Path is a wonderful Fantasy, combining many of the strengths we saw Abraham exhibit in The Long Price Quartet while also adding different layers to the mix (and taking others away). Though the story features drunken pranks, dragons, priests with giant swords, siege warfare and an ‘evil’ cult following a spider goddess, it also deals heavily with the economics of war, the emotional toll of growing up and being repeatedly push to the dirt, the politics that boil under the surface of any successful kingdom and the subtleties of human relationships. And the characters, as I’ve come to expect from Abraham’s work, are where the novel truly shines.
There are few authors whose prose I enjoy more than Abraham’s. He manages to be both plain and endlessly deep. He has the ability to touch on descriptions and characters with only a few words where other authors would devote paragraphs. With that, he’s able to pack so much into his novels that it makes writers like Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson seem incredibly obtuse and self-indulgent. Abraham packs more story and character into a third of the word count of those industry giants.
By moving to a more traditional world and a more tried-and-true premise, Abraham is sure to make wary some of those fans who appreciated the originality of The Long Price Quartet; at the same time, he’s blown open the doors for a new, wider audience and has written a more accessible novel that is sure to appeal to fans of Tad Williams, George R.R. Martin or Scott Lynch. Regardless of whether you’ve discovered Abraham previously, you can rest assured that The Dragon’s Path is a tremendous novel and Abraham deftly mixes the classic foundations of the genre with a sophistication expected of him and rarely found in the work of his compatriots.
My Favourite Novel of 2011
Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht
To understand why this novel is so important to me, you need to look no further than the first novel I wrote. I don’t often talk about my writing and aspirations in public, but it is important in this case. My novel is called Through Bended Grass and tells the story of a young woman who’s life intersects with the mythological fey of Ireland. When I first picked up the a copy of Of Blood and Honey and read the jacket blurb, I nearly dropped it on the floor, startled and thrilled by the similarities to the story I wanted to tell. In execution, Leicht’s beautiful novel is very different than my own work, but nevertheless burrowed its way into my heart and has yet to leave.
Set in the early- to mid-seventies, Of Blood and Honey is told against the backdrop of the Troubles, the political warfare that plagued Northern Ireland from the 1960′s to as recently as 2010. As bloody, depraved, violent and twisted as any fictional war, this guerilla warfare between the Irish Republic Army, the British Army, the Ulster Defence Force, the Ulster Volunteer Force and many other forces is the perfect backdrop to tell the story of the mysterious Fey of Ireland as they struggle in a eerily similar battle against the fallen angels brought to the emerald isle when the Catholics settled.
As a protagonist, Liam is hard to pin down. He’s not always likeable, and you’ll often find yourself yelling at the page as he makes another poor decision or digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole of shit, but there’s a quiet humour to him and a charisma that enabled me to connect to him and feel empathy towards him despite his misgivings. Much of the driving force behind the novel is Liam’s struggles with his own inner demons (literally), and it’s an opportunity that Leicht also uses as an allegory for the Irish people’s own struggles with fighting a righteous war for freedom while struggling against the temptation to fall into unnecessary, vicious violence. It’s so easy for those caught up right in the middle of warfare, especially guerilla warfare, to forget their humanity and give themselves over to the animalistic instincts that hide dormant in us all. Liam fights against these tendencies, but often loses. His path to eventual redemption is made sweeter for all these failings.
The lines that Leicht draws between the Troubles and her Fey war are fascinating. By casting faeries and fallen angels in the role of (essentially) Britain and Ireland, she’s able to dig into the conflict and explore the concepts of misconception, political and religious zealousness and the absurdity of hating your neighbour for no reason other than the denomination he or she was born into, without trudging through the same tired talking points covered in history books. There’s a moment in the novel when one character realizes how egregiously wrong he’s been about the relationship between the church and the Fey (whom he has been hunting and murdering mercilessly for years, because the church commanded it of him and told him that he was just for doing so) that is simply heartbreaking when one considers the similar atrocities that were practiced on innocent Irish civilians through that troubled period.
Not since Jim Butcher’s Storm Front have I read an Urban Fantasy that has felt so relevant to the overall discussion of Fantasy literature. Of Blood and Honey is Fantasy that deserves to stand alongside the best that authors like Powers, Gaiman and De Lint have to offer. It’s not perfect, but Leicht blew me away with her debut and has the potential to become a very important name in the annals of Urban Fantasy. If you’re bored of the same ol’ Epic Fantasy, or you need a break from spaceships, hyperdrives and anti-grav suits, cleanse your palette with Of Blood and Honey and find out just how good Urban Fantasy can be.
And, so, there you are. I had to expand the list to six, because I just couldn’t cut a single one off my list. 2011 saw many major SF/F releases, including new novels by heavyweights like Patrick Rothfuss (The Wise Man’s Fear), George R.R. Martin (A Dance with Dragons) and Brandon Sanderson (The Alloy of Law), and it was with some surprise that I didn’t find a single one of those on my list of favourites at the end of the year, despite enjoying them all immensely. It’s always difficult to judge the overall quality of a year’s releases until we can look at it with the perspective of time, but 2011 was good to me and I hope it was good to you, too.
And, for the record, my previous year’s lists: