The Inheritors by William Golding (2011 book #26)

Helping me keep up my average of a book a week this year, The Inheritors is Golding’s second novel (after Lord Of The Flies) and like that, it’s also a look at some of humanity’s darker impulses. Here, though, the focus is on humanity’s beginnings as seen from the viewpoint of a group of Neanderthals encountering this new type of people for the first time. Golding expertly creates a perspective that’s non-human but understandable as what’s effectively a tragedy unfolds through a mutual incomprehensibility and fear. Definitely a classic novel, and well-worth a look.

A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin (2011 Book #25)

As you might have noticed, I was off on holiday last week and A Clash Of Kings was my selection of holiday reading. Not the sort of light stuff people normally recommend for holidays, but then I was in the Lake District rather than lounging on a beach.

As ever, spoilers follow, so look away now and don’t click the link for more if you don’t want to know what happens.
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Savage City by Sophia McDougall (2011 book #24)

This is the final book in the Romanitas trilogy – the first two of which I read last year and wrote about here – though it’s worth noting that the first two books have been reissued by a new publisher in advance of Savage City, and there has apparently been some re-editing of them for the new releases. However, as far as I’m aware there have been no changes in the story along the way.

Anyway, the full review is after the ‘read more’ link, and I would warn you not to click it if you haven’t read the book and are planning to, as it’s almost impossible to review without dropping some major spoilers (this review by Pornokitsch attempts it, however). In capsule, though, if you’ve read the first two books in the series then you should get round to reading this as soon as possible, and if you haven’t then take a look at my review from last year.

And that’s the last of your warnings. Look away now if you don’t want to know the result.
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The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman (2011 book #23)

I have been debating whether to count this as an entire book for the purposes of numbering as it’s quite short, but deciding on including it if only to stop things from getting too complicated. However, it also says something about the story itself – Pullman has an interesting idea here, that Jesus and Christ were twins who history later conflated, but the depth and complexity of an idea like that isn’t addressed in the way you’d expect a novel to do so. In that way, it’s much more of a novella, and for me it suffers a bit from the simplicity. I often found myself comparing it to Russell T Davies’ The Second Coming – another story written by an atheist about the relationship between humanity and a self-proclaimed Messiah – and how that managed to wring a lot more interest out of similar material.

From the Gracchi to Nero by HH Scullard (2011 book #22)

Another bit of my attempt to widen my historical knowledge, this book does exactly what it says on the tin an provides a good overview of 200 years of Roman history. There’s obviously a limit to how much detail Scullard can provide in this overview, but he does a very good job of linking the different trends in Roman society and politics together to explain how the Republic began to crumble under the pressures its expansion had put in under, how the early Empire emerged from that process and then how it stabilised itself.

Scullard does presuppose some knowledge of how the Republic worked, so perhaps not one to read if you know nothing of the Roman systems, and sometimes the pace of events and the tide of similar sounding names can get a bit overwhelming. He also has a tendency to moralise on occasions, and I sometimes suspect that he wished he could be back in the midst of the events, advising the Senate about where they were getting it wrong and how the Republic could survive if only they’d listen to him.

Also, while Nero as the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors does seem to mark an appropriate point to stop, it does bring the narrative to a rather abrupt halt in the midst of a crisis. There’s a quick summing up of the Year of Four Emperors and the rise of Vespasian, but it perhaps needs a bit more detail to wrap up the historical narrative and show the future course of the Empire. Though as with any history of Rome, any end date is somewhat arbitrary.

All in all, a rather good history and a useful guide to the period.

A Game Of Thrones by George RR Martin (2011 book #21)

I’ve had this book sitting on a shelf for ages since someone gave it to me with the recommendation that I might like it. So, when the TV adaptation of the series began and got great reviews I decided it was time to finally give it a go, because as I don’t have Sky Atlantic it’ll be sometime before I get to see it and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

And now I regret having left it on the shelf for so long because it’s a truly great book. More discussion follows, but there will be plenty of spoilers so don’t read further if you want to remain pure.
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The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross (2011 book #20)

Only time for a quick review of this one, the final book in Stross’ Merchant Princes series, which I found a bit disappointing. The series as a whole has been pretty interesting, but has suffered from a certain amount of narrative sprawl, as sub-plots spawn sub-plots, which makes it somewhat to pick up the threads again at the start of each book. This is the last book in the series, but it feels more like it ends at a convenient point rather than reaches a climax – maybe he’s leaving it open for a series of sequels – and I was left with a feeling of ‘oh, is that it?’ at the end.

That’s not to say there aren’t some fun and interesting bits on the way – and, if nothing else, he’s created a fascinating universe in this series – but the whole seems somewhat less than the sum of the parts and I found myself wishing he’d wrenched more out of the scenario and the questions left unanswered at the end. Some of which was exacerbated even more by reading some of his initial notes and ideas for the series, of course.

Son of Heaven by David Wingrove (2011 book #19)

Back in the 90s, I can recall reading a review of one of the novels in Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series and thinking that it sounded like an interesting read. Over the years, I’ve seen copies of different books in the series in various shops and thought ‘ah yes, one day I’ll find the first one and start reading that’. Of course, since then, the books have drifted out of print and sightings have become rarer and rarer, but someone out there has clearly been thinking of people like me, as they’ve now returned.

In fact, they’ve returned bigger than before – what was originally an eight book series, cut down from a planned nine, has now returned as a reworked and re-edited series that’s planned to contain a grand total of twenty books. From what I understand, this isn’t a doubling of the original series, more releasing what were originally doorstep-sized novels split into two with some new material added. Son of Heaven is the first of these, and I understand that it’s almost entirely new material, created to serve as a prequel and a curtain-raiser for the larger story that is to follow.
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Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow (2011 book #18)

Cory Doctorow is one of those writers I’ve heard a lot about, but have never got around to reading (apart from ‘Unwirer‘, his collaboration with Charles Stross) so it was interesting to finally get the chance to sit down Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom and see what it was that people are talking about.

And for once, the talk seems to be justified as it’s a very interesting read. Trying to depict the culture of a post-scarcity human civilization is something that many writers have attempted, but this is a refreshingly different approach. It’s not a story of an entire civilization under threat, or someone discovering information that rocks society to its knees, just an interesting tale of people going about their lives in the shadow of Disney World, and how you protect the past in a society with a seemingly permanent finger on the fast-forward button. By concentrating on that story, Doctorow gets to explore some quite interesting questions on the margin of the story as well, especially the question of what happens to your personality in an effectively immortal society where the standard response to health problems is to restore from a backup?

An engaging read, and I’m glad I’ve got some more Doctorow sitting on the Kindle waiting to be read.

Wireless by Charles Stross (2011 book #17)

Technically, it’s only half a new book as some of the stories in this collection are ones I’ve read before. Of course, they’re Stross short stories, which means they’re always worth reading again to find something new buried deep within them.

The standard’s generally very high – though I’d agree with the author’s own assessment that ‘Trunk and Disorderly’ doesn’t quite work – and many of these stories contain more original and interesting ideas than most novels get into a much longer length. It’s also a good illustration of Stross’ versatility as a writer and his willingness to experiment with style and subject matter. Be it combining entomology and eschatology on a flat Earth in ‘Missile Gap‘, producing a humorous perspective on just what sort of contact SETI might generate in ‘MAXOs’ or producing a head-spinning interpretation of time travel in ‘Palimpsest’, Stross isn’t afraid to take risks and do something new, and it’s the efforts of writers like him that keep sf fresh and away from ploughing the same old furrows again and again. Recommended, even if you’ve read some of them already.