With the year drawing to a close, I thought I’d assemble one of these lists. None of these books were actually published in 2013, mind you.
Latro in the Mist, by Gene Wolfe. This is actually an omnibus edition including the first two novels of Wolfe’s “Latro” series (a third one, Soldier of Sidon was published more recently). Wolfe is always great at creating the feel of being immersed in a totally alien civilization – this time applying his talent to Ancient Greece rather than to an imaginary SF landscape. Latro is one of the few pieces of fiction set in antiquity which does justice to its foreignness to us. Of course, in Wolfe’s Greece, the gods are real (albeit invisible to most people) and kind of terrifying. But then, that would be part of their experience anyhow.
The Demon Princes, by Jack Vance (actually a series of five novellas). Another great alien world-builder. And the Demon Princes has a secondary function as a sort of fictional travel book, with protagonist Kirth Gersen doing a lot of planet-hopping as he meticulously hunts down the five crime lords who massacred his home-world. The plot never veers too far from the usual spy fiction/James Bond tropes – including the requisite Bond Girl for each and every book. But Vance’s knack for world-building, prose style and dialogue still puts the series leagues above whatever throwaway SF book you’re currently reading.
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. Before Bradbury’s death, the only thing I had read of him was a short story that found its way into an SF anthology I own. Somehow, I had escaped reading Farenheit 451 during my high-school years, and to this day have not read it. But this book makes me want to dip into more of his corpus. Like Gaiman’s Coraline, part of the intrigue is how it could plausibly be a nightmare I could have had as a child. The prose is over-the-top, almost to the point of being a frenzied mysticism, but it works.
Death in Holy Orders, by P.D. James. A murder mystery set at a secluded, Angl0-Catholic seminary. I generally perk up to sympathetic modern depictions of people for whom things like Vespers, Holy Communion, Friday penance and Confession form part of their everyday lives. Because there is a dearth of them. James, being a sort of agnostic Anglican, finds the traditionalists she describes to be somewhat quaint and distant, but still family. Sure, various cliches like sexual repression, and an old papyrus fragment that could Change Everything have a tendency to pop up, but are ultimately forgivable. This is also a book about people who are serious readers of English lit – even including a Hamlet style attempt to get a guilty response from someone by reading a passage from an Anthony Trollope novel. (as a side note, I recently found out that High Church Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism are not necessarily the same thing . The more you know…)
Thank You, Jeeves/The Code of the Woosters, by P.G. Wodehouse. It’s been a while since I read something this funny (Decline and Fall comes close this year, though). The man’s sense of the absurd, and his stylishness, are impeccable. The blackface humor in Thank You, Jeeves is a bit unfortunate, though.