DeFlip Side #54: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2005

DS54.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your bookmarks because it’s time, once again, for DeFlip Side’s annual Best Reads segment, where I outline the best and worst genre books I’ve read in the past year.

The usual caveats apply. The books featured were not necessarily published in the last year; hence the title “Best Reads” in lieu of “Best Books.” And, as always, regular Destinites may get a slight feeling of déjà vu, since some of the books on tonight’s rundown have already been featured in fuller reviews on previous DeFlip Side segments.

Now, on with the list for 2005!

Book 5) The House of Storms, by Ian R. MacLeod.

In The House of Storms, author Ian R. MacLeod revisits the alternate England he created in his critically acclaimed 2003 novel, The Light Ages.

It is the 99th Year in the Age of Light. The magical substance aether fuels the advances of this industrial era, where guilds jealously guard cabalistic trade secrets. The scheming Alice Meynell, Greatgrandmistress of the Guild of Telegraphers, has come to the sprawling seaside manse of Invercombe with hopes of curing her terminally ill son Ralph. And while Invercombe does indeed hold some kind of power, it may come from a nearby settlement of changelings, people hideously transfigured by overexposure to aether.

But Alice is no stranger to brokering for power. She soon proves herself a puppet master of frightening capabilities who will take any step necessary to see her plans come to fruition, even if it means plunging England into civil war.

The House of Storms presents a realistic take on the way power is gained and kept, personified in Alice’s strong-armed tactics and shadowy machinations. Author Ian MacLeod’s lyrical and creative prose buoys compelling characters immersed in a story that’s entertaining, complex and genuinely shocking at times. The House of Storms is a prime example of the type of literate human drama that is coming to define modern Fantasy.

Okay, we now move on to both the fourth and third spots of this year’s list, featuring two books that affected me in equal measure, though in quite different ways.

Books 4 & 3 (TIE)) Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erickson

Gardens of the Moon is the first installment in Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, and sprawling, complicated and uncompromising are understatements when it comes to describing this author’s take on epic Fantasy. Gardens is not your run of the mill Fantasy and is certainly a cut above the many trite offerings that are out there.

But it can also be maddening, as Erikson does not indulge in convenient expository passages to help the reader better understand the forces at work within his world and the rules by which they operate. You must glean this information from the subtext and be prepared for a couple hundred pages of careful reading before the bigger picture starts to emerge.

From a standpoint of craft, I applaud Erikson’s ability to let salient details fill in the blanks. And there are details aplenty, with the plot of the novel wending around a cast of soldiers and mages being ground down in an endless war of conquest waged by Laseen, the Empress of the Malazan Empire. Along the way, they must contend with foes, supernatural and otherwise and an entire pantheon of gods that regularly intervenes in mortal affairs in pursuit of their own ends.

It is apparent that Erickson has no use for the traditional tropes of epic Fantasy and has instilled in me a new expectation of what a Fantasy novel should be, or at least strive for.

Books 4 & 3 (TIE)) The Hauntings of Hood Canal by Jack Cady.

Though far more prosaic than Gardens of the Moon in terms of both literary style and subject matter, The Hauntings of Hood Canal is every bit as powerful in its way. And therein lies the brilliance and talent of the late Cady, who sadly passed away shortly after I finished reading Hood Canal.

Cady wrote in the tradition of the American folklorist, and like folklore, his homespun style and settings are just window dressing on deeper mythological themes. In The Hauntings of Hood Canal, that theme is the nature of evil and how it exists primarily to beget more evil, especially at the expense of good people.

Trouble begins for the people living in a small Pacific Northwestern town along Hood Canal when local blacksmith Sugar Bear Smith kills a pedophile and sinks the dead man and his car into the canal. But the seeming act of justice creates a moral imbalance, and darker forces awoken in the canal start claiming passing motorists.

To be honest, while reading both Gardens of the Moon and The Hauntings of Hood Canal I was constantly questioning how much I liked each story. On the face of it, both books were in some senses less enjoyable to read than other books I read in 2005; yet I vastly enjoyed having read them, if you’ll permit the mangled, Hemingwayesque metaphor. They taught me to look at two familiar genres—fantasy and horror—in new ways, and the authors had gotten under my skin far more than I’d realized, especially Cady. The ending of The Hauntings of Hood Canal was much more powerful than I’d anticipated and the last few passages still linger in my mind, sorrowful and thorny and demanding reflection.

Okay. Enough with these heavy formative reading experiences.

Book 2) The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The Prestige earns second place simply for being a damn good story. I picked up The Prestige on a whim based primarily on the cover, of all things, and it turned out to be the nicest reading surprise I’ve had in a long time.

In turn of the century London, two stage magicians are vying for prominence, each with show-stopping acts that give the illusion of teleportation. But as the competition between them grows, so does the bad blood, causing matters to culminate in unique and rather nasty ways. Add to that all the atmosphere of an old-fashioned scientific romance, and a cameo by Nicola Tesla, and you have a gem of Science Fantasy.

Interesting and original in both character and setting, it’s no wonder The Prestige was honored with the World Fantasy Award. And a movie is also in the works, starring Hugh Jackman of X-Men fame. Here’s to hoping they don’t screw it up…

And now for book number one. Has there ever been a fictional universe in which you’ve become so vested, and for which you have such high expectations that you pick up the latest book set in said universe just bracing yourself for the letdown? And has it ever worked out that the book turns out to be not only everything you were hoping for, but far, far more than you ever dared dream? Well that’s the case for my top pick for 2005:

Book 1) The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Other Wind marks the sixth book Le Guin has set the Earthsea universe and it’s an absolute triumph. I have been a diehard Earthsea fan ever since I chanced upon A Wizard of Earthsea more that 20 years ago. I was immediately absorbed in the tale of Ged, a young wizard struggling to come to terms with his power and himself.

The Other Wind is set more than forty years later, and Ged, once archmage of all Earthsea, has retired to his home isle of Gont, content to till fields and raise goats. But that tranquility is disturbed when a minor sorcerer seeks Ged’s advice about disturbing dreams, in which his late wife has been able to breach the wall that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead.

Soon, Ged is having dreams too, and other portents are manifest throughout Earthsea. The dragons are going back on a truce that Ged himself brokered, and are invading the lands of man. As Ged is unwilling to leave Gont, it becomes incumbent upon his wife Tenar and his adopted daughter Tehanu—who is somehow able to speak to dragons—to figure out what is destroying the barrier between the realms of the living and the dead and how to thwart the threat to Earthsea.

I hate that I can’t get into more detail, because this book is astounding, both on its own merits and in terms of what it brings to the Earthsea universe as a whole. Le Guin has crafted a tale that serves as a masterful and extremely satisfying conclusion to the entire Earthsea series, with no loose ends. But at the same time she leaves room to continue the story if she so chooses. There’s a reason she’s my favorite author, and I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Of course, if you’re unfamiliar with Earthsea, you’ll have to read five prequels to get to The Other Wind, but you’ll be thanking me in the end. Trust me on this one.

Now, for the moment you’ve really been waiting for, my worst read of 2005. This year the honor goes to the time-travel-themed anthology Time After Time, edited by Denise Little.

This book suffered from two problems, one I find especially prominent in themed anthologies; chiefly they often suffer from an abundance of flippant stories, self-indulgent stories or plain throwaway stories (inasmuch as any story can be considered “throwaway”). Basically, it’s an easy payday for authors invited to participate, and the resulting stories aren’t so much bad as they are bland and uninspired. Now marry these problems to the many tired tropes and clichés common in the time travel genre and you begin to get a sense of what you’ll find in Time After Time. In terms of both anthologies and time travel stories, your reading time can be better spent.

And so ends my Best and Worst Reads list for 2005. What, you say? No best short story this year, or best comic book? Sadly, no. I read plenty of stories, but none really grabbed me. And don’t get me started on comics. If you insist, I give an honorable mention to Kyle Baker’s Plastic Man. It pokes some mean and clever fun at the current state of the comics industry and usually makes me laugh, but that’s where it ends.

When all is said and done, 2005 stands out as the year of the re-reads. Of the 24 books I finished, six were books with which I decided to reacquaint myself before seeing new films based on them. Still, it wasn’t a bad year for all that; more than half the new books clocked in at three stars, meaning good, solid reads. May every year be as prosperous.

As always, if you read any of these books based on my recommendations, please e-mail me and let me know what you think. The e-mail address is cdeflip@yahoo.com. And if you have any titles of your own to recommend, I’m all ears. There’s always room on the shelf for one more.

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