10. Burning Chrome

When the afterimage faded from Earth’s monitor screens, the Alyut was gone. In the Urals a middle-aged Georgian technician bit through the stem of his favourite meerschaum. In New South Wales a young physicist began to slam the side of his monitor, like an enraged pinball finalist protesting TILT.

Looking back on this collection, I was unsurprised to notice that I remembered choice phrases or overall tone more than I remembered the actual plots of the stories themselves. William Gibson has always (for me, at least) been an author more about style than substance – or perhaps an author so closely immersed in crazy post-modern academia that my simple caveman brain can’t tell the difference between the two. I enjoyed the hell out of Burning Chrome nonetheless.

9. The Fatal Shore

Upon the harbour the ships were now entering, European history had left no mark at all. Until the swollen sails and curvetting bows of the British fleet came round South Head, there were no doubts. The Aborigines and the fauna around them had possessed the landscape since time immemorial, and no other human eye had seen them. Now the protective glass of distance broke, in an instant, never to be restored.

I was talking to a Kiwi co-worker a while ago and trying to get out of them the specific date New Zealand was first settled – a question Wikipedia and Google had failed to answer. I didn’t understand, at the time, that there was no specific date; that New Zealand had been first settled in dribs and drabs by missionaries, whalers and pirates, and that Australia’s 17-ship fleet of official British settlers was the exception amongst New World nations, not the norm. Did you know that the First Fleet was the largest voyage ever undertaken by such a large group of people, and that nothing on par with it before or since had ever been attempted?

My point is that Australian history is more interesting than many Australians imagine. Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore is not a comprehensive history of Australia, but it is an exhaustive history of the British convict transport system, an integral part of early Australian history. It’s fascinating, vivid and compelling in a way I never expected history books to be, probably becuase Hughes (who died a month after I read this book) was usually a critic, not a historian. The Fatal Shore is well worth reading for anyone who wants to learn more about Australian history.

8. A Monster Calls

The monster smiled. It was a ghastly sight. If I must force my way in, it said, I will do so happily.

The concept for A Monster Calls originated with Siobhan Dowd, but before she passed away from cancer she entrusted it to Patrick Ness, who has done a sterling job with it. A Monster Calls is an illustrated YA novelette following a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, who must also cope with nightly visits from a horrifying monster demanding to know “the truth.” An adult reader will quickly see this is an allegorical novel, but figuring out what it’s an allegory for (before it’s revealed, I mean) is not as obvious.

Aside from being an excellent story, the first hardback edition of A Monsters Calls is an aesthetic beauty, enhanced on every page by Jim Kay’s beautiful illustrations – or rather, in the sence of invoking horror, his horrible illustrations.

7. A Game of Thrones

“If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.”

Sometimes I use a single book to stand in for an entire series – in this case, A Game of Thrones truly is the finest book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. That’s not to belittle the series as a whole, which is an excellent saga of political fantasy, but none of the subsequent books can quite match the power of the first. Perfectly voiced, brilliantly paced and containing some of the most unexpectedly shocking scenes a reader will ever find in genre fiction, A Game of Thrones deserves all the applause it gets.

6. The Magician King

That’s what death did. It treated you like a child, like everything you had ever thought and done and cared about was just a child’s game, to be crumpled up and thrown away when it was over. It didn’t matter. Death didn’t respect you. Death thought you were bullshit, and it wanted to make sure you knew it.

A wonderful, enthralling and bittersweet sequel to Grossman’s novel The Magicians, The Magician King takes Quentin Coldwater on quests and adventures through multiple worlds, and features more of the author’s adept combination of literary deconstruction and genuinely enjoyable adventure. Best of all, Grossman doesn’t merely repeat the themes and morals of the first novel – which would be tempting, given how unique they were for the genre the first time around – but develops Quentin into a more mature and likeable character, which is an admirable accomplishment, given that the point of the first novel was partially about Quentin’s inability to develop and mature.

5. King City

There’s so much of this town that I never think about. All this city going on all at once. You can spend forever in a place like this and still see hundreds of new faces every day. Face. Face. Face. All of everyone piled up on each other. I wonder how much is going on in all those windows.

Cities are amazing places. Millions and millions of people rubbing up against each other, all the stories inside their heads, all those little universes concentrated into one. On a map they look like spiderwebs shooting roads out. what was King City about? I can’t remember, exactly. But I can remember what it felt like – a big, bold, brash, fun adventure in an awesome, crazy city where anything can happen.

4. The Long Walk

“Do you think you’ll win, Ray?”
Garraty considered it for a long, long time.
“No,” he said finally. “No, I… no.”

Stephen King is widely known as a horror writer, but I’ve always found the appeal in his books to be their fascinating situations: a superflu wiping out civilisation, a mist full of monsters enveloping a town, travelling back in time to prevent JFK’s assassination, and so on. I never find his books unsettling or disturbing, let alone frightening. That changed with The Long Walk – a young adult novel set in a dystopian America where a hundred teenage boys participate annually in the titular competition. They start on the US/Canadian border and begin walking south. There are no rest breaks. If you stop, you get shot. Last man standing wins. It predates Battle Royale and The Hunger Games by a good few decades (King began writing it during the Vietnam War, and it’s at least partly an allegory for conscription) and he manages to make the whole thing horribly realistic – the cold gaze of the carbine-bearing soldiers, the fanatic screaming of the onlookers, and the terrible agonising pain of having to walk or die. One of his greatest novels.

3. Riddley Walker

There wernt nothing terbel happening and yet there wer. Whats so terbel its just that knowing of the horrer in every thing. The horrer waiting. I dont know how to say it. Like say you myt get cut bad and all on a suddn there you are with your leg opent up and youre looking at the mussl fat and boan of it. You always knowit what wer unner the skin only you dont want to see that bloody meat and boan. Never mynd.

The gimmick of Riddley Walker is that it’s a post-apocalyptic novel written in debased pidgin English, mimicking the manner in which people might speak two thousand years after a nuclear holocaust. The marvel of Riddley Walker is that Hoban has actually developed a consistent form of pidgin with its own rules, quirks and phrases. But beyond its inventiveness, Riddley Walker is simply an excellent post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel. Hoban’s invented language is brilliant, and I’m glad he wrote the book with it, but the impressive thing is that he didn’t even need to.

2. Disgrace

“I don’t agree. I don’t agree with what you are doing. Do you think that by meekly accepting what happened to you, you can set yourself apart from farmers like Ettinger? Do you think what happened was an exam: if you come through, you get a diploma and safe conduct into the future, or a sign to paint on the door-lintel that will make plagues pass you by? That is not how vengeance works, Lucy. Vengeance is like a fire. The more it devours, the hungrier it gets.”

Disgrace – deserved winner of the 1999 Booker Prize, written by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee – is the kind of book where it’s difficult to explain why it’s so good. It merely is. You can throw around staple book review words like “masterful” and “elegant” and “engrossing” or you can just say that this is a really, really, really good book – one of the finest novels of the last 25 years, with not a word or a sentence out of place, remarkably accessible for a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, and all packed into a concise two hundred pages.

1. The Magicians

Brakebills let out for the last two weeks of December. At first Quentin wasn’t sure why he was terrified of going home until he realised that it wasn’t home he was worried about, per se. He was worried that if he left Brakebills they’d never let him back in. He would never find his way back again – they would close the secret door to the garden behind him, and lock it, and its outline would be lost forever among the vines and the stonework, and he would be trapped out in the real world forever.

What would happen if your childhood fantasies came true? What if you could really go off to Hogwarts to study magic? What would happen if you could really walk through a gateway into Narnia to have fantastic adventures? Would it make you happy?

The fundamental themes of Grossman’s novel The Magicians – that realising our fantasies could ultimately be hollow, that the perfect is the enemy of the good, that ennui is a pervasive gloom that can’t easily be defeated – seem trite when summarised. Grossman succeeds in writing about them by creating a fantasy world that is authentically exciting, desirable and fantastic. If Brakebills, his American wizard college located in upstate New York, was merely a stylistic metaphor for Hogwarts (as it doubtless would be if a proper “literary” author had written it) The Magicians would be a dull, stale novel. But Brakebills is a place that’s genuinely appealing to imagine, as is Fillory, Grossman’s Narnia fascimile. By creating a fantasy world that simultaneously celebrates and deconstructs the fantasy genre, Grossman has written one of its finest novels, and The Magicians is the best book I read in 2012. It also contains one of the most disturbing chapters (and ending to said chapter) that I’ve ever read. Read this book.

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