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Once again I find myself approaching the new year without the magic number: T E N. In my defence I read only 42 books compared to last year’s 45, when I did a Top 5 Books of the Year, so I have a higher ratio of books read vs good books read, which if anything must be an improvement. (I also tapped out on two – Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning and M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device – because I’m getting older and life is too short to waste reading rubbish books.) If I was to force myself into naming ten books, the three that I’d shoehorn into this list would be The Overstorey by Richard Powers, The People in The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara, and The Son by Philipp Meyer – all good novels, but not great; not good enough for me to bother writing anything on them.

So, here are the seven best books I read in 2018:

7. Pushing Ice
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“It’s them. They’re here. Oh, God. They’re here.”

One day, with no prior warning, one of Saturn’s smaller moons suddenly departs from its planetary orbit and takes up a trajectory that will see it depart the solar system. Surprise! Only one human vessel, the comet miner Rockhopper with a crew of about 150, is anywhere close to being able to intercept what is obviously an alien artefact before it escapes humanity’s grasp entirely. While this plotline clearly owes a great debt to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, the limits to which Reynolds pushes it – across vast arenas of time and space – are really remarkable; the story keeps going well beyond the point at which you might expect it to conclude. (A particularly good example is when the crew discover an advanced spacesuit manufactured by the human race in the future, which ends up being explained perfectly well, without recourse to time travel – at least of the non-relativistic variety). And as always, Reynolds has a brilliant ability to illustrate just how frightening and unknowable space is, and how eerie any kind of first contact would be – he’s one of the few sci-fi writers whose books successfully blend over into horror.

6. Sabrina
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There was a time not long ago when it seemed like the internet was an unquestionably good thing for humanity: unobstructed access to the sum of all human knowledge, instantaneous communication with anyone anywhere in the world, an ability for people to connect with like-minded communities they might not have the opportunity to find in real life. The past five years or so has soured that point of view, as our body politic – particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – is poisoned by conspiracy theories, toxic ideologies, and an alarming departure from the norms and standards of critical thinking and a shared reality. Cranks and lunatics have always been with us, but it’s the internet which allows them to find each other, feed off each other and egg each other on to cross the line from spewing crap on a message board to stalking the families of massacre victims or running people down in a car. Nick Drnaso’s Booker-longlisted graphic novel Sabrina is, on the surface, about the murder of an innocent woman and the shockwave it sends through her friends and family. More interestingly, it’s about the terrifying way the internet can suddenly shove an ordinary person onto a global stage.

5. The World in Winter
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It was difficult to tell, looking back, how good a summer that had been.

Another thoroughly engrossing mid-century sci-fi potboiler from John Christopher. The earth’s magnetosphere has been disrupted, winters are getting colder, and our protagonists eventually decamp an apocalyptically frozen London for lives as struggling white refugees in Lagos, Nigeria. The World in Winter is dated in its class politics, but it’s reassuring that Christopher avoids any of the outright racism one would expect of a novel of this type written in that decade; and flipping the script on xenophobia towards refugees is still as timely as ever. Anyway, never mind all that – it’s mostly just another cracking good disaster story from one of the 20th century’s most overlooked science fiction authors.

4. The 2020 Commission Report On The North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against The United States
2020 commission report
“The president just said, ‘Absolutely beautiful’,” recalled a staffer. “I started to cry.”

This kind of book scratches a very particular itch for me. Less a novel, more a book-length version of an internet longread (like what happened on Air Force One during 9/11 or what will happen when the Queen dies), Jeffrey Lewis paints a fascinating scenario of a potential North Korean nuclear strike on the US. Left-wing readers (of which I am one) might balk at the very idea as some kind of Fox News fever dream hysteria, but every step of Lewis’ scenario is built upon a ladder of brinkmanship and misunderstanding, all of it drawn from real-life scenarios like the sinking of the Cheonan or the shooting down of KAL 007. Readers less interested in geopolitical doomsday scenarios might get less out of this book than I did, but it’s nonetheless a painstakingly researched and disturbingly plausible exploration of nuclear war by a writer who knows exactly what he’s talking about. The result is the most gripping book I read all year.

 3. The Physician
“In the countries of the East the Arabs have made a fine art of the science of medicine. In Persia the Muslims have a hospital at Ispahan that is truly a healing center. It is in this hospital and in a small academy there that Avicenna makes his doctors.”

A wonderful coming of age story, beginning with the orphaning of Rob Cole in London in the 11th century and following his life as he is apprenticed to an itinerant barber-surgeon roaming all over England. Noah Gordon follows Cole’s induction into the rudimentary field of medieval medicine, his decision to disguise himself as a Jew and travel to Persia to seek out further knowledge, his friendships with other students, his mentorship under the famous physician Avicenna, and even his entrance into a Persian king’s circle of confidants and a war expedition to India. It’s undemanding historical fiction that reads like a great fantasy novel, and it’s easy to see why The Physician was a bestseller.

2. Desolation Island & The Fortune of War
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“My God, oh my God. Six hundred men.”

Seven books deep, yet some would argue this is where Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series truly hits its stride. It feels appropriate to group the two books together as one entry, given that the second picks up with the characters still stranded on the far side of the world, before shifting gears dramatically and putting them at the heart of an enemy city. Paired together, they play off each other immensely well: Desolation Island is almost entirely ocean-based, yet still manages to utilise Stephen very well, his espionage storyline kickstarted by a spy aboard the ship; The Fortune of the War sees Jack his usual clumsy landbound self and Stephen once again embroiled in intrigue, yet – when things begin to go violently wrong for Stephen – it’s Jack who has to take the lead and smuggle them to safety. This series is at its best when O’Brian manages to balance the strengths of both characters perfectly, which he hasn’t always managed to do in the past. And from the horrible battle with a pursuing Dutch man-o’-war during an Antarctic gale, to Stephen’s more personal flight from pursuers through a foggy Boston morning, these two books have some of the series’ most memorable setpieces thus far.

 1. The Killer Angels
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“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. I don’t … this hasn’t happened much in the history of the world. We’re an army going out to set other men free.”

It’s probably not uncommon, as a man, to read war memoirs or watch war films and feel that if you didn’t serve in the military in your early twenties then you possibly missed out on some intrinsic part of the masculine experience. Just a gut feeling rather than a sensible idea, of course, since if I’d been born forty years earlier and my number had come up in the Vietnam draft my ass would have been on a plane to Europe the same day, and I certainly don’t regret not enlisting to participate in Australia’s expeditionary support of America’s 18-years-and-counting attempt to pacify the Hindu Kush. There’s a reason that for the last three or four generations, most of our great cultural depictions of brotherhood between men on the battlefield usually revolve around World War II: because it was the last purely just war we ever fought. And I’m sure that even if I’d been twenty years old in 1940, any fond memories or pride in my service would be outweighed by the sheer violent terror of it all.

Still, that gut feeling is there, and it can’t be denied, and the American Civil War would stand alongside World War II as one of the most just wars of all time. The only thing worth sending people to kill other people they’ve never met, and be killed by them in turn, is to prevent even greater atrocities, which slavery obviously was regardless of what many modern Americans think. The Killer Angels does not shy away from this, even as it strangely focuses far more on Southern generals than Union generals, and comes uncomfortably close to Robert E. Lee apologia. It’s a mark of how brilliant a writer Shaara is that I was able to overlook these political flaws: his prose verges on poetry, and like all great novels this one has many scenes which stay in the memory long after the reader has finished. The summer heat and approaching thunderstorm in a deserted Pennsylvania landscape as two great armies play cat and mouse with each other, Lee’s spy the only man in the world who knows where both of them are, “[carrying] the knowledge with a hot and lovely pride;” the first contact on the outskirts of Gettysburg, as a Union scout, a teenager perched in a tree, sees the first skirmishers approaching, “long, long rows, like walking trees, coming up toward him out of the mist;” and the brilliance of Joshua Chamberlain’s final desperate gambit as his men run out of ammunition at Little Round Top: “Fix bayonets! Charge! He leaped down from the boulder, still screaming, his voice beginning to crack and give, and all around him his men were roaring animal screams, and he saw the whole Regiment rising and pouring over the wall and beginning to bound down through the dark bushes, the dead and dying and wounded, hats coming off, hair flying, mouths making sounds, one man firing as he ran, the last bullet, the last round.” The Killer Angels is one of the most worthy Pulitzer winners I’ve read, and perhaps one of the greatest war novels of all time.

D’Shai by Joel Rosenberg (1991) 327 p.


Joel Rosenberg wrote a series of very fun fantasy novels I enjoyed in high school called Guardians of the Flame, which is basically about a group of D&D players who get transported into their fantasy world and find it’s not quite as much fun when your real life is at stake, and who also end up staying there for 25+ years and using their own college degree knowledge to kickstart an industrial revolution. It was a silly premise but very earnest and enjoyable, and I need to get around to re-reading it one of these days. D’Shai, on the other hand, is a more traditional fantasy story – one which is also a mystery, as the narrator and his family of travelling acrobats get caught up a tit-for-tat revenge drama while performing for a week at the court of a local ruler. (The blurb, shamefully, gives away a fairly critical plot development which doesn’t happen until the last fifth of the book!)

The key fantasy gimmick at the heart of D’Shai is the concept of “kazuh,” a form of magic in which the performer of a task – someone already at the height of their profession – can phase into a supremely focused and powerful rendition of that task, whether they’re an acrobat or a warrior or a runner or a cook or whatever. This seems a logical line of thought for Rosenberg, who (as I was reminded early in this book) is a writer with a lot of other hobbies who often writes about the physicality of certain acts: juggling, karate, guns, and in this book acrobatics. The most obvious example of this kind of writing was Hemingway, but you see it with lots of others, people who you can tell are channeling their love of a particular pursuit into their fiction: classic rock and baseball with Stephen King, mountain climbing with Kim Stanley Robinson, animal husbandry with John Marsden. I wish I was that kind of writer, mostly because I think it would be nice to be one of those people who can just lose themselves in an activity, even a mundane one like cooking. Instead I’m the kind of writer who’s an easily distracted scatterbrain and dislikes working with my hands, not because I’m lazy but because I find it dull.

Anyway, D’Shai is a light and easy read for a fantasy fan, the kind of book which would probably sit well alongside Barry Hugart’s Bridge of Birds. I suspect Guardians of the Flame is probably his better work, though I’d need to re-read that, because for all I know it doesn’t hold up.

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December 2018