One of the most important things that a writer can do to improve is read, so in celebration of the new decade I have assembled a list of ten books I have read between 2010 and 2020 that have influenced what I aspire to in my own writing.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Now is a good time to be a fan of Dune, and a great time to start reading if you haven’t. With a new movie coming out next year and the recent re-release of the classic board game there is a lot to be excited about. Frank Herbert crafted a feudal and self-limiting version of the future where humanity has been cowed by its failures and found comfort and stability in its past. Travel between planets is controlled by the influential and mysterious Spacing Guild and technological advancement has stagnated thanks to humanity’s fears of what it created in the past. The novel focuses on Paul Atreides, heir to the house Atreides which claims to trace its origins back to ancient Greece. The novel begins with House Atreides having been given ownership of the planet Arakis, a desert world of great importance, and an obvious trap.
What makes this book and its sequel so interesting is that it is not the story of a man trying to reach some imagined future. Paul knows the future. It is the story of a man who knows his fate and knows the terrible things that he must do. Even as he works towards this terrible future Paul does his best to divert it. In several cases he opts for the lesser of several evils or makes choices different from his visions simply to prove that he can. All the while he creates the very future that he fears. He knows what must be done but he does not want to be the one to do it. Psychic powers such as reading the mind and fortune telling are often depicted at having a terrible cost, but I know of no other narrative that more vividly and creatively captures the horrible price of power.
Codex Alera by Jim Butcher
According to the author the idea for this series began as a dare; write a good book using two bad ideas, Pokemon and a Lost Roman Legion. He succeeded in crafting an engaging high fantasy world with easily understandable but endlessly interesting magic system and culture that is familiar but has shaped by the world it found itself in.
Like with many of my favorite books the magic and the worldbuilding drew me in. Jim Butcher created a coherent and engrossing world out of what was supposed to be an impossible dare. He created a society where everyone could do magic and that magic is taken to its logical conclusion and used for everything from quickening the pace of armies and chilling food, to creating human artillery and magical airlines. To me creating this vibrant world from what was supposed to be a pair of terrible ideas speaks to the author’s skill as a writer and makes it an essential read for anyone looking for some good, modern fantasy.
The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore
This may turn out to be the only nonfiction book on the list. I have included it because I find the topic fascinating and also because of the way in which Montefiore portrays the character of the various Romanov Tsars. In some ways this book is a history of Russia. For about 300 years the whims and desires of this family determined the fate of millions and given the autocratic nature of the Russian Empire a history of the Romanovs might as well be the history of Russia.
Montefiore manages in this book to paint a vivid picture of the personality of each Tsar. Instead of an ancient and dusty portrait we get a glimpse at a living breathing human who held the fate of millions in their hands. Many of them were deeply flawed, but all of them were human. This I believe presents a lesson not just of history but for any worldbuilders who want to write a compelling despot. Each Tsar presided over an incredibly inhumane regime, but not all of them were bad people. None of them chose to be born into the imperial family. Montifiore portrays many of these Tsars as very relatable and sometimes tragic individuals. Although we sometimes feel bad for relating to people we might want see as evil I think this is the most important lesson of the book. Anyone could be a dictator given the right circumstances.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Science fiction authors have the opportunity to imagine and explore an entire universe and all too often they still manage to make it feel small. Joe Haldeman did not have that problem. When the book begins we see humanity in the early years of its travel between the stars, getting ready to go to war with an enemy they know nothing about. The books focus is on William Mandella who was chosen as one of the first to go off-world to fight the Taurans. In each battle the time dilation means a relatively short time passes for him while years go by on Earth. The interest that accrues while he is gone makes him and the other soldiers rich, but each time they return to Earth they find that it has changed drastically from what they knew and the alienation convinces many to reenlist each time they return. A lot of this makes you wonder what the point of the war is, decisions regarding strategy are made years in advance of an actual battle taking place and by the time the battle is fought the decisions made may no longer be relevant. As occurs at the end of the war when many soldiers return to Earth to find out that the war has already been over for years.
Haldeman’s work is a reflection of his own experiences in the Vietnam war. The alienation Mandella feels on returning to Earth is a reflection of the experiences of him and other veterans when they returned home from Vietnam. The futility of the war between Humans and Taurans can also be seen through this lens. After centuries of war all of Earth is reshaped to support the war effort and in the end it is revealed that the war began as an understanding. Mandella returns from his last battle to find Man and Taurans living together in peace and this is something that we later see many veterans of the Forever War unable to accept. In this way Haldeman takes the reader through his own experiences in Vietnam and helps us to understand the alienation felt by many veterans by depicting the drastic changes seen by soldiers of the Forever War who were taken out of their own times and forced into others.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Old Man’s War treats space travel in a very different way than The Forever War but I always felt like there was a common thread. Old Man’s War features many more aliens than The Forever War but the battles seem just as pointless. In it humanity is locked in a state of constant war with other species over the handful of habitable planets available in local space and rejects any proposals that would establish a lasting peace. Soldiers from Earth are recruited when they reach old age and are given new engineered bodies designed for combat. When their terms of service are up they are rewarded with a new younger body and a home on a new colony world. This is the only way for many on Earth to have a chance at seeing the stars.
Like The Forever War, the characters in Old Man’s War are made to fight aliens who did not need to be humanity’s enemies until the Colonial Defense Force made them such. The novel makes you think about whether we are entitled to the land we take, the ethics of consciousness transfer, and the value of learning more about the people you consider to be your enemies. One alien race, the Consu, are seen as a complete mystery until John Perry thinks to look deeper into their motivations and this becomes critical to the resolution of the conflict in the first book.
Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
If you want a book that features subdued yet powerful magic then there are few better books to read than Wizard of Earthsea. Le Guin imagined the world of Earthsea as a vast archipelago surrounded by vast oceans. The people who live on these islands are described as having darker skin, a notable deviation from much of fantasy that normally focuses on characters who resemble white Europeans. Magic in Earthsea is performed by learning the True Names of things, and training a full wizard on the island of Roke is shown to take many years. Most of the books are related in some way to the story of Ged, the main character of the first book who later becomes the headmaster of the school on Roke.
What I think the series does best in terms of magic usage is enforce consequences. We never really see a limit to a wizard’s power although it does seem that some are stronger than others. Many limits are self-imposed by wizards who unwilling to disturb the balance of the world. Indeed, the conflict in several of the books is caused by wizards (including Ged) not heeding this balance and leaving everyone else to deal with the consequences.
Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks
I have not read all of the Culture novels, and my reading order has been sporadic, but as far as I can see the Hydrogen Sonata is my favorite of the bunch. Banks does something in his books that I would never have thought to try; he wrote about a post scarcity society. We see societies like this in science fiction all the time, but often they start to show their cracks when we look too closely at how they are structure. In his novels Banks showed us the Culture, an extremely advanced anarcho-socialist civilization where every need and want of the populace is provided for by hyper-intelligent AI called Minds. The Culture has no central government and people are free to leave and join it at will. Events are steered by committees of AI acting on their own initiative and by the mysterious group within the Culture known as Special Circumstances, although we are told that many large-scale decisions are made via public referundum. Banks’ ability to imagine the conflict that would matter in this society and portraying them with a unique mix of wit and seriousness really show off the skill he had as a writer and worldbuilder.
The Hydrogen Sonata was the last Culture Novel that Banks wrote before he died, and is named for a song of the same name that one of the books central characters has decided to dedicate her life to learning. As the book starts the Gzilt civilization is getting ready to sublime, an action undertaken by certain advanced species in which the ascend to a higher plane of existence. Some choose to stay behind, others try to make their last days into an endless party. The books tone is equal parts melancholy and anticipation. There is a bittersweet aspect to subliming as a civilization leaves behind all it has built as it goes into the next, and possibly last, stage of its development. A fitting end to a great series and a great career.
The Powder Mage Trilogy by Brian McClellan
I love fantasy that takes place in periods other than the medieval, and especially fantasy that gives you a sense that the world had changed over the time. The Kingdom of Adro is one of a cluster of nations known collectively as the Nine, which seem in some ways comparable to Europe in the 18th century. In Adro, the books begin with a coup staged by Field Marshal Tamas, a brilliant commander who has now turned on the country that he served so dutifully for so long. In the course of his rebellion he comes in conflict with an ancient oath and gods that had been long forgotten. We get to see the birth of a new, democratic Adro that emerges from an explosion of violence and bloodshed. Politic intrigue and personal rivalries are as often an obstacle to the protagonists as the armies that block their path and even protagonists are not free of their own selfish motivations that can and do lead to the deaths of thousands.
The trilogy is solid gunpowder fantasy, a newer subgenre in that frequently revolves around political revolutions in a changing world. What I like best about the series, besides the magic systems that change and evolve alongside those who practice is, are the character motivations. In staging his coup Tamas married is desire for revenge with the frustration of his lower-class origins. As Field Martial he reshaped Adro’s army into one that rewards merit instead of noble birth and in his quest to avenge his dead wife he creates a similar but bloodier transformation for his nation. It is a stunning example of how revolutions get wrapped up in personal agendas and force you to question whether all of it is worth it. Tamas creates a new, potentially better nation but sets in motion a chain of events that lead to countless tens of thousands of deaths in a war that he engineers with the neighboring Kez for the sake of his own revenge. The end result is a drastic change in the balance of power and politics on the continent and no doubt many in the new Adro who owe their new prosperity to the revolution would thank him for it. But was his revenge worth it?
The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
Book one of the Prince of Nothing trilogy took me a long time to get to. A friend had been telling me about it for years but I only recently read it and was very surprised by how much I liked it. The Darkness that Comes Before takes place in a world that was destroyed many centuries in the past. The kingdoms that now exist are mere shadows and echoes of their past and now all of them are headed once again to their doom. I love the feeling of history this book has, we are not told much about the world’s past, but everywhere the characters go feels old and lived in. Everywhere you look there are people desperately holding o to the glories and fears of the past and try to make them their own.
In this first book many of the POV characters are observers rather than actors but we see through their eyes how arrogance, greed, and fanaticism lead so many to ruin. Magic is also handled quite well although we are only shown its power a handful of times. Drusas Achamian is a POV character and belongs to a sect of sorcerers known as the Mandate Schoolmen. In his chapters we are presented with a frustrated, demoralized, and often drunk man who seems to have little control over his own destiny. In much of the book he seems to be more of an errand boy than a powerful sorcerer and we do not see him actually cast a spell until the very end of the book. But we do a glimpse of his power when we are shown how others treat him. Those who know who and what he is are cautious around him. Even the headmaster of the largest sorcerers school does not go to meet him unless under heavy guard. To me this shows a great deal of skill on Bakker’s part in shaping our opinions of the character when so far Achamian has simply been caught up in events and has not yet begun to shape them himself.
Hyperion by Dan Simons
Okay so technically I didn’t read this book, I listened to it, and somewhat recently. But I think that this list meant to sum up a decade might as well end with one of my more recent reads. I was at first reluctant to give the book a try after I heard it compared to a science fiction version of Chaucer’s Catebury Tales (which I have not read) but the frame story format gave Simons a great deal of flexibility in telling the story of the seven pilgrims whose lives have all brought them to Hyperion, and their expected deaths, for a variety of reasons. The novel follows seven people on their journey to undertake a pilgrimage to the planet Hyperion where they will meet the Shrike, and most of them will be slaughtered in very painful ways. They do this in the shadow of an impending war that will take place on and around Hyperion. At first this premise sounds absurd. After all why would these seven people have agreed to die? Well, according to legend and the Shrike Church the Shrike will allow one of the pilgrims to make a petition of the Shrike. Each of these pilgrims have something that they wish to do or ask for that they believe that the risk is worth it, and we learn their reasons slowly as the book unfolds.
By writing Hyperion as a frame story Simons took advantage of the format’s unique ability to tell multiple stories at once. There are hints of noir, travel diaries, love stories, and tragedies all wrapped up in the novel and tied together with a bow made of political maneuvering. The pilgrims that are the center of the story are pawns, but they do not know the game they are being used in. As the plot evolves we begin to get the impression that even those moving the pawns are unsure of the game and that each pilgrim may hold the key to unlocking the secret of the Time Tombs in which the Shrike resides. And that the coming war may spell the end of humanity as they know it.
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