← Back to library

My favorite books

Rating: ★★★★½

Hellspark

A whodunit with some of the best realized alien cultures of any science fiction novel I’ve ever read. The characterization definitely drives this book and makes it particularly memorable. This book has quite a bit in common with books like Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi and Iain Banks novels about The Culture, where certain individuals with unique abilities are able to resolve unique situations.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Life During Wartime

Science fiction with a strong sense of setting or atmosphere is always preferable for generating a sense of wonder and drawing me into the book. Like the works of Latin American fabulists like Borges or Marquez, this book has an almost cinematic phantasmagoria about it even as it tells a very hard-edged story about war in the near future. It also compares favorably with Richard Kadrey’s Kamikaze L’Amour, though this is the stronger book.

Rating: ★★★★½

Tea with the Black Dragon

An excellent modern fantasy novel that combines Asian mythology with an urban setting. My favorite of the urban fantasy genre of books, though I’m also very fond of Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons.

Rating: ★★★★★

The General in His Labyrinth

This hauntingly elegiac work of historical fiction does a brilliant job of chronicling the aging Simon Bolivar’s final days as he makes a final trip down the Magdalena River. As he is dying, plagued by regrets and illness, he recalls his life and events, large and small, that brought him to this point.

Rating: ★★★★½

Way-farer

This is the first in the Kensho series that also includes Kensho, Satori and Wanderer. A very enjoyable blend of science fiction and martial arts. I was particularly fond of the way that the practice of Zen was depicted and the role it plays in this and the other books. If you haven’t read much in the way of non-fiction about Zen Buddhism, this book might serve as a good introduction (with the caveat that, because it examines these ideas, it’s a little heavy on exposition).

Rating: ★★★★½

Night Watch

This book falls very much into one of my favorite genres, if it can, in fact, be described as a genre: Magical science fiction. Its style is not that overwrought merger of future technology awkwardly grafted onto the imaginings of Tolkien, but is instead a well-done merger of the two (being in many ways to fiction the way a cyborg is a blend of machine and organic). It’s definitely hard-edged than some of Mr. Stewart’s other writing, but bridges the gap between science-fiction and fantasy extremely well.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Worm Ouroboros

Classical fantasy at its best. Not only is this book entertainingly plotted, the language is truly a wonder. It’s a bit of a struggle to get through, but the effort is well-rewarded. By the end of the book, the uses of “thee” and “thou” will roll of your tongue. This review does the book justice.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Paladin

Most fantasy novels have some amount of magic and this is no exception, depending on your perspective and interpretation of events. Though, in fact, it may be that the only fantastic thing about this novel is its setting. Either way, it’s a fascinating book that carries echoes of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea and Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s Tomoe Gozen books than anything. It’s rare to find a book this degree of nuance.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter

This book is another almost fantasy novel that really isn’t. It’s even more atypical in that the author is best known for writing science fiction. The ending is completely unexpected unless you’re one of a certain category of readers who sees it coming a mile away. No review can really do this book justice, though this review republished on Swanwick’s site certainly captures much of the emotional impact.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Hercules Text

Republished as Hello Out There (along with the novel A Talent for War). This is a straightforward hard science fiction novel about first contact. What happens when SETI actually finds an alien message? The version I read is the original 1985 version which has apparently been rewritten and reissued since then. Even though I have read the former, I think I can safely recommend it since the decoding of the alien message and the reactions of the characters are what fascinated me.

Rating: ★★★★★

Mythago Wood

Layer upon layer of mythology are all woven together in a story that merges the mundane with the fantastic. The wood of the title is a place where the distant past meets the present and the story is about the effect on the Huxley family who get drawn into it’s mysteries.

Rating: ★★★★★

Feersum Endjinn

I’m a huge fan of books with inventive use of language. Like Iain Banks’ other work, this one is compelling for its story and the journey of the characters. But the story of the semi-literate Bascule is what really sets this book apart. It’s reminiscent of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Will Self’s The Book of Dave, or even Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer with its richness of language.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Seventh Son (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 1)

This book is the first in a series that I nearly missed out on reading until I heard Orson Scott Card read part if it aloud. The cadences and the language are nearly pitch-perfect and, as with Peter Beagle’s work, it’s meant to be read with the same cadences as a storyteller. The setting is also where I spent the early part of my life, so the stories of Tecumseh and The Prophet was something I could readily identify with and Card’s description of that area is among the best.

Rating: ★★★★★

Pride and Prejudice

This novel makes my list not because it’s a classic or because my wife made me read it, but because it’s a great book on many levels. As an evocation of a time period for which the author was a contemporary, I don’t think it’s been surpassed and unlike other books (I’m thinking of books like Hardy’s Jude the Obscure), it doesn’t seem dated. the characters and their interactions are a perfect study of ordinary human beings in a particular milieu and I think their interactions are fascinating.

Rating: ★★★★½

Stand on Zanzibar

One of the best books by one of my favorite authors. As a dystopic New Wave novel, it has nearly all the elements that I associate with the Cyberpunk movement with an amazingly realized near-future world, complex geopolitics and new technologies that feel like they’re right around the corner. There’s a reason it won the 1968 Hugo Award for best novel.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Jagged Orbit

Like his previous book, Stand on Zanzibar, this book is also set in a dystopian future and explores some of the same issues and themes with an emphasis on the effects of the military-industrial complex on daily life. It also deals with issues in a way that is as relevant today as it was then, most particularly race relations in the United States and exploitation of the underclasses.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Delicate Dependency

This is one of the best vampire books I’ve ever read, capturing the best elements of the mythology and exploring them with a depth rarely encountered. It’s unfortunate that this book is out of print and hard to find because it’s head and shoulders above the likes of Anne Rice and other popular novels still in print. It compares favorably with Suzy McKee Charnas’ “The Vampire Tapestry” and reminds me of the scientific aspects of vampirism in Brian Stableford’s “Empire of Fear”.

Rating: ★★★★★

Briar Rose

An incredibly poignant retelling of the tale of Briar Rose (AKA Sleeping Beauty), interweaving the themes of that story with a tale of the Holocaust. The story is pitch perfect and one of the strongest in editor Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale Series (other notable authors of books in the series include Stephen Brust, Charles de Lint, Kara Dalkey and Pamela Dean). In a similar vein, I’d also recommend the short story collections Windling edited with Ellen Datlow.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Chymical Wedding

Reminiscent of Robert Anton Wilson or Umberto Eco with a nineteenth century prose style that draws you into a tale rife with allegory and mystery, I can’t recommend this book enough.

Rating: ★★★★★

Rajan

This is one of my favorite books to reread. Along with its pseudo-sequel Koren, the language is rich and engaging. It’s evocative, engaging the senses with it’s fully realized world that feels like an Asia that could have been while successfully conjuring images of a land that never was. The interactions between the protagonist and the sorcerer are both familiar as a trope of fantasy, but with a flavor and depth all their own.

Rating: ★★★★½

A Fine and Private Place

Though best know for his book The Last Unicorn, this book is my favorite by Peter Beagle. It’s a slow-paced book about romance and dying and forgetting and living. It works wonderfully well on all levels and is an incredibly satisfying elegiac work of fiction.

Rating: ★★★★½

Something Wicked This Way Comes

When I was still in elementary school, we watched a short documentary about Ray Bradbury (Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer by David L. Wolper). It followed him through his day and he talked about his writing process, his books and other things. That film made me both a life-long Bradbury fan and made me want to write science fiction. This novel is simultaneously grounded in a unique sort of Americana while exploring themes of the fantastic and macabre. To me, it’s the quintessential Bradbury and is the perfect jumping off point for works like The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine and The Illustrated Man.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Emerald Eyes

Emerald Eyes is the first volume in a series entitled “The Tales of the Continuing Time.” Originally planned as a series of thirty-three books, only a few novels were actually published along with some other pieces and work-in-progress on the Daniel Keys Moran mirror site. With it’s near-future setting and grand adventure, telepaths and time-travel, it has something to offer fans of old-school space opera (in the vein of E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman series) with a modern tropes that may appeal to fans cyberpunk and of more recent near-future science fiction.

Rating: ★★★★½

Tuf Voyaging

Everyone seems to be a fan of Martin’s fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, but the stories of Haviland Tuf, a self-styled ecological engineer, are my favorites. This collection of stories originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction and elsewhere, which is how I read them, eagerly snapping them up when they appeared. But they don’t lose their power when read in a single collection.

Rating: ★★★★★

A Fire Upon The Deep (Zones of Thought)

Like Vinge’s other books, this book deals with big ideas including the nature of alien species, mundane and god-like, plays with the laws of physics and presents the whole as a star-spanning space opera in a race against an world-destroying entity known as The Blight. Fans of Iain Banks should enjoy this work.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun, vol. 1)

Reissued in a two-volume set titled, Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel, with companion volumes The Urth of the New Son and Castle of the Otter. That last book includes a glossary and other information that may prove helpful in digesting Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun opus. Much as with Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, this book thrives on language and the archaic words play a large role in building the richly-tapestried world, giving depth and texture to the desciption of the setting. Fans of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series or H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath should enjoy this series.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Stress of Her Regard

To call this novel a vampire novel would be something of an extreme misnomer, despite its cast of romantic poets and authors (Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, John Polidori, and John Keats) and the ancient beings referred to as lamia. It draws on those writers’ depictions of vampires, particularly Keats’ poem Lamia, but paints all those fevered imaginings on a much parger and darker canvas. The events that gave rise to some of the greatest work of the aforementioned writers, including the summer at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, are told in a completely plausible and much more fantastic way and the narrator who tells the tale is very much of a type with the historical figures in the story.

Rating: ★★★★½

On Stranger Tides

Pirate stories, when well-done, can be great fun, whether it be a classic like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped or a modern story like this one. In typical Tim Powers style, this book covers much more ground than a simple tale of pirates on the Spanish Main, adding magic that’s one of the best depictions of African-influenced sympathetic magic that fits perfectly with the novels Caribbean setting.

Rating: ★★★★★

Invisible Man

When I think of people trying to write “The Great American Novel”, this is the book I think of. It covers so much ground and has so much depth that it truly stands out as a work of literature. With it’s allusions to other works and subsequent comparisons to work’s like Homer’s Odyssey, this is definitely a novel that manages to strike many chords that appeal to me and allows me to empathize with the narrator despite the lack of direct commonality of our experiences.

Rating: ★★★★½

A String in the Harp

This Newberry Honor-winning book paints a vivid picture of Wales and tells the story of Peter, newly arrived in Aberstwyth with his siblings, who finds the harp tuning key that belonged to the legendary bard Taliesin. His visions of the past and the ultimate resolution are very well-told and have a richness that will appeals to fans of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series. The legendary elements were my first introduction to Taliesin, though I’d previously approached Welsh mythology through the works of Evangeline Walton. This work has a deeper texture than the works of Alan Garner or Lloyd Alexander, though drawing from the same well and, in that regard, is almost a Welsh counterpart to the Scottish mythology that make the works of Mollie Hunter so enjoyable.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Children of Green Knowe

Sort like the Gothic version of Burnett’s The Secret Garden, this book (and the rest of the Green Knowe series) has always been my favorite and is one of the best kids’ books featuring ghosts and echoes of the past with slightly creepy manorial settings where mysteries abound. Everything from Alan Garner’s The Owl Service to Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s Spiderwick Chronicles owes something to this work or seems to be inspired by it. I know that for sheer atmosphere, it’s incredibly evocative.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Big Tiger and Christian: Their Adventures in Mongolia

Though this book could easily have been just another “boy’s adventure” book, it’s narrative and portrayal of Mongolia and Mongolian Culture in the ’30s is both fascinating and informative, rivalling many non-fiction travel narratives while maintaining a sense of fun and adventure.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Swallows and Amazons

This children’s book is the first in a series about a group of kids in England’s Lake District during the ’30s. This was my first introduction to sailing and romantic notions of pirates and camping adventures. For me, it was this book more than its inspirations (such as Stevensons’s Treasure Island) that really struck a chord with me, though I later received an illustrated version of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, whose maps and illustrations were also inspirational.