Reading Highlights of 2019

I started 2019 with the intention of blogging about every book I read. This is an intention that eventually fell by the wayside because there are some books about which I really don’t have anything to say. These were the books that were neither great nor terrible, and about which all I can say is “that was okay”.

This post is not about those books.

I also read some really, really good books, and these are the books that this post is about.

Among these were two novels by Sarah Pinborough: The Shadow of the Soul and The Chosen Seed. These are the second and third parts of the Dog Faced Gods trilogy and, if you like dark urban fantasy, this series is well worth a read. The series is both dystopian and apocalyptic and keeps you hooked from beginning to end.

I also read a couple of (completely unrelated) novellas by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The Expert System’s Brother is a science-fiction story masquerading as a fantasy and, while short, packs a lot of detail into the page count in a way that manages to be both immersive and gripping. The second Novella was Made Things which was a short and very readable tale about trust, loyalty and friendship. The question of what it means to be a person is a theme that often appears in Tchaikovsky’s writing and is one that is very apparent in both of these stories.

2019 was also the year in which I discovered C.J. Cherryh by way of Foreigner, the first book in her eponymous series. Foreigner is a first contact novel wrapped in a thriller, the twist being that, this time, it’s humans that have landed on an alien planet and having to navigate a completely alien culture. I cannot believe that I still haven’t gotten around to reading Invader yet — I shall have to rectify this very soon.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor utterly blew me away. At less than 100 pages, this was a very quick read but there is so much packed into this novella that it really is worth going back and reading it again. The synopsis I saw for this made it sound like a fairly unexceptional space opera. What makes it stand out is that by drawing on her Nigerian roots, Nnedi Okorafor manages to look at questions of culture and cultural identity is a way that is (to me) utterly original.

Another novel that felt completely new to me was The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. Again, by not relying on the usual white western stereotypes, Jemisin presents a densely detailed world that is like nothing I have read before. I have already read the second book in this (The Broken Earth) series, and will be picking up a copy of The Stone Sky just as soon as I have the time.

And finally there is The Jennifer Morgue by The Jennifer Morgue, the second book in the Laundry Files series. This is, subversively funny, often unnerving and absolutely spot-on about PowerPoint.

The Chosen Seed

With The Chosen Seed, Sarah Pinborough brings the Dog Faced Gods trilogy to a spectacular and suitably apocalyptic finale.

First his nephew was kidnapped, now DI Cass Jones has been framed for murder. But he’s about to get help from a very unexpected source. Detectives Hask and Ramsey are searching for the killer behind the lethal virus sweeping through London, which has thrown up clues that Cass might be innocent after all.

Somehow it’s linked to Mr Bright, and to the organisation which manipulates everyone from the shadows. So Cass Jones is going up against The Bank and it’s sinister employees one last time. He needs every ally he can get, and this time he means to find answers. And the more he learns, the more everything hinges on finding Luke…

Although Cass Jones is still the central character and the plot is largely driven by his attempt to locate Luke, his missing nephew, this installment of the trilogy is much more about the origins and motivations of Mr Bright and the organisation he leads. As such the fantasy elements come right to the fore this time around.

It’s not hard to see where things are going and the ending is not a huge surprise. What makes the novel stand out, for me, is the strength of the plotting and seeing how Sarah Pinborough deftly pulls together the various threads into a narrative that keeps you hooked right up to the end.

The attention to detail applies not only to the plot but also the characters, with every one of them fully rounded and each of them displaying a set of motivations that are fully consistent with both the setting and the events.

As with The Shadow of the Soul, the events in The Chosen Seed follow directly from the previous novel with no time taken to recap the earlier events. As such, you really need to have read the first two novels before embarking on this one.

The books are all well worth your time, though, as The Chosen Seed makes for a powerful ending to an excellent trilogy that has, throughout, been both gripping and thoughtful.

The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough

Somewhere around three-quarters the way through this book, I found myself thinking that there was no way that Sarah Pinborough could possibly wrap up all of the various plot threads before the end of the novel and that this second book of the trilogy would end up doing little more than set the scene for the final instalment.

How wrong I was.

There is a lot going on in here but Sarah Pinborough does a superb job of bringing everything together in a manner that brings together the various threads without feeling rushed of leaving too much dangling.

DI Cass Jones is still dealing with the fallout of uncovering a major conspiracy within his own police station when a terrorist attack rocks London and he finds himself called on to help with the investigation. At the same time he has his own investigation to worry about: young people are dying, apparently committing suicide – and they’re all linked by the phrase Chaos in the Darkness, scrawled or sent as their last message to the world.

Then he’s given a note from his dead brother Christian, written before his murder: the three words – ‘They took Luke’ – opens up a whole new can of worms, because Cass knows immediately who They are: Mr Bright and the shadowy Network. His dead brother has set him a task from beyond the grave – to find the baby, his nephew, stolen at birth.

And as Cass tries to divide his time between all three investigations, it’s not long before he discovers links, where there should not be. The mysterious Mr Bright is once again pulling his strings, and there’s nothing DI Cass Jones hates more…

A Shadow of the Soul is the middle book of a trilogy and you do need to have read the first book, A Matter of Blood, to properly understand what is going on. In A Matter of Blood, we were introduced to a near-future dystopia with hints of supernatural horror. A Shadow of the Soul retains the police procedural structure of the previous book but, now that the supernatural element has been revealed, takes the time to delve further into the motivations and methods of the beings of The Network.

We have conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies as the central character, Cass Jones (a wonderfully, and believably, miserable individual), attempts to make sense of what is going on around and to him.

While this is the middle book of a trilogy, it also stands up on its own merits as a well contained story. If the series stopped here, I would be reasonably happy but there is a third entry and I shall be reading this very shortly.

2018: My year in books

The number of books I read this year has seen a significant rise on previous years. This is largely due to the fact that I am now commuting primarily by train, which gives me much more time to read.

(A consequence of this is that, my reduced driving combined with the fact that I can now get the BBC World Service on my car radio means that I have, for all intents an purposes, stopped listening to podcasts. But that’s not the point of this post.)

This year I have read a total of 24 books, leaning heavily towards fantasy novels. Two sets of fantasy novels, both of which have proved to be highlights of my reading year.

First up is A Song of Ice And Fire. All seven novels (so far) of George R.R. Martin’s epic tale of Westeros which I started reading in light of the hype surrounding the Game of Thrones TV series. I still haven’t watched the TV but, based on the novels, the hype is very well deserved. This is fantasy that is gritty, dark, messy and muddy and so well written that, regardless of the number of characters and narrative threads, you never once lose track of or interest in the ongoing events.

The other highlight for me was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Echoes of the Fall trilogy. This is a fantasy series that ignores all of the pseudo-medieval cliches in favour of exploring a bronze age society, populated entirely by shape-shifting humans. It’s a highly original series, packed with engaging and believable characters, that serves to remind me just why Adrian Tchaikovsky remains my favourite living writer.

Also worth a mention is A Matter of Blood, this first part of The Dog Faced Gods trilogy by Sarah Pinborough. Written in 2009 and set in a 2011 in which the ramifications of the financial crash were far more dystopian, this novel manages to combine science fiction, noir and horror into a single gripping package. I already have the next book in the series and will be starting on it very soon indeed.

On the comedy front, I can’t not mention A Game of Battleships, the latest installment of Toby Frost’s Chronicles of Isambard Smith. If the idea of steampunk space opera in which the Sun never set on the British Empire provides a deep mine of comedy gold which, hopefully, will continue to deliver for many more years to come.

Next year, I plan to enjoy even more time on the train, and finally put a sizable dent in my almost-under-control pile of unread books.