This is a series of posts that I’ve been saving for my birthday and seeing as I turn 33 tomorrow, it’s finally time for me to enjoy my treat. Books mean everything to me. My own private collection numbers in the hundreds of books and covers both free walls of my bedroom. In addition to being a real pain in the backside when I move apartments, they have become my anchor and are my most treasured possessions.
So now that I’ve established my immense bookwormishness (yes that’s a word even if I did make it up) lets talk about some specific books. Just like my lists of good and bad movie there are a few criteria to get on these lists.
1: There has to be a minimum of two books in the series. Singular books that make a large enough impact on me will be dealt with on their own in the future.
2: They have to have had a profound emotional effect on me. That means that simply being entertaining isn’t enough. A good book entertains. A great book moves you.
Just like with my movie posts I will be keeping the spoilers to a minimum. But unlike those posts I won’t be linking to any wikipedia articles. I could but all that would do is make my not ruining the surprises kind of redundant. So that done let’s begin the count down.
5: The Empire of Man by David Weber and John Ringo
Prince Roger MacClintock, Heir Tertiary to the Throne of Man is pretty much just a clothes horse. Even his bodyguards think he’s a waste of genetic material and nothing at all compared to his mother. But someone thinks he’s worth assassinating…
Those three short sentences sum up the first few chapters of the first novel in this amazing series of books perfectly. When I picked up the first book in the series a few years ago I really had no idea what I was letting myself in for. These books simply blew me away. Starting as what I thought would be a kind of royal intrigue action novel, they quickly became the single best heroic fiction I have ever had the good fortune to read. David Gemmell for all his talent never even came close to this.
So how to explain what makes these so great. Well there are the characters who vary from hilarious to heartbreaking. They include Nimashet Despreaux, one of the Princes bodyguards who in my 28th year taught me a new lesson. That you can fall hopelessly in love with a literary character.
Then there’s the action. The battles are so beautifully described that you’re right there with the B company of the Bronze Barbarians of the Empress’s Own. Fighting off Atul in the jungles of Marduk or fighting off vast, seemingly endless hordes of bronze age warriors in the ruins of Voitan. But even when you can see and almost smell the blood, the authors somehow make it hurt horribly every time one of the company dies.
But for me what makes this series stand out is that it shows why a touch of barbarism in your blood is anything but a thing. They touch on the simple truth that any healthy society needs those few who can fight for and out of honour and loyalty. They’re the ones who keep everyone else safe in their beds.
I really can’t recommend this series of books strongly enough. Get them, read them. If you do, I bet you won’t be able to stop yourself from dancing around the room when the universe finally finds out why you don’t pock with a MacClintock.
4: Dragonriders of Pern by Anne MacCaffrey
Set in a world where dragons are real and a deadly thread like organism falls from the skies, these novels are a wonderful combination of high adventure, political intrigue and intensely emotional moments. How to describe this series…imagine a half a dozen love stories being told in parallel. Add a deadly threat which could wipe out humanity in a very short time without the dragons to fight it off. Now mix in beautifully written characters and an even more beautifully crafted world to set all that in. There you go that’s the Dragonriders of Pern in a nutshell.
Over the years I’ve heard these books labelled as chick-lit with dragons and dismissed by hard sci-fi fans as mere fantasy. Personally I think that both of those descriptions do serious injustices to something which is actually very special. Though that said, I can see where they come from.
You see Anne MacCaffrey excels in creating incredible female characters. They always jump put of the page at you. This I think is because she makes them flawed. Some are scared. Some are damaged or jealous or vain. Then she balances that with some redeeming factor in a way that may not be precisely realistic but is ultimately extremely powerful. But having read and indeed written chick-lit I can say that these books are not chick-lit.
Nor are they fantasy. Of course if you say the word “dragon” people will automatically think “fantasy”. But in these books the dragons are genetically engineered and Pern is a lost/forgotten human colony in a distant part of the galaxy. So nope not fantasy either.
But what they are is emotional. Back in my very late teens two books in particular from this series helped me to survive the stresses of being transgendered, lesbian and chronically ill, Dragonsinger and Dragonsong. They were the first books to move me to tears. Not just once but several times over the course of each book. Sometimes from sorrow but also from sheer joy. They were a wonderful healing experience to read and to this day, remain my favourite way to touch base with myself, when I feel the need to.
3: Star Trek: New Frontier
It’s Star Trek dear reader but not as we thought we knew it. Charting the experiences of the Starship Excalibur and her very eclectic crew, as they explore a new part of the Trek universe, these books really surprised me. I’ve been a fan of the Star Trek pocket books since my childhood. They’ve always been an enjoyable way to join the crew of your favourite starship on new adventures. But the New Frontier series was something completely new.
For the first time ever, here was a series that dealt with a starship and crew who had never factored in a major way in any of the television series. Instead we had all new characters mixed with a few guest characters from random Next Generation episodes. We had a new part of the galaxy, which came complete with new dangers. And we had a new Starfleet captain, MacKenzie Calhoun, and boy was he new.
Some of what puts this series at number three in this list can be summed up simply in two words, fun and excitement. Calhoun is a captain of the James T. Kirk school. He punches hard and often. He’s aggressive, confrontational and completely undiplomatic. His chief engineer is a pansexual polyamorous hermaphrodite and his security chief is something like The Thing from The Fantastic Four. But far more bad-tempered and even tougher. With a crew like that it’s hardly surprising that chaos and excitement follows them in every book.
But in addition to the fights, the battles and the back stories there are also love stories. Parent/child relationships and constant comedy.
But what really gets this series onto this list is the drama filled love triangle formed by a hermaphrodite alien, a vulcan doctor and a human officer. It is drama filled. But it is surprisingly positive and is never anything less than a joy to read. Oh and I challenge anyone not to end up fancying Burgoyne 172, the chief engineer. Talk about your characters who transcend gender and sexuality. Wow.
2: Deathstalker by Simon R. Green.
Set in a universe where a galactic empire has become decadent and cruel, this series chronicles the efforts of Owen Deathstalker to remove the Empress from the throne and clear his name.
These novels are epic. Think Star Wars then double or even better triple the scale and you’re somewhere near the sheer grandeur of this series. They’re filled from end to end with brilliant characters, most of whom want anything but to be heroes and most of whom are hiding multiple secrets. The universe is rich and diverse. With everything from high-tech future gladiatorial games to a world of farmers whose lives get both literally and figuratively ripped apart by war. Or how about a world inhabited by nothing but artificially intelligent homicidal stuffed toys? Then there are the fights…
…actually the battles while well written are the least important thing in these books for me. What I love most is the unrequited love story between Owen Deathstalker and Hazel D’Ark. Almost from the very beginning, you are told that this love will ultimately lead to Deathstalkers downfall. But it’s knowing this and wondering how that drove me to keep reading, even after my favourite character had died. But we’ll get to her later.
These books really aren’t hard science fiction. By this I mean the science in them may as well be magic. They use energy weapons that take minutes to recharge between shots and so rely instead on swords in ground battles. But aside from that remarkably little of the technology is really explained and the reader is left to fill in the blanks with their own imagination. It works extraordinarily well in this case.
But never doubt for a moment that these novels aren’t beautifully crafted. They are, with some of the most perfectly worded descriptions I have ever read. They are works where everything combines perfectly to create a near flawless whole. The descriptions lend weight to the characters, who in turn fill out the universe in way that the descriptions for all their detail and beauty never could.
Speaking of characters and the reason why this set of novels is here, my favourite character and incidentally my favourite science fiction villain of all time. Empress Lionstone XIV, but I prefer to think of her by her nickname, The Iron Bitch. Simon R Green achieved with her what very few writers have ever managed for me. He created a character who makes me anxious every time she appears on the page. She is devious, cunning, cruel, sadistic and utterly unpredictable. Basically the perfect sci-fi villain and on her own makes reading this series of books well worth the effort.
1: Dune by Frank Herbert
I am of course speaking here about the original books, not the sequels and prequels based on his notes but written by his son. Though I do enjoy those books also, but I tend to treat them as simply being well informed fan fiction rather than true sequels or prequels. Anyway I won’t even try to go into the story of Dune here because I simply can not do it justice. Instead I’m going to talk about what Dune means to me.
The first novel of this series, Dune, was literally the first science fiction novel I ever read. To say it had a lasting impression would be like saying that molten iron is hot or that beagle puppies are cute. Accurate but an insanely massive understatement. Frank Herberts Dune series is nothing more or less than the yard stick by which I judge every book I read. And more they are what I aspire to, but know I will most likely never achieve, even after decades of practice as a writer.
They are a flawless masterwork of world-building and storytelling. Nothing, not even and I know this is almost sacrilege, Lord of the Rings comes close. His characters inspire, revolt and terrify, sometimes all at the same time. His descriptions are so powerful that you can sometimes feel the sand of Arrakis under your feet. To this day when I smell cinnamon all I can think of is Herberts description of Spice.
I could easily write about Dune for hours and end up literally boring a few of you to tears. But instead I will leave you with a final thought. Science fiction can be described as an exploration of possible futures where science is just like now a means to advancement. In Herbert’s future some technology is machine based but some is made from humanities own flesh. In Dune he forces his readers to wonder what technology truly is and more importantly what it might end up costing us. In doing so he somehow makes me equally long for and fear that future.