The following are the three novels I've read in 2009 that I enjoyed the most, although none of them were actually published this year.
3. The Chosen by Ricardo Pinto
This book surprised me as it contained pretty much everything I usually don’t like in fiction, and yet somehow I still enjoyed it. The story is set in a version of ancient China in which slavery is the norm and the ruling elite are brutal in the extreme. The slightest error by a slave leads to mutilation, and to even look at the elite is punishable by death. But life is no better for the elite as every aspect of their lives is controlled by stifling protocol and ridiculous conventions. A young member of the elite is called to the main city to take part in the election of a new emperor and... and, well, that's it. There is no story beyond that.
Instead hundreds of pages are devoted to describing a bizarre society in massive detail while absolutely nothing happens. Strangely I enjoyed this as the writer was confident enough to just write what he wanted to write rather than fitting in with the usual plot conventions. So the hero is passive and suffers only minor angst as hundreds are slaughtered. He doesn't feel so aggrieved by the suffering that he raises a rebel army or any of the ways I expected the story to develop. Oh, and the hero is gay, which is a bit daring for the notoriously backward fantasy genre.
2. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
I finally got round to reading this, and then almost wished I hadn't. The first hundred pages are terrible and I was about five minutes away from giving up when there was a gladiator fight with sharks, a scene that was so unusual I gave it another few pages to grab my attention, and it did. The story is set in a version of medieval Venice. The hero is a thief who steals from the rich and keeps it. But then a bigger, better and stronger thief comes along to challenge him. They lock horns, but then their battle for supremacy becomes personal...
The story is a convoluted one with some classic plot twists that I'll freely admit I didn’t see coming. The writing is in some ways the opposite of my number 3 choice as description is usually kept to the minimum and yet the city is as much a main character as the people. The only downside is that it appears the author is set to write many, many books in this series and diminishing returns nearly always set in when that happens.
1. Fevre Dream by George RR Martin
I've enjoyed Martin's books since his early science fiction novels in the 1970s and yet somehow this book, written in 1982, passed me by. It doesn't appear to have much acclaim or popularity although it's as accomplished as his more famous works. The story is set in the 1850s on the Mississippi. A steamboat captain is down on his luck when an offer that's just too good to miss comes his way. A mysterious man builds him the finest boat on the river and all he has to do in return is never annoy his odd friends and never try to rouse him in daylight...
Part antibellum western, part horror tale, the story is a lot of fun in which Martin displays his ability to write perfect scenes with just the right amount of description, plot movement, character development and tension. Oddly for Martin it's also short!
Next week, the three books that annoyed me the most in 2009.