These are selected from books I’ve reviewed on this blog and have read during 2011. I’ve not included multiple entries from a single author (except for trilogies). They aren’t in any particular order, and I've linked each title to the full review I wrote previously.
Prior to this my knowledge of Byzantium and the Byzantine Empire was absolutely minimal, and after reading it I was staggered there had been such a gaping chasm of ignorance. Given the Empire lasted over a thousand years (and was more recent, obviously, than Republican and almost all of Imperial Rome) it’s bizarre it isn’t better known. Lord Norwich’s history is easy to read (with a minor exception early on when the family of Constans kept giving the sons almost identical names) and fascinating.
I could’ve picked any of the Unofficial Manuals (the others are Legionary and Knight, with Samurai out in February), but went for Gladiator due to the dry humour that pervades the history of the dark and glorious trade.
Not one for beginners, or anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of a slog at times. Gibbon’s excellent work (whilst occasionally veering off course) paints a vivid and detailed picture of Rome’s descent from the Golden Age (Nerva to Marcus Aurelius) to its final destruction.
In the early 3rd century Rome had become weakened by ambition and serial regicide and its virtues were diluted by luxury. However, in the latter half of the century there was a spate of fantastically talented general-emperors and of these Aurelian may claim to be the greatest. His name isn’t commonly known, but it should be, as Aurelian ranks with the likes of Trajan when it comes to ability and his biography is engaging and interesting, perhaps the best history I’ve read this year.
For some reason I thought I hadn’t actually reviewed this, and almost left it off the list. The Heroes, (like Best Served Cold), is a stand-alone book that takes place in the same world as The First Law Trilogy (buying this is a good idea because it’s excellent, but not necessary to make sense of The Heroes). It relates a prolonged battle between the North and the Union in grim and vivid detail, and does a great job of fleshing out the capriciousness of fate and the unpredictable nature of warfare.
A little bit Marmite due to the slightly shaky start, I would urge readers to keep going. By the middle of the book the plot has become engaging, shortly thereafter it becomes enthralling, and the latter third builds to a climax like a runaway train. Bloody good book.
I’ve read all of the Space Captain Smith books (to date, I’m hoping more will be written) and this one, the second, is the best. It’s packed with wry British humour and a cast of, er, creative characters such as the serial killer Suruk and the navigator, an android [who is also an escaped sex toy].
The Tales of the Ketty Jay is one of my favourite series (loosely, the books are stand-alone but take place with the same crew) as it blends sarcasm and humour with credible characters and fast-moving plots. The Iron Jackal’s the third instalment so I’d advocate buying Retribution Falls and The Black Lung Captain first, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read on its own.
Perhaps the most surprising find of the year, as I’d never heard of Jim Butcher (which seems to have been a blind spot of almost Byzantine proportions). The Codex Alera series generally is excellent, and the first book prompted me to get the next two immediately. The plot moves swiftly, there are a number of sharp twists (some foreseeable, others not) and the fury system of magic somehow seems both innovative and old school.
My last pick, and I had some difficulty selecting this over A Dance With Dragons. I love the strange world Mr. Sanderson has created and the partially mythic, partially technological approach to magic. Little details like the rain being a kind of horrid mud and coins being spheres that get recharged by storms bring the world to life, and although one or two characters seem too good to be true there are a few that are refreshingly murky.
Anyway, I hope the reviews this year have been of some interest/use, and I look forward to writing more in 2012.