I read about 90 books per year. Thus, I like to think that I have a pretty good overview of the book world. I even read Moby Dick a few years back (review: good first line. Rest of the book is a whole lot of nope). This is my Best Ever list, of course, but I hope you’ll trust in my taste. My criteria for Best Ever is simple: Do I want to read it again? Do I still think about it in day to day life? Has it influenced my own writing? And so, in the order that I discovered them…
Firebringer, David Clement-Davies
This book, and the next one on this list, are woven into my writing DNA. Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of stories from the points of view of deer and wolves in my past thanks to Firebringer and its sequel The Sight.
Firebringer is for all ages. I first read it when I was 10 years old, though there is an awful lot of antler-goring in it. It’s compared to Watership Down (but with red deer), and it’s got a touch of The Lion King too, now that I think about it. It is a superb blend of nature writing and fantasy. A fawn is born bearing the mark foretold in a prophecy, and he lives to fulfil that prophecy. David Clement-Davies conjures the Scotland of old, bristling with forest, just around the time that the Danes reached our shores.
Wild Magic, Tamora Pierce
No book has influenced my writing style more than this one, the first in the Wild Magic quartet.
I have also written a not insignificant amount of fanfiction featuring the sexy sorcerer Numair, who will always have a place in my figurative heart as my first character crush. Long before Bella and Edward, long before Hermione and Ha–sorry, Ron, there was Daine and Numair.
Tamora Pierce was writing the rulebook for YA fantasy for young women years before the YA wave really took off. All of the books I’ve read of hers are based in the fantasy world of Tortall. Wild Magic was the first series I read, though it began with The Lioness Quartet, about a girl who pretends to be a boy to train as a knight (this before Disney’s Mulan).
So. Sexy sorcerer. Fantasy world. And the third, deal-making ingredient, the ability to shapeshift into other animals! The Animorphs books definitely set me up to fall in love with this one. It also helps that there are plenty of mythological creatures, most of all DRAGONS (more on that later).
Pierce’s prose has a vivid simplicity. Her characters have fun. Her characters die. I feast on her imagination.
White Fang, Jack London
Jack London is best known for The Call of the Wild. White Fang is its mirror image; a part-dog part-wolf born wild, who journeys into domesticity. Ignore the live-action Disney film in which the plot was completely changed. This book drops you in a brutal Yukon. But it remains one of the most empathic books I have ever read. London imagines White Fang’s infancy as if he meditated for weeks on what it would be like to be a baby wolf meeting the world. Let me remind you that London was born in 1876, long before it became commonplace to imagine other animals as thinking, feeling beings.
He extends this empathy to his human characters too. There are two prominent “villains” in the book, and yet, he takes you, the reader, aside in the narrative to tell you about the characters’ back stories, the reasons they act the way they do. Again, this strikes me as incredibly ahead of its time.
It’s also, simply, a thumping good read.
(Interestingly, Netflix has released its own animated adaptation, and from the trailer it looks a little more faithful to the source material.)
Wolf Totem, Jiang Rong (real name Lü Jiamin)
Got a bit of a wolf theme going on here, huh?
One of the most heart-breaking books I’ve ever read, partly because it’s part-real. I still don’t know the line between its fact and its fiction – I do know that, like the protagonist, the author was sent to the Inner Mongolia Plateau during Mao’s Cultural Revolution to work alongside the Mongolian sheep and horse herders.
In the book, student Chen Zhen decides to catch and raise a wolf pup (spoiler alert: there is no happy ending). It’s been criticised for being didactic in style, but I don’t care; it’s compelling eco-didacticism. It’s also been criticised for being untruthful, for exaggerating the wolf’s place in Mongolian culture. Perhaps these criticisms are sound. But the core message – that we cannot live if we destroy all other life around us – remains as important and as damning as ever. China is a country in which countless people starved to death because of the mindless persecution of sparrows (among other evil stupidities engineered by Mao Zedong). A country now besieged by dust storms because of the catastrophic farming policies in the Inner Mongolia Plateau. A country ripe for apocalypse.
The book was adapted for film a few years, though sadly, it’s not very good. Great soundtrack by James Horner though (R.I.P.).
Dark Matter, Michelle Paver
Michelle Paver wrote a popular children’s prehistoric fantasy series about a wolf and a boy. She wrote Dark Matter afterwards, and she definitely did not write it for children.
This is a ghost story. An artfully done ghost story, set in the Arctic darkness. I will give no more away.
Is it scary? Let me put it this way: it’s the only book to ever make me wake in the middle of night, paralysed with terror.
Temeraire, Naomi Novik
This is a brilliantly inventive, heart-warming, and very fun fantasy. It’s set during the Napoleonic Wars. But with ADDED DRAGONS. I read it about once a year.
We begin with an up and coming captain of the Royal Navy, Laurence. Thanks to a twist of fate he swaps a ship for a baby dragon, Temeraire, fast-growing and intelligent. Because in this version of British history, war is fought with dragons as well as navies.
One of the things that makes this book so damn fun is the Georgian period style of the narration and, of course, the characters’ dialogue and sensibilities. Temeraire is undoubtedly the politest dragon in all fiction, though also the cause of many social embarrassments for his captain Laurence over the course of the story. But it always remains dignified, too, and the stakes are real.
This is the start of a fairly long series, though sadly, Novik’s energy diminishes badly over the course of it. The last book in the series that I read was genuinely one of the most dreadful books I’ve ever read. But I still happily read Temeraire again and again, and one of her more recent works, Uprooted, rightly deserved all the book prizes it’s won.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor
Laini Taylor has the most beautiful prose in YA fantasy (even if she does go over the top sometimes). She’s the strongest influence on the book I’m currently writing.
Described as a blend of His Dark Materials and Pan’s Labyrinth, this story is one of worlds and doorways between them, monsters and angels, love and death… you get the picture.
There are beautiful and cool characters, with beautiful and cool names. Karou. Brimstone. Akiva. There are fiery wings and magical tattoos. This is unashamed YA, and I unashamedly love it.
See also: Strange the Dreamer (set in the same multiverse).
Common Ground, Rob Cowen
At last, we emerge from the fantasy hinterlands.
I have by now read a fair bit of nature-writing, and this book remains my true love in that genre. When Rob Cowen moved to Yorkshire, near Harrogate, he began to visit the “edgelands” near his home again and again, becoming intimately acquainted with its geography and its denizens. Sometimes he was himself, sometimes he was another creature such as a fox, sometimes he was another human. There’s a bit of mischievous blending with fiction, but mostly it’s truth. I like to dog-ear pages in books containing lines that I adore. And there are a lot of dog-ears in my copy of this book.
Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky
Back to sci-fi/fantasy (soz).
So, I haven’t read nearly as much sci-fi as fantasy. But of them, this one is my favourite by far.
It’s also perhaps the most inventive book I have ever read. Essentially: in the future, on a faraway terraformed planet, a bunch of spiders and other invertebrates get infected by a virus designed to super-drive evolution, and the end result is new civilisations with new cultures and new technologies. There are Homo sapiens too, but the spiders are the show-stealers. The author is a zoologist by training (and also a practicing lawyer, don’t ask me how the fuq he wrote all these books at the same time, massively depressing).
The story’s got plenty of heart, too, and with a sequel due next year, I am very much looking forward to returning to that universe.
The Overstory, Richard Powers
The most recent book I’ve read on this list, and also the most recently-published. Man Booker shortlist-ee (don’t let that put you off).
Set in the present day, The Overstory is both tender and blistering as we follow characters whose fates have become inexorably entwined with those of the last remaining virgin stands of forest in America. People who know that apocalypse is coming.
Powers has done his scientific research, that’s for sure. And he blends that knowledge into exquisite prose. Time and time again I came across lines or passages that I had to read out loud to myself, repeatedly.
I admit that it is a doorstopper of a book. It is not fun to read on the Tube when all the seats are taken. But the aching was worth it.
“The fires will come, despite all efforts, the blight and windthrow and floods. Then the Earth will become another thing, and people will learn it all over again.”
Thanks for reading.