Lev Grossman’s The Magicians has been quite widely reviewed; it falls frustratingly short of being at least a Narnia-grade masterpiece. There are some really fantastic set-pieces, the occasional asides of wizardly convenience (the ship of alfalfa that just happens to be rounding the Cape as the protagonists fly over, tired, in goose form) sometimes made me laugh out loud. But the wizarding academy changes feel from boarding school to university almost between paragraphs, and it’s hard to tell whether the characters are behaving aged fourteen or twenty-five. Recommended as a flawed gem.
Mike Davis, Planet of Slums is a serious, somewhat Marxist description of the hole in which something like 20% of Earth’s population find themselves: the lawless (not unadministered, but not administered by the legitimate authorities) masses of habitation that have built up around the large cities of the Third World. One observation of his that surprised me enormously was that Seoul had the largest slums in south-east Asia.
China Mieville, The City And The City. A detective story and a tale of secret society, set in a place where a city that’s essentially Prague and one that feels like a left-over Ottoman colony exist co-located, with vigorous and mysteriously enforced taboos keeping the inhabitants of one from interacting with the other. It avoids whimsy and absorbs you to the point that the total insanity of the set-up doesn’t hurt.
John Birmingham, Final Impact. Third volume of a techno-thriller absolutely and precisely of its time of conception, which was probably 12 September 2001; the protagonists are thrown back in time from a future which is, as I read, already tired and making arguments already disproven. Doesn’t even rise to Clancyesque heights of guilty pleasure.
Frederick Pohl, The Way The Future Was. This is lovely; a self-aware autobiography of one of the first self-identified SF Fans, in reading which now the leading character is optimistic America of the thirties through fifties. Some glorious anecdotes: the carefully-tested advertising slogans for a pile of remaindered coffee-table natural-history books, of which ‘Have you got a big bookcase? Then we’ve got a big book for you’ outsold the rest by a mile.
John Scalzi, The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony. This is much better mil-SF, in that it’s written by someone who’s fairly clearly honestly keen on humans, and has as an underlying axiom that keeping uncomfortable truths hidden doesn’t help. It has mighty star-fleets falling from the sky, alien species uplifted to consciousness, one woman facing off a platoon of alien super-soldiers; and a man reconciling two neighbours about the fraudulent pregnancy of a goat.
Ian Esslemont, Night of Knives. This feels like, and I think that’s because it is, a book-length Chapter Eleven from a bookcase-length fantasy multiology; characters with Great Histories appear and perform things that you suspect thirty chapters later will be widely-renowned Great Acts, an unnamed hero faces off against the ice-monsters, the Gates of Hell open and close, but not much has happened from one end of the book to the next, and I couldn’t care about the characters.
Jim Butcher, Princeps’ Fury. Fifth of six, and suffering slightly from scaling problems; the protagonist has gone from assistant shepherd to acknowledged heir to the Empire, the enemy has gone from mushroom-guarding poisonous spiders to an alien infestation covering two continents, creatures that had been introduced in the first volume as the source of particularly effective bow-strings appear as an invading army, and the invasion then gets dismissed as a misunderstanding.
Arthur C Clarke, Imperial Earth re-read. This is to some extent Clarke doing late Heinlein; it’s written in 1975 so the characters are allowed to have sex, even with people of the same gender. It’s the story of a young privileged man exploring some hidden corners of his past and a quietly Utopian Earth. Not terribly eventful, but a good and calming read.
G K Chesterton, Father Brown short stories. There are 52 of these, and they’re classics of the detective short story at least up there with Holmes. Reading the whole lot as a block, you see tropes coming up again and again; Chesterton liked the image of mirrors as a way of pointing out a lack of self-awareness, was not terribly keen on green hats or Westerners attempting to be Buddhists, and (OK, through his protagonist, but I don’t think you can give this attribute through a protagonist without possessing it yourself) again generally keen on humans.
Klas Ostergren, The Hurricane Party. Weird, recent, translated from the Swedish; half of it set in a cold post-Soviet-feeling dystopia where the narrator is the one source of vintage typewriters, and half of it retelling the standard tales of Norse mythology in a dank hotel which is clearly Asgard.
Iain Banks, Transition. A convoluted tale of competing world-jumpers, with Banksishly over-played villains and near-villains, and an ‘oh, another sort of wizard’ denouement which didn’t really fit. Might be a pair to Song of Stone, which I wasn’t terribly keen on either: the sort of over-played decadence which is amusing as whimsy in the context of the Culture, where it is just whimsy, and much less so in a contemporary context where you can feel the wasted effort and misdirected power.