So, one of the blogs I’ve been challenged to write is to talk a bit about my top five novels. Very well, challenge accepted! I will, of course, cheat a teeny, tiny amount.
First of all, the books I’m going to talk about today are all ones I own (as evidenced by the tatty state of one or two of them). These are also books I’ve recommended (or would recommend) to people, but they’re not novels I’d recommend to everyone. There’s no such thing as a perfect novel. Different books touch different people in different ways. For example, I admire Jane Austen’s writing style, but I struggle to read it (sorry, Mum). Chances are, you’ll not admire everything on this list. Possibly, you’ll not agree with any of what I have to say. Be sure to let me know in the comments below. I love to hear peoples’ takes on books.
Anyway, on we go…
We’ll go for top five with a runner up, and there’ll be a couple of entries where I lump a trilogy in as a single book (let’s face it, all good trilogies are only separate books so we don’t suffer broken noses from having 1,500 pages whack us in the face). I’m also going to restrict one entry per author, just to keep things a bit more interesting.
So… Here we go.
Runner Up: A Trick of the Light, by David Ashton
I came to David Ashton’s works by way of radio plays. For years, on and off, I’d listen to McLevy on Radio 4, as brought to life by a stellar cast including Brian Cox (for once not playing a corrupt CIA director, or similar). Each of the plays is loosely based around the diaries of James McLevy, Edinburgh’s first detective. They’re enjoyable little mysteries, centred around the well-worn partnership of an older, cynical detective (McLevy) and his youthful partner (Constable Mullholland).
The series of novels came later, each one adapting and entwining several of the radio plays into a single story. They’re light, charming reads (although seldom skimping on the grime and squalor of mid-1800s Edinburgh). Ashton’s mastery of written phonetics is masterly, and the Edinburgh accent leaps off the page. McLevy’s voice, in particular, is delightful in its dourness, but there are plenty of wry touches bound to set you smiling. If you’re after a historical crime novel with a lot of wit and flawless characterisation, you won’t go far wrong with a McLevy.
So why A Trick of the Light over the others? I think this one brings the various plotlines together in a more masterful way than those than went before, but truth be told there’s not masses to choose between them. If it sounds like McLevy’s up your street, start at the beginning and work your way through. You won’t be disappointed.
Number Five: Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
It’s probably no surprise that I knew of the musical long before I read the book. When I was twelve, my music teacher took it upon himself to educate my class in the story and music of Les Miserables. Or rather, he chose to do so without managing to touch on the characters of Jean Valjean and Javert. I can only assume that he also had it in his lesson plans to cover the Blues Brothers without reference to Jake and Elwood. But it served as an introduction, and for that, I’m grateful.
I didn’t seek out the novel for some years after that, and that’s probably for the best. Les Miserables is heavy going. If you know anything at all about the musical, it’s that it has a sprawling cast of characters. Well, the book’s cast is even larger, and it follows them around in almost stalker-ish detail, wringing out every last drop from their lives and struggles. There’s a chapter dedicated to criminal argot. There’s another about a song sung by a tertiary character. It’s beautifully written stuff, but it can be a slog.
The story? Well, in broad strokes, Les Miserable is the tale of Jean Valjean, an embittered convict on the road to enlightenment and salvation. Set in the mid 1800s, chiefly in the less-than-romantic districts of Paris, Les Mis somehow manages to be a wonderfully life affirming tale. I say ‘somehow’ because it’s a book that’s well-named, positively dripping with consumption, poverty, starvation and death. But the characters? They’re fantastic. You really get a sense that they’re living through tumultuous times, and you want them to succeed – even the unpleasant or downright misguided ones. This is a long-form epic, and we get to see Valjean change a great deal over the course of the story, and how those changes serve as a catalyst for those around him.
I don’t really want to say anything else, for fear of giving too much away – even if you know the musical well, there’s plenty new to explore. Suffice to say, Les Miserables is that rare thing: a classic deserving of the name. Check it out, but don’t be afraid to come up for air.
Number Four: The Lord of the Rings
Yes, it was inevitable that this would find its way onto the list, and it’s equally inevitable that its absence from the top spot will confound some of you. And to put it as low as Number 4? Number 4!?
Let me explain.
The Lord of the Rings is the father of modern fantasy. It just is. I’ve seen folk make the case for other works, but Tolkien started something that endures today. His creations are pastiched in scores… no, hundreds… of other fantasy settings; some baldly so *cough* Sword of Shannara *cough*, while others are still trying to reinvent themselves to establish the uniqueness of their largely-cribbed settings. Anyone who loves a good fantasy yarn owes this book a debt. Anyone who loves the English language owes this book a debt. But… and I hate to say it… as a novel, The Lord of the Rings isn’t worthy of my top slot. Or even a place in the top three.
The Lord of the Rings has a wonderful, overarching epic. Its lessons and themes of good versus evil, of no one being too small to make a difference, and the powerful of loyalty are every bit as powerful to me today as they were when I first read it, aged seven. The sheer scale upon which it operates is breathtaking. The fact that Tolkien has crafted a living, breathing world, populated by believable societies is nothing short of stunning.
(Well, apart from the Hobbits. I’m damned if I understand how the economy of the Shire works, or how the hell Bilbo had any money before he was hired as a burglar in The Hobbit… Oops, might have just answered my own question. Perhaps we should have sided with Lobelia?)
What keeps The Lord of the Rings from a higher placing is the fact that so many of its characters are so poorly developed. For every Faramir, there’s a Legolas. Even Aragorn isn’t really that interesting a character in the book. There’s also the pages and pages of songs and poetry that vary massively in their relevance and quality. Add to that the meandering side chapters that the story doesn’t really need, and The Lord of the Rings feels a hefty edit away from being a true must-read.
If this sounds negative, it’s because I don’t really feel I have to justify The Lord of the Rings’ presence on this list – it’s The Lord of the Rings, for Morgoth’s sake – but I do have to explain why it doesn’t place that highly. Nevertheless, if you like fantasy or historical epics, and you’ve not read this one, you should. However, unless you really love poetry, skip past any block paragraphs composed entirely of italics…
Number Three: The Thrawn Trilogy
(Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, The Last Command)
As I’ve recently mentioned, I love me some Timothy Zahn sci-fi, and these three books are why. A quarter century on from release, and they remain a master class in how to write licensed fiction.
The story? Well, in simple terms, it’s five years after the end of Return of the Jedi, and the New Republic is suffering growing pains. Different factions within the government are jockeying for position; worse, a mysterious commander has taken control of the dwindling Imperial forces. Will the former rebels unite and face down this new threat, or will the Empire be reborn? Beyond that, there are twists and turns galore. New faces, old faces, proper twirling of the moustache scheming, and wonderful derring-do. Lots to love, in other words.
First up, the characterisation in these novels is spot on – not just with the big three of Luke, Leia and Han, but also secondary characters like Lando and Chewie. Zahn also breathes life into characters we see only briefly in the films, with Admiral ‘It’s a Trap!’ Ackbar and Mon Mothma being the main standouts.
But it’s hard, writing licensed fiction, because the characters you inherit can’t really grow and develop, lest they no longer be the characters the audience came here to enjoy. Zahn deftly sidesteps the issue by presenting us with a new raft of secondary characters who undergo meaningful arcs. Of these, smuggler Talon Karrde and his second in command Mara Jade are the best of the bunch (although Mara backslides massively in later books). And Thrawn… Thrawn is the best antagonist the Star Wars universe ever had, no question, hands down. That he’s coming back in Rebels is a source of both joy and trepidation…
Layer on top of that a conflict that makes Star Wars feel like a truly galaxy-spanning setting, some call-backs to the original trilogy of films, and edge-of-your-seat battle scenes that feel like they’ve popped straight off the screen? This trilogy’s an incredible achievement. If you love space opera and you haven’t read them – whether you like Star Wars or not – go read them now.
Number Two: Men at Arms
Terry Pratchett was a genius, and Men At Arms is his best work.
Sorry? You need more?
Pratchett is first and foremost known for his Discworld novels. This is a setting that began as a tongue-in-cheek parody of fantasy tropes, but by about the fourth book in, found its unique voice. It’s hard to compare Pratchett’s works to other books, because… well, there isn’t really a comparison. They’re adventure comedies, except for when they’re not. They’re murder mysteries, except for when they’re not. They’re parodies of modern obsessions, except for when they’re not. Ultimately, Discworld is a setting, not a style, with each book focusing on one particular group of characters from what is now a sprawling cast of thousands.
It’s hard to talk too much about the plot, as it really is a murder mystery. Men At Arms centres around my favourite bunch of Pratchett’s creations – the Ankh Morpork Watch. Outcasts and losers to a man (or woman) they are the thin line between the city’s weird mix of legal and illegal criminality… Except no one really wants them to be.
This is the Watch before they meet with real success (both in-universe, and with the reading public), and as a result they’re at their most enjoyable as characters. Neither their political masters nor the reader have any expectation of how the tale will unfold, so it’s much easier to get swept along for the ride than it is in later books.
And it’s funny. Really, really funny. The best Pratchetts are the ones in which he’s not trying to make a philosophical point, and just focuses on delivering the jokes, and Men At Arms is probably the best of the bunch for that. Dry wit mixes with groan-worthy puns and pratfalls of every kind, proving once again that Pratchett really understood that you can write for several audiences, if only you have the skill to do so.
Men At Arms is a book I’d recommend to anyone. If you enjoy a fantasy setting or a good mystery, you’ll love it.
Number One: The Winter King Trilogy
(The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur)
Bernard Cornwell made his name with a little-known character called Richard Sharpe.
Who am I kidding? If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘Chosen Men’ bellowed out in a Yorkshire (or mock-Yorkshire) accent, you know who Richard Sharpe is. Sharpe was, of course, the show that solidified Sean Bean’s acting career (chiefly by letting him live to see the credits roll), and more recently Cornwell’s King Alfred-era saga has begun serialisation as The Last Kingdom.
The Winter King trilogy sits smack between the two series in publishing terms, written after Sharpe and Harper had slid into semi-retirement, but before Uhtred picks up a spear to defend England. It’s Bernard Cornwell’s take on the legend of King Arthur.
We all know the tale of King Arthur: bastard son of Uther Pendragon unifies the British and defeats those dastardly Saxons! Hooray! It’s normally recounted in fantastical and romanticised terms, as made popular by Chrétien de Troyes, Mallory and Tennyson. Yeah. This one isn’t like that.
The Winter King was probably my first exposure to what is now branded as Grimdark (also known as ‘whatever bad can happen, does’). It’s gritty, bloody and full of details you’d rather not know, grounding the tale of Arthur better than any other interpretation I’ve encountered.
Cornwell wisely takes the path of using everything. Earlier characters such as Culwych and Sagramor rub shoulders with romantic creations like Merlin and Nimue. There’s magic in these books if you choose to view it as such, but you can quite easily buy into it being Merlin acting as a crafty old bugger with an eye to human nature and trickery. There are bloody battles, betrayals and one or two touching love stories – one of which ends horribly – and, of course, whatever bad can happen, does.
The Winter King is narrated by Derfel Cadarn, an aged monk who first came into Arthur’s service as a young boy. Through his eyes, we see everything. Battles. Alliances. Betrayal. Arthur the warlord, Arthur the dreamer, Arthur the-man-who-makes-really-bad-decisions. And Arthur’s not the only one. Plenty of characters drive the embattled kingdom of Dumnonia into jeopardy through selfish actions, but you never once get the sense – as is so often the case – that they’ve done so merely prod the plot to where it wants to go.
By the time you’re into the second book, Enemy of God, you’re starting to cherish every moment you have with certain characters, because you’re damn sure they’re not going to make it to book three. You embrace the moments of joy, even while you’ve one eye on the horizon because storm clouds are brewing, and you know that Arthur’s journey isn’t one that ends well.
I’ve touched on characterisation once or twice in this blog, but it’s beautifully strong here. You’ll be cheering or mourning the death of every character who crosses these pages. You’ll long for Merlin to show up, spewing his acerbic wisdom, or Galahad’s calm, reliable presence. The three notable women in the saga – Guinevere, Nimue and Ceinwyn – break from Cornwell’s usual tendency to write attractive lamps into his stories, and drive the tales every bit as much as the men.
Layer on top of all this the visceral battles Cornwell honed writing his Sharpe series, combined with a historian’s eye for making the world feel real, and you’re onto a winner. It’s beyond me why this, of all Cornwell’s work, has never made it to the big screen.
The Winter King trilogy is not for the squeamish (it by no means has Game of Thrones levels of ick, but there are a few worrying moments), but it deserves to be acclaimed the classic that it is. If you’ve not read it yet, check it out. It’s a fantastic pseudo-historical epic, and for my money the best iteration of King Arthur ever written.