Europe in Autumn, by David Hutchinson (2014, Solaris)
Here's the blurb...
Europe in Autumn is a thriller of espionage and the future which reads like the love child of John le Carré and Franz Kafka.
Rudi is a cook in a Kraków restaurant, but when his boss asks Rudi to help a cousin escape from the country he’s trapped in, a new career - partspy, part people-smuggler - begins.
Following multiple economic crises and a devastating flu pandemic, Europe has fractured into countless tiny nations, duchies, polities and republics. Recruited by the shadowy organisation Les Coureurs des Bois, Rudi is schooled in espionage, but when a training mission to The Line, a sovereign nation consisting of a trans-Europe railway line, goes wrong, he is arrested, beaten and Coureur Central must attempt a rescue.
With so many nations to work in, and identities to assume, Rudi is kept busy travelling across Europe. But when he is sent to smuggle someone out of Berlin and finds a severed head inside a locker instead, a conspiracy begins to wind itself around him.
With kidnapping, double-crosses and a map that constantly re-draws, Rudi begins to realise that underneath his daily round of plot and counter plot, behind the conflicting territories, another entirely different reality might be pulling the strings...
5 Stars on the sites for which those affect sales, something like a 4.6 stars on a personal scale.
This is a pretty confusing book. Set in near future Europe, which is made of lots of fractured states, our hero goes from cook to espionage...kind of? He joins an unaffiliated super-smuggling group, and stumbles upon something that would be spoilerish if I were to go into it. The story actually reads like a set of short stories that we know are connected, and the reader is expected to be smart enough to, if not follow completely, hang on. Here's the thing, the prose is so great that it doesn't really matter if you feel lost most of the time. Then by the time you find out what's going on, you've gone through a series of 'hey, that's a cool idea!' moments that make science fiction fun. Expect to read about the sequel in my 2016 reviews.
The First Runner-up
Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson (2004, Tor)
Here's the blurb...
The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting and bloody confrontations. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen's rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.
For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, surviving cadre mage of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to mourn the many dead. But Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis, yet holds out. It is to this ancient citadel that Laseen turns her predatory gaze.
However, it would appear that the Empire is not alone in this great game. Sinister, shadowbound forces are gathering as the gods themselves prepare to play their hand . . .
Conceived and written on a panoramic scale, Gardens of the Moon is epic fantasy of the highest order--an enthralling adventure by an outstanding new voice.
But maybe 4.5 stars on my own personal scale.
This book is set in a world developed for pen and paper role playing games designed by the author and Cameron Esselmont, who also writes in the shared universe. It is amazingly well done, some of the build-up takes time but the last 20% or so of the book is a real slobber-knocker. There are some highly memorable characters and fantasy concepts that are super cool. The reason I didn't put it at the top of the list is that it can feel kinda dry and if you're not totally absorbed in it it could take you awhile to read. Like it actually took me like 4 years to read, but part of that has to do with moving between countries and not having my copy visible.
Second runner up
Grave Peril, by Jim Butcher (2001, Roc)
Here's the blurb...
n all his years of supernatural sleuthing, Harry Dresden has never faced anything like this: the spirit world's gone postal. These ghosts are tormented, violent, and deadly. Someone-or something-is purposely stirring them up to wreak unearthly havoc. But why? If Harry doesn't figure it out soon, he could wind up a ghost himself.
But my personal rating is kinda unsure...4.49? Obviously it lost to 4.5, right?
Notice the difference in the blurb sizes? The first two books ask the reader to internalize quite a few concepts, and offer a high payoff for readers that do so. Jim Butcher? He's like the Indiana Jones of science fiction. You can check out his live journal for tips on how to write novels, then read the Dresden files (Grave peril is book 3) and you'll see that he follows his own advice. He makes you care about the protagonist and he keeps the pages turning. Also, through the first three books we see growth and change in Harry Dresden and his relationship with the crazy world that is supernaturally infested Chicago. Butcher has written 15 books and fans agree he keeps up his end of the bargain. The Dresden Files are a very safe series to read if you don't want to hyper focus and just enjoy a good story.
Next blog post I'll briefly go over the books that were on the eligible list (I finished them in 2015) and let you know why I gave them less than 5 stars on goodreads and/or Amazon, but also why they were good enough for me to finish reading them.