It’s that time again - my annual roundup of the best books I read during the year. Once again in 2022, I aimed to read 50 books and successfully hit the target; over 11,000 pages in all. This year, almost everything I read was fiction. As usual, science fiction was my main focus but I also read more fantasy than normal and a few crime novels and thrillers.
Before we get to the good stuff, what was the worst book I read in 2022? Well, I read very little that I didn’t enjoy but I was very disappointed by Forever and a Death by Donald E. Westlake. This is a novel which the revered crime author built up for a concept he had for a James Bond movie in the mid-’90s - ultimately, it was Tomorrow Never Dies which was made. Westlake’s book is overlong, drags horribly, has a ludicrous central concept and doesn’t deliver any of the necessary thrills - it’s a far cry from his best work.
With that bit of business dealt with, here are the ten best books that I read in 2022.
Damnation Alley (1969) by Roger Zelazny
A rollicking science fiction adventure set in a deadly post-nuclear world, Damnation Alley was always going to be on this list. Today, Roger Zelazny (1937 - 1995) is best known for his Amber series of fantasy novels, but this book is a very different proposition. Antisocial renegade Hell Tanner is forced to drive across a nuked-out North America in a desperate bid to deliver the cure for a plague. Driving his mighty, armoured “Landmaster”, he confronts giant mutant bats, marauding bandits, and even storms of debris that circle the whole planet.
This is as straightforward and action-packed as SF tends to get, and Zelazny revels in his propulsive material. Damnation Alley isn’t just an exciting adventure though - it is a key touchstone in the development of post-nuclear settings, and Hell Tanner is a particularly brilliant antihero who preceded the likes of Snake Plissken. I published some extensive thoughts on Damnation Alley back in February, and will likely cover Zelazny again - I’ll get to Lord of Light (1967) in 2023.
Midworld (1975) by Alan Dean Foster
Right now, Avatar: The Way of Water is taking the world by storm as audiences return to Pandora after a gap of 13 years. Having now read Midworld, I’m convinced that this novel must have been an influence on the original Avatar and on Jim Cameron’s creation of the world of Pandora. That makes it interesting in itself, but it is also a superb science fiction adventure.
The first standalone book in Foster’s long-running “Humanx Commonwealth” universe, Midworld is a survival story set on a planet with a viciously competitive ecosystem. A pair of humans are rescued by a local hunter, and have to learn to survive a jungle populated by countless highly-adapted threats. It is an exciting story, but also a thought-provoking one - Foster’s deep interest in ecology shines through, and like Avatar the book is a strident criticism of human exploitation of ecosystems. This year I’ve reviewed this novel, and the follow-ups Cachalot (1980) and Nor Crystal Tears (1982). I’ve become a big fan of Foster in 2022 and will cover the next book, Voyage to the City of the Dead (1984) shortly.
Black Wings Has My Angel (1953) by Elliot Chaze
For a short period this year, I became strongly interested in gritty, cynical mid-century crime novels - that is, until I read a really poor one (1947’s Nightfall by David Goodis) which put me off. I’m sure I’ll get back to that genre, but the highlight of my initial run at it was definitely Elliot Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel. For a long time, this book was difficult to find, and something of white whale for hard-boiled crime fans. Thankfully, it’s now easy to get hold of thanks to Stark House Press.
The novel has all the best qualities of its genre and era - it’s tough, concise, and eventful. Chaze adds a number of elements which push it over the line into greatness. His prose is often beautiful, even as he deals with some grim and cynical subject matter. The novel also has a fantastic central relationship between its main characters, doomed outlaws Tim and Virginia. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and the one Stark House Press sells it with. I’m looking forward to returning to the dark side of classic pulp crime in 2023.
Gateway (1977) by Frederick Pohl
Awards won by older books can be red herrings; just because something amazed critics back in the day doesn’t mean it still stands up. With Gateway, the awards definitely mean something today. It won the Locus, Nebula, and Campbell awards and reinvigorated the career of its veteran author. A unique and intriguing SF classic, I’d argue that it deserved to do all of these things and I reviewed the book back in June.
Gateway is set in a far future in which humans have discovered a huge cache of powerful but mysterious spacecraft created by a disappeared alien race, the Heechee. Humans can pilot these ships, but it is a spectacular gamble - success can mean enormous wealth, and failure can mean death or worse. The engaging main character, Robinette Broadhead, serves as our guide to the mercenary culture that has built up around the Heechee ships. Pohl weaves together two time periods: one in which Broadhead wrestles with a tremendous guilt, and one in which his actions lead up to a fateful moment. This is a clear classic of ‘70s SF which is well worth reading today.
Beyond Apollo (1972) by Barry Malzberg
Speaking of classic ‘70s SF, Beyond Apollo is another example, which won the first ever John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 1973. This is truly unconventional and experimental take on the form. Brisk and brief, Malzberg’s book ostensibly documents the outcome of a United States manned mission to Venus. However, his narrator-protagonist - astronaut Harry M. Evans - is catastrophically unreliable. The book presents numerous interpretations of events, some plausible and many outlandish, and comes to no definitive conclusion about which is “true”.
Beyond Apollo is very much an early ‘70s book and it is difficult to imagine anything like this being published today. Its aggressive ambiguity, sexual content, and outwardly cynical attitude towards the U.S. space programme marks it out as something truly unique.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974) by Patricia A. McKillip
The American fantasy author Patricia A. McKillip passed away in May this year. Reading an obituary was the first time I had heard of her; shortly afterwards I picked up the three books in her Riddle-Master trilogy (1976 - 1979). They didn’t gel with me at all; while I appreciated some of McKillip’s prose, her plotting seemed largely opaque and sluggish. Despite this less than ideal experience, I gave her work another go and was glad I did.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is an earlier, standalone fantasy novel and the first winner of the World Fantasy Award. It focuses on Sybel, a wizard woman and mistress of a mountain hideaway and several magical creatures that live there. Her gradual and reluctant exposure to the outside world is the main framework of the story, which is rich with themes of power, family, and change.
Lavinia (2008) by Ursula K. Le Guin
I’ve read Le Guin extensively over the past few years. In fact, now that I have read 16 of her novels I am beginning to run out, and am becoming exposed to some of her more obscure works. Le Guin died in 2018, and it had been ten years since she had last published a novel. Lavinia is that novel, and it has a unique place in her career. While it won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, I’m not certain I’d agree that it is a fantasy novel. However, it is definitely very good.
The book is a unique retelling of the last six books of Virgil’s Aeneid, focusing specifically on Lavinia, wife of great Trojan warrior-hero Aeneas. In Virgil’s work, Lavinia is a very minor character but Le Guin elevates her to a central heroine with a fully-realised life and inner world. In the most memorable sequences, Lavinia actually meets Virgil, her “creator” who lives over a thousand years in the future from her perspective. Is he appearing in her dream, or is she living in his?
The Black Company (1984) by Glen Cook
Back in July, I re-played and wrote about classic tactics game Myth: The Fallen Lords (1997). I mentioned that the excellent pre-mission briefings and the game’s plot are often said to be strongly influenced by the Black Company novels by American author Glen Cook. Recently, I got around to reading the first entry in the series and can definitely see the resemblance, although it isn’t as strong as I expected.
The Black Company introduces the mercenary company of the title. They operate in a dark, low fantasy world riven by war. Following a prologue, the Company is taken into the employment of The Lady - a mysterious, beautiful, and powerful despot. The book is unusual in that the protagonist and his comrades are in the employ of a clear villain, and yet her enemies are little better. I found Cook’s writing style to be confusing at times, but the setting is uniquely dark and imaginative and the Black Company itself is a compelling creation. I’ll get to the second book, Shadows Linger, in 2023.
Tales From Earthsea (2001) by Ursula K. Le Guin
I first became really interested in Le Guin a few years ago, when I read the novels of the Earthsea series. They are some of the most acclaimed works in the history of fantasy, and I strongly agree with this positive assessment. This year, I got around to reading Tales From Earthsea, a collection of five shorter works which Le Guin published shortly before the final novel, The Other Wind.
In a way, this might now be my favourite part of the series. Each of the stories represents a re-thinking of one or more elements of Le Guin’s setting, and each one is excellent in its own right. Collectively, the stories actually retrospectively improve the five novels, because they deepen our understanding of Earthsea. As is typical of Le Guin, these are steady, reflective tales which are low on action but rich with meaning. I don’t think any reading of the wonderful Earthsea series is complete without taking in this thought-provoking collection. Note - avoid the Studio Ghibli “adaptation” of this book; it’s appallingly bad.
Galactic North (2006) by Alastair Reynolds
Here’s a similar case to my last pick - Galactic North is a short story collection which is set within, and which augments, Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe. I read the last book of the original trilogy - Absolution Gap - earlier this year and was keen to return to that setting. While this isn’t suitable for newcomers to Reynolds, because it leans heavily on information from the novels, this is one of the best science fiction collections I’ve read so far.
There are eight stories, set in various time periods in Reynolds’ future history. One is set in the relatively early years of humankind’s expansion into the stars, and one is partly set 40,000 years into the future. Each one is a dark, macabre pleasure to read. All the elements the author is known for are here in spades - warring human factions, gothic vibes, advanced technology, sticky violence, and the dreadful potential of the black gap between the stars. Fans of the novels will lap up the appearances of characters like Nevil Clavain, Galiana, and Remontoire. I’m looking forward to reading more Reynolds next year, including his recent return to this setting, Inhibitor Phase (2021).
Besides wanting to read another 50 books and to read (even) more books by women, I have some other specific intentions for 2023:
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.