Vanessa’s Top Ten
Posting my Top Ten cuz people have asked and, yes, they are listed in a particular order (however they’re subject to change should something better come along)–my favorite is listed first, because I’m not mean. I’m also not going to claim that any of these are The Best Books Anyone Should Read, but if you agree with my reviews, you would probably enjoy these, too.
#1. PALADIN of SOULS by Lois McMaster Bujold (2005)
Dowager Queen Ista’s life’s purpose has changed: she’s now a widow, her daughter is married, and her invalid mother is gone. At the start of the book she’s a wrung-out and heartbroken woman who wants to escape a painful past. In a desire to leave her family’s estate and find a new purpose, she cooks up a pilgrimage and takes to the road with a female courier as her handmaiden, the priest of a half-demon god, and a small escort. Now finally–finally!–Ista’s true personality can emerge from a woman who’s lived in the shadow of her family to someone with confidence and presence who must lead her entourage through difficult circumstances. There’s magic, gods, demons, fascinating characters, scenery pertinent to the story, and a big problem only Ista can solve. It helps that Bujold’s prose is crisp and she provides a steady stream of revelations. I read this book about once a year to help me remember that just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean you can’t have adventures or learn something new about yourself.
Margaret of Ashbury isn’t your average woman of 14th Century London. The most important thing to know is that after a near-death experience in the first book of the series (A VISION OF LIGHT, you don’t have to read it to enjoy PURSUIT, but it’s worth the time), she experiences a “vision of light” and is gifted by God with the ability to heal others. When her husband is captured in the war in France and given up for dead, only Margaret believes he’s alive. Enlisting the help of her friends Hilde and Brother Malachi, they set off for France to find Gilbert, and, if necessary, save him. While pregnant. Across Europe. While dodging murderous noblemen, scheming ladies, ghosts, and a plethora of challenges along the way. I’ve probably read this book a dozen times, but it never gets old. The prose isn’t perfect in the way that Bujold’s is, but I love the quirky supporting cast and an atypical heroine.
#3. SUNSHINE by Robin McKinley (2010)
Raven (Rae=Ray of Sunshine=Sunshine) is the kind of woman who likes to live a quiet life, working in her step-father’s coffeehouse as the baker. But New Arcadia isn’t exactly the quietest of towns, even though it wasn’t destroyed as badly as others during the Vodoo Wars, a decade-long fight between humans and the Others, which includes demons, weres, and vampires. On an outing to the lake, Sunshine is snatched by vampires and then chained to the wall of a ballroom in an old house. Chained up in the same room is a vampire, whose presence is a mystery, except that their jailers fully expect him to suck her dry. Afraid for her life Sunshine plans escape, but realizes she can’t hope to do it on her own. For the first time in fifteen years she uses magic inherited from her father, and in the process gains a rather unusual ally in Constantine, her vampiric co-prisoner. McKinley is such an imaginative writer (seriously, read her other stuff), and in SUNSHINE she creates a new world, but also a new kind of heroine whose past is as important as her future. I re-read this book every once in a while when I feel like something scary enough to give me tension catharsis. I also love McKinley’s HERO AND THE CROWN (EBR Review).
I’m cheating because this isn’t just one book (don’t ask me to choose only one of these), but the entire series. Which is fantastic, by the way. We first meet Mercy Thompson in MOON CALLED. She’s an auto mechanic and part Native American. She lives next door to the local werewolf alpha. And she’s a coyote shapeshifter (not a were). These books are so fun and full of all the awesome things: world building that progresses across the series (magic, were culture, fae, etc), an atypical setting (Tri-Cities Washington), romance, fun characters, and stories that let Mercy shine. This woman is awesome and I want to be her, but I’d settle for being able to write like Patricia Briggs.
I’m cheating again because it’s another series (#sorrynotsorry). Despite being historical fiction (and not my typical preference for Fantasy) his series has many of the elements that endeared me to Fantasy novels in the first place: horses, swords, romance, castles, forests, war, and all that goodness. Cornwell is an experienced author who can not only pull his readers into another time and place, but he endears us to characters real and imagined–I love how he tells this story. Main character Uhtred is a man of his time (in this case 9th Century England) who lives in a world of strife, yet also a time of new beginnings–as this is the story of how a fractured island became England, told through the eyes of a warrior on the front lines. Cornwell’s war scenes are particularly well done, this guy is a pro.
#6. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen (1813)
Y’all know this story, even if you haven’t read it, but this book is worth being on any “To Read” list because of its study of human behavior, motivations, as well as the title themes of pride and prejudice. I read this book again every couple of years to enjoy Austen’s prose, wit, and ability to draw complex and fascinating characters.
Unlike most other books I read in high school, when I read THE CRYSTAL CAVE again as an adult, it was as good as I remembered it. This book (and its series) continues to be one of the most accessible novelizations of the mythos surrounding the Arthurian legends. Told in first-person PoV as though it were an autobiography, Stewart writes about Merlin’s childhood as he travels across Britain, the people he encounters, and the discovery of his magic–all in her lovely prose with detailed attention to the landscape and era. The quality of the writing and storytelling hasn’t diminished with age, likely because of the care Stewart took to research her subject and the locales. I often recommend this to friends who prefer historical fiction in an attempt to sneak a little magic into their reading.
#8. THE SPIRIT LENS by Carol Berg (2011)
This book blew me away the first time I read it. I admit, it took a couple of chapters before I got the hang of Berg’s delicious prose, but once I did I was wrapped up in the world and story of the Collegia Magica. This is the first book of the series, and while I still liked the other two, I loved this one best (I’ve since read others of her books, and I still love this one best). I mean, the book is about a librarian! Totally not your average hero. Poor guy, Portier is a failed magic student, but it’s his special set of skills–as mundane as they are–that brings the king to ask him to solve a mystery. Berg unfolds Portier, his situation, the local politics, magic, and the world one bit at the time as the mystery is revealed, unpacking a complicated and beautifully realized place and time. If you haven’t been able to tell so far, I really love novels with the atypical hero and how your average guy (or gal) can solve the world’s ills. Portier firmly falls into this category.
#9. ENCHANTMENT by Orson Scott Card (2000)
Ivan likes running, and it’s a good thing, too, because it’s how he starts breaking the enchantment on Katerina when he finds her asleep in the Carpathian forest. This is a love story enmeshed in a re-telling of Sleeping Beauty (and I’m a sucker for love stories), but it’s mostly about what happens after the young man wakes the princess. They’re destined to get married, but do they actually like each other? And don’t forget the reason why the sleeping princess was cursed in the first place: there’s someone who wants her to stay that way. This book has it all: time travel, Baba Yaga, romance. And it’s told in Card’s easy-to-read prose.
#10. RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)
Every time someone new to Sci Fi asks me to recommend a novel, this is the one I suggest (well, this and ENDER’S GAME, but for different reasons, depending on who it is), and the reason why is because it embodies the awe of the strange and wonderful things often found in Sci Fi, but in an easier to digest format. It’s not the most iconic of Clarke’s work, but it’s short and accessible. There really isn’t much of a story and the characters are stock–but the real star of the show is the spaceship found hurtling past Earth, on the way to the sun in order to slingshot itself wherever it is the ship is headed. The ship is a mystery that unfolds the closer it gets to the sun, the warmth waking up the ship’s denizens as it travels. This also means the humans exploring the ship have a finite amount of time to learn what they can before the ship leaves our solar system forever. As always, Clarke’s prose is straightforward and his story imaginative.