Off the Bookshelf: Summer’s End 2021

For the first time in years, I completed my summer reading list during the summer. The final tally was 15 books (11 novels, 3 non-fiction books, 1 short story collection), 2 novellas, and 8 graphic novels.

So what were the standouts on this summer’s reading list? Children of Time and its follow-up Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky easily top the list; I enjoyed the first book so much I immediately went out and started reading the second book. Both books deal with the unintended consequences of uplifting creatures (spiders in the first book, cephalopods in the second).

A close second is Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night (White Space, Book 1). It’s a space opera novel featuring the small crew (a man, woman, and the AI that controls and is the ship) of a salvage tug boat. They uncover an ancient starship wreck and the discovery kicks off the usual “uncovering secrets no one was meant to know” hijinks. It’s a familiar premise, but Bear delivers on it with fun characters who engage with her universe in meaningful ways.

In terms of books that were just plain fun, we’ve got Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, his third book, and a return to the form he exhibited in The Martian. His debut book was all about a wise-cracking, problem-solving astronaut trapped on Mars who had to find his way home. In his second book, Artemis, he switched to a heist-style setup that didn’t quite work. With Project Hail Mary, he returned to his original formula with another astronaut stranded in another impossible situation … but this time with the fate of the Earth on the lie. Big set up? Yes. Big pay off? Yes. It’s a great vacation read.

Watership Down is one of my all-time favorite books but I hadn’t read it in decades. I brought it with me to Philmont with the idea of reading it on the trail. Once I got to Cimmeron, New Mexico, and realized just how much stuff I had in my pack, i decided to leave it in Base Camp and bring my lighter, smaller Kindle instead. I ended up reading it at the beach and while on vacation at Lake Champlain; the book about a bunch of rabbits seeking a new home after their warren is destroyed is every bit as good as I remembered.

The surprise of the summer was the Trumps of Doom and the rest of the books in Roger Zelazny’s second half of the Chronicles of Amber series. In the first five books, we meet Corwin, one of the nine princes in Amber, the one true city in the one true reality, of which our world (and all other worlds) are but a shadow. The books are filled with epic battles, engaging worlds, and compelling narratives as Corwin schemes for the crown of Amber after his father goes missing. Zelazny’s mastery of language is impressive, and the way he describes his world is utterly compelling.

The second five books focus on Merlin, son of Corwin. When I read these in college, I was disappointed that Corwin didn’t feature more prominently in the story – he’s lost in the books, and one of the many side quests that Merlin undertakes is finding his dad. I also found the trippy nature of the second series disconcerting and incongruous with the original series.

This time around, I tried to shelve my preconceptions and accept the books for what they are: their own series, meant to explain the universe of Amber in weird and interesting ways. It succeeds on that front, with Merlin getting caught up in an epic power struggle between Amber – the pinnacle of Order – and its opposite numbers in the Courts of Chaos. It’s a meandering series with way too many reversals; at times it feels like Zelazny wasn’t quite sure where he was going, and closed off old branches so he launch into new ones. The ending isn’t nearly as strong as the original books; he gets to an ending, but the payoff isn’t quite there. All this having been said … I enjoyed them. Yes, they’re weird, and yes, Zelazny takes Amber in strange new directions, but if you sit back and enjoy it for what it is, you’ll have a good time reading the books.

Another surprising read (and a late addition to the list) was Aliens: Bug Hunt, an anthology of Aliens-inspired short stories. It’s a niche anthology – if you don’t like military science fiction and Aliens, this might not be the book for you. But if you love those things, and if you wanted to find out what happened to Burke after he was snagged by aliens, or about prior “bug hunts” that the Colonial Marines went on prior to LV-426, then this is the book for you.

Looking for conversations about books? I talk more about my summer reading list on Episode 98 of the Nuketown Radio Active podcast. David Moore and I also talk about our respective lists on Season 1, Episode 21 of the Lair of Secrets podcast.


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