Some of the books I’ve read this year

Lately, I’ve been less than assiduous at writing up all the books that I’ve read this year. In an attempt to catch up before the end of the year, here’s a short list of them:

Dark Imperium: Plague War
It’s Space Marines! It’s horrible and revolting descriptions of disease and putrefaction! It’s possibly about religious faith and devotion, people who get really annoyed when other people think they’re gods and worship them, and it might be a philosophy problem about whether doing the right thing for the right reasons when you’ve been told not to by your superiors is a good thing or not.  It’s also the sequel to Dark Imperium, which I liked quite a lot.  Although not as much as The Black Legion.  I probably am going to need a separate rating scale for Games Workshop books and writers at this rate.

The Emperor’s Gift
Another Games Workshop novel, by the great Adam Dembski-Bowen, and also about Grey Knights, which I read an entire (and increasingly dreadful) omnibus about earlier in the year. It’s much better than that, although it’s Dembski-Bowen, who’s on a one-man-mission to rewrite Games Workshop’s universe with the good and bad guys reversed. For a laugh, he sets up a massive fight between demonic entities and Space Marines, then knocks out our protagonist and point of view, so we cut from before the battle to after it, with no need to write an action scene. Bravo, sir.

It’s a decent piece of Space Marine fiction. If you don’t like the genre, it won’t convert you, but it was competent enough, and it tries to show differnt parts of the Imperial bureaucracy being more or less evil. So that was a nice bit of nuance.

Next Man Up
This is a book describing a season of games for the Baltimore Ravens, a not-particularly brilliant American Football team. It’s nothing as hilarious (or grotesque) as the characters in Big Game and often suffers from a quite leaden prose style, and it’s further handicapped by the Baltimore Ravens just not being very good, but there are some interesting titbits.

For example, I didn’t realise it’s quite unremarkable to have a player injured in a pre-season ‘friendly’ match and lose him for the entire season.

There were occasional bursts of brilliant vituperativeness:
“he had two weaknesses as a [football commentator]: he knew nothing about football and he wasn’t funny”

But then there’s also lines like: “He was clearly in a great deal of pain. And his wrist hurt like hell too.” and the hyperbolic yet quite boring “Never in the nine-year history of the franchise had the Ravens faced a week like the final one of the 2004 season.”

In short, yawn.

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
I was lent a physical copy of this by a friend with the recommendation “it’s a bit mad, but you like weird things”. And so it is. The best way to describe this is like a Russian immigrant reworking of A Confederacy Of Dunces, with added mafia. It goes to pieces a bit in the last fifty pages or so, and it doesn’t hit the heady heights of John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece, but it’s quite diverting, as tales of the privatisation (and privations) of post-Soviet Russia go. Also, lots of pretentious hipsters, almost before the name existed.

Horus Rising / False Gods / Galazy in Flames / Flight of the Eisenstein
Oops. More Games Workshop books. What to say? Where to begin?

It’s unclear if the Horus Heresy series (now up to 50 books) is a scheme to sell more tiny plastic toy soldiers to people, or a stealthy wheeze to teach teenage boys about the Roman Empire by dressing it up in Space Marine garb, or a complex meditation on the nature of religion, faith and science, or just a way to sell a lot of books to people.

To skim most of the back story – a godlike Emperor tries to found a secular human empire spanning the galaxy. His most favoured son (Horus) is corrupted by dark gods, and spends what will be 58 books or so fighting. There are flaws in this:

  • if you read several of these books back to back, as I did over the last two weeks, you feel you’re reading a lot of the same thing over again
  • there are various events that are meaningful if you’ve been keeping up with Games Workshop’s future history for the last 30 years, but the casual reader won’t understand. (For example, the first book ends on the cliffhanger that Horus is travelling to a planet called Davin. If you’re a long time fan of the milieu, you’ll know this is important because that’s where he gets corrupted. If not, it’s a really strange way to end a book. The equivalent would be if Star Wars had ended with Leia turning to Luke and saying ‘hey, how good is your relationship with your dad?’ and the film then stopping. Makes a lot of sense if you’ve been a few episode ahead, but if not, it doesn’t.)
  • it’s a big commitment. Right now, a bulk discount if you buy all the books in the series is still four hundred quid. That’s a lot of money. And if I read one a week, I’d be reading nothing else for the whole of next year.

Of the four, the first is probably the best, the last is probably the worst. They’re all of a fair quality, there’s no really dreadful parts in them (compare to the Blood Bowl books I read earlier this year) and there are (as with Plague War) some attempts to talk about religion and the issues with worshipping people who don’t think they’re divine. Hang on – does that mean the other unstated theme of the series is smuggling the Life of Brian into young people’s consciousnesses?

I bought them as part of a five book discounted collection. The fifth book, Fulgrim, I really can’t get on with, but I guess that’s what a surfeit of Games Workshop books does to you.

In addition I seem to have at least three books on the boil right now – a short history of modern gin, a history of Australian sport, and an anthology about Blood Bowl. Will I power through these before the end of the year?


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