I’m sitting here at my desk, and instead of working on moving my WIPs to the “Ready for Humiliation” folder, I’m staring at my bookshelf. I’m gazing at the spines of Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy, and I’m thinking about reading them again.
I recently finished the third book, The City of Mirrors, and it’s one of few trilogies that I can legitimately, honestly say I loved. It has everything (well, many things) I look for in fiction: a fantastical, alluring world; rich mythology; risky storytelling; deep characters; solid writing that is at times literary; complexity in just about everything. In a word: depth.
I loved it, but I’m not thinking about reading it again only because of how I felt about it. You see, The Passage is one of the only trilogies or series I bought into immediately. I can’t recall any others that I picked up before they were all completely written. And Justin Cronin isn’t cranking out a new novel every quarter. He’s putting three or four years of his life into a book, and that’s a lot of time for a reader between books. But it’s part of the reason they are so good.
I’m increasingly of the mind that good fiction cannot be rushed out the door, that authors need to live in their worlds and with their characters to truly grant them the substance they need to create meaning and allow readers to leave and take with them whatever it is they find there in those pages.
Granted, I know plenty of authors who put out really good work annually and semi-annually. Those people are freaks.
Reading Rich Hawkins’ novella, Black Star, Black Sun, is a bit like waking up and finding the world has already been consumed by fire, and the final embers are burning the ashen remains. It is a fearless journey into an abyss of despair.
Why would anyone want to read that? Because it’s hauntingly beautiful.
We begin with Ben Ottway returning to his hometown, a small village in England, after the mysterious disappearance of his wife, but this is no thriller with plot twists you can see coming a mile away or that are surprising because they’re utter nonsense. Ben’s wife is gone, and the point is his world has ended, yet he fights it and remains hopeful.
Amid personal distractions, big events, work, and other happenings, I didn’t get to read as much in 2014 as I would have liked. But I did read some really good books that I connected with in ways that either surprised me or continue to affect me. Please note, I read some really good stuff this year, and these are just the books that struck a personal nerve.
Without further ado, here are my favorite novels that I read in 2014.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the precise moment when Rich Hawkins’ work in The Last Plague won me over, but I know it came within the first fifty pages.
If you took Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and slammed it into 28 Days Later and then opened a trans-dimensional gateway for Cthulu to join the party, you might end up with something like The Last Plague. It begins like any other modern horror story in that we’re presented with a group of friends who go off for a weekend of fun. The difference here is they aren’t going off into the unknown where evil awaits. While they are gone, the world changes, and when they return to it, they find the aftermath of the initial wave of an infection.
Despite what you may read elsewhere, Suffer the Children is not a novel about vampires. In a strict sense, there is little in the way of monsters. Compared to Craig DiLouie’s earlier work, there are significantly fewer zombies and bullets, less blood mist and cordite in the air. The action is subdued. Your ears will not ring from explosive charges. But there’s a lot of heart. You can all but feel it thump as you turn the page (or press the e-reader button).
Where Suffer the Children distinguishes itself is not in attempting to recreate or contrive a monster myth, which is something many authors are trying to do these days because the prevailing thought is that doing so is the key to success. In fact, Suffer the Children succeeds in innovating a classic monster myth. And it surely is interesting, but what makes it truly intriguing is that Suffer the Children is about the *people* first. This is something that makes Craig DiLouie somewhat of an exception in the horror genre. His books aren’t about zombies. They aren’t about vampires. If there are monsters in his novels, they are the monsters *within* the people that are expertly and lovingly conceived. He makes you sympathize with and fall in love with his characters. Many of them have humanizing and redeeming qualities. And when he’s finished showing you these people and what makes them as intriguing and sympathetic as a friend or even a sibling, when he’s dug his author pen into your chest, piercing your still-beating heart, that’s when he twists it.
The idea of a viral outbreak isn’t exactly new, but The Flu by Jaqueline Druga is anything but typical. It maintains a level of distinction even beyond the apocalyptic and outbreak thriller genres.
A particularly deadly strain of the flu escapes a facility in Alaska, and by chance and relayed through expertly executed dramatic irony, the virus makes it to Barrow. Then it hitches a ride with a journalist to LA, and well, you know how this goes. Druga spares us an attempt at building suspense through being coy here. We know there’s an outbreak, and she spends only enough time to set it up and make it feel legitimate and authentic without feeling tiring or exhaustive.
Like most sequels, it’s difficult to discuss Craig DiLouie’s The Killing Floor without at least mentioning its predecessor, The Infection. Unlike most sequels, however, DiLouie makes it easy to focus on this work by surpassing the original in almost every way.
The Killing Floor picks up right where The Infection leaves us, bringing back all of the characters who survive the first story, even one special character whom we think is doomed when we leave The Infection, and introducing many new characters. Like Infection, itself, DiLouie allows his zombie mythology to evolve and adapt, and therein he finds the central plot of The Killing Floor. It threatens to become hackneyed, but DiLouie jumps in with both feet and develops it enough so that it feels legitimate, natural, and unique.