The very very best writers today

How about that for a topic that absolutely no one will agree on? Yes, I know, it’s all a matter of personal taste. Or not ALL, because some aspects of quality are just objective and an author who lacks a feel for language need not apply for best-of lists, but *basically*, yeah, personal taste.

I mean, for me, in mysteries? The actual mystery and plot are not as important as the characterization and setting. Obviously that’s just me. And I’ve read A LOT more fantasy than, say, contemporary romances.

In fact, I should probably mention that I have read uncountable novels in the fantasy, SF, historical, and mystery categories, but much more lightly in some of the other categories below. But why should I let that stop me from tossing out a highly opinionated list, right?

So, forging ahead:

1. Very best historical novels: Gillian Bradshaw

2. Very best romances: Laura Florand

3. Very best fantasy: Patricia McKillip

4. Very best magical realism: Sarah Addison Allen

5. Very best mysteries: Barbara Hambly / Barbara “Hamilton”

6. Very best SF: Um, there I skid to a halt. Um. Yeah, here I want a top-five list, minimum. OKAY FINE how about CJ Cherryh

7. Very best horror: Dean Koontz, but I admit I like horror-lite, not real horror

8. Very best satire: Terry Pratchett

9. Very best middle-grade/young adult: Diana Wynne Jones

10. Very best classic novelist: Jane Austen

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16 thoughts on “The very very best writers today”

  1. 1. Connie Willis and Linda Nagata (for example) are better SF writers than CJ Cherryh, at least recently. However, I have to go with either Charles Stross or John Scalzi as “best” current SF writer. They do really original stuff.
    2. I give Connie Willis best historical novels as well as best short stories. I just LOVE her stuff.
    3. Nevada Barr is my favorite current Mystery writer.

  2. Hi, Pete — I actually dislike Charles Stross’ work, which is clever but has nothing to emotionally attach to. And although I’ve liked Scalzi’s books when I’ve read them, and I agree he has excellent writing chops, I’ve never had any impulse to seek out his backlist or re-read his books. For SF, I value characterization — and I like sociological SF substantially better than most other forms. So for me, no contest at all, Cherryh’s definitely my pick over either Stross or Scalzi.

    Now, Willis — I haven’t read many of hers. I greatly admired BLACK OUT / ALL CLEAR, and I’m so impressed with how she shifts genres within one world — but I haven’t had any urge to re-read her books, either. In contrast, I’ve read through the entire FOREIGNER set multiple times, for example. So there you go.

    Though Willis incorporates history in her books, if you have time travel and the main pov is not from a person of the time but an agent from the future, imo that’s not a straight historical and takes her out of that category.

    I haven’t read anything at all by Nagata or Nevada Barr. I guess I ought to see what all they’ve written — any specific recommendations for either author?

  3. Has Connie Willis ever done a straight historical novel, or is it all time travel? If the latter, I think she can’t count as a historical novelist.

    (I quit reading her several books ago. Partly after listening to Brits excoriate things she got wrong in DOOMSDAY, partly from realizing I left her books feeling like I’d spent time with a used car salesman. She puts words together really well… it just doesn’t work for me.)

    While I greatly enjoy Bradshaw, I’d put Dorothy Dunnett as top of the list of historical novelists. Patrick O’Brien may belong there, but I’ve yet to get around to reading his work. Whenever I’ve hauled one home from the library it has gone back unread.

    I really want to discover a new SF writer I can love, but for now I would put Bujold and Cherryh at the top, fighting it out. Stross’ books I bounce off, and Scalzi just hasn’t interested me enough to finish. I think I’ve read a Nagata, but it made little impression on me. … [invokes amazon] … Right, BOHR MAKER.

    I read few enough mysteries that I shan’t proclaim an opinion, although I enjoyed the first Julia Grey mystery/historical by Raybourn. The second a bit less so. I like Hambly’s Benjamin Januarys as long as there’s enough time between one installment and the next in my reading. I have a terrible time with mystery series, they start to feel formulaic very quickly.

    I’m far to good at giving myself the creeps to read horror.

    I suppose John Crowley is the big name in Magical Realism (English), but I also prefer Sarah Addison Allen – have you got her new one on pre-order, Rachel?

  4. I love Dunnett, but I remember bouncing out of her Niccolo series pretty hard at about the fifth book; it took me years to get back to it. I prefer her Lymond series, though I thought the second in the series was lightweight. She really puts her characters through the wringer, sometimes too much for me.

    I can like a formulaic mystery series, and have read a dozen or more Ngaio Marsh or Rex Stout titles in a go without getting bored.

    I actually don’t think I’ve read anything by Crowley — and I don’t have the newest Sarah Addison Allen on order, but I really should preorder all the upcoming releases I know I want, because I hear that these days publishers really really really care about preorders.

  5. Historicals–for me, despite my newfound Bradshaw love, it’ll always be Rosemary Sutcliff.

    Romances–totally with you on Laura Florand!

    Fantasy–McKillip, if we’re going adult, probably Diana Wynne Jones if we’re going kidlit

    I don’t read much magical realism, so Sarah Addison Allen wins by default, although she’s also just plain excellent.

    Mysteries–old school, I’m a Dorothy Sayers girl all the way. The ending of Gaudy Night always chokes me up.

    SF–Bujold, Willis, and Cherryh are duking it out.

    Horror–I don’t really read, although the Monstrumologist series by Rick Yancey is excellent.

    Satire–I don’t like at all. Erm. Even Pratchett I bounce right off, except for the Tiffany Aching books, which I ADORE.

    MG/YA–I refuse to choose. All right, Megan Whalen Turner. Or Robin McKinley, for nostalgia’s sake. Or–yeah.

    Classic novelist–in the interests of something different, Elizabeth Gaskell, for Cranford, Wives & Daughters, and especially North and South (which I wrote a thesis on, along with Pride & Prejudice, in undergrad and therefore love very very much).

  6. Maureen — OKAY, what should I read by Sutcliff? I have a memory of reading one of hers and not thinking it was very well written, but I think I must be getting her confused with someone else.

    I love Gaudy Night, but I really only like Sayers’ books after Harriet appears. The logic-puzzle style of mystery doesn’t really appeal to me, and I think that’s what Sayers was writing pre-Harriet.

    You bounce off Pratchett, really? Have you tried Night Watch? Because if you like any Pratchett at all, I really think you might like that one. I don’t care for Pratchett’s early books, which were more slapstick-comedy; but I do love all his later books, after he started to really write satire. And yes, I really enjoyed the Tiffany series, which work very well in Audible format.

    I enjoyed North And South as a movie, and liked it as a book, but OH MY GOD the typos in the book were just SO annoying. If you know of an edition that was better edited, I wouldn’t mind picking it up and ditching the copy I have now.

  7. I also love Sutcliff, and own many of her books. I don’t know why she didn’t occur to me as a historical novelist. What leaped to mind to answer your question was MARK OF THE HORSE LORD. Also LANTERN BEARERS and DAWN WIND. SHIELD RING. That’s two Roman Britain (more or less, the LB follows a deserter who stays behind when the legions leave), and SR is post Conquest during William the Red’s reign, IIRC, but we don’t see the king. It deals with a Northumberland region which held off the Normans.

    She also wrote a historical Arthur book, SWORD AT SUNSET, which I’m afraid to revisit because I overdosed on Arthurians long ago. It links up to LANTERN BEARERS.

    She’s best known for her novels of Roman Britain, but she wrote others, one focused on Alcibiades, which I read while I was studying Greek & his period, and liked at the time.
    Another about one of the English Civil War generals, Fairfax, which I don’t remember at all. and a smattering of others.

    Remembering her reminds me of Madeline Polland who wrote many many historical novels aimed at children – probably be marketed high mg/ya nowadays – set in all sorts of eras and places, often focusing on the spread of Christianity – she’s where I learned of the Varangian Guard, and Tycho Brahe, and Columcille, and the ‘Black Robes” … she also wrote a few excellent (I liked & remember them well) historical novels.

  8. Sutdiff–yes, all the ones Elaine mentioned! For different periods, I also like Bonnie Dundee and Rider on the White Horse (that’s the Fairfax book above). Lantern Bearers, Mark of the Horse Lord, and Eagle of the Ninth are my favorites of her Romano-British books. Also, you can go back and re-read the Queen’s Thief series to see what MWT slips in from Sutcliff.

    Pratchett–yes, I’ve heard good things about Night Watch and should try that one. I should say that I’ve bounced off all the ones I’ve tried that aren’t Tiffany Aching.

    I totally agree about Harriet–I liked the earlier books the first time I read the series but have only tried to re-read them once because of that. Peter isn’t really a real person until she comes along, which is fascinating to me. (Also, Dorothy Sayers totally agreed with that…I’ll see if I can dig out the link I found for a Twitter friend on the subject.)

    The North and South I own is the Penguin Classics edition. I don’t remember any typos, but that doesn’t mean much.

  9. Oh yes it does, Maureen. You could not POSSIBLY have forgotten the typo-laden mess that is the edition I have.

  10. I’d say Nagata’s “Skye Object” and “Deception Well” are good places to start. I also thought Dunnett’s first series was fantastic, but her second got completely lost in the weeds. (I’ve never reread it past the first 3-or-so books.) Guy Gabriel Kay is better, or at least more consistent, at this type of work.

    No: Willis only does time travel. Like Kage Baker(!!), her best TT is humor. TSNOTD is just wonderful and IMPOSSIBLE THINGS is IMO the best short story collection I have ever read. I put her in “historical” because I couldn’t really classify her other stuff.

    Almost any book by Barr is a good place to start. But WINTER STUDY, SUPERIOR DEATH, and BLIND DESCENT are her most memorable–and most claustrophobic.

  11. Also: I really couldn’t get into FOREIGNER series. It is just too much like her old CHANUR series (and many others). Cherryh has simply written the same flavor of book for too long: I’m suffering sensory fatigue, similar to the problems I’ve had with Mercedes Lackey for more than a decade.

  12. @Maureen — for Satire, you can’t beat Stross’s SINGULARITY SKY, especially if you read the backstory before you read the book: he took the preposterous(!!) idea of a Napoleonic-era Space Navy and crossed it with the Edinburgh Arts Festival as a McGuffin-slash-enemy. Hilarity ensues. David Weber is Successfully Put In His Place.

  13. One last point on Cherryh: she had some phenomenal novels, Back in the Day. CYTEEN trilogy, 40,000 IN GEHENNA, and DOWNBELOW STATION were seminal works. (I devoured them all in the late 90’s, though she started the series in the early 80’s.)

    Her later stuff isn’t nearly as original: 40K in Gehenna, especially, compares favorably with many anthropological novels by Le Guin.

  14. Pete — thanks for the suggestions re Nagata and Barr!

    We’ll have to “agree to disagree” about Cherryh, because I found Gehenna barely readable, though I could appreciate it on an intellectual level. Although I must say, I loved loved loved Cyteen and have re-read it many times. I agree that some of her books echo each other — imo the Mri trilogy is very much derived from (but expands on) Brothers of Earth — but to me, though I can certainly recognize Cherryh’s style and the tropes she returns to over and over, the Foreigner series is actually quite distinctive not only from her earlier work, but from everything else being written in SF today.

  15. Pete, thanks for the suggestion. I’ll, erm, add to my (long) list. Seriously speaking, though, unfortunately I’m much less likely to pick up satire because I’ve had such woeful experiences with it in the past. I know this is a character flaw, but when it keeps on happening…

    Rachel, must be a different N&S edition, then! Which does mean that the Penguin should be safe.

    As far as Cherrryh goes, I’m personally a new reader, going through her backlist. I’ve loved the Foreigner universe books, liked ANGEL WITH THE SWORD, and mildly disliked RUSALKA. For whatever that’s worth. The length of the Foreigner series is somewhat daunting, given how much turmoil her characters go through, but I’m seriously invested in it now.

  16. Maureen, have you tried Cuckoo’s Egg? How about the Chanur series? Those are the ones I would most push somebody toward, to introduce them to Cherryh. But I”m happy you like the Foreigner series so far!

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