“[Books] are for company the best friends, in doubts counselors, in damps comforters, time’s perspective, the home-traveler’s ship or horse, the busy man’s best recreation, the opiate of idle weariness, the mind’s best ordinary, nature’s garden, and the seed-plot of immortality.” – Richard Whitelock: Zoötomia
There are plenty of books I like a lot. But there aren’t very many books that are perfect. Some of them aren’t as well known as they should be. Here are some books that I personally think are perfect, or at least as nearly perfect as makes no difference.
Most of these are short. I didn’t notice that until I put together this list. I don’t think that’s coincidence: I suspect that perfection is inherently difficult to achieve in a longer work because the author can’t hold the whole thing, perfectly formed, in her head. Or perhaps it’s because, given enough space, the author is likely to drop a loose thread somewhere; or perhaps because, if a story goes on and on, an author is just likely to do something that annoys any given reader. Or, of course, it might be a personal quirk in me – that I just perceive perfection more readily if it’s in a short novel.
I do love long series, though. Truly. I just don’t usually think they attain perfection.
Also, many of these are YA novels. I have to say, it seems to me that the average quality of YA SF & F is just higher than the average quality of adult work. YA work has constraints – of pacing, of plotting, of character – that apply less rigorously, to adult novels. In YA, pacing has to be relatively fast, plotting has to be tight, and characters have to be sympathetic. I wonder if those constraints might tend to lead to better work.
I get that this selection will tell you at least as much about me as about these books. What it should tell you is that what matters to me is writing quality and style, characterization, and a good, tight plot without a trace of deus ex machina or any moments where the author forces the characters to do something out of character or to do something stupid or fail to do something obvious.
But in my opinion there is also something else that sets these books apart. I think – though it probably sounds pretentious – that each of these books also illuminates something true and fine about the human spirit. Darkness is fine, if it’s limited; and the ending of a book can be ambiguous rather than saccharine without turning me off. But I have no use for anti-heroes or any kind of literary susceptibility to unrelenting despair.
These are not in any particular order. Although there are comments about each book, I am not very good at writing real book reviews and haven’t tried to write any here.
1) The Changeling Sea, by Patricia McKillip, and
2) The Book of Atrix Wolfe, by Patricia McKillip
Not many authors get to be on this list twice. I think McKillip is the finest fantasy author writing today. She exemplifies the subgenre of lyrical fantasy, where it’s hard to tell whether you’re reading poetry or prose. I don’t mean that her books are overwritten! I’m not talking about purple prose! I’m talking about language so beautiful and so perfectly suited to the work she does that it’s like putting an ornate, baroque, gilded frame around a picture that is perfectly suited to that kind of frame.
The Changeling Sea is perfect in every way. The Book of Atrix Wolfe suffers from a stupid title, but it is also perfect. It also offers possibly the single best final line of any book I’ve ever read. Don’t skip to the end. You won’t get the impact of that line unless you’ve read the book before you get to it.
3) The Shapechanger’s Wife, by Sharon Shinn, and
4) The Truth-Teller’s Tale, by Sharon Shinn
Another author who’s on this list twice. Reviews indicate that people either love The Shapechanger’s Wife or hate it. The latter type of review must be written by people who want, say, straightforward adventure stories with blood and gore and big plots with the world in danger of ending, or something. This story is perfect, but only for a reader who will read it slowly and savor every word.
The Truth-Teller’s Tale is the middle book of a trilogy. I obviously don’t think it suffers from second-book syndrome. Anyway, all three can stand alone. I actually rate this story a 9.5 for a particular plot device that I think is the author cheating, but it is, nevertheless, essentially perfect.
5) The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley
I love Robin McKinley. I wish she would write more, and faster. I love Sunshine, and Dragonhaven has one of the best teenage narrators I’ve ever seen. But for me, The Blue Sword is the one that stands out as perfect.
6) Cukoo’s Egg, by CJ Cherryh
Definitely not YA and the first book on this list that is SF and not F. Cukoo’s Egg is perhaps not my favorite book by Cherryh, though I don’t know, maybe it is. It’s definitely the one that seems truly flawless in both conception and execution. Again, the last lines of the book are absolutely perfect, and again, don’t be tempted to read those lines in isolation. Read the whole book and then let those last few few sentences knock your socks off.
7) A Certain Slant of Light, by Laura Whitcomb
I only just read this book, and it took my breath away. I wish I’d written it, though it’s an idea that I don’t think would ever have occurred to me. It’s a ghost story, and so to say that it’s haunting is a pun — but it is haunting. Scenes and lines from this story keep drifting through my mind. I didn’t even think of reading any other fiction for days after reading this because, no matter how good they were, I knew they would not measure up to this one.
8) The Warrior’s Apprentice, by Lois McMaster Bujold
One of my all-time favorite authors, and this is the one out of the lot that I think is most clearly perfect. I’m sure I don’t need to say anything about this book — surely everyone has read it.
9) Jhereg, by Steven Brust
Someone told me that the Vlad Taltos series exemplifies the ‘first person smartass’ style. I don’t know who coined that term, but it so describes these books! Of the series, this one is perfect.
10) Tea with the Black Dragon, by R. A. MacAvoy
Again, if you want blood and gore and a big earth-shattering plot where a grim-visaged hero saves the world, well, go somewhere else. If you want a jewel of a book where the characterization shines and every word is perfectly set, that’s what Tea with the Black Dragon will deliver.
11) Talking to Dragons, by Patricia Wrede
Part of a four-book series (and the whole series is very good indeed), this book is self-contained and just wonderful. Very decidedly YA, and a perfect example of its kind.
12) The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper
As the one above, this is part of an excellent five-book YA series. In tone and execution, it’s decidedly different, but just as good.
13) Thursday’s Children, by Rumer Godden, and
14) In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden
Neither SF nor F. I don’t know what to call these books. Thursday’s Children is YA, I guess. Brede certainly isn’t. Maybe it’s literary fiction? Whatever that is?
Rumer Godden is one of the very few non-genre writers I really love. I can’t do justice to either of these books and don’t intend to try — I did mention that I’m not good at writing book reviews, right? — but anybody who loves a great YA novel ought to love Thursday’s Children.