Sunday, 15 December 2013

Book 2's that rock.

Like every ‘best’ list ever this is particular to the specific conjunction of me and the books in question – the time in my life at which we collided. In all these cases I read the book before I reached 20, and in some of these cases I was much closer to 10.

These however are second books in a series, or mid-books in a trilogy, or sequels to a début, that rocked my world back in the day and, in my opinion, occlude the book that came before by being better in almost every dimension. Moreover, these are books that have weathered the passage of many decades and still have the power to enthrall and amaze.

If anything I write is still being read by the time I’m an old man I’ll be astonished, and very pleased.

I've used the covers the books had when I read them. There are some pretty bad ones in the mix. You'll find these titles under much cooler covers today.

Mervyn Peake – Gormenghast – 1950

The Gormenghast trilogy is an exceptional piece of work. Many books can be likened to something that came before – their lineage can be traced. Gormenghast seems to me to be a singular vision whose power lies in the strength of its prose, the weight of the insular world it builds, and the marvellous eccentricity of its characters. The first book Titus Groan is an excellent read, but for me book two, Gormenghast, is where Peake really ... peaks, in marvellous, unrepeatable style.

Alan Garner – The Moon of Gomrath – 1963

Alan Garner seems to be a writer that writers revere. Many authors of my generation, particularly British authors, cite his work as an influence. The Weirdstone of Brisengamen precedes this book and is an great story, but it’s in The Moon of Gomrath that Garner really evokes something epic and powerful that sounded an echo in me. The description of the wild hunt taking to horse is a passage that stays with me through the years. These books are described as children’s literature, and they can certainly be enjoyed by young readers, but to my mind it’s a certain type of person they speak to, rather than a certain age. Garner’s intent is serious, his prose clean and powerful, his story linked to the landscape he lived in, and rooted in something deep.

Ursula Le Guin – The Tombs of Atuan – 1970

The Wizard of Earthsea had a lot to offer. The Tombs of Atuan is the second book in the Earthsea cycle and it offers more. There’s a step-change in the maturity and depth of the story. The view of our main protagonist is reset and rescaled by the addition of a second point of view. I read these books at an early age, but even then I noticed that we moved from a book that wanted to entertain me to a book that had something to say – not something to lecture me about, but something more going on while it continued to entertain me.

Julian May – The Golden Torc – 1982

In her sequel to The Many-Coloured Land Julian May outdoes her own excellent start, expanding and deepening the setting while really breathing life into her varied cast of characters. These books in the Saga of Pliocene Exile are a brilliant fusion of science fiction with a mythic/fantasy background. The quality starts high and sustains through a surprising number of books, but for me The Golden Torc represents the  loftiest peak.

C.S Lewis – The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – 1950

Now this certainly is a children’s book, and I read it as a child and it sparked or kept burning an early flame in me. My young imagination was populated by fantasy, from hobbits, to the dark of Mordor, but this vision promised me the chance of access – find the right mad professor, the right old wardrobe, and I too might stumble into Narnia. And Aslan! Damned if I knew it was an attempt to sell me religion – I just loved that lion!

John Masefield - The Box of Delights – 1935

This book is the sequel to Masefield’s debut of 1927, The Midnight Folk. Again, it’s a child’s book and I read it as a child. These stories threaded my dreams for years, and The Box of Delights is the better book, more marvellous, more thrilling, more original. The work is little known these days although it made a big impact in the UK 80-some years ago. Masefield is best known now for his enduring poem, Sea Fever, containing the immortal lines: I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky. That initial impact rippled forward though and the works of T.H White, C.S Lewis, and Susan Cooper all owe a clear debt to this brilliant piece of imagination.


  1. Hi Mark.

    Not sure The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe counts as book two--since it was written and published first.

    I completely agree with you on the Julian May. That series is made of awesome and more people need to read it.

    In many ways, Clash of Kings is stronger than A Game of Thrones, since pieces are already in motion.
    The Guns of Avalon is definitely a better book than Nine Princes in Amber--Zelazny really started to get a feeling for what he was doing.

    1. True on TLTWATW but 60+ years on most readers will come to the books in story chronological order (I think) so it will be the 2nd read. IIRC the boxed set I bought for someone had Magician's Nephew first.

    2. Really? I never realised TLTWATW wasn't the first book. Then again, it's been twenty years since I read the series to my little brother, so that might explain why.

  2. When I first read Tombs of Atuan at 12 or so I was bored. Rereading it, I found it to be my favorite. I haven't read Masefield but I've read all the rest and will have to think about this. At first glance your comments seem pretty spot on.

  3. I'd toss in Steven Erikson's Deadhouse Gates. While I adore Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates remains one of my favourite books in this series, together with The Bonehunters.

  4. Didn't see the religion at all when I read the Narnia books and they certainly didn't manage to sell me any more belief than that I wanted to read more weird shit (which inevitably led to Lord of the Rings). And those Julian May books ... absolutely wonderful.

  5. Wow, Gormenghast! Glad to know I'm not the only one who's read about Steerpike and his climb to power. That evil little shit was awesome.

  6. Julian May...fantastic them as they were published...and at least five times many original ideas..

  7. favourite second book at the moment is the blinding knife by brent prism was good...blinding knife was truly stunning...waiting with bated breath for broken eye...