The 2018 War on the Rocks Summer Fiction Reading List
Summer is upon us, and it’s the perfect time to unwind and catch up on your fiction reads. Fiction, of course, can provide a respite from studying history, strategy, and conflict — but it can also be an illuminating way to understand them. To that end, WOTR’s senior editors and contributing editors have recommended their top fiction picks for you to add to your beach reading list. (For even more recommendations, be sure to check out the Bombshell summer reading roundup.)
Here’s the list. Happy reading!
The Shadow Ops series by Myke Cole. These books explore life as a military contractor, in a world where magic has become ubiquitous and is sorcery is now the main tool of the U.S. military. These books are gloriously trashy, and it’s unlikely anyone will mistake them for great fiction soon. But they are a fun, easy-to-read romp. I finished all three while at the beach earlier this year, and in that setting, they did not disappoint.
The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McLellan. Set in a fictional Napoleonic-era fantasy world, this trilogy explores the aftermath of a coup against the monarchy, and the fallout of overthrowing the proper order of things. It features epic-scale battles, and fun characters with enough flaws that you can really sympathize with them.
Here are three of my perennial favorite novels about aviators at war, spanning three different conflicts. (All three books were made into movies, two of which are worth watching.) Great lessons and reflections in these pages for future combat fliers who may one day again have to fly and fight in the face of steep odds against their long-term survival.
Twelve O’Clock High by Beirne Lay, Jr. and Sy Bartlett. A gripping account of the demands of leadership in the face of heavy losses during the early US strategic bombing raids over Europe during World War Two. The novel depicts not only what kind of effort it takes to keep the demoralized aircrews of a hardluck bomb group in battle, but the controversial decisions of the generals directing the deadly campaign behind the scenes.
The Bridges at Toko-ri by James Michener. Naval aviators flying their early jet fighters in horrific weather from carriers off the North Korean coast take on seemingly impossible missions, and try to make sense of their sacrifices in a nearly forgotten war. This account is notable too because the story highlights the sacrifices and challenges of a reservist called back from civilian life to fight in a new war after flying many combat missions in World War II.
Flight of the Intruder by Stephen Coonts. The costs to a small group of US Navy carrier aviators flying deadly missions deep into North Vietnam in waning days of the war bring home the isolation and gut-wrenching stress of modern combat flying against very capable enemy. There are lots of powerful insights here on the aviators’ unique culture of wartime comradeship and their unbroken commitment to fellow flyers, no matter what the dangers.
If you need a break from reading about war, I strongly recommend A Gentleman in Moscow by Amos Towles. It’s a masterful story about a Russian aristocrat, which starts in 1922 as he is sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in the Hotel Metropole. How can a story that takes place within a single building keep you riveted for more than 450 pages? Read this book and find out.
The other book that I just could not put down this year was A Column of Fire by Ken Follett. It’s the third book in a series that starts with The Pillars of the Earth (also phenomenal), but it’s connected loosely enough that it stands on its own. It takes place in England during the religious wars of the late 1500s and includes real historical figures, but it’s basically a wonderful soap-opera-turned-adventure story. Bonus points: since it takes place amidst actual conflict, you can tell your friends and family that they need to leave you alone while you undertake important professional development!
Saving the Queen by William F. Buckley. Readers yearning for well-told Cold War spy thrillers will appreciate the Blackford Oakes series beginning with this book that’s perfect as a beach read. People are more familiar with Buckley’s non-fiction, but the characters are developed, interesting, funny, and interact with historical characters beginning with this book set in 1952.
On Basilisk Station by David Weber. This is a fantastic series by one of today’s top sci-fi writers. (Full disclosure: he was the featured speaker last November at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum’s #NavyCon.) Weber drew heavily from naval history, politics, acquisition, and R&D programs to kickstart this series with the ultimate heroine, Honor Harrington. Follow her career from cruiser CO to Fleet Commander in this series. Each book is progressively longer and more detailed but this debut novel is manageable on a weekend.
Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. A classic novel that weaves history, decision-making, leadership, and incredible feats of heroism into describing the actions leading to and during the 480 B.C. battle of Thermopylae.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. I read a lot of science fiction, which is why I feel I can say with some authority that Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves is among the very best science fiction books out there. The story takes place in the near future, and begins with the moon exploding. What follows is a fascinating account of humankind’s efforts to science their way out of life-threatening situations, make sacrifices to ensure the survival of humanity in some form, and, in the last part of the book, some thought provoking ideas about evolution. A must read.
Sternstunden der Menschheit by Stefan Zweig. Stefan Zweig is one of the best authors in the world, and I could easily have filled this list with only his books (also read The Royal Game and The World of Yesterday, and his brilliant biographies). In Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures, Zweig describes beautifully ten historical moments that have marked history, from “The World Minute of Waterloo” to the writing of the Marseillaise. The English title “Shooting Stars” (in some editions “Decisive Moments in History”) doesn’t do the original justice; “Sternstunde” is one of those untranslatable German words that means moments worthy of reaching the stars.
The Red by Linda Nagata. A great beach read. The Red is a classic, highly entertaining military science fiction book. But it also offers a fascinating fresh take on the old ‘Artificial Intelligent being takes over the world’ narrative, situated between utopian AI futures and Terminator end-of-the-world scenarios. I’ve already ordered the sequel.
The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. The multigenerational tale of a family in Habsburg Austria, it is a vivid portrait of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s gradual unraveling as World War I looms. The book is a wonderful human story and also features a drink called “180 Proof,” which should appeal to a large segment of WOTR readers.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Yes, it’s very long. Yes, there are hundreds of individual characters and numerous subplots. Yes, there is a huge amount of detail about Napoleon’s march into Russia and the Grande Armée’s disastrous retreat. Quit complaining. WaP is astonishingly good, easy to read (I did all 1200+ pages on my iPhone) and deserving of its elevated status. Frankly, if you are still putting off reading it, you should be ashamed of yourself. Get crackin’.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes. Beautiful meditation on true love under trying circumstances, the challenges of memory, and universality of heartbreak. The most important story is our one love story, which defines and shapes who we are, for better and/or worse.
A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré. The return of Le Carré’s most enduring character, George Smiley, poignantly and remorsefully recalling the Cold War within the Cold War.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. Two loosely connected novellas, linked by reflections on memory, mentorship, ambitions, and the mysteries of human connection: both in the mid to later-00’s, one involving an affair between an aspiring writer, Alice, and a much older, more famous writer; the other involving an Iraqi American economist detained in London’s Heathrow airport.
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Hader Rahman. Published a few years ago, but the best novel I have read in over a decade. Big and sprawling, traveling between London, Dhaka, New York, Oxford, and Princeton, in the shadow of the war in Afghanistan with memories of the 1971 catastrophe in South Asia, a complex and conflicted reflection on friendship, loss, betrayal, marriage, history, and identity.
The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu. Imagine that humanity knew–knew–a vastly superior alien civilization would arrive to destroy it in 400 years. What constraints and opportunities might that challenge impose on earth’s strategy of defense? This is the second in the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” series by Cixin Liu.
Robots and Empire by Isaac Asimov. Several hundred years in the future, the galaxy is divided between two human civilizations that have evolved in dramatically different ways. One is a long dominant but decadent and declining “spacer” civilization that relies heavily on robots to survive. The other is a “settler” civilization that’s growing and expanding, and has made robots illegal. Sound like a bizarro test case for power transition theory? Exactly.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. This book provides a gripping fiction experience with shades of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American but set in a beautifully-framed future Thailand. The book paints a really thought-provoking picture of a future after the “contraction”, where the world gets bigger again due to conflict and pandemic, and where today’s era – the “expansion” – is a memory.
Rebecca Friedman Lissner:
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. It’s the compulsively readable story of a marriage, told from the husband and then the wife’s very different perspectives — and made all the more intriguing by its selection as one of President Obama’s favorite books of 2015.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Set in North Korea, this book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. While the plot is at times “fantastical,” Adam Johnson provides a deep understanding of north Korean society, culture, mindset, and the security system that controls every aspect of the lives of Koreans in the north. Given the focus on Korea in 2018, this book provides a unique view of the north and one of the best descriptions of life in North Korea from the common citizen through the military to the elite. It brings to life or “operationalizes” the scholarly works that study “Songbun,” which is the North Korean social classification system that marks Korean people living in the north for life.
The Profession: A Thriller by Steven Pressfield. This book sheds light on what war could be like as the fighting is dominated by private military corporations or “mercenaries” some 20 years in the future. It is an action-packed thriller that brings together all the complex threats we see emerging today to include Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Most importantly, Pressfield examines why men fight and their relationships to each other, the mission, and their countries and companies – in short he looks at what the warrior ethos will be like when fighting is done through mercenary forces. Food for thought.
A Kingdom Far and Clear: The Complete Swan Lake Trilogy by Mark Helprin – Helprin released Swan Lake, A City in Winter, and The Veil of Snows individually in the 2000s with stunning illustrations by Chris Van Allsburg, and this edition compiles the three. Beautifully written, sometimes dark, something to share with older children for the many moral lessons within.
The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie. Perhaps better known in the UK for his comedic acting in Black Adder and A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie, and in America for his acting in House, Laurie is also a great writer. He submitted the novel under a pseudonym in an effort to avoid being labeled as a mere “celebrity author,” and only agreed to use his real name after the book was accepted for publication. A thriller that threads the needle between parody and a faithful embrace of its genre, The Gun Seller is a read that is equal parts captivating and hilarious, avoiding the overly serious and often overbearing tone that makes so many of its peers bland and forgettable.
Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy. As the Army’s Multidomain Battle concept is frequently compared to the AirLand Battle doctrine of the 1980s, perhaps it’s time to crack open a hefewitzen and read Clancy’s classic wartime technothriller from the period detailing a high-intensity war in Central Europe. This book, which has inspired a multitude of novelists since, is a classic of the genre, and has held up remarkably well in the intervening years.
American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad. In a dystopian United States, 50 years in the future, the second U.S. Civil War is raging, fueled by environmental disaster and political polarization, and a sickened North America is relying on the patronizing kindness of a revitalized Arab world. Omar El Akkad combines contemporary issue threads on refugee camps, insurgency, global warming, and political dysfunction into one cautionary tale.
Young Miles by Lois McMaster Bujold. A compilation of the two novels Warrior’s Apprentice and the Vor Game with the novelette Mountains of Mourning. Miles Vorkosigan is a physically handicapped boy born into a highly militaristic society that in earlier years would have euthanized him as a mutant. He has to leave home and create a suitably military career based on native intelligence, academy training (before he failed out) and no small amount of deception. Miles’ career remains steeped in deception because he has few other options available – an option applicable to modern warfare but insufficiently embraced by Western military thought.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. A Hugo Award winner from 1966, about a revolt on the Moon in 2076. Deserving of a revisit because of the critical part played in the novel by a virtual protagonist – a completely computer-generated = character created as a false front for a revolutionary cabal. Decades ahead of its time envisioning some of the opportunities for revolution inherent in computer control and manipulation of media, communications, and utilities.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. McEwan is one of the true masters of the English language, and our young heroine is a savvy MI5 recruit in the 1970s navigating two highly intriguing love interests.
Circe by Madeline Miller. I very much enjoyed Madeline Miller’s first book, The Song of Achilles, a bold, achingly melancholic retelling of the Iliad, and am looking forward to plunging into Circe.
The Leopard by Gisueppe Di Lampedusa. I’ve never read this classic Italian tale of upheaval, dislocation and decadence set in Sicily. As my wife and I will be spending a few weeks in Sicily this summer drinking decadent amounts of wine and limoncello, this seems like the perfect fit.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. A merry coming of age novel about the time when scandal became the business of celebrity.
Loren DeJonge Schulman:
The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. I dragged this paperback sailing in Greece and have read it every summer since. It’s an engrossing, epic story of a Navy family in World War II, spanning the U.S. embassy in Berlin, Mussolini’s Italy, Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Britain, the Manhattan project….ok, it’s a little ridiculous but still marvelous.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. Ingeniously structured, this slim novel will speak to many readers who came of age in the 9/11 era (even though that’s not explicitly what it’s trying to do). It reads as two books in one, but both spark rich questions and human dilemmas.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Immersive and tricky, this novel explores the complex social and political relationships at work in Jamaica through the lens of the rival political parties, growing drug trade, and assassination of Bill Marley. Rewards reading on long flights and quiet beaches.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I realize that may not be an entirely original choice, but there’s a reason so many people are reading it.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Adam Johnson was a pseudonym.
Image: Aftab Uzzaman/Flickr