Barnes, better known for his science fiction, here turns his hand to fantasy, in a Princess Bride-like self-aware fairy tale. The book genuinely captures the magical, inexplicable atmosphere of a real fairy tale while simultaneously playing with the genre. Part of this inexplicability is the consequent of a plot whose depths eluded my understanding, admittedly; but even the sense that there was something I wasn't grasping added to the feel of the story. The charming atmosphere is likewise enhanced by Barnes' quirky wordplay -- where else will you see a soldier carrying an escree? -- which serves to delight rather than confuse.
These, the first two books of the series, are essentially independent from the others; it's very possible to read them and feel that you're done. The books deal with an alien probe entering our solar system, and the subsequent events. They're written in a cyberpunk-ish style, and are excellent. In the manner of the best hard SF, Benford deftly combines excellent ideas with superb characterization. The later books in the series are very different animals. They're still good, but somewhat disappointing after these two.
As the name implies, Timescape deals with the idea of communicating across time. The book is divided into two parts. One is set in California academia circa 1980; the other is set in a near-future world devastated by ecological disaster. Benford writes the present-day portions of this book convincingly - due largely to the fact that he is himself an academic. The behind-the-scenes looks into academia are almost as compelling as the look at a devastated future world. Benford is to be commended, too, for handling the tricky subject of time travel with sophistication and logical consistency. This is perhaps Benford's best novel.
These two books deal more fully with the uplift premise that was first introduced in the mediocre Sundiver. Startide Rising chronicles the adventures of a human/dolphin crewed ship that's stumbled onto a great secret. Excellent space opera, the book manages to use every SF cliche without seeming cliched. The Uplift War deals with events taking place immediately after those of Startide Rising, but is set in a different part of the galaxy. Which means, unfortunately, that it's not a direct sequel to the earlier book. Ah, well. Both of these books are superb, and I can't recommend them highly enough. If you haven't already read them, do so now.
Brin's new Uplift Trilogy takes place following the events of Startide Rising and The Uplift War, and manages to nicely tie up a lot of the mysteries that have been littering this series. Any time Grand Mysteries are cleared up, the result almost always disappoints, but Brin avoids this disappointment by escalating the mystery further -- every answer brings up new and bigger questions. While this strategy probably can't work forever, it's still an interesting ride so far. Be warned that the early volumes of this trilogy are a bit slow in comparison to the rest of the Uplift series; but don't worry about it too much, since Heaven's Reach more than makes up for it.
This massive tome describes an Earth fifty years in our future. While some of the predictions are a little dated (Brin seems to have vastly over-estimated global warming problems), on the whole this book is a superb near-future novel. A lot of people have criticized this novel for having a weak plot; I'll concede this point. However, it wasn't plot that made this novel great; it was the panoramic view of a fascinating and plausible future. While mine is definitely a minority view, I think Earth is Brin's best novel yet, and by extension one of the best SF novels around.
These books came to me highly recommended by a lot of people, so when I started reading it was with high expectations. And by the time I was halfway through Jhereg, I was a little disappointed. Sure, it was a fun little fantasy adventure, but it wasn't unbelievably great. In fact, it reminded me of Robert Asprin's Myth books: fun, but fluffy. By the time I had finished the series, though, I was no longer disappointed. While the first couple of books are "just" fun adventures, the later ones are much more than that. These books put Brust onto my "Buy on Sight" list, and I haven't had cause to regret that yet.
With this book, Brust takes the Taltos series in yet another direction. Since I don't want to give the plot away, I'll say only that this is a more high-powered book than those that preceded it. No longer is Vlad dealing with crime investigations and political problems; here, he operates on a cosmic scale, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. It's an unexpected turn to the series, but perhaps it shouldn't be -- there's been plenty of foreshadowing and hinting throughout the series, and all of that had to come to some kind of fruition sooner or later. And, hey, it works: this is a fun book, and one that is certain to be of interest to fans of earlier Vlad books. The only question now is, where does Brust go from here? (And the answer, no doubt, is: wherever he wants.)
As much as I liked the Vlad Taltos books, I think these are much stronger works. Set in the same world as the Taltos books, the events chronicled in these books are ancient history to Vlad. It's nice to see important historical events first-hand - especially because many of them have direct influence on the long-lived characters in the Taltos books. Even more delightful, though, was the style of these books. Written as an homage to Dumas' Three Musketeers, the books are written in a wordy, deliberately formal style that's a joy to read.
It took me a while to get around to reading this book. While I knew it would be a good book, I suspected it might also be boring and difficult to read. After all, the book is told in letters, set in 1849, and was described by Brust as "a Hegelian fantasy." I was prepared for a dense and tiresome piece of "literature" that would amuse critics but bore readers to death. I should have known better. From the first page, this book was fun. The writing is absolutely delicious, the plot is convoluted without being confusing, and the characters are as real as they come. Like the best books, Freedom and Necessity works on many levels. So even those who aren't quite up on their Hegel will still find this to be an enjoyable mystery adventure.
Bujold's Vorkosigan books are, at their best, intensely absorbing science fiction novels full of intrigue, adventure, intricate plotting, and likeable characters; these are the sorts of books that can keep you up reading until 5 AM (and, in fact, did just that for me several times). However, they're also wildly uneven. The worst of these books (Falling Free) is just plain bad, and a lot of the early books are clumsy: Shards of Honor is definitely a first novel, with all the awkwardness that implies. So let me give you a little advice on how to read this series.
I'm an intense purist when it comes to reading series. I insist on reading them in their entirety, and in the order of their publication. So, naturally, this is how I read Bujold's Vorkosigan novels. This turned out to be a bad idea, for two reasons. First, Bujold's early books just aren't all that good -- she doesn't really hit her stride until Brothers in Arms, and she continues to improve even past that; so if you read the books in strict publication order, you may be so turned off by her weak early works that you don't bother going on to the later books. (This very nearly happened to me; the only reason I continued reading the books was because of the lavish praise given to them by numerous people whose taste I trust.) The second reason is Barrayar. Read in its "proper" place, after The Vor Game, it suffers from a bad case of prequelitis, as it spends all its time detailing events with which we're already familiar from the earlier books; although it goes against every instinct in my body to say so, it should really be read right after Shards of Honor.
My advice, then, if you're as much a completist as I am, is to read the books in the order I've listed them above. (Of course, if you're really as much a completist as I am, you'll also read Falling Free despite my recommendation -- but don't say I didn't warn you.) If you just want to pick up the high points, read the starred books. You'll miss important plot elements, but you should still be able to figure out what's going on.
These are the three most recent Vorkosigan novels, and to my tastes, they're the best of the lot. These also mark the beginning of a new direction for the series; where the early books are just "the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan," these are more focused on characterization and an ensemble cast. They are, in every way, more mature novels than the earlier Vorkosigan books -- in tone, style, and subject matter. The downside to this is that they have less of the manic energy that propels the earlier books, but it's a trade-off that I'm willing to take. Still, I wouldn't mind at all if Bujold would write an occasional Cetaganda-esque prequel.