Reading list

8 riveting novels on battles for power

Power hungry characters and high drama are the order of the day in these stories that pull back the curtain on age-old institutions and top-level government.


 

Conclave by Robert Harris

In his new novel, this bestselling writer takes us inside one of the most secretive institutions in the world, as a group of cardinals votes to elect a new pope. Several men from different backgrounds, each with their own particular agendas and ambitions, are in the running for this sacred position. Sequestered in the Sistine Chapel no one can remain neutral amidst the planning and plotting. During a thrilling seventy-two-hour session allegiances are formed and broken, but only one person can take this coveted seat of ultimate power. 

Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy

This clever and hugely entertaining novel reworks the plot of The Great Gatsby into modern day London where a Russian oligarch, who commands an excessive amount of wealth and power, is building the most spectacular house in Chelsea. But this ostentatious mansion and the most exclusive parties in the city mean nothing to him without the woman he loves. Told from the perspective of a humble bookseller who is wide-eyed at the scale of decadence and glitz amongst this privileged new class of English society, this comically vibrant book is completely absorbing. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Orwell could never have envisioned that the tyrannical all-seeing Big Brother of his most famous novel would inspire the name of a hit reality TV show fifty years after its first publication. Regardless, the strength of this novel lies in its depiction of an authoritarian government’s ability to deceive, employ secret surveillance and manipulate recorded history. This classic novel remains extremely relevant in showing how systems of power can control people by policing their thoughts and the media they consume. 

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

At the start of this short but powerful novel a famous Russian musician sits all night outside his apartment so his family won’t be disturbed when he’s taken away by the Soviet secret police. Inspired by the real-life composer Shostakovich, The Noise of Time tells of the perpetual terror endured by those living under an oppressive political regime. Barnes creates an intense story of breathtaking scope which questions what happens to artists when they are forced to compromise creative vision for political reasons. 

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

In a refreshing twist on the legend of King Arthur’s Round Table, Phillips writes about an alternative table where disgraced knights are forced to sit. These fame-hungry men vie for quests which, if they triumph, will see them returned to the good graces of their king and to a place by his side. This uproariously funny novel flips traditional mythology and our knowledge of power dynamics with portrayals of princesses who dream of anything but marriage and glorified pompous knights who are anything but valiant.  

The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray

The financial crisis that hit Ireland in 2008 demonstrated the insidious power of banks driven by greed to bring an entire nation’s economy to its knees. Murray explores this incident with an irresistible pair of characters: a banker with hidden depths of spirit and a writer who is really a superficial charlatan. But who is the mark and who is the void? This high-concept novel gives a wholly original take on the power of modern finance while building an intriguing cat and mouse tale. 

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman

In a dystopian future, a fifteen-year-old impoverished African–American girl lives meagrely with her tribe in what was Massachusetts. No one in this war-ravaged time lives past their teenage years, but she is determined to find a cure. Her quest takes her to a highly religious city where she’s deified. Suddenly, this once powerless girl now becomes instrumental in trying to end a war that’s destroyed much of the world. This is a fiercely ambitious and inventively narrated novel unlike any you’ve read before.

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Amidst the dramatic fall of the Second French Empire, lowly American girl Lilliet travels to Europe and gradually transforms herself into a star of the fashionable opera houses because of her powerfully rare singing voice. During her ascension she becomes the confidant of the most powerful women in the land: the Empress Eugenie, exiled after the fall of Napoleon III, and the emperor’s mistress, the Comtesse de Castiglione. But someone is scheming to cause Lilliet’s downfall and expose her humble past. This is an enthralling historical novel of high drama, sumptuous detail and breathtaking beauty.

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