Thanks to the literally one person who encouraged this list last year, I’m presenting the 2015 list of books I liked. Last year, I split between Fantasy Books I Liked and SF Books I Liked. This year, the split didn’t work out evenly, so I have “Books I Liked”, and “Books I Liked Even More”. Here’s the first batch: “Books I Liked in 2015”.
First, the Books I Liked. Well, not all of them, but especially the ones I thought I could write an interesting paragraph about.
The books are alphabetical by title…
I think there's a lot of potential in prose fiction that's structured like a television season, meaning a series of novella-length stories that build to tell a connected story, with a common set of characters, and anyway, you don't need me to tell you what a season of television is like.
Bookburners is the first offering from Serial Box, a publishing house that is going to be doing a lot of these kinds of stories. This one, conceived by Max Gladstone and featuring other authors I like, including Mur Lafferty, is the story of a group of investigators working for the Vatican to remove magic from the world.
If I have one quibble about this structure as it develops, is that it has a strong tendency to be about a ragtag group working in secret against some kind of supernatural force. (Including Shadow Unit, which is, I think the first that self-consciously modeled itself on a TV season, and also some single-author serials like Seanan McGuire's Indexing.)
Anyway, Bookburners does a lot of things well. Interesting main team characters, including some who are Not What They Seem. An overarching story that doesn't go quite where you think, and a solid season-ending moment. It's worth your time, and I'm looking forward to future Serial Box work.
Career of Evil, by Robert Galbreath
I’m not giving anything away by saying that Galbreath is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling, right?
Anyway, I’ve always thought that all the things that have been written about Rowling have tended to overlook the fact that she’s really good at constructing a plot. It delights me that she’s turned out to write these nice, relatively low key private-investigator mysteries, of which Career of Evil is the 3rd.
This book is a serial killer mystery, which, granted, I do kind of feel I’m close to my lifetime allotment of. Rowing does a legitimately great job of splitting the plot among three suspects, all of which seem both plausible and impossible as the murderer. The final twist was, of course, there in plain sight, and the chapters from the killer’s point of view are genuinely creepy. If you like this kind of mystery, it’s a well-done example.
Book four and book five of the Expanse series, which has been rewarded with what I keep hearing is a quite good TV show on SyFy. Hoping to catch up on that sometime soon.
The two books are quite different. In Cibola Burn, James Holden and his intrepid crew are called upon to mediate a dispute on one of the thousands of planets opened up to colonization in the wake of the first three books. A group of squatters and a group of “legitimate” colonizers are both claiming the same platen, and Holden is asked to solve the problem in the full understanding, and maybe even the hope, that he’ll screw up. Making matters more complicated is that the planet itself appears to be fighting back.
In Nemesis Games, the action returns to the solar system as a group of outer-planet militants drop a large asteroid on the Earth, killing billions and basically upending the entire political status quo. My main problem with this book was a feeling that the series didn’t need to drop a big rock on the Earth to keep things interesting, and that the plot dynamics that would come out of the action seemed to lead to less interesting areas. I can’t say that the book completely mitigates my concern, but I’m still waiting for book six, coming out in June.
Deep breath: Fangirl is a YA novel about a pair of twins who are entering their first year in college, and share a love for the fictional story of Simon Snow, boy wizard, including writing a lot of fanfic. In college, one twin basically abandons the fan world, and the other finds refuge in it. After finishing Fangirl, Rowell decided she liked Simon Snow so much, she wanted to write an entire novel about him. To be clear, Carry On is not supposed to be the fictional novel in Fangirl or its fanfic, it’s Rowell’s separate take on the “Chosen boy wizard” story.
For all that metafictional baggage, and all that it obviously owes to Harry Potter, Carry On is actually kind of great. If it has a flaw, it that it’s sometimes unsubtle about the way it addresses common issues in Potter, such as minority representation, or the morality of placing children in harms way to defeat the evil thing. To be fair, those are issues worth addressing, and Rowell deals with the issues interestingly, and it’s a lot of fun. I particularly like the way magic spells work in the book — based on common phrases and idioms.
The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
An ambitious book. It's an epic fantasy story using Chinese history and literary techniques as inspiration. More specifically, it's the story of a long revolt against a powerful empire, and the two heroes who lead the revolt, only to find themselves with vastly different views of what should replace it.
The world building is stunning here, the history of the empire, the magic systems, and especially the depth of plans and counter-plans through a plot that covers decades. My main quibble with the book is that the narrative voice is unusual, which I don't mind, but is sometime kind of distancing, which I kind of did mind. There's a lot of stuff that would feel like telling not showing in other books, it works better than you might expect here, because the whole structure of the story is built for it, but again, there's still some distance here. That said, this is apparently book one of a trilogy, and I'm looking forward to it.
I am Princess X, Cherie Priest
What seems like a straightforward younger YA story is elevated by some cool text and graphic novel interplay, and also just by being impeccably well done. Our teenage heroine, May, is mourning the death of her best friend in a car accident, when she happens to see signs and stickers about Princess X, a character the two of them had created together and kept secret. Turns out Princess X is a webcomic with a secret author, and May is convinced it is her friend, somehow alive.
You probably have a good idea where the story is going from here, so I'll just say it's a really satisfying adventure story about smart plucky kids defeating evil grown ups. I resisted reading this for a long time, despite many online recommendations. And then I initially resisted putting it in this list. But it kept creeping up the list, because I just feel so warmly toward it.
The annual winner of my “if you only read one” award, as in “if you only read one book where Socrates is pulled out of time to have conversations with sentient worker robots before being turned into a literal gadfly by the Goddess Athena, make it this one". Walton is one of my favorite authors, and this book, where Athena and Apollo pull people out of time to create a literal Plato’s republic, is really, really loopy in the best way.
As you might have gathered by that synopsis this book is kind of bonkers. It’s also a book about big ideas of how to manage a society, when violence is appropriate, and the nature of intelligence. Walton has never written two series that are anything like each other, and yet this book is so clearly a result of her passion for the arguments of Greek philosophy that it’s hard not to get swept up.
Lost Stars, by Claudia Grey
This was the somewhat less-hyped Star Wars tie-in novel of the fall. (I didn’t read the other one, Aftermath, until 2016, so it doesn’t qualify for this list). This one is shelved as YA, and concerns two kids born on a small, insignificant planet in the same year that the Empire forms. He, born to wealth, she born to poverty. Both go to the Empire Academy, and become pilots and commanders. He washes out, joins the rebellion, she becomes the Empire’s up-and-coming star, while still doubting. Oh, they’re in love. Did I even need to mention that?
Together, they wind in and out of each other’s lives and around the events of the original three movies — they are both stationed on the Death Star when it blows up Alderaan, the both wind up on Hoth and at the battle of Endor, and then again at the battle of Jakku, which provides the debris in The Force Awakens. They briefly meet several characters we know, just enough to keep us in the world and not enough to feel crazy contrived. And somehow it works. It works because Grey makes the characters motivations over time work, converting the original trilogy to the character arc of her two characters (both characters are deeply affected by seeing Alderaan destroyed, for example). It’s particularly good at showing how the Empire works, and why one might support it anyway. It’s a good book, deeper and more fun than it needed to be. I read this in a rush right before I saw The Force Awakens, and it was a great table-setter.
Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho
This book takes place in a fantasy version of what is invariably described as Regency England, and with it's emphasis on English magic, it's more than a little reminiscent of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Zacharias is the new Sorcerer Royal, having come to the position suddenly on the death of his mentor, he's unprepared, and he's also an orphan from Africa, who most of the other sorcerers look down on because of his race and station.
English magic is disappearing, and nobody knows why. Zacharias is suspect because the decline effectively started on his watch, and because his race and station are, shall we say, not appreciated by English sorcery as a group. Eventually, he meets a woman named Prunella, who is being trained not to use magic, as is the local custom regarding women, and together they… save the day? Well, not quite, because there are more books in the series.
I’ve recommended Spangler’s books here before. She’s the author of the webcomic A Girl And Her Fed, and these novels tie into the continuity of the comic. Among a few other things, the comic is about a group of people who have a brain implant that allows them to manipulate EMP signals along with other super-powers.
State Machine is an SF mystery, staring Rachel Peng, whose implant allows her to read people's emotional state and involving the theft of an artifact from the White House, It's very similar in tone to the previous two Rachel Peng books, maybe to a fault. That said, I like the tone of the other Peng books, and I liked this one, too.
Greek Key is kind of a spinoff novel, starring Hope Blackwell, who is actually the main character of the webcomic. Where State Machine is kind of a mainstream SF thriller, Greek Key brings in some more... esoteric aspects of the comic. By which I mean it has ghosts of famous figures in history, a super-intelligent sentient koala, and time-travel. I mention that because its useful to go into the book realizing that it's less Law and Order: 2025 and more Raiders of the Lost Ark with a hyper–intelligent koala.
And when I put it that way, who wouldn't want to read Raiders of the Lost Ark with a hyper–intelligent koala?
The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu Tr. by Ken Liu
This is the book that won the Hugo award for Best Novel, and while I'm pretty sure nobody wants me to chime in on that entire mess, I was basically okay with it. It wasn't my first choice, or my second choice, but I can see what people liked about it, and I even liked a great deal of it myself. (As was observed multiple times, even though it was translated from Chinese, the book has a lot more in common with golden age American SF than most of the other nominees...)
The book starts, more or less, with a number of inexplicable phenomena happening against the backdrop of recent Chinese history. The title refers to the physics problem of solving the chaotic attraction of three objects in mutual gravitational attraction, and also a mysterious computer game that simulates and alien civilization that is under the influence of three unpredictable suns and must continually rebuild.
Eventually, we find out the source of the game and the phenomena, along with a couple of different Earthly responses. The book has some really neat SF ideas, there's a simulated computer made up of people (well people inside the game) that's really neat, and the ultimate source of the game and related activities is neat. The translator helpfully footnotes cultural references that might slip by American readers.