Books 2016: Part One
This is part one of my “books that made me happy in 2016”. As usual, we’re doing this in two parts. This one is the books I liked, the next post is the books I really liked.
I had a hard time separating the list this year, there were a lot of likable books, so there are kind of a lot here. In alphabetical order by title.
Act Like It by Lucy Parker
I went back and forth about whether to include this in the list, it’s a little “one of these things is not like the others”, but ultimately I decided I did really like it and who cares. Anyway, this is a straight out romance novel, a romantic comedy basically, featuring a cranky London West End leading man and his much nicer co-star. They are asked to pretend to be dating to prevent tabloid gossip. And well, you know where it’s going from there. It’s not surprising, but it is charming and funny.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Binti won the Hugo and Nebula for best Novella. It’s an extremely well done story about a young girl, the first of the Himba people to study at the galaxy’s premiere university. On the trip there, she’s immediately placed in a unique and horrific situation, which she solves with the help of her wits and her indistinguishable-from-magic technology (not a dig, the far-futuristic tech of the story is a strength). It’s elevated because of Okorafor’s very well-observed description of Binti, and how she struggles with being of her home even when she is not at her home. It’s a wonderful story, and I’m sure we’ll be talking about the sequel here next year.
Borderline by Mishell Baker
Book one in a series called “The Arcadia Project”, Arcadia being the land of the Fae. This is a portal fantasy, where the magical creatures from the other side have soulmates on our side. When they meet, the human gains tremendous creativity, and the, for lack of a better word, fairy, also becomes more powerful and more individually willful.
Our main character, Millie, has Borderline Personality Disorder, and recently lost a leg in a suicide attempt. She’s recruited to the group that manages Arcadians on our world, and naturally immediately gets tangled in a complex and dangerous plot.
Baker does a really great job of explaining Millie’s actions; her BPD often causes her to make seemingly irrational decisions, and and Baker explains why that happens in a way that keeps Millie sympathetic. The magic and portal setup is interesting, and even the soulmate part leads to some interesting character work.
Brute Force by K. B. Spangler
Book four in the Rachel Peng series, mentioned here multiple times in the past. The series concerns a group of people who have been implanted with chips allowing them tremendous mental control over electricity and electronics. This one is a kidnapping case, prominently featuring some extreme anti-government militia groups. It doesn’t have all the intrigue of the others, but it is still a tense, well-told story.
The final two books of the trilogy originally written in Chinese that started with The Three Body Problem, also recently recommended by no less a personage that Barack Obama. The first book ended with the knowledge that Earth was 400 years away from being invaded by an advanced alien fleet, and that those aliens had been using faster-than-light particles to sabotage advanced physics research. The Dark Forest is largely about solving that problem, focusing on a small group of people called “Wallfacers” who are tasked with creating defenses against the fleet. Death’s End is sort of hard to characterize, but it’s basically what happens next until the heat death of the universe.
In many ways, these books are like the greatest Golden Age SF novels ever written. The physics speculation, and the ideas about how truly advanced star-faring cultures would defend themselves are mind-bending. It also has characters. I think. None of them spring to mind at the moment. Anyway, if you like really neat speculation on the makeup of the universe, and are inclined to cut a little slack on characterization, these books are well worth your time.
The Edge of Worlds by Martha Wells
This is the first in a two-book series that Wells says will be her last novels about the Raksura, which the book blurb describes as “shape-shifting creatures of flight that live in large family groups”, and I’m not even going to try to improve on that. Except maybe to mention the claws.
I love this world. It’s huge and ancient and strange and filled will all kinds of amazing and unique creatures, starting with the Raksura themselves. On top of that, the characters that we’ve been following for four books and a bunch of short stories are great. This book is only half the story, it ends in mid-stream.
A Gathering Of Shadows by V. E. Schwab
Book two in Schwab’s “Shades of Magic” series, which is kind of the fantasy equivalent of Stross’ Merchant Prince series, in that it involves people who can walk between several different earths. This book spends a lot of time in “Red London” the Earth that has the healthiest relationship with magic, and at least for most of the time is about a competition to determine the best magical practitioner in the world. Red London is, I think, the best creation of the series, so I’m glad the book mostly takes place there. I don’t enjoy the actual plot of the series quite as much, but I’m still looking forward to book three and whatever Schwab decides to do next.
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
I like superheroes in novels, which is probably a weird thing to like. Anyway, this is a very light, very fun superhero story. This is a world with very few superheroes, and what is generally a specific job they do—fighting against magical demon breaches, rather than punching out random muggers. Our main character, Evie Tanaka, is the personal assistant and childhood friend of San Francisco’s main superhero. Except of course, she has powers that she can’t quite control. And there are plots and betrayal afoot. And a kind of charming romantic plot. This pretty much defines “It’s light but cute. But light. But cute.”
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
Okay, there’s a magical library that stands between all the alternate universes and collects variant books and fiction from them. Our heroine is one of the librarians, and she has an assistant who turns out to be — well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s got some fantasy resonance. We head to a kind of a steampunk alternate world with magic, and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and honestly this book seems like it was designed in a lab to appeal to a particular personality type. Since I significantly overlap with that type, I certainly get the appeal.
Lois Lane: Double Down by Gwenda Bond
This series remains a lot of fun. It’s a little bit too bad that the off-stage “Smallville Guy” that Lois continues to correspond with is way more interesting than Lois’ actual on-stage friends. But Bond has a great grasp on Lois as a character, and the bit at the end where Smallville Guy pledges to be the kind of hero Lois deserves feels like the best kind of Lois/Clark dynamic (If I’m remembering correctly, this book also hints that Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor exist in it’s world…) I read a few media tie-in books that I liked this year. This one was the best.
The Liberation by Ian Tregellis
This is book three of the Alchemy Wars trilogy, which we discussed last year. It’s an alternate-history fantasy where the Dutch took over the world with the help of alchemically powered and controlled robots, called Clakkers. At the end of book 2, many Clakkers were freed from their compulsions to serve, which much chaos promised.
The Liberation delivers the chaos. And a pretty satisfying conclusion to the trilogy (though I do wonder what happens to the rest of the world that isn’t Amsterdam). I’ve really enjoyed Tregellis’ last couple of books after being kind of lukewarm on an earlier series. His books have been all over and I’m looking forward to where he goes next.
Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald
This one gets glibly described as “Game of Thrones in Space”. Which is a) glib, and b) a perfectly awesome thing to be, and hey, if somebody was going to write Game of Thrones in space (and somebody was, of course, going to), Ian McDonald is a good choice.
The book is actually more a modern Moon Is A Harsh Mistress with more modern takes on both technology and libertarianism. The moon cultures are interesting and based on a variety of underlying earth cultures, the politics are generally clear enough to follow (though there are a lot of names). Like a lot of intrigue and conflict stories, you don’t really root for any of the characters, but there are definitely some you’ll root against. I’m waiting for the second (and final) book here and hoping that it sticks the landing.
The Nightmare Stacks by Charlie Stross
It’s book seven of “The Laundry Files” series, which is a series where computation is demonic magic, or possibly vice versa. And at long last, this book moves from being a secret history to being an alternate history, as the Lovecraftian horrors that our heroes have been fighting have done something that is too public to cover up. (It’s not Stross’ fault that what probably seemed like a dystopia nightmare when he plotted it is now starting to seem kind of like escapism…) Anyway, Stross has been working on expanding this world for some time, and it all pays off here, as things go gloriously wrong and set up the long-awaited endgame for the series. CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which has been teased since the beginning of the series as the end of the world, finally comes out to play.
These three novellas all take place in Bujold’s Chalion universe, one of my favorite fantasy settings. The Chalion novels have a unique and interesting set of gods and demons. These stories start with Penric somewhat accidentally becoming possessed with a demon, which is somewhat more benign in Chalion than you are probably expecting. The demon has been moving from person to person for lifetimes, and has a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience, and a personality that is somewhat strong willed. These stories are charming and have likable characters solving interesting problems.
Stiletto by Daniel O'Malley
Sequel to The Rook, a book I really, loved. This is kind of a sideways sequel, in that it spins out of the direct end of The Rook, but follows a largely different class of characters. The Rook was a) a debut novel, b) with a very unique tone that c) threatened to, but never quite went off the rails. As a result, I was a little nervous about this book, especially since it has taken some time to come out.
I shouldn’t have worried, this one keeps both the silliness and the seriousness of the original. It might not be quite as pitch-perfect, or quite as focused, but it’s still pretty great, and I still like its unique magic and science mix.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Oprah Book Club book and National Book Award winner, so obviously a lot of people liked it even more than I did. As you’ve probably heard, the main conceit of this book is that the Underground Railroad is a real thing, with tracks and engines and stations and everything, and the story is about Cora, who runs out of slavery, and uses the Railroad to travel the country.
The writing is never less than brilliant, and Whitehead does a very powerful job of underscoring that slavery necessitates a huge amount of violence and compliance across an entire society to be viable. The book’s descriptions are often matter-of-fact descriptions of horrific things, where the style underscores how awful the society is.
There’s another bit of genre in the book, in that all of Cora’s various stops are not just fictional, but ahistorical — built from real events, but not from that time or place. For example, there was medical experimentation, but not in South Carolina when Cora goes through it. In other words, the various environments Cora goes through are extremely stylized representations of history. I’m not criticizing — they are interesting, but it does give the book a weird feel of being on the edge of being magic realism without ever quite being magic realism.
It’s a really interesting book, with at least one outstanding moment toward the end.