2017 Books A Plenty
At long last, the 2017 books that made me happy/recommendations post. Did you miss me?
This year, I’m doing it all in one post, because if you are going to write 4000 words it’s best to get it all in at once, that’s just science.
The rules are:
- These are all books I read in 2017
- That I liked
- The books are organized into arbitrary groups, because there were weird coincidences, in that I read a number of say, unusual time-travel books this year.
- Within each category, books are alphabetical by title.
- The order of the categories is arbitrary
- Links go to Amazon Kindle version.
For each book this year, I tried to add a Recommended If You Like.
Weird Portal Fantasies
For some reason, I read a lot of revisionist takes on portal fantasies this year.
A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab
Recommended if you like: Alternate London, flashy magic, pirates, characters with names like Alucard.
This wraps up Schwab's Shades of Magic trilogy, which takes place mostly in Red London, an alternate London where there's a lot more magic. I often find that later books in perfectly good series tend to drop off these lists for some reason, but the last two books in this series have. This is a really good fantasy trilogy with great characters, and there’s more to come in the eventual future.
Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGwire
Recommended if you like: Weird portal fantasies, very weird gothic horror, books with sisters named Jack and Jill.
Seanan McGwire/Mira Grant continues to be crazy prolific. Two books on this list, and two other ones. I also liked the other two, but you know, this thing is already 4000 words and I had to draw the line somewhere.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, which you should go out and read immediately. The series is about a collection of kids who have gone to their portal world, and for various mostly involuntary reasons, have returned.
It’s got the same amount of bonkers invention, but it’s a prequel covering the origin story of two characters from Every Heart. So the down side is, it’s a story that is already somewhat covered there, so you’re reading it for mood and not plot. Luckily, it has mood to spare.
I love this series, book three will get covered in next years listing.
In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan
Recommended if you like: Snarky heroes, non-traditional portal fantasies, jokes about gender roles, loving satire of fantasy tropes, joy.
I loved this book. I loved the characters, I loved the setting. I loved the jokes, even the jokes that Brennan takes a little to far. I loved the earnestness, and the decency even of the characters who don’t think they are decent. I loved that it’s a fantasy novel about conflict resolution.
It’s actually about a boy named Elliot, who is thirteen when he is led to a border wall and transfers into The Borderlands. He’s excited, but also kind of cynical and snarky. He quickly forms a sort-of friendship with an elf warrior maiden (as she’s described in the book) named Serene, and the big man on campus hero, named Luke. Elliot doesn’t want to fight, quite blatantly uses sarcasm to avoid feelings, and generally turns himself into an useful pain in the neck.
The tone of this novel is so light, and so fun (you do sometimes wish Elliot would figure people out faster, but it’s completely in character that he doesn’t). It’s really nothing like Discworld (okay, actually it’s a little bit like Discworld), The Goblin Emperor or A Close and Common Orbit, but it has some of the same spirit of warmth and generosity to it’s characters.
It Devours! By Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor
Recommended if you like: Night Vale, weird fiction, a deliberate lack of rational explanation, oddly touching discussions of faith.
The second novel to take place in the same universe as the Welcome To Night Vale podcast, this book doesn't really depend on knowledge of any other Night Value stories, though I suppose it'll seem less strange if you are at least familiar with Night Vale's tone.
This one winds up being a story about faith and science in an absolutely unique way.. Okay, the title of the book is the motto, more or less, of the Church of the Smiling God. There’s a scene where a member of the church is explaining to the clergy how he feels the church’s core doctrine — that the Smiling God will devour all there sins — is a beautiful metaphor. And the clergy tell them no, it’s not a metaphor, there’s a real creature they believe in who will really eat everybody. It’s very Night Vale: weird, funny, profound in the oddest way.
Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker
Recommended If You Like: alt-portal fantasy, realistic display of mental illness, fantastic tales of Hollywood
Book two of a very good portal fantasy series, which does exactly what you want a book two to do. Without the burden of re-explaining the premise, it makes the world bigger, weirder, and more complicated. Baker remains exceptionally good at writing characters who don't always make good choices.
This section is Science Fiction books that didn’t fit in any other section.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Recommended if you like: Marvin The Paranoid Android, binge-watching Netflix, vaguely dystopian AI
So, imagine Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide, only in a non-satirical story. Our viewpoint character is security robot in a space-opera universe who has hacked itself to be fully sentient and in control of his body. It refers to itself as “Murderbot” due to an unknown event in its past. It’s happy to live up to his security contract, but honestly, Murderbot finds it awkward and strange to be around humans, and would rather binge-watch TV. This turns out to be surprisingly relatable.
This book is absolutely an exercise in voice, where what might otherwise be a pretty normal story of scientists on a new planet being double-crosse is turned into something amazing and fun because the narrator is so interesting. It’s novella-length, there are three more planned, and I’m in on this one, I loved it.
Artemis by Andy Weir
Recommended if you like: Heists, the moon, authors who show all their math.
This book carried big expectations as The Book By The Guy That Wrote The Martian. It’s not The Martian. But it’s a pretty good SF novel in its own right. I read a lot of SF heist novels this year — this is another one of them. It takes place on the moon, and Weir has worked out the tech and economics of the moon colony in detail. Much like The Martian, he shows his work, and if you find that off-putting, this may not be the book for you. That said, he’s clearly trying to write something with a little more character, and I thought it wound up being compelling. I read it very fast, which is typically a sign that I’m engaged and curious about what happens next.
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
Recommended if you like: SF about future pharma, Human/Robot relations, dystopian futures.
So, I liked this, but it’s not hard to find people who loved it. On the one hand, this book has a Pharma-pirate fabricating patented drugs and distributing them to the poor. She’s made a terrible mistake, and her most recent distribution may be killing people by causing them to hyper-focus on a mundane task to the exclusion of minor distractions like, say, eating. On the other hand, a cop. And a robot. Together they fight crime. And fall in love.
The AI part is interesting, and has a unique post-cyberpunk kind of vibe. Really the whole book does, the setting is well done. My main dispute was that I wasn’t really rooting for any of the characters, and my tolerance for dystopias is way down in 2017.
Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
Recommended if you like: Really wild aliens, setting in Africa, “indistinguishable from magic” tech.
Another one that I liked where others lived, this is the second book in a trilogy of novellas about Binti, a young girl of the Himba people. In this book, Binti returns home after her time at basically Weird Space University (a term I use with respect, the descriptions of the University are amazing). People aren’t exactly glad to see her, she may spark an interplanetary war, and also learn a mysterious secret about her family.
My main problem with this book is that nothing is resolved. It’s interesting, but it’s also very middle-book-ish, basically a bridge to get to the fireworks in the third book, which is a 2018 book that I liked quite a bit.
The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
Recommended if you like: spaceships, slow motion collapse of civilization, Scalzi
This is Scalzi's newest attempt at a space opera franchise, taking place in a series of worlds linked by a hyperspace "river" that connects them. It's very Scalzi, the setup is well thought out, the characters are smart and quippy, and the plot moves. My main quibble is that the book felt very short, like not much happened beyond setting up the series. But the series being set up, I think I like.
Provenance by Ann Leckie
Recommended if you like: low-key space opera, heists, Jack Vance
The follow up to the Ancillary Justice trilogy, in that the events of those books are in the deep background of this one. I’m really happy that Leckie wrote a completely different book here, much smaller scale, more of a caper, with a neat, some what Jack Vance-ian weird society in the background. What seems like a pretty straightforward plot eventually becomes part con, part mystery, and part planetary diplomacy. Leckie continues to do interesting things with gender in her societies — this society has a third gender with a third set of pronouns… I tell you this because it’s not explicitly spelled out in the book, and I’ve seen some reviews where people were confused.
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
Recommended if you like: Unusual SF mysteries. Locked rooms. Vaguely dystopian clone stories.
This one is just so crisp. It’s a locked room mystery, in essence. The victims are the seven-person crew of a small scouting spaceship. All of them. They are also the detectives, since their death triggered the “birth” of new clones. One problem, whoever killed them also wiped twenty-five years of memories of common experiences.
Over the course of the books, the characters rediscover their connections, and how their histories on Earth got them on the ship in the first place. It’s a very well-constructed mystery and a well-thought out SF novel.
Triple Threat by Gwenda Bond
Recommended if you like: Superman, Comics without superheroes, finally seeing beloved characters meet after three books, spunky YA detectives.
The third book in Bond's YA series about a teenaged Lois Lane and her mysterious online friend named Smallville Guy. They are really fun, and I don't have much new to say about the series (except that it seems like this is the last one and that is too bad…). In this one Lois and Clark finally meet and it's just as great as you hope. One of my favorite parts of the series is the way it subverts the common structure of Superman stories -- in this telling, Clark becomes a hero to emulate Lois.
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
Recommended if you like: Oddly hopeful science fiction, post-scarcity, very communal economics, books with Edward Snowden blurbs…
Doctorow’s first adult SF novel in years, I could not get this one out of my head. It’s a relatively near future where you are either effectively infinitely rich, live at the sufferance of the infinitely rich, or have nothing. A group of people “walkaway” and create a separate society that I guess you’d call post-scarcity tech anarchism? It’s not quite anarchism. Anyway, the story is about how that society might work, and what the infinitely rich would be willing to do to control it.
The structure of it is weird, but the characters are interesting, and it’s always interesting to read Doctorow’s ideas about how things should work.
If you’ve ever read this list in the past, you know I love fantasy worlds that have some modern technology mixed with the magic. There were some great ones this year.
City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett
Recommended if you like: Absent Gods, fantasy with modern tech, fantasy mysteries.
The third book in a trilogy that I’ve already raved about in this space twice before. The world’s a little hard to describe, but basically about two generations in the past there was a world-spanning empire that was built on the power of gods. This empire collapsed when the oppressed people figured out how to kill the gods, which removed their power.
This is book three, and it's not exactly the recommended jumping off point. Book one is City of Stairs, start there. Let's just say that it starts with an investigation into a mysterious death that eventually becomes a plot from a old god to take over the world. This series doesn't seem to be as well known as Jemisin or Gladstone -- if you liked either of those, there's a good chance you'll like this one too.
Jade City by Fonda Lee
Recommended if you like: Well, the book jacket calls it “The Godfather with magic and kungfu, set in an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis”, so I’m guessing if you like those things…
The metropolis in question is an island city where the tech is basically pre-digital modern, and is ruled by two rival clan families. Oh, and some members of the population get superhuman powers when they touch jade. (Don’t say magic, nobody in the book treats them as supernatural, the powers are studied, teachable, and somewhat replicable…)
The book itself is a little bit of a slow burn, there are a lot of characters and setting to introduce, and it’s not immediately apparent why we should be rooting for the main characters. About halfway through, something unexpected happens, and the book catches fire from there. The ending, while it does wrap up the immediate story, leaves the world wide open for future books.
Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone
Recommended if you like: Fantasy with modern tech, satire about startup culture, fantasy in space, sentient squid parasites, creepy living buildings
Book six of the craft sequence, and the start of a somewhat new story after the original five books kind of wrapped up a bunch of threads.
In this book, the main character is Kai, the... investment priestess, I guess I'll say from Full Fathom Five. She's gone to the city of Agdel Lex to try and invest in some startups, as you do in fantasy (there's some very pointed satire in the startup pitches...). But it also turns out that Agdel Lex is built on the ruins of an older city, destroyed in the God Wars, and the older city is still kind of there in the sense that some people can see it and walk through it.
There's an absolute ton going on in this book -- I haven't even mentioned the squid parasites. It takes a while to get going, but once everything is lined up, and it literally launches into space, it's pretty great.
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
Recommended if you like: The Fifth Season, naturally. Once-in-generation-important fantasy trilogies.
This is book three of what might be the first trilogy to win a Best Novel Hugo for each book. The action at this point is hard to sum up. But I’ll try. In a world that is subject to frequent near-extinction-level seismic events, a group of people — called orogenes — who have the power to control seismic activity are both necessary to the society and are feared and despised by it.
I was a little worried that this book would resort to some hand-waving generalities in order to make the ending work, and maybe it does a little. But it somehow manages to honor the complicated narrative structure of the previous books, while explaining the origin of the oppression and fear that caused the world to be in it’s state, winding up in a struggle between people who want to save the world and people who want to “save” it by destroying it. This is a historic trilogy, that will be remembered as one of the great fantasy works of it’s time.
Time Travel And Alternate History
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
Recommended if you like: creative time paradoxes in comic packages, mad science
It’s hard to have a book be basically light but also keep some serious stakes. In All Our Wrong Todays, Tom starts out in a 2016 that is a near-perfect utopia thanks to an invention in the 1960s that created near-infinite, cheap, clean energy. Through a series of craziness, Tom, a genuine screw up, is sent back in time to observe the initial use of the energy source. He screws up, and causes the experiment to fail. Then he wakes up in a much different, less utopian 2016. Our 2016. Then things get weird. For one thing, he’s happier in our objectively worse world.
This book is funny, but not at the expense of making the main characters story feel important. It’s also clever about time travel (in particular about how the same person could be born to the same parents in different time lines, which when you think about it, is a weird conceit).
Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson
Recommended if you like: Buddy Cop stories, backwards time travel
This may not have been the best book I read this year, but it’d make a hell of a Netflix series. Time travel, it seems, goes back into the past and creates its own timeline, so no paradoxes, yay! The owner of the tech has set up what is basically a resort in 1871, shuttling future folk out for some tourism in the past, and hiring a bunch of locals to staff the place.
Our main characters are just such a local with a bit of a seedy past, and a futuristic woman security officer. They run a smuggling case together and fall in love, kinda. (Wilson takes some care to give the guy a backstory that would make him not automatically a sexist jerk.)
It’s got action, and adventure, and a kind of predictable plot. It engages a little bit with the moral hazards of mass tourism to the past. (At one point they look up Edison because he won’t get to invent any of the technology that the future travelers bring with them.)
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Recommended if you like: Neal Stephenson, of course, books thick enough to hurt your foot if you drop them, time traveling witches, cool use of background time paradoxes.
Neal Stephenson, who actually does have a history of playing well with others (Interface is one of my favorites...), co-wrote this first book of a series. Which, given Stephenson's normal pace, will be wrapped up sometime around 2030. (I can find no Internet evidence that the sequel is even a gleam in anybody's eye.)
Anyway... D.O.D.O. There are witches. But magic depended on quantum effects and died out in the 1800s after the rise of photography messed up the relation of watcher and watched (work with me here...). Anyway, there's still one witch, and a military grade research project. And time travel (and time paradoxes). And secret societies. It's a lot, is my point.
This is Stephenson in his funny mode (I’m sorry for not talking more about Galland, I don't know her other work, but I assume from her bibliography that she had a lot to do with the historical fiction parts.) I like Stephenson in funny mode.
Recommended if you like: Crazy bananapants alternate history concepts, heists, bi and non-binary representation, hippos, barely controlled lunacy
Two novellas that I think are also being published as one novel called American Hippo. These books were supper buzzy—all the SF authors I follow were talking about them for months. They are probably this year’s biggest “if you only read one”, as in “if you only read one novel where feral hippos control the Mississippi Delta, it should be this one. Very loosely based on an actual plan considered by the US government, in these books, hippos were unleashed in the delta region, and well, things didn’t go to plan.
What we wind up with is a fun heist novel, and then a fun aftermath of heist novel, with a diverse and interesting cast, who all ride hippos through the countryside. I mean, if you aren’t all-in by that description alone, I don’t think anything else I can say would sell you.
I did’t read a lot of non-fiction this year.
Grant by Ron Chernow
Recommended if you like: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Civil War revisionism revisionism.
This is excellent, like Chernow’s Hamilton and Washington bios, if somewhat less likely to be turned into a musical. Two quick takeaways:
- Grant was just a wildly unlikely success. At the time the war started, he was not only not a member of any elite group, he was a flat-out failure, dependent on his family for financial support and totally down on his luck.
- It’s staggering how quickly efforts to rehabilitate the image of the confederacy started, how fierce they were, and how successful. The south was able to regain much of rights and prestige that it had lost on the battlefield, and the fruits of that rehabilitation propaganda still echo today.
The Man From The Train by Bill James
Recommened if you like: True crime, random woolgathering about society and justice, heavy research skills
This book is unusual. A few years ago, James started writing some true crime vignettes on his web site about some bloody murders that took place around 1910, where he had started to see some patterns that had not been evident to the locals in that time. James and his daughter began to research in earnest, and believe they have discovered the identity of a person who committed a series of unsolved murders across the US over about 15 years. These crimes were not generally believed to be linked at the time (One of James’ general points about true crime is that law enforcement basically did not believe in serial killers until the 1970s). It’s a dazzling bit of research, and in places, an amazing book. The book is best when discussing the research or commenting on how society has changed, and weakest when discussing the actual crimes — it’s a bit hard to keep the details of all the events straight. Still, a fascinating true crime book.
The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross
Recommended if you like: Stross, satire about the eldrich evils of late-period capitalism, chaos ensuing
Stross’ Laundry Files series, which is about Lovecraftian horrors that are summoned and managed by computation, has been moving for years toward the moment where the supernatural beings finally got too powerful to remain hidden. It’s here, and it led to my one of my favorite books in the series. This is not a good place to start, the plot is dependent on quite a few previous books. Start at the beginning, with The Jennifer Morgue
There is, of course, mass panic in the wake of the events of the previous book, namely a supernatural army destroying Leeds. The Laundry is now public, is attracting the attention of both government forces wanting to privatize it and other supernatural horrors that want to defeat it. Not having to keep things secret seems to be freeing Stross to blow things up with abandon. Stross has said that one of his biggest problems was keeping his satirical British government more ridiculous than the real one…
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
Recommended if you like: Suspense horror, scientific mermainds, very strong representation, never wanting to go in the ocean again
Into the Drowning Deep posits first contact (well… second contact) with hyper-predatory mermaids in the Pacific. It’s structured as a horror story, with suspense, people getting killed one by one, and plucky heroes surviving while evil jerks get what’s coming to them. The mermaid science is unique, well thought out, and very creepy. It’s a very well-structured suspense story.
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Recommened if you like: Knocking Lovecraft down a peg, Get Out, historical fantasy
This is a riff on Lovecraft and Ancient Powers and the like where the real horror is racism. (Jordan Peele, who also knows something about horror stories where racism is the real horror, is adapting for HBO).
The novel is really a collection of interrelated short stories that builds to a conclusion. It's the 1950s, and a man named Atticus Turner is headed from Chicago to New England with his uncle, who happens to publish travel guides for African Americans to find safe places to stay. They are trying to find Turner's father, who has been taken prisoner by a mysterious group trying to raise Lovecraftian horrors.
This is one of those books where describing the premise makes it sound a little cliched, but the execution is clever and interesting in the way it balances the supernatural and the mundane.
Recommended if you like: Fantasy with quirky theology, romance in fantasy, Bujold
I have to admit that I'm kind of enjoying the writing-whatever-the-heck-I-want mode that Bujold has been in for the last few years. Last year, of course, was Gentleman Jole. And she's been returning to the Chalion universe in kind of sideways way by writing a bunch of connected novellas that have no connection with anything else in the other books. By now, she's up to six, maybe two novels worth?
Anyway, all these books feature Penric, a young man who winds up being possessed by Desdemona, a demon with the life experience of about a dozen previous hosts, and also some supernatural abilities. Penric gets in and out of scrapes, Des saves him, there's a love story, some adventure and intrigue. They are fun, and Bujold remains a fantastic storyteller.
Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw
Recommended if you like: Buffy, but thought it was too violent, clever reuse of classic horror characters, London as the HQ of all fantasy ever
This is the first book in a series about a descendent of Van Helsing who is a doctor to the vampires, mummies, and other supernatural denizens of London. (Why always London?) It's quite good, using spare characters from various Vampire novels past in a fun way. I was maybe expecting something a little bit more of a pacifist anti-vampire-slayer -- in the end the bad guys still need to be handled violently, but the book is closer to the Seanan McGuire "The are no bad cryptids, only misunderstood ones" then "monsters need to be slain".