I really did want to get this done sooner, but I didn’t.
See part one for the other books I liked in 2015. Consider this the books I really liked. You could call it a top ten, but there’s more than 10. But still, my absolute favorite books of 2015, alphabetically by title.
Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie
In trilogies, first books get to have all the fun. The first book is where you get the full thrill of discovery, of learning about a new thing. The third book has to actually finish a story, which sometimes, feels a lot more like work. I was happy that Ancillary Mercy, the third book of maybe the most decorated SF trilogy in the last five years, really does stick the landing.
But… it might not be the landing you expect. I think it’s fair to say in the end, a lot of the flash and bang was a misdirection from the idea that this was, from the very beginning, a small-scale story about an interesting person that eventually got caught up in a galactic civil war. And not, say, a galactic war story that sort of has a personal component. (If you see a review that calls the ending “muted”, this what they mean—it doesn’t end in fire, it ends in personal change). I thought it was really satisfying, (in addition to being technically impeccable) and it was one of my favorite books of the year.
Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson
I can’t decide whether this is the most pessimistic SF book ever
written or if it winds up being weirdly optimistic despite everything. Aurora is the story of a generational ship. At the beginning of the book, the ship is near its destination after a couple of hundred years. Just in time, too, because the colonists are starting to run out of stuff, like oxygen. And then they get to the planet, and it’s not exactly the end of their problems.
Robinson winds up being deeply pessimistic about the practicality of generation ships and colonizing other planets in a way that is directly (almost gleefully) in conflict with decades of science fiction. And while that makes a great essay, Aurora is also a great story, with interesting characters making hard choices. The narrator for most of the book is the ship’s AI, which lets Robinson play with narrative structure a bit. I’ve run hot and cold on Robinson in the past, this is my favorite book of his in years, even if it does end with a very-Robinson sort of mini-essay on how great it is to be outside.
City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennet
A few things I generally like, in fantasy novels:
- Post-medieval or industrial technology.
- Living gods, or some kind of really powerful supernatural being that shapes the way the world works.
- A story that takes place in the aftermath of the cataclysmic struggle, rather than being the struggle itself.
And so, City of Stairs, which is all these things. It takes place a generation or so after a conquering empire was itself conquered, because the other side figured out how to kill its gods. It takes place in the former capital of that city, now home to a resentful conquered population. A place where the gods have supposedly been outlawed but where their magical artifacts still can cause havoc. It's a murder mystery against a fraught diplomatic backdrop, and with a couple of main characters that have a history together.
It’s weird, and the characters are interesting, and the magic is cool, and the mystery and politics all holds together. It’s really something. If you like Gladwell and Mièville, you will like this. (Late note, watch for the 2016 version of this list, because the sequel is, if anything, better.)
Fallout, by Gwenda Bond
One of the books that I most flat out enjoyed reading this year was a YA novel about Lois Lane. Not a sentence I expected to write, but here we are. I expected this book to be a decent novel in a media property that I like. It’s way better than that. It’s got a great take on teenage Lois, Girl Reporter, and her mysterious pen-pal SmallvilleGuy (who has not revealed his existence to the public). It’s got just the right amount of Superman and DC mythology, and it’s just really, really fun. Very happy that it sold well enough to justify a sequel in 2016.
The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
So, there are certain kinds of subtle things that you rarely see in a fantasy novel because it takes tremendous skill to make them apparent and its often not worth the effort. For example, your human characters will usually sleep about eight hours in a 24-hour day, have five senses, live on geology similar to Earth’s, be mostly right-handed. You get the idea. There are a lot of powerful defaults that we assume even in a world with magic, or elves.
I’m not giving much away to say that The Fifth Season takes place with characters who have a sixth sense, often have hair that is not quite like what you’d expect, and live in a world where civilization shattering earthquakes take place reasonably regularly.
So the technical bar is high. And I haven't even gotten to the fact that Jemisin uses multiple points of view that relate in an unusual way, and that the book is also very much about the consequences of systematically oppressing a certain group of people.
And she just nails it. It's just staggeringly good, the world-building is rich, unique, and interesting. The characters are complex, the story is deeply engrossing. The only thing keeping it from being a slam-dunk choice as my favorite book of the year, is that it's book one of a trilogy. But at that, it also has one of the best last lines ever. It's just an amazing accomplishment, and I can't wait for the next one. With any luck, it’s going to win a boatload of awards and you should read it.
Last First Snow, by Max Gladstone
This is the fourth annual Max Gladstone Craft Sequence visit to these lists. It might be clear that I kind of like these books. This one, which is a direct prequel to Two Serpents Rise and kind of a prequel to Three Parts Dead, has as its not-very-subtle subtext gentrification, as the rich business interests (who happen to be powerful magicians and animated skeletons) try to knock down the land belonging largely to the poor and marginalized (who happen to often be members of a discredited cult that gains power from human sacrifice). Also, there are dragons.
This book is great, but I rave about this series all the damn time, and it’s a prequel so you kind of know how it ends, which takes a little bit of the edge. This is a fantasy series that uses a lot of SF DNA in its world building — it seems that I see a lot more SF that uses its background to comment on the world than fantasy. Did I mention that I really love this series? I made a flip comment this year that I was looking forward to the next ten years of Max Gladstone books more than any other author. (Which I might now amend to be Gladstone and Jemisin…)
The Mechanical / The Rising, By Ian Tregillis
You know, just another alternate-history book where the Dutch develop “alchemical” mechanical robots in the 1600s and proceed to conquer the world. As the book starts, it's something like 1920, and Dutch control of the world is only moderately bothered by a French government-in-exile based in Quebec.
The Dutch control their “clakkers” through elaborate programming with alchemical symbols called “geasa” — think Asimov’s laws if Asimov had been even more into the metaphorical implications of mechanical creatures who are forced to do anything you ask. As you might imagine, the details are top secret, and even the merest hint that a clakker has broken their programming produces a harsh response.
So, pretty much in chapter 1 we get a clakker who goes rogue. Our other viewpoint characters are the leader of the French government’s spy network, and one of those spies who is, I think I can say, spectacularly compromised early on.
Tregillis does a great job of making the clakkers seem implacable and dangerous, not just to the French who are fighting for survival against them, but also to the Dutch, who owe their world domination to their fragile ability to keep them under control. The details of the world and where technology is different from our time are really nicely done (to give one example, the French fight the clakkers with, basically, weaponized glue that immobilizes them). This is a really well done and engaging series. Supposedly book 3, The Liberation, is coming in 2016.
Of Noble Family, Mary Robinette Kowal
This may be the only five-book series I’ve ever read that improved from book to book. (I think I said that last year). The series started as a kind of Jane Austin pastiche with glamour, which is magic that allows for the illusion of light and sound, and which fit very nicely with the Austin world. Over the course of the series, Kowal has investigated the implications of the glamour and also broadened the world, we’ve been to Napoleonic France, Venice, and now the West Indies. She’s also written one of the best married couples I’ve ever read in fantasy.
In this novel, Jane and Vincent are dispatched to oversee one of his father’s holdings in the West Indies, and they essentially find a total mess. As usual, Kowal does a great job showing the world, in this case, including the appalling conditions of a slave society, and the story is intense. Jane and Vincent remain a pleasure, and earn their — spoiler alert — happy ending.
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
I think Neal Stephenson might be on to something. Rather than ship a book a year, he ships an entire trilogy all at once every three years. Seveneves is even more clearly a trilogy than most of Stevenson’s other huge-mungo works (and yes, this theory means the Baroque Cycle is a nine-logy). In book one, the moon breaks up and we quickly learn that this will doom the entire world. A plan is set up to get enough people and resources into space to survive. In book two, the survivors… survive. Well, (spoiler alert), many of them don’t. Book three takes place 5000 years later after Earth starts to become habitable again.
How much you like this is going to be somewhat dependent on how much pure Neal Stephensonness you like in your Neal Stephenson novels. The first two thirds contain a lot of orbital mechanics and the kind of science you’d need to quickly get a bunch of people into space. It’s exactly rocket science. And if your eyes are already glazing over, this may not be the book for you. I also found the political maneuvering in the middle third to be, well, depressing.
The final third is something we haven’t gotten a lot of from Stephenson, which is a genuinely far-future SF environment. It’s a little… weird from a story standpoint, though I actually kind of liked it.
This is starting to sound kind of ambivalent for a book on my “books I liked a whole bunch” list. I did like it, but I’m a super huge Stephenson fan.
The Traitor Beru Comorant, Seth Dickenson
I started hearing buzz about this book several months before its release from other authors who read advance copies. And it's another one that more than lived up to its advance reputation.
Beru Comorant is a small girl when her peaceful island nation is absorbed by a large empire. She's very smart, and is soon schooled by the empire with an eye toward becoming one of its leaders. But Beru has decided to try to bring the empire down from within. Her first major assignment is to suppress rebellion on a different island nation, which has ongoing strife from multiple noble houses with different agendas. Her methods for managing them, as you might imagine, put her various loyalties in question in complex ways.
One of the best things I can say about this book is this: I often feel that authors under-explain complex political motivations in books... This book has some of the most complicated cross-currents of goals and betrayal that you'll ever see, and yet there wasn't a moment where I wasn't pretty sure I understood who was doing what and why. It’s dark without feeling totally cynical, smart, features the dramatic use of monetary policy, and will probably break your heart.
Uprooted Naomi Novik
These things are both true: I liked this book a lot, and it is also not hard to find online reviews from people who liked it even more. Uprooted starts with a simple, very fairy tale, kind of setup. A village, Eastern European in affect, and The Dragon, an evil wizard in a castle who takes one girl from the village every ten years. Why, the villagers don't know, but they have some imagination.
To the surprise of basically nobody who has ever read books, our narrator, a girl named Agnieszka, is selected by the Dragon, somewhat to her shock, as she imagined a more popular friend of hers would be chosen. Once in the Dragon's company, she learns... well, I don't want to give too much away. She learns that he's not evil (though is is kind of a jerk, at least at first), and that there are much scarier things in the world than The Dragon).
I picked this book up after hearing a lot of great things about it -- I had kind of let Novik's more famous series (the one with the literal dragon) slide after a few books. I'm really glad I did, the book is really well structured, with a very creepy villain, and a plot that never quite goes where you expect it. I kind of wish one of the side plots didn't really get as much emphasis as it does (even hinting is probably a spoiler), and that kind of dulled my enthusiasm for it a bit when all was said and done. But that's more a minor quibble, overall, the book is really great and you should read it.
Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor
Night Vale is a weird place where time doesn’t work and all the conspiracy theories are true. I’m a big fan of the Welcome To Night Vale podcast, so I was anticipating this book for some time, although my expectations were on the order of “nice book that’s basically a media tie-in”. Which was lowballing it — this book is really spectacular. You don’t need to be a fan of the podcast to read the book, though if you are, you’ll perhaps have a little more background on some of the Night Vale weirdness alluded to in the background.
Fink and Cranor have a unique command of language, results in some amazing, frankly kind of dazzling turns, of phrase in the book. (The podcast generally works best at the level of the individual joke, and at the level of multi-episode plots, individual episode plots are often relatively less interesting.) On top of which, the book hits themes of family with the same off-center but genuine tone as the podcast. It’s a lot of weird fun.