There are inevitably lists of ‘Best SF Books of…’ such as this one from Barnes and Noble but with the amount of books on offer from this year and from previous years, it’s almost impossible for any one person to keep up with everything that’s on offer, so this is my very subjective list of the best books I’ve read this year. Some are newly published, others aren’t. Most are SF, but not all.
Ben Aaronovitch: Rivers of London – Peter Grant #1
This was my year for catching up with Ben Aaronovitch and his Peter Grant series. I’d been meaning to read them for several years, and not managed to get round to it, but I’m so glad I finally made the effort. In fact though I’ve only names the first I would like to include the whole lot in this recommendation. So far that would be: Rivers of London, Moon over Soho , Whispers Underground, Broken Homes, Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree (books 1 – 6). I also read the novella, The Furthest Station which slots into the sequence at #5.7 and the graphic novel, Body Work which slots in at #4.5. What can I say? Marvellous. A mixture of urban fantasy, police procedural and the supernatural with young British policeman, Peter Grant, suddenly falling into the world of magic when he sees a ghost while helping with a homicide investigation. That brings him to the notice of Nightingale and The Folly, the Met’s department of magic that no one likes to talk about. I love all these books and read them quickly, one after the other. Especially good is Peter’s cheeky voice, often with added pop-culture references, but quickly snapping to attention when things get serious,. Nightingale as the mentor is very old school British but the rest of the cast of characters run the gamut of inclusivity. As you would expect in multi-cultural London the characters are multi-ethnic, too, from Peter himself who is mixed race to Guleed and Kumar. And it doesn’t stop there. There are half fae plus a housekeeper who has more teeth than seems strictly necessary and a strange culinary relationship with offal. The overarching story is a puzzle to be solved and I’m looking forward to the next one in the series.
Lisa Shearin: Wedding Bells, Magic Spells – Raine Benares #8
I didn’t realise there was going to be another Raine Benares novel after everything seemed to be all set for a happyeverafter in Book 7, but I’m delighted to find that there is. All the old favourites are back again as Raine, Elf soldier Michael and dark Goblin lord Tam Nathrach try to prevent peace talks between the various kingdoms from being undermined. If Raine thought she’d given up her magical powers when she parted from the soul-sucking stone, the Saghred, she’d better think again. If it sounds as though it’s too much of a leap to start with book number #8 I can thoroughly recommend the whole series, starting with Magic Lost, Trouble Found. They are second world fantasy books that read like urban fantasy with a quick-talking but vulnerable heroine in deep trouble from the word go. The pacing is breathless and each book picks up where the last one left off.
Nnedi Okorafor: Binti – Binti #1 and Binti Home – Binti #2
#1 This is very short – novella length – telling the story of Binti, a mathematical genius, who is the first of the Himba people (Namibia) to leave home and travel to university on another planet. Her customs are strange to her fellows. She uses otjize paste made from butterfat and ochre paste on her skin and hair – which is traditional because of the lack of water in the hot desert climate. On the way to the university, the ship she is on is invaded by the alien Meduse. Binti is the only survivor and must use all her skills to effect a rapprochement between the Meduse and the people of Oomza University who have inadvertently wronged the Meduse through not understanding their culture.
Binti – Home is the second in the series. When I read Binti, I wasn’t aware that it was the first part of a series of three novellas, and when I read Binti: Home I wasn’t aware that there was still one more novella to come. I’m going to state right at the beginning that I hate cliffhanger endings, so I’m looking forward to the third part to finish off (I hope) the story arc. Basically the Binti novellas are about acceptance of other cultures and miscommunication. When Binti returns home to Namibia of the future with her Meduse friend, Okwu, the first of his people to come to Earth in peace. Binti has become an oddity. Her family never wanted her to leave, now they aren’t sure about her return. It may be the old story of ‘you can never go back’. The third Binti book just dropped into my Kindle, but I haven’t had chance to read it yet.
Ann Aguirre: Perdition – Dred Chronicles #1
Almost a spin-off book from the Jax books, taking a minor character, Jael and making him one of the two central characters along with the Dred Queen. This is set on a prison ship in space where the inmates are left to their own devices and death takes the weak and the meek very quickly. Jael is a new fish, straight off the prison ship, and Dred is one of the bosses who have carved out little kingdoms for themselves. No one there is innocent. Mostly the inmate population consists of psychopaths, sociopaths and mass murderers – those considered beyond redemption. Jael and Dred both have secrets, but no one here is interested. A person is what a person is. This is the sort of book that makes you want to climb in the shower after reading, but it stays with you for a long time. It’s full of blood, guts and excrement, but there are moments of human emotion, too and it’s certainly a page turner, like all of Ann Aguirre’s Jax books. (Also highly recommended.)
Lois McMaster Bujold: Mira’s Last Dance – Penric and Desdemona #4
This picks up immediately after the last Penric Novella, Penric’s Mission, and should be read after it. Not without cost to himself, Penric has succeeded in rescuing and healing the betrayed General Arisaydia and they are now fleeing across the last hundred miles of hostile Cedonia with Arisaydia’s widowed sister Nikys. And Penric is falling in love. Penric is complicated. He’s inhabited by a demon, Desdemona, who carries the echoes of her previous ten human riders and at any moment they can pop up in Pen’s head offering help, advice, or sometimes unhelpful suggestions. When the trio takes refuge in a whorehouse, Mira, one of the aforementioned previous riders, a courtesan, comes to the forefront with some rather alarming knowledge. No spoilers because it’s funny and sweet, and Penric certainly has to step out of his comfort zone to get them all to safety. Anything by Lois McMaster Bujold is buy on sight. She’s one of my all-time favourite writers (perhaps at the very top of the list, in fact). If you haven’t read any of the Penric stories yet, I heartily recommend them. I would suggest reading them in chronological order, but just to confuse matters there are two more Penric novellas that have come out since this one, and one (Penric’s Fox) slots in before Penric’s Mission, while the other, The Prisoner Of Limnos, carries the timeline forward.
Jo Baker: Longbourn
This is supposedly the story of Pride and Prejudice from the servants point of view, except it isn’t, really. Yes it’s set Longbourne, and the story of Pride and Prejudice is happening in the background, but it doesn’t do a full Rozencrantz and Guildenstern. I was expecting something like Tom Stoppard meets Jane Austen and in that I was disappointed. The story doesn’t spin round pivotal scenes in Pride and Prejudice and, in fact, continues beyond Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage. This is a completely separate story that just happens to be running parallel to the romantic adventures of the Elizabeth and Darcy. Mrs Hill, the cook/housekeeper is keeping everything together while Mr. Hill quietly drinks the sherry and gets on with his somewhat unexpected lifestyle. The story really belongs to Sarah the elder of two maids (though still in her teens) and to James Smith the enigmatic new footman in the household. This is a realistic look at life below stairs. The main characters are the people who have to scrub that white muslin dress clean after Miss Elizabeth has trailed it through the mud. There are fires to light, floors to scrub, chamber pots to empty and monthly rags to wash. We are spared no detail of the minutiae of daily life in the early 1800s. Unlike P&P the Napoleonic Wars feature in a long middle section detailing James’ backstory, revealing the hardships of the ordinary soldier for whom life is never fair. A measured pace filled with rich detail does lead to a satisfying ending.
Benedict Jacka: Bound – Alex Verus #8
Number eight in the series is not necessarily a good place to start and I would recommend reading all of these in Series order. Each book is complete in itself, but an overall plot arc emerges and by the time we ghet to #8 it’s in full swing. Alex Verus is in trouble – again. Or perhaps that should be Alex Verus is still in trouble, because this is a continuation of the trouble he was in last time, under a death warrant from the Mage Council. He’s only managed to sidestep it because his old boss and longtime enemy Richard Drakh has once again got him in his power and this time Anne is involved as well. Alex feelings for Anne are… complicated. This story is spread over a longer period that previous Alex Verus books, but the pacing is still smart and the twists many and various. At last Alex is starting to be proactive and (prompted by Arachne) starting to plan long-term. There’s a twist in the ending that makes me eager to see what happens is Alex Verus #9. I galloped through this in less than a day. Highly recommended.
Jodi Taylor: And the Rest is History – Chronicles of St Mary’s #8
I adore Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary. I recommend you start at the beginning with One Damn Thing After Another. This is the eighth and she’s not running out of places to take the story. Still quirky, this is darker than the rest because Clive Ronan is back and he’s even more determined to inflict pain and suffering on Max, her family and all the staff at St Mary’s. There’s some gut-wrenching stuff in this as well as Jodi Taylor’s usual wit. It’s a laugh-and-cry rollercoaster and not everyone makes it to the last page. The history side of it is, as usual, fascinating, from the Egyptian desert to the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
Karen Traviss: Going Grey and Black Run – Ringer #1 and #2
This is a near future techno-thriller featuring illegal science, military contractors, family values and ethics. When Ian Dunlop’s gran dies suddenly and unexpectedly the teen is faced with a problem. Ian is either going nuts or he has a talent that will make him the target of huge corporations, and he doesn’t know enough about the world or himself to make a plan. Luckily the first people to find him are a pair of military contractors, Mike Brayne and Rob Rennie, with resources, connections in high places, and a conscience. Mike and Rob, though coming from opposite sides of the Atlantic and opposite branches of the magic money tree, are buddies in the way that has been forged by military comradeship. Ms Traviss has always been able to get under the skin of the common (and uncommon) soldier. Though the pacing of Going Grey is measured, it never loses interest, and I leaped straight from this to the sequel, Black Run.
In the sequel, Black Run, Rob’s son and ex, back in England, are threatened by an unseen stalker, so both Rob and Mike have families to protect and Ian’s unique chameleon skills could prove useful, but neither man wants to put him at the sharp end if things get dangerous. Ian proves difficult to keep down, however. He’s learned a lot from his two mentors, the main thing being that if you have friends, you make sure you have their back. You can class this as a near-future thriller, or military SF, but the characters are the heart of the story. Another hugely enjoyable book from Karen Traviss. The third book, Sacrificial Red, is out in 2018.
Paul Cornell: A Long Day in Lychford
This is the third Lychford novella from Paul Cornell and I heartily recommend all of them. Lizzy, Judith and Autumn are the three resident witches of Lychford, a sleepy Gloucestershire town. In the wake of Brexit Autumn is questioning her place in Lychford because of her skin colour, and Judith is struggling to keep herself together and pass on her knowledge to Lizzy and Autumn before it’s too late. When people start to go missing, our trio discover that they are being pulled across boundaries. There’s political trouble at home and trouble in the world of faerie, too. Each woman is on her own to rescue a particular group of strayed humans. Cornell managed to bring real world concerns into the magical world and the wave of anti-foreigner sentiment affects Lychford, too. A thoroughly enjoyable read, though not particularly cosy as the three women’s sentiments are laid bare.
Andy Weir: Artemis
I finished this yesterday, and haven’t even done a proper blog write up yet, but it’s certainly a page-turner. This time the main character is Jazz (female) who has lived in the Moon’s only city since she was a small child. She’s fiercely intelligent, but pretty much a delinquent, doing a low-pay courier job while running a smuggling racket on the side. She takes on a job that she should walk away from (the money’s too good to refuse) and after that she’s scrabbling to recover frim the consequences. If you enjoyed the problem-solving in The Martian, there’s problem solving a-plenty in this, plus intrigue and nail-biting peril.
George R.R. Martin (Editor): Mississippi Roll – A Wild Cards Novel
I hadn’t read any Wild Cards books before this, but the blurb said it was a good jumping-on point for new readers. It’s the story of a Mississippi riverboat, the Natchez, in the not too distant future. It’s a future in which humanity has been changed forever by a plague which either kills or turns the survivors into Wild Cards – jokers or aces. Aces have superpowers, whereas jokers might have a fox’s ears and tail or maybe half of them has turned into a fish. Each affliction is different. You get the idea. Edited by George RR Martin, the writers are Stephen Leigh, David D. Levine, John Jos. Miller, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Cherie Priest, and Carrie Vaughn. Each writer takes a particular character and sees them through their part in the story. So… the story. The central character in this ensemble piece are Steam Wilbur, the ghost of the builder and first captain of the Natchez. The Natchez herself is both setting and character. She’s steaming up the river with an illicit cargo of illegal joker immigrants. A vindictive immigration officer is close behind. But it’s not only the immigrants who are in trouble, the Natchez herself is in danger, which also puts Steam Wilbur in jeopardy. This is the story of how the ensemble cast fights a triple threat. I now have a dilemma. I can’t decide whether to wait for the next Wild cards book, or whether to go back and start reading the series from the beginning.
So that’s it. As the year finishes I’m reading Sandra Underman’s Spellhaven and I already have a number of books lined up on my kindle… some re-reads of Diana Wynne Jones and Andre Norton, Seanan McGuire’s Beneath the Sugar Sky, Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country, which I managed to miss when it first came out. So many books – so little time.
Do leave a comment and tell me what you’ve enjoyed reading this year. What have I missed? What should I be loading onto my Kindle next?