My favorite books read in 2016. Not in any particular order.
Radiance by Catherynne Valente
Reading Valente is always more experience than story. This is a silver-screen look at a past that never was—if the early Hollywood years encompassed an SF landscape of planetary travel. There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on here spread over multiple layers of story-telling and it takes some work to pick out which threads actually lead to a cohesive solution to the central mystery (though arguably not the central point of the book): what became of Severin, a Hollywood darling? How did she vanish and where did she vanish to? And will it change anything?
Valente’s writing style rewards rereading, not least because she sets up mysteries, then writes a lot of scenes that basically suggest that the answers are unimportant even as she gives you a handful of options, none of which feel super conclusive. This book, especially, flirts with made-up stories, in the thread of a movie being written about Severin that wanders through different genres and tweaks events to suit each need. In other hands, this might be a godawful mess, but here, it ends up being a book that lingers with you. And whether or not each segment of the book ends up part of a cohesive whole, they’re beautifully written vignettes on their own. I was a little dubious about this book when I first finished it, but it’s grown on me.
Experimental Film by Gemma Files
People talk about art being an “unflinching” look at the world around us, and holy god, this book refuses to flinch. The main character—a film analyst and writer, mother to an autistic child, daughter to a difficult mother—embarks on a brutal self-dissection of herself while hunting down a piece of film that may or may not have something horrific lurking in it. It’s part a mystery about what happened to a long-lost film-maker; it’s part dissection of the film scene in Canada; and its part homage to horror movies as a whole. The main character is rarely likable, but she is fascinating. The ending’s not quite as strong as the rest of the book—a sad irony of so many fantasy books; the better you ground it in reality, the less powerful the magic can feel—but it’s still way up on my list of books for 2016. Plus, Gemma Files’ writing on a micro level—line by line—is often glorious. Where Valente makes elaborations and fancy little flirts with words, Files’ writing tends toward deceptively sparse but it builds inexorably.
Rag & Bone – KJ Charles
A much less “literary book than my first two, but KJ Charles has rapidly rocketed up to being one of my favorite writers. This book is a fantasy romance between Crispin, a disgraced magician, accused (not falsely) of using blood-magic, and Ned, a black waste man in Victorian London. Let me count the things Charles does well: romance, naturally. I do like that all her characters have significant conflicts that aren’t just obstacles for the sake of being obstacles. Historical data. Love her research. Her books firmly set the scene and genuinely feel like they’re happening in an earlier time; you’re not going to find sloppy anachronisms here. Something I admire tremendously. And oh, her magic. I think this may be the third year that Charles has had a spot on my annual favorites lists, so I’m pretty sure I talked about her use of magic before. I love it. It’s inventive, and it’s visceral. It feels like it would work.
One of the holy grails of writing is the motto: “your ending should be surprising, yet inevitable”. I’d add “satisfying” to that already hard to hit mark. Here, Charles gets that trifecta just right. The end is both surprising and inevitable, and also deeply satisfying. It made me laugh, and say, of course that happened.
Lovecraft Country – Matt Ruff
I have a weak spot for novels that are really made up of interconnected short stories. I have a weak spot for new looks at old tropes in the field. And I have a weak spot for historical settings and times done really well. Lovecraft Country does all those things.
It begins when a Cthulhu cultist kidnaps Atticus Turner’s father, and Atticus has to brave the drive into white man’s land to get his father out. In this novel, Cthulhu’s monstrosity is matched by societal racism, and Atticus and his friends and family have very difficult waters to navigate if they’re going to survive.
City of Blades – Robert Jackson Bennett
Book 2 of the Divine Cities
Sometimes I think this series was written just for me, I love its elements that much. The premise for this whole trilogy is an interesting one. A world where every people had a tangible god, except one race of peoples—who were then oppressed, considered lesser, abused. Until they found a way to slay the gods. Now the oppressed are running the scene and have been doing so for a fairly short period of time. They’re still putting out fires. In City of Blades, there are some disturbing rumors coming from a planned harbor—rumors of violence, of gods, and of a dangerous new weapon. And a ministry worker has gone missing, but she went mad first. So the “Retired” General Turyin Mulaghesh has been sent to figure out what’s what. It’s a mark of Bennett’s skills that even when the climactic revelation is telegraphed early, it’s still remarkably satisfying to see it spool out and reach that moment. I can’t wait for the next book.
The Disappearance at Devil’s Rock – Paul Tremblay
Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts was a mostly-solid read for me; though I don’t particularly care for exorcist stories, I loved the writing in that book. So when this one cropped up, I grabbed it.
This is another weird but good book. The premise is straight-forward enough. Tommy, a youngish teen, vanishes (at Devil’s Rock, naturally) and sets off an investigation, and more importantly to his family—sets off a series of increasingly strange events. The mother sees a ghost; the boy’s journal starts showing up page by page in their living room. The book pieces together Tommy’s last days, and while in the end, the supernatural element is slight—it’s also truly disturbing. The writing is compelling; the characters are plausible—with one slight bobble (to me)—and there are a lot of images that haunted me later on.
Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
Kij is a friend of mine, but that said, I would still have been blown away by this novella (see above for things I like re: new looks at old properties, setting, endings that are both surprising, yet inevitable/satisfying. Plus add a big ol’ dollop of feminism.). This is a Lovecraftian novella, an echo to The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Only this time, the quester is someone from the dreamlands—Professor Vellitt Boe, who’s sent off to prevent one of their college girls from eloping with a human dreamer. It’s about an older woman revisiting her past when she was a brave traveller and finding that she still has that bravery. It’s about feminism—women are rare in Lovecraft’s stories, so Kij ran with the idea that that scarcity wasn’t because Lovecraft could barely conceive of a woman as character, but because women were just that damn rare in the dreamlands, which makes them… suspicious creatures. Vellitt Boe embarks on almost an inversion of a Coming of Age story—reversing her path that she took nearly twenty years before. Kij got me so caught up in Vellitt’s personal journey, that I almost forgot about the bigger picture, until it came flooding back into place at the end.
Maze-Born Trouble by Ginn Hale
World-building, world-building, world-building. Plus SF noir. Often I read “noir” influenced stories and they’re heavy on the grit and grime, but not so much on the betrayal aspect—which is a big part of noir! In this novella, our hero is an ex-cop turned PI, on a run-down space station, who gets catapulted into a mystery when a dead girl shows up with his name in her history. He had been hired to find her—which he did—and realized that she was doomed to end up in major trouble. The plot is not super complex for anyone familiar with mysteries, but it unrolls satisfyingly anyway. But the real star here is the world-building. Hale’s space-station feels real and vivid, from seedy, nearly imhuman underbelly, to fancy spires at the top. There’s a very low-key romance between Lake and the police inspector sent to keep an eye on him, but it adds a nice touch. I really just can’t say enough good things about this world-building. It’s only 80 pages long, and I feel like Hale effortlessly slipped us enough world-building for a full novel.
Dark Alchemy by Laura Bickle
Urban fantasy seems to be dying off, which is a pity, because it’s one of my favorite genres to read and write. Mix mystery and adventure with fantasy elements and I am so there. But I found this series, and gobbled it up. Petra, the protagonist, is a geologist (which I loved!), a competent yet sensible heroine. She can make her own tools, she can shoot a gun, she has a strong sense of self, but isn’t brash. She comes to this super small western town to track down her missing father who left when she was a kid, and steps right into a magical war between Stroud, an alchemist, who has much of the town hooked on a strange potion, and Rutherford, a rancher who has an even weirder set of workers who live on his property. The magic felt fresh all the way through. There’s some native American magics worked in through here, but it felt respectfully done. Plus, she ends up with a “pet” coyote. Which is a bad bad idea in real life, but is awesome in fiction.
Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold
The title nearly made me walk away. I’m really glad I didn’t. This is a super fun book. It’s fantasy, but really it reads more like urban fantasy that just happens to take place in another world—in a city that exists between worlds, actually. The heroine owns a brothel—another thing that would normally make me walk away, but… again, it’s a fun book! There are just a whole lot of things that would normally turn me off that Sebold managed to turn against me. Flashbacks that take up a lot of chapters? Pass, except… here I wanted to read each of them.
The gist of this story is Babylon must navigate several problems. 1) She’s been hired to find a missing “princess” of sorts. 2) There’s a murderer killing girls. 3) Her brothel is in dire need of funds, and the local temple of purity is driving away more of her business. And oh, 4) her past is coming back to haunt her as the avatars of Tiresena have come to hunt her down so they can turn themselves into gods and destroy their kingdom in the process. The fun part of this story is Babylon moving through Scalentine—a well-drawn city chock full of alien races, cultures and magics.
Winner of the Holy Crap What Did I Just Read? book
Jenny Pox by JL Bryan
I’m fond of his Ellie Johnson, ghost trapper series, an urban fantasy series that starts off “all right” and gets better with each successive book. But between book 4 & 5 of that series, I decided I’d try this other book of his, with the catchy title and the strange looking girl on the cover.
So glad I did.
Now, to be fair, part of the weirdness I experienced was that somehow I had it in my mind that this was a YA novel. And looking back I can see why. The blurb sounds YA:
Eighteen-year-old Jenny Morton has a horrific secret: her touch spreads a deadly supernatural plague, the “Jenny pox.” She lives by a single rule: Never touch anyone. A lifetime of avoiding any physical contact with others has made her isolated and painfully lonely in her small rural town.
Then she meets the one boy she can touch, and her life begins to change. Jenny feels herself falling for him, but first Jenny must learn to use the deadly pox inside her to confront her new enemy, a girl who secretly wields the most dangerous power of all.
But what rolled out before me was some peculiar mash up between teen romance and adult horror novel. Suffice it to say, this book absolutely never went where I expected it to go. It zigged when I thought it would zag. It went sweet when I expected violence, and slipped horror into all other spots, and just left me gaping. One of the downsides of writing professionally, or just a lot, or reading a whole lot, is that you start to get story beats internalized. You start to feel where things will go, and the way things will happen. So being genuinely surprised by a whole book? Unusual and definitely worthy of comment.
Books that I read and recommend, but that don’t need me to convince you.
The Fifth Season – NK Jemisin. Won the Hugo. ‘Nuff said.
Uprooted – Naomi Novik. Up for the Hugo. ‘Nuff said.
Aeronaut’s Windlass – Jim Butcher. Up for the Hugo. I burned out on Dresden and bounced hard off his Alera Codex books, but this book was a lot of fun.
Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle. A novella also dealing with Lovecraft and race.
Planetfall – Emma Newman. Chewy SF, less about the SF, and more about people and their ability to self-delude. Fascinating view of a damaged character.