Our next sub-genre is science fiction and fantasy (“sff” for the initiated), a field of fiction that’s every bit as prone to being formulaic and derivative as its sister sub-genres, although its practitioners sometimes seem oddly, almost defiantly unaware of this fact. Possibly they don’t read as much of it as I do, but in 2015 I tried my best to read everything that wasn’t self-evident garbage – and I was, as I almost always am, pleased by the freakish variety that can be found if you look hard enough. Here are the best of the bunch:
10. The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (Tor) – In one of the most technically and linguistically dazzling debuts of the year, Seth Dickinson tells the story of smart, innovative Baru Cormorant, the wounded but die-hard survivor of a conquered people who strives throughout this fantastic book to somehow redeem her people’s suffering. Dickinson has created a very pleasingly complex political take on the typical space opera, and the book’s dialogue is like nothing I’ve ever encountered in an sff novel.
9. City of the Iron Fish by Simon Ings (Gollancz) – I read right through Simon Ings’ 2012 novel Dead Water with nary a backward glance, but it stuck with me in the way some novels do, with certain scenes and concepts tugging at my imagination long after I’d gone on to other things. I expect the same will be true of this new book, since City of the Iron Fish, about the eponymous city that’s somehow protected from the fiery wasteland all around it, is even more impressive than Dead Water in its inventiveness and offbeat pacing.
8. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit) – Nothing quite says ‘science fiction’ like a big novel full of big ideas, and Kim Stanley Robinson is a quintessential science fiction author. In this dense, delectable new book, a starship that left Earth long ago to make the long voyage to a distant star system is about to reach its destination – a fairly standard sci-fi plot, but Robinson’s book stands out from a host of similar efforts by dint of his bottomless creativity in throwing problems before his cast of hopeful immigrants. The book immerses its readers in the sheer believably of its world.
7. The Total Emasculation of the White Man by David Valentine Bernard (Strebor Books) – This novel – about a group of largely unconnected men whose lives are affected in big and small ways, among other things, angels, demons, and a hysterically racist tract called The Total Emasculation of the White Man – was never destined, I suppose, to become a widely-embraced bestseller. Bernard’s prose is odd by any standards, and the humor running through this book – although it entirely won me over – will likely be completely inaudible to most readers. I loved the book, hence its appearance here.
6. Our Lady of the Ice by Cassandra Rose Clarke (Saga Press) – An ordinary working woman named Eliana Gomez is the heart and soul of this terrific novel about the corrupt and ailing Hope City, domed and isolated Argentinian colony in the frozen wasteland of Antarctica, where unrest among the human and robot population is at a breaking point and crime is rampant. Cassandra Rose Clarke so expertly balances her exotic location with her very human characters (even the ones who aren’t human) that neither feels the slightest bit gimmicky – instead, they leave a lastingly real impression.
5. Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer (Tor) – Lin is a courageous young woman who follows her passion for song in a land where death is the penalty for women who sing, and that might be premise enough for most fantasy novels. But in her remarkable debut, Ilana Meyer complicates things: in the land of Eivar, the long-vanished Red Death has returned, an after-effect plague created by dabblers in long-forbidden magic. And the key to that magic is song – the same forbidden discipline to which Lin has devoted her life. The world-building in these pages is so convincingly textured that it feels completely natural and pulls the reader right in.
4. A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab (Tor) – I was hugely entertained by this non-stop fantasy novel about parallel Londons and a young man who’s one of the few remaining Travelers, people with the ability to transport between those parallel worlds. The dialogue, the action, the family dynamics of Kell, the Traveler at the heart of the book … all of these things just swept me away. I’d never read this author before, and now I can hardly wait for her next book. You can read my full review here.
3 The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering by Jeffrey Rotter (Metropolitan Books) – This dark and offbeat post-apocalyptic tale of a family of low-rung workers in a violent future on the outskirts of what was once Cape Canaveral came to me unrequested and utterly enthralled me for two hours, reading on the couch without an ear for anything else. You can read my full review here.
2 The Vorrh by Brian Catling (Vintage) – A massive, semi-sentient jungle sprawls all around its nervous human settlements in this beautiful, bewildering novel (whose UK cover is presented here because its US cover is virtually a parody of ugly US book-covers). One man seeks to be the first to traverse the mighty Vorrh; another is tasked with killing him before he succeeds. And there’s a cyclops. You can read my full review here
Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson (Tachyon Publications) – Here at the end of the year, I’m a bit surprised that the best sff book of 2015 was not only a short story collection but also one that veers so close so often to the border of YA. And yet, Nalo Hopkinson’s Falling in Love with Hominids is just a stunning success of a creative vision, even when that vision is presented in shards and fragments of eighteen different stories. Some of those stories – pieces like “Message in a Bottle” or “The Easthound” – are more effective than others, but the overall effect is joyous.
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