Best Books of 2016 – SFF!
It’s depressing but true: 2016 had something of a phoned-in feel when it came to genre fiction – enough to make a die-hard genre reader to look wistfully at some earlier years. With SFF – the combined genre guaranteed to cheese off purists of either sci-fi or fantasy (but employed here because sci-fi and fantasy are in fact the same thing, the one dressed in a soiled black concert T-shirt and the other cosplaying in elf ears) – this was certainly the case in 2016: uninspiring fare as far as the eye could see. But as always, there were exceptions that made all the hunting and the disappointment worth the effort:
10. The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville (Del Rey) – This slim novel – the story of two unlikely allies thrown together in a fantasy-slipstream version of a 1950s Paris in which the Nazis and the Resistance are still fighting things out – has the feel almost from the first page of being a second-tier Mieville novel, and sure enough, its execution is looser and more scattershot than in this author’s great books. But second-tier China Mieville is still better than the first-tier efforts of most SFF writers – certainly good enough to make this list.
9. The Last Mortal Bond by Brian Staveley (Tor) – This big, satisfying volume was the conclusion to Brian Staveley’s “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne” trilogy, in which this smart, challenging author brings together the story he’s laid out about the inhabitants of a fantasy realm – and in particular three very dissimilar siblings – facing the desperate attempts of a creepy elder race to rid the world of lesser peoples. By the middle of the second volume, I had a pretty good idea of where Staveley would take this series … but I kept avidly reading right up to the end.
8. Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (NAL) – Kay’s sprawling novel, lovingly working several very intriguing fantasy-world variations on Renaissance-era Europe, is at first glance an oddly disjointed thing, a collection of character-lives without any real cohering plot other than the background of the novel’s history, in which a fantasy-variation of the Ottoman Turks are poised to conquer everything in their path. Living their lives in the shadow of this threat is a handful of well-realized characters who have varying degrees of connection to it – which means the whole thing shouldn’t really work as a dramatic story, and yet it very much does. I credit rock-solid storytelling.
7. The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan (Ace) – The latest novel from Anthony Ryan is a typically broad-scale and pleasingly ambitious thing, in this case a dwindling resources novel: in his new fantasy-world, harvested and treated drake-blood can impart fantastic powers to the select few humans who can handle it, but the drakes are failing – and the world whose finance and industry are built on their blood is now scrambling to find a rumored new kind of drake to take their place. Ryan takes this fairly standard stuff and works it up into a first-rate adventure starring a trio of very well-drawn characters reluctantly facing the greatest adventure of their lives.
6. Arabella of Mars by David Levine (Tor) – In his debut novel, David Levine invents an alternate Regency era London that has developed its own daffy-but-effective technology and managed to create a colony on Mars, which is home to our delightful young heroine, Arabella Ashby, who’s a genuine alien when her mother sends her back to Earth and who must figure out a way against all odds to return to Mars in order to save her family. It’s a completely captivating mix of whimsy and wonder that should have revolted me and instead kept me spellbound.
5. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (Del Rey) – Another superb debut novel, this time Sylvain Neuvel’s story of young Rose Franklin, who discovers the existence of a huge, enigmatic metal hand buried in the US badlands and devotes her life to unraveling the riddle of what this thing is and where it came from. There was an indeterminacy about the novel that I didn’t always feel was completely under the author’s control, but the frequent stretches of first-rate narrative more than compensated – and I loved how assuredly the author conveyed the premise’s underlying strangeness.
4. A Gathering of Shadows by Victoria Schwab (Tor) – I doubt that anybody who read A Darker Shade of Magic, the terrific first book in this series by Victoria Schwab, wasn’t eager for the sequel; this story, about four very different alternate versions of London and one of the few remaining individuals possessing the power to travel between them at will. That Traveler, a dreamy young man named Kell, comes from “Red” London, and in this latest book both he and his adoptive family and friends must confront, among other things, the threat of the worst alternate London of them all. And while it’s true that something of the first-in-a-series elan of A Darker Shade of Magic is missing from this sequel, this is still one fine, captivating adventure.
3. The Lyre Thief by Jennifer Fallon (Tor) – Jennifer Fallon’s latest book is the seventh installment in her “Hythrun Chronicles,” which would ordinarily be very nearly sufficient in its own right to disbar a book from appearing on one of these lists. But it had been some time since I read any of the earlier books set in this particular fantasy world, and that gave me the distance I needed to see what a fresh, fast-paced job Fallon does at making each of these books stand-alone accessible to newcomers. This is the story of a clever, headstrong young princess seeking to thwart the machinery of her own royal marriage, and it’s also the story of a daring thief and a desperate prince, and Fallon invests it all with such infectious humor that I feel certain I’d have enjoyed it just as much if I’d never read any of the earlier books.
2. The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks (Orbit) – This fourth book in Brent Weeks’ “Lightbringer” series isn’t quite the stand-alone success of The Lyre Thief – if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series, this doorstop will be nearly unintelligible to you – but read as a big chapter in that larger story, this is a tremendously good outing, fleshing out a great deal more of the world Weeks has created, in which light is magic, and fleshing out as well his central cast of characters, particularly his best creation, the obnoxious-yet-indispensable Kip. And the author’s extended action-sequences are, as always, ingeniously thrilling.
1. Night of the Animals by Bill Broun (Ecco) – Just as we began this list with a startlingly surreal, original stand-alone novel, so too do we end it, with Bill Broun’s amazing debut novel Night of the Animals, the best SFF novel of 2016. One one of its many levels, it’s the story of a half-sane derelict named Cuthbert Handley, who’s on a mission to free all the animals caged in his dystopian London’s zoos and thereby, maybe, hasten the advent of the Lord of Animals, but the book has many other simultaneously-unfolding layers of mania and epiphany, all of it told in prose that glows with confidence.
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