And here we go: my list of the 10 Best New Books I Read This Year, where “New” means “read it for the first time in 2015,” not “came out in 2015.” Although, that said, I think for the first time there aren’t any books on this list that are more than a couple of years old at the most, and the majority of them actually did come out this year.
(I know I said yesterday that this wasn’t coming out until next week. I assume y’all will forgive me.)
Also, don’t take the rankings too seriously other than the top three or four books. My first cut went from 21 to 14, and wasn’t all that hard, but going from 14 books to 10 was really difficult. There will be an Honorable Mention section at the end.
So, without further ado:
10) The Me You See, by Shay Ray Stevens. This was actually the first book to be added to the shortlist, as I read it in the car on a road trip very early in January. I read the entire thing basically cover-to-cover along the trip, so the best thing this book has going for it is that it’s a hell of a page-turner.
The premise is simple, but effectively pulled off: the book begins at the end, with a shooting, but the identity of the shooter is obscured. We then jump back in time to follow the story of the first victim of the shooting, with bits and pieces of her story told in first-person by people she knows and has interacted with. The mystery unfolds effectively and the multi-narrator aspect of the story is great. I got home and ordered the book in print immediately so that I could have it on the shelf and look at it.
Shay Ray is also an indie author and a Twitter buddy; you should be following her at @shayraystevens if you aren’t.
9) The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. This book is weird; when I reviewed it I gave it five stars, but with some reservations, and there were points during the year where Three-Body Problem could very well have been the top book on this list. However, it is part of a trilogy, and part of a trilogy in a really clear way— it’s not one of those trilogies where the first book was a one-off that did well so they added more books; this story clearly wants the next two books to be complete. And the second book, The Dark Forest, wasn’t translated by Ken Liu.
And the translation utterly ruins the book. The second book is so bad and so unreadable that I couldn’t get through more than 15 to 20% of it, and that’s as the sequel to one of my favorite books of the year. Unfortunately, the fact that the second book is a one-star at best means that I can’t recommend the first one as highly, because it really isn’t as self-contained as it could have been.
The worst thing? The English translation of Volume 3 comes out soon, and Ken Liu translated it. So I’m in the position of either just trying to read Books 1 and 3, or trying to force my way through the awful second book. Blech.
But 3BP, evaluated by itself, really is something special.
(Sidenote: speaking of Ken Liu, you might also remember me highly praising his The Grace of Kings, which also came out this year. I loved the hell out of it while I was reading it, but it unfortunately didn’t hold up as well as I expected it to. I still plan to read the sequels, and it’s still good enough that it’ll appear in the Honorable Mention section down below, but some of the criticisms of it I read afterword resonated strongly enough that I can’t put it in the top 10. Dude still had a hell of a year.)
8) The Venusian Gambit, by Michael J. Martinez. This book’s presence on my Best of the Year list has nothing to do with the fact that Michael Martinez specifically thanks me for some reason in the afterword. The three books known as the Daedalus Series constitute some of the most fun I’ve had reading science fiction in years; they’re adventure books in a way that I really don’t think you see very often nowadays. Gambit is the best of the three, taking every cool idea that Martinez could think of, throwing them all at the wall, and then writing a book out of everything that stuck. There are zombies and aliens and the future and the past and space galleons and the French fighting the British and power armor and magic and alchemy and how the hell is this all in one book and oh there are jungles on Venus in one of the alternate realities because this series exists in two different parallel universes and Christ, how many times do I have to recommend this series before you read it?
7) The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi. My favorite thing about this book is that it’s a Paolo Bacigalupi book and I liked it. Bacigalupi is one of those authors who has gotten a lot of recognition and won a fair number of awards and whose work I haven’t previously been able to get into in a yeah, this is my fault, not his sort of way. The Water Knife was probably his last shot; if I didn’t like it I was just going to have to put him up on the shelf with Stanley Kubrick and stop worrying about it.
But! The Water Knife ends up being an excellent sci-fi thriller, taking what feels very much like a Clancy novel or some sort of crime book and tossing it into an American Southwest just far enough in the future that the states are starting to literally go to war over water. It’s kinda post-apocalyptic in the sense that a bunch of terrible shit has already happened and kinda pre-apocalyptic because it’s clear that climate change is going to make things a lot worse before they get better, but once you get past the book being set in the future there’s little that’s science fictiony about it. That’s not a complaint; “<other genre> book set in the future” is a perfectly cromulent way to write science fiction, and in fact I’d call it one of speculative fiction’s strengths, because I can recommend this to somebody who only reads, say, Clancy or Grisham and expect them to enjoy it. This is the only book on the list I think my Dad might like; you see what I’m saying?
6) Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray. I read almost all of the Star Wars books. Most of them, lately, have been bad. Some of them have been absolutely terrible. And I don’t read a lot of YA unless it’s so popular (say, Hunger Games or Harry Potter) that I can’t avoid it, or it’s written by an author I’m already familiar with. Claudia Gray writes for kids and adults, and her YA Star Wars book is good enough that I’m going to be looking for her work for grown-ups in the very near future. This is the best Star Wars book written in a long time, and if you liked Force Awakens or the original trilogy you really ought to check it out, as this book spans the events from A New Hope through to the Battle of Jakku which you see the aftermath of in the beginning of the new movie. Check out my review for more details, and note that of the three things I found clues to in the book, I was right about one, wrong about another, and as yet somewhat undetermined on the third. But definitely read the book.
5) The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. I have… six books by N.K. Jemisin? And they’re all wonderful, so you really ought to just start with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and by the time you get through to the last book in the Dreamblood duology the sequel to The Fifth Season will probably be out. The Fifth Season is the first book in her third series, called The Broken Earth, set in (again) a post-apocalyptic world, or maybe it’s more that the apocalypse is ongoing and repeating and they just sort of have, like, apocalypse eruptions every now and again in this world. It bounces around, Song of Ice and Fire-style, between a handful of main narrators, and all of them are compelling and interesting and there’s a big twist at the end that I totally did not see coming and was super awesome. Like I said, she’s great; read all of her books. All of them.
4) An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield. I didn’t actually read a lot of nonfiction this year, but you should look at the Honorable Mentions list at the bottom of this post to see three more nonfiction books that it hurt me to trim out of the final Top 10. This is the only nonfiction book that made the list, because there was no chance in Hell that a memoir by Chris Hadfield about his life and career as an astronaut was not going to be one of my favorite books of the year unless it turned out that Chris Hadfield couldn’t put two words together correctly to save his life.
As it turns out, Chris Hadfield can write, among his many, many other skills. You will note that the book credits no co-author. The guy’s literally one of the most interesting people on Earth and, as I said before, the book is a mix of a self-help/inspirational title, a memoir, and an instruction manual on how to be an astronaut. EVERYONE wants to be an astronaut. Go. Read.
3) The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson. This is the most recent read on the list– I just finished it a week or so ago– and I didn’t bother doing a full review of it because I knew it was going to be on this list soon anyway. Interestingly, Traitor and the next book on the list are almost the same book in a lot of ways: both take a character from a foreign culture and plunge them into court intrigue and a position of power and then shake things around and see what’s left standing. Also like the next book, this is a book that I enjoyed despite a couple of what are probably pretty major flaws. Chief among them, in this case, is that the culture that Baru Cormorant comes from is vastly more interesting than the one she ends up in– homosexuality is so normalized that most people have multiple parents, and Baru herself has two fathers and one mother, and one of the conflict points of the novel is that the culture that colonizes her home and eventually sweeps her off to her “merit-based” position as chief accountant (more interesting than it sounds, I promise) of a foreign land is not so big on The Gay.
It also has the laziest map I’ve ever seen in a fantasy book. Read it anyway; Baru is fascinating and the weight of the entire book rests on her shoulders; if she wasn’t as interesting as it is the book would have collapsed, but she’s great.
2) The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. Goblin Emperor is weird as hell; it’s my second-favorite book of the year, and it belongs here, but if you read my review you’d think I hated the thing. It’s much like The Force Awakens in that respect. I’ve already given you the broad outlines of the plot because they’re very similar to Baru Cormorant; the main difference between the two is that Cormorant is very low-fantasy and Goblin Emperor is very much Tolkien-esque high fantasy, with a glossary at the end and a bunch of words that you won’t be able to pronounce or spell and will probably have to look up a few times to remember what the hell they mean and goddammit I liked this book I just can’t talk about it without sounding like I didn’t. Go read it so you know what I’m talking about. I can’t wait for the sequel, and I’ll reread it before I read the sequel, too.
1) The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis, is the best book I read this year, and the gap between it and Goblin Emperor is pretty stark. It is set in an alternate-history twentieth century where the Dutch invented mechanical clockwork automatons called Clakkers sometime in the seventeenth or eighteenth century and then used them to take over the goddamn world. Clakkers are sentient but have no free will, and the main character of the book is a Clakker named Jax who manages to escape his geasa and I ain’t telling you a single other damn thing about it other than that you ought to go read the damn thing right now. The sequel just came out but my wife snatched it up before I could get to it; she told me last night that the bit that she just finished reading was the best action sequence she has ever seen in a book. Not for nothing, this is also the most beautifully-written book I read this year; I’m typically more of a story guy than a language guy, but it’s notable enough in this book that I need to mention it.
So, what’s your top 10?
HONORABLE MENTION, in NO PARTICULAR ORDER: Public Enemy: Inside the Terrordome, by Tim Grierson; Zer0es, by Chuck Wendig; The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu; Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates; Dr. Mutter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz; Abbadon’s Gate and Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey; Anathem, by Neal Stephenson; and The Unquiet Grave by Katherine Lampe.