I do this at the end of every year: the top 10 new books I read during that calendar year for the first time, where “new” means “new to me.” That said, this list has turned out to be pretty heavy on 2016 releases for some reason; the oldest book on here is from 1989 and the second-oldest from 2005. The order other than the top three or so doesn’t matter all that much, and had I written this on another day it might be a bit different; anything mentioned on here is gonna be a hell of a read. I read 103 books this year, and it might be 104 depending on my free time today, so there’s a fair amount of competition.
Read all that? Okay, here we go:
10) THE FAMILY PLOT, by Cherie Priest. I once got into a (civil) conversation on Twitter with a noted female horror writer about how there didn’t seem to be very many female horror writers. By the end of the conversation I was convinced that the largest part of the problem was a weird definition of “horror writer” that I had in my head, one that only had room for Stephen King (notably, a dude) and no one else. Well, fully a third of this year’s entries are horror novels by women writers, and we’ll kick it off with Cherie Priest’s The Family Plot. This is that most simple of all horror stories: a haunted house. It is not, I will admit, the most original thing you will ever read, although the hook of the house’s victims being pickers hired to tear the place apart to resell its guts at a profit is a nice touch. But this book creeped me the hell out, and I stayed up much later than I ought to have two or three nights in a row in order to finish it. It’s a nice stylistic change for Priest, too, who is turning out to be an impressively versatile author; I’d not have been able to guess she wrote this had I not seen her name on the cover.
9) DEAD SOULS: A NOVEL, by J. Lincoln Fenn. Fenn is a new author for me this year, and I think I encountered this book through John Scalzi’s Big Idea series. I have a second book of Fenn’s waiting on the shelf for me to get to it already. In many ways I could write the same exact paragraph for this book that I just wrote above for The Family Plot, except that instead of a haunted house this book is about a deal with the devil, and with the added detail that this book has easily the creepiest ending to anything I’ve read in years. I probably should have seen it coming, at least in part, but the ending catapulted the book from something I was really enjoying reading to holy shit find more books by this person and tell everyone they should read this one. Very nicely done, and I look forward to reading more of Fenn’s books.
8) ALEXANDER HAMILTON, by Ron Chernow. I didn’t read a ton of nonfiction this year, and I went back and forth on whether I should rank this book or the next one on the list higher and eventually decided I didn’t care– but Chernow’s bio of Hamilton is a masterwork, and if you’re even vaguely interested in American history you should definitely make time for it. Make a lot of time, actually, as the book’s big enough to kill small animals with. For added fun, do what I did and memorize the soundtrack to the Hamilton musical before reading the book, as it will provide a nice accompaniment to the book in your head and will also shed some interesting light on some of the side details that Miranda included in his musical. Most disappointing: that Alexander Hamilton did not actually punch a bursar while attempting to be enrolled at Princeton.
7) AND THE WALLS CAME TUMBLING DOWN, by Ralph David Abernathy. From biography to autobiography; I actually reviewed this after I read it, so feel free to click over to that for a more detailed look at the book, but the gist of it is this: Abernathy is doing several things here, writing his own autobiography, a history of the Civil Rights movement, and a biography of Martin Luther King, all at the same time and in the same book. Also true about Ralph David Abernathy: he’s a bit of a dick, and uses the book for some score-settling from time to time, including with King himself, who Abernathy knew better than anyone. It’s a reminder throughout that some of America’s greatest heroes– and Abernathy should be rightfully counted among that group, even though he’s less well-known than many of the people he discusses– were people, and not the bloodless icons that they’ve been turned into over the decades. Very much worth reading.
6) BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor. One of the very, very few positive things about 2016 was the reemergence of the novella as a Thing that is Available to Read. There are three novellas on this list, and a fourth that really probably ought to be. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti was the first I read of the bunch, and it’s a doozy: a sci-fi tale of a woman leaving her home and her culture behind to study at a prestigious university on another planet. One problem: it’s in the midst of a war zone. Okorafor can be a bit hit or miss for me; I also read Akata Witch and Lagoon by her this year, and I loved Akata but wasn’t too enthralled by Lagoon. This one’s outstanding, though. And that cover. Damn.
5) GOD’S WAR and INFIDEL, by Kameron Hurley. This is book one and two of a series, and book three is on the shelf waiting for me to get to it. I went back and forth a bit trying to decide if I was going to include one or both and whether I liked one more than the other and my answer ended up being “Screw it, my list, my rules.”
This series is some of the most original sci-fi I’ve ever read, a story of an assassin living on a planet-wide war zone where all of the men are off fighting in a holy war, the wider culture is loosely based on Islam, and advanced technology and magic are both based on bugs. Yes, bugs. There’s gene piracy and organ selling and I think the main character has died three times in the space of the two books already and it’s all fucking brilliant and you should read it immediately.
4) THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM, by Victor LaValle. I said already that this was the Year of the Novella, and this and the next book are both products of Tor’s new novella line– a line I have (I think) bought every single release from and which have all been uniformly excellent. Kij Johnson’s The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe really ought to be in the top 10 as well, but three Lovecraft-inflected novellas on the same list seemed a bit much. Black Tom is Tommy Tester, a hustler in 1920s New York, a guy who does what he can to get by, which includes dabbling in moving the occasional magical artifact. If that setting’s not enough for you to want to pick up this book all by itself, I don’t want to be friends with you. If you haven’t read Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, you might want to do that before reading. Or not, I suppose it’s up to you, and it’s not one of his better stories.
3) HAMMERS ON BONE, by Cassandra Khaw. This book features my favorite writing of any of the books on this list, writing that makes me want to absorb Cassandra Khaw’s powers so that I can write as well as she does. It’s another Lovecraft-flavored novella, about a private detective who is hired by a ten-year-old to kill his stepfather. The stepfather is not what he seems. Neither, as it turns out, is the detective. But to hell with the plot, as I said, the writing is the star here, a bizarre Mickey Spillane/ Lovecraft/ James Ellroy-esque pastiche that stays with you for days afterwards. I would love to be able to write a book like this. I want to be able to write a book like this. Cass Khaw already did, and she is awesome. She’s also got a full-length novel coming soon and a sequel to Bone; I can’t goddamn wait.
2) THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, by Mike Carey. I know Mike Carey primarily from his comics work, and wasn’t aware that he wrote prose books as well. I only found out about The Girl with All the Gifts from the trailer for the movie adaptation, which still isn’t available Stateside anywhere I can see it, which makes me very upset.
Mike Carey should write more books. The Girl with All the Gifts starts off feeling a bit run-of-the-mill; my wife is reading it right now after being harassed about it for most of the year and just asked me today if the book was basically a novelization of The Last of Us. But the farther in you get the more enthralling the book becomes, and by the end it’s its own thing and while, yes, it’s still a zombie story, it’s a bloody goddamned great zombie story, one that despite having a damn movie made out of it still hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I picked this up, guys. It’s phenomenal.
1) THE WALL OF STORMS, by Ken Liu. This is the rarest of things, folks: a second installment in a planned long-run megaseries that is better in every way than the first book. I liked The Grace of Kings quite a lot when I first read it, but by the end of the year the shine had worn off a bit and it only ended up (“only,” he says) in the Honorable Mention section of that year’s list. The Wall of Storms fixes every single thing that is wrong with the first book and improves on the large quantity of stuff that was amazing. Liu calls his China-flavored fantasy fiction “silkpunk,” and the discovery of electricity plays a big role in this novel. So do dragons. Sort of. The title of the series, The Dandelion Dynasty, should also be taken seriously. Note that last word. It’s kind of important. Storms doesn’t quite have the poetry of language that Hammers on Bone does, and isn’t quite as pulse-poundingly exciting as The Girl with All the Gifts, but that doesn’t keep it from being a tremendously inventive and rewarding piece of fiction from an author who keeps getting better. It’s the best book I read this year. You should read it. Now.
Honorable Mention, in no particular order: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson, Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith, Invasive and The Hellsblood Bride by Chuck Wendig, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West, The Rising by Ian Tregillis, The Secret Place by Tana French, Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine, My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due, Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, and Bloodline by Claudia Gray.