The “Best Books of 2016”? Pul-eeze. Unless one has a universally agreed-upon metric that can be applied to every single book published in any given year, there can be no anointing “the best”. Most popular, sure. Best seller, most prestigious, highest lauded, yup. But “Best”? As if.
Ah, but “Favorite”! Anyone can share their favorite books of 2016. And because I enjoy sharing my love of books, I have come up with a list of my favorite books of 2016. Not necessarily the “best” books, but the ones that have made the deepest impression on me over this past year, and ones that I would love to highlight one more time before the year is over.
So here is my list of my Top Ten Favorite Books of 2016.
#10 – Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
A small book that resonates keenly. Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children takes in children who have crossed over into different worlds – down rabbit holes or through strange doorways – and then return, changed, unable to fit into the life they once knew. Nancy is the newest to arrive; she is lost, adrift. Even as she settles in with the other changeling children at the school, she cannot give up hope of finding the portal that leads back to where she feels she belongs. When tragedy strikes, she must learn to reach out to others to save herself and those she has come to think of as friends, while still realizing that it is that which makes her different that gives her strength.
#9 – Company Town by Madeline Ashby
I was surprised when I looked at all the books I was considering for my “favorites” list to see so many with atypical heroes, and Company Town is an exemplary example of this. Hwa is tough and she’s good at what she does (security detail), but she’s also damaged, physically and emotionally. This has made her a bit of a loner, a rebel, and her lack of bioengineered enhancements adds to her mystique (even though the reasons for it are less than glamorous). When Hwa is hired to protect the heir to a corporate dynasty, she must learn to fit in with a world far beyond her normal pay level. Yet surprisingly, she finds out that life is complicated no matter your status or station.
#8 – Admiral by Sean Danker
Admiral follows an unnamed central character who awakens out of stasis due to a malfunction (or possible sabotage) of his sleeper pod; he is the last of four slated for rendezvous with the Evagardian Empire’s newly launched flagship. According to the designation on his pod, he’s an Imperial Admiral, but not only is he too young for that rank, he’s also not in uniform and is unfamiliar with military protocol. To top it off, the ship is not an Evagardian transport ship but a Ganraen trade vessel . And it’s on emergency power. There is no sign of its crew, and no clue as to how it’s been compromised, or why. They don’t know where they are. They don’t know how they got there. They don’t know what they’re up against. And then things really get bad. A tense and surprisingly multilayered sci-fi thriller.
#7 – The Race by Nina Allen
The Race (originally published in 2014 but given a major reissue in 2016) is hard to describe, but wonderful to read. There are five sections to the book that appear to be linked – sometimes directly, sometimes tangentially – by the underground sport of smartdog racing, where genetically enhanced dogs, linked to their human “runners” by implants, race over a steeplechase-like track for fun and profit. Also central to the various plots – again, sometimes directly and sometimes tangentially – is the kidnapping of the young daughter of a violent smartdog owner. The question of how much of each story is real and how much is imagined is never really answered. And yet, each section is so compelling, that a final answer is not as much a driving force behind the narrative as it is a glimpse of something more. And in the end, it’s strangely, wonderfully satisfying.
#6 – Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Dark Matter is a near future thriller that not only has a killer premise (a budding scientific superstar opts for a “normal” life only to have his reality wrenched away by actions in other possible realities, with dire repercussions), but it poses intriguing questions such as, if you were able to do things differently in your past, would you? And, how far would you go to not only protect those you love, but to safeguard your own desired future? What if that meant denying that future to someone else? In this well conceived book, these questions are not so much a measure of ethics, they are a measure of humanity. Yet the story is so stunningly written that you don’t even realize just how far down the emotional rabbit hole you’ve been taken until it seems like there’s no way out.
#5 – Icon by Genevieve Valentine
Another thriller, this one is set in a future where politics and celebrity are literally one and the same. In this sequel to 2015’s Persona, we are reunited with Suyana Supaki, the Face (think Ambassador) of the United Amazonian Rainforest Coalition within the International Assembly. After winding her way through an assassination attempt, various conspiracies, manipulations, undercover activities and photo ops, she has emerged as a surprising power player in international politics, aided, in part, by her ongoing relationship with Ethan, the Face of the United States. Suyana’s all important approval ratings are skyrocketing, and everyone is taking notice. The problem is that the IA is determined to build a “research facility” in UARC territory, but a group of eco-terrorists (with whom Suyana is clandestinely involved) is convinced it is merely a front for corporate interests. The strain between the two groups is just the tip of the iceberg, and in order to keep the powers that be from cementing their iron clad sovereignty across the entire globe, Suyana’s going to have to act fast. And there’s a good chance that people are going to die.
#4 – Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey
It’s no secret that I think James S. A. Corey’s science fiction series “The Expanse” is the best science fiction series ever, and possibly the best literary series ever. Babylon’s Ashes, the sixth book in the nine book series, jumps right in during the aftermath of the Belter’s rebellious attacks against Earth, and while it’s good to see Holden and the rest of the Rocinante crew back together, the universe is full of angst and agony (as it should be given the actions of the previous book), with Naomi’s ex, Marco Inaros, making a truly frightening arch villain. Once again, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck come up with a simply superlative installment in the Expanse universe, that is eerily prescient to what is happening in our world today.
#3 – Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
By far, my favorite fantasy book of the year. Picking up where 2015’s Six of Crows left off, master thief Kaz Brekker and his crew of compatriot hoodlums are reeling from both accomplishing their goal and being blindsided by a fellow gang boss who also hails from the darkest, most debauchery-filled alleys of the city of Ketterdam. Now they must not only deal with the fallout of their plan being blown sideways, but also mete out a heavy handed reprisal in order to ensure their own survival in the dog-eat-dog world they live in. What makes this book so special is how author Leigh Bardugo is able to create characters that seem to be made of broad strokes until you realize just how deft of a touch she has, and how nuanced each one of her characters is – it’s so easy to become totally vested in this world and these people. A stunning work.
#2 – After Atlas by Emma Newman
And speaking of stunning works, Emma Newman’s future murder mystery After Atlas has stuck with me ever since reading it a few months ago. While the plot is compelling and the characters are intriguing, it is Ms. Newman’s envisioning of our future that is truly arresting. Governments are run by corporations, people enter into contracts (which can be bought and sold) that amount to indentured servitude, and technology is so ingrained – literally as well as figuratively – that surveillance and merchandizing and profiling are expected and accepted, and privilege includes strategic manipulation of that technology. While the plot and characters still take center stage in After Atlas, this backdrop makes the narrative feel chillingly plausible. A companion novel to an equally stunning 2015 work, Planetfall, this novel resonates with everything going on in the “real” world today, for better or, more appropriately, for worse. It makes life quite interesting.
#1 – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
You’ve heard the old saying “it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey”? That is so true of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. This book is about the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship, built to open up wormholes between distant planets. She’s a capable ship, but the crew would love to equip her for larger, more lucrative jobs; unfortunately, equipment like that is expensive. When the chance to take an edgy job arises, the crew decides to go for it despite the unknowns and unspoken dangers.
It’s that crew that makes this book so darned wonderful. Not all of them are human, and some of the non-humans are not even remotely humanoid. It is incredibly gratifying – and highly entertaining – to experience a story where distinctly non-human characters play a vital role in not only the workings of the ship, but in the dynamics of the crew. And it’s not just their appearances – it’s their customs and histories, their thought processes and tastes and reactions. The humans are no slouches, either! It’s a beautiful, eclectic mix of personalities, making the journey on the way to the job (and the stops along the way) a true pleasure to experience.
So there you have it! My favorite books of 2016. And just for good measure, because there still are plenty of books that I’d love to recommend, I’ve also included a baker’s dozen “honorable mentions” for good measure – and not all of them are science fiction or fantasy! Every one of them, though, are darned good reading:
Honorable Mentions: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal, The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes by Paul Cornell, The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham, Borderline by Mishell Baker, City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett, Arcadia by Iain Pears, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Morning Star by Pierce Brown, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, Thursday 1:17 pm by Michael Landweber, A Gathering of Shadows by V. E. Schwab
Happy New Year, everyone! And always, Happy Reading!
~ Sharon Browning