Other than robot unicorns, mugs of tea (Earl Grey, hot), and pictures of Tom Hiddleston, the sight most prevalent in our little rocket here at Tor.com are heaps and heaps of books! We get books any way we can here, and though we’re primarily a science fiction and fantasy website, we read across a myriad of genres.
Between our rereads and regular columns including Under the Radar, Fiction Affliction, Short Fiction Spotlight, Sleeps with Monsters, and Genre in the Mainstream, we’re reading books and reviewing books around the clock! So with 2014 coming to a close, we invited our regular contributors to choose their three favorite books from the last year, and we’re sharing their responses and recommendations below.
Please enjoy this eclectic overview of some of our favorite books from 2013, and be sure to let us know about your own favorites in the comments!
In a great year for SF/F, three books stood out for me as truly exceptional.
Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a joyous, optimistic space opera. It is progressive but not worthy and filled with warm and endearing characters. Although it isn’t shy about tackling Big Questions, Planet is a heart-warming debut novel that will restore your faith in science fiction (specifically) and humanity (in general).
Rebecca Levene’s Smiler’s Fair is Diana Wynne Jones by way of Bret Easton Ellis. It is a truly epic fantasy, with fallen gods and monsters and lost kings galore—and, best of all, genuinely surprising. Smiler’s Fair has flawed and complex protagonists, but never loses its moral compass. The first of what is easily the most innovative and enjoyable epic fantasy series since The First Law. (Read Niall Alexander’s review of Smiler’s Fair here on Tor.com)
Deji Olukoton’s Nigerians in Space is a true cross-over: combining elements of noir, political thriller, science fiction and deeply poignant literary drama. Nigerians is more about SF than SF itself: it is a novel about the importance of dreams and adventure, and, in every literal and figurative way, reaching for the stars. A powerful debut, infused with a deeply poetic writing style.
What makes me especially happy? With two debuts and the start of a 4 book series, it isn’t just that 2014 was terrific, but that the future is bright as well.
There have been some brilliant books in my life in 2014. Hard to choose just a few but hey, maybe it’s not. Lauren Beukes’s genre-straddling urban thriller Broken Monsters (Tor.com review here) was a great read and a definite sign of a writer who is a force to be reckoned with. Another such writer is Nnedi Okorafor, whose alien invasion story Lagoon (review here) I really enjoyed. Lagoon is set in Lagos and written with just so much great joy and aplomb.
My big discovery for 2014 (what took me so long?!) and current writer-crush though, is Megan Abbott, whose latest novel The Fever blew me away with its taut prose and deep understanding of fear, love, loathing and small town teenage girls who seem to be suffering from a mysterious violent illness. It’s going to stay with me for a long, long time and I couldn’t recommend it enough.
Another story that has left scars is one by fellow Pakistani writer, Usman Malik. “The Vaporisation Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family,” published in the anthology Qualia Nous is a devastating story of love in the time of drones, in the mountains of Pakistan. The true horror remains for those who survive the attacks and must then survive the repercussions.
There’s a problem with selecting a shortlist of my favourite (and obviously the best) novels of the year: I can’t ever narrow it down to fewer than five. How do I choose between Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, between Elizabeth Bear’s Steles of the Sky and Max Gladstone’s Full Fathom Five? They’re all very different books, doing very different things, but they are all powerfully written and affect me deeply. And how do I leave out Heather Rose Jones’ Daughter of Mystery, which immediately joined the ranks of novels I could reliably turn to for comfort reading? How do I leave out Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls At The Kingfisher Club?
But if I had to choose the two novels of the year 2014 that I’d fight hardest to keep…
Those two are The Goblin Emperor (review here) and Ancillary Sword (review here). I’ll fight you for them. They’re books that make feel as though I’ve come home. I have no better way to express it without writing thousands of words. They welcome me back, again and again. They lift me up.
This is absurdly easy: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett, and The Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb. But, I’m not going to talk about any of those three because I’m sure others will. Instead I’m going to talk about Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, Academic Exercises by KJ Parker, and The Three by Sarah Lotz. All three of which are incredible examples of their form.
Memory of Water is a wonderful young adult novel that captures both the helplessness and hopefulness of youth, juxtaposed with the harsh realities of an all too plausible future. In a quirk, Itäranta wrote the same novel independently in Finnish and English rather than translating it.
Academic Exercises collects all of KJ Parker’s short fiction to date, although it’s not very short as far as short fiction goes as KJ Parker writes exclusively novelettes and novellas. We all know Parker is an absolute maestro of fantasy and every single story in the collection will knock your socks off. But, in particular, I must highlight The Sun and I and Let Maps to Others, both which are available on Subterranean Press’ website.
The final book I want to highlight is The Three by Sarah Lotz, a South African horror writer. It’s a supernatural thriller about four simultaneous plane crashes and the three children who miraculously survive them. It’s an incredible feat of literary construction alongside absolutely gut-punch themes of exploitation and abandonment. It’s horrifying without ever being gruesome.
Read those three books and feel really good about your reading choices in 2014.
Yes Please, by Amy Poehler. It may not seem like Poehler is all that science fiction-y, but I beg to differ. Reading her book reminds me that before she was the beatified Leslie Knope, I first liked Amy Poehler in the weird dystopian sketch troupe, Upright Citizen’s Brigade. Yes Please is a wonderful example of a comedy memoir: light, charming & smart, with a good mix of humorous essay and biography.
My personal roleplaying campaign uses a heavily modified version of the World of Darkness rules, so Demon: the Descent, the newest offering in the WoD, was the exciting RPG book this year. It took a touchy and clichéd subject—demons—and cut through the tropes to offer up something like David Lynch directing H.R. Giger’s The Prisoner. Big ideas, weird ideas, brave ideas.
Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg is my number three pick. Ortberg writes in the tradition of Kate Beaton or the Gilmore Girls; her jokes are deep and knowledgeable, and they don’t leave you space to catch your breath. The one on Descartes still makes me laugh just to think of it; I’d tell you why but it’s never funny to try to explain a joke.
Rob H. Bedford
As I consider the books I read in 2014, there were quite a few standouts, so as always, narrowing it down to three is a challenge. That said, I’ll begin with Alpha and Omega, the final volume of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s wonderful dark fantasy/horror comic series Locke & Key. I read the series as it was initially being published in single issues, took a break then reread the early issues and the whole series as part of the Locke & Key Reread here at Tor.com. It isn’t always the case that storytellers can promise something in the early stages of a story and not only deliver on that promise, but surpass those promises. Hill and Rodriguez, for me, far surpassed my expectations. With Locke & Key complete, Hill and Rodriguez have finished taking readers on a journey over five years in the travelling. It had highs and lows and the evolution of the core characters of the story, leading up to this supremely rewarding final volume.
Determining the next two books for this top three is virtually impossible for me because the two books alternate for this spot in my head. The first of these two is Fool’s Assassin (SFF World review), Robin Hobb’s return to her most beloved character FitzChivalry Farseer. Any author making such a return after a long absence can be a risky proposition for reader and writer, but for me it proved to be an enchanting story that completely absorbed me. It was akin to chatting with a friend I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed over the years. (Read Justin Landon’s review here on Tor.com)
The other book is City of Stairs (SFF World review), which marks three years in a row for Robert Jackson Bennett to appear on my best of the year list. Set in the imagined city of Bulikov, the novel is the first Bennett has penned which does not take place in a version of our world (although the parallels and echoes are there), but rather a fully realized secondary world. Few writers’ have been able to make me think deeply about their work while also entertaining me as has Bennett. I loved the world-building in this novel and the characters, especially Shara and Sigurd. City of Stairs was an immensely enjoyable and powerful novel that will stay with me for a very long while.
2014 has been a banner year for British science fiction, beginning with The Echo by James Smythe—an immensely upsetting sequel that doubled down on the awesome promise of its unsettling predecessor—continuing courtesy Claire North’s fantastic Life After Life-alike, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August—a very different sort of novel than The Echo, yes, yet no less memorable—and concluding, because we’re already running out of room, by way of The Bone Clocks: the closest thing the man who came up with Cloud Atlas has written to a proper genre novel over the course of his career.
The books I’ve spoken of so far are examples of British science fiction at its best and brightest, and they each have my highest recommendation, but if I were to expand my horizons a bit—why thank you, I shall!—I dare say Annihilation would take the cake, or indeed, the whole of the Southern Reach series by Jeff VanderMeer. These were the weirdest books of the year, and the most wonderful; certainly the smartest, and maybe the most deserving of all the aforementioned superlatives. I don’t expect to forget Area X. Not this year, not next. Not ever, I expect.
Creating a Best Of list is always ridiculously difficult. I just want to fill it with dozens and dozens of favorites, old and new. But, out of everything I’ve covered for Tor.com, the two titles I’ve enjoyed the most were Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke Allen, The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher, and The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman.
Lumberjanes is totes awesome, obvs. They could release an issue every day and it still wouldn’t nearly be enough Lumberjanes. And The Burning Dark was good old-fashioned spooky fun. Think of it like a haunted house horror movie but set in the furthest reaches of space. How can you not enjoy that? As for The Magician’s Land, three years is a long time to wait for resolution, but hell if it wasn’t worth every second. It crushed me, broke my heart, and gave me hope, and by the last page I felt like Quentin wasn’t the only one who finally grew up.
I spent most of the year reading and rereading older books (and consequently have reviewed a lot less here than usual) but of the new books I read, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor was by far my favorite: a wonderful, endlessly entertaining court intrigue about a young half-goblin who somehow finds himself inheriting the throne to the empire and all the headaches that come with it. Watching everyone mistake his inexperience for lack of intelligence makes for one of the best reading experiences of 2014. All I really want to add to Liz Bourke’s great review: The Goblin Emperor gave me the same happy, fuzzy, wonder-filled sense of comfort I got when I first started reading fantasy, all those years ago. I was sad when it was over.
On the exact opposite of the scale in almost every sense except quality: Adam-Troy Castro’s collection Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories, which contains eight dark pieces of short fiction that are as disturbing as they are excellent. This book didn’t get nearly the amount of attention it deserved. If you missed it, here’s my Tor.com review and a link to the story “Our Human,” originally published on this site.
Not so much genre as genre-adjacent, Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is the best novel-length fairy-tale retelling I’ve read. Setting “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” in a brilliantly rendered jazz-era New York, the book is a love letter to dance, fine clothing, and women taking care of themselves and each other. While Jo, the eldest sister, is the main focus, Valentine succeeds in writing twelve distinct, fully-formed, wonderful characters who evoke facets of the world they move through without ever being reduced to ciphers. If you’ve ever gritted your teeth through The Great Gatsby and thought the beautiful prose a poor trade for its shabby treatment of women, I recommend The Girls at the Kingfisher Club as a sharp, effective antidote. I reviewed it more fully here.
Heap House by Edward Carey took me completely by surprise—I hadn’t heard of the book or the author before being assigned it for review. It’s magnificent—ambitious, sure-footed, doing things with voice and setting and concept that absolutely thrilled me. Heap House imagines a world in which the relationship between people and things is symbiotic, dangerous, and symptomatic of deep-rooted social ills. A desperately clever exploration of class and an indictment of late capitalist modernity, I can’t recommend this book enough.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll is utterly terrifying and almost incapacitatingly beautiful. A collection of dark fairy stories in graphic form, the art and words form a kind of indissociable landscape of story, pulling your gaze through vivid colours and twisting snatches of song on a sugar-spun meat-hook. Containing some of the pieces she offered up online for free (including the incredible “His Face All Red”), Through the Woods is a shiver-inducing compendium of the strange, threatening, dangerous things that come from—or venture through—the woods.
I’m constantly complaining about science fiction books that are overlooked by the science fiction community, and this one I’ll do so with any even bigger sigh than when I was upset Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story wasn’t even considered for a Hugo. In The Word Exchange, Alena Gradeon took what Shteyngart was doing in his 2010 novel, and instead of making a satire about our gadget-obsessed age, she wrote a full-blown science fiction epidemic. When a new sort of e-reader is introduced onto the market and people start jacking it into their heads, an aphasic “word flu” sweeps the globe. It’s a haunting, exciting, thoroughly researched novel that approaches levels of hard SF. I think this was not only one of the best books of 2014, but one of most thoughtful works of science fiction of the current decade. A must read for lovers of books, words, and the future.
After the dark tones of The Magician King, Lev Grossman was poised to give us the Return of the Jedi of his trilogy, complete with cuddly feelings at the end. And he nailed it. And not only because The Magician’s Land is uplifting, but because it manages levels of excitement and dynamic storytelling previously unexplored in his novels. With more character POVs than either of the previous installments, The Magician’s Land made me long for more novels about these people, specifically Janet, who sat out most of the action in the last book. (Her ice axes in this book were soooo cool!) But, in the end, I can’t say I feel let down to be leaving Fillory behind. Grossman wrapped up this journey with bravado and class. It’s hard to know if this is the best book of the three, but it’s certainly the one I want to read over and over again.
Paul Park is the only writer I know who has actually blended real memoir with science fiction to create a novel that is truly unique. If Jeff VanderMeer is blowing your mind with genre-bending, check out All Those Vanished Engines, and you’ll pass out from realizing how much smarter it is than you.