Other than robot unicorns, mugs of space coffee, and pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch, the sight most prevalent in our little rocket here at Tor.com are heaps of 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 reviews, rereads, and regular columns such as Something Else Like..., Fiction Affliction, and Genre in the Mainstream, we’re talking about books, reading books and reviewing books around the clock! So with 2012 coming to a close, we invited our regular contributors to choose their three favorite books out of everything they’ve read in the last year, and we’re sharing their responses and recommendations below.
Please enjoy this eclectic overview of some of our favorite books, and be sure to let us know about your own favorites in the comments!
It’s so difficult to limit myself to three! OK then. Let’s start with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, the newest Vorkosigan universe novel, which is science fiction, space opera, and romance. Then a really different kind of book—Yves Meynard’s Chrysanthe, a high fantasy reminiscent of Zelazny’s Amber. My third has to be Nina Kirikki Hoffman’s collection Permeable Borders—a collection of wonderful rooted fantasy stories without a single dud in it. And I have to mention Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, which isn’t SF and is barely even fiction—but still one of the most fascinating and thought provoking books I read this year. I also thoroughly enjoyed but didn’t review a pile of sequels about which I could only have said here’s some more—notably Cherryh’s Intruder, Abraham’s The King’s Blood and Corey’s Caliban’s War.
Caitlin Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl: A Memoir is by leaps and bounds the best book I read in 2012. Stunning in its complexity, implications, and beauty, this novel represents the current height of Kiernan’s work as a writer—and it’ll haunt you, as thoroughly as the book itself is haunted. Like I said in my initial review, “here there be layers—layers upon layers, of fiction and fact, of fact and truth, of story and memoir, of tense and pronoun and audience, of real and unreal. The Drowning Girl: A Memoir is not an easy novel, but it rewards tenfold the effort and engagement of the reader who is willing to put in the work.”
The Annotated Sandman: Volume 1 by Leslie S. Klinger and Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, appealed deeply to my inner book-nerd. Though it’s hardly a new story, this version of Sandman is a delight for fans and critics. The annotations are thorough, often playful, and full of personal details about the writing and publication of the series. The notes from Gaiman’s scripts are perhaps the most fascinating offering of the lot, but the annotations on mythology, language, and art are pretty great, too. This is Sandman like you’ve never read it before.
And last but not least, a book that is doing speculation though it isn’t fiction: S. Bear Bergman and Kate Bornstein’s anthology, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation. For those who identify as trans*, genderqueer, or otherwise as a “gender outlaw” of some kind—or for those who are interested in understanding and exploring these subjectivities—this anthology of essays is both uplifting and deeply impressive. Often personal, provocative, and emotional, the pieces collected here are intersectional and interstitial: there are comics, there are prose narratives, there are poems; there are essays on race, class, and sexuality with relation to gender, too. It’s not just a good book—it’s an important book.
I began reviewing science fiction and SF-related books for the Dallas Morning News earlier this year, starting with David F. Dufty’s How to Build an Android (Henry Holt). It’s the story of “Phil,” a life-size animatronic replica of Philip K. Dick created by researchers at the University of Memphis. Dufty lays out the scientific questions, including the ramifications for artificial intelligence, with a conversational clarity—it’s too bad the project was interrupted when Phil’s head, which held all the android’s processing power, got lost when one of the researchers scrambled off a plane and left it in the overhead bin!
Next, I read Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, a post-apocalyptic tale with a 19th-century American frontier vibe (it is, after all, set in the Colorado wilderness). Much of the U.S. population’s been killed off by various “superbugs,” and Heller’s narrator, Hig, shares living space in an abandoned airport with a survivalist who ruthlessly guards their perimeter. Sometimes, though, Hig just needs to get away, and Heller describes the world he encounters with a near-poetic sensitivity (although the violent scenes do get intense).
Then there was Iain M. Bank’s new Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, and I know it’s a cliché to describe a space opera as being “of epic proportions,” but the label totally fits in this case. As an entire alien race prepares to upload itself onto a higher plane of existence, one woman teams up with an intelligent starship to find a 10,000-year-old man who might know the truth about that civilization’s ancient history. The thing is, Banks isn’t just a master at the grand, sweeping narrative, he can also be brilliantly funny—imagine the sensibility of Douglas Adams, with a hint less absurdity in the actual worldbuilding. This just might be my favorite SF novel of 2012. (In the same review, I also recommended the new mainstream Iain Banks novel, Stonemouth.)
The Warlock’s Curse, by M.K. Hobson: I have been waiting for the latest Veneficas Americana novel ever since the last one came out, and Hobson’s latest, third in the series begun by her Nebula-nominated The Native Star, doesn’t disappoint. She gives us two adorable young kids on the verge of love and puts them through a magical steampunk wood-chipper of an adventure. You will laugh, you will cry, you will be horrified . . . and when you hit the ending and realize there’s another whole book’s worth of story still to come, you may well cry again.
Between Two Fires, By Christopher Buehlman: Buehlman makes me so happy. His brand of historical horror is hair-raising and thoroughly interesting. It’s not dark paranormal romance, it’s not gore for the sake of gore. No, it’s story: dark, painful, and filled with people trying to make tough choices in—in the case of Between Two Fires—a Europe driven to the edge by the Black Death and the demons who unleashed it.
Broken Harbour, by Tana French: The fact that a Tana French novel came out this year and it’s third on my list tells you a lot about how amazing the two books occupying the #1 and #2 spots are. But French’s crystalline prose and ability to sink a knife deep into your heart before twisting are still the one-two punch every literary mystery fan craves. Just look at this line: And the sea, high today, raising itself up at me green and muscled. The weight of what was in the kitchen with us tilted the world, sent the water rocking upwards like it was going to come crashing through all that bright glass.
The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis
Can I pre-emptively make his as-yet-unpublished Clakkers Trilogy my favorite? No? Well, I guess The Coldest War will have to do. I’ve read it (and the first novel Bitter Seeds) several times since it was released in July, and it gets better each time. The Milkweed Triptych is and forever will be my go-to SFF recommendation.
Wide Open by Deborah Coates
I fell deeply in love with this book, Coates, and the fantastical world she crafted. Her style is haunting, harrowing, and bitter, but also brilliant and beautiful. I’ve never been to South Dakota, but I felt like I was walking alongside Hallie and Boyd as they battled magical murders and power-mad gods.
I highly recommend reading 11 and 12 back to back. It’s a great way to completely ruin your day with sadness. Hellboy contains everything I love about comics, and the art is always fantastic, but if the final pages don’t leave you sobbing uncontrollably in a corner, I don’t think we can be friends.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
Amazingly, my three favorites weren’t steampunk.
1) Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
Okay, if Hermione Granger graduated from Hogwarts and then went to Harvard Law, maybe she’d be as cool as Tara Abernathy is in Three Parts Dead. Maybe. This book is undeniably smart in its world-building that takes a basic premise about gods, demons and contracts and sharpens it into a sleek tale about litigation without making it dry. I love all the characters here, especially because I’ve known a few lawyers in my time, and Tara and Elayne capture that borderline coldly competitive/morally passionate attitude so perfectly.
2) Beyond Binary by Brit Mandelo
Quite a few short story collections land on my To Read pile, and it was a close one between this and Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution. Beyond Binary only edged out because even six months after reading this anthology, I’m still thinking about the various stories I’ve read in this book, especially Keyan Bowes’s “Spoiling Veena” and “Prosperine When it Sizzles” (and Istill want Tansy Rayner Roberts to wring a novel or two out of that story!)
3) Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik
I’ve been a long-time fan of Naomi Novik’s history-plus-dragons fantasy romp around the world. Compared with the slow rambling that was Tongues of Serpents, I enjoyed Crucible of Gold a lot more, and highly enjoyed Novik upping the ante with this book. That and yes, Temaraire and Iskierka are now canon—I admit it, I ship them.
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door by Etgar Keret
Possibly my favorite living short story writer, Etgar Keret continues to dabble in the fantastic in ways more original and jaunting than most of his peers. In “Lie Land” people visit a dimension where their lies are languishing. “September All Year Long” has an almost Vonnegut/Philip K. Dick mash-up with an environment alerting device gone horribly wrong. The audio book is also off-the-chain and talent-chocked, featuring readings of Keret’s stories from Aimee Bender, Neal Stephenson, Willem Dafoe, Miranda July and so many more. But reading the book the regular way is great, too!
Shadow Show: All New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle with stories by Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Audery Niffenegger and more!
Though accidentally timely because of Bradbury’s death, this anthology couldn’t be more touching and original. The Kelly Link story “Two Houses” featuring a ghost spaceship might be my favorite from her ever, while Alice Hoffman’s Dandelion Wine tribute “Conjure” is still haunting me! From Margaret Atwood, to Harlan Ellison, to a sweet intro from Ray himself, the magic just keeps coming.
Who Could that Be at This Hour? (All the Wrong Questions #1) by Lemony Snicket w/illustrations by Seth
I was suspicious of a prequel to A Series of Unfortunate Events; that highly literary and totally underrated series from the fiction author Lemony Snicket. But real-life author Daniel Handler has truly done it again, and possibly better than ever. You don’t need to know about Count Olaf and the Baudelaire orphans to get into this one. Why are people frightening those poor octopi? Should those young boys really be driving a taxi cab? And WHO is Hangfire? These are all the wrong questions! A correct one is: why aren’t you reading this right now? Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler is quietly profound, and more creative on the sentence level than most (good!) writers I read all year.
For me, 2012 has been such a bumper year for excellent books that it’s the next best thing to impossible to narrow the field to only three favourites. But Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear, has to come top of the list: an expansive and gloriously inventive fantasy epic in a setting that draws its inspiration from Central Asia. Its main female character, the wizard Samarkar, heads the list of my favourite characters of all time.
That leaves me needing to pick out two more titles from the long list of honourable contenders. I’m torn between Amanda Downum’s Kingdoms of Dust and Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead for second place, but in the end the laurels have to go to Three Parts Dead (with its very spiffy cover) for mixing madcap innovation and the bones of a legal thriller into the most enjoyable fantasy debut I’ve read in years.
And for my third choice, I want to pry up the lid covering a tiny sub-genre, and draw your attention to The Pyramid Waltz, a promising if imperfect debut from Barbara Ann Wright. Lesbian romance in SFF is usually terrible (frequently even more so than its heterosexual compatriots): finding a decent queer fantasy love story with a happy ending was a pleasantly unexpected surprise.
1. Sharps by K. J. Parker. This is one of those novels that’ll draw you in with its breezy, light tone and sparkling dialogue, making it impossible to put down—until you suddenly realize that the stakes are much higher than initially expected, because much of the action takes place off-screen and most of the characters don’t fully realize what’s really going on. Sharps is a flawless piece of storytelling.
2. The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin. These two connected novels blew me away with their complex, morally ambiguous characters, their truly unique world-building and (for want of a better word) magic system, and their complex, sweeping plots. This is some of the deepest, most innovative fantasy I’ve read in years.
3. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson returns to large-scale SF with 2312, an ambitious and challenging novel that combines the story of a relationship between two unlikely friends with a Solar System-spanning future history of mankind. Meticulously constructed and gorgeously written, this was easily the best SF novel of the year for me.
Honorable mentions: this list almost consisted entirely of short story collections. I ended up going with the novels, mainly because I couldn’t pick which collection to put on the podium, but if short stories are your thing, make sure to check out one or all of these stunning new collections: Cat Rambo’s Near + Far, Elizabeth Hand’s Errantry: Strange Stories, Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees, and Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath.
Karin L. Kross
Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
I know; it’s probably not all that imaginative to say that the book that won Mantel her second Man Booker prize is one of my favorite books of 2012. But I can’t get enough of her Thomas Cromwell and her rich imagining of Henry VIII’s court, and Bring Up the Bodies was an intense, moving nightmare of a novel. The terrible scene of Anne Boleyn’s execution has haunted me to this day, and Cromwell remains one of the great fictional re-creations of recent years. Mantel was recently interviewed on Fresh Air, and though it’s occasionally frustrating (Terry Gross’s fixation on executions and her perpetuation of misconceptions about Henry VIII and his wives are disappointing), it’s worth a listen.
Get Jiro!, Anthony Bourdain, Langdon Foss, Jose Villarubia
When Bourdain gave a talk in Austin about two or so years ago, he mentioned that he was working on a comic book project; knowing from the Cleveland episode of No Reservations that he was a comics fan, I thought, well, this should be good. Get Jiro! did not disappoint. It’s a pulpy, violent, hilarious love letter to good food and the people who make it, and the art by Foss and Villarubia is some of the most stunning comic art I saw this year.
London Peculiar, Michael Moorcock
For the longtime fan, this collection of Moorcock’s essays and reviews adds greater depth to the reader’s understanding of his work, and for a newcomer, it offers helpful context and some masterly critical writing on a vast range of subject matter. I especially enjoyed his dispatches from central Texas—his perspective on the area where I’ve lived for fourteen years now is unique. And this collection would be invaluable for “A Child’s Christmas In the Blitz” alone, a memoir of Christmas 1944 that’s as great as any narrative of Britain in World War II.
I haven’t exactly run the numbers, but between my own site, The Speculative Scotsman, the occasional contribution to Strange Horizons, and all the reviews I wrote for Tor.com in 2012, I must’ve finished more fiction this year than I ever have in the past. So the thought of selecting just three great reads from the many and various contenders terrified me...at least until I decided to cheat!
Only a little bit, admittedly. I reviewed The Kings of Morning by Paul Kearney right here in late February, but I actually read all three volumes of The Macht Saga back to back—there are reviews of the other two books on the blog—and I’d recommend them all equally to fantasy fans, especially Steven Erikson’s. It’s simply criminal that Kearney doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves when his every effort is as effective as his contemporaries’ very best.
Meanwhile, I was moved—near to tears, even—by G. Willow Wilson’s heartfelt first novel. As I asserted in early August, “Love is at the heart of Alif the Unseen. Love is what makes it so very special,” and I look back on this book with exactly that in my heart. Alif the Unseen is a truly beautiful postmodern romance, and I can hardly express how excited I am to feel whatever Wilson wills into existence next.
And finally, from the postmodern to the metatextual, courtesy dark fantasy’s finest, Caitlin R. Kiernan, whose latest—and greatest—made my May. If I can crib a little from the review I wrote at the time, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir is “a book of lies, yet there is truth to it, too.” Such truth that it sparkles, even amongst this novel’s deepest darkness. If indeed it marks the end of an era, as its author has sadly suggested, then at the very least The Drowning Girl: A Memoir stands as a remarkable finale.
What a terrific year it’s been!
Three best books of 2012, that’s a tough one. I suppose it would be easiest to start with the novel that was the greatest standout for me in 2012, Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe, which is his third novel. On every level, this novel blew me away. Vaudeville, traveling artists, hints of Paradise Lost; this one had it all. Elements of the novel reminded me of the film Gangs of New York while other elements reminded me of King’s Dark Tower saga with other resonances to Neil Gaiman’s fiction.
The debut that blew me away was Myke Cole’s Shadow OPS: Control Point. A brisk read, that very plausibly posits how the military would handle Dungeons and Dragons type magic if it was real. It would, of course, be weaponized. Cole managed to tell a gripping, thought-provoking story while also building an extremely solid foundation for future novels and stories with this world
The tough part is slotting book three since the previous two stand out for different reasons but I think I’m going to go with Existence by David Brin, since it was the best Science Fiction novel I read in 2012. The book is massive, filled to the brim with great ideas and for the most part, Brin manages to bring much of it together in impressive, cohesive fashion.
(I could have easily chosen The King’s Blood by Daniel Abraham, or Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear or Tad Williams’s Dirty Streets of Heaven or Matthew Stover’s Caine’s Law as one of these three books.)
Oh, Among Others. You hardly need me to tell you to read this; everyone else has already done so enough, huh? Nabbed the Hugo and the Nebula and the hearts of anybody who grew up an alienated fan of fantasy. I bet there are a couple of those types on this website, huh? I knew it would be good…what I didn’t know is how much it would affect me. Like having the breath knocked out of you after a hard fall.
I know I’m late to the Patrick Rothfuss bandwagon, but here I am! My wife bought me the first volume for my birthday this year and it sat looming on the shelf for months. You know, the dread of having a book you know you’ll like. A lot. I knew I’d pick The Name of the Wind up and be useless for anything until I’d finished it and The Wise Man’s Fear. Lo and behold, it was all I could talk about for a week.
I think Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is my favorite Miyazaki movie, so this year I decided to read the manga it is based on, also by Hayao Miyazaki. Just thinking about it right now is making me so happy. The movie captures the tone of the story—I mean, it is Miyazaki adapting his own work—but there is just so much more in the book, both on a worldbuilding level and on characterization. Kai and Kui the horsebirds have their own arc, even!
Blueprints of the Afterlife, Ryan Boudinot
There are enough clever ideas and tangents in this book for an entire series, but Boudinot makes that part of its charm—it’s overflowing rather than overstuffed. Quantum computers, neurological hacking, time loops, commercialized cloning, family drama, the cult of fame, destruction and reinvention, are all mixed together with a huge dose of the absurd to create an incredibly satisfying read.
Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru
Kunzru’s storytelling abilities are on full display in his newest novel. What do a British rocker, a couple with an autistic child, a Spanish monk on pilgrimage, frontier outlaws, a New Age cult, and a military training base have in common? Read this weird, enthralling, paranormal masterpiece to find out.
Railsea, China Miéville
Miéville’s new all-ages book manages to be simultaneously an epic quest on the scale of Moby Dick or The Odyssey, and a treatise on storytelling and narrative flow. Stylistic fireworks explode on every page—as do a whole lot of other things, because this is an action-packed book with very little down-time. To steal a phrase from the book itself, it is buckling of more swashes than pretty much anything else I read this year.