Every time I try to write a retrospective on 2016, it turns into a call to arms.
This column has always been political. It’s impossible to talk about art and equality, pop culture and representation, without taking up a position of advocacy—either for the status quo ante, or for something better. The global political developments of 2016, from the appalling complacency of Western democracies in the face of the horrifying war crimes taking place in Syria and Aleppo and the ongoing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, to the hateful rhetoric that arose in the U.K. and the U.S., and which gained momentum in Europe (and not to mention the most recent climate data), represent a paralysing kick in the teeth to those of us who try to work in our own small ways for more equality and less hate. It seems hideously pointless, as the year draws to a close, to speak of queer representation in books and television, of realistic diversity, of the portrayals of people of colour, of women (white and not), of neurodiverse and variously abled, when the Anglophone world has seen such a severe backlash against pluralism.
But it would be wrong to succumb to moral paralysis and critical despair: now, more than ever, art matters. Criticism matters. (You’ve got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.) So, in time for the seasonal orgy of consumerism and gift-giving, here are some of my favourite novels from 2016. Art is always political, and the ability to imagine a better world—and to see our imaginings reflected in the work of others—remains a powerful tool in the struggle to build that better world. (However hard it sometimes seems.)
And these novels really go to town.
Nisi Shawl’s Everfair (Tor)
This expansive re-imagining of the history of the Congo is a gorgeously detailed novel of nation-building, one that interrogates colonialism and racism with a compelling cast of characters, airships, and international espionage. It’s lush and measured, an altogether amazing debut: my only complaint is that so far it’s Shawl’s only novel.
Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit (Solaris)
This is a glittering and elegantly brutal science fiction novel about atrocity, complicity, totalitarian regimes, selfhood and free will. It has twisty intrigue, excellent characterisation, and a bodycount in the millions, and if you were only going to read one SF novel from 2016? Read this one.
Foz Meadows’ An Accident of Stars (Angry Robot)
This is probably the fantasy novel from 2016 that’s closest to my heart, and not just because Foz is a friend. An Accident of Stars is portal fantasy, but a portal fantasy that rejects many of portal fantasy’s traditional colonialist assumptions. When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in the world out of Earth into the kingdom of Kena, she doesn’t become a hero, or a chosen one. She isn’t even particularly unusual: Kena has seen worldwalkers before, including Gwen, the woman who becomes Saffron’s mentor. Instead, among people who’re struggling to address a political crisis, Saffron finds the support of people who respect her for who she is and friends she’s willing to fight for.
Oh, and the worldbuilding is wonderfully queer and diverse. And thematically it’s about survival and love and learning to live with your scars. It’s just great.
Hillary Monahan’s Gods & Monsters: Snake Eyes (Abaddon)
This is an unexpectedly delightful book, despite its at-times gruesome fondness for bodily fluids. Protagonist Tanis is a part-snake, part-human daughter of Lamia, passing for wholly human in small-town Florida. Every month, she delivers an unwilling man to her serpentine mother as a combination sextoy/snack. (She doesn’t really like doing that, but she likes being alive. Her mother will see her dead if she refuses. And she mostly hunts bad men.) Tanis has a human girlfriend, Naree, who knows who and what she is, but loving someone is dangerous when you’re the daughter of a seriously abusive controlling snake-monster. And that’s before (a) Lamia’s ancient adversaries the Gorgons come to town with murder on their minds, and (b) Tanis discovers she’s fertile, something unprecedented for a human-shaped daughter of Lamia.
Snake Eyes is a novel of magic, monsters, love, and family—the abusive family you try to get away from, and the healthy family you try to build. Plus it’s body-positive, with a diverse cast, and has girls with snake-type hemipenes all the better to destroy fantasy with its queerness.
Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey (Tor.com Publishing)
This story, guys. This story. It is glittering and sharp and elegant and looks tragic and then it upends all your expectations and becomes something entirely different. It is beautiful and painful and true and glorious, and you should all make sure you read it.
It’s been a hard year, friends. Next year may be harder yet. We need to stick by each other and keep going. Because the future?
The future belongs to us. We just need to live to build it.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.