We’re halfway through 2017, and we’ve got a lot of feelings about books—lists of books, beloved books, book reviews, books about books, and the teetering stacks of books surrounding our desks. Summer reading might technically be a thing for kids, but that’s not going to stop us from sitting outside with a heavy tome or two. So we’ve invited some of our regular contributors to choose their favorite books of the year so far, and we’re sharing their responses and recommendations below. Please enjoy this eclectic overview of some of our favorite books from the past year, and be sure to let us know about your own favorites in the comments!
With the popularity of our political leaders at rock bottom, there must be many of us curious about what the planet world would look like under new management. In The Management Style of the Supreme Beings, Tom Holt tells us, to tremendous—and hysterical—effect. Alas, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side; that’s just the tint of the windows.
In its vision of a Great Britain riven by apocalyptic indecision, The Boy on the Bridge is, in the aftermath of the disaster that was this year’s general election, another particularly timely text. Not quite a prequel and not quite a sequel to The Girl With all the Gifts, but an equel, if I may paraphrase Philip Pullman, M. R. Carey’s latest is as bleak and as brilliant as the book it builds on.
There may yet be hope, however. Just ask Kim Stanley Robinson, whose optimistic take on climate change in New York 2140 cast a little light on this long night. But there’s no better reminder that it’s always darkest before the dawn than the funniest and finest fantasy debut in ages, and my favourite book of 2017 so far: Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames.
Every time the Tor.com Reviewers’ Choice call comes around, I’m asked for 1-3 books. Every time, I can’t pick so few. The problem just keeps getting worse…
The best books of 2017 so far? Aliette de Bodard’s splendid, atmospheric, haunting, extraordinary The House of Binding Thorns takes pride of place. Set in a gothic and decaying Paris with Fallen angels and strange magic, this book is at heart a story about the ties that bind and—to borrow a line from Richard Thompson—the chains that you refuse.
But what about Alex Wells’ vibrant, vital, weird planetary opera Hunger Makes the Wolf—with mercenary bikers and labour organising? You can’t miss that. Foz Meadows’ A Tyranny of Queens, brilliant sequel to the excellent An Accident of Stars. Ellen Klages’ detailed, poignant love story in Passing Strange, that feels in part like a love-letter to queer San Francisco in 1940. Ruthanna Emrys’ brilliant, unforgettable, deeply felt Winter Tide, a gorgeous and powerful re-imagining of Lovecraft. Can’t miss that either! And then there’s Yoon Ha Lee’s vivid and surprising Raven Stratagem, sequel to Ninefox Gambit, which continues to be twisty and interesting space opera…
There are a lot of really good books, all right?
I feel like decades have gone by since January and yet we’re barely halfway through the year. Good thing there have been so many amazing SFF novels to keep me sane. In my review I described The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Jane Austen for the YA set,” and if you aren’t swooning already I don’t know what to do with you. It’s sweeping and romantic, dark and harrowing, and smothered in Regency historical details. The other two slots of my top three books so far belong to Chuck Wendig’s Thunderbird and Heidi Heilig’s The Ship Beyond Time, but after swapping them around for the better part of two days, I’ve finally decided to give them a tie for best. Wendig’s Miriam Black series gets better and more vicious with each entry, and Thunderbird still haunts me all these months later. It’s a brutal, intense novel that pulls together all the threads from the past and with one helluva killer cliffhanger. Heilig’s Girl From Everywhere duology concluded with The Ship Beyond Time and I loved, loved, loooooooved everything about it. Gorgeous narrative, compelling characters, and intersectional feminism in a story about a teenage time travelling pirate.
While they didn’t make my top three, definitely check out Last of August, the second in Brittany Cavallaro’s crackling Charlotte Holmes trilogy, and Standard Hollywood Depravity, a delightful novella in Adam Christopher’s Ray Electromatic series. The second full novel, Killing Is My Business, comes out in July and it’s so much fun. As for comics, get thee to your local indie shop and add to your pull list Misfit City and Hawkeye (and order trades for Spell on Wheels and Ladycastle) and thank me later.
The depth of character, the sheer scope of story, and a breathing, alive world made Brian Staveley’s trilogy The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne a captivating and rich epic fantasy that had me clamoring for more work in this world. His latest, Skullsworn, absolutely delivers, as the priestess of the god of death, Pyrre, must fulfill the vows of her god before fulling serving him. On top of the list of murders she must commit in his name, one of them is to take the life of someone she truly loves. Only problem: Pyrre Lakatur has never been in love before. What follows is romance, murder, a little bit of magic, and a ton of heart as this story of love on a deadline expands the world of the Unhewn Throne, and sheds light on one of the most intricate characters to come out of that trilogy. Keep ’em coming, Staveley!
It’s very rare for a book to come along that operates as a perfect vehicle for the narrative it’s trying to tell; there can be occasional hiccups, or moments that don’t quite work. But The House of Binding Thorns, Aliette de Bodard’s second novel in the Dominion of the Fallen series, is that novel. From the first page, it is an orchestration of perfect moving pieces; the rise and fall of character arcs, locations, stakes, plot, emotion; de Bodard wrote a book that sings on every level, and hits each note with perfect pitch. It is a tightly wound, precise machine, but with plenty of heat, heart, and heroism to make this a truly beautiful novel. I continue to look forward to seeing where things go next in this Paris of angels and dragons.
A modern master of realism, horror, and myth, Victor LaValle’s latest novel, The Changeling, takes place in Manhattan and the other boroughs as anxious, new father Apollo Kagwa watches as his wife murders their child, with declarations that it is not their child; it is not even a child, but something else. What follows next is a journey into the depths of legend and story, as Apollo hears whispers his son may not be gone, and his wife may still be around. This story twists and turns, snaking and curving and swooping in unexpected directions through the labyrinth that is NYC; LaValle perfectly balances horror and joy, toxicity and whimsy, childhood and parenthood, and the modern day myths that shape our lives.
Bodies of Summer by Martin Felipe Castagnet, translated by Frances Riddle: This short speculative work out of Argentina imagines a world in which human consciousness is uploaded to the internet after death, and downloadable into a new body for the right price. Unconventional and entertaining, Bodies of Summer forces us to confront the inevitable tensions that arise at the collision of human nature and advanced technology.
Orbital Cloud by Taiyo Fujii, translated by Timothy Silver: Space tethers, Iranian scientists, Japanese tech wizards, NORAD, and the CIA- you know you’re in for a wild ride. And Orbital Cloud certainly delivers, pulling the reader into a complex story about space terrorism and political intrigue, in which some of the greatest scientific minds must race against the clock to stop what could become a global disaster. This is Fujii’s second novel translated into English (after Gene Mapper), and it’s a must-read.
The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki, translated by Baryon Tensor Posadas: Hold on to your sofa/chair/bed/desk, because this wildly-inventive story about one man’s journey to a mythical planet will leave you dizzy (in a good way). Blending the ideas of Surrealist art, a post-Christian dogma, theories about reincarnation, and spaceships fueled by human consciousness, Aramaki invites us to expand our imaginations to ask questions about the very nature of the universe. A masterpiece of the New Wave movement in SF (1960s and ’70s), The Sacred Era is like nothing you’ve read before.
“If one man in a hundred is a traitor, and I allow that knowledge to close my heart to the other ninety-nine, who is the winner then?” Airships and shapeshifters, gun-smuggling and intrigue: A.F.E. Smith’s Windsinger is surprisingly relevant to today’s social and political climate. The third Darkhaven novel foregrounds hate crimes in a way that the reader can’t ignore, and heavily emphasises the fear and loneliness that accompany life as a minority in a big city. Smith’s writing is powerfully emotive, and her storytelling has rapidly evolved from Darkhaven (good) to Goldenfire (great) to Windsinger (WOW). Windsinger is a tense, exciting continuation of one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking series I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
Red Sister contains familiar and much-lauded stylistic features of Mark Lawrence’s writing, while dealing with brand-new characters and themes in an entirely original setting. Nona Grey is a compelling, sympathetic protagonist, and Lawrence beautifully captures the nuances of her personality. Oh, and she kicks some serious arse.
By now, Jen Williams is well-known for writing traditional tropes with a twist. She creates unique fantasy flavours using familiar ingredients and then blends in subtexts and deeper meanings with the experimental skill and competence of a chemist. Above all, she reminds us that writing fantasy fiction is about asking ourselves What if? What if Tolkien’s elves began to lose their immortality? What might happen if they realised that drinking human blood could partially restore it? What if they then realised that the blood infected all who drank it with a wasting disease known as the Crimson Flux—and that now their species is dying out faster than ever? The first novel of the Winnowing Flame trilogy offers a truly original, compelling story that foregrounds a small cast of diverse and irresistibly flawed characters. Engaging and exciting, The Ninth Rain is Jen Williams at her absolute finest.
Sylvain Neuvel’s Waking Gods, the sequel to his debut giant robot novel Sleeping Giants, is the perfect kind of a book to start out a summer. There haven’t been enough mecha in science fiction writing; I’m glad we now have Neuvel to bring them to us.
Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean is a great novel about love, Lovecraft, and lies. It’s not science fiction, but science fiction fans should read it.
I’ve enjoyed J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beren and Lúthien, but prospective readers should know that it’s neither a novel nor an original work. Christopher Tolkien has edited together a series of previously published poetry and prose to tell two independent stories. The first story is of Beren and Lúthien, lovers who challenge the dread Morgoth. The second story, just as interesting, is the evolution of J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of his legendarium. Tolkien worked on this story for fifty years; it’s simultaneously the work of the young soldier on leave from WWI he was and the feted Oxford don he became.
Finally, three books that would probably be on my list that I’ve been saving for vacation: George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, K.J. Parker’s Mightier than the Sword, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne.
What happens when you have massive sea-level rises that end up flooding a significant part of New York City? In New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson explores some of the social ramifications as well as pointing out, in his optimistic way, that humans are likely to just get on with the business of surviving and even thriving despite the adversity. I really enjoyed the different reactions and attitudes from the various characters; the chapters from different characters really works for me.
I’m an Australian and even I appreciate alt-history stories about America in the 19th century with added hippos. I mean, Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth is mostly about the hippos and the idea of riding and breeding hippos instead of horses. Also the lovely complicated relationships and the nefarious plots. But it’s mostly about the hippos.
Sami Shah’s Fire Boy has a classic structure: Wahid is a gawky, geeky loner. He comes of age; discovers he’s something Chosen; gets sucked into a world of magic and mythology. We’ve all read that one before. What we haven’t read is Shah’s unique style of no-holds-barred realism with a seamlessly interwoven mythological finish—this is American Gods with teeth. Wahid is a charmingly gormless character, the djinn are utterly terrifying and Karachi is both sprawl and splendour. A simply amazing book: somehow both fun and scary, familiar and surprising.
Will Hill’s After the Fire is Moonbeam’s story. She’s grown up in a cult, reared in an isolated compound. As the title implies, things ended tragically. As the book begins, we’re introduced to her as she wakes up in a hospital—and in custody. Moonbeam shares her story in increasingly fraught fragments, with therapists she can’t bring herself to trust. She’s escaped a cruel, soul-crushing atmosphere, but she’s a long way from free. Fire is about true heroism—taking responsibility when no one else will, being kind when everyone is cruel, loving when the world demands hate. Not an easy read, but it is topical, powerful and—without sounding trite—necessary.
Can a writer write “cozy Lovecraft” that is character focused, and yet contain the sense and scope of the Mythos? In Winter Tide, Emrys introduces the survivors of the Innsmouth raid, having gone through the hell of internment and displacement, coming to terms with their legacy. Questions of inheritance and family values collide with Lovecraft’s world.
What happens after you’ve gone through the Portal into another world? And what happens to a world afterwards? A Tyranny of Queens, Foz Meadows’ followup to An Accident of Stars, explores the disruption her protagonists stepping across a portal has done, both for herself, and for the world she visited. Questions of consequences run through the novel, even as she ups her game in presenting new worlds and new problems.
The House of Binding Thorns, Aliette de Bodard’s followup to The House of Shattered Wings, puts the ambitious House Hawthorn and its head Asmodeus front and center. A possible alliance with the Dragon kingdom underneath the Seine is the through line plot set with revolution, scheming, and the survival of those caught in the binds of power and responsibility.