Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Adri and Joe Talk About Books: The Best of the Decade

As we near the end of a decade we had the highly original thought of looking back at some of the best novels of the last ten years. Ten years is ultimately as arbitrary of a way to divide and group novels as any, but it serves as sufficient reason to reflect back on some of our favorite novels and discuss which have had lasting impact on the genre, on us as readers, and what just stands out as just really damn good books.

Any list of the nine or ten (or fifty, or five hundred) “best” novels is subject to the biases and perspectives of the writers putting the list together. What we find to be excellent may not line up with someone else. We may not have read a book that otherwise would have found a place here. We might not have agreed on a particular book, but this is our consensus of nine of the best novels from the last ten years. And, because we can’t just create a list and let it go, we’ve selected three more novels as our personal honorable mentions. Even then, we still mourn the novels we left off due to arbitrary space reasons.

We don’t expect there to be consensus as to the absolute rightness of our list, but we hope it sparks conversation about some really great books that we loved.

So here we go.

Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear (2012): Elizabeth Bear is something of a chameleon of a writer. Whether it is near future cyberpunk thrillers, urban fantasy, alternate historical vampire fiction, espionage, space opera, steampunk, a Criminal Minds meets the X-Files mashup, or epic fantasy - Bear can write it all.

Eschewing the trappings of the stereotypical European setting, Range of Ghosts is silk road epic fantasy - meaning that the novel has a more Mongolian flavor and has an entirely different cultural grounding than what is so often considered “traditional epic fantasy”. Bear pulls no punches in delivering a full realized and top notch epic with rich characterization and incredible worldbuilding. The magic and religion and battles of Range of Ghosts is handled with a deft touch and the best thing is that all of this is set up for something far larger. Range of Ghosts is Elizabeth Bear at the height of her considerable powers. (G's Review) (Joe)

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie (2013): The story of Breq, a woman who was once the AI of the spaceship Justice of Toren, spread across hundreds of “Ancillary” bodies. Now Justice of Toren has been destroyed, and Breq, the sole survivor, single handedly bent on revenge towards the Emperor who set her and her crew up to die, begins in this crushingly good space opera, full of tea ceremonies and folk songs and the exploration of an empire whose vision of “civilisation” is synonymous with its own culture. The dual narratives of Ancillary Justice, which tell of both Breq’s present and the events leading up to her death as a spaceship. Its a novel which operates with respect and care for the space opera tropes it deploys, while challenging any traditional assumptions about what aspects of human culture might be taken up by a remote spacefaring civilisation - to the Radchaai, gender is not a thing, but gloves very much are, and the ruling consciousness of Emperor Anaander Mianaai is spread across thousands of clones, who may or may not be working for completely common purpose. And, of course, its all driven by pitch-perfect action in both timelines, as Justice of Toren tries to hold it together on what it doesn’t realise will be its final mission, and Breq makes her way across the galaxy on her hopeless revenge mission. (Joe's review)  (Adri)

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison (2014): The term "hopepunk" might have been coined by Alexandra Rowland a couple of years after the release of Katherine Addison's highly-charged elven political fantasy, but the centering of kindness and decency even in the most lonely and high pressure of circumstances was already a standout feature of this novel back in 2014, giving it an undisputed edge over other contenders in the "young royal out of their depth" field. The Goblin Emperor is the story of Maia, the unwanted fourth child of the elvish emperor, who was born from a political marriage with a woman from neighbouring goblin kingdom (elves and goblins, being in this world, different races of the same species, and elven prejudice against goblins being therefore far more akin to racism than any possibly-justifiable biological taboo). Raised in seclusion with only abusive minders for company, Maia is therefore as surprised as anyone when an assassination of his father and three half-brothers propels him to the throne. What follows is his attempts to develop alliances and figure out who to trust in a court he's barely set foot in before now: a task he rises to with grace and skill, despite the many enemies who would rather not see him on the throne. Come for the courtly intrigue; stay for the way Addison effortlessly includes the characters' ear movements into their facial expressions without it getting weird. (Jemmy's review) (Adri)

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (2015), by N.K. Jemisin: We’re not ones to claim that any subjective list of the best of anything is invalid because the list maker did not include our particular favorite, but we would definitely give the side-eye to any list of the best science fiction and fantasy of the last ten years that didn’t at least consider N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.

The Fifth Season was an absolutely brilliant opening novel to Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. When I wrote about the novel in 2016, I had this to say “While the worldbuilding in The Fifth Season is superb and extraordinary, it does not hold a volcano's breath to how strongly written the novel is and just how incredible these three women are. The nature of the terribly oppressive world of The Stillness, really of the Sanze Empire, is examined through the lives, actions, heartbreaks, oppression, heroism, grief, discovery, and amazing characters of Damaya, Syenite, and Essun. Jemisin will rip your heart out.” I have no doubt that not only is The Fifth Season stands out as one of the best of the decade, The Fifth Season will hold up as one of the all time great fantasy novels. (Joe's review) (Joe)

Black Wolves, by Kate Elliott (2015): Do you want an epic fantasy where most of the primary characters are fully mature adults? What about a world that sets up a particular worldview and culture and then spends the rest of the novel deconstructing everything we thought we knew about it? What about a novel dealing with persecuted minority cultures, oppressive religions, and a question about how reliable memory is when considering history? Black Wolves has all that. Highly competent women bringing the excellence in a variety of ways? Black Wolves has that. A very high body count and solid action? Black Wolves has that. Giant eagles? Black Wolves has that, too.

Black Wolves is as epic as epic fantasy can get and it was an incredible start to what should have been one of the best new series of the last ten years, except that we’re not getting the sequel because of publishing. Readers - Black Wolves is as good an epic fantasy novel as any that has been published in the last ten years and beyond, and even though I know that I am unlikely to get the follow up, I still heartily recommend everyone go read Black Wolves. You won’t be disappointed. (Joe's review) (Joe)

Infomocracy by Malka Older (2016) Informocracy is a bold and brilliant thought experiment on democracy, a novel which takes as its starting point a not-too-distant future where many nation states have dissolved in favour of a system of microdemocracy in which "centenal" units of one hundred thousand people elect their governments from a range of globally-active parties. What makes this possible, we are told, is the global system of Information, which provides an augmented reality fact-check to citizens in all parts of their daily lives, providing a particularly important service when it comes to the once-a-decade elections. Of course, with a new global system comes a new global bureaucracy, and Informocracy follows a couple of cogs in that machine - idealistic campaign manager Ken and Information agent (and maybe a spy) Mishima - as they try to keep the system working over a particularly hot election cycle.

What makes Informocracy special is not just the world it creates, but the book's ability to engage and invest us in the agency of its main characters, while still showing their relative helplessness in the face of the global political system they operate in. By introducing the concept of narrative disorder - a compulsion to fit objectively unrelated or coincidental occurrences into a satisfying but misleading single story - Older's series presents a political thriller that questions the very foundations that allow it to exist, while still delivering something that satisfies on all the levels that matter. Like many books on this list, it's here because its stayed with me well beyond reading, and I hope it's a book we continue to associate with our own political moment when we're looking back on genre in future decades. (Charles' review) (Adri)

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire (2016): Reading Every Heart a Doorway was like coming home again to a story that I didn’t know that I had lost. It is a beautiful and heart wrenching story of kids who don’t belong anywhere except perhaps the one place they can’t get back to. Every Heart a Doorway is a portal fantasy where all of those kids who went through a wardrobe or a secret door and had adventures and a place to belong had to come home to a world that didn’t believe them and couldn’t understand them. What happens to those those kids when they come home? What happens is that Seanan McGuire writes a beautiful novel that seared itself so deep into my heart that it touched emotions I’m still not able to fully talk about almost four years later.

I wrote about the novel, “Perhaps moreso than any other book I am likely to read this year, my emotional response to Every Heart a Doorway has everything to do with who I am now and who I was when I was a teenager. I wish this is a story I could have discovered when I was twelve. I love this book with a warm and full heart as an adult, but I would have lived in Every Heart a Doorway as a child. I would have made friends with these children even though their experiences were so alien to mine. I can't imagine that I would have noticed that Nancy is asexual and that Kale is trans, or that I would have understood either concept. That part of the story wasn't for the child I was, but each of those elements are very much for other kids who would never see who they were in a story like this one. It matters that it doesn't matter for the story, if that makes sense.”

It is a beautiful, beautiful novel and I am so glad that it exists in the world. (Joe's review) (Joe)

Jade City, by Fonda Lee (2017): You've never read epic fantasy quite like this. The opening volume of Lee's Green Bone saga introduces readers to the island of Kekon, a culturally Asian island shrugging off decades of occupation and now ruled by rival gang families trained up in using bioreactive jade to power feats of martial arts prowess. The narrative follows various members of the No Peak clan - clan leader Kaul Lan and his siblings, the loyal but vicious Hilo and reluctantly repatriated sister Shae, as well as Anden, a cousin in his final year of training to be a Green Bone - as they try to see off challenges from the rival Mountain clan, as well as responding to wider geopolitical factors shaping the destiny of Kekon. Lee's writing is nothing short of outstanding in the way it brings the world of the Kauls to life, whether it's depicting regular scenes of Janloon street life or cinematically showcasing the supernatural powers of the Green Bone warriors. And, of course, it's all in service of a story that had me absolutely hooked from beginning to end, as we watch (possibly through our fingers) as the Kauls and their allies fight, torture, murder, get murdered, fall in love, make business deals (sensible or otherwise), fail to impress elderly parents, fight some more, and otherwise make difficult choices in service of family, honour and jade. (Adri's review) (Adri)

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley (2019): It is a bold move to describe a book from the current year as one of the decade’s best, but The Light Brigade is a bold novel in the tradition of Starship Troopers, The Forever War, and Old Man’s War - which is not an opportunity to simply list the titles of significant military science fiction novels but a recognition of where The Light Brigade should be considered in a larger science fiction conversation and as to which novels get to be held up of classics of the genre which revitalize and engage with its past. The Light Brigade does all of that while telling a strong story about a soldier in the middle of an absolutely messed up war that is messed up even further when her combat drops sometimes place her in the wrong battle at the wrong time. Dietz is often not when she is supposed to be, and Hurley ties together all of the complicated timelines and fits it together perfectly. (Paul's review) (Joe)

As we discussed in the introduction we couldn't leave well enough alone and just live by a list of 9 novels which we believe are some of the best of the decade. And even after putting together our honorable mentions, there are still novels we feel like were just on the cusp of making the list. Joe nearly included The Calculating Stars and An Unkindness of Ghosts, and Adri regretfully left off Monstress and Ninefox Gambit. There have been so many excellent novels these last ten years, and here's a few more that we thought were pretty great.

Adri’s Honourable Mentions

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (2015): Zen Cho's Sorcerer Royal books are set in an alternate regency world where magic and faerie are everyday parts of life for many people, but magic in Britain is considered entirely the province of elite white men, closeted away in an academy while elite young women with magic attend special academies to repress their powers and people outside the elite are left to their own various devices. It's only when the position of Sorcerer Royal falls, through an accident of bonded familiars, to Black former slave Zacharias Wythe, raised by the former holder of the post as part son and part racist curiosity, that the rest of the establishment finds itself confronting the realities of their own changing society. Meanwhile, Zacharias' attempt to hold on to the post brings him into contact with Prunella Gentleman, mixed-race ward of a women's "magic" school and a powerful, irrepressible force of nature in her own right. Racism and elitism in the British empire are heavy subjects, but Cho is able to use the conventions and wit of a Regency novel to eviscerate the white supremacist assumptions and the ridiculousness of the characters upholding them, all while offering a brilliant, hilarious adventure in a compelling alternate world. I loved it. (We missed reviewing this, but here's Adri's review of Book 2, The True Queen)

After Atlas, by Emma Newman (2016). Because of the time at which I read Planetfall, Emma Newman's series of a dystopian Earth - and the various factors and faiths that cause people to leave it - is embedded in my brain as a foundational example of science fiction. From the troubled, grief-stricken extrasolar colony of Planetfall itself, to the claustrophobic, unsettling mysteries of the Martian colony in Before Mars, the series combines a challenging vision of a future under technologically advanced capitalism, with a realistic but always compassionate look at what happens to people trying to survive, and their own personal traumas and mental health challenges. For this list, though, my pick has to be After Atlas, the story of Carlos Moreno, a corporate indenture investigating the murder of the leader of a religious cult - who also happens to be a figure from his own difficult childhood. Carlos' journey to figure out the truth leads him to uncover secrets both past and present about the Atlas mission, and the powerful figures attempting to control it, and humanity's access to the stars. It's a compelling mystery, but what really brings After Atlas to life is its vision of future life: where people and their rights can be bought and sold by corporations, "real" food is an unimaginable luxury to the majority of the population, and intrusive AR advertising is a reality for anyone not wealthy enough to turn off the algorithms that control it. Terrifying in its real-world implications, and compelling in its treatment of characters, After Atlas is by far my favourite "dystopia" of the decade, and a book that everyone should check out. (Sorry, we don't have a review of any of the Planetfall novels, but they're delightful)

This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019): This Is How You Lose the Time War is perhaps the weirdest book on this list - an epistolary romance between two rival agents for immensely powerful future factions ("techy-mechy" Agency and "viney-hivey" Garden), charting their travels through dimensions as they try to nudge futures in the direction of their respective overlords, and the letters they leave each other in various ephermeal forms throughout the timeline. In my review for Strange Horizons, I said that This Is How You Lose The Time War's greatest strength is "its exquisitely pitched story of romantic connection and its ability to bring all other aspects of the novella—its epistolary form, its expansive and yet understated worldbuilding, its themes of connection and agency and change—into the service of that emotional core. It's a romance whose portrayal of human connection is all the more powerful for the fact that it takes place between two beings who are otherwise not comprehensible to us, leaving their hopes, fears, and longing as the only elements left for a reader to cling to, and thus turning the love between Red and Blue into the most important thing in an unimaginably large multidimensional time war." I also mentioned it was the only book of 2019 to make me cry, and while that's not quite true any more (but that's a story for next decade's roundup) it still stands out as one of the most pure emotional experiences I have had reading a book - all the more incredible for the fact that it packs such a punch in novella length. (Paul's Review)

Joe's Honorable Mentions

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (2014): I find myself at a loss as to how to talk about Annihilation. There’s an expedition into Area X, the location doesn’t exactly matter but it’s in the American South presumably somewhere in Florida. What we know is that we don’t know anything. Area X is weird, it is unexplained - nobody knows exactly how or when it appeared and took over the land - and it is largely unexplored even though there have been eleven previous expeditions to do so. They haven’t gone well. This is the twelfth expeidtion.

Annihilation is weird, a little obscure, thrilling, occasionally claustrophobic, terrifying, and absolutely fantastic. I’m not sure there’s another novel like it, not even Authority or Acceptance - the two follow up novels to Annihilation. There are also few other novels this decade that have stuck with me for as long as this one has. I find myself thinking about the novel again and again, never quite getting anywhere with my thoughts but just wondering and letting the atmosphere of my memory wash over me. Even that is unsettling, just like everything is in the book. It’s an exceptional novel. (G's Review) (Joe)


Uprooted, by Naomi Novik (2015): Readers of childhood fairy tales will find so much that is familiar in Uprooted, but Naomi Novik is holding up a twisted mirror to those fairy tales while still holding tightly to the heart of what we so love and remember. Novik may not be completely deconstructing fairy tales here, but she is definitely playing with the form.

The star, driving force, and shining heart of Uprooted is the character of Agnieszka. The more conventional fairy tale that Novik appears to be telling in the first chapter is not necessarily the one that we get as the novel progresses. Agnieszka appears to be a wilting character, shrinking back from the anger and ubruptness of the dragon. This is not who she becomes. Through her own strength of character and intelligence, Agnieszka begins to grow into the person she never would have dreamed she could or would become. The concept of this Agnieszka would have been as alien and as foreign to her as the reality of life at court. Though still raw and impulsive, the progression of the novel begins to give her the seasoning required to not only help in the fight against The Wood, but also to become the sort of character parents will want to use as an example to their children.

Fairy tales are for kids, right? Uprooted straddles that line. It is both very much a novel that adults can, should, and will appreciate. Adults will recognize many of the things that Novik is doing in tweaking some of the conventions of fairy tales, but will also enjoy the novel simply for what it is. Older kids will enjoy Uprooted for simply being a kick-ass book with an awesome heroine and an exciting story for which they simply must know what happens next. Naomi Novik has a little bit for everyone in Uprooted. (Joe's review) (Joe)

Into the Drowning Deep, by Mira Grant (2017): If I told you that this was a novel about mermaids, you’d probably have visions of Disney and The Little Mermaid and maybe some vague sense of unease if you have recollections of historical depictions and sirens. Mira Grant’s mermaids are terrifying, compelling, and all too plausible. Grant herself said that the novel “does for mermaids what Jurassic Park did for velociraptors” and that’s entirely true. Into the Drowning Deep is a true page turner of the highest quality - you might not be able to sleep after, but you’ll want to stay up for one more page, one more chapter. (Joe's review) (Joe)

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan

Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.