Thursday, January 2, 2020

Top 9 Books of the Year

Some people do a top ten list, others do a top eleven (insert your Spinal Tap joke here), yet others may only do five. My list is 9 books long. Why? Partly to be a little bit different and partly because I want the tenth spot on my list to be reserved for that really great book which I simply did not get the chance to read during 2019. That really great book may also be something I have only heard whispers about and I may not discover for several more years. Whatever that tenth great book is, I’m holding a spot for it on my list.

Also, there is no doubt that this list, like every other list out there is built entirely on the combination of the books I've actually read with my own prejudices, taste, preferences, and the choices I made when selecting books to read across the breadth of 2019. That's really what we're saying when we say we've put together a list of the "Best Books of the Year". It's the best we've read, the best we can remember, the best based on what we appreciate in speculative fiction. One of the other best books I've read this year is Colson Whitehead's latest novel The Nickel Boy, but this is a speculative fiction blog focusing on more nerdy endeavors, so for the sake of theme I'll limit this list to science fiction, fantasy, and everything in between and around the edges.

This Top Nine List is more or less in order.  The top two or three slots are a complete lock, but ask me tomorrow and some titles may shift around a bit.  Whichever order the list is in, these are the nine novels published in 2019 which I feel were the strongest titles of the year.

1. The Light Brigade: The Light Brigade is a bold novel in the tradition of Starship Troopers, The Forever War, and Old Man’s War. I don’t use this as an opportunity to list the titles of three significant military science fiction novels I’ve read. I view this more as a recognition of where The Light Brigade should be considered in the larger science fiction conversation about canon (as if there is a singular canon) and of which novels get to be held up as classics of the genre which revitalize and engage with the genre’s past. That’s a bold statement to make about a novel that was published less within the last twelve months, but there it is all the same. The Light Brigade does all of that while telling a strong story about a soldier in the middle of an absolutely messed up war (is there another kind?) that is messed up even further when her combat drops sometimes place her in the wrong battle at the wrong time – the wrong “when”. Hurley ties together all of the complicated timelines and fits it together perfectly. The Light Brigade is a gem of a novel.  (Paul's review)

2. A Song for a New Day: You know how Sarah Pinsker’s stories are little bits of perfection? This novel is all of that, but even moreso. A Song for a New Day is an expansion and a complete reworking of “Our Lady of the Open Road”, one of my favorite stories from Sarah Pinsker. A Song for a New Day is a beautiful and romantic story about live music in a world where large gatherings of people have been made illegal as a result of terrorism. The novel deals with the struggle to hold on to that bit of authenticity and heart that comes from performing in front of a live audience, the humanity found in shared spaces, and yes, it is a gut punch of the best rock and roll. There is a visceral presence to the music and the passion in A Song for a New Day and it’s everything I hoped for from Sarah Pinsker’s debut, and more.

3. Gideon the Ninth: The tag line I’ve seen all year long is “Lesbian Necromancers in Space” and while that is technically correct and was absolutely a selling point for the novel (as was the spot on cover art from Tommy Arnold) that’s not really what Gideon the Ninth is. This is a love story. This is a hate story. This is a locked room mystery (locked citadel on an abandoned planet mystery?). There is beautiful swordfighting, necromancy, magic, absolutely foul mouthed characters, and it’s all a friggin delight. In her review, Adri wrote about the claustrophobic atmosphere and that’s an apt description – which is why the “in space” part doesn’t really apply. The “Lesbian Necromancers” – yeah, it’s very much that and it’s pretty spectacular. One of the most impressive aspects to Gideon the Ninth is that it lives up to the massive hype. Gideon the Ninth is a brutal, sharp, nasty, wonderful novel. Tamsyn Muir will gut you. (Adri's review)

4. The City in the Middle of the Night: If somebody told me that 2019 would bring us a novel that has the strongest resemblance and feeling to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels, I’d have been more than skeptical – but The City in the Middle of the Night is so very much that novel. Several times, I had to check the cover to remind myself that this wasn’t Le Guin. It’s not, but The City in the Middle of the Night is a worthy successor to Le Guin’s work while still very much being a Charlie Jane Anders novel and its own thing. There is a tidally locked planet, fascinating characters, absolutely original and creative alien creatures, and a conversation about morality. The City in the Middle of the Night is a novel of big ideas and just as important, it’s a book you don’t want to put down. Anders is doing the work here. This is an absolutely compelling novel that I cannot recommend highly enough.(Paul's review)

5. Jade War: To quote my review: The ongoing conflict between the No Peak and Mountain clans is the core of the story Fonda Lee is telling first with Jade City and now with Jade War, but the heart of the novel is the interplay within the Kaul family of the No Peak clan. The dynamic between Hilo and Shae as siblings and also Pillar with his Weather Man is painfully and perfectly drawn out. It is nearly impossible to not reference The Godfather (either Puzo's novel or Coppola's film) when discussing Jade War because Lee's novel has that feel of family and crime tinged with legitimacy and vengeance and hints of what it looks like from the wider world. Jade War fulfills the promise of Jade City and then raises the bar once again. The novel expands beyond the island of Kekon and Fonda Lee's rich description makes brings each new location alive with the smell and feel of the city and Kekonese in exile. Once again Fonda Lee has delivered a spectacular novel. (my review)

6. The Luminous Dead: Caitlin Starling’s debut novel is a claustrophobic story of deep cave exploration. Starling gets into the reader’s head – the deeper Gyre Price gets, the more fraught the caving, the increased paranoia of Gyre (and the reader!), the deteriorating relationship between Gyre and her guide on the other end of a comm, the isolation of being so deep underground with nobody to come get you if something goes wrong – The Luminous Dead is a deeply unsettling novel and it is a spectacular debut. Starling nails the storytelling and delivers an eerie combination of terror and madness that hits all the right notes.

7. Middlegame: Middlegame is perhaps the most ambitious novels from Seanan McGuire and is a showcase for her skill at telling a good and complex story. Twins, math, alchemy, murder, time-bending, family, secret organizations, impossible powers, and just about everything McGuire can throw into this wonderous novel. Seanan McGuire has blended together as much as she possibly could stuff into one novel and she makes the whole thing work. It’s impressive. McGuire goes big with Middlegame. Doubt Seanan McGuire at your peril. (my review)

8. The Deep: The Deep is a story borne out of the legacy of slavery, of the horrifying reality of slavers crossing the Atlantic Ocean and dumping the bodies of pregnant women over board. It is a story borne out of wondering about what life might grow out of that death. The Deep is a story of origins and new beginnings, of the horror of institutional memory and what it costs the individual. Solomon's writing is incredible. With only a few sentences I felt the water, the pressure of the deep, the movement of current and body. The water almost became a character and, not to mix metaphors too much, grounded the story into a particular location that the reader can sense.

The Deep is a novella filled with pain and despair and rage and a glimmer of hope. It is built off of real history and pulled in unimaginable directions, except that it was imagined and we're all better off because Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes, and Rivers Solomon saw the possibilities of building something beautiful out of raw horror. (my review)

9. Exhalation: It's been seventeen years since Ted Chiang's last (and first) story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. Exhalation was a literary event that lived up to the hype. Exhalation contains three Hugo Award winners including the excellent The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate. Across the board, these are top tier stories from one of our best storytellers.

As I mentioned in the introduction, for as many books as I read in a year, there is always something amazing that I missed and that I just didn't have time to get to. Or, as plugged in as I try to be, that I just haven't heard of (or heard enough about). As much as I wanted to, I did not read A Memory of Empire (Arkady Martine), The Future of Another Timeline (Annalee Newitz), The Wanderers (Chuck Wendig), The Ten Thousand Doors of January (Alix E. Harrow), The Dragon Republic (R.F. Kuang), Ancestral Night (Elizabeth Bear), or Magic for Liars (Sarah Gailey), among others. The list of highly recommend and presumably stellar novels that I just didn't get to read this year is long and distinguished. That's the reason for the tenth spot on the list.

Also it is worth noting six books that just missed the list but were in serious contention: Alliance Ricing (C.J. Cherryh and Jane Fancher), Tiamat's Wrath (James S.A. Corey), Atlas Alone (Emma Newman), Gods of Jade and Shadow (Silvia Moreno-Garcia), In An Absent Dream (Seanan McGuire), Vigilance (Robert Jackson Bennett),

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