The Best Science-Fiction & Fantasy of 2015

25in2015The end of 2015 marks the completion of this blog’s first year of existence, and what a year to start with: we can’t remember the last 12-month period that gave us such a strong run of new science fiction and fantasy books, spanning every subgenre on the shelves. Below, we’ve selected 25 of our favorites—these are the best books of the last year, and any of them would rank alongside our favorites of any year. (Speaking of which, you can see our 2014 picks here.)

Radiance, by Catherynne M. Valente
This almost indescribable sci-fi novel could have come from no other author. Valente has created a beguiling hybrid of wide-eyed Victorian wonder, pulp space adventure, lavish Hollywood excess, and good old-fashioned murder mystery, a multifaceted novel that explores the strange disappearance of revered documentary filmmaker Severin Unk through script excerpts, lost film clips, interviews, and even old-fashioned commercials. Explore a version of our solar system right out of your dreams, where callowhales swim the oceans of Venus and settlers eke out a meager existence on distant Uranus. Read our review.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson
Baru Cormorant hates the Empire of Falcrest for what it did to her family and her people when she was just a girl: arriving in force upon the shores of their small island, taking control, absorbing her people and erasing the markers of cultural identity deemed “unhygenic” by imperial science. Luckily, Baru is a prodigy when it comes to revenge. To destroy the empire, she must become a part of it, win its trust, and earn a seat at its heart, where she can strike a killing blow. After one book, Seth Dickinson has joined the ranks of the great evil geniuses of speculative fiction, authors able to make you care immensely for incredibly realized, complex, flawed, frustrating, fascinating characters, then to repay your indulgence by doing terrible things to them. But when the book is this well-constructed—wound tight as a watch, the plot ticking along with the intricacy and inevitability of a sweeping second hand—the result is worth the torment. Read our review.

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie
The sci-fi series that turned space opera on its ear and won all the awards along the way comes to an end, wrapping up the story of Breq, once the artifical mind inhabiting a vast starship and a network of mine-wiped human bodies, now confined to a single, frail human form. The action is set largely upon a remote space station in orbit around an unremarkable but strategically located planet that could be a crucial outpost in a brewing intergalactic civil war between the divided halves of Anaander Mianaai, the once-human, many-bodied Lord of the Radch. Exploring complex themes of gender, sexual, and cultural identity, Leckie’s trilogy tells an unusually thoughtful story that’s also immensely satisfying when it comes to blowing stuff up real good, and with this final installment, she totally sticks the landing. Read our review.

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson
After a detour into prehistory with Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson returned to widescreen space exploration with a full-throated, believably science-y novel that turns one of sci-fi oldest tropes—the generation ship—on its ear. As a deteriorating vessel nears its destination after a centuries-long journey, we follow a cast of compelling, flawed characters trying to stave off a death of a thousand loose screws, as witnessed via one of the most unique narrators we’ve ever encountered: the ship itself, an artificial intelligence still struggling to understand humans even after hundreds of years spent ferrying them across the stars. 

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab
In her followup to 2013’s genre-busting supervillain story Vicious, V.E. Schwab creates a Neapolitan fantasy world that smooshes three alternate versions of London side-by-side: Red London, where magic’s waters run deep; White London, where there is both power and terrible darkness; and dull Grey London, where spells lose their luster (guess which one we inhabit). Only Travelers can pass between the cities, but they are a dying breed—probably because someone is trying to kill them all. Kell, the Traveler from Red London, wears a coat with infinite sides which he uses to smuggle magical objects from one London to another, until a chance encounter with a cunning pickpocket Delilah Bard results in bad magic crossing through a door that never should have been opened, and causes a crisis that might wipe London off the map—all of them. Schwab creates characters as rich as her irresistible world. Read our review.

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho
Zen Cho’s effervescent debut is set in an intriguing alternate-Victorian world ruled by sorcery, layering issues of racial and gender inequality into a fast-moving magical mystery tour. When the mixed-race Zacharias Whythe, an orphaned slave child, magically inherits the title of Sorcerer Royal after the strange death of his adopted father and mentor, England’s magicians are thrown into an uproar. Their short-sighted squabbling only obscures a far more serious problem: the country’s magic is running out, leaving them vulnerable to attack by Napoleon’s sorcerers. As Zacharias journeys to the borders of Fairyland to discover the source of the problem, Prunella Gentlewoman, who keeps house at a school that teaches women to suppress their supernatural abilities, makes a startling discovery about her past, one that could prove vital to restoring England’s place in the magical world. Read our review.

The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu
Celebrated, award-winning short fiction author Ken Liu makes a stunning leap to long form with an ambitious debut novel that aims to do little less than rewrite the entire Western epic fantasy narrative from a different cultural perspective. Both sweeping in scope and intimate in character and incidental detail, this is an expansive look at a rebellion, its aftermath, and two young leaders caught in the tides of history. Liu illustrates the idea that as the decades roll by, even great deeds can start to look small. Read our review.

Ink and Bone: The Great Library, by Rachel Caine
What if Alexandria never fell? That’s the question at the heart of Rachel Caine’s inventive mashup of fantasy and alternate history. The Great Library now exists everywhere on Earth, able to instantaneously provide any knowledge ever put to paper—but personal ownership of books is strictly forbidden. As Jess Brightwell trains to enter the Library’s service, he must hide his family’s deadly secret: much of his knowledge comes from their verboten private texts. Though the protagonist is 16 and the story has heavy YA appeal, it’s a novel for anyone appropriately terrified at the thought of a world in which owning a book meant putting your life at risk.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin
The author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms begins the Broken Earth, a new epic fantasy trilogy set in a world rent by a series of apocalyptic events. Essun and her children are orogenes, sharing the magical ability to control natural forces, an ability hated and feared in equal measure. Essun has passed on her curse, and when her husband finds out, he murders their son and their daughter disappears. Essun sets off to find her, and her journey will take readers across a ravaged, sparsely populated landscape and deep into her hidden past, as she fights to save at least one small part of a world already lost. That just one thread of a tapestry both beautiful and terrible, wrought in daring, immensely readable prose that ranges from wry omnipresence to painfully intimate second-person. Read our review.

Flex/The Flux, by Ferrett Steinmetz
This is one of those series with a concept so good, the plot barely matters (but they’re great too): welcome to a world where magic (‘mancy) is birthed out of obsession, and becoming too fixated on what fascinates you (from paperwork, to video games, to origami) can bore a hole through reality and and grant you unimaginable (and incredibly idiosyncratic) powers. But there’s a downside: the universe doesn’t like to be messed with, and ‘mancy creates Flux, a razor wire that whips back at the user, causing terrible things to happen. Paul Tsabo’s obsession is paperwork—he’s a bureaucromancer, able to rewrite the past and control destiny through the manipulation of forms and contracts. When his young daughter is gravely injured in a burst of Flux caused by a malevolent ‘mancer, Paul must put his ordered world at risk to seek revenge and stop a killer. With a subplot involving the creation of a druglike form of ‘mancy called Flex, this one-of-a-kind series (which saw two installments released this year) is what might result if you put Breaking Bad and Reddit in a blender and hit “frappe.” Read our review of Flex.

Uprooted

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Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
The author of the beloved Temeraire series takes a break from Napoleonic Era dragon combat for an inventive standalone fantasy with the tectonic pull of a classic fairy tale and a bold, contemporary sensibility all her own. Plain young Agnieszka lives in a small kingdom on the border of a malevolent wood. Only the protection of a secretive wizard known as the Dragon keeps the darkness contained within. In return for his services, the Dragon demands a terrible price: a decade of servitude from one of the girls of the village. As the time of his choosing nears, Agnieszka despairs, fearing she will lose her best friend, the beautiful Kasia. Her fears turn out to be…misplaced. Ursula K. LeGuin called it “vividly believable,” and Lev Grossman labeled it, “an instant classic.” We tend to agree: read our review.

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins
Add another to the ranks of strange libraries in SFF: the titular book depository may hold all the secrets to the universe, if the man that orphaned Caroline now calls Father can be trusted. Raised according to His bizarre beliefs, Carolyn and other 11 “children” have learned what little they know of power from the Library (Carolyn’s section, one of 12, is all about languages, and not just the ones we know). The children are both drawn to and fearful of the Library’s power, and are starting to suspect Father might be a god…or the God. And then God goes missing, and the strange power of the Library is up for grabs. Like a dark-hearted take on what might really happen if child wizards like Harry and Hermione weren’t so well-behaved, Hawkins debut is harrowing, entrancing, and never less than utterly original. Read our review.

Half-Resurrection Blues, by Daniel José Older
Older’s first novel (and, alongside the YA fantasy Shadowshaper, one of two he published in 2015) details the adventures of Carlos Delacruz, an “inbetweener” in a vividly realized alternate Brooklyn where ghosts and demons roam openly (still recognizable as the borough of our own world, where the walking dead are a bit more discreet). Carlos, who’s neither dead nor alive, works for the New York Council of the Dead (NYCOD) as a kind of mediator between the two worlds. When another inbetweener releases a horde of demons, it’s up to Carlos to stop him from before he destroys the city.

Planetfall, by Emma Newman
Hugo-nominated podcaster Newman follows up her popular Split Worlds fantasy series with a stunning piece of social science fiction set on a remote human colony world. Lee Suh-Mi, a scientist who believes she received visions of a distant planet, inspired an almost religious fervor in her followers and managed to fund a deep space expedition to locate it. It turns out the planet does exist, but what awaited them on the surface was far more alien than anyone imagined. 20 years later, life in the colony has developed into something approaching routine—for everyone, that is, but Ren, Suh-mi’s lover, and one of only two people who knows what tragedy really occurred the day they made planetfall. It’s as much a wrenching portrait of mental illness as it is a compelling SF mystery, and will rip your heart out like nothing else you’ll read this year (well, except maybe Baru Cormorant). Read our review.

Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This charming literary fantasy is pitched to adults but will resonate for readers of all ages. After all, we were all once teenagers, and can remember a time when we discovered that one band that seemed to be speaking directly to us, transmitting a message so powerful it felt like it could change the world. For Meche, an oddball teenager living in Mexico City in the late ’80s, that becomes literally true when she discovers she can cast spells using music. She and her friends decide to use her newfound ability to repair their broken lives, but things don’t go exactly as planned. From there, the story jumps 20 years into the future, as Meche returns home to try to put the wrong things right once again.

Dark Orbit, by Carolyn Ives Gilman
This thoughtful first contact story will delight anyone with a longing for a fresh example of ’70s-era social science fiction the likes of classics by Ursula K. LeGuin. Rootless exoethnologist Sara Callicot tags along with a group of researchers on a 58-light-year trip to a newly discovered planet. Ostensibly she’s there is case they make contact with any new cultures—and oh boy, do they, discovering a group of apparently human settlers who live underground and are completely blind, yet perfectly fluent in a common tongue—but also secretly to keep tabs on Thora, another member of the expedition, and one with political connections that could hold the key a conspiracy involving unexplained disappearances, deaths, and a paranoid security officer. Read our review.

The Drafter, by Kim Harrison
With a brilliant, punchy premise and plenty of action,The Drafter is a thriller with a sci-fi edge that will push buttons for both newcomers and fans of Harrison’s Rachel Morgan urban fantasy series. Peri is a Drafter, someone with the ability to rewind time 30 seconds and change the past. But every time she Drafts, her own memories are muddled—a confusion Jack, her lover and partner at Opti, the secret government agency they are both a part of, helps her muddle through. When Peri discovers her own name on a list of corrupt Opti employees, she suddenly has reason to doubt Jack—and herself, as she realizes her entire existence has been manipulated. 

Wake of Vultures, by Lila Bowen
Delilah S. Dawson crafts a bloody, western-tinged dark fantasy so unforgiving, she had to create a pseudonym to publish it. Nettie Lonesome is a mixed-race orphan taken in by a white couple who clothe and feed her but treat her like anything but family. One night, she is attacked by a fearsome, near-immortal wanderer; after finally killing him with a stake to the heart, Nettie realizes she can suddenly see the darkness—the real darkness—all around her. With a few allies from a nearby ranch, she sets off into the desert on a quest to find her true calling, and something resembling a home…provided the monsters don’t get to her first. With a plot that grabs you in a chokehold and a protagonist who challenges every convention in the book, it may be the weirdest thing we read all year—in the best way. Read our review.

Vision in Silver, by Anne Bishop
Anne Bishop started her remarkable career in epic fantasy, but proves herself just as skilled at manipulating the tropes of the modern urban variety. In the world of the Others, humans are but pawns—and prey—ruled over by supernatural beings. Meg Corbyn is a human gifted with the ability to see the future when her skin is cut. Hunted by her own kind, she hid in the shadows with the Others, finding unexpected allies among the terra indigene. But what does it mean to live among your enemies? In the third volume of this ambitious and engrossing saga, a war between humans and Others is brewing, and seers like Meg are highly valued by both sides. But looking into the future has consequences, and Meg finds herself addicted to the magical charge of blood prophecy.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers
Originally self-published, Chambers’ buzzy debut was acquired by Harper Voyager for a digital release this year, with print to follow in 2016. But don’t wait ’til next year: this addictive, expansive, character-based tale reads like a Netflix binge of your new favorite space opera series. Spend a year with the crew of the Wayfarer, a deep-space mining vessel tasked with punching through dimensional barriers to create wormholes that act as interstellar highways, a job that’s as exciting as it sounds, but only for the scant minutes it actually takes to accomplish. The rest of the time is spent traveling at sublight speeds across vast distances—though that does leave plenty of time to get to know your crew and have adventures along the way. There’s more character here than plot, but when the characters are this lived-in, that’s a feature, not a bug, and the sci-fi trappings (from truly alien aliens to a fascinating exploration of the ethics of creating artificial intelligence) are first rate.

Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson
Wilson has earned considerable acclaim for his short fiction; this lengthy novella marks his commercial debut and proves him no less talented when working on a larger canvas. What a debut it is—this is rich, startling, deeply original fantasy. With prose that has drawn comparisons to Gene Wolf, he creates a world that might be in our own far future (or distant past): abandoned by aliens, or gods, or alien gods; where magic and belief intermingle; where humans scrabble for purchase in the dirt. Demane is a descendant of divinity, but lives unremarkably as a guard for a group of traders, finding solace where he can in quiet moments with another man, called Captain, who is also of mixed celestial origin. The two must safeguard the merchants’ passage through the Wildeeps, a wilderness only safely traversed via an enchanted road—but there is a monster in the ‘deeps that can cross the wards. The evocative imagery, sudden splashes of blood and gore, and profane, anachronistic dialogue (if anachronisms can exist in a world so singular as this one) come together to create an experience worthy of being spoken of in the same breath as Samuel R. Delaney.

Revision, by Andrea Phillips
Phillips’ debut has a premise that feels timeless, even if it could only really have been written in the current era of the inescapable internet and omnipresent social media: Mira is a rich girl slumming it as a Brooklyn barista and suffering one tragic relationship after another. Most recently, it’s Benji, head of Verity, a Wikipedia-like tech startup, telling her they’re probably better off calling it quits. In a fit of pique, Mira uses a stolen password to edit Benji’s Verity page to suggest he proposed to her…which, minutes later, he does. Mira realizes that Verity is much more than a news-gathering network—it’s a tool that could be used to alter the past and irrevocably change the future. It’s romantic comedy crossed with Black Mirror, and begging to be made into a movie someday. Maybe create an entry on IMDb and see what happens…

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear
You never know what you’re going to get from an Elizabeth Bear novel—in the best possible sense, and Karen Memory is like nothing else she’s written, a standalone steampunk western in an alternate version of late 19th century Seattle. Karen Memery is a “seamstress” in the house of Madame Damnable, who employs a number of women, and whose ornate sewing machines never seem to get much use. Karen and the rest of Damnable’s girls are pulled into a dangerous plot when they give shelter to a battered, bloodied woman who arrives late one night seeking protection from her abuser, one of the city’s most powerful men, who may have in his possession a device that can control men’s minds. Bear is clearly having a ball, from incorporating crazy gadgetry to writing in Karen’s idiosyncratic, irresistible voice. Read our review.

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Beaulieu launches his second epic fantasy trilogy (following The Lays of Anuskaya) with the story of 19-year-old Çeda, a gladiator in the fighting pits of Sharakhai, a desert kingdom ruled over by 12 immortal lords who live in luxury while their subjects must scrape to survive. Determined to avenge her mother, who was executed by the Twelve Kings, Çeda schemes and searches for a way to upset their ironclad rule—and comes to uncover hidden truths about the source of their power, and her own destiny, that could upset the balance of the entire world. Beaulieu’s intricate world-building and complex characters are quickly becoming the hallmarks of his writing, and if this opening volume is any indication, The Song of the Shattered Sands will be one of the next great fantasy epics. Read our review.

The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass, by Jim Butcher
Butcher takes a break from The Dresden Files for an epic steampunk fantasy adventure featuring airships, sky pirates, and talking cats. Clouds of war are gathering around the Spires, towers citadels that house humanity and produce the technological marvels that have changed the world. Captain Grimm, commander of the airshipPredator, is loyal to Spire Albion, which has a bitter rivalry with Spire Aurora. When the Predator is damaged, Grimm is roped into undertaking a secret mission on Albion’s behalf…and soon discovers that the conflicts between the spires are mere set dressing in the face of a greater threat: the return of an ancient enemy that hasn’t been seen in 10 millennia. This series-opener is good stuff, and proves that Butcher can apparently write anything he sets his mind to. Read our review.

What’s the best book you read in 2015? 

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