Our Bloggers’ Favorite Reads of 2016

We’re not going to argue with anyone who says 2016 was a bad year (“bad” being one of the more polite adjectives to pick from), but if they try to extend that blanket statement to cover sci-fi and fantasy books, well, we offer this rebuke: the new books the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog staff loved in 2016.

Sam: I am in no way sleeping on the embarrassment of riches I’ve been lucky enough to read this year. I loved many books, and I mean that sincerely. But to represent the year, I needed something that reflected 2016’s crazy, Jack Womack-esque tone. Exploded View, Sam McPheeters’ savage dystopian satire about an overstressed surveillance state, institutionalized racism, and a heroine who finds herself constantly having to figure out if the info she’s getting is true has only grown more plausible with each passing day. Even given the wondrous, dark, and lyrical delights I’ve been a party to, this had to be my pick.

Ardi: I adored Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot, which I read back in May. The story of two sisters at a retreat for artists is haunting, surreal, and magical; it feels like a ghost story wrapped up in a fairy tale. There is a quote within that I think summed up the feeling I got while reading it: “But there are fairy tales where there is a cost, where the veins of the story run deeper than ball gowns and handsome princes. I don’t think they’re real, but I think they’re true.” This is soul achingly dark fairy tale has stuck with me, and I’m constantly recommending it to friends.

Paul: Malka Older’s Infomocracy is a book whose relevancy, poignancy, and clear voice have only grown stronger since I read it over the summer. The ambiguous utopia of its future, with its microdemocratic states, the power of information control, and questions of political agency and representation, seem even more important since the November election. And it’s expertly written, with a well-rendered global cast and canvas. It is 2016 between two covers.

T.W. O’Brien: In City of Blades, Robert Jackson Bennett continues the twisting of fantasy tropes that he began in City of Stairs. This book makes it clear that the complicated relationship between men and gods still warps the world, even after the gods are dead. Shifting to a different geographic locale and a different character’s viewpoint gave us a fuller vision of the amazing world Bennett has, and is, creating.

Rich: Stiletto, the long-awaited sequel to The Rook, lived up to my wildest book nerd expectations—and then some. While the first book focused largely on the Checguy, England’s top-secret supernatural crisis response team, and the toe-to-toe with their centuries long enemies the Grafters, the followup piles on exquisitely detailed backstory.We learn the history of the Grafters, and suddenly the lines between the good guys and the bad guys blur. It’s a book with an extremely high body count and very weird creatures, but running through it all is O’Malley’s exceedingly dry wit, which makes all the mayhem seem oddly proper.

Nicole: Maybe it speaks to the chaos and tumult of this accursed year, but, of the many excellent books I had the pleasure of reading, the one that spoke to me the most is an ode to portal fantasies. Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway introduces us to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where the residents aren’t so much wayward as waylaid—by unexpected quests, far-off adventures, and tumbles down the rabbit hole. All those children who’ve wandered through a wardrobe or been escorted out a window to a magical land wind up here after their adventures are over. In a slim novella, McGuire explores the consequences of getting spit back out by your personal wonderland, and whether it’s even possible to pick up the pieces of your “normal” life when you’ve only ever been different. It’s a charming gothic fairytale, as sweet and affecting as the kids at its core.

Jeff: There’s nothing flashy about Allan Steele’s Arkwright; it’s an old-school story that combines SF fandom and science geekery into an optimistic tale of humanity’s attempt to colonize a distant planet. The sheer magnitude of the undertaking, however, lends the story a weight and gravitas balanced perfectly by the gee-whiz factor of engineering something that travels across the universe to set a whole new civilization into motion. Fantastic stuff.

Meghan: As as longtime io9 reader, Charlie Jane Ander’s debut SFF novel was on my radar since the second she announced it. I had no idea it would become my favorite of 2016. In a year as wretched and agonizing as this one, All the Birds in the Sky was a lovely escape. It’s a beautifully strange and quirky book, full of beautifully strange and quirky people, and I love it to pieces. It’s a peanut butter and jelly blend of magic and science, fantasy and science fiction. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s the story of two social outcasts who band together, using magic and science, to possibly save the world. It is a quiet, challenging masterwork, and a book I know I will revisit years from now.

Shana: Mishell Baker’s Borderline is book I loved from the first page. A disabled film director, who happens to have borderline personality disorder, finds she is being recruited for a secret agency managing the relations between Earth and Fairyland. The depth and and richness of the world and the characters make it unputdownable; I inhaled it in one sitting, often laughing out loud at the exchanges between characters. This is a book with wit, heart, and cunning intelligence, and it is not to be missed. I can’t wait to read the sequel.

John: I get an intense thrill reading science fiction written in another language. It’s a simple way to cut to the essence of the genre, letting us see a vision of the future through the eyes of another culture. Invisible Planets, assembled by translator/editor/author Ken Liu, collects over a dozen short stories sandwiched between essays about the state of science fiction in China. It’s also got genetically engineered bipedal rats being sold at pets, which is a win no matter how cerebral you’re hoping to get.

Renay: Madeline Ashby is one of my favorite furturist writers. She’s able to put so many complicated ideas in her work while telling exciting and socially relevant stories. In Company Town, Hwa is a woman tapped by the patriarch of the company that owns her home to serve as bodyguard to his youngest child. She accepts, and her decision changes everything. Meanwhile, a serial killer begins to slaughter her former co-workers, and Hwa has to choose between her new life and her old, and forging a new path. Although it is a brisk read, this book is packed with big SF concepts and wonderful character relationships, and is thrilling from start to finish.

Corrina: In Legend of Wonder Woman, Renae De Liz has written a definitive origin of the Amazon Princess that should be the gold standard for how to write the character for years to come. The lush artwork combines with a story focused on how Diana became a hero, from her early training on Themyscira to her battles in World War II. This origin ties a threat to the Amazons with an enemy who is also exacerbating the war in the outside world. The story is at turns epic, personal, funny, and beautiful.

Martin: I’m surprised more people haven’t given this series the love it deserves. In The Last Mortal Bond, the third and final book in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Staveley weaves together the disparate threads of the first two books to delivers one of the most rousing, emotional climaxes I’ve had the pleasure of reading in epic fantasy. The tale of three siblings, ancient beings, and godhood, it is not your typical epic fantasy: it is not so much concerned with warfare, magic, politics, or fighting, but the root of those things. It considers the deep emotion, complex morality, and dense histories behind those tropey motivations. Staveley has always been at his best when grappling with the demands of philosophy, leadership, and violence, and how these roots push our characters onward toward their destinies. This series has its share of grim tidings, but in this book, there are also moments of earned joy, emotion, and, dare I say, even love. Staveley has become one of my favorite new writers, doing things with epic fantasy I’ve not seen before. His next, Skullsworn, is out in April, and I await it anxiously.

Ross: Kai Ashante Wilson’s 2015 debut novella Sorcerer of the Wildeeps was unashamedly queer, and also very specifically black, eschewing the traditional western European sensibilities of the fantasy genre in favor of something that felt a bit more like an imagined northern Africa. His latest, A Taste of Honey, goes even further, centering the story around a romance between the male leads: one a soldier, the other a courtier. For that alone, Wilson’s work reignited my faith in fantasy, suggesting a future for the genre that I hadn’t envisioned, but his lush prose and willingness to sock you in the gut with at least one killer twist are equally good draws.

Ceridwen: In a year where I read a lot of great alternate histories (most notably United States of Japan and Judenstadt), it was Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming that really stood out. The set up isn’t particularly notable: the novel follows a worn-out gumshoe in a 1930s Britain where the fascist party helmed by Oswald Mosley is in ascendance. World War II-era alternate histories are a dime a dozen; this is not new ground. But oh, what Tidhar does with this one: the gumshoe, known as Mr. Wolf, is a broken and beaten Adolf Hitler, living in a world where the Communists, not the Nazis, took over Germany. Tidhar puts Mr Wolf through increasingly grotesque degradations, forcing a kind of sympathy with one of the most hated men in history. But, as the title tells us: a man lies dreaming. That man is Schomer, a once pulp writer who lives (as it were) in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. The interplay between the alternate history is deft, and occasionally brutal. A Man Lies Dreaming is snarling pulp masterpiece.

Kelly: There was a lot of great SFF this year, but there’s nothing like seeing a favorite author return to their finest form, which means Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky was always going to be the best of 2016 for me. Over the years, his work has played with the myths, legends and history of various countries, giving them what he calls a “quarter-turn to the fantastic” in order to imbue then with a touch of magic and otherworldly power, symbolizing the hold these oft-told stories have over us. He excels at deconstructing myths and building them back up from the inside out, using the materials that really matter: the ins-and-outs of peoples’ lives that make up each step of the journey. Children of Earth and Sky does all that for a world of seafaring city states and great empires clustered in the Renaissance-esque era where the power of places like Venice, Florence, and the Ottoman and Austrian empires were at their height, with several perspectives over a major battle between faith, commerce, and power, and a plot that may or may not bring it all crashing down. It’s epic, but it never forgets to note what these events mean for those who live in a minor way. Kay is my home base for what really matters in storytelling—and here’s another reason why.

Joel:  My editorial direction for this list was to tell my writers they could pick any 2016 release they wanted, as long as they didn’t duplicate one another. This made choosing my own entry about 16 times more difficult, since so many of my favorites had already been chosen, but luckily, no one selected the one book that made me look at sci-fi in a new way. Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is a deeply strange blend of mathematics, hard SF, military action, and quasi-fantasy worldbuilding. I possibly can’t explain to you exactly what was happening during the frenetic action sequences, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a ball puzzling them out, and anyway, the real meat of the thing was the story of a disgraced commander, Captain Kel Cheris, given the ultimate crap assignment by her superiors: winning an unwinnable battle that will require unimaginable sacrifices—including opening her mind to an insane war criminal, one of the greatest traitors the galaxy has ever known. It’s good stuff.

What’s your favorite book of 2016?

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