We couldn’t let 2015 out the door without stopping one last time to gush about all the great SF/F we read over the past 12 months. This was an outstanding year for genre fiction, and these are the books the bloggers and editors at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog loved the most.
Aidan: In many ways, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown reminds me of last year’s The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It’s charismatic and honest, and features an endearing cast of characters who better themselves in their effort to overcome their challenges rather than sinking to match the ethics and morals of those who oppose them. Like Addison’s critically-lauded novel, Sorcerer to the Crown is the antithesis of the grimdark movement — a bright light that revels in hope and the perseverance of good people — and I can see it catching a lot of readers off guard, especially those who are sick of bloody battlefields, moralistically grey anti-heroes, and answers at the end of a blade. Cho’s England is cast from a centuries-old mould, but the themes she explores have never been more relevant , and are just as grim as anything gritty epic fantasy has to offer.
Andrew: My favorite book of the year is Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It’s got everything: space ships, aliens, amazing adventures, all the things that made me love science fiction in the first place. It’s an absolute delight.
Nicole: Largely uncontested in my list of 2015 favorites, Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance is a stunning, enigmatic space opera noir swathed in Old Hollywood glamor and decopunk dreams. It’s incredibly difficult to describe, but that’s part of the charm — and why you’ll devour its epistolary narrative on your hunt to learn what happened to filmmaker Severin Unck. (And if I get to pick a second favorite of the year, it’s Welcome to Night Vale, which manages to capture all the surreal details of an ever-evolving podcast and add more depth to a bizarre world.)
Rich: I hate to be one of those people who uses the most recent book they read as an example of the year’s best, but I have no choice. Seth Dickinson’s fantasy debut, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, seems to split readers down the middle, with some bouncing off of the intricate political/economic machinations and deeply flawed, alienating characters even as the rest of us turn pages to so fast they threaten to burst into flame. The epic saga of young Baru Cormorant’s rebellious rise against the oppressive ruling machine delivers big time on all fronts, including one of the most thrilling battle sequences I have ever read.
Sam Reader: There was stiff competition for favorites this year, but The Library at Mount Char stands out as one that completely blindsided me. It might be because Scott Hawkins’s tale of a bizarre pantheon and their power struggles is the closer than most “mainstream” books get to smaller-press surrealist lit, or simply because it defies all attempts to pin it down. It’s terrifying, gorgeous, grotesque, and strangely uplifting in equal measure, and I can safely say it’s like very few things I’ve read.
Jeff: While I’m still not 100 percent certain I understand The Vorrh completely, that’s part of the thrill. Brian Catling has created a lush, dense reality familiar enough to suck you in but bizarre enough to keep you guessing. The way he weaves actual historical figures (and their very real insanity or obsessions) into a story otherwise structured like a modern myth reminds me of old-school epic poetry; everything is heightened, and in the end, people will be arguing about what it all means for decades to come. Rumor has it there will be sequels, and I certainly hope so.
Kelly: I was fortunate enough to read some wonderful speculative fiction this year, but there was no speculation more fascinating than Jo Walton’s in her Thessaly series, beginning with The Just City. Months later, they’re still hanging around in my head, for a few reasons: the world that Walton creates, and the fact that it is entirely set up to service philosophy, of all things. Second, that she commits herself to systematically following through with each thought exercise she sets up. Finally, and most compellingly, the very human cracks, faults, and diversity on display, the inexplicable “just-because” curveballs that knock these logical, circular, orderly worlds and people off their feet, despite every Platonic attempt to keep them on track. I’m really looking forward to the conclusion of this fascinating trilogy, Necessity, in 2016.
Paperback $14.43 | $16.00
Lauren: Everyone loves Mary Rickert, and now I do too. I read “Cold Fires” when Tor.com reprinted it in mid-December, then immediately bought the ebook of her most recent collection so I wouldn’t have to wait to read the rest. After reading “Journey Into the Kingdom,” I trekked across the city in search of a hard copy of her collection, You Have Never Been Here, to give as a gift. I took the G train for Mary Rickert and I don’t regret it. This book is unputdownable, a bright light in a dark and stressful season. I wish I’d bought a third copy. I still might.
Joel: In an especially good year for SF/F, there were many books I adored (the beguiling The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson; the noir trip Made to Kill by Adam Christopher; the transporting Updraft by Fran Wilde; the heart-wrenching Planetfall by Emma Newman), but if I have to choose the one that surprised me the most in 2015, it’s The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. Epic fantasy is not generally my genre, but Jemisin has managed to create a world-rending tale that honors the epics of the past while cracking their very foundations. It’s fantasy, it’s sci-fi, it’s angry, it’s confrontational, it’s alienating, it’s deeply moving, its plotting is audacious. It is epic fantasy with no epic fantasy tropes, and I need that sequel, stat.
Tim: Too many new books! 2015 was a catch-up year for me, so none of the books I read were actually published this year. I came close: my favorite read of 2015 was published in fall 2014. As City of Stairs starts, the gods are dead. Countries, people, and the fabric of cities themselves are adjusting. But reports of the gods’ death were, like Mark Twain said, premature. The relationship between this world’s gods and their followers takes theology in a whole different direction. The plot twists and the characters grow in ways that make sense. The book stands well alone but leaves much more of this wondrous world to explore. The sequel, City of Blades, will be out in January 2016, and I plan on reading that one next year, without a doubt.
John: It feels like cheating to say this, but my last new read of the year happens to be my favorite. Lawrence M. Schoen’s Barsk took me by surprise. I was expecting a run-of-the-mill fantasy tale with elephant jokes and a half-hearted message about equality. Instead, I got a deep story embedded with elements of sci-fi that spans tens of thousands of years. Color me impressed! Oh, and yeah, treat everyone equally, even if they’re hairless and have, like, really massive ears. And noses.
Paul: Arguably one of the most underappreciated science fiction/fantasy releases of 2015, Rhonda Mason’s stellar debut The Empress Game—about a ruthless pit fighter who gets the opportunity to participate in a winner-take-all female gladiatorial contest where the victor gets a seat on the Galactic Ruling Council—is space opera done right, powered by impressively complex world-building and an intriguing and endearing heroine.
Renay: Sitting at the very top of my pile of favorite books this year is Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves, the first in a new series. Elliott’s intimate knowledge of epic fantasy and genre history are showcased in narrative layers that unfold the deeper you go. It’s a story that showcases a journey of multi-generational characters across a rapidly changing social reality, but it’s also in conversation with epic fantasy as a subgenre, challenging the assumptions we make about who gets to be centered in these sorts of narratives. It has everything I want from epic fantasy and I can’t wait to see where the series takes us next.
Sam Reidel: I’ve sung the praises of Jason Hough’s Zero World since I first read it this summer, and it’s time to do it once more. Hough, hot off his success with his debut series The Dire Earth Cycle, successfully mashes everything that I love about high-concept science fiction with the best parts of a great espionage thriller. It’s philosophical, bloody, frequently hilarious, and absolutely one of the finest works of SF to appear in 2015.
Ross: Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit is the book that’s stuck with me most this year. It’s a story about interstellar travelers engaging with a new civilization, with a twist: the aliens are entirely blind. The central metaphor has to do with the near-impossibility of genuine cross-cultural understanding, and the conceit of meeting blind aliens on their home turf drives it home perfectly. It’s confident in its world-building, and the characters are rich, but it’s also vaguely old-fashioned in its clarity of ideas. That’s a good thing.
Brigid: My choice is not speculative fiction, but as a graphic novel, it fits into this blog’s purview on a technicality. The second volume of March, Rep. John Lewis’s graphic memoir of the Civil Rights movement, is not the most enjoyable book that I read this year, but it is the one that moved me most deeply. It’s a story of courage in the face of incredible violence, starting with the attempted murder of the author for the sin of sitting down at a whites-only lunch counter, then going on to the Freedom Riders, who faced riots and firebombings in their struggle to desegregate the interstate bus system, and finally to the March on Washington. At a distance of 50 years, the Civil Rights movement looks like a series of triumphs leading to an inevitable victory, but at the time, nothing was certain. Lewis, his co-writer Andrew Aydin, and artist Nate Powell plunge us back into that time, showing the struggles within the movement as well as the violence of those arrayed against it. It’s a gripping story that holds a great deal of relevance for the struggles of the present.
Hardcover $25.63 | $26.99
Ceridwen: I’ve read a lot of really fine novels this year, but I feel like Kim Harrison’s The Drafter has gotten a little lost in the shuffle. That’s too bad, because it’s a romping good time with a lot of twists and turns.The spy novel has an inevitable paranoia built into it: in organizations built on secrecy, secrets will multiply. The Drafter amplifies this paranoia by adding divergent timelines to the mix. Drafters can reorder time itself, though they have no memory of the timeline shift. The story is this deepening wig-out, one where the protagonist Peri can’t even trust her former self. It has beautifully realized near-future tech and a folding origami plot that makes me delirious. I would love to see more novels in this world.
Corrina: It’s not surprising that a book featuring a teenage Lois Lane investigating a mystery at her new high school in Metropolis is excellent. What’s surprising is that it took so long for one to appear. Gwenda Bond’s Fallout imagines Lois as a troublemaker at the various schools she’s attended as a military brat, with Metropolis her last stop. She’s eager to fit in but much less eager to let her classmates be manipulated by some unknown force. There’s also a mysterious online friend who helps fight the villain in an MMORPG that’s gone horribly wrong. It’s not spoiling to say that this friend’s initials are C.K. Best news? There’s a sequel coming in May.
Ryan: I don’t normally love books like Star Wars Philosophy, anthologies that profess to make pop culture “deeper” with a bunch of “real” scholarship. And having just put out a pop-culture essay collection myself (with some Star Wars stuff in it!) I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get into this one. But! A vast majority of these essays will make you scratch your head thoughtfully, enough to make you realize the book is awesome. And if you’re anything like me, the next thing you’ll do is use it to fire-up brand new debates about Star Wars.