Last year, we somehow waited all the way until November to share our list of the year’s top new science fiction and fantasy books, but 2016 has made than damn near impossible. Six months in, and we’re ready to call it: we’re in the middle of some kind of genre Renaissance, with provocative, innovative, compelling, and just-plain-enjoyable books dropping weekly at a rate that is, frankly, unsustainable, at least for readers who want to, say, maintain a bank account balance or proper hygiene. Call it Peak SFF, and don’t think we’re complaining: it’s a great year to be a genre reader. Here are 15 books from the first half of 2016 that belong on your TBR pile.
All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
io9.com editor Charlie Jane Ander’s debut speculative novel is a story of love and friendship, hope and despair, science and magic, and the end of the world. A girl who can do magic falls for a boy who only believes in science, and together, they must figure out how to save our dying planet—assuming, of course, the planet even wants our help. Childhood friends Patricia and Laurance lose touch with one another as they grow up, their differing paths sending one of them to a secret school for magicians and the other to the best engineering programs on offer. Years later, they meet again, with the fate of the world at stake, and the forces of science and magic edging toward all-out war.
City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett
The sequel to Bennett’s City of Stairs is a bit more grounded, but no less beautifully conceived. The oppressive Continental Gods have been destroyed, and Saypur occupies their broken cities—including Voortyashtan, once the home of the goddess of war and death, now a shattered place of violence and chaos under Saypur military rule. General Turyin Mulaghesh, a rumored war criminal and a deeply conflicted soul who loathes violence but is exceptionally good at it, is sent undercover to investigate the disappearance of a spy—and find herself chasing after a discovery with the power to alter the world forever, or end it entirely. Bennett balances a somber tone with enough humor and humanity to create a compelling, fascinating universe and a story that benefits from a close reading.
Hardcover $25.19 | $27.99
A Gathering of Shadows, by V.E. Schwab
The followup to last year’s breakout fantasy A Darker Shade of Magic returns us to a realm of parallel Londons, some more magical than others. With the threat of White London defeated (for now), Red London’s Traveler (the only soul able to cross the barriers between worlds) Kell is attempting to return to his regular life—no easy task when you’re the adopted step-brother of an impetuous prince with a death wish, especially when it’s time for the Element Games, a semi-annual tournament in which the most skilled magicians compete for a shot at glory. As Kell contemplates entering under an assumed identity, thief-turned-world-saving-heroine Delilah Bard sails back into port with the crew of a pirate magician and her own secret plans to make a name for herself in the competition. That is, if whoever appears to be tampering with the matches doesn’t succeed in killing her (and Kell) first.
Morning Star, by Pierce Brown
Brown mixed dystopian tropes and lush SF landscapes in the first two installments of his Mars-based revolutionary thriller trilogy, Red Rising and Golden Son, telling the story of the rise of Darrow, a former slave who has infiltrated the color-coded system of the elites into order to dismantle it. In Morning Star, the time has finally come for Darrow to tear down the world of the aristocratic, despotic Golds from the inside. With propulsive storytelling and flawed, fascinating characters, the series has attracted a fervent fanbase, and it’s not difficult to see why. This one sticks the landing in a big way, and the series comes to a rousing finish, managing to thread the needle between satisfying genre die-hards and maintaining the kind of populist appeal that means we’ll be seeing this story on the big screen sooner rather than later.
Borderline, by Mishell Baker
Urban fantasy series often live of die on the strength of their protagonist, and by that measure, Mishell Baker has written one of the greats. Borderline introduces Millicent Roper, a cynical, at times unlikable, yet downright captivating new voice, a once-promising filmmaker, a suicide survivor and double-amputee struggling to reenter the world and keep her mental illness—borderline personality disorder—under control. Perhaps you don’t think she sounds like the best candidate to serve as the go-between between the dangerous Fey realm and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but then, you have yet to encounter the Arcadia Project, the shoestring organization tasked with keeping our world safe from magical destruction, staffed with society’s cast-offs. Baker spins a fast-moving fantasy yarn while crafting fully formed characters, showing great compassion in her depiction of mental illness and alienation.
The Spider’s War, by Daniel Abraham
Consider this a case of Return of the King Syndrome: the last in a series earning acclaim for the monumental achievement of the whole. Daniel Abraham, who has been quite busy of late as one-half of pseudonymous smash sci-fi author James S.A. Corey, caps off his second epic fantasy series, following the critically adored Long Price Quartet, and the end result is nothing less than extremely rewarding. Book five of The Dagger and the Coin brings to a close the tale of Geder Palliako, a horrible despot only more fearsome for his mundanity, and those aligned against him: weathered sellsword Marcus Wester, banking prodigy Cithrin bel Sarcour, resolute widow Clara, and the apostate Master Kit. As dangerous as he is, Geder is but an agent of the ultimate evil: the Spider God, awakened, and seeking to tighten its web around the world.
Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire
In McGuire’s bewitching new novella, all of the fantasy worlds you’ve ever dreamed of are real, and children really have traveled to them through hidden doorways, magical paintings, enchanted wardrobes, and the dew on spiders’ webs. But what happens to those children once they slip back into our world? If you’ve faced incredible dangers on a quest of legend, pledged your service to the Lord of Darkness, or sat upon an enchanted throne, ninth grade algebra isn’t likely to cut it. You’ll never truly stop looking for the way back—no matter how hard the mundane world tries to convince you that what you experienced was not magic, but madness. That’s where Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children comes in. It takes in these broken wanderers, gives them a home, and, perhaps, hope. There’s no guarantee that they’ll ever find those hidden doorways, but at least they’ll have a place to call home. It’s a touching story of loss and belonging.
Children of the Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay returns with a dense, immensely enjoyable book that explores an alternate Europe locked in conflict between religions, political states, and individuals set in the same near-Europe of his two Sarantium books, though set long after those stories. Afflicted by the constant pirate attacks of the Senjani, the powerful city-state of Seressa plots to manipulate the Senjani’s liege, Rodolfo of Obravic, Holy Emperor of the god Jad. These currents set the stage for a deeply-imagined world, which Kay spins into a wide-ranging tale filled with finely-etched characters with disparate motivations, backgrounds, and purposes, tracing complicated politics and conflicting loyalties without sacrificing pacing or plotting involving spying in the commercial and political sense. Any fan of beautifully written, realistically rendered fantasy realms will find this one among best examples yet written, and well worth their careful attention.
Hardcover $23.40 | $26.00
The Summer Dragon, by Todd Lockwood
Renowned illustrator Lockwood debuts his first novel, the story of Maia, whose family breeds and trains dragons for war. Maia is recovering from the loss of her mother, and longs for a dragon of her own to bond with—a bond that goes deeper than most can truly understand. Her hopes and dreams are pushed sideways when a dragon arrives in her aerie—not just any dragon, but one of the rare High Dragons, the Summer Dragon itself, prompting Maia to makes a risky decision and take an incredible chance. Lockwood proves to be a master of the art of world-building, crafting a universe that feels absolutely real and lived-in, and populating it with fascinating, complicated characters. It’s a grand fantasy debut that any genre fans will love—and dragon lovers will devour.
Central Station, by Lavie Tidhar
Tidhar’s second novel out in the U.S. this year, following the pitch-black Adolf Hitler satire A Man Lies Dreaming, couldn’t be more different: this strange take on space opera is a classic “fix-up,” strung together from a double-handful of previously published short stories exploring the lives of the inhabitants of a slum situated below Central Station, the hub of humanity’s future and a gateway to contact with the Others, an alien force that is changing the future of humanity. On the ground, in a border town between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, genetically engineered children experience a different sort of reality, cyborg couriers deliver drugs, and robotic priests speak to the faithful. It’s a dazzling, unsettling vision of the future from one of the most consistently interesting—and challenging—voices in the genre.
Infomocracy, by Malka Older
Older’s debut novel imagines a world where the entire population is divided into groups of 100,000, known as centenals. Each centenal can vote for the government they wish to belong to—governments ranging from corporate-dominated PhilipMorris, to policy-based groups with names like Liberty. A global organization called Information seeks to police elections and ensure that the many governments keep their promises and play by the rules—and when a researcher for a government called Policy1st stumbles onto a conspiracy to rig elections, he’s teamed with an agent of Information as they struggle to find out the truth, expose the plot—and, naturally enough, stay alive. Older’s fierce imagination and eye for detail make her future world seem entirely plausible, and her characters believably flawed. It’s one of the year’s most promising debuts, and we can’t wait to see where she goes with the recently announced sequel.
The Medusa Chronicles, by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds
Arthur C. Clarke’s award-winning 1971 novella A Meeting with Medusa casts a long shadow, and continuing the story of Howard Falcon, whose body was rebuilt using cybernetics and prosthetics after he was injured exploring Jupiter, is a task best left to experts. Luckily, we have the combined minds of Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, who return to the story 45 years later, crafting a sequel overfull with cutting edge SF-nal ideas. Falcon’s storied journey to Jupiter has inspired Earth to stretch out beyond the planet’s boundaries, but the technology developed and refined by humanity begins to assert its own autonomy and intelligence. Preserving the tone and feel of Clarke’s original, Reynolds and Baxter expand the scope of the story in thrilling ways, making this a must-read for any fan of the Golden Age master.
Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer
Palmer’s long-in-coming debut crafts a distinctly unique vision of a future world—a 25th century where technology has created abundance, where religion is outlawed but personal spirituality is encouraged, where criminals are sentenced to wander the world making themselves useful. It’s an imagined outcome rooted in threads visible all around us even today. The story involves an unlikely meeting between a convict serving a family named Mycroft Canner; a “sensayer,” or spiritual guide, named Carlyle Foster; and Bridger, a young boy who seems to possess the power to make his every wish come true—a power that could completely destabilize a world that is the very definition of stability. With lush prose that recreates the feel of a period novel, this is one of the year’s most striking debuts.
Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee
Yoon Ha Lee’s short fiction has been praised for its elegant prose, outsize SF-nal ambition, and rigorous technical detail. Hard SF space opera from a mathematician and data analyst: one of those times you put a bunch of boring words together, and the result is only awesome. Ordered to retake a fortress captured by heretical rebels and with no other way to win, Captain Kel Cheris must welcome into her head the digitized consciousness of Shuos Jedao, an infamous military strategist who has been exiled to machine space ever since he engineered a disastrous campaign that left an entire planet dead. Together, they will unlock a galaxy-wide conspiracy that could disrupt the entirety of their rigid, ordered, highly mathematical society, throwing everything into chaos. This is one of the most challenging, mind-expanding new sci-fi books you’ll read this year.
The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley won the Hugo Award for Best Related Work in 2014 for her incendiary post “We Have Always Fought,” a furious analysis and indictment of the way women have been ill-treated by fantasy tropes. This collection, her first, presents that essential commentary of work alongside a host of essays examining women and geek culture, most of which were first published on her blog, through nine new pieces are exclusive to the book. It’s a challenging, incendiary assembly, covering her tumultuous career as an author and presenting a scathing look at the culture wars ongoing within the geek world. It may change the way you look at sci-fi, fantasy, and fandom forever.
What’s the best new book you’ve read in 2016?