Here’s part two of my 2016 “Books I Liked List”. This is the list of books I really, really liked, for the list of books I just liked one “really” worth, head here. All the book titles like to the Kindle edition of the book, so enjoy.
All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
I really did like this book quite a bit, though not as much as other people: you’ll find several online lists that have it as the best or one of the two or three best books of the year. (It was also one of three books on both these lists to be nominated for a Nebula Award for best Novel.) (Though now that I think about it, we’ve also got a Novella nominee in here.)
The book features two characters, he’s basically a mad scientist, she’s basically a magician. They meet in middle school, bonding over separate childhoods that are Roald Dahl levels of bad, and come back into each other’s lives as adults trying to prevent the end of the world. So, it’s throwing all kinds of different tropes together and seeing what works. Most of it works, the book is very clever. I think my quibbles were with the first part of the book — the childhoods are really grim. Overall, though, I really liked it.
Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen
I already wrote a review this one and I don’t know that I can improve on it:
Every year, it seems, there’s one book I read that stands out for the sheer audacity and weirdness of its premise. I usually call that my “if you only read one” book, as in “if you only read one book about anthropomorphic sentient elephants who can talk to the dead and are part of a space empire of other anthropomorphic species, make it Barsk.”
You probably are either all-in or totally out based on that description. (We do eventually learn how all the talking animals came to be, if that helps. Or hurts). The elephants, who have been exiled to a single planet, are the sole creators of the drug that lets some people speak to the dead. The rest of the alliance has basically had enough and are willing to go to great lengths to recover the drug. In addition to being totally bonkers, the book is really clever, the characters are memorable, and the ending lands. So pretty much everything I look for in a book.
City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett
Wow, did I love this book, which is book two in a trilogy of what seem to be loosely connected novels in the same world. The series takes place in a fantasy world where the old gods have been killed, and the empire they supported overrun by the people it formerly ruled. In this book, a general of the new rulers heads to the former stronghold of the god of war, now a source for a very precious metal. The question becomes whether the old god of war is as dead as promised. Or if the god is poised to, you know, destroy the world.
The book winds up being a mystery, a thriller, a very cool fantasy setting, and eventually resolves to a philosophical debate about the nature of soldiers, as the general comes to terms with her past actions. This one is really special.
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
This is a sequel to A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a book I liked but found a little slight. In this one, Lovelace, the AI that escaped at the end of the first book goes off to live her life, by highly illegally being dowloaded into a physical body. She’s helped by Pepper, an engineer who is paying forward for the way in which an AI saved her life and helped her escape from a terrifying situation.
The book is surprisingly warm, it’s about being human, but not in the kind of flashy way that a lot of SF treats AI, but in a quieter way, with friendships and tea, and worries about the memory capacity of a physical brain. Pepper’s quest to recover the AI that saved her resolves in a tremendously satisfying and kind of sweet way. I read this book at a time when a book about people simply being kind to each other despite differences felt particularly important, and it was just a super helpful world to escape into.
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is terrifyingly prolific. In the last eighteen months, unless I’m miscounting, she has published books in 7 different series (Toby Day, InCrypted, Velveteen, Feed, Parasitology, Indexed, Wayward Children), plus a standalone or two. This one could be the best. The only reason I’m okay with the fact that she and John Rogers aren’t collaborating on making this a TV series right this moment is that Rogers is busy working on the far-flung Patrick Rothfuss empire.
This book takes place at a… retreat for children that have gone off and have portal fantasy adventures (think Narnia), and have escaped, left, or otherwise been rejected by their fantasy world. Each child has gone to different world, and there is kind of a taxonomy of fantasy worlds that’s pretty great. The plot itself is a murder mystery, and it’s perfectly good, but the setting, the variety of the cast of characters, the sheer joy with which McGuire showers us with incidental details about fantasy worlds, those are the real star.
Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone
Okay, look, I rave about this series pretty much at a drop of a hat. This is because the books are great and I enjoy them tremendously. They was also engineered in a lab to appeal to me. (Industrial or post-industrial tech with magic, theology with gods that interact with people, unusual magic system treated in-world like science, somewhat satirical tone… since you asked. You didn’t ask).
This book is a direct sequel to Three Parts Dead, and incidentally catches up on the characters from Last First Snow and Two Roads Cross. (I think there’s a slight reference to the characters in Full Fathom Five . In this world, magic, law, and finance are all intertwined, and the events at the end of Three Parts Dead have left the god Kos Everlasting in a vulnerable position. Concerns over whether Kos will actually meet his godly/legal obligations lead to the possibility of the what is in essence a credit run, “bankrupting” Kos, who is decidedly too big to fail — reference to Lehman Brothers and that ilk decidedly intentional. Tara, who we last saw saving Kos in Three Parts Dead has to do so again.
If the description above makes the book sound like vegetables, it’s not. It’s funny and clever, and the characters are interesting — Gladstone’s ability to throw in amazing details that are just background is nearly Pratchett-esq. I don’t want to spoil it, but at one point in the book Gladstone has this amazing offhand reference about zombies, which is something I’ve never seen but is cool and perfect for this world. About ten pages later, he follows that up with something equally neat about vampires.
I love these books. As part of the shift to Gladstone being published by Tor.com, all of them are available digitally for $2.99, and there’s a five book e-omnibus coming out soon. You should totally read this.
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
Okay, this is the umpteenth book in Bujold’s Vokosigan saga, the main span of which covers some 40 years in the lives of her main characters. As much as I love this book, it is decidedly not a great place to start the series, there’s just too much implied backstory. Start with The Warrior’s Apprentice or maybe Shards of Honor, or maybe Brothers In Arms.
This book takes place a short time after the death of Count Aral Vorkosigan, which was basically an epilogue in the most recent book in the series chronologically (which is not the most recent book published, but if I start explaining every little bit we will be here all day). Cordelia, the Countess Vorkosigan, is grieving, surviving, trying to wonder what to do with the rest of her life (she’s about 70 with a 120 year expected life span). It turns out, in a reveal that is part-retcon, part something that the author had discussed widely outside the books, that she and her husband had actually be part of a somewhat secret poly relationship with a shared partner, the title character, Admiral Oliver Jole. (It’s kind of fun to read various synopsis of the book try to delicately walk around the exact nature of the relationship).
And… Jole and Cordelia discover that they still have feelings for each other even without Aral. And that’s the story. I like this book, I love these characters and would happily read them just having pleasant chats about their lives. Which is good because that’s basically what we get here. There’s very little external plot, but its all charming and witty and charismatic as all hell.
Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
It’s World War One, and it turns out the the turn of the century spiritualists were right. Even more so, the British Army has been able to militarize spiritualism by binding soldiers to have their ghosts report back to trained mediums after death. This proves to be an important source of military intelligence, and therefore becomes a target of the German army.
We seem to be setting up our main characters as a young couple. Ginger, a medium in the spirit corps, and Benjamin, an officer with British intelligence. Very quickly however (maybe this is a spoiler, it happens really early), Benjamin is mysteriously killed. His ghost has no information, but it’s all very suspicious, and Ginger ends up trying to fulfill his mission, solve his murder, and protect the Spirit Corps.
Kowal is very good at this, she’s a very precise sentence-by-sentence writer and plotter, and she’s also very good at writing couples who actually seem to love and respect each other. In this particular case, this skill makes Benjamin and Ginger’s interactions somewhat bittersweet, what with him being dead and a ghost and all. It’s all very well done and satisfying
Necessity by Jo Walton
This series was last years winner of the “If you only read one” award, and honestly if it wasn’t for Barsk it’d still be a strong contender, what with the Greek Gods, alien planets, time travel, AI robots, all bouncing around the same story. At the end of Book Two, Zeus had moved Athene and Apollo’s experiment in good civic management to another planet. As the book opens, they are about to receive their first visiting spaceship from Earth (they’ve already made contact with a couple of alien races), which might lead to some awkward conversation about how the ancient Greeks wound up on another planet.
So this is not a little bit bonkers, in the best way, and Walton’s characters continue to argue about philosophical points of justice and goodness. Once again, we get to see Sokrates debate with robots. It’s pretty great, and a satisfying end to the series. I have no idea what muse made Walton want to write about this combination of things, but I’m glad it did.
The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin
The middle book of the trilogy that started with The Fifth Season, and which feels like it’s not just good, but historically good. As in, potential to be a cornerstone work that gets read and referenced for decades. The series concerns a planet where extinction-level geological events happen regularly, and people need to survive anyway. Essun, our main character, is an orogene, meaning she has the ability to both cause and prevent earthquakes. In The Fifth Season, we learn how orogenes are both vital and despised. The book is about oppression and fear, and, I guess, survival in the face of both of them.
Without giving too much away, The Obelisk Gate trades the three separate plot threads over time for a somewhat more conventional three character threads at mostly the same time. It’s still beautifully written, and contains the quote “No voting on who gets to be people”, which I cite in my head at least once a week these days. It’s a little middle bookish, and I’m not completely sure I understand how all the supernatural forces are coming together here. It’s still fantastic, and I can’t wait for the final book.
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
Some of the books on this list I think have very wide appeal. I think nearly everybody reading this will like Every Heart a Doorway or A Close and Common Orbit. Others, while I enjoy them very much, I suspect are probably a bit more narrow.
Which brings us to Too Like The Lightning, which is a dense SF novel that does not wait around for the reader to catch up with what’s going on. Its a deliberate attempt to have a world 400 years in the future that is as disconcerting and strange to us as we would be to somebody from the 1600s. (Most SF futures cheat for good reasons, and persist ideas that the reader is likely to be comfortable with to keep the story moving along).
A summary of the word building and plot defies my ability to summarize, and possibly my memory, no idea what I’m going to do when the second book comes out. Our main character, we come to learn, is a notorious criminal, sentenced to wander the world serving others more or less anonymously. We eventually come to understand that he’s become part of one or more plots to control what passes for the world government, while also hiding a boy whose seemingly supernatural abilities might make the whole society moot anyway.
I’m not even scratching the surface. We have transcontinental driverless cars. A culture that responds to every death by trying to eradicate the cause. Some elaborate and baroque governmental structures. A different view of gender. A strain of classical thought winding through all of it. It’s also structurally inventive going back and forth through characters viewpoints and different kinds of storytelling — this was definitely a book where I regretted the limitations of Kindle formatting.
There’s a lot of book here. I found it fascinating and unique and it compelled me to try and figure out what the hell was up. You should try it if this was at all compelling.
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
To stroll past the elephant in the room. Underground Airlines came out at almost the same time as The Underground Railroad, and they are both genre books about slavery. Ben Winters, who wrote Underground Airlines, is white, Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, is black. This got more awkward when an article about Winters made it sound like Winters was the first person to ever use SF to write about slavery, a ridiculous statement that Winters couldn’t back away from fast enough. Anyway, I feel a little bad about liking this book more than Whitehead’s, but this book is much more of a plot-based thriller, and I tend to like those. You should still read them both.
Underground Airlines is an alternate history, still taking place in 2016. We eventually learn that Lincoln was killed en route to Washington in 1861, and a pre-existing compromise proposal was hastily passed to avoid chaos. As a result, no Civil War, but slavery was protected from the federal government in those states that already have it. By 2016, four of those states persist in being slave states, though the preferred term is PBL — persons bound by law.
Our main character, Victor, is an escaped slave who is being blackmailed by the US Marshall service to help them to recover other escaped slaves. He’s, as you might imagine, somewhat conflicted by the work. On the trail of one of his quarries, he discovers a larger conspiracy that will affect the future of the US and of slavery. (A very disturbing larger conspiracy, as it turns out…)
What Winters does really well in this book is imagine how horrifying slavery would be when joined to the modern day surveillance state. When we finally do get a glimpse of what slave life is like, it’s chilling. He also touches on what the US might be like if it had to adapt to actual slave states alongside modern liberal democracy. Like Whitehead, he does not skimp on the idea that slavery requires a lot of violence to sustain it. In general, none of the other 46 states purchase goods from the four slave states, for example. And then there will be a throwaway reference to whether PBLs can play pro football. It all manages to echo both Civil War-era slavery and modern-day police and racial tension in way that’s very effective.