I’ve done a lot of reading this year, and with it winding down I think it’s time for the requisite “Best of” List. So this is my look back at the year in Sci-Fi, Fantasy and a smattering of speculative Lit-Fic — the best, the worst and the things I sadly didn’t get to.
A caveat — this list is by no means comprehensive — if I didn’t read it, it isn’t in consideration. So there are several novels with great reputations that didn’t have the opportunity to make the list. This should not be considered a slight to William Gibson, Elizabeth Bear or Kameron Hurley. Also, while all books have been read, some reviews have not been published. All titles will be reviewed by the end of the year, however.
So without further ado:
The Top-Ten Novels:
Hands down, this was the best book I read from 2014. Blending Cold War intrigue and epic fantasy, Bennett crafted a setting I had never experienced in the Godforsaken city of Bulikov. But a great story is more than a great setting, and Bennett provides strong characters in Shara, a spy and assassin, and Sigrud, Shara’s Viking-like bodyguard who possesses his own tragic past.
Read this book. Now.
Originally published in three volumes this year, Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy explores the impact of the mysterious Area X, a restricted section of swampland reminiscent of Northern Florida. Blending different voices, styles and perspectives throughout the three novels, VanderMeer examines how Area X affects the lives and minds of the people guarding and exploring it. He doesn’t answer anything completely, but his unsettling vision of Area X will haunt you after reading.
Leckie swept the SFF book awards this year with her debut Ancillary Justice, about Breq, a sentient spaceship in a humanoid body that was seeking revenge for her destruction. The sequel, Ancillary Sword, equals that award-winning debut, with Breq, now in command of her own ship, investigating corruption on a distant planet that could be tied to a possible alien invasion. Leckie continues to confound with her genderless language (referring to everyone in the feminine) and Breq continues to learn and explore what it means to be human.
Or Lizzie Borden: Cthulhu Whacker. Priest blends history and horror in this homage to H.P. Lovecraft, which casts the infamous patricidal ax-wielder as the last defense between humanity and squamous sea monsters. Told as an epistolary, collecting journal entries, diaries and letters, Maplecroft follows Borden and her consumptive sister as they struggle to protect the town of Fall River from antediluvian sea creatures that attract and transform human followers (including Borden’s lesbian lover) with beautiful baubles of sea glass. An amazing excursion into the eldritch horror of Lovecraft’s New England, without the nasty racism.
The millennial mages finally grow up in the satisfying finale to this acclaimed but controversial trilogy. After two books of Quentin and his Brakebill’s compatriots moping and complaining their way through the magical world of Fillory, they must take a stand to save the land that crowned them Kings and Queens. Quentin, cast out of Fillory, is seeking to rejoin his friends and find a way to rescue his ex-girlfriend Alice from undeath as an evil magical spirit.
After the dense worldbuilding and introductions of 2010’s The Way of Kings, Sanderson gets down to some serious action in Words of Radiance, the second in his ambitious “Stormlight Archive” series. Shallan and Kaladin both grow into their roles wielding the magical stormlight, reestablishing the ancient Knights Radiant. And just in time, because the alien Parshendi have unleashed the Everstorm on the stormwracked world of Roshar. There’s way too much to get into in a single paragraph, suffice to say Sanderson puts the epic in epic fantasy and continues to grow as a writer with this magnificent novel.
20 years previous, a plague wiped out 98% of the population, destroying infrastructure and driving humanity into an almost stone-age existence. Throughout this post-apocalyptic landscape, a troupe of musicians and actors bring Shakespeare to the isolated communities along the Great Lakes, “Because Survival Is Insufficient.” Add an additional layer of mystery and meaning through a series of characters connected through their interactions with an aging Hollywood star, who died onstage the evening the outbreak began and you get a fascinating and optimistic post-apocalyptic road novel.
Pierce Brown’s debut has been described as The Hunger Games meets Lord of the Flies. It tells the story of Darrow, a teenage Red, working in the underground mines of Mars. Darrow’s life is destroyed when his wife is killed and he learns that his entire life has been a lie to serve the galaxy’s ruling masters, the Golds. Darrow is recruited by rebels to infiltrate and destroy his rulers, through a brutal education reminiscent of Battle Royale to a series of wargames reminiscent of Ender’s Game. A harrowing entry into the oh-so-popular with the kids these days dystopian YA genre.
The acclaimed Chinese bestseller hits American shores with a sparkling translation from the award-winning Ken Liu. The novel deals with an inevitable alien invasion of Earth, brought on by a misanthropic nihilist who watched her father killed during China’s Cultural Revolution. Secret groups have now risen on Earth, looking for ways to welcome the invaders, using virtual reality MMO’s to find new recruits to their cause, while other national leaders are banding together to find some way to stave off the coming destruction of humanity.
What happens if the apocalypse comes and humanity survives? That is the premise behind Scalzi’s latest novel, a police procedural set in a world where part of the population has been rendered “locked in” by a flu-like disease. They survive and thrive, however, thanks to research and technology that allows these locked-in people to use robotic bodies, dubbed Threeps. One such threep, a new FBI agent named Chris, is involved in a murder investigation that will shake the highest levels of government and big business. Scalzi’s tale proves incredibly relevant to our current debates over government spending, environmentalism, handicapped rights and the Occupy and Tea Party movements.
In truth, The Martian would likely be in the Top Five, had it been released this year. However, Andy Weir’s scrappy tale of an astronaut stranded on Mars was originally released in 2012. The novel follows Mark Watney, an endlessly optimistic engineer and botanist as he MacGyvers his equipment and surroundings to survive until the next mission. Watney’s narration is informative and entertaining despite dropping a lot of physics and chemistry on the reader.
When not writing one three of the best novels of the year, Jeff VanderMeer was assembling a cracking collection of short stories focused on time travel. Compiled with his wife Ann, The Time Traveller’s Almanac is unimpeachable with over 70 stories, excerpts and essays from nearly every major sci-fi author of the past 150 years, from Isaac Asimov through Gene Wolfe. Favorites include Douglas Adams’ “Young Zaphod Plays It Safe”, John Chu’s “Thirty Seconds from Now” and Connie Willis’ “Fire Watch”.
Rothfuss warned his fans that if they were expecting the finale of his Kingkiller Chronicles they would be disappointed. But Slow Regard, which examines the character of Auri from his series, is anything but. With little action, no dialogue and only Auri appearing in the book, he crafts a beautiful portrait of the cracked, brilliant urchin who lives in the Underthing beneath the University where Kingkiller protagonist Kvothe studies. The prose is gorgeous, the wordplay fun and this (comparatively) short story reveals layers of detail within Auri’s disjointed, internal monologues.
Best Debut Novel that didn’t make the Top Ten:
I was leery going into Cato’s Clockwork Dagger, but I was immediately hooked by her steampunk fantasy. The story follows Octavia, young healer embroiled in political intrigue and murder whilst on a dirigible journey to her first post at a distant village in a war-torn land. And while her bait and switch with the puppy at the beginning hits hard, Cato more than makes up for it with Leaf, Octavia’s adorable gremlin familiar.
Fortunately I didn’t read much that I didn’t like this year, but there were a couple stinkers in the bunch.
Most Overrated Novel:
I’ve heard so much good about this novel, and seen it talked up for awards this year, but I just don’t get it. The tale of a reluctant heir to an empire who has to learn to navigate court intrigue and discover the murderer of his father is praised as a refreshing alternative to grimdark, but it mostly comes off as a boring exercise in language development and courtly manners.
While I didn’t absolutely hate this novel, I came close. Tepper is an award-winning master, and this is her 35th novel, tying together her earliest and most recent series together. Unfortunately it is a preachy, didactic picaresque, made all the more obnoxious by the fact that I pretty much agree with her points. She just chooses to hammer her message of feminism and environmentalism in such a condescending manner that I cannot enjoy appreciate it.
These are the ones I meant to get to, but just couldn’t find the time. Had I finished a few of these titles, it’s possible my Top Ten would look quite different.
- The Bone Clocks — David Mitchell
- The Mirror Empire — Kameron Hurley
- The Peripheral — William Gibson
- Steles of the Sky — Elizabeth Bear
- We Are All Completely Fine — Daryl Gregory
- Echopraxia — Peter Watts
- Boy, Snow, Bird — Helen Oyeyemi
- My Real Children — Jo Walton
- California Bones — Greg Van Eekhout
- Full Fathom Five — Max Gladstone