Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016, A Year in Reading: Best Reads of the Year

I read 93 books in 2016.  For a while I thought I'd make it to a hundred, but no matter--this is still a huge leap, one more book, in fact, than I read in 2015 and 2014 put together.  I wish I could put my finger on just why my reading this year made such tremendous strides.  Part of the reason is purely practical--I read a great deal of comics this year, and no small amount of YA and single-volume anthologies, and these all made for rather quick reads.  But I also feel like I've broken through a wall with my reading--with identifying books I'd like to read and am likely to enjoy, and with organizing my reading so that I'm not overwhelmed by too many heavy books, or too many trivial ones, and end up feeling dispirited and not willing to crack open another cover.  This was particularly surprising when you consider that 2016 was the year I broke my habit of not reading genre trilogies, or at least not carrying on with them past the first volume.  I read the first two volumes of N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy, and of Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe trilogy.  I read the last two volumes of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, as well as several starting volumes in trilogies that I probably won't be keeping up with.  As I've written (including later in this piece), there are problems with how SF is currently constructing its trilogies, and they're present in all of these books, but nevertheless I found a great deal to enjoy in each of them.

We'll have to see if I'm able to maintain the same rhythm in 2017, but in the meantime I'm glad to report that as well as delivering quantity, this year also delivered quality, with quite a few remarkable reads that stood out from the pack.  (As for bad reads, there were surprisingly few, though I'm sad to say that most of them were concentrated in this year's Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist.)  As usual, presented in order of author's surname.

Best Books:
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

    As I've written in my review of The Obelisk Gate, the sequel to this Hugo-winning marvel, there's a longer conversation to be had about how the genre is currently constructing its trilogies, and how the result tends to be front-loading a lot of worldbuilding information in the first volume in a way that leaves the later ones shapeless.  Even acknowledging that problem, however, there's no denying that the way in which The Fifth Season introduces us to its world and its characters is instantly compelling and fascinating.  Following the lives of three women in a world given to cataclysmic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, whose power to control (and often exacerbate) these outbreaks is viewed with fear and hatred, The Fifth Season touches on so many topics that you can hardly believe that it works, much less works as well as it does.  This is a novel about how people are shaped by hardship: the hardship of knowing that catastrophe is always just around the corner, and the hardship of being hated, oppressed, and hunted for something you can't control.  It's a novel that takes some of the core tropes of the superhero genre (chiefly the X-Men stories) and exposes the cruelty and horror at their core--as well as tying them much more strongly to issues of race and racism than any previous attempt at the genre.  And it's a novel that effortlessly combines the tropes of epic fantasy and far-future, post-apocalypse SF into a stew that makes them all its own, and makes discussing its genre a delight in its own right (I still maintain that its absence from next year's Clarke shortlist will be a crime).  Whether or not the Broken Earth trilogy manages to stick the landing, The Fifth Season on its own is an important and impeccably structured work.

  • The Vision (Volume 1: Little Worse Than a Man; Volume 2: Little Better Than a Beast) by Tom King, art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Michael Walsh

    If you'd told me a year ago that my favorite comic of 2016 would be a Marvel superhero comic, and that it would star that boring purple guy from Age of Ultron, I would never have believed you.  But here we are a year later, and there is no book I read this year that I'd like to evangelize for more than Tom King's run of The Vision.  King takes a well-worn premise--robot tries to live as human, with disastrous results--and executes it with a combination of hard-headedness and compassion that make the story's inevitable turn towards tragedy both fascinating and heartbreaking.  We know, from the outset, that the Vision's experiment in normalcy will end in carnage, but the family he constructs for himself--wife Virginia and twin teenagers Vin and Viv--are so instantly winning, despite or perhaps even because they share their father's stiff mannerisms and tendency to be over-literal, that you can't help but wish for them to find a way to exist in a world that they are so unsuited for.  The second half of the story, which involves more of the Avengers, is less gripping, but it also brings in one of the core questions of the superhero genre, one that is seldom handled with the seriousness it deserves.  So many characters in this genre are created for a purpose, whether good or evil, and their stories revolve around rejecting, embracing, or failing to fight off that purpose.  King asks the much more important question: not whether the Vision or his family are doomed to be bad guys or good guys, but whether any of them can ever simply be people.

  • Wake by Elizabeth Knox

    The endlessly-reinventing Knox's latest novel conjures the ghost of Stephen King, but only to rebuke him for a lack of imagination and grit.  In Knox's story, when a group of strangers are stranded together by a breakdown of the laws of rationality and order, the danger they face isn't man's inhumanity to man.  On the contrary, it's the insistence that they continue to behave like human beings, even in the face of the impossible and of their own looming surrender to it, that drives our heroes to the breaking point.  The are forced to confront the question: is it better to face death as a community, or to shirk off the obligations they feel towards one another and die unencumbered?  In the meantime, Knox delivers an impeccable work of horror, one that ranges from the existential to the scatological, and which finds tension and anxiety in the most mundane details of survival.

  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

    I'm not being terribly original in highlighting Rankine's book of poetry, and indeed so many of the ideas she raises here have become bywords of the Black Lives Matter movement that finding them here often felt more like encountering an old friend in an unfamiliar environment.  But the clarity of the ideas that Rankine expresses--even in a medium that is often known for its obliqueness like poetry, and even in her own chosen form, which is often more like linked, short essays--is startling.  Citizen is about many things, as it tries to grapple with the reality of life for African-Americans in the present moment.  But what struck me about it during my first reading was Rankine's struggle with anger, as an artist, a person, and specifically a black woman.  Anger is essential to how Rankine sees the world, and it only grows as the list of black men, women, and children victimized and often murdered by the police grows longer.  It is a righteous anger, and one that she is right to express.  But at the same time, she is also aware of how anger can consume, and make it impossible to live and to create.  It's not a simple question--for all that people, and especially privileged people, like to treat it as such--and Rankine's handling of it in this book is far from simplistic.  Drawing on her own life, and on examples of other black people in the public eye who struggle with the same question of anger, she produces a philosophical treatise that is all the more powerful for not being able to come to an answer.

  • The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (review)

    I wrote several thousand words about Samatar's second novel, the companion piece to her equally wonderful A Stranger in Olondria, earlier this year, and yet I still don't feel that I've fully grappled with how special and revolutionary this book is.  This despite the fact that Histories initially feels a great deal more conventional, and much easier to sum up, than Olondria.  Its use of familiar epic fantasy tropes and styles is more pronounced than the previous novel, and whereas Olondria circled around the edges of a fantasyland civil war, Histories sets its story almost in the middle of it.  What ultimately becomes clear, however, is that just like the hero of A Stranger in Olondria, the four women who tell the story of The Winged Histories are trying to give shape to their lives by casting them into literary forms--in this case, the forms of epic fantasy, even if none of them are aware of that genre or would call it that.  And, one by one, they discover the limitations of those forms, especially where women and colonized people are concerned.  Not unlike Olondria, The Winged Histories is ultimately forced to ask whether it is even possible for people to tell their own stories using the tropes and tools left to them by their oppressors.  If the entire purpose of your existence is to be the Other, or the object, in someone else's story, can you ever take their words, their forms, and make it a story about yourself?  For most of the novel's characters, the solution is ultimately to fall silent, and yet The Winged Histories itself rings loudly.  As much as it is a rebuke of the fantasy genre, it is also a major work within it, and one that deserves more discussion and attention than it has received.
Honorable Mentions:
  • White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi - A haunted house story with a twist, in which the ghost of racism and xenophobia infects the present generation and must be exorcised.

  • Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson - A bleak counterpoint to Robinson's freewheeling 2312, which warns against dreaming of a home in the stars and neglecting the one we have here.

  • Natural History by Justina Robson - A space opera whose setting is a sort of stepping stone to Banks's Culture, with AIs and living ships organizing in pursuit of self-determination.

  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (review) - A historical novel that refuses the comfortable (albeit horrific) embrace of the past, reminding us that history is happening right now.

  • The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson - A rude, rambunctious reminder that epic fantasy is capable of so much more than we give it credit for.

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