Or, Top 5 Lists Are Arbitrary
This year I read 54 of my planned 50 books. I like to dedicate November and December to rereading, as a sort of holiday winding down time (and to diving into writing full swing.) Originally I wanted to do a sort of blitz review of all of the books I read, and I still might; I have the post on Medium drafted, with a paragraph of my reviews, or links to Goodreads, which I use as a convenient log.
I don’t give star ratings because star ratings to me are a bit superfluous, yet I like reviewing books I love. A “top 5” of my 2016 books also feels arbitrary, and indeed, culling it down to just 5 is a very tough call. But here we are!
In no particular order:
Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman
While I will admit to jumping to read that was blurbed by Ursula K Le Guin, Dark Orbit resonated with me immediately. Deep space adventure with a planet like no other! a wide cast of characters! and the journey goes wrong immediately! …there are some apparently predictable tropes that turn into unpredictable territory before you know it, and some apparently predictable characters who reveal dimensions I did not expect at all. (I’m reminded of the recent article on Le Guin where she mentions writers who don’t understand the “rules” of sci-fi. Gilman knows the rules, and just where to bend them for the best effect.)
So: journey, problem, characters–planet. The planet itself hosts subterranean and therefore blind natives, and one of the crew is trapped with them. But that’s just the setup. The rich worldbuilding, bending time and space and memories to explore the dark cores of humanity. Which sounds like a platitude, and for spoiler-free purposes, it essentially is. But this to me is hard-to-find sci-fi: space opera that doesn’t obsess over the science, that gets into space and kicks the plot into gear, and takes the adventure over the action, while not forgetting to make me feel.
Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace
From my Goodreads review: “Excellent premise. Vivid characters. Solid world-building, and a great example of how to plot a novel. And the best of kind of post-apocalypse: an introspective one. Plus, ghost fights and knives and stuff.”
Which is all basically true! I don’t read enough YA, and I work hard to cultivate a reading list I know will treat me well. If every book I found was as good as Archivist Wasp, I’d never stop reading. The world is harsh and brutal, and for me (despite having written such a world in my debut novel), it’s so easy to screw that up and oversaturate it. The setup of capturing and archiving ghosts–and the plot this leads to, Wasp’s need to break the cycle of young women pitted against each other as well as uncovering the past of one embittered ghost–is done simply and effectively. A writer can learn a lot from this book, in terms of craft, on all the things mentioned above. But above all that, I put it on my list because when I look over the 50+ books I read this year, and think of the memorable ones, this one rises to the top.
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I mention Dark Orbit‘s ability to make me feel, and Archivist Wasp in that it’s memorable. Certain Dark Things does both. From my Goodreads review:
“Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s worldbuilding is phenomenal, and she does something I don’t see done as well or as often as I’d like: vampire-by-culture. The Mexico City in this book feels alive, to someone who’s never been there. You walk the streets and feel its history, and you feel like the cartels and clans have always been here, in a very real, chilling way. You feel the Aztec and Mayan influence in the varied vampire families, with differences nuanced and overt, and it comes together so deftly.”
If I ever wanted to write vampires in fiction, well, I’m glad that Moreno-Garcia has shown me exactly how it should be done. These are the vampires I’ve always wanted to see. The characters in Certain Dark Things are rich and dark and beautiful, have great dynamics, and you know where they’re coming from. Atl in particular, I think, is a great protagonist. She is not Strong Female Character incarnate, nor is she Manic Pixie Dream Girl-cum-Vampiress. She’s romantic but not romanticized. She’s not loveless. She gets to be as dark and brutal and nuanced and bloody as she wants and the narrative doesn’t punish her for wanting, as seems the status quo for “Dangerous Women.”
The only bad thing about this book is that I had to wait months for everyone else to read it.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik.
From my Goodreads review: “If I had to pitch this in a sentence, I’d say “Magical Girl and Fantasy Doctor House solve increasingly complicated ancient mystery.”
Fortunately, I don’t have to pitch this in a sentence. It says a lot for the power of this book’s prose that the opening page stands on its own, that it’s is used as back cover copy to grab you in and get you to read the next four hundred or so. That it was up for this year’s Nebula and Hugo. “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.” What else is there to say?
Uprooted is rich with pure fantasy subversion. Tropes abound, but it’s not about tropes. It sinks you into the world and characters and magic. It makes you care about Agnieszka, root for her, want to see her succeed. This book puts me in a mind of Robin Hobb, those near-doorstopper books that get into your heart and attain the power to twist or break it. (Robin Hobb, herself, loved the book, and that should be all one needs for a fantasy rec.)
It’s worth noting that, as stated, choosing only five of 54 books was a particularly difficult task. Many on the list are still extremely well-written or, as 2016 was a year spent almost entirely on revising and polishing my book, very helpful in that process of discovery or escape. That’s another reason I use November and December as time for rereading: to rediscover old loves, to see them in new ways, and to look at them from angles of craft study. In this respect, I look at the reads and rereads as two different categories, and so I look at this Top 5 list from an emotional perspective. I want to be thrilled about rereading a book, so when I look at a favorite set of books from a certain year, I look at which books might fit that criterion. This is a first round, so to speak. Next year, which books might I consider giving another read, if any? Which made me feel enough that another read will show me technique as well as that visceral emotion?
Which brings us to:
Lost Stars by Claudia Gray
Of all the books I read this year, I have to admit (and, at the time of writing, yes, I am wearing one of several Star Wars shirts, so possibly I am not biased, whatever that means), that this book hit me the hardest. Gave me the most, in modern parlance, feels. Romeo and Juliet in space, but Imperial space!
And not just Star Wars adjacent, but intersecting the movies and the newly-founded EU, giving us a much-needed lens of gray and difficult morality to the assault on the Death Star, to a glimpse of the battle above Jakku, to the smaller, more difficult insidious evils of the Empire. This quote, again from my Goodreads review, does a staggeringly good job of showing really chewy themes like institutionalized oppression, like children being taught hate and generations torn apart because of it, and, here:
“One of the local children had begun jeering at the Bodach’i. “That’s what you get! You think you can push the Emperor around? Showed you!” One of the stormtroopers nodded in approval, then patted the child’s head. That boy could be no more than seven or eight years old—the age Thane was when he’d decided to join the Imperial fleet. That was how evil magnified itself: it took root in the young and grew along with them. Each generation provided the next level of abuse. We’re teaching children to approve of slavery. We’re teaching them cruelty is a virtue. But the worst part was—Thane had been that kid. He’d sat in the pilot’s seat of a shuttle and felt proud. Felt big. All because he might be part of the Empire someday. He’d followed the path that led from there, and where had it taken him?”
There’s a lot to dissect in that one passage. About teaching our children to approve of slavery. About the life of that child and his family, about the stormtrooper. Their similarities to Thane and what it took for Thane to understand his distance from it. And none of that touches on the romance or the main plot: it could be in a different book, one that’s not Star Wars at all because that shit hits right at home.
So, yeah, I loved Lost Stars, even when it was taking advantage of me being an easy romantic. It’s my new benchmark for the EU, right up there with the Episode 3 novelization, and I suppose I should check out Bloodline as well.
To answer the question posed above, of rereading: which books did I read in 2016 that warrant a reread? It’s hard to say. Sometimes the idea of a reread, or a book’s quality, can be shaped by others’ opinions. There’s also the matter of series, which constitute most of my rereads (more on that below). At the very least, I’d be curious what a reread of Uprooted and Lost Stars would reveal on the craft level, once I sorted through the emotions. As said in its review, I think Archivist Wasp has a lot to teach me, as well.
Two things worth nothing. First, that my arbitrary list is made further arbitrary by the fact that I deliberately exclude two series I fell in love with this year: Jo Walton’s Thessaly series, and Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent, but since I wasn’t able to finish either, and can’t quite review them as a single body, I don’t want to give them a single spot in the top 5.
Second, with the exception of Certain Dark Things, which was an ARC this year, all my favorites were 2015 books. What does this mean? Nothing, really, especially not in the grand scheme. (It might reveal my poverty, that I was a library hound and thus was a cycle behind the publication schedule a bit). But it’s funny, in that sense, that my favorite books “of the year” were, for the most part, of last year.
The to-read list never ends. It’s hard to say that I won’t read any new books this year, and I’ve already got digital shelves on my Kindle lined up for next year if I keep my small promise of only rereading (or if I really want to finish the series I’m invested in, the two mentioned above and the Craft Sequence). There are, always, more books.