Favorite Reads of 2015: Fiction
I read mostly sci-fi and fantasy fiction, but there are a couple books from other genres thrown in here. Again, not all of these books were published in 2015. I just read them this year. Very brief thoughts below!
The conclusion to this series continues to ask questions about identity, class, and social justice against the backdrop of farflung space opera. The first in the series is still the best, but Mercy is a strong ending – even if some of the aliens involved make me grit my teeth a little.
I stayed in London for a few days after a conference, and was chatting with my AirBnB host about books and the Arctic, when she handed this to me. Kolymsky Heights is a post-Cold War thriller, which…not my usual fare. But large parts of it take place in the Arctic. In fact, most of the action happens in and around a town where I’ve done field work and written about a couple of time here - Cherskiy. I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, but I definitely got a kick out of it – the terrible science counterbalanced by bleak, engrossing set pieces of Russian winters.
Another thriller, again with questionable science and an Arctic bent. I enjoyed Smilla’s Sense of Snow much more than Kolymsky Heights, though. A Greenlandic boy is killed in mysterious circumstances in Denmark, and Smilla – herself half Greenlandic, and friends with the boy – investigates. Smilla is dark and cynical and completely impatient with bureaucracy and Danish cultureYet she recognizes that her attitude is at times hypocritical. Great characters, bleak settings, and some unexpected twists.
Somehow, despite having read Terry Pratchett for years, I’d never read the Tiffany Aching Discworld series until this spring. Knowing his last book was the conclusion to Tiffany’s story, I started them shortly after his death. And immediately regretted that I hadn’t read them twelve years ago when the first, Wee Free Men, was published. Tiffany is a witch in the making, and the books chronicle her growth into being one of the greatest witches in Discworld. Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett’s final Discworld novel, was particularly poignant.
The conclusion to Mary Robinette-Kowal’s excellent series, set in Regency era with a slight twist – there is magic, of a sort. Glamour bends light and creates illusions, but has few other applications. Of Noble Family continues previous themes of family versus ambition and career for Jane, the main character, while tying into a bigger story of slavery and human rights in British Caribbean colonies during the early 19th century.
Ursula Vernon, author of comics and kids books, writes for adults under the pen name T. Kingfisher, mostly retold fairytales. Bryony and Roses re-works Beauty and the Beast with a few wonderful twists. Gardening becomes central to defeating the antagonist. Vernon’s writing is more wry and humorous than Robin McKinley’s fairy tale novels, but are still compelling (if too short!) reads.
Possibly my favorite book of the past year. Agnieszka is a confused young woman, navigating entrapment by a menacing sorcerer, politics, and the archetypal, poisonous, evil Wood that surrounds her village. She fights for her home, but especially for her friendship with Kasia, her closest companion. While some high fantasy in this vein ends up feeling rather generic, Novik does an excellent job differentiating her world from any other, with Polish folk tales pulsing throughout the story and world.
Going meta a bit, I think there are three main aspects of storytelling that factor into whether a book is worth reading or not. Character, plot, and world-building. Do the characters have personalities, make decisions that are consistent with those personalities, shift and change as their circumstances force them to grow into a different person? Is the world they inhabit rich and well-imagined and internally consistent? Is there a plot that makes at least a little bit of sense? Of these three, plot is the factor that actually interests me the least. The Long Earth series, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, has relatively little plot. Things happen, but the pace is slow and each book has a theme rather than a strong plot. The characters are interesting though, and the world building – across an infinite number of parallel Earths that people can hop to – is excellent. There are strange creatures, space exploration, and Pratchett’s patented brand of absurdism, combined with Stephen Baxter’s realistic science fiction.
Another slow-paced series with strong characters and an intriguing world. Steerswomen (and a few men) are wanderers whose only purpose is to ask questions and learn about the world. If they ask a question, a person must answer. And the steerswoman will answer any question asked of her. Rowan finds some mysterious pieces of crystal that lead her on a quest across barbarian badlands and discovering weird creatures with a … unique way of communicating. These books cross genre from fantasy to sci-fi and back again, with wonderful imagination.
The other top contender for favorite novel of the past year. N.K. Jemison is a master of world-building, creating setpieces unlike any other in fantasy. Plus, a fast-paced story that jumps through time and space. Her characters evolve and react – or sometimes over-react – in understandable ways as their world is literally shaken apart. Excellent!