The Best of 2016: The Best Books I Didn’t Get Around To Actually Reading

It’s been no secret around here that this was a rough year for me, pretty much from start to finish. I won’t rehash it all here, but it has definitely sucked, big time, and as a result I didn’t accomplish nearly as much in 2016 as I’d originally planned. While I did meet my reading goal, at least in terms of number of books, much of what I read was novellas and comic books and magazines. Many of the books I was excited about this year I just never managed to get to. Some of these I hope to squeeze into 2017. Some of these I’ll probably only read if they make awards shortlists. Some of these there’s no telling if I’ll ever make it back to, what with all the amazing new stuff coming out year after year.  In any case, this is the stuff I missed out on in 2016:

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
This book got a lot of buzz earlier this year, but, frankly, I just haven’t been in the mood for YA or even most YA-adjacent stuff, and I’ve been trying to minimize the number of series I start and never finish.

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake
I read and enjoyed Anti-Goddess a couple of years ago, but never did come back around to finish that series and Blake’s earlier stuff never interested me. Three Dark Crowns sounds like it has a lot of potential, though. Unfortunately, it’s another first book in a series and I read some early reviews that, while positive, suggested a very abrupt ending that made me think I should wait til the whole series is out before getting into it.

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn AND Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee
If I’m honest, I think I want to want to read these more than I actually want to read them. The thing is, I’m just not that into superheroes in general, and I always have a hard time getting excited about them, even when promised diversity and trope-busting and fun. These are still on my radar, and I might get around to them someday, but there’s no telling if or when the right mood will strike me.

Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine
I think the main reason this book made it onto my list for the year was that it sounds so exactly like the sort of thing I would have loved to read when I was my daughter’s age. It also has an enticing cover. Unfortunately, some vague feelings of nostalgia and a pretty package weren’t enough for me to make this title a priority.

The Devourers by Indra Das
The Devourers is going on the same to-read-someday list as The Buried Giant and Station Eleven. I swear I will read it eventually.

Borderline by Mishell Baker
I don’t read a lot of urban fantasy, but I’ve heard such good things about this series that I’m still hoping to read this before the second book comes out in the spring.

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal
I read Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” ages ago and have been determined to read her novels ever since. I never picked up the Glamourist Histories because I didn’t think I would want to spend the time reading all of them this year, but I really thought I would be able to read this standalone when it came out. Unfortunately, that was right when I was in the middle of a bunch of traveling and by the time I got resettled, it was part of a huge backlog of stuff I’ve spent most of the rest of the year trying to finish.

Cloudbound by Fran Wilde
I really liked Fran Wilde’s first Bone Universe book, Updraft, but I haven’t been as excited about Cloudbound, probably because it seems to focus more on a secondary character from the first book that I didn’t care for very much. I expect this is one I’ll come back to when the third book comes out in 2017.

After Atlas by Emma Newman
Planetfall was excellent, and I’ve heard great things about this companion novel, but I’ve honestly just run out of time and chose to work on knocking out some longer books over the last couple of weeks instead.

Infomocracy by Malka Older
Listen. I know that everyone loves this book, and I’ve read an enormous number of good reviews of it by people whose opinions I value, but I just have not had the energy to read it. I was all ready to start it after Hillary Clinton won the election in November, and then she didn’t, and I’ve been reading somewhat lighter, more escapist stuff instead. This is the only book on this list that I am pretty much 100% going to read before I send in my next Hugo ballot.

 

The Best of 2016: Novels

2016 has been a tremendous year for novels, and even without reading everything I had hoped to finish this year it was hard to pare this list down to a manageable number of titles.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
I said in my original review of All the Birds in the Sky, way back in January, that I didn’t think anything else I was going to read in 2016 was going to top it. In hindsight, it was really early to say that. I don’t think I would now say that this book is the best thing I read in 2016, but it is my favorite standalone novel of the year for sure. That said, I love this book with the passion of a thousand burning suns. The older book that it most reminds me of is Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, another book that I have a furious adoration for, but it’s not really very much like that book at all, at least not in any specific or quantifiable way. Rather, it’s sweet and funny and whimsically magical in a way that I find comforting, and that’s something that I enjoyed at the beginning of 2016 and that I need at the end of it. I feel very certain that, like Good OmensAll the Birds in the Sky will be a book that I will return to time and time again in the future whenever I want to read for peace and quiet.

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
The Fifth Season was one of the most brilliant and ambitious novels of 2015, and I honestly didn’t think there was any way The Obelisk Gate would be as good as its predecessor. And maybe it isn’t, because The Fifth Season really is that incredible, but it’s damn close. In The Obelisk Gate, Essun’s story picks up where it left off at the end of the first book, and we’re taken back in time to pick up the point of views of Essun’s daughter, Nassun, and the Guardian, Schaffa. It’s much more obvious in this book how all the point of views are interconnected, though Essun feels somewhat cut off from the others for most of the novel, so there’s none of the build up and mystery and satisfying revelation that The Fifth Season offered. Probably you can really only do that once. And so, The Obelisk Gate is in many ways far more straightforward and traditionally structured than The Fifth Season, but what The Obelisk Gate lacks in structural ingenuity and novelty it more than makes up for with worldbuilding and thematic ambition. The world of the Stillness gets far more detailed this time around, and we learn a lot more about the orogenes, their powers, and the Guardians’ purpose. By the end of the book, the outlines of an epic confrontation in the third book (The Stone Sky, out in August 2017) have begun to crystallize, and I cannot wait to read it.

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
Ken Liu has been on fire the last couple of years, and he’s quite deservedly been getting a lot of attention for his work as a translator and editor. His collection of his own short fiction, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, was released earlier this year to widespread acclaim, and he is working hard to help bring Chinese sci-fi to Anglophone readers, with a collection of it, Invisible Planets, out a couple months ago. Liu is such a busy guy doing so much important and attention-worthy work that it would be easy to overlook his epic fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty, of which The Wall of Storms is the second installment. It would be a huge mistake to overlook this book. Last year’s The Grace of Kings was a gorgeously ambitious book, but my feelings were somewhat ambivalent about it, mostly because of its lack of female characters and the marginalization of what few there were in favor of focusing on the friendships and relationships between men. The Wall of Storms more than makes up for that, and largely redeems its predecessor in hindsight, so if you were put off by that aspect of the first book in the trilogy be sure to give this one a chance. The Wall of Storms expands upon the world Liu created in The Grace of Kings and takes a good, hard look at the aftermath of a revolution, the qualities and values of leaders, the philosophy of governance, and the legacies of conquest and colonization. This is an even more ambitious, erudite and complex novel than the first book in the series, and it deserves to be a serious contender for next years genre awards.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl
Everfair is the book I fell in love with in 2016 that is most outside my normal reading comfort zone. I rarely read steampunk at all–it’s just not really my thing, as a general rule–and never any steampunk as literary as this, so Everfair was a definitely challenge for me. At its heart, though, I think Everfair may be best understood as a sprawlingly epic historical romance, a multi-generational family drama that largely revolves around the difficult relationship between mixed-race but light-skinned Frenchwoman Lisette and her white lover, Daisy. Writing from multiple points of view in vignettes that span some thirty years, Nisi Shawl imagines an alternate history of the Congo in which genocide never happened and instead a utopian society sprang up where people of many races work together to try and build a place where all are welcome. It’s against this backdrop that Shawl examines race issues as they affect the fledgling country of Everfair as well as Lisette and Daisy’s relationship. It’s a book about identity, politics, power dynamics, and the complexities of the human heart. In a year that has been so marked by racism, cynicism, and lack of empathy for others, a beautifully thoughtful and humanist novel like Everfair should be considered required reading.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Yoon Ha Lee’s short fiction collection, Conservation of Shadows, was one of my favorite reads in 2015, so I was thrilled when I learned that he would be publishing his first novel this year and set in the same universe as one of my favorite stories from Conservation of ShadowsNinefox Gambit did not disappoint. In a universe ruled by a hexarchate that maintains control over numerous planets and space stations by way of strict calendrical mathematics laws that dictate the limits and workings of reality itself, it’s vastly important that everyone stick to the same calendar. When heretics threaten the system by developing their own calendar–and their own technology based upon it–Captain Kel Charis is forced to join forces with the remains of one of the hexarchate’s most brilliant military tacticians in order to quash the rebelling faction. The problem is that Shuos Jedao, while gifted, is also considered to be insane after a legendary incident in which he was responsible for the massacre of two armies. Charis has to figure out how to utilize Jedao’s expertise to accomplish her assignment without being manipulated by him or falling prey to his madness. In some ways this book feels like setup for the rest of the series to follow, but it stands well on its own merits as a strange and marvelously beautiful piece of military sf/space opera.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
I don’t think there’s every been a book quite like Ada Palmer’s debut novel. Too Like the Lightning is a complex, challenging, wildly original book that contains several slowly and methodically unfolding mysteries in its pages. Where Palmer shines brightest, however, is in the worldbuilding department. The utopian future imagined here is in turns alluring and alien and at times faintly sinister, especially as the story goes on and more of the dystopia within the utopia is revealed. I loved the crash course in 18th and 19th century philosophy I got while reading this book, between Palmer’s excellent exposition and my own googling and wikipedia reading (I highly recommend brushing up on at least the bare bones of the Enlightenment before reading this one), and I loved the book’s exploration of the tension between the personal and the political, individualism and collectivism, freedom and justice. Too Like the Lightning won’t be a book for everyone–I expect some readers to be turned off by how cerebral it is, while others will find some of the book’s darker elements disturbing–but I found it singularly riveting and can’t wait to read the sequel, Seven Surrenders, in 2017.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was my favorite book of 2015, so I was thrilled when I learned that there would be a companion novel coming out this year. A Closed and Common Orbit picks up right at the end of The Long Way and follows the development of Lovelace (who quickly renames herself Sidra) after she leaves the Wayfarer in the android body kit that was originally meant for her previous installation, Lovey. The other half of Orbit deals with the backstory of Pepper, who was a minor character in The Long Way but plays a major role in Sidra’s story here before the two stories fully intersect at the novel’s climax. Orbit has significant thematic overlap with The Long Way, with both books dealing with ideas about families and homes of choice, but Orbit is a more focused book with a much smaller cast of characters who are mostly tied to a particular location rather than roaming the galaxy. The journeys here aren’t necessarily more personal, but they are more internal and specific to Sidra and Pepper, who are Orbit‘s only POV characters, which is a smart way for Chambers to continue covering similar emotional ground while still setting this second book neatly apart from the first. It’s a wonderful bit of optimistic, joyful comfort reading of a sort that I know that I, personally, always enjoy.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a new-to-me-in-2016 author, though I suppose she was on the edge of my radar for a couple of years before I finally picked up her first novel, Signal to Noise. If you’ve read her earlier novel, Certain Dark Things is not very like it at all. Whereas Signal to Noise was on the far magical end of magical realism, Certain Dark Things is very explicitly supernatural and full of some of the coolest vampires I’ve read about in ages. There’s very little new ground to be covered in the vampire genre, and it’s easy to identify the ways in which Moreno-Garcia’s vampires are derivative of previous fictional bloodsuckers, but it’s also clear that Moreno-Garcia knows the genre well. The novel is peppered with references to enough pop-cultural vampires and vampire tropes that genre conventions Moreno-Garcia utilizes have been chosen with care. Certain Dark Things has a wonderful sense of place (like Signal to Noise, it’s set in Mexico City) and a distinctive dark sensibility (eschewing true romance, unlike many similar vampire stories) that sets it apart from the crowd. Moreno-Garcia has also built enough mythology and done enough worldbuilding here that it would be easy for her to revisit the setting and expand upon the ideas of this book. I’m not certain if that would be a necessary or desirable thing, as it’s easy for vampire stories to become overwrought and cliche, but if there’s never a sequel or companion novel to this one, Silvia Moreno-Garcia has already done a great job of injecting some fresh blood into an old genre.

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
Lavie Tidhar has been around for a while as an author and editor, but Central Station is the first of his books I’ve read and I still haven’t gotten around to reading any more. I hate to say that what attracted me to this title first was its gorgeous cover, but it’s true. It’s got such a wonderfully retro feel to it with its monochromatic color scheme and phallic rockets and towers, I just knew it would be a book I would want to have on my shelf. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that the innards of Central Station were every bit as enchanting as its outside. In the future, Tel Aviv is now at the base of a giant space station, and millions of people now come and go through the city while millions more live their lives in the space station’s shadow. Tidhar collects and connects vignettes of life around Central Station to create a wonderful tapestry of thoughtful futurist mythmaking. A strange child grows up looking for others like himself. A man returns from space and reconnects with an old lover. A cyborg soldier leftover from a great war falls in love. A robot priest guides his flock. While the book isn’t as entirely cohesive as it might have been if it was written on purpose rather than cobbled together from earlier short fiction, Tidhar has nonetheless successfully arranged numerous slices of life into an overall pleasing composition that paints a compelling picture of a possible future.

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente
This isn’t Catherynne M. Valente’s best book. It’s not even the best book of her Fairyland series, for all that it is a wonderful ending to September’s story. But “not Cat Valente’s best” is still incredible. As with all the previous Fairyland books, this one is beautifully written. Valente has a true gift for language, and I never get tired of reading as much of her work as is available each year. The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home smartly subverted my expectations–which in hindsight I ought to have expected–and gave September exactly the happy ending that she most deserved. I wept many bittersweet tears at the end, not least because I was sad that my daughter, now thirteen, has been too old to want me to read the last couple of books aloud to her like I did when she was smaller. I say it every time I review this series, but I cannot recommend enough that you find a small child–your own or any one that you can borrow from a friend or relative–and read these books aloud with them. If you can’t do that, maybe get the audio books and let someone read them to you. Valente’s sumptuous descriptions and excellent alliterations deserve to be spoken as often as possible.

The Best of 2016: Movies and Television

This has been a weird year for me when it came to television and movies. Writing it all down in preparation for this post, I found that I definitely watched more than I thought I did, but I feel like I haven’t watched pretty much anything. Partly, this is because I spent a ton of time traveling this spring and summer. Partly, I’ve been too depressed to write about what I did watch. And partly, I actually haven’t watched as much this year as I normally would because several shows that I have enjoyed and am looking forward to aren’t getting their next seasons til 2017. When it came to movies, there just wasn’t that much that I was really looking forward to this year, particularly since I’m not very interested in any of the Marvel and DC superhero flicks. All in all, it’s just been a light year of TV and movie watching for me, and I’m mostly okay with that. On the bright side, most of what I did watch was good stuff that I don’t feel like I wasted my time on, and there’s some comfort in feeling like I nailed “quality not quantity” for once.

Favorite Television

The Expanse – SyFy
Hands down, The Expanse is the best sci-fi show on television these days. Season one did suffer from some of the same problems as Leviathan Wakes, the first in the book series, but the early addition of the incomparable Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala prevented the show from being quite so much of a complete sausage fest. Thomas Jane managed to make Miller tolerably complex, and Steven Strait was perfectly infuriating as colossal dipshit Holden. I do think the show could have cut some stuff to squeeze more of Leviathan Wakes‘ content into the first season, and there are times when the show’s pacing is just atrocious, but it’s beautifully shot, largely well-written, and pretty much perfectly cast. I mean, have I mentioned that they got Shohreh Aghdashloo? Season two will start airing with a double episode on February 1, 2017. In the meantime, you can stream the whole first season on Amazon Prime.
You can read my full coverage of season one here.

The Shannara Chronicles – MTV
My love for this show is likely an unpopular opinion, but I really did think that it was–overall–surprisingly decent. For one thing, it’s lovely to look at, with scene after scene of incredible scenery porn in the far-future ruins of the Pacific Northwest, and while some parts of it (particularly the look of the elf city) do owe a bit too much to Lord of the Rings, it’s not really quite like anything else out there. As someone who grew up watching Xena and Hercules and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, I have a longstanding appreciation for somewhat campy fantasy, and as someone who loved Terry Brooks’ books as a teenager, I was happy to see the show geared more for teens than adults. And sure, The Shannara Chronicles rehashes a lot of plot points from The Fellowship of the Ring. And sure, the teen drama can be tiresome at times because I’m an adult woman. And sure, the show has some problematic tendencies, such as casually adding in some attempted rape or senselessly killing minor characters for drama. But it’s a fun show to watch, and it was even more fun to write about.
You can read my season one posts here.

Game of Thrones – HBO
Speaking of shows that are problematic as all get out and fun to write about, Game of Thrones is still a thing that is happening. Every season is worse than the one before, and there’s no reason at all to think that this is going to change anytime soon, but I just can’t quit this show, you guys.
I’ve written thousands and thousands of words about this show, and you can read them all here.
Or just read my season six stuff.

Lucifer – FOX
I’ve never read the comic book this show is (apparently very loosely) based upon, so I came to Lucifer with basically no expectations. It didn’t even look that great in the early trailers for it, and Fox pushed back its original airdate once or twice, which is never encouraging. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a pretty decent show after all. Season one certainly stumbled a few times, but star Tom Ellis is handsome and charming enough in the titular role to make up for quite a few missteps in other areas. Season two started off a little rocky with some clunky changing of gears and the total abandonment of a season one plot that just never quite worked, but in the last few episodes it’s developed into a truly excellent show. The supporting cast has grown, everyone is getting a bit more to do, and all the characters feel a lot more lived-in this time around, and the easy chemistry between the members of the ensemble makes Lucifer a real joy to watch.
I’ve fallen behind on writing about Lucifer, but you can read my reviews of season one and part of season two here.

iZombie – The CW
Season 2 of iZombie wrapped up back in April, and so much has happened in my life since then that it feels like a lifetime ago. It’s also been very disappointing to not have any new episodes this fall; the Season 3 premiere isn’t until April 2017, which even now feels terribly far away. Season 2 was great, though, with some real progress made on understanding the show’s growing zombie epidemic, some really memorable cases of the week, and a finale that sets up a game change for the upcoming third season that I can’t wait to see.
Check out my iZombie coverage here.

Favorite Movies

The Lobster
This weird and wonderful little movie only got a limited release in the US back in the spring, and I didn’t actually get to see it in the theater. In it, Colin Farrell plays a man in a dystopian near-future society where all adults must be paired off and married or else they will be turned into an animal of their choice. It’s a beautiful, absurd, vaguely Vonnegut-esque and darkly hilarious story that lampoons our societal obsession with marriages and families that conform to specific bourgeois ideals. The deadpan humor and somewhat nihilistic ending may not be for everyone, but it’s exactly the kind of bold and clever risk-taking I like to see and that can really only be found in this kind of independent film.

Tale of Tales
I’ve always said that my favorite fairy tales are the weird ones, and I’ve lamented the fact that the really strange stuff tends to be passed over in favor of endless retellings and adaptations of princess stories. With Tale of Tales, based on a 17th century Italian fairy tale collection, a bunch of weird stuff has finally been brought to the big screen, and it’s glorious. I love every sumptuous detail of this movie from start to finish. Every frame of the film is stunning, with a gorgeous naturalistic quality that makes the fairy tale world seem real and lived in. The interconnected stories mirror and echo each other in strange and unexpected ways that provide plenty of material for dissection and analysis, but the film can also just be enjoyed simply as a viscerally affecting experience. This is the only film of 2016 that I can see myself watching over and over again for many years, as it’s the kind of production that I expect to see something new in on every viewing.

Equals
I wasn’t at all excited about this movie when saw the trailer for it, even though I love Kristen Stewart and like Nicholas Hoult just fine. When it got poor reviews, I just sort of wrote it off altogether, and I only came back to it late in the year when I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime. It turns out that Equals is actually a solidly decent movie. Stewart and Hoult turn in fine performances, and they have a good chemistry that sells their romance well. Everything in the movie is sleek and clean in a way that is rather charmingly retro, putting me in mind of classic sci-fi stories of this type. The movie isn’t breaking any new ground thematically, and much of the plot is regurgitated classic tropes, but everything is so lovingly crafted and generally well put together that I can forgive it for being derivative. Equals isn’t a great film, but it’s a perfectly nice and enjoyable example of its type of story, which made it a great comfort-watch in late December of this year from hell.

Warcraft
I feel like almost everyone hated this movie except me, and I’ll admit that it wasn’t completely accessible for folks who weren’t already fans of Warcraft going in. But, dammit, this movie was enjoyable, and it seemed so obviously made with love that I couldn’t help kind of adoring it.
You can read my full review here.

Ghostbusters
There was never any universe in which I wouldn’t have loved this movie, and my enjoyment of it was only enhanced by the knowledge that thousands of whiny entitled manbabies hated it. I hope they make a dozen sequels.
I wrote a full review of this one when I saw it.

Arrival
Arrival is the movie that I expect to win all the genre awards this coming year, and it deserves them all. It’s a serious original story with some good ideas, a good cast (Amy Adams is superb.), and good production values. There’s not a whole lot to say about the plot that won’t spoil it, but I was extremely pleased at how the adaptation of Ted Chiang’s marvelous “Story of Your Life” turned out. It’s a challenging story to adapt, and it worked with only a handful of relatively minor changes to smooth the translation from page to screen. That said, if you haven’t read the story, be sure to whether you see the movie or not.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
I actually won’t be seeing this one until this Friday or Saturday, but let’s be real. It’s definitely going to be one of my favorite movies of the year, so I’m going to go ahead and slip it on at the end here.

The Best of 2016: Novellas

love novellas, and this year they constituted about a third of my reading. I’m still reading almost all of the Tor.com novellas as they come out, and I’ve started paying more attention to other novella-length work, though I still stick to professionally published books rather than delving into the vast world of self-pubbed stuff out there. Consequently, this list is definitely a bit biased towards the Tor.com books, but I did try to check out some different stuff in 2016. If I missed one of your favorites, be sure to leave it in the comments.

Coral Bones by Foz Meadows
2016 was a good year for Foz Meadows, whose most recent novel, An Accident of Stars, is a fun, fresh and feminist take on the portal fantasy genre. However, this short novella–included in Abaddon Books’ Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World–is wonderful. It’s a new perspective on The Tempest‘s Miranda, and Meadows takes a look at what it might really mean for a young person’s identity to be brought up in that kind of isolation. It’s a thoughtful portrait of an outsider figuring out their place in the world, a clever riff on Shakespeare’s own themes, and a playful update to a very old classic.
Buy it here.
Or buy the collection here.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
There were several Lovecraft-inspired novellas published in 2016, but Victor LaValle’s is definitely the best of them. The Ballad of Black Tom is directly in conversation with Lovecraft, being a retelling of sorts of the insidiously racist short story “The Horror at Red Hook,” and LaValle ably weaves together a general critique of Lovecraft’s racism with a fairly straightforward tribute to Lovecraft’s enduring influence on the genre, crafting a smartly written and well-paced homage that perfectly encapsulates the complicated feelings that many people have towards Lovecraft.
Buy it here.
Read “The Horror at Red Hook” here.

Lustlocked and Pride’s Spell by Matt Wallace
Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series continued this year with its second and third installments, and they are excellent. Matt Wallace has a gift for telling funny stories that aren’t trying to be too clever, and each volume of this series is better than the one before. Wallace starts with a simple joke and focuses on creating a diverse cast of interesting characters to carry the story, and it works. Every time.
Buy Lustlocked.
Buy Pride’s Spell.
Buy Envy of Angels (the first book in the series).
Pre-order book four, Idle Ingredients.
Read the Sin du Jour short story, “Small Wars.”

Runtime by S.B. Divya
I would never have guessed I would love Runtime as much as I did, as I’m generally not into anything even remotely sports-related, but this story about a young woman entering a cyborg race with the hope of bettering herself and achieving a more secure future for her family is a fantastic fast read.
Buy it here.

Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky
While I haven’t been as into nostalgia in my media as some have this year, I absolutely adored this D&D-ish sword and sorcery adventure from Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s got an unexpected and unique protagonist, some interesting ideas, and an entertaining villain. Tchaikovsky pokes gentle fun at some classic tropes and deftly uses others in a way that shows his deep love for and broad knowledge of the genre.
[Edit: Just learned that Spiderlight is actually 300 pages long, so not actually a novella. I was so delighted by it that I rushed through it in a single sitting and didn’t even notice.]
Buy it here.

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
Kai Ashante Wilson’s 2015 novella, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, marked him as an author to watch, and this 2016 effort, set in the distant past of the same world, establishes Wilson as one of the most original and compelling voices in fantasy right now.
Buy it here.

The Convergence of Fairy Tales by Octavia Cade
The Convergence of Fairy Tales is this year’s Book Smugglers Halloween horror story, and it’s also their very first novella. Hopefully, it’s the first of many, because it’s really, really good. The unifying theme behind many of my favorites of 2016 is rage, and this is a very angry book. Which makes sense, as it’s the story of the princess from some of Western culture’s most beloved–and most monstrously unfair–fairy tales, stitched together here as the story of a singular heroine who learns to channel her pain and fury into action that helps her move on from what has been done to her. It’s a powerful validation of rage as a response to injustice and victimization, and it’s beautifully written to boot.
Buy it here.

carrigernovellasPoison or Protect and Romancing the Inventor by Gail Carriger
I have enjoyed Gail Carriger’s steampunk-ish romance adventure novels in the past, but I’ve never gotten hugely into them, and this year I learned why. They’re all just too long. 2016 found Carriger kicking off not one but two novella series–the first dealing with the now-grown characters from her YA Finishing School books and the second detailing the romances of queer minor characters from the Parasol Protectorate and Custard Protocol series–and the first installments of both are delightfully fun and sexy enough to be exactly what I need to fill my occasional desire for light smut.
Buy Poison or Protect.
Buy Romancing the Inventor.

The Raven and the Reindeer by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon)
The Snow Queen reimagined as a queer romance adventure? Yes, please. I do think this book might be over the word count for eligibility as a novella for the Hugo Awards but not by much, and it’s short enough and a fast enough read that it feels more like a novella than even a short novel. Simply magical. If you haven’t read this one yet, it’s the ideal book to curl up with a cup of hot cocoa and a blanket and read on a cold winter’s night.
Buy it here.

The Best of 2016: Short Fiction

I didn’t get to read nearly as much short fiction this year as I’d have liked, but I definitely read more than I have in other recent years and I expect to continue reading more short fiction, especially in magazines and anthologies, as we head into the new year. I haven’t been this into short fiction in probably twenty years, but I’m loving it, as evidenced by my multiple new subscriptions and the number of new anthologies on my TBR list and backed on Kickstarter.

Readers, there is so much great stuff out there, and though 2016 was a garbage fire in general there was nonetheless some truly superb stories to read this year. While I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read as much as I want to, I think I managed to catch a few of the year’s best stories. Here, in no particular order, are my favorite short reads of 2016.

“The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest” by Charlie Jane Anders
In The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales (ed. by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe)
Listen. This is certainly not the best story I read in 2016, but it might be my favorite simply because it’s so delightfully unexpected. The thing is, while princess story retellings and reimaginings are a dime a dozen, no one ever goes for the really weird stuff. Charlie Jane Anders goes for the weird stuff, and it’s awesome.
Buy the book here.

“Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik
In The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales (ed. by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe)
“Spinning Silver” is both retelling and reclamation, and Naomi Novik has made something very old and rather ugly into something new and clever and beautiful.
Buy the book here.

“Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar
In The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales (ed. by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe) and Uncanny #13, Nov/Dec 2016
Even I occasionally like to read a good retelling of a princess story, and “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a mashup of a couple of lesser-known ones. Amal El-Mohtar’s distinctive voice and lovely prose elevate this short romance to something far more like myth-making.
Read it online here.
Buy the book here.
Buy the magazine here.

“Fifty Shades of Grays” by Steven Barnes
In Lightspeed Magazine #73, June 2016, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue
Wickedly smart, darkly funny, and just the right amount of fatalistic.
Read it online here.

“The Beasts Who Fought for Fairyland Until the Very End and Further Still” by Catherynne M. Valente
Self-published on her website.
My favorite of several stories I read in November that were born from the grief and anger many felt (and still feel) following Donald Trump’s election.
Read it online here.

“Can You Tell Me How to Get to Paprika Place?” by Michael R. Underwood
In Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling (ed. by Jaym Gates and Monica Valentinelli
I never would have guessed that in 2016 I would find myself crying over a couple of Sesame Street-esque characters who have been turned into super soldiers and are trying to find their way home after a war with something very like Disney, but I did.
Buy the book here.

“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander
In Uncanny #13, Nov/Dec 2016
This story has gotten a lot of buzz among people whose opinions I value, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a story about rage, revenge and catharsis, and it turns out that these are timely themes in late 2016.
Read it online here.
Buy the magazine here.

“43 Responses to ‘In Memory of Dr. Alexandra Nako'” by Barbara A. Barnett
On Daily Science Fiction, February 5, 2016
“43 Responses” utilizes a format–of an internet comments section–that could have been gimmicky or too-precious in a genuinely interesting way, and I love the way Barbara A. Barnett uses this form to slowly spool out story for the reader and create an immersive reading experience.
Read it online here.

“This is Not a Wardrobe Door” by A. Merc Rustad
In Fireside Magazine Issue 29, January 2016
If you liked Seanan McGuire’s novella, Every Heart a Doorway, at all, you should definitely be sure to read this story.
Read it online here.
Support Fireside Fiction on Patreon.

“Red Dirt Witch” by N.K. Jemisin
In Fantasy Magazine #60, December 2016, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy! Special Issue
I wept.
Buy the magazine here.

“Black, Their Regalia” by Darcie Little Badger
In Fantasy Magazine #60, December 2016, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy! Special Issue
Native goth kids saving the world with music. They are badasses. Darcie Little Badger is a badass storyteller.
Read it online here.
Buy the magazine here.

“The Things My Mother Left Me” by P. Djeli Clark
In Fantasy Magazine #60, December 2016, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy! Special Issue
This is the 2016 story that I most hope gets expanded upon in novel form. It’s simply a marvel of short story worldbuilding, with a capable young woman protagonist of a type that I find endlessly compelling. Also, elements of the story reminded me strongly of the Midnight Carnival parts in The Last Unicorn, and that’s never a bad thing.
Read it online here.
Buy the magazine here.

Doctor Who: “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is a fun, fast-paced garbage fire

I’d love to say that I loved “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” especially after it’s been such a long time since we last had any Doctor Who at all. It was an enjoyable enough hour, but of the sort that I rather hate to enjoy because as soon as I think about it for more than a minute it all begins to fall apart. This has long been true of Steven Moffat-penned episodes in general, but this one is even worse than usual. Let’s start with some positives, though. Some spoilers ahead.

First, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” has a coherence that has often been lacking in the last couple of seasons of Doctor Who, and it’s refreshing. The episode is internally consistent, makes smart use of time travel, and overall makes good working sense. It also fits nicely within the broader timeline of the show, taking place, for the Doctor, shortly after his last long night with River Song (at the end of last year’s “The Husbands of River Song”) and addressing, sort of, some issues raised in season seven’s “The Angels Take Manhattan.” That said, these previous episodes certainly aren’t required viewing to enjoy this one, which is good. Moffat sometimes tends to show off his encyclopedic knowledge of the show, but there’s nothing too arcane here, just some mostly cleverly-worked-in references for fans who have been paying attention the last few years.

Second, Matt Lucas is back as Nardole, and he’s now the Doctor’s Companion. I’ve liked Matt Lucas for some time and thought it a shame to waste him on a throwaway role in last year’s Christmas special, so I was thrilled to see him get a chance to grow the part again this year. Nardole is excellent as comic relief, but Lucas also injects some much-needed warmth and empathy into an hour that was unexpectedly dark for a Who Christmas special. I understand that Lucas and Nardole will return in season ten as a series regular, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he fits into the Doctor’s adventuring. In this episode, he does spend far too much time on lazily-written expository speeches, but he gets to fly the TARDIS and spend some time ruling 12th century Constantinople (“firmly but wisely”).

Finally, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” does, despite its significant flaws (which I’m getting to), manage to be fun to watch. Its pace can only be described as “romping”; the hour absolutely flew by, but without the frenetic quality of many recent Moffat episodes. I’ve often felt that Moffat era Who uses breakneck pacing to cover up hole-filled plotting with a shoddy whiz-bang veneer, but “Doctor Mysterio” avoids that, instead keeping things moving along. No fast-talking deus ex machina shenanigans here. Only sensible progression through the above-mentioned coherent storyline. Even the time travel and flashbacks make perfect sense and work well within the story being told. For Moffat era Who, this is a great episode.

Except.

What the fuck is “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” supposed to be about?

Is it about the Doctor’s irresponsibility with alien technology? Kind of, I guess. Except that said alien technology ends up saving the day in the end.

Is it about the difficulties of being a super-powered human? Not really. Masked vigilante Grant’s (a rather dull Justin Chatwin) point of view is never inhabited by the viewer. Some of his problems and concerns are alluded to, but aside from his puberty-induced x-ray vision, which is played mostly for laughs, his super powers are never an actual problem. Instead, he’s basically invulnerable and his super speed and flying powers make it possible for him to successfully lead a seemingly rich and fulfilling double life. Sure, the Doctor does some handwringing about how hard the double life thing must be, but none of the Doctor’s worries are shown to be well-founded.

Is it about the duality of man (and I do mean man—there’s only a single named, speaking woman in the episode, but more on her later)? Maybe, but if so the messaging here is much less coherent than the surface story being used to communicate it. I mean, something something parallels between the Doctor and Grant and the compartmentalization of their identities as men and as superheroes? It feels as if, by the end of the episode, we’re supposed to feel as if some profound observation has been made and we’ve been given some new insight into the Doctor’s character, but neither of those things have been accomplished.

Is it about poking fun at the absurdity of superhero genre conventions? Only if by “poking fun” one means “playing every trope pretty much completely straight.”

Is it about gender? Could be, but if so it’s a sexist garbage fire of garbled messaging on the issue.

The episode’s singular woman, Lucy (Charity Wakefield, making the most of things), is a sort of Lois Lane character, right down to her apparent inability to recognize the man she has known for over twenty years if he takes his glasses off and does his best Batfleck impression. Lucy starts off promising enough, seeming to be a competent and perceptive investigator, but she’s quickly sidelined once the Doctor arrives, gets sexualized and then damselled in the final act, and ultimately has nothing much to do other than have the wholly unearned epiphany that she was in love with the nanny all along. I’d say that this all amounts to a systemic destruction of the character, but it’s done so casually, with so little appearance of malice and with such an obvious wink and nod from Moffat (as if it’s all a big joke that we’re all supposed to be in on), that I think it’s likely that all these choices are totally intentional. Steven Moffat has always been cavalier in his disregard for Doctor Who’s female characters, with a strong penchant for robbing them of agency and turning them into prize objects to be manipulated by and in service of the always more-important-to-Moffat male characters on the show.

It’s nonetheless perversely impressive to see how efficiently Moffat can squeeze a wildly regressive character “arc” into a single episode. Lucy never does get to fully understand the story that she’s in—indeed, the story that she was actively investigating at the top of the hour. We learn from Grant that Lucy, while married and a new mother, has recently been abandoned by her husband, and this turns out—even though it’s literally never mentioned by Lucy herself—to be the problem in her life that needs solving. Instead of getting satisfactory answers to her questions or succeeding in her investigation of the alien invaders, Lucy’s “happy” ending is a renewed interest in domestic life and faith in monogamous hetero coupledom. Her career isn’t even mentioned in the end, and her emotional energies are directed more towards helping Grant—not to adjust to a new domestic life of his own, though. Rather, she encourages him to at least remain open to the possibility of continuing his super-heroics in the future.

It would be profoundly depressing if Doctor Who still had the power to surprise and dismay me with this crap. As it is, I just found myself sighing and rolling my eyes. Thank goodness, we’ve only got one more year of Steven Moffat to go. And, hey, new companion Bill looks like she has some potential. It’ll be interesting to see how Moffat manages to screw up come April.

Weekend Links: December 18, 2017

So, tomorrow is the big day, when we find out once and for all if we’re really going to be stuck with Donald Trump for the next four-to-eight years. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and there are several convincing scenarios for how this shit show could go down in the days, weeks and years to come, so I am doing my damnedest today to be kind to myself and not worry about it. Sadly, I did not have the foresight to stock up on rum, but I’ll be okay. At this point, I’m more concerned with the monster cold I’m coming down with the night before I need to start holiday baking. Also, I’ve still got no fewer than half a dozen books I’d like to finish reading by the end of the year.

So, basically, my plan is to pretty much go no-internet this coming week. In between baking French macarons tomorrow, I will be checking the news, but other than that, I’m planning on a week of total internet avoidance. My hope is that this will allow me to nurse this cold, get all my baking done by Wednesday-ish, and finish several books. With next weekend being taken up with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I don’t expect to do a Weekend Links post, but on the 26-30 I will be posting my year-end wrap-up posts, full of my favorite books, short fiction, TV, movies and so on from 2016. The first full week of January will likely be a light posting week as I work on settling into a new and hopefully more tranquil and productive routine, but there should be a couple of looking-forward-to-in-2017 posts in there. After that, my plan is to get back into a solid rhythm of reading/watching and reviewing, and I’ve got a couple of longer-term project ideas that I’m excited to get into more after the holidays.

In the meantime, here’s the neat stuff I’ve found on the internet this week.

If you’re looking for a fast read to finish out the year (instead of stupidly saving like five 600+ page behemoths til last like I did), Tor.com has you covered. Their full list of 2016 novels and novellas has some great stuff on it, and if you’re looking for something free to read you can check out their 2016 novelettes and short stories, which come with convenient links.

Ann Leckie and Daniel José Older talked about Why Sci-fi and Fantasy Matter on MPR.

Star Trek: Discovery has found its lead: Sonequa Martin-Green from The Walking Dead.

The next Studio Ghibli movie has a title, synopsis, and short trailer.

N.K. Jemisin answered “So what would you do if a Fifth Season happened for real?”

I was never more than moderately interested in Passengers to begin with, but I was nonetheless disappointed to find out that it’s actually gross sexist garbage.

Over at Apex, you can (and should) read Keffy R.M. Kehrli’s piece, “Tropes as Erasers: A Transgender Perspective.” This essay also appears in the collection Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling, which is now on sale in print and ebook formats. Editor Jaym Gates wrote this week about her favorite thing about the project to celebrate its release.

After a fraught year, Chuck Wendig’s advice on How to Create Art and Make Cool Stuff in a Time of Trouble was welcome, useful, and as reassuring as anything can be these days. I expect that it will be advice that I will come back to again and again in the coming months.

Finally, here’s a video of Neil Gaiman reading “The Raven” by candle- and fire-light: