Thursday, April 06, 2017

My Favorite Books Read In 2016 (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Thriller)

In 2016 I read 60 books; as usual almost all of these were novels, primarily in the genres of mystery/thriller and fantasy/science fiction. Interestingly, the books that I read the in 2016 were  pretty evenly split between the genres of science fiction (19), fantasy (17), and mystery (19) with a few books falling into both categories or neither. (In 2014 mystery/thriller predominated my reading list while in 2015 more than half the books I read that year were science fiction. In 2016, surprisingly no particular genre dominated.

I was introduced to some new authors in 2016 (Adrian McKinty, Michael J. Sullivan, Deborah Crombie, Ramez Naam, Elizabeth George and Adrian Tchaikovsky) whom I look forward to reading more of their books in the future. In 2016 I read my first book by Stephen King  as an adult and was pleasantly surprised by how good the alternative-history/time-travel book 11/22/63 is. I will definitely try to read more of his non-horror work which falls into my favorite genres in the future.

Happily in 2016 lots of authors whose work has previously been some of my favorite reads released books that I read (Ben Winters, Tana French, Peter Hamilton, Daniel Abraham, Ian Rankin, Brian Staveley, Michael Connelly, Patrick Tomlinson, Peter Robinson and Alastair Reynolds). There's a notable absence from this list: for the first time in 6 years I did not read a book from The Expanse by James S.A. Corey. The sixth book, Babylon's Ashes, was released in December 2016 but I didn't read it until my Hawaii vacation in January 2017. Another favorite author, Brent Weeks published The Black Mirror (Lightbringer, #4) in 2016 but I am sav(or)ing this to be read later in 2017.

I'm always looking for more good books and authors to add to my "To Be Read (TBR)" pile! Feel free to make suggestions of books or authors you think I would like in the comments after seeing what books have resonated with me previously.

Below are my favorite reads for 2016 in the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Thriller.

Favorite Science Fiction Novel Read In 2016: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Reading Children of Time was one of the most exciting reading  experiences I had in 2016. Part of the emotional impact that the book had on me is that it was so unexpected. Although I had heard of the author's work before, I thought that Tchaikovsky was known for his epic fantasy works. I list space opera as my favorite genre, and usually it ends up being my favorite sub-genre in science fiction (and quite often it is a book by either Peter Hamilton or James S.A. Corey  in 2015 and 2014) but this year Children of Time just stole my heart and blew my mind.  It is an unusual story that combines two classic elements of science fiction: the depiction of the social dynamics of an arkship which presumably contains all that remains of humanity and the development of an alien civilization with quite unique cultural characteristics and social structure. What both of these plots have in common is that the book goes over multiple generations of each, so the passage of time is an important ingredient of the salience of the story's impact. Although I would love to spend more time with the characters and the setting of Children of Time it was also nice to read a completely self-contained story that does not depend on any sequels to advance or complete the story.

Runner-Up in Favorite Science Fiction Novel Read In 2016: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters.

I have previously discussed how since I love science fiction/fantasy and mystery/thriller that I am always looking for books that combine these two genres. In fact last year, my two favorite mysteries were also science fiction books. The first of these was the Last Policeman trilogy written by Ben Winters. This year Winters is on my list of favorites in the science fiction category even though Underground Airlines is also a police procedural and mystery-thriller. What makes it science fiction is that it is written in an alternate time line where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated soon after his election in 1861 and the enactment of five "compromise" constitutional amendments result in slavery being maintained until the 21st century in a few stubborn states in the Union (Carolinas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama). The setting is so compelling that it was easily the book that I thought about the most long after I finished it. What the premise does is allow the reader to clearly see the horrifying possibility that slavery could have been maintained for another century and a half in our world and how similar to our actual world that warped universe is. This is mordant social commentary with an exciting  plot wrapped around it.

Honorable Mention (Science Fiction):  A Night Without Stars (The Chronicle of the Fallers, #2) by Peter Hamilton.
My favorite science fiction author is Peter Hamilton so it should not be a surprise that his sequel to The Abyss Beyond Dreams, the concluding novel in another exciting duology written in the Commonwealth Universe would be on my list of favorite books read in 2016. A Night Without Stars was not as good as the first book in the series but even midrange Hamilton is a lot better than the vast majority of science fiction out there. Again, although Hamilton is known for his space opera and military science fiction a key aspect of the story in The Chronicle of the Fallers is a detailed depiction of a social revolution against a totalitarian regime where some people have telepathic and telekinetic powers and there are deadly shape-shifting aliens attempting to subsume human civilization. Lots of fun!

Favorite Fantasy Novel Read Novel In 2016: The Last Mortal Bond (The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, #3) by Brian Staveley

In 2015 my favorite read in the category of fantasy was the first book in Brian Staveley's The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, The Emperor's New Blades so I am quite pleased that the concluding work in the same series, The Last Mortal Bond, ended up being my favorite read in the same category in 2016. And this was a tough category to repeat in because I read quite a few fantasy books this year. However Staveley is the real deal and I totally expect him to join the (rather short) list of my favorite fantasy authors: Brent Weeks, Peter Brett, Daniel Abraham and Michael Sullivan. The reason why Staveley is on this list at the top spit is that The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne is simply the best. The story generally revolves around three main characters: Kaden, Adare and Valyn, who are the surviving children of an assassinated emperor. However, as the story develops we see that it is really an existential battle between humanity and god-like, immortal beings. There are giant flying birds, armies of thousands fighting against each other and devotees of various gods and goddesses all fighting for power and control over the Empire. Oh and of course there is some love and betrayal as well, for good measure. And all of it is told at a thrilling pace with humor and wit which is incredibly engaging.

Runner-Up Favorite Fantasy Read in 2016:  Heir of Novron (The Riyria Chronicles, #3) by Michael J. Sullivan 

Speaking of wit and humor immediately brings us to the work of Michael J. Sullivan, who I first read in 2016. He started as a self-published author and although there's nothing wrong with that, I believe that was one of the reasons why I never picked up any of his books. But eventually, the tens of thousands of ratings on Goodreads (with an average well above 4.0 on a 5-point scale) were convincing enough to me that I decided to try the first book, Theft of Swords, in one of his series, The Riyria Chronicles. I was amazed at how funny and thrilling the books are, even if they do have wizards and princesses and swords. They simply are great books, built around two amazing characters Hadrian Blackwater and  Royce Melborn. What is so impressive about what Sullivan does is that even as he is repeating all the classical fantasy tropes he is simultaneously reinventing and disrupting them. (For example, in Heir of Novron there's a quest by a motley collection of travelers who have multiple reasons to betray each other, there's an orphaned waif who becomes the leader of the Empire, and of course there are several sets of star-crossed lovers.)  But the core of the books is the relationship between two (straight) guys who are very different but manage to forge a bond that has them surviving some quite harrowing (and sometimes hilarious) situations. Honestly, it was hard to know which of the books in the Riyria Chronicles to put on this list, but because Heir of Novron also has the added benefit of providing a pay off to thousands of pages of text I selected it to represent the runner-up best fantasy book I read in 2016. Don't make the mistake I made, read the Riyria books by Michael J. Sullivan as soon as you can--you won't regret it!

Honorable Mention (Fantasy): The Spider's War (The Dagger and the Coin, #5) by Daniel Abrahams
Earlier entries in Daniel Abraham's fantastic series about fanaticism, banking and war, The Dagger and the Coin, have made it into my list of Favorite Fantasy books of the year. (Book 4, The Widow's House, was the runner-up in this category in 2014.)  Of course Abrahams is one-half of the duo who writes The Expanse series as James S.A. Corey so it is incredible that while they were churning out a book a year in that series, Abraham has been churning out a book a year in this series as well. Both of those schedules slipped this year, but The Spider's War was released early enough that I was able to complete it in 2016. Although it is not as consistently a high-quality read as some of the earlier entries in the series, it still manages to stick the landing quite well and resolve all the myriad plot points and various story threads that have developed over the course of five books, and for doing a good job at a hard task, The Spider's War deserves an Honorable Mention.

Favorite Mystery Novel Read In 2016: The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad, #6) by Tana French

After a somewhat disappointing fifth entry into her Dublin Murder Squad Series with The Secret Place, Tana French restored her place as my favorite mystery author with The Trespasser. There are books that you look forward to and are willing to wait for at the library, and there are books that you immediately order on Amazon once you know they are available (and there are even books that you pre-order on Amazon once you hear a rumor that they may be coming out soon.) Needless to say, The Trespasser showed up on my doorstep on its day of release and although I denied myself the pleasure of starting to read it right away, it was totally worth the wait. For the first time, French deviates from using her unique method of selecting the detectives who will be protagonists in her latest book from secondary characters from previous entries in the series. The detectives that appeared in The Secret Place, Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway, also appear in The Trespasser. What makes French's mysteries so good is that the questions raised are not only about who did the crime and why did they do it, but they often involve questions about the people trying to solve the crime as well. Conway is the only female member of the Dublin Murder Squad and Moran is the most junior member, and the fact that they are paired together as partners reflect the marginality of both on the squad.  One of the key mysteries in The Trespasser is not only will Conway and Moran find out who killed Aislinn Murray, but also will Conway and Moran continue to be working together as police detectives and will both of them actually be on the police force by the end? The result is that The Trespasser rivals her Broken Harbour as the best of Ms. French's superlative mysteries.

Runner-Up Favorite Mystery Novel Read in 2016: Rain Dogs (Sean Duffy, #5) by Adrian McKinty

One of the key discoveries I made in 2016 were the Inspector Sean Duffy  books by Adrian McKinty. These are a series of police procedurals set in the suburbs of Belfast, Northern Ireland at the height of the "Troubles" in the mid-1980s. I'm already a sucker for police procedurals, having consumed several books of this type written by Ian Rankin (DI John Rebus in Edinburgh), Peter Robinson (DCI Alan Banks in Yorkshire), Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch in Los Angeles), Jo Nesbø (Harry Hole in Oslo, Norway), Jussi Adler-Olsen (Department Q series in Copenhagen), Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) and Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallander in Ystad, Sweden). McKinty's Sean Duffy series is familiar because it is a police procedural but the setting of an all-consuming, civil war between two religious factions. Of course, Duffy is a nice Catholic boy who is a Royal Ulster Constabulary officer in Carrickfergus, a predominantly Protestant section of Northern Ireland (which also just happens to be the name of the real town that McKinty grew up in.) The Duffy books are complicated by the fact that not only is Duffy trying to solve murders in a time and place when people are getting blown up and killed horribly by faithful adherents from both sides, is that he also somehow gets involved in cases that attract the attention of M.I.5 (the British domestic counter-intelligence agency equivalent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation). The Duffy books are bit more than your everyday police-procedural murder-mystery; they have significant elements of spy thriller components, all embedded in oft-amusing commentary on the 1980s and 1990s. In particular, Rain Dogs is particularly good. I devoured all five of the available entries in the Duffy series in about a month, with each one even more enjoyable (and compelling) than the one before.

Honorable Mention (Mystery):  Even Dogs in the Wild (Inspector John Rebus, #20) by Ian Rankin and In The Dark Places (Chief Inspector Alan Banks, #22) by Peter Robinson.
I realized when I wrote this post that I have never acknowledged the mysteries of Ian Rankin or Peter Robinson as one my year-end favorites, but between the two of them I have read nearly four dozen of their books. They are somewhat similar, in that they are both police procedurals built around male detectives in Great Britain. Rankin's John Rebus is located in Edinburgh and its environs while Robinson's Alan Banks is located in Northern England (Yorkshire). The two have complicated relationships with both their underlings and superior officers. After reading so many of these stories, they are familiar, comforting and highly recommended. (Please note, each of the series gets better as they go along. If you start from Book 1, hang in there because they get really good later on. For Rebus, I would say it is the award-winning Resurresction Men and for Banks is In A Dry Season.)

Favorite Thriller Novel Read In 2016: Apex (Nexus, #3) by Ramez Naam.

I had heard of Ramez Naam's Nexus trilogy for years (at least as long as I had heard of Marcus Sakey's Brilliamce saga). The two are somewhat similar, since they are both techno-thrillers in a sense. Both depict the development of technology which tends to upend the natural balance of our world and then depicts the aftermath by following its effect on the main characters. In the Nexus trilogyNaam's killer idea is the development of a drug called Nexus which allows one to code the human brain like an operating system, and also eventually connect to (and possibly control) these Nexus-enhanced brains remotely through a network. Naam's work is even more political than Sakey's because he raises a lot of nuanced issues about the nature of technology and the questions that the creator of a paradigm-shifting technology faces. For me, Naam's work resonates even more than Sakey's because his main character is a graduate student who has this amazing idea and dreams of academic success. Naam depicts the protocols, beliefs and cultural touchstones of the academic scientific world in a way that I immediately identified. However, additionally, the Nexus books are also action-packed, as another question that they raise is the time-honored dilemma of when (or if) the ends justify the means of achieving one's aims. The books are set about 25 years in the future, so technically they are science fiction as well as techno-thrillers which could be another reason I liked them so much. I read all three books in the trilogy, Nexus, Crux and Apex in about a week and they were an extremely fun ride, they most exhilarating reads I had in 2016.

Runner-Up Favorite Thriller Read in 2016: Beyond Reach (Grant County, #6)  by Karin Slaughter

I discovered Karin Slaughter last year, and Blindsighted the first book in her Grant County series made an immediate impression on me, grabbing an Honorable Mention for Favorite Thriller Read in 2015. I basically devoured the rest of the six books in the Grant County series in 2016 and am currently working my way through her 9-book Will Trent series in 2017. Slaughter is a crime thriller writer who also combines romantic tension between her main characters. The Grant County series is built around a trio of characters: Sara Linton, Jeffrey Tolliver and Lena Adams. Adams and Tolliver are police officers and Linton is Tolliver's ex-wife and the coroner in a very small South Georgia town. Through intricate plotting and clever deployment of point-of-view chapters, Slaughter weaves a compelling tale where the lives and loves of these main characters are intertwined with each other in increasingly complex ways. This is done while they solve always-heinous crimes (which almost always involve extremely sexualized and brutal violence against women) that often result in one or more of our main characters being placed into extreme peril (thus the thriller aspect). Beyond Reach is the most devastating of the books in this regard, with an ending which is absolutely devastating to the reader.

Honorable Mention (Thriller): World in Fire (Brilliance, #3) by Marcus Sakey.
The Brilliance series by Marcus Sakey is a very fun trilogy of science-fiction thrillers set in the near-future where 1% of the children being born are "special"--they have extraordinary mental and physical powers which could lead them to take over the world if allowed to develop unchecked. Sakey imagines how our world would react to this change and follows the story to a logical conclusion (which he provides in the third book) as time moves forward and the Brilliants and the Normals struggle for power and control. The main attractive feature of the books (besides its exciting, premise, which is admittedly derivative or reminiscent of Marvel's X-men) is Sakey's propulsive writing. The books simply zip along at a breakneck pace. Additionally, he does quite a good job of giving a realistic depiction of how the U.S. government and society would react to the presence of "Brilliants" among us. This sense of verisimilitude and the quality of the writing make the Brilliance saga one of my highlighted reads of the year.

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