Sunday, November 25, 2018

My Favorite Books Read In 2017 (Mystery, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller)

In 2017 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 in 2017 were  dominated by the mystery/thriller category (33) with the rest pretty evenly split between the genres of science fiction (15) and fantasy (9) with a few books falling into both categories or neither. 2017 was more like 2014 when 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. This is surprising (to me) because generally if I were to list my favorite genres in decreasing order it would be 1) science fiction 2) thriller 3) fantasy 4) mystery. One issue is that thriller can really be any genre (even though most of the thrillers I read are also mysteries).

I was introduced to several new authors in 2017 (Stuart MacBride,  John Sandford, Blake Crouch, Dennis Taylor, Justin Cronin, Rachel Caine, Val McDermid and Susie Steiner; I definitely look forward to reading more of books from many of these authors in the future. In 2017 I followed up my 2016 read of my first Stephen King novel (11/22/63) with the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch).

Happily in 2017 I also read lots of book by authors whose work has previously been some of my favorite reads (Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbø, Louise Penny, Brian Staveley, Michael Connelly, Patrick Tomlinson, Peter Robinson, Brent Weeks, Adrian McKinty, N.K. Jemisin and Greg Iles). In 2017 I read not one but two books from what is currently my favorite series, i.e. 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 and when the seventh book Persepolis Rising was released in December 2017 I gobbled it up soon afterwards. Another favorite author, Peter V. Brett, published the fifth and final book in the Demon Cycle, The Core, nearly 9 years after the first book, The Warded Man, came out in 2009.

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 2017 in the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Thriller.

Favorite Science Fiction Novel Read In 2017: Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey
As I have said before, The Expanse series is my favorite current series. This is not much of a surprise, since space opera is my favorite genre, and The Expanse is an action-packed space opera series about the human colonization of the solar system that is impacted by the discovery of alien technology. For example, in 2014 (Cibola Burn) and 2015 (Nemesis Games) a book from the Expanse series was my favorite for that year. In 2016, there were no Expanse books released and thus in 2017 Book 6 and Book 7 of the series was released: Babylon Ashes and Persepolis Rising. I was sort of disappointed with Babylon's Ashes but was very impressed with Persepolis Rising. It is quite incredible that the two authors who write together as James S.A. Corey have managed to basically stick to the schedule of an average of one book per year for seven books, even as they have been heavily involved in the adaption of their books for television as The Expanse series, the first three seasons of which have been broadcast on SyFy, but which has moved to Amazon Prime for season 4 after the cable channel declined to renew the show. In 2018 we are again not having an Expanse book, with the 8th book in the series Tiamat's Wrath having been delayed until 2019.

Runner-Up in Favorite Science Fiction Novel Read In 2017: Death's End by Liu Cixin.
Death's End is the third book in the space opera trilogy written by Cixin Liu who won the Hugo award for Best Novel for the first book in the series called The Three-Body Problem. The story is about an invasion of Earth by aliens known as Trisolarians (because their home world is surrounded by three stars). All three books are excellent and very different in their own way. The first two books (The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest) also appeared on my end-of-year favorite reads list for 2015 so it shouldn't be surprising that the third book appears on one as well. In Death's End the stakes for humanity grow even higher (and this is after the threat of alien invasion is resolved in quite an unexpected way!) and the time scale of the book grows longer and longer. There's not much more I can say about Death's End without revealing plot details but I can mention that it has a main character that is a female scientist and strongly encourage you to read the book. It is well-written, complicated science fiction at its very best. If it wasn't for N.K. Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate I am fairly confident that Death's End would have likely won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel instead.

Honorable Mention (Science Fiction):  Children of the Divide (Children of a Dead Earth, #3) by Patrick S. Tomlinson.
One of my favorite books from a few years ago was The Ark by Patrick S. Tomlinson, the first book in the Children of a Dead Earth trilogy. As I have said earlier, I like specific genres of fiction (mystery/thriller and science fiction/fantasy) and one of the things that drew me to The Ark is that it is a rare example of a book which combines mystery and science fiction in a clever and engaging way. Children of the Divide is the third book in this series and it does an excellent job of  continuing (and possibly completing) the story that began in The Ark while still maintaining its commitment to blurring genre boundaries of science fiction and mystery. Children of the Divide is about a former detective who is now part of a small human colony on a planet trying to engage with the indigenous alien population and uncover corrupt and criminal conspiracy among the colonial leaders.

Favorite Fantasy Novel Read Novel In 2017: The Core (The Demon Cycle, #5) by Peter V. Brett
Peter Brett's Demon Cycle has been one of my favorite reads in the category of fantasy since the first entry The Warded Man appeared in 2009. Brett is definitely on the short list of my favorite fantasy authors: Brian Staveley, Brent Weeks, Michael J. Sullivan, and Daniel Abraham. The Demon Cycle is set in a world where there are different kinds of monsters (called "demons") who appear every night once the sun goes down. Demons apparently rise up from the "core" of the earth and have claws, teeth and talons and kill humans. Civilization does not have electricity  and so society is based around daytime activity because there is a strong belief that there is no way to fight against the demons. It is known that certain symbols (called "wards") can protect property from demon incursion but deep knowledge or understanding of wards and the ability to create new wards has been lost in the annals of time. When the series starts the main characters are Arlen Bales, Leesha Paper and Rojer Inn who live in an area we would recognize as similar to 18th century North America (without the slavery). One of the highlights of the series is that it proceeds (The Desert Spear) we are introduced to another pocket of humanity that lives in dry, arid area. This society we would recognize as based on 18th century Middle Eastern or Muslim living. Here the main characters are Ahmann Jardir, Inevera and Abban Haman. In The Core, Arlen, Jardir and Arlen's wife Renna take the battle against the demons to The Core in order to settle the question of which creature, corelings or humans will dominate the planet. This plot summary is a bit simplistic, because the war against the demons has many fronts and involves many other "lesser" characters. (One of the other strengths of the Demon Cycle books is the nuanced characterization of the primary and secondary characters in the series.) Brett wraps up the 5-book series expertly and satisfyingly in The Core. I am very interested in seeing what Brett will follow up the Demon Cycle with; he's a great writer.

Runner-Up Favorite Fantasy Novel Read in 2017: Skullsworn by Brian Staveley
The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne is an epic fantasy trilogy (The Emperor's BladesThe Providence of Fire,,The Last Mortal Bond) featuring a trio of heirs (Adare, Kaden and Valyn) to the Unhewn Throne of the Annurian Empire by Brian Staveley; it was one of my favorite reads in 2015 and 2016. They are great books, built around amazing characters and featuring taut plotting, treacherous betrayals, huge battle scenes and god-like creatures. Although Adare, Kaden and Valyn are the main characters in the book, there are several side characters who make indelible impressions. One of these is Pyrre, a priestess of the God of Death. In Skullsworn, Staveley writes an entire (somewhat short) book entirely focused around Pyrre and gives us insight into how such the smart, accomplished woman we met in the trilogy became a fully-fledged and devoted member of what is essentially a death cult. Pyrre is so fabulous in the original trilogy that it is not surprising that her origin story makes for an exciting read. It is pretty difficult to write a prequel for a character we know survives this story, especially one who literally kills without compunction in service of her religious beliefs but Staveley is so talented he does it very successfully. There are many other characters in the Unhewn Throne trilogy who would also make excellent subjects of their own books (Gwenna, The Flea, to name just a few) so I hope Staveley returns to this setting soon.

Honorable Mention (Fantasy): Age of Swords (The Legends of the First Empire, #2) by Michael J. Sullivan
One of my happy discoveries in recent year has been the work of Michael J. Sullivan. His Riyria Revelation trilogy (Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, Heir of Novron) was on my list of favorite reads for 2016. Sullivan approaches the book industry a bit differently than most authors, since he started by self-publishing his books (quite successfully) and even though his books are now published by major booksellers one is also able to buy them directly from him. He has a new epic fantasy series based thousands of years before the events of the Riyria Revelations called the Legends of the First Empire. Amazingly, he has completed first drafts of the entire 6-book series, so the books are guaranteed to be released on a pretty regular schedule. Age of Swords is the second book in the series and builds upon the setting and characters introduced in the first book, Age of Myth. Unlike the Riryia trilogies, which feature two male characters and are effectively laced with humor, this new series has a female protagonist and is primarily based on an existential conflict between the powerful Fhrey (near immortal, masters of magic and powerfully violent) and humans, who are portrayed in the Bronze age, but inventive and resource. The humans thought the Fhrey were gods until one of them was killed in Age of Myth, but there is still a sense that if the Fhrey decided to invade lands occupied by humans they could exterminate them without much trouble.

Favorite Mystery Novel Read In 2017: Flesh House (DS Logan McRae, #4) by Stuart MacBride
Comedy is so difficult to do that when I find someone who does it well I am always impressed. That Stuart MacBride is able to do this in the context of police procedural mystery thrillers is amazing. I only started reading MacBride's books about Detective Sergeant Logan McRae's adventures as part of the Aberdeen Constabulary in 2017 but already they are very near the top of my all-time list in the mystery category. It was somewhat difficult to decide which of the seven McRae books I read last year should be at the top of this list, but I think it makes sense to pick Flesh House since it is simultaneously the most thrilling and the most darkly comic of these books that I have read so far. As a DS, Logan is basically in middle management, with uniformed police and Detective Constables (DCs) beneath him, and Detective Inspectors (DIs) and Detective Chief Inspectors (DCIs) above him. Unfortunately, in both directions he is surrounded by incompetence and indolence, which MacBride exploits for its maximum comedic effect. The key character here is his immediate boss, DI Roberta Steel (who is such a great character that MacBride has written an entire stand-alone book featuring her in And Now We Are Dead). In Flesh House, Logan (as usual) is juggling multiple criminal investigations, although they are overshadowed by what appears to be the re-emergence after 3 decades  of a cannibalistic serial killer called the Flesher. Len Wiseman was the person who was arrested, tried and convicted as the Flesher but he has been free for years because his conviction was overturned on appeal. Recently a container car full of human meat that was en route to a local butcher has been found and the Granite City is gripped with panic about their local food supply and the police are in such a frenzy to put Wiseman behind bars again that they are willing to bend the rules to get the result that they want. Logan eventually solves the case but only after he puts himself in mortal danger (again) and undergoes excruciating situations which have lasting consequences on his political and personal future.

Runner-Up Favorite Mystery Novel Read in 2016: Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly (Sean Duffy, #6) by Adrian McKinty
One of the key discoveries I made in 2016 was 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 Duncan MacBride (DS Logan McRae), Ian Rankin (DI John Rebus in Edinburgh), Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series in England), 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, Denmark), Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) and Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallander in Ystad, Sweden). McKinty's Sean 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 bit more than your everyday police-procedural murder-mystery; they have significant elements of spy thriller components, all embedded in oft-amusing cultural commentary on the 1980s and 1990s. The latest (and possibly last) book in the series is the unforgettably titled Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly begins with a bang in Chapter 1 with Duffy abducted and basically left for dead as the result of a contract killing and gets even more suspenseful from there. The book then jumps to a time line BEFORE the abduction to tell the story about how Sean got into this predicament and the reader is left with the very real possibility that Detective Duffy may not survive this tale. (I don't want to give away anything but McKinty has revealed that there will be 3 more Duffy books coming out starting with The Detective Up Late in 2019).

Honorable Mention (Mystery):  Well-Schooled in Murder (Inspector Lynley, #3) by Elizabeth George.
I finally started reading the British police procedurals written by American Elizabeth George in 2017. George is widely known for her Inspector Lynley series (which at one point was a popular BBC television series that also aired on PBS). The Lynley series is now 20 episodes strong and features upper-class DI Tommy Lynley (the 8th Earl of Asherton) and working-class DS Barbara Havers solving crimes with the supporting characters being Lynley's girlfriend  Lady Helen Clyde and his best friend Simon St. James. I read the first four novels in the series in 2017 but I think that the strongest of these is the third book, Well-Schooled in Murder. The plot is about a murder that has occurred at a boarding school which is something of a locked room mystery. I definitely intend to read more of these books in the future, even though the romantic tension between Tommy and Helen is a bit off-putting, the class tension between Havers and Lynley is intriguing.

Favorite Thriller Novel Read In 2017: Mr. Mercedes (Bill Hodges, #1) by Stephen King.
Stephen King is a colossus in the publishing world, primarily known for his numerous best-sellers, his prodigious, decades-long written output and the number of film adaptations which have become classic movies (Carrie, It, Misery, Dolores Claiborne, et cetera). Since I am not a fan of horror I had mostly ignored his work  but I did read 11/22/63 (since as an alternative history about the President Kennedy assassination that involves time travel it is effectively science fiction) and very much enjoyed it. So, when I discovered that King had written a mystery thriller series (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch) I decided to check it out and was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. I read all three books in a row; they are very suspenseful, funny and interesting. I don't think King is a great writer, but I do think that he is a fantastic storyteller. I selected Mr. Mercedes as my favorite thriller read in 2017 because the last third of the book is almost impossible to put down. The book begins with the horrible hit-and-run which results in the death of 8 people and the wounding of several more. King tells the story from the perspective of the person who commits the crime, Brady Hartsfield, as well as  the police officer who unsuccessfully investigated the crime and who is now near retirement, Bill Hodges. Hodges teams up with two unlikely sidekicks, a gangly  teenaged African-American named Jerome Robinson and an obsessive-compulsive recluse named Holly Gibney. Together Holly, Jerome and Bill make an engaging team that are a highlight of the entire series. Although they have a limited role in the sequel Finders Keepers they return in the final entry in the trilogy, End of Watch. The series has been adapted for television but is airing on something called the Audience Network which I don't have access to.

Runner-Up Favorite Thriller Read in 2017: Criminal (Will Trent, #6)  by Karin Slaughter
I discovered Karin Slaughter in 2015 when I read the the first book Blindsighted in her Grant County series. The book 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 have been rapidly making my way through her 9-book Will Trent series ever since. Slaughter is a crime thriller writer who also combines romantic tension between her main characters. The Grant County series was built around a trio of characters: Sara Linton, Jeffrey Tolliver and Lena Adams. (Tolliver and Linton were married and Adams is the only female detective in the same police station where Tolliver was chief of police.) The Will Trent series is based around another female-male-female triangle, Sara Linton, Will Trent and Angie Polaski. (Trent and Polaski were orphans who lived in group homes together, both became Atlanta police officers and eventually married while Sara moves to Atlanta from Grant County and becomes romantically involved with Will.)  In both series Slaughter provides point-of-view perspectives from each of the main characters and shows how the very same events and actions by the principals can be interpreted very differently, usually due to the past experiences and traumas each character carries with them. Slaughter does an excellent job of characterizing female characters and her books are full of extremely strong and independent woman while simultaneously depicting society's (and violent men's) horrific domination and  oppression of women. I chose Criminal as the runner-up thriller of the year from the six Will Trent books I read in 2017 because it revolves around unearthing secrets about Will's parentage and we learn more about why his boss, Amanda Wagner, is so closely tied to him.

Honorable Mention (Thriller): Mississippi Blood (Penn Cage, #6) by Greg Iles.
The Penn Cage books by Greg Iles have been some of my favorite thriller reads in the last few years. Overall, I think the first trilogy (The Quiet Game, Turning Angel, The Devil's Punchbowl) is even more gripping than the second (Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree, Mississippi Blood) although the stakes and acclaim for the second one are greater in every aspect. Reading the series in order raises the stakes for the reader in how invested we are in the ultimate disposition of the characters. Not all of our favorites survive the end of the series, and it is heartbreaking. There's a real sense of suspense and danger that tragedy could strike anyone, even the eponymous Penn Cage. For me, the imbrication of race, crime, Southern history and journalism in the series is a potent mix and convinced me to keep Mississippi Blood on my list of favorite reads in 2017.

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