This has been a really great year for science fiction, fantasy and horror books, taking us to fabulous worlds and opening our minds to new ideas and brilliant new characters. Here’s our list of the most amazing books we read this year.
2015 has been the year that a lot of us started to come to grips with the reality of climate change, and some of the most fascinating writing this year has dealt with the potential fallout. So it’s appropriate that this is the year Paolo Bacigalupi chose to release his first adult novel since his debut, The Windup Girl. Taking place in a parched American Southwest and spread out amongst a journalist, a refugee and a mercenary, this book shows how things go off track when the local rights to what little water remains comes into question. Bacicalupi has expertly sketched out a near-future climate change scenario, and it’s not pretty.
Origin stories happen all the time in comics, and in this novel, Lois Lane gets her own cool story about her beginnings. When she moves to Metropolis, she sees a girl get bullied, and begins to investigate a video game that they’ve all been playing. Even as Supergirl and Agent Carter were conquering our TV screens, this superhero tie-in was creating its own huge stir among readers.
This book was probably the most fun that we’ve had with a space opera novel in a long time. Rosemarie joins the crew of the Wayfarer, and goes on one hell of an adventure. You know that fun feeling that you had with Firefly or Farscape? The Long Way to a Long Angry Planet has it all. Alien crew on a spaceship? Check. Entertaining characters? Check. Fun and adventure in the depths of space? Check check check.
There have already been a number of comparisons between this book and Suzanne Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell—and the good news is, it lives up to that high standard. In Victorian England, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers is holding onto a perilous position, as magic vanishes from the country. In this excellent novel, Cho’s two characters occupy a rare position within fantasy literature: outsiders, who are on the forefront of change.
War isn’t going anywhere, and over the last couple of years, we’ve enjoyed reading P.W. Singer’s nonfiction works about the futures of private militaries, cybersecurity and drones. In Ghost Fleet, he and August Cole take all of these real world advances and trends and plot out what a world war scenario would actually look like, with a conflict that pits China, Russia and the United States against one another. The resulting story is a fast, exciting thriller that gives a glimpse of what war could be like in the future, and it’s scary as hell.
[Full disclosure, Cole republished a story of mine in his Art of Future War project.]
This year is James S.A. Corey’s year. Leviathan Wakes, the first of the Expanse series, has been adapted into an awesome television show for Syfy. And this year also saw the release of what is probably my favorite book of the series to date: Nemesis Games. In any long-running series, you always sort of know about the worst-case scenario, something that the author hints at, but which is never quite followed up on. Not here: Corey drops a bombshell on the series, going places we didn’t think that we’d go. Additionally, we finally get a glimpse into the heads of all of the other long-standing characters, and it’s amazing.
There are a ton of doom and gloom science fiction novels out there about how we’ll destroy ourselves. Taiyo Fujii’s novel looks towards a more optimistic future, where a gene hacker has helped to create a genetically modified crop that will feed millions—when it goes wrong, he suspects sabotage, and finds more than he’s expecting. This translated novel is a fantastic counterpoint to more cautionary tales about the future, and it casts a more favorable eye towards how we might be able to fix our problems.
There are hints of Ursula K. Le Guin in Gilman’s novel Dark Orbit, the story of a newly discovered planet visited by a team of scientists. Upon arriving, they find a planet laden with dark matter, populated by a strange alien race. This book has received praise for its characters and their attempts to understand the aliens—who might be their only hope for survival.
We’ve dug Austin Grossman’s earlier books, such as Soon I Will Be Invincible and You. (And he’s also contributed to io9 on occasion.) This book is probably his wildest ride yet—it’s about the supernatural secret that Richard Nixon discovered as a child, and how it impacted his rise to the Oval Office. Mixing Lovecraftian horror with alternate history, it’s a fun, entertaining read.
It’s nice to see hard science fiction written by someone who knows what she’s talking about. That’s the case with C.A. Higgins and her debut novel, Lightless. She holds a degree in physics, and it shows through in this story. In a dystopian future solar system, resistance is beginning to spread. When a pair of dissenters board a top secret spacecraft, the crew must contend with the consequences from both the System and their own ship. This book is a fascinating, deliberate read that keeps you on your toes right to the very end.
Holland’s fantasy novel takes us to an epic fantasy world where the Castle Ocean is under siege. Queen Marioza must marry the brother of one of the invading emperors, and this sparks off a quest to discover a missing brother. This is an engrossing, dark fantasy tale that reflects Holland’s roots as an author of historical fiction.
N.K. Jemisin has been blowing up epic fantasy with her earlier novels, but this work confirms once and for all that she’s truly one of the greats. A woman named Essun finds her family racked by murder, set against the backdrop of the impending collapse of civilization. And to save her daughter, Essun will tear the world apart. This is one of the most powerful novels that we’ve read in ages, and it’s an amazing journey.
Ann Leckie’s amazing trilogy comes to an end with Ancillary Mercy. (There is more on the way, happily!) Following the aftermath of Ancillary Sword, Breq, the former warship, finds herself in the middle of a convergence of forces at Athoek Station. Leckie’s assembled an amazing world, and this story comes to a triumphant end with this installment.
Kelly Link has been hailed as an amazing short fiction author, but this latest collection is by far her greatest work to date. The assembled short stories are obsessed with meta and pop-culture references, and captures the range of relationships in ways that exceeded our very high expectations.
Cixin Liu’s novel continues the story begun in his Hugo/Nebula award winning novel The Three Body Problem. Earth has learned of an alien invasion that will come four centuries from now, and to combat the Trisolarians, we create the Wallfacer Project to grant four men the power to devise a strategy to save our planet. This trilogy has been an amazing ride, and we already can’t wait for the final installment.
Ken Liu has been blowing us away for almost a decade now with fantastic short stories like “The Paper Menagerie” and translations such as The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. But Liu’s debut novel is just as impressive: a fantasy that depicts the rise and fall of civilizations, war between friends and brothers, and revolutions that will change the world. It’s a fantastic, epic novel.
Ian McDonald has written some incredible books in the recent past, such as River of Gods and The Dervish House. He can now add Luna: New Moon to that list. A group of powerful families control the moon and its resources, and with such insane power comes rivals. Set between a wide cast of characters, McDonald’s latest is a book about power and wealth in orbit, and is a stunning, gripping read. This book is already becoming a TV series, and it’s easy to see why.
We all know about the Game of Thrones novels—but this book puts together several prequel stories to Martin’s epic fantasy. This is a straight-up fantastic volume, and a must for anyone waiting for the next installment of the series.
We’ve always known that music can be magical. Set between the 1980s and the present day, Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s fantastic magical realist novel explores an intimate set of relationships: a trio of friends discover that they can wield magic using music, only to have it force them apart. This book is wonderfully plotted, and seamlessly melds both the past and present into one amazing story.
Linda Nagata’s Red Trilogy is comprised of three books: The Red: First Light, The Trials and Going Dark, and collectively, they’ve been the books that we’ve been the most hooked on this past year. Nagata has assembled an amazing future that touches on things like cybersecurity, private military companies, and rogue AIs. James Shelley is caught between his duty as a soldier for the United States and an emergent AI bent on saving humanity from itself.
Novik’s latest book is rooted in European folk stories and legends, as elemental as a Grimm fairy tale. Agniescka’s home relies on an old wizard for protection from a corrupted woods—and when she’s chosen to be his assistant, she discovers a war against the woods that could consume her. Novik has captured the essence of the original fairy tales, and put her own brilliant spin on it. No wonder Ellen DeGeneres is turning it into a movie!
Ursula K. Le Guin recommended this dystopian novel, and it more than lives up to the hype. Josephine is enduring a job that sees her entering information into The Database, and finds a horrifying world in the bureaucracy that she’s now part of.
Two boys, separated by centuries, battle a great evil known as the Child Eater. One, Matyas, lives in medieval times, while the other, Simon Wisdom, lives in the present day. This novel has recieved widespread acclaim in the past year, and it’s a sweeping, thrilling tale.
Ants are getting ready for an epic war against mankind. The Colony uses technology to turn other animals into trained killers to aid them in their mission. Including one former housecat, Mort(e). Amidst it all, he’s trying to find his friend, a dog named Sheba, and when he learns that she’s alive, he goes on a quest to find her. This book is zany and amazing.
Kim Stanley Robinson takes us into interstellar space with Aurora, where he looks at how a generation ship might function as it flies from Earth to Tau Ceti. It’s a soaring, epic book that takes us from our system to another, following a group of characters as they contend with the problems of long-distance space flight. Robinson has been known for his brilliant hard science books in the past, and in this one, he makes a solid case for fixing Earth’s problems before we resort to finding another world elsewhere.
One of the last of the Travelers who can move between universes, Kell jumps from world to world—Grey London to Red London to White London, smuggling messages and sometimes people to go from world to world. When he runs into Delilah Bard, she saves him and sets him off on a new adventure. We loved every minute of this universe-hopping adventure.
Brian Staveley blew us away with his debut novel The Emperor’s Blades, and the second installment of his trilogy is even better. Staveley has continued the adventures of Adare, Valyn and Kaden in the aftermath of their father’s assassination and as war looms over Annurian Empire. Most epic fantasies get mired down as their worlds and stories expand with each volume, but Staveley manages to keep his focus on the plight of his characters, which rockets the book to a stunning conclusion.
In his latest novel, Neal Stephenson asks what happens after the world ends. Humanity flees Earth to a new home in space. Thousands of years later, we return to a transformed world. This novel explores our future in outer space, and and how we might never truly leave our home planet.
Steampunk and Weird Western stories often use the trappings of the Victorian era for inspiration, while glossing over some of the darker parts of that era. Molly Tanzer has avoided that trap in Vermillion. Lou Merriweather, sets off to the Rocky Mountains to find out what happened to a group of Chinese laborers, then discovers that their destination, a remote spa in the midst of the mountains, harbors a far more sinister purpose than it appears. Tanzer’s Lou is a fantastic character who’s more than up for the challenges in the way of her quest for answers.
Ian Tregillis’ novels have always delighted us—but The Mechanical, the first of a trilogy, is his best book yet. Jax is a mechanical man, who’s powered by alchemy. He’s faithful to his masters, but he yearns for freedom. And meanwhile, a group of conspirators who are plotting against the Dutch empire discover the Dutch are way ahead of them. We already can’t wait for the next volume.
Claire Vaye Watkins’s received a ton of awards for her short fiction, and this new novel easily made our list this year. It imagines a future in California where climate change persists, following a couple who has resisted fleeing. It’s a novel about dreams and searching for a better life in a future that we’re barreling towards.
Fran Wilde’s novel is a strong fantasy debut, and it’s probably one of the more heartfelt novels that’s come out in recent years. Living inside a towering bone city, Kirit just wants to pass her tests and fly alongside her mother as a trader. When she accidentally breaks the law, she’s recruited to become a Singer, and must navigate her way between what is right and what’s right for the City. This is a wonderful coming-of-age fantasy.
This was the year that Tor.com started publishing its own line of original novellas, and many of them were among our favorite reading matter this past year. But Sorcerer of the Wildeeps pulled off what might have seemed impossible—it feels like an epic despite being just over 200 pages long. This story of a caravan traversing a bloody, dangerous region is jam-packed with unforgettable characters and brilliant ideas.
Catherynne M. Valente’s written some phenomenal books in her career, but Radiance is something else entirely. Severin Unck makes documentaries about cross-solar system exploits, in an alternate 1986. This novel is set in a fantastic universe inspired by the early days of pulp science fiction, and it’s an extraordinary ride.
What was your favorite book of the year?
Additional reporting by Charlie Jane Anders, Maddie Stone and Jennifer Ouellette