It’s been an amazing year for me in reading. Normally, there are only a couple books in a year I discover that I want to share with everyone I know. In 2015, not so much! There were long stretches where I found I had a hard time reading at all because I’d burned through three winners in a row and doubted I could find anything that could measure up! It’s honestly hard to narrow my best reads of 2015 down to just five, but I’m going to try. In no particular order…
1. The Fifth Season – NK Jemisin
I’ve loved every book that Nora Jemisin has written. She’s an immensely talented writer and her stories are incredibly unique. Her work is always so utterly unlike anything I’ve seen before, and that’s part of what makes it so engaging. But only part. Just as much credit has to be given to the pure strength of her prose. Jemisin’s writing can carry you away as she bends the rules of language and uses words as paints.
The Fifth Season blows everything else she’s written out of the water. It’s dark, it’s beautiful, it’s unforgiving, it will make you wince and sob and wish and think. It tells a unique, fantasy story about marginalized groups without ever descending to the platitude of allegory. It’s grand, epic, and apocalyptic, filled with some of the most fascinating and complex world-building I’ve seen in fantasy, but it’s also intimate and personal.
2. The Girl With All The Gifts – Mike Carey
The thing about The Girl With All The Gifts is that as soon as you know anything at all about it, it’s already half ruined. I could say that it inhabits a genre I usually have no use for, but then I’d have to assign it a genre, and that would ruin it. I could say that it’s the best take on one specific theme I’ve ever seen, but if I name the theme, that would also ruin it. I could talk about how it lets female characters do things that female characters rarely get to do, but I don’t want to talk about those things, because that would spoil that they happen!
I’ll recommend The Girl With All The Gifts in the same way the back of the book does: this is a story about a little girl named Melanie. She wants to marry a prince and loves going to class and learning. Every morning, she’s unchained from her bed, strapped into a chair, and wheeled into the schoolroom by military personelle. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they never laugh.
It’s a book where you discover… everything. You start with only that knowledge – a little girl named Melanie locked in a room in a military base – and bit by bit you unearth her story. And it’s absolutely brilliant. If you’re the type who can go into a book with blind trust that it’ll be good, check it out and please don’t find out anything else before you do!
3. Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, and Abaddon’s Gate – James S. A. Corey
I’m cheating and counting these three as one book due to being the first three in a series that I really can’t pick a favourite from.
A friend recommended me Leviathan Wakes years ago, promising diverse and memorable sci-fi. I bought it and it’s been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I love sci-fi, really, but it always takes me just that little bit more gumption to dig into than my other genres of choice, and the book looked a little intimidating. I finally got around to reading it this year in preparation for The Expanse TV adaptation on Sy-Fy and oh my god, I can’t believe I put something this amazing off.
The Expanse are amazing, wonderful books. I’ve always had a taste for the Lovecraftian, and The Expanse is something entirely unique in that the space horrors leave us alone until we actually go into space to find them. They’re also as strangely beautiful as they are deeply horrific.
It’s appropriate that the books are being made into TV, because I find they have the same appeal as my favourite television series do. They’re filled with well drawn, likeable characters, and a damned compelling central conflict that’s framed in new and exciting ways in each separate book. They’re also amazingly diverse and have some of the best minority characters (and certainly the highest volume of minority characters) that I’ve seen in books this year. Leviathan Wakes strays a little too close to typical white-guy sci-fi, but the authors make up for it in spades in the rest of the series. I’m devastated that after Cibola Burn and Nemesis Games, I’m going to have to wait for the next one like a peasant, biting my nails down the whole time.
4. A Natural History of Dragons – Marie Brennan
I enjoyed Brennan’s Onyx Court series. Especially the brilliant third book, A Star Shall Fall, which is one of my favourite novels of all time. So I was prepared to like her newest Lady Trent Memoirs series. I was not prepared for just how much.
As you may have guessed, I love mannered fantasy. I also, coincidentally, love ladylike fantasy protagonists who are nevertheless tough and empowered. And on top of that, I love anything that mixes science with magic. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much I adored this book. But I still didn’t expect just how much it captured me. As much as I loved the plot, a travelogue romp about curses, religious sects, smuggling rings, and conspiracies, what I loved a thousand times more was the natural history itself. Every time Isabella did a dissection, or wrote down her observations about how a dragon moved or nested or its hunting behaviours, I was just utterly captured.
The conceit of the book – framed around being a fictional memoir written by Lady Trent herself – just adds another layer of enjoyment. Isabella’s passion for learning comes across through “her” writing, and I held my breath when she was close to breakthroughs and cheered whenever she finally teased out some bit of new knowledge about the creatures she loved so much.
5. Words of Radiance – Brandon Sanderson
Sanderson is undoubtably one of the most talented fantasy writers of this age, and I feel comfortable stating that his work is going to be remembered for generations to come. The fantasy he writes today is going to be a bar set for the future of the genre. No one writes world-building as complex and layered as he does, and no one is so perfectly in control of every aspect of the story they want to tell.
Despite all this, he’s never been one of my personal favourites. His writing focuses very much on combat, on tests of strength, and on becoming more powerful. He does it better than anyone, but it’s not my usual cup of tea. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of his, but never with total abandon before.
Words of Radiance changed that.
I did just mention that I love ladylike protagonists who are very strong and tough and complex and empowered! I’ve always been very girly in a lot of ways, and I’ve always found it hard to find female characters who are overtly feminine without being damsels or background characters. Words of Radiance is very much about Shallan Davar, a quirky, determined, and complicated artist who is everything I love in ladylike protags. She also happens to be, amusingly enough, another natural historian, eager to unlock the secrets of the strange world these books are set in. Shallan has the kind of backstory that could make a stone weep, but her determination to see a good world and live there is deeply affecting and touching.
Shallan, combined with the unbelievably detailed world Sanderson has created in this series, made this book something that captured me from its first page to its eventual thousandth. I’ve thought about it constantly since I put it down and I really can’t wait for the next one.
There you have it! Each of these books are absolutely brilliant and you should seek them out! I can’t wait to discover all the great books I’ll find this year and I can’t wait to share them with you.