Best of 2017

At last, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Here’s my holiday gift to you, and I hope you enjoy! This post is going live for those still looking for last-minute gifts (like me), and there will be no post this Friday in honor of the holiday. Sorry for shaking things up on you folks, but I thought you’d prefer getting this sooner than later.

I read a lot of books in 2017, though perhaps not as many as I would have preferred. My TBR continues to grow much faster than I can strike things off. But nevertheless, I persist in climbing this mountain! Happily, it’s quite enjoyable.

2017 saw a lot of amazing fiction, honestly, no doubt spurred in part by everyone being pissed off and defiant. I loved some of those pieces, but I also got the chance to discover some preciously clever examples of characters subverting hegemony through self-care and care of others, and those stories were honestly some of the most raw and wonderful. So, as always, we’ll do these grouped by form. I’ll pick five of my favorite short stories, a handful of novellas, and five novels (if I can narrow it down that much).

Without further ado:

Short Stories

With Cardamom I’ll Bind Their Lips by Beth Cato

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Beth Cato is an author I’m just now coming around to following, and I look forward to seeing more of her work. I really enjoyed this story, which is on the slightly darker end set in post-war Britain or something very like it.img_3988

Three May Keep a Secret by Carlie St. George

This story has major content warnings, so please be advised. That said, it’s a powerful story about bringing darkness into the light and how our secrets can be deadly, cemented by a lovely, mostly platonic relationship between the two main characters.

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

This story was a haunting tale about grief and healing and the nature of death. It also spoke to me about how an entire community can turn on you, but you are forced to live with them. I have complicated feelings about this story, which are the best kind.

Sun, Moon, Dust by Ursula Vernon

Sliding in here at the end of the year is this precious gem of a story that makes me believe in humankind. Honestly everything Ursula Vernon writes makes me feel better. She’s been a huge balm for my soul this year, and inspired me thoroughly as a writer. She also writes as T. Kingfisher, who you’ll see later on this list, and if you want more of her writing I recommend the entirety of Jackalope Wives and Other Stories without reservation.

A Recipe for Magic by Kat Howard and Fran Wilde

This story is another balm to my heart. I am super into kitchen witches and gardeners and anything else bringing magic and power to things domestic and full of love. Please check it out and try not to tear up (happy tears, I promise). It’s up on B&N’s website as part of their new push to publish original fiction.img_3990

 

Honorable mentions to Loneliness Is in Your Blood, The Oiran’s Song, and If We Live to Be Giants. They were all hella good.

Novellas

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy

I loved this novella mostly because it felt so real to me. I knew the people that Killjoy described in a way that a lot of characters don’t exactly strike me as real. It’s an urban fantasy, or more appropriately a contemporary fantasy, and it’s an unexpected and delicious story.

Dusk or Dawn or Dark or Day by Seanan McGuire

McGuire had several novellas come out this year, and a few books, too. She is super prolific. I picked this one for the list because it was one of my favorites, and also because it’s a great place to start with her work, encapsulating a lot of her reoccurring themes in a standalone text.

Also I have to point out that I read this novella around the same time that I read “You’ll Surely Drown Here if You Stay” by Alyssa Wong, and if you put those two titles together they make a refrain to what could be a bitterly beautiful poem.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

You all know I love Martha Wells, or at least you do if you’ve been reading this blog any length of time. This novella has taken the sff world by storm for its inventive approach to an alien consciousness that nonetheless remains lovable. It was actually a little short for me – I felt like I would have become more emotionally invested given more time in Murderbot’s head – but good news! There are two more planned installments in The Murderbot Diaries to look forward to next year.

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Novels

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

I read the entire Craft Sequence this year, and I cannot recommend it enough. Technically, the book that was published in 2017 is The Ruin of Angels, which is my second favorite book in this series, bumping off Three Parts Dead to take that honor (barely). My favorite, though, is Full Fathom Five. All of Gladstone’s books explore earth-shaking themes with inventive, masterful language and world-building. (What if magic was real and also managed by a bunch of capitalists, for example. Also: what if the stories we told ourselves became sentient?) I recommend these books to everyone I come across. You can read them in order of publication or chronologically (I did order of publication) but just go read them.

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The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Wrapping up The Broken Earth Trilogy is The Stone Sky, a book that lived up to the promise of the series. I can’t say it was uplifting, but it was satisfying.

Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

I wrote about this book a few weeks ago, and it remains one of my favorites I’ve read this year. I’m very much into American West reimaginings that feature women and people of color. I even did a whole blogpost about this subgenre, which you can check out here. Anyway, check out this book, it’s worth it, and can be read as a standalone or as the first in what I believe is a trilogy.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

This book is the only non-speculative fiction title on this list. It’s also the only YA title, I think. It explores similar themes to “Three May Keep a Secret,” mentioned above, so content warnings are necessary. However, this book, too, is about healing, and it was a powerful read for me during this long year when it has seemed like so much darkness has been in the world.

Bryony and Roses by T. Kingfisher

Surprising no one, another one of T. Kingfisher’s fairytale reimaginings has made my list this year. You will recall “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, above. They happen to be the same person, and all of her stories are amazing. This one tackles Beauty and the Beast, and it’s one of my favorite retellings of that particular tale yet.

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Serials

This isn’t exactly its own category, as I have only one work to mention here. Serial productions seem to be on the up and up at the moment, and I wanted to note one that I think will go a long way towards revolutionizing the genre. Steal the Stars has been a remarkable listen, and it has taught me a lot about what can be done with a serial story. You should check it out.

Essay

The Shape of Darkness as it Overtakes Us by Dimas Ilaw

Essay is not a category I usually include and probably won’t make it in future best-of lists, but I felt like 2017 has been an exceptional year and so we had to make an exception. If you have felt at all hopeless and overwhelmed, I can’t say that this essay will make you feel better. But it will definitely help you to process, I think, just as the author is processing their own grief. And it will help you to step forward, too.


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Feminist YA SFF by Melissa Eastlake

Greetings! By the time you read this, I will probably be in Canada enjoying some maple-syrup-covered delights. That’s what people eat in Canada, right? In all seriousness, I’m told the bagels use maple syrup somehow and it makes them extra delicious.

This week, we have a lovely post by Melissa on her favorite feminist speculative fiction young adult books. A mouthful, but totally worth a read. Her bio is at the end, so please check her out!


When I was a young reader, YA fantasy felt more real to me than the world I lived in. The books I loved were fun or beautiful, but they also explained power and politics in an evocative way that history class couldn’t—or wouldn’t—analyze. I’ve been a devoted YA reader and writer ever since. With a sharp, discerning audience and fast pace, YA is on the leading edge of realistic representation. Since I know Amanda’s readers are interested in feminist fantasy, I’m here to share a few of my favorite feminist stories in YA SFF.

Ash by Malinda Lo

This queer retelling of Cinderella is a contemporary classic, and one of the books that expanded my ideas about YA, fairy tales, and stories themselves could be. Love triangles in YA catch a lot of flack, but in deft hands they turn romances into stories about choice and agency. Fairy tale characters can lack agency as allegorical worlds or authorits pull them toward allegorical fates. Ash flips that convention, telling a story about a girl finding her decisiveness and voice. She chooses not only between lovers but between worlds.

“Desert Canticle” by Tessa Gratton, from The Anatomy of Curiosity

The Anatomy of Curiosity is a writing book, pairing novellas with essays and marginalia that explore different elements of craft. “Desert Canticle” is a master class in inventive, meaningful worldbuilding. Characters from two conflicting cultures working together to defuse magical bombs in a war-ravaged desert world. The magical system is just gorgeous, and the matriarchal society and character arcs explore how gender conventions are created—and create us. Writer or not, you’ll think in new ways about how worlds are built.

Island of Exiles by Erica Cameron

Island of Exiles explores gender and sexuality in its worldbuilding, as well: there are three genders, asexuality is named and accepted, and bisexuality is normalized. These conventions are woven into a unique and fascinating desert world, revealed along with complex relationships and a vivid magical system. Khya, the main character, is forced to question stories she’s always accepted, and she finds the process as eye-opening—and devastating—as many of us right here on earth do.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

For worldbuilding that explores power and identity in a way that’s accessible to younger readers without ever talking down to them, this lower YA/middle grade novel is perfect. You’ve got beloved fantasy tropes, with a young girl learning to use her magical powers and fighting a big bad with a team of friends, as well as a deep exploration of Nigerian mythology and a cast of characters who are funny, relatable, and diverse across many intersections.

Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

My personal favorite is contemporary fantasy that puts a magical or supernatural twist on the world we live in. Paper Valentine is set in a normal town, combining a wonderfully strange, tender ghost story with the threat of a serial killer. Without preaching, it reflects on the power structures between and around girls.


Melissa Eastlake’s debut novel, The Uncrossing, is coming in 2017 from Entangled Teen. She lives in Athens, Georgia with her partner and dog. Find her on Twitter @melissa_e.

Horror and hope 

I’ve been reading a lot of horror recently. My reading taste tends to get darker in the winter months, I think, when the wind is blowing and the cold is getting into everything. Some recent horror titles have included Invasive by Chuck Wendig and The Family Plot by Cherie Priest. I loved both of these, though they were very different books. Unfortunately I read them after I had put out my best of 2016 post but before we officially kicked over to 2017, so I thought I’d write a special post about these two books and some of the things I, as a reader, like to see in a horror story. I’ll try to go light on the spoilers, but there may be some so stop now if you want a pure reading experience for either of these.

One of the things that makes a horror story unlikable to me, whether it be novel or movie or short story, is a blanket sense of inevitability. This is going to seem a little counter-intuitive. After all, horror is not necessarily a thing of happy endings. But whether the ending is happy or sad, horror only works with tension. And tension can only provided if either I, the reader, or the characters themselves believe that they can escape from their situation. They or I must have the hope that it is possible. That there is some way to succeed. Whether we are right or wrong has almost no bearing on whether the story is a good one – after all, being disappointed in that hope can be quite satisfying.

These are two very different books, as mentioned. One is the story of a woman who is profoundly isolated from her family, though she has friends who help her throughout the book. She sees too clearly all the ways things can go wrong, and it has left her with an anxiety disorder that verges on debilitating. She is afraid, all the time, but she is angry, too, and determined. Her name is Hannah Stander.

The other story is led by a woman who is bound entirely to her family and seeks to better their fortunes, potentially at the expense of her own. She is strong and capable and, while not overly optimistic, not fatalistic either. She believes she can conquer what life throws at her – though it is, perhaps, a desperate belief. There is stubbornness and denial in her. Her name is Dahlia.

Both of these women are intensely strong characters. Their strength lies in their competence in their chosen professions, in their compassion, and in their determination to survive. All too often, these things are lacking from horror heroines. It is what makes me so disgruntled with the genre in movies. Women are monsters or objects, as I’ve discussed previously. They are not given nuance. It was refreshing to see that oversimplification of women turned on its head in both of these novels. Honestly, I think that the hope that pushes these women along is the source of their strength. Hannah hopes very broadly. She hopes for proof of a better world. When that fails, she hopes to make the world a better place by defeating the things that threaten it. Dahlia hopes more narrowly. Her hopes are for financial security and escaping the haunted house that has trapped her and hers. The scale of their hopes are relative to the scale of their motivations. This is as it should be. We all have multiple things that move us. Many things that we fear to lose.

To be honest, perhaps the reason that I appreciate horror with hope in it is because of nothing more or less complex than good writing. Good writing means rounded characters. It means elevating the stakes. It means a certain level of unpredictability, too, that feeling of not knowing for sure what will come next.

Who doesn’t want to read a book like that? Who wants to spend the whole time in a story that is nothing but gore and screaming? That’s not the horror for me.

Anyway, read these books. Read Invasive for a near-future/current technological thriller with lots of gruesome imagery and ants. Read The Family Plot for an evocative, creeping ghost story with Appalachian charm that clings like kudzu. Just read, friends. There is plenty to escape from, and so many twisting realms to escape to.