LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

Neuvel’s Debut of the Month, with First Novelists Howard, Jennings, McDoniel, & others | SF/Fantasy Reviews, March 15, 2016

Speculative fiction celebrates creativity and the far-reaching boundaries of the imagination. People from around the globe come to enjoy those topics in a myriad of formats. This month in Seattle marks the 11th annual Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Film Festival (ow.ly/YrG6F), hosted in partnership by the EMP Museum and Seattle International Film Festival. Numerous sf conventions are also held in March, including CoastCon 39, Mississippi’s longest running sf/fantasy gaming convention, and RevelCon 2016, a “bifictional con catering to both gen and slash fans” in Houston.

One of the largest conventions of the year is Worldcon (host to the Hugo Awards), to be held this August in Kansas City, MO. For those registered to attend, the Hugo nomination period runs through the end of March; fans can only hope that the process this year will include less infighting and more celebration of the diversity and wonder of today’s speculative genres. [See Wilda ­Williams’s “Set Your Phasers to Stunned: 2015 Hugo Nominations Stir Controversy,” ow.ly/YrI04.—Ed.]

This month’s titles also barrel through the limits of the imagination. Athletes become warriors who fight to the death in the virtual battleground of Holly Jenning’s debut, Arena. A writer who grew up on fairy tales learns happy endings have a price in Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot. Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station explores the idea of what makes someone human. Horror mixes with humor when teenage best friends face the devil in Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism.—KC

Debut of the Month

redstarNeuvel, Sylvain. Sleeping Giants. Del Rey: Ballantine. Apr. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781101886694. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781101886700. SF

sleepinggiants.jpg31416An enormous hand glowing with strange symbols is found in South Dakota by young Rose Franklin, who years later becomes a scientist and heads the team studying the artifact. The hand is just the beginning as the researchers hunt for more pieces of what turns out to be an enormous alien robot-like construct. Through transcripts of interviews of those investigating the machine and a secretive man directing the work, we follow the discovery and assembly of the relic and the mystery of who left it and why. VERDICT Reminiscent of Max Brooks’s World War Z, the story’s format effectively builds suspense using debriefings and news articles after the fact. Great characters such as prickly pilot Kara Resnik keep the tale grounded, and readers gradually get a picture, complete with the anonymous interviewer as he pulls strings to keep the project afloat and world tensions under control. A remarkable debut.—MM

Check These Out

Hendrix, Grady. My Best Friend’s Exorcism. Quirk. May 2016. 332p. ISBN 9781594748622. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781594748639. Horror

In 1982, Abby met Gretchen at her bomb of a birthday party, and they have been best friends ever since. Now high school sophomores, they spend their time as most 16-year-olds do in Charleston, SC: listening to music and sneaking smokes and Bud Lite. After a night of lame acid and skinny-dipping turns horrible, Gretchen begins to act differently—very differently. Mood swings may be common for teenage girls, but Abby fears Gretchen’s condition is much more than that. Abby can’t get anyone to believe that there is anything wrong with Gretchen, so she digs into what could have altered her friend’s personality. When the truth comes to light, it is greater than teen angst, peer pressure, or popularity—it is the work of the devil. VERDICT Hendrix (Horrorstör) brings his blend of dark humor and horror back in this perfect balance of teenage dread and supernatural thrills. Readers who lived through high school in the 1980s may dredge up old memories of big hair and stirrup pants, which will be frightening in itself. [Five-city tour; previewed in “Editors’ Spring Picks,” LJ 2/15/16.]—KC

Heuvelt, Thomas, Olde. HEX. Tor. Apr. 2016. 384p. tr. from Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier. ISBN 9780765378804. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466864580. HORROR

The Hudson Valley town of Black Spring, NY, has been cursed for hundreds of years. Katherine, burned as a witch in the 17th century, wanders the village with eyes and mouth sewn shut to keep her power controlled. The townspeople have found modern ways to deal with Katherine, using high-tech surveillance and smartphone apps to track her appearances. And if you move to Black Spring, you can’t leave, nor can you talk to outsiders. The teenagers are growing restless with the limits placed on them by the spell, and that frustration leads to actions that could doom the entire community. VERDICT This Dutch horror novel was a huge hit in Europe and does clever things with the intersection of ancient evil and technology. The prose is rough in places, especially as the story gets up to speed, which could be owing to the translation. Yet once the teens start their experiments, the tension levels spike and remain high until the terrifying finish. [Previewed in “Editors’ Spring Picks,” LJ 2/15/16.—Ed.]—MM

redstarHoward, Kat. Roses and Rot. Saga. May 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781481451161. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781481451185. FANTASY

rosesandrot.jpg31416Imogen always dreamed of being rescued, like a princess in a fairy tale. No evil stepmother could have been worse than her actual mother. When Imogen went to college, she was reluctant to leave her sister Marin behind, but they both survived—barely. Now arriving at Melete, an exclusive arts program, both sisters have a chance to make their aspirations a reality; Imogen as a writer, Marin as a dancer. The sisters find inspiration, affirmation, and even love. Yet even happy endings can come at a cost, and the price may be too much for either sister to pay. VERDICT The realm of fairy tales meets the harsh world of the Fae in this starkly enticing debut. With undercurrents of darkness in the midst of the beauty of the arts, this is a Brothers Grimm tale for the contemporary reader.—KC

Jennings, Holly. Arena. Ace: Berkley. Apr. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781101988763. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780698406933. SF

The year is 2054, and virtual gaming is one of the world’s most popular sports. ­Millions tune in to watch the Virtual Gaming League’s competitions and the biggest is the RAGE tournaments—a fight to the death among teams of elite athletes. Kali Ling is the first woman to captain a RAGE team. When her group is disbanded, first in virtual defeat, then in the death of a member, the grim knowledge underneath the shine of fame rises to the surface. As Kali tries to guide her team back up the ranks in the tournament, she will face not only the gladiators on the killing fields but the demons in her own life. VERDICT Depicting the action and excitement of virtual gaming that made Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One such a hit, Jennings’s debut delves into the real-world issues (drugs, sponsor demands) that athletes face. Add strong female characters to the mix and readers seeking more fast-paced sf about virtual reality will be pleased.—KC

Kittredge, Caitlin. Grim Tidings. Harper Voyager. (Hellhound Chronicles, Bk. 2). Apr. 2016. 272p. ISBN 9780062316936. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062316943. FANTASY

Facing off against her former reaper master and a demon boss has left Ava an independent woman—and a free hellhound. Her friend Leo has returned from the dead as the Grim Reaper, a figure who has been absent for centuries. Ava discovers that her past is coming back to haunt her in the most horrible way. Demonic monsters have been sighted in Kansas; Ava believed she had destroyed them when she was tasked with collecting souls at a Nazi death camp. Yet these creatures have reemerged along with their creator, Cain. To deal with this problem, Ava will have to work with old enemies. VERDICT The sequel to Black Dog continues Ava’s quest to overcome her prior service to different evils. While her feelings appear erratic, they definitely have their place. Fans of the show Supernatural will find Ava and Leo as flawed and fabulous as the ­Winchesters.—KC

McDoniel, Jim. An Unattractive Vampire. Sword & Laser. Mar. 2016. 309p. ISBN 9781941758649. pap. $13.99; ebk. ISBN 9781941758632. HORROR

unattractivevampire.jpg31416Waking after centuries underground, vampire Yuric Bile is out of step with contemporary life, not to mention the modern undead. He realizes that today’s vampires are young and beautiful and hidden in plain sight on television shows such as The Phantom Vampire Mysteries. With the help of human Amanda and her eight-year-old brother Simon, Yuric is determined to track down these telegenic beings and show them how a real beast behaves. ­VERDICT This funny take on the vampire genre offers plenty of digs at the Twilight-inspired trend of vampires as cuddly love interests. This book was written by means of Inkshares, a crowd-sourced publisher through which users can preorder a pitched book and support its release. Popular sf/fantasy site Sword & Laser collaborated with the service as part of its contest to build a collection of promising first novels such as ­McDoniel’s.—MM

Neill, Chloe. Midnight Marked. NAL. (Chicagoland Vampires, Bk. 12). Mar. 2016. 384p. ISBN 9780451472335. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780698180727. FANTASY

Merit has been a vampire for over a year, and serving as sentinel to master vampire (and boyfriend) Ethan has meant confronting a lot of enemies along the way. Having just overcome their latest adversary, Adrien Reed, Merit, Ethan, and her friends hope to enjoy a baseball game at Wrigley Field. Unfortunately, Reed is determined to destroy Cadogan House, the second-oldest vampire dwelling in Chicago, and take over the Windy City, and he is using other supernaturals to do it. Merit knows how to tackle opponents, but what happens when some of those are her own kind? Taking on this battle will test her limits and reveal a truth that can be traced to her beginnings as a vampire. VERDICT Neill (Dark Debt) keeps the series fresh with its fast pace and modern heroine. Merit shines with a sharp mind and strength that will appeal to fans of Ilona Andrews’s “Kate Daniels” and Faith Hunter’s “Jane Yellowrock” urban ­fantasies.—KC

Richards, Justin. The Blood Red City. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Mar. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781250059215. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466863781. SF

The Never War continues, hidden under the destruction that is World War II. Colonel Brinkman and his team at Station Z are tasked with unearthing what’s behind the alien offensive they know is coming, but their understanding is thin at best. The Vril have become adept at hiding underground, and their infected human creatures—the Ubermensch—can survive weapons that would kill a normal person. But uncover more about the Vril they must, as the Nazis begin their own research into using the Vril technology that could win the war—and maybe the world itself. Hunting ancient artifacts, teaming with the Greek resistance, and searching for answers sends the Station Z team across Europe. VERDICT ­Richards’s latest (after The Suicide ­Exhibition) gives a fresh face to the glut of World War II stories currently on the shelves. This is alternate history at its best, pitting the nuances of the time with futuristic species and ­intelligence.—KC

Selby, Adrian. Snakewood. Orbit: Hachette. Mar. 2016. 432p. ISBN 9780316302302. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316302326. FANTASY

The mercernaries known as The Twenty were famous, once. Led by the legendary Kailen, they were unbeatable in countless battles before dissolving years ago. Now someone is hunting down the members, killing them in revenge for a decades-old betrayal. Covering ground well trodden by Joe Abercrombie, with a similar use of earthy language and extreme violence, the story offers an original and effective twist with the use of potions, plants, and poisons on the battlefield. The mercenaries drink battle brews to make them unstoppable warriors, and one can tell an old soldier from the color of his skin, as years of potions leave their mark. VERDICT While the dialect of the rough fighters will annoy some, others will simply relish the well-choreographed action scenes in this debut fantasy.—MM

redstarTidhar, Lavie. Central Station. Tachyon. May 2016. 288p. ISBN 9781616962142. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616962159. SF

In the shadow of an enormous space terminal, in between the modern city of New Tel Aviv and the old Arab port of Jaffa, lies Central Station. This small community has always been a melting pot of people trying to get by and get along, and that remains the reality in the far future. Families such as the Jones and the Chongs have lived there for generations, but in the post-Singularity they share the city with robots left over from forgotten wars, oracles that have chosen to become more other than human, and children being bred to exist both in the human and in the information streams. Now there are new factors influencing Central Station, including a vampire infected with a virus that drives her to feed on the data of those around her. Considering this is essentially a stitch-up novel, pulled together from short stories penned by the author over a decade, it has a strong cohesive feel, with each tale building the portrait of a fascinating future glimpsed through the lens of a tight-knit community. VERDICT Tidhar (A Man Lies Dreaming; The Violent Century) changes genres with every outing, but his astounding talents guarantee something new and compelling no matter the story he tells.—MM

Series Lineup

Elliott, Will. World’s End. Tor. (Pendulum Trilogy, Bk. 3). Mar. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9780765331908. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781429947756. FANTASY

The world of Levaal is now facing war. Lord Vous has become a god, the wall that separated the land has fallen, and the dragons are waking. In the finale of Elliott’s trilogy (The Pilgrims; Shadow), the battles may cost everyone in Levaal, and on Earth.—KC

lyrethief.jpg2.jpg31416Fallon, Jennifer. The Lyre Thief. Tor. (War of the Gods, Bk. 1). Mar. 2016. 448p. ISBN 9780765380791. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466875562. FANTASY

Princess and slave half sisters switch identities to escape their father’s harem and attract the attention of gods along the way. Fallon returns to the world of “The Hythrun Chronicles” in the first volume of a new trilogy.—KC

Gunn, James. Transgalactic. Tor. Mar. 2016. 272p. ISBN 9780765380920. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466876125. SF

In this follow-up to Transcendental, Riley and Asha have gone through the Transcendental Machine. The device gave them powers beyond most humans, but left them separated on different planets. Now the two try to find each other.—MM

Krinard, Susan. Battlestorm. Tor. (Midgard, Bk. 3). Mar. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9780765332103. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781429953399. FANTASY

Norse mythology meets the modern world in Krinard’s third series entry (after Black Ice) about the Valkyrie Mist. While the Last Battle of the Norse Gods should have ended centuries ago, Mist and her new abilities are at the center of another war, facing old allies and enemies and the trickster god Loki himself.—KC

McGuire, Seanan. Chaos Choreography. DAW. (InCryptid, Bk. 5). Mar. 2016. 368p. ISBN 9780756408138. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781101602423. FANTASY

Recent series entries (Pocket Apocalypse) have focused on Alex Price. Here we return to Alex’s sister Verity, cryptozoologist and ballroom dancer. She’s looking out for cryptids with boyfriend Dominic when she gets a call to compete on the TV reality show Dance or Die. Her investigation skills are needed as fellow contestants start dying.—MM

Samatar, Sofia. The Winged Histories. Small Beer. Mar. 2016. 296p. ISBN 9781618731142. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781618731159. FANTASY

wingedhistories.jpg31416Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria won the World Fantasy Award after its publication in 2013. Now the author returns with a story of four women, each pulled into the rebellion in Olondria, each seeking survival and to tell her own tale.—MM

Smale, Alan. Eagle in Exile. Del Rey: Ballantine. (Clash of Eagles, Bk. 2). Mar. 2016. 576p. ISBN 9780804177245. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780804177252. FANTASY

Roman leader Gaius Marcellinus threw his lot in with the North American tribe he conquered in Clash of Eagles. In this outing, he must convince the Cohokia to unite with other tribes if they want to prevail against the new army that Rome is sending.—MM

Stavely, Brian. The Last Mortal Bond. Tor. (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Bk. 3). Mar. 2016. 656p. ISBN 9780765336422. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466828452. FANTASY

In this conclusion to the trilogy that began with The Emperor’s Blades and The Providence of Fire, the Csestriim attempt to finish off humanity, while the Urghul army continues its march into Annur. Valyn, Kaden and Adare, siblings and heirs to the Annurian Empire, all have different visions for Annur’s future.—KC

arena.jpg31416QUOTABLE “Back in my own bunk, I climbed into bed and curled up with the book. It weighed heavy in my hands as my fingers glided across the pages. Smooth. Cool. Just like the air around me. In that moment, everything felt just a little closer to the genuine. Not so plastic. Not so fake.”—Holly Jennings, Arena

Collections & Anthologies

Allen, Mike. The Spider Tapestries: Seven Strange Stories. Mythic Delirium. Mar. 2016. 138p. ISBN 9780988912465. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781519989451. SF

The seven stories in this slim collection range from dark fantasy to sf to horror—sometimes all within one tale. There are enough spiders here to make an arachnophobe go into hysterics, but they are not the only ones spinning webs. Goddesses, aliens, and genetic splicers all pull on strings. Gems include “Sleepless, Burning Life,” about a woman in love with a goddess, and “Twa Sisters” with a man hiding secrets in his brain. Especially vivid in its blending of imagery and narrative is “Stolen Souls,” in which a former cop tries to reconnect the stolen pieces of his lover’s consciousness. VERDICT As he did with his previous collection Unseaming, poet Allen weaves intriguing connections among his tales, applying dizzying, sensual images. Poets often make excellent writers of the short form owing to their ability to use few words to evoke an emotion or paint a picture; this volume ­displays that skill.—KC

Megan McArdle is a Collection Specialist at the Library of Congress, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Kristi Chadwick is Advisor for the Massachusetts Library System. In addition to being a 2013 LJ Reviewer of the Year and 2014 Mover & Shaker, she was also a finalist judge for the 2015 LJ SELF-e Award in Fantasy

This article was published in Library Journal's March 15, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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