I read a lot of new releases this year, and so many of them were so good. You have no idea how much trouble I had narrowing things down for this list! My 2015 list contained fifteen books, but I’m expanding this one to twenty because there were some I just couldn’t see cut.
1. City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett
After centuries of rule by the Continent and it’s gods, the nation of Saypur was able to kill the Divinities and gain freedom. Now, eighty years after Saypur killed Voortya, goddess of death and war, the retired General Turyin Mulaghesh is being sent to the city once under Voortya’s domain, Voortyashtan. She is to look for a Saypuri agent who went missing while investigating a mysterious ore with possibly miraculous properties. She soon begins to wonder what happened to the afterlife created by Voortya and the dead warriors supposedly inhabiting it…
2. After Atlas by Emma Newman
After Atlas presents a very dark vision of the future. Democracy has failed, and the world is ruled by hybrid government/corporations – govcorps. Carlos Moreno, who’s mother left aboard the spaceship Atlas, had the misfortune of being rounded up and sold as a debt slave. For the next thirty years, he’ll belong to the Ministry of Justice, where he works as a detective. But a new case threatens the fragile boundaries he’s constructed to preserve his mental state. His uncle, Alejandro Casales, and leader of a religious cult has been found dead in a hotel room, and Carlos will be forced to examine his past.
3. The Devourers by Indra Das
In Kolkata, India the narrator, Alok, encounters a man who claims to be half-werewolf. Alok ends up agreeing to transcribe a series of texts for the mysterious stranger. From those texts come the story of man eating shapeshifters in seventeenth century Mughal India.
The Devourers was not an easy book to read. There’s violence and brutality, and a large part of the story revolves around rape. About a fourth of the way through I thought about quitting. However, I’m very glad I didn’t.
4. The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
The release of The Raven King marks the end of what has been possibly my favorite ever YA fantasy series. I have no idea how to sum up this series to outsiders. The truest thing I can say about it is that it’s an absolutely magical series driven by the strengths of its characters and the friendships among them. How to explain the dream magic, the cars, the psychics, the murderous Latin teachers, and the quest for a long dead Welsh king in the state of Virginia… I’ll just let you figure all that out on your own. Maggie Stiefvater says she plans to return to at least one of the characters in another series, so at least I will eventually get a reunion. Until then, I can reread the original four books, now with the overarching story finally completed.
5. The Guns of Empire by Django Wexler
The Guns of Empire is the fourth book in one of my favorite ongoing fantasy series, The Shadow Campaigns. It’s a flintlock fantasy with a military bent, but I love it for the strength and presence of it’s female characters. There are just so many amazing women in this series, and The Guns of Empire continues to deliver. I’m particularly in love with Winter, the lesbian heroine who finally gets to appear on the cover in this installment. This fourth book is the last before the series’s conclusion, and I have no idea how Wexler is going to wrap everything up in just one volume!
6. Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone
Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence is one of the smartest, most imaginative fantasy series out there, and if you’re not reading it, you should be. It’s one of the best fantasy worlds I’ve ever encountered, and both the prose and characters are brilliant. Seriously, go read it. This series deserves way more attention.
Four Roads Cross is a direct sequel to Three Parts Dead and returns to Alt Coulumb and Tara Abernathy. Unlike the other books of the series, it’s not really one you can read as a stand alone. However, don’t let that dissuade you from the series! All of the installments have been wonderful and there’s plenty of other places to start. I’ve got a particular fondness for the text-based Choose Your Own Adventure style games set in the same world.
7. Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Every Heart a Doorway is an elegant novella about what happens to children who go to magical worlds but then wind up back in this world, longing for the magical home they’ve lost. A woman named Eleanor West runs a school for the stranded teenagers, where at least they can be different together. It has that sense of beautiful darkness that’s often best found in fairy tales.Every Heart a Doorway also holds a special place in my heart since it’s the first book with an asexual protagonist I’ve read since coming out.
8. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
In her youth, Vellitt Boe traveled the Six Kingdoms of the dream world before deciding to settle down as the mathematics professor of Ulthar Women’s College, a sanctuary of sorts for women who may not fit anywhere else. Now, she’s taking up her walking stick and pack to travel again, because one of her students has run away with a man from the waking world, and it could mean the end of the college. Basically, this is a novella about a woman in her fifties going on a quest. And that’s entirely as wonderful as it sounds.
9. The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie
This YA book contains genetically engineered sea monsters, morally grey situations, and a same sex love interest. In other words, it is awesome.
Cassandra Leung’s entire family is involved in the industry that creates and trains gigantic sea monsters, Reckoners, to escort ships and provide protection from pirates. Cas is a trainer who has just been given her first solo mission when everything goes terribly wrong. Her Reckoner is killed, and Cas herself is captured by pirates led by pirate queen Santa Elena. And Santa Elena has a plan. Somehow, she’s gotten a hold of a Reckoner pup, and she’s going to use it and Cas to change the balance of power on the high seas.
10. The Edge of Worlds by Martha Wells
The Edge of Worlds is the fourth book in Martha Well’s amazingly inventive Raksura series, which starts with The Cloud Roads. This is a world without humans, and most of the cast are scaled shape shifters. Over the last three books, I’ve really grown to love this series, more so than I could possibly have imagined when I first read The Cloud Roads. At this point I’m just so fond of these characters. The story opens with everyone in Indigo Cloud sharing a dream of the Fell attacking the court. When a sky-ship of strange groundlings arrive, looking for raksura to accompany them to an ancient city, the court realizes that this may be the key to preventing the danger foreseen by the dream.
11. Borderline by Mishell Baker
Mishell Baker’s Borderline both uses genre conventions and yet is unlike almost other urban fantasy novels out there. One year before Borderline begins, Millie, a young filmmaker in LA with Borderline Personality Disorder, tries to kill herself by jumping off a seven story building. She survives but loses both her legs. She’s residing in a mental hospital when she receives a mysterious job offer from a group called the Arcadia project that polices the traffic between our realm and the fey. Millie is a messy, complicated, almost unlikable narrator, and she was utterly compelling. All in all, Millie is one of the best anti-heroines I’ve encountered.
12. The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson
The Bands of Mourning is the third book in Sanderson’s newer Mistborn series. A kandra researcher has discovered the possible location of the Bands of Mourning, the legendary metalminds worn by the Lord Ruler himself, reputed to grant the wearer his powers. Unfortunately, along the way back to Elendel, the kandra was attacked and one of his spikes stolen. His mind is fragmentary, and he can recall little of what he found. When Wax uncovers evidence that his uncle might somehow be involved with the mystery, he agrees to go looking for the bands, along with Wayne, Marasi, Steris, and MeLaan.
13. A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith
Reiko is carving a path of hatred. After a stint in a psychiatric hospital, Reiko’s been sent to stay with relatives in Japan and work on her emotional issues. But Reiko is still consumed with hatred and anger for all those who she perceives as having wronged her – her ex-girlfriend, her brother, and her cousin who’s forcing Reiko and the other employees at her uncle’s graphic design firm to help her build a lifestyle brand.
When Reiko’s cousin Akiko decides the next step in building her brand is a culture festival at a historic village preserved to reflect the Edo period, Reiko is dragged along as a photographer. But she soon finds herself slipping backwards in time, into the life of Miyu, a young woman who shares Reiko’s obsession with vengeance.
14. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
I don’t want to go too far into a plot synopsis for Crooked Kingdom. It’s a direct sequel to another book, Six of Crows, and it’s a series you really need to read in order.
Basically, this is a YA fantasy heist series with amazing world building, a sterling cast, and a high stakes plot that keeps ramping up the action. This duology is now among my favorite fantasy heist books, and I’ve been loaning out my copies consistently over the last couple of months. I highly recommend giving these books a try, even if you weren’t so fond of Leigh Bardugo’s earlier work.
15. An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows
An Accident of Stars is a queer feminist portal fantasy told from the point of views of four female characters. Saffron is a high school student in Australia who follows a strange woman through a portal and enters another world, Kena. While born on earth, Gwen has been traveling to Kena for over thirty years and considers it home. She even became involved in local politics and made an unwise choice in supporting a man called Leoden in his bid for the throne. Now Gwen and her allies are hunted by him, including Zech, the adopted granddaughter of an exiled matriarch, and Viya, Leoden’s runaway consort.
16. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Kel Cheris is a captain of the military division of the hexarchate, a totalitarian government of six divisions that is constantly putting down “heresies,” rebellions. When Cheris herself uses heretical methods in battle, she is given a last chance to possibly redeem herself by devising a plan on how to recapture an important fortress overtaken by heresy. She proposes bringing the Hexarchate’s greatest general out of storage. Shuos Jedao is a brilliant tactician who’s never lost a battle, but before being turned immortal by the Hexarchate, he went mad and killed his own army as well as the enemy’s. Yet, Shuos Jedao is entirely unpredictable, and Cheris and the troops she commands may be the next victims.
17. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate is the sequel to N.K. Jemisin’s amazing, ground breaking fantasy novel The Fifth Season. It starts directly where The Fifth Season leaves off.
The Fifth Season is the start of an inventive apocalyptic fantasy trilogy set in a world wracked by frequent catastrophes which destroy civilizations and leave ruins in their wake. People have grown used to a world of disasters and prepared, storing food for hard times ahead. But when a giant rift in the earth rips apart the continent, annihilating the capital of the empire, enough ash is released into the air to block out the sun for thousands of years. Amid the chaos, Essun finds that her husband has murdered their son and left with their daughter. As the world collapses around her, she sets off across the dying land to find them.
18. The Timeseer’s Gambit by Kate McIntyre
Three months after Christopher Buckley started working for the eccentric detective Olivia Faraday, they’ve got a new case. Across the city, young priests have died in apparent accidents, yet there appears to be a connection. If that weren’t enough, Dr. Livingstone is about to go to trial, and it looks like he’ll be convicted, even though Chris is sure he’s innocent. And on top of everything else, he still hasn’t figured out what’s going on with those mysterious powers he displayed at the end of the last book? Oh, and his apparent past connection to the alluring William Cartwright.
19. The Starlit Wood edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe
The Starlit Wood is an anthology containing eighteen entirely new retold and genre mixing fairy tales from some of SFF’s best writers. The full author line up is as follows: Charlie Jane Anders, Aliette de Bodard, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeffrey Ford, Max Gladstone, Theodora Goss, Daryl Gregory, Kat Howard, Stephan Graham Jones, Margo Lanagan, Marjorie M Liu, Seanan McGuire, Garth Nix, Naomi Novik, Sofia Samatar, Karin Tidbeck, Catherynne M. Valente, and Genevieve Valentine. With a line up like that, you can see why I leapt to pick up a copy. And by and large, The Starlit Wood did not disappoint. I found it to be a very strong collection with some truly memorable stories.
20. Roses and Rot by Kat Howard
Roses and Rot is a hauntingly lovely contemporary fantasy about the bond between two sisters. Imogene and Merin have an abusive mother that they both seek to escape. They hadn’t spoken in years when Merin reaches out. Soon after, both sisters find themselves at an artist’s residency at the prestigious Melete. Imogene’s a writer while Merin’s a dancer, but they are both devoted to their art. However, more is going on at Melete than they ever could have imagined, and it threatens to break the bond between them once and for all.
Imogene’s working on a book of fairy tales drawn from her childhood, and some of her stories are interwoven into the narrative. In many ways, Roses and Rot is itself a modern day fairy story complete with all the darkness and sharp edges of many of the original tales.
While those are my top twenty SFF releases of 2016, I also have a few honorable mentions:
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
Alejandra “Alex” Mortiz is the most powerful bruja of her generation, and she comes from a long line of powerful witches. However, Alex hates her magic and at her Deathday celebration casts a cantos intended to remove her power. But the magic works unexpectedly and traps her entire family, living and dead, in another world. Determined to save them, Alex must venture into the strange and deadly land of Los Lagos.
Memories of Ash by Intisar Khanani
Hitomi has spent the last year recovering her memories and learning magic under the tutelage of Brigit Stormwind. But then the High Council of Mages summons Stormwind to a trial, where she is accused of treason. The devious Arch Mage Blackflame is behind the trumped up charges, and Hitomi fears that Stormwind won’t return. As a result, she sets out on a mission to save her friend and mentor.This is so much of what I want in a fantasy novel – a focus on adventure rather than romance, amazing world building, and a clever heroine.
The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst
Humanity exists in a careful balance with the bloodthirsty nature spirits, who compelled by their twin desires to create and destroy. Only a human queen gifted with power is able to hold them in balance. Daliena, a young woman with some ability to control the spirits, is determined to do what she can to protect humanity from the devastation periodically unleashed by capricious spirits. Ven is a disgraced champion who has been roaming the wilderness between villages, fighting an increasing number of spirit attacks. With the queen possibly loosing control over the spirits, Daliena and Ven will have to combine forces.
False Hearts by Laura Lam
Tila and Taema are twin sisters who were conjoined until the age of sixteen, when they escaped the isolated cult they grew up in. Now they live separately in a futuristic San Francisco, but they’re still close enough that Taema doesn’t consider it possible that Tila could be keeping any secrets from her. Until the night when Tila arrives at her apartment covered in blood, before being arrested for murder. The police suspect that she was involved with a criminal organization producing Verve, a drug used to send people into a dream world of their own making. Taema’s given a choice – save her sister by pretending to be her, going undercover and gathering information on Verve. And there’s nothing Taema wouldn’t do for her twin sister.
The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier
The Mountain of Kept Memory is a stand alone fantasy novel that reminded me of City of Stairs. The gods died long ago, but the Kieba has retained some of their power, which she’s used to protect the people of Carastind… until the king manages to anger her. With the kingdom on the edge of invasion, the prince and princess of Carastind are desperately trying to salvage their kingdom’s independence from the forces arrayed against them.
Don’t take this list as the be all, end all of recommendations for 2016 SFF releases. These are only drawn from the books I’ve read, and there’s plenty of releases that I haven’t gotten to yet! Here’s a few that I’ve been meaning to read but that will have to wait until 2017:
- Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
- A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
- Goldenhand by Garth Nix
- Iron Cast by Destiny Soria
- Cloudbound by Fran Wilde
- The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg
- Hope and Red by John Skovron
- Arcanum Unbound by Brandon Sanderson
- The Facefaker’s Game by Chandler Birch
If nothing else, this has been a really good year for speculative fiction. I hope 2017 is just as rewarding in that regard!