Sunday, 31 December 2017

My Top 17 Books for 2017

It's time for my annual retrospective post on the best books I read in the previous year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 16 books for 2016 (actually only 15, I now realise), my top 15 books for 2015, and my top 14 books for 2014.

My total numbers are up a little from last year, with 85 books read instead of the 77 I read in 2016. Here are my figures in a table:

5 star 4 star 3 star 2 star Total
2017 10 56 19 0 85
2016 11 53 12 1 77
2015 11 68 19 2 101
2014 9 70 23 2 104

Once again, the bulk of the books I read get 4 stars, meaning I enjoyed them and they were well done, but they weren't so well done or so enjoyable that they deserved a fifth star. Three-star books I didn't dislike, but they were either significantly lacking in their execution or failed to enthuse me; a two-star book, for me, is pretty much a failure, neither well executed nor enjoyable, though showing some hint of potential that lifts it above one star. I didn't read any of those this year. I don't finish books I think are going to be one (or two) stars, and I don't rate books I don't finish.

I did give a couple of books three stars that I considered only giving two. I'll single out one of them, because of its win in the Science Fiction category of the Goodreads Choice awards: Andy Weir's Artemis (link is to my full review). I'm awarding this my Most Disappointing Book of 2017 special non-prize (which, of course, totally cancels out the Goodreads Choice win, right?)

I suspect that many of the people who voted for it don't read a lot of new SF, like Andy Weir himself; if you're looking for a pretty straight-up Heinlein homage, and can ignore the enormous plot hole at the end, it is amusing and clever in places, but as a piece of SF written in 2017 it failed for me at multiple levels. I won't be surprised if it gets on a certain group's slate for the next Hugos (if there is a slate this year), since it's sufficiently old-fashioned, sexist, and non-literary to appeal to their claque/clique. They'll probably forgive the fact that the protagonist is supposedly a Saudi woman, because her being Saudi makes no visible difference, and her being a woman is played entirely for the male gaze.

Anyway: this year's countdown. Links are to my Goodreads reviews. Superheroes, unusual detectives, genre mashups, determined young female protagonists, and refreshed tropes abound in this year's crop.

I'd like to start with a few honorable mentions. These were strong books that might well have made the top 17, but just had one thing that caused them to miss out. In no particular order:

The Thorn of Dentonhill, Marshall Ryan Maresca: if Batman were a magic student in a sword-and-sorcery city. Well-maintained tension, but let down by the copy editing (shame, Penguin, shame).

The Native Star, M.K. Hobson. Gaslight fantasy, strongly and competently plotted, though I thought the romance subplot was subpar.

Necrospect, J.B. Markes. A promising start to a series, with a necromancer detective and his determined young assistant. Reads as if English isn't the author's first language, though his biography suggests otherwise.

The Uploaded, Ferrett Steinmetz. A dystopian that I actually liked, which is a miraculous feat of writing; nothing wrong with it whatsoever, except that I passionately despise the genre, and even doing it extremely well wasn't enough to completely make up for that.

The Summoned Mage, Melissa McShane. Capable writing and excellent editing yielded an entertaining book, but it didn't quite have the depth to rise to five stars, and the diary conceit made the pacing uneven.

And now, the best of the 4-star books, the seven that almost made it across that 5-star threshold.

17. Weave a Circle Round, Kari Maaren. An engaging YA magical/mythical/time-travel story bursting with eccentric, complex characters.

16. Kalanon's Rising, Darian Smith. An ex-warrior physician/detective in a sword-and-sorcery city, with a twisty plot that ended up surprising me.

15. An Alchemy of Masks and Mirrors, Curtis Craddock. Skyships ply between floating continents and islands, and a determined, intelligent young woman sets out to bring a seemingly impossible peace.

14. Flotsam, R.J. Theodore. Another skyships-and-floating-islands book, with a crew of daring adventurers desperately opposing an alien invasion while dealing with their own considerable issues.

13. Abounding Might, Melissa McShane. An earlier book in the same series made last year's list, which makes me want to pick up the remaining one. Napoleonic military supers meet Regency romance, and kick its butt. In a good way.

12. Superhero Syndrome, Caryn Larrinaga. A fresh take on (modern-era) supers, with a determined protagonist battling crime and corruption with creativity and verve.

11. The Beautiful Ones, Silvia Moreno-Garcia. A glorious and well-earned ending caps this insightful, beautifully written, and moving book.

And now the top 10, all of them winning five stars. It was a tough fight here; there's not a lot to pick between most of them, especially the top five. On another day I might put them in a different order.

10. Uprooted, Naomi Novik. Full of spectacular magic, conflicts of moral purpose and personal connection, and complex and nuanced relationships.

9. All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault, James Alan Garner. Another fresh take on the supers genre (with plenty of urban fantasy on the side), this offers a thrill-ride of tension and cool set-pieces that actually mean something, cleverly told in an appealing voice.

8. The Flaw in All Magic, Ben S. Dobson. Magicpunk in a secondary-world setting. With a great dynamic between the main characters, it manages to combine depth of characterisation and relentless action in an excellently crafted book.

7. The Wrong Stars, Tim Pratt. Refreshes the space opera genre with a dash of Mythos, and combines sparkling banter among a strong ensemble cast with fun, adventure, and a subtle meditation on the consequences of abuse.

6. Shadows of Self, Brandon Sanderson. Supers and slightly steampunked Western collide, injure each other physically and emotionally, make a wisecrack, and spring an astonishing twist, in a book of many well-crafted dimensions.

5. Heirs of Grace, Tim Pratt. Refreshes the tired urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre with a sensible, empathetic protagonist, and offers a terrific conclusion to a capable tale told with wit and originality.

4. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia E. McKillip. Complex, mythopoeic, epic without needing an (on-stage) battle, and anchored in the depths of human psychology, this classic offers appealing wisdom and a magnificent ending.

3. Kismet, Watts Martin. The book you should read if you think that a novel about queer furries can't also be a well-executed, entertaining space opera with masterfully escalating stakes. It makes the political both personal and essential to the plot.

2. Dreadnaught, April Daniels. The book you should read if you think that a novel about a trans teenager can't also be a well-executed, exciting supers story with deep characterisation and a tense plot. Emotionally true and deep. 

1. The Philosopher's Flight, Tom Miller. The book you should read if you don't think a man with an MFA can write about a man trying to make his way in a world where women have more magic without making it cringeworthy and awful. World War I-era, more-or-less supers, but in a more realistic scenario where they serve mostly in transport, communications, rescue, and civil defence roles; I found the main character instantly appealing, and was often moved by his struggles, losses, and triumphs. (Note: won't be published until February 2018; I received an advance copy for review.)

Gender Breakdown

Out of interest, here's the author gender breakdown for my top lists over the past four years. I tend to read about 50:50 men and women, taken over the long term, without setting out specifically to do so (I had to look up the genders of several of this year's authors to calculate the table, which I've based on the information in their Goodreads profiles). My top lists do tend to feature more women than men, though, apparently.

Out of the 17 books on this year's list, 15 feature a determined young female protagonist (counting secondary protagonists in Shadows of Self, The Beautiful OnesThe Philosopher's Flight and The Flaw in All Magic); of the remaining two, Forgotten Beasts of Eld features a determined middle-aged female protagonist, and Kalanon's Rising has a couple of secondary female characters who hold their own very effectively. Of the honorable mentions, The Thorn of Dentonhill underutilises its sole female character, but even she is capable and competent; the rest have either female primary protagonists or (in the case of Uploaded) capable secondary female characters who make a strong impact on the plot. Heck, even Artemis has a female protagonist, though she's unconvincing and handled poorly.

Note that I messed up last year and actually only posted a top 15, not a top 16 as I'd intended.

M F Total
2017 8 9 17
2016 6 9 15
2015 10 5 15
2014 4 10 14
Total 29 33 62

I look forward to lots more good reading in 2018. Thanks to Netgalley, through which I received many of these books for review.

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