By Jason Snell
December 19, 2017 4:58 PM PT
Our favorite books of 2017
Dan and Jason read a lot. And both of them keep running into people who say they hear us praising books, and then they go and read them! This is a great responsibility, and not one we take lightly. Here are the books we loved this year. (Not all of them were published in 2017. But this is the year we read them!)
Mishell Baker’s Borderline is what I’d call “fairy noir”. It’s got a lot of the features of noir detective stories—a hard-bitten investigator with a load of personal baggage who has to navigate a corrupt system and a bunch of deceitful suspects in order to do the job. That it’s set in L.A. and is about the rich and famous in Hollywood is an extra noir bonus. The protagonist, Millie, has Borderline Personality Disorder and is still reeling from the suicide attempt that left one leg amputated above the knee and the other just below. To top it all off, she’s just discovered that everything she thinks she knows about how the world works is wrong: Earth and a magical realm are joined by a series of portals, and magical creatures we might call fairies have been the source of human creativity and inspiration for centuries.
I’m not a big fantasy fan, but this mash-up of genres really works. And its beating heart is Millie, damaged and unhappy but trying to pick up the pieces of her life and make something of it. If only she can find her missing person and avoid being killed as she uncovers a worlds-spanning conspiracy. It’s the best book I read in 2017.-J.S.
The Pigeon Tunnel
I know you’ll all be shocked to hear that I’m a fan of espionage fiction. And though The Pigeon Tunnel is neither fiction nor wholly about espionage, that fact that it’s by legendary spy writer John Le Carré still explains why I picked it up. This assemblage of stories from Le Carré’s life is a delightful collection, including everything from his rubbing shoulders with Russian mafia members to Le Carré’s own meager time in the secret intelligence services to a chance encounter that involved him dancing with Yasser Arafat. It’s a quick but fascinating read and well worth it for Le Carré fans or those who enjoy tales of an interesting life well lived. —D.M.
It’s hard to recommend the seventh book in a book series, but here I am recommending Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey, the latest in the Expanse sci-fi series. If you’re new to the series, start with Leviathan Wakes and go from there. The latest installment jumps forward in time, allowing the ramifications of the first six books to bake into the setting and cause some really interesting twists to fall back out. This book’s a bit dark—it’s definitely the “Empire Strikes Back” of the series—but I simply couldn’t put it down. That’s the sign of a good book.
After seven books and that time jump, the Expanse’s characters are lived in and familiar, but that only intensifies the changes to the world around them and the decisions they need to make. There’s large-scale war with spaceships, small-scale politics, freedom-fighter strategy, and a whole lot more. So if you’re reading the Expanse books, this one is good. If you’re not, and you like books about spaceships and the people who live inside them, why are you waiting? (You should also watch the TV series, which is excellent—and has only managed to get through about a book and a half of plot in two seasons.)-J.S.
City of Miracles
With each succeeding installment, Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy got better and better, and the finale, City of Miracles, is the capper. Set quite a bit of time past the previous book, City of Swords, this novel stars the bruising berserker Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, a supporting character in both previous entries in the series, trying to track down the people who murdered his longtime friend. Bennett’s series and his world have evolved considerably since it began in City of Stairs, gaining more depth as they go along, and he delivers an ending that is satisfying while still leaving you wanting more.—D.M.
Tool of War
Another book in a series, but a great series. Paolo Bacigalupi’s two previous books set in this world—Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities—are set in the near future after an environmental apocalypse has led to a dramatic reshuffling of the world order. Those two excellent books (suitable for teens and pre-teens, as they’re firmly in the Young Adult genre) can stand alone and be read in any order, though they share one supporting character in common.
That character is the genetically-engineered monster-who’s-also-a-mentor, Tool. And in Tool of War he takes center stage at last. This book’s about how Tool came to be, the purpose for which he was created, and how he feels about that. It’s sort of like reading Frankenstein from the perspective of the monster. Also, this book gave me my biggest reading surprise of the year, because it serves as a sequel to both Ship Breaker and Drowned Cities. Read those first, then read Tool of War. And if you want more from Bacigalupi, consider his adult novels The Windup Girl (my favorite book of 2010) and The Water Knife.-J.S.
A Conjuring of Light
Another trilogy ender, V.E. Schwab’s A Conjuring of Light brings to a close the story of multiple Londons first begun in A Darker Shade of Magic and continued in A Gathering of Shadows. Court magician Kell and thief-turned-pirate-turned-magician Delilah Bard try to save Red London from a monstrous evil that has already destroyed one world and now hungers for another. There’s magic, there’s romance, and plenty of action.—D.M.
The Cooperstown Casebook and Smart Baseball
I like baseball. I like books. If you like baseball and books, you might like books about baseball! And these are the two I read this year that I’d recommend.
Jay Jaffe is the single writer who has done the most work on the Baseball Hall of Fame in the last decade. He invented a new statistical standard for the Hall, JAWS, that helps understand who is enshrined and where the possible new inductees fit in. His book, The Cooperstown Casebook, features numerous smart essays about the Hall, what it has been, what it is today, and where it’s going. By position, he ranks existing Hall of Famers into the inner circle, the standard inductees, and the… er… questionable choices. Then he judges the current crop of players. It’s opinionated but smart, and Jaffe has plenty of data to back up his opinions. When I was younger I tore through Bill James’s Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame, and this is a fitting modern follow-up.
Keith Law’s Smart Baseball is a great modern update to baseball’s statistical revolution. Keith’s a longtime baseball writer and sometime baseball executive, and in this book he skewers the lousy statistics that still hang around baseball because they’re traditional, even though they don’t really inform us about how good a player is or whether a manager’s particular strategy is smart or stupid. And of course there are new statistics to replace them that are much better. If you loved Moneyball and want to know what the current state of affairs is in terms of understanding baseball, this is a great read. (For another great take on modern ways of viewing baseball, check out last year’s pick, Ahead of the Curve by Brian Kenny.)-J.S.
In The Core, Peter V. Brett’s sprawling Demon Cycle comes to an end after five volumes. Those who have followed hero Arlen Bales since The Warded Man will find this a fitting conclusion to the epic, as humanity prepares itself for the final fight against the demons that rise at night. There’s plenty of political intrigue and machinations, a few twists and turns, and a last act that is going to keep you turning pages until late in the night. Which is good, because at 800 pages, it’s going to take a while.—D.M.
Space Race: Battle to Rule the Heavens
As an American, what I learned about the Space Race is that the Soviets launched Sputnik and put the first man in space and then the Americans responded by catching up and passing them and going to the moon with the Apollo program.
So, how did that happen? Why were the Soviets out in front? How did the Americans catch up? What happened to the Soviet space program? Turns out, the USSR wasn’t really forthcoming with a lot of this historical information, but in the past few decades we’ve gained a lot more insight into that history. Deborah Cadbury’s Space Race: Battle to Rule the Heavens is essentially a joint biography of two of the biggest names in the early days of rocketry: Werner von Braun, the ex-Nazi designer of the V-2 rockets that bombed the UK, who was spirited out of a defeated Germany by the American military and put to work building the rockets that would ultimately get Americans to the moon; and Sergei Korolev, the man who went from starving to death in a Siberian gulag to becoming the “master architect” of the Soviet space program.
This is a history that doesn’t get told often enough. It’s a great read.-J.S.
The Stone Sky
Seems like it’s a year for series enders. I waited until the last volume of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series came out before I embarked on reading the whole thing, beginning with The Fifth Season, and I’m glad I did, as it reads more like one long unbroken story. The Stone Sky is an emotional conclusion to the long story of Essun, Nassun, and Schaffa, and sheds a lot more light on the history of this fantastical world. At this point, you’ve probably run out of excuses to read it, so just start at the beginning. Or, heck, wait for the TV show.—D.M.
Death’s End, written by Cixin Liu and translated into English by Ken Liu, is the third book in a series that started with The Three-Body Problem, the first foreign-language translation to win a Hugo Award for the best science fiction novel of the year.
These books are bananas. The first book made ridiculously audacious moves early on that I was positive that it couldn’t deliver on—and then it did. In spades. The scope and difficulty level of that book suggested a writer simply brimming with ideas, so many ideas that he could toss a dozen of them into a book, pulse the blender, and create one of the most inventive science-fiction books of the year. (In addition to giving me a very different perspective than what I usually get from English-language writers.)-J.S.
I had no idea. Death’s End is more audacious and more inventive than Three-Body Problem. Almost every chapter features ideas that would be mined for entire novel series by other writers. The scope of the story is the widest possibly imaginable. Yes, the characters in these books aren’t incredibly well defined—it definitely reminded me of old-school Asimovian SF at several points—but the ideas override all. I have never had as wild a reading experience as I had while reading Death’s End. It’s long and complicated and weird, a book written by someone who has read all the Science Fiction and decided he’s going to top it all, at once, in a single book.-J.S.
A Closed and Common Orbit
I enjoyed Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, though I found it a bit more like a series of vignettes than one whole story. No such comment about the followup, A Closed and Common Orbit, which narrows the scope by focusing on two specific side characters from the first book. Chambers intertwines these two characters’ stories in the past and present and in doing so delivers a tightly plotted and emotionally affecting story of self-discovery. You don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy this one, so feel free to jump on in; a third book in the same universe is on the way next year. —D.M.
Ramez Naam’s Apex is the final book in a series that began with the excellent Nexus. These are books about what might happen to the world if nanotechnology allows us to connect human brains directly to software—and one another. Oh, and also there’s an emergently intelligent artificial intelligence trying to break out of a computer center in China. There are augmented-human fight scenes, military maneuvers, and behind it all, a fascinating theme of what it means to be human when the edges between human beings and the technology that surrounds us are entirely eroded.-J.S.
The Hanging Tree
One of my favorite ongoing series is Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London novels, following the escapades of apprentice wizard and police constable Peter Grant. The latest installment, The Hanging Tree takes Peter into the world of the wealthy as he does a favor for Lady Ty, the goddess of the River Tyburn. As always, Aaronovitch’s book is eminently readable, replete with good humor and pop culture references. It also expands upon the books’ ongoing story arc of the Faceless Man and brings it around to some particularly timely, if uncomfortable, themes. —D.M.
I’m not a big Steampunk fan, but I can’t get enough of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, set in a late 19th century where the Civil War rages on, airships fill the skies, and the city of Seattle has been taken over by zombies. It’s one of those genre-melting series that really does it for me. You should probably start the series with Boneshaker, but this year I finally read Ganymede, in which an airship pirate is recruited by the women of a New Orleans brothel (who are secretly spies) to raise an experimental Confederate steam submarine from a lake and navigate it down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, all while the Confederates have the city on lockdown. Oh, and there are Seattle-style zombies in the swamps.-J.S.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric novellas
I don’t tend to read a lot of shorter fiction, but I’ll certainly make an exception for the work of my favorite writer, Lois McMaster Bujold. Fans of her World of Five Gods (previous entries include The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) will enjoy this series of novellas about the adventures of young Lord Penric, who accidentally becomes host to the demon Desdemona and, eventually, a temple sorcerer and learned divine of the Bastard’s Order. Most of the (currently) six e-book-only stories that make up this series are short, though Penric’s Mission is long enough to qualify as a novel in its own right. Start with Penric’s Demon and continue from there!—D.M.
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