Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best Books of 2011: Science Fiction & Fantasy

This is the science fiction & fantasy segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2011 feature. You can see other sections as follows: Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, Best Art & Culture, Best Biography, Best Books for Children and Young Adults, Best Cookbooks, Best Crime Fiction (part I) and Best Crime Fiction (part II).

All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen (Tor)
Lev AC Rosen’s debut is smart, thoughtful and even oddly timely. An intelligent, muscular work of steampunk with a strong central female character and a full load of steam. A great balance and a perfect mix. Violet Adams is a genius. A brilliant inventor and maven of all things mechanical, she wants nothing more than to attend London’s prestigious Illyria College, a scientific academy. But since it’s the Victorian era and a world that is strangely different and oddly the same, Illyria won’t accept Violet because she is a woman. Undeterred and determined by this sexist turn, Violet decides to register as her twin brother, Ashton. Getting in as Ashton is not as difficult as Violet fears. Her troubles really begin once she’s in, including a couple of romances that could be problematic no matter what happens. All Men of Genius is funny, smart and charming. Rosen creates his steampunk world with care, then tells his story with conviction. Violet is a wonderful character and Rosen’s debut should find favor with a wide swath of readers. In a year filled with great steampunk, All Men of Genius can be included with the very best. -- Sienna Powers

The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson (Tor)
I’ve been following the work of fantasy author heir apparent Brandon Sanderson since 2009’s Warbreaker. Though Sanderson hasn’t been around very long, his impact on the fantasy genre has been intense and far-reaching. Something likely to continue when he completes Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Even if Sanderson were not a terrific writer in his own right, being tapped to complete Jordan’s work would make this an author worth watching. And in all ways, he is. The Alloy of Law will do nothing to turn fans away. The fourth book in Sanderson’s highly acclaimed Mistborn series, this new novel zooms us 300 years ahead of the most recent Mistborn novel, The Hero of Ages. Even though this is a Mistborn novel, those who haven’t been following this series can enter here because, since the action in The Alloy of Law is set so far in the future, this book really does stand alone. -- Lincoln Cho

Embassytown by China Mieville (Del Rey)
Embassytown unmanned me. I liked it so well that I hemmed and hawed over a review for so long that, by the time I felt I could settle down to write one, months had passed and it no longer felt relevant. And I write a lot of reviews: I don’t feel that way very often. The thing I didn’t want to say/hesitate to say now: Embassytown is perfect. If there was a better novel in this category this year, I don’t know what it was. And, since I’m going there, I think it’s possible it will end up being one of the best of the decade. It’s almost as though, in eight previous and perfectly good novels, Mieville has been toying with us. The City & the City? Perdido Street Station? The Scar? All good novels. All terrific novels. But Embassytown? It blows them all away. A woman returns to her childhood home, Embassytown, on the far away planet of Arieka. She finds that, though there has been peace for many years, the relationship between the humans of Arieka and the indigenous hosts has become tenuous and there is a possibility of war. Embassytown is filled with important philosophical questions and (dare I say it?) answers. It’s as though Mieville has taken the thoughts of the best thinkers of our era and transformed them into story. There is absolute magic in Mieville’s rendering. I am breathless, still. -- Lincoln Cho

Ganymede by Cherie Priest (Tor)
It’s a fairly good bet that 2011 is going to be remembered as the year that steampunk hit the map. Don’t get me wrong: steampunk has been around for a long, long time but it seems like, until quite recently, no one had really noticed. Suddenly, that’s changed. At the core of this change are some people who have been doing it for a while. Suddenly, Cherie Priest is being called the “high priestess of steampunk” and, in truth, it’s possible she’s a big part of the reason for this sudden interest in the sub-genre. Ganymede is the third installment in her Clockwork Century series, which is comprised of the novels Boneshaker, and Dreadnaught, a novelette called Tanglefoot and Clementine, a novella. Now they are joined by Ganymede, which has been hailed as the best of the bunch, a standalone novel set in the Clockwork Century world of the Civil War… with some significant differences. As always, Priest’s steampunk is riveting, raw and muscular featuring pirate battles and real romance: love, lust and buckets of blood, Priest is in good form here. High Priestess? Indeed! -- Lincoln Cho

Isles of the Forsaken by Carolyn Ives Gilman (CZP)
Isles of the Forsaken is not one of those works of fantasy that you just fall into. Like some of the very best of the genre, you really have to work at it for a while to discover the richness. It’s a whole new world, after all. One with four races and a lot of strife and conflict. An imperial technocracy is pushing out an ancient culture and author Carolyn Ives Gilman captures the nuances of this conflict perfectly. In fact, the book is so nuanced it catches you up. One moment you are struggling with exotic names and complex politics and the next you are swept away in what proves to be an utterly compelling creation. It was both maddening and a relief to discover that this is only the first of a series. Just as I was realizing that Gilman couldn’t possibly wrap up what she’d started by book’s end, I came across a note that warned that the book would be continued in Ison of the Isles. No date was given, but I hope it’s not too long: this is a cast and storyline I’ve not been able to leave behind, even with the last page read. -- Sienna Powers

Mind Storm by K.M. Ruiz (Thomas Dunne)
Truth be told, I liked Mind Storm a lot better than I thought I would. Even in a market heavily saturated with post-Apocalyptic tales (is it just where we are as a culture that we’re flocking there?) Mind Storm stands out and even above. Two Hundred and Fifty years from now, Threnody Corwin is a soldier-slave to the human government. Threnody is of the human class known as psion, the result of nuclear fallout. Like all of her kind, she has special psi skills. Hers is the ability to channel electricity. Mind Storm is the first of the Strykers Syndicate novels that set genetically clean humans against those, like Threnody, whose DNA has been damaged by nuclear activity. At present, only two novels are forecast for the series. There is a strong cyberpunk vibe here that puts one in mind of Blade Runner or Gattica. Though Ruiz’s prose is compelling, there’s something intensely grotty about it in a way that will not appeal to all readers. Even so, Ruiz’s voice is confident -- even muscular -- though there are also passages of real beauty. If occasionally gruesome tales from the Apocalypse appeal to you, make sure you put Mind Storm near the top of your list. -- Lincoln Cho

Sleight of Hand by Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon)
Though the work of Peter S. Beagle has been widely awarded and celebrated, it’s possible you don’t know his name. Even if that is the case, however, you probably do know his work. Beagle was both the author and the writer of the screenplay for The Last Unicorn, made into a much-loved animated film in 1982, starring Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow and Angela Lansbury. The book, first published in 1968, remains the author’s best known work. Beagle also wrote the screenplay for Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of Lord of the Rings as well as episodes of Star Trek: TNG and other television shows. Though writing for film and television detoured what had been a successful career as a novelist in the 1980s, by the late 1990s, Beagle was back to books and his literary work has been published regularly ever since. Hollywood’s loss is our gain because Beagle’s literary voice is unforgettable; his talent formidable and even his short stories often leave an indelible mark. Take his new collection, Sleight of Hand. In 13 stories, Beagle seems to explore the very boundaries of his chosen corner of the genre. Beagle’s stories are touchingly moral and, despite the fantasy settings, they deal with issues of import to many of us. Considered by many of his peers to be one of the of the leading authors in his field, Sleight of Hand is as good an illustration of why as can be had. -- Lincoln Cho

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Embassytown. I agree. The best of the decade I'll bet.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 9:32:00 PM PST  

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