Monday, January 1, 2018

My Favorite Books of 2017

Happy New Year, everyone! It's time to start my 2017 entertainment round-ups, kicking off with the books I read last year.

For a while I was afraid that 2017 would be the year of sequels for me, as I continued reading older series that I'd already started, but I did get a number of stand alones novels in there and even started a new series.

That said, these are the twelve books I enjoyed enough to finish, and in the order I finished them. Maybe you'll want to check them out too. My top three picks of the year are marked with an asterisk (*), though there is a cheater in there since I also included an inseparable pair that cannot be read independently of each other.

Return of Souls by Andy Remic

This is a sequel to the A Song for No Man's Land dark fantasy WWI novella that I read last year. It is totally a middle installment, ending on a cliffhanger, and definitely a lot weirder as most of the story now takes place in the alternate world realm where all the monsters comes from. I wanted to see the skogsra from the end of the first book, but she doesn't turn up in this one.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

I've heard that this one of the best modern Lovecraftian takes in recent years and it is. It's a retelling of "The Horror at Red Hook," but a version Lovecraft himself never could have written about an African American hustler in 1920s Harlem who crosses paths with all the eldritch weirdness that Lovecraft is known for. The work is really good at capturing what it must have been like as a second class citizen both from the perspective of the titular Black Tom and from the POV of the white detective Malone (Lovecraft's original protagonist) who doesn't really hate New York's racial minorities but accepts their lower status for what it is.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo *

The daughter of a failing merchant house is being pressured into a ghost marriage with the deceased son of the rich man her father owes money to, but unsurprisingly she's not interested. It doesn't helping that the ghost of the dead son is haunting her dreams, courting her like the worst of "nice guy" stalkers. He also might have been murdered. The story takes place in late 1800s Malaysia in the Chinese expat community and contains a smorgasbord of southern Chinese culture, particularly in regards to customs involving the dead. I consider it a huge plus that the author went with older, pre-pinyin spellings of names so that the regionalism of the different dialects comes through.

Spice and Wolf Vol 11: Side Colors II by Isuna Hasekura

Vol 11 is another short story volume containing two "lost" moments that take place early in Lawrence and Holo's journey and a novella about the side character Eve Bolan. "The Black Wolf's Cradle" is the clear winner of the three, as it follows the disenfranchised noblewoman Fleur and her transformation into the cunning merchant Eve. Fleur's naivete is heartbreaking, but her resolve is just as unyielding, making her a fantastic protagonist. And that ending! Wow, I did not expect it. It's very dark for this series, but perfectly in line for who Fleur becomes. Though I read Spice and Wolf for the fluff, it's nice to see Hasekura is capable of moving beyond it.

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

Iron Cast was a whim purchase of mine and honestly I was afraid I would regret it, but I didn't! All I had to go on was one good review, but given the setup with a duo of young women doing skullduggery in the year 1919 through the use of their special powers, I was a easy fish to reel in. And it works! This story is really more YA given the ages of the characters and the themes, though it's told in third person which isn't de rigueur at the moment. The story is a little slow to get going, but Corinne and Ava are lovely and spirited protagonists, and all the building in the first half is rewarded by the second.

The Rogue Retrieval by Dan Koboldt

I volunteered to review this for the author so I persisted when I might not have otherwise, and it was a good thing since I was enjoying myself by the end. It's about a stage magician from Las Vegas who is pressed into a job where he needs to go to a medieval fantasy world and help a powerful corporation extract a researcher who has gone rogue. (Alas, the rogue retrieval does not involve capturing thieves.)

Baccano! Vol 2: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local by Ryohgo Narita *

Baccano continues to be a hot mess in the most entertaining fashion. Most of the cast is different from the last book, but Narita's affection for taking a multitude of colorful characters, trapping them in the same location, and then seeing how it all plays out is done to great effect. This time it's on a cross country train ride with cultists, mobsters, bootleggers, and of course Isaac and Maria, where everybody except the latter two has a different crime job in mind, all of it involving shenanigans on the train. The only flaw really is that it's a two-parter, but with good reason, as I'll get to in a moment.

Baccano! Vol 3: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Express by Ryohgo Narita *

I read this immediately after Vol 2 because they're a duology within the greater series, but it's not in the conventional sense. The Local and Express parts of 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad cover approximately the same span of time, but are told from two different sets of POV characters. Local gives us what is happening on the surface and Express gives us the POV characters with something to hide. It answers the remaining mysteries of the previous book, including the truth about the Rail Tracer. One is not complete without the other, and for that reason I'm including the two volumes as a pair in my Top 3 of the year.

Attack on Titan: The Harsh Mistress of the City - Part 1 by Ryo Kawakami

I rarely go into a series so much that I follow spin-offs written by other people, but Attack on Titan is one of my favorite series and I picked up Harsh Mistress of the City mostly because it sounds like something I would like to have written had I the opportunity. Taking place immediately after the fall of Wall Maria (the first two episodes of the anime), we follow a young soldier, Rita Iglehaut, as her district is cut off from the rest of civilization by the man-eating Titans. Due to the loss of nearly all the Garrison soldiers, Rita becomes the highest ranking soldier left alive, and her childhood friend Mathias Kramer, who escaped the district, is now coming back to find her.

Attack on Titan: The Harsh Mistress of the City - Part 2 by Ryo Kawakami

After a six month time skip and a heck of a way to end the first volume, things have gone from bad to worse. As far as spin-offs go, if you like those that stick to canon and feel like they really could have happened in the main storyline, this is an excellent pick. Unfortunately the ending is a bit of a deus ex machina and the ultimate fates of our protagonists are left unknown. Kawakami does put his characters through some gut-punch worthy moments, but he's not as clever at getting them out of it.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson *

I came into this one with high expectations, and they were mostly met. Mind, it's not that it wasn't good, but I'd expected more economics and less time marching with an army that belonged to neither Baru's people nor their conquerors. Fortunately, there's a reason for all that, and the writing is good enough that I liked following Baru and the scheming of the various dukes of Ardwynn. Baru is a fantastic protagonist, who is willing to put absolutely everything (love, loyalty, life) through the meat grinder if necessary to save her people. My primary disappointment was finding out this book is the first in a series and the second isn't out yet.

Writers of the Future Volume 33 (anthology)

I almost always read the latest of these, since I know so many of the writers who end up in them. There's a wide variety so subgenres can jump drastically from story to story. This approach might not work for someone looking for a theme, but there's more than likely something that appeals. My favorite this year is "The Fox, the Wolf, and the Dove" by Ville Meriläinen, for leaving me sobbing at the end.