These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2016. Click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks.
Sripathi Rao and his family live in the once-grand Big House, on Brahmin Street in the seaside Indian town of Toturpuram. His mother Ammayya, his wife Nirmala, and his unmarried sister Putti all reside under his roof, along with his unemployed adult son, Arun. Absent, but never spoken of, is his daughter, Maya, who went away to school in North America, and then defied her family by breaking off her traditional engagement to marry a white man. It has been nine years since Maya’s exile, but still her father stubbornly refuses to take her calls or allow her to visit. But everything changes when a phone call from Canada brings the news that Maya and her husband are dead, leaving their daughter Nandana orphaned. Apart from the initial upset, the events of The Hero’s Walk are mostly quiet and subtle, though the environs are lively and colourful. The tension comes from the interactions of a cast of idiosyncratic and richly drawn characters who inhabit Big House. Anita Rau Badami has crafted a fascinating and complicated family dynamic that is thoroughly disrupted by Nandana’s arrival. The passing of the grudge against Maya with her death will cause Sripathi, and indeed all the Raos, to re-examine their prejudices and preconceptions. One great tragedy leads to many new beginnings.
Although I’ve singled out Ruin and Rising here, this is honestly a tip of the hat to Leigh Bardugo’s entire Grisha Trilogy, as well as Six of Crows, which is set in the same world. I read all four over the course of the year, and I can’t wait to read Crooked Kingdom, which completes the Six of Crows duology. The Grisha Trilogy centers on Alina Starkov, a military cartographer who is belatedly discovered to be a sun summoner, a rare type of Grisha who can call and manipulate light. I listened to the audio version of the series, which is excellently performed by Lauren Fortgang, who is also a member of the composite cast for the audio version of Six of Crows. On more than one occasion I found myself sitting in a parking lot, not wanting to turn off my car until I found out what happened next. The action is fast-faced and Bardugo’s world-building is excellent. Add in charismatic characters like Nikolai and Genya, and grouchy-yet-endearing personages such as Baghra and Zoya, and this series had me hooked from the get-go.
I read Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho as part of the Diverse Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club hosted by Naz at Read Diverse Books. Cho’s tale is set in a magical England during the Napoleonic Wars, and centers on Zacharias Wythe, adopted black son of Sir Stephen Wythe, and the newest Sorcerer Royal following his guardian’s death. Unhappy with his ascension, England’s traditionalist magical families have begun to agitate, blaming Zacharias for England’s long-standing decrease in magical atmosphere. Hoping to uncover the reason for the ebb of magic, Zacharias travels to the British border with Faery. Along the way he acquires a traveling companion, one Miss Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race daughter of a deceased English magician who brought her to England from India shortly before his untimely demise. In both writing style and setting, Sorcerer to the Crown is very reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but Cho’s protagonists are vastly different from Clarke’s, and they are the driving force behind the story. Cho also weaves in a plotline that addresses the colonial society in which the story takes place, revealing machinery that is normally invisible in Regency fiction. Although obviously highly socially conscious, Sorcerer to the Crown is also a great adventure, with a good bit of political intrigue, and even a dash of romance.
At a production of King Lear in Toronto, paparazzo-turned-paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary charges onstage in the middle of the show to perform CPR on lead actor Arthur Leander. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the last night of the old world; even as the show goes on, recent arrivals on a flight from Moscow are flooding into local hospitals, stricken with the Georgia Flu. Fifteen years later, Kirsten Raymonde, who played the child-version of Cordelia in that long ago production of King Lear, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that trek between the far-flung settlements the post-flu world playing music and performing Shakespeare. Station Eleven is intricately woven from multiple perspectives and shifting timelines, beginning with Jeevan’s take on the early hours of the epidemic. The non-linear timeline and complex array of characters will undoubtedly be off-putting for some, but for fans of this type of story-telling, Emily St. John Mandel has handled it masterfully. Mandel does not linger on the terrible first days of the pandemic when survivors were fleeing the cities in search of somewhere safe. Instead, for the most part, the focus is on what comes after, and how that reflects on what once was. Pop culture remnants form an important touchstone for those who are old enough to remember the pre-apocalypse world, and these memories are juxtaposed with the many productions of Shakespeare in the text. Station Eleven sits alongside other literary takes on the apocalypse, from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake to Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, but it wins me over by effortlessly balancing comic books and Star Trek right alongside Shakespeare.
Agnieszka and Kasia have been best friends throughout their childhood in the village of Dvernik, bonded by the fact that they are both Dragon-born girls. Every ten years, the Dragon—the sorcerer who protects the valley from the dark magic of the Wood—takes a seventeen-year-old girl to live with him in the Tower, and both Agnieszka and Kasia will be seventeen the year his next servant is chosen. Everyone knows that it is Kasia, beautiful, and graceful, and competent, who will be chosen. But when the Dragon comes to make his choice, it is not Kasia who attracts his attention. Uprooted is full of complex characters with individual motivations. The Wood is a terrifying arch-villain, but it is the smaller antagonists that add depth to the tale. I also really enjoyed the fact that Naomi Novik continued to centre Agnieszka’s friendship with Kasia, even after Agnieszka is taken to the tower. Uprooted also has definite flavours of my favourite fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, where a young woman is taken into the castle of a monster—or in this case a man with a monstrous reputation—and held there alone.This is a dark, lushly imagined fantasy that hits all the sweet-spots for a fairy tale retelling.
Honestly, this was a hard list to compile. I read around 150 books this year, and a lot of them were excellent. If you love vampires, don’t skip Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Sylvain Neuvel’s sci-fi debut Sleeping Giants is not to be missed. I adored The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, and I am enjoying Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series tremendously. Maybe I needed to do a Top 10 this year?
What were your favourite fiction reads of 2016?