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2011 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Reads

by Jonathan 2 Comments

Once again, I’m laying out my favorite books I’ve read in the past year. All in all there were a few nice surprises and relatively few duds. I’m looking forward to devouring even more books in 2012 before the world ends. Anyway, on to the list.

The Last Page
by Anthony Huso

Cover of The Last Page by Anthony HusoI was thinking about Huso’s setting long after I read this book. Without knowing for sure, I would say that Huso strives for, or was inspired by, weirdness in the same mold as Mieville, which is always nice. Some of the story ran into the cliche, but that was easily forgiven in light of the overall depth of the world and the magic. Definitely some behind the scenes stuff going on that keeps you wondering.

Half Made World
by Felix Gilman

The Half Made World by Felix GilmanI loved this one if for no other reason than the way it takes the U.S. frontier and turns it into some alien thing. The Line is a great antagonist with its massive sentient steam engines, ornithopters and noise bombs. And their rivals, the way of the Gun, a group of sentient firearms that can put the excrutiating Goad on their owners if they don’t do as the firearms ask. This would seem to be the first of multiple books, but stands alone just fine.

River of Gods
by Ian McDonald

River of Gods cover by Ian McDonaldThis was my first exposure to Ian McDonald and I have to say, it had all the elements I enjoy in a good read: ensemble casts, complex story lines that come together, solid character building, and a shit ton of near future sci-fi that is recognizable enough to not feel like a complete dolt, but well-thought out enough to keep you wanting much, much more. Can’t wait to dig into to Dervish House.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
by Charles Yu

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles YuThis might be my favorite of them all. Yu’s self-deprecating humor shines through in his protagonist, er, Charles Yu. The whole meta flavor of this thing is, in and of itself, worth the read, but the thing I enjoyed the most was the father-son story, the immediately humanistic appeal of what  might on the surface seem like straight up sci-fi. Oh yeah, there’s time traveling, too. I’ve heard that some readers took issue with the technical aspects of this book and to them I say, so what. It’s a great story and the science fictional aspects are merely window dressing that helps drive the point home.

East of Eden
by John Steinbeck

East of Eden by John SteinbeckAfter reading The Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flat, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After closing the book, I think this was every bit as good as Grapes, although a very different kind of story. Playing on the story of Cain and Abel and two words from that tale, East of Eden digs into the human psyche and explores our free will in the face of who we are. Thou mayest, indeed.

The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century
by Ross E. Dunn

I loved the premise of this book and knew very little about the man or the time or the world in which he traveled. It’s done in broad strokes to be sure, but it’s a nice gateway into the medieval Muslim world from Morocco to India to China and everything in between. Dunn provides an overview of a world we never explore in our history classes in the U.S., but is every bit as important as what was going on in medieval Europe at the same time.

Dance with Dragons
by George R.R. Martin

What can I say that already hasn’t been said. Any forward progress in this epic tale merits best book listings. I was to busy enjoying having fresh Martin words before my eyes to worry about introducing new characters and story lines. I enjoyed the hell out of this one. (As a side note, after re-reading A Feast for Crows, I found I enjoyed that one much more than my first read through. I suspect the same will be said of Dance.)

Towers of Midnight
by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Towers of Midnight coverKind of the same thing as with A Dance with Dragons. I’m looking forward to seeing how this wraps up. Sometimes Sanderson’s style pokes its head through the story — and not always for the better — but damn can he move the story along.  Things are coming together nicely, new wrinkles are evolving and the Forsaken are getting antsy. Looking forward to Tarmon Gaidon. A lot.

Desolation Road
by Ian McDonald

Desolation Road coverI hesitated to put this one on here because a.) I already have Ian McDonald on the list and b.) I wasn’t sure of my overall feeling about this book. Initially it struck me as East of Eden on a distant planet, but as I read more it became less of that. Basically the story chronicles the founding, rise and fall of the town Desolation Road. In doing so it covers three to four generations of families who live there. I think what sealed it for me was the climax and how everything that seemed rambling early on comes together, if not neatly, then at least satisfactorily.

And there you have it. There are others I might have overlooked, but since I could recall these from memory, I went with this list. Had I finished Mieville’s Iron Council (see side bar), it would be on this list as well. of the Bas-Lag books, this is quickly becoming my favorite.

Hope you all have read some great books in 2011. If you’d like to chime in with your faves, feel free to comment.

Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Podcasts

And now for your listening pleasure...

Books on tape have gotten me through thousands of miles of driving and countless hours of mowing. When I started writing short fiction over the past year, I checked out the online outlets for Science Fiction and Fantasy in order to study the form.  There are a slew of podcast fiction sites, but only a handful really offer free podcasts of top-shelf fiction read by great readers.

If you’ve ever listened to books on tape or podcasts, you know the reader can make or break a story. I’ve delved into Librivox recordings of public domain works read by volunteers. It’s definitely hit or miss. But, because it’s all volunteer, I can’t complain and it gives me access to works by Lovecraft and Poe and Dickens. At the very least, Librivox makes me appreciate those sites that work at the craft of podcasting great short fiction.

The sites I feel are offering the best short fiction, both writing and reading, are:

The cool thing about PodCastle is you get two new stories each week. Authors such as Cat Rambo, Rachel Swirsky, Holly Black, and Greg van Eekhout show up at PodCastle. PodCastle is part of a trio of audio fiction podcasts. Its sister sites are Escape Pod and Pseudopod. Recommended story:  Wolves Till the World Goes Down by Greg van Eekhout

Clarkesworld features Kate Baker behind the mike. Her reading is well-polished and she does a fantastic job of conveying each story’s mood. With a consistent reader, listening to the Clarkesworld podcasts is like visiting an old friend week after week. Clarkesworld features writers such as Tobias Buckell, Catherynne M. Valente, N.K. Jemison and Lavie Tidhar. Recommended story:  A Jar of Goodwill by Tobias Buckell

Beneath Ceaseless Skies seeks out what they consider to be Science Fiction and Fantasy of a literary quality.  Here is a quote from their site that should give you a pretty good idea of what they mean:

We love traditional adventure fantasy, including classics from the pulp era and the new wave of post-Tolkien fantasy. But we also love how the recent influence of literary writing on fantasy short fiction has expanded the genre, allowing writers the freedom to use literary devices such as tight points-of-view, round characters, unreliable narrators, discontinuous narratives, and others. This sophisticated level of craft has made fantasy short fiction more powerful than ever before.

We want stories that combine the best of both these styles—adventure fantasy plots in vivid secondary worlds, but written with a literary flair. Beneath Ceaseless Skies will feature exciting stories set in awe-inspiring places that are told with all the skill and impact of modern literary-influenced fantasy.

Recommended story:  Mister Hadj’s Sunset Ride by Saladin Ahmed.

Starship Sofa bills itself as The Audio Science Fiction Magazine, and for good reason. Not only do you get great fiction–think Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, China Mieville, Jeff VanderMeer–but also interviews, news and other SFnal goings on. And, Tony C. Smith, your host, has a nice thick Scottish brogue that makes it even more fun to listen. Recommended story:  The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Tor.com offers more quality authors such as Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Charles Stross, Jay Lake, Ken Scholes, and Terry Bisson. In some cases, the authors read their own material. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not so much. Recommended story:  Catch ‘Em in the Act by Terry Bisson.

SFFaudio was created in 2003 by Scott Danielson and Jesse Willis. Their goal was similar to what I’m doing with this post, only they’ve done it way better. The site creators just want to  spread the word about great audio fiction that they’ve enjoyed. They believe audio is the best medium for Science Fiction literature and drama because of its ability to  transmit story, mood, and ideas.

And there you have it. If that’s not enough to keep you out of trouble, than there is no hope for you. If you have any recommendations you’d like to add, feel free to post in the comments. Otherwise, enjoy!