As 2016 comes to a close, it’s time to look back at a truly exceptional year for genre fiction. As we pointed out in last year’s attempt to provide you with some kind of “best of,” it’s just an impossible task.
So, rather than try to give you a definitive list, we asked our book reviewers to tell us which novels they enjoyed most this year, which were the ones that really stuck with them, and then we made no attempt to order them. Well, alphabetically by author. That’s a kind of order.
There may be some surprises, there may be some “Well, of course that’s on there, everyone’s read that one,” but the point is that these are the books that we’ve been telling our friends to read this year. These are the ones that we’ve loved, thought about lending to people, and decided that we’d rather not risk losing our copy. From hard SF to gritty fantasy to chilling horror, these are our favourites…
THE POWER BY NAOMI ALDERMAN
Teenage girls around the world are suddenly gifted an extraordinary ability in Naomi Alderman’s deservedly celebrated fourth novel, which starts with these young women discovering that they can shoot electricity from their hands. Alderman’s characters must navigate this world in which power dynamics suddenly shift and roles are reversed, and exciting new possibilities and very real dangers are mingled. It’s a thought-provoking and thrilling read that would be near the top of our list even if it wasn’t alphabetical.
The Power is available from Viking. Read Amy Martin’s review here.
ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY BY CHARLIE JANE ANDERS
Anders’ debut novel is a beautifully told tale of two lonely children who grow up to a be a witch and a leading scientist, and who will both play a key role in either saving the world or ending it. All The Birds In The Sky is an ecological cautionary tale that doesn’t preach, a wonderful modern fantasy with a great sense of humour, and the evolving relationship between Patricia and Laurence is superbly written. It’s magical (no pun intended).
All The Birds In The Sky is available from Titan Books. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
NOD BY ADRIAN BARNES
The nightmare of insomniacs everywhere comes to horrifying life in Adrian Barnes’ Nod, which gives us a world without sleep. Our hero Paul is one of the handful of those who can still fall asleep, and he finds himself in an increasingly desperate situation surrounded by people driven mad by constant wakefulness. Putting its excellent hook to one side, this is tense, it’s creepy, and it’s surprisingly complex, with Paul’s relationship with his girlfriend Tanya giving the Last Man some interesting shading. Just don’t start it before you go to bed.
Nod is available from Titan Books. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
THE MEDUSA CHRONICLES BY STEPHEN BAXTER AND ALASTAIR REYNOLDS
Two titans of the genre here, as Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds team up for this far-reaching follow-up to Arthur C Clarke’s A Meeting With Medusa. Following Howard Falcon over the course of his incredible life, The Medusa Chronicles sees the authors having a tremendous time exploring the technological possibilities while portraying the sheer wonder of discovery quite beautifully. This is an absolute treat.
The Medusa Chronicles is available from Gollancz. Read Erlingur Einarsson’s review here.
CITY OF BLADES BY ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT
Bennett took us back to his world of defeated (pretty much) gods, giants and endless political scheming with this triumphant follow-up to City Of Stairs. The scowling General Mulaghesh is sent to the distant province of Voortyashtan to investigate the disappearance of a missing civil servant and to covertly look into the discovery of a powerful and dangerous new element. It’s a gripping Le Carre-esque political thriller as well as being a gritty, witty and stunning fantasy. We can’t wait for the next instalment.
City Of Blades is available from Jo Fletcher Books. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
SLIPPING BY LAUREN BEUKES
If you, like us, love Lauren Beukes’ novels Moxyland, Zoo City, The Shining Girls and Broken Monsters, then you probably don’t need a particularly strong nudge to go out and buy her collection of short stories and essays. The format allows the author to dip in and out of genres (horror, SF, relationship drama) and Slipping demonstrates that she can create a compelling, complex world in just a few pages.
Slipping is available from Tachyon Publications. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS BY LILA BOWEN
Lila Bowen took us back to the weird West world of Wake Of Vultures with another hugely entertaining genre-bending adventure. The newly shape-shifting former slave Rhett must take on an evil railroad tycoon, and while there’s a lot of fun to be had with this, the biggest charm of this trilogy continues to be the character’s journey of self-discovery. We can’t wait to see where Bowen takes him in the final instalment.
Conspiracy Of Ravens is available from Orbit. Read Sarah Dobbs’ review here.
A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT BY BECKY CHAMBERS
The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet was one of our absolute favourite books of 2015, and Becky Chambers’ follow-up proved to be just as special. A side-quel rather than a sequel, the story followed the Wayfarer’s newly unbound AI Lovey (now Sidra) and tech genius Pepper as they try to co-exist while the latter helps the former adapt to life in a body. It’s more focused and more intimate than its predecessor, but just as witty, warm and intelligent, and a wonderful world to return to.
A Closed And Common Orbit is available from Hodder & Stoughton. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
POISON CITY BY PAUL CRILLEY
The South African genre boom is evidently still…booming, as Paul Crilley’s urban fantasy finds magical detective Gideon Tau and his acerbic talking dog attempting to get the bottom of a series of grisly murders while looking for whoever was responsible for murdering his daughter years ago. Crilley has a lot of fun with the office politics of Durban’s Delphic Division and the practicalities of fighting monsters with barely-controlled magic in a densley populated urban environment, and gives us a great duo in Tau and his canine companion.
Poison City is avaialble from Hodder & Stoughton. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
DARK MATTER BY BLAKE CROUCH
Wayward Pines author Blake Crouch delivers a truly gripping one-off sci-fi that’s half Hitchockian thriller, half SF mind-bender. A college professor is forced into another dimension through a device seemingly of his creation. Can he get back? And what price is he willing to pay for his return? Crouch shows great confidence blending the science into a story of an increasingly desperate man in an increasingly horrifying situation, building towards a superb final act. Make sure you’ve got time to finish this in one sitting because you’ll want to.
Dark Matter is available from Macmillan. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
THE SECRET HISTORY OF TWIN PEAKS BY MARK FROST
When we first heard about it, Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks book sounded a bit like a nice treat for the fans, something to tide them over until the TV series returned (is it back yet? No? Goddammit.) Having read it, we can tell you that this description does Secret History…a great disservice. It’s a rich, dense and addictive return to the town that serves as a reminder of just why we’re all so obsessed about it, and we still don’t want to spoil it, so just go and buy it.
The Secret History Of Twin Peaks is available from Macmillan. Read Steve Wright’s review here.
MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM BY GRADY HENDRIX
We all know that high school is hell, but Grady Hendrix navigates the familiar waters of backstabbing teens, uncomprehending parents and teenage body horror with tremendous skill and an acerbic wit. Abby’s struggle with her seemingly possessed best friend Gretchen is emotionally sincere and sincerely horrifying. The ’80s setting allows the author to channel brutal teen classics like Heathers while using fads and fears of the time to create some gruesome shocks. Easily one of the best horror novels you’ll read this year.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism is available from Quirk Books. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
THE FIREMAN BY JOE HILL
Expectations were high for Joe Hill’s latest, which saw the author of Horns and N0S4R2 take a step away from horror into the flaming post-apocalypse. Spontaneous combustion has taken the lives of millions, while the survivors live in fear of developing the “Dragonscale” patches of charred skin that signify a fiery end. While it may not technically be a horror, Hill’s expert slow-burn approach to our heroine’s relationship with her abusive partner and the increasingly dangerous, increasingly cult-y survivor’s group is absolutely gripping, and very scary indeed. Great Martha Quinn cameo, too.
The Fireman is available from Gollancz. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
VERSAILLES BY YANNICK HILL
The old dark house gets a smart, scary update in Yannick Hill’s modern Gothic, as mega-rich social network CEO Casey Baer builds his colossal beach-front dream home and gets a lot more than he bargained for. Hill’s slow, steady build is deeply creepy and utterly hypnotic, while his genre updates fit perfectly into the classic mould, giving us old-fashioned chills with a wickedly sharp edge. Horror fans looking for something a little different should definitely seek this out.
Versailles is available from Unbound. Read Sarah Dobbs’ review here.
THE SHADOW OF WHAT WAS LOST BY JAME ISLINGTON
Inspired by the likes of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, James Islington’s first novel may seem imposing purely on a page-count level, but it moves at a blistering pace. He packs twists and turns, political intrigue and some bruising violence into his fantastic debut. Set in a world in which gods have been defeated, it finds an exceptionally gifted outsider beginning to realise just what he’s capable of, and creates a world in which something very, very powerful is returning. If you’re a fan of those fantasy authors we mentioned just now, you need this.
The Shadow Of What Was Lost is available from Orbit. Read Claire Nicholls’ review here.
THE FIFTH SEASON BY NK JEMISIN
So, the first instalment in NK Jemisin’s new series came out in some countries last year, but Amazon lists it as 2016 and we love it so much that we’re including it here, and we’ll accept the consequences. Ambitious, atmospheric and totally addictive, The Fifth Season is set in a land that suffers a terrifying fracture just as the book opens. Slipping between time periods and locations as our heroes try to find missing loved ones and hold the world together, Jemisin creates a complex hierarchical system in which bigotry and sexism has become standard…but it’s about to be torn apart. This shows why the author is one of the genre’s most exciting voices, and the second part, The Obelisk Gate, is also out now, so get reading.
The Fifth Season is available from Orbit.
MONGRELS BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
An on-the-road family story gets a lycanthropic twist in Stephen Graham Jones’ brilliant Mongrels. We follow a nameless young boy as he grows up with his aunt and uncle travelling through the American south, staying one step ahead of the law (and the occasional monster hunter) and on the look-out for a fast buck and an easy meal. This scarred but tight-knit family unit is beautifully written and Jones does some fantastic work crafting an intricate and fascinating werewolf mythology of his own. This is just a joy to read.
Mongrels is available from Harper Voyager. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
THE PAPER MENAGERIE AND OTHER STORIES BY KEN LIU
The increasingly prolific and hugely talented Ken Liu (author of The Grace Of Kings and translator of Cixin Liu’s brilliant The Three Body Problem) assembles some of his best short stories, and it’s a great introduction to the author’s skill, ambition and sensitivity, as well as just being a great short fiction collection. Hopping between genres (cyberpunk! historical fantasy!) and time periods, these 15 tales show off Liu’s unique voice and place him at the forefront of the new wave of Chinese sci-fi.
The Paper Menagerie is available from Head Of Zeus. Read Carrie Mok’s review here.
SLEEPING GIANTS BY SYLVAIN NEUVEL
Sylvain Neuvel’s stunning debut is a story of first contact that manages to balance strong political commentary, a sly wit and a genuine sense of wonder. Years after she discovers a giant metal hand in the ground, Dr Rose Franklyn is leading the investigation into its origin, but political and military interests threaten to take over. It’s fast-paced, well-constructed (a series of interviews conducted by a shadowy figure) and it packs a surprisingly emotional punch too. Read it before they turn it into a film.
Sleeping Giants is available from Michael Joseph. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
THIN AIR BY MICHELLE PAVER
A ghost story unfolds in one of the loneliest places on Earth in this gripping chiller. A 1935 mountaineering exhibition sets out to follow in the footsteps of, and to better, a doomed 1907 attempt, but do the spirits of the men lost on Mount Kangchenjunga still linger? Paver delivers a genuinely scary horror laced with sharp, strong commentary on the British imperialist mind-set, as these bull-headed, arrogant chaps charge into an environment that they’re not equipped for. Thin Air is superb.
Thin Air is available from Orion. Read Katherine McLaughlin’s review here.
LOVECRAFT COUNTRY BY MATT RUFF
Matt Ruff blends weird fiction with the brutal reality of American history in the fantastic Lovecraft Country. Set in 1954, it begins with our hero Atticus Turner, a black veteran with a love of sci-fi, setting out to retrieve his missing father from a country estate on the east coast, and then quickly entangles the pair, their family and friends with the powerful and wealthy Braithwaite family and their eldritch plans. There’s some wonderful homages to Lovecraft (while addressing the author’s problematic nature), some great genre creepiness, and it’s all combined with the very real horror of Jim Crow-era America.
Lovecraft Country is available from Harper. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
HUNTERS AND COLLECTORS BY M SUDDAIN
We follow a restaurant critic known as The Tomahawk in M Suddain’s deeply weird, dense and wonderful genre mash-up. When Jonathan Salvador Tamberlain receives a photo of the Undersea restaurant in the Hotel Grand Skies, he becomes determined to dine there, and begins a strange, manic and occasionally violent journey through this establishment. It’s not particularly light reading, but it’s beautifully written, and this labyrinthine and sharply satirical novel will surely draw you in.
Hunters And Collectors is available from Jonathan Cape. Read Katherine McLaughlin’s review here.
THE TIGER AND THE WOLF BY ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY
The author of Children Of Time starts his new series with a bang. A young shapeshifter must go on the run from her clan, setting off on a dangerous adventure, all the while hunted by a killer named Broken Axe as the land is drawn into the beginnings of a terrifying conflict. Tchaikovsky continues to offer his readers a wonderful blend of epic scope and careful character study, throwing us into a fascinating new world with a strong young heroine at its centre.
The Tiger And The Wolf is available from Macmillan. Read Erlingur Einarsson’s review here.
A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS BY PAUL TREMBLAY
Released in the US last year and finally available over here, Tremblay’s meta exorcism story is fiendishly clever but never lets you forget the heart-breaking family tragedy at its centre. Merry Barrett tells a journalist the story of how her older sister’s possible demonic possession led to a nationwide television event: a reality show based around her exorcism. But what really happened to this broken family to push them to such an extreme course of action? Heavily influenced by Shirley Jackson and referencing every possession film and novel you can think of, Tremblay plays with genre conventions with great affection but creates something wonderfully original, and very scary indeed.
A Head Full Of Ghosts is available from Titan Books. Read Jonathan Hatfull’s review here.
LIFE DEBT: AFTERMATH BY CHUCK WENDIG
Wendig returns to his role as the Star Wars canon’s chief author with this follow-up to the excellent Aftermath. There’s a sense of greater freedom here in the wake of The Force Awakens‘ release (and his own first book), and Wendig combines familiar faces with his own new creations in the hunt for Han Solo. There’s plenty of fan service but the core group, led by Norra Wexley, continues to impress, and we’re very excited for this trilogy’s finale.
Life Debt: Aftermath is available from Century. Read Steve Wright’s review here.
AND I DARKEN BY KIERSTEN WHITE
Genre fans will have certain preconceptions concerning stories set in Wallachia, but this gritty, compelling alternate history isn’t what you’ll expect. Kiersten White gives us a brilliant, violent, ferocious heroine in Lada, who has grown up with her brother in the Ottoman Empire and is waiting for the right moment to reclaim her Wallachian birth right. It’s barely a fantasy, to be honest (no magic or dragons to be found here), but it’s a brilliant opening to a new series with a truly awesome leading character who’s got a sharp tongue, a sharper mind, and no mercy.
And I Darken is available from Corgi Childrens.
THE SILVER TIDE BY JEN WILLIAMS
We’ve loved each instalment of Jen Williams’ The Copper Cat trilogy and, although we’re sad to see it come to an end, we’re thrilled that it’s finished on such a high note. Wydrin, Lord Frith and Sir Sebastian reunite for the last time for a treasure hunt that was never going to go smoothly (certainly not with Wydrin’s mother involved), as Williams effortlessly adds new narrative elements (time travel!) for a grand finish to her saga. We’ll miss this gang, but we can’t wait to see where the author will take us next.
The Silver Tide is available from Headline. Read Claire Nicholls’ review here.
CROSSTALK BY CONNIE WILLIS
The great Connie Willis returns with this light-hearted relationship tale that’s got a sly sharpness to it. Communications exec Briddey and her boyfriend Trent decide to get a brain surgery that allows each of them to feel what the other feels…which clearly is not a great idea. There’s plenty of gleeful social satire here, but Willis keeps the focus squarely on our central couple and how this new development affects them, creating a timely screwball romp.
Crosstalk is available from Gollancz. Read Becky Lea’s review here.
Thanks to Sarah Dobbs, Erlingur Einarsson, Becky Lea, Amy Martin, Katherine McLaughlin, Carrie Mok, Claire Nicholls and Steve Wright for their help putting this list together.