As 2016 crawls to an end, it’s time to take stock of the books I have read. For previous years lists check out 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012.
5) The Last Policeman – Ben Winters
Imagine, if we knew the World is definitely going to end. That we knew the exact date when the world, as we know it, would cease to be. And there are no Hollywood moments here when countries can send rockets or a team of enterprising white folks(with a token Asian/Black guy) to save the world.
In that scenario, all bets are off. So if a policeman tries to solve what looks like a suicide, it would look very weird for him to put in all that effort. But the book is not just a murder mystery. It’s also a great look at how sometimes routine and habit is what enables some of us to stick to what we do. And how sometimes the desire to complete something helps us exceed our wildest expectations. I recommend the first book of the series as a great murder mystery and a dystopian fiction novel .
4) Moonglow – Michael Chabon
I have been a Chabon fan since I read the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. While some authors usually start repeating themselves, be it in terms of style or tone or characters, Chabon has resolutely tried his best to avoid that. From comics to baseball to struggling writers to vinyl records, he has spun stories around varied themes. His latest book is a mix of memoir and fiction and where one ends and the other begins is particularly tough to decipher.
With parallel themes playing out – a love story between the narrator’s grandparents, political history of the cold war and the author trying to come to terms with his growing old age, the prose grabs your attention and keeps you riveted to it. An excellent read, if only for the way Chabon crafts sentences which jump out in your imagination like comic book images.
3) Fifth Season – N K Jemisin
In a sense, this year has been very suitable for escapist reading. In other words, fantasy and science fiction genre publications have been a large part of my reading list this year. But the Fifth season seemed to me the reverse of most of the fiction tropes. One of the rare series with strong feminine lead characters, the series makes us ask ourselves certain truths about who oppresses whom and what are the systems of power that lie both in developed and developing states.
The Fifth Season takes place on an Earth which is beset by seismic events and horrible weather conditions. Humans live on a single continent and mostly prefer to stick near the center with a few brave folks staying in the extremes and have learned to survive by following certain rules and storing food. Jemisin’s world building skills are good but her ability to peel the story , layer by layer is what sets her apart . Little wonder she won the Hugo award for this book.
2) The Alchemy Wars – Ian Tregillis
For years, people have spoken of the dangers of artificial intelligence. Be it movies like I, Robot or HAL 9000 in 2001 an Odyssey, we always think of how when we imbibe objects with intelligence, they may end up being inimical to humanity.
Ian Tregillis brings up an alternate history of the world, set in the time of trading greats like the Dutch and the French. Here the Dutch have created robots which follow their orders and have become mechanical servants while the French fight against the Dutch and their mechanical servants.
The beauty of the series lies not just in the world and the flawed yet interesting characters but in the questions it throws up. The most important one being – What is free will? In a sense, the series asks readers to introspect if with our growing dependence on computers, AI and technology, we ourselves are giving up free will to be bound by the masses and the elite few who guide our opinions.
1 ) Death’s End series – Cixin Liu
The Death’s end series is a marvelous look at how science fiction has evolved in China. Moving between different times (past, present and future), it tells us the story of how Humanity has first contact with an alien civilization and its actions thereafter. The series touches not just upon space, astrophysics and philosophy but also highlights agriculture and history.
It shows us both the best and the worst of mankind. In that sense, it is a succinct description of how the rest of the universe probably sees us from afar, a bunch of folks capable of incredible kindness and self sacrifice and of shocking greed and moral emptiness.
This time, the list of honorable mentions is a fair bit longer than last time so I am going to break it down by genre.
Literary Fiction –
Ghachar Ghochar – Short yet sweet, this translated book of Vivek Shanbag deserves a wider audience. While it’s a great novella, it could have become a superb novel, if some of the characters had been fleshed out further .
Rogue Male – Geoffrey Household wrote this novel in 1939 which talks about What if someone had been in position to kill a dictator but fails and is then on the run. This novel is also said to have inspired David Morrell’s First Blood, now immortalized in the Rambo series.
The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe – This short book talks about a man who swindles his village to get money for a trip to Paris where he can buy a bed of nails from Ikea. But in an attempt to save some money, he ends up through multiple misadventures, all of which teach him humility and perseverance.
Stiletto – Daniel O Malley’s sequel to the Rook. While the Rook had a great storyline, the Stiletto doesnt match up and flounders at time, trying to bring in more characters. The lead character has now moved on from her amnesia and is trying to keep up with the new
Spider’s War – The final book of the Dagger & Coin series lives up to the high standards of the predecessors. Economics and statecraft play equal roles in helping bring war to an end and drive peace.
The Tiger & the Wolf – Adrian Tchaikovsky brings to life a world of human shapeshifters who live by harsh rules. He uses not just the lead characters but also the associated characters and background stories to create a rich world where the different animal tribes have to live with each other, yet fight each other for supremacy and survival.
Armada – Think of a world where video games are designed to help us prepare for an alien invasion. Imagine finding out that the fate of the world lies in the hands of kids who desire nothing more than to fight this war. Ernest Kline’s Armada is an interesting take on whether video games are an institutional attempt to get future generations to accept war as something not to get their hands dirty with, but to play on a computer screen.
Four Legendary Kingdoms – I am an unabashed Matt Reilly fan and he has come to understand that making books like film scripts may not be enough. His previous book, the Tournament was a step in that direction with more focus on character building. Taking forward the earlier Jack West series, this book ropes in more of Greek mythology and hopefully we will see a much richer world of characters.
A Midsummer’s Equation – Part of the Detective Galileo series, Keigo Higashino’s latest book brings to mind many elements of Salvation of a Saint and Devotion of Suspect X. Transplanted from Tokyo to another part of Japan, the intrepid detective duo get back to unraveling the case, albeit with more finesse.