Some people do a top ten list, others do a top eleven, yet others may only do five. My list is 9 books long. Why? Partly to be a little bit different and partly because I want the tenth spot on my list to be reserved for that really great book which I simply did not get the chance to read during 2010. That really great book may also be something I have only heard whispers about and I may not discover for several more years. Whatever that tenth great book is, I’m holding a spot for it on my list.
This Top Nine List is more or less in order. Ask me tomorrow and some titles may shift around a little bit. Whichever order the list is in, these are the nine novels published in 2010 which I feel were the strongest titles of the year, popularity be damned.
1. Ark, by Stephen Baxter: The companion novel to a disaster story where most of the action happened off the page, yet both Flood and Ark were outstanding stories of humanity striving for species survival. Even though we knew what happens to the Earth, Baxter managed to keep the tension high. My only regret is that there isn’t a second companion novel focusing on the other project going on.
2. Chill, by Elizabeth Bear: Chill is a novel that made an already good book better. What I mean is that as highly as I thought of Dust, Chill surpassed it and strengthened my opinion of the first novel. Because of certain events in the first novel, the protagonists in Chill have changed. This adds richness to the novel (and series) because characters which were previously presented somewhat one dimensionally in the first book because of the viewpoint perspective now have depth are much more fully fleshed out – which is one what expects from one of Bear’s novels. The rich characterization and sense of adventure aboard a failing generation ship prop Chill up as one of the year’s best. The Jacob’s Ladder trilogy is quickly becoming a series of novels I love almost as much as Bear’s Promethean Age books.
3. Horns, by Joe Hill: Sometimes a novel is just so twistedly dark and funny that you can't help but love it. That's Horns, a novel featuring a protagonist who has, overnight, grown horns that nobody can see but which can lead to people to tell him exactly what they are really thinking - to absurd and heartbreaking result. After Heart-Shaped Box and now Horns, the world needs more novels from Joe Hill.
4. Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest: Priest's third novel in her Clockwork Century milieu is perhaps the best of the three, and I already thought highly of Boneshaker and Clementine. The tighter focus on Mercy Lynch and her conflicted trek across the country, from the Virginia hospital where she worked as a nurse to Seattle where her father lay dying, is what sells the novel. She is traveling across a nation still in the grips of a Civil War in its third decade and to say the trip is fraught with peril would be to commit a gross understatement. In Dreadnought, the sense of uncomfortable wonder is in full effect and Priest has an excellent grasp of storytelling. More, please.
5. Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich: A beautiful, bleak novel focusing on a marriage fallen apart. Broken people breaking further. This is possibly Erdrich's best work since 2001's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.
6. Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis: It's an alternate World War II story, but it's not like what Harry Turtledove does. There are supernatural and genetic changes, but Tregillis keeps the story tight on three viewpoint characters. The arc of the story develops through the personal stories being told, and less through the lens of how "everything is different" - it isn't that different. Yet. Regardless, this is an outstanding debut novel.
7. Servant of the Underworld, by Aliette de Bodard: Historical fantasy set in Aztec times, and something of a mystery novel, though I’m not sure it works specifically as a mystery. Besides the fact that de Bodard’s debut novel is just really good, the refreshing thing about it is that the setting of Servant of the Underworld is just so different than most of what I come across. Maybe there is this whole subculture of fantasy set in the middle of the Aztec empire, but I don’t really think so. I think de Bodard is giving readers something quite different that is entirely its own thing. That’s something to celebrate. Oh, and it’s a really good book.
8. Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal: The elevator pitch is “Jane Austen with magic”. This would normally cause me recoil in horror (because of the Jane Austen, not the magic), but Kowal is able tell a story that is thematically and stylistically related to that of Austen while engaging a modern reader. The aspect of magic Kowal employs is woven delicately into the fabric of “cultured” society, and again, feels authentic to the sort of story Miss Austen might have told, if she only she thought to include magic. The fantasy reader wonders, however, if this is the only aspect of magic in play in the world and what further applications might be in a less civilized setting. Regardless, Shades of Milk and Honey is a delightful novel.
9. Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins: This concluding volume to The Hunger Games Trilogy closes things out in brutal fashion. While the story is told fairly tightly from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen, which allows the reader to only see what Katniss sees, Collins doesn’t pull very many punches. She’s not afraid to have a broken heroine, which is exactly what Katniss is. So often Katniss will do something awful and horrible, because it is either what she needs to do to survive, or it is what she feels she needs to do to protect her family. There are consequences and scarring on the inside. Mockingjay isn’t a pretty novel, but it is an honest one.
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