Last year, I gave the Juice Box to Maureen McHugh’s After the Apocalypse, a collection of her short fiction, including three new stories. It really blew me away. I didn’t find a short story collection that impacted me nearly so much this year, although I regret that I did not read Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath. Thus, this year’s list is strictly novels.
Sadly, with the exception of one, all of this year’s short list are fantasy, which is likely a result of not reading 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, or M. John Harrison’s Empty Space. I’m certainly going to endeavor to read them in 2013. Among the science fiction I did read this year, the near misses include Faith by John Love (which I named best debut), Rapture by Kameron Hurley, Caliban’s War by James SA Corey, Chimera by TC McCarthy, and Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds. I strongly recommend any of them.
Although four fantasy novels grace this list, there were quite a few that I found exceptional in 2012 that I’d like to recognize. KJ Parker’s Sharps, Jim C. Hines Libriomancer, T. Aaron Payton’s The Constantine Affliction, Steve Erikson’s The Forge of Darkness, Mark Lawrence’s King of Thorns, Brent Weeks’ The Blinding Knife, Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country, and Howard Andrew Jones’ The Bones of the Old Ones, are all excellent. I’d make specific mention of Constantine Affliction, which was the novel that caught me most by surprise this year, and remains sadly under read.
I would also like to make an official honorable mention to my short list for Nick Mamatas’ Bullettime. Somewhat science fictional, somewhat fantastical, Mamatas wrote an extremely weird novel about a troubled boy who has the ability to see through time and space, thinks he’s being manipulated by a Greek goddess, and drinks cough syrup like a baby drinks milk. It’s a deeply disturbing story about the creation of a school shooter, but one that manages to humanize him at the same time. It’s well worth reading for genre fans who are looking to push outside the typical comfort zone.
Now, for the five best genre books of 2012:
#5) The King’s Blood by Daniel Abraham
The only reason King’s Blood is fifth on this list and not number two is an artificial one. It is, in my opinion, the second best book I read in 2012. However, it is the second novel in a series and I struggle to overly laud it given that it can’t be read on its own. Despite that, I cannot in good conscience place any writer in fantasy today (with the exception of perhaps KJ Parker) above Daniel Abraham when it comes to words on the page. Abraham prose and style always has a perfect touch for me, and King’s Blood is no different.
Picking up right after Dragon’s Path, Abraham continues to build characters that engage at a depth rarely encountered. His plot is subtle and multi-layered, relying not so much on the staples of war, but on finance and politics. The Dagger and Coin series has become the most riveting ongoing epic fantasy, and that includes George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Daniel Abraham, and King’s Blood, is that good.
#4) Year Zero by Rob Reid
I’m still laughing at reading Year Zero. It is, unquestionably, the funniest book I’ve ever read. Admittedly, I’ve not read an absurd number of comedic books, but Rob Reid is, in my humble opinion, on par with Douglas Adams and Christopher Moore.
Riffing on the online music boom and all the legal fallout therein, low-level entertainment lawyer Nick Carter thinks it’s a prank, not an alien encounter, when two extraterrestrials show up in his office. The entire cosmos, they tell him, has been functionally addicted to humanity’s music since 1977, when American pop songs first reached the stars. As a result, intergalactic society has committed the biggest copyright violation in history, bankrupting the entire universe.
With an absurd amount of Generation X referential humor, Rob Reid has struck a nerve with Year Zero that will resonate with anyone who lived through the music internet revolution. It lives and breathes the absurdity of copyright law, while simultaneously recognizing the importance of protecting artists’ rights. Admittedly, I’m not sure Year Zero will age particularly well, but in 2012 there isn’t a better combination of wit and intelligence.
#3) The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin
Jemisin’s debut novel, One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was one of the first novels I reviewed at Staffer’s Book Review. I wrote a pretty glowing review of it, largely because of her willingness to tackle a difficult narrative style. Of course, in Killing Moon, Jemisin goes another direction, using a very standard high fantasy narrative structure, but moving forward leaps and bounds in terms of story telling.
Set in a world patterned at least partially from ancient Egypt, Jemisin’s novel puts cultural identity at the root of every conflict. Whether it be Ehiru’s faith and Sinandi’s lack thereof, or Nijiri’s struggle with love and duty, or Sinandi’s fear of war and peace, all of it is built upon the idea that right and wrong is relative. Point of view and perspective matter. Cultural mores matter.
In recent days there’s been a great deal of discussion about whether epic fantasy is inherently conservative. Too often that descriptor — conservative — is read politically. Killing Moon is a progressive story in a social sense, but its form, vis-a-vie the trappings of fantasy, is conservative. The result is an incredibly accessible novel that pushes the genre ever slightly forward.
#2) Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
There are some similarities between Range of Ghosts and the novel that precedes it on this list. Both are high/epic fantasies that embrace non-western cultures and characters that feel fresh and authentic. I put Elizabeth Bear’s 2012 effort at #2 because it does those things in a voice that I cannot describe any other way than beautiful. In fact, it’s one of those novels that the longer I let myself consider it, the more I appreciated it. It also, unquestionably, the most well built and fascinating world I’ve experienced in recent years.
Like Killing Moon, Range of Ghosts wraps itself in the epic fantasy structure, but the motives behind are anything but standard. It’s those motivations, driven in large part by the veracity of Bear’s world building, that make it such an achievement. The voice and style make you hang on to each detail and relish the creative process that birthed them. That’s exactly what I did.
I would also point out that I wrote a lot of words about a sex scene in Range of Ghosts.
At last, I reveal the best book of 2012, and the winner of one sugary Juice Box:
#1) The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett
And now we come to it, the book I called the best book of 2012 when I finished it way back in February. It was, perhaps, premature to call it that at the time, but I never regretted it. Every time I read Robert Jackson Bennett I become more impressed with his versatility as a writer. He is the closest thing I’ve found to a Neil Gaiman without a British accent and light-socket hair.
The Troupe is a lot of things, but simply put, it’s a mystery, historical look-in, thriller, and family drama. It’s also somehow understated — spoken in hushed tones and cloaked in shadow. Possessing an immense amount of gravitas despite the preposterous premise of a vaudeville troupe as keepers of an existential secret, Bennett writes a novel like a sepia photograph manipulated in Photoshop. Bennett adds his dashes of color, bringing things to the foreground for brilliant moments all the more intense for the contrasted palette behind it.
The most significant of these moments occurs when Bennett moves his tale from a supernatural thriller that asks big questions, to the intimate personal journey of a young man coming of age and his relationship to his father. As the father of a three-year old little girl, and a son on the way, I couldn’t stop the emotional response at the novel’s closing moments. It left me breathless and in awe of Bennett’s ability to distill the most familiar of themes from the abstract. The Troupe is easily the best novel I read in 2012. I hope to see it on award ballots throughout the industry.
Congratulations RJB! May your Juice Box help you continue to produce psychedelic tweets that make little sense.