Once a year, I like to look back over my reading history and write a brief recommendation of my favorites. Partly I do this for anyone who might trust my judgement on what to read, but mostly it's because I have a terrible memory. I have books on my shelves that I remember reading and loving, and perhaps a bit about the story, but I couldn't tell you the major plot arc, or why anyone else should read it.
So, in 2019 I read 25 books. These were my favorites:
Star Wars: Thrawn, by Timothy Zahn
A long time ago (the 90s), Timothy Zahn wrote a trilogy of books that were intended to be the closest we ever got to Star Wars episodes 7-9. They’ve since been relegated to non-canonical “Legends” status, but they introduced many new characters and concepts to the Star Wars universe, including the idea that Leia and Han had Force-sensitive children who attended a Jedi academy run by Luke.
Most notably, the books introduced a new villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn, who was restored to canon status when he appeared in the animated series Rebels. I was thrilled when Zahn returned to write a novel explaining Thrawn’s backstory in the new Star Wars canon.
This book is everything I ever wanted. It explains how blue-skinned Thrawn came to power in the notably xenophobic Empire. It explains why he would want to do so, and the struggles he overcame by outwitting everyone who stood in his way.
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi
I read this on the strength of a review from Warren Ellis:
“If you’re missing Game Of Thrones or The Expanse, this is both. Also, if you ever liked the Mission Impossible or Leverage tv series, you will fucking love this. It’s court intrigue, spaceships, and a lovely long con.”
I don’t think I can really add anything to that, so I’ll just say that he’s right, I did fucking love it, and I can’t wait to read the next two books in the series.
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard
This is a reimagining of Sherlock Holmes, where Sherlock is an abrasive drug-addicted scholar and Holmes is a starship with PTSD who retired from active duty to sell medicinal teas. The scholar hires the ship to brew her a special tea so she can still think while she investigates a murder in hyperspace.
It’s from the author’s Xuya series, an alternate history exploring what would happen if China discovered the Americas before Europe. But aside from sharing the setting, this novella is stand-alone. I loved it, and if you enjoy new spins on Sherlock Holmes, you’ll dig it too.
The Planetfall series, by Emma Newman
I devoured all four books in a row, so I’m having trouble not thinking of it as a single story. In a nutshell, they cover the aftermath of a particular incident from four wildly different perspectives: First, a woman grieving the loss of her best friend while trying to keep a secret from the colony they established on a new planet. Second, an indentured detective investigating the murder of a charismatic cult leader. Third, a geologist struggling with the needs of her family back on Earth as she takes a job on Mars. And the fourth I won’t mention because it’s a spoiler.
I found the series when io9 posted an excerpt (the whole first chapter, actually) from the third book:
I can’t recommend this series strongly enough. Go read that chapter and if you dig the vibe, you’re going to have a very good time reading these books.
The Expanse, books 4 & 5, by James S.A. Corey
As I write this, the fourth season of the Expanse show just aired, covering the events of Cibola Burn, the fourth book in the series. The authors have said that there are going to be nine books in the series, which can be loosely considered a trilogy of trilogies. So (with no spoilers), there was a major event that happened at the end of book/season 3 that changed the power balance of the solar system in dramatic ways.
That meant the next book was a bit of a slow burn. It takes time to explain a new dynamic. Things have changed, and the crew of the Rocinante are right in the middle. It was all good stuff, but my attention started to wander because it felt a bit predictable.
But… BUT! At almost the exact midpoint of the book something absolutely insane happened, and the book was a freaking rollercoaster from that point on.
(The show covers the same events at roughly the same pace.)
I can’t say anything about Nemesis Games, the fifth book, without spoiling it, but suffice to say they take the stakes from Cibola Burn and dial them up to 11.
If you’re not already reading/watching the Expanse, you really should start. It’s hands-down the best modern science fiction happening right now.