Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis, and this is DeFlip Side.
Fire up your Kindles, because it’s time once again for my annual list of best reads, where I tell you the best and worst books I’ve read in the past year.
Things are going to be a little different this year. Time was, when I discovered a new author, I would mainline most all of their books at once. But since starting my best reads columns in 2000, I’ve limited myself to one book, per author, per year, to ensure a diversified list.
Well, I broke my own rules, and spent much of 2016 catching up on the work of one of my favorite Fantasy authors – Robin Hobb. I read a dozen of her books last year, as quickly as my greedy little eyeballs could absorb them. Needless to say, her work features prominently on this year’s list, so here’s a primer for those of you who may be unfamiliar with it.
Hobb’s stories are set in a fantasy world called the Realm of the Elderlings. Several of her books center on royal bastard and King’s Assassin FitzChivalry Farseer, and his lifelong friend, The Fool. They’re all about royal politics and castle intrigue. But Hobb broke away from her Fitz stories to write several books in another part of her Fantasy realm called The Rain Wilds. Think of the Rain Wilds books as swashbuckling pirate adventures — with sea serpents and dragons thrown in.
Hobb usually takes three to four books to tell one distinct story. So I’ll be considering these multi-volume cycles as single entries.
That’s about all you need to know — and that the books featured weren’t necessarily published in 2016. Hence the title best reads, instead of best books.
Now, on with the list for 2016!
Book 5) A Princess of the Linear Jungle by Paul Di Filippo
This dense little novella is a pulp romp with jazz-aged flare – and a sequel to Di Filippo’s novella A Year in the Linear City. The Linear City consists of a central, endless boulevard lined with buildings. Beyond the buildings on one side is “Heaven” and on the other, “Hell.”
The main character of Linear Jungle is Merritt Abraham — part Dorothy Parker, part Zelda Fitzgerald. And the story follows her adventure into the lost jungle precincts of Vayavirunga with a team of scholars, archeologists and rogues.
Linear Jungle has an Edgar Rice Burroughs vibe, evocative of grand Scientific Romance. And it features a writing style that’s deliberately florid and alliterative, which I really dug.
Books 4) The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy by Robin Hobb
Fool’s Assassin / Fool’s Quest / Assassin’s Fate (coming Spring 2017)
It’s ironic that my first Hobb pick is her most recent FitzChivalry Farseer story, featuring a much older Fitz.
And this installment gives him an unexpected daughter named Bee. But when Bee is abducted, Fitz channels all his magic and energy to her rescue — with his lifelong friend the Fool in tow.
The first two books of this new series meet the caliber I’ve come to expect from Hobb. And Fitz’s story has finally intersected with the characters in the Rain Wilds books — which I’ll discuss in a bit.
Books 3) The Tawny Man Trilogy by Robin Hobb
Fool’s Errand / Golden Fool / Fool’s Fate
This outing with Fitz and the Fool immediately precedes the one I just told you about, with Fitz, the Fool, and Fitz’s wolf Nighteyes embarking on a world-spanning quest to slay a legendary black dragon encased in ice.
This middle series does a wonderful job of weaving something new from the threads of the first Farseer trilogy, which has made this list in bits and pieces over the years. There are a ton of complicated interpersonal relationships, plenty of action and — in true Hobb fashion — no character is left unscathed. I’m not gonna lie. This installment made me cry.
Books 2) The Rain Wild Chronicles by Robin Hobb
Dragon Keeper / Dragon Haven / City of Dragons / Blood of Dragons
Hobb fleshes out her wider world in ways both expected and surprising in these books, which follow a set of misfit children as they take a band of sickly dragons up the dangerous Rain Wild River in search of the mythical city of Kelsingra — a vast metropolis where dragons and Elderlings once lived side by side.
Self-discovery and transcendence lay at the heart of this narrative — for both the children and the dragons — all of it hard won, bittersweet, and wonderful.
Books 1) The Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb
Ship of Magic / Mad Ship / Ship of Destiny
I haven’t been this entertained by a series in a long time.
It follows the far-flung fates of a seafaring family named the Vestrits, with a wild tale that includes, pirates, sea serpents and magical ships that can talk. Hence the title Liveships. And amidst all the swashbuckling fantasy, the trilogy explores much heavier themes like family, sacrifice, abuse and — most prominently — rape.
There’s a LOT going on in these books, and the story arcs of the wonderfully flawed main characters — human, ship and serpent — are terrific.
See? I warned you it was going to be a Hobb-heavy list. So I’ll change things up with my Honorable Mentions:
Who Killed Kennedy, (a Doctor Who novel) by David Bishop;
Where The Time Goes, the latest in by Jeffrey E. Barlough’s Western Lights series;
The Annihilation Score, (a Laundry Files novel) by Charles Stross;
The Martian by Andy Weir.
And since I’ve started reading comics again, I’m also reinstating Best Graphic Novel:
Bitch Planet Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick (* * ½)
Bitch Planet hit the scene like gangbusters a few years ago, turning a spotlight on misogyny by satirically riffing on the tropes of “women-in-prison” exploitation films.
The eponymous Bitch Planet is a maximum security prison (on another planet) where Non Compliant women are incarcerated for not adhering to their expected roles in a patriarchal society. That, or their husbands just got tired of them.
DeConnick is examining big ideas here, and while the setting is interesting, the story still feels kinda thin. But it’s still one of the most compelling books I read in 2016.
And now, what you’ve all been waiting for, the Worst Read of the Year:
A Time To Remember by Stanley Shapiro (*)
I’ll put this bluntly. This is a terrible book, terribly written, with terrible characters, a terrible message and a terrible overall sensibility. Author Stanley Shapiro must have been a bitter man; his disdain for people and society rings out loud and clear on almost every one of these pages.
I actually read A Time To Remember for my 11.22.63 Podcast, because it’s about a time traveler who tries to prevent the Kennedy assassination. So if you’re interested to hear what I really think about this book, I recommend that you listen to that show, and save your precious reading time for something that’s worth it.
And there you have it, my list for 2016 – which I guess you can call my Year of Hobb. And this trend may continue, as I plan to finally read all of the Star Trek Deep Space Nine “Relaunch” novels this year, which pick up where the TV series ended to carry on the serialized story of the DS9 crew.
If you want more information about these books – and many, many others – check out “What I’m Reading.”
If you read any of the books on this year’s list based on my recommendation, please let me know what you thought. And if you have any titles of your own to recommend, I’m all ears. There’s always room on the shelf for one more.