It’s that time of year again, when we go through the nail-biting process of sorting through our goodreads shelves and blog reviews to compile a list of the year’s best books! Although I fell short of my personal record for number of books read in a single year (hitting 65 versus 79 in 2016), I’m mollified by the fact that this figure includes the 1,300 page behemoth that is War & Peace (sadly appearing not on this list, but among my Worst Reads of 2017). This list of my favourite books of 2017 includes both books that were published this year and older titles that I read for the first time in 2017.
Honourable mentions (in alphabetical order): The Absolutist by John Boyne, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera, and Now I Rise by Kirsten White.
10. The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo
To be honest, this list should be more of a Top 9. Any one of my honourable mentions above could easily also fill this final slot of my favourite books for 2017, but I’ve opted for a Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns, an imaginative collection of short stories set in the same universe as her Grisha trilogy and Six of Crows duology. I’m usually not a huge fan of fairy tales, or of short stories, and yet The Language of Thorns held me in thrall like the King by Scheherazade. The six tales highlight Bardugo’s keen storytelling ability as she uses stock characters and tropes, but twists them in unique and unexpected ways. I found the stories where she draws inspiration from existing properties to be more effective than her wholly original tales, but all six of these stories are worth reading, and are notable for the diversity they organically incorporate. Special mention must be made of the gorgeous illustrations by Sara Kipin, which frame the pages of each story in vibrant teal and red patterns and designs, that grow and change over the course of the tale.
“Bad fates do not always follow those who deserve them.”
9. Provenance by Ann Leckie
Looking at the other science-fiction entries on my list this year, I’m definitely sensing a pattern. It turns out I like my sci-fi less intense and more intimate and character-driven. Ann Leckie’s Provenance fits the bill with this intelligent, and hard to classify, standalone novel that’s part political thriller, part mystery, and part coming-of-age story. Provenance is set among the Hwae, a people who place enormous significance on “vestiges”, documents and artifacts that commemorate a specific event of personal or historical importance. When the narrative reveals that many of the vestiges that the Hwae hold dear are actually fakes, Leckie uses this to pose questions about the way we document historical events. Does a document need to be genuine to be important? Or can it gain significance through what it represents, even if it is based on a lie? As a Librarian who took a number of Archives classes in grad school, I kind of loved this book. Although naive and privileged, protagonist Ingray Aughskold is an immensely likable and resourceful heroine, and the supporting characters are equally well-written. Ultimately, Provenance is a deeply satisfying coming of age story about finding your place and your family, and about recognizing that the road everyone expects you to take is not always the right one.
“’I had never really thought about it that way before. Who are we if our vestiges aren’t real?’
‘You never really thought of it before because nobody has ever really questioned your being who you say you are. No one has ever told you your own vestiges are false, or that they mean you’re not really entirely Hwaean.'”
8. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
Loosely based on Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale, and taking its name from the famous stage direction, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is the rare YA contemporary novel that stuck with me. During a party at summer cheerleading camp, someone slips something in co-captain Hermione’s drink and she blacks out. The novel deftly depicts the lead up to, and aftermath of, the rape, as Hermione tries to figure out how to move on with her life. There are a million ways in which this book could have been a disaster and/or a cliche, but Exit, Pursued by a Bear differs from other rape survivor stories by providing Hermione with a strong support system of friends and family. The novel doesn’t sugarcoat the assault or the aftermath, but Johnston’s story is primarily about regaining agency after it is stolen from you. Figuratively and literally Johnston puts the power back into Hermione’s hands in this insightful examination of strength and support in the face of trauma.
“If you think I’m going to apologize for being drugged and raped, you have another thing coming.”
7. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
After a lengthy stay on my TBR, I finally got around to reading Ann Leckie’s critically acclaimed Imperial Radch series this year and yes, it was every bit as wonderful as I had hoped. The first volume, Ancillary Justice, pitted Breq, a blunt centuries-old spaceship AI inhabiting a single human ancillary body, against the powerful Lord of the Radch in a high stakes quest for vengeance. I expected the second book in this trilogy to be an action-packed continuation of the saga, but what I got was something much rarer. Ancillary Sword focuses in on a single planet for an intimate, thoughtful sequel that delivers both subtle character development and sharp social commentary. Much of the book explores themes of identity, power, and privilege, delivering a pointed critique of colonialism. All this is wrapped up in a package that includes some of the most unique and detailed world-building I’ve ever encountered, characters I adored, and some genuinely moving moments. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.
“You take what you want at the end of a gun, you murder and rape and steal, and you call it bringing civilization. And what is civilization, to you, but us being properly grateful to be murdered and raped and stolen from? You said you knew justice when you heard it. Well, what is your justice but you allowed to treat us as you like, and us condemned for even attempting to defend ourselves?”
6. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
I went back and forth over whether to include both of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers books in the same entry on this list, but ultimately bumped her debut, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to my Honorable Mentions, because as much as I loved its series of vignettes about the diverse crew of a spaceship, it was the standalone sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit, that blew me away. Told through alternating chapters, this science-fiction novel consists of parallel narratives. The primary story follows the ship’s AI formerly known as Lovelace as she adjusts to life in an artificial body that was never meant for her and grapples with issues of identity. Twenty years in the past, the secondary storyline follows a ten-year-old girl created as part of a slave class for labour. Despite never seeing the sky before, she takes advantage of an industrial accident to escape the factory and spends her teenage years building a way off the planet. I found it incredibly empowering to read about two women from tragic pasts who start over, gain autonomy, and shape their own identities, quite literally naming themselves. The imagination on display here, particularly in the creation of alien species, is something to behold, and I loved the positive message represented in the idea that the families and friendships you choose are every bit as, if not more, important than romantic love.
“It was hard to play it cool when you wore your heart on your face.”
5. Swansong by Vale Aida
When I read Elegy, the first volume of the Magpie Ballad duology, last year, it felt like it had been written for me. The Dorothy Dunnett-esque style of writing, intricate plotting, and complicated, enigmatic, flawed characters combined to make a fantasy novel I wholeheartedly adored. I just finished Swansong last night, so you can expect a full review singing its praises in the next couple of days, but suffice it to say that it lived up to my sky high expectations. This was one of those books where I was torn between wanting to finish right away and see how everything was resolved, and putting it off because I couldn’t bare to say goodbye to the characters I so loved. Set in Cassarah, a country on the brink of war with neighbouring Sarei, disgraced actor-cum-soldier Savonn Silvertongue returns to face his nemesis and one-time lover The Empath. Meanwhile, his closest friends Hiraen and Iyone Safin engage in their own struggle to defend the city, but it’s only a matter of time before they too are wrapped up in Savonn’s spiderweb of intrigue and their secrets are dragged into the light. I can’t count the number of times I felt my heart seize in my chest as I read certain scenes. The characters, even the villains, are rendered with depth and pathos, and I felt invested in the relationships between them, be they romantic, familial, or platonic. I also loved that lesbian and gay characters and relationships figure so prominently in the text. The prose is witty and elegant, the pace maintained throughout, and Vale Aida wraps up her duology in a deeply satisfying way that gives each of the characters resolution.
“‘People would believe anything about you as long as it was scandalous enough. But it’s all lies, isn’t it?’
‘You ridiculous pastry,’ said Savonn. He sounded almost tender. ‘Is that what you think?'”
4. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
I have never been more quickly hooked and reeled in by a book than I was by Katherine Arden’s enthralling debut. The quintessential winter read, The Bear and the Nightingale makes me want to curl up under a warm blanket with a cup of tea and watch the snow fall outside. The story is based on medieval Russian folklore and mythology, and tells the tale of the winter king and Vasilisa, a brave and wild, yet compassionate, maiden. Arden’s prose is lyrical and compelling, and her writing appeals to the senses so strongly that I could almost feel the residual warmth from the family’s giant oven. Most of all though, I loved Vasilisa. She’s a tremendous heroine. Vasilisa is striking and direct, yet she is also kind, doing all she can to help the household spirits, the horses her family owns, and to the other members of her family. This means that she is often caught between doing what is expected of her as a woman and doing what she knows to be right. Magical and atmospheric, The Bear and the Nightingale is a book that I will remember for years to come, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, every winter when snow covers the ground, I feel a pull to re-read.
“Now hear me. Before the end, you will pluck snowdrops at midwinter, die by your own choosing, and weep for a nightingale.”
3. A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab
When it comes to epic stories I need them to have consequences. I love books where the characters are irrevocably altered by what they have experienced, and Schwab delivers on this, bringing the Shades of Magic trilogy to a satisfying conclusion in A Conjuring of Light. Continuing the saga of Kell Maresh, a magic user who can travel across four parallel, but unique, Londons (Black, White, Red, and Grey), the stakes feel higher this time, as Kell’s vibrant, magic-filled, Red London home is threatened. I adore the world building in this series, the way in which each London is differentiated from its counterparts, and, like Narnia, the Shire, or Hogwarts, I found myself wishing that I could slip into Red London and explore its night market. Tension is maintained throughout the novel for a story that kept me on the edge of my seat, but the greatest draw here is Schwab’s tremendously likable cast of characters. Bidding goodbye, or at least Anoshe, to Lila, Kell, Rhy, and Alucard early this year was certainly bittersweet, so I’m thrilled to know that Schwab will be writing additional stories in this world!
“There were a hundred shades between a truth and lie, and she knew them all.”
Right up until the moment I hit publish, I kept changing my mind about which of my favourite two books of the year would land the coveted spot at the top of my list. In another five minutes I’ll probably change my mind again, so this is virtually a tie. Suffice it to say that both of my choices are books that I highly recommend!
2. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Following four generations of the Baeks, a Korean family, through the twentieth century, this historical epic depicts the discrimination and hardship faced by ethnic Koreans, known as “Zainichi” (or foreign residents), living in Japan. As someone who knew very little about Japanese-Korean relations, or the history of both countries, I found the novel incredibly interesting and informative, but it’s the immensely likable, hard-working characters who make this novel so special. The Baek family’s story is one of survival and of sacrifice in order to provide a better life for the next generation. I adored the entire cast of characters, from kindly Hoonie, a cleft-palated fisherman, and his resilient daughter Sunja, to earnest Christian missionary Isak, and sister Kyunghee, who provides a lightness to the novel and to Sunja’s life. Lee’s elegant prose richly captures the myriad of different settings, from the small Korean fishing village where Sunja is born to Japanese cities, and although Pachinko is nearly 500 pages, it’s perfectly paced, so the novel never feels long. Months later, Pachinko has stuck with me; I still find myself thinking about the characters and the journeys they undergo, and I know this is a book that I will want to re-read in the future. I was profoundly moved by the story, which was by turns heartbreaking and inspiring, and by Min Jin Lee’s deft exploration of home and cultural identity in a way that’s both accessible and engaging.
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”
1. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
From the very first page of John Boyne’s sweeping saga about growing up in twentieth century Ireland as a gay man, the black humour and engaging style of writing enthralled me. The first-person narration by Cyril Avery is hilarious, poignant, and even tragic as it deals with such heavy topics as the hypocrisy of the Irish Catholic Church, homosexuality in twentieth century Ireland, adoption, and AIDS, yet the author’s masterful balance of humour and drama keeps the The Heart’s Invisible Furies from feeling like a tragedy. John Boyne has a gift for writing characters who are monumentally flawed, yet incredibly sympathetic. I may not have agreed with the choices Cyril makes throughout the novel, yet I understood the reasoning behind them and continued to root for him, because he acts without cruelty of intent. More than any other novel this year, The Heart’s Invisible Furies held me in its thrall. I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN, finishing the 580 page hardcover in just a few days and reading well into the night! The pacing is swift, the characters funny, flawed, and engaging, and the tragedy tempered with a sense of humour that had me literally laughing out loud, although the moving narration also had me in tears of a different kind before the end.
“’You look like a Greek God sent down by the immortal Zeus from Mount Olympus to taunt the rest of us inferior beings with your astonishing beauty,’ I said, which somehow in translation came out as ‘you look fine, why?’”
I’d love to know your thoughts! Have you read any of these books, or are you planning to? What were your favourite books of 2017? Please comment and let me know!