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MIND MELD: Best Books of 2014

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Can you believe 2014 is almost over? I’m sure you’ve seen your share of “Best of 2014” lists, so I thought I’d add to the fun and ask a few folks what really revved their literary engines during 2014.

Q: What have been a few of your favorite genre reads of 2014, and why? Although it’s a plus if they were published in 2014, they don’t have to be!

Here’s what they had to say…

Bec McMaster
Bec McMaster is the author of the London Steampunk series, a dark mix of paranormal and steampunk romance. Read more about her at www.becmcmaster.com, or follow her on twitter@BecMcMaster

Burn For Me by Ilona Andrews

The husband-and-wife writing team of Ilona Andrews are two of my favourite writers, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the first in a brand new series from them. It’s marketed as paranormal romance, but it has a strong Urban Fantasy feel to it. Burn For Me features PI Nevada Baylor, who lives in a world where people gained magic powers after exposure to a serum in 1863, and now the families of these people have formed Houses, or magic corporations where their skills are for hire. Nevada and her family run an investigative agency, which is deep in the red after the death of her father, and she’s forced by another corporation to track a rogue egomaniac, pyrokinetic who is so far out of her league, she’s pretty sure she’s going to get burned to cinders. Enter arrogant Prime, ‘Mad’ Rogan, who can level cities with a thought, and wants to get his hands on her target, for his own reasons. The characters are fantastic, the romance is hot, and Nevada is resourceful, practical and tough. I particularly liked her family, and the connection she has with them, and, as usual from the Andrews team, the book is both hilarious and insightful.

Donners of the Dead by Karina Halle

Throwing in a random horror here, a creepy little novel about the ill-fated Donner party. As an Australian, I know only a little about American history, so when I saw a review online mixing this as pioneer life meets The Walking Dead, I was immediately interested. The heroine, Eve, is half Native American, and some of the issues she deals with are realistic toward the period, which added a hint of growing dread as I was reading. I like the fact that Eve is not your typical ass-kicking heroine, though she is very resilient. Halle doesn’t shy away from the racism Eve encounters, or the fact that she’s a woman in a man’s world, and sometimes, it’s hard to guess which is going to be the more dangerous: the Donners, or the men around her. When she finds herself guiding a rescue party made up of a motley crew of bounty hunters, including ex-Texas Ranger, Jake, (who is not exactly a nice guy at the start), she knows she’s in over her head. There’s a little romance, a lot of gore, and the growing suspense as they get closer to finding out what happened to the Donners, is terrifically creepy.

Captive Prince: Volume One by C.S Pacat

Romance author Anne Gracie recommended this fantasy-based series to me, and couldn’t rave about it enough. One thing she said caught my attention: one of the heroes of this series reminded her of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond, who is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever read about. In Captive Prince, Damen is upstaged in a coup by his brother, and sent off to be a bed slave to the neighboring country’s frigid Prince Laurent. The problem? Damen killed Laurent’s beloved older brother during a long-ago battle between the two warring nations, and now he doesn’t dare reveal his identity. It’s a battle of wits between two opponents who are forced to work together, and grudgingly come to admire the other, despite their differences. There are twists and turns every time you read a chapter, and Laurent is the type of character you – and Damen – can never quite predict. A brilliant character study, and a slow-building romance.

The Kraken King by Meljean Brooks

This is an action-packed steampunk romance from one of my favorite authors that was originally released in an eight-part serial. Extensive world-building always sucks me in, and Meljean is the master of it, with her mix of Nano-technology, alternate history, krakens, megalodons, and steam-driven devices. The story starts with Zenobia Fox, a spinster who pens an adventurous penny dreadful serial, who may or may not know a dangerous secret or two. When the dirigible she is travelling on is shot down over the wilds of Australia, she is rescued by the Kraken King, Ariq. So begins an adventurous romp, filled with danger, romance, and a fascinating hero and heroine.

James K. Decker
James K. Decker was born in New Hampshire in 1970, and has lived in the New England area since that time. He developed a love of reading and writing early on, participating in young author competitions as early as grade school, but the later discovery of works by Frank Herbert and Issac Asimov turned that love to an obsession. He wrote continuously through high school, college and beyond, eventually breaking into the field under the name James Knapp, with the publication of the Revivors trilogy (State of Decay, The Silent Army, and Element Zero). State of Decay was a Philip K. Dick award nominee, and won the 2010 Compton Crook Award. The Burn Zone is his debut novel under the name James K. Decker. He now lives in MA with his wife Kim.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake is a fantastic tale of an impending doomsday scenario, told in part through flashbacks as the collapse approaches, and in part from the perspective of one of the few survivors after the fact. I had never heard of the book before, but my wife recommended it to me and I’m so glad she did.

The story is told from the point of view of ‘Snowman’, who, we learn, was once known as ‘Jimmy’. At the onset of the novel, we see that Snowman shares a stretch of jungle near the coast with a group of not-quite-humans he refers to as ‘Crakers’ and it soon becomes clear that this group may just represent the last of humanity, if the word still applies. Through Snowman’s musings we learn the complicated back story leading up to whatever apocalypse has befallen the world, which revolves largely around Jimmy, his school friend Glen (a young genius and brilliant geneticist who becomes known as ‘Crake’), and a liberated child prostitute known only as Oryx. Their stories are as engrossing and intriguing as the years leading up to the worst catastrophe in human history, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Atwood herself said that she didn’t consider the novel to be Science Fiction, since it doesn’t contain any technology that doesn’t currently exist, and that is part of what makes the tale so eerie. The world that she created felt all too possible, as though this crumbling society could be just right around the corner from our own – not only from a technological standpoint but because it recognized the sometimes self-destructive choices we make as nations, and individuals, in order to satisfy short-term needs whether that be riches, resources, or even love. I thought it was brilliant, start to finish.

Sacré Bleu and The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore

Okay, so these aren’t SF, and they aren’t fantasy, either. I’m not really sure what to call them but I just loved them so much I wanted to share them (though since it’s a little off topic I’ll keep it brief).

Both books take a historical period (Sacré Bleu takes the premise that Van Gogh didn’t kill himself but was in fact murdered in the strangest way you could possibly imagine, and The Serpent of Venice is a bizarre mashup of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Othello, with a little of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” thrown in for good measure). If this sounds a little pretentious, rest assured that in spite of the subject matter both books are liberally sprinkled with intrigue, humor, horror, and so, so many dick jokes. Moore’s prose is some of my favorite, and he always manages to walk the line between high and low-brow perfectly.

If you feel like you may want to read The Serpent of Venice, I would recommend starting with an earlier book by Moore called Fool, which is an irreverent retelling of King Lear which also introduces The Serpent’s main protagonist, the fool known as Pocket. Actually to hell with it, just browse Christopher Moore’s books and pick the one that sounds most interesting to you. Worst case is you’ll find you don’t care for his sense of humor. Best case you’ll love him as much as I do, and he’s written a bunch of really fantastic books for you to sink your teeth into that involve everything from vampires, to lust lizards, to trickster gods.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I saved this one for last because I just enjoyed it so much. This one I actually listened to on audiobook during my commute, which I mention because the audiobook is narrated by none other than Wil Wheaton and in my view there could not have been a more perfect choice. He’s clearly as steeped in geek culture as the Ernest Cline himself, and his knowledge of all the references in the novel really shone through for me.

If you aren’t familiar with the book, the short version is that it takes place in a near future where a laundry list of issues humanity has punted for too long (energy woes, climate change, etc) have finally caught up with us and the America that the main character Wade is growing up in is pretty damned bleak. The populace spends a lot of its time escaping into a virtual world known as the OASIS, which felt to me kind of like the Matrix, if the Matrix had been cobbled together by an endless parade of geek-culture-obsessed coders. The result is that there are entire sectors of the OASIS fashioned after pop-culture SF and Fantasy universes, from obvious choices like Star Wars and Star Trek, to planets devoted entirely to old text MUDs. The OASIS is a playground I’m almost glad I don’t have access to, because like many of the characters in the book, I’m not sure if I would ever come out.

The OASIS was designed and built by a man named James Halliday, who comes off as a kind of geeky cross between Howard Hughes and Willy Wonka. As a result of his world-changing creation, he has become a multi-billionaire and, at the start of the novel, he dies without any friends, family, or heirs. His fortune, he declares as part of his will, will go to the first person to find an elaborately hidden Easter Egg which Halliday has hidden somewhere inside of the OASIS. To find the egg will entail being as obsessed with 80’s pop-culture and video game history as Halliday himself was. Wade, the main character of the novel (whose avatar goes by the handle Parzival) dedicates his life to being an egg-hunter (known in the book as a ‘gunter’) so that he might one day escape the dystopian hell he lives in. Unfortunately for him, he’s one of millions with the same mission and that includes a giant corporation named IOI which has the resources (and the ruthlessness) to acquire the egg at any cost, even murder.

That description doesn’t really do the book justice. If you grew up around the time I did, immersed in 80’s pop culture and having witnessed the dawn of the internet as we know it today, you’ll find yourself grinning at the endless parade of references…not just of 80’s pop-culture, but also high-tech and video game history. If you’ve ever saved a heartfelt attempt at a text adventure written in basic on a cassette tape drive, you’ll find a lot to like here.

In fact, after a while, it started to become almost eerie to me just how much of Halliday’s interests mirrored my own. Our lives overlapped so often, I think Halliday might be my spirit animal. His tastes in video games, movies, music…I swear it’s like Cline peeked into my brain for inspiration. The beauty of it is, though, that I feel sure I am not alone in feeling that way. The story, as compelling as it is, sits against a backdrop of just the best, sweetest kind of nostalgia and together they provided an absolute joy. I found myself trying to solve the mystery of the egg myself (and, I’m pleased to say, I would have found the jade key on my own). Wrap that all around a great story, and the whole thing was so much fun that I didn’t want it to end. I can’t think of a better endorsement than that.

M.L. Brennan
M.L. Brennan is the author of the critically acclaimed GENERATION V and its sequel, IRON NIGHT. The third book in the series, TAINTED BLOOD, came out in November 2014. Brennan holds an MFA in writing and is employed as an adjunct professor at several New England colleges. Brennan cut her baby bibliophile teeth on her older brother’s collection of Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert, but it was a chance encounter with Emma Bull’s War For The Oaks as a teenager that led to genre true love. Today she’ll read everything from Mary Roach’s non-fiction to Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasies, but will still drop everything for vampires and werewolves in the big city.

I read a lot of great books this year. Most of them were when I really should’ve been writing, but, hey, who doesn’t have that problem? Looking at my list of 2014 reads (thank you, Goodreads) I noticed that most of the recent publications were entries into an ongoing series, and that I didn’t read as many debut authors as I did in 2013. Definitely something to work on next year… but here’s the list of what blew me away in 2014:

Broken Souls by Stephen Blackmoore – I love how dark Blackmoore keeps the Eric Carter books, and the places he’s taking this character to in this UF LA noir are fantastic. Also, for a writer who is not scared of a large body count, Blackmoore is also capable of sly humor. Second in a series.

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone – I can’t get over how good this series is, and I also really love that each book is essentially standing on its own – new characters, new city, new crisis. This was the first book where there was a repeated character, but it works in a very harmonious way. Truly epic worldbuilding, with a mashup of corporate culture and fantasy that is completely fantastic. Third in a series.

Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop – Bishop is probably best known for her Dark Jewels fantasy series, but anyone who isn’t reading her contemporary fantasy series is missing out. This is a neat kind of alternative world storybuilding, and I like seeing the way that she’s reimagined society, use of technology, and religion in this series. Plus, character work is top-notch. Second in a series.

The Shadow Throne by Django Wexler – I knew from the first book that Wexler could do flintlock fantasy in a desert campaign, but now I also know that he can do the French Revolution! I loved the returning characters, the new characters, and the huge change in setting. Plus – there is a woman dressing as a man dressing as a woman. What’s not to love? Second in a series.

Defenders by Will McIntosh – I first read McIntosh last year with his unspeakably lovely, timely, and rich novel Love Minus Eighty. Defenders is a very different book – it’s incredibly tense, with humanity basically on the edge of getting exterminated, and every time you think that people can’t get more screwed, they do. But for a book that is spending a good chunk of its pages focusing on the battles between humans and aliens, then humans and the creatures they created to defend themselves from the aliens, the real focus of the book is right where it should be – on what makes us human. The characters are richly drawn and complicated, and the stakes are high because no one is safe. I meant to only read a few chapters, but I stayed up and read the whole thing.

Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo – The conclusion to her incredible Grisha series. I will argue to the end that Bardugo is writing flintlock fantasy set in Russia that just happens to be YA. Gorgeous writing, lush worldbuilding, with a bold and satisfying ending to this fantastic trilogy. Third in a series.

Vicious by V. E. Schwab – Yes, it was published in 2013, but I just had to add it to the list. Schwab has taken every single superhero trope that exists and turned it onto its head. This is an origin story a vengeance hit and a redemption arc all tied into one insanely good package. This belongs on everyone’s holiday list.

Benjamin Percy
Benjamin Percy’s new novel The Dead Lands — a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark saga — is now available for pre-order and releases in April with Grand Central Publishing.

You read a lot of horror novels, you see a lot of horror movies, you jump out of a few planes, you spend the night in the ICU with your sick kid, and “scary” loses some of its potency. It’s been awhile, I’ll admit, since I felt the dagger-jab of fear when reading. But Bird Box by Josh Malerman is genuinely chilling. Here’s the premise: everybody starts going nuts, killing others, killing themselves, because of something they see. Keep your eyes closed, you survive. Malorie is pregnant when the phenomenon begins, and she holes up with a group of survivors in a house with cardboard and blankets blacking out the windows. The timeline jumps back and forth, tracking her time in the house (which is like a pressure cooker sputtering its way toward an explosion) and the time when she later travels down a river with her children, all of them blindfolded (and something pursuing them). We’ve all woken in the middle of the night to a sound. A creak or thump we’re certain came from a knife-wielding intruder. It’s the unknown that makes our heart hammer. Deprive one sense, and the rest of them go into panic mode, which is a pretty much how I felt when reading this raw, slim, gutsy, terrifying first novel. .

Myke Cole
As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole‘s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.

This year, I read all of Joe Hill’s published novels. They’re classified as “Horror” for the convenience of booksellers, but the truth is that they’re fantasy, albeit of the more dread-evoking variety. I went backwards through Hill’s work, reading his most recently published N0S4A2 before Horns, published in 2010, and finally Heart-Shaped Box, which came out in 2007. And I’m not even going to go into his graphic novel series Locke and Key, which remains one of the best stories I’ve ever read in that medium.

It would be ironic to say that Hill got better as I went backwards, but it’s perhaps a bigger compliment to say that he is just as good with each novel, when you consider how high the bar is set with N0S4A2. Hill is one of the few writers who has ever made me feel genuinely frightened by a novel, to the point where it resonates much as particularly gripping scenes in film do, troubling my sleep for days afterward.

Hill is definitely his father’s son, and King’s influence is clearly felt in the similar threads that run through all three novels: the sleepy New England backdrops (Heart-Shaped Box takes place largely in upstate New York, but I’m counting it), the tight focus on family relationships, the interweaving of love and death, the intimate threading of pop culture throughout the narrative. I’ve said many times that the only thing we truly care about is other people, and Hill absolutely gets that. His stories revolve around character arcs and the interactions between fascinating people, so lovingly and carefully realized that I’d be riveted to their stories even if they weren’t being yanked across planes into an alternate world where Christmas has been plunged into a nightmare, afflicted with horns that cause everyone around them to reveal their ugliest truths, or pursued by a vengeful ghost across the Eastern seaboard.

Hill has joined the ranks of those writers whose work I will buy sight unseen. Just take the money out of my check and send me the book as soon as it’s out. Even if you’re not a horror reader, these are not to be missed.

Steven Harper Piziks
Steven Harper Piziks was born with a name that no one can reliable spell or pronounce, so he writes under the pen name Steven Harper. He lives in Michigan with his family. When not at the keyboard, he sings, plays the harp and recorder, and collects folk music. In the past, he’s held jobs as a reporter, theater producer, secretary, and substitute teacher. He maintains that the most interesting thing about him is that he writes books. He is the creator of The Silent Empire series, the Clockwork Empire steampunk series, and the Books of Blood and Iron series for Roc Books. All four Silent Empire novels were finalists for the Spectrum Award, a first! You can find him on-line at http://www.theclockworkempire.com or on Facebook as Steven Piziks.

I recently finished UNEXPECTED STORIES by Octavia E. Butler. Butler is my favorite SF author, and I was shocked and saddened at her sudden death in 2006. An archivist was going through her papers and found two unpublished stories of hers from the 70s. They were recently published in a short collection, and I grabbed it right up. The stories aren’t her strongest–you can see she was still young and learning at the time–but wow, you can see the talent and the skill still. It was like going back in time and meeting the younger self of one of my parents.

Outside SF, I’m reading my way through the Phryne Fisher Mysteries. A friend recommended the TV series, and, unaware they were based on books, I snarfed down the first two seasons of the show on DVD and noticed from the opening credits that they were based on a series of novels by Kerry Greenwood. I’m enjoying them quite a lot. Both the show and the books are fast, witty, and smart, and Phryne is enormously fun to read about.

J. Kathleen Cheney
J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City came out from Penguin in 2013. The sequel, The Seat of Magic debuted July 1.

One Night in Sixes by Tex Thompson is a fantasy novel with an unorthodox setting–the ‘western’ town of Sixes. Or perhaps it would be better to say that you start off expecting a western fantasy, but the author transforms the more-mundane ‘western’ setting into a dense and complex fantasy world. (For those who have trouble keeping track of complicated worlds, there’s actually a glossary in back, which helps sort out the various communities and people in the book.) But I enjoyed this book most for its lean prose, never spending more words on the page than is needed, meaning that every words turns out to be important.

Another one I loved this year was Silverblind by Tina Connolly. This was the final installment in a series set in a post Great War world, where the fey left behind many war wounds. Dorie Rochart is half human, half fey, but tries hard to get along in the human world (This tracks back to the first book, Ironskin, wherein Dorie is a child.) To further her studies, she disguises herself as a man to get a post at the Queen’s Lab, and from there on out, she discovers amazing things (no spoilers.). This turned out to be my favorite in this series.

And I’ll confess, I’m still reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, but I’m really loving it. I’ll get that one finished as soon as I have the time….one of these days….

John Dixon
John Dixon‘s debut novel, Phoenix Island, inspired the CBS TV series Intelligence. A former boxer, teacher, and stone mason, John now writes full-time and serves as a consultant to ABC Studios. He lives in West Chester, PA, with his wife, Christina, and their freeloading pets. When not reading or writing, he obsesses over boxing, chess, and hot peppers.

I read fifty-some books this year, but being a super-cool guy, I’m going to kill off 90-some percent of them and present you only with three, the absolute best of the best. Generally speaking, I read pretty widely – balancing science fiction, horror, crime, classics, non-fiction, and the occasional Western or fantasy story – but 2014 surprised me when my tastes plunged into darkness. Without meaning to, I kept returning to horror, and lo and behold… my three favorite genre reads of 2014 all belong to that genre.

Know that all three are dark, dark, dark.

Craig DiLouie’s Suffer the Children is an apocalyptic masterpiece and perhaps the most unsettling book I’ve ever read. (For you horror aficionados out there, the only other book in contention is Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. Yeah, we’re talking that unsettling.) So if you aren’t up for a seriously disturbing ride – and especially if you have kids – Suffer the Children might not be for you. Here’s the premise, straight from the publisher, Gallery Books: “It begins on an ordinary day: children around the world are dying. All children, everywhere–a global crisis beyond any parent’s worst nightmare. Then, a miracle beyond imagining: three days later, they return. Shattered mothers and fathers see their sons and daughters happy and whole once more, playing and laughing as before–but only when they feed. They hunger for blood…and they can’t get enough upon which to feast. Without it, they die again. How far would you go to keep someone you love alive?”

Scary, right? What the premise doesn’t tell you is that DiLouie is a fantastic writer, especially adept at building characters and tension. Reading this book, you care… and because you care, you fear. There is no clumsy, over-the-top weirdness here. The blood-thirsty children aren’t sprouting fangs or running around like little monsters. It’s up to their parents, once they realize that blood will keep the kids alive and well, to ask that horrible, driving question – How far would you go to keep someone you love alive? – again and again. Love is a monster: beautiful, terrible, and oh so hungry. The story is impossible not believe. Suffer the Children filled me with dread, and even now, almost a year and fifty books later, I can’t stop thinking about it. Highly recommended to fans of finely crafted, intelligent, dark-as-the-pit fiction.

Speaking of extreme horror, I’ve always been a big fan of the late, great Richard Laymon, and this year, I read (or reread) eight or nine of his books. The best of the bunch, by the way – but not one of my “three favorites,” for those of you keeping score, as it was published several years ago – was Night in the Lonesome October, a strange and haunting and wonderful book. Laymon polarizes readers. Some people read ten pages, scream “Splatterpunk!” and toss the book across the room. Others – and I stand firmly at the center of this clan – love Laymon for his unapologetic, irreverent work, for his unpredictability, his ability to create characters that are both completely insane and at the same time oddly believable, and for the special way he can build dread. When Richard Laymon died, he left a huge hole in horror genre, and though I sampled several imitators, I could never find anyone that really did it for me. Laymon wasn’t just writing extreme sex and violence and gore; he was telling great stories with vivid characters in crazy, impossible-to-put-down situations. And several years after his passing, I had all but given up on finding another writer who could please me in that same way. But in 2014, thanks to those “other people who bought this…” reading suggestions on Amazon, I discovered Jeff Menapace, bestselling author of the Bad Games trilogy. I started with Bad Games – a fantastic book, but again, one not published in 2014 – and I was hooked. I ploughed through the trilogy, loving it and realizing that at long last I had discovered an author who could entertain me in a way that previously only Richard Laymon had managed. Menapace is different than Laymon. His stuff is horrific but might be better described as psychological suspense. He’s less over-the-top than Laymon’s and less merciless, as well. If Laymon’s book rely most heavily on story, Menapace’s books rely most heavily on the characters, their psychologies, and the difficult choices and transformations they must make… which explains, in part, why he has several hundred five-star ratings on Amazon.

His 2014 psychological thriller Hair of the Bitch was a dark tour-de-force that really pushed the limits. The author’s half-joking disclaimer – “Hair of the Bitch contains profanity, violence, sex, massage therapists sleeping with their clients, blackmail, deception, more sex, great white sharks, more violence, murder for profit, more profanity, a cat named Pele, s&m, excessive alcohol consumption, anxiety, depression, lust, obsession, inner voices that never shut up, disturbing thoughts, naughty thoughts…” – is funny (and accurate). Don’t let its joking tone fool you. This is a serious book. Merciless. Twisted, yet absolutely gripping, one of those books that you must finish in a sitting or two. It tells the story of Calvin, a twenty-nine-year-old massage therapist who’s lost to an alcoholic depression until one of his clients, the very attractive, very wealthy Angela, seduces him and draws him into a sexual underground that makes Fifty Shades of Gray look like Sesame Street. In Hair of the Bitch, Menapace pulls the trick that Laymon often pulled yet so many other writers seem incapable of pulling: he makes you relate to a dark character doing horrible things. If reading is a kind of tourism, giving us the chance to walk around in foreign psychologies, Hair of the Bitch takes you off the psychological main routes, loads you on a train, then onto an ox-drawn cart, then asks you to walk for hundreds of miles to arrive at your ultimate destination: the mind of man capable of terrible things… and yet a man whom you come to believe and understand and for whom you can’t help but hope. The story starts quickly, and the tension builds steadily until its explosive climax. If you miss Richard Laymon or like psychological thrillers that pull no punches, check out Hair of the Bitch.

My final favorite, The Troop by Nick Cutter, is an exquisitely well-written and absolutely gut-wrenching novel about a troop of Boy Scouts trapped on an island with the most horrific parasite I’ve ever read. I can’t say much more than that without dragging you, kicking and screaming, into spoiler land, but think of it as The Lord of the Flies meets The Ruins. This book received a lot of buzz, and it’s easy to see why. Cutter – a pseudonym for a well-respected and award-winning writer – can really write, and he clearly knows horror. The book is grueling and gruesome and 100% gripping. As a writer, I was wow-ed over and over again, filled not with jealousy but something like awe, and the very clear sense that I could write a 1000 books and never come close to writing as well as Cutter. He’s that good. About The Troop, Stephen King wrote, “The Troop scared the hell out of me, and I couldn’t put it down. This is old-school horror at its best. Not for the faint-hearted, but for the rest of us sick puppies, it’s a perfect gift for a winter night.” I couldn’t agree more.

Okay, those are my top three for 2014, but…

As I write this, I’m in the middle of an early galley of Cutter’s next book, The Deep, which comes out on my birthday, January 13th – mark your calendars! – and it is incredible. My editor sent me the ARC, and I’m not sure how much I can say, so in terms of plot, I’ll stick with the publisher’s description: “A strange plague called the ’Gets is decimating humanity on a global scale. It causes people to forget—small things at first, like where they left their keys…then the not-so-small things like how to drive, or the letters of the alphabet. Then their bodies forget how to function involuntarily…and there is no cure. But now, far below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, deep in the Marianas Trench, an heretofore unknown substance hailed as “ambrosia” has been discovered—a universal healer, from initial reports. It may just be the key to a universal cure. In order to study this phenomenon, a special research lab, the Trieste, has been built eight miles under the sea’s surface. But now the station is incommunicado, and it’s up to a brave few to descend through the lightless fathoms in hopes of unraveling the mysteries lurking at those crushing depths…and perhaps to encounter an evil blacker than anything one could possibly imagine.” I’m only half of the way in, but if the rest of the book holds up to what I’ve read so far, The Deep will be an all-time favorite and the early favorite as my top book of 2015.

Ken Liu
Ken’s fiction has appeared in F&SF, Asimov’s, Analog, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld, among other places. He is a winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards. He lives near Boston with his family. Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a fantasy series, will be published by Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint, in 2015. Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories. Ken’s novels and collections are represented by Russell Galen of Scovil Galen Ghosh.

I really enjoyed Ben Winters’s The Last Policeman trilogy (The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble). I have a soft spot for SF mysteries, and Winters’s premise is great: an asteroid is on its way to destroy life on Earth as we know it, and as the world sinks into pre-apocalyptic chaos, one police detective stubbornly holds onto the belief that it still makes sense to solve murders, to carry out the duties of justice.

Two things about these books stand out for me. One is the meticulous manner in which Winters works out how the world would react to the news of its impending doom. The responses of governments, institutions, nations, and individuals are all believable, and it’s thought-provoking to imagine yourself thrust into such a situation and the ethical dilemmas posed. The other is more technical: the cellphone has made many mystery plot tropes unworkable, but Winters’s scenario allows him to “turn off” the cellphone when necessary. I love the way the books play with this.

I also read a lot of excellent short fiction this year. Due to space limitations, I’ll only talk about three stories. The first is John Murphy’s SF mystery novella, “Claudius Rex” (Alembical 3), which features a sarcastic, erudite AI detective and his human sidekick. The banter is funny and the plotting is excellent, and Murphy gets all the technical details right, which gives this reader great joy.

Next is Rachel Swirsky’s “Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)” (Subterranean), a novella about a dancer and her father and the ways in which we hurt each other even when we love each other. The novella also features one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever encountered in genre fiction: someone I can’t help but like even though they tick off every “unlikable character” checkbox.

Finally, I very much enjoyed Natalia Theodoridou’s “The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul” (Clarkesworld). I love the way the story takes Theo Jansen’s art and transports the “beests” into another realm, showing how art is an interactive endeavor, a conversation between artists across time and space.

About Kristin Centorcelli (842 Articles)
Kristin Centorcelli is the Associate Editor at SF Signal, proprietor of My Bookish Ways, a reviewer for Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and has also written for Crime Fiction Lover, Criminal Element, and Mystery Scene Magazine. She has been reviewing books since late 2010, in an effort to get through a rather immense personal library, while also discussing it with whoever will willingly sit still (and some that won’t).

4 Comments on MIND MELD: Best Books of 2014

  1. The two books I enjoyed the most this past year are Weir’s The Martian and Wood’s No Hero.

    The Martian because it’s exciting as hell, but it’s also a very positive story depicting a near future I’d like to see. It also spoke to that childlike part of me that used to read science fiction and then want to go out and learn stuff.

    No Hero was just fun and page-turny and it felt like being told a story by a good pal. The second book in the series is good, too, but I think No Hero was lighter in tone. There’s a lot to be said for books that are just fun to read.

    Mike

  2. For the newer stuff, probably Steles of the Sky (the perfect ending to one of the better fantasy series of recent memory), and the entire Expanse series (fast-paced, fun, and of increasingly broad scope).

    My other best of 2014 (which I probably won’t actually finish until early 2015) is E.R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros and Zimiamvian Trilogy, which I’m rereading after reading them for the first time back in the late 1990s, and getting totally intoxicated on the language.

  3. I am surprised that none of the Mind Meld guests had The Martian on their lists, given the book’s popularity. It will certainly be on my Best of 2014 list.

    As will Mary Rickert’s debut novel, The Memory Garden. It is such a lovely book. Among the many things I wrote in my review, I stated “The Memory Garden is a book rooted in seasons, those in the world outside our doors and those that form the cyclical patterns of our lives. It is a love story, though not of standard romantic fare, that celebrates family and friendship and the importance of looking beyond the veil of our own assumptions and prejudices. It is a novel that will stir your hunger for good food, beautiful gardens, and lasting relationships.”

    It is a highly satisfying read and one I cannot recommend enough.

  4. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // December 17, 2014 at 1:08 pm //

    These best of the year posts and Mind Meld are gonna bankrupt me

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