I read a lot in 2015 — though not nearly as much as I plan on reading in 2016. As always, some books stood out more than others. None of these three books were actually published last year, but they are without a doubt my three favorite books that I read in 2015. Plus, they’re all fantastic examples of diverse literature.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Genre: Sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian
Chilling, stunning, and thick with emotion, Nnedi Okorafor’s sci-fi/fantasy novel Who Fears Death belongs to a category all its own. Set in a postapocalyptic Sudan, the novel follows Onyesonwu, an Ewu, a half-breed, a child of rape. The dark-skinned Okeke face oppression from the light-skinned Nuru, but Ewus, with their sand-colored skin, face oppression from all. Onye’s name means “who fears death” in Igbo, a language called ancient in the novel’s futuristic setting. Her journey begins when she discovers that a powerful sorcerer is planning her death; her magic is all that can save her. With some of her friends alongside her, Onye must search for understanding of herself and her power if she is to stop the sorcerer.
Who Fears Death may fall in fantasy genre lines, but the pain it explores couldn’t be more realistic. With a graphic portrayal of female genital mutilation, harsh racial and gender inequality, dark traditions, and fragile relationships, the novel tackles deep issues with gracefully written, terror-filled prose. The storytelling and world building are simply phenomenal; the futuristic African landscape is believable in its culture and shocking in how closely the injustices mimic reality. Okorafor’s novel is refreshing in its originality and setting, compelling in its conflicts and relationships, and frightening in the realism behind the magic.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
This hauntingly beautiful debut novel begins with a death: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Celeste Ng had me hooked with two sentences, and Everything I Never Told You never lost my attention. The book follows Lydia Lee’s interracial family, composed of her father James, a Chinese American professor; her mother Marilyn, who gave up her dream of being a doctor to raise her children; and her siblings Nathan and Hannah. Lydia’s death is the domino that topples the fragile structure of the family.
As the family looks into Lydia’s death, the book takes a mystery-esque spin, but the heart of the story remains in the family’s struggle as they learn just how little they knew about her and each other. This novel tackles issues of family, death, love, race, and expectations through the revelations of Lydia’s past and in the well-crafted narratives of each character’s past and present. Ng establishes powerful empathy, unraveling the emotional damage each member of the family is inflicted with. Whereas the parents and Nathan appear more explored initially, the subtlety of Hannah’s character is impacting in its own, heart-wrenching way. The precise and rich prose forms a vivid image of the family and their world, and it brings us closer to the characters than they have ever been to each other. Everything I Never Told You is a poignant journey through the heart of Lydia’s family. Each new discovery about Lydia enhances the excitement of the novel that first caught my attention, but the emotion of the story is what makes this such an incredibly powerful novel.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Genre: Slave narrative, sci-fi
Dana is torn between her present in 1976 and the antebellum south, finding herself randomly transported back and forth in time. Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, is in small part a science fiction novel—or “a kind of grim fantasy,” as Butler described it—but it is more slave narrative than anything else. In the past, Dana comes to know her ancestors: Rufus Weylin, the greedy, arrogant, and self-destructive of a slave owner, and Alice Greenwood, a free black woman who finds herself forced into slavery. Dana’s fate seems to be tied to Rufus, as she must save his life each time she is summoned back into the past. Each time she returns back to her own time, she and her husband Kevin struggle to understand what is happening to her.
This novel is centers around two interracial relationships—Dana and Kevin, and Rufus and Alice—and the complications slavery and racism inflict on them. As Dana is engrossed in the plantation, issues of power between gender and race come into play. The prose itself is exceptional, but it is the impact the past has on the modern characters that makes this book extraordinary. The interplay between characters and time is so well-crafted that the themes and situations feel genuine, and the unexplained time travel becomes more of an asset than a hole. The state of the present comes into question as the past is explored in vivid, unsettling depth. A moving blend of science fiction and slave narrative, past and present, Kindred is an unforgivingly powerful novel that no doubt will continue to stand the test of time.