This year, all are agreed, was a pretty great one for books — but it was a particularly good one for debut novelists, which impressed us over and over again with their ingenuity, seriousness, and talent. This year’s debuts ran the gamut from sci-fi masterpieces to realistic war novels, with several magic-tinged worlds floating around in between. Looks like the novel/this insufferably ironic generation/reading itself isn’t a lost cause after all. Read on for our favorite debut novels of the year, and since we already had to tearfully eliminate quite a few from our list of loves, feel free to add them back on for us in the comments.
The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers
“The war tried to kill us in the spring,” Powers’s deft coming-of-age novel begins, delicately poetic. A beautifully dark, harrowing story of war and friendship, this may be the best novel yet to come out of the Iraq war.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt
In Brunt’s dazzling debut novel, 15-year-old June is left despairing after her beloved uncle Finn, a renowned painter, dies of AIDS. At his funeral, she hunts down his shadowy lover, Toby, and the two begin a tenuous friendship, leaning on each other to build something new. Crackling with feeling and raw talent, this novel will transport you.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
We’ve been big fans of this book since it first appeared this October, and how could we not be? It merges our two favorite things — old books and the internet — giving each powerful force its due. Also there is a band of merry nerds on a quest to find the truth about a book cult. Seriously, why have you not read this yet?
Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson
This satisfying genre-bender is as much a thriller as it is an epic fantasy as it is a modern literary debut — and if that’s got your head a-buzzing, just wait. Alif is a hacker for hire, dodging the government while lending his skills to internet porn kings, trying to hang on to a Very Important Text and nursing a cyberspace crush. And then comes the djinn. Because some demons need tech support. Oh yes.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain
We know, we know — another novel about the Iraq war? But hey, don’t blame it on us, blame it on the times. While The Yellow Birds is being hailed as the All Quiet on the Western Front of the Iraq wars, Billy Lynn has been deemed the modern Catch-22 — no less blistering or true, but a hell of a lot more post-modern. It all comes down to what you’re in the mood for.
Threats, Amelia Gray
If you’ve been paying any attention at all, you already know this, but we love, love, love Amelia Gray. This a horror novel, a fantasy novel, a realistic story told in metaphor, a metaphorical story told with cruel realism. It’s beyond weird, and beyond good.
The People of Forever are Not Afraid, Shani Boianjiu
We’ve described this explosive debut (literally and figuratively!) as The Things They Carried meets How Should a Person Be?, and we’re sticking to that. But beyond the flash of the subject matter — teenage girls in the Israeli Defense Forces, with all the violence, sex and soul-searching that implies — this is a novel that’s lingered in our minds for months.
City of Bohane, Kevin Barry
An extraordinary debut, Barry’s City of Bohane is a brutal, hilarious, inventive romp set in 2053 Ireland, where the scariest gang in the city is called the Fancy and Gant is on a mission to get his girl back. Irvine Welsh called this “the best novel to come out of Ireland since Ulysses,” and while we couldn’t definitively say the same (we’ve read woefully few, we fear), we’re willing to believe.
Shine Shine Shine, Lydia Netzer
A love story set between here and the moon, between “normal” and “real,” between head coverings of various kinds, Netzer’s debut is quirky but grounded, a winning combination. And a little expert storytelling doesn’t hurt at all.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis
This novel, an impressive decades-spanning page-turner about a young woman and her family enduring hardships and turbulent times in the early half of the 20th century, should have been on next year’s list of best debuts, but had its publication date moved abruptly forward when Oprah chose it as the second pick for her Book Club 2.0. Anything that Oprah ”really, really, really loves” is a pretty solid pick, but we think this accomplished debut would have made it even without her accolades.