Thoughts on 50 Books, 2019

This is the third year running that I’ve met my goal of reading at least 50 books, and once again I offer here some thoughts on each of them.

List from 2017
List from 2018

A few notes about this post:

  • I’m a slow reader, so I exercise due diligence before choosing books to read. This means I end up enjoying almost everything! If you notice that I mostly have effusive things to say about the novels I’ve read, that’s most of the reason why. (Also, I just love books!)
  • It’s mostly SFF books. If that’s not your cup of tea, you’ll probably want to stop reading now.
  • These are fairly brief thoughts, and not full reviews (though a few longer musings are sprinkled in here and there). You may find my tangents arbitrary, or scratch your head at what I choose (or not) to talk about. The length of a given section does not necessarily correlate with my enjoyment of the book.
  • I’ve decided that, should I read a self-published book and not enjoy it, I simply won’t include it here. Self-published authors have a tough enough time getting noticed without some Internet dude subjectively slagging on them.
  • This time around I’ve included the awards that each book has won, but it’s possible — even likely — that I’ve missed some.
  • Of the 51 books listed here:
    • 24 listened to on audio book
    • 15 read on old-fashioned paper
    • 11 read on iPhone Kindle app
    • 1 read on my PC


It’s hard to pick personal favorites out of so many excellent books. Being absent from this list is in no way a sign of perceived mediocrity, and on a different day I might pick different books, or put them in a different order. But lists of favorites are a tradition, so:

  1. The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft
  2. The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow
  3. Sin Eater, by Mike Shel
  4. This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
  5. Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  6. A Little Hatred, by Joe Abercrombie
  7. City of Lies, by Sam Hawke
  8. City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett
  9. Chasing Graves, by Ben Galley
  10. Space Opera, by Cat Valente


Enough Preamble. Here are the books! I hope you find my ramblings entertaining, and that you find some new reading material as a result!

(The parenthetical numbers indicate the chronological order of my reading throughout the year.)


(1) The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

  • Nominee, Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2016
  • Part of a Hugo Award-winning series

I’ve seen repeated in several places the claim that Becky Chambers’ novels are like warm hugs in book form. That’s a great description of this one, the first of her Wayfarers series and an Arthur C. Clarke nominee.

This is a science fiction tale about a multi-species spaceship crew hired out to punch wormholes for faster-than-light travel. And I mean, literally, that it’s about the crew. The plot is a light scaffolding for the dramas and interactions of the delightful team of humans and aliens aboard the good ship Wayfarer. Sure, Chambers touches on some classic SF notions, like cloning, symbiotic organisms, and forbidden cross-species romances, but this a slice-of-life character study more than a space opera or political thriller.

The nicest thing about Small Angry Planet is how nice all the characters are. Threats and difficulties pop up, and everyone acts as a kind, helpful, understanding emotional support group. The entire crew (with one mild exception) is adorable, navigating the choppy seas of cultural differences and oddball relationships with an overabundance of empathy and kindness. This book is the perfect remedy if you need a respite from grimdark anti-heroes, exploding planets, red weddings, and whatever other printed words might have your blood boiling. If you’re looking for a book because you want a good villain to hate, or epic space battles, this isn’t for you. But if you want a book full of characters to love, and you’re okay with a serious case of warm fuzzies, then this is exactly what you want.


(2) How to Betray a Dragon’s Hero, by Cressida Cowell
(3) How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury, by Cressida Cowell

These are the final two books of Cowell’s epic 12-volume middle-grade How to Train Your Dragon series. As with all the previous books, our whole family (the youngest of whom was 11 when we finished) listened to the inimitable David Tennant narrate the books on long car trips.

I’ve written before about this series, which we started in 2016.  In the 2017 version of this list, I wrote:

The “How to Train Your Dragon” movies were based on a series of delightful little children’s books by Cressida Cowell.  They are short, sweet, full of memorable characters and humor that will make kids and adults giggle (at least the ones in our family), and David Tennant’s wonderful narration is the best I’ve ever heard. His voices are varied, evocative, and you can hear how much fun he’s having.

To be sure, these are kids’ books, targeted at readers/listeners between (I’d say) 8-12. But even 48-year-old dad has been utterly enchanted by them. The ones we’ve listened to take about 3-5 hours, so if you’re intrigued, it won’t cost you much to take a flier.

In the 2018 version, I added:

…that was last year, and in the time since then we’ve listened to books 7-10 in the series. The quality has only been going up, as have the stakes, the world-building, and the sense there’s been a master plan all along. What seemed like a series of one-off adventure tales has coalesced into a grand arc. We only have two books remaining, and the whole family can’t wait to discover how Cowell will bring the series to its inevitable foreshadowed conclusion.

Now, having listened to the last two, I’m prepared to call this series a masterpiece of middle-grade fantasy. The final two books feature an ever-escalating sequence of action, cliffhangers, and revelations. Little bits from previous books are called back, proving that Cowell either had the whole thing planned out in meticulous detail from the start, or became really good at manufacturing foreshadowing after the fact.  Either way, it’s magnificent. (Though I have to say, the author was a little too proud of herself during the last book, occasionally throwing direct winks at the reader of the “bet you didn’t realize I had this whole thing planned out!” sort.)

If you’ve got a kid between 8 and 12, or are of a similar age in your otherwise-adult heart, give these books a listen. Long live Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III!


(4) Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

  • Winner, 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award

This book has everything that makes science fiction great, and also lots of spiders. Who are also great, don’t get me wrong, but if you have severe arachnophobia, think twice before cracking this one open.

The premise is that a science experiment has gone very, very wrong—or perhaps very, very right, if you’re a spider. A planet has been seeded with a nano-virus intended to hyper-accelerate the evolution of a payload of monkeys, except that the monkeys never made it, and the virus instead worked its techno-magic on the local insect and arachnid populations. Half the book follows the absolutely enthralling rise of the spider civilization, in which their scientific advances and social tenets develop along far different lines than those of humankind. There’s ant-based chemical computing! It’s so cool!

The other half follows the trials and turmoil of the humans aboard a generation ship, a vessel containing the last of humankind fleeing a ruined Earth. They’re headed for a distant world that was long-ago terraformed by the previous human empire, and so ought to make a perfect new home planet for the species.

You can probably guess which planet.

The writing is perfect, pulling the reader along the journey of generation after generation of spider-kind, and the story is full of the wild imagination and speculation that makes good SF so much fun to read.

Did I mention that the spiders are awesome?

They’re awesome.


(5) Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell

  • Winner, 2018 IndieReader Discovery Award
  • 2018 Reader’s Favorite gold medalist

Oh, goodness, this book.

I’m going to say a few things about it, but lest this get lost in the weeds: Kings of Paradise is fantastic. It’s one of those self-published books that is just as good, and at least as powerful, as some of the best traditionally published fantasy novels out there.

In brief, the book provides two main narratives that seem, for most of 600 pages, to have no intersection. First, we have Ruka, whom we follow from his brutal childhood in the freezing, resource-starved southlands. Ruka has a facial deformity that others treat as a mark of divine ill-favor, and his life descends into ever-darker depths of hardship and horror. The alternating narrative shows us Kale, a shiftless fourth son of a king, enlisted in the royal navy both to toughen him up and get him out of court. Kale’s situation is objectively much nicer than Ruka’s, as he lives in the warm and prosperous northern kingdom of Pyu, but we still see him put through a brutal physical and emotional wringer.

This book is bleak. I mean, really, really bleak. The Ruka story line is grim, violent, relentlessly depressing, and depicts a world and characters whose defining attributes are suffering, hopelessness, agony, and shame. (In fact, the word “shame” appears, in its various forms, a whopping eighty-three times!) Kale’s story does contain glimmers of hope here and there, and is much less violent, but there’s still a pall of unease over the events of his life. Such is the tone of the book that, whenever something good seems to be happening to a character, I had trouble sharing their happiness because I knew a cast-iron shoe was just waiting to drop. Kings of Paradise has many fine qualities, but joy is not among them.

Ruka’s character arc is long, detailed, and intense, bringing out sympathy and a powerful investment in his fate. Nell manages that despite his flaws, which are sometimes cringingly horrible. For instance, our very first glimpse of Ruka is an in-medias-res scene of him cooking and eating a child, and in other places we see him tearing people apart, or committing acts of torture—and yet, knowing what brought him to those lows, I still felt sympathy and a desire to see his redemption. Kale’s arc is a bit more traditional, featuring military games and training montages, and he’s a more sympathetic character all around. There are some fantastic scenes between him and his father, the implacable and cruelly practical King Farahi, that give Kale some greater depth. His overall arc feels a little hurried at times; the aforementioned training montage, while fun to read, advanced his character quite far in relatively little time.

There are a couple other POV characters, most notably Dala, a lowly priestess-in-training who at times feels of equal narrative importance to Ruka and Kale. She’s introduced as an incidental character in Ruka’s tale, but then, surprisingly, becomes a potential major player in the story. Alas, while she gets a chunk of pages to herself near the middle of the book, and she’s just as compelling, she gets less “screen time” than the other two protagonists. I hope we see more of her in the next two books in the trilogy.

The world-building is gorgeous and relentless, built out of unforgiving landscapes and even more unforgiving societies. There are political machinations and a complex tangle of religions. It can be a little dizzying bouncing back and forth between wholly disparate narratives with no geographical overlap, and listening on audio I lacked ready access to the world map. But by the end, the reader has some context, as the two main storylines crash into one another in a tumultuous final act.

I listened to Kings of Paradise over the course of a month of car rides, and the narration by Ralph Lister is top notch. His calm, rich delivery adds another layer to the weary hopelessness of the narrative. The only problem with listening to this on audio, particularly in a car, is that new sections of the book are placed chronologically by introductory calendar dates. Since I couldn’t stop to go back, I sometimes got lost in terms of when events were taking place. This may seem like a small thing, but the narratives aren’t always synchronous, and there are some significant time-skips later in the book.

Outside of some minor issues with uneven pacing, it’s hard to find anything wrong with this book. The word that most comes to mind regarding it is “powerful.” Even now, a couple of weeks after finishing it, and having read a couple other great books in the meantime, I still find myself thinking about the story, its world and characters. Kings of Paradise is not for the faint of heart. It features the aforementioned cannibalism, along with brutal violence and murder, explicit sex scenes, and an abundance of profanity. If you’re like me, you’ll be emotionally exhausted by the time it’s over. The sequel, Kings of Ash, is definitely on my list of books to read, but I still need more recovery time.


(6) Sir Thomas the Hesitant and the Table of Less Valued Knights, by Liam Perrin
(35) Faycalibur, by Liam Perrin

These are delightful little Arthurian tales—sweet and silly, funny and whimsical, and very family friendly. They’re exactly the right thing when you want a break from grim anti-heroes and blood-soaked tragedy.

Comedic fantasy can be very hit-or-miss, but I adored the vaguely Pratchett-ish humor in both books. Even the covers are entertaining, perfectly capturing the essence of the stories.


(7) Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

  • Finalist, 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Cat Valente had been on my authors-to-read radar since I saw her speak at a ReaderCon a few years ago. I decided to end the wait by listening to the audio of her novel, Space Opera.

The tag-line for Space Opera is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets the joy and glamour of Eurovision.” That is a spot-on description; the book has a definite Hitchhiker’s vibe, though perhaps one where both the author and the reader are on simultaneous acid trips.

There’s a plot, but it is sparse and not at all the point. In brief: A widespread galactic society, made up of hundreds of species, has decided that when a new species is discovered and deemed to be of sufficient sentience, they must compete in the Galactic Grand Prix. The Grand Prix is space-Eurovision, where each species must present a musical act. If the new species comes in last, they’re annihilated.

Naturally, Space Opera is about Earth’s discovery, and how the band Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes is chosen to represent our planet in the Grand Prix. But there’s not much of the sweeping panorama of war, politics, maneuverings, rivalries, etc. that one finds in a typical space opera. Instead, Space Opera is nearly all exposition. The reader is treated to acres of luscious and clever descriptions of alien species and their planets, the lives and locales of the members of the band, the historical events that led to the institution of the Grand Prix, and musings on the nature of existence.

There were times while listening I could have been convinced the entire book consisted of six or seven enormous run-on sentences, each like a string of firecrackers, a few fizzling out but most exploding with turns of phrase witty, outrageous, insightful, or some combination of those. I’m a fan of the book, but readers should not go into it expecting more than that. You’ll get some decent character studies of the band members, as well as one hilarious housecat, and you’ll get some clear homages to Douglas Adams, including an ear-infecting virus that translates languages and a spaceship that runs on paradoxes. But mostly you’ll get Valente’s outstanding virtuosity of language and imagination, mixed in with doses of philosophical meditations on life, the universe, and everything.


(8) Red Country, by Joe Abercrombie

  • Nominee, 2013 British Fantasy Award
  • Nominee, 2013 Locus Award

Joe Abercrombie is one of my favorite authors, and his extended First Law series is magnificent. After the first trilogy, there are three standalones in the same setting, and Red Country is the third and final of those.

Red Country is a fantasy western, plain and simple. It’s full of good tropey goodness, with wagon trains heading west, gold rush towns springing up, dangerous native populations, and brutal frontier violence. But while things are just as grim, grime-smeared and visceral as in any other Abercrombie book, the character arcs here actually seem to end with a semblance of redemption. More than that, the characters we follow are, overall, more likable. This was, for me, the most hopeful of the works of the self-styled “Lord Grimdark” that I’ve read.  (Not that’s it’s particularly hopeful, mind you. This is Abercrombie we’re talking about. There’s still a pall of fatalism over everything, alongside the wonderful cinematic storytelling and massively entertaining characters.)

As with the others of the First Law stand-alones, this one will be more effective if you’ve read the original trilogy. While the new characters are great, you’ll also be treated to the return of several old favorites.


(9) The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

This is the third book in Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series. (If you’d like, you can read my effusive reviews of the first two books, Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx.) With those first two books, the author set a high bar, but with the The Hod King, he leapt over it with yards to spare.

The language is every bit as flowing and perfect as I’ve come to expect, full of vivid yet economic descriptions, well-timed poignancy, and bulls-eye similes. Oh, the similes! I kept expecting to tire of them, as Bancroft uses them in cartloads, but I never did. He can reach into his bag at will and pull out the simplest, most evocative simile every time.

The story, and particularly its genre, continues to defy easy description. It’s listed as fantasy, and it feels like fantasy, but on close scrutiny I’m not sure why. There’s no magic; all of the magic-seeming effects are explained in-fiction as a kind of weird science. There are steam-punky airships and prosthetics, various old-tyme firearms, and most of the monsters are mechanical creations. Based only an objective and sterile look at the book’s elements, one would categorize it as a steam-punk sci-fi mix. But who knows? And, ultimately, who cares? The setting is marvelous and unique, whatever you want to call it.

The narrative structure of The Hod King is unusual, but on reflection I think it’s genius. We follow three different threads: Tom Senlin sleuthing around the ringdom of Pelphia, spying on behalf of the mysterious Sphinx; Voleta and Iren infiltrating Pelphia’s nobility in an attempt to find Tom’s kidnapped wife Marya; and Edith, whose job is to retrieve the Pelphians’ copy of an important painting. Rather than interweave these arcs chronologically, Bancroft presents each one more or less in full, even though that necessitates jumps back in time as each narrative is picked up. That gives each character a full uninterrupted arc, deepening reader connection and engagement. And while the mystery and tension are altered a bit (since you know a bit about what’s coming), it’s every bit as gripping. (The middle story leaves on a devil of a cliffhanger, but be comforted; it’s (mostly) resolved by the end of the book.)

Another thing this book does brilliantly is managing stakes. Senlin Ascends was a very personal story. Tom has lost his wife in a confusing and dangerous place, and his journey to find her became one of personal growth. Arm of the Sphinx widened the narrative to include more characters and action. The Hod King raises the stakes by pushing down the plunger on the dynamite—no spoilers, but holy $#@!—

and yet still manages to maintain intimate connections with numerous characters. The story works on every level, from the personal to the epic.

What haven’t I gushed about yet? Oh, the characters! From Voleta’s unquenchable spirit to Iren’s frustrated and cracking stoicism, from Tom’s determination to Edith’s bravery to Byron’s – well, I’ll leave readers to discover more about Byron on their own, but I thought he stole the show. New side characters appear alongside returning ones, and there’s not a weak one in the bunch. (And most of the best characters are women. I love Tom, but aside from Byron, Voleta, Edith and Iren are the best in the book. This book takes the Bechdel Test, slams it on the teacher’s desk, and accurately predicts an A+.)

This is usually the place in my reviews when I find some little nit to pick, some caveat, some niggling weakness to show I’m not entirely an uncritical reader. But nothing is coming to mind. I loved everything about this book. Its action scenes are thrilling and beautifully narrated. Its philosophy and themes are powerful and funny at once, encompassing barbs at empty aristocracy and wealth alongside sober looks at cycles of abuse, class struggles, and the allure of cults. Its plot twists and breathtaking moments are heart-poundingly good. Its setting is so vibrant and lovingly detailed, it’s like another character all on its own. It’s 600 pages long and felt too short. I already owned the first two on e-reader, but after reading The Hod King I went and bought paper copies so I could foist them on my wife and daughters.

It’s only February, but I’ll be surprised if 2019 ends and I’ve read anything I’ve enjoyed as much as The Hod King.

All the stars. This book gets all the stars.


(10) Age of Assassins, by R.J.Barker
(13) Blood of Assassins, by R.J.Barker
(18) King of Assassins, by R.J.Barker

One could be forgiven for immediately wanting to compare these books to Robin Hobb’s Farseer opus.

Consider: Barker’s trilogy is narrated in first person POV by a young assassin apprenticed to an older, wiser one. Said assassin—Girton Clubfoot—is often impetuous, jumps readily to wrong conclusions, and also must come to terms with his innate ability to wield a forbidden magic.

Consider further: All three books take place in and around seats of royal authority, where Girton takes on a behind-the-scenes role whose actions will affect the power politics of nobility. Between the first and second books, and again before the third, years pass, during which our assassin protagonist gains in maturity and perspective but still makes plot-driving mistakes in judgement.

Also: The stories are intensely character-driven and personal, with a focus on the many relationships between Girton and the cast of secondary characters around him. And the writing itself is lovely, sensorially focused, and generally flawless.

Oh, and jesters play a prominent role. And in the first book, Girton spends a great deal of time training with other boys who mostly distrust or hate him.

BUT…I am absolutely not slagging these books as Hobb knock-offs. They stand on their own as outstanding pieces of fantasy fiction. I find it astounding that Mr. Barker could have written a series with so many superficial similarities to Hobb’s but have it still be so distinctive and powerful.

Some other observations:

  • Each book in the trilogy is, at its heart, a murder mystery. Girton must navigate all sorts of perils while simultaneously looking for dangerous killers.
  • There’s a constant focus on the religions of the setting – that there were once many gods, but those are now dead except for Xus, God of Death. Left behind is a superstitious pseudo-religion focused on four “hedgelords,” which I took as remnants of the dead gods. This religious structure is constantly referenced throughout—and in some ways drives— all three books.
  • Barker writes REALLY entertaining combats, using a pair of interesting tricks. First, he switches seamlessly from past tense to present tense to put readers in the moment along with Girton. And second, Girton, as a trained assassin, fights via a series of combat maneuvers (“iterations,” he calls them) ingrained into his muscle memory. His battles are described using the pithy names for these maneuvers, along with brief descriptions. It’s very clever, and makes for tense, kinetic battle scenes.
  • As you might guess, Girton Clubfoot suffers from a club foot, but it never seems to hamper him in any way other than causing him pain from time to time. He’s still lightning-quick and a nearly matchless fighter.
  • I listened to these on audio, and the narrator, Joe Jameson, is amazing. One thing to note: if you’re listening and not reading, you may wonder why Barker chose “Zeus” as the name of the god of death in his secondary-world fantasy. The answer is: he didn’t, not really. It’s “Xus.”


(11) Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman

This is the sequel to my favorite middle-grade book from last year, Seraphina.  This time, the titular character spends most of the book traveling the world looking for her fellow half-dragons, in order to create a kind of magical defense in a dragonish civil war.

I enjoyed this one every bit as much as the first. It expands the reader’s understanding of the world, introduces a host of wonderful new characters, and brings to center stage the woman Jannoula, a fantastically evil villain. It’s more of a Questing Book™ than a political thriller like the first one, but the character interactions are still at the heart of the tale, and are every bit as compelling.

As this was a car-ride read with my daughter, we were once again treated to the exquisite narration of Mandy Williams. Out of all the audiobook characters I’ve heard narrated these last three years, Willams-as-Seraphina is tied for my favorite along with Reynolds-as-Hadrian from Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria books.

If you want something to listen to with a middle-schooler, I can’t recommend this (along with Seraphina) enough.


(12) Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Winner, 1999 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize

This is Mitchell’s debut novel, though I’ve read several others already. It follows (or more accurately, presages) Mitchell’s pattern of writing books that are connected series of separated narratives, as seen in both Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. But whereas those latter two are chronologically sequential, with each (mostly) only touching on the previous, Ghostwritten is a multiply-interlocking puzzle box, full of unexpected connections across all nine interior stories.

As with everything I’ve read of Mitchell, the writing is astonishingly adroit, and his greatest strength – the wholly believable investment in his characters – is on full display even here at the start of his novelist’s career. There are big-picture thematic links throughout, including the roles of fate and chance in everyday life, and plenty of good vs. evil imperatives. There’s even (minor spoiler) a “three laws” paradox for what appears to be a conflicted AI.

As for how to solve the puzzle box? Even after the last page, I’m not certain. I can see multiple interpretations, ranging from a true end-of-the-world scenario, to a war played out between non-corporeal beings who ride around inside human minds, to “this was all a dream in the mind of a madman.” No matter – it’s a fun ride. The writing is full of color, the characters are real, and the web of connections is fascinating even if you can’t untangle them.

If you’ve read Cloud Atlas, how you felt about it will probably be similar to how you’ll feel about Ghostwritten.


(15) Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

Winner, 2017 Hugo Award
Winner, 2017 Alex Award
Winner, 2017 Locus Award
Winner, 2016 Nebula Award
Nominee, 2017 World Fantasy Award
Nominee, 2017 British Fantasy Award
2016 Tiptree Honor List

This is a strange little novella, the first in McGuire’s award-winning Wayward Children series. It takes place at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, whose residents are young folk who have had Narnia-like experiences; that is, they’ve been through doors to fantasy worlds and come back again, and now cannot return even though they long to. It soon becomes a murder mystery as students there start to turn up dead, and a group of kids takes it on themselves to find the perpetrator.

As one might expect from a book with this premise, there are strong themes of longing and loss, of struggling in a world where one doesn’t fit in. There’s also the right kind of representation in EHaD; the kids include one who’s ace and another who’s trans, but the book doesn’t center those kids’ identities or make a big deal out of it. It’s just another facet of who they are.


(16) Rosewater by Tade Thompson

  • Winner, 2019 Arthur C. Clarke Award

Heady, weird, brilliant science fiction that I’m not sure how to adequately describe. But here goes: It’s a time-skipping, trope-defying, sort-of-dystopian complex Afrocentric near-future first contact novel set entirely in Nigeria. Its main character is a fascinating anti-hero, its aliens bizarre and truly alien, and its plot leaves plenty of world-building mysteries for its sequels to explore.

It’s cerebral and (for me) was slow-going, but I’m glad I finished it. If you want some out-of-the-ordinary SF, this is for you.


(17) Mossflower, by Brian Jacques
(24) Mattimeo, by Brian Jacques
(28) Mariel of Redwall, by Brian Jacques
(43) Salamandastron, by Brian Jacques

Having listened to Redwall with my 11-year-old daughter, I asked if she wanted to move on to its sequels (the first of which is actually a prequel). She gave me a resounding “yes!”

Short version: if you liked Redwall, you’ll like the follow-on books, at least for a while. Each is basically a recycled version of the original, with a similar cast of creatures hitting all the same story beats: an over-the-top evil villain (a cat, then a fox and raven, a sea rat, and most recently a weasel) employs an army of weasels, stoats, rats, foxes, and ferrets to make life difficult for a plucky society of friendly woodland creatures. As in the first book, the evil forces suffer from laziness and infighting, while the good creatures are kind, cooperative, and just as clever as their adversaries. Each book even has a multi-stage riddle/scavenger hunt that’s critical to achieve victory, just as there was in Redwall.

Yes, the storytelling in the later books is delightful, as is the rich Scottish voice of the main narrator, and yes, there’s plenty of excitement, turns of fortune, and descriptions of delicious food I’d put against any author anywhere. But as we listened to Salamandastron, both my daughter and I would often comment on how the author was always hewing too closely to his original formula.  (And my daughter, 12 by the time we reached the fifth of these books, would actually groan and roll her eyes as the descriptions of feasts grew ever more lengthy and over-the-top.)

Also, while I realize some simplification is good for middle-grade readers, I’ve grown a little uncomfortable with the notion that good/evil is inherent to specific creature types. Mice, otters, badgers, squirrels and hedgehogs are always Good, while rats, stoats, ferrets, and weasels are always Bad.

Still, Jacques is a great storyteller, and his writing is both rich and accessible to kids.


(19) Sin Eater, by Mike Shel

Mike Shel’s Aching God was one of my favorite books of 2018, so you can imagine my excitement at getting my hands on an ARC of its sequel, Sin Eater. And I’m here to tell you: Aching God was no flash in the pan. Sin Eater is even better.

Shel’s deft use of language to create a foreboding (and often creepy) atmosphere is on full display in the sequel, and his pacing and characterization have only improved. Mysteries about the world and the plot are resolved and replaced with new ever-more-intriguing ones, assuring that I would keep turning pages when I should have been feeding my children or sleeping.

The structure is quite similar to Aching God: Auric Manteo and a party of adventurers from the Syraeic League quest across the land to [spoiler redacted], while back home, [more spoilers redacted]. But this time around, Auric’s daughter Agnes is the leader of the expedition, and the explorations of both her character and her relationship with Auric are deep and captivating. If I had to choose the most significant difference between the two books, I’d say It was a greater focus on character, and a bit less on the Quest. (Which is not to say the quest is not of monumental import!)

Events and cultures from the first book are explained and clarified, and with less dense exposition. Sin Eater just flows better than its predecessor. It’s a delicious slow-burn story, in no hurry to gather its momentum, but by the end it thunders like a boulder crashing down a hillside. And it sets up some intriguing possibilities for book 3 while still ending perfectly satisfactorily on its own.

I’m purposefully leaving out detail from this review, because the reveals and turns of the story deserve the least possible spoilage. But consider this review a strong recommendation to read the Iconoclasts trilogy, if a well-written atmospheric quest-fantasy sounds like something you’d enjoy.


(20) Never Die, By Rob Hayes

Rob Hayes is a well-known name in self-published fantasy, due in part to him being the winner of the 2017 SPFBO. I’ve been meaning to read something of his for a year or so, and since I was in the mood for something shorter, I opted for this one.

Never Die reads like a comic book version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It follows a little boy named Ein who travels a fictional eastern Asian kingdom bringing dead heroes back to life, assembling a super-team to defeat an evil emperor. Most of the book is spent following the group around as they fight monsters thrown in their path and accrue more heroes to the cause. One wrinkle is that Ein needs his heroes to be dead and resurrected, so his current team must first kill those they collectively want to recruit. As such, there are lots of battles in this book.

The last 20% or so picks up drastically in pace, as the team finally approaches and confronts the Big Bad. And then there’s a great twist at the end I won’t spoil, but I will say that a) I thought I saw it coming, and I was partly right, but b) it was even twistier than I expected!

It’s difficult for me to evaluate the writing of this book, since there was evidently a problem with the version I purchased for my Kindle reader, and the draft I read had an unfortunate number of typos. And there are many, many comma splices. These are a stylistic choice by the author, but I don’t think it works. My opinion is that comma splices should be rare and carefully employed, but here it might leave a reader with an impression that the author doesn’t understand what the problem is. I was mollified to learn they were intentional, but not enough to overcome my persnickety vexation.
Still, this was a quick, fun read, and the characters and banter are excellent. It feels the way the author intended it to feel—like a great wuxia film put down in print.

(Update: a few days ago this book was chosen as a 2019 SPFBO finalist.)


(21) The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden

The second book in the Winternight Trilogy, The Girl in the Tower is wonderful for the same reasons The Bear and the Nightingale was wonderful. Lush and poetic writing, a sense of place grounded deeply in Russian folklore, and the same stubborn, adventurous protagonist.

Vasya is again united with her magical horse Solovey, as they set out from their home village to explore the countryside, with intermittent meetings with Morozko, the icy god of death. This time the story is more about the politics of medieval Moscow and less about living in remote wilderness, and while I’d still call it historical fiction, I thought it leaned a bit more toward the fairy-tale side than the first book.

The Girl in the Tower is, in addition, a thrilling adventure story, delving into Vasya’s magical family history and promising a great book 3. (Which is out, by the way. It’s titled The Winter of the Witch, and it’s down there somewhere on my TBR…)


(22) Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez

  • Kirkus Best Books, 2019
  • Publishers Weekly Best Books, 2019
  • Booklist Top 10 SF/Fantasy & Horror for Youth, 2019

Our family listened to this one on a road trip. It’s weird and fantastic middle grade fare, starring a cocky but kindhearted 13-year-old diabetic Cuban-American boy who can pull objects out of parallel universes. The book is written with a wonderful sense of humor wrapped around a plethora of complex and often sobering topics.

The narration is in first person, told by middle-schooler Salvador Vidon, student at a school for gifted children with an artistic bent. He’s a magician and showman, but he causes trouble by yanking things from parallel universes to solve his problems. (One of these, the reader learns early on, is his deceased mother who died five years previous.) Dealing with death is one of the main themes of the book – in addition to Sal’s mom, Gabi has a month-old brother in intensive care. Other observations:

  • Technically this book is science fiction, with some near-human-level AI, and weird science underpinning Sal’s ability to rip holes in the fabric of reality.
  • There’s no villain. The tension is all situational. Almost every character, including the various parents and schoolteachers, is quirky, sympathetic, and helpful. It’s refreshing, really, to see an interesting story told that doesn’t rely on one or more people being traditionally “evil” to generate conflict.
  • It contains the best fart joke I’ve ever read. My wife and and I proved that we are still, in some sense, 12 years old, given how much we laughed at it.


(23) Nice Dragons Finish Last, by Rachel Aaron

  • Audie Award, Fantasy, 2016

This was one of those books I came to via a sheer preponderance of positive opinion on the Internet. It also came up on suggestion lists for audiobooks, and I was looking for a new one after finishing R.J.Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy.

Liked it, but didn’t love it. Here’s why.

The world building and characters are outstanding. Granted I don’t read too much urban fantasy, but I thought the setting was unusual and imaginative: a modern alternate Earth where magic has been returned to the world via a mysterious asteroid. Magical creatures, magical spells, and magical artifacts all exist in abundance, alongside ordinary everyday humans.

The main character is a dragon named Julius, locked into human form by his disappointed mother and banished to the Detroit Free Zone, a region now ruled by Algonquin, a powerful nature spirit woken by the asteroid. One of the rules of the DFZ is “no dragons,” so having to look like a human has its upside. The other dragons of Julius’s clan are vicious, cutthroat, and manipulative, regarding humans the same way humans regard termites. Julius has been the clan’s indolent teenager, living in the basement and playing video games. Worse still, Julius is actually nice, even to humans, which is about as awful a weakness as exists in the dragon world. So his mother, Bethesda, has kicked him out with orders to make something of himself.

Early on, Julius teams up with a human mage named Marcie, and the two spend the book caught up in all sorts of magical and criminal hijinks. There’s a strong and varied cast of secondary characters, and the DFZ is full of surprises and neat little details.

What I didn’t love was the writing itself. Technically it’s fine—no outright grammar mistakes or anything like that. But the sentences themselves seemed relentlessly unvaried, accentuating the YA feel in a way that rankled. Here’s what I’m talking about, found in 2 minutes with the prologue one can view for free on Amazon:

“She’s in there,” the smaller man snapped, stomping up the stairs to stand shoulder to shoulder with…

“Here!” he cried triumphantly, grabbing the edge of the threadbare carpet and yanking it up…

“Go!” the mage shouted, dropping his pendant as he turned and charged for the door.

“Don’t cry,” she whispered angrily, scrubbing her eyes again.

“You’d better be worth it,” she grumbled, scrubbing again at the tears that refused to stop coming as…”

“Detroit Free Zone,” the girl replied, wincing at the blinding glare of the burning house in her side mirror.

Perhaps this was exacerbated by listening to audio rather than looking at a page, but eventually I found myself cringing every time a sentence came along of the form “[Dialogue]”, s/he [tagged], [verb]-ing the [object followed by lots of prepositional phrases]. And it never became less common.

Combined with the author’s tendency to write long “exploding adjective factory” sentences, this left me with an impression, fairly or not, of juvenile writing. YA, and even middle grade fare, can still be written with sophistication. As examples, I prefer the writing in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina books, Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.

There’s lots of action and an engaging plot, in addition to fun characters and a fascinating world, so it’s easy to see why this book (and its sequel) are so beloved. While the writing style knocks it down a notch for me, I also suspect that style was a conscious choice, meant to tell a unique story in a way the author thought served that story best. This is one of those cases where, if the genre/setting/plot intrigue you, I strongly suggest you read more positive reviews and decide if you want to give it a go.


(25) Holy Sister, by Mark Lawrence

This is the third and final book of Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor trilogy. As such, I can’t say too much about the specifics without spoiling earlier parts of the series. But it’s an excellent final book, answering a bunch of lingering mysteries, giving the main characters closure, and fleshing out a fascinating world.

The setting, as the reader learns early on in the first book, is a planet whose sun is nearly dead. Ice now covers most of the surface, leaving only a narrow band (I think 50 miles, if memory serves) of easily-inhabited land around the equator. The main character, young Nona Gray, is inducted into the order of nuns and novices at Sweet Mercy Convent, where they are trained as assassins, warriors, and/or mystics. There’s plenty of magic, combats, and compelling character work, as the sisters of Sweet Mercy navigate the political and martial turmoil of their dying world.

The prose here is serious, somber, full of clever philosophical one-liners and a general gravitas that gives a great solemnity to the story. This feeling was heightened, I’m sure, by the audiobook narration of Heather O’Neill. Her verbal cadence, as in the first two books, is exactly matched to the tone of the prose.



(26) Chasing Graves, by Ben Galley
(27) Grim Solace, by Ben Galley
(30) Breaking Chaos, by Ben Galley

The author released all three books in this trilogy within a span of a few months, and perhaps that’s why I think of this series as one big story, rather than three smaller ones. That’s how I’m going to talk about them. Consider this a review of the entire series.

I was quite impressed with Galley’s standalone fantasy Heart of Stone, so I had high expectations for these. I’m happy to say that those expectations were exceeded in every way.

I’m a curmudgeon when it comes to prose quality, and I absolutely love the way Galley crafts his sentences, his images, his metaphors and similes. Every line was a joy to read, which for me just buoys my brain, enhancing my enjoyment of the plot and characters. I think I said this in my review of Heart of Stone, but I find Galley’s writing to be highly reminiscent of Josiah Bancroft, one of my absolute favorite authors.

As for the story itself, it’s enthralling. I’m not spoiling much to say that the main character, locksmith extraordinaire Caltro Basalt, is murdered almost immediately after the start of the book. But the world of Chasing Graves is one where the souls of the recently dead can be captured as ghosts and enslaved by the unscrupulous and/or powerful. As such, Basalt finds himself bound and conscripted, whereupon he becomes a pawn in a delightful game of power politics played by various nobles, merchants, bankers, and soul-stealers.

One of the great tricks Galley manages in this tale is giving Basalt just enough agency and personality to sustain him as the primary protagonist (and the only one whose chapters are narrated in first-person), despite that he’s seldom in control of his own fate or freedom. He falls into the “loveable rogue” archetype, constantly balancing an innate sense of justice against his own considerable greed and laziness.

There are other POV characters, most notably the enigmatic Nilith, first seen dragging both the corpse and the ghost of her dead husband across a desert. Her strong, no-nonsense approach to her situation (not to mention her martial prowess) give her chapters a much different feel than Basalt’s. For most of the first book the two narratives seem unrelated, but the connection, once revealed, is a wonderful moment. A handful of other characters get some POV time, but Nilith and Basalt are clearly the stars of the show, and I never tired of reading about what happened to them.

The world itself is an alt-history Egypt, and the huge city of Araxes, where most of the story takes place, is like a character unto itself. By the time the third book ended I felt like I had lived in it, the city having evoked the same strong sense of place as Scott Lynch’s Camorr and Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork. And as for world-building, the setting of Chasing Graves is of the sort I like to refer to as “relentless.” Every chapter, every scene, relies upon and is strengthened by the unique characteristics of this odd society, in which enslaved souls are both a currency and an indication of power. It’s a grimdark world out there, full of crime, slaves, and backstabbing, but it never gave me a feel of inexorable bleakness the way (for instance) Richard Nell’s Kings of Paradise did.

So… any caveats to all this gushing praise? Well, uh…I guess I should warn readers that there’s a bit of scatological humor. And the first two books feel very much like parts 1 and 2 of a 3-part story, without particularly strong wrap-ups of their own. But if you go into the series with that mindset, you’re in for a treat.


(29) Age of Myth, by Michael J. Sullivan
(38) Age of Swords, by Michael J. Sullivan
(46) Age of War, by Michael J. Sullivan
(51) Age of Legends, by Michael J. Sullivan

Having listened to and loved Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations and Riyria Chronicles, I was happy to queue up audiobook narrator extraordinaire Tim Gerard Reynolds for the author’s latest related series, Legends of First Empire. These books are set 3000 years or so before the events of the former two series, and are full of fun callbacks (call-forwards?) to the earlier (later?) works. They’re also fun stories in and of themselves; if you like Sullivan’s deep-inner-thoughts style of storytelling, you’ll certainly enjoy these.

I am recognizing patterns in the author’s trope-mashing more and more, which is probably inevitable when you’ve spent 10+ books in a common fictional world. For instance, Sullivan leans heavily on characters spending many words imagining how the future is going to go, which is a reliable tell that things won’t actually go that way.  Also, as I read the 4th book in the series, I’m flinching a little bit every time certain go-to phrases pop up. Lots of tears slip down a lot of people’s cheeks, and many folks’ skin becomes “slick with blood” or “slick with sweat” in times of stress or violence.

Also—and this is simply a matter of the author suffering from his own success—there aren’t any characters in these books as engaging as Hadrian and Royce, the buddy-duo from the first two series. That’s an absolutely unfair complaint, as those two are pretty much my favorite characters in fantasy fiction, and an impossibly high bar to meet. And there are lots of deep, interesting characters in Legends of the First Empire. The mystic Suri’s journey through the first four books, for instance, rivals some of the most satisfying long-term arcs in the genre.

Age of Legends is the fourth book in what will be a six book series, and the fifth isn’t due out until 2020. It was, I thought, the slowest-moving of the four, with some scenes feeling longer than necessary. But on the other hand, the author’s lingering over character interactions, and showing us repeated, deep layers of personality, are a large part of why his characters feel so real. Oh, and the fourth book ends on a HUGE CLIFFHANGER, so be warned.

Another fun (for me) aspect of the series is that the humans are having a bit of a renaissance of invention. So far, the books have seen the invention of the wheel, bow and arrows, writing, and chariots, among other things. I’m not a serious historian or anthropologist, so I’m naturally curious how realistic those introductions are, given the setting.


(31) One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence.

This is a small, clever time-travel novel about a boy dying of cancer and his D&D-playing buddies. The tag line for the book is “Ready Player One meets Stranger Things,” which is fairly accurate, though in my opinion it’s much better written than Ready Player One. It’s a sci-fi coming-of-age story in which a 15-year-old meets a stranger from the future, and typical (for the genre) temporal hijinks ensue. It’s an extreme departure from Lawrence’s previous series, The Book of the Ancestor, which features a convent of nun-assassins in a fantasy/sci-fi fusion world.

It’s written in a very accessible and breezy style; I’m typically a slow reader, but I devoured the whole thing in two or three sittings.

The book is the first in the Impossible Times trilogy, each book of which has a name inspired by classic D&D magic; the remaining two are Limited Wish and Dispel Illusion.


(32) Moving Pictures, by Terry Pratchett

Quintessential Pratchett, and just marvelous from start to finish if you like Pratchett’s unique brand of satirical humor. This one’s a send-up of Hollywood’s most ridiculous foibles and excesses, highlighted (for me) by a running gag about a producer’s continued attempts to sneak ads for a rib house into his film, and by Gaspode the Wonder Dog, constantly upstaged by the relatively brainless but gorgeous “Laddie.”

The book also features a great Pratchett quote that I can sadly apply to my own life, having recently reached the half-century milestone: “Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.”


(33) City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

  • World Fantasy Award – Novel, 2015
  • Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, 2015
  • British Fantasy Award, Best Fantasy Novel, 2015

Sometimes books sit on one’s TBR for years, almost but never quite rising to the top, displaced by new, shiny titles. City of Stairs was such a book for me, and now that I’ve read it, I’m sad that I took so long getting around to it. While it stands alone just fine, it’s the first of the Divine Cities trilogy, and I hope not to wait as long before reading the second. The reason I didn’t dive right in to book two is that this is a heavy, mature book, and I like to mix up my serious and whimsical reads.

City of Stairs is like a cross between Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead and Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. I’ve seen references to a subgenre of fantasy called “Godpunk,” and this book is often cited as an exemplar. In it, a pantheon of gods has, within memory, been wiped out. Said gods had been quite active in mortal affairs, and so their loss has devastated the country that worshipped them, allowing a foreign land they had once controlled to turn the tables on their colonizers. But the supernatural legacy of the gods still has a profound influence on the society, laws, and architecture they left behind.

The story told in this post-colonial setting is gripping, with detailed world-building wrapped in a murder-mystery police procedural. There’s politics galore, but also plenty of action, mysteries, and great characters. It makes me want to track down and read everything the author has written, starting with the sequel, City of Blades.


(34) God of Gnomes, by Demi Harper

There’s a strange sub-genre of fantasy books known as “LitRPG,” in which the worlds literally contain elements of computer role-playing-games: leveling up, numeric mana and health bars, stuff like that. Sometimes the characters inhabit a virtual reality incorporating these elements, but just as often they’re simply baked into the reality of the setting.

I’d never read one of these LitRPG novels, and, despite my long career as a game designer, wasn’t that interested in trying them. But when Laura Hughes (a friend and writer I admire) released such a book (under the pen name Demi Harper), I thought I’d give it a try.

God of Gnomes is, by objective fantasy novel standards, an odd book. The main character, Corey, wakes up in the “body” of a gem, stuck in a cavern full of hapless gnomes. A tutorial fairy appears and lets Corey know he’s a “God Core,” responsible for the gnomes’ well-being. His job is to improve their society by, essentially, playing an RTS (“real-time strategy game” for you non-gamers). Though his body is stationary, his mind is free to roam around his kingdom, often bringing up a virtual interface to select buildings, create guardian creatures, manage his mana pool, and generally order his gnomes to improve their cavern. The primary purpose of this activity is to defend the gnomish home against waves of kobold incursions.

Whole chapters are dedicated to the leveling up process and Corey’s exploration of his user interface, while others depict the frantic battles against the relentless kobold forces. We are introduced to several individual gnomes and associated critters, which gives the story a more personal feeling even though the majority of the gnomes are nameless and interchangeable. That’s definitely the neatest trick the author pulls: Corey can order his gnomes about but not communicate directly with them, so they are characterized only by their actions and attitudes regarding his instructions. And yet, by the end, I actually felt a connection to the named ones and found myself compulsively turning pages to see how the battles would turn out. I felt emotionally attached to characters who never spoke! What the heck?

While I still feel as though the entire idea of an RTS-as-novel is ridiculous on its face, the writing and execution of the story were excellent. Despite its intentionally juvenile tone, and despite that it’s obviously written to please a very specific readership, I nonetheless never felt like putting it down, and wanted to see Corey and his little gnome society succeed. And more is going on than just what I’ve mentioned – there’s a mysterious villainous presence, a band of dysfunctional human adventurers who stumble into Corey’s domain, and some other little twists. It’s a fun read, and if the idea of LitRPG intrigues you, I suspect this would be a fine place to start.


(36) The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs

New York Times outstanding book citation, 1973
Nominee, Michigan Young Readers Award, 1973

The family listened to this middle-grade supernatural mystery in the car during a long vacation ride, after it was recommended by a friend. I imagine most people recognize the title from the recent movie starring Jack Black, though I have not seen the film and so cannot make any comparisons.

The book itself was, I though, underwhelming. The narration was fine, but the storytelling itself seemed erratically paced and often lazy. It’s about a recently-orphaned boy who goes to live with an eccentric uncle who’s also an amateur warlock. There’s an ongoing mystery about a strange ticking sound coming from inside the walls of the uncle’s mansion. To be fair, the mystery is sufficiently compelling to keep a reader (or listener) interested. But two things in particular bothered me. First, there are two very long scenes that don’t seem to add anything to the plot. One is a car chase that quickly grew repetitive and didn’t feel very exciting. The other is a display of magical illusion-crafting that felt entirely out of left field and had no narrative connection with anything that came before or after.

Even more disappointingly, the entire plot winds up turning on a completely un-telegraphed and unexpected lucky break. The boy protagonist, out of nowhere, decides to explore a heretofore-unmentioned part of his uncle’s house, then decides to try something facially nonsensical with something he finds there, and in so doing discovers something without which the plot would have stalled and made the villains victorious. I think I rolled my eyes hard enough that my car gained 5 mph due to the added momentum.

All this is not to say the book is without merit. There’s some great banter between the warlock uncle and his witch next-door neighbor. The protagonist, an unathletic, unpopular kid, makes friends with the school’s popular jock, but that relationship makes a completely unexpected but wholly believable turn. And the book does a good job generating a creepy, mysterious atmosphere. But for me the setting and characters weren’t enough to redeem it.


(37) Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymr, by John Crowley

A Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2017 Selection
Publishers Weekly Top 10 SF, Fantasy & Horror Selection, Fall 2017

This is the second book I’ve read by Crowley, following the ethereal, dreamlike fantasy Little, Big. The writing here is of a much different style—more straightforward, less overflowing with beautiful turns of phrase—but still challenging. It took me over a month to finish it, as every page demands both emotional and intellectual investment.

Ka does not have a plot, per se. It’s narrated by a man in a collapsing near-future, who nurses a crow named Dar Oakley back to health. Dar Oakley, it turns out, has lived for thousands of years and has learned the trick of human speech. The book, therefore, is largely the story of Dar Oakley’s life as recounted afterward by the man.

It’s fascinating to see the development of early human civilizations through the eyes of a crow, with a strong emphasis on attitudes toward (and rituals surrounding) death. While the book is a collection of distinct tales, the themes of death, the afterlife, and how stories are wound around both are always at the center of things. It’s a slow book without much action, and difficult to describe, but if you’re up for a strange journey narrated by a crow, as written by a master storyteller, I recommend it.


(39) Second Hand Curses, by Drew Hayes

Jack, Marie, and Frank are a trio of ne’er-do-wells-for-hire, styling themselves “The Bastard Champions.”  They take on jobs that twist around classic fairy tales, like rescuing Cinderella from the evil Fairy Godmother, and helping a lady frog get revenge on the prince who passed on his amphibious curse.

The story is told in a series of vignettes, each outlining one of these capers, and as the tale progresses, the reader learns both about the backgrounds of the characters (my favorite parts), and how the seemingly disparate jobs thread together by the end.  It’s a breezy, quick, satirical book that was enjoyable to listen to, but which didn’t sink in any hooks.

The trio solves each of their mysteries quite easily, without any real sense of danger or consequences. It reminded me a little of the TV show Leverage, which I’ve heard referred to as “competence porn.” The narration and dialogue both feel modern and cliched, which was certainly intentional, and it made for a fun, if shallow, listening experience.


(40) City of Lies, by Sam Hawke

  • Winner, Ditmar Award for Best Novel, 2019
  • Winner, Ditmar Award for Best New Talent, 2019
  • Winner, Norma K Hemming Award, 2019
  • Winner, Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel, 2019

The cover of this tells you this is “A Poison War novel.” That might set you for disappointment, if you’re expecting this to be a book primarily about assassins, poisoners, or wars. Now, granted, it has all of those things, but this is primarily a personal, characters-first fantasy about good people trying their best in a trying situation. It gave me the feeling of the cast of Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet living through the emotional wringer of a Robin Hobb novel. Probably Hobb is the closest comp I can give you here, and if you think I intend that as high praise, you’re not wrong.

City of Lies is magnificent, gripping to the end, and beautifully written. It features a brother-sister duo whose jobs are to prevent their rulers from being poisoned by enemies. The city in question falls under a surprising siege early on, and the majority of the book is a kind of who-done-it mystery about the cause of the attack. There’s lots of political maneuvering, powerful social commentary, and layers of mystery peeled back. It’s great.

Any negatives? Hard to find, really. The two main characters are both narrated in the first person (in alternating chapters), and the tone and language used is very similar. Sometimes I lost track, albeit briefly, of which character was narrating.

But that’s about it. Highly recommended.


(41) The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

Every so often I read a book whose prose is so beautiful, it makes me wonder what I, as an author, am doing with my life. This is just such a book—one of my favorites of all time. Alix E. Harrow is a wordsmith I place in the pantheon of my favorites, along with China Mieville, Josiah Bancroft, Claire North, C.S.E. Cooney, and David Mitchell.

This book is a story about stories, a perfectly-executed nested narrative about doors into other worlds. January Scaller is a girl growing up in the early 1900’s, living in the manor house of her father’s mysterious employer. January discovers a secret book, The Ten Thousand Doors, which chronicles the life of a woman spending her life searching for a particular door.

Harrow’s book is full of wonder, magic, love, and hope, delivered with heartbreakingly beautiful language wrapped around a highly compelling plot. Whenever I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about reading it.

Any quibbles with it? No, not about the story itself. A tiny nit to pick about the physical book: The edges of the pages farthest from the spine are unevenly cut (on purpose). They’re similar to deckle edges, and they do give the book a stylish, old-tyme feeling. In fact, as a physical book, this is one of the nicest looking in my collection. But the uneven edges make it impossible to quickly riffle through the pages, something I often wanted to do because of the story-within-a-story nature of the narrative. More than with most books, I wanted to go back and find a previous passage to better understand a connection between the two stories.

But that’s it. I loved everything else about this book. I recommend it to everyone I meet, and if you’re reading this, I’m recommending it to you.


(42) A Little Hatred, by Joe Abercrombie.

Having written his First Law trilogy, and then the three standalones ending with Red Country (see above), Abercrombie has started a new trilogy—The Age of Madness—in the same world. This time around we’ve advanced a generation, and among the POV characters are the children of Glokta, the Dogman, and (now king) Jezal.

The new spin here is that the fantasy world is in the early stages of an industrial age, and the main action set piece of the book is a violent uprising of workers tired of being displaced by automation. But overall, this book is classic Abercrombie writing at the top of his game, with a wide cast of memorable characters, tons of black humor, bloody battles, political shenanigans, and the wizard Bayaz lurking at the edges of things.

If you like the previous First Law books, you’ll want this one. If you don’t, you probably won’t like this one either. And if you’ve never read any, I suggest you start with the first book in the extended series, The Blade Itself.


(44) A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

  • Part of a Hugo Award-winning series
  • A Publishers Weekly “Best Books of 2017” pick
  • Nominee, Hugo Award for Best Novel, 2017
  • Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2017
  • Winner, Prix Julia-Verlanger, 2017

This is the second of Chambers’ award-winning Wayfarers series (the first of which, you may recall, I talked about near the top of this list).  It retains the gentleness and progressive world-building of its predecessor, but is a more focused and serious story. It focuses on two characters, both of whom are experiencing similar journeys. One is an AI awaking in a human body; the other is an engineer who has escaped a childhood of anonymizing slavery.  Both have to figure out how to reinvent themselves as people; this book explores the challenges and nuances of that process, of exploring and creating personal identities.

As with Small, Angry Planet, there’s not much of a complex plot going on, though various character-study threads do tie together nicely at the end.


(45) The Half Killed, by Quenby Olson

The Half Killed is lovely and hard to categorize. Maybe call it a Victorian London fantasy-horror of manners? It gives the reader a slow, unfolding mystery involving a young psychic woman plagued by some kind of demon from beyond the veil of death.

There’s not a lot of action here, but I didn’t miss the lack. The book’s use of flowery period language and phrasing made both the characters and setting shine. This is just the thing if you’re looking for a quiet interlude from a parade of epic fantasy novels.


(47) A Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine

This is an oddly charming middle grade fantasy, serving as a car-ride interlude with my daughter between the Redwall and Earthsea books. The main character, the 12-year-old Elodie, comes to the big city seeking an apprenticeship with an acting troupe, but winds up instead being employed as a kind of young Dr. Watson to a Holmesian dragon sleuth. There’s a shape-changing ogre lord in the city, well-meaning but unpopular, and someone is out to get him eaten by cats.

Er, yes. Trust me, it all makes sense. And fear not; the dragon and Elodie are on the case! There’s an eccentric cast of suspects, and while I felt adrift at the start, the story eventually settled into a fun little whodunit.

I found the narrator’s thick Scottish accent a bit impenetrable at first, but I had gotten used to it by the end.


(48) Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney

This is one where the reader will simply luxuriate in the language.  Every sentence is a sensorial delight.  This was not much surprise to me, since Cooney’s short stories are similarly lovely, but it felt decadent to enjoy such crackling wordsmithing for an entire short novel. (Or maybe a long novella? The book is somewhere in that middle ground.)

The story is a fairy tale, the plot leaping ever forward in a dreamy sort of way. Desdemona is a wealthy socialite living in a horribly unbalanced society, where the poor are employed in dangerous jobs leading to gruesome physical disfigurement. (The opening chapter title refers to “Phossy Girls,” which sounds jaunty until you realize it refers to workers horribly poisoned by white phosphorous in a match factory.) Des discovers her father is abusing an ancient pact with the underworld goblin realm, and journeys downward to right her family’s wrongs.

My only quibble, if you can call it that, is that the book is so short. There’s so much tantalizing world-building, so many quirky, intriguing characters, that I felt like I wanted to spend a full novel reveling in the setting. But alas, 200 short pages with padded margins and the book is done – though, to be fair, the ending is *chef’s kiss*.

Word of warning: have a dictionary handy while you read! Cooney gathers handfuls of unusual words the way a child zealously collects seashells on a beach.


(49) A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
(52) The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. Le Guin

    • (Wizard of Earthsea) Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Fiction, 1969
    • (Wizard of Earthsea) Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1979
    • (Tombs of Atuan) Honor, Newbery Medal, 1971


As my 12-year-old daughter was growing a bit tired of the sameness of the Redwall books, I decided to introduce her to the Le Guin classics I hadn’t read since I was her age. The Earthsea Quartet is narrated by Rob Inglis, best known (voice-acting wise) for his narration of The Lord of the Rings.

A Wizard of Earthsea, as I’m guessing most readers know, is a coming-of-age tale about a young, talented wizard named Ged Sparrowhawk. A moment of youthful pride and foolishness turns into a tale of growth and redemption, as Ged travels the world of Earthsea, both pursuing and pursued by an evil thing he himself let into the world.

The Tombs of Atuan is a less sprawling tale, and both my daughter and I were surprised that Ged wasn’t even introduced until about a third of the way through the book. The main character here is a young priestess named Tenar, given over from a young age to the service of the dark and mysterious Nameless Ones. She is the Princess Reborn, both blessed and doomed to live largely in the dark caverns and labyrinth beneath the eponymous tombs. Ged has come to her tombs to rob them, and the story centers on the interactions between the two of them.

Le Guin’s writing here is as Tolkien-ish in its formal, descriptive cadence as anything I’ve read other than Tolkien himself. The first book is Lloyd Alexander’s Taran Wanderer meets Lord of the Rings.


(50) This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I know I talk a lot about language, and I feel sometimes that I gush too much about it.  And as this is the 50th book I’ve finished in 2019, and I’m listing those books in my reading order, you’ve already read me waxing rhapsodic about the prose of Cooney, Bancroft, Harrow, Hawke, Abercrombie, Shel, and Valente, among others.

Let me tell you: I’m not stopping there. The writing in this unique little book stands up to anything I’ve read this year, though I’d hesitate to make any sort of comparison. This Is How You Lose… is unlike anything I’ve ever read, a complex little science fiction jewel written mostly as letters between two competing nigh-omnipotent time travelers.

I will not do any more plot summary, because I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone. But this book is full of gorgeous prose, playful and erudite and sharp-edged, and you will get cut when you read it. Abstract when it needs to be, and yet full of fine detail, the book encompasses a galactic war and a heart-rending love story inside its little 198 pages.

As with Cooney’s Desdemona and the Deep, which I read just before this, I suggest you keep a dictionary within easy reach. Gladstone and El-Mohtar pull no logophilic punches.

Read this book. Go. Go now. Go read it. It’ll take you two, three days tops.











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The Presidential Traverse


By nature I am not an adventurous person. I live with an inexorable inertia pulling me inward toward the familiar, the comfortable. Uncertainty and danger do not tempt or exhilarate me; they turn me aside in exactly the way I am certain evolution means for them to do. Left to my own devices it’s not clear that I would often venture far from my study.

This is why I am so lucky to have married Kate Jenkins. She takes me on adventures.

Despite the gravity that pulls me to my computer, to my house, to my happy and local social circle, Kate and I have stood beside the tallest waterfalls in two different countries, neither of them our own. We have gotten lost on a forested hillside in the Pyrenees. We have wandered through trackless Portuguese countryside with our 1-year-old daughter in a pack-carrier, armed only with bagged lunches and an unclear page of directions leading to the closest town, hours away. We have paddled a canoe for nine days through the Algonquin region of northern Ontario and for six days on the Allagash River in northern Maine. We have ridden on horseback through Iceland and walked a hundred miles across the fields and moors of Scotland.

Kate tends to choose adventures that push the envelope of what our family is capable of, and this latest one was no exception: hiking the Presidential Traverse, a 3+ day hike over 23 miles of trails that lead over seven different 4000’ mountains in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. These mountains include the tallest five: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison, all of whose peaks are 5300’ or more above sea level.

We had planned to do the entire traverse as a family, but Kate injured her back three days before we started.  As a result, I took our daughters alone for most of the first two days. Kate was feeling well enough to take the Cog Railway up Mt. Washington, and join us for the latter part of the journey.


DAY ONE — Appalachia Trailhead to Madison Hut



The start of something big


Looks easy enough…

Kate dropped the rest of the family off at the Appalachia trailhead in Randolph. This is the traditional starting block for a southbound Traverse, which is the direction where (if you’re hiking over multiple days) you get most of the hard work out of the way in the earlier sections.

The first leg was short by miles traveled – it’s only 3.8 miles from the highway to the Madison Hut – but you gain a ridiculous 3500’ of elevation in those miles. It’s just up, up, and more up. It was also brutally humid, and by the time we got to the hut, we looked as though we had just climbed out of a swimming pool.


Rocky ascent up Mt. Madison

Let me take a moment to say how amazing Elanor and Kira were.  They powered up Mt. Madison despite the heat and sweat, and indeed were unflagging and constant for the whole 23 miles. Even better, they took care of each other and of their dad, knowing that Kate, our usual party leader, was absent. Also, there were a large number of slugs basking on the rocks of the trail, and Kira made sure to spot every one of them and point them out so we wouldn’t step on them by accident.


On the slopes of Mt. Madison

We made good time for all that we sweated our way through 4 collective liters of water and 2 of Gatorade.  I thought it would take us 6 or 7 seven hours to reach the Madison Hut, but we finished in 4.5 hours. That gave us plenty of time to hike up to the top of Mt. Madison (5367’) and bag our first peak before heading back down for dinner.


Arrival at Madison Hut (4800′)

The kids shucked their packs for that last bit, while I carried up water and all our cold-weather and rain gear, just in case.  It’s only an additional 0.4 miles from hut to peak, but it adds another 567’ of elevation. That was also the stretch where I learned about the cruel joke that is the “trails” to the peaks of Madison, Adams, and Jefferson.

It’s just…boulders. Big piles of boulders. AMC volunteers have thoughtfully built cairns on the slope, and marked some arbitrary-seeming rocks with blazes, but there is no trail per se.  There’s only a heap of lichen-covered rocks, generally ranging in size from dorm fridge to industrial fridge, and with each few steps you have to re-map a route to the next cairn. The girls, freed from their packs, bounded up this lithic playground like a pair of mountain goats. Their 50-year-old dad with bad knees picked his way slowly, prodding with his hiking poles like an ant feeling its way with waving antennae.


The kids shelter from the winds atop Mt. Madison



First peak of many!



Wider view from atop Mt. Madison

We were back down to Madison Hut by 3:30, and spent the time until 6:00 dinner resting our legs, playing cards, and chatting with other hikers.

This is a good time to talk a bit about the AMC huts where we spent our three nights in the high places. There are eight of these huts sprinkled around the White Mountains. They provide bunks, blankets, pillows, and sumptuous meals to weary hikers. They also deliver regular weather reports, let you refill water bottles, sell hiking and camping essentials, offer lectures by guest environmental experts, and hold small libraries of nature books and local trail maps. The huts run primarily on solar power, though they have propane tanks for backup.  Some heavier essentials, and end-of-season compost, are brought in and out by helicopter.

Each hut is staffed by a crew of five people – typically college students or recent grads.  They do all the cooking, preparing delicious five-course breakfasts and dinners for (during the busy season) about 50-90 hungry hikers. More astounding, they have to carry up all the food on pack-boards, and likewise pack out all the trash.  They do this twice a week, often returning to their hut each with 40-80 pounds of food on their backs.  And though the labor is grueling, the crews are always friendly, helpful, and accommodating to the guests.  I can’t recommend the huts enough, if, like us, you’re not quite rugged enough to simply camp outside.


Sunset as seen from Madison Hut



DAY TWO — Madison Hut to Lake of the Clouds Hut

Wake up call in the huts is at 6:30, and breakfast is at 7:00.  The morning meal concludes with a skit by the crew, always entertaining, in which they remind you to 1) pack out your trash, 2) re-fold your blankets, and 3) tip generously!  We were out on the trail again slightly after 8:00.


The moon over Mt. Adams as we head out on day 2

Day two of the Traverse is the longest and most arduous. We opted for Maximum Difficulty, since technically you don’t have to go over the peaks of Mt. Adams and Mt. Jefferson, but we wanted to bag all the 4000-footers we could. It’s about a mile to get from the hut to the peak of Adams, but you gain 1000’ feet in that time, so it would be a tough climb even on a normal trail. But as I said, there’s no trail up to Mt. Adams, just a big ol’ pile of stones.


Kira and Elanor on the “trail” up Mt. Adams



The stony slope of Mt. Adams


Here’s a brief aside about the weather: Most of the Traverse is above tree-line, and the weather that high up is notoriously unpredictable. The odds of getting a perfectly clear, not-too-cold, rain-free day without strong winds are extremely poor. But that’s exactly what we got on the day we most hoped for good weather: cool, sunny, relatively calm, and with visibility out to 75 miles. My raincoat and warm hat were never used.  We were sooooooo lucky!

The views from the top of Mt. Adams (5774’) were stunning, as you might guess. We didn’t stay too long, as we had a long way to go and it was quite cold and windy at the summit, but we took some pictures and enjoyed the accomplishment.


View from atop Mt. Adams

After summiting Adams, we dropped down a steep 900’ and then back up nearly as much to reach the top of Mt. Jefferson (5712’).  As with Madison, the ascents were strewn with large boulders, and there seldom was a clear trail for us to follow. Once more we enjoyed a few short minutes of celebration for conquering another 4000-footer before continuing on. (We were in a bit of a hurry, because Kate was planning on meeting us around 2:30 at the top of Mt. Washington, and if she wasn’t feeling up to joining us for the next leg, she’d have to take the 3:30 train back down again.)


View from atop Mt. Jefferson


In the distance, Mt. Washington awaits!

After the drop from Jefferson, it was about 2 more miles and 1400’ of elevation to reach the big one: Mt. Washington (6288’), the tallest mountain in New England.  That was the hardest stretch of the Traverse; our legs were already sore and tired from Madison, Adams, and Jefferson.  (We opted to skirt the side of Mt. Clay, which lacks the prominence from Washington to be considered a 4000-footer in its own right.)


Layer upon layer



The approach to Mt. Washington. The white splotch to the right is the cog railway station far below.



Looking back at where we’ve been.

One can see the weather station atop Mt. Washington from a long distance away, which gives one the (mistaken) impression that one is nearly there – an impression that lasted for about three hours. By lucky chance we neared the cog railway tracks (which the hiking path crosses) very near to when Kate’s train passed by. She saw us waving from the trail!


The long approach to Mt. Washington, with the weather station towers in the distance.



Standing on the cog railway tracks, just after a train has passed.



The final approach to Mt. Washington.



Welcome to 6,288′ above sea level!

We reached the peak of Washington at 3:00, seven hours after setting out from Madison Hut, and to our great collective joy, there was Kate, waiting for us at the top. We took our picture at the official summit, ate some pizza in the little dining area, and generally felt superior to the masses of tourists who had driven up the auto road or taken the railway. Then the four of us set off down the other side, toward the picturesque Lake of the Clouds Hut 1.5 miles away. We arrived at 5:40, a mere 20 minutes ahead of dinner, after a nine-hour day of grueling hiking.

I have never been as excited for a meal as I was for the dinner we ate that night at Lake of the Clouds.

After dinner we enjoyed a wonderful presentation by a Christoph Geiss, a professor of environmental science at Trinity College, on how glaciers carved out the valleys of the White Mountains as they retreated back to Canada. Afterward he set up a telescope that allowed viewers to see Jupiter (along with a few of its moons) and Saturn (complete with rings). The night sky was clear enough to show the smear of the Milky Way.

Around 10:00, having spent the day picking my way over countless rocks, I slept like one.


The start of our descent to Lake of the Clouds Hut, barely visible right of center.



Lake of the Clouds



Kira, upon finding out that the “surprise dessert” is lemon bars.



Sunset, as seen from Lake of the Clouds Hut



DAY THREE — Lake of the Clouds Hut to Mizpah Spring Hut

We started early – 7:45am – because the weather forecast called for rain around mid-day, and we’d heard that the final half-mile involved a very steep descent that would become hellish if the rocks were wet.

We began with a quick trip up Mt. Monroe, which rises about 400 feet above Lake of the Clouds. It only took us about half an hour, if that. The trail, while rocky, was an actual thing, and not an amorphous sea of boulders.


Kira and me on the third day, near the top of Mt. Monroe



Atop Mt. Monroe

After that we hit three more peaks —Franklin, Eisenhower, and Pierce—as the trail steadily lost elevation between each pair of mountains.   (Franklin, like Clay, doesn’t count as an official 4000-footer. It’s too close to Monroe.)  I had planned on skipping Eisenhower, since the whole family had climbed it as a day hike a few years ago, but Kate and Elanor were keen to go over it.


Descending from Mt. Monroe



Looking toward Mt. Eisenhower



Cairns guiding the way



The cairn marking the top of Mt. Eisenhower


As much as I enjoyed the scenery, I was quite keen on arriving at Mizpah Hut ahead of the rain, so I exhorted the family not to dawdle too much.  The final half-mile drops about 500’ in a series of steep rocky slopes, which was not my knees’ favorite part of the Traverse, but we made it to the hut about ten minutes before the rain started. Perfect timing!



Kate at the entrance to Mizpah Hut


DAY FOUR — Mizpah Spring Hut to Route 302

Our Traverse effectively ended the previous day, since, with a shuttle to catch, we chose to eschew the final possible 4000-footer (Mt. Jackson) and simply take the straight line trail back to the road. As such, we finished with a leisurely 2.5 mile descent from the Mizpah Hut to Route 302, arriving at ground level well before noon.  The report from my knees was that this was just as well, given the rigors I had put them through.  Also, I’m sure my kidneys appreciated that I wouldn’t need another day of gulping down Naproxen to soothe my various aches and pains.


The beautiful trail down from Mizpah Hut


My beautiful wife on the aforementioned beautiful trail



Hail the conquering heroes!

My absolute kick-ass daughters still had energy to spare as we waited for the shuttle at the Highland Center in Crawford Notch. They could have spent a fourth day climbing up and down mountains, but for now, we’ll have to wait on continuing to knock 4000-footers off our list.

Aside from the expected feelings of exhilaration and exhaustion, I was left feeling like I wanted to keep conquering mountains, but that I have no great desire to see the boulders of Madison, Adams, and Jefferson again. (I’d take the views, though!)  I still have plenty of hiking ahead of me, having only reached the top of 13 out of the 48 4000-footers of New Hampshire, but among those 13 are the 7 highest – all the 5000-footers on the list. (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Lafayette, and Lincoln.)

I will leave you with this map of our route, with our path marked in blue.  (Note that Mt. Clinton has since be renamed to Mt. Pierce.)


Traverse Map 1.jpg

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Book Review – The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft

This is the third book in Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series. If you’d like, you can read my effusive reviews of the first two books, Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx.  With those first two books, the author set a high bar, but with the The Hod King, he leapt over it with yards to spare.

The language is every bit as flowing and perfect as I’ve come to expect, full of vivid yet economic descriptions, well-timed poignancy, and bulls-eye similes. Oh, the similes! I kept expecting to tire of them, as Bancroft uses them in cartloads, but I never did. He can reach into his bag at will and pull out the simplest, most evocative simile every time.

The story, and particularly its genre, continues to defy easy description.  It’s listed as fantasy, and it feels like fantasy, but on close scrutiny I’m not sure why. There’s no magic; all of the magic-seeming effects are explained in-fiction as a kind of weird science. There are steam-punky airships and prosthetics, various old-tyme firearms, and most of the monsters are mechanical creations. Based only an objective and sterile look at the book’s elements, one would categorize it as a steam-punk sci-fi mix.  But who knows? And, ultimately, who cares? The setting is marvelous and unique, whatever you want to call it.

The narrative structure of The Hod King is unusual, but on reflection I think it’s genius.  We follow three different threads: Tom Senlin sleuthing around the ringdom of Pelphia, spying on behalf of the mysterious Sphinx; Voleta and Iren infiltrating Pelphia’s nobility in an attempt to find Tom’s kidnapped wife Marya; and Edith, whose job is to retrieve the Pelphians’ copy of an important painting.  Rather than interweave these arcs chronologically, Bancroft presents each one more or less in full, even though that necessitates jumps back in time as each narrative is picked up. That gives each character a full uninterrupted arc, deepening reader connection and engagement. And while the mystery and tension is altered a bit (since you know a bit about what’s coming), it’s every bit as gripping. (The middle story leaves on a devil of a cliffhanger, but be comforted; it’s (mostly) resolved by the end of the book.)

Another thing this book does brilliantly is managing stakes.  Senlin Ascends was a very personal story. Tom has lost his wife in a confusing and dangerous place, and his journey to find her became one of personal growth. Arm of the Sphinx widened the narrative to include more characters and action. The Hod King raises the stakes by pushing down the plunger on the dynamite – no spoilers, but holy $#@! – and yet still manages to maintain intimate connections with numerous characters. The story works on every level, from the personal to the epic.

What haven’t I gushed about yet? Oh, the characters! From Voleta’s unquenchable spirit to Iren’s frustrated and cracking stoicism, from Tom’s determination to Edith’s bravery to Byron’s – well, I’ll leave readers to discover more about Byron on  their own, but I thought he stole the show.  New side characters appear alongside returning ones, and there’s not a weak one in the bunch. (And most of the best characters are women. I love Tom, but aside from Byron, Voleta, Edith and Iren are the best in the book.  This book passes the Bechdel Test, slams it on the teacher’s desk, and accurately predicts an A+.)

This is usually the place in my reviews when I find some little nit to pick, some caveat, some niggling weakness to show I’m not entirely an uncritical reader. But nothing is coming to mind. I loved everything about this book.  Its action scenes are thrilling and beautifully narrated.  Its philosophy and themes are powerful and funny at once, encompassing barbs at empty aristocracy and wealth alongside sober looks at cycles of abuse, class struggles, and the allure of cults. Its plot twists and breathtaking moments are heart-poundingly good. Its setting is so vibrant and lovingly detailed, it’s like another character all on its own.  It’s 600 pages long and felt too short. I already owned the first two on e-reader, but after reading The Hod King I went and bought paper copies so I could foist them on my wife and daughters.

It’s only February, but I’ll be surprised if 2019 ends and I’ve read anything I’ve enjoyed as much as The Hod King.

All the stars. This book gets all the stars.

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Book Review – Kings of Paradise, by Richard Nell

Oh, goodness, this book.

I’m going to say a few things about it, but lest this get lost in the weeds: Kings of Paradise is fantastic.  It’s one of those self-published books that is just as good, and at least as powerful, as some of the best traditionally published fantasy novels out there.

In brief, the book provides two main narratives that seem, for most of 600 pages, to have no intersection.  First we have Ruka, who we follow from his brutal childhood in the freezing, resource-starved southlands. Ruka has a facial deformity that others treat as a mark of divine ill-favor, and his life descends into ever-darker depths of hardship and horror.  The alternating narrative shows us Kale, a shiftless fourth son of a king, enlisted in the royal navy both to toughen him up and get him out of court. Kale’s situation is objectively much nicer than Ruka’s, as he lives in the warm and prosperous northern kingdom of Pyu, but we still see him put through a brutal physical and emotional wringer.

This book is bleak. I mean, really, really bleak.  The Ruka storyline is grim, violent, relentlessly depressing, and depicts a world and characters whose defining attributes are suffering, hopelessness, agony, and shame.  (In fact, the word “shame” appears, in one of its various forms, a whopping eighty-three times!)  Kale’s story does contain glimmers of hope here and there, and is much less violent, but there’s still a pall of unease over the events of his life.  Such is the tone of the book that, whenever something good seemed to be happening to a character, I had trouble sharing their happiness because I knew a cast-iron shoe was just waiting to drop. Usually, I was right. Kings of Paradise has many fine qualities, but joy is not among them.

Ruka’s character arc is long, detailed, and intense, bringing out sympathy and a powerful investment in his fate.  The author manages that despite his flaws, which are sometimes cringingly horrible. For instance, our very first glimpse of Ruka is an in-medias-res scene of him cooking and eating a child, and in other places we see him tearing people apart, or committing acts of torture – and yet, knowing what brought him to those lows, I still felt sympathy and a desire to see his redemption.  Kale’s arc is a bit more traditional, featuring military games and training montages, and he’s a more sympathetic character all around. There are some fantastic scenes between him and his father, the implacable and cruelly practical King Farahi, that give Kale some greater depth.  His overall arc feels a little hurried at times; the aforementioned training montage, while fun to read, advanced his character quite far in relatively little time.

There are a couple other POV characters, most notably Dala, a lowly priestess-in-training who at times feels of equal narrative importance to Ruka and Kale.  She’s introduced as an incidental character in Ruka’s tale, but then, surprisingly, becomes a potential major player in the story.  Alas, while she gets a chunk of the story to herself near the middle of the book, and she’s just as compelling, she gets less “screen time” than the other two protagonists.  I hope we see more of her in the next two books in the trilogy.

The world-building is gorgeous and relentless, built out of unforgiving landscapes and even more unforgiving societies.  There are political machinations and a complex tangle of religions.  It can be a little dizzying bouncing back and forth between wholly disparate narratives with no geographical overlap, and listening on audio I lacked ready access to the world map.  But by the end, the reader has some context, as the two main storylines crash into one another in a tumultuous final act.

I listened to Kings of Paradise over the course of a month of car rides, and the narration by Ralph Lister is top notch.  His calm, rich delivery adds another layer to the weary hopelessness of the narrative.  The only problem with listening to this on audio, particularly in a car, is that new sections of the book are placed chronologically by introductory calendar dates.  Since I couldn’t stop to go back, I sometimes got lost in terms of when events were taking place. This may seem like a small thing, but the narratives aren’t always synchronous, and there are some significant time-skips later in the book.

Outside of some minor issues with uneven pacing, it’s hard to find anything wrong with this book. The word that most comes to mind regarding it is “powerful.”  Even now, a couple of weeks after finishing it, and having read a couple other great books in the meantime, I still find myself thinking about the story, its world and characters. Kings of Paradise is not for the faint of heart.  It features the aforementioned cannibalism, along with brutal violence and murder, explicit sex scenes, and an abundance of profanity.  If you’re like me, you’ll be emotionally exhausted by the time it’s over.  The sequel, Kings of Ash, is definitely on my list of books to read, but I still need more recovery time.

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Thoughts on Fifty (more) Books

For the second year in a row, I’ve miraculously met my goal of reading at least 50 books—56, in fact, in 2018. My selectivity and research has, happily, resulted in another year where I enjoyed everything I read. Not a DNF in the bunch, and nothing I had to force myself to continue. Perhaps I’m just easy to please as a reader, but either way it works out well for me.

In 2018 I kept to my commitment to read more self-published fantasy, that being the pool in which I swim. The half-dozen of these I chose ranged (in my opinion) from good to excellent—no different from the trad-published stuff. Which just goes to show you.

What I’ve written here are brief thoughts about each of the 56 books. Most of these are not full reviews, though a small handful are sprinkled in. You may find my tangents arbitrary, or scratch your head at what I choose (or not) to talk about. Still, I hope you find my ramblings entertaining, and that you find your way to some new reading material as a result.

You can find my list from 2017 here.

I hope you find my ramblings useful and/or enjoyable!

But first, some stats, because I love stats:

22,384 total pages

19 listened to on audiobook
7 read on my iPhone
2 read on my PC
28 read on old-fashioned paper

It’s hard to pick favorites out of so many excellent books. Being absent from this list is in no way a sign of perceived mediocrity, and on a different day I might pick different books. But lists of favorites are a tradition, so:

  1. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North
  2. The Scar, by China Mieville
  3. Master Assassins, by Robert V.S. Reddick
  4. The Heroes, by Joe Ambercrombie
  5. Percepliquis, by Michael J. Sullivan
  6. Bloody Rose, by Nicholas Eames
  7. Aching God, by Mike Shel
  8. The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemesin
  9. Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames
  10. Mad Hatters and March Hares, edited by Ellen Datlow

Enough Preamble. Here are the books! The parenthetical numbers indicate the chronological order of my reading throughout the year.
(1) The Obelisk Gate, by N.K.Jemesin
(17) The Stone Sky, by N.K.Jemesin

These are the second and third books in Jemesin’s multiple-award-winning Broken Earth trilogy. (And when I say “multiple-award-winning,” I’m not kidding around. Each of the three books won the Hugo award in the three consecutive years they were released!) You can read what I said about first book, The Fifth Season, in my 2017 summary of books read, here.

I thought The Obelisk Gate was stronger than the first book, with all the weight, characterization, and brutality of The Fifth Season but with more actually happening. The Fifth Season spent more pages with its characters wandering around the blasted landscape, but The Obelisk Gate, while its setting is more constrained, felt like it had more plot. It still left an awful lot to be wrapped up in the third book, but I feel like there’s more momentum for the reader going into it.

Not that the plot feels like the main point of the series. It’s still, for me, primarily about how people deal with stress in hopeless times, and about how “out groups” can be marginalized and abused even when they ostensibly wield more power than “in groups.” But the second book introduces more traditional conflict and sketches an arc for the final book, The Stone Sky, to take.

The Stone Sky is my favorite of the books, its writing and themes growing ever stronger, including more action and excitement, resolving mysteries, and concluding to my strong satisfaction. It offers first-hand backstory about the origins of the world’s seismic problems – my favorite part of the series.

If you haven’t read this series, you are, in my humble opinion, doing yourself a great disfavor.
(2) How to Ride a Dragon’s Storm, by Cressida Cowell
(4) How to Break a Dragon’s Heart, by Cressida Cowell
(8) How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword, by Cressida Cowell
(26) How to Seize a Dragon’s Jewel, by Cressida Cowell
I’m going to cheat a little and copy what I wrote about this series last year:

The “How to Train Your Dragon” movies were based on a series of delightful little children’s books by Cressida Cowell. Our family has taken to listening to the audiobooks on long car rides.

The books are short, sweet, full of memorable characters and humor that will make kids and adults giggle (at least the ones in our family), and David Tennant’s wonderful narration is the best I’ve ever heard. His voices are varied, evocative, and you can hear how much fun he’s having.

To be sure, these are kids’ books, targeted at readers/listeners between (I’d say) 8-12. But even 48-year-old dad has been utterly enchanted by them. The ones we’ve listened to take about 3-5 hours, so if you’re intrigued, it won’t cost you much to take a flier.

…that was last year, and in the time since then we’ve listened to books 7-10 in the series. The quality has only been going up, as have the stakes, the world-building, and the sense there’s been a master plan all along. What seemed like a series of one-off adventure tales has coalesced into a grand arc. We only have two books remaining, and the whole family can’t wait to discover how Cowell will bring the series to its inevitable foreshadowed conclusion.
(3) Avempartha, by Michael J. Sullivan
(12) Nyphron Rising, by Michael J. Sullivan
(18) The Emerald Storm, by Michael J. Sullivan
(21) Wintertide, by Michael J. Sullivan
(29) Percepliquis, by Michael J. Sullivan

Last year (when I wrote a similar summary of all the books I read), I had read The Crown Conspiracy, the first of Michael J. Sullivan’s 6-book series The Riyria Revelations. I called it the satisfying meat-and-potatoes meal of the fantasy banquet.”

This year I listened to the remaining five books, and I would like to amend my statement. The Riyria Revelations is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. I was so impressed, I was moved to write the author to say so (and much of what’s below is cribbed from that letter). Mr. Sullivan was kind enough to write back—he writes back to everyone, despite his massive legions of fans.

The Riyria Revelations, narrated brilliantly by Tim Gerrard Reynolds, entertained me on various car trips for almost a full year. I listened to the entire final chapter with the biggest grin on my face, and the author stuck the landing so hard I nearly drove off the road.

I am hard pressed to think of books whose characters were more vivid and endearing, and whose plot was constructed with such beautiful clockwork precision. Mr. Sullivan managed the great trick of writing stories that felt surprising and fresh, and yet at the same time utterly inevitable in their progress. And the character arcs! When I think about Thrace’s arc, from [spoilers redacted] to [more spoilers redacted] to [holy cow the spoilers!], my jaw aches from its impact with the ground. And Myron the monk may be my favorite character from any book.

Revelations was a master class of how to take classic fantasy tropes and sew them together perfectly into a rollicking adventure. And the final “victory lap” was the best I have ever read.

As a fledgling writer trying to construct character-driven adventure stories in the “hopeful” mode (and thus fighting the prevailing grimdark headwinds), I find the Riyria books utterly inspiring. And the greatest compliment to one of my own books I have received was when a reviewer included the sentence:

“It reminds me a lot of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria books, which is high praise.”
(5) The Scar, by China Mieville

The Scar is one of my favorite all time books. Go here to read the longer review I wrote for The Fantasy Hive.
(6) The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tay

I am not much of a mystery reader; I was given this intriguing little book as a gift. To quote from its Amazon page: “In 1990, the British-based Crime Writers’ Association selected The Daughter of Time as the greatest mystery novel of all time.” That’s…whoa.

While not an aficionado of the genre, I’m fairly certain this is an odd book as mysteries go. The detective protagonist, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, spends the entire book in a hospital bed. Laid up from an injury suffered on his last case, he’s bored, and ends up spending his time delving into the history of King Richard III, famous for (purportedly) killing his nephews, the “Princes in the Tower.” The mystery of the book is whether Richard III was truly guilty of the crimes and villainy attached to his name.

That’s the whole thing. From his bed, Grant reads various textbooks and enlists the aid of a young historian, talking through his theories with nurses and visitors and arriving at the conclusion that King Richard III was a victim of other people getting to write the history books. The Daughter of Time is a fascinating deep dive into the particulars of Richard III’s life and reputation, but even at a mere 120 pages it feels rather stretched and at times repetitive.
(7) The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North
(28) Touch, by Claire North

I’m lumping these books by Claire North together because they are a conceptual matched pair. Each follows the life of (and is narrated by) an individual in modern society who a) has a potentially unlimited lifespan due to a particular supernatural ability, and b) is part of a small society of such people who keep themselves hidden from the population at large.

In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, the people in question live their own lives over and over again. When they die, they are born again in the same year as always, in the same circumstance and to the same parents, but by age 3 they recall all the memories from all of their previous journeys through life. This results in a neat trick for passing information up and down the time-stream. For example, Person A, whose life spans 1900 – 1980 will remember 1980 details by 1905. They can share that info with Person B, whose lifespan is 1830 – 1910, just before person B dies. Now when Person B starts over, they will remember 1980’s information in the 1830’s. Neat!

In Touch, the people are body-hoppers, who only exist while controlling the bodies of other people. They become the brain of that body, and when they hop to a new body by the expedient of skin-to-skin contact, the previous host is left with no memories of the time spent being controlled. They have no permanent bodies of their own.

I enjoyed both of these books, though I liked Harry August quite a bit more. The main character was more relatable and sympathetic, the primary villain was more nuanced, and the time-travel-puzzle-box nature of the plot was more engaging. It is one of my very favorite books.

Touch is a fascinating look at what life would be like for a body-hopper, and it’s a real page-turner of a thriller, but I finished feeling less satisfied than with August. The main character can’t help but be a sociopath by the very rules of their existence, even though they do try to do right by their host bodies. And the story itself kind of spins its wheels during the middle portion of the book, running in circles. It made me impatient.

Both books are wonderfully written; Claire North is an astounding wordsmith in the vein of David Mitchell.
(9) The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

If I wanted to be flip about this book, I’d say: “If you’re looking for a book whose main character is an accountant and which features fiat currency as a major plot driver, you’ve come to the right place!”

But I don’t want to flip, because while the above is true, TTBC is also a powerful and beautifully-told story about the heartbreaking realities of colonialism. The titular character Baru is taken as a child into the hegemonic Masquerade empire, but goes on to lead a rebellion against that empire using her mastery of economics as her greatest weapon.

This is a dark book, with heavy themes of loyalty and betrayal, of culture wars and colonialism, of gender and homophobia, and the ending delivers as brutal a gut-punch as any book on this list. I highly recommend it, but gird yourself emotionally.
(10) Knights of Dark Renown, by David Gemmell

Gemmell is a much-heralded name in fantasy circles, and I had read his first book – Legend – about 30 years ago. I wanted to try him again, and Knights of Dark Renown has a reputation as a solid stand-alone that’s a good representation of his work.

I found there was something odd about the cadence of Gemmell’s writing, not in a “this is bad” kind of way, but rather “this is different,” in a way that made the book feel like a fairy tale, or a retelling of an old myth. Themes of atonement, redemption, courage, and sacrifice abound.

I enjoyed the book, but I confess it didn’t stick with me the way some of my favorites tend to do.
(11) The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

This SF book was nominated for the Nebula in 2014, and won the Hugo in 2015. It’s a highly-regarded work by Chinese author Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu (most famous for his short story The Paper Menagerie).

The genius of this book, for me, lies in its ideas. The writing itself (by which I mean the translation) had a stilted feeling—it felt like a translation—though that can largely be ascribed to the translator trying to preserve the feel of its Chinese origins, rather than going for what would feel the most natural to an English speaker. I don’t think this hobbled my enjoyment, though it was hard for me not to notice.

As for the ideas, I’m torn between wanting to talk about them, and not wanting to spoil anyone reading this. They’re fascinating and, for this non-scientist, took real effort to get my head around, particularly regarding particle physics. So, rather than talk about the story (which I highly recommend) here are some other observations about the book:

  • I wish I hadn’t read the back-cover text, which reveals a huge plot point that doesn’t occur until well into the book.
  • The characters feel flat and not well differentiated, except for detective Da Shi, who’s great. But the ideas are so mind-bending, I didn’t mind so much.
  • Barack Obama said of the book: “The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty”.
  • The politics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution play an important role, enough so that after a chapter or two I put the book down and spent about an hour perusing Wikipedia articles so that I’d have better background knowledge going forward. I’m glad I did.
  • I was irked by the particulars of a virtual reality video game, which presumes a level of natural language parsing (and general world simulation) that’s not close to what’s possible even today. Were this a custom SF alternate Earth, I wouldn’t be bothered, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It left me feeling that the author kind of hand-waved over what’s actually possible in a video game in order to tell his story.

(13) The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie

Gods, but I love Joe Abercrombie’s books.

The Heroes was the 5th of his I’ve read, after the First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold, and it’s my favorite so far. It chronicles three days of a large battle centered around a hill of standing stones, showing you the conflict from several different viewpoints. It felt like a fantasy version of Killer Angels, an excellent piece of historical fiction about the Battle of Gettysburg.

Abercrombie’s gritty black comedy is in full display, showing us the futility of battle through the eyes of a colorful cast of characters, all of whom suffer to greater or lesser degrees –usually greater. Truly, I think “futility of battle” is the main point of the book, as men kill and die, achieve glory or ignominy, gain and lose patches of ground, and ultimately nothing has changed much when it’s all over. But the journey, circular though it might be, is outrageously entertaining, both because of Abercrombie’s facility with crafting cinematic scenes, and because his characters are such a joy to watch interact.

Speaking of the characters, this is a First Law book, and stars many old favorites: Bremer dan Gorst, Shivers, and the Dogman among them, and of course Bayaz for good measure. I would suggest reading the trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings) before the stand-alones (Best Served Cold, The Heroes, Red Country), as this familiarity made the story even more meaningful.

One of my favorite books of the year, no question.
(14) Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett

This is the 8th Discworld book, and the one where we are introduced to two of Pratchett’s most beloved characters, Captain Samuel Vimes and his new recruit Carrot Ironfoundersson. It’s full of the wonderful satire one comes to expect from Pratchett, with secret societies, dog breeding, and law enforcement being among his many targets. (It also has extremely entertaining dragons, if that’s a bonus in your book.)

I’m now 9 books into Discworld (see Eric, below), and this one is my favorite so far.
(15) The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Last year, when I asked my friend Alison, YA/Middle Grade expert at First Book, for a recommendation, she suggested the amazing The Hate U Give. This year, she suggested Bradley’s wonderful middle grade historical fiction The War That Saved My Life.

Alison is two-for-two.

This one is about a 10-year-old girl, Ada, in London at the beginning of World War 2. Her life is already awful – her mother is an abusive sociopath, she suffers a club foot that keeps her from walking, and she’s never been outside her small flat. But before the bombs fall she escapes with her younger brother, leaving London with other children for fosterage in the countryside.

This might be a tough book for kids to read, but they still should. The themes of resilience, of conquering hardship and trauma, and of rediscovering trust, are powerful and important. And since it’s written for middle grade, an adult reader can finish it in a day or two.
(16) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is my favorite author, though I cringe at what the ghost of Tolkien might say if he’s reading this over my shoulder. Heretofore I had read Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House. TTAoJdZ was quite different from all of those, being a more traditionally told piece of historical fiction, but the writing is no less exquisite.

The main character, Jacob de Zoet, is a young man employed by a Dutch trading company at the end of the 18th century, stationed in Japan on a five year contract where he hopes to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart back home. He becomes enmeshed in local power struggles, as his job is to ferret out the corruption of a previous employee. But the book has a wider scope, involving clashes of cultures, a love story, a harsh look at the casual racism of the time, a villainous Japanese lord who keeps women prisoner at his abbey, and a mysterious doctor who is part of the “expanded universe” of Mitchell’s books. (He was a character in both Bone Clocks and Slade House.) There are even some fantasy elements, which may only be apparent to readers of Bone Clocks.

I liked this book a sliver less than Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, but it’s still fantastic, and only cements further in my mind that Mitchell is a once-in-a-generation genius.
(19) Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein:

Here’s another “how can I have gotten so old without having read this?” book.

Right on the cover of my 1987 edition, it says: “The controversial classic of military adventure.” The only controversy I knew about was concerning the Verhoeven movie in 1997, which people either hated for its departure from the source material, or loved as a piercing satire of the same.

The book itself is outwardly straightforward: future humanity has expanded into the stars and is currently at war with an insectoid hive-mind race known only to us as “The Bugs.” The first person narrator is a pampered high schooler who enlists in the military against his parents’ wishes, and the book follows his career through basic training, some field action, officer school, and yet more action. Then it ends with an implication that the cycle will continue for decades to come.

It’s a short book—208 pages—and a majority of its pages deal with the logistics and regimented hierarchies of military structure. The narrator is obsessed with telling the reader about chains of command, the importance of following orders, the responsibilities of various military ranks, and the overarching philosophy of sacrificing for the greater good. There is no higher calling, we are told, than of being a cog in a machine working for the benefit of humanity. And when Johnnie Rico, the protagonist, isn’t telling us these things in so many words, we are treated to pages of philosophy lectures on the same themes from Johnnie’s superiors. We learn that in human society, only retired military are allowed to vote, on the premise that the only people deserving of that privilege have proven through service that they can place the greater good over their own personal well-being.

I suppose that’s where the controversy lies: Starship Troopers reads like an advertisement for the glory of military service. We are told the society backing the military is almost utopian: low crime, low taxes, high personal freedom, a minimum of necessary laws. Given the book’s publication year of 1959, it’s easy to see the book as Cold War cheerleading, and this is made even easier when you consider the inhuman “Bugs” are thinly veiled communists, a literal hive-mind with centralized command (“brain bugs”) that are explicitly willing to sacrifice any individual bug to achieve victory.

The promised “military adventure” is on the thin side. The few action pieces are exciting but constantly interrupted by chain-of-command issues, the back-and-forth barking of orders, and a sense that the logistics of the action are more important than the action itself. With all of the philosophy lessons and military moralizing, there was very little room left to tell an actual story.

Fun fact: my grandparents both worked with Robert Heinlein, along with Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp, at the Naval Aviation Experimental Station in Philadelphia back in the 40’s. My grandpa was Asimov’s roommate, and my grandma specifically recounted to me a story of listening to de Camp and Heinlein trying to convince Asimov to keep writing after the war was over.
(20) The City Stained Red, by Sam Sykes

A reviewer once said of my first book: “For Sam Sykes fans.”

Having now read the best-known of his books, The City Stained Red, I feel like I understand the comparison—but that it’s terrible. The similarity is: there’s an ensemble cast of protagonists that resembles a D&D party. But that’s about it. Sykes seems to be going for over-the-top anger, violence, and angst, while my own stuff is pretty much the opposite. Saying my books are “for Sam Sykes fans” is like recommending The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe “for fans of Lev Grossman” because they both feature portals to magical worlds with talking animals.

Anyway, on to the book. I’m of two minds about it. The City Stained Red, at its best, is brilliant, with evocative action scenes, memorable characters, and some great, bloody, violent descriptions. On the other hand it has a few problems, some of them editorial, others structural or character-based, and it was impossible for me to overlook them while I read.

The book starts with a party of adventurers arriving in the huge, corrupt city of Cier’Djaal to find the man who owes them money for their most recent job. The spine of the plot is extremely straightforward: party pursues guy with their cash, while around them the city erupts into a faction-war whose chaos makes finding that guy extremely tricky. Most of the book involves our heroes, sometimes separately and sometimes together, navigating their disintegrating surroundings while pursuing their payday.

The characters are:

  • Lenk, a deadly human swordsman desperate to put his killing days behind him.
  • Kataria, a deadly female shict (feral wood-elf type) whose people have been displaced by humans.
  • Denaos, a deadly human rogue-type with an extremely checkered past vis-à-vis the history of Cier’Djaal
  • Gariath, a deadly dragonman warrior with a chip on his shoulder the size of Gibraltar, due to his sub-species being wiped out.
  • Dreadaleon, a deadly teenaged wizard who, given his past typically-teen behavior, is not looking forward to reporting in to the order of wizards to which he belongs.
  • Asper, a cleric who worships a god of healing …wait, did I forget to mention that she’s deadly? Well, she’s not quite as deadly as the others, but there’s a demon living in her arm that’s extremely deadly, so…

And while the characters are well-differentiated in many ways, they’re not only all deadly, but angry. The whole book is about these five dysfunctional adventurers dealing with (or not) their extreme anger – at the world, at society, at one another, at the crappy hand fate dealt them. It’s entertaining and exhausting at the same time.

The main reason I would give this book 3.5 – 4 stars instead of 5 is that, for me personally, it felt like the author tried, but did not quite succeed, in capturing something like Joe Abercrombie’s dark-comedy gravitas. Here’s an example of how the book gave me a “trying too hard” sort of feeling: I would conservatively estimate that there are 1,000 sentences in the book that start with “And.” Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a judicious use of leading conjunctions, but since they naturally add emotional emphasis, I found they suffered serious diminishing returns from overuse.

And boy, did this book overuse them.

As well as an overabundance of sentence fragments.

There were several times when I was jarred by repeated phrases—as when, within a two page span, the author wrote that someone’s “gaze drifted past” three separate times.

But, on the good side, there are moments of brilliance throughout the book, and the action sequences never failed to thrill. The world itself, while constrained (in this book) to a single city, is thoroughly entertaining and full of all kinds of odd creatures and fantasy races. The couthi, a four-armed race with formal but stilted speech patterns, and whose faces are so disturbing (we are told) that they cover them with lovely paintings lodged in their cloak hoods, are absolutely marvelous.

The writing overall ranges from above average to outstanding, and I think it gets better and better as the book progresses and Mr. Sykes hits his stride. I only wish the book’s editor had been willing to rein in some of the author’s excesses.

Finally, remember that my difficulties with this book are personal and subjective; there are thousands of readers who adore Sykes’s books, and it’s not hard to understand why. A reader for whom a pedantic over-analysis of sentence construction is not high on their list of priorities, and who is likely to enjoy the “dysfunctional family” vibe of the main cast, could easily and fairly give The City Stained Red highest marks.
(22) Paternus: Wrath of Gods, by Dyrk Ashton

This is the second book in Dyrk Ashton’s self-published urban fantasy Paternus trilogy. You can read my review of the first book, Paternus: Rise of Gods, here. But here’s a summary of book 1, with some mild spoilers.

Fi Patterson and her friend Zeke are seemingly normal modern-day humans who get caught up in an ancient battle between factions of gods. And not just any gods, but ALL of the gods. It’s a huge God Slugathon where you’ll see Quetzalcoatl fight Hephaestus and the Minotaur, Anansi do battle with Sir Galahad, and Cerberus vs. the Devil, among other titanic clashes. Dozens of gods and figures out of mythology and legend have separated out into two opposing factions, and there’s gonna be a big rumble before too long…

…and that’s where Book 2 begins.

Where the first book needed time to ramp up to its eventual frenetic speed, Wrath of Gods fires itself out of a cannon from the very start. It keeps up a breathless pace for the first two-thirds of its length before throttling back for much of the final act, but by that time there are plenty of reasons to remain perched on the edge of your seat. For all the stellar action sequences (in which Wrath does the improbable and out-actions Rise), some of the best moments of the book are quieter, personal scenes.

In fact, Wrath of Gods is superior to its predecessor in almost every regard. It has a clearer and more interesting story arc, and Ashton’s ability to juggle such a large cast of larger-than-life figures—and make me care about them—is phenomenal. Most importantly to me, the characters of Fi and Zeke are markedly improved. Even if they’re still being tossed around by world-shattering events, they feel like they have more agency, more of a place in the story, and more development. As in the first book, Ashton’s encyclopedic knowledge of myths and legends lends the whole thing a kind of inevitable authenticity.

The writing itself continues to be solid, and Ashton shines when it comes to short, evocative pieces of sensory description. His prose is never going to be confused with Mieville’s or Mitchell’s, but his writing is well-suited to his story. You can feel the fun he’s having as he describes his gods, his set-pieces, his crazy-kinetic action scenes.

The story is straightforward – Peter and the Forces of Good™ (The Deva) are seeking out their scattered allies as they prepare to face Kleron and Forces of Evil© (The Asura). The entire book is pretty much that: the trials and tribulations of two groups of Deva as they travel the world collecting their last remaining allies. It sounds simple, but there is a metric ton of stuff going on, from skydiving escapes to modern day Templars to parallel worlds to quantum-powered weaponry to giant sword-wielding snakes. There are shocking betrayals, tragic deaths, gruesome dismemberments and laugh-out-loud moments. I’m being vague on purpose because so much of the fun of Wrath of Gods is the discovery, but I’m still going to tell you that Ezekiel’s Wheel is amazing, the Siege Perilous is terrifying, and HOLY CRAP THOSE SPIDERS.

My only reservations are similar to some I had with Rise of Gods. Ashton has some ticks in his sentence construction that drive me to distraction, most notably his profligate use of sentence fragments. I understand they’re a stylistic choice, but I thought they detracted from the reading experience. And the narration hovers, uncomfortably for me, in a no-man’s land between third-person limited and pure omniscient. There are tense, wonderful sections where we’re exclusively in one person’s head, but then the narrative will leap into the omniscient clouds for a jarring sentence or two before resettling. (The head-hopping that was present in Book 1 is also still here, but for whatever reason it bothered me much less this time around.)

Because I’m a pedantic stickler for prose-crafting, my brain wants to give this 4 stars, but there’s so much joyous action, so much great character work and lovely moments, not to mention a DEADLY SCOTTISH GOD-CHICKEN, my heart wants to give it 5 stars. So, that’s 4.5, rounded up to 5 because HEART WINS.
(23) Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames
(39) Bloody Rose, by Nicholas Eames

As I write this in late August of 2018, Blood Rose has just recently been released, and Nicholas Eames is the current Hot Stuff of the fantasy scene. It’s well-deserved; these books are absurdly fun.

The setting is silly and fantastic: a monster-filled fantasy world is home to bands of mercenaries who act, and are treated, like touring rock bands. In the first, Kings of the Wyld, the band is retired, but gets back together for one last gig. The members of the band, Saga, map neatly onto a frontman, lead guitar (who literally wields an axe), bassist, drummer, and a keyboardist – the last of those is a wizard named Moog. Expect a skillion pop-culture references and rock music callouts alongside a heavy serving of critters straight out of the D&D Monster Manual.

Bloody Rose is more of a “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” book than its predecessor, but as a story I think it’s even better, with more interesting characters, just as much over-the-top action, and some truly heart-wrenching moments.

Eames’ storytelling is rollicking, ridiculous, and full of poignancy that should feel out of place but doesn’t. Both Kings of the Wyld and Bloody Rose have central themes of friendship and family, both the ones you’re born into and the ones you choose.

The writing itself is fantastic, though it’s heavy on similes. They’re great similes, perfectly suited to the story, setting, and tone, but of all the books I’ve read this year, these two have the most similes per page, hands down.

Oh, and bonus points for representation: both books feature LGBTQ characters.
(24) The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

This is one of those books I came to from the sheer preponderance of praise from the Reddit fantasy forum. It’s recommended for good reason: it’s a lush and lyrical take on the Russian folktale, a book at the crossroads of literary fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tale. It features an independent and free-spirited girl (often referred to by her exasperated father as a “wood sprite”) in a time and place when girls were meant to be demure and submissive. (Also, horses are featured prominently, which may explain why, when I suggested it to my wife, she devoured it in a couple of days.)

Arden’s use of language is exquisite. I could read her descriptions of weather, forests, and sunsets for hours on end. But the story is mesmerizing, the characters strong. Everything about this book was great…and it was Katherine Arden’s debut novel! Just today I went to the local bookstore to buy her next book, The Girl in the Tower. My wife has already claimed dibs.
(25) Danse Macabre, by Laura Hughes

It’s hard to hit the sweet spot where “creepy” and “delightful” overlap, but boy does this little novelette strike the bulls-eye. It features a little girl, Blue, who is sent out to do the (probably evil, but maybe not?) bidding of a mysterious fellow who comes to her in a graveyard. She’s lost her family, and the stranger has promised their souls a peaceful afterlife if she carries out his questionable commands.

The writing itself is so good, so lovely and detailed and evocative, I’d have kept turning pages even if the story itself wasn’t so intriguing. But this is a horror/mystery/fantasy hybrid that I found riveting, and slow though I am as a reader, I gobbled it down in less than a day.

Oh, and Blue has a little snail companion who somehow became my favorite character, so bonus points for that.
(27) The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay

It had been almost thirty years since I had read Kay – his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy when I was a teenager, and then Tigana in my early twenties. I’d always meant to go back and read more of him; it just took a bit longer than I intended.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is historical fantasy based on the warring factions of Moorish Spain. The writing is lovely and the character interactions complex and deeply personal. There are several recurring themes in the book—about loyalty, honor, and what makes a people civilized—but the most powerful for me was its scathing look at religious intolerance and bigotry. There are three main religions in the regions (Jaddite, Asharite and Kindath) that are thinly-veiled versions of Christian, Mulsim, and Jewish faiths. Kay differentiates them only by the heavenly bodies they worship: The Jaddites worship the sun, the Asharites the stars, and the Kindath the moons. That the differences are so shallow, and yet drive the peoples of the book to such lengths of mindless hatred, read to me as a clear indictment of modern religion, particularly its tendency to incite tribal violence.

Despite the serious themes, Kay’s narrative style is often mischievous, with little winks at the reader. Kay is a master of his craft, so it works.

On the (potential) downside, there’s heaps of exposition, most notably at the beginning when Kay establishes history and setting. And there’s not really a driving plot per se. Interesting characters move around a shifting political and military landscape, and the scenes are individually entertaining, but the book is more about painting a picture of civilizations, and throwing characters into tense confrontations, than in telling a clear story with a traditional plot arc.

Also, Kay employs a narrative device, often, that feels like a cheap trick. I don’t want to spoil you with actual examples, so here’s one I just made up: Imagine two characters, Joe and Bob, having a battle. They fight for a while, and then the author writes: “Finally, one of the fighters stabbed the other.” But not only doesn’t he tell you who was stabbed for another half-chapter, he drops misleading hints as to the outcome before you find out. Or, similarly, imagine Joe and Bob are having a fraught conversation that ends: “And then Joe told Bob a secret that changed everything.” But then the author waits a while, for no good reason, to let the reader know what the secret was.

I wanted to shake Mr. Kay by the shoulders every time he did that. You’re a great writer! I was going to turn the page anyway!
(30) The Heart of Stone, by Ben Galley

In the world of self-published fantasy, if you’re looking for an exemplar you can point to and say “See, this is just as good as traditionally published stuff,” you could do worse than choose Ben Galley’s The Heart of Stone. The writing and editing are professional-grade, and the title character—an enslaved stone golem—is hugely entertaining. It’s “flintlock fantasy,” as there are cannons and muskets, and “military fantasy,” as it deals largely with armies and their various tactics and stratagems.

The book follows the progress of Task, a stone golem recently sold to a general leading one faction in a long-running civil war. Other POV characters include Lesky, a spunky and fearless stable-girl , Ellia, a baroness playing some serious politics, and Alabast, a once-famous knight now a drunken coward. Task is magic-bound to obey his owner, but some past glitch in his construction has given him a conscience, a mind doomed to self-reflection. This leads to Task fighting a great internal battle as the war progresses, wrestling with notions of morality, duty, and humanity.

There’s lots of action as Task rips through the ranks of his enemies, but the story doesn’t move very far. 90% of it is Task and his army marching across the country toward the fortress of the enemy, peppered with flashbacks to the earliest days after Task’s creation. The world-building is wide and flat, as Galley sprinkles in lots of tantalizing details about the wider world but never focuses on them. This is a very personal story, focused on Task, Ellia, Lesky, and Alabast.

I did spot one oddity with the plot: one character has an elaborate plan that has obviously been in the works for a long time, but they are only able to follow through because of an extremely lucky break part way through the narrative. One wonders how that character expected things to go before that stroke of luck. But it’s a minor quibble.

Galley has a particular deftness for metaphor and simile that reminded me of Josiah Bancroft, one of my favorite authors. Reading The Heart of Stone was a delight.
(31) Eric, by Terry Pratchett

This is a miniature entry into the Discworld oeuvre, checking in at only 150 pages. Eric is a teenage demon summoner who accidentally conjures up the bumbling wizard Rincewind to grant his wishes. What follows is typical Pratchettian hijinks as Eric, Rincewind, and the Luggage go careening through time and space, riffing on Faust and Homer among other influences. If you like Pratchett, you’ll like this, though you’ll probably wish it were longer.
(32) All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

This is a multiple-award-winning novella about a cyborg “SecUnit” AI assigned to guard a planetary survey team. With no formal name, it has adopted in its mind the name “Murderbot.” But—surprise—Murderbot is actually an introvert who mostly wants to watch soap opera vids and avoid her human team as much as cyborgly possible.

Murderbot has secretly deactivated the codes that compel it to obey orders, but it still feels a desire toward reluctant altruism. All Systems Red is a compelling character study of an unusual AI, contained in a fast-paced and thrilling little story, full of action and humor. Don’t plan on starting it unless you’re prepared to finish it in one or two sittings.

All Systems Red is the first in a series of four novellas collectively called The Murderbot Diaries.
(33) Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace

This one’s a genre-bending post-apocalyptic tale that landed on numerous “best of” lists the year it was published. The main character, the titular Wasp, is a small town’s chosen ghost-hunter, one who has to fight other contenders for the position each year. She takes the opportunity to follow the ghost of a one-time super-soldier into the underworld, a journey which reveals some of the sci-fi events that preceded the fall of civilization.

The journey and the narratives surrounding it are dreamlike and disjointed, but that was clearly intentional. Likewise, the story is driven in part by the frustrating failure of two characters to communicate, but where in another book that would seem a contrivance, here it feels much more “in character,” as well as in keeping with a theme of broken connections and revealed truths.

Archivist Wasp is violent, dystopian, strangely compelling, straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy, and I can’t think of any good comparisons for it.
(34) The Wolf of Oren-yaro, by K.S.Villoso

This book is a darling in the world of self-published fantasy. In a recent poll taken on the r/fantasy board, The Wolf of Oren-yaro was voted as the 5th best self-published fantasy book.

I liked Wolf of Oren-yaro. The writing is solid and the world-building is impressive, especially considering that the first-person narrative is fairly narrow in scope, in terms of where the protagonist actually goes.

The narrator and main character, Queen Taliyen, is for me both the book’s greatest weakness and its greatest strength. There’s no doubt she’s compelling – a strong-willed queen whose husband abandoned her five years before the first chapter, leaving her alone to rule her small kingdom full of squabbling warlords. The book’s plot revolves around Tali’s visit to a rival kingdom to meet in secret with her estranged husband, after which her life starts to go catastrophically sideways.

Queen Taliyen is immensely flawed – hotheaded, self-absorbed, melodramatic, and a terrible decision maker. Her devotion to her people is admirable, but she is untrusting and not particularly kind. Partway through the book I stopped to wonder why I still rooted for her (which I indisputably did) and couldn’t really come up with any compelling reasons. On the one hand that speaks to the skill of the author at creating a multifaceted and fascinating persona, but on the other, given that the core of this book is the emotional journey of the title character, I’d have been happier with someone I could connect with emotionally.

There is a lot of telling in this book. Some of that is inevitable because of the first-person narration, but most of the world’s politics—and it’s a central theme—are explained, not shown through scenes with dialogue, to the reader. For example, Taliyen tells us over and again about the infighting among her warlords, and how that affects her decision-making, but to my recollection the reader never sees any warlords or witnesses their squabbles.

There’s a huge reveal at the end of the book that lets the reader know exactly why the opening sentence was “They called me ‘bitch’, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and made my husband leave the night before they crowned me.” That’s a great opening sentence, but the reveal made me like her even less. A final quibble: while the book feels professional, and Villoso is an excellent writer, I found an unusual number of typos (around a dozen, I think) in my Kindle version.

As I said, I did truly enjoy this book, and I don’t want to leave you on a sour note. The Wolf of Oren-yaro is high-quality, entertaining fantasy, and it’s easy to see why so many people love it. Its opening line sets up a mystery you’ll want to see answered, and the reveal at the end is an emotional gut-punch, no question. After a slow start the pacing is excellent, the main secondary character (Khine the con-artist) is wonderful, and if you’re looking for a complex female protagonist, you’ve found her.
(35) The Crown Tower, by Michael J. Sullivan
(40) The Rose and the Thorn, by Michael J. Sullivan
(46) The Death of Dulgath, by Michael J. Sullivan
(50) The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter, by Michael J. Sullivan

After finishing The Riyria Revelations (see above), Mr. Sullivan took to writing a series of prequels called the Riyria Chronicles. These books tell stories about the earliest days of Royce and Hadrian’s adventures together, including how they first meet. They’re wonderful books, especially if you’ve already read Revelations, and I strongly recommend reading the two sets of books in publication order even though they go chronologically backward.

Each of the books listed is a rollicking adventure, marked by Sullivan’s slow and rich characterizations, intricate plots, delightfully humorous banter, and surprise twists. And while Royce and Hadrian remain one of the most entertaining pairs of protagonists in all of fantasy literature, the secondary characters sometimes end up stealing the show. (Evelyn Hemsworth from Winter’s Daughter, I’m looking at you!)

Once again I listened to all of these via audiobooks, narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds, one of the best in the business.
(36) Master Assassins, by Robert V.S. Redick

Master Assassins is an easy contender for “favorite book of the year.” Memorable and complex characters, a gripping story, a fascinating world, and writing as smooth and compelling as Rothfuss. The protagonists are in constant peril, but the reader is given time to breathe by well-executed flashbacks. The societal backdrop of the main storyline is a terrifying and detailed depiction of a cult of personality.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • It’s not actually about master assassins. If you read the fine print on the cover, it tells you the main characters are mistaken for master assassins. They’re nothing of the sort.
  • Speaking of the cover, it’s…pretty poor in terms of signaling the experience you should expect. It looks like you’re in for a cheesy 80’s action YA fantasy, and not the highly literary masterpiece of decidedly adult storytelling that it is.
  • Content warning: there are a couple short scenes of child abuse. Nothing excessively graphic, but not tiptoed around, either.
  • It’s book 1 of a series, and book 2 hasn’t yet been published (as I write this on August 27, 2018).

(37) We Ride the Storm, by Devin Madson

This is an outstanding self-published fantasy novel. The author tries something unusual (and which is unusual for good reason, I think), which is to give us three POVs all in the first person. We have Princess Miko, caught up in fraught royal family politics; Rah e’Torin, leader of an exiled squad of nomadic cavalry which has been captured and made to fight in someone else’s war; and Cassandra, an assassin prostitute with a voice in her head that’s something more than just her own conscience.

The book rotates through these three characters, each with a compelling voice and story that smoothed over any possible confusion or awkwardness that might arise from their 1st-person narratives. And it doesn’t take long for the three threads to start weaving themselves together into a gripping political plot full of surprises and beheadings. Er, yes, I should mention, this book has a severed head count that would make George R.R. Martin blush. But if you can stomach the violence, We Ride the Storm is a thrilling story that will leave you eager for the sequel.

The writing itself is excellent, serves its story perfectly, and is as error-free as any traditionally published book you might pick up.
(38) Mad Hatters and March Hares, edited by Ellen Datlow

A couple of years ago at a convention, I was fortunate enough to hear author C.S.E. Cooney read aloud from her wonderful short story “Lily White and the Thief of Lesser Night.” But she didn’t read the end, leaving me hungry for closure. Many months after that, Lily White was published as part of an anthology of short stories all on the theme of Alice in Wonderland. That collection finally bubbled to the top of my TBR list, and with great delight I finished Cooney’s story along with the rest of the anthology.

The collection includes 16 short stores and two small poems, and every one of them is fantastic. Not a dud in the bunch, though I did have my favorites: Cooney’s, as well as stories by Seanan McGuire, Cat Valente, and Andy Duncan.

The stories cover a gamut of types, from pure fantasy to magical realism to 100% mundane, though the whole tilts toward the fantastic. Some are pure whimsy while others are dark and depressing. And both in parts and in whole, Mad Hatters and March Hares is a work of literary fiction. Any reader with even a passing interest in Lewis Carroll’s work will find something to love.
(41) Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

Like (I’m certain) many readers, I picked this book up after Neil Gaiman proclaimed it “one of the finest fantasy novels in the English language” and one of his ten favorite books. I love Neil Gaiman, and if he spoke that glowingly about something, I figured I should check it out.

Only after buying it did I realize it was published back in the 1920’s. That’s not a knock, but it did send me to my dictionary* more than most books do. And the writing has an “old-tyme” feel, falling into the category of fantasy that reads more like a fairy-tale than a historical record.

I can see why Neil Gaiman likes it. It reads like something Gaiman himself might have written had he lived in the 1920’s, full of erudite whimsy.

– learned “cicerone” (a tour guide), “pullulating” (increasing rapidly in great numbers) and “obsequies” (funeral ceremonies), among others.
(42) Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman

This little confection of a story from Neil Gaiman was the first in a series of middle-grade books I listened to in the car this year as I drove my 11-year-old to and from school. It’s quintessentially Gaiman, featuring a young Viking lad named Odd who must use his wits, and his friendship with three unlikely talking animals, to save Asgard from a crafty frost giant.

OatFG is much lighter and more whimsical than Gaimain’s Graveyard Book. It’s a charming, violence-free fairy tale. The only bit that gave me pause was the fact that, as background, Odd’s mother was captured by his father on a Viking raid, effectively kidnapped and forced into marriage. It’s presented as gently as possible, and I’m sure it’s completely in keeping with the how Viking society worked, but I had to battle to keep my 21st century mores from objecting too strenuously. For what it’s worth, my 11-year-old never batted an eye about it.

This is an extremely short book, feeling somewhere in the middle ground between short story and novelette. The audiobook is under two hours long. Once again Gaiman narrates the book himself, in his beautiful soothing voice that I would steal in a heartbeat if such things were possible.
(43) Aching God, by Mike Shel

I loved this book!

Aching God is an exciting and atmospheric fantasy tale with strong tabletop RPG roots—which makes sense given that the author has spent years designing Pathfinder RPG adventures. It’s the tale of Auric Manteo, a retired and traumatized veteran of an adventurer’s guild called the Syraeic League. When an artifact brought out of a distant dungeon turns out to be cursed, Auric is called out of retirement to lead a team back to the inhospitable Barrowlands in order to set things to rights.

While the tale is told through the eyes of Auric, it features an ensemble cast of adventurers who are easy to cheer for and always entertaining. Though the world they move through is dark and disturbing, the heroes are properly heroic, embodying principles of friendship, loyalty, and compassion. Auric is never made out to be an unbeatable swordsman, but he’s the perfect leader to shepherd his young team on their harrowing journey. He’s a good man through and through, which is refreshing in the current climate of grimdark anti-heroes. The book’s secondary characters are enjoyable even when their time on the page is brief. (The author is particularly adept with his insane nobility; the Queen of Hanifax, (long may she reign) is creepy and terrifying.)

The world-building is narrow but deep. The plot is straightforward: gather your team, travel to the forbidden temple, go dungeon crawling. It’s a classic quest fantasy. But along the way the author builds up a brilliant setting of religion, politics, and warfare that gives the story meaningful context. And the magic system is right where I like it: the middle ground between a free-for-all and a rigid scholarly system. As such, the sorcerers and healers have abilities that make sense, can occasionally surprise, but never make me roll my eyes at a sudden convenience. As a whole, Aching God has an unabashed D&D vibe without feeling like the author was just reading a transcript of a module.

Best of all, in my opinion, was the atmosphere, the sense of foreboding and growing evil that the reader knows the heroes must eventually confront. We are shown the disastrous results of previous dungeon-crawls through effective flashbacks and retellings, and this only heightens the tension as the party approaches their final task.

The writing itself was strong, tending toward descriptive and at times even flowery language. Inasmuch as the job of an author is to paint pictures in the mind of the reader, Shel did that brilliantly. The scenes inside Djao temples are particularly memorable, but I won’t spoil anything by saying more.

Could I pick some nits with Aching God? I suppose. In hindsight there was an extended action scene on a ship that bulked out an already lengthy (530 page) book, and didn’t feel central to the story—but it was an exciting, well-written action scene, so I didn’t mind it at all while listening. And while the heroes’ success is owed in large part to a single random event, before the book is done, the characters talk specifically about what a lucky break that was. It’s presented in terms that make me think the author is playing a long game, and didn’t bust out a deus-ex-machina out of ill-planned necessity.

Aching God is the first of a planned trilogy, and while it ends satisfactorily on its own, there are plenty of intriguing mysteries left unsolved. Book 2 of the Iconoclasts series, titled Sin Eater, will be a day one purchase for me. Five stars, no question.

Finally: I listened to this book on Audible, and loved the narration by Simon Vance. His voice drips with gravitas, which perfectly suited the story.
(44) The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North

I almost lumped this one in with the previous two, as it shares some similarities, but the parallels aren’t quite as pure. The titular Hope has the super-power/curse that no one can remember her, starting about half a minute after they’ve last seen her. She’s parlayed that ability into a career as a burglar. It’s a fascinating take on what it means to have a meaningful life, and the importance of human connection.

Tied into those themes is a recurring plot element called “Perfection,” which is a lifestyle app taken to its ludicrous extreme. Users earn points for exercise, diet, and fashion choices that align with the app’s creators, entering into a horrifying spiral of commercialism, elitism, and conformism. (I was reminded of the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive.”)

As with Touch, I thought the book was longer than it needed to be, going in circles and pounding its message too hard, but it was still great.
(45) Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb
(54) Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb

I’ve written before about Robin Hobb and her Realms of the Elderlings saga. She’s in my top five fantasy authors, and is unmatched when it comes to characters who feel real, complex, and sympathetic.

With Fool’s Assassin, I’ve come to the final trilogy in a 15 book series, and I’m both looking forward to finishing it, and also terrified, because I don’t want it to end. You know how it is. Hobb’s books have been part of my life for about 20 years now, and the opening trilogy is among the few I’ve re-read multiple times.

All of that said: it’s a good thing I love Hobb’s writing and characters so much, because Fool’s Assassin feels like 500 pages of slow-burn prologue followed by 150 pages of stuff happening. I didn’t mind a bit, because Hobb was still playing to her strengths, painting detailed pictures of locations and people and settling the reader back into the world of her stories. Also, for the first time in the three “Fitz/Fool” trilogies, we get a second POV – but I won’t tell you whose, because that could spoil one of the major surprises of the book.

Last warning about this one: Hobb loves to put her characters, and the reader’s heart by extension, through a serious wringer. This book, especially its ending, was no exception.

Now, onto Fool’s Quest. 8 down, 1 to go. Fool’s Quest was more slow-burn brilliance from Hobb: 750 pages of lovely description, character deep-dives, some excellent moments of action, and more details about clothing than you thought could possibly fit into a novel. I did think the last few chapters veered a bit oddly away from what seemed like the bright line of the plot, but I have plenty of faith in the author by now that everything will dovetail beautifully and crushingly by the end. Ditto for the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger. What, like I’m not going to eagerly read the final book in a 15-book set because I’m slightly annoyed at being left dangling? Also, while I’ve miraculously kept myself unspoiled about how the series ends, I’m fully confident that I’ll be left with a sharp knife protruding from my heart when the last page of the final book, Assassin’s Fate, is turned.

While I’m here, a quick thought about titles. I’m no genius when it comes to inventing book titles, as evidenced by the fact that whenever I tell people the title of my own first volume (“The Ventifact Colossus”) the first thing I get back, every time, is “What? Could you say that again?” But Hobb (or perhaps her publisher) I think erred in the other direction. Here are the nine titles of her books starring FitzChivarly Farseer, in order:

Assassin’s Apprentice
Royal Assassin
Assassin’s Quest
Fool’s Errand
The Golden Fool
Fool’s Fate
Fool’s Assassin
Fool’s Quest
Assassin’s Fate

I understand the desire to keep the titles thematically consistent, but they’re so similar to one another, they all kind of blur together into an indistinct mass. There’s no single word that even indicates which trilogy a given book is in. Assassin? Fool? Fate? Quest?

And if that’s not the tiniest, silliest nit to pick, I don’t know what is.
(46) Greenglass House, by Kate Milford

A good friend suggested this when I asked for audiobook recommendations for my school-drives with my 11-year-old daughter. The book is a bloodless mystery set entirely in an isolated hilltop B&B, high above the fictional smuggler’s town of Nagspeake. My daughter was enrapt for the whole thing, and there’s a great surprise waiting at the end.

It’s a neat book, and unlike my (and my daughter’s) usual fantasy fare. (Though if you’re not into fantasy RPGs, you may find parts of it tedious.) Its main themes are the internal conflicts of adopted children (loving one’s parents while also being curious about one’s birth-parents) and, relatedly, the act of deciding who one truly is, and what one is capable of. The main character, a tween boy named Milo, is introduced to the fictional RPG “Odd Trails” by a friend, and finds himself capable of more than he thought possible while playing the role of “Negret the Blackjack.”
(48) They Mostly Come Out at Night, by Benedict Patrick

I can almost see the butterfly about to escape its chrysalis.

TMCOaN is the first in a self-published set of books collectively known as “Yarnsworld.” They are highly regarded as a set, and a later one (as I write this in October of 2018) has just been shortlisted for a self-published book award.

I can see the potential in TMCOaN; the storytelling is compelling and the world—a fairy-tale collection of human tribes each with a different animal spirit/totem/god—is quite interesting. The author is efficient at creating atmosphere, and I liked the way he mixed narrative chapters and short bits of in-world folklore.

The last quarter of the book was a ferocious must-turn-page experience, including one particularly shocking event and a clever bit of narrative misdirection that cast the whole story in a new light.

On the downside, the whole thing has a very rough-around-the-edges “first novel” feel to it. There are plenty of odd grammatical constructions and awkward phrasings, lots of unnecessary verbiage, a few misused words, and the writing has a YA feel that I’m not entirely convinced was intentional. Also, some of the female characters felt like they existed only to serve the narrative arc of male characters, and were otherwise a bit flat.

In short, this book feels like the work of a talented author who was still feeling out the nuances of his craft. Despite my misgivings, TMCOaN makes me want to read the next one, both because I enjoy the world, and because I want to see how the writer has improved.
(49) The Greatwood Portal, by Dorian Hart

I’m cheating by including this, not because I wrote it, but because it’s still being edited. But it’s a book, even if unfinished, and I’ve read the whole thing several times, sometimes as a whole, sometimes in bits and pieces. So here it is.

This is (or will be) the third book in my Heroes of Spira series, following The Ventifact Colossus and The Crosser’s Maze. I feel like I’ve broken through some barrier of legitimacy with this one. One book might be an accident. Two could be a coincidence. But three? Surely now I’m doing this on purpose.

The Greatwood Portal is different from the previous two in its management of POV’s. In the first two, my company of protagonists largely stayed together as they went on their adventures. In TGP, I “split the party,” bouncing back and forth between individuals and small groups in a manner more typical of the genre. But the storylines are tightly interconnected, and I think will feel in keeping with the narrative flavor of the first two books.

Early reader feedback is that this is the strongest of the three books, which is good to hear.

A note on the relationship between reading and writing: if you’ve read this whole thing, you may recall that upstream I took an author to task for starting too many sentences with “And.” After I wrote that bit, I had a little “lightbulb” moment. I reviewed the current draft of TGP and removed fifty-four instances of unnecessary leading “Ands” that weren’t adding anything of importance, and where I didn’t want or need the emotional emphasis.

Writers: the most important thing is to write, but the second-most important thing is to read. Inputs or outputs, it’s the words that matter.
(51) Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch

The blurb on the back cover of my copy reads: “Witty, well-paced, vividly written and addictively readable.”

“Readable” is a squirrely term that means different things to different people, but I agree that this book fits any definition you might come up with. Written in first person with a minimum of exposition and a low-key quippy prose style, Rivers of London was easy to read in the same way that grapes are easy to eat. Not addictive exactly, but effortless to consume.

The premise feels fairly tropey for an urban fantasy: a low-level cop, Peter Grant, stumbles upon the truth that London contains a thriving supernatural subculture, then gets recruited into the semi-secret police division that handles supernatural crime. His boss/mentor is a wise relic of indeterminate age who teaches Grant magic and moves him into the Victorian-era headquarters of the unit, a building with a few weird surprises of its own.

The plot revolves around a trouble-making ghost, but it’s more complex than that, and I don’t want to spoil some of the surprises. It’s a fun book that goes by like a rock skipping on the surface of a lake, never lingering on anything for too long.

I have a few issues with Rivers of London. The characters are flat and never really feel like the point. When the book ended, I didn’t feel as if I knew much about any of them. The mysteries, crime dramas, and wall-to-wall cleverness had crowded them out. And while the author avoids blocks of cumbersome exposition, he’s extremely eager to tell readers a million details about London and its geography. Too eager, I feel; while setting the scene is important, the focus on setting is so over-the-top, I thought at times it interfered with what I find the more interesting aspects of storytelling: character and plot.

Finally—and this is an extremely subjective criticism, I realize—the author glosses over one of my favorite bits of stories like this: the transition of a person grounded in the real world to one who realizes magic is a thing that exists. Yes, Peter Grant exhibits initial surprise at the existence of ghosts, magic, vampires, etc., but it’s low-key surprise he gets over way too quickly. In a blink he’s immersed in the uncanny side of London, hardly batting an eye at the procession of events and creatures that follows.

I imagine that if urban fantasy is your jam, you’ll love Rivers of London. It’s a fine book despite my griping.
(52) Redwall, by Brian Jacques

School drive audiobooks with my 11-year-old daughter has now become a highlight of my day. Having finished Greenglass House, I decided on the classic Redwall as our next book. The world of Redwall is populated by animals instead of people, and stars a young mouse named Matthias who resides at Redwall Abbey. The Abbey is attacked by the evil rat Kluny the Scourge and his army of rats, weasels, stoats, and ferrets. The defenders are mostly mice, but also squirrels, rabbits, hedgehogs, badgers, voles, and I’m sure others I’m forgetting.

It may sound like a setup for childish storytelling, but it’s not. Creatures die, the enemies are vicious and cunning, there are surprising turns of fortune, and the entire book is enthralling. The line between good and evil is highlighted by how the animals treat one another. The defenders of Redwall Abbey show good humor, mutual respect, and constant kindness. Kluny’s forces, while physically superior, are constantly set back by infighting, backbiting, and double-crossing within the ranks.

Redwall is one of my favorite middle-grade books, right up there with Chronicles of Prydain and Narnia.

I’ve listened to many audiobooks, but this was the first narrated by an ensemble cast, and it was a wonderful experience. Hearing so many different voices added a layer of richness to the story that both my daughter and I greatly appreciated.
(53) Grey Sister, by Mark Lawrence

Last year I red Lawrence’s Red Sister, the first book in his Books of the Ancestor series. This year I listened to its sequel and the middle book of the (eventual) trilogy.

Once again we start with Nona Gray, novice at the Sweet Mercy convent where girls are trained as assassins, warriors, and users of various sorts of magic. It seemed familiar, echoing the cycles of the first book, with Nona and her friends attending classes, getting into mischief, and confronting obnoxious rival students. But eventually Grey Sister takes off on its own, and in the end I found it every bit as entertaining as its predecessor. We get a wider sense of the world and its history, as well as POV chapters from Abbess Glass, leader of the convent.

The writing is excellent, though as with the first book, it’s dark and serious, weighted by an almost-excess of gravity, and told in a style that at times feels overwrought. I am listening to this series through audiobooks, and the seriousness is amplified by Heather O’Neill’s narration. Her cadence and delivery are perfectly suited to the grim, somber tone of the books.

Nitpick about the narration, though. O’Neill has a tick in her delivery that I found very distracting. Lawrence finishes a lot of sentences with prepositional phrases that end with pronouns, and most of the time, O’Neill reads them with an emphasis on the preposition, and not the word before it. For instance, if the author ended a sentence with “…the blade sunk into her opponent, and Nona relished the feel of it,” the narrator would place the emphasis on the second-to-last word “of” instead “relished” and “feel,” which would be (to me) more natural. This happens dozens of times, and by the end it was driving me crazy – though not enough to blunt my enjoyment of the book, or to stop me from recommending it, which I certainly do.
(55) Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

This was next up in the middle-grade-fantasy audio queue for my drives to school with the 6th grader. (Thanks to r/fantasy for the rec!) What a delightful book this is! The writing is quite sophisticated, and its themes on the mature side (but still appropriate for my 11-year-old), and we both adored it. It helped that the narrator, Mandy Williams, has a voice perfectly suited for the main character. Seraphina, as we learn early on, is a rare half-dragon, living in a society where she must keep that fact carefully hidden, as dragon-human romances are considered taboo.

The plot is largely political. Dragons and humans have lived with an uneasy peace for 40 years, but now that peace is threatened by an unknown instigator—possibly a dragon unhappy with having to make nice with humans, and possibly one or more humans disgusted with integrating dragons into their society. The theme of xenophobia and its evils runs strong in the narrative, but there is so much more to this book. Music, friendship, religion, romance, tolerance, and the bonds of family all play major roles in the story, which is told with humor and a deft use of language. On top of that, there’s some remarkable world-building here with almost no exposition to speak of.

My daughter enjoyed it enough that she immediately requested the sequel, Shadow Scale, which as of this writing we have just started.
(56) Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

I have now read all six of Matt Ruff’s novels, starting with his wonderful debut Fool on the Hill over 20 years ago. Were I to rank them in order of enjoyment, I’d go something like: Set This House in Order > Fool on the Hill > Lovecraft Country > Bad Monkeys > The Mirage > Sewer, Gas, and Electric. The most remarkable thing about Ruff’s oeuvre is that no two of his books are in the same genre.

As for Lovecraft Country, I’m not even certain what it’s genre is. Maybe horror? Thriller? Fantasy? Let’s see what Amazon t thinks. [goes and checks] Looking at the book’s Amazon categories, I see it in African American Fantasy, Horror, and Historical. The book follows an extended African American family in 1950’s Chicago, one of whom turns out to be the last surviving relative of an old New England slave owner, a man who was heavily involved in some Lovecraftian occult goings-on.

The tale is told as a string of connected short stories, each told from the POV of a different member of the family. The power of the book, and its horror, come not as much from the understated supernatural elements, but the overt and institutional racism that shapes the lives of the characters. In fact, I suspect that juxtaposition is highly intentional: “Look, here are ghosts and nightmare creatures and bizarre astrophysical phenomena and mysterious cultists, but you know what’s really scary? Being a black driver pulled over by a white cop in rural 1950’s America.”

The writing was clean, skillful, and easy to read, though I would have liked more emotional connection with the characters. Ruff seldom goes inside the characters’ heads; he shows them reacting to all sorts of emotional situations, but never describes what they are thinking directly. This gives the book a clinical feeling, at times almost sterile. At times I found myself wondering “How are you being so calm in the face of the horrible and inexplicable?”






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Thoughts on Fifty Books

I’m a slow reader. Always have been. Historically I think I’ve been lucky to finish 20 books in a year.  This January I set myself a goal to read 50 books in 2017, and I’ve managed to hit that mark exactly.

Because of my creeping pace, I tend to be picky about what I read.  I stick to recommendations from people I trust, books that have won awards, and works held in high esteem by fan communities. It’s a strategy that pays off; I read very few duds, and my DNF list is miniscule. My 2017 list was no exception; I enjoyed almost every book I read, and even my least favorites were still above average.

What I’ve written here are brief thoughts about each of the 50 books.  In some cases I’ve provided links to reviews I wrote earlier in the year, since this post is very long as it is.

I hope you find it useful and/or enjoyable!

But first, some stats, because I love stats:

19,219 total pages

10 listened to audiobook
6 read on my iPhone
1 read on my PC
30 read on old-fashioned paper
3 read out loud to my kids

46 of the 50 were fantasy or science fiction.

If I had to pick my five favorites, I’d say:

  1. West with the Night by Beryl Markham
  2. Bone Swans by C.S.E.Cooney
  3. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
  4. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas


Enough Preamble. Here are the books! The numbers indicate the chronological order of my reading.


(1) The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson (audio and print)

Sanderson is one of the biggest names in contemporary fantasy, and this was my first experience reading him, so I felt a bit deflated by my experience. The Final Empire isn’t bad, mind you. It’s decent. It’s serviceable. The allomancy magic system is neat. But the author’s writing style seems unexpectedly amateurish to me for someone so highly regarded in the fantasy genre. The sentence structure is unvaried and uninteresting.  “Character [verbed], [verbing] the [other noun]” (e.g. “Kelsier nodded, handing a drink to Dockson.”) He uses that one a lot.  And the amount of nodding, smiling, frowning, shrugging and eyebrow-raising was at times overwhelming.

What’s more, his vocabulary, his characters, and his action scenes are all…plain, I suppose, is the best way I can put it. They serve the story, but seem so uninspired. (It’s possible that my experience was colored by the audiobook narrator, who tended to speak in a flat, unvarying tone.)

On the positive side, the story and world-building grew stronger as the book progressed. Despite my constant annoyance at the writing, I was invested in the outcome and cared about the characters. The Final Empire feels like a real place to me now and I feel real sympathy for the downtrodden skaa. In that sense, Sanderson succeeded. Also, [minor spoiler] the plot twist at the end totally got me.

I’m keeping the other two books in the series on my TBR list, but they keep getting sifted to the bottom.


(2) Bone Swans (short story collection) – C.S.E. Cooney (Kindle)

I was fortunate enough to hear C.S.E. Cooney narrate a bit of one of her upcoming short stories at ReaderCon, and I knew right away I should find more of her work to read.  This collection of stories, which won the World Fantasy Award, seemed like a good place to start.  Some of the stories are re-imaginings of folk tales (maybe they all are, and I’m simply ignorant of the origins), but each is rapturously original.

All of the stories herein are absolutely fantastic, crackling with imagination.  The eponymous story The Bone Swans of Amandale (a retelling of the Pied Piper tale) is the crown jewel of the collection, but each one is worth a close read.  (Warning:  The Big Ba-Hah will seriously mess with your head.)

I’ve said this before, and now I’ll repeat it:  I’m a decent author with serviceable wordsmithing skills, but any sentence taken at random from Bone Swans would almost certainly be among the ten best sentences I’ve ever written.


(3) The Wise Man’s Fear – Patrick Rothfuss (Kindle)

Not sure I can say much about Rothfuss that hasn’t already been said by a million people.  This is the second book in his trilogy,* and I’m surprised by the amount of hate it gets. Somewhat famously, there’s a long scene in the middle where the main character has a lot of supernaturally good sex with a faerie who’s famous for seducing and killing her lovers. Find any review that rags on this book, and chances are that’s specifically what they’ll call out first.  And, yes, it does come off as a trifle silly and self-aggrandizing, especially given that the book’s being narrated in the first person.

But never mind that. Like the first book, The Name of the Wind, this one is gorgeously written. Rothfuss’s prose carries a reader along like a gentle wave, and the story, while a bit awkwardly paced, is still extremely entertaining. The way he writes about music, and about the nature of stories, is top notch. I would recommend it highly to any fantasy reader.

*  Rothfuss has not actually finished the trilogy. Back in 2006, he told the world he had essentially finished the series, and would be releasing one book a year over the following three years. In 2007 he released The Name of the Wind. It took him until 2011 to publish Wise Man’s Fear.  But as 2017 draws to a close, he has not yet announced a publication date for Book 3, The Doors of Stone.  This has drawn the ire of many of his fans, who feel like they were promised something that hasn’t been delivered.  And it’s true that Rothfuss has been extremely busy and visible on various social media outlets, running kickstarters, streaming video games, and front-lining his Worldbuilders charity.  This makes people even more inclined to gripe.  “Why isn’t he working on Book 3!” they cry.

Here’s my take.  First, we have no idea how much time he puts into his writing, and it’s not really any of our business. Second, writing a book is hard work, can take years, and that’s not even considering the added pressure of finishing a series regarded as the fantasy masterwork of the 21st century.  As a writer myself I’m inclined to cut him near infinite slack. And third, as I write this, his charity just raised A MILLION DOLLARS for Heifer International, largely on the back of his own fame and fandom. So if he wants to spend some of his writing hours helping poor folk in poor countries, I’m cool with that.


(4) A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle (audio)

Somehow I escaped my childhood without having read this book. I’m reasonably certain I liked it, but our family was listening to the audiobook version in the car during a severe blizzard, so while some of my attention was on the book, most of it was focused on peering through a wall of rushing snowflakes and not killing myself and my family by sliding off the road into a tree.

The highlight of the book for me, as I suspect it is for many, is the trip to Camazotz, and the notion that the pinnacle of evil is a mind-controlled conformity.  (Fun fact: while reading Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus: Rise of Gods, I learned that “Camazotz” was an ancient Bat God of Death.  It’s a great name, no matter how you slice it.)


(5) Grandma Gatewood’s Walk – Ben Montgomery (print)

One of the two works of non-fiction I read this year, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk is an account of Emma Gatewood, the first woman to solo-hike the Appalachian Trail back in the 50’s.  And she did it at 67 years old!  I’m 20 years her junior, and my knees are aching putty after a day going up and down any typical 4000-footer in New Hampshire.

The writing in this book is forgettable, a matter-of-fact narrative that alternates a biography of Emma Gatewood’s pre-hiking life with the plainly-told story of her walk. But I read the whole thing in a state of near disbelief. She hiked the Appalachian Trail in sneakers! With almost no gear!  Escaping an abusive marriage, she told her adult children she was “going for a walk.”  And then hiked two thousand miles.

The book is not long, and if you’re intrigued by the story, it’s not a terrible way to spend some reading hours. Otherwise, you should still take five minutes and check out her Wikipedia page.


(6) The Forever War – John Haldeman (print)

This is a classic military science fiction novel that won both the Hugo and the Nebula back in the mid-70’s.  It’s a thinly-veiled allegory about the Vietnam War, using space opera to show the meaningless nature of the conflict and its dehumanizing and alienating effects on its soldiers.  It feels dated in many ways, but is still powerful and sobering.


(7) Taran Wanderer – Lloyd Alexander (read aloud) (reread)
(49) The High King – Lloyd Alexander (read aloud) (reread)

My formative reading-years (way back in the 70’s and 80’s) were full of beloved SFF classics: The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, John Christophers’s Tripods trilogy, The Belgariad, The Shannara books, among many others.  But my shortlist of favorites would have certainly included Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, a wonderful five-book coming-of-age tale full of unforgettable characters, with storytelling that is so charming yet economical, it feels at times like a magic trick.

I have just within the past week finished reading the series aloud for the second time in the past few years, this time to my younger daughter, age 10. I was trying and mostly failing to hold back tears as I reached the end, both because of the wrenchingly bittersweet conclusion, and because it’s possible I have now read these books for the last time. One more reason to hope for grandkids someday, I suppose.


(8) Prelude to Mayhem – Edward Aubry (audio)
(24) Balance of Mayhem – Edward Aubry (unpublished draft)

Ed Aubry is a friend from my college days who has published several excellent books. He and I serve as Beta Readers for each other, and his insights and feedback have been immeasurably valuable to my own writing.

His “Mayhem Wave” series is wonderful—a fresh take on the post-apocalyptic genre, dancing on the border between fantasy and science-fiction.  My experience reading Ed’s work is one of constantly muttering, “Damn, I wish I could write dialogue that good.”  He has published three books in the series so far:  Prelude is Book 1 and Balance is Book 4.  The full series is:

Prelude to Mayhem (published)
Static Mayhem (published)
Mayhem’s Children (published)
Balance of Mayhem (not yet published)
Mayhem’s Reign (not yet published)

And here’s one of the best things about Balance of Mayhem: There’s a “party” of characters who are engaged in an action-packed quest together for most of the book, and they’re all women.  All very different women, with complex relationships and hugely disparate personalities. It’s fantastic.  If I haven’t yet convinced you to try this series, consider this another encouragement.


(9) The Girl Who Drank the Moon – Kelly Barnhill (print)

This is a charming and gentle middle-grade fantasy that won the 2017 Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature. My daughters (10 and 12) absolutely adored the book, as did my wife.  They urged me to read it too, and I’m glad they did. It features a baby offered up as the annual sacrifice to a mysterious witch, but it turns out the witch raises the babies and then lets them loose in a distant land. Luna, the baby who grows into the protagonist of this book, gets accidentally “enmagicked” by the witch and the story proceeds from there.

Among the many characters is a kindly and philosophical Bog Monster named Glerk, whose very existence kind of sums up what kind of book this is.


(10) The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (print)

The person I know in all the world who is most knowledgeable about books, Alison Morris at First Book, wrote that if one were only going to read one book this year, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give should be the one.  So, not being an idiot, I bought it and read it.  And she was right.

It’s about a black high school student, Starr, who lives two different lives: one as student trying to assimilate in a suburban prep school, and one as a teen living in a mostly black inner city neighborhood. She’s a passenger in a car driven by a black friend who is murdered by a policeman during a “broken tail light” traffic stop.  Powerful and timely, The Hate U Give should be (and forgive my bluntness) mandatory reading for white people.


(11) The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemesin (print)

Another Hugo winner, The Fifth Season is amazing, powerful, challenging, and lots of other similar adjectives that have been lavished on the book by reviewers before me. It takes place on a continent that suffers constant seismic catastrophes, the worst of which are semi-regular apocalyptic “fifth seasons” that wipe out huge swaths of civilization.  These calamities are held back by orogenes, a class of people with the genetic ability to control (to varying degrees) seismic activity.

Though I recommend this book wholeheartedly, I should warn: it’s not “fun” in any sense. It is not a happy book, and there’s very little humor to be found. It’s a sobering look at how a society can develop in response to a constant threat of natural annihilation, and the terrible choices such a society forces on individuals.

I’m also going to use The Fifth Season to gripe about something entirely unrelated. The book is the first in a trilogy, and I read it back in the spring. It is now late December, and just today I started the second book, The Obelisk Gate. I don’t like re-reading books—life is too short and my reading speed too slow—but The Fifth Season was full of details and characters about which I wanted reminders. I scoured the Internet for a detailed plot synopsis…and couldn’t find one! For series of 3+ books, I wish every author would include an “our story so far” preface, either in the books themselves, or somewhere on-line. As it was, I had to cobble together the details of Book 1 from Wikipedia and the spoileriest reviews I could find.


(12) The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman (audio)

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and this is my second-favorite of his works (behind the collected Sandman graphic novels). It’s a retelling of The Jungle Book with the main character living in a graveyard with ghosts, rather than in a jungle with animals. The humor and style are quintessentially Gaimain-esque.

Like The Girl Who Drank the Moon, it won the Newbery Medal. It’s fairly dark for children’s literature, opening as it does with a young child barely escaping the murder of his family.

I listened to the audio book, which Gaiman himself narrates, and I’ll tell you: If aliens or evil sorcerers ever erase Gaiman’s ability to write, he could have a very successful second career as an audiobook narrator. That man has a lovely, lovely voice.


(13) The Dispatcher (novella) – John Scalzi (audio)

The was my second Scalzi book, the first being the wacky meta-Star Trek novel Redshirts. Scalzi is a Big Idea author – his books are (to me) less about intricate or emotional storytelling and more about exploring fascinating ideas and premises. In this one, the idea is that, if someone is murdered by another person, they wake up alive, 99.9% of the time, back in their homes soon after. The titular character is someone hired to kill people who are otherwise about to die of natural or accidental causes, so that they’ll come back to life instead of becoming permanently deceased.

The Dispatcher is short – a novella length work that explores some of the inevitable societal effects of this odd phenomenon. Scalzi writes in clean, plain prose, with lots of explanation delivered naturally via dialogue. His wordsmithing here is not spectacular or even particularly colorful, but it takes the shortest line between the reader and the Big Idea of the book, which was good enough to keep me entertained.


(14) Little, Big John Crowley (print)

Review at:


(15) West with the Night – Beryl Markham (audio)

This is the other non-fiction book on this list, and it’s also probably the best book I read in 2017 . A good friend recommended it, and I listened to the audiobook over a weekend in which I spent 14 hours driving.

I had never heard of Beryl Markham. Her fame comes from being an aviator; in 1936 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.  This book, Markham’s memoir, also tells of her childhood in early -20th-century Africa, her late-teen years spent as a race horse trainer, and her adult career as a bush pilot spotting elephants for safari expeditions. It’s utterly riveting, and I cannot recommend it highly enough, but don’t just take my word for it. Some fellow named Ernest Hemingway, a man notoriously stingy in his praise of other writers, had this to say:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”


(16) Senlin Ascends – Josiah Bancroft (Kindle)

Review at:


(17) How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale – Cressida Cowell (audio)
(28) A Hero’s Guide to Deadly Dragons — Cressida Cowell (audio)

The “How to Train Your Dragon” movies were based on a series of delightful little children’s books by Cressida Cowell.  Our family has taken to listening to the audiobooks on long car rides.

The books are short, sweet, full of memorable characters and humor that will make kids and adults giggle (at least the ones in our family), and David Tennant’s wonderful narration is the best I’ve ever heard. His voices are varied, evocative, and you can hear how much fun he’s having.

To be sure, these are kids’ books, targeted at readers/listeners between (I’d say) 8-12. But even 48-year-old dad has been utterly enchanted by them. The ones we’ve listened to take about 3-5 hours, so if you’re intrigued, it won’t cost you much to take a flier.

Cressida Cowell’s husband is named Simon Cowell, but it turns out he’s not the talent-show judge, a fact about which I have evidently been mistaken for years.


(18) The Arm of the Spinx – Josiah Bancroft (Kindle)

Review at:


(19) The City and the City – China Mieville (print)

Heretofore my only experience with Mieville had been the amazing Perdido Street Station, one of my favorite books of all time. The City and the City is much different, and I didn’t like it quite as much, but it’s still excellent.

At its heart, the book is a murder-mystery crime thriller, but what makes the story unique is its setting. The events of the book take place in two overlapping cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma.  Some streets and buildings exist in one,  some in the other, and some in a nebulous state called “crosshatch.” There are strict rules about how one can interact with persons,  things and events in the “other” city. Intriguingly, there is a group of enforcers who seem to pop into existence whenever someone violates these rules, intentionally or not.

The most interesting (to me) part of reading this book was deciding if it was fantasy/sf or not.


(20) The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch (print)

Review at:


(21) Old Man’s War – John Scalzi (print)

Having read and enjoyed Redshirts and The Dispatcher,  I decided to try Scalzi’s military sf adventure Old Man’s War.  I didn’t realize it would read so much like a modern retelling of Haldeman’s The Forever War, but having read the two within months of each other, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities.

In Old Man’s War, the military recruits old people (the narrator is 75) and downloads their minds into new, younger, and physically enhanced bodies. Then they’re sent out into the harsh universe of deadly alien species to fight on Earth’s behalf.

Scalzi pulls a neat trick with his writing in this book; it feels like nothing special, with simple and straightforward storytelling, but the pages practically turn themselves. I think this happens because the reader is discovering the nature of the world and its conflicts right alongside the main character, and so it is curiosity, rather than an enchantment with the writing or characters, that drives the reader along.


(22) Uprooted – Naomi Novik (Kindle)

As I said at the preface to this list, being a slow reader, I typically add books to my TBR list only if they come highly recommended by friends, have won awards, or are positively regarded by a preponderance of commentary in places like Reddit’s fantasy forum. As such, I enjoy almost every book I read.

Uprooted seemed like a solid choice by the above criteria, and… I guess I kind of liked it? Mostly? It’s a darling among critics, so I’m likely either missing something or am just not a good fit, but I finished the book feeling underwhelmed.

The writing itself is lovely, and the story has the trappings of a dark, rich fantasy with an eastern-European feel.  The “villain” is wonderfully creepy – a dark, corrupting forest with which even the mildest contact can prove deadly. And I enjoyed the authentic friendship between the main character and her childhood companion.

Two things bothered me about the book. One was the long middle section, when the MC leaves her forest village to live in the larger capital, where she is bewildered by the new and complex social environment. It dragged for me, enough to reduce my engagement with the story and its characters.

Worse for me was the weird and awkward physical relationship between the young Agnieszka and her captor/mentor, the ageless wizard called Dragon.  Said relationship becomes unexpectedly physical despite nothing seeming to change about the Dragon’s utter contempt for her protégé, not to mention the power dynamic and complete lack of chemistry between the two. That entire arc, at the core of the story, felt so forced and inauthentic, it made it hard for me take the rest of the book seriously.

Obviously I’m in a minority on this. Uprooted won a Nebula and was a Hugo finalist. It naturally makes me nervous when I’m left lukewarm by a work with such critical acclaim.  As such, I won’t not recommend it. Read some of the many positive reviews and decide for yourself.


(23) Three Parts Dead – Max Gladstone (Kindle)

Review at:


(25) The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O – Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (print)

I’m happy to say that, for me, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. falls into the “Good Stephenson” pile along with Anathem, Cryptonomicon, and Reamde. (Note: While there are plenty of readers who are similarly divided by N.S’s work, each of us divides his books up differently. I am apparently in a tiny minority who lists both Anathem and Reamde among his best.)

D.O.D.O. is a fun time-travel romp full of humor and hijinks, but also a well-shot arrow aimed at the excesses of bureaucracy and corporate culture. There’s plenty of Stephenson-y cleverness and humor (wait until you get to the Lay of Walmart!) without an excess of technical/scientific explanations. (There is a small amount, front-loaded near the start of the book, but it never weighs the book down the way it did (for me) in Seveneves.)

The storytelling is non-traditional. Most of the book takes the form of e-mails, posts from message boards, private diary entries, letters, etc. But for me that made the book speed along nicely, broken up into easily digestible chunks.

Also, the time-travel plot itself is… sparse. And not the point for much of the book. Oh, certainly there’s tons of time-travel, and the last quarter of the book is full of the best kind of temporal shenanigans. But at its heart the book stays true to its title; it’s about the building up of a government organization that eventually collapses under its own weight.

The ending is fine (not always true for Stephenson), though it does set up the 750 page doorstop as merely the prologue of a larger story.

I’ve not read any other Nicole Galland, but I ought to credit her both with the entertaining storytelling and the dialing back of some of Stephenson’s densest excesses.

As with Anathem, I cannot uncategorically recommend D.O.D.O. because its pacing and structure are so unconventional. But I enjoyed the heck out of it. Readers who like time travel yarns should give it a try.


(26) Shards of Honor – Lois McMaster Bujold (print)
(27) Barrayar – Lois McMaster Bujold (print)

My author friend Ed Aubry (see the Mayhem books above) is a huge fan of Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, and he pestered me until I read these first two in the set.

Shards of Honor was fine. I thought it was in the “good but not great” set. It’s a short and entertaining small-scale sci-fi story (the main chunk of the book features only two characters) that nonetheless manages a space-opera feel. I finished it feeling more reflective of the characters than the plot, which is not a knock.

Barrayar took the setting of Shards and expanded it into something magnificent. More characters, more world-building, and tons of intrigue. The relationship set up in Shards is front and center of a political science fiction thriller.

Though these are the only two books in the set I have read, I gather that they form a two-volume prequel that only at the very end introduces the much-beloved character, Miles Vorkosigan, who stars in over a dozen more books in the saga. Ed’s not going to leave me alone until I read them.


(29) The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison (print)

Review at:


(30) Timepiece – Heather Albano (print)

I am a friendly acquaintance of author Heather Albano. I have been trying to be helpful to my talented and creative friends, getting the word out about their works.  I recently had this to say about Timepiece:

“Timepiece is… how to put this. It’s a Jane Austen steampunk time-travel undead-monster Battle-of-Waterloo story. You know, one of those. The writing is smooth and engaging, and Heather’s self-proclaimed label of “history geek” shines through in the details.

You should get it. And read it. And then, if you like it, you should tell your friends about it.”

All of that is true.


(31) Best Served Cold – Joe Abercrombie (print)

Review at:


(32) The Two Towers – J.R.R.Tolkien (read aloud) (re-read)

I’ve been reading Lord of the Rings out loud to my eldest daughter E for a couple of years now. It’s slow going—she often wants to read her own books, or doesn’t have time due to ever-increasing homework demands (she’s about to turn 13)—but we’ve finally made it through the first two books.

She loves Tolkien, just as I did at her age. I am an unapologetic LotR superfan; from about the ages of 15 through 30, I would re-read Lord of the Rings every January. I read the whole thing out loud to my (now) wife back when we were dating. To this day they are my favorite works of fantasy, and reading them aloud has only increased my regard for the lush, lyrical writing and dizzyingly deep world-building.

[Spoilers coming up]

The Two Towers contains some of my favorite scenes of the trilogy: Gandalf’s confrontation with Saruman, and Sam facing down Faramir, not to mention the encounter with Shelob in the pass of Cirith Ungol. My daughter found the most powerful moment to be when Smeagol almost triumphs over his Gollum persona, looking down at Frodo while he slept, but then Sam comes along and ruins the moment with his rudeness and mistrust. E literally jumped to her feet and howled.  “Sam, no! Why did you do that? You ruined it!”

She gets it, that one.


(33) Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor (print)

I don’t often finish a book and think “I’m not sure I’m qualified to have an opinion,” but I came close on this one.

Who Fears Death, which won the World Fantasy Award for best novel in 2011, is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, and follows the life of a girl, Onyesonwu, who’s part of an oppressed racial tribe. The story is told in simple, brief, and powerful  language. On the surface, the tale is brutal. There’s murder, rape, and child abuse. Female genital mutilation features prominently.  Yet despite that, and despite that the main themes in the book are racial divisions, genocide, and the dangers of unexamined traditions, the book manages to convey a sense of strength and hope throughout. It’s about breaking through the chains of victimhood.

If you’re anything like me, Who Fears Death will take you far out of your comfort zone. I recommend it anyway; getting out of your comfort zone is a good thing.


(34) Shift – Hugh Howey
(37) Dust – Hugh Howey

I could have used these as exemplars for how it’s frustrating not to be able to find plot synopses of old books. These are the 2nd and 3rd books of Howey’s ballyhooed post-apocalyptic Silo series, which have been sitting on my shelves for a while now. It’s been many years since I read Wool, the first book, and my memory of its details was shaky at best. I wanted badly to find a good plot refresher, but there doesn’t seem to be one. So I struck out with these two hoping I could pick up context and remember details as I went along.

Wool told the story of the inhabitants of a Silo, a self-contained underground community of about 10,000 people, stuck there for generations because something has made the surface world uninhabitable.

Shift, published after, is a prequel. The reader finds out what happened to necessitate the building and habitation of the silo. Dust is the sequel to Wool, concluding the trilogy as life in the Silo breaks down along with a series of unexpected discoveries.  (I’m being intentionally vague to avoid spoilers, naturally.)

The Silo Trilogy is typically held up as the Holy Grail for self-published authors. Howey started it as an on-line serial, which gained such a large and devoted following that he was able to turn his stories into fantastically successful novels. And the success is well-earned, I think. Its serialized nature makes the pacing very fast and cliffhanger-y, so the books are hard to put down.


(35) The Crosser’s Maze – Dorian Hart (Kindle and print)

I have to list this for the sake of completeness and accuracy. When you write a book, you end up reading and re-reading it constantly as you go, and then a couple more times when the print proofs come back.

It’s the second book in my Heroes of Spira series, following book one, The Ventifact Colossus.

If I were pitching my books to someone, I’d say something like this:

“Imagine a fantastic 15-year-long tabletop fantasy campaign, used as source material for a series of fun and exciting character-driven adventures. If you’re a fan of fantasy epics with flawed but likable characters, daring swordplay, high magic, terrible monsters, powerful but enigmatic artifacts, intriguing mysteries that will all be explained by the end of the series, and villains with excellent mustaches, then you will most likely enjoy the Heroes of Spira.”

Oh, and a book-blogger just called The Crosser’s Maze “bonkersly inventive,” which is neat.


(36) Poe Stories and Poems: A Graphic Novel Adaptation – Gareth Hinds (print)

Gareth Hinds is an incredible talent. I was lucky enough to work with him for many years in the video game industry, but my real fortune, one that everyone in the world can share, is that he’s gone on to write and illustrate a whole pile of fabulous graphic novel adaptations.

His most famous work is a retelling of The Odyssey, but  he’s also done Beowulf, MacBeth, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and a few others.

This one, a collection of Edgar Allen Poe’s most famous stories and poems, is as wonderful as the rest, with lovely and haunting illustrations.  It includes The Cask of Amontillado, The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, and more.  You’ll find yourself lingering over, and marveling at, the artwork throughout.


(38) All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders (print)

All the Birds in the Sky is a quirky little book, a fantasy/sci-fi blend that serves as a cautionary tale and meditation on the balance of technology and nature. It follows the lives of two alternating protagonists, Patricia and Laurence, from childhood into adulthood. Patricia (a magic-wielding witch) and Laurence (a child techno-prodigy) each find opposing tribes of like-minded folk and are drawn into an epic struggle.

The backdrop of the story is a world sliding into exact kind of chaos the real world seems headed for:  natural disasters, rising military tensions, massive social unrest. But the story’s camera stays focused on Patricia and Laurence, who seemed destined to clash, draw apart, and eventually fall in love.

The book is written in jaunty, modern prose, and takes place in a slightly-alternative present where no one finds it incredible that (for example) one can build a miniature time-machine from schematics downloaded from the Internet. I found throughout the book that I was strongly reminded of some previous work I couldn’t put my finger on, but I think I’ve figured it out.  All the Birds in the Sky is like a weird cross between Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs.  Or, maybe, it’s like The Magicians but with about 75% of its cynicism replaced with whimsy, and whose characters are just as downtrodden but much more likeable. There’s a sad sweetness to the story that persists throughout the many odd turns and conflicts.

It’s short (< 100k words), a standalone, and in my opinion, well worth your time.  Oh, and it won the 2017 Nebula Award for best novel.


(39) Red Sister – Mark Lawrence (audio)

I confess that, for a long time, I shied away from Mark Lawrence’s books. That’s because, having heard some good things, I checked out the “Look Inside” feature of Prince of Thorns on Amazon and read for about five minutes. The opening of that book is narrated by a murdering, raping, psychopathic 13-year-old who seems to be somehow in charge of a gang of similarly-minded adults. I don’t mind a bit of “grimdark fantasy,” as it is known—see Joe Abercrombie, above—but that was too much for me at the time.  I let it be, and let Mark Lawrence drop off the radar.

Still, on message boards and the Twitters, when people listed some of their favorite works, his name kept popping up. So, when he released the first book in a series that was obviously not in the Grimdark vein, I purchased the audio book, Red Sister.  And you know what? It’s great!

Imagine if Hogwarts were an all-girls religious school that taught its students to be assassins. That’s Red Sister, more or less. The writing is strong, if a little on the overwrought side at times, and little too proud of its frequent philosophical one-liners. The characters are memorable and fun to follow, and Lawrence does an excellent job of world-building given that over half the book takes place on the grounds of Sweet Mercy convent.  It’s not a fast-paced book; the author takes his time building up relationships and settings, but it’s never boring. There’s plenty of action and violence, be assured.

Also, Red Sister has a great opening:  “It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.”


(40) Sourcery – Terry Pratchett (print)
(42) Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett (print)
(50) Pyramids – Terry Pratchett (print)

I read some Terry Pratchett back when I was in college, and remembered enjoying them quite a lot. Recently I’ve decided to make my way through the whole set (intermingling them with other books), and in 2017 I got to books 5, 6, and 7.

Pratchett’s humor isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s brilliant. (Oddly, it didn’t click at all with my British-born wife.)  His books may deliver plenty of satire and social commentary, but it’s his exaggerated, surprising, hilarious, and often incisive descriptions of people, places and events that keeps me coming back for more.

The plots –eh, they’re just vehicles, really. I thought the plot of Sourcery was sparse, the chapters and events stretched out too thinly across too little story.  It delivered the humorous goods just fine, but if that’s not your thing, there wasn’t much else to recommend it.

Wyrd Sisters was brilliant – a delightful send-up of Macbeth as well as a meditation on the power of theater to shape perceptions and transport the imagination.

Pyramids fell somewhere between the two for me. The story was a bit wobbly, but the humor was nonstop wonderful, and its satire (on religion and its clinging to traditions) was spot on.

Certainly my experience with the first seven Pratchett books has not dampened my enthusiasm for continuing my journey through his series.


(41) Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner

I’m a bit conflicted by Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint. Having pondered it for a few days after finishing it, I’m putting it in the “liked it but didn’t quite love it” category.

It’s a small and contained fantasy-of-manners, a heavily character-driven story of political intrigue and romance. There is no magic, no fantastical or supernatural elements to speak of, so it only lands in the fantasy genre by dint of its nobles-and-peasants setting and the prominent role of swordsmen in the fabric of its society. Its scope is small and tight, with only two settings of note: the Hill where the nobles live, and the town of Riverside below it, home to a variety of lower class rabble. (I think the author made a conscious choice to limit the narrative focus only to a thin slice of the world’s characters and events.)

The writing is gorgeous. Kushner writes with a lovely, pastoral elegance that makes even mundane settings a joy to read about. Even when my interest in the story faltered, I was always happy to read the next sentence. She has a particular knack for finding just the right odd detail to focus her camera upon to both color a scene and deliver sparkling moments of characterization.

The characters of Swordspoint were both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand the main characters, the swordsman Richard St Vier and his lover Alec, were fascinating and well-drawn. Wanting to know what would become of St Vier was the main driver that propelled me through the book. But he was the only main character that was, to me, in any way likeable. Alec was rude and recklessly self-destructive, and the other characters were either clearly villainous or aimlessly self-absorbed. (There was a minor character, a retired Swordsman, who was sympathetic, but he didn’t get much page time.)  Also, one of the POV characters never found a real place in the story, and had drifted away to an afterthought by the time the book came to an end.

The political intrigue was excellent and handled with a deft touch, but I was left feeling that despite the clever machinations and entertaining sword duels, there was little sense of stakes. Alec is aware of his own tendency to self-destruction, and St Vier comes right and out tells you he doesn’t expect to live long as a Swordsmen. Since the protagonists didn’t seem to care if and when they were in danger, it was hard for me to care. And there’s nothing outside the story, no sense of the events fitting into a world larger than the political maneuvers of this one city.

I may be being unfair, faulting the author for things she consciously didn’t prioritize. And there’s a lot to like about the book. The dialogue is excellent and sprinkled liberally with humor; the role of swordsmen in society is fascinating; the intrigue falls nicely into the satisfying strata of “complex-but-not-byzantine”; the two main characters, whatever you may think of them, are fascinating to watch interact with those around them; and the romance is believable and handled well without needing to be explicit.

If you’re in the mood for something small, beautiful, and character-focused, without a need for high magic and epic quests, Swordspoint will fit the bill very well.


(43) The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

David Mitchell is a wonderful storyteller, a man considered one of the greats among living authors. I had previously read Cloud Atlas and regard it as one of the best books I have ever read. My experience with The Bone Clocks has only cemented my high opinion of Mitchell.

Its structure hews closely to the formula of Cloud Atlas. The Bone Clocks is a series of a half-dozen interlaced novellas, each chronologically forward from the previous. They are loosely tied together by the character of Holly Sykes (the narrator of the first one) and by a mysterious ongoing war between two magic-using factions. The fantasy elements of the book are understated but powerful through the first four novellas, and are the primary focus of the fifth. While technically fantasy (and it won a World Fantasy Award for best novel in 2015), you are more likely to find The Bone Clocks in the literature section of your local bookstore.

Mitchell’s writing is brisk and witty, filled with surprising and colorful images, unexpected metaphors, and immensely clever dialogue. Beyond the writing itself, his greatest talent is his authentic investment in his characters, making them feel absolutely real despite their variety. If verisimilitude were a substance, it would be pouring out of the book in  waves. He transitions from a 15-year-old rebellious love-struck girl, to a charming early-20’s sociopath, to a bitter war correspondent, to a curmudgeonly middle-aged author, with perfect finesse.

(He uses the author character to tweak fun at himself and his critics at once. Minor spoiler: the author, Crispin Hershey, is reeling from a scathing review of his latest work. The review includes this):

”The fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look…What surer sign is there that the creative aquafers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?”

The final novella is a jarring take on the apocalyptic consequences of society’s blind eye toward climate change and inveterate addiction to fossil fuels. It’s powerful, sobering, and believable.

If I had to level one criticism at the book (and I do so with great misgivings, given Mitchell’s stature), it’s that the style of his writing, so immensely colorful and modern, doesn’t change between one character and the next. Normally this wouldn’t bother me a bit, but each of the novellas is narrated in first person, by very different characters. (In 3rd-person narration, a consistent narrator’s voice would be fine, as long as the dialogue and inner thoughts of each character were distinct.) Reading such disparate souls telling their stories in such uniform language—even though that language is delightful—smudged the diamond a bit for me.

It’s still a diamond, though. I enjoyed Cloud Atlas a bit more, but The Bone Clocks joins it on my list of favorite novels.

Postscript: I read Mitchell’s Slade House immediately after finishing The Bone Clocks.  The former is a small companion piece, a side-story running concurrent with the narrative of the latter. That reading order significantly changes the experiencing of reading Slade House, but I’d still recommend reading The Bone Clocks first. Either way: read them both!


(44) Slade House – David Mitchell

See above. Slade House, a companion piece to The Bone Clocks, is a little haunted house novel written brilliantly by one of the best writers currently plying his trade.


(45) The Crown Conspiracy – Michael J. Sullivan

I’m cheating a little bit here to get to 50 books. The Crown Conspiracy was originally released as a standalone novel, but has since been combined with a second book into a volume called Theft of Swords, which is itself only Book 1 of The Riyira Revelations. I’ve been listening to Theft of Swords in the car, and I’m counting it as two books instead of one.

The Crown Conspiracy is the perfect antidote to Grimdark. The heroes are likeable and easy to cheer on, and there’s nothing that would be objectionable to young teens even though the story itself seems aimed at an adult audience.

The book is full of standard fantasy tropes—dwarves and wizards, rogues and princes, frugal monks and conniving royalty and knights and all the rest—but they’re so well executed I didn’t mind in the slightest. It’s a tale of two good-hearted thieves conned by their employer, and becoming embroiled in a larger political conflict. The audio narrator, Tim Gerard Reynolds, is absolutely perfect for the material, and elevates Sullivan’s solid prose to a higher level. Riyira is the satisfying meat-and-potatoes meal of the fantasy banquet.

The two main characters, Hadrian and Royce, are literally partners in crime. They have the best bromance going on out of all the fantasy books I’ve read.

Finally, the book feels like the outer layer of an onion beneath which is a much wider and more epic tale. I’m most of the way through listening to the second book, Avempartha, and the plot is constantly thickening.


(46) Paternus: Rise of Gods – Dyrk Ashton

Review at:


(47) The Slow Regard of Silent Things – Patrick Rothfuss

This is an odd one. Patrick Rothfuss wrote a novella-length character study of a minor character from his Kingkiller Chronicles series.  There’s only one character—Auri—and no real plot.

Auri lives alone in a vast maze of connected rooms and corridors that make up an old abandoned wizards’ academy, far below the current active one. Though the narrative never comes right out and says it, Auri has profound OCD, a fact which is the lens through which the story is told. She is constantly engaged in two-way communication with a variety of inanimate objects, whose secret hearts and desires she believes she knows. And she’s so certain of these desires, the reader is nearly convinced as well. Rothfuss manages to make broken gears and pieces of cloth feel like characters.

I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this little book had I not already read Rothfuss’s two novels. Auri was a charming and mysterious character in those, and it was nice getting a closer look at her secret life, never seen in the wider picture. But this isn’t a novel in any conventional sense. Nothing happens. Be warned.


(48) The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle

Some of the classics slipped past me during my childhood, and we’ve had an ancient copy of this sitting on our shelves for years. So.

The Last Unicorn is a strange book, but mesmerizing. It’s about (surprise!) the last unicorn left in the world, who leaves the safety of her forest to seek out the last of her kind. Though almost immediately captured, she is rescued by a middling wizard named Schmendrick who then accompanies her on her quest.

It’s written as an odd and lovely fairytale, with prose as beautiful as any on this list. The whole book has a dream-like quality that carried me along quite happily as I read, and, when it ended I had a distinct “just woke up from a dream” feeling that few books since Lord of the Rings have given me.

I realize I may be the last person I know to have read The Last Unicorn, but if I’m not, and you haven’t, you really should give it a go.



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Book Review – Paternus: Rise of Gods, by Dyrk Ashton

I’m not sure I’ve ever been as conflicted about a book as I am about Dyrk Ashton’s epic slugathon of deities, PATERNUS: RISE OF GODS. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to talk about a bunch of things I didn’t like, and then I’m going to rave a bit, give it 4 stars and tell you to buy it. So please don’t get part way through, decide I’m slagging the book, and give up.

My issues with Paternus are mostly of the technical/editorial sort; it felt like any editing done was light and incomplete. That is not to say the book is one of those amateurish nightmares of the self-pubbed world with dozens of typos and piles of broken grammar. Overall the writing is quite good. But there were many small things that kept pulling me up short: comma splices, wrong homophones (e.g. peaked instead of piqued), use of interrobangs and multiple exclamation marks, and similar small glitches.

The author also made the (to me) puzzling choice of adding straight parenthetical translations to foreign language phrases. (In my opinion, if you’re going to have characters speak in a foreign language, you have several decent choices: make it clear enough from context that you don’t need a translation; or tell the reader it’s French/Latin/Persian/whatever but write it out in English; or trust your reader to look it up if they care. But simply adding parenthetical translations immediately following every foreign phrase jarred me out of the story, as though my urban fantasy novel had just become a textbook.)

That’s just one example of how the author needs to trust his reader more; he wastes time over-explaining and using redundant adverbs. (If I can easily tell from context that a character is being sarcastic, don’t follow up with a sentence explicitly telling me the character is being sarcastic.)

Paternus is written in the third-person present tense, which is fine, but the head-hopping between characters was so constant, it gave me whiplash. It often happens between short paragraphs without so much as a section break. And while there are a lot of characters in Paternus (and I love some of them and like most of them), the two lead characters, Fi and Zeke, felt flat to me. They seemed more like witnesses and people-to-whom-things-happen than interesting characters driving the action.

So…  two stars and don’t bother, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I. Could. Not. Put. This. Book. Down. And I say this as a stickler for writing quality, as someone who normally would have little patience for a self-published book with editing issues. So, what did I like?

First, just to get this out of the way, the author knows how to write sentences to serve his action…and this book is almost all action. There are beautiful and evocative images throughout, and his ability to describe scenes is magnificent. So understand, despite my complaints, this is not by any means a poorly written book. Quite the opposite.

But the star of this show is the action. The pace of Paternus is so relentless, and the battles so entertaining and cinematic, no piddly little editing issues were going to stop me from turning the next page. The conceit of battling gods from multiple pantheons is absolutely brilliant. (Quetzalcoatl vs. Hephaestus and the Minotaur! Anansi vs. Galahad! Kali vs. Baphomet! Cerberus vs. the Devil!)  As a 14-year-old D&D nerd reading the hardcover Deities and Demigods, I loved to speculate about who would win if (for instance) Odin fought against Cthulhu. Dyrk Ashton wrote a whole book about that kind of epic clash of titans, and it’s every bit as delightful as it sounds. The research and knowledge of world mythologies that went into his work is astounding, and the novel is just plain popcorn fun from beginning to end.

As such, despite my curmudgeonly nitpicking, I would recommend this to anyone who thinks an action-packed urban fantasy featuring battlin’ gods sounds like a good time. And while the book ends satisfactorily on its own, it’s clearly a long opening salvo in what’s likely to be an ongoing barrage of deific battles in further books.  I can’t wait!

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