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:  https://dorianhart.com/2017/05/02/book-review-john-crowleys-little-big/

 

(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: https://dorianhart.com/2017/05/19/book-review-senlin-ascends-by-josiah-bancroft/

 

(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: https://dorianhart.com/2017/09/10/book-review-arm-of-the-sphinx-by-josiah-bancroft/

 

(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: https://dorianhart.com/2017/09/26/book-review-the-lies-of-locke-lamora-by-scott-lynch/

 

(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: https://dorianhart.com/2017/09/26/book-review-three-parts-dead-by-max-gladstone/

 

(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: https://dorianhart.com/the-goblin-emperor-by-katherine-addison/

 

(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: https://dorianhart.com/2017/09/22/book-review-best-served-cold-by-joe-abercrombie/

 

(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: https://dorianhart.com/2017/12/14/book-review-paternus-rise-of-gods-by-dyrk-ashton/

 

(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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Book Review – The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora (hereafter “TLoLL”) was pure entertainment, start to finish. Lynch managed to balance adroitly on two different tightropes: pacing/description, and tone/content. What do I mean by that?

TLoLL barreled along at what felt like a brisk, exciting pace. I never felt like I was waiting around for something interesting to happen. This is a page-turner, no mistake about it, and every minute of the day I wasn’t reading it, I felt an itch in my brain. And yet, thinking back, there was a ton of straight-up world-building description, often in dense blocks. How Lynch delivered all of that without bogging down my reading experience is a testament both to his engaging prose, and to his sense of timing as he meted out his action and plot advancement.

Regarding tone/content: TLoLL can be absolutely vicious. Violent things happen to a lot of people (including good people), things that wouldn’t be out of place in a GRRM novel, and they are described in unflinching detail. There’s murder, torture, the works. But the book never exuded that ugly god-I-hope-my-mom-never-picks-this-up vibe of black brutality that permeates the Grimdark sub-genre. The prose is delivered with a wry wink, a kind of laughing cynicism, even as characters are maimed, mauled and murdered.

If I had to level a criticism at TLoLL, it would be regarding its characterizations. Don’t get me wrong – the protagonists, a band of thieves called the Gentleman Bastards, are entertaining to read about. I cared about what happened to them. But they are not particularly differentiated. Yes, they’re clever, wisecracking con-men who deliver top-quality Witty Banter™ from page 1 to page 720. But they’re ALL that way. Even most of the villains are that way. Every character in the book seems to have gone to an amazing finishing school to learn how to deliver the perfect entertaining quip, every time. The dialogue is a strength of the book – probably the author’s greatest strength – but I couldn’t tell you much that made any particular character meaningfully different, interior-wise, from the others. Yes, they have different skillsets, but when they’re sitting around a table chatting, they all feel pretty much the same. Let the record show, though, that this realization did not particularly hamper my reading experience. I didn’t even notice until I finished devouring the book and started reflecting upon it.

My only other quibble was the lack of major female characters. The main group of heroic ne’er-do-wells is an all-male club, and the main villains are likewise men. The most prominent women are a couple of secondary characters and some one-dimensional minor villains. Granted, the secondary characters are fascinating – probably MORE complex than some of the heroes. But in terms of pure screen time given to lead roles, women got short shrift.

All of that said, TLoLL was fantastic. Beautifully written, gripping to the end, full of rich world-building, highly kinetic action sequences, and cleverly-conceived cons, deliciously blended together. (By the last page, the Italianesque city of Camorr, where the action takes place, felt as real as any fantasy locale I can think of. Oh, and speaking of delicious, I’d put Lynch’s mouth-watering descriptions of gourmet foods up against anyone’s. Mmmmmmm.)

I certainly plan to acquire and read the sequels. The heaps of accolades and recommendations piled upon TLoLL are well earned.

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Book Review – Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

Three Parts Dead, the first volume of Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, is a good book, a clever book, a beautifully written book. On some occasions it rises to greatness. On other occasions I thought it had some problems. There’s more good than bad, and I would certainly recommend it, albeit with some very minor caveats.

The main protagonist (one of a handful of POV characters) can best be described as a lawyer-wizard. Gods are defined by the legal contracts that allow others to draw on their power, and the plot revolves around the sort of machinations one might imagine would spawn from that.

The setting is bizarre and wonderful, a steam-punky urban fantasy realm with gargoyles, vampires, gods, priests, wizards, and a few things that defy easy description. It feels unique in a way that’s hard to achieve. But it’s also confusing. Gladstone circles around some core world-building concepts without offering anchors, so I spent a great deal of time wondering if I really understood what was going on. Even so, there’s some gorgeous spectacle here.

The characters are a bit hit or miss. Our protagonist, Tara Abernathy, felt to me more defined by her (very cool) backstory than her actions in the book. She didn’t have much of an arc, but felt more like a Plot Mover and Explainer. But I loved her boss, the unflappable Elayne Keverian, and her sidekick, the hapless God-fearing technician Abelard. And the main villain of the book was extremely entertaining, despicable without being a conventional Bwa-Ha-Ha sort of bad guy.

My main beef with the book was its magic system: the Craft, after which the series is named. It was fascinating, but both ill-defined (intentionally, I believe) and constantly central to the plot. As a result, there seemed a number of clashes between magical forces where the outcome seemed arbitrary—as though the author needed someone to win, or escape, or discover something, and happened to pull out just the magic gobbledygook that was needed right then. The Craft is at the heart of everything that happens in the book, so I would have liked it to have more consistency.

On a positive note, the plot itself is extremely clever, full of foreshadowing, and I loved how the author wrapped up everything at the end. There was a lot of “Oh, now that makes sense!” head-slapping for me as a few consistently mentioned but seemingly unimportant details became central to the story. The book has no end of creativity, the writing is top-notch, and there’s a good balance of action and mystery. I’m putting it in my “liked it but didn’t quite love it” category, but it’s easy to see how someone could absolutely adore it.

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Book Review – Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie

BSC.jpgBear with me here. I’m going to start my review of Best Served Cold by talking very briefly about another of my favorite books, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station.

My favorite aspect of PSS was Mieville’s relentless use of language to impart an overwhelming feeling of grime. For all its cast of entertaining characters, for me the star of the book was New Crobuzon’s overwhelming aura of dingy decay, filth, and muck.

Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold gave me the same sensation, albeit with a different focus. If one were to make one of those word cloud thingies from BSC, I’m certain that “blood” and “shit” would be front and center. Abercrombie’s metaphors for just about everything are laden with brutality and violence; he wants us to live in a harsh, cruel world, and he does that not only with dozens of scenes where people are butchered, but by describing everything from architecture to sunsets in terms of blood, guts, and excrement.

Even more than that is his use of his “camera.” Consider than in any scene of a book, there are hundreds of sensory objects an author could show us, a dizzying array of sounds, sights, smells, actions, movement. The same underlying tale could be told in any number of ways, with any number of stimuli in focus.

In one particular scene of Best Served Cold, a battle leader sits upon a majestic horse, ready to lead a charge of men into battle. But in service to his goals, Abercrombie points the camera at the horse’s rear, showing us that in that moment it’s taking an inglorious dump. “Hey, look over here. There’s a lot going on in this scene, but I want to make sure you get a good look at this horseshit.”

For six hundred pages the book is like that: a tale of violence and revenge told in the basest, roughest, most brutal way imaginable. Not that I was not surprised by this, having read (and greatly enjoyed) Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. But I was struck even more by the unrelenting river of ferocious language used in service of a blood-soaked tale.

The “heroic” characters ranged from serviceable to excellent. The poisoner Castor Morveer is an absolute joy, and I adored Caul Shivers, the mercenary Cosca, and the killer/math savant Friendly. I was less inspired by Monza – her chapters drove the story more by her compelling circumstance than her character. I was driven to root for her more by the wrongs inflicted upon her than by her personality, which was unlikeable and without the enjoyable quirks of the others. (Now that I think upon it, the author, I think, had an easier time with his male characters than his female ones. Day, Vitari, and Monza were all flatter and drier than Shivers, Cosca and Morveer.)

My experience of the story was a tiny bit uneven. During the first few chapters I felt as though I was settling into a comfortable, guilty pleasure. What could be more straightforwardly entertaining than an Abercrombie revenge fantasy? Sometime around the 20% mark, though, it felt like the story was losing its meaning, tottering very slightly on the edge of a “paint-by-gore-soaked-numbers” sort of letdown. But it pulled itself out of that a short while later, and became the engrossing tale full of colorful characters I had expected, with a plot arc that rose above the simple structure promised at the beginning. By the midway point I couldn’t put the book down, and the final couple of chapters were an edge-of-my-seat delight.

As for the actual ending (spoilers ahead):

I thought it suffered from the same thing that slightly marred my enjoyment of the First Law trilogy’s end: it’s revealed that all of the convolutions and contortions and bloody battles were secretly driven by mysterious characters with godlike abilities, giving me a mild aftertaste of “so no one’s agency truly mattered?” But on the other hand, there were some marvelous revelations and a satisfying sense of the greater story neatly coming full circle.

Overall, Best Served Cold is a marvelous book, filled with clever battlefield philosophy one-liners and powerful visual images, but mostly with severed limbs and crushed skulls. Abercrombie isn’t “Lord Grimdark” without good reason.

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Book Review – Arm of the Sphinx, by Josiah Bancroft

Having been delighted with Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends, I dove straight into its sequel, Arm of the Sphinx. Top-line verdict: it’s wonderful. I liked it nearly as much as the first book, which is to say that if forced to assign stars, I’d give it 4.9 out of 5.

AotS is a more complex book than its predecessor, and I expect my thoughts on it will be more rambling and less coherent, but here ‘goes. First, the sentence-crafting is every bit as good as in Senlin Ascends. Bancroft’s sublime artistry with imagery and metaphors is on full display, making the story a joy to read on its lowest level. I found myself stopping to take notes* on particularly lovely turns of phrase, which is not something I typically do while reading. All the praise I heaped on the author in my review of Senlin Ascends applies equally to Arm of the Sphinx.

The major departure of AotS is its ensemble-cast nature. While the first book’s narrative was almost exclusively limited to Thomas Senlin’s point of view, Arm of the Sphinx treats us to the thoughts and motivations of his entire crew. Bancroft bounces the narrative from character to character with vigor, such that I’d be hard pressed to call Voleta, Adam, Iren and Edith secondary characters at all. This is a book about a group of complex people with fascinating relationships, and in that sense represents a leap in energy level from the first book. (Oh, to be sure, there are secondary characters, fascinating ones bursting with mystery, but talking about them would spoil a bit more than I’m comfortable with.)

Where Senlin Ascends was a single sparkling jewel, Arm of the Sphinx is more like a high-end jewelry store. It feels sprawling, its narrative expanding in unexpected directions but never quite flying out of control. It did feel to me like the author couldn’t quite bring himself to commit either to 3rd-person limited or true 3rd-person omniscient narration, and I did find the head-hopping to be distracting at times. Changes in POV sometimes felt haphazard and unexpected. But the story’s willingness to break its single-lead-character shackles was more a strength than a weakness; it allowed the author to treat us a tale of wider scope and at the same time give us wonderfully detailed characterizations.

Of all the types of virtuosity on display in Arm of the Sphinx, my favorite was the author’s ability to present complex physical action with an almost uncanny clarity. I am reminded of a particular scene where [very minor spoiler] a character is trapped in a submerged boat by a monster, and the action could have been extremely confusing to follow in the hands of a less savvy author. But Bancroft made it so easy to follow the complexities of the scene, I never had to pause to reorient myself. All of his action sequences are like that – complex but clear. It’s a rare skill.

As the second book in a four book series, Arm of the Sphinx wraps itself up nicely while offering a clear segue into the next chapter. Some mysteries are answered while new ones are introduced. (What the $#@! is up with Byron?) And the ending, where [huge spoiler redacted], is a sharp splash of water to the face. I look forward to the third installment of the series (The Hod King) as much as I have looked forward to any sequel I can recall.

*A few of my favorite lines/passages:

“It raised a cry that was as forceful as a cannon and tuneful as a rusty hinge.”

“Dignity is entirely ephemeral; it is like the dust of a butterfly’s wing. Once shed, it is impossible to recover.”

“The air is redolent of parchment, glue, leather, and must. It is a soothing perfume. I wonder why. What is the appeal of this pulp and board technology? Books are seldom more than an author elaborating upon their obsession with the grammar of self-doubt. How superior are books to authors! Nothing believes in itself so much as a book; nothing is less bothered by history or propriety. “Begin in my middle,” the book says. “Rifle straight to my end.” What difference does it make? The book comes out of white, empty flyleaves and goes into the same oblivion. And the book is never afraid.”

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