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:
- West with the Night by Beryl Markham
- Bone Swans by C.S.E.Cooney
- Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
- The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Enough Preamble. Here are the books! The numbers indicate the chronological order of my reading.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Taran Wanderer – Lloyd Alexander (read aloud) (reread)
- 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.
- Prelude to Mayhem – Edward Aubry (audio)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Little, Big – John Crowley (print)
- 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.”
- Senlin Ascends – Josiah Bancroft (Kindle)
- How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale – Cressida Cowell (audio)
- 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.
- The Arm of the Spinx – Josiah Bancroft (Kindle)
- 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.
- The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch (print)
- 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.
- 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.
- Three Parts Dead – Max Gladstone (Kindle)
- 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.
- Shards of Honor – Lois McMaster Bujold (print)
- 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.
- The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison (print)
- 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.
- Best Served Cold – Joe Abercrombie (print)
- 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.
- 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.
- Shift – Hugh Howey
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- Sourcery – Terry Pratchett (print)
- Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett (print)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 significant changes the experiencing of reading Slade House, but I’d still recommend reading The Bone Clocks first. Either way: read them both!
- 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.
- 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.
- Paternus: Rise of Gods – Dyrk Ashton
- 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.
- 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.