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:
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North
- The Scar, by China Mieville
- Master Assassins, by Robert V.S. Reddick
- The Heroes, by Joe Ambercrombie
- Percepliquis, by Michael J. Sullivan
- Bloody Rose, by Nicholas Eames
- Aching God, by Mike Shel
- The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemesin
- Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames
- 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:
The Golden Fool
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?”