Thoughts on Fifty Books, 2019

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

List from 2017
List from 2018

A few notes about this post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the 2018 version, I added:

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

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

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

(4) Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

  • Winner, 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award

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

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

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

You can probably guess which planet.

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

Did I mention that the spiders are awesome?

They’re awesome.

(5) Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell

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

Oh, goodness, this book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(7) Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

  • Finalist, 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel

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

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

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

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

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

(8) Red Country, by Joe Abercrombie

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

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

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

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

(9) The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the stars. This book gets all the stars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other observations:

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

(11) Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman

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

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

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

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

(12) Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Winner, 1999 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize

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

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

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

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

(15) Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

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

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

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

(16) Rosewater by Tade Thompson

  • Winner, 2019 Arthur C. Clarke Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(19) Sin Eater, by Mike Shel

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

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

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

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

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

(20) Never Die, By Rob Hayes

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

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

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

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

Still, this was a quick, fun read, and the characters and banter are excellent. It feels the way the author intended it to feel—like a great wuxia film put down in print.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(23) Nice Dragons Finish Last, by Rachel Aaron

  • Audie Award, Fantasy, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(25) Holy Sister, by Mark Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(31) One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence.

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

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

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

(32) Moving Pictures, by Terry Pratchett

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

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

(33) City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

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

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

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

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

(34) God of Gnomes, by Demi Harper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(39) Second Hand Curses, by Drew Hayes

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

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

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

(40) City of Lies, by Sam Hawke

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

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

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

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

But that’s about it. Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(42) A Little Hatred, by Joe Abercrombie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(45) The Half Killed, by Quenby Olson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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