Thoughts on Fifty Books, 2020

This is the fourth 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
List from 2019

[Begin Boilerplate Intro]

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 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.
  • Also on the topic of self-published books: You’ll see some references to the “SPFBO.” That stands for “Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off,” which is a yearly contest organized by Mark Lawrence and judged by a host of fantasy blogging sites.
  • Of the 57 books listed here:
    • 18 listened to via audio book
    • 26 read on old-fashioned paper
    • 10 read on iPhone Kindle app
    • 3 read on my PC

It’s hard to pick personal favorites out of so many excellent books. Being absent from my favorites 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 Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow
  2. Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  3. The Trouble with Peace, by Joe Abercrombie
  4. Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire
  5. Son of a Liche, by J. Zachary Pike
  6. The Doors of Eden, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
  7. The Gameshouse, by Claire North
  8. The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold
  9. City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett
  10. Circe, by Madeline Miller
  11. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, by K.J. Parker
  12. The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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 Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss, narrated by Jenny Sterlin

This book was great fun to listen to.

Set in an historical-fantasy version of Victorian London, it stars Mary Jekyll, daughter of Dr. Jekyll, who pursues the mystery of her late father’s friend, Edward Hyde. Eventually she joins forces with other intrepid women from the ranks of period fiction (Justine Frankenstein, Catherin Moreau, and Beatrice Rappaccini) along with her wild-child sort-of-sister Diana Hyde. This “monster squad” of women joins Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in pursuing an ever-deepening supernatural mystery, and we learn of each of their backstories as part of the narrative, all of which are fascinating and relevant.

The novel is a fantasy of manners with a neat framing element. The book’s story is ostensibly written by Catherin Moreau, with input by the other women of the team, and the 3rd-person tale is interrupted often by little asides where the others are looking over her shoulder as she writes, making suggestions, protesting at their portrayals, and offering opinions. This conceit adds a lot of extra characterization at the cost of some suspense, and the author Goss wryly uses the mouth of Moreau to both compliment and denigrate her own writing.

The narration by Kate Reading (an outstanding name for a voice actor) is top-notch and well-suited to the tale – though at times I was convinced she was also the voice of GLaDos from the Portal video games. (She’s not; I checked.)

(2) Assassins Fate, by Robin Hobb

It’s taken me at least half of my life, but I finally read the last of Robin Hobb’s epic series of series starring FitzChivalry Farseer, easily the most ill-fated and long-suffering character I’ve read in the fantasy genre. Hobb has written a fifteen-book series, nine of which (in three trilogies) follow the life and career of Fitz, a bastard raised in a royal house to be a secret assassin.

I won’t try to summarize anything here; suffice to know that Assassin’s Fate is a satisfying and heart-breaking conclusion to one of the great monuments of fantasy fiction. It’s a huge book—the trade paperback is 946 pages. There are times when it’s very slow-moving, and it probably relies too much on some of the other six books (specifically the Rain Wilds trilogy) for its emotional oomph. But if you enjoy good writing, unmatched character work, and don’t mind a regular litany of tragic consequence only occasionally interrupted by moments of hope and joy, start with Assassin’s Apprentice (The first book of the first trilogy) and don’t look back.

(3) Limited Wish, by Mark Lawrence
(7) Dispel Illusion, by Mark Lawrence

These are the second and third books in Mark Lawrence’s Impossible Times series. They complete a clever little popcorn time-travel series about a group of D&D-playing teenagers who have to survive a temporal paradox that one of them caused. All the books are short, tightly written, and breezily entertaining, while making a heroic effort to explain the convolutions of time-travel in a way that makes sense.

(4) Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer, narrated by Katherine Kellgren

Our family listened to this on a long car ride, and it was mostly fine.

It’s the story of a girl in late 1790’s London, a street urchin and thief who runs with a gang of similarly downtrodden and homeless children. She escapes this plight by disguising herself as a boy and becoming part of the crew of a ship of the royal navy. As such, some of the book is about her nautical adventures, life on the ship, conflicts with other sailors, run-ins with pirates, and other enjoyable tropes of the genre. Those parts are terrific, and the narration is perfect.

But an inordinately large part of the book is spent on the details of Jackie’s constant maneuverings to keep her gender a secret, since being found out as a girl would result in disaster. I’m not sure we needed quite so many pages devoted to those details, which included elaborate rituals for not being discovered in the shared bathroom, managing her period, and crafting fake genitalia for the front of her pants, along with a lot of other similar content.

Worse, there’s particular plot thread of sexual assault running through most of the book, involving a child-predator member of the crew. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the content explicit, but – not to put too fine a point on it – there’s a scene of an adult grinding against a child, and an almost-assault where the attacker discovers the young victim’s gender via groping. Ew ew ew.

And as if that wasn’t cringing enough for an ostensibly middle-grade book we listened to with our 12 and 14-year-old daughters, the latter half of the book spends an interminable time focused on a young-teen romance between Jackie and another of the ship’s boys with whom she’s fallen in love. The adventure story was lost, replaced with so much mushy romance, I could hear my kids’ eyes rolling from the backseat of the minivan.

(5) Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time is one of my favorite SF books, so this one had big shoes to fill.

It filled them. All eight of them.

Where the previous book showed us a civilization of intelligent spiders, this one treats us to a society of space-faring octopodes. (No, seriously, they’re space-faring. Their ships are heavy and ponderous because they’re filled with water!) But don’t think the author skimps on the spiders this time around, as we get an exploratory team of spiders and humans discovering the solar system where the octopodes are grappling eight-leggedly with problems of their own. It makes for a delightfully quirky space romp with one of the creepiest, scariest antagonists out there.

Children of Ruin dances brilliantly along a tightrope of horror and humor, all while bursting with the mind-boggling imagination and heady ideas that are Tchaikovsky’s trademark. Oh, and no spoilers, but after reading this book, you’ll never hear the phrase “I’m going on an adventure!” in quite the same way again. Sorry, Bilbo!

(6) The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. LeGuin, narrated by Rob Inglis
(11) Tehanu, by Ursula K. LeGuin, narrated by Jenny Sterlin

These are the third and fourth books in LeGuin’s Earthsea Quartet.

The Farthest Shore is the tale of Ged and the young Prince Arren as they seek out the reason why magic is fading in the world. It packs a lot of thematic goodness—about the acceptance of death, the drive to create, the lingering consequences of ill deeds—into a short but beautifully written book. LeGuin’s prose continues to be Tolkienesque in its lyricism.

Tehanu, the last book, is a jarring departure from the first three. It is told from the point of view of Tenar, the priestess from The Tombs of Atuan, who has forsaken her power and position for a simple domestic life. Now well into the later stages of middle-age, she must protect the life of a young, disfigured orphan, as well as the elderly Ged who has lost his magic powers. Loneliness, finding meaning in old age, and women’s empowerment in society are all strong themes, in a quieter, more contemplative book than the previous ones in the set.

(8) Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire

I’ve never been so flummoxed about how to write a review for a book I loved as I’ve been for this one.

Middlegame is marvelous. It hooked me faster than any other on this list. The story is gripping, the characters nuanced, flawed, and sympathetic. The magic is creepy. The writing is skilled. It’s full of emotion, complexity, plot-twists… But for all of that, I’m finding it hard to describe in any particulars without spoiling too much.

It features two kids, Rodger and Dodger, growing up in different parts of the country, who discover they share a kind of telepathic link. It turns out they share a lot more, but…damn, spoilers, I can’t tell you. Look, just read it and thank me later, will you?

(9) The Bone Ships, by R.J. Barker, narrated by Jude Owusu

Having greatly enjoyed Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy, I thought this book would be a safe bet for a car-drive audiobook. I was not wrong. This book is fantastic.

It’s a nautical adventure set almost entirely aboard ships, so you’d naturally expect plenty of sailor jargon and such, but The Bone Ships is saturated with world-building language. The titular ships themselves are literally crafted from the bones of giant sea creatures, and their masts and sails are always referred to as spines and wings. Longboats are “flukeboats.” The stern is called the “rump.” It’s easy to get used to, and really immerses you in the alien-ness of the world.

A similar conceit: this world is a matriarchy, and Barker backs it up with his language. The captain of a ship, regardless of their gender, is called the shipwife. And the simple phrase “men and women” is never used; it’s always “women and men.” As for the story itself, it’s centered on two characters: Joron Twiner, a downtrodden and disrespected shipwife, and Lucky Meas, the feared and more competent shipwife who commandeers his ship. If you want tense personal confrontations and character growth, you’ll get lots of it. If you want exciting naval combats, you’ll get lots of that, too.

(10) The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

This is a fun and twisty puzzle-box Groundhog Day murder mystery in a Downton Abbey-like setting.

Intrigued? You should be. This is an immensely clever debut novel in which the main character wakes up each morning in a new body on the same day, where he is tasked with solving and preventing a murder. It’s an engaging whodunit where the reader is invited not only to figure out the murder mystery, but also what is going on in the larger sense: Why is this narrator living all of these lives? Who are the mysterious side-characters who clearly have some greater knowledge of what’s truly happening here?

The writing is clear and adroit, serving its tale without drawing attention to itself. And while I can’t promise you’ll be satisfied at the end with the explanations, I turned the last page as a happy customer.

(12) The Pursuit of William Abbey, by Claire North

I’ve now read five books by Claire North, and this one is probably (to me) the weakest of the five, but as North is one of my favorite authors, that’s not to say I didn’t like it. Like her other books, this one features a protagonist with an odd supernatural ability/affliction.

William Abbey is a British colonist in late-19th-century South Africa who witnesses the lynching of a native boy. The boy’s mother bestows upon William a strange and terrible two-part curse. The first is that the boy’s ghost will pursue him constantly at a slow, steady pace, and each time he’s caught, the person he loves most will die. The second is that, as the ghost gets closer, William gains knowledge of secrets held by nearby people, secrets he becomes compelled to speak out loud. As such, he’s of great interest to various world governments who seek to use him and others similarly afflicted.

It’s an interesting conceit, and North is a wonderful writer, but the story was a bit more static than some of her other tales, and Abbey himself wasn’t (IMHO) quite compelling enough to carry a long novel.

If you want to try Claire North – which you should! – I would suggest instead reading The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, The Gameshouse, or The Sudden Appearance of Hope.

(13) Gone Away World, by Nick Harkaway, narrated by Kirby Heyborne

This book strongly reminded me of Cat Valente’s Space Opera, not because of its content, but because it features brilliantly virtuosic prose delivered in run-on sentences of epic proportions. I listened to the audio version of both books, and while the narrators are two different people, their British accents and style of delivery were extremely similar to my very American ears.

Like Space Opera, this book is a strange one. I loved it, but be prepared for a lot of weirdness, and trust in the author that it will all make sense in the end. 

When the book starts, we are introduced to a nameless protagonist who’s part of a kind of crack repair squad—the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company—in a post-apocalyptic world. Some ill-defined catastrophe has resulted in most of the Earth being rendered too dangerous to inhabit, because some ill-defined danger lurks that is capable of inflicting ill-defined horrors. The only safe places to live are within a two-mile distance of the “Jorgmund Pipe,” a world-spanning pipeline that spews out some substance that keeps the strange terrors at bay. But now the pipe is on fire, and the Freebooting Company has been called upon to put it out.

At that point, I thought I had a handle on where things were going, but I was greatly mistaken. Following this highly entertaining and intriguing set-up, the book effectively starts over, telling the story of the protagonist’s life right up from childhood, when he first meets his best friend (and now fellow Freebooter) Gonzo Lubitsch. This autobiographical interlude occupies most of the book, and while wildly entertaining in its own right, it takes a long time before it joins back up with what seemed like the main thrust of the story. Somewhere around the three-quarter mark, Harkaway treats the reader to what is, in my opinion, one of the best, most mind-forking plot twists I have ever encountered. In the end, it makes complete sense why the book is structured the way it is. I can’t say more without spoiling things, and this is definitely a book where you’ll want to avoid spoilers.

(14) The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars is a multi-award-winning novel that postulates an alternate history wherein a meteor strikes Chesapeake Bay in the early 50’s and wipes out the U.S. eastern seaboard. This jump-starts the space program, as the main character, mathematician Elma York, realizes that global warming from the impact will render the earth uninhabitable in about 50 years.

While the book is full of details about the space program and how rocket launches work, it’s more about gender and racial politics, and how they would map onto a space program that the world literally requires to survive. Despite her mathematical brilliance and flight experience from WW2, Elma’s greatest struggle is against the barrier of 1950’s sexism and gender stereotypes. She befriends a cadre of black women pilots whose plight is even more difficult; the whole of the book has a distinct Hidden Figures vibe about it.

(15) Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, narrated by Jenny Sterlin

Most people are probably more familiar with the Studio Ghibli treatment, but the book upon which the movie is based is just as fun. It’s about the adventures of Sophie, a hatter’s daughter, who is transformed into an old woman by her nemesis. Her practical, hard-headed stubbornness gets her through the book’s world-hopping challenges, in particular when dealing with the wizard Howl (a vain and dramatic fellow who manages to be annoying and charming at the same time) and the aggrieved fire spirit Calcifer. This is a quirky and humorous little middle-grade story that sometimes twists itself into confusing moments and odd side-tracks, but never loses its charm.

(16) Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, by K.J. Parker, narrated by Ray Sawyer
(55) How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It, by K.J. Parker, narrated by Ray Sawyer

Sometimes I adore an audio book, and it’s hard for me to tell how much of my enjoyment stems from the narration, and how much from the book itself. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is just such a novel, though on reflection I think the answer is a strong “both are great.”

The narration is in first person, so the protagonist (voiced by Ray Sawyer) tells us his own story. Said protagonist, Colonel Orhan, is such an outstanding character, I’m tempted to place him among my all-time favorites. He’s the leader of a corps of engineers, which is part of a fictitious Roman-like Empire whose armies control most of the known world. One thing leads to another, and Orhan finds himself defending the empire’s greatest city, with only the barest skeleton of a defensive force, from a huge and unexpected invading army.

You’ll hear a lot of engineering details in this book, about materials, construction, siege equipment, and supply chain logistics, but it all felt seamless and proper in its place. Orhan/Sawyer’s wonderful delivery makes every sentence feel important. There’s still plenty of excitement to be found, but don’t expect 350 pages of Helm’s Deep.

Colonel Orhan makes the book. He’s a world-weary, no-nonsense fellow with a practical engineer’s outlook on just about everything. He’s also an unreliable narrator, constantly self-effacing at the same time he’s devising clever plans and declaring things about himself that are in direct opposition to his words and actions. He’s willing to bend bureaucracy to the breaking point and beyond to get things done, and wants neither credit nor blame for anything, but ends up accruing both in great quantities as he attempts to devise both social and military solutions to a host of logistical and interpersonal problems. Sometimes his best ideas fail. Sometimes he gets lucky. Sometimes he’s a genius who ekes out another day or week for the city. Is Orhan a hero? Certainly not, he would say. But the book asks the reader, clearly but indirectly, to consider that question over and over again, and the answer never seems wholly obvious.

There’s also a slow, steady thread on colonialism and race running through Sixteen Ways. The empire Orhan serves treats him as a second-class citizen due to his race, since he belonged to one of the nations they conquered along the way. His reflections on the ironies imposed, as he does his damnedest to save the capital of his conquerors, are anything but black-and-white. I found them very thought-provoking, and the sardonic, at times fatalistic tone of the narration really drives home, often uncomfortably, some ambiguous questions of morality.

The writing throughout is solid, character-consistent, and doesn’t stint on descriptions of men and women mangled by siege weaponry. I never found the pace lagging, nor grew impatient to get past some less urgent part of the story. The ending is likely to be divisive, but I thought it was brilliant. Avoiding spoilers as much as possible: The whole narrated account of the siege, along with the events that led to and followed it, is discovered in the future as a written record of some historical significance. What that future archivist makes of the story is one of my favorite and most thought-provoking sections of the book.

A final note: this is a fantasy book that feels like borderline historical fiction, and which has no magical or supernatural elements at all. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It is a sort-of-sequel to Sixteen Ways To Defend a Walled City, taking place seven years later in the same besieged city. It’s just as brilliant as its predecessor, sparkling with dry wit, and full of little details and relevant asides that are anything but dry. I have no complaints, and was thoroughly entertained once more by Ray Sawyer’s excellent narration.

I do have an observation that is a little complaint-ish, which is that the book is at times distractingly similar to the first one. The POV narrator is different, but the voice actor is the same, and the two characters have very similar personalities. It took a while at the start to shake the feeling I was still hearing the tale of Colonel Orhan from Sixteen Ways, and not the actor and impressionist Notker who tells the newer story.

The stories themselves also have a lot in common. In both, a very unlikely person ends up in charge of a besieged city, and has to fly by the seat of his pants to keep things under control.  Where Sixteen Ways was full of delightful engineering details, this one is full of delightful theater-related details, but the overall effect is the same: desperate unlikely hero must use area of expertise to maintain order and advance own interests while in a position of unexpected authority.

Also, toward the end of the second book, I feel like the author couldn’t quite resist letting his love for quirky engineering details take over from the theatrical stuff, at which point the similarities between the two become even more pronounced.

None of that, I will note, eroded my listening enjoyment. I think if you liked the first one—which you probably did or will—you’ll enjoy this one just as much.  If you didn’t read the first one, then a) you should, but also b) you don’t have to in order to enjoy this one. It would work perfectly well as a standalone, though I think you’ll like it more as a sequel.

(17) Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter

This book is (ahem) all the rage right now, early in 2020. It’s earned a gazillion accolades, great review scores, and glowing blurbs from many well-known and well-respected authors. Readers love it. Rage of Dragons also served to remind me that my priorities are, alas, not always aligned with those of the typical fantasy reader. I thought the book was decent, but flawed. Please understand that my opinions here are WAY out of the mainstream. This book has already appeared on at least one “best 100 fantasy books of all time” list, so I encourage you to seek out sentiments other than mine. 

The main reason (I think) for Rage of Dragons’ popularity is that it’s fantastically, furiously paced. You get thrown into the action right from the start, and the book doesn’t let up for 500 pages. If you want a book where stuff is happening, constantly, driving the story forward without remorse, you’ll be happy with this one. And I’ll admit, despite this not checking my boxes, I stayed with it and finished in (for me) pretty good time. I was Engaged™.

This is a straightforward zero-to-hero revenge tale. The main character, Tau, is a lowly fighter-in-training when we meet him, and soon after he suffers tragedy at the hands of the cruel entrenched powers of his world. He vows revenge, maps out his plan for it, and then spends 500 pages relentlessly and single-mindedly pursuing it. Most of that time is spent in what is essentially a very, very long training sequence, as he moves up the ranks of his culture’s armed forces, pushing himself to become a good enough warrior to take on the objects of his wrath.

There’s more going on in the story than just that: there’s a clash of civilizations, some political machinations, and a love interest, Zuri, who, in a very Starship Troopers way, follows the wizard upgrade path parallel to Tau’s warrior track. The magic system of the world is interesting; mages dip into an actual demonic plane to draw power, risking the attention of its denizens each time they do.

The world itself is African fantasy, which is a nice change from the typical Euro-fantasy, and it makes sense, the author himself having been raised in Africa. His “about the author” blurb on Amazon says: “…when his son was born, he realized that there weren’t many epic fantasy novels featuring characters who looked like him. So, before he ran out of time, he started writing them.” I may be about to display some profound ignorance here, so take my lily-white opinions with all the salt you can find, but I thought that while the world was described with a distinctly African-esque vocabulary, and its inhabitants were dark skinned, the world didn’t feel different underneath from any number of European settings. The cultural differences gave me a “painted on” feel, rather than running deep into the bones of the world. (Maybe the rigid class hierarchy and caste system was supposed to evoke the difference, but plenty of other fantasy worlds have that. I’d love to hear from someone more familiar with African traditions, culture, and heritage, to learn if there are nuances I’ve missed.)

My biggest disappointment was with the prose itself, which was plain, occasionally awkward, and not particularly interesting to read. Sometimes it came across as amateurish, and I was often distracted by clunky phrasing and an excess of filtering. This was the author’s debut novel, and while it’s obviously a great achievement for a first book, it had, in my admittedly amateurish opinion, the writing of someone who hasn’t yet had all of their bad habits squeezed out of them by an editor. It also lacked details in places I thought most needed it, especially in the action sequences. There’s a LOT of fighting in the book, and the fights were described as series of blocks and swings and cuts, but with neither extra flourishes to help me picture the action, nor a strong parallel track of emotions in the mind of the main character. The battles started to run together in my mind after a while, as Tau hacked and slashed his angry way through the book.

As one might expect from a military fantasy in a male-dominated world, there’s not much screen time for female characters. There’s only one of any great significance, the aforementioned Zuri. My final gripe involves a huge spoiler, so if you want to read this book unsullied, you should skip the rest.


. [spoiler space]


As if Tau’s initial desire for revenge wasn’t enough, at the end of the book, Zuri gets fridged! She’s killed as a springboard to motivate Tau to continue his pursuit of vengeance in future books! It felt entirely unnecessary, and I was quite disappointed by it.

(18) The Warrior’s Apprentice, by Lois McMaster Bujold, narrated by Grover Gardner
(23) The Vor Game, by Lois McMaster Bujold, narrated by Grover Gardner
(29) Cetaganda,
by Lois McMaster Bujold, narrated by Grover Gardner
(53) Brothers in Arms,
by Lois McMaster Bujold, narrated by Grover Gardner

These are the first four full-length novels in the ballyhooed “Vorkosigan Saga” that feature its main protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan. (There are two prequel books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, which tell the tales of his parents, thus serving as a sort of pre-origin story.)

The Warrior’s Apprentice et al. are clever, small-scale space opera books starring one of the most fascinating characters you’re ever likely to read about. Miles Vorkosigan is the scion of a powerful ruling-class military family, but is a black sheep by the misfortunes of his birth. He is 4’ 10”, mildly misshapen and with extremely brittle bones due to prenatal poisoning. As such, he is the opposite of an action hero, but he is nonetheless very much a hero. His driving curiosity and adventurism, along with a need to prove himself, put him in ever-escalating perils from which he must escape by the expedients of his brilliant mind and genius at improvisation. As such, he finds himself unexpectedly in charge of a mercenary space outfit, thus leading a double life as both a noble son of Barrayar, and as the admiral of his fleet.

Bujold writes his adventures with a sense of mischief and fun that sparkles on every page. Though the plots can be convoluted (perhaps to a fault sometimes), and the world-building is strong, these are absolutely character-driven books, and Miles is someone impossible not to cheer for.

(19) Orconomics, by J. Zachary Pike, narrated by Doug Tisdale Jr.
(26) Son of a Liche, by J. Zachary Pike, narrated by Doug Tisdale Jr.

Orconomics was the 2018 SPFBO winner, and well deserved its victory. Billed on the cover as a satire, it brilliantly and lovingly skewers all kinds of fantasy and gaming tropes, provides some scathing commentary on modern capitalism, and delivers a hugely entertaining story in its own right.

The books imagine a fantasy world whose economic engine revolves around adventuring parties going on quests, defeating monsters, and plundering treasure hoards. Thus it features financial institutions investing in said quests, competing companies cranking out magic weapons and armor, official guild status for thugs and goons who hire out to villains, monster races who need to acquire non-combatant papers in order to live in human cities, and the ubiquitous Heroes Guild through which adventurers become licensed and assigned to missions.

And for all that, the characters are superbly written and delightful to watch bounce off of one another. These aren’t facile books that lean too heavy on their gimmick. There’s plenty of genuine emotion along with the action, entertaining dialogue, and humorous references.

Son of a Liche, the second book in what will eventually be a trilogy, is even funnier and cleverer than the opener. If you’re an old school tabletop gamer who laughs at the mention of Viscous Rhombohedrons, Spherical Jellies, and Gooey Cylinders, I can guarantee you’re going to love these books.

(20) City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett
(30) City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett

These are the second and third books in Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy. When I wrote last year about the first book, City of Stairs, I said it was “like a cross between Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead and Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant.” Now having finished the trilogy, I stand by that analysis.

Each of the latter books features a protagonist who appeared as a secondary character in the previous book(s), and I thought they became increasingly entertaining. The last book, City of Miracles, was my favorite, both for its story, its unique antagonist, and its main character, the stoic Sigurd Harkvaldsson.

The setting continues to be the star of the series: a world that is both almost-modern and magical, where the gods have been killed but somehow continue to make trouble; where the colonizers have become the oppressed; and where layers of mystery and wonder keep getting peeled back almost to the last page.

And that last page—oof. I was literally moved to tears by the ending of the series. Divine Cities is one of my favorite trilogies of all time.

(21) Paternus: War of Gods, by Dyrk Ashton

This is the third and final installment in Ashton’s Paternus trilogy, and it brings the story to a close with a conclusion so epic, the word “epic” isn’t really adequate to describe it. The second book spent its pages showing the two sides of a titanic upcoming war gathering their forces. Here in War of Gods, we see those forces smash together in a battle scene so huge, it makes Helm’s Deep look like two kids in a sandbox throwing toys at each other.

If you’ve read the first two books, you know what you’re getting into in terms of prose style; Ashton writes straightforwardly, with a distinctly modern and casual use of language. Sometimes the juxtaposition of ancient gods and slangy modern phrases can be jarring, but I’ll assume that anyone who has picked up the third book in this series has, like me, long since stopped worrying about that. (And the author’s writing, especially with his characterizations, has steadily improved throughout the series.) Let’s face it, you’re reading War of Gods because you want to see gods going to war, and hoo boy, that’s what you get.

What impressed me the most about this book was the author’s ability to sustain a breakneck “final battle” pace for over 300 pages. He zooms the camera in to show individual struggles and stratagems, then pulls back to give the reader a bird’s eye view of massed armies crashing into one another. He hops around to all the little sub-stories that make up his thunderous clash of good-vs.-evil, and does it so deftly, I never once grew bored, weary, or over-saturated with action. It was 300+ pages of compulsory page turning, full of exciting battles, tragic deaths, heroic victories, and unexpected revelations. This trilogy has no obvious comp. You probably won’t have read anything like it. It’s an urban fantasy which, as I think I wrote in my review of the first book, feels like it features the entirety of the old D&D hardback Deities & Demigods having crazy-awesome battles in the ultimate mythical-beings slugathon. If that sounds like a good time to you, this series has you covered all the way.

(22) 88 Names, by Matt Ruff

I am big fan of two of Ruff’s earliest books, Fool on the Hill and Set This House in Order. I’ve read all of his books since then, hoping to discover he’s caught lightning in a bottle once more. And while I’ve enjoyed the subsequent books, he hasn’t (in my opinion) matched the pure entertainment I found in those first two.

Alas, I thought 88 Names wasn’t one of his better efforts. It’s a near-future thriller set largely in virtual-reality environments, and it gives off a “Ready Player One” vibe, though the pop-culture and CRPG references are obviously not meant to be the point the way they were in RPO. The narrator and protagonist, John Chu, is a “Sherpa” for MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. (Fictionally, the primary game is Call to Wizardry, but any genre-savvy reader will know it’s obviously WoW.) Chu shepherds clients through high-level MMORPG content, allowing them to experience parts of the game that would otherwise take hundreds of hours of playing to reach.

The meat of the story is: Chu is approached by a mysterious client offering tons of cash in return for a no-questions, on-call-anytime arrangement. Before too long he’s swept up in some kind of virtual-reality espionage plot that may or may not involve Kim Jong-un, Chinese nationals, and a vengeful ex-girlfriend.

Like all of Ruff’s books, the prose is light and breezy, and the story extremely easy to read. The sections that take place inside Call to Wizardry are beautifully done, and anyone who’s played World of Warcraft will recognize the fidelity to the source material. There are also fun sequences inside a bank-robbing game, a zombie-apocalypse game, and an old-style text adventure that’s a lovingly reskinned Zork.

My main problems with the book were twofold. One, there’s not much “meat,” ultimately, to the story. It’s a short book, and the plot moves briskly, but ends without much fanfare or surprise. Second, as with Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, the main character doesn’t express much in the way of emotion, even when incredible and dangerous things are happening. John Chu feels a little thin and detached as a result.

Also, there are some asides here and there where the protagonist spontaneously shares his views on personal and political topics, but they’re not connected to the rest of the story in any meaningful way. They’re thoughtful and well-written but still felt like filler. Oh, and fair-warning: there’s nothing too explicit, but you’ll get lots of detailed descriptions about how cybersex works in this near-future VR world.

(24) The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

I’ve gone back and forth about this book a lot since I finished it.

I chose it because of how much I enjoyed the author’s debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky, but this book was very different, and was missing many of the things I liked the most about her previous work.  The language lacked the fun, quirky style that drew me in to All the Birds in the Sky, and while that could have been overcome by a compelling story or interesting characters, I thought City in the Middle of the Night was, sad to say, kind of a mess.

This is not to say the book is all bad. It’s setting and world-building are wonderful. The book takes place on a tidally-locked planet, meaning most of the world is cast either in perpetual freezing darkness or permanent scorching sunlight. The only inhabitable section is a thin ring of twilight between these two extremes. Some generations earlier, a colony ship of humans landed on this planet, and the story takes place mostly in the two largest cities of this strange, hostile world. But I thought the story itself had little consistency or drive. There are some interesting personal dynamics between some of the main characters, but the relationships—clearly meant to be the heart of this book—ended up falling in what was for me an uncomfortable space between “serious meditation on friendship vs. taking advantage” and “angsty teen drama.” The plot veers and lurches without ever becoming coherent, relying on unlikely developments and the occasional odd coincidence to stay on its rickety track. I thought the few action scenes were unconvincing, and the ending felt rushed and unsatisfying.

I feel badly about talking about how I don’t like a book, since it doesn’t happen to me often. The writing itself is skillful and evocative, and there really is some marvelous and alien world-building to enjoy. I urge anyone reading this to remember I’m just one person with an opinion, and Charlie Jane Anders is an award-winning author. There are plenty of people who love this book, and you might be one of them.

(25) The Infinite Tower, by Dorian Hart

I have to include this for form’s sake – I did, after all, read it many times while writing it. Technically I’ve only read a near-final draft, but I’m still counting it.

This is the fourth book (out of an eventual five — almost done!) of my epic fantasy Heroes of Spira series. It’s a strange thing to have come so far; I can still recall the feeling of “Whoa, I wrote a book!” after the first one.

As for the book itself, while I would not be so crass as to expound personally upon its virtues, I will shamelessly quote one of my beta readers, who is himself a self-published fantasy author of some repute. He was impressed enough to offer some unsolicited blurbs, which I now reveal for the first time:

“Hart’s imagination blows my mind. This is one of the most original epic fantasy journeys I have ever read. Surreal and wonderful.”

(27) The Sword of Kaigen, by M.L. Wang

This book has recently won the SPFBO, and it’s easy to see why. It’s skillfully written and delivers a satisfying combination of deep character studies and Last Airbender-esque fight scenes. 

The setting is an odd mashup. The main characters live in a remote village where the denizens are taught sword fighting and water-bending, so at first this seems like a typical eastern-inspired fantasy world. But soon readers learn that this world also contains video games, cell-phone towers, and fighter jets. Somehow it works, or at least it worked for me.

Other observations: one of the main POV characters is a middle-aged mother with a unusual past, and the book’s main internal conflict is between her devotion as a subservient wife and mother in a traditional patriarchal society, and her history as a highly-trained and socially emancipated warrior woman. Misaki is not your typical fantasy heroine, but she’s a fascinating character to follow. Fair warning: the book starts very slow, even including a big info-dump couched as a boring school lesson. And the author uses plenty of cultural jargon, so if you’re like me, you’ll keep the glossary bookmarked. But those things quickly fade, as the book deftly combines its evocative action scenes with emotional punches.

(28) The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
(44) The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Probably the best book recommendation I’ve ever received was from my father-in-law’s sister’s husband, who suggested I read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read, top 10 no doubt, with prose so gorgeous I would donate both my kidneys if I could write half so well.

That book is part of a 4-book set, not exactly a series but all interrelated, knows as the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” novels. These two listed are the second and third in that set, and they are nearly as beautiful and thrilling as the first. They take place in early- to mid-20th -century Barcelona, and fall into a foggy space between magical realism and literary fiction.

Having read books by at least a couple hundred authors over my 50+ years of life, the best dialogue in any of them belongs to Fermin Romero de Torres, a character in Zafon’s books. Best. Dialogue. As the kids say, don’t @me.

I’m sorry to say that Zafon died earlier this year, but we are beyond fortunate to have his books to read. Please, go read them.

(31) Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett

Each year I make sure to read at least one Discworld novel, as I continue on my slow quest to finish them all before I die of old age. Reaper Man, as you might guess, stars one of the series’ most endearing characters, Death. With typically Pratchett-ian wit, this book imagines what the effects might be if Death himself were fired from his job. While he enjoys a retirement as a farmhand, the rest of the Discworld suffers the consequences of the dead not properly moving on.

While the main story focuses on Death, and on an ancient wizard named Windle Poons who goes on living past his expiration date, Reaper Man gives us little cameos from a number of Discworld favorites, including Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler, Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully, Patrician Vetinari, the Librarian, and Sergeant Colon. At times, the story gets a little too scattered, but in addition to the usual satire and skewering observational humor, Pratchett gives the reader some real heartfelt moments. Death’s odd relationship with his elderly farmwoman employer, Mrs. Flitwick, is quite moving, and Death himself is always a treat to read.

(32) Where the Waters Turn Black, by Benedict Patrick

This is the second of Patrick’s self-published Yarnsworld novels, following They Only Come Out at Night. It’s not a sequel, as there is almost no commonality beyond the world itself, but like that first book, this one is told in the style of a fairy tale. The setting here is Polynesian in flavor, a series of tropical islands filled with gods, monsters, and magic. It definitely had a Moana-ish vibe going on.

Although I still had some quibbles with clunky prose here and there, this book is better than the previous in almost every regard. In particular, the characterizations and dialogue were stronger, and I especially enjoyed the snarky character of Yam, the God of Yams.

Strong themes of friendship and self-empowerment carry a story that feels intentionally simple but still kept me entertained throughout. Oh, and bonus points for another gorgeous and distinctive cover.

(33) Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell.

Until this year, if you asked me who my favorite author was, I’d have answered “David Mitchell.” Now I’d probably say Alix E. Harrow, but that’s not to say Mitchell isn’t brilliant.

While most of Mitchell’s oeuvre contains elements of the supernatural, Black Swan Green has almost none of that. It’s a mostly straightforward bildungsroman, a slice-of-life story about a teenage boy growing up in a fictional English town, navigating the choppy social waters of his school and watching the slow disintegration of his parents’ marriage.

The writing is so, so good, full of detail and dripping with the verisimilitude that’s a hallmark for Mitchell. In some ways it’s similar to Catcher in the Rye, but if the main character were actually fun to read about and not such a prat.

(34) Malice, by John Gwynne
(50) Valor, by John Gwynne

This is going to be a long ramble, most of which will not be about the book Malice per se, but about the writing/editing of the book. If you’re not interested in the nuts and bolts of sentences and prose, I encourage you to skip over those sections. I talk more about the story itself, and why I came around to liking it, nearer to the end.

After I’d read the first thirty pages of this book, my feelings were quite mixed. There were two reasons I wasn’t loving it.  First, Malice felt extremely generic. I have no quibbles with well-executed fantasy tropes, but the old-skool tropey feeling was nearly overwhelming. Second, and somewhat related to the first, the writing itself was a constant distraction.

A long-time confidant and writing mentor warned me some years ago that writing books was going to spoil my experience of reading books. It hasn’t been that bad, but I’ve come to understand what he meant. I’ve become a serious prose curmudgeon. My teenage daughters teasingly call me a “book snob.” My experience of reading this book was, in part, a week-long procession of winces and cringes at many different editing choices. Lest you think I’m complaining in the abstract, and so you can see exactly how much of a pedant I truly am, here are some concrete examples.

One of the first things I learned about the craft of fiction writing is that some words should be used sparingly or not at all. One of these is “suddenly.”  Suddenly almost never adds anything of value to a sentence. The context of what’s happening is usually more than sufficient, and in fact leaving out the word is a stronger way of impacting the reader with the unexpectedness of an action. The very presence of the word “suddenly” shifts the focus to the narration, not the action itself.

Gwynne uses the word “suddenly” dozens of times in this book, sometimes multiple times in a page.  It drove me to distraction, right up to the end.

Another tic: Lots of people grunt in this book. In the first few pages, I think three different characters grunted the word “huh.” In one place someone grunts a whole sentence.

Another tic: Constant “was-ing.”  What do I mean by that? Here’s an example straight from the book:

Corban was sitting in the back of a large wain, bumping along the giantsway, sitting with about a dozen other boys. All of them were eyeing him—or more accurately, the bundle of fur that poked out from under his arm—with varying degrees of curiosity and caution. Farrell was the only one that had actually spoken to him since he climbed into the wain, although all of the others were listening avidly to their conversation.

If someone were foolish enough to give me a crack at editing this paragraph, here’s what I would have done:

Corban sat in the back of a large wain with about a dozen other boys, bumping along the giantsway. All of them eyed him—or more accurately, the bundle of fur that poked out from under his arm—with varying degrees of curiosity and caution. Only Farrell had spoken to him since he had climbed into the wain, although all the others listened avidly to their conversation.

Unless it would be confusing otherwise, or it’s important the reader understand that an action is ongoing, the past perfect tense is almost always stronger. And, bonus, it’s cleaner and uses fewer words. Malice is 628 pages long, and my sense after reading it is that it could have been 20-30 pages shorter without losing any scenes or content, simply by cleaning up sentences and losing extra words.  Malice contained more was-ing than any other book I can recall reading.

Another tic: Comma splices. Many times, Gwynne uses the word “then” to create a comma splice.  (A comma splice is when two independent phrases are connected by a comma. If both sides of the comma can stand on their own as complete sentences, you’ve created a splice, which is a grammatically incorrect sentence. (Technically! Yes, I’m a grammar snob! And yes, rules are there to be broken! But if I don’t think you broke a rule on purpose, it’s going to bother me! Sorry!))

Here’s an example from the text: “They trod stone corridors for a while, then Marrock walked through another doorway.”  Gwynne forms a lot of sentences that way.

Final tic: repeated words/phrases. As an example, over a two-page span, the author describes first a horse, and then a man, as having “dark, liquid eyes.” It’s a fine, evocative phrase, but used twice in close proximity, it’s very distracting.  (It’s possible the author was making a point about the connection between the horse and its rider, but it didn’t come across that way. It seemed as though the author thought of a good way to describe eyes, and it was still in his head the next page, but he forgot he’d just used it, and wrote it again.)  There are lots of cases of this throughout the book, where Gwynne uses the same distinctive word twice in close proximity.

I’ll be the first to admit: As a writer I commit these sins all the time in my early drafts. My repeated words, my was-ing, my use of “suddenly,” my filtering, my use of “started to” and “began to,” my writing “stood up” instead of simply “stood”—it’s all in there. But while my finished prose may be problematic in all sorts of ways, my readers, my editors, my proofers, and my own prose reviews all serve to mostly shake these kinds of problems out. I suppose in hindsight I was more frustrated with the editing of the book than the writing itself.

In fairness, this was Gwynne’s debut novel. It’s certainly stronger than my debut novel. None of the above is meant to imply I’m in any way a superior writer to Gwynne, which all evidence says I am not. Gwynne is more popular and successful than I will be on whatever day turns out to be the pinnacle of my career. Also, my priorities as a reader are weird. I’m a prose hound. As I’ve said elsewhere, I value well-crafted prose for its own sake, and my favorite books tend to be ones where both the prose and the story stand out.

And, for all of my kvetching, I tore through this book. It really is a towering achievement of tropey goodness that slowly morphs over its 600+ pages into something like George R.R. Martin Lite. There’s a big cast of characters, lots of politicking, and deaths of characters you’ve grown attached to.  And Gwynne may waste space inside his sentences, but he never does inside his chapters. He gets his characters to the next exciting or important scene with no fuss. I didn’t think the book had any boring parts.

As for the tropes themselves:  Do you want a cowardly blacksmith’s son bullied by the older kids, but who grows into a strong, brave warrior? Do you want him trained in sword fighting by the mysterious fellow with the hidden past? Do you want rebellious princes chafing against the royal edicts of their fathers? Do you want a rescued wild animal who grows into a beloved guardian-pet? Do you want prophecies heralding the coming war between rival gods? Do you want a scrappy tomboy sister who throws knives? Do you want battles all over the place? DO YOU WANT CHOSEN ONES?

You’ll get all of these and then some. After 30 pages, I wasn’t even sure I’d finish. After the last page, I immediately put the next book in the series on my TBR.

Speaking of which…I thought Valor was a much stronger book than Malice. Maybe I’d just become inured to the author’s editing foibles, but I wasn’t bothered as much the second time around. The story and characters were improved across the board, with relentless and plot-relevant action, impactful trials and triumphs for the characters, and exciting story reveals.

The cast of characters has, if anything, grown to GRRM levels by the end of Valor, all moving around the Banished Lands like chess pieces on a huge board. I constantly referred back to the map and dramatis personae to keep all the goings-on straight in my mind. It’s that kind of book.

No question I’ll keep on with the series, regardless of how I feel about the construction of its sentences.

(35) Jade City, by Fonda Lee

Yet another “Been on my TBR for ages” book, Jade City is a unique blend of genre and setting. It’s urban fantasy, set (mostly) in a fictional Asian city, and with technology that feels around the 1950’s. (TVs and automobiles but no cell phones.) It’s also a gangster tale, like The Godfather in a fantastical world, with the story revolving around two rival gangs vying for control of the city. The fantasy element is the magic-power-granting properties of jade, the control of which is the main point of friction between the warring clans.

Jade City is a fine combination of gang-war action and nuanced family politics, leaning somewhat toward the latter. It neither drags nor feels fast-paced. The writing itself is clean and to the point, solid and never clunky. It’s the kind of prose that does its job and gets out of the way, so the reader flows along with the story. I enjoyed it quite a bit and put the sequel, Jade War, on my TBR. May it not languish so long!

(37) The Gameshouse, by Claire North

This is the 5th book I’ve read by the brilliant Claire North, and I think it’s my second favorite, only behind The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. At the book’s heart, it presumes the existence of the Gameshouse, a mysterious place where a select few come to gamble on strange and supernatural stakes – one’s memories, the love of someone dear, that sort of thing.  The games themselves can be far reaching, like a game of hide-and-seek played across an entire country, or who can maneuver a particular political candidate into a position of authority.

The book is divided into three novellas, each describing a game played by members of the Gameshouse, with the final one of these having particularly high stakes and spanning the entire world. I found all three stories absolutely gripping and recommend this book highly

(38) The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

This is a gentle, ethereal tale about a pair of young magicians involved with an enchanted circus. The book is a delightful, dreamy, sensorial experience, with prose so smooth it will slip like sheets of silk through your mind.

The story itself is almost beside the point. Readers should approach this book like getting into a nice, hot bath. You don’t do it because you want to rush to the end to see how the bath turns out. You do it because you enjoy being immersed in the experience.

(39) The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids by Michael McClung
(41) The Thief Who Spat in Luck’s Good Eye, by Michael McClung

These books, the first of which won the inaugural SPFBO a few years ago, hit a beloved fantasy trope like a bell. They star (and are told in first person by) Amra Thetys, a city thief with a rough past who nonetheless operates with a solid code of ethics and an endless supply of snappy dialogue. If that trope is your jam, you are going to love these books.

TTWPoTB is a lean, short, fast-moving tale. It wastes no time with anything. I read the e-book, but its print length is listed at 207 pages. As such, it makes for a great interlude between chonky epics. And packed in to its short length are creepy artifacts, lots of tantalizing lore, and some mighty fine witty banter between Amra and a variety of allies and enemies.

There were times I thought it was too spare, with actions scenes coming so close together, there wasn’t a lot of time before the next one hit. There’s a lot going on in this world but little time to soak it in. That said, McClung has already published five Amra Thetys books, and the first one certainly ends with a teasing implication that the fun is only just beginning for our crafty thief with a heart of gold.

The author did something very clever with his end matter. There’s a whole section at the end where a cantankerously entertaining character explains the history of the world and details its gods and magic system. It’s the kind of thing that some authors would stick in a (dense, boring) prologue, but it worked magnificently as a post-epilogue because the reader now has context for what he’s reading.

The second book builds upon the first, exploring the relationship between two of the characters and generally expanding the Amra Thetys setting.  It more firmly establishes the series as one in which Our Heroine is going to be a half-unwilling pawn in greater schemes involving gods, wizards, and assorted Ancient Powers™.

Luck’s Good Eye confirms that Trouble’s Braids was no fluke. This is action-packed fantasy escapism at its best.

(40) Circe, by Madeline Miller

This is a retelling of the story of the witch Circe of Greek mythology, most famous for turning unwanted visitors to her island into pigs. Here you get her full life’s story, from her childhood in the court of her father, Helios, to her banishment to the island of Aiaia, to her long relationship with Odysseus. Many figures from Greek legends move in and out of the story—Hermes, Daedalus, Athena, Telemachus, Scylla, Prometheus, and others—but this is Circe’s tale.Where stories of mythical beings can often be distant and impersonal, Circe was an intensely personal, character-driven book, told in first-person from Circe’s point of view.

The writing is some of the most beautiful and lyrical I’ve read. The story is told with incredible skill, a slow but gripping journey through the life of a character who I knew little about going in. Its themes of empowerment and agency are strong, as Circe is a minor player who has to struggle constantly in a world of gods and titans.

(42) Velocity Weapon, by Megan O’Keefe
(56) Chaos Vector, by Megan O’Keefe

Do you like classic space opera? If so, you’re probably going to love these books.  They’re filled with polished and cleverly employed tropes: AIs with personalities; wormholes connecting star systems; nations warring over said wormholes; hi-tech implants both legal and illicit; street thieves stumbling across a secret lab; discoveries of alien tech; and one of my favorites: someone waking from cryo-sleep to discover they’re alone aboard a spacecraft.

This series—The Protectorate— feels  like a mashup of The Expanse, The Martian, the Miles Vorkosigan books, the Wayfarers, and a bunch of other pieces of SF I couldn’t put my finger on. But it’s all put together in a way that doesn’t feel derivative, and it doesn’t hurt that there are a couple outstanding WTF plot twists thrown in.

The only weakness, I thought, was that while the books are set in the 36th century, the human societies, once you strip away all the futuristic technologies, feel overly familiar. For example, people still use emojis and one character refers to Moby Dick and Pinocchio. There’s little of the exotic, the bizarre, the unpredictable development of humanity, that one might expect 1500 years into the future.

(43) The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

As I’m sure I’ve said before, I spend a decent amount of time lurking in social media and web environments where people talk about fantasy books. When a book is mentioned enough times as an all-time favorite (or on short lists thereof), I’m likely to add it to my list. Such was the case with Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion.

I was familiar with Bujold from listening to the first several books in her excellent Vorkosigan  Saga. I’m glad to say she is as adept with fantasy as she is with SF, and that this book’s inclusion on reader lists of favorites is perfectly reasonable. No strong comparisons come immediately to mind, but if I had to make some, it would be with Guy Gavriel Kay or Robin Hobb. The Curse of Chalion is much less bleak (and more fun) than Hobb’s brutal beat-downs of her characters, but her nuanced character work is similar in its execution. With both authors, what I enjoy most are the character interactions, and the subtleties of emotional reactions and ascribed motivations that make those conversations so entertaining. And both are incredibly skilled wordsmiths; there’s not a clunky sentence or turn of phrase in the whole of this book.

Cazaril, whose POV we are in exclusively, is the perfect hero: clever, principled, humble, well-spoken. When the narrative starts, he’s a middle-aged man worn down by hardship and treachery, but by sheer force of his goodness he makes a difference in the lives of those around him. There’s lots of court politics, and the book feels at times like a fantasy of manners, but despite a strong lean away from action and toward intrigue, there’s not a boring moment in its pages.

(46) The Trouble With Peace, by Joe Abercrombie, narrated by Steven Pacey

This book follows “A Little Hatred” in Abercrombie’s “Age of Madness” trilogy. I listened to the audiobook, brilliantly narrated by Steven Pacey.

It’s classic Abercrombie – full of cinematic splendor, complex and satisfying characters, brutal descriptions of battle and violence, and a perfect threading of the needle between grimness and humor. If you’ve come to love the author’s First Law setting as I have, you’ll be absolutely satisfied with this book.

Like Abercrombie’s The Heroes, this one spends a lot of time pounding away at the horrors and futility of war. This comes at the reader from two directions. Primarily the reader is treated to the observations of the participants (some of whom go in loving the notions of honor, glory, and all that, others who go in hapless, and yet more who know exactly what they’re getting into). But just as powerful are the up-close descriptions of the bloody realities, the moments when the tip of the pike goes into someone’s chest, or the cannon blows up in someone’s face.

If I had to find one criticism with the book, it would be that it spends a while wandering around, trying to find the through-line of its story. The first half is a series of entertaining but disconnected scenes that left me wondering what the book was about. Eventually that gets sorted out (telling you how would be a big spoiler), and the second half of the book was powerfully focused on one main conflict.

This being my 8th Abercrombie book, I have picked up on some of his writing tics. He ends a lot of sentences with “after all,” and I detected decidedly elevated levels of teeth-gritting in this one. But the man writes some of the best fantasy in existence, so I’m inclined to forgive him his foibles.

(47) The Return of the King, by J.R.R.Tolkien

Once upon a time, before I became old enough that I made the choice to stop re-reading books, I would read The Lord of the Rings every year. They are, at a level beyond reasoned critique, my favorite books. Together with The Hobbit, the series shaped my life as powerfully as anything that was not a friend or relative.

It’s strange to think that, eventually, I will have read these books for the final time. This particular reading was done out loud, to my elder daughter, now 15. I’ve been reading her the trilogy off and on for several years, and one small silver lining of Covid-driven remote schooling is that her homework load slackened, giving her more time to listen to dad narrate the tale of Middle Earth’s third age. This fall, I read her those immortal last words: “Well, I’m back.”

I have a second daughter, now 13, who read The Fellowship of the Ring for school in 7th grade. Right now we’re listening to The Two Towers on audiobook whenever we’re in the car together. Eventually we’ll finish, and listen to The Return of the King, and one more time I’ll come to the end of the series. Will that be the last time? Who knows? Either way, I’ll be grateful for Tolkien’s magnum opus for the rest of my days.

‘Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,’ said Merry. ‘We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.’

‘Not to me,’ said Frodo. ‘To me it feels more like falling asleep again.’

(48) Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells, narrated by Kevin R. Free

This is the second of Wells’ Murderbot novellas, whose main character is a strangely lovable antisocial cyborg — Murderbot — who just wants to watch their soaps and generally avoid human contact. But Murderbot is a SecBot, built for security and protecting humans, and so they inevitably end up enmeshed in human problems. In this story, Murderbot befriends a spaceship AI named ART, and the relationship between the two of them was my favorite aspect of the book. Murderbot is slowly but surely becoming an emotional being, to their own constant consternation.

Like the first novella, All Systems Red, this one is quite short. Though the story itself in Artificial Condition was a bit more complex and interesting, I thought it felt even less complete — more like a few chapters from a larger work than a full and complete story. I quite like having shorter works to read between 500+ page doorstops, but I’m a little put out that the Murderbot novellas are priced like full-length books.

(49) Mayhem’s Reign, by Edward Aubry

This is the fifth and final book in Aubry’s Mayhem Wave series.  I beta-read an in-progress draft, so it’s still a little rough around the edges, but regardless, I thought this was a magnificent end to the saga.

The Mayhem books are post-apocalyptic genre-benders; a cataclysmic event has mashed together various Earths, resulting in the hi-tech and the magical existing side by side in a new, uncertain world. But as intriguing as the setting is, it’s the characters and their engaging dialogue that make these books so enjoyable.  Found/adopted family is a powerful theme throughout, and there’s an unmistakable thread of positive feminism running through the stories.  (As I mentioned in my write-up about the previous books, the 4th volume, Balance of Mayhem, features an amazing all-woman adventuring party.)

(51) Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

I love puzzle-box novels, and this one is excellent. It invites the reader to wonder at every page: What is going on? Who is Piranesi? Where is this magical, statue-filled Romanesque place that Piranesi lives? Who is the Other that comes to visit? Who is the mysterious “16?”  Piranesi is a delightful character, combining goodness, naiveté, and brilliance in a combination that made me love every page of his explorations and discovery.

That’s about as far as I’m willing to risk spoiling things. I have plenty of thoughts about those and other questions the book provokes—about the nature of modern vs. ancient thought, about civilization and virtue and madness, but I shouldn’t say more.

I will say that the ending, while outwardly definitive, still leaves enough questions behind that, if you’re like me, you’ll still be pondering it days later.

(52) The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T.J. Klune

By hanging out in on-line communities where folks talk about books, I have learned that “Cinnamon Roll” characters are ones who are good and kind-hearted but also a bit hapless and naïve, such that readers will instinctively want to protect them (or, I suppose, want to see them protected).

This is the cinnamon-roll-iest book I’ve read in a while. Our Hero, Linus Baker, is a worn-down little bureaucrat who inspects and evaluates orphanges for DICOMY—The Department In Charge of Magical Youth. He’s sent to a very unusual orphanage to investigate and deliver a report, and meets a group of extremely unusual Magical Youth under the care of the protective Arthur Parnassus.

If you want a fantasy book with no violence, this is it. If you want a fantasy book with the sweetest m/m romance, this is it. If you want to read about a whole bunch of endearing characters that nothing bad had better happen to, this is it.

(54) The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow

Assuming I’m allowed to declare someone to be my favorite author after only two books, I’m prepared to put Alix E. Harrow on that pedestal. She has followed up the amazing The Ten Thousand Doors of January with this absolute masterpiece of alt-historical fiction, a tale of three sisters in an 1890’s America where witches and their magic are real.

The sisters— Juniper, Bella, and Agnes—are fueled by the suffragist movement of the time to  take women’s empowerment  to the next level by fomenting a revival of witchcraft in the city of New Salem. This book, like its three protagonists, is angry, passionate, joyful, so full of righteous rage and fighting spirit, it’s a wonder the pages don’t spontaneously ignite while one reads it. And Harrow’s use of language is a nonstop delight, her metaphors sharp and perfect, her ability to fill a reader’s senses unmatched.  This book is dripping with magic and a powerful hunger for a just world.

“Writing a book is a dangerous business, if done correctly.”

(57) Doors of Eden, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I loved this book so much. It’s the sort of book where I’d constantly want to interrupt whatever my family was doing and read them passages out loud.

It’s a science-fiction story about parallel worlds, but beyond that any explanation of what goes on in its pages would be too much of a spoiler. If you’ve read Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time and Children of Ruin you’ll have a good idea of what to expect at a high level: impressive scientific erudition combined with a casual, breezy style that feels like it shouldn’t be possible.

Doors of Eden reads like a political action thriller combined with an entertaining textbook on evolutionary biology combined with a portal (science) fantasy, all of which is infused with twinkle-in-the-eye humor. The characters are fine, but you’ll want to read this for the ideas. Oh, the ideas! If Tchaikovsky were a meme, he’d be that exploding “galaxy brain.” The man truly does have a galaxy brain.

As if enough weren’t going on already, to this American’s eye the book is a scathing commentary on Brexit and isolationism in general. The main villain is named Rove, just one letter off from a prominent conservative British politician who led the Brexit movement.

Here, wait, before I go, let me read you this one passage out loud:

“They’ll produce basso profundo groans that can be detected across a hundred leagues of ocean by another of their long-lived, lonely kind. Over ten thousand years, the ocean fills with their conversational flatulence.”

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