This year sucked…for me and mine. Between an extremely sick family member and finishing out my career, I had a lot of trouble concentrating on reading, and relied instead on Anime as my primary escape method. In the end I read 35 books,1 probably the fewest since I reached double digits in age, though I feel I should get extra credit for reading the three Stormlight archive novels (~3300 pages across three books). Fortunately, while not a year of classics, I enjoyed most of the books I actually managed to read.
It’s you, not me…
Last year I noted how I plowed through series, leaving little room for stand alone books. Genre fantasy has always been dominated by series, and while they comprise about three quarters of my list, I would not be surprised if Prey of Gods, Under the Pendulum Sun, A Skinful of Shadows, and Heroine Complex all got sequel’s/series continuations that pushed that number higher. At this point I’m just going to accept that even if I read a good, standalone novel, it will probably become the start of a series down the line.
What I was much better at this year was reading the first book of a series and being done, either because I didn’t really like the book; Annihilation, The Everything Box, and Just One Damned Thing After Another, and Sorcerer to the Crown: or because I thought it stood alone and didn’t need a sequel; Karen Memory and The Last Policeman. Now I just need to develop the will to stop reading a series that has gone of the rails, I’m looking at you Shades of Magic Series.
I was disappointed by a few very well reviewed titles; Annihilation, Sorcerer to the Crown, Artemis, Under the Pendulum Sun and the Shades of Magic Series 2, though none of them were bad per se, and I could even see how they came by their buzz. There were also a number of books that were solidly average (cough Hullmetal Girls), or flawed but interesting (Prey of Gods, most of the well reviewed books).
However, amongst this, two books stand out as making me regret reading them. The first was a Hugo nominee, Heroine Complex , which should have provided a much needed dose of diversity in the superhero genre, but instead turned into a vapid, overlong slog. The second was Just One Damned Thing After Another, a terrible mismatch of overwrought drama and English comedy that would have been disappointing in a vacuum, but had the misfortune of sharing a number of elements of a stone cold classic of Science Fiction (Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book), and being read in quick succession with a series (The Invisible Library) that took everything JODTAA did wrong and did it right.
The year started in auspicious fashion with me finishing the Book of the New Sun, a genuine classic of trippy, dying earth style scifi fantasy, and ended equally auspiciously with The Girl in the Tower. Most of the books in between were pretty good,3 and if I didn’t discuss it above, or don’t discuss it below, it’s probably worth reading, just not rushing out to get.
If best title of the year were a competition, Kat Howard’s An Unkindness of Magicians would take it home in a walk. The fact that it turned out to be a pretty good story about the costs people are willing to impose on others for their own comfort was a bonus. More importantly however, to prep for it, I read Howard’s first book, Rot and Roses, a complex book about creativity, family, abuse, and of course, fairies, that I would rate as one of the best of the year.
I also demolished two epic fantasy series, the Sormlight Archive and the Books of the Raksura, that I keep promising to review and contrast, but keep balking at the prospect of discussing nearly 5000 pages of story. Both are excellent, with the Stormlight Archive creating the most intricately detailed world in fantasy, at the expense of pacing, while the Raksura manage to suggest a world of incredible scope from the perspective of a convincingly non-human character (at least at the beginning). I would particularly recommend the first three Raksura Books (Cloud Road, Serpent Sea, Siren Depths), as they tell a complete arc in less space then the first Stormlight Book, The Way of Kings.
For pure escapism, I want to give a special shout out to the Invisible Library series. Cogman’s tale of dimension hopping Librarians dealing with fairies, dragons, and finding missing literature was an antidote to the general malaise of 2018. While not laugh out loud funny, the tone and pacing were exactly what I want out of light fantasy.
Weirdly, I also ended up reading a couple of Historical Fantasy Novels,4 a genre that I’m not really that acquainted with. A Skinful of Shadows was a wonderful YA novel,5 about a young girl who discovers she has a connection to a powerful noble family, and takes advantage of the English Civil War to try to escape their clutches. It managed to portray the war from a personal perspective while still telling a pretty good fantasy story.
Even better were the first two Winternight books, The Bear and the Nightingale and the Girl in the Tower. Arden takes Russian folktales, and weaves them seamlessly into medieval Russian history. This is a period where Christianity is squeezing out folk beliefs, the Rus are chaffing under the Tartar, and a girl with special powers has the freedom to choose being locked in a tower to have babies or being locked in a convent to worship god. The panoply of Russian spirits combined with the descriptions of everyday life give the book a verisimilitude, that combined with the amazing characterisation of Vasilisa and her family, and the unexpected pacing of the books make for a powerful story. These two books, along with Roses and Rot, were my favourite books of the year, and I am waiting on tenterhooks for the final book of the trilogy to drop next week.6
In more less the order I read them.
- Sword of the Lictor [BNS]
- The Citadel of the Autarch [BNS]
- Prey of Gods
- Annihilation [SRT]
- Rot and Roses
- Unkindness of magicians
- Sorcerer to the Crown [SR]
- The Everything Box [ACH]
- Last Policeman [LP]
- Under the Pendulum Sun
- A Skinful of Shadows
- Karen Memory [KM]
- A Darker Shade of Magic [SOM]
- A Gathering of Shadows[SOM]
- A Conjuring of Light [SOM]
- The Bear and the Nightingale [WT]
- Heroine Complex
- An Unkindness of Ghosts
- The Way of Kings [SA]
- Words of Radiance [SA]
- Oathbringer [SA]
- The Cloud Roads [Rak]
- The Serpent Sea [Rak]
- The Siren Depths [Rak]
- The Edge of Worlds [Rak]
- The Harbors of the Sun [Rak]
- Just One Damn Thing After Another [CoStM]
- The Invisible Library [IL]
- The Masked City [IL]
- The Burning Page [IL]
- The Lost Plot [IL]
- Trail of Lighting [SW]
- Hullmetal Girls
- The Girl in the Tower [WT]
- Down 20 from last year!
- Book one lived up to its rep though.
- For example: Last Policeman, Trail of Lightning, and an Unkindness of Ghosts.
- Technically I could have broadened this category as JODTAA is historical SF, but I’m talking about good books.
- Hugo nominated even.
- Where I will review the series – in the interim, the second book is better than the first, building on what was great and having a much better (though still not super original) climax.