Well, it’s that time of year, isn’t it? Time for all the Best Of and Top Ten lists to begin poking their heads out to herald in not just a new year, but a new decade. 2019 was one hell of a busy one for me, having started with a move across the country and some quite major changes in my personal life since then. Things are looking up, and I’ve met some wonderful new people who I hope will continue to be major parts of my life! It’s been one for the books, if you will.
In very happy news, my blog was also nominated for the r/Fantasy Stabby Award! Unfortunately, I’m not eligible as I’m, y’know, a moderator there and one of the ones running the award. There’s a very slight conflict of interest given that, so I’ve had to gracefully bow out of the running. That said, I strongly encourage everyone to go vote on the nominees!
This year, I was more than a little spoiled for good books and stories. There were very few new releases that I didn’t at least enjoy reading this year. Here are some of the new books released in 2019 that stood out most to me during my reading.
Best Debut Novel
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
“She writes a door of blood and silver. The door opens just for her.”
Of all the books I read this year, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the one that I think will stick with me the most. This book worked for me, completely and utterly. This novel touched my heart, and I loved it unabashedly. Alix E. Harrow filled me with a wistful nostalgia for a past I never had, for people I never met, and hope for a future filled with stories I’ll never read.
January Scaller is a young girl growing up in the early 1900s. She’s leashed and tamed by a man who thinks of her as just another curio in his collection – but when her father goes missing, she’s forced to confront both her abilities and her past. This is a coming of age novel, a novel about exploring both this world and others, and a novel about lost souls seeking one another out through the ten thousand Doors between worlds.
Most Promising New Series
The Bone Ships by RJ Barker
“An arakeesian. No one in living memory had seen a living keyshan, and that he may be be one of the few that did filled him with awe. Oh, he had no doubts about the danger of their mission, none at all. But if a man was to die then what a thing to die for. A sea dragon.”
The Bone Ships marked my first introduction to RJ Barker’s writing. I’d been meaning to read (famous last words) his assassins series for ages, but hadn’t quite gotten around to it. Well, The Bone Ships made me seriously regret that. It’s excellent in every way, and I truly can’t wait for the next installment in the trilogy. This is an incredibly strong start, and I have no doubt that it will only get better from here.
Barker’s worldbuilding, prose, and characterization are bar none. The use of language to reflect the cultural mores and attitudes quickly pulled me in; noticing new aspects of description, syntax, and structure on each page created a sense of adventure and discovery entirely independent of the plot. The novel has a slow, slice-of-life style start, which greatly appealed to me. I loved seeing the minutiae of the day-to-day in nautical life. After the crew is gathered together, however, the primary plot glides in seamlessly to begins moving forward at a faster clip for those who prefer a more plot-driven narrative.
So much of the world is hinted at rather than stated outright, as the characters are either ignorant themselves or simply take certain aspects of their life for granted. The strange, bird-like Gullaimes, who can call on the winds with their magic and possess a strange kinship with the arakeesians. The beakwyrms, dancing a mad, bloody dance beneath the waves. The Sea Hag and the rest of the gods. All of it is painted with broad strokes, with just enough information given to make you hungry for more.
Best Social Commentary
The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North
“I know the truth of men’s hearts, and what I know is that they are right, every single one of them. They live within the power of their own rightness, and anyone who disagrees with them can only be wrong, and being wrong, they are therefore less. That is what I know, and it terrifies me.”
Colonialism and culture were definitely a theme this year. In This Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North has constructed a plot that is a fascinating mix of intrigue, social issues, and politics – all set on top of a deadly game of tag.
The titular William Abbey has been cursed with the shadow of young boy who was burned to death by a mob as Abbey looked on. The shadow follows him at a shuffle… slow, but implacable. When the shadow reaches him, it uses him as a conduit to jump to the person he loves most and kill them. And then… it begins its journey again. Abbey must constantly be on the move in order to stay ahead of the shadow and protect the few friends he has remaining.
Abbey is forced to face that he, too, is part of the machine that killed that boy at the Cape. He, too, is perpetuating this with every action he performs for the crown. As he goes on to meet other truth-speakers and sees the truth of their stories and backgrounds, he’s forced to reevaluate his choices. As he sees himself through their eyes, he also sees the horrors that the British Crown has forced on those it subjugates.
This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
“Even poetry, which breaks language into meaning – poetry ossifies, in time, the way trees do. What’s supple, whipping, soft, and fresh grows hard, grows armor. If I could touch you, put my finger to your temple and sink you into me the way Garden does – perhaps then. But I would never.
So this letter instead.”
This book is poetic, romantic, strange, and violent – a whirlwind of emotion, fear, and firsts. Two soldiers fighting on opposite sides of a war up and down through the strands of time find that their greatest joy lies in each other, and thus begin a correspondence. They are two parallel lines that never meet despite having shaped one another through each of their interactions.
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone have crafted a small masterpiece in this epistolary novella. The prose is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever read; it moves past purple and into ultravoilet. It’s still astonishing to me that it was, in fact, a novella. It felt like a full novel, and the seams where you would typically find content cut out to keep down word count simply do not exist. It is one complete narrative, not a piece of a larger whole.
Whatever I can say about this novella will not do it justice. This book is utterly, wholly, an experience in and of itself. It’s the act of reading. It’s the empathy you feel at the characters’ want for one another. This novella is for those who love and wish to feel.
A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs
“A thousand voices caromed in my head. From such a remove, I can see now it was just the tugging of the flesh, trying to find something to grasp onto to protect itself, the quivers of an organism in distress sorting through experience and conditioning.
My life up until then was just a fabric of verse and poems.
Now my life was no longer mine.”
This is not a comfortable book. It is brutal. It is often gory. It is violent, torturous, and painful. It is not palatable. And yet, A Lush and Seething Hell is perhaps one of the most polished and seamless books I have read. As Chuck Wendig put it in the foreword, “his magic tricks remain pure fucking magic. These murder ballads are ones we have not heard before.” I cannot find it in myself to disagree with him. When I review a book, I tend to pick it apart to see what makes it tick. Then, I reduce it down into a format that will give a reader a good idea as to the tone and content of the book while also allowing some of my own biases and voice to come through. I fail to pick this book apart. I fail to see the specific gears that make it tick, though I can certainly see the hands turning and hear the bells chiming.
While reading The Sea Dreams it is the Sky, the first of the two novellas contained in this book, I found myself searching online repeatedly for the country of “Magera,” located somewhere in South America. This country is fictional, and I suspected as much while reading and due to the futility of my online searches… and yet, I doubted myself. This felt real. This felt like a country that ought to exist. And, perhaps, in a way it did exist – only to slip down a voracious, toothy gullet that had been coaxed open with a surfeit of human suffering and cruelty.
My Heart Struck Sorrow takes a sharp turn from the subject matter of The Sea Dreams it is the Sky. Where the former was set in Spain and Latin America, My Heart Struck Sorrow is a tale woven from the fabric of North America, the United States. This is a story of Southern Devils, of the hell that exists in the hearts of men and women. A story of racism, sexism, discriminations large and small, present and past; a story of the sheer disregard we hold for our fellows.
Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
“You gonna ask him to dance, then?” . . .
“In his dreams.”
“Aw,” Nora says, “you’re blushing.”
“Listen,” Alex tells her, “royal weddings are trash, the princes who have royal weddings are trash, the imperialism that allows princes to exist at all is trash. It’s trash turtles all the way down.”
Generally speaking, 95% of my reading is fantasy and science fiction. Lately, that other 5% has been romance. Almost entirely gay romance. I blame Sharade over at The Fantasy Inn for this. She keeps shilling me gay romance, and, well, here we are. I hope you’re happy now. Okay, fine: seeing Alix E. Harrow shilling this book may have been a factor too. But between those two? I was doomed.
Mind, I’m not complaining about this… far from it. They’ve made me into a complete and utter sucker for gay romance. Between Red, White, and Royal Blue, Witchmark, The Last Sun, and Hither, Page, I’ve had a damn good year for books that are either romances or contain romance as a major element.
Red, White, and Royal Blue, however takes the cake. I loved it. I loved it so much, you guys. I loved it to bits. Truly, I just wanted to take Alex and Henry, smoosh their faces together, and tell them that they need to kiss right this minute and acknowledge that they truly are queer as a maypole and desperately, desperately in love with one another.
The chemistry and banter adds so much to the book. On the surface, the idea of the USA’s First Son falling in love with the Prince of Wales seems cheesy and kind of dumb at best. However, the execution is just perfect. The entire cast of characters is fantastic; every paragraph is witty, clever, and extremely polished. The dialogue had me laughing aloud. June, Nora, and Henry’s best friend, Pez, add so much with all of their commentary and input. Each one is a fully realized character with their own wants and focuses, which are continuously implied and expanded on as the book proceeds. Each are pulled in multiple directions as they attempt to hold on to their own personhood and identity in the midst of the political milieu.
Best New Installment in a Series
The Red-Stained Wings by Elizabeth Bear
“There was no Cauled Sun in the sky, no Heavenly River spooling its brightness across the firmament. There was blackness, and the blackness was picked out in little stars that shone with a cold silver light that cast no shadows but made everything seem as flat and foreign as cut paper shapes layered on a canvas.
Nizvashiti let its head fall back on its emaciated neck, staring blindly upward. ‘This is a dead sky.’”
The Red-Stained Wings is the second book in Elizabeth Bear’s The Lotus Kingdoms Trilogy. A review of the first book, The Stone in the Skull, is available here.
Elizabeth Bear is a master of prose and world-building. She explores her landscapes through her characters, often positioning them in direct contact with their respective antagonists. Through this lens, she considers personhood, gender, agency, and many other themes. In her Lotus Kingdoms trilogy, she places this all in a high-fantasy Indian-inspired setting.
While this series is fairly low on action, it makes up for it with a compelling and eclectic cast of characters. Mrithuri and Sayeh, cousins and prophetess-queens of rival kingdoms. The Dead Man, an elite bodyguard sworn to a dead king. The Gage, a brass automaton driven by old hurts and a desire for revenge.
This was a fantastic second installment, improving on the first in every way. It was a pleasure to see characters who I had followed in the first book finally meet up and interact, and scope expanded significantly to encompass cosmic concerns as well as the mundane.
Best Historical Fantasy
Where Oblivion Lives by T. Frohock
“Louder now, as if sensing his presence, the music drew near. The bow attacked the strings (Diago recalled making those quick jabs: strike, strike, strike, followed by a smooth pull) before slurring the chords into decay. The intro descended into pallid notes, gray and soft like fog (no, the smell of cordite is strong in the air… it is not fog but smoke) drifting over the muddy ground.”
Where Oblivion Lives is the first full novel in the Los Nefilim series by T. Frohock. Although she wrote three novellas that take place prior to Where Oblivion Lives collected in one volume titled Los Nefilim (hence Goodreads labeling it as #4), this novel was written to serve as an introduction for newcomers to the books. It’s not necessary to read Los Nefilim first, though I do highly encourage reading them at some point solely because they’re excellent. My review of Los Nefilim can be found here.
Though it’s inspired by Christian lore, this is certainly not a religious book any moreso than a book based on Greek or Roman mythology. The Nefilim of Spain are embroiled in a war to save humanity, and there is no one they can trust. The angels are corrupt, the demons are not to be trusted, and even members of Los Nefilim have been compromised. Diago, a half demon and half angel nefil, must not only work to earn his place among Los Nefilim along with his husband, Miquel, but also protect their son from forces that would do him harm.
Frohock’s prose is lyrical and rhythmic, drawing on the structure and syntax of the Spanish language and pulling them through into English to create a secondary layer to her writing. Her descriptions of music capture the reader, enchanting them just as Diago is enthralled by the chords of his stolen violin which haunt his dreams. Frohock became deaf around the age of 12, but the music she misses and loves is woven masterfully throughout her work.
Full Review To Come! – Goodreads
The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes
The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes is hands-down the most imaginative, fresh, and kind book I’ve read this year. It is absolutely unlike anything else I’ve read, combining the innocence and creativity of a middle grade novel with the darkness and trauma of adult fantasy. At a glance, that makes it tempting to label this book as YA or middle grade, but upon reading it, that’s clearly not the case. It deals with loss of innocence, growing up, trauma, PTSD, identity, and abuse in a way that is both genuinely kind and genuinely heartbreaking.
Detective Tippy, a stuffed triceratops and owner of the Stuffed Animal Detective Agency, is our main character. He’s the former imaginary friend of a young girl, Sandra, and most of his personality came from her. However, much like all of the other Friends in the Stillreal, Tippy’s person underwent a trauma that forced her to give up Tippy. She did not merely grow up. She did not just stop believing. Instead, she saw her father die in front of her, and Tippy became too painful for her to keep him around any more. When Tippy is punted away from Sandra and into the Stillreal, he finds a new home and a new family.
his book doesn’t end with everyone happy and safe, but it does end with everyone doing their best to care for one another despite that.
The Hanged Man by KD Edwards
“My name is Rune Saint John. I am, before anything else, a survivor: of a fallen house, of a brutal assault, of violent allies and complacent enemies, of life among a people who turned their back on me decades ago.”
You know what’s a great feeling? When you love a book, start up the sequel, and discover that the sequel takes everything you loved in the first book and makes it even better. If you’re not already familiar with the Tarot Sequence, my review of the first book in this series can be found here: The Last Sun. KD Edwards has nailed his voice in The Hanged Man, and has given us even more and even better character interactions. Brand and Rune are still the ultimate bromance, and Addam is still the kind and caring partner Rune needs and deserves. Max, Quinn, Ciaran… everything you wanted and more. Absolute cinnamon rolls, all of them – and the new characters are similarly great. I flat out had fun with these books.
Although the writing style is loose and modern on the surface, a closer examination will reveal a tight, highly polished narrative. If there’s a Chekhov’s gun present, rest assured that it will be fired at some point. Every strand of narrative and plot is relevant, word choice is deliberate, and that which isn’t explained fully will be in the future. There are hints peppered liberally throughout regarding Rune’s dark past and quite a few fan theories floating around to explain them. KD Edwards plays to his audience in the best possible ways, crafting a fun, engaging narrative that will tug on your heartstrings.
Annnnd…. that’s a wrap! A huge thank you to everyone who follows me, whether it be on Twitter, Goodreads, or here on WordPress. It’s been a joy and a pleasure ever since I started this blog back in March, and I’m looking forward to another year of great books!