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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Top Reads of 2018 By D. C. Stewart & Lukasz Przywoski

David’s Top Reads of 2018

While I wish I could populate this list with books published solely in 2018, I have entirely too much catching up to do in the fantasy genre to ever limit myself like that. Thus, you will find here a mixture of books published this year, as well as books published traditionally and self-published. Being a part of the SPFBO in 2018 has been an extraordinary opportunity for me because it has opened me up to an entirely new realm of possible reads and some authors I would have tragically never stumbled upon in my pursuit of literary excellence. This is a double edged blade because as I mentioned, I am way behind on reading many of the fantasy greats, and so adding more to the ever growing TBR pile is a bit anxiety inducing, but in the end it is a good problem to have.

Top Ten Titles:




1. Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb - I am so late to the Realms of the Elderlings series that I am shouting into the wind when I sing its praises, but sing them I will. I only ventured into Robin Hobb’s world for the first time last year, and not only did she completely hook me, but I think she might be my favorite fantasy author. Assassin’s Quest wraps up her Farseer Trilogy, starring the ever-damaged Fitz Farseer, and it is so beautiful and so heart-wrenching that I have had to take an extended break simply to recover from what Robin has done to me. This is one of my favorite books of all time.

2. The Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft - Finishing The Arm of the Sphinx was such a relief because it cemented Bancroft as more than a one-hit wonder. The second novel in his Babel series is as good as the first and only feels slightly diminished in its familiarity. The Arm of the Sphynx, as sequels generally do, shows Senlin and his motley crew in the fallout of the first novel, still struggling to work their way up the tower and find Senlin’s long-lost wife. What I loved about The Arm of the Sphinx is how it slowly unfolds everything within the tower, casting it all in shades of grey so that friends and foes outside of the immediate crew are constantly in doubt. I am soon to devour The Hod King and see this masterpiece to its conclusion.

3. A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood - Like many readers in these ridiculous and troubling times, I found myself drawn to Margaret Atwood’s classic tale of feminine oppression. That this is considered fantasy is something that becomes more clouded with each passing year in this political climate, but thankfully we are yet a stone’s throw from this horrific future. I can say that Atwood’s classic lives up to the hype, and her ability to tell speculative fiction with such human themes is second to none.

4. Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames - I do not think I am alone in loving Bloody Rose even more than I did Kings of the Wyld. Eames tops himself with this sequel, drawing an entirely new cast while maintaining the same consistent world-building and quality action that so drew readers to his first installment in The Band series. Bloody Rose is like Led Zeppelin IV - I can still enjoy the prior albums, but damn does this one have some epic tracks. Impressive is Eames’ ability to continue writing after his schtick, that mercenary bands are the rock-stars of his world, is seemingly spent. It turns out, he has much more to say on the topic, and that there are many many more Final Fantasy references yet to sneak into his writing.

5. The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley - I did not think one could tell the story of Beowulf yet again and find such success in doing so. The Mere Wife takes the ancient saga and sticks it in the suburbs where the rich and famous must contend with a monster in the mountains who comes down to befriend their children. Headley tells the tale from the monsters’ point of view, more often than not, and reveals that there are horrors on both sides of that white picket fence - and it isn’t always their appearance that unmasks them.

6. Death March by Phil Tucker - Oh boy do I like video games and table-top RPGs. Phil Tucker likes these things too, and so he did what any sane person would do and wrote a book that merges the two in virtual reality and gives a reader like me exactly what they want. Death March is one of the first LitRPG books I’ve read, and now I know what has ben missing in my life. It does precisely what it sets out to do, and I can’t wait to see where the series heads. If I had one complaint, it would be that the protagonist is a little too everyman for me, but in a way this compliments the genre perfectly due to the cipher-based nature of MMORPG protagonists.

7. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison - Have you ever wanted to read a book and be unable to pronounce a single name within in? Me too! If you’re like me, then Katherine Addison’s foray into the political machinations of a goblin kingdom is a perfect fit. Jests aside, The Goblin Emperor is what is often referred to as hopeful fantasy in that it creates conflict within a fairly well-lit world. Yes, the political intrigue is Machiavellian in its complication, but the characters in Addison’s vision can be good and kind, especially protagonist Maia, and it was lovely to read of such a hauntingly beautiful place amidst a year full of so many dark ones.

8. Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky - Speaking of dark worlds and table-top adventures, along comes a Spiderlight. Tchaikovsky takes a familiar adventure with characters that practically jump off the character sheet and completely and unexpectedly turns it on its head. The amazing thing about Spiderlight is that it would have been a completely acceptable, if not remarkable, novel without doing any of that - such is Tchaikovsky’s writing. What he does with the tale blows the mind and makes this one to remember.

9. The Firebird by Nerine Dorman - I honestly think that The Firebird could have been a serious contender to win the SPFBO had it been more than a novella. Dorman’s prose is so beautiful and the world she creates so evocative that my only complaint is that she didn’t allow me more time in it. The story is meaningful, replete with familial strife, and every page makes the most of its space. I hope that Dorman is not finished with this world because I want to see more of it.

10. Foundryside by Robert Bennett Jackson - I never expect to open a fantasy book and find myself face to face with a new genre, but Jackson seems to have done exactly that. Foundryside can best be described as some kind of steampunk mytho fantasy, with a dark and gritty edge and a protagonist that is hard to love. I eventually did, but she makes it difficult! I hadn’t read any Robert Bennett Jackson up to this point, but he has planted himself on my TBR pile, and the sequel to Foundryside is something I think about even months later. He left me so full of questions.

Top Ten Debuts:




1. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft - I say in my review that Senlin Ascends is probably the best fantasy book published in the last decade, and I stand by that bold claim. I loved this book from page one to the back cover. The characters in Josiah Bancroft’s vision are vivid and lovely and will carve themselves into a willing heart. He has built a world of unique vision and populated it like an architect envisioning arches and domes on a cathedral. It is truly magnificent.

2. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden - I never knew how much I needed Russian folklore in my life until I came across Arden’s beautiful prose and haunting, snow-filled world. Arden’s debut captures both the mystical, haunting nature of the Russian winterscape, as well as the hardships faced by an early Rus culture. That she manages to craft a remarkable, strong female character amidst a landscape that does not welcome such a thing is even more stunning.

3. The Boy Who Walked Too Far by Dom Watson - Having Dom’s book in my pile of SPFBO reads has been the best literary gift of 2018 for me. The Boy, despite its flaws, has the kind of imagination and whimsy that most writers will struggle their whole lives to find. It’s future fantasy and Sherlockian and much of it might not even make sense to a casual reader, but for those willing to brave its depths, this is a book with the potential to leave one changed. Pay attention to Dom Watson!

4. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty - It’s hard for me not to talk about City of Brass without mentioning The Bear and the Nightingale. Their parallels are unavoidable, and while their styles are definitely unique, one only has to flip their coin from the Russian side to the Arabic to find a very similar tale. I say in my review that City of Brass is rich, sumptuous even, and if the Arabian Nights or the tale of Aladdin has ever interested you, this is a no-brainer.

5. Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer - Whitefire Crossing is actually the first e-book that I have read from end to end, and my fear from the beginning was that said format would somehow taint my experience. Thankfully, Schafer creates a world and characters that rise above even my biases, and I even now find myself thinking about Dev and Kiran and the magic-infused world that she has built with Whitefire. Schafer also manages to craft believable and engaging narrative about a trip over a mountain pass, which I thought only Janny Wurts could do.

6. Here Be Dragons by David Macpherson - I struck gold a second time in my SPFBO pile with Here Be Dragons. Not only did this have the best cover, in my opinion, of our bunch, but this book is legitimately funny from end to end. Not often do we see our heroes past their prime, reliving their glory days and pining for more. Macpherson gives us that and manages to write a fantasy novel that goes out of its way to avoid violence as an answer. That is a worthy goal.

7. Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell - What Castell does with his Greatcoats series is fairly simple - he is telling the fantasy version of The Three Musketeers. We might guess that this has been done already, but unless I’m unaware of a treatment, it has not. One could argue that The Three Musketeers is fantasy enough on its own, but de Castell proves that throwing in some magic and offering up some small twists more than meets the requirements for telling this tale. Traitor’s Blade is a flawed book, certainly, but it is one with so much heart that I am willing to forgive its faults.

8. Blackwing by Ed McDonald - Blackwing has the Dark Souls that I need in my dark fantasy. His is an ancient world, full of ruin and elder magic, and his protagonist is simply a man struggling to eke out his way amidst these towering powers and horrid landscapes. I love the world that McDonald has built. It has more potential than almost any I’ve read about this year. This is grimdark of the grimiest nature, with a section of the world darker than anything in fantasy, but it is good and its characters are solid and there is a great deal of potential in that mixture.

9. The Blood Tartan by Raymond St. Elmo - I don’t know whether or not I was experiencing some kind of fever dream while reading The Blood Tartan, but that is what my memory of it feels like. This is a book that carries its reader along on a mad fantasy that probably will not make sense throughout the meat of it. Elmo’s prose is so good as to be criminal, and there is something so captivating and resonant about his English-Scottish world that it drew me in whole-hog.

10. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi - I was fairly critical of Adeyemi’s debut in my review of Children of Blood and Bone. It’s difficult to review a book that has been so hyped by its publishers and the various market-pushers out there. I do not feel that the book lived up to that hype, but I did enjoy it and feel it worthy of a read. Adeyemi creates a familiar world, but one full of magic and strong female characters who both struggle and emerge changed. It may not have been the second coming of Harry Potter that was promised, but Children of Blood and Bone carves out a place for itself in the deluge of young adult fantasy out there.


Lukasz’s Top Reads of 2018:

I tried to limit myself to books published in 2018, but failed miserably.

As most readers, I have a lot of catching up to do. My Goodreads counter claims I read 226 units in 2018 (I use this word for GR short story, DNF or epic Fantasy Behemoth count as one read position). With an average rating of 3.4 most of the books I read were entertaining, and pleasurable.

Here, though, I’d like to highlight the books I consider exceptional. I limited myself to ten titles, without dividing them into best title / best debut / best self-published/independent categories. Those are my ten favorite books of 2018. Period.


1. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko - This book crafts new vision of the world and the laws that govern it. As the story progresses, Dyachenko’s share insights into the world‘s metaphysics and if you’ve ever been fascinated with the language and power of the words, you’ll be satisfied with some of the discoveries.

I could go on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll tell you this - it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It combines fascinating adventure with philosophical depth, impossible metamorphosis with profound psychological insights. It’s strange, amazing, and brilliant.

2. Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence - I always liked Lawrence‘s Writing and his characters. Jorg and Jalan are great and memorable, but, unexpectedly, it‘s Nona I really care for. The Books of Ancestor series speaks to me on a personal level and it provides a genuine emotional experience I seek.

3. The Wisdom‘s Grave trilogy by Craig Schaefer - I religiously follow Schaefer’s books and Wisdom’s Grave is a treat. It connects and resolves important character arcs and plotlines. Plus, it describes Nessa. And she is, for me, Schaefer’s greatest creation.

4. Endsville by Clay Sanger - I never expected to fall in love with bad guys with no redeeming qualities, but I did. Sanger’s world is terrifying and brutal, but also complex and fascinating. It convincingly portrays flawed individuals who struggle with substance abuse, occult addiction, toxic and abusive family relationships and living a life of crime. An excellent book, but approach it with caution. It contains lots and lots of violence (including mentions of rape), sex and bad language.

5. Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell - I loved the hell out of Kings of Paradise. It’s not a joyous book - at times it’s tragic, and Ruka’s story alone can make you reach for Prozac. It is, however, intelligently written and powerful book with a stellar world-building and a fantastic cast of characters. I consider Ruka one of the most fascinating fantasy characters ever written.

6. Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the CIty of Swords by Benedict Patrick - Long story short - it’s Patrick’s best book. It’s also one of the best indie books I’ve ever read. It does everything I like in fantasy well - it combines myths, quest-like adventure, and redemption of flawed heroes and tales within the tales. Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords is engaging, immersive and touching. It’s a book I’ll re-read with pleasure and it’s not something I say often. I crave more Yarnsworld stories.

7. Djinn-son duology by Sami Shah - Shah’s Fire Boy and Earth Boy duology (in some regions published as a single volume called Boy of Fire and Earth) blew my mind. I loved this book. It’s a dark, funny, and compelling urban fantasy tale based in Pakistan’s biggest city - Karachi. A young boy, Wahid, comes to terms with his unique abilities and sets out on an adventure to recover the soul of the girl he loves from vengeful djinns.

8. Ghosts of Tomorrow by Michael R. Fletcher - Set in 2046, Ghosts of Tomorrow is a disturbing and fast-paced cyberpunk novel I just couldn‘t put down. It got under my skin and stayed with me.

9. The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett - The Liminal People is a fantastic novel about superheroes that touches many vital subjects (family, race, faith) in an entertaining and moving way. The prose is very vivid and, for me, it made this tale. The strength isn’t in the plot that’s relatively easy to predict but in the voice of the narrator with all his emotions and phobias present in the language. The book is violent, and some of the body’s transformations performed by Taggert may hunt you for a long time. I highly recommend it to all X-Men aspirants.

10. The Necromancer’s House by Christopher Buehlman - The Necromancer’s House is unlike any urban fantasy novel I read. I'm not even sure if I should call it this way. It contains horror elements and reads like a literary fiction with strong prose. While I can't say it was always a comfortable book, it is impressive with its multiple viewpoints, unexpected reveals, well-crafted sentences and exciting twists.

1 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I really appreciate this sort of post. You've helped me find some new reading material..

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