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Saturday, January 25, 2020

2019 Review / 2020 Preview - David

I don't think there has ever been a year when I've consumed more entertainment than I did in 2019. I read more books and played more games than any time outside of my 20s. I think this is a mixture of the overwhelming amount of things to engage with, but also a sense of escapism that I, at least, desperately needed in a year when the world around us seems to be falling further into a mire of stupidity. This is the also the year when I discovered just how much the self-publishing fantasy world had to offer - a fact that was hinted at in my introduction to the 2018 SPFBO, but was really hammered home in 2019. So, in all, the year was a mixed bag, but on the entertainment front it was excellent.


My favorite books this year are a healthy mix: of male and female authors; of newly published and older books; of traditionally-published and self-published. This is mostly unintentional, but I am happy with the results. My goal for the next year is to read more women and people of color. The order is also largely irrelevant because I loved all these books, and I only ranked them for fun. I strongly recommend any book on this list!

10. The Gutter Prayer, Gareth Hanrahan - This is one of the first books I read this year, and that I could even remember it by year's end says much for its quality. Hanrahan has a new voice in fantasy, and he has created a world that is fresh and interesting, and very, very dark. Men with stone skin mingle with worm-amalgamated sorcerers in his Guerdon, and the entire novel is rich in tone and character.

9. The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang - The Poppy War is such a surprising read. It's incredibly dark, in a way that is uncomfortable and heavy, but it also manages to create moments of humor that are touching and genuinely funny. I had heard the hype surrounding it for a year or more, and this often leads to disappointment when one actually gets to a book, but that was not the case for me at all.

8. Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami - There are a few things that one could accuse me of being fanboy about. One is Zelda. One is Final Fantasy. And the biggest is Murakami. I have read every one of his books, love them all, and basically assume the man can do no wrong. I have never connected with an author more in my life, and while Killing Commendatore could be critiqued for being more of the same, to me, it's a lovely book that makes call-backs to some of his best while exploring new and weird avenues.

7. Nevernight, Jay Kristoff - I am very late to the boat on the Nevernight series. I blame libraries for putting Kristoff in the young adult section (which is criminal). The cover to Nevernight is so pretty that I should have ignored the dastardly, uninformed YA librarians and read it anyway, but I balked. This year I finally picked it up, and the tale of revenge and death that Kristoff weaves around Mia Corvere grabbed me completely. I haven't read the rest of the series yet, but judging by how many people post photos of themselves on Twitter with tears running down their faces, I won't be disappointed.

6. Kings of Paradise, Richard Nell - Had this not been such a fantastic year of reading for me, Kings of Paradise could easily have been the best book I read all year. In fact, I might just have a six way tie on  my hands. I only knew about Kings of Paradise because of its inclusion into the SPFBO last year and the high recommendations from my colleagues here at FBC. I won't mince words here - this book should have won last year and somehow it did not even make the finals. It burns me a little to even think about that. Kings of Paradise is an intricately plotted, character-rich fantasy novel that has the makings of a classic. I wish everyone would read this book.

5. House of Chains, Steven Erikson - Yes, I'm a Mala-stan. I haven't even read all of the series yet, but I am wholly invested in this Goliath. It's hard to believe that House of Chains is only the fourth book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen because I feel like I have been reading it for a decade or more. I can realistically only read one book per year, for reasons of length and of depth - sometimes these books take time to recover from. House of Chains is one of my favorite ones, next to Memories of Ice. It follows Karsa Orlong, a malcontent but fascinating character. It also continues the grander plot of the series while focusing in on Orlong's quest - one that spans both the previous books and beyond. It's signature Erikson and a joy to wade through.

4. Ship of Magic, Robin Hobb - I only started reading Robin Hobb's Elderlings series last year, but she quickly entrenched herself as my favorite fantasy author - to the point that I have tried emulating her style in my own writing. She writes characters and relationships better than anyone, and she always manages to break my heart. Ship of Magic is the first in the Liveship Traders series, and it's a really interesting book. It's slow, as slow a burn as I think I've ever read, to the point that it felt like a bit of a slog at times. That sounds negative, but its a pleasurable slog somehow, and by the end I was so grateful for the careful exploration of these characters and families that I could only sit back in amazement at what she'd done over the course of a very long novel. Like Erikson, I can't read Hobb's books in succession because they feel so dense and are so emotionally heavy, but I will be getting to Mad Ship this year.

3. The Hod King, Josiah Bancroft - If there is one author's who style I would never try to match, it's Josiah Bancroft. It's easy to bandy about words like "authorial style" when reviewing books, but I'm not sure I know anyone else whose style is so forward in their writing. Show me a paragraph of Bancroft's writing, and I'll know it's him. I could not emulate it if I tried, and thankfully I don't have to because he keeps putting out these books, one better than the last, and I'm not sure how I'm going to feel when he's finished with his quartet of novels. Good and bad in equal measure I'd bet. The Hod King dives even deeper into the Tower of Babel, uncovering more mysteries and answering more questions - even as it creates new ones - and it's just a delightful read from end to end. And yes, I've threatened Josiah with bodily harm should anything happen to Edith. 

2. Bone Ships. R.J. Barker - Keyshan Rising! Bone Ships takes it for the best moment of my year, with a scene that QUITE LITERALLY SHIVERED MY TIMBERS. This is a glorious book, the best amalgamation of high seas ship faring adventure and fantasy weirdness, and I loved it so much. Bone Ships follows Lucky Meas and Joron Twiner as they try to make a crew out of a bunch of scalawags and protect the last living dragon from a world that only seeks its death and bones. If there is one novel on this list I would wish adapted into a film, it's this one. The imagery would blow me right out of the theater.

1. The Sword of Kaigen, M.L. Wang - Sometimes you get to read a book that feels like the author pulled out the most exciting things in your brain, the things you love most, and managed to craft a story around them that was both engrossing, heart-wrenching, and glorious. The hype train for The Sword of Kaigen was strong this year, and like The Poppy War, I was concerned that this would damp the flame. I could not have been more wrong because The Sword of Kaigen quickly became my favorite book of 2019. This is a magical tale, and not just because it has superheroic swordspeople in it. There is an essence to Wang's telling of this small portion of a larger war, some indefinable trait that makes it just feel special. The character work is a large part of it, and she manages to characterize in ways that I've never seen. There is a fight scene, for instance, that pushes forward character development and plot in a way that some entire novels would struggle to accomplish. To call the book a masterpiece is perhaps a little hasty, but it feels like that. It feels like a pivotal moment for fantasy, and whether or not we see more from this incredibly talented author or not, she has created something extraordinary in The Sword of Kaigen. This is a book I will keep with me, and it is the best book I read in 2019.


Fire Emblem Three Houses - Guys, my relationships with Fire Emblem is...what's that syndrome where you start to sympathize with your abductors? John Hopkins Disease? I don't know, but this is a series that I have spent an embarrassing amount of money and time on, and I have no intention of slowing down. Three Houses continued the tradition of excellence that Intelligent Systems has cemented over the past several decades. It adds in a host of new features, like Hogwart's and fishing, but keeps the timeless game-play and character development addiction that keeps idiots like me coming back time and again.

Disco Elysium - This game has the best writing that I have ever seen in a video game. It's in its own league. If this were a novel, it would be on the list above this one. It's really good, and so impressive in its ability to make choices meaningful. That it's a cRPG only makes it more special to a cRPG veteran like myself. There were times when I was having conversations with characters in this game when I wasn't sure if what I was playing was real or if I'd been knocked unconscious and dragged through a field of poppy flowers. I had a stupid smile on my face almost the entirety of my playtime in Disco Elysium, but for the life of me I could not tell you what the game is actually about. I'm not even sure I played it now. I don't really even know if it was a video game or just an idea I had in a former life.

Return of the Obra Dinn - I feel like this type of game needs its own genre. Return of the Obra Dinn and Portal. Those would be the only two games. It would be called - games that can be played in one sitting that are perfect. That's an unwieldy title, but it fits. Return of the Obra Dinn is not something that makes sense on paper. It looks weird, in a late 80s computer game way, and even the story is an odd fantasy myth involving eldritch sea gods and a kraken. The goal is to uncover a mystery - why an entire crew on board a ship wound up dead - but the why of it, by the end, is irrelevant because in a way that many novels fail to do, it becomes more about the journey of getting there than it is about its ending.

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers - I am obligated by the laws of time spent playing a game to include the latest expansion in the Final Fantasy XIV saga. I have never been as immersed in this game, which I have been playing on and off since 2012, as I was this year. FFXIV is the best MMO out there, and Shadowbringers is the game at its peak. It's difficult to jump into at this point, but incredibly rewarding once you've had all there is to have (which is a lot).

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice - This is the one. My game of the year for sure. What I said about Sword of Kaigen above applies to Sekiro as well. It feels like this game was made for me, and now I have the troubling prospect of judging every other character action game by its lofty standards. When you get past the frustrating bits and find the flow spot, From Software games become divine. That I have an affinity for feudal Japan surely fueled my love in part, but it's the gameplay and world exploration that really bring Sekiro home.

TV and Movies 

The Witcher - Cavill is marvelous. Anya Chalotra is brilliant. I could not have asked for a better adaptation of a book and game series that has been so central to my world for the past half-decade. I went on a serious Witcher binge by year's end, somehow managing to coordinate finishing up the first Witcher game, the Netflix series, and The Tower of Swallows all on the same day. This show brings back some of those feelings of excitement I felt, long before the final few seasons, that Game of Thrones hit me with back in its heyday. I can't wait to see where they go with the next season, and I hope it isn't one of Netflix's three-season casualties.

Avengers: Endgame - I cried ok. I teared up a few times during this penultimate Marvel movie, and when that thing happens at the end, I full on had tears. I think these movies are remarkable, both for their continuity, and for their ability to appeal to a wide range of audiences. There were certainly some cheesy moments in Endgame in particular, but the cast works so well together, the Russo brothers manage to weave everyone into this massive narrative in such an impressive way, and it's all so much fun that it's easy to look past its flaws. I have been with these movies since Iron Man, and having it all wrap up in such a satisfying way healed my soul.

Captain Marvel - I think Brie Larson is perfect as Captain Marvel. That I also like her as a person helps this, but she really brings the strength of presence and growth to that character that I'm not even sure the comics represent well enough. There is a moment in Captain Marvel when Carol Danvers finally figures out just how strong she is, and it is those moments of power realization that I live for. This one does it really well, and it had me pretty emotional

Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse - This is the first movie I saw in 2019, and it's probably the best of them. Like Captain Marvel, Spider-Verse has some incredible moments of power recognition, and it's soundtrack does an amazing job of flavoring those moments. I have a special place for Spider-Man in my heart. It's probably the superhero that most  brings me back to my childhood, so seeing it done right in this and the MCU Spider-Man films has really shined up my memories.

Frozen 2: Into the Frozen-Verse - I haven't actually seen this movie, but my two year old has made me listen to the songs from it about ten thousand times and so I feel like I know it intimately, in a way I've never known another piece of media in my life. I wake up every morning with one of ten songs rambling through my head, and it's always an adventure to find out which one will hit me on any given day. Sometimes I just wander through the halls at work, repeating lyrics out loud and hoping no one calls the police. Perhaps one day I will be released from the icy shackles that have bound me, but, then again, some things...never change...


The election? Seriously though. I'd like to live in a world that doesn't require me to escape into fantasy with every news headline.

But, as I'll be diving into fantasy anyway, there are some things I am looking forward to. The next Witcher season is a lock for me. I'd love to see sequels for some of the books I have on my list, like the next Tide Child entry, or the next Tower of Babel. Those are books I will drop everything for and just read. I have begun to read The Lord of the Rings again, and every year I want to do a deep dive, reading everything Tolkien, from the central epics to all of the tangential material that currently occupies the top shelf of my bookcase. Gaming wise, it's going to be a weird year due to the upcoming console releases, but I will definitely play through the Final Fantasy 7 Remake.  I would also love to see Elden Ring, whatever it is, come out this year though that might be asking too much. I hope that Avengers game is good, but I'm skeptical. A Baldur's Gate 3 release would blow my mind.

And of course, I can't wait for the continued success of Frozen. I can't wait to listen to more songs and see more YouTube clips. Did I mention that the release of Disney+ means we can watch all of the extra, smaller Frozen additions?  Did I mention the LEGO Frozen miniseries yet? Or Frozen Fever, a short about Anna's birthday that is simply delightful?  Did I??



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