Favorite Secondary-World Fantasy Novels
The Eli Monpress series (Rachel Aaron) - I read all five of Aaron's Monpress novels this fall, and thoroughly enjoyed the series. The books start off very light and breezy, but get a bit darker as the series progresses. My favorite was the fourth, The Spirit War, which is probably the most serious of the lot and pretty much pushed all my personal buttons as a reader (in a good way!). I admit to hoping the fifth and final novel would get even darker and really put Eli through the wringer, but Aaron keeps the emotional consequences for him and the other characters on the lighter end of the scale, in keeping with the overall tone of the series. The fifth novel does provide a rousing and satisfying conclusion to the main story arc, so no problems there!
The Daemon Prism (Carol Berg) - third and final novel in her excellent Collegia Magica series. If you haven't read them, you should. I rave more about the book here.
Range of Ghosts (Elizabeth Bear) - oh gosh, I loved this one. Great characters, stellar worldbuilding, beautiful imagery, it's got everything I love best about fantasy. I talk more about the book in a guest post I did for Stumptown Books.
The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun (N.K. Jemisin) - terrific duology. Much like the Bear novel above, these books have got it all. (See my guest post at Stumptown Books for more discussion.) I think I liked the first novel just a teensy bit more than the second, but they're both wonderful books that I highly recommend.
King of Thorns (Mark Lawrence) - Sequel to last year's equally impressive Prince of Thorns. I particularly admired the puzzle-box structure of the plot, and Lawrence's skill with juggling different narrators. Plus, Jorg goes mountain climbing - what's not to like? (book rec post here).
The Heir of Night and The Gathering of the Lost (Helen Lowe) - The first two novels in her Wall of Night series. Classic fantasy with a neat sf-nal twist. Just the thing if you're looking for a nice fat epic tale to immerse yourself in. (book rec post here.)
Sharps (K.J. Parker) - this one's a rarity: a secondary-world fantasy novel without the least hint of magic. Usually that would turn me off - I do love stories with plenty of magic and wonder. But Parker's writing is so sharply witty and the various characters so well-drawn that I couldn't help but find the novel fascinating.
Scourge of the Betrayer (Jeff Salyards) - solid, gritty, character-driven military fantasy that packs a real emotional punch at the end. (book rec post here)
The Siren Depths (Martha Wells) - third in her Books of the Raksura series. I adored the first novel The Cloud Roads, and enjoyed the second (The Serpent Sea) nearly as much, but this one might be my favorite of the series to date. I've got a huge weakness for characters with trust issues, and Wells really puts the screws to her protagonist Moon in the first half of this novel. Moon's struggles with his past and Raksuran court politics might even have been my favorite part, above the adventure portion of the plot. Just a really satisfying, entertaining read.
The Emperor's Knife (Mazarkis Williams) - Introspective epic fantasy with plenty of intrigue, characters in shades of gray, and some very interesting magic and cultures. (book rec post here) I'm really looking forward to reading the recently-released second novel in the series, Knife Sworn - so much so that I'm using it as my "carrot" for reaching my next wordcount goal on The Labyrinth of Flame. Must...write...faster!
Favorite Alternate History and SF Novels
The Troupe (Robert Jackson Bennett) - after seeing multiple people rave about this one, I had to give it a try - and boy, I'm glad I did. It's set in turn-of-the-century America, and follows a gifted teenage pianist who joins the vaudeville circuit to seek out his mysterious father. Bennett manages to make the magic both creepy and numinous by turns, and both story and characters are thoroughly engrossing. In some ways, it reminded me of a Stephen King novel (but without any bloat!).
And Blue Skies From Pain (Stina Leicht) - second in her The Fey and the Fallen series. Historical urban fantasy set in 1970s Ireland; dark, gritty, and containing excellent characterization. (see book rec post here)
The Alchemist of Souls (Anne Lyle) - first in her Night's Masque series (the second novel, The Merchant of Dreams, just came out). Set in an alternate Elizabethan England, featuring plenty of intrigue and derring-do, plus an interesting alien/magical race; I really enjoyed the read. I'm so sure I'll love #2 that (in similar fashion to Mazarkis Williams's Knife Sworn), I'm using it as a wordcount goal reward.
The Coldest War (Ian Tregillis) - I enjoyed the first book in his Milkweed Triptych, Bitter Seeds, but this sequel really impressed me with its plot. Alternate history set in the WWII era, with Nazi X-Men vs. British warlocks. Clever and gut-wrenching by turns, with one of the creepiest, coolest characters I've seen in ages. (book rec post here)
Osiris (E.J. Swift) - Dystopian SF with gorgeous imagery, and some very interesting ideas and narrative choices. Don't expect an action thriller, but if you enjoy literary SF, you must give this one a try.
Favorite YA Novels
Black Heart (Holly Black) - third in Black's Curse Workers series. Set in an alternate world in which magic is the province of mafia-style gangster families. The plots are clever, the (male) protagonist is charmingly snarky, and while there is some romance, the focus is far more on fucked-up family relationships and the protagonist's struggle with difficult moral choices. In other words, YA just the way I like it.
Team Human (Sarah Rees Brennan & Justine Larbelestier) - Sick of all the vampire romance novels cluttering up the shelves? Enjoy some good snark? Here's the book for you. Brennan & Larbalestier poke fun at all the tropes of the genre, even while telling a surprisingly involving story. It's even funnier if (like me) you've recently watched (and mocked) the TV show The Vampire Diaries.
Seraphina (Rachel Hartman) - Okay, so I've got a story about this one. It was one of the novels in the bag o' free books handed out to all World Fantasy attendees. I picked it up, saw it was a YA novel involving dragons, read the Paolini blurb prominently displayed on the cover, and nearly tossed the book straight onto the "freebie" table. (I was, er...not impressed by Paolini's Eragon.) Yet there on the back cover, amid a host of blurbs from other YA authors, was a highly positive blurb from famed editor Ellen Kushner - whose opinion I do highly respect. So I decided, hesitantly, to give the book a try. And, wow. So glad I did. Clever, witty, in places screamingly funny, with a really interesting take on dragons and a teenage girl protagonist who's intelligent and strong without needing to be a Buffy-style badass - it's a great read. Just goes to show the power of blurbs, both positive and negative.
The Scorpio Races (Maggie Stiefvater) - Atmospheric, compelling novel that I absolutely devoured. Takes place on an island where people race murderous Celtic-style water horses, and follows two young protagonists (one male, one female) who each become desperate to win the race, no matter the danger, for reasons of their own. The story isn't without flaws (some of the female protagonist's decisions/actions don't entirely ring true to me - e.g., we're told she loves her (perfectly ordinary) horse, yet she seems to brush off all concerns over the very real (even likely!) possibility of the mare being savaged and/or killed by the water horses, when she enters the race. Maybe this was meant as a deliberate example of selfishness/obsession, but I wasn't quite convinced it worked as such. It mostly made me go, "But...what?"). But those were niggling thoughts that came after finishing - while reading I was so absorbed in the book I was totally along for the ride. I'm going to seek out more of Stiefvater's work, pronto.