Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite Reads of 2013

This year I didn't read nearly so many books as usual - too busy struggling with my draft of The Labyrinth of Flame! - and when I did take time away from the computer, I did a lot of re-reading of old favorites.  (Nothing like sinking into the familiar world of a well-loved book to reduce stress.)  Even so, I still found some new books to love.  Here are my favorite reads of 2013, in no particular order (though I have separated out adult novels from YA).

Favorite adult reads:

Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear

The first novel in Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy, Range of Ghosts, was one of my favorite fantasy reads last year, and this sequel didn't disappoint.  Worldbuilding, characters, and plot are all complex and wonderful.  Can't wait to read the final novel in the trilogy, Steles of the Sky.

Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson

I was so delighted when this one won the World Fantasy award.  A terrific mix of cyberpunk and urban fantasy set in the middle east and populated by a diverse range of characters; I loved every minute of it.  I particularly appreciated that the religious beliefs of the more devout characters were not condescended to or denigrated by the story, even when the protagonist held a different opinion.

Emperor of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

Powerful conclusion to one hell of a trilogy. Endings are hard, but Lawrence pulls his off with style - I came away feeling deeply satisfied, not just by this book, but with the trilogy as a whole. Like him or hate him, Jorg Ancrath is a character you'll never forget, and Lawrence succeeds in making the events of the story just as memorable and involving as his protagonist. Basically, if you've any taste for the darker side of fantasy, this is a series you don't want to miss.

Master of Whitestorm, by Janny Wurts

Excellent standalone fantasy adventure. I'm a sucker for prickly, difficult characters who wall themselves up in all kinds of emotional armor, and protagonist Korendir is a perfect example of the type. Plus, as a climber myself, how could I resist a book that mixes mountaineering and magic? Wurts writes some great heart-pounding scenes involving ice climbing and high alpine travel, not to mention some badass magical monsters. The book is a great read, and one I'd heartily recommend to anyone who enjoys adventure fantasy (especially if you liked the mountaineering bits in my own novels!).

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Deserves every bit of the raves it's been getting. Terrific, thought-provoking SF that explores questions of identity (both personal and cultural) and plays with gender assumptions in a very interesting way, all while telling a compelling story. (Gosh, I would love to see a comparison of Leckie's take on identity via the multipart awareness of her ship-AIs and their once-human ancillaries, and C.J. Cherryh's take with the tape-programmed azi in Cyteen.) 

The Thousand Names, by Django Wexler

Best military fantasy I've read in ages. The characters are engaging, their predicaments interesting, and the detailed realism of Wexler's portrayal of soldiers on campaign is spiced with a wry humor that keeps the story from ever bogging down. If you've any taste for epic fantasy - even if you're not sure that war stories are your thing - I recommend you give the book a try.

Cold Steel, by Kate Elliott

Great conclusion to Elliott's Spiritwalker trilogy. Even while working through the filter of protagonist Cat's 1st-person narration, Elliott does a wonderful job providing satisfying closure to the fates of a large cast of characters. One of the things I like best about the series (besides the distinctive, memorable characters) is the way the story focuses on serious attempts to bring about social change, rather than (as is more typical in fantasy) struggling to maintain the status quo.

The Prince of Lies, by Anne Lyle

A rousing conclusion to Lyle's thoroughly enjoyable Night's Masque trilogy. Lyle ties up all the main threads nicely, but leaves enough about the characters' futures open that I can't help but hope she returns to write more one day. If you're looking for an alternate history with plenty of action combined with a vividly described setting and interesting characters, I definitely recommend giving the series a go.

The Curse of the Mistwraith, by Janny Wurts

First in Wurts's epic Wars of Light and Shadow series.  Complex, immersive, and I hear the series only gets deeper and more layered as it goes on.  This may sound strange, but I actually liked the first novel so much I forbade myself to keep going with the series until I finish writing The Labyrinth of Flame.  Not out of any similarities, but because I was afraid I'd get sucked into the (very long) series and spend all my scant free time reading and not writing!  Plus, with a nicely complex series like this, I want to have the brainpower available to really think over the books after I finish them - something I can't do when my mind's mostly absorbed in my own book.

Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone

An engaging debut featuring a clever female protagonist and a take on magic and gods that I don't think I've ever seen before.

Honorable mentions:
The Republic of Thieves (Scott Lynch)
Firebrand (Gillian Philip)
Rosemary and Rue (Seanan McGuire)
Thieves Quarry (D.B. Jackson)
NOS4A2 (Joe Hill)
Tymon's Flight (Mary Victoria)

Favorite YA reads:

Obsidian Mirror, by Catherine Fisher

Beautifully written, highly imaginative, with sharply drawn characters and a twisty plot - this book was my favorite YA read of the year. I don't think I've ever felt jealous of an author before, but damn, I feel jealous now - if I ever wrote YA, this is exactly the sort of novel I'd want to write. Not in terms of details of story, but of brilliance of execution. I love the way Fisher creates and maintains a sense of mystery, not just with the events of the story, but with the characters. Fisher gives you enough insight into their thoughts and emotions to make them feel like very real, flawed people, yet leaves enough unspoken that each character becomes a puzzle box, waiting for the reader to unlock the truths behind their motivations and reactions as the story unfolds. (I can see how some people might find this distancing, but me? I love books that challenge the reader a little, make you look between the lines of what's said on the page to uncover the real truth of what's happening.)

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black

One word: AWESOME. You'd think with all the zillions of vampire novels on the shelves that the trope is totally played out, but you'd be wrong. It's not that Black's vampires are totally unique - though they are a nice return to the days when vampires were truly monsters - it's that her characters are drawn with consummate skill, her world is both interesting and extrapolates the use of social media in a frighteningly believable way, and the story is tense, creepy, at times horrific, and always wholly engaging.

The Raven Boys/The Dream Thieves, by Maggie Stiefvater

Stiefvater's standalone novel The Scorpio Races was one of my favorite YA reads last year, but I love this new series even more.  The fraught, complicated friendships between the characters are beautifully drawn and feel very real.  I also love that in The Dream Thieves she takes a character who was not all that likeable in The Raven Boys, and reveals the fears and secrets beneath his prickly, bitter exterior.  Can't wait for the next book.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Some books catch you right away, others sneak up and ambush you. For me, this was one of the latter. Although I enjoyed the narrator's vivid voice in the opening chapters, I wasn't entirely engaged by the actual story being told...until I realized the clever tricks Wein was playing with the narrative and the depth that lay underneath. This was a bit of a slowly building revelation, but there was one scene (which I don't want to spoil) in which it all came together for me in one glorious burst, and I just about shouted out loud. (Think I actually said, "HA!") From then on I was totally, utterly hooked. (This type of cleverness on the part of the narrative reminds me of Dorothy Dunnett; my all-time favorite author, so that's high praise!) The emotional impact of the story increases steadily as the book goes on, and I confess I had a few teary-eyed moments toward the end.

Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Sweet and heartfelt and affecting; Rowell has a lovely touch with characters. Both Eleanor and Park felt like very real teenagers to me, prickly and awkward and unsure, intense in their passions, desperately trying to navigate not only their budding relationship with each other but their changing relationships with their family members (which in Eleanor's case are heartbreaking). I'm usually pretty picky about novels with a strong focus on romance, but this one worked for me, hands down.  (Perhaps because my very first teenage crush was on a boy who rode my bus and read SFF, albeit novels and not comics as Park does.)  

The Naming, by Alison Croggon

Beautifully written traditional epic fantasy. The publisher seems to market the series as YA but I think it should appeal equally well to adult readers who enjoy the classic epic fantasy tropes. Yes, you have a young orphan protagonist learning to wield a magical gift, and she's prophesied to play a vital role in a struggle against dark forces...perhaps this all sounds very familiar. But for me the power of a tale is in the telling, and Croggon's lyrical prose and well-realized world made The Naming a thoroughly enjoyable variation of the classic coming-of-age saga. 

Planesrunner, by Ian McDonald

Oh, this one was so much fun. Inventive, richly detailed, and populated by some really memorable (and wonderfully diverse!) characters - I've already bought the sequel and am looking forward to continuing the adventure.

Honorable mentions:
Untold (Sarah Rees Brennan)
Larklight (Philip Reeve)
The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)


  1. I'm disappointed to admit that the only one I read was one that made on honourable mention. So many other good titles that I didn't get around to reading this year! ;_;

    But turning that into a positive thing, that just means there are so many good titles that I get to read in 2014 instead!

    Happy reading AND writing in 2014, Courtney! :D

    1. Thanks, and best wishes to you too!

      And yes, so many great books await...I've got quite a TBR list myself. (Such a strange and wonderful thing to have. Before my writing days, I never had a backlog of books; I read so fast that I was always desperately casting about for something new to try. I actually kinda like that now I never have to think, "Well damn, what do I read now?")

  2. I'm happy that several I read are on your list.

    And here's to 2014!

    1. Indeed! May the new year bring you many excellent books and photo opportunities. :)

  3. Yeah, but what'd you read on all the other days of the year? : p

    I just got Code Name Verity for my niece for Christmas - between recommendations from both you and Maggie Stiefvater, I figured I couldn't go wrong.

    And I just added a bunch to my Wishlist, to check out later, including Wurts. Did someone say mountain climbing? :-)

    1. Good call on Code Name Verity - hope your niece enjoys it as much as I did!

      And yes, mountain climbing! Full-on Himalayan-style alpine ascent, no less - with the added fun of a lurking magical monster. Master of Whitestorm is definitely worth the read. :)