Well, it’s that time of year in which we say goodbye (or possibly good riddance) to 2017 and take a look back before we step into the WOOOORLD OF TOMORROOOOOW! Despite it having been a surreal and occasionally terrifying 12 months, what a year it has been for fantasy. Some incredible books were released, we’ve had a plethora of fabulous television shows and movies with more on the way – it’s a great time to be a fan.
This year I have read 52 books – that includes some short stories, but since half of the books in fantasy have a page count that ought to count as 3, we’ll call it even. Here I’m going to talk about the books and TV I’ve enjoyed the most this year (not all are new to 2017, but they were new to me!), and I’m even going to throw in a Star Wars: The Last Jedi cocktail.
Happy New Year! 🙂
Wol’s Best Reads
This is a top 10 kind of affair, but I can’t put them in order. These novels are so different from one another and they each scratched a different itch, so saying one was better than another isn’t going to work for me. Instead, I’m going to tell you what appealed to me about each and let you draw your own conclusions about which ones you might enjoy.
Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb
In May of this year, Robin Hobb well and truly fucked my shit up with the gorgeous, devastating and fitting end to her Realm of the Elderlings saga. This derailed my reading for a good three weeks afterwards as I suffered a colossal book hangover. Hobb’s work is slow paced and not action-filled, but it’s emotional, introspective and perfect for people who want their characters to feel completely real (even if that means you spend half your time wanting to slap them upside the head). There is a lot of suffering (too much for some readers), but there is also catharsis. If you sometimes really need a good cry, Hobb’s the author for you.
Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
It’s thankfully not too often that a novel reduces me to shameless fangirling, but one look at my (slightly embarrassing) review of Senlin Ascends will show you that I considered this novel to be an unexpected treasure. It’s a wonderfully paced mix of intrigue, history and myth, filled with colorful characters and stomach-clenching tension. Each level of the tower is interesting not just as its own unique location, but also in how it interacts with the other levels in clever and surprising ways. Those who enjoy a lot of subtext and mystery in their stories will find much to love here.
A Star-Reckoner’s Lot by Darrell Drake
Sometimes what we need is a breath of fresh air, and this one came along at just the right time. Weary of pseudo-medieval locations and knights in armor, here came Ashtadukt to turn all of my expectations upside down. Set in Ancient Iran, our protagonist is a woman weak in body but strong in mind, who harnesses the power of the stars themselves while seeking revenge for the death of her husband. In a unique world filled with interesting and mischievous demons, A Star-Reckoner’s Lot is a poignant tale of loss, sorrow and redemption, though not necessarily for the people you would expect…
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
It’s tough to be objective about a book that you have been anticipating for over a decade, but for me, La Belle Sauvage didn’t disappoint. Malcolm is an instantly lovable protagonist, an inquisitive and thoughtful boy who listens more than he speaks and loves easily. As the Magisterium tightens its grip on Oxford and an underground network of spies works against them, the Gyptians warn of a coming flood of biblical proportions. Taking its cues from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, La Belle Sauvage is a story smaller in scale than His Dark Materials, but no less dark or compelling for it. As an aside, I used whispersync on this one and the audiobook was absolutely fantastic. Highly recommended.
The Agartes Epilogues by K.S. Villoso
It’s not often that I have come across a series that makes protagonists of the kinds of characters who would have been sidelined as nameless peasants by most epic fantasy authors. While there is plenty of magic to be had in this trilogy, there is also a strong message that determination and a cool head are qualities that are every bit as important as being able to make lightning shoot out of your fingers. Our protagonists don’t just struggle with world-ending danger, but also with poverty, hunger and lack of education. The character development is sublime and the world-building some of the best I have seen. We are dropped into a fully realized world without many cues, and this can make the first half of the first novel a challenge for some. But if you can let go of your expectations and go along for the ride trusting that Villoso can pull it together (she can and does), what you will find is one of the most rewarding and satisfying epic trilogies that I have enjoyed in recent years.
The Half Killed by Quenby Olson
If you have ever read and enjoyed classic Regency or Victorian literature and you also dig Fantasy, Quenby Olson has just the treat you’re looking for. Set in a grimy, unromantic depiction of Victorian London, The Half Killed is an atmospheric ghost story that combines the narrative tone of Elizabeth Gaskell with the sort of seedy secondary characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel. The result is something magical, and I found that I couldn’t put it down. If you’re struggling with either your Fantasy of Manners or Horror square in r/Fantasy Bingo because you typically don’t care for those genres (especially if it’s because you dislike violent, gory horror), I’d urge you to give this one a try. It is exceptionally well written and researched, and the prose is gorgeous.
Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
Another delightful surprise in a year that has been full of them. My first Mark Lawrence novel, Red Sister is set in a grim, gritty world that is largely frozen due to the dying sun. Nona is a compelling and strong-willed protagonist who struggles with poverty, hunger and powers she doesn’t fully understand. Her journey takes us to the Sisters of Sweet Mercy Convent, in which she trains to become a warrior and find her place in the world. Making excellent use of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Lawrence creates an exciting story with some intriguing world building. Though I understand Red Sister lacks the humor that readers have come to expect from Lawrence, I felt this was a very strong first installment and I look forward to the sequel.
Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan
If there’s one series I’d urge you to experience in audiobook form, Riyria would be it (short stories The Jester and Professional Integrity are free on Audible, should you want a taster). That’s not to say that there’s anything lacking in Sullivan’s writing (it’s marvellous, in fact), but rather that the characters are so skilfully brought to life by the voice acting of Tim Gerard Reynolds that I bought the entire series immediately. The chemistry between cynical, snarky Royce and kindly, optimistic Hadrian is so cozy and enjoyable that it brought to mind echoes of the types of friendships written by Fritz Lieber and Scott Lynch, two of my long time favorite fantasy authors. These aren’t typically stories of apocalyptic, world-ending events, and that’s actually a rather nice change. Our heroes bumble along taking jobs and getting caught up in all kinds of trouble. It’s usually Hadrian’s fault.
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
A Natural History of Dragons first caught my eye as I was finishing up Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles. I had been wanting more of Alise, a mild mannered lady who found herself obsessed with the study of Dragons. In Brennan’s novel, I found everything I had wanted and more. A delightful Victorian style story in which a headstrong and naive young woman sets out to learn everything she can about dragons despite society’s expectations for her. Lady Trent tells her story through her memoir, in which she has become the kind of no-fucks-left-to-give old lady you might find being played by Maggie Smith or Diana Rigg. If you fancy a change of pace and something a little more light and genteel than your average fantasy, this is a great place to start.
Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe
Have I ever mentioned that I met my husband in an MMORPG? Because I did. And this was aaages ago, back in the day when people got that oh-god-I-wish-I-hadn’t-asked look in their eyes when you told them. Sufficiently Advanced Magic is my second novel in the LitRPG genre (My first being Ready Player One, which left me cold), and it was delightful. MMO players will find themselves pleased with the magic and crafting systems, fans of magic schools will find lots of Potter-esque classroom moments, and fans of awkward and socially maladjusted yet still very likable protagonists will be chuffed to bits. It’s a bit of everything that’s fun about fantasy, in a world that you would want to live in. And again I’d like to point to an excellent audiobook performance, this time by Nick Podehl, who was so good at female voices in particular that I had to do a double take and check that there wasn’t a second narrator.
It’s tough to write a top 10 when you have read so many truly excellent books, but if I hadn’t narrowed it down I’d have been here all day. So with that said, I’d like to give honorable mentions to:
Song by Jesse Teller, an excellent grimdark tale with some top notch worldbuilding.
Both of these novels were great and I’d highly recommend them.
Wol’s Best TV
Obviously there were some pretty huge shows this year that don’t need any help from me – Stranger Things 2, Star Trek: Discovery, The Orville, The Magicians and others. Here are a couple that I especially enjoyed that may have flown under your radar.
The Good Place
If you’re not watching this show already, I’m going to need you to go ahead and start. My favorite fantasy show of the year and I’ll be absolutely furious if it gets cancelled. Kristen Bell’s turn as Eleanor, a total asshole who gets sent to Heaven by mistake and spends the majority of her time trying to fake it ’til she makes it as a not-completely-terrible person is hands down the funniest thing I have watched in years. I have not yet met anyone who has watched this show and not liked it, so please give it a try and keep it on the air! I’m still not over Pushing Daisies 10 years later – help a girl out, willya?
To be honest I had no idea this show was being made, but being a gamer when I spotted it on Netflix I decided to give it a go. Surprisingly good! Very dark in tone, gothic and violent (think Vampire Hunter D) – my husband had never played the game but had no trouble following, and we both enjoyed it a lot. The disgraced Trevor Belmont is voiced by Richard Armitage and makes for a witty, charming leading man. The stakes (heh) are high, and the performances carry it very well. It’s a very short season and I understand it was picked up for a second already. Definitely worth a look.
Wol’s Happy New Year Cocktail!
If you have made it this far, thanks for reading. I have received a lot of support for this little blog these past few months and I’m excited to keep going forward with it. I hope you’ll keep dropping by to see what I have for you in the coming year. Cheers!