Having seen my list of favourite science fiction of the year, attention turns to the more fantastical. And it’s been a fantastic year for fantasy books.
Without further ado, and again in no particular order, here are my favourite fantasy books that I’ve read this year. The observant amongst you will note that it’s not a top 10!
Empire of Sand – Tasha Suri (Orbit, November 2018)
Empire of Sand is a lushly realised world filled with gods and mystics, spirits and empire, and some quite beautiful writing. It’s an epic fantasy, but not what you might expect, set in a world with analogies to the Mughal era of medieval India.
It’s a book of love and loss, control and breaking bonds, with a truly original heroine in Mehr. I’ve been on a bit of a quest to read more diverse fiction from diverse authors, and Empire of Sands delivers on every level.
The setting is wonderful, you can almost feel the heat from the sands and the mile upon mile of unending desert punctuated by the settlements and the grand palace of the Maha. I loved the idea of the daiva too, the shadowy demons which Mehr and Amun must dance to keep in check.
It’s beautifully written, with some wonderful, strong female characters, and I shall be looking forward to the next books with great anticipation.
Blood of Assassins/King of Assassins – RJ Barker (ORBIT, February/August 2018)
Ah, where to start? (Age of Assassins, probably). I must give a slight caveat here – I’ve met RJ a few times at various things since Age of Assassins came out, and he’s a lovely human. But rather than give him an easy ride with reviews for Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins, I held the books up to deeper scrutiny. Had they been anything less than awesome, I’d have popped them back on the shelf with a rueful tut.
Reader, they’re bloody awesome. Blood of Assassins finds an older, wiser(?) Girton returning after five years away. He turned into a bit of a dick, to be honest. But the story ventures past the castle of Maniyadoc into the world beyond. King of Assassins stretches the canvas wider, is more epic in scope, the characters brilliant and the plot devious.
RJ can write a fight scene like few others – the action has a balletic, bullet-time fluidity as Girton moves, followed only by blood and death and Xus The Unseen in his wake.
This, my friends, is a fitting end to Girton’s tale. Apprentice assassin turned master. Highly recommended.
Foundryside – Robert Jackson Bennett (Jo Fletcher books, August 2018)
I just loved Foundryside. A heist, with a wonderful magic system, set in an alternative medieval-ish Italy, with Merchant Houses vying for power. Ancient magical artefacts, dead gods, the works.
Then there are the characters. Sancia Grado is a wonderful kick-ass, take no prisoners heroine who naturally harbours a dark and mysterious past. But once she’s retrieved the apparently-innocuous something from the warehouse in the opening scenes, we meet one of the novels truly brilliant characters, and the interplay between the two gives this novel something unique and is just so much fun.
Often when talking about books I get asked ‘so, what else is it like?’ If I had to compare this to any other books, I’d say take a health slug of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, add in the whip-smart dialogue of Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight and sprinkle it with just a dash of China Mieville.
And these are some of my favourite things. But Foundryside is very much its own thing, and Robert Jackson Bennett has given us a cracking adventure.
Bloody Rose – Nicholas Eames (orbit, August 2018)
The music references again come thick and fast, but never at the expense of story. They’re lovely little nods throughout the book – a town called Coverdale, a purple-veined prince, and at one point a namecheck for a character in Final Fantasy VII (the best one of the series, don’t @ me).
The story is so much more than your standard ‘bunch of people go fight some monsters’ that you see so often in fantasy. It’s an exploration of family, both the biological kind and the kind you make yourself. It explores what it means to be a monster, and what they might think when all these shiny-armoured, sword-laden Bands come rampaging for their hides.
The Lost Plot/The Mortal Word – Genevieve Cogman (Pan, DEcember 2017/November 2018)
I’m an enormous fan of this series, and this year I got to read book 4, The Lost Plot, and book 5, The Mortal Word (review incoming!).
Both are cracking adventures for Librarian spy Irene Winters and her dragon assistant Kai. In The Lost Plot we find them in 1930s Chicago and New York, with all the attendant trappings – tommy guns, wiseguys and speakeasy bars. The Mortal Word sees Irene, Vale and to a lesser extent Kai investigate the murder of a dragon at peace talks between the warring dragons and Fae. We’re now in 1890s Paris. It shows of Cogman’s wonderful plotting skills and there’s a real depth to the book.
Roll on book 6! This is a wonderful series, but you need to start from the start – these are very much not standalone adventures!
The Tethered Mage – Melissa Caruso (orbit, OCtober 2017)
Book 1 of the Swords & Fire trilogy , The Tethered Mage was nominated for the Gemmell Morningstar Award this year.
It’s a fantastic fantasy setting, with some quietly splendid worldbuilding which lurks in the background of a brilliantly twisty political magical story. It’s got everything – a fiesty fire warlock and her bonded Falconer, court scheming, snappy dialogue and a cracking plot. I’ve got book 2 on my TBR pile and hope to get to it very soon.
Spellslinger – Sebastien de Castell (Hot Key Books, May 2017)
I blame Nazia from Orbit Books for Spellslinger appearing on my kindle, as she mentioned something called ‘squirrel cats’. I was intrigued, and despite having half a dozen other books on the go, picked it up on Kindle, promptly devoured it over the course of the journeys to and from Edge-Lit in Derby.
Spellslinger has everything – brilliant characters, pacy plot, superb worldbuilding and a new take on magic. Oh, and a feisty, snarky squirrel cat called Reichis who might just remind you a little of Rocket Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy.
We’ve all read fantasy stories where the young protagonist comes into their powers and go off to fulfill their destiny. This is the story of what happens when those powers don’t turn up as expected, but you’re left to get on with the whole destiny thing. It’s a YA fantasy with a wild west twist, a magic system which is intriguingly different, and some fantastic (and funny) banter between the characters.
Someone Like Me – M.R. Carey (Orbit, November 2018)
Easily one of my books of the year, Someone Like Me is just stunningly good.
As I said in my post about favourite dystopian fiction, The Girl was good, and The Boy was astonishing, but Someone Like Me takes it to another level entirely, and as predicted, easily sits around the top of the Books of 2018 list.
It’s a fantastic, complex book with so many layers and depths to the characters that it just takes your breath away. It’s often said that there are two sides to every story, and that’s literally the case here.
I see the world changing its mind.
But those two sides twist and turn and mesh and fold around each other like a kind of intricate literary origami, where each movement reveals a new facet of the story, bringing into question what you’re reading. Tiny moments have huge repercussions, and seeming throwaway lines come back to haunt you later.
It’s so beautifully done, so skillfully plotted that you just have no option but to put everything else on hold and just immerse yourself in the book.
The Fifth Season – NK Jemisin (ORBIT, august 2015)
A post-apocalyptic fantasy with some glorious worldbuilding, The Fifth Season is the first book in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. It’s a book to lose yourself in, told through three viewpoints – Essun, on the hunt for her husband who has kidnapped her daughter after murdering her son. Syenite – fourth ring Orogene on a mission to a coastal city to help with a problem with their harbour. And Damaya, a young girl on the way to the Fulcrum, where she will learn to control her Orogeny, and the very earth itself.
Three brilliant, unforgettable strong female leads, each told in a distinct voice. Initially this took a little getting used to, the swapping of styles between the three. One of which is told in the second person, something you see all too rarely. Persevere though, and if you give it a chance, The Fifth Season will reward you richly. The rest of the cast of characters is wonderfully diverse, both in gender, sexuality and race and all equally fascinating, each bringing more facets and layers to the story.
The worldbuilding on display here is absolutely top-notch, and with every chapter Jemisin draws you into this world which at times has shades of our own, but is otherwise completely… different. The story is like a jigsaw puzzle, sections interlocking piece by piece until you slot in the final segment and see the glorious whole.
It’s a phenomenal work, and I can’t wait to read the next two books.
So, there are my favourite fantasy books of 2018. What was your favourite? Have you read any of these?