Ten of the Best: 2019

It’s been a ridiculously good year for fantasy and science fiction books this year, with a lot of seriously deserving titles hitting the shelves. According to my Goodreads stats I’ve managed to pour twenty-three of those books into my eyes over the course of the last twelve months, and in most cases I’ve enjoyed them enough to award them four or more stars. There have been a couple of not-so-great titles, but they really are the exceptions for me this year, which means either I’m very easily pleased by the written word, or the quality of new genre fiction is improving. Personally I’m inclined to say it’s a bit of both.

Anyway, of the twenty-some new titles I’ve read this year, here are my ten favourites, in no particular order.

Never Die (Rob J. Hayes)

I first came across Rob J. Hayes’ writing last year when he did a reading at the Sheffield Fantasy and Science Fiction Social Club alongside the glorious Anna Smith Spark and I was intrigued enough to pick up a couple of his books, but it wasn’t until I read Never Die that I really fell in love with his writing.

This book is most definitely wuxia-inspired, and manages to capture the feel of high-octane anime with consummate ease while still telling a gripping and moving tale. It follows a kid by the name of Ein as he travels the land gathering together a group of legendary heroes to fight against the Emperor of Ten Kings, though as the heroes soon learn, things aren’t quite what they’ve been led to believe.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars | Read full review

Fleet of Knives (Gareth L. Powell)

The first book in this series, Embers of War, made it onto my top ten list for 2018 so it’s probably not all that surprising that the second book is on this year’s list as well.

It carries on from the first with the Trouble Dog and her crew being sent out on a rescue mission that ultimately ends up being an encounter with a new alien threat. Meanwhile, war criminal Ona Sudak finds herself being appointed as the organic controller for the titular fleet of knives uncovered at the end of the first novel.

As with the first book the action is well-paced and well-written, and if you haven’t already dipped your toes in Powell’s writing then I strongly recommend you give it a try.

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars | Read full review

Ancestral Night (Elizabeth Bear)

This is the first of a new series from Elizabeth Bear, with book two due to hit the shelves in late 2020, and if I’m being honest I really don’t want to wait that long. It’s a cracking good read, with shades of Banks and Reynolds at their best, and definitely belongs on the shelves of anyone who enjoys modern space opera.

The core narrative is a good old adventure story in which the protagonists go off in search of hidden treasure and end up uncovering way more trouble than they anticipated. What starts off as a small, intimate story of two friends, their pet cats and the sentient ship they inhabit gradually grows in scale until by the end of this first book the stage encompasses a sizeable chunk of the galaxy. And yet it still feels intimate and personal all the way through, focusing tightly on the main character, Haimey Dz.

As with all the books on this year’s list I strongly recommend wrapping your eyeballs around this one.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars | Read full review

Atlas Alone (Emma Newman)

Emma Newman’s Planetfall series just keeps getting better with every book, and this fourth entry in the series is no exception. Story wise it follows on from the end of Before Mars and After Atlas, but as with the rest of the series it’s essentially a standalone book, though I suspect you’ll get more out of it if you’ve already read the previous three.

This time around we follow Dee, a gamer and media analyst fleeing the destruction of Earth along with the rest of the passengers on board the Atlas 2. Having seen first-hand the annihilation of the planet Dee sets out to identify the people responsible for causing Armageddon and find some way of making them pay for their actions.

It’s another fantastic read from Emma Newman, and I really hope we get to see more tales from the Planetfall universe in 2020.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars | Read full review

Empire of Grass (Tad Williams)

Empire of Grass is the second book in Williams’ Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, and even though we had to wait two years for this book to land it was definitely worth it. As far as I’m concerned Tad Williams is one of the true masters of modern fantasy, albeit fantasy along more traditional lines.

This one follows on from The Witchwood Crown, building on the foundations laid down in the first book with some exceptional storytelling. There are several independent narratives being explored in this one book, and in some cases it’s hard to tell how those different threads are eventually going to be brought together. Even so, Williams draws us in to each character’s arc with ease and leaves us wanting more with each turn of the page. Luckily we only have to wait until October for the final part of the trilogy.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars | Read full review

The Bone Ships (RJ Barker)

RJ Barker landed on the genre scene a few years ago with his Wounded Kingdom trilogy, so I’d been seeing his name pop up on various best of lists for a while. So when NetGalley offered me the chance to have a look at his new series ahead of release I didn’t think twice.

The Bone Ships is not your typical fantasy fare. It’s primarily a maritime adventure in the mould of Patrick O’Brien or C. S. Forester, but with ships made out of dragon bones and a world where criminals serve out their sentence as sailors on those ships. It’s Moby Dick, if the white whale was a sea dragon. It’s a veritable tour de force in fantasy world building and storytelling, and I really can’t wait for book two.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars | Read full review

The House of Sacrifice (Anna Smith Spark)

Every book in Anna Smith Spark’s Empires of Dust trilogy has been an absolute joy to read, and does things with fantasy literature that I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. This is the final book in the trilogy, and brings the story to one hell of a close.

This final chapter wraps up the arcs of the three main characters, Marith, Thalia and Orhan, though not necessarily how you might expect. As with the previous two books, there are no pretty, simple solutions presented here, and while several of the characters do get their own individual happy ever afters, they’re not exactly fairytale endings. Anna Smith Spark pulls no punches, but thanks to poetry and lyricism of her writing it takes you until several hours after you’ve finished reading to realise she’s just beaten you into a bloody pulp with her words. In short, it’s glorious.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars | Read full review

The Green Man’s Foe (Juliet E. McKenna)

In this, the second of Juliet E. McKenna’s Green Man series, we once again get to follow young Daniel Mackmain as he finds himself getting drawn into a spot of trouble of the folklorish variety. This time around he gets to deal with a malicious water spirit and malicious magician, all while working on the renovation of a haunted country house.

I read both of the Green Man books in quick succession earlier this year and loved both of them immensely. They’re a fun and intriguing take on English folklore and mythology, and I’m hoping we get a chance to travel with Daniel again at some point.

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars | Read full review

Bloodchild (Anna Stephens)

Bloodchild is another trilogy finale, and another superb addition to the grimdark family. Following on from the epic conclusion of 2018’s Darksoul, this one brings the story to a bloody but satisfying ending.

As with the first two books of the trilogy, this one is brutal, and bloody, and full of pain and anger. And yet it also shines with light and hope and love, and yes, maybe even a little humour. Anna Stephens’ writing manages to convey the brutality of war and the glory of compassion with equal weight, and I’m genuinely intrigued to see what she comes up with next.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars | Read full review

Made Things (Adrian Tchaikovsky)

There are little people living in Loretz, and only thief and puppeteer Coppelia knows about them. When Coppelia gets wrapped up in a scheme to divest some of the local Magelords of some of their wealth, it seems like a perfect opportunity for her little friends Arc and Tef to tag along, just in case.

I’ve fallen head over heels in love with Tchaikovsky’s writing over the last couple of years, and the only reason I’ve not got Time of Ruin on this list is because I didn’t get a chance to read it yet. He’s very good at getting you invested in his characters, even if those characters are magically animated homunculi, uplifted dogs and bears, or artificially evolved spiders, and as a result his stories hit all the feels.

If you haven’t read any of his works yet then this might be a good place to start.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars | Read full review

Honourable Mention – To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Becky Chambers writes gloriously hopeful and comfortable science fiction, with some amazing characters. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a departure from her Wayfarer series, and while it’s a much shorter work than her previous books it still manages to fit a lot in. While I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the Wayfarer books, it’s still one hell of a read and definitely a refreshing change to all the dystopian grimdarkiness that seems prevalent in modern genre fiction.

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars | Read full review

Honourable Mention – A Little Hatred

I picked this one up on NetGalley and read it as a complete newbie to Joe Abercrombie’s writing, which you might think odd considering it’s the first in a sequel series to his popular First Law series. However, it didn’t take long for me to get comfortable with the dark fusion of high fantasy and industrial steampunk that Abercrombie has created and by the end of the novel I was definitely eager for more. Bring on book two.

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars | Read full review

So there we have it, ten favourite books and two almost-rans from the almost two-dozen of this year’s releases I managed to consume. I know I said they were in no particular order at the top of this article but in truth they’re listed in the order I read them. I strongly recommend all twelve of these titles to fans of sci-fi and fantasy.

Coming up in 2020…

The last few years have seen some remarkable new voices making themselves heard in the sci-fi and fantasy fields, and I’m expecting that trend to continue on into 2020. I’ve already got my eye on a few books due out in the first half of the year, and an even dozen titles have already made their on to my pre-order list. Adrian Tchaikovsky has two announced already (Firewalkers from Solaris and The Doors of Eden from Tor/Pan, both in May) and Light of Impossible Stars, the final part of Gareth L. Powell’s Embers of War trilogy is due to drop in February. There’s a sequel to Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation coming, and the second of Gareth Hanrahan’s Black Iron series. Christina Henry returns to the world of Alice and Red Queen with her new book, Looking Glass in April, and then finally in October there’s new books from Tad Williams and Elizabeth Bear. All in all it looks like it’s going to be another exciting year for fantasy and sci-fi fans.

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