“If you start a book, then you must finish it” is a principle I’ve long since abandoned. If neither my brain nor my heart is connecting with a book, I set it aside and pick up something else. If I finish it, that means I enjoyed it. Here, then, is a list of all the books I enjoyed, to varying degrees, in 2018:
Destiny Soria, Iron Cast; Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower; Katherine Arden, The Girl in the Tower; John Gwynne, A Time of Dread; Ursula K. LeGuin, Lavinia; Melissa Caruso, The Defiant Heir; N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky; Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit; Juliet Mariller, Den of Wolves; Kate Elliott, Court of Fives; Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver; Justina Ireland, Dread Nation; Elizabeth Bear, The Stone in the Skull; Lev A.C. Rosen, All Men of Genius; Ben S. Dobson, The Flaw in All Magic; Richard Barrios, A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film; Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun; Cass Morris, From Unseen Fire; Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War; Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows; Sharon Shinn, Fortune and Fate; Sarah Beth Durst, The Queen of Blood; John Scalzi, The Collapsing Empire; Toni Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone; Anthony Ryan, The Waking Fire; Patricia McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; Kate Forsyth, The Beast’s Garden (audiobook); Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch; Theodora Goss, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter; Django Wexler, The Infernal Battalion; Kendare Blake, Three Dark Crowns; N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season; Aliette de Bodard, The House of Shattered Wings (audiobook); Curtis Craddock, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors; Ken Liu, The Wall of Storms; Brandon Sanderson, Oathbringer.
Yet I have my favorites, books that strike multiple chords of pleasure and satisfaction. Here are a few highlights of my reading year.
Book I loved: Spinning Silver (favorite read of 2018). Why I loved it: Not content with giving us one female hero, this novel presents us with three, women from different social strata whose lives intertwine. Bonds between women are emphasized. Kindness plays a key role in saving the day. Add to that Naomi Novik’s vivid, evocative prose, and there was almost nothing I didn’t love about this book.
Book I loved: The Parable of the Sower. Why I loved it: Here’s a book that manages to be shocking, disturbing, and uplifting at the same time. Set in a horrifying future, it focuses on a brilliant young woman and her growing understanding of the nature of God. (Religion, for once, is neither a source of infinite goodness nor the root of all evil.) I wasn’t crazy about the love story that cropped up near the end, but my admiration of both protagonist Lauren Olamina and Octavia Butler’s powerful prose carried the day.
Book I loved: The Infernal Battalion. Why I loved it: It’s a bracing conclusion to a series that seemed to be designed with me in mind, as it has pretty much everything I love to see in the fantasy genre: male and female heroes working together and forming friendships; strong bonds between women; sensitively handled romantic plots both gay and straight; scary forces of darkness; plenty of action. I would like to have seen a little more racial/ethnic variety in the cast — Khandari mage Feor should have played a bigger role — but that’s about all that’s lacking.
Book I loved: Dread Nation. Why I loved it: When it comes to supposedly “badass” heroines in YA fantasy fiction, my motto is, “Don’t tell me they’re tough and competent; show me.” Justina Ireland shows us repeatedly just how brave and formidable her protagonist Jane McKeene really is. But what I love most about Jane is how flawed she is, yet how willing to learn from her mistakes and grow. This one also foregrounds female friendship, always a plus for me.
Book I loved: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors. Why I loved it: Like The Infernal Battalion, this one has a setting that evokes early 19th century Europe, but it adds some steampunk elements. The prose is light and deft, and the two central characters, Isabelle des Zephyrs and the musketeer Jean-Claude, are people of great intelligence and integrity, well worth rooting for as they navigate a dangerous magical/political maze. The sequel is coming out in the latter part of January, and I can’t wait.
Book I loved: The Defiant Heir. Why I loved it: How do you create a fantasy world rich in conflict without replicating real-world sexism and homophobia? Just ask Melissa Caruso. If I had my way she’d give a crash course in world-building to any budding SFF writer keen to avoid the usual cliches. Here we have two female heroes: Amalia, who struggles with self-doubt but is never made to feel her gender is a source of weakness; and Zaira, who goes through relationship drama that has nothing to do with her sweetheart being another woman. It can be done, everyone! Look and see!
Book I loved: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Why I loved it: Patricia McKillip’s dreamlike prose is perhaps the most beautiful in the fantasy genre. Here she employs it to tell the story of reclusive wizard Sybel, who must venture into the wider world and confront choices that will show her, and us, what she’s truly made of. Sybel is a powerful, complex, flawed hero, and clearly a woman, not a girl.
Book I loved: Den of Wolves. Why I loved it: Like McKillip, Juliet Marillier has a prose style I find enchanting, and this concluding novel of her Blackthorn and Grim series is lovely in all the ways I expect from this author. I adore the female lead Blackthorn, in all her angry, temperamental, messy, observant, and competent glory, and her partner, Grim, embodies the strength of kindness. The girl to whose aid they come, Cara, is also a memorable figure, who makes the kind of mistakes to which an adolescent girl is prone but has so much potential as she tries to figure out who she is and who she might be.
Book I loved: The Fifth Season. Why I loved it: Like Butler, N.K. Jemisin crafts a story both disturbing and beautiful, and I don’t recall reading anything else quite like it. It’s the first book in her Broken Earth Trilogy, and in my view, the best, as it shows us the journey of its complex, alternately heroic and messed-up protagonist at three different stages of her life.
Book I loved: Iron Cast. Why I loved it: Set in 1919 Boston (why don’t more writers explore this intriguing historical transition between the Great War and the Jazz Age?) this story introduces us to a group of mages called “hemopaths,” who can harness magic through creativity — poetry, music, drama. At this premise I’m already half sold. But Destiny Soria draws me further into the novel’s spell with strong prose, intriguing plot twists, deftly built romantic subplots (no insta-love here), and the sort of solid, supportive friendship between girls that should feature far more often in YA.
Book I loved: Oathbringer. Why I loved it: It’s the third book in The Stormlight Archive, which pretty much guarantees it a place among my favorites as it continues the journeys of characters I already know and love.
On to 2019!