Top 10 of 2014

I’m kind of amazed we’re already at this point in the year again, time really does pass by faster as you get older. How bothersome! Overall, I think 2014 was a pretty good year. There were no books that I downright loathed. I can’t even pull together a “Worst of” list for the year. You go, 2014! The list is a mix of young adult and adult. If there’s an overriding theme to my list is that I rewarded books that tried to put their own spin on traditional. Outside of my picks for the 9 and 10 spot, they all do something just a little bit different. Finally, the only criteria for being on the list was that I reviewed it in 2014. A good book is a good book and deserves a shout out regardless of publication date.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at my Top Ten books of 2014. Click on the covers for links back to the original review 🙂

 

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9. The Casquette Girls – Alys Arden & A Taste of Blood Wine – Freda Warrington Paranormal Fantasy (Vampires) YA and Adult, respectively
I honestly couldn’t rank one above the other because they’re on the list for the same reason: they take the tropes of their given genres and spin fantastic tales using those tropes. It shows why the tropes have hung around and proves that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to create a great book.

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8. Sword of the Bright Lady -M.C. Planck Traditional Fantasy, Adult
A mostly traditional fantasy novel with the twist of a modern protagonist trying to find his way in the new land. The author was careful with both avoiding over-explaining how he got there (important to avoid immersion breaks) and made sure to touch on how the people from that time to react to him which helps ground the novel.

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7. Zodiac – Romina Russell Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Young Adult
A wonderful surprise of a Young Adult novel. Clever world-building, likable and smart protagonists, and no dreaded love-triangle! This is the kind of book that the fantasy YA genre should aspire to in general, and I’d easily recommend it for someone new to Young Adult and is looking for something to dip their toes with.

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6. Libriomancer – Jim C. Hines Urban Fantasy, Adult
A book lover’s fantasy novel. Between the almost endless references that are fun to find, but don’t feel added for the sake of being added and a very clever and well-thought out magic system, it’s a must read.

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5. Clariel – Garth Nix  High Fantasy, Young Adult
A high fantasy YA title that is YA in name only, it made me get why Nix has been around for twenty years. If Zodiac gently bucks against tropes of the genre, Clariel more or less gives the tropes a middle finger and it’s awesome.

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4. The Waking Engine – David Edison Urban Fantasy, Adult
Literary fantasy that at times is highly surreal, has some wonderfully creepy imagery and some heady and heavy themes. This is easily the most divisive book I have on the list, but I implore you to at least give it a look.

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3. Written in Red – Anne Bishop Paranormal, Urban Fantasy. Adult
A series that turned all the tropes of paranormal fantasy on its head by simply approaching it from the angle of: what if  the shifted form was human, and not beast? It’s a simple, yet brilliant, twist that makes you wonder why no one thought of it earlier.
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2. The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison Traditional Fantasy, Adult
Never has a book let me see the world from the point of view of its narrator as effectively as this book. It’s narrative style – a first person point of view that uses a formal second-person English tense – is rough to get used to, but works wonders in showing you the lonliness of the protagonist and the sense of isolation that comes with being Emperor. Give it a shot, and you’ll be rewarded.

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1. City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett Secondary World, Adult
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I’ve been pimping this book like crazy, and for good reason. A fantasy that reads like historical fiction due to the wonderfully developed secondary world that has strong, smart women as its leads. I will recommend it to anyone and everyone. It’s that good.

So what do you think? What should be on there that I left off? Let me know!

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ARC: Uriel’s Fall (Ubiquity #1) – Loralie Hall

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eARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for review

Summary:

What’s a corporate demon to do when the voice in her head is devouring her sanity from the inside out, and the hosts of heaven and hell would rather see her destroyed than surrender a power they shouldn’t possess?

Ronnie has the job any entry-level angel or demon would sell their soul for—she’s a retrieval analyst for the largest search engine in the world. Ubiquity is a joint initiative between heaven and hell. Because what better way to track all of humanity’s secrets, both good and bad, than direct access to their web browsing habits.

She might appreciate the position a little more if a) she could remember anything about her life before she started working at Ubiquity, b) the damn voice in her head would just shut up already, and c) her boss wasn’t a complete dickhead.

As she searches for the solutions to the first two issues, and hopes the third will work itself out in performance reviews, she uncovers more petty backstabbing than an episode of Real Housewives, and a conspiracy as old as Lucifer’s descent from heaven. On top of all that, if she forgets the cover sheet on her TPS report one more time, she’s absolutely going on final written warning.

Now Ronnie’s struggling to keep her sanity and job, and stop the voice in her head from stealing her life. She almost misses the boredom of data analysis at Ubiquity. Almost.

Review:

I’m not sure how I managed to read two books back-to-back about female protagonists having unwanted hitch-hikers in their pysche, but somehow I have.

What I am sure of: this is how you do that concept right.

Without spoiling the story, I will just say that the explanation for how it all works is both simple, and makes sense. It’s a definite case of less is more, but remains satisfying to read. I’d almost suggest that Madison read this book, to get an idea of a better way of pursuing the concept.

This book is also superior in another, critical way: I like both our protagonist and her hitch-hiker. They have their own voices, their own personalities and they’re both likable. Critically, too, I think, is that Hall worked the hitch-hiker’s story has a purpose, it’s ties into the greater story of the world. It feels more thought out and it feels complete. And most important, it’s interesting!

As for the world, it’s a story of angels and demons. The mythology is, for the most part fairly traditional, but that’s okay. It’s gave Hall the platform she needed to tell the story she wanted to tell, which was ultimately Uriel’s story and Uriel’s story was interesting. Plus there were some nice bits of chemistry going on and a nice little steamy sex scene to boot.

Overall, this was a really clever, really fun urban paranormal fantasy. If you like the concept or the genre, you should enjoy yourself here.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

ARC Review – Under My Skin (Immortality Strain #1) by Shawntell Madison

23382840eARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for fair review

Summary:

Everyone wants to either be a member of the Guild or work for them. Little does the populace know that the Guild hides sinister secrets…

For Tate Sullivan, life in her small, coastal town is far from glamorous. The affluent lives of the Guild members and their servants isn’t something she has ever wanted. But all sixteen year-olds must take a simple test, and Tate’s result thrusts her into the Guild’s world, one where they hide horrible plans for those they select. Tate must fight the relentless General Dagon for control of her mind, body, and soul to keep the one precious thing she has always taken for granted: herself.

Her only ally is the same handsome boy she is pitted against in General Dagon’s deadly game. Quinn desires nothing more than to end the life of General Dagon who has taken over Tate’s mind. While romance blooms between Tate and Quinn, General Dagon plots to eventually take over Tate’s body, and love might end before it even begins.

Review:

Oh book, I wanted to like you. You easily have the most interesting idea I’ve seen for a YA dystopian in ages, and for a self-published title, you are polished to a T and proof that self-published titles can easily sit side-by-side with books from the big publishers.

On the other hand, you squander your idea by completely and utterly under-developing it. This book raises so many questions: if everyone wants to at least work for the Guild, then shouldn’t it be common knowledge that your family gets a stipend if you get chosen? Whatever happened to the people we met at the facility who got chosen, but who weren’t bid upon? Did they get to put to work as janitors or were they killed? The Guild’s secret to immortality is body hopping in vessels like Tates, but it seems like Tate was wearing out pretty damn fast. If a body only lasted a year or two at most before they had to jump again, what kind of system is that? And if bodies last longer than that, why wasn’t it made clear that she was an exception, not a rule? I get that it’s set-up for future books, but it’s kind of important for understanding how this whole thing works. Speaking of body jumping, wouldn’t people notice? Like how did no one question that General Dagon suddenly has a daughter named Elsie or is the conspiracy so vast that the common person just doesn’t even know that it’s going on? How does Tate protect herself so damn well when the other vessels fell so quick? She have partial immunity to the virus or is it just because the plot demands? How does getting shocked by a machine once suddenly let you be able to “feel” who would make a good host? If Dagon is so good at controlling bodies he’s taken over, shouldn’t they have assumed that he was letting her do whatever she wanted? Why is there a Resistance any way? They seem to serve little purpose in this world other than to help explain things to Tate, we certainly see no other impact on the world at large.

You see how this is problematic.

Aside from the sense that all of this happening because the author wants it to happen this way, there isn’t much else to talk about. Tate is your generic YA heroine: loves her parents, loves her cousin, intelligent and plucky, determined to stand up to The Man. Her relationship to Quinn is less love and more Stockholm Syndrome. There’s nothing between them that can ever be constituted as romance; it’s all business between them. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that any emotions she develops for him are out of the fact that a) he’s handsome b) not a creep and c) the only guy even close to her age in the compound.

Overall, I feel like there’s promise here, but the premise just proved too elusive for the author to wrap her head around in a way that doesn’t eventually make you start questioning it – and considering this is only the first book in a series, you have to have a more solid foundation to work on.

This was a fun book, until things completely fell apart for me, and ultimately my enjoyment of much of book wasn’t enough to overcome the rather series problems with it later on.

Verdict: Skip it

Available: Today.

ARC Review: Night of Pan (Oracle of Dephi #1) – Gail Strickland

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eARC provided by the publisher in exchange for fair review

Summary:

The slaughter of the Spartan Three Hundred at Thermopylae, Greece 480 BCE—when King Leonidas tried to stop the Persian army with only his elite guard—is well known. But just what did King Xerxes do after he defeated the Greeks?

Fifteen-year-old Thaleia is haunted by visions: roofs dripping blood, Athens burning. She tries to convince her best friend and all the villagers that she’s not crazy. The gods do speak to her.

And the gods have plans for this girl.

When Xerxes’ army of a million Persians marches straight to the mountain village Delphi to claim the Temple of Apollo’s treasures and sacred power, Thaleia’s gift may be her people’s last line of defense.

Her destiny may be to save Greece…but is one girl strong enough to stop an entire army?

Review:

Grumble.

That doesn’t count as a review, does it? I mean, it should because it more or less sums up how I feel and is a no-so-subtle hint as to what the final outcome of this review will be. But it’d make me a bad reviewer if I simply left it there, and if nothing else, I want to say I did my best, so let’s take a look a look at this further.

On the plus side, I love the setting and concept: while Greek deities occasionally appear in modern books that touch on old pantheons, you simply don’t see much fiction (let alone fantasy) set in this era. It’s also neat to see some of the rituals of the time and the author clearly did her homework. It feels authentic.

But that’s about all I can say that is genuinely positive.

First and foremost, while I do applaud the research that clearly went into this, the book seems so eager to show off that the author did her homework that it feels like a cross being a fantasy and a bit of a history lesson. Characters speak lines like

“He will never conquer us! Representatives of each city-state – from Athens, Milas, even might Sparta came together last autumn in Corinth to form the Hellenic League!” and “Xerxes’ empire is vast – Asia Minor, Egypt, Judah, Lydia, Mesopotaia!”

People don’t talk like that and so it doesn’t sound like dialogue, but instead it sounds like recitation of fact. Adding to this sense is that there is an entire glossary in the back of the book. While that can be handy, what’s not so handy is that each word in the glossary is both italicized and underlined. It breaks immersion and is cumbersome to use, and ultimately detracts from the experience, more than enhances. It’s nice to have the reference, but it doesn’t need to be so front and center.

My next complaint is that the book feels cold. I really, really wish Strickland had given us more time with Thaleia before she had her first meeting with Pan. Our introduction to her is basically a girl that feels ridiculously modern with her “girls can be more than wives and mothers/we’re just property of men!” spiel and then the mystical aspects of the book take over. Ultimately, I never connected with Thaleia because she never felt real, never felt human and Strickland went to great lengths to point out that she was human, and not semi-divine. She is the heart of the story, both in terms of plot and emotion, so having some more closeness to her would have done wonders for me.

Finally, this book has less an ending, and more a cliff-hanger. She has another vision and then boom, you’re looking at the tease for book two. It is an ever-present annoyance of mine, especially in books this short.

Overall, the word I’d use for this is disappointing. There was a lot of promise, but it never quite came together for me. It is definitely fantasy, and it’s interesting positing what powers a Pythia might have been able to have, but to give her powers and have her help save Greece before we even know her is to put her a bit on a pedestal and readers should never be kept at such distance.

Verdict: Skip It

Available: Now.

Review: Imager (Imager Portfolio #1) – L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

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Kindle version purchased by me

Summary:

Imager is the beginning of a whole new fantasy in a whole new magical world from the bestselling creator of Recluce. Although Rhennthyl is the son of a leading wool merchant in L’Excelsis, the capital of Solidar, the most powerful nation on Terahnar, he has spent years becoming a journeyman artist and is skilled and diligent enough to be considered for the status of master artisan—in another two years. Then, in a single moment, his entire life is transformed when his master patron is killed in a flash fire, and Rhenn discovers he is an imager—one of the few in the entire world of Terahnar who can visualize things and make them real.

He must leave his family and join the Collegium of Imagisle.  Imagers live separately from the rest of society because of their abilities (they can do accidental magic even while asleep), and because they are both feared and vulnerable. In this new life, Rhenn discovers that all too many of the “truths” he knew were nothing of the sort. Every day brings a new threat to his life.  He makes a powerful enemy while righting a wrong, and begins to learn to do magic in secret. Imager is the innovative and enchanting opening of an involving new fantasy story.

Review:

Modesitt is an author who has been publishing longer than I have been alive, and yet I somehow never got around to, even though I knew I probably should. So when this showed up on sale, I decided to take the plunge. And, ultimately, I’m left frustrated.

On the one hand, I did enjoy this book. On the other hand, I felt like it could have been more.

This book is a slow burn. A very slow burn. The first 20% deals with Rhynn’s life as an artist. The next 20% deals with his time at school. Action doesn’t really start until about the half-way mark, and the story really gets going at the 60% mark. It’s worth reading, but this book could have benefited from editing. There are a lot of discourses in this book about the nature of people and of government, and even of law. It technically adds depth to the world, but it is wasted depth, because it ultimately adds nothing and just gives Rhynn more time to ponder this question or that. It may be interesting at first, but ultimately gets to the point that only a student of political science won’t find themselves getting a bit antsy at yet another speech. The book could be another twenty pages shorter and I don’t think you’d really notice. And I say this because he ultimately isn’t saying anything new, or that hasn’t been said, and none of his worlds are so unique that it makes you go, “yeah, I want to learn more about it.”

In fact, the world building in general is a disappointment as a whole. Not only is there nothing unique, but it seems wholly derivative, so much so that the days of the week are little more than bastardized French, and if you actually knew the true French names, you may just be driven crazy because it looks more like he misspelled a day, than recognizing it as a day of his own creation.

The magic itself is cool on the surface – Imagers literally create things from nothing, requiring only energy. How they manipulate the energy to do this isn’t quite explained. For example, if they can Image in their sleep, why do they need to be able to see to do their craft? And for some reason, never explained satisfactorily, lead can protect an Imager from him or herself. It’s a system of magic that breaks down if you think about it too much and this is the kind of system that almost needs over-explanation.

As for Rhynn, he’s one of those characters: no matter how much you like him, you can’t help but have a part of you that dislikes him. As an artist, he’s so good that when he tries to find another position as a Journeyman, no one will take him because he’s too much a threat financially to the other Masters. As an Imager, he goes from raw recruit to the lowest level master over the course of a book – maybe a year. I get that they promote on skill over time spent learning, but seriously, it’s hard to take his ridiculous rise to power without some eye-rolling. Modesitt does at least make him mostly likable, and when combined the conceit that he’s got to be special in some manner to make the story interesting, you can definitely get vested in the character, but a little more roughness around the edges might have been nice. I’ll be honest though, I prefer his girlfriend and her family over him. Though “just” merchants, they clearly have a far more interesting background and I might have liked spending more time with them.

Finally, I can’t help but wonder if Modesitt is one of those authors who has final say over the editing of his books. I can’t recall how many times I saw Rhynn mention that he was going out “with full shields,” or how many times the varietal of wine was mentioned. There’s an inherent wordiness that drags down the momentum of the story, especially since there are so many passages that begin “Vendrei was slower than Jeudi.” Again, it’s not a book killer, it’s just something that may or may not be of concern to you.

I did enjoy reading this book, but I felt like with some editing, it could have been more. From what I can tell, the Imager Portfolio is currently a trilogy, a quintet, and now he’s starting a third series of indeterminate length. I’m not entirely convinced I want to continue on. It ultimately is traditional fantasy with some pacing issues and a magic system and world that sound more impressive than they actually are. It’s an easy enough read that I can give it a recommendation if you’re like me and want to see if Modesitt is for you, but from what I understand, his Recluse series is stronger over all, and you may be better served starting there.

Verdict: Borrow It. It’s traditional fantasy with some problems. Although he clearly has a strong fan base, I can’t say I feel like I’ve missed out by waiting so long to pick him up, and odds are, if you’ve gone this long without reading him, you’ll probably feel the same.

Available now.

Review: Sabriel (Abhorsen #1) – Garth Nix

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Kindle and Paper versions purchased by myself

Summary:

Sent to a boarding school in Ancelstierre as a young child, Sabriel has had little experience with the random power of Free Magic or the Dead who refuse to stay dead in the Old Kingdom. But during her final semester, her father, the Abhorsen, goes missing, and Sabriel knows she must enter the Old Kingdom to find him. She soon finds companions in Mogget, a cat whose aloof manner barely conceals its malevolent spirit, and Touchstone, a young Charter Mage long imprisoned by magic, now free in body but still trapped by painful memories. As the three travel deep into the Old Kingdom, threats mount on all sides. And every step brings them closer to a battle that will pit them against the true forces of life and death—and bring Sabriel face-to-face with her own destiny.

With Sabriel, the first installment in the Abhorsen trilogy, Garth Nix exploded onto the fantasy scene as a rising star, in a novel that takes readers to a world where the line between the living and the dead isn’t always clear—and sometimes disappears altogether.

Review:

Sabriel is the tale of a girl whose Dead Father, the Abhorsen, sends her his sword and bells so she can take over his duties as the new Abhorsen, basically a kind of necromancer who only binds the Dead, and doesn’t use them to do their bidding. The Old Kingdom remains a fun place to visit, and I still love the concept of the bells and the gods that are associated with them. It’s a great world.

Reading this after Clariel was an interesting exercise. On the one hand, it was neat seeing how things tied together – characters like Mogget and places like the Abhorsen house. On the other hand, you can still tell that Sabriel was the earlier book: Sabriel doesn’t come across as well developed as Clariel. Furthermore, where as Clariel was decidedly asexual, here we have an underdeveloped relationship: characters go from barely talking to each other, to “hey, she’s pretty” to “I think I love you” quicker than necessarily feels natural.

Like Clariel though, I will question why this series is considered to be Young Adult. Sabriel is 18, but she feels like an adult from the get go, and her adventure is very much a traditional epic fantasy. Plus, the themes of the Dead and Death feel much more adult than what you normally get out of YA. Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy it feels like adult. If anything, it again frustrates me that a protagonist under the age of 20 is almost automatically seen as YA, even if it has no other connection to that genre.

Regardless how one feels about Young Adult, it’s still a book worth looking at. Nix unquestionably has grown as a writer, and I am confident that both Lireal and Abhorsen will continue to improve. Nix at the top of his game is in a class of his own, and you can certainly see him starting to climb that mountain here.

Verdict: Buy It

Available Now.

ARC Review: Superheroes Anonymous – Lexie Dunne

22138441ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for fair review

Summary:

Everybody in Chicago has a “superhero sighting” story. So when a villain attacks editorial assistant Gail Godwin and she’s rescued by superhero Blaze, it’s a great story, and nothing more. Until it happens again. And again. Now the media has dubbed her Hostage Girl, nobody remembers her real name, and people are convinced that Blaze is just her boyfriend, Jeremy, in disguise.

Gail’s not so sure. All she knows is that when both Jeremy and Blaze leave town in the same week, she’s probably doomed. Who will save her now?

Yet, miraculously, the villains lose interest. Gail is able to return to her life … until she wakes up strapped to a metal table by a mad scientist who hasn’t read the news. After escaping–now more than human herself–she’s drawn into a secret underground world of superheroes. She’ll have to come to terms with her powers (and weaknesses) to make it in the new society, and it’s not easy. After all, there’s a new villain on the rise, and she has her sights set on the one and only Hostage Girl.

Review:

First and foremost, can I say this is a fantastic premise? So often in comic-book series, women are reduced to the helpless damsel-in-distress trope. Modern comics are starting to buck this trend to an extent, but the tropes are very much still alive and the general public is still more apt to know about Mary Jane Watson always getting rescued by Spider-Man than know that the extended Bat-family has both a Batgirl and Batwoman or that Thor is now a woman in Marvel’s recent reboot. So yeah, this notion that someone can go from being the villain-bait to the villain-fighter is something I can get behind. Without spoiling it, her origin story is appropriately absurd and fits right in with the likes of Spiderman and the other heroes who need a little outside help to get their powers. The explanation behind the explanation even made me laugh, it was that great.

The bulk of the book is spent with her adjusting to her new life, making new friends and trying to wrap her head around her new powers and a villain named Chelsea, whose new to the gig and still working on the villain name and outfit. While nothing in this story is overly unexpected, it’s well done and you quickly grow to enjoy the group of people that surround Gail: her mentor Vicki, her trainer AngĂ©lica and Blaze.  Dunne does take the time to explain how Blaze and Jeremy are connected and it’s well done. It’s a very human feeling story for a group of superheroes and it’s something I always appreciate in my superhero tales because quite frankly, they are still people and perfection is boring to read about.

So yeah, it’s a fun, enjoyable read, and then you hit that ending.

If you can call it an ending.

This is one of those books, where it doesn’t really end so much as just break off and throw a “to be continued” onto the last page. “But wait,” you say, “superhero comics end on cliffhangers all the time!” This is true. What’s also true is that media only allows for 22-24 pages of story per issue. This is a book. This can be as long as it needs to be, especially because this is a genre that allows for longer books. I really do wish they’d done it, because it’s just so hard to shake that feeling that the work is undone, especially when  the cliffhanger feels a bit out of left field. It’s ultimately just frustrating.

Had this book told a complete story, I’d probably be recommending fully: it’s a book that hits sweet-spot of the genre that fans of the genre will enjoy. As it is, I’m going to have to stick with my gut and knock this down a notch. I’ve yet to find a book that was otherwise so fantastic that would let me overlook a non-ending like this, and sadly, this one won’t be the first to do so.

Verdict: A strong Borrow It.

Available: Now