Top 10 of 2015

Where has the year gone? It seems like yesterday that I was writing 2014’s list. Then again, isn’t that how it always goes? Anyways.

Before we get into it, once again here are the criteria I use:

1. Must have been reviewed in 2015 (so older titles qualify)

2. Only one book per author or series

3. Must have been rated as a “Buy It” by me.

Without further ado, let us begin !

Honorable Mention:

Alex Verus Series – by Benedict Jacka

I really wanted to put at least one of these books on my list as it is now one of my all-time favorite Urban Fantasy series. I debated breaking my own rules to put this on the list, but then I realized that this series is unique in that the sum is really greater than the individual parts, with each book I love it just a little bit more. These are quick easy reads with a protagonist that is much more gray than UF heroes/heroines are allowed to be with a great supporting cast including women who only grow stronger as the books pass. I know that the first book can seem derivative, but stick it out and give the series a chance. It may just grow on you the way it’s grown on me.

10.

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Read the review here

A mash-up of historical fantasy, secondary world fantasy, with a dash of science-fiction, The Philosopher Kings poses some great philosophical questions within its text that invites the reader to ponder over just as the characters do. I do think the appeal is too niche to really place it higher on this list, but for those who like philosophy or are looking for something a bit heavier, this is a book well worth checking out.

9.

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Read the review here

Yes, I know I just reviewed this the other day, and this would be the spot I was having trouble deciding what book to put here. The Lost Sun is Young Adult fantasy with Nordic flair and engrossing story of friendship and destiny and is well worth checking out.

8.

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Read the review here

A lush dark fantasy that builds up a wonderful atmosphere of tension that leaves you as unsettled as the heroine as she tries to navigate this world that she suddenly finds herself thrust into. Though not strictly Gothic horror, it has that lovely sense to it. If you like dark fae, give this book a look.

7.

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Read the review here

Urban Fantasy that has a) a completely average male as a lead, b) has no trace of the paranormal nor c) romance make this grounded tale a wonderful and unique read within the genre. If you’ve got a friend that you’re trying to lure into reading Urban Fantasy, this is an excellent series to start with.

6.

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Read the review here

The winning formula for this series is simple: take all your Urban Fantasy tropes and give them a twist. Vampires aren’t the main bad-guys, Charish mouths off and people get pissed at her. That kind of thing. A very fun ride and worth a read if you like the old favorites but want to see a hint of something new.

5.

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Read the review here

A secondary world epic fantasy that combines lush world building and one of the strongest, most sex-positive female characters I’ve ever seen. Even if you don’t read on, anyone who reads epic fantasy should give this book a look. It’s reputation is well earned. Plus, the refreshed covers are simply stunning.

4.

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Read the review here

A historical fantasy that is audacious enough to make Lucifer the hero of our tale – and does so in a manner that is absolutely respectful to the religion in the process. Any and all fantasy writers that want to take on Christianity should use this as a guide on how to do it right. I’m thrilled it’s seeing a stateside release in 2016.

3.

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Read the review here

Combining characters you love and a sense of wonder as you travel the Zodiac’s galaxy, this is a rare sequel that surpasses the original. Fans of YA and sci-fi/fantasy blends should absolutely read this.

2.

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Another piece of YA sci-fi, the complex themes and the beautiful writing make me wonder if this wouldn’t have been better served on adult shelves. Complex themes, a bittersweet ending and a delicate balanced lesbian relationship make this a must read. Oh, and Talis is everything.

1.

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Read the review here

The most audacious book I’ve quite possibly read, even taking on J for the complexity of its story telling. The best part is that there is as much substance to it as there is style. One of the rare books that absolutely deserves the hype it’s received.

~

So there we have it! I’d never guess I’d have three YA sci-fi titles as my top three this year, which makes it all the more awesome that I do. I think that niche of the genre really came alive this year and gives me hope that it’ll continue to mature and producer a richer cannon of books that stray away from the typical YA tropes. Aside from that, I don’t feel like 2015 was quite as strong a year for me as 2014 was, but as always, if you look, you will always find some gems.

So tell me, what were your favorites?

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City of Blades (The Divine Cities #2) – Robert Jackson Bennett

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Summary:

The city of Voortyashtan was once the domain of the goddess of death, war, and destruction, but now it’s little more than a ruin. General Turyin Mulaghesh is called out of retirement and sent to this hellish place to try to find a Saypuri secret agent who’s gone missing in the middle of a mission, but the city of war offers countless threats: not only have the ghosts of her own past battles followed her here, but she soon finds herself wondering what happened to all the souls that were trapped in the afterlife when the Divinities vanished. Do the dead sleep soundly in the land of death? Or do they have plans of their own?

Review:

It’s hard to overstate how much I enjoyed City of Stairs: it was my favorite book of 2014, after all. So as you can imagine, I was incredibly excited to get approval for the DRC of the book. And sadly, perhaps because of the change in protagonist, this book doesn’t quite live up to the original.

City of Blades is an indirect sequel: set in the same world and after the events of City of Stairs but with a different protagonist. For me, this is the biggest problem with the book. On paper, there’s a lot to like about Mulaghesh: she’s former military, bitter, and in the throws of an ongoing binge.I can’t think of another female character I’ve ever read about that’s quite like her.

But she’s no Shara.

I feel like she’s an example of a character that makes a good side character, but can’t necessarily carry a story herself as I never quite got invested her in the same way that I did Shara. And ultimately, that is a problem because until the book kicked into the high gear in the final quarter or so, the book dragged for me. Even the addition of Sigrud didn’t quite alleviate the issue – again, that chemistry that the character had with Shara just wasn’t there. There’s a bit of a sense of trying to recreate the magic as it were, but it didn’t quite get there.

Don’t get me wrong. Its still a very good book and I still recommend it, it just may be a touch of a let down if you loved the first as much as I.

Verdict: Borrow It

Available: January 2016

Illusions of Fate – Kiersten White

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Summary:

Downton Abbey meets Cassandra Clare in this lush, romantic fantasy from New York Times bestselling author Kiersten White.

“I did my best to keep you from crossing paths with this world. And I shall do my best to protect you now that you have.”

Jessamin has been an outcast since she moved from her island home of Melei to the dreary country of Albion. Everything changes when she meets Finn, a gorgeous, enigmatic young lord who introduces her to the secret world of Albion’s nobility, a world that has everything Jessamin doesn’t—power, money, status…and magic. But Finn has secrets of his own, dangerous secrets that the vicious Lord Downpike will do anything to possess. Unless Jessamin, armed only with her wits and her determination, can stop him.

Kiersten White captured readers’ hearts with her New York Times bestselling Paranormalcy trilogy and its effortless mix of magic and real-world teenage humor. She returns to that winning combination of wit, charm, and enchantment in Illusions of Fate, a sparkling and romantic new novel perfect for fans of Cassandra Clare, The Madman’s Daughter, and Libba Bray.

Review:

Illusions of Fate is a stand-alone (!) YA fantasy title about a girl of mixed-heritage getting caught up in a deadly game of political wrangling by either luck or fate, however you define it. Jessamin is a smart girl who defies the conventions of her day: she’s disinclined towards marriage and would rather dedicate herself to intellectual pursuits as much as she is able despite the negative opinions towards her gender, her race (mixed) and her class (commoner). I’m really rather fond of Jessamin. She has no airs of pretension: she knows what she is and what she isn’t. She’s smart, but grounded, and immensely loyal to her friends, sacrificing her own safety to help others whom she feels were imperiled because of her.One of them is Eleanor, a Society woman with a talent for gossip and a kind and giving heart. Yes, she’s initially eager to capitalize on the gossip that Jessamin’s wave-making causes, but there’s little doubt that by the end of the book she is a true and fast friend of Jessamin. It’s nice to have a book where all the female characters are likable and one are held back by petty jealousy. I wish my female-driven titles would go this route.

The world-building and magic are really quite good. It’s a secondary-world story where factions in England (Albion) would like to go against Spain (Iveria). Magic is accessed through two royal lines – the English side has greater numbers, but weaker magic and the other side has fewer numbers but a much purer and stronger magic. The magic itself is rather scientific in nature, and I like how although Jessamin can’t actually access it herself, she can learn and understand the theory behind it, aiding her immensely in the book’s climax. I love a woman who can save herself!

Finally there’s a nice slow-build up to a chaste romance in this book. I’m genuinely disappointed that this seems to be a stand-alone title: the interplay between them is rather enjoyable and they make a nice couple, I rather wish I could see more of them!

Illusions of Fate is the perfect kind of book for the summer: a fast read with likable characters and a plot that moves along briskly, wasting no words in its brief 275-page running time. While I am disappointed that there isn’t more to be had, I guess that just gives me a reason to go take a look at some of her other works.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

P.S. If you’re like me and have a thing about Cassie Claire, don’t let the comparison in the summary phase you. This book is heads and tails above Cassie in every way, shape and form. Honestly, I’m not even sure why the comparison was made other than to try and sell books.

Kushiel’s Scion (Kushiel’s Avatar #4/Imrael’s Trilogy #1) – Jacqueline Carey

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Summary:

It is whispered that Kushiel’s lineage carries the ability to perceive the flaws in mortal souls, to administer an untender mercy. I sense its presence like a shadow on my soul…the memories of blood and branding and horror, and the legacy of cruelty that runs in my veins, shaping my own secret vow and wielding it like a brand against the darkness, whispering it to myself, over and over.
I will try to be good.

Imriel de la Courcel’s blood parents are history’s most reviled traitors, but his adoptive parents, the Comtesse Phedre and the warrior-priest Joscelin, are Terre d’Ange’s greatest champions. Stolen, tortured, and enslaved as a young boy, Imriel is now a Prince of the Blood, third in line for the throne in a land that revels in art, beauty, and desire. It is a court steeped in deeply laid conspiracies…and there are many who would see the young prince dead. Some despise him out of hatred for his birth mother Melisande, who nearly destroyed the realm in her quest for power. Others because they fear he has inherited his mother’s irresistible allure – and her dangerous gifts. And as he comes of age, plagued by dark yearnings, Imriel shares their fears.

At the royal court, where gossip is the chosen poison and assailants wield slander instead of swords, the young prince fights character assassins while struggling with his own innermost conflicts. But when Imriel departs to study at the fames University of Tiberium, the perils he faces turn infinitely more deadly.

Searching for wisdom, he finds instead a web of manipulation, where innocent words hide sinister meanings, and your lover of last night may become your hired killer before dawn. Now a simple act of friendship will leave Imriel trapped in a besieged city where the infamous Melisande is worshiped as a goddess; where a dead man leads an army; and where the prince must face his greatest test: to find his true self.

Review:

Kushiel’s Scion is the first book of Imrael’s trilogy, and the continuation of the Kushiel’s Legacy. While it is its own trilogy, like true epic fantasy, it draws on characters and events of the first three books: it will make much, much, much more sense for having read Phedre’s books and your enjoyment will go up accordingly.

That aside, there’s a question that all but hangs over the series: is it as good as Phedre’s tale?

In short: no.

And to be fair, it almost couldn’t be. Phedre is genuinely unique. I cannot think of anyone who comes close to comparing Phedre, there are many more out there like Imrael.

Does that make this less of a good book?

Not really.

It’s just different. The quiet start is expected: it lets Imrael grow up, and to try and deal with some of the demon’s of his past. Carey takes her time with it: if he never fully conquers them (which wouldn’t have been believable) he’s begun to heal from them, which is nice to see. Even when the action picks up, its of a different flavor – more political – and not as adventurous, I guess? This is more a character study, I think. It’s different, but still compelling. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t read both books. I will also say there is no antagonist as compelling as Melisandre, and her shadow still hangs over the books. It’s both good and bad, because another strong antagonist could have really helped this trilogy distinguish itself.

If I’m not as wildly enthusiastic about this book it’s because I think Phedre’s books were truly special. This wasn’t quite on the same level. It’s still a great book, and I’ll still get around to reading the next one, but I just don’t see this sticking with me in the same way, and I think there’s a reason that the first trilogy is the one that has had the most staying power. So yeah. A lesser version of an amazing book is still a great book and that is what this is.

Finally, I will contract my earlier statement and statement say that if you haven’t read the first set because you couldn’t get behind the erotica aspects, this may be worth picking up. There’s not nearly as much sex and it’s much more vanilla, so that is something to consider. Maybe it’ll even entice you into giving Phedre’s trilogy a chance. For the rest of us though,  you know if you’re into Carey, and if you are, you’ll enjoy this.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

Kushiel’s Avatar (Kushiel’s Legacy #3) – by Jacqueline Carey

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Summary:

The land of Terre d’Ange is a place of unsurpassed beauty and grace. It’s inhabited by the race that rose from the seed of angels, and they live by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt. Phedre n Delaunay was sold into indentured servitude as a child. Her bond was purchased by a nobleman who recognized that she was pricked by Kushiel’s Dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one. Phedre’s path has been strange and dangerous. She has lain with princes and pirate kings, battled a wicked temptress, and saved two nations. Through it all, the devoted swordsman Joscelin has been at her side, following the central precept of the angel Cassiel: Protect and serve. But Phedre’s plans will put his pledge to the test, for she has never forgotten her childhood friend Hyacinthe. She has spent ten long years searching for the key to free him from his eternal indenture to the Master of Straights, a bargain with the gods to save Phedre and a nation. The search will take Phedre and Joscelin across the world and down a fabled river to a forgotten land . . . and to a power so intense and mysterious, none dare speak its name.

Review:

There’s something about Carey’s words that I slip back into her world not unlike a comfortable bathrobe. No matter how much time has passed, it envelopes you in comfort and begs you to sit there and read. And lucky for us, her journey is as worth reading as ever. I will not lie: these books can be a heavy read, for in each of the three books of Phedre’s she winds up in slavery, and third time is easily the worst as what she suffers goes past sadism into torture, only her love of pain allowing her to keep her sanity. Thankfully, this section of the book is relatively small and handled well. We feel more than we see, and she never lingers. Instead, the bulk of the talk focuses on the Name of God, and here too she displays a deft and respectful hand. She never presumes to give him a name and there remains an ever presence sense of awe when she even thinks of it, it’s done well.

As always, the story remains part travelogue. Our tale take us to the Middle East and to Africa this time, and always, I love to read her descriptions because they are always so vivid. I admit, the amount of time dedicated to the intricacies of travel and locale could easily feel like dead weight in other stories, but here they work and work well.

Finally as a conclusion to a trilogy and the start of a new, it also works well. There is without sense, absolute closure. Had she never written another book, you could walk away content. But there is another trilogy (well, two if we are being all technical about it) and this book sets us up well for it. The character it follows (to tell would be a bit of a spoiler) is rather likable and I look forward to starting to read it. I do own and I will get to it, though perhaps not for some time.

Overall, I think this is as satisfying a series I’ve read as absolute any and I implore you to give it a chance. If we only all followed Elua’s precipt, we would all be in a far better place.

Love as thou wilt.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

Stacking the Shelves #4

I’ve been on a bit of a tear lately, absolutely devouring books at a crazy rate. Then I ran into a bit of a problem: I ran out of stuff I wanted to read that weren’t ARCs. Oh, I still have a decent number of books on my to-read list, but they just haven’t been calling me. So I decided to both slow down a little bit both for that reason and to avoid burnout. I also went on an excursion today to Illiad Bookshop to see what goodies I could dig up. I’ll share my spoils below, but I’ll just say that if you’re in the in the LA Area/SFV you owe it yourself to go check that place out: it’s the only used bookstore that I’ve been to that was both a) clean, spacious and well lit and b) had a fantastic selection of science-fiction/fantasy, which if oft neglected in these kinds of stores. I’ll definitely be checking it out again.

Anyway, as a result, I decided it made for a perfect time to do another Stacking the Shelves post. Some of these eARCs I’ve had on my Kindle for a while, but they somehow just didn’t make it in to the last post. With that said, let’s get started.

The Books I’ve Bought

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$22 including tax, and 3 of the four are like-new condition. Deal of the day!

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Kushiel’s Avatar (Kindle) and Kushiel’s Scion (Hardback) – Me finishing Phedre’s trilogy was only a matter of when, not if. I’d probably have waited on picking up Kushiel’s Scion (first of Imreal’s trilogy) except that when you find a new hardback for the same price as the Kindle edition, it just makes the hardback hard to pass up!

Mage’s Blood – This is one of those books that I kept picking up at the bookstore, then putting down, or looking at it on Amazon, but not hitting the click button. When I found the hardback at the bookstore (again for cheaper than what the Kindle version would go for), I decided it was finally time to just go for it.

The Golden Key – An absolute favorite when I read it back in like 1999 or 2000. The premise – using painting as a way to manipulate time and reality – remains one of the most clever conceits I’ve ever read and I picked it up because I want to re-read and see if it holds up as well as I think it will.

Banewreaker – I love the alternate Europe that Carey created in her Kushiel series, but wanted to see how she otherwise fared. Since then she’s dabbled in some other genres: some urban fantasy, some paranormal fantasy, and then this series which seems to stay within the realm of epic fantasy. Maybe one day I’ll get around to one of her other worlds.

Finished Copies Received from Publisher for Review

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William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace – yes, this is exactly what it sounds like it is: a retelling of Episode 1 in iambic pentameter. I’m currently reading it, so you’ll probably see a review sometime this week.

E-ARCs Received from Publisher for Review

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The Choosing- Dystopian YA! One day I will find one that isn’t a complete rip off of The Hunger Games or Divergent

Desert Rising – Epic fantasy where priests bond with large cats. Count me in.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik moves beyond dragons a fairy-tale like world. Consider me curious.

The Waterborne Blade – Epic YA fantasy. I have some hopes for this one. I like stories about women coming into their own, so long as there’s a believable basis for it.

Ice Kissed – Paranormal YA fantasy. Something I haven’t seen much of, so I’m willing to give it a shot.

So how about you? Pick up anything new? Lemme know in comments below 🙂

Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns – Rae Carson

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Summary:

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.
Elisa is the chosen one.

But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can’t see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

Most of the chosen do.

Review:

I suppose the easiest way to start this review is to look at one of this books most divisive elements: her weight and her weight loss.

On the one hand, it’s nice to see plus-sized protagonists. They just don’t happen in YA. It’s also nice to see what she does lose weight, it’s because she marched three weeks in the desert, and not due to any kind of magic – paranormal romance is particularly guilty of weight-loss via wishes/deals with devils.

On the other hand, while she’s heavy, she’s painted as an unhappy girl with an emotional eating problem. But when she loses the weight all those problems (and her emotional eating) just poof…disappear. Like, Carson goes out of her way to point out she’s not eating past the point when she’s full now. I’m sorry, but that’s not how it works. Increased confidence is fine, but struggles with emotional eating tend to STAY struggles. They really don’t disappear like that and it ultimately makes the book feel like it has a bit of a “just lose weight and all your problems go away” message that not only isn’t true, but also be hurtful to teen girls who are struggling with weight issues. I haven’t even mentioned how in her post-weight-loss state she’s also suddenly completely pro-exercise, at one point jogging outside her carriage and wondering how she ever preferred a carriage to just walking/jogging which is also kind of eye-roll inducing.

Finally, my biggest problem is: why does she bother in the first place? After she loses the weight, almost all of these issues are dropped, leaving it as a kind of Princess Diaries-esque transformation and begins her transition to a fairly typical and trope-y YA fantasy heroine. I don’t feel this was handled well enough to have been included, and would have rather seen it left out.

So yeah. Props for not making her super skinny, but no one should be holding up this book as an example of a pro-size-acceptance book either.

Even outside of that – and I will say that I didn’t find it a book breaker as just something generally problematic – there are other issues with the character. Elisa is another YA heroine in the long line of girls who are completely unprepared to step up and take control do so in ways that are hard to buy into. She’s had no military training outside of a single book (think of the Art of War) she is thinking of all these ways to lead an insurgency. At the beginning of the book she’s sickened by the thought of killing a man, and by the end of the book she’s literally can’t wait to do so. It’s the usual questionably believable stuff.

From a world-building perspective, I like that this is a Spanish-influenced secondary world because it’s not something seen that often in fantasy. On the flip side, the religion is VERY vague, and if she didn’t lean enough of Catholic influences we probably wouldn’t know much of anything. Like, why does this God choose a bearer and why exactly do they have such direct links to their God – the Godstone seems to react to every prayer of hers. Why can the enemy do magic with these stones and no one else can. Is everyone else so God-fearing that they never even tried? These questions make the ending pretty ludicrous, with her literally praying to save the day. I admit it, the actions leading up to that prayer actually made me laugh out loud (seriously visualize it and it tell me you took it seriously) and the amount of power she was able to produce made me wonder if she’s mean to be this God reborn.

Let’s be clear, it’s still a quick and easy read and is hardly the worst YA fantasy I’ve ever read. That said, the underdevelopment of the religious aspects are a detriment to this book and if someone is going to read a more generic YA title, I’d rather read one where things like weight issues are handled with more delicacy and not just a stopover on the way to the Pretty YA Heroine station.

Verdict: Skip It