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!

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.

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

ARC Review: Gods and Monsters: Mythbreaker – Stephen Blackmoore

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Summary:

The follow-up to Chuck Wendig’s Unclean Sprits is a stand alone tale of new gods facing up to the old ones with humanity in the middle!

Growing up an orphan, Louie had conversations with “invisible friends,” could see patterns in the world that no one else could see. In other times he would have been a prophet – someone to make people believe in the gods. But he grew out of the visions, and then into crime as a drug runner.

Now thirty-five and burnt out, he’s had enough. With access to the mob’s money, he plans to go out in a big way. Only he can’t. A broken down car, a missed flight; it’s bad enough being hunted by the mob, but the gods – kicked out of the Heavens, stuck on Earth without worshippers – need someone who can tell their stories, and they aren’t letting him go.

And there are new gods on the scene, gods of finance and technology, who want him too. Caught between the mob and two sets of rival gods, Louie hatches a plan that will probably get him killed if it doesn’t get him out.

Review:

This was a great surprise. A Paranormal Urban Fantasy about a Chronicler (aka Prophet) named Fitz. As the only (relatively) sane Chronicler at a time when the old gods are dying due to a lack of followers, when word of him gets out, all of the gods want to use his voice to restore themselves to their former glory. Stories of gods dying as they become more obscure is hardly anything new, but I do like how he pairs it with the rise of new gods for the modern times: a trinity comprised of Money (goes by Big, changes forms the way most people change their gum), the Internet (represented by the Amandas, a series of clones that download information at will, she reminds me of Trinity from The Matrix)  and of course El Jefe or The Man (who uses Agents – not unlike Agent Smith) to do his dirty deeds. I’m especially fond of the Amandas, one of the few gods to not come off as a complete dick. The other Goddess that grows on me is Medeina, a minor Goddess of the Hunt who goes from antagonist to aiding our hero. There’s also some nice quieter moments between Medeina and the human Sam (a woman), one of Fitz’ friends from his drug running days that also give the story some needed humanity.

The action moves quickly, story is doled out at a good pace and is just a fun book. As an Angelino, I really love how he represents Los Angeles here – from hitting Thousand Oaks (and a nice joke from Medeina who mourns it looks nothing like the name implies) to Getty Villa, to downtown and Hawaiian Gardens. It’s always great to see Los Angeles as it is, and not just as we portray ourselves on television.

If I have any complaints, it’s that the ending feels a bit too neat, a bit too easy, but it’s so satisfying, that you’re willing it slide.

All in all, I enjoyed myself way more than I thought I would, and I can easily recommend checking this out.

Note: I recommend this book for the 17+ crowd. The violence, language and drug use would easily translate as a hard R or a TV MA rating. Those of you sensitive to such things might want to give it a pass.

Verdict: Buy Now

Available: December 2nd

Review: Cupcakes, Trinkets and Other Deadly Magic (The Dowser #1) – Meghan Ciana Doidge

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Summary:

If you’d asked me a week ago, I would have told you that the best cupcakes were dark chocolate with chocolate cream cheese icing, that dancing in a crowd of magic wielders — the Adept — was better than sex, and that my life was peaceful and uneventful. Just the way I liked it.

That’s what twenty-three years in the magical backwater of Vancouver will get you — a completely skewed sense of reality. Because when the dead werewolves started showing up, it all unraveled … except for the cupcake part. That’s a universal truth.

Note: 68,000 words

Review:

Cupcakes, Trinkets and Other Deadly Magic is a very short paranormal novel that’s fun to read while it lasts, but can leave you wanting for more due to its underdeveloped word.

Jade is half-human/half-witch cupcake baker who occasionally dabbles in magic by stringing together magical objects as a kind of found-object art project (the trinkets of the title). One day her trinket is found on the corpse of a dead vampire and she quickly finds herself drawn in to the world of vampires and wolves as she rushes to solve the mystery of who is killing these supes so that they can be stopped.

The brevity is important to mention here: the book barely clocks in at just over 200 pages (the remaining pages are taken up with a sample of the sequel) and I think the book suffers for it. This is a world inhabited by witches and wolves and vampires. We meet ONE vampire over the course of the book. We meet three wolves. We meet no other witches than her adopted sister, and at the very end, her mom and grandmother. Why not take some time to show us the rest of this world? At one point Jade mentions that witches don’t run with wolves. Why not? We don’t know. It’s just something Jade says. We don’t know what vampires can do: what we do learn is from Kitt negating myths that Jade has learned. Good paranormal books need ground rules if they’re going to succeed.

Better still: when Jade is examining one of the victims, Jade notes that she “could have loved him.” Their interaction to that point had been a smoothie date after a yoga class where he’d show up to play bodyguard, and that’s about it. Why not show them actually going on a date? Her feelings would have made actual sense then.

Most frustrating is that there’s a mystery surrounding what exactly she is: though we get some answers on her magic (albeit perhaps a bit dissatisfying because the book doesn’t properly explain about why said talent is dangerous) we don’t get answers on what she is (hint: the half-human part isn’t true) and what’s worse, it seems like others know what she is and just aren’t telling. It doesn’t feel like a mystery, it feels like information is being deliberately withheld so that you’ll pick up the next title. It’s especially frustrating because at one point she’s told that she could be strong enough for the a packmaster to help him hold his pack, but how? She’s no Anita Blake. We kind of need to know if this is going to make sense.

Finally, the overall mystery isn’t much of one. I literally found myself going “Oh, it’s going to be [character]” and was 100% spot on. There’s also a bit with some stools that sticks out like a sore thumb for how often they’re mentioned, only for it to have actually played a part in the mystery.

I had fun while reading this, but its underdeveloped nature makes it hard to recommend very strongly. Fans of the genre might enjoy this, if you’re looking for something quick and breezy, but newbies to the genre should look elsewhere.

Verdict: A weak Borrow It

Available: Now

Note: As of today (11/16) the first book is free for Kindle and Nook users. At that price, I’d say go ahead and check it out because you have nothing to lose. I just don’t know it’s worth paying the $3.99 to continue the series. I will say Skip It for the paperback: it’s not worth $11.00.

ARC Review: Arcana – Jessica Leake

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Summary:

Amid the sumptuous backdrop of the London season in 1905, headstrong Katherine Sinclair must join the ranks of debutantes vying for suitors. Unfortunately for Katherine, she cannot imagine anything more loathsome—or dangerous. To help ease her entrance into society, Katherine’s family has elicited the assistance of the Earl of Thornewood, a friend and London’s most eligible bachelor, to be her constant companion at the endless fetes and balls. But upon her arrival in London, Katherine realizes there will be more to this season than just white gowns and husband hunting.

Through her late mother’s enchanted diary, Katherine receives warning to keep hidden her otherworldly ability to perform arcana, a magic fueled by the power of the sun. Any misstep could mean ruin—and not just for her family name. The Order of the Eternal Sun is everywhere—hunting for those like her, able to feed on arcana with only a touch of the hand.

But society intrigue can be just as perilous as the Order. The machinations of the fashionable elite are a constant threat, and those who covet Katherine’s arcana, seeking the power of her birthright, could be hiding behind the façade of every suitor—even the darkly handsome Earl of Thornewood.

With so much danger and suspicion, can she give her heart to the one who captivates her, or is he just another after her power?

Review:

Arcana is a romantic historical fantasy, emphasis on the romance. I’m going to put it out here right now: if you don’t enjoy historical romance, then this isn’t going to be your cuppa. The fantasy aspects are woven in, but they’re honestly pretty light. It wouldn’t be so hard to remove them and with a bit of tweaking, have ourselves a very traditional historical romance.  Furthermore, the magic here is, as you might expect, a bit underdeveloped and what is there is wholly ordinary. Mostly it helps to provide some background flavor and tension. Even towards the very end when the action is most heated, you’ve seen before. This isn’t the book to look to for anything new on the historical fantasy front. I did like that her magic was powered by the sun though, I’ve been known to go basking on occasion to perk up. Artificial light just isn’t the same!

Anyway, as romance, it’s pretty good. The characters are solid, the Society intrigue on point and you have your two handsome roguish suitors. I will say that if you have experience with the genre, you’re likely to figure out which of the suitors is the good guy and which is the bad, and that’s even before the story drives the point home. I do wish there were a little more subtlety on the part of the “bad” one but your mileage may vary. I found it a light and breezy read.

Overall, I’d have to say that if you like historical romances, you’ll probably enjoy this. If you’re more of a pure fantasy kind of person who’d never indulge in that kind of thing, this isn’t going to be for you. The fantasy aspect, while not tacked on, isn’t much more developed than that and it just doesn’t satisfy on that front. I expected something more of a work touted as “genre-bending.”

Verdict: Borrow It

Available: Now

Preview Thoughts: A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schwab

A Darker Shade final for IreneSummary:

From V.E. Schwab, the critically acclaimed author of Vicious, comes a new universe of daring adventure, thrilling power, and parallel Londons, beginning with A Darker Shade of Magic.

Kell is one of the last Travelers—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes—as such, he can choose where he lands.

There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, ruled by a mad King George. Then there’s Red London, where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne—a place where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London…but no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see—a dangerous hobby, and one that has set him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations, who first robs him, then saves him from a dangerous enemy, and then forces him to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive—and that is proving trickier than they hoped.

Quickie Thoughts:

First and foremost: I lied when I said I’d read Arcana first. I’m weak and have no willpower. Moving along.

Note that these thoughts are on a sample, because assholes who pirate eARCs make it so the rest of can’t have nice things.

Plus side:

  • The world building is great. The concept of the multiple Londons (Black, White, Gray and Red) is a great one, and each one has a very distinct personality.
  • The magic is pretty interesting too, with elemental versus blood, the Antari, the way that the different worlds have differing levels of magic.

Minus side:

  • The book feels like a bit of a slow burn. The action only started to pick up in the last pages of the sample. Given that this is a full third of the book, that’s kind of problematic. The publisher apparently gave Schwab the choice to end the sample 50 pages sooner. I’m glad that she didn’t, because I need to see that something was going to happen.
  • The characters aren’t grabbing me as much as they did in Vicious. Lila in particular holds little interest for me. She’s a street-rat-turned-expert-cut-purse and we haven’t seen much more of her than that. It’s nothing to write home about. Kell is a bit more interesting, but these two just don’t grab me the way Victor and Eli (let alone some of the side characters) did.

Overall, I do think my enthusiasm is a bit dampened for this book. Both Vicious and the The Archived prove that she can do great characters. Slow burns can be okay, but it really depends on the book. It worked in The Archived because it was a book as much about emotion as action. This is definitely meant to be more of an adventure, so a quicker pace might have been nice. I’ll still read the rest – she’s certainly a strong enough author that I have faith in – but it might not be quite the “must get it on day one” book that I might have otherwise been.