So this post is coming ridiculously late in the year, after everyone else has long finished their reflections on 2018… but I got so side-tracked doing that fantasy decades series that I never gave a shout out to my favourite reads from last year, which seemed a shame. So I figured: better late than never!
I read lots of wonderful books, but I’ve chosen the 5 that most impressed and bewitched me. For each I’m just going to say why I loved them (in a spoiler-free way), so if you want to know in more detail what they’re about, you can click on the links to read the blurbs on Goodreads.
Children of Time
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Genre: Science fiction
Children of Time probably tied for my absolute favourite of the year with The Carpet Makers. It just had everything I adore in a science fiction novel – a riveting story, fascinating premise, thought-provoking perspectives and ideas, intense emotions, and most importantly, the ability to make me think in new ways about the universe and the human condition… I know, I’m not asking much from my sci-fi! 😉
I suppose you could say this was a “monsters vs humans” story but with the difference that you get the perspective of the monsters, and in a way that you truly care about them, more even than the human characters (in my case anyway), even though their culture is often very alien.
This book explored evolution in such an interesting way – not just the evolution of species, but of societies and religions and even gender roles – and now every time I see certain insects I can’t help but think of it.
I’m also always in awe of stories that take place over very long time spans and still manage to keep me hooked and emotionally invested (so much that I once wrote a Fantasy Faction article on the topic)… and this is one of those stories!
The Carpet Makers (Die Haarteppichknüpfer)
Author: Andreas Eschbach
Genre: Science fiction
Last year I decided to listen to my first German language audiobook (I live in Germany but it’s a second language for me). The Carpet Makers came recommended by Orson Scott Card, who wrote the introduction to the English translation, so I decided to give it a go. I was worried the language would make it hard to get into, but the story was so absorbing I actually sometimes forgot I wasn’t listening in English.
The idea of carpet makers weaving carpets out of their wives’ and daughters’ hair might seem an odd premise for a sci-fi novel, but it turns out to be the foundation for an incredibly fascinating story, and one which heads in intriguing directions I personally didn’t see coming.
The brilliant thing about this book is the thread of mystery and secrecy that runs throughout the whole thing. You are constantly asking yourself one key question, and you get tantalisingly closer and closer to the truth until you finally learn it in its entirety. On the way you meet many characters, and although I’m a reader who prefers a small cast, each of these glimpses into a new situation was so compelling and bound up in the one great mystery that I really enjoyed them.
Despite being a sci-fi, this had a kind of fairy tale or ancient fable quality to it. Many of the scenes were so vivid and chilling that I felt quite spell bound by them. The story explored heavy themes relating to power and propaganda, and wasn’t short on tragedy… and yet I didn’t find it depressing or heavy-handed.
Author: Josiah Bancroft
Having read the blurb and some positive reviews before I started Senlin Ascends, I had high hopes, but was still a little worried it would be a shallow tale about some quirky adventuring in a tower. It’s not.
I’ve tried to pinpoint what it was that made this steampunk novel such a great read, and I think for me it boils down to adversity and injustice, and the way the somewhat unusual main character faced these.
Thomas Senlin’s prudish, prim and proper personality makes him a little hard to love at the start, but when he comes up against the realities of the tower, not only does he shed some of his naivety and arrogance, but his core moral decency ends up being what make him so likeable. There were actually some quite confronting moments, which I didn’t expect given the light tone of the narration.
I also loved the rich world-building, the varied cast of characters, and the the recurring quotes from the increasingly misleading ‘Every Man’s Guide’. A few parts were a little slow and descriptive, but this suited the character, and on the whole the story was so atmospheric I didn’t mind.
The audiobook narrator John Banks also did a fantastic job of capturing Senlin’s character and tone, so his narration really added to the experience.
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
I sometimes worry when I pick up older, much-loved high fantasy novels that they won’t live up to their reputations or will be full of clichés. Once I got a few chapters into Tigana I realised I need not have worried.
While this certainly has many of the traditional hallmarks and tropes, there were enough multi-faceted characters and unique elements in the mix that it didn’t feel like something I’d read before. The central concept of fighting to regain not only the freedom, but the very memory of a conquered country was something intriguing to me, and many other elements also captured my imagination – for example, I found the relationship of fool and king utterly fascinating and disturbing. The story was not morally clear-cut, and it put characters in trying situations that made my heart break for them (or occasionally made me rage at them).
Stand-alone epic fantasies are rare and this book makes me want more of them, because it somehow achieved the mythic feel and scope of a longer series in one volume. It did take a time to get into, and was a bit confusing at the start (maybe due to listening to the audiobook), but once I was in, I was in. There were a few plot and romance elements that felt convenient or overdone, but on the whole I loved this, and one of the reveals near the end even gave me that hair-prickling “wow” feeling few books achieve.
The Fifth Season
Author: N.K Jemisin
I’d previously read another book by Jemisin (in a different series) that didn’t thrill me, which is why, in spite of all the awards and recommendations, it took me so long to pick up The Fifth Season. I’m glad I finally did!
This was such an inventive, fresh high fantasy. So many things about it felt different and original – the magic, the gritty dystopian volcanic world, the unusual non-human species, the “gods in chains”, the unique characters, even the way it was structured and written. It also had a hefty dose of mystery, which I loved, especially when it came to the remnants of lost civilisations and the obelisks.
The tragedies and injustices the characters faced were confronting, but that made me want to see them succeed all the more. It was also simply a read that had me itching to know how all the threads would tie together.
I only have one criticism of this trilogy as whole: I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable, which made it hard to feel as emotionally invested as I do with other books… but the world and story were still fascinating and intriguing enough that I finished and really liked it.
I also read some more self-published books this year, and there was one I really enjoyed that I wanted to mention even though it didn’t make it into my top 5: Heart of Stone by Ben Galley – you can read my review on Goodreads by clicking the link.
I also continued two series that I mentioned the first instalments of in my 2017 favourites post, so I didn’t include them above, but they were amazing. One was the Wool / Silo trilogy (I read Shift and Dust), which was full of gut-wrenching twists, and the other was the Strange the Dreamer series (I read Muse of Nightmares), which didn’t disappoint – I loved the second book almost as much as the first one.
If you also enjoyed any of these books, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!