The Welsh weather has been particularly bad the last month and try as I might, I couldn’t get any decent photos of the books barring this one so it’ll have to do. Also one of my books isn’t in this pile because I don’t own a copy yet.
It’s come to that time again where I struggle to narrow down my favourite books of the past year. To help me I decided to only feature books that elicited strong feelings in me whether it be sorrow, delight or comfort. It really helped me from keeping this list from getting out of hand as I’d read many wonderful books!
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
Welcome to Amberlough City, the illustrious but corrupt cosmopolitan beacon of Gedda. The radical One State Party—nicknamed the Ospies—is gaining popular support to unite Gedda’s four municipal governments under an ironclad, socially conservative vision. Not everyone agrees with the Ospies’ philosophy, including master spy Cyril DePaul and his lover Aristide Makricosta, smuggler and emcee at the popular Bumble Bee Cabaret. When Cyril’s cover is blown on a mission, however, he must become a turncoat in exchange for his life. Returning to Amberlough under the Ospies’ watchful eye, Cyril enters a complex game of deception. One of his concerns is safeguarding Aristide, who refuses to let anyone—the crooked city police or the homophobic Ospies—dictate his life. Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, top dancer at the Bee and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means—and people—necessary. Including each other.
I’m not one for politically heavy books especially ones dealing with fascism so the fact that this one made it onto this list is a testament to Donnelly’s fabulous characters and writing. The city and it inhabitants leap off the page, bustling and vibrant from the government offices to the Bumble Bee cabaret. I found myself wrapped up in the characters lives almost from the start, especially the often fraught relationship between Cyril and Aristide. Cordelia too was a delight, full of sass and determination. I loved how diversity was seamlessly woven through the plot, from drag queens to polyamorous relationships. Obviously due to the political climate in the book some see these relationships in a negative light but that opinion isn’t shared by the characters and many actively fight against it. It was evident early on that this is not the sort of book where everyone is going to have a happy ending and my heart was pounding throughout as I was so caught up in how perilous things were for them as they attempted to escape the Ospies. The ending left me ruined and I’m so pleased this is becoming a series so Donelley can continue to torture my heart.
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow. Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.
Becky Chambers is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. Her books are just so insightful and comforting that often while reading this I found myself simultaneously beaming and tearing up. I adored how Pepper and Lovelace mirrored each other, like sides of a coin. Both learning to live, exploring themselves and their environment while trying to understand where they fit in the world but for completely different reasons. There are so many little details I loved in this from the diverse characters to the bustling grimy world. I especially loved how Lovelace referred to her body as a kit throughout, it was such a subtle way of showing the discontent she felt within herself. Another aspect that I loved was the discussions on tattoos between Lovelace and Tak. As a heavily tattooed person I often find myself reading either badly researched examples of tattooing or people that have tattoos portrayed in a negative way. It was refreshing to see it portrayed in such a thoughtful and lovely way. As with Angry Planet I was left wishing for more from these characters. This book could have been double the length and I wouldn’t have complained one bit.
Den of Wolves by Juliet Marillier
Healer Blackthorn knows all too well the rules of her bond to the fey: seek no vengeance, help any who ask, do only good. But after the recent ordeal she and her companion, Grim, have suffered, she knows she cannot let go of her quest to bring justice to the man who ruined her life. Despite her personal struggles, Blackthorn agrees to help the princess of Dalriada in taking care of a troubled young girl who has recently been brought to court, while Grim is sent to the girl’s home at Wolf Glen to aid her wealthy father with a strange task—repairing a broken-down house deep in the woods. It doesn’t take Grim long to realize that everything in Wolf Glen is not as it seems—the place is full of perilous secrets and deadly lies. Back at Winterfalls, the evil touch of Blackthorn’s sworn enemy reopens old wounds and fuels her long-simmering passion for justice. With danger on two fronts, Blackthorn and Grim are faced with a heartbreaking choice—to stand once again by each other’s side or to fight their battles alone.
I’m not normally the type to put off reading a book I’m excited for but I found myself unwilling to start this as I knew it was the last one in the series! I’ve grown so fond of Blackthorn and Grim throughout each book that I’m reluctant to say goodbye to them. Thankfully though, this book perfectly wraps up all loose threads, including the romantic element that has been slowly building in the past two books and gives a satisfactory if unwanted end to the series. As with the previous books this one deals with a different mystery, the theme of which centres on parents, children and their love for each other which was heartbreaking at times. One of the things I love most about this series and Marillier books in general is how she often has folk tales told within the story that give clues to the overall plot. Those stories were used to great effect in this and really added to the depth of the story. I was already aware that this series was set within the same area as the Sevenwaters series but in this book we are given more than a few hints to that by a new generation of Swan Island warriors joining the fray. That really made me beam as I wasn’t expecting it at all! Although I’m so sad to say goodbye to these characters I really look forward to what Juliet Marillier is going to write next and who knows, they might make cameos in future books.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
In Regency London, Zacharias Wythe is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal. And that’s only the first of his problems. He must juggle the conflicting demands of a wayward Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, where a faction schemes to remove him from his position by fair means or foul. He must cope with the Fairy Court refusing to grant Britain the magical resources it needs. And now the British Government is avid to deploy this increasingly scare magic in its war with France. He must also contend with rumors that he murdered his predecessor and guardian, Sir Stephen Wythe. But this task would be easier if Sir Stephen’s ghost would just stop following him around. And now he has to deal with something even more outrageous than any of these things: a female magical prodigy. Ambitious orphan Prunella Gentleman is desperate to escape the school where she has drudged all her life, and a visit by the Sorcerer Royal seems the perfect opportunity. For Prunella has just stumbled upon English magic’s greatest discovery in centuries – and she intends to make the most of it.
I’d heard about this book awhile ago but I finally picked it up because it came highly praised from my friend Lucille and she wasn’t wrong in saying it was wonderful! I wish I had read it when it first came out! Both charming and witty it blends magic and faeries with serious issues like racism and gender inequality. It strikes a balance of throwing light on these problems while being amusing and fast-paced which I loved. I really liked that though Zacharias himself has suffered from prejudices all his life due to being black he still finds himself holding them against women in the beginning. I though it was very realistic and true to the Regency era it’s set in. Thankfully he soon overcomes these though! Compared to Zacharias who is reserved and shy, Prunella was so fierce and determined as she threw herself into magic and the world of Sorcerers and familiars. They made a perfect team, their differences complementing each other as they struggled to return magic to the world. I hear that another book is being written though its unsure when it will be released and I’m very excited to get to continue reading the adventures of this pair!
Gentlemans Guide to Vice and Virture by Mackenzi Lee
Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men. But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy. Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.
Very much like Sorcerer to the Crown this book manages to explore important topics such as homophobia, racism and abuse while remaining humorous and heartwarming. Along with tackling this subjects it also manages to keep true to the historical sentiments of the 17th century which is no easy feat! I couldn’t help but fall for the trio as Monty drags them through continually dangerous and ridiculous events across Europe. Percy and Felicity are long suffering and in the case of the latter unwilling companions as Monty finds himself facing not only his love for his best friend but his demons and prejudices. The adorable brewing romance between him and Percy pulled at my heart strings even though Monty continually puts his foot in his mouth and causes it to falter! Not once did the plot slow down and the banter between them all had me chuckling out loud so many times. It was such a delightful romp across continents that I happened to picked up just when I needed cheering up. I’m really excited to read more historical fiction by Mackenzi Lee in the futre.
The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson
Yoshifuji is a man fascinated by foxes, a man discontented and troubled by the meaning of life. A misstep at court forces him to retire to his long-deserted country estate, to rethink his plans and contemplate the next move that might return him to favor and guarantee his family’s prosperity. Kitsune is a young fox who is fascinated by the large creatures that have suddenly invaded her world. She is drawn to them and to Yoshifuji. She comes to love him and will do anything to become a human woman to be with him. Shikujo is Yoshifuji’s wife, ashamed of her husband, yet in love with him and uncertain of her role in his world. She is confused by his fascination with the creatures of the wood, and especially the foxes that she knows in her heart are harbingers of danger. She sees him slipping away and is determined to win him back from the wild … for all that she has her own fox-related secret. Magic binds them all. And in the making (and breaking) of oaths and honors, the patterns of their lives will be changed forever.
The basis of this is an old Japanese folk tale that I was familiar with but I wasn’t expecting it to be so thoughtful and beautiful. It’s told in alternating dairy entries by a husband, wife and kitsune. Each one has a different point of view along with tone that builds the story slowly. I loved so much of the wonderful imagery throughout this. The decaying house with it’s ornamental garden gone wild from neglect. Yoshifuji trapped within a perfect palace created by foxes, at once a beggar in rags and a handsome husband in splendor. Kij Johnson uses a tangle of history and folk traditions to examine what it means to be human and compare Japanese society at that time to that of the instinct of animals. It’s a question that seeps throughout the book, the characters trying to answer which life is worth living, the wider brighter human world burdened by rituals or the simpler freeing world of foxes. In particular she emphasizes a woman’s place in that era. Grand and alluring from the outside but as Kitsune discovers, it is a life fraught with rules. It’s a slow stream of a book that left me contemplating the issues within it long after I had finished it.
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever. What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
I was a little nervous about starting this as I have been eagerly awaiting a new book by Laini Taylor for a long while and was concerned that now I had one it might disappoint me. I needn’t have worried though as her beautiful prose and vivid imagination captivated me within the first chapter. I was swept up in the wonders of Weep and the vivid tapestry of ideas she has crafted together, from mountains made of bones to streets covered in windfall plums. Don’t let the fact that the world is lush and welcoming in all it’s whimsy fool you into thinking the people populating it are so too. In direct contrast to the setting, they are people shaped heavily by their pasts. Struggling to do what they believe is right despite the bloodshed. Hungry for revenge despite the cost and at a detriment to themselves. Neither the citizens of Weep or the Godspawn are inherently good or inherently bad and I loved seeing the mysterious problem from both sides. At its heart it’s a story about the aftermath of war and broken people trying to fix the world before they have even fixed themselves. Thrust amongst them is Lazlo, learning himself the difference between a bright dream and its tarnished, flawed reality. It was heartbreakingly beautiful and poignant and though there were characters I wasn’t fond of, I found I couldn’t blame them for their actions, having seen the events that lead to them reacting so. Another thing I loved were all the hints to her Daughter of Smoke and Bone series and how though not set in the same world, they are closely linked. Each hint was a wonderful little tidbit that made me grin fondly. I ended up reading this much slower than I normally would as I wanted to savour every scene and I can’t wait for Muse Of Nightmares next year. Also I would really love a short story about the centaur and his lady that feature in Lazlo’s dream Weep. They were really intriguing!
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible “adult” around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.
Of all the books on this list this was the only one that made me cry and they were ugly tears in public at that. In fact I felt so overwhelmed and drained after finishing this that I needed a day or two to process it before moving onto another book. Initially I picked it up because I enjoy reading books with taboo subjects and this one is incredibly controversial due to its portrayal of an underage relationship. I was completely caught off guard by how heart wrenching it was and while I can understand why the pedophilia aspects are the most mentioned, it is so much more than simply that. It’s a harrowing look at how children are shaped by their upbringing, largely abuse but also from society’s expectations. It shows the damage done by people making decisions for others both well intended and not. Every character is flawed and wounded, lashing out, attempting to destroy each other or condense them into a box with a label of what they should be. So many times I find myself wishing someone would simply talk to Wavy, to ask her what she wished for, to see the breadcrumbs she left for them as clues to her actions. While I didn’t agree with many of the decisions Kellen made I couldn’t condemn him and Wavy their relationship as it was the only understanding and love either of them had in their dire lives. This book was brutal, raw and completely realistic of some children’s lives. I know Wavy and Kellen will stay with me for a long time to come.
There are already many books I’m looking forward this year including some sequels to the books above. Fingers crossed 2018 is a great reading year.