So here we are at the end of 2018. I have read somewhere in the vicinity of 120 books over the last 12 months, and I’m pretty pleased with that. I’ve taken chances on books I normally wouldn’t pick up and have discovered new favourites. Equally, I’ve learned to quit on books that I’m really not enjoying, rather than waste my time. (If you’re interested in my most disappointing books of 2018, click here.) So without further ado, I present to you the top 10 books I read this year and what I loved about them. (Synopses from Goodreads)
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir ( & A Torch Against the Night)
#1 of 4
What it’s about: Inspired by Islamic mythology and the Roman Empire, An Ember in the Ashes follows Laia and Elias. When Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
What I loved: This book manages to pull off the trifecta – phenomenal world building, complex and sympathetic characters, and an action packed plot. This book is so solid I can’t poke holes in it at all. The sequel was also a 5 star read! I’m looking forward to reading the third and fourth instalments (latest coming this April!).
An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard
What it’s about: In New York City, magic controls everything. But the power of magic is fading. No one knows what is happening, except for Sydney—a new, rare magician with incredible power that has been unmatched in decades, and she may be the only person who is able to stop the darkness that is weakening the magic. But Sydney doesn’t want to help the system, she wants to destroy it.
What I loved: An Unkindness of Magicians was full of complex characters and really interesting magic. I enjoyed the multiple points of view, and the intricate plot. I also appreciated that it was light on romance.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Historical Fantasy (Greek Mythology Retelling)
What it’s about: In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
What I loved: This book had me at ‘the world’s first witch’. I enjoyed following Circe’s personal growth throughout the novel. She is a powerful woman who is constrained by societal rules, and watching her come into her own was deeply satisfying. She is complex and flawed and trying to find her place in the world. I also loved the expansive world building, and all the little nods to other famous characters from Greek legend.
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
#1 in series (but reads almost like a standalone)
What it’s about: Seven years ago, the Atargatis set off on a voyage to the Mariana Trench to film a “mockumentary” bringing to life ancient sea creatures of legend. It was lost at sea with all hands. Some have called it a hoax; others have called it a maritime tragedy.
Now, a new crew has been assembled. But this time they’re not out to entertain. Some seek to validate their life’s work. Some seek the greatest hunt of all. Some seek the truth. But for the ambitious young scientist Victoria Stewart this is a voyage to uncover the fate of the sister she lost.
Whatever the truth may be, it will only be found below the waves. But the secrets of the deep come with a price.
What I loved: To be sure this book was not perfect. I had some small issues with the editing, and didn’t feel it was as polished as it could have been. But what Mira Grant did well, she did VERY well. I loved the suspenseful atmosphere and the super creepy plot. It made me so glad that I live on a mountain, far, far, far away from the water. The cast of characters was diverse and it had LGBTQI and disability representation, but it wasn’t an advertising ploy. It was part of the characters, and it was important, but it wasn’t the ONLY dimension to them, and I appreciated that. It was also high on action, and the science (which I’m a sucker for) seemed pretty well grounded and believable.
To be candid, I will not be continuing the series. I felt satisfied with the conclusion, and frankly, I’m afraid my expectations would be so high for a second book that I am doomed to be disappointed. I will however continue to read Mira Grant’s (aka Seanan MacGuire) other works.
Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand
What it’s about:
Marion: the new girl. Awkward and plain, steady and dependable. Weighed down by tragedy and hungry for love she’s sure she’ll never find.
Zoey: the pariah. Luckless and lonely, hurting but hiding it. Aching with grief and dreaming of vanished girls. Maybe she’s broken—or maybe everyone else is.
Val: the queen bee. Gorgeous and privileged, ruthless and regal. Words like silk and eyes like knives, a heart made of secrets and a mouth full of lies.
Their stories come together on the island of Sawkill Rock, where gleaming horses graze in rolling pastures and cold waves crash against black cliffs. Where kids whisper the legend of an insidious monster at parties and around campfires.
Where girls have been disappearing for decades, stolen away by a ravenous evil no one has dared to fight… until now.
What I loved: I will admit that the main reason I was attracted to Sawkill Girls in the first place was the diversity of the characters. I loved it for that. Claire Legrand managed to weave it so seamlessly into the fabric of her story that it didn’t feel contrived in any way. Zoey is black and asexual, Marion is overweight and bisexual. Like, it’s there, but these girls are so much more than those things. I loved the creepy atmosphere and horror elements of the plot (surprisingly, because I dislike horror in general). I loved the female friendships and relationships. I loved the exploration of grief, friendship, and family. I loved the inclusion of Sawkill Rock as a sentient place with its own voice. And finally I loved the whole feminist girl power vibe. There was really so much to love. Which is why I was super disappointed that I couldn’t get a physical copy of the book anywhere here in Australia for Christmas. (Something about the publisher not having stock or being able to print it, or something?) Never mind. I went to trusty BookDepository and my copy is finally winging its way to me.
Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
#1 of 3
What it’s about: A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square-shaped hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.
Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved – the object’s origins, architects, and purpose unknown.
But some can never stop searching for answers.
Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top-secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the relic they seek. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unravelling history’s most perplexing discovery-and finally figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?
What I loved: Sleeping Giants was yet another wildcard for me this year. I didn’t know if I would like it or not. But I loved it to pieces. It has a really interesting narrative structure – the whole story is told in interviews, reports etc. I’ll admit by the end it felt like it was a bit of a stretch, but suspension of disbelief is pretty much a given in SFF. I enjoyed the scientific mystery, and the giant robots as well. It had serious mecha anime vibes, which pretty much describes my teenage tv watching. It feels a bit like Neon Genesis Evangelion, or The Vision of Escaflowne, or Gunbuster (the last two are excellent series if you’re interested). Again, this is not going to be the book for everyone, but it was definitely the book for me. I also gave five stars to Waking Gods, the second book in the trilogy. Sadly, the third book only reached an average 3 stars.
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
#1 of 2
What it’s about: 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?
What I loved: Strange the Dreamer was not the best book I’ve read this year. But it’s probably the book I love the most. It swept me away to a world where librarian dreamers can have adventures, and solve the mysteries of forgotten cities and dead gods. Plus the prose was so lyrical and beautiful, I just wanted to stay lost in that world forever. I also gave 5 stars to Muse of Nightmares, the final book in the duology as well. It went in a different direction to the first book, but I still loved it. Plus the characters got a lot more depth and growth in book two, which I endlessly appreciated. Who knew I would develop soft spots for my two least favourite characters?
The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey
# 1 of 2
What it’s about: Melanie is a very special girl. Dr. Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”
Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.
Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.
What I loved: The Girl with All the Gifts was a wild ride for me. I had no idea what it was about when I started it, and it was so so good. Firstly, I’m a sucker for believable science, which this has woven throughout the plot. There was action, there was a scientific mystery, and then there was a remarkable little girl called Melanie. While the three of the other main characters were pretty stock standard, Miss Justineau was complex enough that I liked her. And Melanie just shined her way through the whole story. It’s unusual to find a main character with the depth and innocence of Melanie. She is probably my favourite heroine of the year.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
What it’s about:
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus performers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.
What I loved: The Night Circus was a huge surprise for me. I knew next to nothing, and I feel like this is the best way to go into it. It is certainly the sort of book that is quite divisive – you either adore it, or you despise it. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a middle ground.
I loved it for its rich atmosphere, subtle but intricate plot, lush world building, and gorgeous writing. If I had to describe it, I’d say it is more of an experience than anything else. I think this partly derives from the present tense narration, which Erin Morgenstern actually manages to pull off.
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
#1 of 6
What it’s about:
A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.
Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.
Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.
When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.
What I loved: Three Parts Dead has, hands down, one of the most unique and fascinating magic systems I’ve come across. It’s sort of like contract law meets necromancy. Plus there are dead gods. I appreciate when an author puts so much into the world building that they create their own pantheon. The intricate plot (what? I like intricate plots and minds more devious than my own) is equal parts action and murder mystery, which is a brilliant mix.