Apparently, I read (or attempted to read) a lot of books this year. An impressive 116 books passed through the Ruins this year, with around 20 of those being abandoned to the DNF list along the way, which is pretty darn close to what I managed last year. Of those that successfully made it through, 11 were perfect 5-star reads, which is exactly the same as the year before.
Last year I held off on sharing my picks, but with all due consideration to your holiday shopping for the avid reader in your life . . . here you go!
In chronological order, this year's 5-star reads are . . .
A Play of Shadow by Julie E. Czerneda kicked the year off right with a 5-star review way back in January. Not only did this second volume expand upon the magic of Marrowdell and the Verge, it successfully founds a way to take us beyond that world - all while honoring the rules and limitations of A Turn of Light. In all honestly, even though this second volume lacked the novelty factor of the first, I do think I enjoyed it more. It was broader in scope, more magical in every way, and benefited from what I think most readers will agree is a more even, more exciting pace. This was everything I could have hoped for in a sequel.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson was a lengthy, detailed, in-depth narrative exploration of historic events, with some odd pacing, and a lot of talking. It was almost Dickensian in the way Larson spends so many pages talking about minor characters and their stories, but it's those passengers, crew, politicians, and more who bring the Lusitania to life and humanize the tragedy. This is a must-read for history buffs and literary fiction lovers alike. They say truth is stranger than fiction, and the sad tale of this great ocean liner proves that once again.
The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker was actually a rare reread, a revisiting of the original appearance of Pinhead and the Cenobites. Everything in this early novella just works, from the characterization, to the plotting, to the themes, to the dialogue, to the visuals. It's a perfect length, as well, capturing the essence of Barker's tale with nary a wasted word or scene. It's a horribly dark story, of despicable people committing atrocious acts, but so beautifully told, you really do come away with a proper sense of just how close pleasure is to pain, and just how wondrous the intersection of the two can be.
By far my most anticipated read of the year, The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker proved to be the dark, bloody, brutal, magnificently epic horror novel we've needed from him for so long.This was a book that seamlessly meshed sadomasochistic brutality with epic mythology, while incorporating the same depth of character we've come to expect. More than that, it recaptured the power of his narrative voice, marking a return to the kind of storytelling where you're compelled to linger over every word. As works of epic mythology go, this was absolutely magnificent, breathtaking in the way he just keeps upping the tension and expanding the scope, adding layer upon layer to the horror, even as he takes us deeper and deeper into Hell.
The Grace of Kings (The Dandelion Dynasty) by Ken Liu was, in a word, stunning. A huge, sprawling epic, with a cast of characters that are challenging, but so well-rounded and distinct as to be immediately memorable. There was a little bit of everything in the tale, with influences ranging from Asian culture to Middle Eastern mythologies, from the depths of political and ethical philosophy to the heights of steampunk and magic. The storytelling was exquisite, complex and poetic, but natural and easily flowing. It was a narrative that served to draw in the reader, with characters who insist we stick around and enjoy the story.
The first real surprise of the year was Knight's Shadow (The Greatcoats Book 2) by Sebastien de Castell. I had some challenges with the first book, and some definite reservations going into this, but it blew me away and won me over. It was, quite literally, a must-read book that I could not put down. A fantastic mix of adventure, thrills, dark humor, and even darker cruelty. I laughed aloud at several points, while I also found myself regularly cringing and cursing de Castell for what he put his characters through - especially Falcio. The battle of Carefal is one of the most powerful I've ever encountered in a fantasy novel. Thoroughly entertaining and emotionally intense, this was the kind of historical fantasy that makes everything else pale in comparison.
Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher was a book I almost didn't read. It sat lingering on my shelves as a digital ARC for about 6 months before I decided to take a chance . . . and was completely blown away. This is dark, grim, and gritty stuff, with a wild imagination that is just as often manifested in moments of bleak, black humor. In a world where the collective belief of a group of people can remake the landscape around them, the power of madness here is as easily accepted as that of magic and prayer anywhere else. The characters here are all worthy of the story they've been asked to carry; the pacing here is just about perfect, careening along from one scene to another with madcap intensity; and the action is intense, with beautiful moments of blood and brutality, and awe-inspiring feats of madness and delusion.
Fool's Quest: Book II of the Fitz and the Fool trilogy by Robin Hobb was my second real surprise of the year. The first book was one of my most disappointing reads of last year, but this not only proved to be a return to form, it even resolved enough aspects of the first book to make me rethink it and adjust my appreciation for it. An absolutely brilliant book that works perfectly on all levels, this takes the story that was introduced in the first volume, builds upon it, develops it, and sheds new light on what has gone before. The pacing is perfect, the characters ring true, and the world building continues in some delightfully surprising ways. The final chapters are some of the most satisfying she's ever written - and that includes the agonizing cliffhanger we've come to expect.
Another pleasure surprise, arriving just in time for Halloween, was Voices of the Damned by Barbie Wilde. Blasphemous and perverse, equal parts horrific and erotic, this was a short story collection as compelling as it was disturbing. While other authors may be equally adept at getting their hooks into the reader, she has that rare literary talent to be able to twist the chains, to drive those hooks even deeper . . . and to make the reader cry out for more. While it's her most famous cinematic as a Cenobit that first revealed something dark within her soul, its in her fictioon that the darkness takes root, spreads its arms, and embraces a new audience. This is not just a collection that's shocking and obscene, however, but one that's imaginative, meaningful, and exceptionally well-written.
Why it took me over a decade to read Kushiel's Chosen: A Novel (Kushiel's Legacy) by Jacqueline Carey, I don't know, but I think the years allowed me to appreciate it even more. This series was a game changer for me, a graduation of sorts from the pages of traditional fantasy to something more. Here was a blend of fetish and fantasy, spiritualism and sadomasochism, hedonism and heroism, with the most profound of messages at its heart - "Love as thou wilt” indeed. As powerful and original as the first book was, this was an even stronger read, and one that I enjoyed lingering over without the obligations of release dates or review commitments.
Technically, Chains of the Heretic: Bloodsounder's Arc Book Three by Jeff Salyards isn't out until next year, but I finished it this weekend, so it makes the list. You'll have to wait to read my full review, but as much as the second book expanded upon the world and the story of the first, this one rips it wide open and shoves us headlong into a heap of betrayals. The second book was a textbook example of how you build to a climax - this one schools the genre on how you successfully deliver it.
Even though it's been a while since I last did a WTF Friday post, I love the weird, wild reads I've discovered through those experimental dips into the e-book pool. A few of the books that caught my eye and stuck with me after the read this year were: