My 13 Favourite Fantasy Reads of 2019

First, let’s get over the rules. One: This is not my “Best of 2019” list. That list is coming at the end of January or the beginning of February. Some of the books that appear here will probably appear there, as well – and some won’t. I’m taking my time with it because I have about five really big releases I want to get through, including Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred. Two…One book per author! There you have it; let’s get on with it, shall we? Oh, and no numerals. None of that, thank you very much – all these are either 4.5 or 5 star reads. And all of them are fantasy – there’ll be a sci-fi bit later on, one hopes.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon

Benedict Patrick takes a sojourn away from the folklore-infested Yarnsworld series and pens a short, remarkably enjoyable standalone in a world as imaginative as anything I’ve come to expect from him. Add to the mix a likable lead by the name of Min, an elderly Samuel L. Jackson as her mentor, and a petty villain who will make you want to strangle him time and again, and you’ve got a memorable journey ahead of you.

I happen to adore the deliciously creepy tales of the Yarnsworld, but this portal fantasy really hit the right spot. Imaginative, short and striking a perfect balance between light-hearted exploration and matters of light and death, Benedict’s latest is a memorable adventure you don’t want to miss out on.

You can find my full review here; for my recent interview with Benedict, click here.

God of Gnomes by Demi Harper

This is probably my favourite debut of the year, and that’s saying something. This is the book that made me feel like a child again, standing over a strategy game with a lot of heart in it, and enjoying every last second. Humour, drama, action – you just don’t expect these things when you’re reading about a sentient gemstone. And yet, you get so much more.

You could adapt this into a Dungeon Keeper-style game with minimal issues and a bit of imaginative storytelling, and the world would be all the better for it. I could get a pitch done in three days, game developer person reading this – call me!

You can find the full review here.

The Gutter Prayer

Politics, magic, religion and alchemy all come to a head in The Gutter Prayer. Driven by a stellar cast of characters and an enviable imagination, this book is a must-read for fantasy lovers. 

I must commend the author for the glossary of delightful monstrosities within these pages, from the alchemists’ insane servants, the Tallowmen with their wax bodies and sharp axes:

Before they can get to it, the door opens and out comes a Tallowman. Blazing eyes in a pale, waxy face. He’s an old one, worn so thin he’s translucent in places, and the fire inside him shines through holes in his chest. He’s got a huge axe, bigger than Cari could lift, but he swings it easily with one hand. He laughs when he sees her and Rat outlined against the fire.

all the way to the Gullheads; from the cursed Stone Men who become stronger the more their deadly disease progresses, to The Fever Knight, a creature of nightmare held together within its plate armour. Oh, and if these aren’t enough, there’s also worm-people, the arcane and utterly disgusting Crawling Ones:

Its voice is oddly musical and warm, but behind it she can hear the flapping and slithering of the worms, like hot fat on a frying pan. “What, may we ask, brings you walking in the places beneath?” It extends a cloth-wrapped “hand” to Aleena and helps her up. She feels worms pop and squish beneath the cloth as she pulls herself upright.

Ew. The descriptions of all these creatures lean almost towards the grotesque but they are all so very excellent. The cover, too, is a work of art, capturing the tone of the book perfectly – illustrated by Richard Anderson and designed by Steve Panton, it is nothing short of exquisite. If you take a look at it, you’ll get an idea, a feeling of what exactly awaits and this is witness to the makings of a great book cover.

You can find my full review over here.

Priest of Lies by Peter McLean

Peter McLean’s fantasy Peaky Blinders doesn’t have the right to be as good as it is! I tell you, friends, I bloody love this series – it’s despicably dark and twisted and it forces protagonist Tomas so far out of his comfort zone that it’d be funny…if the world of politics he comes to inhabit wasn’t just as deadly as the world dominated by gang violence from predecessor Priest of Bones.

You can read my review here.

The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang

This is the novel that emotionally shattered me. It’s ah…it’s probably my favourite book of the year, based on emotional punch alone. If I had any money to bet on a SPFBO 2019 winner, I’d bet them all on this one; don’t worry, fellow SPFBO judges, due to my obvious bias, I’m staying away from giving it an official score for booknest.eu’s part in the competition. It’s out of my hands – and I’m really hoping that the other nine finalists are as strong in terms of narrative and characters as this one is.

Here’s my review of it. (Booknest’s “Read” counter tells me this review has been read over 18 thousand times, which seems like an utterly insane number!)

Hero Forged by Josh Erikson

Josh Erikson is one of the finest narrators I’ve ever heard. That sucks, really – because he’s a writer, so you don’t have dozens upon dozens of novels narrated by him; instead, you only have two – Hero Forged and Fate Lashed. Luckily, Josh is also a word wizard, as evidenced by the fact that his urban fantasy series is fucking dope. I don’t particularly care for the subgenre, but I am crazy for Josh’s world – almost as crazy as for main characters Gabe and Heather!

Me, enjoying for Hero Forged

You can find my review here.

Wrath of Empire

I am burdened by the greatest wrath – I have not yet read the conclusion to McClellan’s series, Blood of Empire. And when Wrath was such an excellent book – a novel whose greatest strength are its characters, a novel as explosive as the gunpowder Brian’s Powder Mages snort in what sure feels like unhealthy quantities — but I’m sure they’re fine. Right?

My review of this excellent book, y’all can find here. (I’ll permit myself a brag here – when I posted it on r/fantasy, this review was hot! Great discussion over there!)

Occultist by Oliver Mayes

From my review:

Oliver Mayes’ debut novel, Occultist, has made a litRPG believer out of me, an accomplishment I wasn’t certain would ever be in the cards for me. All this, considering how each time I’d picked up a book in this particular subgenre of speculative fiction, I ended up walking away with devilishly bad impressions. In my experience, the litRPG genre suffers from several issues, the biggest of which are an over-reliance on nostalgia and a trend towards dense exposition, and I mean walls upon walls of text as unreadable as a bad 80’s AD&D module! But this isn’t about the subgenre as a whole, it’s about the first instalment in the Saga Online series, so let’s get into it!

I’m quoting myself now, that’s how bad ye olde ego has gotten.

The Hod King

If there’s a series that I expect to be read fifty years from now the way Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea is, for example, that would be Josiah Bancroft’s The Books of Babel. The Hod King is the third of four planned novels and it continues the adventure of Senlin and his merry band of pirates, adventurers, marauders, sky sailors, past and present and future wives, and – oh, even though I joke, I truly think it’s a brilliant work of fiction. I’m beyond excited to see it all come together with book #4. Will Bancroft stick the landing?

I reckon he just might.

You can read more about it here.

Never Die by Rob J Hayes

All throughout Never Die, Rob J. Hayes treats us readers with one badass fight after another; most of the main characters end up beating the living crap out of each other, or otherwise facing off through some convoluted challenge. The battles–and I can’t stress this enough (try as I might)–are like a shot of adrenaline through the system; if you’ve ever liked an anime battle, they will immediately feel familiar; and if you haven’t, they’ll still be cool as hell. Steel against steel, the sound of rifle fire and the smell of gunpowder, sweat and the metallic taste of blood – these are but a fraction of the images I came away with after reading this delightful novel.

Here’s my review of it.

Breaking Chaos by Ben Galley

In this final volume of the Chasing Graves trilogy, Ben Galley sees each of the myriad plotlines built over Chasing Graves and Grim Solace come to their fruition: Caltro Basalt, thief, locksmith and body-hopper extraordinaire at long last comes to embrace the role he’s tried time and again to swerve away from. Not that it’s painless. So very close to gaining his freedom, Caltro is again forced into playing different sides, listening to all their promises and trusting none of them.

The Dragon’s Banker by Scott Warren

As a reader with a bachelor’s degree in economics, I was the perfect audience for The Dragon’s Banker. The economics made sense and Warren seems to have a good grasp of how demand and supply work; he’s thought through all sorts of issues that the reader could’ve picked up on and works them in the story seamlessly and just at the right time. Some of main character Sailor Kestern’s most minor actions, at first, see great pay-off by the end of this 255-page read and in ways I didn’t necessarily expect.

My review can be found here.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

While I haven’t written the essay I’ve been meaning to about the relationship between Wizard of Earthsea’s main character Ged and priestess Tenar, I think The Tombs of Atuan is nothing short of a magical sequel, which does as many interesting things about fantasy as Wizard did, in many different ways. This is a novel of equality, of taking charge of your fate, of finding friendship in the darkest hours in your life. There’s good reason why Le Guin’s Earthsea is considered a classic, a novel that’s very much shoulders above most of the genre at the time of its publication, whose messages have lost none of its relevance nearly fifty years later.

You can read my A Wizard of Earthsea: Yesteryear’s Magic is all the More Potent essay here!

This is it! My end-of-year fantasy list! Thank you to everyone for sticking around with my blog – this year has been incredibly fun in terms of books, blogging, making friends in the community. Looking forward to 2020 with you all!

A Wizard of Earthsea: Yester-year’s Magic is All the More Potent

Illustrated by Charles Vess

Ursula K. Le Guin’s legacy will echo throughout the world of fantasy for as long as the genre is read. Chief amongst her works are the six novels (and several short stories) based in Earthsea, a world of seas and islands, and adventure most of all. I’ve had this classic on my TBR pile for ages, and when I stumbled on an excellent Black Friday deal on the Complete Earthsea Illustrated Edition with art by Charles Vess, I knew the time had finally come.

A Wizard of Earthsea is a 56,000-word novel, less than 200 pages in length in most paperbacks, a mere 125 pages in this glorious edition; for all that, it took me several days to make my way through. This is no page-turner that keeps you on your nails; rather, it’s a slow dive in a world that is half fairy tale, half “Young Merlin and Gandalf going on a quest of self-discovery”.

Self-discovery is something Le Guin places emphasis on. Our main character is Sparrowhawk, who will one day, we are told, grow up to be among the greatest wizards of Earthsea and certainly the greatest voyager and adventurer the world has ever seen. But before he became a legendary Archmage, Sparrowhawk was first known as Ged, an apprentice prideful for the depth of his talent and the well of his power. Going yet further back, he was a child on the island of Gont, motherless and raised by a blacksmith father without an ounce of tenderness; and taught in his first words of power by a village witch whose own knowledge of magic consists as much of truth as it does of old wives’ tales and fraudulent imitation.

Ged’s thirst for learning takes him far, to an unknown land where he studies among some of the greatest of wizards; but one lesson, more important than all others, he learns all on his own.

Power used unwisely and to one’s own prideful ends, is not the wizard’s way. 

It’s a hard lesson, and one that haunts Ged, defines his journey as the wizard recovers from a terrible ritual that let loose a thing of shadow into the world. 


“To light a candle is to cast a shadow…” 


Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea is about Ged’s moral journey and his coming face-to-face with his personal demons — and not dispatching, but embracing them and becoming whole. It’s a book also about friendship and the strength of kindness, which is often more powerful and significant than the greatest magic worked by master wizards. It’s about trust. Time and time again, it’s about “unshaken, unshakable” trust. 

“If plain men hide their true name from all but a few they love and trust utterly, so much more must wizardly men, being more dangerous, and more endangered. Who knows a man’s name, holds that man’s life in his keeping. Thus to Ged, who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given that gift only a friend can give, the proof of unshaken, unshakable trust.” 

Illustrated by Charles Vess

But I’ve said enough about Ged. To learn the full length of his journey from a brash boy to a humble wizard, take the time to read the novel. And hey, if the journey of self-discovery isn’t enough…

A dragon awaits within these pages, and his face-off with our young wizard is a thing to behold, a thing of great beauty.

But before I let you go, I’d like to turn your attention to Le Guin’s prose, and her. Her words have a magical, enchanting quality about them. They seep into you gently, unerringly; and the lessons of the book stay once you’ve closed and put the book away. Long after, I’m willing to bet.  She does so much with little enough — the supporting characters aren’t particularly deep and they won’t offer some thorough observation of the human soul; and as I previously mentioned, this is no sprawling epic. It is, however, compelling to no end, and the world of Earthsea is a magical place.

And — something I didn’t know until I saw Charles Vess’ illustrations; Ged isn’t white. Funny how so many of the covers (and subsequent fan art) I’ve seen completely misrepresent the colour of the main character, portraying him as your run-of-the-mill white wizard. But he’s not, in a book originally published in the late 60’s — and that’s enormously important. Le Guin continually subverts expectations in tiny ways, even this early on in the genre’s history, even when, in some ways, this is the most traditional of fantasy stories. It receives my glowing recommendation.

You should read this if: 

  • You enjoy quests of self-discovery;
  • You’re looking to explore the roots of the fantasy genre;
  • You, like me, love the grimdark genre but could occasionally use a break and a reminder that the human condition is defined by more than just pain, betrayal, and loadsa murder! 
  • You have a love for magic that works on the basis of naming objects and creatures by their true names;
  • You’ve ever had a passing interest in the works of Ursula K. Le Guin;
  • You enjoy prose on the edge of the fairytale-like! 
  • And more! Prob’ly.

 
“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do…”

Thanks for reading, everyone! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on my blog, mostly because I’ve been posting my reviews over at the wonderful BookNest.eu ; but I hope to be doing more on here, as well! Discussions such as this, not quite reviews, about older books; some lists I’ve been working on; maybe a few “Favourite Male/Female Characters in Fantasy (2018)” lists! There’s plenty more to come.

Book Review: Gifts by Ursula Le Guin

leguin-gifts.jpg

I’ve been meaning to explore the great Ursula Le Guin’s writing for a few years, now. I always thought I’d start with Earthsea if not for a serendipitous occasion in my new university library thanks to which I stumbled upon this, a short 280-page first part of a trilogy by the name of ‘Annals of the Western Shore.’

The pages ran out all too quickly, almost as if the ink itself flowed within me as I consumed this tiny tome in a single morning. It took me…four, maybe five hours to finish from start to end. Time well spent, I assure you.

Gifts tells the deeply personal story of a young boy called Orrec, and his coming to terms with the deadly gift that runs in his bloodline, as well as his’ and his family’s place in the Uplander society. The Uplanders are a tough lot — different gifts run in the different bloodlines, and some of them are thoroughly horrific, like Orrec’s own family gift of ‘unmaking,’ which allows the gifted in the family to unmake creatures with a look, a gesture, a whispered word.

What Le Guin does with our protagonist (the story is told in the first-person view) is, she goes really in-depth inside the mind of a boy–a young man–who possesses such a dark and final power, and what the ability to kill with such ease does to him.

Loss and grief also play a great part in the plot, and in writing about them, Ursula shows uncanny skill and her own deep understanding of these complex themes.

No surprise there.

This work also examines the relationships between parents and children, between cultural gaps, and more. All the character work is nothing short of excellent, truly, and I am beyond excited to read more for that reason alone.

What I did dislike was a climax that felt somewhat rushed. The ending was all too sudden, and the resolution wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped it would be.

My score? 3.75 out of 5.

I didn’t know this was the first book in a trilogy until well after the mid-point, so maybe it’s my expectation that has played a trick on me, but there was enough I did not enjoy the handling of that I feel certain of my 4 star score on Goodreads.

You should read this book. Just don’t come into it expecting too powerful a climax, and you’ll find a lot to love.

Final Verdict: Journey before destination!