Top 10 Books of 2019

Honorable Mentions

AtlasAlone

Atlas Alone

Planetfall #4
Author: Emma Newman

Newman writes killer endings and this book was no exception to that trend. I wasn’t as intrigued by the buildup to the finale, but Newman certainly left me wanting more by the ending. I really hope there will be more Planetfall novels in the future as this continues to be a wonderful series with countless story threads left to explore. See full review here.


Sin Eater

Sin Eater

Iconoclasts #2
Author: Mike Shel

…the worldbuilding remains strong, the writing flows nicely, and the ending is satisfying enough to leave me excited for what’s to come in the third and final book in the trilogy. See full review here.


dead-astronauts_cover

Dead Astronauts

Borne #2
Author: Jeff VanderMeer

This book is trippy, oftentimes incoherent, but all sorts of enthralling. The writing itself is quite mesmerizing with VanderMeer spinning some real poetry on each page. Dead Astronauts is certainly not for everyone, and I don’t even think it’s for me, but I did like it? Maybe? Perhaps it’s just fun to see what oddities VanderMeer can think up and bring to life.  See full review here.

 


Top 10 of 2019

Harrow_Ten-Thousand-Doors-of-January_HC-1

10. The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Author: Alix E. Harrow

The writing is beautiful and lush. The story is sad and sweet in equal measure. The world is captivating and I truly felt transported back in time. January is a well-drawn character, full of life and verve and nuance. She was a wonderful window into this fantastical world. See full review here.


TheOutlawtheUpstartKing_144dpi

9. The Outlaw and the Upstart King

The Map of Unknown Things #2
Author: Rod Duncan

Author Rod Duncan continues to convey atmosphere in an engaging way. You can smell the brine, feel the mud, and hear the gulls in the sky, which is a testament to Duncan’s skills as a storyteller. Even if I wasn’t always enraptured by the story, I could enjoy the vivid imagery and worldbuilding that Duncan employs. See full review here.


1_PQZJXDgG295D8TMrIa-2yg

8. Master and Apprentice

Star Wars Canon
Author: Claudia Gray

Author Claudia Gray does some excellent character work in this novel – she adds depth to existing characters while introducing several new characters to the story. Each individual is given agency, clear motivations, and satisfying arcs across the board…an engaging and enjoyable interplanetary adventure story. See full review here.


ABrightnessLongAgo

7. A Brightness Long Ago

Author: Guy Gavriel Kay

This book explores the ripples of time, how small actions have an impact on the world at large and how our memory of the past shapes our understanding of our future…Much like Kay’s previous work, A Brightness Long Ago is beautifully composed, emotionally engaging, and features compelling characters with depth. See full review here.


TheTest

6. The Test

Author: Sylvain Neuvel

Sylvain Neuvel follows up his excellent Themis Files series with this twisted, fast-paced, and thought-provoking dystopian novella. Much like Themis Files, Neuvel employs an unconventional storytelling structure to engage the reader and make the best use of his sharp, sense-of-urgency writing style…It’s a tight page-turner that really works. See full review here.


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5. A Choir of Lies

A Conspiracy of Truths #2
Author: Alexandra Rowland

It’s a bold choice to change gears so drastically from one book to the next, but it pays off well…this book is charming, heartening, and well worth your time. It feels like Rowland is just getting started here. See full review here.


Recursion

4. Recursion

Author: Blake Crouch

A dynamic “what if” novel that builds and builds as the unintended consequences of messing with memories threaten to unmake the world. I read this in one sitting and really enjoyed my time with it. It’s quickly paced and features well-drawn, sympathetic characters. See full review here.


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3. The Kingdom of Copper

The Daevabad Trilogy #2
Author: S.A. Chakraborty

Even as each page crackles with magic, at its core, this is a captivating family drama that continues to ratchet up the tension as the book progresses…Overall, I thought this was a really solid middle book. It charted new territory and told a contained story that was engaging, satisfying, and left me looking forward to what comes next. See full review here.


TheHodKing

2. The Hod King

The Books of Babel #3
Author: Josiah Bancroft

Bancroft could write a kitchen appliance manual and I’d happily read it. The fact that he’s built such a wondrous world and a story that makes such perfect use of his unique voice and style makes it all the better. The witticisms, turns of phrase, vivid images, fully drawn characters, and the magnificent setting all coalesce into something truly remarkable…This series is a modern fantasy classic. See full review here.


Barker-The-Bone-Ships

1. The Bone Ships

The Tide Child #1
Author: RJ Barker

Barker’s prose is rich but rough and perfectly suited for a seafaring tale. You can taste the ocean spray and feel the sway of the ships as they traverse the angry seas. The world is filled with unique flora and fauna, but the setting still feels familiar and accessible…this is a superb start to an exciting new series. The worldbuilding, the prose, the character development, and the story beats are all top-notch.  See full review here.

 

Review: Dead Astronauts

dead-astronauts_cover.jpgTitle: Dead Astronauts (2019)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Pages: 323
Series: Borne #2


I will spare everyone an attempted plot summary as Dead Astronauts cannot be tidily synopsized. Just know that it features a messianic blue fox, a giant immortal fish, and human-ish characters seeking to end the reign of an evil organization across multiple dimensions…I think.

I had been frustrated by Borne’s lack of penetrability, so I recalibrated my expectations before reading this one. That was the right move. This book is trippy, oftentimes incoherent, but all sorts of enthralling. There is an apt quote in the earlygoing which references “things that could pull a mind apart if examined up close.” That was a good encapsulation of this book for me – you’ll lose your mind if you get bogged down trying to parse every tiny detail. Let the words and passages wash over you. The writing itself is quite mesmerizing with VanderMeer spinning some real poetry on each page.

Dead Astronauts is certainly not for everyone, and I don’t even think it’s for me, but I did like it? Maybe? Perhaps it’s just fun to see what oddities VanderMeer can think up and bring to life. Not to mention, this may be the best book cover I’ve laid eyes on. I wasn’t sure that I was going to read this, but the dust jacket really sold me.

★★★¼ out of 5

Review: Thrawn: Alliances

Thrawn - AlliancesTitle: Thrawn: Alliances (2018)
Author: Timothy Zahn
Pages: 473
Series: Thrawn #2, Star Wars Canon (Series Tracker)


This was a big step down from the first book in the series. Although it was fun to see Thrawn and Darth Vader team up, their story arc was less than riveting. For me, knowing the fates of established characters (Vader, not Thrawn) drains the story of any real stakes. Similarly, the Thrawn/Anakin/Padme story that parallels the present day narrative did not land for me and I felt myself rushing through it just so I could get back to Thrawn/Vader, which I also quickly lost interest in. So then I was rushing through both timelines just so I could finish the book and move on to the sequel, which has better reviews and features the welcome return of Eli Vanto, who I sorely missed here.

★★½ out of 5

Interview: Rod Duncan, Author of The Map of Unknown Things series

Duncan-CoverThe Speculative Shelf is excited to welcome Rod Duncan to the blog today for a discussion about his upcoming book, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man (out January 14, 2020) from Angry Robot Books. It’s the third and final book in The Map of Unknown Things series. This trilogy closes the chapter on the Elizabeth Barnabus saga, which began in Duncan’s award-winning Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire trilogy. I’ve reviewed all six of the books here on the blog and I think you’ll really enjoy this final chapter if you’ve been following this wonderful alternate history series. Many thanks to Rod for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.


Hello Rod, thank you for joining us here today! Let’s jump right in:

From a process standpoint, how much preplanning do you do when writing a series like this? When you started penning the first book, did you know how this final book would conclude?

I began writing the first book – the Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter – without much idea of what would follow. Indeed, at the very start, I thought it would be a short story.

9200000084559751But, from your question, I’m guessing you’ve spotted various connections between book one and book six, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man. The most obvious perhaps is the motif of Elizabeth’s pistol with the emblem of the leaping Hare inlaid in turquoise on the stock. As well as being a weapon, it is an object resonant with meaning for her, being the last gift from her father. It symbolizes that ideal of family life, which was taken from her and against which she measures her present reality.

I knew that her recollection of the past and what it meant would eventually be challenged. If you re-read the Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, you’ll find more clues layered in. Chapter 9 begins with a quotation that mentions the switching of guns in a conjuring trick, hinting that there may be an exact replica of Elizabeth’s pistol. Twins are mentioned twice in the following pages. All this was quite deliberate.

But don’t take that to mean the series was planned out. I knew about certain plot strands and story beats. But I didn’t know the story itself. By this, I mean, I did not understand the emotions – which are the foundation of the whole thing. Elizabeth would be confronted by her past in this final book of the trilogy. But how would she feel about it – this I did not know.

Continue reading

Review: The Strange Bird

The Strange Bird.jpgTitle: The Strange Bird (2017)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Pages: 109
Series: Borne #1.5 (Series Tracker)


I had a difficult time connecting with Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novella set in the same world. The Strange Bird herself is an odd amalgamation – part bird, part human, part machine, part other. She’s sentient and self-aware, but ultimately disoriented. Her understanding of the world is fragmented, much like the composition of her body. 

The way VanderMeer describes bird flight in the story is evocative and beautiful. His love and appreciation for birds and their characteristics is obvious (check out his Twitter feed for further confirmation).

Overall, The Strange Bird is a moving and haunting story that reignited my interest in this world in anticipation of Borne‘s pseudo-sequel, Dead Astronauts, next on my to-read list.

★★★★½ out of 5

Review: Thrawn

Thrawn.jpgTitle: Thrawn (2017)
Author: Timothy Zahn
Pages: 449
Series: Thrawn #1, Star Wars Canon (Series Tracker)


I’m always impressed by authors who can write genius characters well. I hadn’t read anything by Timothy Zahn before this, but it’s clear he has Thrawn’s personality down pat. I’m enjoying how blurry the lines of Good vs. Evil are when it comes to Thrawn and his actions. His military decisions usually benefit humanity and minimize casualties, although it’s unclear whether that’s intentional or just the most prudent action for the time and place. I suspect these decisions will increase in complexity as he continues to rise the ranks in the Imperial Navy.

At times, it felt like there was a certain inevitability and repetitiveness to his advancement up the command chain, but that provided a nice juxtaposition to the stagnation of Ensign Eli Vanto’s career. I was less enthralled by the secondary storyline, but things came together nicely in the end and I’m excited to continue on with this series.

★★★★ out of 5

Review: The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man

9780857668448.jpgTitle: The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man (January 14, 2020)
Author: Rod Duncan
Pages: 400
Series: The Map of Unknown Things #3, Gas-Lit Empire #6 (Series Tracker)


Elizabeth Barnabus, our intrepid adventurer, having made it to the Free States of America, is pursued, caught, and eventually escapes the custody of Gas-Lit Empire agents. She flees to a kingdom in Oregon, where a power-hungry monarch has plans for eastward conquest. Only a grand illusion and an assist from a long-lost ally can save her skin and keep the world from falling into ruin.

This is the sixth and final(?) adventure for Elizabeth and these books have been really enjoyable. This specific trilogy has improved with each subsequent installment, with each book exploring a new frontier and story type. Book 1 was a seafaring tale, Book 2 a revenge story, and Book 3 now deals with court intrigue and politics. While I’m less interested in the world-altering events that Elizabeth continues to be mixed up with, her personal journey is the hook that keeps me coming back for more. The smaller moments of this book that deal with Elizabeth finding her identity, her family, and her real place in the world are exceedingly well done. 

In all, this is a satisfying conclusion to a six-book, two-trilogy saga that has been supremely entertaining and well-told by an author with a wonderful flair for storytelling.

★★★★ out of 5

My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Master & Apprentice

1_PQZJXDgG295D8TMrIa-2yg.jpegTitle: Master & Apprentice (2019)
Author: Claudia Gray
Pages: 400
Series: Star Wars Canon (Series Tracker)


My knowledge of the Star Wars canon outside of the films is extremely limited. The dawn of Disney+ and the excellent debut of The Mandalorian have sparked my interest to see what else was out there in this faraway galaxy… I’ve never read any fan fiction or media tie-in novels, so it was a bit of an adjustment to read new stories about established characters like the Jedis Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. 

Author Claudia Gray does some excellent character work in this novel – she adds depth to existing characters while introducing several new characters to the story. Each individual is given agency, clear motivations, and satisfying arcs across the board. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic Gray establishes between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Their seemingly incompatible personality traits and frequent head-butting paired with their respect and mutual admiration for one another made for a nicely nuanced portrayal of master and apprentice.

I had a few minor quibbles about the use of modern day language disrupting my immersion and some dragging in the middle of the book, but all in all I found this to be an engaging and enjoyable interplanetary adventure story.

★★★¾ out of 5

Review: The Bone Ships

Barker-The-Bone-ShipsTitle: The Bone Ships (September 24, 2019)
Author: R.J. Barker
Pages: 512
Series: The Tide Child #1 (Series Tracker)


What a wonderful adventure! This was my first experience with R.J. Barker’s work and I came away quite impressed with his skill as a storyteller. He drops us into the fully-formed world of the Hundred Isles, a sea-dominated region that’s peppered with small islands. Two warring territories, each equipped with extremely valuable ships made from ancient dragon bones, are stuck in constant and endless conflict. When the first dragon in generations is sighted, the race is on to be the first to track it down.

Barker’s prose is rich but rough and perfectly suited for a seafaring tale. You can taste the ocean spray and feel the sway of the ships as they traverse the angry seas. The world is filled with unique flora and fauna, but the setting still feels familiar and accessible.

The book also features really satisfying character work, most notably through the main characters Joron and Lucky Meas and the cultivation of their relationship with each other and with the rest of their crew. The connection that is forged between Joron and the Gullaime, the ship’s enigmatic, bird-like “windtalker,” is particularly touching. I hope we see more of the Gullaime in future books because the page (and I) lit up whenever it would appear.

Generally, I like to finish books quickly so I can move on to the next thing in my stack, but it was really gratifying to spend extra time with such a well-crafted novel. Even the artwork on the chapter headings is meticulously crafted and beautiful.

All in all, this is a superb start to an exciting new series. The worldbuilding, the prose, the character development, and the story beats are all top-notch. I’m already anxiously anticipating book two. In the meantime, I’m going to jump back and give Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy a try to see if that is also to my liking.

★★★★½ out of 5

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.