What a great year to be a reader of speculative fiction. Some long awaited books finally out, a few series getting over (and potentially be part of future best series), emergence of flintlock fantasy as a new sub-genre, promising debuts and a renewed focus on military fantasy (both medieval and modern).

Personally, this year marked a significant change in my reading habits. I started reading a fair amount of current year releases than previous years, motivated partly by the need to keep track of what’s happening in the space and driven partly by the completion of some of the older series. While the number of books I bought has remained more or less the same, I have almost stopped buying physical books (running out of shelf space is quite a reason) (Non-fiction and Indian authors being the only books I end up buying, purely owing to the well, the non-torrentability of the Indian authors and outrageous prices for the ebooks). The amount of books consumed as well went up this year primarily due to technology convergence and syncing. From starting a book on the tablet to continuing to read it on the laptop to finishing it on the phone, this helped me reduce the multiple book syndrome and concentrated attention to 2 and at max, 3 books at a time. Urban Fantasy, which I discovered last year courtesy Jim Butcher, formed a decent chunk of my reading. Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne (Dresden-lite, if you will) and Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka proving to be discoveries of the year. This is likely to continue with books from Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell being part of my immediate TBR (To Be Read) list. I closed the year with a good heaping of military fantasy, polishing off The Shadow Campaign by Django Wexler and The Red Knight by Miles Cameron in quick succession and would definitely like to retain the taste for military fantasy in 2014.

With the amount and the sheer variety of the books, ranking does become inherently challenging. While I diligently capture book ratings on Shelfari (I somehow love the site more than Goodreads) (I love viewing my shelf of Shelfari), the book ratings often are a function of more than just how the book shaped out to be. Apart from being a function of the characterization, world building, pacing of the book, and the language, the rating also is affected by extraneous factors like, the timeframe book was read (during stressful / non-stressful periods, during travel or quick peeks) and how it was read (both the medium as well as how interrupted the reading cycle was). Given the profession and the pressure, it definitely is not realistic to expect an uninterrupted peaceful reading atmosphere every time and that one must grab every possible opportunity to read (sometimes even at the cost of re-reading pages to get back into the flow of the book)

Having caveated (I am a consultant after all), below are the list of some of my favorite books of 2013 (in no particular order, except for the 1st, which is my book of the year)

1)      The Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence (The Broken Empire Series, Book 3):

Emperor of Thorns

Synopsis:

Mark Lawrence brings to a thrilling close his epic trilogy of a boy who would be king, a king who would desire an empire—and an empire on the edge of destruction…

King Jorg Ancrath is twenty now—and king of seven nations. 

His goal—revenge against his father—has not yet been realized, and the demons that haunt him have only grown stronger. Yet no matter how tortured his path, he intends to take the next step in his upward climb.

For there is only one power worth wielding…absolute power.

Jorg would be emperor. It is a position not to be gained by the sword but rather by vote. And never in living memory has anyone secured a majority of the vote, leaving the Broken Empire long without a leader. Jorg has plans to change that—one way or the other. He’s uncovered even more of the lost technology of the land, and he won’t hesitate to use it.

But he soon finds an adversary standing in his way, a necromancer unlike any he has ever faced—a figure hated and feared even more than himself: the Dead King.

The boy who would rule all may have finally met his match…

*************************************

A compelling tour-de-force. Mark Lawrence brings to conclusion his epic series in style. This remains one of those series that turns the fantasy trope on its head. Despite featuring a protagonist who knows of no other way to survive than be evil, you want Jorg Ancranth to win, to succeed and to rail against those who say no to him. It indeed has been a fascinating journey. Lawrence crafts the book with dark black humor and in this age of ever expanding series size, he brings the book to a conclusion, which is the conclusion we need and not necessarily the conclusion we deserve. Easily among the best books of the year.

2)      The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (The Lives of Tao, Book 1):

The Lives of Tao

Synopsis:

 When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.

He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

*************************************

Ever wondered if the voice that sounded in your head was never really you but an alien parasite residing in you, an alien species that has been part of this planet for billions of years, influencing human civilization, through acts big and small right through the ages. Lives of Tao is the result when the alien parasite enters the body of a stuck in a dead-end desk job, slacker who also suffers from low self-esteem and well, is supremely unfit as well. An utterly hilarious romp with enough action and training montages packed in, Lives of Tao is a fantastic read. While the sequel (The Deaths of Tao) didn’t really live up to the potential of the 1st book, it’s still worth a read. A delightful delicious romp with unique character voices and philosophical ruminations when you least expect it. A fabulous debut

3)      Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole (Shadow Ops, Book 2):

Fortress Frontier

Synopsis:

The Great Reawakening did not come quietly. Across the country and in every nation, people began to develop terrifying powers—summoning storms, raising the dead, and setting everything they touch ablaze. Overnight the rules changed…but not for everyone.

 Colonel Alan Bookbinder is an army bureaucrat whose worst war wound is a paper-cut. But after he develops magical powers, he is torn from everything he knows and thrown onto the front-lines.

 Drafted into the Supernatural Operations Corps in a new and dangerous world, Bookbinder finds himself in command of Forward Operating Base Frontier—cut off, surrounded by monsters, and on the brink of being overrun.

 Now, he must find the will to lead the people of FOB Frontier out of hell, even if the one hope of salvation lies in teaming up with the man whose own magical powers put the base in such grave danger in the first place—Oscar Britton, public enemy number one…

*************************************

Contemporary military fantasy is a difficult beast to get right once, let alone twice. After a rocking debut that was Control Point, Myke Cole betters it with Fortress Frontier. A more likeable, consistent character, an expansion to the existing world, building up of secondary characters, and the nuclear weapon of great books, a well-timed betrayal sets up this fast paced, intriguing book and leaves one salivating for the 3rd book (out in another few weeks)

4)      The Golem & The Jinni by Helene Wacker:

The Golem & The Jinni

Synopsis:

In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.

 Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

 Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free

 Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

*************************************

Another fascinating debut. This book is as far removed away from fantasy fiction as it can get and yet retains all the fantasy elements necessary to bring about magic. A magic in writing, a magic in world building and a magic in characterization. This is a story about belonging and purpose. A love story and yet not a love story. Helene Wacker is a name to watch out for

5)      The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham (The Dagger and the Coin, Book 3):

The Tyrant's Law

Synopsis:

The great war cannot be stopped.

 The tyrant Geder Palliako had led his nation to war, but every victory has called forth another conflict. Now the greater war spreads out before him, and he is bent on bringing peace. No matter how many people he has to kill to do it.

 Cithrin bel Sarcour, rogue banker of the Medean Bank, has returned to the fold. Her apprenticeship has placed her in the path of war, but the greater dangers are the ones in her past and in her soul.

 Widowed and disgraced at the heart of the Empire, Clara Kalliam has become a loyal traitor, defending her nation against itself. And in the shadows of the world, Captain Marcus Wester tracks an ancient secret that will change the war in ways not even he can forsee.

*************************************

A book that gets into this list by the sheer dint of having crafted one of the most compelling antagonists in recent times. There is this popular saying that the most dangerous villains are the ones who believe that they are doing the right things. Geder Pallaiko thinks that his actions are just since he is doing the right thing but in reality, his actions are the actions of a weak man, who does not realize that he is a puppet and when he takes unilateral action, its usually is a result of his own insecurities and fear. This unpredictability makes him extremely feared by his opponents who view him as a hard cruel man. Being the middle book in the series, it does tread water a bit which is amply made up through the rich characterization

6)      Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan (Powder Mage Trilogy, Book 1):

Promise of Blood

Synopsis:

The Age of Kings is dead . . . and I have killed it.

 It’s a bloody business overthrowing a king…

Field Marshal Tamas’ coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.

 It’s up to a few…

Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.

 But when gods are involved…

Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should…

 In a rich, distinctive world that mixes magic with technology, who could stand against mages that control gunpowder and bullets?

*************************************

Another debut author featuring in the list, Promise of Blood places itself right after a coup has taken place and is a non-stop ride after that. With an unique magic system involving gunpowder, Promise of Blood packs in political intrigue and religious struggles amidst an action packed plot. While reading the book, I was constantly making comparisons to Brandon Sanderson’s works and realized that McClellan is one of Sanderson’s students. If imitation is the best form of flattery, McClellan has definitely chosen the right template and mentor and the end product could be written by Sanderson himself. No bigger praise than that

7)      Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams (Bobby Dollar, Book 2):

Happy Hour in Hell

Synopsis:

I’ve been told to go to Hell more times than I can count. But this time I’m actually going.

My name’s Bobby Dollar, sometimes known as Doloriel, and of course, Hell isn’t a great place for someone like me—I’m an angel. They don’t like my kind down there, not even the slightly fallen variety. But they have my girlfriend, who happens to be a beautiful demon named Casimira, Countess of Cold Hands. Why does an angel have a demon girlfriend? Well, certainly not because it helps my career.

She’s being held hostage by one of the nastiest, most powerful demons in all of the netherworld—Eligor, Grand Duke of Hell. He already hates me, and he’d like nothing better than to get his hands on me and rip my immortal soul right out of my borrowed but oh-so-mortal body.

But wait, it gets better! Not only do I have to sneak into Hell, make my way across thousands of miles of terror and suffering to reach Pan- demonium, capital of the fiery depths, but then I have to steal Caz right out from under Eligor’s burning eyes and smuggle her out again, past demon soldiers, hellhounds, and all the murderous creatures imprisoned there for eternity. And even if I somehow manage to escape Hell, I’m also being stalked by an undead psychopath named Smyler who’s been following me for weeks. Oh, and did I mention that he can’t be killed?

 So if I somehow survive Hell, elude the Grand Duke and all his hideous minions and make it back to the real world, I’ll still be the most hunted soul in Creation. But at least I’ll have Caz. Gotta have something to look forward to, right?

 So just pour me that damn drink, will you? I’ve got somewhere to go.

                                 *************************************

Our favorite wise cracking, cynical and general wise-ass of an angel is back. Thematically though, the book sees a change moving from the urban crime investigation theme to more of an exploration of hell. Tad Williams takes the readers along with Bobby Dollar through the various levels of hell and it ain’t pretty. While the pacing of the book is on the slower side and the plot does not really progress much, this book clearly subscribes to the fact that the journey is as important as the destination and with its description of hell, you feel the torment and the tribulations that Bobby Dollar undergoes, for a forbidden love

8)      Necessary Evil by Ian Tregillis (Milkweed Triptych, Book 3):

Necessary Evil

Synopsis:

 12 May 1940. Westminster, London, England:  the early days of World War II.

 Again.

 Raybould Marsh, one of “our” Britain’s best spies, has travelled to another Earth in a desperate attempt to save at least one timeline from the Cthulhu-like monsters who have been observing our species from space and have already destroyed Marsh’s timeline. In order to accomplish this, he must remove all traces of the supermen that were created by the Nazi war machine and caused the specters from outer space to notice our planet in the first place.

 His biggest challenge is the mad seer Gretel, one of the most powerful of the Nazi creations, who has sent a version of herself to this timeline to thwart Marsh.  Why would she stand in his way?  Because she has seen that in all the timelines she dies and she is determined to stop that from happening, even if it means destroying most of humanity in the process. And Marsh is the only man who can stop her

                                *************************************

Mixing magic with the real world is a recipe for extreme kitsch and laziness in plotting for most authors. Thankfully Ian Tregillis isn’t most authors. The concluding volume of the Milkweed Tiptych utilizes these elements perfectly and is a seamless continuation of the middle volume, with a significant chunk spent exploring the 1st book. With the aid of a plot device, that when used in most other books (and movies and TV series) usually gives me a headache, Tregillis uses it in a way that seems entirely plausible (in the context of the book). Oh and also a big thumbs up for introducing a character best described as a precognitive sociopath through this series

9)      Blood Song by Anthony Ryan (Raven’s Shadow, Book 1):

Blood Song

Synopsis:

 “The Sixth Order wields the sword of justice and smites the enemies of the Faith and the Realm.”

 Vaelin Al Sorna was only a child of ten when his father left him at the iron gate of the Sixth Order. The Brothers of the Sixth Order are devoted to battle, and Vaelin will be trained and hardened to the austere, celibate, and dangerous life of a Warrior of the Faith. He has no family now save the Order.

 Vaelin’s father was Battle Lord to King Janus, ruler of the unified realm. Vaelin’s rage at being deprived of his birthright and dropped at the doorstep of the Sixth Order like a foundling knows no bounds. He cherishes the memory of his mother, and what he will come to learn of her at the Order will confound him. His father, too, has motives that Vaelin will come to understand. But one truth overpowers all the rest: Vaelin Al Sorna is destined for a future he has yet to comprehend. A future that will alter not only the realm, but the world.

                                *************************************

If we cannot have Patrick Rothfuss, at least we have Anthony Ryan. High praise and comparison indeed. Rothfuss has demonstrated a style of writing and narration (albeit over two books) that is a pleasure and Anthony Ryan does the same in his debut book. While it’s difficult for any character to be even closely comparable to Rothfuss’ Kvothe, Ryan does a phenomenal job. The story has the easy pace, cadence and flow that you are lulled into a fascinating journey and without realizing, it’s 4AM on a working day

10)   The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett:

The Troupe

Synopsis:

 Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions.

 But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change.

 Because there is a secret within Silenus’s show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their lives.

 And soon…he is as well.

                                *************************************

Heartachingly beautiful. No other ways to describe this story of longing, belonging, love and hope. It’s moody and dark but never without hope. There is truly something about books/ movies that deal with music, traveling musicians, circuses et al that if done right easily vaults up to the top of my reading list starting with McLean in Caravan to Vaccares to Rothfuss in Name of the Wind. The Troupe is no exception to that and looking forward to more books from RBJ. (This is also the only exception in this list. All the books in the list were released in 2013 except for the Troupe. The Troupe due to the simple fact I read it in 2013. My blog, my list, my rules (when convenient of course))

Honorable Mentions:

1)      The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

2)      The Red Knight by Miles Cameron

3)      Hunted by Kevin Hearne (even if the new POV introduced is kind of grating and inconsistent)

Ambivalent Reactions:

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch: This is a book that I guess everyone had massive expectations on. We all wanted to see our familiar rogues (Locke and Jean) take on the world and with the introduction of a character that the Gentlemen Bastards considered a legend in flesh, this book should have had it all. Instead Sabetha didn’t live up the hype and the romance between Locke and Sabetha lacked chemistry. However, Scott Lynch remedies the situation by introducing a completely new wrinkle to the story, almost transforming perceptions on how future books are likely to pan out and this is my cause of excitement for the rest of the series.

PS: As one can see, I have gone with Speculative Fiction over the traditional fantasy fiction. Speculative Fiction is an overall umbrella that encompasses fantasy fiction, horror, supernatural, superhero, science fiction, apocalyptic et al (in short, the genres I pretty much read)

PPS: Disappointing read of 2013 could very well be The Daylight War by Peter V Brett. As much as I liked the Painted Man, this one got steadily irritating especially wrt some characters and the cliffhanger at the end of the book did seem a cheat of a way to end the book. And sadly, despite the title, there was no war

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  1. […] (My 2016 TBR Shelf, 2016 Read Shelf). As I have mentioned in my posts in previous years (here and here), my reading habits have become extremely contemporary, with almost 90% of what I read being […]

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