MIND MELD: Our Favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2014 (So Far)
Where did the time go? It’s hard to believe that 2014 is half over. With that in mind, I asked our panelists this question:
2014 has been a good reading year for me so far, with only a few disappointing reads. So selecting my favourites was tough, but in the end I chose to highlight those books I’ve found myself either thinking off long after I finished them or found myself recommending them again and a again. In alphabetical order they are:
Sebastien de Castell – Traitor’s Blade
This was just so much fun and had such compelling characters. De Castell delivers a polished, well-rounded debut which oozes fun and adventure and had me grinning from ear to ear throughout the book.
Kim Curran – Glaze
Curran’s Glaze is a stark exploration of the dark side of social media and the way wearable tech might develop in some very scary ways. With great characters, an intriguing plat, snappy dialogue, and great pacing Kim Curran proves she’s an author to be reckoned with and I can’t wait to see where she goes next.
Corinne Duyvis – Otherbound
Another YA and a debut, Otherbound is the sort of diverse and exciting story that readers have been clamouring for. Written in an assured manner and a smooth style, Otherbound delivers on its fascinating premise of a boy who sees the life of a girl in a different universe every time he blinks his eyes closed. Nolan and Amara are fascinating protagonists and Duyvis explores some very difficult topics in her debut novel.
Snorri Kristjansson – Blood Will Follow
VIKINGS! That is all. Well, no not really, there is more. Where its predecessor Swords of Good Men was one giant, frenetic action sequence interspersed with breathing moments of character development, Blood Will Follow focused far more on the character development and history of its protagonists’ Ulfar and Audun and revealed more of the mythical and magical underpinnings of Kristjansson’s world. I loved this sequel and I can’t wait for the final book in the trilogy.
Mark Lawrence – Prince of Fools
More Vikings! And one called Snorri too. Where Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy dealt with a dark and anger-driven teenage protagonist in Jorg, his Red Queen’s War features a totally different sort of protagonist in Jalan. I loved this charming and feckless rogue, whose self-admitted cowardice sometimes forces him into the role of hero by accident. With a funny and touching buddy movie road trip sensibility, Lawrence delivers a great start to his second series.
Sarah Lotz – The Three
If there’s one book I’ve fangirled and proselytised over it is Sarah Lotz’s The Three. It was a book that blew me away with its construction and story-telling. But more than that, Lotz manages to pack so much social commentary into the story without ever becoming the least bit preachy. Without turning into a gushing fangirl once again, if there is one book you need to read this year it is The Three!
Sophia McDougall – Mars Evacuees
Sophia McDougall is one of my favourite short fiction writers. Her short length prose never fails to impress, so I was looking forward to reading my first long form story by her. And in Mars Evacuees McDougall not only proved that she’s an all-round writer at home in any length, she also proved she’s amazingly versatile when it comes to style and genre. But most importantly, this wonderfully diverse middle-grade story about a group of children who are evacuated to Mars in the midst of an intergalactic war is just plain fun and very exciting.
First, there were a slew of ongoing series that I couldn’t wait to continue:
Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey — I’ll admit that I was disappointed with the third Expanse novel, Caliban’s War, but the latest release reminded me why I love this universe so much. You won’t find more honest prose than at the pen of James S.A. Corey. I’m not even really a sci-fi guy, and I love this series to death. (For the fans, don’t forget to check out “The Churn”, a novella about Amos’s past which dropped this year and is the best novella I’ve ever read.)
Skin Game by Jim Butcher — The Dresden Files just keep getting better and better. If you haven’t already begun, I urge you to start reading some of the funniest and tightly crafted fantasy currently out there.
The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan — This sequel takes everything that was incredible about Promise of Blood and cranks it up a notch or five. It’s an explosive, fun, and wildly exhilarating novel from one of the genre’s hottest upstarts.
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson — Brandon had some big shoes to fill: his own. The Way of Kings just might be one of the single best books I’ve ever read, and let me tell you that the sequel is even better. This will be the fantasy series to follow in the years to come, so hop on early.
And now, for all the books that I hadn’t expected to read this year, yet still managed to blow me away:
Sword & Laser Anthology edited by Veronica Belmont and Tom Merritt — This anthology is a triumph, and the SFF community needs more like it. The stories in here are from up-and-coming authors, and while not perfect, is a damn refreshing read that deserves your attention.
The 33 by J.C. Hutchins — The 33 isn’t a novel, it’s a monthly short story series with recurring characters, told over TV season-like arcs. Hutchins is truly a writer for the 21st century, and I can’t recommend a better place to see someone pushing the boundaries of publishing and genre.
Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence — Let’s admit it, we were all anxious to see how Mark would follow up his Broken Empire trilogy. In Prince of Fools, we have a protagonist that has just as much bite as Jorg, but in a tighter and more satisfying story.
Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi — You can start reading this novella over breakfast, and you won’t be able to put it down over the coffee after. If you’re late for work, blame Scalzi, not me. This is so much more than just a teaser for the forthcoming Lock In—it’s one of the most engrossing epidemic tales ever told and is totally worth losing your job over.
And for three novels which I haven’t managed to read yet, but I am super excited for nonetheless:
Shards of Time by Lynn Flewelling — In which she completes her Nightrunner series, much to my dismay because Seregil and Alec are two of my favourite characters of all time.
Women Destroy Science Fiction! edited by Christie Yant — Could this be the most important anthology of the year? Magic 8 Ball says “outlook good.”
Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick — The much-anticipated sequel to Among Thieves: A Tale of the King and the best depiction of true swordplay in any novel.
I’ve said it all year long — 2014 is an amazing year for fantasy. From Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance to Jim Butcher’s Skin Game earlier this year to Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin and Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire later this year, some seriously huge names in SFF are releasing highly anticipated new reads in 2014. And yet some of my absolute favorite reads of the year have come from authors that weren’t necessarily directly on my radar prior to this year.
The only exception to that rule has been my favorite urban fantasy so far this year: Anne Bishop’s Murder of Crows. Bishop has been one of my favorites ever since her Black Jewels series, and this new urban fantasy series is definitely proving that she needs to be on my must read list. Murder of Crows is the second book in The Others series, and Bishop not only avoided the sophomore slump, but managed to write a novel that somehow even surpassed her first in this series for me. The Others series is a combination of an alternate US history wherein we reside on Earth at the sufferance of its original inhabitants, the terra indigene (think vampires, shapeshifters, werewolves, Elementals and so forth) with an exciting urban fantasy that features an engaging over-arching mystery, excellent character development and the slightest hint of romance. It has one of the most unique UF protagonists I’ve ever read. I adore this series.
The book that has taken me most by surprise this year is The Girl with All The Gifts by M.R. Carey. I am usually not a major reader of thrillers, but the cover completely sucked me in on this read and I am so glad that it did The novel follows a young girl named Melanie and a few inter-related characters, primarily her teacher Miss Justineau, as they try to figure out their place in the world. This novel was a win on a number of levels — from the strength in the writing to the amazing characterizations, the intensity of the plot and the depth of the questions the book leaves you with. Despite not usually being a horror novel type of girl, this novel made a believer out of me for an entire genre. I caught myself pondering the characters and the ending and the morality implications of the story for days and days after finishing the novel. By any measure, that is a success of a book for me.
But hands down my absolute favorite SFF release of the year is The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. I have been singing this book’s praises ever since I first had the opportunity to read it earlier this year. This book is the perfect blend of fantasy, steampunk and court intrigue with a dash of mystery, a hint of coming-of-age and a whole bunch of beautiful writing. It follows Maia, a young half-goblin who was born fourth in line to the throne of his father, the Emperor of the elven lands. Hated by his father, he has been raised in exile and basically ignored by everyone at Court. That is, until the dirigible carrying his father and three eldest brothers suddenly crashes and Maia is thrust upon the throne (or, from Maia’s point of view, the throne is thrust upon him). He cannot given speeches, having been ridiculed his entire life when he spoke. He knows no one at Court. He has no friends and no one he can trust. But still he is Emperor and he must find a way. I loved every part of this book and have rarely left a fantasy novel feeling as just plain good as I felt when I finished this book. Basically, if you are looking for a massive battle or sweeping love story, you will not find it here. But if you want beautiful writing, a gorgeous other-worldly setting, excellent world-building and characters that grab your heart and won’t let go, then please read this. At least give it a try — I hope you love it as much as I do.
It’s been a weird year. I haven’t been reading nearly as much as usual, and am still backlogged to a lot of last year’s books. A few I can note (and remember off the top of my head!) are Jim Butcher’s latest Dresden novel, Skin Game, Let the Dead Sleep by Heather Graham, and the reissue of an old favorite by Linnea Sinclair, The Down Home Zombie Blues.
Shattered (Iron Druid Chronicles) by Ser Kevin Hearne – easily my fave urban fantasy series atm. Slightly different feel to this one, but I thought it was very cool that we got some Granuaile POV and Atticus took more of a backseat role. Cibola Burn (the Expanse) by James SA Corey – I honestly thought this series was ending with Abbadon’s Gate, so to find another Expanse novel on the way was a happypants moment. Love this series, love this universe.
I realize there’s not much of a correlation between druids and protomolecules, but hey, I’m a weird guy.
- Annihilation & Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
- Empty Hearts by Mark Finn
- Ghost Train to New Orleans by Mur Lafferty
- The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Cat Valente
- Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
- Hollow City by Ransom Riggs
- Invisible: Personal Essays on Representation in SF/F edited by Jim C. Hines
- It Came From the North: an anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction edited by Johanna Sinisalo
- The Martian by Andy Weir
- Promise of Shadows by Justina Ireland
- Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis J. Wiebe
- The Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
- Rogues edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
- Saga Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan
- The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, & Kevin Moffett
- Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler
Would probably have made this list if I had managed to read them yet:
- The Confabulist by Steven Galloway
- Cress by Marissa Meyer
- The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove
- Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
- Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee
- The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell
- Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
Cheating (either not quite SF/F or reprints or not yet available):
- Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
- Cold in July by Joe R. Lansdale
- The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson
- The Girls of the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
- The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen
- The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross
- To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
- The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean
- Tigerman by Nick Harkaway
So this year my science fiction du jour was the “Clarkesworld” podcast. Some of the best speculative fiction from all over. Clarkesworld introduced me to some fabulous new authors. Also, I have to shout out to Wool and Windup Girl. I love the authors that are giving us anything but the typical post apocalyptic clap trap. I mean, I love post apocalyptic clap trap. I love it dearly, but these authors have begun new discussions into what Sci Fi and speculative fiction can do.
One of my favorite things about science fiction and fantasy novels is their ability to make me think critically about the world by looking at our own issues through a different lens. My favorite books of the year address themes including social justice, democratic ideals, and protecting the environment.
1) Stolen Songbird by Danielle Jensen
Stolen Songbird is a subversion of the typical damsel-in-distress story. It’s about a girl named Cécile who is kidnapped and sold to trolls, who marry her off to their prince to try to break a witch’s curse. At first, it seems like every nasty stereotype about trolls is true, but Cécile finds that her new husband is an unexpected ally who cares about the common people and is leading an uprising to create a just society. This is hands down my favorite book of 2014, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
2) Black Feathers by Joseph D’Lacey
The story begins in a time similar to our own, when humans abuse the planet until mother nature rebels and begins to fight back. The world was saved by a messiah figure known as the Crowman. Many years later, a girl named Megan follows in the Crowman’s footsteps to discover what caused the cataclysm and how to keep it from happening again.
3) Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
This futuristic blend of sci-fi and fantasy tells the story of a young queen’s journey to reclaim her throne. Kelsea Raleigh was raised in a cottage in the forest, hidden by her allies until she came of age. She had little contact with the outside world, but treasured her time spent with ancient volumes of Tolkien and Rowling. During Kelsea’s sheltered upbringing, life for the people of the Tearling has been anything but pleasant, and she must now confront her biggest challenge yet–facing her mother’s legacy.
2014 is speeding by at such a rate that I feel like I’m taking part in some sort of sci fi experiment! That being said there have been some great books released so far and still plenty more to look forward to. Choosing favourite books is always tough, especially when there’s so many to choose from but I use the tried and trusted method of any book that I rave about to my friends, annoy the hell out of them to read and practically bounce up and down with excitement until I receive their verdict – those are the ones!
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. This is the second in a series which got off to an amazing start with Way of Kings. This book is epic, it’s immense – and I hate using such everyday, overused and mundane terms to describe a book that is this good – it merits coming up with a word specially for this series. The scope involved, the characterisation, the magical elements and the world building are simply breathtaking! I highly recommend this series and can’t wait for No.3. It’s brillic! Okay, making up new words is not my forte either!
The Girl With All the Gifts by M R Carey. This is one of those books that just takes you by surprise. I didn’t have the faintest clue what the book was actually about and the cover is distractingly effective – I don’t think you would look at that deceptively simple cover and ever come up with a notion of what is on the pages in between. I don’t want to give away too much but fairly early on we discover the nature of the book and zombies are involved. I read another review of this book which hit the nail on the head about why you either love or hate this type of book. It’s the horrible feeling that: It. Could. Just. Happen! In fact this book gives a creepily chilling and plausible basis for what actually happens! On top of this, Melanie and Miss Justineau are really enigmatic characters that you can’t help but get behind. It’s one of those books that you will race to the end, breath held, mind boggled as to how this can be resolved in a satisfactory way!
The Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence. Mark Lawrnece burst onto the fantasy scene with his Broken Empire Series. This was a dark series that introduced us to Prince Jorg of Ancrath – I think it’s safe to say that feelings are mixed on Jorg but I really did enjoy this series although I admit that Jorg isn’t a soft and cuddly character. Then along comes Prince of Fools. I went into this with a feeling of ‘will he or won’t he pull this off’. The answer is that Lawrence definitely ‘pulled’ this off. We revisited the broken empire and had a short appearance by Jorg but apart from those two elements this book is completely different. it’s a different style of story. For me, it felt like it got back to old school fantasy style. Without going into the storyline the main characters are Jalan and Snorri. Both of these characters held me to the page but without doubt the Viking Snorri won the day for me. On top of this we really get to traverse the world and see the sights in this story. The winning element to these books however is Lawrence’s style of writing which I simply love. It’s so damned clever and appears effortless.
The Three by Sarah Lotz. What an unusual, gripping and creepy book. The story is related in the form of excerpts taken from a book that was written in the wake of four airplane crashes – because flying isn’t scary enough! Four crashes, four different locations, virtually within minutes of each other on the same day and four survivors -although one of those only survives for a short period – having just enough time to leave the following message:
They’re here … The boy. The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many … They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to??-
You must be intrigued – and on top of that, creepy children. I won’t deny that the ending is left open – but I like it like that way – plenty of room to speculate….
Most of the titles I chose for this Mind Meld have two things in common – I loved them for the sheer strength of their plots, and the amazing characters that drive them. I read sff for many reasons – ideas, writing, philosophy, etc. – and although these stories aren’t necessarily short on those thing, it was wanting to know what happened to these characters that kept me hooked.
The first one – The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine – is a bit of a cheat. Valentine is well-known for her sff stories and, like many of those, her latest novel is based on a fairytale, but it’s not sff. However, it’s my favourite novel published this year, and I think a lot of readers who enjoy Valentine’s work would want to check it out.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club take the story of the “Twelve Dancing Princesses”, to 1920s New York. The twelve Hamilton sisters have been kept prisoner in their home their entire lives, the shameful evidence of their wealthy father’s inability to produce a son. But every night, led by the eldest sister Jo, they sneak out to go dancing in the city’s speakeasies, quickly wearing out their cheap catalogue shoes. It’s through dancing that Jo has been able to build her sisters an exhilarating nighttime world, but they risk losing it when their father decides to marry them off. The sisters know exactly what kind of man wants to marry a girl who’s been locked up in the house her whole life, so Jo tries desperately to find a way out for each of them.
The story is mostly told from Jo’s POV. She’s in the difficult position of being sister, commander, and guardian. Keeping her sisters safe from their father and taking them out dancing every night means being strict and domineering, so much so that she’s earned the nickname “General”. Jo has more heart than anyone else, but it’s only by acting heartlessly that she can be the sister they need.
It sounds like this story could be depressing, but the resilience of the Hamilton sisters prevents it from dragging you down. The tale is perfectly paced and balances tension with introspection, tragedy with triumph, and adds a dash of romance. As always, Valentine brings an emotional nuance that I always enjoy in her beautiful writing. You can read my full review here.
Unfortunately I haven’t read that many of 2014’s novels, and anything else I mention is likely to be listed by someone else, so I decided to share my favourite short fiction instead.
“The Screams of Dragons” by Kelley Armstrong was published in the Spring 2014 edition of Subterranean Magazine (you can read the story online or download the whole edition for free). It’s about Bobby, a young boy whose grandmother comes to believe that he’s a changeling and starts abusing him. His little sister delights in it while his parents ignore it, to the point that Bobby really does feel like he doesn’t belong. And he is different – he’s quiet and stoic, and has strange dreams about green fields, golden castles, and screaming dragons. The only place he feels welcome is the town of Cainsville, where the adults take him seriously, and many of the residents have supernatural powers.
Eventually, Bobby does become more sinister, if only as a matter of self-defence. But by then it’s hard to unravel his psychology – was there always something ‘wrong’ about him, or has he been corrupted by alienation and abuse? It’s a deliciously creepy story with just the right balance between intriguing hints and shocking reveals. “The Screams of Dragons” is the prequel story to The Omens, the first in Armstrong’s new Cainsville series, so if you like it you can keep reading. You can also check out my full review here.
Then there’s another fairytale retelling from Tor. Retellings are getting a bit commonplace, but some authors still write fantastic ones, as Veronica Schanoes did in “Among the Thorns”. It’s a revenge tale based on “The Jew Among Thorns”, a Grimms’ fairytale that seems very odd unless you accept the fundamental prejudice against Jews at its core. In the fairytale, a Jew is forced to dance among thorns until they tear his clothes and flesh. Later, he’s hanged.
Schanoes retells it from the POV of the Jew’s daughter, Itte. She is only seven years old when her beloved father is murdered on a whim, and she vows to one day go to the town that killed him and take revenge. When her opportunity nears, she accepts the help of a goddess whose worship has declined in the face of monotheistic belief in the jealous god Adonai. It’s a dark story, blending the fairytale aspects with mythology and history.
My final choice differs a bit from the other three in that it didn’t appeal to me because of plot or character, but because its uncanny nature and chilling depiction of motherhood. In “The Mothers of Voorhisville” by Mary Rickert (also at Tor) a number of women from the town of Voorhisville all fall pregnant at the same time, all after a meeting a strange man named Jeffrey who then leaves and never returns. All of the babies are beautiful boys, and each of them has a sharp little pair of wings. It takes a while for the mothers to figure out that they were not the only ones to sleep with Jeffrey and give birth to a winged baby, and each of them desperately tries to prevent doctors, friends and family members from learning the truth. The babies scare them, hurt them, endanger their lives, but the mothers’ love transcends all monstrosity. The story itself is written as a group effort at a later date. It veers between horror, tragedy and absurdity and although it leaves many questions unanswered, I loved the bizarre, unsettling feel of it.
I actually haven’t read many sci-fi/fantasy books that have been released this year… though there are a few notable exceptions. I’ve been playing catch-up on books I should’ve read some time ago, like Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series (The Lies of Locke Lamora, etc), Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings (read over a few months, in bits and pieces), and Ann Bishop’s paranormal/urban fantasy Written in Red – all of which I cannot recommend enough.
One of my favorite 2014 releases is the sequel to Written in Red: Murder of Crows. The world in Anne Bishop’s The Others series is unlike anything I’ve read before – part urban fantasy, part alternate history, part mystery, part (well, small part) romance, and ALL amazing. They follow the escape of a “blood prophet”, Meg, from captors who sell her prophecies for profit. Meg takes refuge (if you can call it that) working as a Human Liaison in a Courtyard community where Others live – creatures like vampires, werewolves, other shapeshifters, elementals, etc. The world in this series is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and the characters are fantastic. Only two books in, and I can already tell this series is going to be an absolute favorite.
Another of my favorite books this year, which just came out on June 17th, is the conclusion to Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, Ruin and Rising. If you read YA high fantasy, you’ve probably at least heard of these books if you haven’t read them already. And if you haven’t read them, you should really look into fixing that, because this conclusion is the perfect ending to an incredible trilogy. The growth of the main character, Alina, across all three books is just phenomenal to watch. And the Russian-inspired culture and landscape is pretty fantastic, as well. I’m so excited for everything Leigh Bardugo has in store for us next.
But my favorite book of 2014 so far, hands down, is Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance. This is the second book his epic fantasy Stormlight Archive, and the best sequel I’ve read in a long time. So much of Words of Radiance is payoff for all the major setup that went into The Way of Kings, which made the whole experience incredibly satisfying. And on top of that, the world-building is expanded, the plotlines are even more gripping, and the characters grow by leaps and bounds. I think one of the major benefits of the length of the Stormlight Archive books is that the characters are given time to establish themselves as people, not just characters driving (or being driven by) the plot. If you haven’t picked up this series yet, you can’t go wrong. It may be daunting, but each book is worth every one of their 1,000+ pages.
Tagged with: alex ristea • Cindy Spencer Pape • Emily Johnston • Eric Czuleger • Grace Troxel • Jay Krisoff • Lauren Smith • Lynn Williams • Mieneke van der Salm • Mind Meld • Nikki Ramsay • Peggy Hailey
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