Oh look! It’s that time of year again. When we’re allowed to eat as much as we damn please, copious drinking and all that frenzied Christmas shit.
Or maybe that’s just me. Except for the drinking.
I say this, and it’s already 2020. Shows how long it took me to get this damn article out. Get back on your game, Michael.
I’ll be blunt. Ranking these from last year has been damn hard. They could all be my BOTY, but that would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it? For this, I’ll give some little micro-reviews for each book, leave links so you wonderful readers can pick it up, and move on. I intend on writing full reviews on all of these. (And for some, I already have! Polite coughing)
I’ll also be honest: Apart from the Top 3, I don’t have much of a ranking for the rest of these. Treat the rankings overall with a grain of salt. They’re all excellent books in their own right. All I can say is, pick them up and give them a shot. You won’t regret it 🙂
A Ritual of Bone by Lee Conely
If you like dark as shit horror fantasy that does undead really well, this book is for you. I really enjoyed this book, and as someone who is fond of undead apocolypases, I think it did it very well. The idea of undead as a result of rogue magic going wrong has been done for a long time, but Ritual of Bone does things in both a refreshing and disturbing take. There’s an amazing chapter in the book which speaks from an undead’s POV, and it’s one of the best chapters for how chilling the concept is. They’re sentient and aware of what they’re doing, but unable to stop their ravenous hunger and desire to kill.
There’s a couple of quirks here and there, and I wish the book went into its lore in a better way, but there’s an extremely solid foundation here for a remarkable trilogy. I really got into the characters, especially the girl Nym and her brother Finn. They’re done pretty well, but the best part of this book is the atmoshpere. It is grim and violent, and you feel the sense that things begin to collapse into a nightmare remarkably fast. I’d like to call this A Train to Busan in fantasy book form, so hopefully that gets your attention.
Final score: 8/10
Shields in Shadow by Andy Peloquin
Combine a tooth-and-nail military fantasy with The Avengers, and you’ve got The Silent Champions. Andy Peloquin is one hell of a writer and this new series kicks off with one hell of a bang.
I beta read this book a long time before it came out, and I felt a great deal of appreciation both for the world and its setting, but also the logistics of war. I had a great talk with Andy regarding military tactics (thanks for the good talks mate!) but I felt I was particularly harsh with some of my critique. Fortunately it seems to have worked, because the published version is a trim, lean and formidable narrative machine. This is a tale of a Roman-esque fantasy world on the brink of destruction against the ferocious and lethal Eirdkilrs (think of them as Gallic tribesmen but eight feet tall and complete bloodthirsty monsters, not unlike what Rome would consider them as), and the main protagonist’s heartbreaking story of redemption.
And it’s damn good.
The main cast is excellent from beginning to end, with diverse and powerful characters that really bring the world to life. The book focuses on character building and the drawing together of this new group, an elite band of larger-than-life supersoldiers who will win a war, live or die. This annoyed my “realistic” brain at first, but the book is so strong overall that I eventually got past it.
Battles and tactics are well thought out and described, yet it is the character and world building that brings it all together, and it rises Shields In Shadow from a good book to an excellent book. I devoured this behemoth, and looking forward to the rest of the series.
Final score: 8.5/10
Quelling by Angie Grigaliunas
An excellent sequel to Sowing, Angie really pulls out the stops in the second to her series. The best part of her series by far has always been her characters, and this book really delves deeper into it. Sisters Rab and Ari still steal the show, and my annoyance with Rab as a character in Sowing mostly deterioriates by this point. I always said from the beginning Ari was the best character in Book 1, and that carries onto book two.
My favourite part of Quelling is just how good it is in comparison to Sowing. That’s not putting Sowing down in any way; it was a very solid debut, but it carried a couple of issues with me leading into the sequel. I’m happy to say that the story is far stronger, both in plot progression and the characters. One criticism I had from Sowing was that despite a diverse cast, it felt at times that the male characters in particular were made from the same mould: sarcastic, witty people who loved calling each other “ass” with little variation in personality. Fortunately again, Quelling seriously steps up, and we finally start to delve a ton into these different characters.
The danger and worldbuilding Quelling brings is quite impressive, all tied in by the character development. I fucking cheered at the end of Book 2, and I’m looking forward to the third book as well!
Final score: 8/10
Blood of Heirs by Alicia Wanstall-Burke
Damn, this is how you fucking write a debut novel! Blood of Heirs to me is a wonderful example of worldbuilding and storycrafting from the beginning. The book focuses on two point of views: Lidan, a fierce daughter of her father’s clan in a really nice Mongolian-esque setting, and Ranoth, an heir whose magical power ends with him forced from his home as rogue forces and his father’s men conspire to kill him.
Just like Quelling, characters is where the book shines, and the best character by far in this is Lidian. Caught in a war between her parents and her clan’s struggles against rivals and friends alike, she has to do what she can to survive against her father’s will, a move made worse when it’s revealed one of her father’s wives is pregnant – threatening her birthright. Things really go up creek without a paddle when dangerous monsters lurk in the shadows – possibly threatening all of mankind.
Sorry if I don’t have too much to say about this – I just really liked it, and I struggle sometimes putting that like into words. It’s an amazing book, and I can’t wait to read the sequel. Which I really need to pick up…
Final score: 8.6/10
A Time of Dread by John Gwynne
Faithful and the Fallen is one of the best fantasy series in existance, and this debut into a new series by John Gwynne is a brilliant followup on that ending. The old heroes are long dead, now just legends (although some allies of the Bright Star still remain) and the Ben-Elim rule the Banished Lands in their place…only to be just as brutal as the demonic Kadoshim. They really are assholes, and I really liked reading and hating these guys. In many ways, I ended up rooting for the Kadoshim.
They’ve returned, and are preparing a new war to resurrect their fallen god, Asroth. The fight scenes are deliciously brutal as always, and the book is just a gushing, cruel opening to what promises to be another incredible series by John. It’s an even better debut than Malice was (Book 1 of Faithful and the Fallen), and that’s a great thing.
While Malice was a slow burn at times, A Time of Dread kicks off with action and cruel fighting from beginning to end, and I really got sucked into this book. I have A Time of Blood sitting on my shelf, just ready to get into. It’s second on my reading list, after Godblind.
Final Score: 8.8/10
I have a Top 4 of sorts. This is them. Again, don’t take them too literally. The gap between these is so fucking little that it’s nearly impossible to rank them. But fuck it.
The Lore of Prometheus by Graham Austin King
The Top 5, and number five spot, was literally a race between this and Blood of Heirs. Sorry Alicia. Feel free to do that trial by combat battle with Graham for the bloodright. We’ll find some good referees 😉
Anyway, this was one of the first books I read in 2019, and my god did it do good shit. Graham wrote an amazing book here, with exceptional characters. Their voices, especially John Carver, stole the show for me, in an urban present day world where magic delves from suffering that only broken people – people like John, can suffer. As people hunt him down and torture him to reveal his long-repressed powers, it becomes a struggle for survival.
There’s also a second protagonist, an Australian nurse called MacKenzie. Her story, told in the third person while John Carvers is told in first person, pulled no punches and I really got into her storyline. It is rough what happens to her, shame on the author. (I kid. Bring on all the death!)
The story ends on a really awesome and sweet note, and it’s an awesome novel for military fantasy readers and urban fantasy lovers alike. One of the biggest surprises of 2019 for me.
Final score: 9/10
Seraphina’s Lament by Sarah Chorn
Hell. Fucking. Yes.
This book is dark fantasy in its purest form, and it does it without the weaknesses a lot of grimdark novels suffer from: edgelord characters doing evil stuff for the sake of it. There is none of that in this book.
Have you ever watched Threads? It was a BBC docu-drama in the 1980s, and perhaps the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. It did something no horror film could, and that was frighten me to the bone. It covers a nuclear attack on Britain and its catastrophic aftermath. Every person in the world should see it.
This book hit me on levels similar to Threads, on a form that few other books have achieved. There is a deep level of human suffering in the book. It’s heavily inspired by Stalinist Russia during his Five-Year economic plans, decisions that cost millions of lives. This is a brutal book that goes beyond the rest in many ways, but it does so in a way that made me keep reading. Not once did it annoy me or wind me up with things some grimdark books do. In a way this is historical fantasy at its core, but there is a powerful magic at heart in this book. I’ve never seen a novel that writes the destruction that is starvation so well. Hell, it’s even a character in this book.
The cast of the book is small with the number of dedicated POVs in the single digits. The story focuses on these select few and it does well. Having a focused character setup is a good thing for any fiction, and we really get to grips with the characters. There is a deep level of characterisation and development with all of them. They’re living, breathing works of art, not words on a page. Sometimes you don’t get that often.
The plot sounds simple at first. Remember what I said about Stalin? The main antagonist Eyad is a brutal man with plans to turn his realm into something breaker. You must break before you become and under such ruthless economic reforms, hatred and suffering are everything. His lover and rival Vadden leads rebels against him – and he is someone not of mercy. Magic begins to break into the world properly as Eyad tries to collect all those who can use it. When his favourite slave Seraphina escapes, it starts a destructive path that rebirths the gods.
While we have that, we also have a power struggle going on between Mouse, whose magic is growing out of control to the extend of her feasting on human souls to survive and the growing might of the Bone Lord, the manifestation of one man’s starvation and the breakdown of his gut instinct to survive.
The prose is excellent without being too flowery (Which is fucking difficult to do when you do prose like this) and the world-building is well done, again without going over the top. It has great description of what’s going on, and teases you with more. I’m really looking forward to the next edition of Sarah Chorn’s work. I’ll imagine it’s not for everyone. There is a deal of dark themes explored such as cannibalism, murder and torture so if you don’t like reading it, you might want to give this a miss. Even if you get queasy, I still recommend giving the book a try.
Oh, and I’ve made a map for this series. It’s cool as fuck.
Final Score: 9.2/10
Dreams of the Dying: Every Day Like the Last by Nicolas Lietzau
Using the Patreon cover for this, as I know the paperback cover isn’t final yet.
So, everyone knows how much I love Enderal, one of the best RPGS and stories in recent times. And it has a novel out too!
This book kinda breaks my rules a bit, because it’s not due out until 2020. The version I read was the web novel released on Patreon by its author, writer of Enderal and game writer Nicholas Lietazu. He’s making a ton of progress making the paperback launch even better than the web version, which is already pretty damn good. It’s also one of my favorite books of 2019, as it shows on my list.
Enderal had some of the best characters in any video game ever, and Dreams of the Dying takes the best of them all and shows him on his journeys before the events of Enderal. Jespar is brought to life in the paper world, and it just proves Nicolas knows how to write a damn good book just as well as he can making us love his world and characters in the computer screen too. DOTD (I’ll do this abbreviation from now on) has stunning worldbuilding, to the point I could read the pages and know exactly where I was. That takes fucking skill and talent to do, and it’s so vivid I could virtually feel the heat and mugginess from the Kile’ archeipelago setting, from the rocks and beaches to the massive ziggarauts.
The story is excellent too. Desperate for money, Jespar is recruited for a dangerous journey to cure one of the rulers of Kile, as the seeds of a deadly rebellion grow amongst the realm. It’s powerful and pungent, with scenes out of some horror film in stages. It’s a potent psychological journey from beginning to end, and the losses in this book are a punch to the gut.
Hopefully that whets your appetite. The big launch should be in 2020, and it’s shaping up to be one of the best fantasy releases of the year. I have big hopes for this. It’s gonna be fun.
Final score: 9.2/10
No buy link yet, but I can send you to his Patreon. You can read the whole web novel as it is there, but I highly recommend donating. The paperback is gonna be amazing.
Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher
It’s my book of the year.
Fletcher I think is pretty well known for grimdark. His series Manifest Delusions pretty much defines the genre. Gotta love some human stew.
I absolutely love that series, and I hope it continues in some form someday. If that series had a weakness, if any, it was possibly too grimdark, almost to a psychotic degree.
Smoke and Stone tones down the brutality to something thats both more managable, and quality. It is by far Fletcher’s best work (though his work in general is excellent quality, so that should be a testament to how much I enjoy this book) and as of typing up this review, it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year. That’s taking into account some excellent books like The Lore of Prometheus, Blood of Heirs, Seraphinas Lament, Dreams of the Dying and the entire Expanse series. Yes, I think the book is that good. In short, buy the fuck out of his book and read it!
But you guys came here for a review, so here goes.
While Smoke and Stone is well balanced and in my opinion a more flexible take on grimdark, it’s still violent. It takes place inside one city with a ruthless caste system, and there is still the good murders and violence that makes Fletcher’s books so good. The worldbuilding is stellar, and it really brings you into the immersion. I can follow the narrative and see everything, which takes skill to do.
The characters I think are the best Fletcher has ever written. We have Nuru, a street sorcerer who is trying to survive, who joins up with a small group, and Akachi, a priest of Cloud Serpent who is doing what he can to bring peace to this violent, war-torn city. The gods are preparing for war, and have fucking awesome names. Mother Death, a banished underworld god, battles Akachi in a war that will define the future of humanity.
It still takes a bit of time to get with the characters, but I found things really tight, and I found myself rooting for everyone. Again, this takes skill. The writing is tight, and puts the characters through hell. Fletcher ruins them, and breaking only makes them more powerful.
The magic system is truly impressive and I think it’s the biggest part that draws me in. Seriously, magic based on drugs! It’s so damn cool, and it’s really fleshed out. There are no fewer than twenty drugs used by sorcerers to do magic, and they get mixed for extra effects. Akachi can turn into a fucking puma, and Nuru turns carvings into living automatons. It’s such a cool magic system, and as someone who also experiments with drugs in his own novels (In the fantasy world, NOT ours! We’re all good here), It’s a true example of how creative you can be.
This might be a shorter review than I usually do, but I think I’ve summed up everything. I liked the tight writing, the brilliant world design, and the story sets the scene for what I think is going to be a brilliant series.
Final score: 9.5/10
That was a long read. Hope you guys enjoy my rambles! I aim to read 25 books this year. Let’s see how I do.