Welcome back to another curated special list of hidden finds that will dazzle and delight. This piece is a follow-up to the hidden gems of fantasy which you can read about here. If you find yourself tired of reading the great and famous minds of science fiction and are looking for something a little more on the DL and with some fresh takes, I have some books for you. Below is a list of science fiction series/books that have approximately 5000 ratings or fewer on Goodreads, but are absolutely worth your time. These books are criminally underrated and have a ton of great ideas and stories that deserve to see the light of day. Go check them out so you can also be smug annoying people to your friends and claim you had already read these before they got big.
The Lost Puzzler by Eyal Kless – I don’t usually go in for post-apocalyptic stories, but this one stands out among the pack. The world is a post-apocalyptic wasteland stuffed full of mysteries I want to solve. Puzzlers are people with a special talent to unlock mysterious puzzle box-like caches of technology that are scattered across the world. These boxes are hidden away in dangerous mazes and dungeons and contain treasures of the lost Tarkanian civilization. Diving into dungeons for lost technology became one of the major forms of progress in the new world, which made puzzlers extremely important as they are the only ones who can unlock the nodes. Reading it felt like the literary equivalent of solving a Rubik’s cube, and I liked that a lot. The book is grim and dark without being depressing and it knows how to keep you coming back to puzzle out its many questions.
Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – If you are looking for an irreverent laugh, this might be the entry for you. The plot of Mechanical Failure revolves around a disgraced engineer being continually placed in fish-out-of-water scenarios. The book reminded me strongly of a whole slew of post-apocalypse/tragedy games where you try to figure out what happened to create the huge mess you are presented with; except instead of horror, Mechanical Failure reaches for humor. The book is quite funny, with a sense of humor along the lines of the classic Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The characters are constantly being placed in humorous paradoxes with terrible outcomes. In addition, the book has no problem making fun of several sci-fi tropes and can be refreshingly original in many places. While the mystery of what is happening in the book is fairly obvious, the real power of the comedy comes from the hilarious detective work the characters produce as they discover it for themselves. The characters are all original, relatable, and interesting, and the prose was simple and clean. The book is very easy to read and I found myself losing track of time as I flew through it.
How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason – Thorne is a fantasy and science fiction hybrid, one of my favorite things to stumble upon, and a genre that is often overlooked. It’s about a fairy princess that eschews being rescued in order to save her family’s galactic empire. Thorne leans more towards science fiction, with the fantasy sprinkled in for some magic realism…in space. The formula works well for the book as the magic always feels like a subtle catalyst that keeps the plot moving and keeps things interesting without overstaying its welcome or stifling character achievement. Its pacing, storytelling, tone, and genre-blending are all uneven, but they serve to enhance the power of the narrative instead of detracting from it. Rory is a relatable and endearing protagonist that you would need a heart of stone not to like.
A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White – If I had to describe this book in an elevator pitch, I would say it is Firefly meets Fast and Furious meets National Treasure. Building off that last sentence, Big Ship is a story about an unlikely and eclectic spaceship crew with a penchant for danger and huge ridiculous vehicle stunts, on the hunt for historical treasures. They are searching for a lost ship worth more money than a person can spend. The book just radiates energy and action. It feels like being locked into a cocaine-fueled nitro boost in a drag race. It has this blockbuster energy that paints the story set-pieces as these vivid events you can picture with perfect clarity and I cannot wait for it to be picked up for a visual medium. Grab yourself a copy if you want to be able to say you read it before it got big.
The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman – The Half-Made World is a book that is fundamentally about order and chaos. Taking place in a world reminiscent of the American West that is quite literally only half-finished, we are introduced to a conflict between the Line and the Gun – representatives of order and chaos. These two forces are embodied by demonic spirits who use human emotions to enslave operatives to their service. The Line are housed in great Engines that push forward the ideas of industry and progress. They build monumental rail lines that cover the West, flattening anything in their path in order to build orderly stations and factories. The Guns prefer a more personal anarchy-driven approach and like to inhabit the weapons (guns) of their bearers, whispering into their ears like a warlock’s patron. They shape their operatives into killing machines, with both regenerative powers and speeds faster than the eye can follow. Between these two awful sides are the innocent people of the world that get caught in the crossfire as the two sides fight for dominance. The Half-Made World is a bombastic ride from start to finish that uses hyperbole and intensity to add new life into an age-old conflict. If you are looking for something loud and gritty, look no further.
Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter – German philosopher Immanuel Kant explains the “noumenon” as a thing in itself or something that exists beyond the realm of human experience, whereas a phenomenon is something that can be explored and related to through our senses and emotions. Marina Lostetter’s Noumenon is a novel as intricate and thought-provoking as the idea from which it draws its title. From the very first chapter, she plays with the reader’s sense of right and wrong. The characters especially help to sell the ideas at play in the book. They feel incredibly human. Their lamentations and inner thoughts felt relatable as they opened up to themselves or others around them. Every character feels imbued with the author’s own experiences of sadness, shock, anger, ambition, hopelessness, and ultimately with her curiosity. It’s a deeply moving book that more people should give the time of day, and it’s a definite hidden gem.
Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe – Reading Velocity Weapon is joy synthesized with breakneck thrills, and it’s a drug that does not lose its potency upon repeated use. The story takes place in the far future of humanity, centered on a single star system (called Ada) that seems to reside on the borders of a greater human civilization. It has a single jump gate that leads to a wider universe populated by humanity, and two planets that are competing for control of the gate. Our narrative revolves around two siblings that are central to the conflict but are separated in time by thousands of years due to an accident. The story is about how the past informs the present, and how these two individuals can find a way to change the timeline to make a better future for everyone.The book is a non-stop roller coaster that just never ends. O’Keefe slams the throttle to ludicrous speed from the opening chapter and does not let up. I found myself constantly amazed with O’Keefe’s ability to weave back and forth between the two stories and hanging on the edge of my seat to see how they came together. I am confident that this book has what it takes to pull you in and never let you go, check it out.
I want to talk to you about one of my absolute favorite sub-genres: _________. You may have noticed a blank space there because the sub-genre I am talking about is more of a loose collection of books that share the theme of not belonging to any genre. I call them Science Fantasy, and while I am sure many other smart and qualified people have named and grouped these books before somewhere in the annals of the internet, it’s a subgenre I almost never hear talked about. This is a shame because, while they are enormously hard to do well – when they are done well, the payoff is amazing.
So what is a Science Fantasy book? Surprise! They are books that draw both from the science fiction and fantasy genres but don’t distinctly belong to either of them. For my own personal qualification, a Science Fantasy book doesn’t have to draw equally from both genres – but at least one core facet of the story or world needs to come from each of the parent genres. Thus, we get a fusion of science and magic, fire and water, past and future.
So what makes a Science Fantasy book hard to write? Well, while I love both science fiction and fantasy to pieces, they often don’t play well together. The underlying issues come from the typical context of the parent genres, and the favorite tools by which they solve problems. Both science fiction and fantasy are fascinating and wonderful genres, but the success of their overlap is limited for a number of reasons:
Fantasy tends to focus on the past. Due to settings that are often technologically reminiscent of years gone by, the themes and topics of fantasy books often examine current issues through a historical lens and introduce the element of magic to see how it changes the situation. Take classical European or Asian history, inject elves and fireballs, and see how it shakes things up. Conversely, science fiction tends to focus on the future. Sci-Fi uses science and technology to imagine new futures, ideas, and problems that we haven’t dreamt up yet due to the limitations of our times. Often these stories have backward-facing insights into how our current society could be improved with changes to technology or observations into how society can evolve when paired with technological breakthroughs.
Technology tends to step on magic. Magic is often a shortcut for technology in fantasy settings, and it is hard to have believable and interesting magic in a technologically advanced setting. When warfare is conducted over lightyears using faster-than-light travel, throwing fireballs is less a military advantage and more of a cool party trick. Science Fantasy books need to find ways to make magic relevant in a world that has moved beyond the need for it.
Science fiction tends to be extremely concrete and fantasy tends to be very whimsical. Science fiction likes hard rules and frameworks that focus on handing the reader a puzzle to solve with clear directions. Fantasy is often the exact opposite (though yes, I am aware that Sanderson and his magic systems exist), relying on whimsy, the joy of discovery, and the unknown to hook the reader’s imagination. These elements are hard to align, but books that do bring them together have incredible results.
Despite the challenges, a number of authors have still produced wonderful Science Fantasy books that I include in my top books of all time. Below is my list of favorite Science Fantasy novels and a little bit about what makes each one such a unique gem.
1) Heroes Die by Matthew Stover – These books are in no particular order, except for this one – you can find a mini-review of Heroes Die in the link back from when I first started this site. One of my favorite books of all time, Heroes Die still amazes me now as much as it did when I picked it up for the first time. This book, to me, is the ultimate Science Fantasy. Set in a technologically advanced science fiction world, we follow the story of Caine. Caine is an entertainer who uses technology to go into parallel worlds where he broadcasts his adventures on a magical planet as a form of reality TV. The fusion of magic and technology in this book is perfect – each parent genre contributes half the DNA, but the child becomes something completely new. The book explores themes I have never seen in other books with incredible insight and contemplation. The one-speed bump that always slows my recommendation of this series is the fact that it is incredibly violent – probably the most violent book I have ever read. Heroes Die uses its violence as a vehicle to explore key elements of the story, but that isn’t going to mean much to someone whose stomach is turned inside out from some of the descriptions. It is a completely unique book, and I love it for both its strengths and flaws.
2) How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason – A brand new release that we actually just reviewed, Rory Thorne is a delightful new addition to my science fantasy shelf. The balance of fantasy and sci-fi here is very uneven, with the world being approximately 99% science fiction. However, the character journey/growth of the protagonist is catalyzed and tied to an unheard-of magic that cannot be replicated through the means of technology. Thus, Rory Thorne seats itself in the firm domain of the hybrids and draws strength from both its parent genres despite the imbalance in their contributions to the world.
3) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Another recent release that we have reviewed, Gideon has the opposite ratio of science fiction to fantasy as Thorne. Gideon is about space necromancers and an intergalactic empire run by an undying lich. Gideon gave me what I have been requesting for years: compelling necromancy. And Muir then put it in space in a true “hold my quill” moment. Gideon’s story is still developing, so many details are unclear, but book one definitely feels like it lends more heavily on fantasy with a science fiction framework. By that, I mean that the book focuses on magic and more traditional themes but uses a science fiction backdrop to expand the scope and pave an interesting original direction for the narrative.
4) Lost Puzzler by Eyal Kless – One of two of “post-apocalypse Earth that is so messed up it regresses into magic” books on the list. These are the most typical Science Fantasy hybrids you will run into in the book landscape, but I don’t like the ones where the emphasis is on the reveal that it was “Earth all along” Planet of the Apes style. Lost Puzzler is pretty upfront about the fact that it is a ravaged Earth, and doesn’t rely on the idea to make the story compelling. The bookmakes the interesting choice not to differentiate between magic and technology, but simply state that the two are indistinguishable. It’s a wonderful blend of both genres, and while it is possibly the least original book on this list, it is very good at what it does and an excellent specimen of its little storytelling niche.
5) Red Sister by Mark Lawrence – The second apoka-Earth story on the list, Red Sister stands out from Lawrence’s large apoka-Earth portfolio as the best of his work. Red Sister’s worldbuilding is truly astoundingly good, with strong elements of both fantasy and science fiction representing cornerstones of the setting and how characters solve problems. What I find most compelling about Red Sister is that the challenges use science fiction hard rules and framework, but the solutions and the characters lean into fantasy’s whimsy and focus on discovery. What this means is the reader is presented with clear technological challenges but uses fantasy and imagination to dream up solutions. It is the best of both worlds and deeply satisfying on a number of levels that few books are.
6) A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Galaxy by Alex White – What feels like a strange lovechild of dystopian cyberpunk and fantasy, Big Ship is a lightning-fast adventure. Big Ship won its way into my heart very quickly by fusing advanced technology and magical systems. The magic in the story is a fantasy cyborg – half fantasy and half sci-fi. The book takes place in a world where a magical fantasy progressed into a technological future (though this isn’t the focus of the book). As such, the technology in Big Ship has all evolved to augment and enhance magic as opposed to replacing it. We have space ship racers who can magically fuse their minds to their cars like a bootstrapped AI, protection mages that use amplifiers to project their shield around their ships and deflect railgun shots, and pages of other fun ideas that I don’t want to spoil. Alex White is building something original and fantastical here and this series is definitely worth checking out.
7) Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone – The Craft Sequence is everything I have always wanted out of urban fantasy – the present reimagined in a fantasy world. This isn’t some basic “Chicago, but with wizards” worldbuilding. Gladstone has built an entire fantasy world with the trappings of modern technology, ideologies, and problems. The books are modern-day workplace escapism paired with powerful messaging and a world just dying to be explored. The magic and technology are paired harmoniously in Gladstone’s brilliantly designed world, and getting immersed is as easy as jumping into a pool.
8) A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennen – First off, this series has possibly the best set of covers out of any fantasy books I own. Second, if you love dragons as much as I do it’s very likely you have fantasized about the idea of studying them like a zoologist. Natural History tells the story of a female biologist with a love of studying dragons in a time that was not kind to women. Which you know, unfortunately, doesn’t really narrow it down much – so I mean it takes place in the Victorian era. The book approaches the study of these magical beasts with all the rigor and methodology of actual biologists and tells a scarily immersive story for anyone who has ever dreamed about seeing one of these fantastical creatures in the flesh.
9) The Great Book of Amberby Roger Zelazny – Honestly, I can’t really do Amber justice with this tiny paragraph. I am working on a larger piece to go into the fun gritty details, but for now, know that this is an epic 10 book saga about a family of heirs engaging in a murder-off over 100 dimensions. The idea of Amber is that the titular plane of ‘Amber’ is the only actual reality, and all the other ones are shadows that Amber casts across the multiverse. There are two warring forces – order and chaos – and our Earth is one of the many shadows of Amber. The shadows range all sorts of realities, from fantasy to science fiction. The story follows the many heirs as they vie for dominance and control of Amber by maneuvering the various planes. Zelazny skips between fantasy and science fiction constantly and it slowly laces the two genres together like a beautiful quilt. I highly recommend it.
10) Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples – If you are familiar with anything on this list, it is probably Saga, which is good because Saga is universally loved, and I feel like it lends my list credence. If you are one of the few who are unfamiliar with this massively successful graphic novel, congratulations! You have a wonderful brand new experience waiting for you that will knock your socks off. Before we even get to the writing, Saga is gorgeously illustrated. Fiona Staples is a goddess of art amongst mortals and I love her work. As to the story, Saga tells the tale of an interplanetary war between two fantasy races. Our protagonists are individuals from opposite genocidally inclined sides of the conflict, and manage to fall in love and have a child despite all the obstacles. The entire universe begins to hunt the child for what she represents, and the story is about her poetically lifelong journey to stay alive. The big idea of the narrative is that the world says things shouldn’t mix and the world is wrong. There is beauty and wonder and newness when we forge new bonds, build new things, and blend the lines of what people think is allowed. Mixing two things that people think don’t go together (like fantasy and science fiction) can make something better (like Science Fantasy).
11) Retribution Fallsby Chris Wooding – More of an honorable mention, this book series is essentially a better version of the space western with a cult following: Firefly. Retribution is more of a steampunk with heavy fantasy elements than what I would consider a Science Fantasy – but it feels at home on this list. Retribution tells the story of a crew of misfits bumbling their way through the known world, trying to stay alive and financially solvent, and occasionally saving the day by accident. There is a heavy mix between steampunk technology/ships and fantasy magic in the form of necromancy, demon summoning, and more. The series does a great job making the tech and magic feel blended and even and overall it is generally a good time if you like westerns.
12) A Shadow Of What Was Lost by James Islington – Another honorable mention, Shadow is firmly in the fantasy genre – but I still want to talk about it. Shadow is a modern classic fantasy book telling of an epic hero’s journey, similar to the well known genre staple: The Wheel of Time. However, the reason I felt inclined to include it on this list is Shadow is a story that revolves around a single key concept – time travel. And the way that Shadow tells its story is by narratively pitting the stereotypical fantasy idea of time travel against the stereotypical science fiction idea of time travel. There are two major sides of conflict in this story, both using time travel to achieve their goals. However, one side believes that time travel can alter the past to change the future while the other believes that all events in time are fixed and that if you go to the past you have always gone to the past, and the future is unchangeable. The battle of these two ideas is a fascinating and enthralling story and while Shadow is definitely a fantasy book, the borrowing of science fiction concepts and hard magic systems can scratch the itch of anyone looking for a Science Fantasy.
Science Fantasy is a real unspoken wonder, and I am sure that a number of you out there have read some prime examples that I have never heard of. If you think you have a good addition to this list, please let me know in the comments! I am always looking for more material in this genre and I would love a good recommendation. If you liked this list, be sure to share it. While I don’t usually like to push my content, this is a subject that could use more attention and every little bit helps.
The end of 2018 is finally upon us, which means it’s time to talk about the best books of the year. 2017 was one of the best years of Sci-fi and Fantasy I have lived to talked about, so it is no surprise that 2018 had some difficulty following its incredible performance. That being said, despite being a weaker year there are still a number of fantastic books that came out this year. If you need gift ideas for a friend or family member that likes fantasy or sci-fi, look no further than any of the entries on this list. As always, I had to make a cut off for the list somewhere and I arbitrarily decided to pick 21 – but there were still a number of great authors not listed who should be proud of their books. Without further adieu, let’s dive into the panoply of good reads in 2018.
21) The Dragon Lords: Bad Faith by Jon Hollins – When I first came across the Dragon Lords series, it was clear that I had found a diamond in the rough in need of a little polish. However, while the first book had some flaws, Jon Hollins showed massive improvement in the sequel last year, and the finale this year. Humor in fantasy is hard, and while these books might not always be perfect – I think they bring enough originality and quality to the stage to be worth anyone’s time. Bad Faith has a lot of laughs, a lot of failures, and a boatload of people learn how to be slightly less garbage. Jon Hollins is improving as an author with every book that he writes and I can’t wait to see what he gets up to next.
20) The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson – A sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant, this unique series focuses on cultural warfare and how to crush one’s enemies without lifting a sword. Monster had some small pacing problems, but they failed to detract from the book’s increasingly complex and fascinating world and thrilling political intrigue. Despite an almost entirely new cast, Monster continues to draw readers in with characters you love to hate and hate to love. Dickinson’s prose is some of the best in recent times and his worldbuilding is both complex and compelling. The ending of Monster gives only a small hint of where the story will go next and readers will be hotly anticipating the next book until it is in their hands.
19) The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding – The only book on the list we haven’t had a chance to review yet, and one of the few non-sequels, this mammoth piece of writing is a call back to classical quest fantasy. There is little innovating about The Ember Blade. It is a coming of age story of a hero with a destiny on a quest for a magic sword. However, just because the book doesn’t have a completely original plot, doesn’t mean it is bad (there is a reason things become tropes). With a relatable cast, a surprising amount of humor, and descriptive prose that brings the world to life, The Ember Blade is an easy book to get lost in. The only thing that keeps the book from placing higher on this list is its extremely slow pacing. The Ember Blade is a fantastic tribute to classical fantasy with a Wooding twist that makes it all the better.
18) A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White – Drama is the name of the game in this larger than life debut novel. Big characters, big fights, big magic, and a big plot – this book is Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure. The cast starts out rough and unlikable, but is quickly chiseled down into characters you can dig into. The world is incredible, the adventure engrossing, and the combat will have you on the edge of your seat. The book is an interesting mix of fantasy and science fiction, and I wish more people would try similar genre mashups. Big Ship is the strongest debut I read in 2018 and I can’t wait to start reading the sequel, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy, when it comes out later this month.
17) Blood of the Gods by David Mealing – Mealing’s massive debut book, Soul of the World, was a top contender on the 2017’s best of list. He has followed it up with an equally massive sequel less than a year later that continued to knock my socks off. Blood of the Gods continues Mealing’s philosophy of go big or go home. When Mealing first put out Soul of the World I believed he had decided to focus more on telling an imaginative story than on one that was polished and streamlined. After reading Blood of the Gods, I have realized that he was playing a long con, and that he is actually somehow doing both. With over 40 magical powers, this book is chaos incarnate and I can only imagine how much planning must have gone into a storyboard and world of this scope. Mealing has managed to get me to reassess his skill as an author with his second book, Blood of the Gods. While I initially thought he was a crazy imaginative author who might need a little polish; now I think he is a crazy imaginative author who clearly knows what he is doing. You won’t find another author who can pack more magic into a page than David Mealing.
16) Port of Shadows by Glen Cook – This might be a controversial pick, but I can’t help who I am, and who I am is a massive TheBlack Company fanboy. Glen Cook is one of my absolute favorite authors, and his newest entry into his pivotal The Black Company series is a welcome one. A book for longtime fans of the series, Port of Shadows answers a number of lingering questions leftover from the plot of the original books. It adds a layer of depth to characters I already loved, and I really appreciate that his book exists. Port of Shadows has all the hallmarks of a Cook classic: an unreliable narrator, a visceral brutality, a depressing tone, and more mystery than a cryptogram inside a labyrinth. Those of you who haven’t read The Black Company will likely want to steer clear of this one, but those of you who have – welcome home.
15) The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso – This book guaranteed itself a spot on this list by making me say the words “I really liked the love triangle”. I don’t even know where to start with The Defiant Heir. The sequel to The Tethered Mage, Caruso’s second book surpasses its predecessor in every possible way. It has a great cast, intrigue that will keep you up late reading, and a world full of magic that is fun to explore. However, what elevates The Defiant Heir to one of the best books of 2018 are two things. First, a dedication to a theme that we don’t see enough of in the fantasy genre – the idea that with power comes responsibility (#spiderprincess?). And second, a love triangle that I an genuinely invested in (something that has never happened before) and that explores the first theme I just mentioned. The two men in the triangle represent marriage for love and marriage for obligation, and Caruso gives equal weight to both. It was a bold choice on Caruso’s part that paid off in spades and made this one of the best reads of 2018.
14) Charmcaster & Soulbinder by Sebastien de Castell – Fun is king. One of two double entries this year, de Castell managed to put out two books in his Spellslinger series that claimed a spot together. There is really nothing more to say about these books than reading them was some of the most fun I had this year. The series continues to be charming, imaginative, engrossing, and easy to read. Reading these books gives me the same cathartic rush that I felt when reading Harry Potter as a child, and there are very few books that can come close to that feeling. De Castell has continued to prove that he is one of the best fantasy authors of this generation and that anything he touches is almost guaranteed to be worth your time. If you haven’t managed to get your hands on Spellslinger yet there are now four great books to dig into, but be prepared to stay up all night reading them back-to-back.
13) Last Dragon Standing by Rachel Aaron – Speaking of fun. A large chunk of my free time this year was spent burning through all five Heartstriker books by Rachel Aaron. Although only Last Dragon Standing can make it onto this list (due to when it was published) collectively reading this series was one of the best parts of my year. Aaron has made a fun urban fantasy that moves at breakneck speed and has more delicious family drama than a soap opera. Unfortunately, a large part of the appeal of these books is their fun plot – making them very hard to review or talk about. However, take note of the fact that Last Dragon Standing managed to claim the spot 13th best book in 2018 and use that as a guide as to whether or not it is worth your time.
12) Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun closes out one of the weirdest science fiction series I have ever read. While the first two books in the series were extremely confusing fun, Revenant Gun finally takes us behind the curtain in Oz and shows the reader what is actually going on in the books. Lee has proven that there is method behind the madness and you can trust him to deliver an incredible reading experience, even if you don’t quite understand what is going on. Revenant Gun gives a great send off to some of the most interesting and lovable characters I have read about in the last few years and solidifies The Machineries of Empire series as a top pick in the science fiction genre.
11) AVeil of Spears by Bradley P. Beaulieu – The Song of Shattered Sand is shaping up to be one of my top epic fantasies ever. Every year Beaulieu puts out a new gargantuan book and each year it delivers an excellent read. A Veil of Spears has every strength of its predecessors but builds a bigger and better story. The stakes are getting higher, the world is getting cooler, and I am growing more and more attached to the characters. The conflict has grown, new players have joined the board as both protagonists and antagonists, the scope and rules of the conflict have changed, and changed, and changed again. A Veil of Spears feels like some sort of bizarro Matryoshka doll, where every time I open it up and look inside I find an even larger space and story.Veil is book three of six in this giant sandy epic, and the series really feels like it has hit its stride. There is no better time to jump into Beaulieu’s incredible series and I will continue to advertise it for free until everyone picks up a copy.
10) Rogue Protocol & Exit Strategy by Martha Wells – Welcome to the top 10 of 2018. Up first we have everyone’s favorite AI finishing out her last two novellas. I love Murderbot. I love her… them… it… you get the idea. Last week when we were making out list of our favorite female protagonists there was a serious discussion if Murderbot counted, because she is one of our favorite protagonists of all genders. The Murderbot Diaries have just been one delightful surprise after another. Novellas this short have no right being as powerful, fun, and poignant as full length novels – but they are. Wells has a real talent for characters, and her murder and media-loving AI is still one of the most relatable characters I read about this year. Murderbot is now getting full length books due to their rampant popularity, so if you haven’t checked out these novellas yet you are doing yourself a grave disservice.
9) Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence – Grey Sister had huge shoes to fill following our #3 pick from last year, Red Sister. While this less vibrant sequel did not quite live up to its predecessor’s glory, Grey Sister still continued the Lawrence tradition of delivering pulse-pounding action in an enigmatic and engrossing world. Grey Sister has a laser-focused plot and the pacing of a dragster with an open throttle. It introduces us to new POVs, such as Abbess Glass, that do a lot to expand the scope of the story and help the reader grow closer to the collective cast of the book. I tore through this stellar sequel in less than two days and I am counting the hours until I get my hands on the final book in the trilogy.
8) The Empire of Ashes by Anthony Ryan – All of the top ten books this year were hard to place, but The Empire of Ashes was a particular thorn in my side. Ryan has been slightly controversial for a number of years due to the ending of his Raven’s Shadow series. However, I don’t think there is a single reader who will argue with me when I say Ryan absolutely nailed the finale of his second trilogy. The Empire of Ashes delivers an unbelievably climatic end to a series that has been a rollercoaster from start to finish. Lizanne might be the most badass protagonist I have ever read about and she is only one of a number of brilliant characters that litter this series. Each book in the DraconisMemoria has expanded the scope of the world. Waking started on a single island, Legion expanded to the major continents/empires, and Empire shows the you full world that Ryan has crafted. Ryan’s ability to paint a huge sweeping living world with tons of different governments and peoples, while also losing none of the pacing and immersiveness of his plot, is a step up from his past work. The Empire of Ashes is a phenomenal conclusion to a series that has only gotten better in each book, and that’s after it started off strong.
7) Persepolis Rising by James S. A. Corey – As always, I like to roll the December Expanse books over into my next years list, as they are definitely one of the best books of any year they come out in, but have a hard time making it onto lists due to their release dates. Persepolis Rising marks the start of the final story arc in the Expanse series, and despite still being two books away I am not ready for this ride to end. Persepolis Rising was one of the most emotionally stressful books I have ever read. I have been reading this series close to a decade now and I am heavily invested in the characters and plot. Watching this behemoth of a series slowly maneuver into its final arc is like watching the health of a loved one slowly deteriorate. The book is amazing, but it is starting to feel like I am saying goodbye to a lifelong friend and I am just not ready yet.
6) Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames – It takes a lot of guts to take a tried and true cast of characters and throw them out the window, but that is exactly what Nicholas Eames did with his second book Bloody Rose. Eames decided to ditch his characters from his previous novel, Kings of the Wyld, in favor of a fresh cast and a new story. It is a true testament to his skill and imagination as an author that Bloody Rose is just as good as its hugely popular predecessor. Bloody Rose once again demonstrates Eames supreme talent for weaving themes into books. Each of the characters embodies a different form of relationship with their parents and they collectively speak to the many flavors of hardship that arise between parent and child. All of this is done in a magical setting, with charismatic characters, satisfying combat, and an engrossing plot that will keep you reading late into the night. With two brilliant books out in two years, I think it is safe to say that Eames is one of the best up and coming authors and a man you will want to keep an eye on in the years to come.
5) Wrath of Empire by Brian McClellan – Another year another step closer to the top of a best of list. Wrath of Empire shows McClellan continues to improve with every book he writes. This bookis the realization of all the potential that the Powder MageTrilogy had and hopefully a herald for a new caliber of McClellan books. Wrath has flawlessly completed the baton pass of excellence from Sins of Empire and has helped Gods of Blood and Powder eclipse the already stellar Powder Mage Trilogy. The action is exciting, the plot is gripping, and the themes are deep and thought-provoking. You can’t ask much more of Wrath of Empire, and it is one of the strongest books of 2018.
4) Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett – I feel like it should surprise no one that Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is a sensationally good book. Ever since I stumbled onto City of Stairs, Robert has been a fixture of my yearly best books lists and has never disappointed. The first book in a brand new series, Bennett introduces readers to a new cast to fall in love with and a host of new imaginative terrors to keep them up at night. The world is cool, the magic is cool, and the plot is amazing. Foundryside is a really good book, and effortlessly slides into the number four spot on my top books of 2018. Robert Jackson Bennett is a writer of supreme talent and imagination, and has once again proven that his work is worth everyone’s time. If you like politics, action, intrigue, engineering, heists, humor, fun, happiness, heartache, or lovable characters – Foundryside has it all. I honestly can’t imagine who wouldn’t like this book, so sit down, dig in, and have a good time.
3) Circe by Madeline Miller – For anyone who knows about Circe, its high place on this list should be no surprise. I have read a lot of Odysseus books, many of them incredible, but Circe is likely the best. Circe is the kind of book that hits cult popularity on its quality alone. The power of this book is in the prose, which might be some of the best I have ever read. Miller’s language is on par with the best prose writers of all time, and who you think is best will honestly come down to personal preference. She manages to hit the perfect combination of both flowing flowery language and a lack of pretentious writing. Her vivid descriptions will pull you in, and flood you with empathy for every character so that you feel as if you are living the book. The pacing is fast and exciting, and her take on all the myths is original and refreshing. Circe has no flaws that I could find, and the only way I could imagine someone disliking this book is if they hated the subject matter. Madeline Miller is an once-in-a-generation talent who I will now be following closely for the rest of her career.
2) The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer – Smart, imaginative, otherworldly, and a perfect commentary on society today – The Will to Battle is my second favorite book to come out in 2018. The Terra Ignota books are the fastest to rise to my tier 1 recommendation list, and each new book has only reinforced my decision to place the series that high. The plot of these books is like a 20 dimensional onion, each new layer revealing new concepts and ideas that I have to sit down and work to grasp. Reading The Will to Battle felt like going to a job, but one that I loved and was wildly passionate about. The characters are complex and one of a kind. The politics are complicated, fascinating, and engrossing. The prose and writing is top tier. The book is constantly surprising and delighting. The Will to Battle sets up the series perfectly for an explosive conclusion and I have no doubt that this unique science fiction series will be considered a inspirational classic in years to come.
1) Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – If I am being honest, 2018’s competition for best book wasn’t even close. It was always going to be Record of a Spaceborn Few. I really don’t have the space to express how much I loved this book in this huge list, so I implore you to please take a moment to read the review in the link. Record is a quiet, contemplative, and slow story about people who make their lives in space. The book moves like a beautiful symphony, each character telling a personal story that weaves together into a beautiful whole. It is a book that broke my heart, then pieced it back together stronger than it was before, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. There are no end of the universe threats lurking in this book. Instead, Record speaks to struggles all of us have gone, and are going, through and sets them in a wildly imaginative and engrossing science fiction setting. It has the wonder and creativity of any of the best sci-fi books I have read, with a cast of characters that rival any of the best traditional fiction I have read. This book affected me more emotionally than anything else I have read this year, smashing my heart with character tragedies and stitching it back together with victories. Record of a Spaceborn Few is The Quill to Lives’s #1 book of 2018 and I urge you to all go find a copy.
Here we have another of Orbit Publishing’s summer debuts, which they graciously sent me in exchange for an unbiased review. A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe, by Alex White, is the first book in his Salvagers series. I will tell you right off the bat that I think this is going to be one of the most divisive books I have read and a lot of people are going to love it and a lot of people are going to feel its not their thing. Which side you fall on is what I will hope to show you with this review. However, if I had to describe this book in an elevator pitch, I would say it is Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure.
Building off that last sentence, Big Ship is a story about an unlikely and eclectic crew, with a penchant for danger and huge ridiculous vehicle stunts, on the hunt for historical treasures. Our protagonists are Boots and Nilah, two complicated women from very different backgrounds who are thrown together by circumstance. Boots is a war veteran from a conflict that had no winner and a scam artist with no scruples. She survived a war that wiped out both sides and now scrapes by selling fake salvage/treasure maps to suckers who come to her. She also has a rare birth defect, she was born with no magic. On the other hand, Nilah is a magic prodigy with a need for speed. Pampered and privileged as the daughter of the elite, Nilah is a race ship driver, spending her time using her mechanical magic to drive a futuristic race car. She is egotistical and spoiled, but none can deny her brilliance with her magic as she’s consistently at the top of the pack when it comes to speed and finesse on the track. The two of them end up on the run when Boots accidentally sells a map that unearths a conspiracy and Nilah witnesses (and is accused of) a murder that was meant to cover it back up. The two of them end up on the ship of Boots’ old commanding officer, someone she detests for his actions in the aforementioned war, and they all quickly realize that the only way they are going to get out of this is to follow Boots’ map to its final mark.
Big Ship is a fun, loud, and adventurous book. As you can likely tell from the plot description the story has treasure hunting, racing, lots of combat, and unlikely heroes. It is a tale of space rogues that will appeal on the surface to most with its kick ass magic system that I have only mentioned so far. Big Ship is closer to a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid as the populace of White’s world are all born with specialized magic (called “marks”) that allow them to enhance their tech, or use tech to enhance their magic. For example, Nilah has a mechanist’s mark that allows her to “feel” her vehicles as if they were part of her body and adjust them as if she was an AI. The captain of the ship they all ride on has a mark that allows him to produce shields, and using the ships interface he can project magical auras around it. It’s a really cool and fun magic system that constantly surprised and delighted me. The book is original, fun, and exciting, so you might be wondering why I mentioned it will likely be divisive. Well there are two major reasons, neither of them a flaw, but things that might not align with everyone’s tastes.
The first reason is that Boots and Nilah are incredibly unlikable (or at least at first). The book has a tremendous amount of character development, but the first chapters surrounding our leads had me wanting to blast them out an airlock. Boots is selfish and self-pitying and hard to feel sympathetic for as she rips off everyone around her. Nilah is arrogant and naive and watching her take her first steps in the “real world” was painful. I grew to love both of them as they became much better people over the course of the book, but if you do not have the patience for the character growth it may be a major turn off. The second reason is that the book is incredibly dramatic. I’m talking borderline soap opera dramatic. Everyone is constantly fighting, everyone is constantly talking about their feelings, and everyone is always pouring their heart and soul out to anyone who will listen. I did not enjoy this, but I want to stress that despite my dislike I still think that it was well-written and well-executed. The prose style was just not my preference and it had me rolling my eyes in many scenes. That being said, I was easily able to move past the moments I didn’t enjoy due to the gripping plot and the books biggest strength: the spectacle and combat.
Combat is really hard to write, and White is really good at it. I think this book would make an excellent movie because White’s action scenes were so visceral and present in my mind that I felt I was living them. His attention to detail with sound effects in particular really got my adrenaline pumping, with things like the noises of retractable claws and the whining stress on ship parts bringing scenes to life. This combined with some huge Fast and Furious style action set pieces led to some very memorable scenes that are still vivid in my mind after finishing the book.
While A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe might lose some people with its dramatic emotions and less than perfect protagonists, those that push on are going to find a new favorite book. The world is incredible, the adventure engrossing, and the combat will have you on the edge of your seat. Big Ship is the strongest debut I have read in 2018 so far and I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel as soon as I can.
Rating: A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe – 8.5/10